Sunday, October 31, 2010

A snapshot from a Palestinian wedding

As I sat eyeing the last remnants of labneh and olive oil on my plate, my Palestinian friend waved to me from the dance floor to get up and join the wedding party; all of whom were clapping and moving in a way that I was certain was beyond me.

I reluctantly scraped my chair back and headed to the dance floor determined to dance for as little time as possible.

I danced the rest of the night.

I stopped worrying about the spectacle I was causing with my feeble attempts to move my body the way my Palestinian friends were moving theirs. I couldn't help it. The atmosphere was jovial and light-hearted as everyone stamped their feet and swayed their hips to the hypnotic songs of famous Arab artists. The bride and the groom were placed on chairs and danced around the room and my friend's Grandmother elicited laughter and cheers as she shouted out blessings to family members in attendance. I forgot that I was an outsider and I felt embraced and welcomed into their community. The aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other relatives of my friend took me in and showed me how they celebrate their lives. In doing so, they helped me celebrate mine.

This photo was taken at the henna party the night before the wedding. The female family members of the groom sang songs as they presented gifts and henna to the bride.

**This post has been entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.**

Friday, October 29, 2010

California Dreaming, Ramallah Reminiscing

A year ago today, I wrote the following while sitting in the Stars & Bucks (yes, you read that correctly) café in Ramallah. I had been in the West Bank for four months at that point and decided to write a little blurb about how I was feeling. In third person. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Somewhere in the Middle East, a young American woman sits at a cafe (a blatant and hilarious rip-off of a well-known American chain) contemplating the day's events over an iced latte. 

She looks out over the scuttle of taxi cabs and pedestrians. The soldiers lean apathetically against the beige stones; flicking cigarettes to pass the time. Trash swirls in tumbleweed fashion amid the vendor stalls where fat tomatoes sit in stacks with dirt still clinging to their taut flesh

It is noon. 

The call to prayer bounces off the hills and hangs in the air for a moment before falling on the ears of the dutiful and the not-so-dutiful. This young woman falls into the latter category and pulls her sweater self-consciously around her shoulders. But even with this gesture of insecurity, she thinks with satisfaction that she feels comfortable in this place. 

Jostling through crowds and swinging from buses and taxis like an over-confident kid on the monkey bars has now become a familiar routine and adds a confident swagger to the spectacle of her blonde hair in a crowd of brunettes, shiny raven locks and brightly colored hijab. She is an outsider, but she is an outsider who is learning how to belong. 

She can march past the gawking teenage boys in their tight jeans; their crude phrases falling a foot short  as she glares with a ferocity that silences even the most rambunctious of them. She knows to examine the wares of the vendors while shaking her head with disinterest and murmuring "ghralli, ghralli. expensive. expensive." Her palate has learned to crave warm pita bread drenched in spiced olive oil, washing it down-oddly enough--with buttermilk. 

But today is special. 

Today her heart has nestled into the foothills of this place. 

Today she knows she will never escape its hold and her heart will always beat a little faster when she sees the flag bearing the red triangle with the three stripes. 

Today she sips her latte and knows that whatever chaos this place might hold, she belongs to it. 

Painting on a building in Bethlehem

Painting in Tel Aviv

(Sorry for the quick post of old material, but...getting ready to head to Italy for a few weeks, then to the UK, and then home to California for the holidays. Possibly Spain in-between. Chaos. The best kind of chaos, but nonetheless chaos.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Special price for you, my friend: the art of haggling

I rarely buy souvenirs.

Partly because I live out of a suitcase, but mostly because I'm broke.

These days I have to budget in a cup of coffee.  And no, I don't go to Starbucks. Otherwise this would be a legitimate thing to do. $8 a latte adds up.

British guy doesn't really buy souvenirs either. British guy just prefers to do his day-to-day shopping while we're traveling. Which is why I am very familiar with the menswear shops in Turkey and Morocco. If you want to know where to get the best deals on boxers in Casablanca or Istanbul, let me know.

This is what British guy purchased on our recent trip to Morocco:
  • One leather satchel 
  • Boxers
  • Ceramic spice container
  • Argan oil 
  • Postcards
  • Cell phone case

This is what I purchased:
  • Postcards
As you can tell, I'm a real shopper. Not that British guy is either. He wears the same pair of North Face pants every day (ok, fine, "trousers" for all you Brits giggling in the back row). I'm pretty sure he just can't be bothered to shop for things he actually needs unless he's traveling. Depending on where you're traveling, this is not such a bad idea. Shopping in Morocco and Turkey is a lot cheaper than shopping in Europe. But you have to know how to haggle. 

Haggling can be intimidating if you're not used to it. Often Westerners just want to be told a price and then--depending on the price-- either hand over their money or walk away. End of story. Haggling can seem tedious and many people approach it with a bit of trepidation. Here are some steps* to help streamline the process and make sure you get--if not a good price--at least not an over-the-top price.

Let's say you're in Morocco and you want a leather satchel.** You find one that looks nice and you enquire as to the price. The guy asks 800 dirham (roughly 80 euro or 100 USD) for it. That sounds like more than you should be paying, but you don't really know for sure. Here's what to do:

1. First off, halve his price. Whatever the asking price is, chop it in half. In this case, counter him with 400.
2. He'll probably come back with 600.
3. Sigh heavily.
4. He'll say 550.
5. Make a face.
6. He'll drop it to 500.
7. Shake your head and make a sound that conveys you still think it's too expensive.
8. He'll drop it down to 400.
9. Walk away and repeat until you have a sense of what a reasonable price is.

