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I am sitting here in my husband’s aunt’s home with most of his immediate family and cousins, ready to greet 2012 with a bang. So far today, I have:

1. Endured a full-bodied, 1 hour and 45 minutes massage – all for $12.50!
2. Had a manicure and pedicure, complete with small flowers adorning each corner of my polished fingernails – all for the price of $4.50 or so….

I had thought that I had a more reliable internet connection, but this is by far the longest stretch of connection I’ve had, and there isn’t enough time currently to recount my week so far in this beautiful, unique country. Suffice to say that this trip has been the homecoming my husband has hoped for, and it has been an eye-opener for me in so many levels.

2011 has been a challenging year for me (not necessarily in a bad way). This is the year I’ve taken my writing passion to new heights, including creating a separate, author Facebook page; a Twitter account; this blog/website; and attending writing conferences. What’s in store for 2012?

1. As soon as I get back from Philippines, I am going to a ‘Year of the Edit’ course. It is a masterclass stretched over 6 months which will equip me with a series of skills required to edit the many novels I’ve written.

2. On a similar token of editing/proof-reading, I recently got in touch with a friend who is making her living as a professional editor/proof-reader. I am so looking forward to working with her in further polishing one or more of the novels I have finished.

3. A very good friend of mine gave me THE BEST Christmas present this year – my own domain. So watch this space as I slowly transfer my blog over to mariasmcdonald.com and build my very own, more comprehensive website.

4. Watch this space in general – I’ll be running a few competitions throughout 2012! There are a gazillion story lines swirling inside my head, all with characters yet to be named and places/settings to be determined 🙂

Before the not-so-reliable connection cuts me out again, can I just offer a heartfelt gratitude to each and  every one of you. It is beyond my wildest imagination to have gained 166 followers in the course of 4 months since I broadcast my writing passion through various social media avenues; some of you I have known for many years, and some of you I have never met except through the written posts of Facebook/Twitter. However you’ve contributed to support my writing passion, my sincere thanks, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading about my writing/life journey throughout 2012.

May 2012 be the year you’ve been waiting and hoping for!

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Today is the day! After about 9 months of planning, and waiting, and counting down, we are now down to the wire. In about 7 hours, we will leave our home for 3.5 weeks, and by new dawn tomorrow, we will fly across the Pacific Ocean to Singapore, and get a connecting flight to the Philippines.

My next post (whenever that would be!) will recount our experiences in the Philippines. I doubt it will be before Christmas, so to all of you, a very Merry Christmas! May it be filled with joy and laughter, spent with your family and those who are dearest to you.

And as Christmas is my favourite holiday season of the year, it’s only natural that all of my books to date have touched upon this subject. Here’s a little excerpt to bring you more Christmas cheer and joy, from Lizzy & Michael III.

“Ready?” He asked his companion, fingers intertwining with her slender ones, tugging her arm excitedly she had no choice but to trudge along the narrow footpath serving as some kind of an entrance, teeth tightly clamping her bottom lip upon witnessing Michael’s apparent glee.

“How big is this tree going to be?” Lizzy asked, envisioning the available space provided b the humongous living room of the Presidential Suite Michael had called home since May of this year; if he wanted to, he could order a nine-foot tree to fill up a corner, and more.

“Whatever tree that’s light enough for both of us to carry,” Michael replied, sensing the churning of Lizzy’s mind as to how to possibly transport an enormous tree.

Lizzy couldn’t help but chuckle; Michael had booked her diary for this evening as far back as two weeks ago, stating with apparent exuberance that in light of the fact that neither of them will be leaving the Big Apple this year, both wanting to fully experience the joy of Christmas in their own apartments for the first time, they would need to slightly modify their annual Christmas tradition instead of the usual venture to the Fenway Park fete.

“This one’s nice,” Lizzy commented, running her fingers lovingly through the short-spiked leaves of a slender Balsam fir tree the height of her chest.

It would be, Michael thought dryly, for your place. He looked over the tree somewhat dispassionately, believing that his majestic place would swallow the petite plant, making it look even smaller than it actually was.

