Thursday, April 28, 2011

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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

To Keep Myself From Sighing

Today is easy street.
A nonsensical lyrical bit of English
floating through my head
as I repot the cilantro plants and move the basil into the shade
 a glossy look to their leaves
as the sunlight filters through the trees
where well-fed cats hang in branches
casting wistful looks at the coy blackbirds
they will never catch

A call from another world
the coffee machine beeps
flinging my flips flops off
I wash the soil from my hands, the scent of cilantro
clings to me, a reminder of
the sticky rice paper of Vietnamese spring rolls
and the images of home
that move me.

To keep myself from sighing
over the weather beaten couches
of a San Francisco coffee house
I pour the milk,
and stir the sugar in.
The methodical movement of my body
reaching for the spoon
is comforting
and now only an overpowering need
to sit
and sip Italian coffee
out of the chipped cat mug
rescued from the recesses
of a cupboard
overflowing with tupperware
and mismatched lids

A mesh chair in the garden.
And a book--good or not
it doesn't matter
my mind is
somewhere else 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Alpe d'Huez Round 3: How I Finally Conquered My Arch Nemesis

The most popular blog post on my blog--hands down--is the account of my first miserable attempt to cycle up Alpe d'Huez and then my struggle to make it down without killing myself.

At the expense of my brake pads, I managed to inch my way down 13.8 kilometers of 21 hairpin turns before coming to an ungraceful clattering stop in front of a group of Dutch cycling tourists. They smiled and waved as I spit a fly from my mouth and smeared grease stains across my face in an attempt to wipe away the tears and snot. When I pried my fingers from the handlebars in Bourg d'Oisans, I nearly sold my bike then and there.

I've spent the past year trying to piece my shattered dreams of being a competent cyclist back together. And while I still don't find spandex shorts especially flattering (I think it's the foam wedged into the crotch area that ruins it for me), I've wobbled my way up and down cols, valleys, cycling paths, and major interstates.

I've managed to get grease stains smeared across every item of cycling clothing I own and the tips of my white leather cycling shoes are scuffed and ripped. A screw is missing from the piece on my shoe that clips into my pedal. My helmet has scrapes, my water bottles are starting to mold, and I can almost pump up my tires without shrieking when my tires hiss air loudly and unexpectedly.

And last week, wearing my scuffed cycling shoes and grease stained cycling jersey, I managed to wobble my bike unsteadily up to the top of Alpe d'Huez.

Averaging 10 kilometers per hour and stopping once to set the world record for inhaling a Snickers bar, I pushed myself and my Trek bike to the top. Bourg d'Oisans fell away and became a series of flickering lights and small houses and the silence was only occasionally shattered by the sound of a car engine suddenly zipping past in a flurry of exhaust.

I cheered myself on each time I passed a sign marking the turns. 21. 20. 19. 18. 17. When I hit the 9th turn, I knew I was going to make it up. "Halfway there, girl" I muttered in a very different sort of pep talk from the one I had uttered last year in an attempt to convince myself I wasn't going to meet my death by cycling down.

With three kilometers to go, British guy came flying down to meet me. As the temperatures began to drop with the sun and the silence was only interrupted by my heaving breathing, his familiar orange jacket was a very welcome sight and the offer of a Snickers bar to boost my energy was even more welcome.

Spirits renewed and sugar reserves restored, I pedaled steadily up the last few kilometers. When I rounded the bend and saw the sign for Alpe d'Huez, I felt like shouting it out to the world. Or you know, updating my Facebook status.

Nikki Hodgson 21 hairpin turns. 13.8 kilometers. A 7.9 % average grade. 1071 meter elevation gain. Made it up to the top of L'Alpe d'Huez for the first time yesterday. Third time's a charm :)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mourning Lili Cat

In 2008, in the midst of the three-week war in Gaza, a friend wrote to lament the fact that an opossum had been carelessly struck by a car in the middle of a Southern California residential neighborhood. The driver, she wrote, hadn’t even stopped to see if the opossum was okay (it wasn’t).

When I read her e-mail, I was in my hotel room in the West Bank flipping between Al-Jazeera and CNN while the Israeli jets flew low and fast overhead. Whether they were routine air exercises or part of the military operation in Gaza was impossible to say, but it was unsettling nonetheless. As I read over my friend’s rant about the opossum, I scoffed and felt an unfamiliar wave of judgment rising up within my chest. Who the hell cares about an animal when people are being slaughtered just as cruelly around the world?