The best thing to do is to shop around. This will allow you to gauge what the market price is which can be one of the intimidating things about haggling. Often you've been in the country for less than 24 hours. You can barely remember what country you're in, let alone what the standard price is for a leather satchel. Go to other stalls in the market places that sell leather satchels and go through the same thing. If you can't get any of them lower than 400 dirham then chances are that's a pretty standard price for it.

Don't worry about haggling for food or hotels. DO haggle with taxi cab drivers and when shopping for anything other than food or other basic items. Basically anything you find in a grocery store, you won't need to haggle for.

If haggling really intimidates you, having a friend along to go back and forth with can make the process a little less painful. See below.

British guy: What do you think about this satchel?

Me: It's alright. I guess.

Vendor: It's 800 dirham.

British guy: 800? Hm, what do you think?

Me: I don't know. That sounds like a lot.

Vendor: Ok, ok. For you, 600.

British guy: 600?

Me: That's pretty much 60 euro. Do you really need to spend 60 euro on a leather satchel?

Vendor: It's handmade and lined with camel skin. I can give it to you for 500, but no lower.

British guy: I do like the look of it. It's perfect for carrying classified documents around.

Me: ::makes disapproving and unconvinced face::

British guy: Well, how much would you pay for it?

Me: I don't know. Probably not more than 300.

Vendor: Ok, ok. Student price. 400.

Et voilà. Or keep haggling if you're still not satisfied with the price.

A good haggler is somewhere in-between the individual who accepts the first price and the individual who will stand for hours arguing over pennies.

If you still think haggling really isn't your thing, you can always hire a personal shopper. 

And of course, it goes without saying that you should always purchase items from shops that have been previously endorsed by President Obama.

Egyptian Spice Market, Istanbul, 2009

*These steps are from my own experiences living in the West Bank, Palestine and traveling through other areas in the Middle East and North Africa. It's not meant to be a comprehensive guide to how people haggle around the world. Just the regions I've been in. If you have any stories or tips from your experiences in these or other areas, definitely post them in the comments section or drop me a line and I'll include them in the post.

**With leather bags in these areas, I would recommend choosing one that is a little bit more expensive. Often the local tanning process uses a urine-base which is fine in an arid climate, but when you get it home you'll start to notice that it smells like something died. The smell can also result from the hide being poorly preserved before the tanning process. So with leather products, I'd invest a little bit more time and money to make sure you get something that won't have all the passengers on the plane ride home looking at you in disgust. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rabat, Morocco

Of all the places we visited in Morocco, Rabat was my favorite. It was like San Diego with a Middle Eastern twist. Here are a few photos:

We wandered around the medina for a bit and walked along the old city walls.

This little kid was spying on us. Can you see him? 

Then we walked along the coast. 

Found a café at a surf school. 

I watched some kids body board for awhile. 

British guy took advantage of their free wi-fi to get in contact with M.

And...the sunset. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Alpe d'Huez: 21 turns is still 21 turns too many

If you will recall, my first encounter with Alpe d'Huez did not go very well. When I finally made it to the bottom, I was pretty sure I was not cut out to be a cyclist. Fortunately I have short-term memory loss and was back on my bike within a few days. Last week I decided to give Alpe d'Huez another try.

I didn't factor in the new pedals.

My spiffy new pedals. 

It all started a few weeks ago when British guy was in a cycling shop. He called me.

British guy: So I'm at the shop and they have pedals on sale. Which color would you prefer?

Me: Hot pink.

British guy: Your bike is blue.

Me: I want hot pink.

British guy: They don't have hot pink. And anyway, you should get pedals that match your bike. Do you want dark blue or baby blue?

Me: Do they have anything with glitter?

I ended up with baby blue pedals, which I put on my bike right before we set off to spend a weekend cycling in les Hautes Alpes.

It was crisp and clear upon our arrival in Aspres-sur-Buëch and British guy and I set out to get in a quick evening ride before meeting up with the others for dinner and drinks around the campfire.

Eager to try out the new pedals, I jumped on my bike and struggled to get into my newer (and much stiffer) pedals. After a bit of maneuvering I finally clipped in only to realize that I was now incapable of unclipping my feet from the pedals. Panicking, I wobbled to a stop and gracefully fell off my bike.

Up until that point I had the feeling that I was becoming a more accomplished cyclist. However during this entire saga, British guy hardly even looked up from fiddling with his bike which made me realize that since he's so used to the wobbling and clattering that ensues whenever I come into contact with my bike, I'm probably not as accomplished as I thought.

Oh well.

British guy loosened my new pedals as much as possible, but I still couldn't get in and out of them very easily.

In spite of this, the weekend went well with at least one long and beautiful ride in les Hautes Alpes. I managed to do the first climb without falling too far behind. Unfortunately I didn't know that it was the first climb. I was under the impression that it was the only climb. This was not British guy's fault. He explains everything in detail before we set off. The problem is that while he's explaining the route, my thought process is doing something like this....