Lizzy wrinkled her nose when Michael suggested as much, her eyes trailing up and down the length of the five-foot tree with no more enthusiasm than what Michael had displayed just moments earlier. Herself an agnostic, and growing up believing that Christmas was a less-than-special occasion compared to birthdays and Mother’s or Father’s day, the thought of having a lit-up, fancily decorated Christmas tree was foreign and unsettling.

“Let’s find your tree first,” Lizzy said at last. She concluded that should she decide to have a Christmas tree after all, a five-foot tree would be lighter and easier to drag along than a much larger one.

They combed through the well-known SoHo trees displayed on Armsterdam and 98th Street, schooling both their faces to nod and smile appreciatively at the salesman trying their hardest to sell the features of each tree they inspected and put a mild interest on, eyes rolling the whole three-hundred-and-sixty degree or making faces at one another as they walked away from what they believed to be half-dead trees it should already be sent to the chipper.

They emerged out of the lush evergreens some one-and-a-half hour later, both faces beaming and flushed, their hands busily balancing the five-foot tree that had first attracted Lizzy’s attention, Michael’s choice of a seven-foot Douglas fir bushy tree was being delivered this coming weekend, the docket of purchase was safely wedged inside his overcoat pocket; the occasion was made even more memorable as coming out of the display space, they felt small white drops of snow from the sky above, landing on their skins softly like balls of cotton wools.

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Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

It doesn’t show signs of stopping,
And I’ve bought some corn for popping,
The lights are turned way down low,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

I do wish I could tell you that one of my Christmas traditions involve sitting by the fireplace, roasting corn/marshmallows, watching the snow fall down steadily from the Heavens. But I have gone through a few Christmas traditions in my time, both with the family I originated from, and the one I created ever since I married my husband.

One Christmas Tradition that never dies...

My earliest memory of a Christmas tradition, back in Jakarta, included a night-time Mass that ended right at the stroke of midnight (or just slightly after). Because our parish serviced about 4 massive areas, the Church was packed up to the carpark area, and if you wanted to get a seat to brace the over 1-hour Mass, you had to be at the Church around 8 at night for a 10PM mass.  Growing up, I had very much looked forward to this even if cramming yourself into a room during a windless, humid night meant you also had to fan yourself vigorously for two straight hours); it was a chance to meet with my friends outside school setting, a chance to wish them a ‘Merry Christmas’ right there on the spot instead of waiting until New Year, when the school resumed.

On Christmas day, all of us went on a family outing. Being a Muslim-oriented country, the shops in Jakarta remained open, despite Christmas day being officially declared as a public holiday. It was the one day that we put aside all our differences as a family,  traipsed around the many levels of the shopping centre of choice, and had a wonderful, peaceful Christmas lunch. I would have loved to be able to say that afterwards, I happily checked out the Christmas/after-Christmas sales, but being small, with no money whatsoever, I had to satisfy myself with following my Mother around whilst she checked out the sales, trying out whatever clothes she deemed appropriate for me to have. Failing that, I retreated to the bookstore and devoured new release books until the moment my parents declared that family outing time was finished and we headed home.

Imagine my bafflement therefore when I migrated to Australia and experienced my first Christmas here. I grew up watching American shows, where the weather cooled right down to freezing nearing Christmas. Every Christmas movie I watched showed people rugging up from head to toe, protecting them from snow and blizzard. Based on this, and the experience I have had in Jakarta, I was thoroughly disappointed to find that on Christmas day in Australia:
1. The temperature could reach early 40 degree Celcius, making it difficult for ANY kind of make-up to stay on your face for long.
2. The shops are closed for the whole day. Even the cinemas at one stage were closed.
I know, I know, it was a time for family to get-together and enjoy each other’s company. But seriously, the first Christmas I spent in Australia, it was only my Mum and I (unlike a flock of birds, when we migrated to Australia, we had staggered migration – with me and my Mum travelling first, and the rest of the family coming in much much later – but that’s a whole other post!). We were living in a unit, we didn’t know anyone, and we weren’t prepared for the quietness that ensued following the morning Mass. Everyone else in the apartment building had gone to their respective families to celebrate Christmas; the thought of bracing the journey to town in public transport, only to be greeted by closed doors were equally unappealing. It was, by far, the dullest Christmas I’ve ever experienced, a far-cry from all those warm, fuzzy feeling I’ve watched on TV, and I got so disheartened by Christmas that particular year I actually cried!

