Friday, December 31, 2010

Kittens in Casablanca

I have sorely neglected my blog over the holidays. Come the New Year, I will be back to regularly scheduled blogging. Partly because the holidays will be over, and partly because I will be back in France with British guy and it's not going to take too long before he drags me on some blog-worthy adventure. I think he signed me up for a ski mountaineering race. I can't be sure. I try not to think about these things till it's too late to back out.

Speaking of adventures with British guy, here are a few photos of kittens in Casablanca to tide you over till next year.

We arrived in Casablanca after a night spent in El-Jadida. Happily, our hotel (unlike the previous night) was not infested with roaches. British guy checked while I hovered in the background ready to make a quick getaway if any were found. It was a nice hotel, if not strangely decorated. The doors to all the rooms were padded on both sides.

But the breakfast was good (always a plus in my book) and we had a balcony overlooking a bike repair shop. While watching the man tinker with one of the bikes, we suddenly noticed that the bikes were covered with...kittens.

With their mother hovering nearby, the kittens were having a field day bounding from the handlebars of one bike to the basket of another. 

See the one on the handlebars investigating everything? That's British guy. 

See the one safely sleeping on the mud guard of the back tire? That's me. 

Now, see the girl locked out of the hotel room because British guy thought it would be funny to lock her out on the balcony while she was watching kittens? That's me.

I'll be back to more regular posting soon.

In the meantime, here are some guest posts I did for The Purple Passport.

Café du Livre (Marrakech, Morocco)

Meze-merized in Istanbul (Istanbul, Turkey)

Soaking in the Flavors at Burma Superstar (San Francisco, California)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How to spend 3 days in Rome with 85 euros

I was visiting Italy for the third time in two years, and frankly my neglect of Rome was just becoming embarrassing. The problem was not a lack of desire, but rather a lack of finances. Sitting on my friend's couch in a small town outside of Venice, I flipped open my wallet to find a staggering 85 euros.

I reviewed my options for visiting Rome with such an extravagant sum of money.

Partly because I wanted to see if I could do it and mostly because that's all the money I had. 

Option 1: Pay entrance fees and visit all things of historical and religious significance. Don't eat. Sleep on the streets.
Pros: Will become more cultured and able to slip things like "Well, when I was visiting the Vatican..." into conversations.
Cons: Might starve to death. Cardboard box not very comfortable. 

Option 2: Stay in cheapest hostel available. Eat nothing but pizza. Walk around everything without going inside anything. Limit gelato intake to 1  2  3 cones a day.
Pros: Place to sleep. Will not starve to death.
Cons: Will not get to sound cultured at cocktail parties. Sore feet from walking too much. Only 3 cones of gelato per day.

Option 3: Spend three days eating gelato. Sleep in train station.
Pros: Gelato
Cons: Copious amounts of gelato could result in love handles. Train stations very drafty. 

Option 1 lost its appeal when I stepped outside of the train station. A giant clap of thunder erupted from the clouds followed by hard pellets of frigid rain. Committing myself to option 2, I took the bus across town to the Orsa Maggiore women's hostel. Sorry guys. This is for ladies only. 

The hostel isn't too tricky to find, but if you take the bus (1 euro), you'll have to walk a bit. If you have a wheeled suitcase, it will likely lose the will to live as you drag it over half a mile of cobblestone.

The hostel, located in Trastevere, offers all of my most basic requirement for survival. It's clean, right above a bar, has free wi-fi and includes breakfast. 

The total for three nights came to 30 euros. Pulling out my travel journal, I meticulously subtracted that amount from my 85 euro budget. That left 55 euro for the next three days. Taking a deep breath and pulling a map from a stack near the front desk, I retired to my room and mapped out an itinerary. 

As I planned my onslaught of all things pizza and gelato-related in Rome, the rain continued to hammer relentlessly against the window.

I dumped the entire contents of my suitcase into the bottom of the locker assigned to me and waited for the rain to dissipate.

Eventually I got tired of waiting. Shrugging my raincoat over my shoulders, I marched out of the hostel determined to become more familiar with Rome, one gelateria at a time.

