Egypt & Etihad!

In October, 2015, I was lucky enough to get a place on a G Adventures fam trip for U.S based Travel Agents to Egypt. This meant that it was not a regular group departure – only travel agents would be attending (with a small participation fee ) accompanied by a G Adventures representative, and we would receive some training along the way.

Otherwise, the itinerary was very much the same as the classic Best of Egypt, with the bonus of upgraded accommodation in all but Cairo.

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I was also very lucky to have the chance to purchase a special travel agent/industry rate with Etihad Airways on roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to Abu Dhabi, potentially around 70% off its usual rate. I allowed myself an overnight there each way, and used my Virgin Australia frequent flyer miles for a roundtrip Abu Dhabi to Cairo.   $300 for flying almost 10,000 miles each way .. not bad!!

Even though I was taking the “long way” to Cairo via the UAE, I was happy to get to experience Etihad, even if it was in economy, and fly the third longest flight in the world – 16hrs20mins/16hrs45mins!!

I overnighted in Abu Dhabi and caught a flight to Cairo the next morning as otherwise the connection would have been too tight as I was on 2 separate tickets – plus I didn’t really want to arrive into Cairo at 2am!

The airport was super easy to navigate and a breeze to get through immigration and customs, and walk straight on through to the Premier Inn attached to the airport. I was very happy to have a long bath and sleep in a bed after the 16 hours on a plane!

I really enjoy taking pictures and experience plane food! Strange I know..but it’s nice to know what you’re going to get on an upcoming flight by people like me posting it in a blog -especially as a vegetarian!

Etihad impressed me with their vegetarian meals.

Vegetable korma with black dhal and rice and a curried cucumber salad as a starter, strawberry mousse as dessert and Spinach and vegetable curry with lentil & vegetable salad.

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Big Sur Roadtrip: Solvang

For our first wedding anniversary we decided to do a long weekend trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur/Monterey. We left on a Thursday evening after work and headed straight to Solvang for the night.

Solvang was founded in 1911 as a new community by Danish settlers and entering the town makes you feel like you have either jumped across the globe to Denmark OR stepped onto a movie set, when in actuality you’re in  Santa Barbara C

image from winevalleyinn.comWe chose to stay at the Wine Valley Inn for our overnight stay, which was accommodating and well located, as well as being super cute.

Our room was neat and tidy, with many horse pictures.
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We chose to eat dinner across the road at Solvang Brewing Company – good veggie burgers and a wonderful raspberry beer.

After dinner we took a walk around the little town – it felt like Christmas with all the lights, and was very quiet.IMG_0163

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Solvang apart from a coffee & danish in the morning and another quick stroll around town, as we had many miles to cover over the weekend and needed to head north! The below photos show how cute this town is and I’d love to come back for a window.

 

 

Austin, TX – for Psych Fest

In May 2015, we visited Austin for the annual music festival – Austin Psych Fest (now called Levitation). We had planned this trip and purchased tickets before we had even moved to the U.S!

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This also gave us the opportunity to see Austin – a city we had heard so many good things about. It did not disappoint!

As is quite common for us, we chose to stay in an AirBnB – full of character and a joint studio for mermaid tales & candy lollipops. It was in a great location – walkable to Rainey St and E 5th St.

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Austin airport is unique in celebrating its ‘musical capital of the world’ claim to fame, with themed guitars on the baggage carousel and tributes to musicians all over the terminal.

After arriving at our AirBnB and dropping off our bags, we took a walk in the humidity to Cenote Cafe on East Cesar Chavez for a late lunch. Good food & coffee, awesome garden art and a high percentage of hipster.

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After lunch we continued our walking to check out the area around E 5th and 6th St.

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There are so many food trucks and bars in this area, I wish we could’ve had time to go to them all …next time.

Instead we walked..and walked…and ended up at Reverb Records to pick up our festival wristbands, before walking back to Yellow Jacket Social Club – a bar I could easily have spent a lot of time at.