In hindsight, my vow never to experience such a Christmas again led me to the next Christmas tradition. I started travelling; instead of staying in Australia for Christmas, I think over the next two years, I went back home to Jakarta during Christmas-New Year. I reacquainted myself with friends I have made from teaching a local Sunday school in my parish. I met, and made new friends with the prayer group I used to attend before I migrated to Australia. I went on a Religious end-of-year retreat.

The tradition of travelling more or less continued when I met my (then) future husband. Granted, he also took me to his family’s Christmas dinner celebration, and I rediscovered the true meaning of Christmas – of it being the time to share the love and joy with those you hold dear. But, as the years went by, and my then boyfriend, then fiancée, then husband and I wanted to cement our own, unique Christmas tradition, travelling during Christmas had become a regular occurrence for us. In the course of 7 years of marriage, we’ve travelled back to Jakarta 3 times; we went to Sydney and Melbourne; and this year, we are about to embark on yet another overseas trip, to Philippines, flying just a few days before Christmas.

So, apart from exchanging presents on Christmas day, what are some of the Christmas traditions you have upheld? Both in the family you’ve grown up in, and the family you’ve created since?

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Honestly, I squealed the moment I entered our accommodation at Anaheim, about 1 hour drive out of Los Angeles. Why? Because right there before me, was a washing machine AND a dryer.

I know, I know… Anaheim is the home of Disneyland. But having gone to all the Disney World theme parks in Florida 5 weeks ago, and by now having blown our budget and didn’t want to make a bigger dent in our credit card debt, I had to settle for a much less attractive offer of doing a few loads of washing and drying those clothes we’ve worn over and over again throughout our travels.

The first thing the front desk receptionist told us as soon as we got there was that the fireworks at Disneyland, located so close to our resort, started at 9.30. Great! That gave us time to walk to the corner shop to buy bottles of coke and water enough for the next two days, bought some take-aways, and parked ourselves comfortably at the balcony, ready to watch said fireworks.

We were walking back to our resort when we heard the ‘booming’ and whistling sounds usually accompanying fireworks. Checked out the time – yep, what do you know? It started at 8.30, not 9.30. So off we ran back to our resort, fidgeted impatiently for the lift to open and carry us to the level our room was in, charged through the front door like bloody soldiers wanting to ransack private properties… you get the gist.

I must say, however, that this wasn’t the first time we were fed incorrect information. Back in Orlando, the receptionist at our resort told us it would only take us 15-20 minutes to drive to Kennedy Space Center. 1 hour later, we were still on the highway, second-guessing our own sense of direction, wondering if we had missed the turn-off. Just before we embarked to Disney World on our first day, we were warned by the Concierge that even if we did bring our hired car and park there, if we leave the carpark, we would have to pay another parking fee if we wanted to come back on the same day – a problem when you wanted not to wait between the time the park close and when the night-time fireworks and electrical parade begin. Drove into the carpark entrance, and the first and only thing the carpak usher told us: “Hold on to this ticket. If you want to come back for whatever reason within the day, you can re-use it instead of paying another $8.

Oh, but I digress. We also found some little treats around the place. First is the Cheesecake Factory Shop. Back home, we had a franchise called ‘The Cheesecake Shop’. It was a shop I frequented often every time I had a craving for elaborate cakes, from the New York baked cheesecake to Black Forest cake. The Cheesecake Factory Shop put the nation-wide, well-known Cheesecake shop back home to shame! I have never seen so many variety of cheesecake, with so many combinations of flavours and fruits, with decadent amount of whipped cream that it was worth dedicating more than 2 days to taste every single one listed on the menu!

I bought cheesecake!!

Mmm... cream! So not good for your waist... but DELISH in your mouth!

Near our resort was ‘Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant’, and we dined here on our last night in US. They had a sign (pictured below) of ‘Stop Forrest Stop’ or ‘Run Forrest Run’. ‘Stop’ is to hail the wait staff; Run is for us to say that everything’s honky-dory, no need to check up on us. Which I thought was so effective and carry the same theme of the movie.