That's a pretty map. I wonder where I can get a map like that. If I had a map like that I could be super hardcore and do lots of cycling tours on my own. There's so many squiggly lines. Oooh, a cat is pouncing on butterflies outside. That's cute. I wish I had a cat. Once I almost had a cat, but my dog tried to eat it and my Dad said we couldn't keep it so he got me a goldfish instead. And then a water snail. Andy. That was his name. 

British guy: Does that sound good?

Me: Yes. Absolutely. Let's do it. Did you know that I had a water snail named Andy when I was growing up?

British guy: Did you see on the map where we're going to cycle?

Me: Yes. We're going to cycle along one of those squiggly lines.

And that's why when we get to the top of the first pass I am under the impression that it's the only pass and then am confused as to why I find myself climbing yet another pass when there was only supposed to be one.

The top of the 2nd climb.

At any rate, we had a lovely weekend with some very cool people and the following Monday we set off for Morocco. It was two weeks before we returned to Grenoble, which was long enough for me to completely forget about the pedal incident. So when British guy suggested that we head up to Alpe d'Huez to get in one last ride before the snow hits, I eagerly agreed.

British guy decided to take a longer route going up to the top via another road while I tackled Alpe d'Huez. The plan was that we would meet up at the top and then cycle down together. British guy set off. I did a nice easy 10 kilometer warm-up and began my ascent up Alpe d'Huez. I got about 0.5 kilometers up before I remembered that I had had a really difficult time getting unclipped from my pedals. The road got steeper. Cars roared past me. I pushed and twisted as hard as I could on my pedal to see if I could unclip it. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing. I decided to give it one more try before officially panicking. It unclipped, but now I faced another problem. I couldn't clip back in. I toppled over onto the side of the road just as a car came zipping around the corner.

Not wanting to seem like an idiot, I quickly pretended that I was lying on the ground  on purpose. The car slowed down. I waved them on with a cheerful smile that said, "Don't worry. I'm on the ground because I'm supposed to be on the ground. I am an accomplished cyclist. Just fixing my bike. In the middle of the road. On the ground. Like accomplished cyclists do."

The car rounded the bend and was quickly out of sight. I tried to get back on my bike in the middle of a 9% grade. It was impossible. I decided I would push it up until I reached a flatter section of the climb where I could more easily get back on the bike without looking stupid. When you're cycling there is only one cool position. It's on the bike. Otherwise you just look like an idiot wearing a helmet with foam shoved down your neon spandex shorts. I had to get back on the bike as quickly as possible.

There was only one little problem. There was a lot of traffic, and I didn't want anyone to see me pushing my bike up so every time a car rounded the bend, I quickly bent over my bike and pretended I was adjusting the brakes. Not surprisingly my progress was slow, and by the time I reached a reasonably flat section of the road, I had had enough. I descended Alpe d'Huez with my tail between my legs.

When British guy descended an hour and a half later, he found me sunbathing in the parking lot.

British guy: What happened to you? Is everything alright?

Me: Oh yeah. I just made it up to the top so quickly that I got tired of waiting for you and decided to descend. It was pretty windy up there.

British guy: Had some trouble with the pedals again?

Me: I don't want to talk about it.

I spent the entire car ride home sulking while British guy tried not to laugh. I had intended on sulking for the remainder of the evening, but British guy strategically stopped by IKEA on the way home to pick some things up for the apartment. It's impossible to sulk in a place that has reindeer shaped pasta and free refills.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Travel Advice: items you should never travel without

Since I've traveled a lot, I thought I would include a list of items that I've found absolutely invaluable in my travels. Hope it helps.

Item #1: British guy
Indispensable for looking at maps, actually reading the guidebook, doing math, carrying everything, fixing things, and taking pictures. Speaks Italian, French and English. Is also good at being tall and therefore easy to find in a crowd. Lends jacket in cold weather. Knows a lot about geography.

British guy is reading something sophisticated.
He's holding up the "games" section for me. 

Downsides: You might find yourself spontaneously signing up for a marathon or cycling through the West Bank. Might possibly be a spy. Steals french fries.

Item #2: Running shoes
You never know when you might stumble across a marathon and feel compelled to sign up for it. 

This is how you should tie your running shoes to your pack to ensure that
they don't fall off while you're racing to catch a train in Germany. 

Downsides: You'll have to actually run the marathon. 

Item #3: Petzl Tikka Headlamp
Strobe setting. Enough said. Also you can be that annoying person reading on the plane while everyone else is trying to sleep. Go ahead. Set it on the highest setting.

I didn't have any photos of just the headlamp.
I tried to find a funny photo. I even googled "cats wearing Tikka headlamps."

Downsides: It's really hard to look sexy with a headlamp on. You'll inevitably blind people while trying to talk to them.

Item #4: Scarf
Useful for covering oneself while visiting religious sites, shielding off the sun, and escaping out the window of your hotel (I've never done this, and if I did I would probably use sheets because that's what they do in the movies. But you never know. Maybe a scarf would work). Can also double as a towel. 

It was windy. 

Downsides: Sometimes gets caught in taxi cab doors.

Item #5: Passport
Customs officials get irritated when you try to enter a country without one. Also it's no fun to travel without at least 2 or 3 items that you absolutely 100% cannot lose or you're screwed. 