But I forgot the map. Which turned out to be a little bit of a problem.

Spotting a sign for the colosseum, I left the riverbank, skirting around buildings and trying to stay under the eaves in a last-ditch effort to remain dry. I spent 15 minutes standing underneath a tree before I decided that I didn't really want to see the colosseum. What I really wanted to see was dinner.

I scrutinized every pizzeria I walked by before succumbing to the one with the cutest server. Under the watchful eyes of the gorgeous man behind the counter, I devoured my first slice of Roman pizza. Subtracting 3 euro (I splurged on a Fanta) from the tally in my travel journal, I walked back out into the pouring rain with 52 euro left in my wallet.

After a pathetic attempt to window shop in the rain, I darted into a grocery store. Shaking the rain from my hair and coat, I grabbed a basket and spent the next 45 minutes wandering down every aisle in this miniscule corner market. I walked out with the following: (1) bottle of water; (1) salad; (1) package of mozzarella; (1) bag of chips; (1) packet of cookies; (1) tube of children's toothpaste (it was the smallest AND it had a dinosaur on it); and (1) super absorbent dishtowel (I forgot my towel and didn't want to borrow one from the hostel. I don't know...just go with it).

The total came to 8 euros and 56 cents. Although I now had cookies in my possession I was down to 43 euro and 44 cents. I consoled myself with one cup of kiwi gelato, and retired to the hostel with 41 euro and 44 cents in my pocket and two more days in Rome.

The next morning brought tolerable weather. Grabbing my map and my journal, I set out to find the pantheon.

I found it. Very impressive. Also impressive was the small café (caffè Tazza d'Oro) around the corner where I enjoyed an espresso (1 euro).

And even more impressive was San Crispino, a phenomenal gelateria just down the street from the Treviso Fountain.

 I tried the basil, pine nut, ricotta with chocolate chips, and ginger gelato. Go ahead. Judge me. I don't care. It was amazing.

It was also expensive (7 euros) so for dinner I sat in my room munching on my salad from the night before while my eccentric Aussie roommate expounded on all of the wonderful attributes of my country. I think I nodded in all of the right places.

My third day in Rome dawned bright and clear. I had visited St. Peter's the previous day and from there I  jumped on city bus #116. For 1 euro, this small bus makes its way past most of the city's main tourist attractions. Having seen a good portion of the city already-- including the previously elusive colosseum--I decided to devote the majority of my last day in Rome to exploring the neighborhood around my hostel.

This was my favorite part. I spent the morning across the river wandering around the farmer's market before heading to the pizzeria Frontoni for lunch.

Sitting at a small table, I savored a beer and two slices of pizza (6 euros) before slipping back out onto the quiet streets of this quaint quarter of Rome.

Enjoying an espresso (1 euro)  in the dark corners of a comfortable café, I stared out the window for an hour before ambling over to a bar to enjoy a glass of wine (3.50).

Eventually, hungry and in danger of freezing to death, I stumbled into Alle Fratte di Trastevere for a pleasant dinner at a cozy table looking out onto the street (15 euros).

Yeah, that's right. I spent the entirety of my last day in Rome eating and drinking. I didn't see one single tourist attraction. But sitting in the dusky light outside a small café in view of the Basilica di Santa Maria, I wasn't feeling any pangs of regret.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Budget Hammam: Not my best idea

If I could, I would spend a good portion of my life wrapped in Turkish towels with cucumber slices over my eyes and a masseuse coercing my muscles into a relaxed and pliant state. In light of this, it's not very surprising that before even setting foot in Morocco, I had already decided to dedicate at least one afternoon to visiting a Hammam.

After spontaneously signing up to run a marathon up Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, the Hammam experience became more of a necessity. My legs had staged a coup d'état and I had no choice but to give into their demands and seek out a massage as quickly as possible.

Toubkal Marathon

So following our impromptu mountain marathon adventure, British guy and I headed to Essaouira: a beautiful--albeit extremely touristy--town on the Moroccan coast.