Austin Psych Fest hosted two kick off parties on the Thursday night, so that evening we went to check out Dirty Sixth and the gig at ‘Cheer Up Charlies’ . Delicious drinks, a vegan food truck in the yard and huge outdoor areas.

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After a sleep in the next morning we started our days adventures at Dirty Sixth again, stopping in at the Museum of Weird and the Alamo…

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Before walking up into the park to the Texas Capitol Building…

 

And finally over to Congress Ave to look at boots and cupcake airstreams.

 

 

Austin Psych Fest was a great experience and I would love to go again!

 

The Move: Part 2

We woke sleepy-eyed bboarding passut excited at the ungodly hour of 3:30am on the 10th Feb,ready to say goodbye to our beloved home of Melbourne and start our journey to the U.S.
We had to be at the airport at 5 am for our 7 am flight to Sydney, as  Virgin unfortunately stopped flying MEL-LAX directly in October last year, so we had a layover before our international flight.  Our cab arrived at 4.30am and we loaded our few suitcases and bags of everything we now owned in the backseat/boot. 20 mins and $55 later we arrived at Melbourne International Airport. As we were lucky enough to be flying Business Class (thank you sneaky point accumulating!) there was no wait at the priority check in desk. Our check in agent was friendly and chatty and asked us if we had an ETSA. It was a great feeling to be able to tell her, nope, we don’t need one – we have a Permanent Residency visa in our passport as we won the Green Card lottery! Funnily enough, she was well versed with the lottery as she had also been applying for it for the past 3 years and is eager to win as her boyfriend lives in NYC. We had 3 checked bags each (1 over the limit) and were prepared to pay the extra $150AUD each for the extra 2 bags, but our lovely check in agent said “don’t worry about it” and kindly sent them through for free -saving us $300AUD! If you’re reading this friendly Virgin Australia check in lady, THANK YOU!
It was nerve racking to see what was now our only belongings go down the conveyor belt, and we crossed our fingers that they would meet us un-damaged at the other end in LAX!
Virgin Australia no longer runs direct flights from Melbourne so we were on a domestic flight through to
Once in Sydney we headed to the Etihad Lounge, as I believe Virgins is under renovation and passengers on the flight to LAX had access to Etihads. It is a very nice lounge with a  range of food. It was still pretty early in the morning for us so we did not eat a lot. We took the time to make phone calls to our family members though before we left the country!

We definitely could not complain about the leg room on this flight! I am now spoiled for life after flying business (again 😉 ) A glass of champagne before take-off didn’t hurt either!

 

For anyone interested in flying business with Virgin Australia the below are some images of their menu as well as the meals. (Note – if you are vegetarian and you put in a special meal request just be aware you won’t have the option of ordering from the menu – you will get the prepared special meal only-which may not be as good 😛 ! )

13.5 hours later we arrived at LAX at approximately 6.30am LA time! The immigration area was virtually empty, it seemed everyone else went to the left side for citizens and visa waiver entry, and we went through the “Visitors” line. We only had to wait behind one person before being called up to the desk. We handed over our yellow “Do Not Open” envelopes and our passports and had our fingerprints taken. We were then escorted over to another area, handed over our passports & envelopes again and were told to wait for another officer to process us. After a short wait he asked us to sign both sides of a form and took an ink print of our right index finger on each side too. Another short wait while he did some paperwork (we assume) and then he handed back our passports and a “Welcome to the USA” sheet of paper about our green card and that was it, our Permanent Residnet status was officially activated!

 

We collected our many bags and went and caught our transfer van to Echo Park, where we had booked a room in an awesome AirBNB house for a month! She allowed us to bring our French Bulldog, Kira, to stay too as she also has a Frenchie (a deciding factor in renting there!)

Our friend took us out the afternoon we arrived and helped us get set up with US cell phone number… that was the moment that it all felt real – this was not a holiday, we were not going home..