For added excitement to any trip, try this: 1. Leave passports in hotel safe; 2. Forget about passports; 3. Check out of hotel; 4.Start to get on bus going to another town hours away; 5. Remember passports; 6. Sprint through town to hotel, retrieve passports, sprint back; 7. Leap dramatically onto bus with passports; 8. Spend next 10 minutes sweating profusely on parked bus while bus driver has 2nd cigarette break. 

This is what a spy's passport looks like. 

Downsides: Completely screwed if you lose it. For U.S. citizens: Hard to pretend you're Canadian while carrying travel documents emblazoned with USA on them. 

Item #6: At least 5 books
Plenty of reading material. You can finally catch up on the entire collected works of Dostoevsky.

I just wanted an excuse to reference one of
 my favorite contemporary writers

Downsides: You won't read them. You won't even look at them during the trip. You'll wonder why you even brought them. The answer to this question will elude you until you're packing for your next trip.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One of those annoying "vote for me" posts. I hate those.

So there's this contest, right? It's called "Blog Your Way Around the World." I really want to do it. Really, really want to do it. Per the contest requirements, I wrote a short essay about why people should vote for me. You can go here to vote for me or you can just enjoy the read. Either way. It's cool. Every time you vote for me a baby otter gets tickled. But if you don't want baby otters to be happy then that's your prerogative. I understand. But just FYI, this is what a baby otter looks like when it's getting tickled.  Do the right thing. 

Blog Your Way Around the World
By Nikki Hodgson   October 21, 2010
You should vote for me because I'm a famous travel writer. 

British guy (my traveling companion) said that I shouldn't exaggerate.


I'm an almost famous travel writer.

British guy said I'm still exaggerating. 

OK! I am a not-remotely-famous-at-all aspiring travel writer. But! I have other redeeming factors. 

Such as my amazing talent for getting myself into ridiculous situations. You know that friend that you keep around because she's always getting herself into some ridiculous scrape that is so unbelievably awkward that it's hilarious? Yeah. That's me. I'm that friend. 

Here are 5 titles from my blog ( to prove it: 
1. Alpe d'Huez: Why 21 turns is 21 too many
2. Toubkal: Why spontaneously signing up for a marathon is not a good idea
3. The Negev: Where there are --in fact-- no rabid coyotes
4. How Istanbul gave me an elevator complex
5. Camels: Not as cool as I thought

I also make people laugh. They're not usually laughing at the same time as I am, but these are exactly the sort of details that you should overlook. The question of whether it’s "at" or "with" me is really just a prepositional technicality. 

My last redeeming factor is that I have an Internet addiction. British guy feels that this is most decidedly not a redeeming factor. I disagree. My Internet addiction means that whether I'm running up North Africa's highest peak or not enjoying myself on a camel ride in Jordan, I always find a way to blog about it. And because I love to make people laugh, I'm always willing to make a spectacle of myself. If there's a story, I'm in. 

Also I run really fast. I know that this talent isn't really related to blogging, but it’s the thing I do best and I just want to make sure I put all my cards on the table for this one. Other talents include: eating, baking cookies, otter impersonations, showing up at the airport on time, and speaking German (and really bad French). I kayak too. And I'm really good at falling while skiing. 

I'm pretty sure that the above talents are what every travel writer needs to succeed. If you disagree it's probably because you haven't seen my otter impersonation.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hotel Horrors: A night of TENTation

After spending a few days visiting Essaouira, Safi and Oualidia, British guy and I made our way to El-Jadida, a small town on the Moroccan coast well-known for its beautiful Portuguese port (as in boats, not wine). Upon arrival we checked into the Hotel Bordeaux.

It was cheap and cheerful and all was going well until about 11:00pm when we were getting ready for bed.

Me: What is that and why did you use my CHACO FLIP TO SMASH IT?!

British guy: It was nothing.

[I wasn't going to be deterred that easily.]

Me: Was it a mosquito?

British guy: No...

Me: Was it small?

British guy: Yes. Sort of.

Me: Why are you still looking for it? Did you kill it? Oh my God. Was it a roach?!!!

It was. I tried to be philosophic about it. Really, I did. Instead of screaming and fleeing the scene I sat on the bed with my knees up to my chin and compulsively scratched every inch of bare skin. But the problem with roaches is that there is never just one. Never.

Sure enough they suddenly started surfacing behind the curtains. We went through our stuff and found them skittering along the sides of our backpacks. I suggested that we burn everything, but British guy said that was a ridiculous idea. Sometimes he feels threatened when I come up with good ideas. Or maybe he's just so used to my ideas being ridiculous that it was an automatic reaction. Or he's just attached to his Karrimor pack. It's 15 years old. He had to super glue it back together on this trip.


In reality I am certain that we only saw a total of 6 or 7 roaches. In my head however it was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There was no way I was going to sleep that night. I planned to stand in the middle of the room all night armed with one of British guy's shoes (I'm not killing them with my shoe. That's gross) and whatever pesticide spray I could find at 11:00p.m. in El-Jadida Morocco. Nevermind that I am an environmentalist. These are roaches we're talking about. Roaches. I don't care what sort of chemicals are in that spray as long as it results in a dead bug. And there was no way I was turning any of the lights off. That's when they get you.

Our original intention had been to camp along the coast, but the pouring rain had driven us to this hotel. The roaches as well it seemed. It was a nice enough hotel, but it was a budget hotel. At 13 euro a night for a double room we could hardly complain and the admonition "you get what you pay for" rang in my ears.

