Looking Back on 2015

Yes, it is February 8th and yes, I am about to write my recap of 2015.

It has been so long since I last blogged that WordPress has changed the interface in my absence and I’m not even sure I know how to blog anymore.

But the only way to begin is to just sit down and do it.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I just haven’t been sharing my writing. So it’s time to start.

Despite the fact that I spent the first day of 2016 with with a killer hangover and the second and third days with a terrible cold, it was a good start to the year. I realized that I am in a much better place beginning this year than I was a year ago.

I went through some of the past year’s writing and I realized that I was just so miserable at the beginning of 2015. I was in such a rut with my job, and I was struggling in a big way. I was mentally and emotionally drained from having to deal with work drama. Going into 2015, I was desperate for a new job, I was watching many of my friends leave the company, I was putting on a fake smile every day, and I was dreading driving in to work each morning. Granted, I had great things going on with Jim and my friends were cool and I was exercising, but when work is such a big part of life it’s hard to not let that cross over into everything else, even a little bit.

So here’s to 2016. Cheers to a new year – but also cheers to the majority of 2015, which turned out to be literally the best year of my life, so far. Highlights being: I got a new job, I got engaged and I bought a house. This was a HUGE year for me. Most of the year was just so incredible, and it was so crazy and chaotic and stressful and fast-paced that I barely had time or energy left to breathe. But it was amazing.

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Just a random picture of Pittsburgh that I took from the Gateway Clipper.

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Snowy Weekend in Cleveland

The night before a big February snowstorm blanketed Ohio and Pennsylvania and other parts of the Northeast with about six inches of snow, Jim and I drove to Cleveland, Ohio to visit his cousin, Matt, and his fiancé and get a little taste of the city.

Despite having family in Ohio and taking the turnpike west multiple times a year throughout my entire life, Cleveland was one city I hadn’t been to. I was surprised that it’s only a 2-hour drive away, so we were able to spend all of Saturday and a good part of Sunday visiting the touristy areas, museums and restaurants.

Cleveland Arcade

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Pierogies, Pens, and Pamela’s

Last weekend, Jim and I were faced with an impossible task. We had to show Jim’s cousin Greg, and Greg’s girlfriend Sarah a great time in Pittsburgh in the short span of their less-than-24-hour visit.

If you’ve ever lived in or been to this city, you know that there is no possible way to do everything worth doing in just one weekend. Between all the fantastic restaurants, neighborhoods, museums, and sports teams, it takes days, weeks, even years to experience it all. With our limited time constraint, we did our best to show off our personal favorite spots and try some new things as well.

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A Taste of Cincinnati

A Taste of Cincinnati

A few weekends ago, Jim and I took a quick trip to Cincinnati, Ohio. We were itching for a little adventure in our lives, and Cincinnati is about as far away as we could get financially, for such a short amount of time. A taste of Cincinnati it truly was, in every sense of the word. In just two days, we weren’t able to see or do nearly everything that we wanted to, but what we did was enough to bring home stories and memories.

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Just a little trip to Music City, USA

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My first visit to Nashville, TN– Music City, USA

It’s the home of country music. Otherwise known as “Music City.” Nashville.

It’s a city so full of intrigue that they made a whole television series based on its incredible drama.

And I got to see it! (I know this post is a little late. But better late than never right?)

IMG_0183Two weeks ago, I visited my friend, Kristen, who is going to school at Vanderbilt. I used some of my dad’s frequent flyer miles and got there for all of $35. A short weekend, but totally worth it.

The Nashville trip was wonderful. I hadn’t seen my friend since Christmas and we had lots to catch up on. Not to mention I love country music, I grew up on Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I’m pretty much obsessed with the new hit show Nashville on ABC. I was so excited to visit this home of country that I could hardly contain myself.

I arrived at about 9 PM, Nashville-time, Friday night. (I was amazed to find that Nashville is an hour ahead of Pittsburgh. All this time I’d talked to Kristen on the phone and texted, I had never actually noticed and she’d never mentioned it. Shows my lack of knowledge about U.S. geography.) We only really had time to go out for a few drinks at a bar near her apartment that night, but that was perfect. We chatted until they closed the dining room and our server was trying to leave. Then we headed back to get some sleep before our big touring day.