The Move: Part 1

The past month has been a very very busy one! After receiving our approval at the U.S Consulate in Sydney and spending some time with family afterwards, we headed home with only 18 days to finish packing up our lives and move to Los Angeles. We halved our wardrobes, listed many things for sale on eBay, Gumtree and Facebook “For Sale” groups, including all of our furniture and donated bags of clothes to the local op-shop and Bridging the Gaps (a group that collects items of need for newly arrived refugee families in Melbourne). Luckily we have family that were happy to keep some boxes of things for us in storage, so we packed up all of our books, CDs, personal keepsakes and a few other items and shipped them back to Perth for the time being.

We made sure we had been to see our GP one last time, went to the dentist for a final check up and clean and I had my hair done one last time with my hairdresser.  On the 30th of January we had a big going-away party at a friends bar/club The Liberty Social  to see as many of our friends as we could before leaving.

We did a preliminary pack of our luggage to take with us last Wednesday, to make sure we didn’t need to cull even more of our clothing! Seeing it all packed away made things feel very real!

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We have been in our rental unit for over 4 years, so the process of cleaning every single inch of it for our final inspection was quite the effort!

It is now Saturday the 7th of February, our flight is Tuesday the 10th, and our rental is almost empty. There are still many things we need to do! Here is a bit of a list of things we have already done in lead up & things we need to do before we leave:

  • Cancel Foxtel, internet & set up electricity/gas disconnections
  • Authorise family on bank account so they can close it for me in a few months
  • Change mailing addresses on bank accounts/super accounts/anything that may get mail to a family address
  • Cancel private health insurance
  • Get copy of optometrist prescriptions
  • Sell shares
  • Get driving records from VicRoads  (may help with car insurance in US)
  • Get copy of dogs vaccination/vet records
  • Pay USCIS fee
  • Send boxes to storage with family interstate
  • Book a hire car for a few weeks once we first arrive
  • Purchase some temporary health insurance till we get a proper policy
  • Check to see what we are covered for with travel insurance under my credit card
  • Confirm everything is ready to go with our dog’s flight on the 11th!

We transferred some of our savings over to USD at the beginning of the week (the rate sure isn’t getting any better, so we thought it was time!). We used HiFX as they allow you to exchange and provide the beneficiary account (US bank account for us) at a later date, whereas OzForex did not. As we couldn’t set up a US bank account before leaving Australia, this was the best option for us. Once we have the US bank account we can then get our USD transferred into it. For the interim, we will use my 28 Degrees Mastercard for credit card transactions (no fees) and to withdraw a small amount of cash.

The countdown is definitely on!

Our Consulate Interview: Part 2

After double, triple & quadruple checking that we had all of the documents we needed, we flew to Sydney a few days early, on the 10th of January. We spent this time with friends, and when the morning of the 13th came around, we got up early, checked all our documents again and walked to Martin Place. Despite knowing that the interview process would be pretty straightforward for us (no children, no criminal history, never lived in any other countries etc) we were still nervous!

The U.S Consulate is on Level 59 of the MLC Building but you have to head to Level 10 first to go through security. We took the elevator up, showed our passports at the entry and went through the metal detector. Our bags, phones and the CD’s our X-rays were on were checked in at Level 10 and we kept only our documents, passports, wallet and a book to take up.  An official then escorted us to the elevator and sent us up to Level 59. Before the entry to the consulate there is another official behind a glass divider who checks your ID again and then lets you through the very heavy reinforced door.

Inside the Consulate is similar to a Medicare or other government office – waiting chairs and officials behind windows.  When you walk in you press the button on the machine for Immigrant Visas to receive a ticket and wait on the seats to the right for your number to be called.

We got there a little early but didn’t have a long wait before our number was called. The woman at our window went through all of our documents to make sure they were all there, including the Document Checklist  they had emailed us at time of interview notification – you complete this before you go to the interview with your intended US address. Interestingly she handed back the printed confirmation of our DS-260 submission, even though the checklist says we need it. She then advised us to go to the cashier window, pay our fee and then bring the receipt back to her, which we did. She then advised us to sit down and wait again and we would be called for our interview.