I bemoaned the fact that we wouldn't be sleeping safely in a 0.5 person tent far away from roach infested hotels.

British guy suggested pitching the tent on the bed in the hotel room.

Sometimes he has really good ideas.

Except that two people in a 0.5 person tent with only one little mesh panel in a tiny hotel room in a very warm climate is only slightly more comfortable than sleeping in a bed with no sheets in a roach infested hotel. It was the equivalent of sleeping in a sauna wrapped in non-breathable nylon. This particular tent is not a stand-alone tent and despite the fact that we tied it as best we could (well, British guy did. I stood in the center of the room and made sure that no roaches touched me) the tent kept sagging lower and lower until it was basically a bivy sack. And then there was the TV stand. Personally I would gladly have foregone a TV (it was the only hotel we stayed at that had one) in favor of a roach-free sleeping environment, but it seems that the hotel management did not share this sentiment.

Once we (British guy) had the tent set up, we climbed in and it was only then that I realized we were sleeping directly below the TV stand protruding from the wall.

Me: Do you think it's safe to be sleeping under the TV stand?

British guy: What?

Me: Well what if it collapses. We'll be killed instantly or severely maimed at the very least.

British guy: I don't think the TV stand is going to collapse.

Me: This hotel has roaches. Anything could happen.

At this point British guy got up and out of the tent to check to see if the TV stand was securely fastened to the wall. It was. But I still had nightmares about rogue TV stands falling out of the sky while being chased by rabid coyotes in the Negev (There aren't any. But it never hurts to double check).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Camels: Not as cool as I thought

 I don't like camels.

I'm about two seconds away from spitting at you. Stupid human.

1. They're mean.
2. They spit.
3. I can't think of a third reason. Probably because hatred is usually justified by false information and ridiculous exaggeration. Meaning that I don't have any real reason to hate camels. I just do. I was trying to give you reasons so you would think "Ah, yes. That makes sense. I can see now why she hates camels." Now you just think I'm a bigoted, species-ist camel-hater. 

I wasn't always this way. 

In fact, I was once extremely excited about camels. When I was 11 my Dad took me on a llama pack trip. That should just about sum up my childhood experience. At any rate, during this particular father-daughter trip, I had a llama named Roger who was really cute and sweet and I somehow figured that all camels would be exactly like Roger the llama. Llamas=sort of remotely related to camels therefore one nice llama = all camels are nice. Look, logic really isn't my thing. I prefer to go blithely through life making all sorts of ridiculous assumptions about camels. 

Prior to living in the Middle East I had never actually been in the proximity of a camel. I might have seen one once at a zoo, but I can't be sure. I was charmed by the camels standing on the side of the road everywhere I went in the West Bank. In fact, I was surprised to see so many camels. Everywhere I looked there were little clusters of docile looking ungulates. It was like showing up in the jungle and going "OH MY GOD! YOU GUYS, LOOK AT THE MONKEYS. IN THE TREES! I TOTALLY THOUGHT THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL WAS JUST MAKING THAT SHIT UP! MY WHOLE UNIVERSE JUST EXPANDED."

That's how I felt about seeing camels everywhere in the desert. 

I could not wait to get on one. But I didn't want to have just any camel-riding experience so I snubbed the camels hanging out at the gas station waiting to take tourists on an exotic trek around the Shell station parking lot. If I was going to get on a camel, I wanted nothing less than a 2-day trek in the desert so that I could realistically pretend to be Lawrence of Arabia. If you go on a camel trek in the Middle East and DON'T pretend to be Lawrence of Arabia you are failing at life. Individuals who go to Petra and don't pretend to be Indiana Jones also fall under this category. 

After living in the West Bank for nearly 4 months, I finally got my chance. I made plans to head to Jordan with two friends to go on a two-day camel trek in Wadi Rum. My Australian friend had been on a camel trek before and she tried to warn me. But because she's an awesome Aussie with an "anything goes" attitude, she was willing to go ahead with it even though she knew the tortures that lay ahead (I may be slightly exaggerating in referring to a camel trek as torture, but only slightly). 

After a few days in Petra we made our way to Wadi Rum. 

I couldn't believe I was so close to realizing my long-awaited adventure. There just before my eyes stood three camels awaiting us. 

But....three camels. There were three of us and one guide. That equals four. But there were only three camels. I couldn't comprehend how the guide was going to keep up with me and my camel galloping across the desert. 

That question was answered within 30 seconds of getting on the camel. 

Camels don't gallop. 

Camels do not do anything that falls under the category of "moving quickly." 

A camel's gate is the definition of "plod." When I envisioned a camel trek I did not envision plodding through the desert for two days on a spitting ungulate (new favorite word) who is adorned not with a cushioned saddle, but with a piece of wood that looks like an upside down V placed on the camel's hump and has a few cushions lashed on for good measure. Saddle sores like you wouldn't believe. To make matters worse we were spread out on our camels so we couldn't actually pass the time by talking to one another. Our guide didn't speak any English. And there was no Wi-Fi so I couldn't obsessively update my Twitter to give everyone a play-by-play account of how bored I was. Also I think my camel was kind of slow on the uptake. I think camels are generally kind of slow on the uptake, but mine especially. I'm pretty sure they gave me the "special" camel. I'm still trying not to take that personally.