I bit my tongue and simply ignored that section of her e-mail, but despite being an animal lover myself, I could not comprehend how someone could spend so much energy worrying about an opossum or a cat or a dog when there were so many crimes committed against humans on a daily basis.

But then Lili cat died. Just after wrapping herself around my ankles and gazing at me with bright green eyes, her tiny body was hit by a car rounding a bend too quickly in the middle of the French countryside. There was a resounding thud and her crumpled body was thrown to the side of the road in a matted heap of black fur and blood. The driver didn’t even stop.

Her owner, my friend, cast a devastated look at her small form and muttered “merde” under his breath as he turned his children away from the scene and went in search of a shovel.

Lili cat was placed in a cardboard box; her stiff tail sticking at an odd angle was all I saw as they carried her away to be buried. An impromptu cross was hammered together and her name was written with a Sharpie pen. Lili.

My friend’s five year-old daughter took my hand and somberly lead me forward to the grave under the bushes. "To say good-bye," she said. As I stood there, my heart ached for things that would never be. Lili’s sleek form stalking lizards in the grass while her kittens stumbled over each other in the kitchen, tripping unevenly on their tiny paws, their ears flattened down and their eyes sealed shut.

Yesterday I had run my hand over Lili’s swollen belly, imagining the little kittens that would soon be running about this renovated farmhouse. A purr rumbled through her body and she nudged her head against my hand. Lili cat. I heard the life being taken from her body, and now I cannot get the sound out of my head. I want to erase it, undo it, and bring Lili cat back.

I feel reasonably silly mourning a cat. In the grand scheme of things, my mourning energy could be better spent on more devastating acts of injustice.

It just seems ridiculous to mourn the loss of a small black cat when wars are being waged, natural resources pillaged and destroyed, opportunities snatched from most and handed to a few. I would feel ashamed to look someone in the eye who had actually lost something substantial in their life and tell them I was regretting the loss of a cat. 

 Still, when I think of Lili cat bounding through the garden and attacking my feet as I harvested berries and watered the herbs, my heart sinks lower in my chest. We will never do that again. 

I miss her. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Halfway between here and there

Sitting in the garden with my feet up on the chair and my favorite drink in hand (half lemonade, half beer), I watch the sunset, gazing at the trees and the swarming masses of gnats illuminated by the beams of sunlight. It looks as if the bugs are trapped within these narrow streams of light, but I know that it is only my perception, or rather lack thereof, that gives the appearance of isolated swarms. In reality they are all around.

The 11 year old version of myself is nudged awake by this image. I can see myself running through the grass, trying to catch fireflies in the long evenings of Missouri summers. My Grandmother is stretched out on her lawn chair doing a word cross puzzle and my Grandfather is marching about the garden with his precise step; his pant legs tucked neatly into his socks and a floppy canvas hat looking decidedly out of place on the head of an otherwise meticulously dressed Englishman.

My Grandmother has been dead for nearly 10 years. My Grandfather nearly 4. But my daily life is still wrapped up in the memories of our lives together.

I am going back to the Middle East in a matter of weeks. Though it's only for the summer, it's filled me up to the brim with emotions for which I cannot quite find the words.

So I sit on this wrought-iron chair watching the stray cats romp through the tall grass of an unruly garden. I breathe everything in deeply. The trees and their delicate star-shaped leaves. The honeysuckle plant that British guy just planted over the weekend; its vines have been pushed against the trellis. I sip my beer and try to wrap my head around the mixture of yearning, excitement and fear rushing through my veins causing an impossible churning in my heart. That conflicted mass of emotion that comes from a desire to go, but a reluctance to leave.

France has become my home. I feel mixed up in it, my whole life tangled up in its complexities, idiosyncrasies and simple beauty. Like being tangled in the sheets and wrapped up in the arms of a lover, not ready for sleep, but still reluctant to get up and disturb the cozy equilibrium of two people wrapped up in each other.

But the Middle East is where I came to terms with myself. Somewhere between Arabic and Hebrew; the checkpoints and the confusion; the simplicity of a starry night on a warm rooftop and the complexity of an enduring conflict...I uncovered elements of myself I never knew existed.

And they were good.

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