British guy in Essaouira

It's also a popular spot for kite-surfing, and British guy was looking forward to a few sessions of being bounced across the waves like a rag-doll. Actually, that's what happens when I go kite-surfing. Which is why I decided not to join British guy. I intended to park my backside on the beach and not get up until I could move my legs without pain.

Unfortunately we awoke the next morning to pouring rain and poor surf conditions. Perfectly content to change my plans, I set out to find a Hammam, and because he had nothing better to do, British guy tagged along.

We passed a variety of lovely, relaxing and pleasant-looking Hammams before budget constraints directed us instead toward a 10 euro all-inclusive Hammam experience.

Unless you want to be prodded and kneaded and scrubbed within an inch of your life, I don't recommend this option.

If we had known what we were getting into, we probably would have walked the other way or invested money into a more upscale Hammam package, but since we didn't, I waved good-bye to British guy and ducked behind a curtain. Stripping down to my bathing suit, I placed all of my clothing into a basket and handed it to the woman behind the counter.

"Please, go," she said, gesturing toward a few stairs in front of a small door.

I hesitantly pushed the door open and found myself in a dark two-room cave. Plastic lawn chairs stood askew next to a cement basin of water. Steam rose in curling tendrils.

A collection of red plastic buckets were stacked in the corner. I smiled at another woman already sitting in one of the plastic chairs, and sat two seats away from her.

Everything was dark and heavy, but the temperature had not yet become oppressive. It felt sultry and welcoming; a heat so tangible, its velvety touch embraced me. Droplets of sweat collected in the creases and folds of my body before sliding down in winding rivulets.

The woman and I sat in silence. Minutes passed. I stared at the ceiling where beads of water had collected, reflecting what little light shined from small lamps along the walls.

Another woman walked in. Dressed in a one-piece bathing suit with the top pulled down, she grabbed  a bucket and dipped it into the basin of water. Swinging it back to the floor with an air of familiarity, she beckoned me toward her.

After dousing me with buckets of hot water, she motioned me to lie down on a rectangular marble table in the next room.

Dipping a rough loofah into a bucket of soapy water, she began to scrub the first layer of skin off of me. I could feel the shade of pink I was going to be for the next few days. Pouring a bucket of water over me to rinse off the soap, she began kneading my throbbing calf muscles. Her breasts hung heavily, gently swinging forward whenever she moved across me to pour more Argan oil into her hands. The whole experience was reminiscent of childhood. A matriarch moving heavily over you as she repeats the bath-time routine of a dozen children and a thousands nights. Her hands are moving over you, but her mind is somewhere else.

Occasionally she tapped me, indicating the direction I should move. Flip over, stand up, come this way, sit down. A morse code of gentle shoulder taps.

The marble slabs are slippery, and I slid as I sat up. She laughed. The only sound I heard her utter. A gentle nudge toward the plastic chairs and I lowered myself carefully onto one. A pool of tepid water had collected and it felt refreshing in comparison to the heavy heat hanging over me, pressing down on my chest. I breathed deeply and deliberately, slowly sipping down oxygen.

Desperately uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat and wondered how much longer I would be expected to sit there. Suddenly, the woman who had scrubbed me down walked briskly toward me and threw a bucket of cold water over my head. I gasped. She smiled and I smiled back at her. It felt delicious.

I continued to sit there for longer than I would have liked. The minutes dragged by before I was eventually summoned back outside and handed my clothes. They stuck to my skin as I pulled them on. All I wanted now was a cold shower and a gallon of gatorade.

Walking back outside I found British guy waiting for me.

"So, how was it on your side?" I asked.

"Enh. Okay. Not very relaxing. Felt a bit like a piece of meat. You?"

"Yeah. Same."

The rain had stopped and we walked slowly back to the hotel. Children chased each other through alleyways; flea-bitten cats stretched themselves out under brightly colored displays of shoes, scarves, jewelry and spices; vendors waved to attract our attention.

I closed my eyes against the brightness of Morocco and all I could see was the woman in the Hammam, still moving slowly and deliberately through the heat, rubbing oil across tired skin and splashing cold water against her face.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An excerpt from my travel journal...

[Yesterday I bought a new travel journal, and as I am about to retire my old one, I thought I would snag the last entry I wrote in it before I put it to rest.]