Saturday morning Kristen took me out to breakfast and we started our day with mimosas and biscuits. (She said biscuits are a must in the south and I agreed. Delish!) We walked past a few shops where she said celebrities have been seen drinking coffee and such. Unfortunately we didn’t see any singers or celebrities but it was still fun to imagine.

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The Parthenon in Nashville, TN

After breakfast, we visited the replica of the Parthenon. I’m not sure why there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. I mean, there is a story behind it, it was supposed to be a  temporary exhibit and then people loved it, blah blah… but it’s still so random. And people are there walking through it and taking pictures in front of it (myself included) as if it were the real Parthenon. Except it’s not. So it was weird. But pretty. It was located in this beautiful park and luckily it was a gorgeous day and the trees and flowers were blooming. But still…the Parthenon in Nashville? Whatever.

 

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Outside the Grand Ole Opry

So after that we went to see the Grand Ole Opry. We took some fabulous pictures of ourselves in front of the humongous guitars outside the theater and then we walked around the gift shop. We didn’t actually go into the Grand Ole Opry because tours were a little pricy and we had better things to see.

We drove back into the city to visit the much-anticipated Country Music Hall of Fame. For this, we actually did buy the tour tickets and walked through the whole thing. I hadn’t realized there would be so much country music and so many singers that I didn’t know and had never heard of. We looked through these exhibits kind of quickly, not wanting to read every little word about every single singer, so that we could get to the more modern country music.

(Side note: Kristen lost the back of her earring on the second floor of the museum. We saw it, unreachable, next to Webb Pierce’s 1962 Bonneville. Unless they’ve swept the floors back there since then, Kristen’s earring-back is currently preserved in the Hall of Fame.)

I took pictures of all the country stars’ exhibits that I know and love. It felt a little awkward taking pictures of one old guitar after another, old boots and million-dollar dresses that were probably only worn once. I don’t think those will be the pictures I’ll cherish from the trip. But for some reason I still felt the need to have photos of the things that once belonged to my idols.

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Taylor Swift’s guitar in the Country Music Hall of Fame

Of course the crowd around Taylor Swift’s flashy rhinestone-studded guitar was large, but we managed to get pictures with her belongings as well. They even had an exhibit for the TV show, Nashville, with Rayna’s and Juliet’s dresses (weird because those are not actually real people) and the original script signed by all the cast members.

After the Hall of Fame we headed to the pedestrian bridge, where they shoot the intimate, heart-felt scenes with Rayna and Deacon. Then it was on to Broadway! Now this street was magical, for someone who loves country music. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and country music is just spilling onto the street from every window and doorway. People are singing along, dancing in cowboy boots and drinking beer. So that’s exactly what we did, making our way from one bar to the next, stopping at a few souvenir stores along the way. We had dinner reservations at Pucketts and ordered their famous barbecue pulled pork. We walked past the Ryman Auditorium on the way but didn’t have time to stop in.

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The famous Bluebird Cafe

After dinner, we headed to the Bluebird Cafe. I expected this grand bar, but it was awkwardly situated in a strip mall next to a hair salon, a dry-cleaners and a children’s store. Unfortunately, we didn’t have reservations there and the stand-by line was too long to waste our time waiting in it. But I got some pretty great pictures outside!

Later that night, we went back to Broadway to enjoy more drinks and music with the late-night crowd. We went to Honkytonk Central and danced on the stage at The Stage. We made some friends and had a ball.

The next day, we slept in and relaxed, watching movies before I caught my flight back to my boring hometown of Pittsburgh.

Pedestrian bridge in Nashville

Pedestrian bridge in Nashville

 

The Keys to Driving in the City

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Driving in rush-hour Pittsburgh traffic is brutal. It’s a cut-throat business. It’s a battle of size and strength and wits. It will weed out the losers from the winners. It is a fight to the finish. The one with guts gets all the glory.

I used to be terrified of driving in the city. It was quite literally my biggest fear. I was forced to get over this fear when the organization I work for moved offices. And of course we moved to a place that is farther away and harder to get to, across two  rivers, over five bridges, under three overpasses and through one tunnel. Oh wait, two tunnels. There was nothing I could do; I had to face my fear.