Run Forrest.... RUN!

Do I look like Forrest Gump?

And also, after our disappointment with not being able to tast Johnny Rockets’ burgers, we found one in Anaheim, just a bit further from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. They gave us milkshakes in one of those steel tumblers, just like the olden days.

Johnny Rockets Anaheim

Inside the Johnny Rockets restaurant

Drinking Johnny Rockets' milkshake

This wraps up my recount of the US journey. From Johnny Rockets/Anaheim, we trekked back to LA international airport, checked our luggage in, and flew back home, where space is something we would never take for granted ever again 🙂

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 Walk of Fame

This was the first thing we looked for as soon as we emerged from the underground train station. The map pointed us to take a left, so off to the left we went. We started taking photos of the star tiles of famous people we know; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carey… and then we found another Arnie star; and another; and another.

Not only that; the shops along Hollywood Boulevard was also getting shoddier and tackier. The tiles were getting grottier and chipped not only around the edges. And there was no sign of the so-called famous Chinese Theatre within the immediate vicinity.

So we went to a shop and asked the shopkeeper as to the whereabouts of the famous Chinese Theatre, only to be told that we’ve walked down the WRONG side of Hollywood Boulevard. That instead of turning left, we should have turned right.

So off we went, backtracking to the train station. By the time we stood right in front of Chinese Theatre though, we’ve already seen the names of the many stars who had received the ‘star of fame’ it didn’t look authentic any more, bar perhaps, that the stars looked a lot more polished on this end, the tiles immaculate and shiny.

Star Wars Print

Robin Williams' 'star'

My husband and I posing in front of Michael Jackson's 'star

Kodak Theatre

Granted, the image I had stuck in my head of Kodak Theatre was one that had been spruced up for the Awards’ shows, with the velvet red carpet rolled down the length of Hollywood Boulevard for the celebrities to strut along, posing for the cameras, showing off their designer dresses.

I have also been warned that outside these prestigious events, Kodak Theatre doesn’t look anywhere near like the image I’ve seen on TV. Yet still, I was thoroughly disappointed with the image before me, with the lack of lustre of the surroundings and the quietness, despite tourists flocking the space.

Inside Kodak Theatre

 Hollywood Studios

By far, this was the highlight of our trip, though it wasn’t without its own ordeal. We had gone as far as the train station and was waiting for the bus that would take us up the steep hill to the entrance of Hollywood Studios. The bus that greeted us, full of people the driver had taken from Hollywood Studios, was making one hell of a scraping noise, with a piece of metal hanging off somewhere below the bus. It was clear then that we had to wait another 15-20 minutes for another bus to pick us, and other passengers up.

My husband didn’t want to wait. I, on the other hand, foolishly wearing jeggings in a relatively warm day (don’t ask me why I did that – my brain was obviously not working properly), wanted to wait. I also didn’t know how, but my husband managed to talk me into making our own way to Hollywood Studios.

To say that I regretted agreeing with my husband at that time would be an understatement. We had to climb up this steep hill, and, after arriving on top of this hill, we had to scale a set of stairs up the pedestrian bridge overlooking the main highway and down on the other side. Another hill between the carpark and the entrance. It was the most effort I had had to go through to get to a bloody theme park!

My husband - unfazed by our mammoth efforts!

Lower Lot of Hollywood Studios

We went on Jurassic Park ride. It was one of those roller-coaster ride, through jungle and water. As soon as it took off, we were trekking up the hill (what is it with me and hills???), with toothy t-rex greeting us at the very top.

It was the teaser of all roller-coaster. You’d think that once you were up the top, you’d plunge down the hill as steep as the one we had just come from. But no… waiting on the other side of the hill was a relatively flat track that you’ve built up your anxiety for nothing.

And then you saw it… the 84-foot plunging track!!!! You know, I always thought that it would be a fantastic idea for any roller-coaster ride to have a pit stop available for those people who had second thoughts; to have that option for those needing to bail out; or have that ‘Exit’ button that will stop the ride and spit you out safely.