Cornwall, ©Nikki Hodgson 

Dated: 29.11.2010 

Yesterday I sat on my suitcase in between the train carriages watching England slip past me in a series of verdant pastures scattered with puffy cloud-shaped sheep and sturdy farmhouses topped with smoking chimneys. Shaggy ponies cantered around in skittish zigzags amid uneven clumps of lush foliage.

I flipped the pages of a novel while munching on a homemade ham and cheese sandwich.

My life now is a complicated series of very simple experiences; humble scraps stitched together into an elaborate quilt.  

I thought of you and the haiku my life has become because of you. All fragmented thoughts and uneven punctuation. But beautiful nonetheless.

My entire life has been a love affair with the written word. My childhood spent climbing trees to read in peace. Then, as I grew older, escaping to coffee shops. Writing in hardbound journals and occasionally jotting thoughts on scraps of napkins; a modified poetic canvas.  

I stepped back from that dream, but I am not quite willing—it appears—to abandon it. Now I am caught in the cross-fire of what I wanted and what I thought I wanted. 

So I sit in a small cottage on the Cornish coast trying to reconcile the two desires. Tits and sparrows flit about the window—all feathers and sharp sudden bursts of flight. A robin perches on the windowsill, hopping back and forth, head and tail waggling. The sea is spread flat in the background—like butter on toast—the water smoothed over by an unseen knife.

The view sends me back in time, skimming the surface of Humboldt County’s grey lagoons, the lines running through the blocks as the wind fills the sails.
And the cormorants stand on purple rocks with outstretched wings.
Later I will stand on the shore in a similar fashion;
an open embrace for
an ocean seething
whispering waves of folded jade.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Learning to ski in the Alps: Part II

This is the Part II to this post. 

With one ski precariously placed in an ice-crusted track from an earlier skier and my leg shaking so badly that I couldn’t get my other ski on, I was as certain as I have ever been that I was moments away from falling to my death—or at least something similarly painful.

It was the second day of my first backcountry ski trip, and things had been going moderately well up to this point.

This was taken in the very beginning. I can tell because I'm still smiling.
Poor naive little soul

Well, that’s not entirely true.

British guy had already had to come back and rescue me at least once, but as I looked across at the slope we now needed to traverse and then down at the rocky drop-off below, my stomach churned and my legs were shaking so violently that it seemed physically impossible to take even one step forward. I didn’t see how British guy could get me out of this.

Seeing as how I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown,
I didn't take any photos of what we went down. This is the side we went up.

I looked over my shoulder at the mountain hut we had just left. I could just go back there, I thought. I can stay there until the snow melts in approximately 4 months and then I can hike safely down.

At the mountain hut

It sounded like a fantastic plan to me.

British guy didn’t think so, but then British guy thinks being on a drop-off and about to fall to your death is something akin to fun so I seriously question his judgment.

Turning around with a graceful kick-turn, he skied back down to me.

I was crying, shaking, and I only had one ski on.

He leaned down and pushed the front of my boot down, snapping it easily into the binding.

Now I had two skis on. But I was still shaking. And crying.

Any degree of dignity I had left was shrinking as rapidly as my courage.

I didn’t care.

I just wanted my mom.

Who, thankfully, had no idea that I was halfway down a slope in the middle of the French Alps. Otherwise a minimum of five search and rescue helicopters would have already been circling around.

Still standing next to me, British guy tried to offer some words of comfort. If British guy is any indication, the British aren’t very good at this sort of thing.

British guy: You’re not going to die if you fall. You might badly injure yourself, but you’ll live.

Me: How badly do you think I would hurt myself? Like on a scale of 1-10. 10 being death and 1 being a blister.

British guy: Look, I’ll ski right alongside you. If you fall, I’ll stop you.

Me: No, you won’t. I’ll fall and then knock you over and then we’ll both fall to our deaths.

British guy: We’re not going to fall to our deaths.

Me: We might. Anything is possible.

British guy: Yes, I suppose --in theory-- anything is possible.

Me: So you do admit that it’s possible?