It took me about a week and a half before I felt confident enough to put away my GPS. Even now, a month later, I still keep my phone on the seat next to me, just in case there’s an accident, or a fire, or a water main break, and I’m forced down an unfamiliar road.

Now, I’m almost a pro. I say almost because, like I said, driving in rush-hour, city traffic is cut-throat. And I do not always come out on top.

In order to drive in traffic across two rivers, over five bridges, under three overpasses and through two tunnels, one must be aggressive. Never drive in the slow lane if you think you could be going faster or you might want to go faster later. You will inevitably get stuck behind a large 18-wheeler or a mom in a minivan, and they do not care how slow they are going.

One must merge into lanes forcefully. Make the decision to cut in front of someone and stick to that decision. If there is not enough space for your car, the person you are cutting in front of will just have to stop and let you in. Because you are in it to win it.

On a similar note, merge at the last possible second. Too many people try to merge the second they see the lane on their left, thus stopping all traffic behind them on the ramp and firmly positioning themselves too far back in the line. If you keep driving in the merge lane until you can drive no further, think of all the cars you will pass, stuck in that traffic.

After you’ve merged, don’t let any space get between you and that car just ahead of you. You never know who might try to sneak in at the next ramp. Don’t make eye contact and don’t give an inch. You earned your spot in line and you’re going to keep it.

Drive on the shoulder of a ramp when you are positive that no one will hit you. Driving outside the lines, on the rumble strips sometimes cannot be avoided. This is part of the battle. You just have to drive around those people who tried to merge too soon and cut in front of the lazy drivers.

When coming to a traffic light, one must run the yellows, even at the last possible second. It is legal to drive through a yellow light. So do it. If you stop at every yellow light you get to on a 45-minute drive through the city, it will end up taking you an hour. Or you will get rear-ended because the car behind you was planning on running the yellow light after you.

If the left-turn-signal on the traffic light goes out, you have about five more seconds to make a left-hand turn before the oncoming traffic actually starts to move. Use that time wisely and make your turn. But be aggressive about it. If you hesitate, you will lose your five-second advantage and be stuck in the middle of the intersection.

Which leads me to my next point. One must never stop in the middle of an intersection. You will get beeped and honked at, especially by buses because they’re big and clumsy, and you will probably get hit and smashed. Enough said.

If you manage to make it through all the bumper-to-bumper traffic, avoid the distracted drivers on their phones, eating a sandwich, balancing coffee while painting their nails, and arrive at your destination on time, give yourself a small pat on the back. Because you’ve survived only one half of the nightmare that is driving to work, because you have yet to go home. Getting home at the end of the day is often worse, after people have gotten crap from their bosses, worked overtime, and spilled their lunch all over their shirt. This is when the real fun begins.

This is when you show no mercy. It’s the big trucks and the tiny convertibles who think they are invincible, so you have to show them you mean business. All the above rules go into overtime at this point. Merge like you mean it, get into the fast lane ASAP and don’t budge. Pedal to the metal, and all that jazz.

This is war. And you, my friend, will emerge victorious.

 

 

UPDATE (2/22/13): Due to concerns expressed by several readers, I would just like to make a note that I do not in any way condone illegal or reckless driving. I advocate strategic driving. When driving in Pittsburgh, one must find humor in small things or one will go crazy.

(photo via)

The Complete Guide to Getting Lost

I wish I had a hidden video camera filming me while I drive my car because the utter confusion and exasperation I feel when I’m driving around the streets of Pittsburgh would make a really funny YouTube video.

I’m a pretty good driver who has a terrible sense of direction in new places. Not exactly an ideal combination. And unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to drive around the city of Pittsburgh very often throughout my life. Everything I needed was already within the two-mile radius of my house in the suburbs. So imagine my anxiety when every other week or so I have the fabulous opportunity to drive someplace that I’ve never been.

I think that some cosmic force has decided that I really must get lost every time I go someplace new. No matter how many directions I print out or how well I’ve memorized Mapquest or how accurate my GPS is. I have never gotten somewhere without driving the wrong way or completely missing it first.