After what seemed like an eternity we reached our Bedouin-style campground for the night. 

It was spectacular. We sat in silence on red rocks watching the sun set and the stars rise. After dinner we spent hours sitting around a campfire staring up at the kind of night sky you can only see in the desert. 

And the camels? 

They were tethered off in the distance...which is how I've come to appreciate camels. Tethered. At a distance. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Toubkal: The movie

I made probably the most badass* video you will ever see of Toubkal.

It's that good.

* By badass I mean a really shady amateur video of the race I wrote about here. I'm posting it in lieu of an actual post. It's Sunday. I'm pretty sure God said something about not working. He might have also said something about not working Monday-Saturday too. The Bible is technically just a summary. It could be the Cliff Notes version of what really happened. What if God really said "Nobody work. Ever." and someone got lazy and instead wrote "Don't work Sundays. Or Saturdays." I'm going to stay unemployed just to be on the safe side. Check back tomorrow for a story about camels. Or the Great Roach Fiasco of October 2010. Or maybe something entirely different.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Toubkal: Why spontaneously signing up for a marathon is not a good idea

Remember when I said that I often become so enthusiastic about things that I lose touch with what I can and cannot do? 



It happened again. 

Something is wrong with me. Seriously, seriously wrong. All signs point toward insanity. What else would inspire an otherwise rational person (questionable...) to spontaneously sign up for a mountain marathon up North Africa's highest peak without training? I didn't even have any running shorts with me. Or a water bottle. And I still somehow thought that this was going to turn out well. 

After a day and a half spent wandering around Marrakech, British guy and I decided to head to the Atlas mountains. 

The Atlas Mountains

Within an hour and a half, we arrived at the Moroccan mountain village of Imlil. As we stepped out of the taxi my vision of a quiet mountain village was completely shattered. Red Bull and PowerBar banners flew, dance music blared, and groups of runners clad in varying shades of neon stood around chattering excitedly. 

British guy and I had unwittingly stumbled upon a trail running marathon up the Toubkal. With 42 kilometers (26 miles), 3,313 meter (10,869 feet) total ascent and three climbs, it was dubbed the hardest trail marathon. 

There was no getting around it.

We had to do it. 

Except that we only had enough cash to pay the race fees and get back down to Marrakech. There were no banks in this town. Either we used all of our money to pay the registration fees for the race or we spent a few comfortable days in Imlil sleeping inside and eating at restaurants. 

We signed up for the race. 

We handed over the combination of Dirham and Euros that we had cobbled together and then spent the subsequent waning hours of daylight borrowing missing equipment (like running shorts), and ignoring any rational arguments about whether or not this was a sensible idea. 

We pitched the tent and set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. 

With 9 years of competitive running under my belt and a stint as a member of the U.S. junior mountain running team I knew exactly what  I was getting into and I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. But I couldn't say no. I couldn't turn down the adventure. This inability to say no gets me into a lot of trouble.

At 4:30 a.m. the alarm went off, followed closely by the call to prayer. I threw on my borrowed running tights (which were too big and kept falling down), a long-sleeved Icebreaker shirt (a staple travel item for me), and my 15 euro (21 USD) Decathlon running shoes (I lost my expensive trail running shoes while racing to catch a train in Germany and I'm too broke to buy new ones. Note: Don't tie expensive running shoes to the outside of your backpack. Especially if you're too broke to buy new ones). 

British guy and I grabbed everything we thought we might need for 42 kilometers (26 miles) in the mountains and headed to the starting line. The sun hadn't yet risen and the stars were still faintly twinkling. The air was fresh and cool and because I've always loved races, I was excited. 

Imlil. Start of the race. 

We set off. 

The first 10K (6 miles) and the first big climb went well. We had a good pace and I had at least been training for this distance. At the first food and water station, we grabbed some tea and cookies and kept climbing up alongside waterfalls. 

First food and water station. Thanks for the cookies guys. 

I thought we were pretty close to the top and was in high spirits. Except as it turns out we were nowhere near the top. And as we rounded a bend, I saw this. 

This photo was taken from the top. You can faintly see the trail switchbacking.
We ran up this. I use the verb "run" very loosely.

The altitude (3500 meter/ 11482 feet) grabbed me by the ankles. I felt as if I was walking through water...underwater even. I took slow deliberate steps and deep breaths and cursed myself repeatedly for being such a sucker for an adventure. 

At the second pass the trail dipped down along the ridge spilling into the valley and winding its way to the 2nd food and water station at the base of Toubkal. It was stunning. Unfortunately I was too busy coaxing my muscles and lungs into operation to really appreciate the magnitude of this spectacular mountain range. But the pictures look nice. British guy and I split a Red Bull (hey, it was free) and continued onto the réfuge*--which kept moving farther and farther away like some twisted optical illusion. 

Réfuge at the base of Toubkal

The trail was rocky and the loose rocks and gravel made each step a delicate dance with gravity. British guy totally wiped out. Ok, fine. It was me. 