He evaded this question by suggesting that we continue skiing down, as the snow conditions were only getting worse.

If you’ve ever watched a child wobbling alongside its parent, taking small uneven steps and occasionally toppling to the ground, then you know exactly what I looked like trying to ski alongside British guy.

I shuffled my skis, sliding one carefully in front of the other, and then repeating this motion. Utilizing this technique I found that I was moving, and not falling. This was good. Very good.

But then I started going faster.

Muscles I didn’t even know I had tensed as my skis teetered over bumps and contours in the snowpack, launching my body weight anywhere but over my skis.

British guy suggested that I bend my knees a little bit more and relax my body.

I told him to shut-up.

As the slope evened out and I began to breathe again, I felt guilty for telling British guy to shut-up. Promising God, the Universe, Buddha, Zeus, and anyone else with any kind of influence up there that I would apologize for my actions if I made it down alive, I slowly skidded across the slope in a series of awkward and uneven turns.

Approaching British guy with all the grace of a giraffe wearing roller-skates on ice, I noticed the camera in his hand.

He had been filming the last half of my descent while waiting for me at the bottom. 

As I crash-landed at his feet, he slipped the camera into his pocket and smiled.

I told him to shut-up. Again.

(For the record, I’m rude and irrational when in danger of falling to my death.  I also break promises to deities.)

Helping me to my feet, British guy scowled at the snow.

“It’s just getting heavier, and it’s a pretty gentle slope from here on out,” he commented. “The rest of the descent is going to be quite slow.”

My spirits lifted. Slow? I like slow. I tried to appear disappointed for British guy’s sake, but joy radiated from me.  

We spent the next hour pushing ourselves through sticky snow. My arms ached from the exertion, but I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. I had survived. There was no way I could fall now, and my skis stuck so well to the snow I might as well have had my skins on.

As we rounded a corner, I caught a glimpse of the road below us. With the car now in sight, the relief I felt was palpable. The terror of a few hours before was now simply a memory to fold neatly in the recesses of my box of “terrifying life experiences.” I’m running out of room in that box.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road home, I turned to British guy.

“That was really fun. We should do it again.”

British guy

Friday, December 3, 2010

San Francisco: Hippies, Hipsters and Coffee

On the corner of 24th and Folsom, Philz coffee is a vibrant cross section of the San Franciscan heart and home to one of the best cups of coffee you’ll find in this city of coffee connoisseurs.

Old leather couches are placed at various angles around the room. Stained purple chairs that look as if they were confiscated from the uniform décor of Holiday Inns across the country are placed around mismatched tables lining the windows.

Pages from old copies of the San Francisco Chronicle are folded up and stuffed under table legs to prevent table wobbling and spilled coffee.

A chalkboard menu hangs high above the counter and sports selections such as Ambrosia: Coffee of God; Anesthesia to the Upside; and Dancing Water.

My usual selection is either the Philz Mocha Tesora or the Tantalizing Turkish.

Outside, hipsters in beanies and tight jeans scan their iPhones while dragging slowly and deliberately on hand-rolled cigarettes.

This. This is San Francisco.

Where locals sit in front of their MacBooks typing with one hand while sipping specialty coffees with the other. Clad in a style that belong to San Francisco and San Francisco alone, this flannel shirt, nubby sweater, political t-shirt, Converse wearing group of bleeding liberal misfits are united by their love for the eclectic eccentricity that defines this foggy, coastal city.

Sitting at the front window, I clutch my coffee to my chest and relish the feeling of being home after a year spent away. Behind me a group of hipsters bash Glenn Beck’s latest musings and across the street a Mexican bakery is displaying pan dulce and polvorones de canele.  

Staring up at the ceiling, wispy clouds are painted against a backdrop of blue and the columns supporting the building have been transformed into trees; their painted canopies bleeding into the mural of the sky.

The bathroom walls of this coffee shop are covered with the scrawling messages of the Sharpie-carrying inspired. Some time ago, I fell under that category and was bemused to find my message to the world still spelled out in uneven letters on the green wall.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” –Thoreau.

I am.

One cup of San Franciscan coffee at a time.

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