But alas, there was no such thing, and my stomach did more than churn and flop as we plummeted down, our clothes soaked from splashing water. And being a sucker for punishment, even after my girlie, ‘oh-my-God’ scream, I looked at my husband and dared him to go again!

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Much as my husband and I loved travelling, four-and-a-half weeks of living out of suitcases and being crammed in hotel rooms at least one-eighth the size of our house had finally taken its toll that by the time we reached LA, we were running very low on fuel.

LA was a whole different ball game than New York. Having walked everywhere in New York and finding it such an easy experience, we were a bit dumbfounded to be told that we simply couldn’t walk from Downtown LA to Chinatown. The fact that it was a longer distance than what the tight grid of New York streets wasn’t the primary concern. It was the fact that the lady at the front desk of our hotel told us, in all seriousness, that “it wasn’t a safe neighbourhood to walk around” that made a cold chill ran down our spine.

Perhaps we came at the wrong time, or day; it was, after all, a weekday. And at almost three in the afternoon, perhaps most LA citizens were still hard at work. But LA Chinatown, in comparison to that of New York, was sparse and bare, lacking the buzz and excitement we had found ourselves in the middle just under a week ago.

Union Station

Across the Road from Union Station

If New York boasted the Grand Central Station, LA had Union Station. But no two buildings could be more different. Whereas Grand Central, as the name suggested, carried a grandeur, majestic feel, Union Station maintained its old, rustic charm.

Inside Union Station

This part of Union Station reminded me of ‘Alias’. It used to, and remain, one of my favourite shows. In one of these seats, at the last episode of Season 1, Sydney Bristow had sat on it; and Michael Vaughn had sat on the other side, conducting conversations as inconspicuous as they could. It was Spy Flirting 101! 🙂

Speaking of Spying…

I did say that we might have come at the wrong time of the week/year? Well, I think that also extended to our choice of staying in Downtown LA on a Friday night. As we strolled back to our hotel from the train station, Downtown LA was, to be frank, a ghost town. The Starbucks and Johnny Rockets restaurants we had counted to have dinner in had closed. In fact, every single restaurant in Downtown LA was closed, including the restaurant back at our hotel!

Unable to justify spending thirty odd dollars for a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise, we set out to find the nearest McDonald’s. In the dark of the night, with little to none lighting in some streets, we consulted the map, head tilted up, searching every which way for the golden arch. Little did we know that the McDonald’s we were looking for was on Level 1 of a high-rise office building, and as such, the office building didn’t place the golden arch anywhere within plain sight. So we had to actually march into the building and found this uber-famous restaurant, perched on the corner of Level 1.

So, ten minutes later, McDonald’s bag in tow, milkshakes in hand, we went out once again to the pitch-black night, ready to trek back to our hotel. Simple, right? We just backtrack from where we had just come from?

EEERGGGG!!! <— that’s the best I can do to imitate a buzzer sound when you’ve answered incorrectly. For some reason, Los Angeles’ streets didn’t connect, and unless we were prepared to walk along the highway, we had to go through the maze of buildings to get back to our street. Easy to say when you were a local who knew your way around said maze of buildings , not so easy for tourists on their first night in deserted LA!

So the spying game began! After a few false starts of us walking up and down the stopped escalators and trying to open locked doors to no avail, we began stalking someone who looked like he knew where he was going. Both my husband and I kept our distance from him so that the person didn’t get suspicious.

It was all well and good until the man disappeared to a door leading to the basement carparks, leaving us standing dumbfounded. Hungry and growing aggravated for missing our only lead, we walked back into the abandoned office building, trying to think of what to do next.

A Stranger’s Goodwill

We encountered a man walking so confidently past us, and by now getting desperate to get back to our hotel, we bravely stopped him and asked for directions. The conversation went like this:

Husband & I: Excuse me. Could you please tell us how to get to Flower St?
Stranger: Yes, sure. Follow me.

He started walking. Three steps into it, he turned around.

Stranger: Don’t worry. You can trust me. I’ll lead you to Flower St.
Husband & I: Thank you.

Down we went to the very carpark the first man we had stalked had disappeared into, across the rows of parked cars, when the stranger turned around again and said, “Don’t worry. You can trust me. I swear I’ll get you to Flower St.”