Driving in Pittsburgh is terrifying for someone who doesn’t do it often. There are one-way streets and ramps and exits everywhere. A ramp that looks like it will take you where you want to go actually veers off and goes over and under and around and pretty soon you’re not even in the city anymore. If you go across a river, it takes awhile to find a way back across. If you go through a tunnel, forget it.

So I have a very strict routine that I keep when driving to and through the unknown. I meticulously write down the address on at least two post-it notes. I type the address into a notes app on my phone. I search for the destination on MapQuest and when I print out step-by-step directions (with helpful hints), I make sure to enlarge the font so that if I’m driving and have to read the paper, it’ll be easier to see. I calculate the time it will take me to get to the destination, add fifteen minutes for traffic, five minutes for parking and ten minutes for wrong turns, to determine what time I’ll have to leave my house. And this is all the day (sometimes the week) before the “trip.”

I might sound like I’ve never driven anywhere in my life, but as I have found out, all of this preparation is apparently necessary. Because as soon as I start driving, nothing goes according to plan. The MapQuest directions look easy, the total time it should take isn’t long, I know the general direction–I think. And then come the winding ramps and streets of Pittsburgh. How are 376, 279 and 576 all the same road? And why did MapQuest tell me 376 but the GPS voice (whom I’ve named Ginny, trying to build a relationship with a piece of technology so she doesn’t take her wrath out on me) tells me its 576? When I’m completely positive that my car is positioned under the correct sign for the correct exit, then suddenly Ginny calls out–“Recalculating.” How?!

You know that extra gravelly space to the side of the exit that was made for people who decide to turn at the last possible second? Yes, I use that. Suddenly realizing I should be turning, or taking that exit, not the next one, I wrench the wheel across that extra space. Watch out for people like me.

As soon as I relax because I made that exit, Ginny lets me know that the next exit is on the left and I have approximately two seconds to cross over three lanes of traffic before the ramp takes me across a river where I do not  want to go. I merge into traffic, make the next exit and again relax a little. I have two minutes until I reach my destination.

Driving along, driving along. “Your destination is on the right.” Emphasis on the words “on” and “right.” (I wonder what nationality Ginny is…) And I drive along, cursing, talking aloud, like what? where? I don’t see it! And I quickly drive right by, saying “oh there it went.” Then I have to find a place to turn around, make a U-turn, do whatever I have to do to go back, and find some place to park. Parking is not fun either. A car is a very big thing to find a spot for and if there is nowhere to put it, what do you do?

That’s just half my battle. I haven’t even started home yet. Getting home is even better because as meticulous as I was making sure I had directions to get to my destination, I didn’t print out any to get home. So I must rely on Ginny, who firmly decides not to have a signal. So I drive, make a turn, this road looks familiar. Oh wait, this ramp is actually taking me the wrong way. And suddenly I’m going across a bridge, towards a tunnel that is definitely in the wrong direction.

By the time Ginny finds out where she is in the world, I have driven around and through the whole city of Pittsburgh and must now untangle myself from the one-way streets.

Ginny always gets me home though. And every time I go to the same place, it gets a little easier. Maybe someday I’ll be able to navigate the Burgh but right now I’m struggling. And if I had a video camera in the car with me, it would be hilarious. After I get where I’m going.

 

photo credit: http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/11/fcc-approves-lightsquared-frequencies-gps-now-in-danger/

My Big Fat Family Vacation

I just got back from my family vacation in Myrtle Beach. It was actually a smaller beach just south of there, called Garden City, but no one would know what I was talking about if I told them that. My family has been vacationing there every summer practically since I was born. My grandparents rent a huge house and we stuff in as many parents and kids as we can. There are 29 people total on my dad’s side of the family and recently we’ve usually had about 20 people in the house (after subtracting the busy kids who can’t make it). We’ve done the same kinds of “vacation-y” things every year. We lay out on the beach, jump the waves, swim in the pool, go goofy golfing (“put-put” for you non-Pittsburghers), play games at the arcade, and browse the cheap gift shops.