We made it to the réfuge as the first runners were coming back down from the summit. I ate some cookies. And then some peanuts, a banana, some other fruit, almonds, chocolate, tea, coke, and then some more cookies. I'd never run a marathon before. I was an 800 meter runner. The longest race I'd run before this endeavor was a 10K (6 miles). I watched the other runners approach the food station. They barely stopped as they grabbed a cup of water and perhaps an orange slice. Apparently you're not supposed to treat the food stations like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. I felt mildly self-conscious, but luckily the feeling didn't last too long. I grabbed another cookie. And a banana. 

Food and water station. We kept getting stuck behind the mules. 

I often get myself into some pretty interesting and hilarious scrapes, but I haven't died yet (YET) because I (usually) know when enough is enough. I desperately wanted to run up to the summit just so I could say I completed a trail running marathon without training (stupid). But I would have been miserable and exhausted and it could have been dangerous. Also my hands had begun to swell at an alarming rate. I looked like I was suffering from some sort of Harry Potter inspired curse. I reluctantly--but gratefully-- decided to scrap the summit and head back to the village.

Because British guy is British guy, he stayed with me through the whole race even though he is fit enough to have gone further and faster. British guy's idea of a good time is an Ironman. I'm just waiting for him to suggest a weekend excursion to cycle up Everest and then ski down. During which time he'll master the local language. I'm 99.9% sure that British guy is a spy. 

I gave Toubkal one last look, grabbed some more cookies, and we headed down the valley and back to Imlil with Toubkal rising up behind us. 

As we approached the final food station I got excited and started talking about cookies. In detail. I spent at least 5 minutes  explaining the difference between biscuits and cookies and lamenting the fact that Europe doesn't have any good cookies. British guy didn't contribute much to this conversation. I guess he doesn't have strong opinions about cookies. 

After 30K (18 miles), 2 climbs, 2300 meter (7545 feet) total elevation gain, and at least 3 dozen cookies we reached Imlil. I already have an unhealthy obsession with Chaco flips, but I was so happy to put my feet back into flip flops that I nearly cried. Here is what my feet looked like:


So I didn't finish the marathon, but I had a hell of a good time and got some free cookies out of it. In my book, that's a successful adventure (in my book anything involving cookies is a success), but next time I run a marathon, I'll train for it. Promise. 

*A réfuge is the French term for a mountain hut. When the French refer to refuges, they're referring to something that looks like this.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You should travel to Morocco if you...

1. enjoy the adrenaline rush of narrowly escaping horrific traffic accidents.

2. like cats. Really like cats.

3. want to eat well. Couscous, tagines, fresh vegetables, fresh seafood, delicious pastries. In the words of British guy: Fish straight from the sea. Meat straight from the mountains. --> He insists on being poetic because he's so high-brow.

4. are obsessed (or want to become obsessed) with avocado juice.

5. think toilet paper is superfluous.

6. enjoy 4 lumps of sugar with your espresso.

7. want to climb (or run a marathon up) the highest peak in North Africa.

8. like shopping and haggling.

9. enjoy being hassled by shady men.

10. want to experience a country that is a complex mix of tradition and modernity.

**Back to regular posting on Thursday. Lots of good stories including spontaneously signing up for a marathon and setting up a tent inside of a hotel**

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The three hour airport arrival rule

I like to think that I'm laid-back and to some extent I'm sure that my travels and life experiences have mellowed me out a little bit, but the truth is that I'm actually quite high-strung.

Example A: I hate being late to the airport.

Late = Less than three hours before my flight departs.

I have always been this way. Because my parents were divorced, I flew with relative frequency between San Jose and Orange County, California. Usually my mom would take me to the airport, but occasionally my aunt would take me instead.

My aunt does not share my "arrive at airport three hours before flight departure" philosophy. She is more of the "as long as you show up before the plane lifts off the ground, you're fine" philosophy. I have nothing against this philosophy. In an effort to be more relaxed I have even tried to embrace it. But it's no use. Around four hours before my flight departs, my heart begins beating faster, my breathing becomes shallow and rapid, my fingers tap incessantly and everything in my body screams, "LEAVE FOR AIRPORT NOW OR YOU WILL MISS YOUR FLIGHT." My subconscious is ever so slightly dramatic.

Even at the age of eight this behavior had begun to manifest itself. Three hours before my flight I would look anxiously at the clock and sigh loudly as my aunt fed the dog or did the dishes. Two hours before, I would begin to hyperventilate. With one hour to go I would be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Out of pity for my frail nervous system my aunt and cousin would pile into the car. My aunt would nonchalantly mention that she needed to stop by the bank and it would only take a second because it was on the way. I would panic. With thirty minutes to go we would be pulling into the airport parking lot and I would be poised to grab my bags and sprint through John Wayne Airport as soon as the car slowed down enough for me to leap out. All the while my inner monologue would be screaming that the plane had already left...surely they had already locked the doors. But no. I always arrived at the gate with time to spare. I have, in fact, never missed a flight as a result of showing up late to the airport.

There is only one other person I have ever met who shares my "terrified of being late and missing the flight" syndrome. She is my best friend, one of my favorite traveling companions, and probably the only person on the planet who does not judge me when five hours before the flight departs, I look at the clock and say, "i guess we should probably head to the airport now." She is usually already in the car saying, "we should probably leave six hours before so that we have time to stop at Peet's coffee." I'm pretty sure we were separated at birth.

If you really want to gauge your relationship with someone you should travel with them. Traveling, much like tandem sea kayaks, will make or break a relationship. Guaranteed.