Briefly, alarm bells started going off in my head. Why did he have to say that twice? And buddy, we were one-hundred per-cent, completely lost; we were totally relying on you to get us to Flower St. If you decided to murder us, well… we were sort of at your mercy.

But no, the stranger didn’t have any homicidal tendencies, and he did lead us to the gaping mouth of a carpark looking right across at our hotel. My husband and I laugh at it now, but back then, we simply couldn’t believe how much effort we had to go through on a Friday night, spending in excess of forty minutes just to get burgers and milkshakes from McDonald’s!

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Up until this point, my reference of a glamorous casino was Crown Casino in Melbourne; one I had frequented often, and loved, not because of the roulette tables and pokies machines (though I do hang around the gambling floor a bit, too!), but because for starters, the sheer size of it was at least ten times bigger than the casino in the state I live in. Not only that, but for a casino, it also houses a great selection of food courts, restaurants of every cuisine, designer shops, and its very own cinema.

I have since termed Vegas ‘Crown on Steroids’. Lined against either side of Las Vegas Boulevard was casino, upon casino, upon casino.

Las Vegas Strip

Las Vegas Strip - the other side

Each with its own theme and/or distinct appearances.

MGM Grand - the home of the Golden Lion

Caesars Palace Casino - one guess to the theme...

 

Replica of Eiffel Tower - Paris Casino

*Cue Music* New York... New York...

They were as good, and as entertaining as Crown Casino. Better, according to my husband. In all casinos in Australia, the men have to wear collared shirt and jeans at the very least. And slippers of any kind is strictly prohibited. In Vegas, with casino connected to the hotel AND the pool, we have walked through the casino, past the security guards, in shorts and the aforementioned slippers.

Another ‘best’, rather mind-boggling part was the fact that to hop from one casino to the other, as long as they were on the same side of the road, you need not have to walk on the footpath. All you need, was to travel in one of these, connecting one casino onto another.

Travelator to accommodate casino hopping

Of course, Vegas casinos were also home to shows, from one you had to buy tickets to, to the ‘free’ ones.

Mandalay Bay Casino - home of 'Lion King: The Musical'

Wynn Casino - home of 'Cirque de Soleil: Le Reve'

Bellagio Casino - Home of 'Cirque de Soleil: O' and the water-fountain show - just like you watched in 'Ocean's Eleven'

The one thing I learnt in Vegas – look can be deceiving. Standing on the overpass bridge connecting MGM Grand and New York New York Casino (the two hotels we stayed in during our four-day tour of Las Vegas), we could see Bellagio casino. So during the day, when we weren’t coped up inside a viewing theatre of a casino, watching Le Reve or Lion King, we decided to walk along Las Vegas Boulevard and checked this casino out.

Forty minutes later, having utilised every travelator in casinos and now having to resort to footpath, crossing the roads at the set of lights, I was sad to say that we weren’t there yet, the only thing that kept us going instead of hailing a cab was that having walked for so long, the end was so nearly in sight. It was a lesson well-learnt; one we didn’t repeat when we had to go to Mandalay Bay to watch ‘Lion King” The Musical’ – the taxi took us up the Las Vegas Boulevard and round the bend to the entrance of Mandalay Bay – a ten-minute taxi ride which would have taken us 30 minutes on foot.

Another thing I learnt in Vegas? When they said it was a free shuttle bus – don’t believe them! My husband, who was a follower of World Series of Poker Tournament, wanted to visit Rio Casino, where the tournament was held each year. Unlike the rows of casino lining up either sides of Las Vegas Boulevard, Rio was located away from the strip, the taxi taking us through some highway.

My husband at Rio Casino

From Rio, there was a free shuttle ride to take you back to Harrah casino,located mid-way on the Vegas strip. Great! Wonderful! Let’s go back to the Strip in that. As the shuttle bus pulled up, spitting out passenger upon passenger, each of them gave the bus driver tips. Not much – $2 per person. Lucky we did get some warning, otherwise we would have been the rudest pair of passengers ever, thinking that free bus ride meant exactly that; FREE of charge.

Stay tuned for the next stop (and last stop) – Los Angeles, before we headed home from the trip of a lifetime.

 

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