For the past three years or so, I keep saying that they might have to count me out of vacation. I kept thinking I wouldn’t be able to take a week off from my summer job or internship, or I’ve just been crossing my fingers that I’ll have something important happening that will start my career or change my life. And for the past three years or so, none of those things have been happening, so I’ve enjoyed all of my family’s vacations. This year was probably our last one because after 20-some years, we are just too big. Family vacations are always fun; it’s always great to get away from life at home (even if my life at home kind of is a vacation right now) and just spend some time at the beach. But we’ve been looking forward to the exact same thing year after year and all of a sudden, you realize that everyone is growing up.

All the families and all the kids used to come down to the beach. Now we’re missing a whole family and a spouse and a couple kids who have jobs. Kids used to be small enough to sleep together in beds or share with parents. But now, some kids refuse to share beds, others are just to big to share. We brought down like six air mattresses this year, because there weren’t quite enough places to sleep. We’ve got kids on the living room couch, some rolling down the hallway. It was just easier when they were babies.

I keep saying “kids” but what I really mean is “kids/teenagers in large adult bodies.” We practically needed to take out a loan just to go out to dinner, because these large adolescent boys can eat. The kitty for grocery money needed refilled more often than it used to. We went through six boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts in two days. No joke. (I am proud to say I resisted and only had one and a half the whole week.)

We used to get tired of the beach when we were little, so our parents would take us to Wild Water and Wheels or the Cheese Maze. But not every parent would want to go, of course, so those were the days when we would throw ten kids in a car, double-buckle and put some behind the backseat of the van. (I’m pretty sure the old “double-buckle” tactic would be highly frowned upon in today’s uptight, car-seat-till-they’re-ten world.)

When we were younger, the parents were very wary of explosive devices (for good reason). I remember the first time they let us have sparklers under the house. It was the best night at the beach ever. And as we got older, we just couldn’t be satisfied with tiny sparks that lasted two minutes. We had to get the big guns, and spend a small fortune on major fireworks that were probably not allowed on the beach anyway. We wanted to sit right next to them and the best part was when they shot off the wrong direction and almost hit someone! And then this year, we mentioned not doing the fireworks thing, especially since we’d just seen them on the 4th of July, and most of us were like, eh, whatever, I just want to get a tan.

And finally, the things we pack have changed so dramatically, I can hardly begin. We used to bring toys and shovels and buckets. We brought a craft box full of paper, markers and stickers for when we were tired of the sand. We brought paint to decorate our collections of shells, and movies that always got lost or taken home by the wrong family. We brought board games and GameBoys and Walkmans and CD players. We brought Barbies and action figures to play with in the car. All of these fun things have been replaced by umbrellas, chairs and shoes. (A pair of shoes to match each of the outfits we wanted to wear out, running shoes for our morning work outs, beach shoes for the hot sand, etc.) We don’t need toys or beach stuff anymore, all we need for entertainment for the whole week is a few books and an ipod. Instead of crafts, we pack chargers– phone charger, camera charger, ipod charger, Nook charger, computer charger. Instead of movies, we bring hair dryers and straighteners and make-up bags. But even though we’ve technically replaced things, we still can barely fit everything into the car to make the trip because we’re just so big! The boys knees are digging into the backs of the seats, their feet near my lap. My seat is pushed forward as far as it will go, but we still have no space because this year we needed three bags of golf clubs instead of one.

We had a great time at the beach, like we always do. We relaxed on the sand with books and ipods, we drank beer and went out to a really great local restaurant called the Hot Fish Club. We played cards and volleyball and got a little sunburned. And 72 donuts and one week later, we were saying goodbye to the beach all too soon. It’s too sad to think that this might have been our last year at the beach…but maybe we just need a bigger house.

An Eight-hour Megabus Trip

This past weekend, I took a trip to New York City. By myself. Via Megabus. It was my first solo trip to the city (second time there ever) and my first time on a Megabus. Naturally, I was nervous, but I had a plan to meet my friend there and stay the night with her, so not as nervous as I might have been otherwise. So I would like to tell you some things about the Megabus, for those of you who have never been on one, or may be contemplating a trip in the near future.