While I would never want to be in a double kayak with him (I don't care who you are, that's just a bad idea), British guy and I travel well together. He doesn't share my airport arrival philosophy, but I can overlook this because he helps carry my stuff (re: he carries all of it) and he also likes to purchase a copy of The Economist to read on the plane. And he doesn't mind when I want my own seat on the bus so I can stare out the window while listening to my iPod and imagining myself accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Well he doesn't know that I imagine that. I guess he does now.

He also puts up very diplomatically with my travel foibles. They are as follows:

1. I don't really enjoy going to visit tourist sites.
2. I'm not a big fan of guided tours. In fact, they send me running.
3. I tend to tune out when my traveling companions read out of the guide book while we wander around the city/church/museum/historical site. Unless they do it in a  funny accent. Then I enjoy it.
4. I am a food snob. I don't mean that I'm picky about what I eat, but I am fussy about where. I have a knack for finding good restaurants. I once dragged my poor friend, Ryan, through Florence for hours in search of the perfect restaurant even though he had injured himself and was limping pathetically courageously behind me. But he did eat well that night. Although it might have come at the expense of his knee.
5. I have this really, really annoying tendency to not look at a map and instead insist on wandering aimlessly around figuring that I'll find where I need to be eventually. This is ridiculous and annoying and is completely worthy of being slapped upside the head with a Lonely Planet Guide. Preferrably the Europe one. You're welcome Lonely Planet. Your sales for that particular guide just skyrocketed.

British guy also entertains me. Admittedly this is not difficult to do, but it definitely comes in handy when our Easyjet flight to Morocco is four hours late and we're stuck sitting in the Lyon airport. Because British guy knows when to listen to me and when to slap me upside the head with a Lonely Planet Guide,* we did not arrive at the Lyon airport three hours before our scheduled flight departure and --as a result-- only spent five hours sitting at the airport instead of eight.

*British guy objected to this. He says that he wouldn't hit me in the head with a guidebook as a teaspoon is far more effective.

**Excuse the typos. Typing on a French keyboard in Morocco.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Jimmy Buffet Justification (It's 5 o'clock somewhere)

To say that I absolutely positively loathe flying with all of my heart is an understatement. A major understatement. The first thing I do when I board the plane is start counting down how long until I can get off of it. I also look for the nice looking flight attendant who will give me an extra dose of vodka. I'm not normally a huge fan of hard liquor, but when I'm on a plane I drink enough to put a sailor to shame.

There is a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco International Airport. I always stop there when I'm flying out of SF  and order flautas and a gin and tonic. The bartender knows me. It's embarrassing.

Flying is nothing new. My parents divorced when I was quite young and my family is scattered across the U.S. I've been flying alone since I was a very little girl. (British guy reminded me that I'm still little. Fine. When I was very young.) I used to love flying. I loved the view. The peanuts. The clouds. The soda (which normally I wasn't really allowed to drink, but nobody told the flight attendant that). I even loved the turbulence. For me it was the equivalent of a ride at a theme park. I was not afraid because I trusted my parents. I trusted that they since they let me get on the plane then surely nothing bad would happen. My parents loved me. They protected me. I trusted that. End of story.

But at some point, I stopped trusting that everything would work out.

I became afraid.

Very afraid.

And now I'm sitting here thinking that I have to get on a plane to Morocco in a few hours and wondering when the earliest acceptable time for drinking is. Noon? But what if I put orange juice in it? 10:00 a.m.? That's in two minutes. I'm going to go with that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Morocco Bound

British guy: Do you want to go to Morocco?

Me: Yes.

British guy: Ok.

And that's how we ended up booking tickets to go to Morocco for roughly two weeks.

We leave Monday, the 4th.

That's tomorrow. You were probably already aware of that because you are not calendar-challenged individuals.

For some reason we both thought our flight was on Tuesday. We realized yesterday that our flight is, in fact, on Monday. This still would have left plenty of time to pack and organize, but we decided to spend the weekend cycling around les Hautes-Alpes.

So now it's Sunday evening, and neither of us have packed. We have a hotel booked for two nights in Marrakech. We're staying 10 nights

This is the itinerary:

Day 1: Fly to Morocco. Read guide book on plane. Realize we didn't bring any of the right things. Vow to be more responsible travelers on the next trip. Arrive in Marrakech. Haul baggage around, argue with taxi driver about price from airport to city center, get lost looking for hotel. Hate Morocco. Finally find hotel. Get food. Love Morocco.

Day 2: Find mountain biking shop. Rent mountain bikes. Explore [insert the very interesting things we will read about in guide book on plane] in Marrakech.

Day 4-Day 9: Maybe do some mountain biking in the Atlas Mountains. Sleep in tent because it's cheaper than hotel. Maybe go up to the North and cross into Spain and then spend the next week month forever wandering around Spain. Or maybe head to the Coast. Or maybe just stay in the mountains. Or maybe go to Fez. Or maybe not. Eat delicious food. Try very hard not to get food poisoning, but realize that no trip is a trip without food poisoning. Sigh.

Day 10: Casablanca. Spend the entire day quoting Casablanca (the film) to British guy. Get thrown in fountain by British guy.

Day 11: Fly back to France. Unless we decide to go through Spain. Then see above.
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