Another short wait and we were called to a different window with a male CO for our interview. First he took our fingerprints and we took an oath and then he went through our paperwork, handing the original back and stamping the copy. I was feeling a combination of nerves – like a child thinking “only speak when you’re spoken to” or a teenager on a first date “don’t say anything stupid!” Overall it was quite casual and he asked us a few simple questions, mostly directed to my husband as he is the primary applicant – “Why do you want to move to the US?, So you have a Bachelor’s degree?” (he replied he has a Masters) and “What is your Masters in”, “Is it your first marriage, for the both of you? Are there any children involved? Are you taking your husband’s name? Have you been to the States before?” He then advised us that we had been approved and would receive passports back in 1-2 weeks!! And that was it! It felt so strange… not even a slip of paper as proof!

We left the Consulate and headed to the Sheraton for a big breakfast and celebratory mimosa!

Our passports only took 2 days to arrive back to us – seeing it in print made it 100% certain – WE ARE MOVING TO THE U.S.A !!!

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Our Consulate Interview: Part 1

On the 25th November, after what felt like an eternal wait, we finally were given our interview date at the Sydney Consulate for our DV Lottery interview – 9am Tuesday 13th January.

Finally, we could start planning!! The first thing we had to do is let our employers know. It was sad for me to leave a great work team and career opportunity but they were very supportive and understood. My final work day would be the 9th January, after which we would head to Sydney for a few days to see friends, attend our interview and then head interstate separately to visit family for 9 days.

We booked our 3 night stay in Sydney at the Travelodge Sydney on Wentworth Avenue – just over $100 a night for our dates and a short walk to our friends in Surry Hills, as well as to the U.S. Consulate in Martin Place.

The 7 weeks between being notified of and our interview went by quickly, with the welcome distraction of the festive season and New Years to stop us counting down each day.

We scheduled our medicals with Medibank Health Solutions for the 17th December and sent in our applications for our Police Checks (which came back promptly).

I contacted Medibank Health Solutions by phone and they advised me to email them with medical type (i.e US Immigration), preferred medical date, full names, DOB’s and contact phone numbers.

In preparation for the medical we had gotten our blood work done to see what we were already vaccinated against (as did not have records any earlier than 2009) and so we could obtain any required vaccines from our GP.

Be prepared to waste a few hours in the waiting room on the day of your medical. We got there a bit early and filled in the required forms – have your Case Number, intended US address and copies of your vaccination records/blood test results with you. After a bit of waiting we were called to get a blood test, height, weight recorded, eyesight & blood pressure recorded by the nurse. After that, more waiting… until we were finally called by our doctors (separate appointments for my husband and I). It was a lot simpler than I expected – general medical history questions, then the doctor checked my vaccination records and filled in the vaccination form – she noted that I had everything that was required. I found it interesting that she noted a few as not ‘age appropriate’ (including Polio and Meningococcal ), however my husbands doctor made him get vaccinations for those!! She then listened to my heart, lungs etc, checked ears, eyes and mouth, took my pulse, got me to do some stretches/movements and a quick external genital check but that was it! Very simple and easy. Obviously it may depend on your medical history as to whether it is as straightforward for everyone but we are lucky to have always been in good health!

After paying (Medical with no other vaccinations = $518.76 inc GST) and supplying my passport photos (as my Dr didn’t ask in her office so I reminded them at the front desk!) we were then sent to a different office up on Collins St to have our chest x-rays and Tuberculosis sheets completed, and the results would be sent back to Medibank directly for us to collect in a few days.

We decided to book our international flights before the interview as we were using our Virgin Velocity frequent flyer points and didn’t want to risk doing a last minute booking. We had been doing a bit of point-hacking and finally had enough to fly business !!! Our one way ticket to LA was set for 10th February!

We gave notice to our real estate at the start of January, our lease is month to month, so that was no trouble. We started doing some general disconnections of things we didn’t need (such as Foxtel), a lot of eBay listing and halved the clothes we own.

The interview date slowly crept closer and closer! Nothing would feel real until we had the approval from a CO at the Consulate!