First of all, I’d like to say that I had some previous (mis)conceptions about Megabuses. I pictured a Megabus as a grimy, single-level bus with a disgusting bathroom, half-full of dirty, crazy people. I thought the bus would be super sketchy and I was prepared to avoid eye contact at all times and hug my purse close for eight hours. Quite the contrary.

In keeping with my fear of being late for anything I lined up under the Convention Center in Pittsburgh forty minutes early. (But I still wasn’t the first one.) And I saw a lot of twenty-something kids–this was expected: the bus is pretty cheap. But they were like me, dressed like me, acting like me, college grads taking a trip to the Big Apple. Definitely not crazy people. Oh, don’t get me wrong, some people were very interesting. But I wouldn’t have called anyone crazy. I was surprised to see some families. Not surprised to see a few foreigners. Surprised at how much luggage some people had with them. Surprised at the length of the line–the bus was completely full.

The big blue bus pulls up–double decker, clean, with wi-fi and electrical outlets, and a moderately clean bathroom. Since I was in the front of the line, I got my pick of the seats. Figuring a window seat is a good thing, I sat on the top level, near the back staircase (in case of bathroom emergency) and was soon joined by a large, twenty-something guy. I didn’t speak to him. The last thing my dad said as he dropped me off was “Don’t talk to strangers.” Oh, parents. But I took his advice just in case. So the only words that passed between us were from me–“Would you mind putting this in the trash bag next to you?” He fell asleep on his lap leaning toward me and his sleeve kept touching my arm. But otherwise, a good seatmate, I suppose. The eight hour trip passed uneventfully with an unexpected rest stop (I thought buses didn’t stop. You’re hungry? Tough luck. But I guess I was wrong about that too.) So I only had to use the restroom on the bus once. I’m not sure if the window seat was the best idea. But at least I could look out the window easily as we pulled into the middle of Manhattan.

Return trip–a little different. This bus left at 4:20pm and wouldn’t get to Pittsburgh until midnight. I got a window seat again. More twenty-somethings this time. My seatmate was a girl about my age. And she promptly fell asleep on my shoulder. I shifted as far to the window as I could to avoid her mass of frizzy hair. She wore her headphones the whole time and I could hear the lyrics of every song she listened to. She took her shoes off and put her bare feet up on the seat in front of her. Needless to say we didn’t speak. The only words that passed between us were hers, asking  “Would you like a piece of gum?” This trip took a half hour longer than expected. But after we dropped some passengers off at State College, my seatmate moved, I put my feet up next to me, and fell into an uneasy sleep for the rest of the trip.

So, note to self (and others) about the Megabus:

1. Bring hand sanitizer. The first bus was out of sanitizer in the bathroom and I was thoroughly disgusted the rest of the trip thinking of  myself and all the other people not sanitizing our hands and touching all the same handrails.

2. Wear pants. Unless you enjoy the itching of raw wool seat cushions feeling like a bazillion bugs and needles digging into the skin of your bare thighs.

3. Bring a sweatshirt. The driver said he could adjust the temperature, but I was freezing for eight hours. And it seemed that no one else was, so why would he adjust it just for me? I pulled out all the extra t-shirts I had brought (one) and laid it on my lap, trying to think warm thoughts.

4. Pack more food than you think you can eat. With not much to do for eight hours, my brain just kept telling me I was hungry. And the rest stop is not something to rely on.

5. If you don’t have headphones, invest in earplugs. On the return trip there were two extremely chatty girls who couldn’t get seats next to each other. They yelled across the aisle instead. The whole bus now knows all about this girl’s interview, her friends who live in the city, her classes she took for jewelry-making, the contents of her portfolio, (which must have at least seven two-dimensional pieces and six three-dimensional pieces. Girl on the Megabus, if you read this, I am very proud of you, keep up the good work and I hope you get the job), etc, etc.

6. Don’t drink too much water. Have water, just in case. But don’t drink it unless absolutely necessary. Better to not even have to use that tiny little bus bathroom, especially while the bus is in motion.

I hope these tips help someone out on their next journey. I will most likely take a Megabus again in the future. It was a cost-effective way to travel without too much hassle. But of course, now I will be better prepared.