Thought Repository

29 July 2009

Blogger is Dead! (I have a new website)

This website is officially dead as of... now! Please update your feeds and get over to check out the new site.

21 July 2009

Cinque Terre (6/4-6/5): Lost in the Woods

Image courtesy of ezioma

Cinque Terre was one of the destinations I was most looking forward to before my trip began. I was super pumped for doing some hiking and had heard about the beautiful trails with gorgeous views of the coast line.

I had booked a hostel in the small village of Riomaggiore, located at one end of the Cinque Terre. It was about a 4 hour train ride from Ventimiglia, during which I met a couple from Wisconsin whose names I can't remember. The train rolled into Riomaggiore in the middle of the afternoon. I walked through a colorful pedestrian tunnel that connects the main street of Riomaggiore with the train station. It led out into a softly winding street that crept up the hill away from the water. The road was lined with small markets and pizza shops, as well as a few hostels/restaurants.

Riomaggiore (courtesy of Brian Pennington)
I found my hostel a few hundred meters up the hill from the tunnel exit. I walked into a tiny office where I paid the man behind the desk before following him out the door. He led me down the street a ways and then up a narrow alley of steps to a wooden double door. The "hostel room" he showed me to was a modified old apartment with a kitchen/bathroom on the first floor and a bedroom on the top floor. The bedroom had 1 queen bed on one side of the room, and 5 bunks on the other side. When I arrived there were only 2 other people in the apartment: Andrew and Courtney from Vancouver. They had just finished the trail hike not too long ago and were recovering/sleeping/showering.

Shortly after I arrived two more people entered the apartment: Marta and Pat from Melbourne. We got acquainted and all that for a bit, then Marta, Pat and I headed down to check out the beach. The beach was around the corner from the main street, and could be reached by a small trail that led along the coast. The water was very choppy so we didn't swim, although some adventurous souls braved the waves while we watched.

That evening we stopped in at a couple of the small markets on the street to pick up some pasta, fresh pesto, bread, and wine in order to take advantage of our kitchen. The pesto in the Cinque Terre area is amazing. We cooked up the meal and headed up some more stairs from our apartment to a small walkway overlooking the ocean. We sat there and ate pasta, drank wine, and watched the sun set over a peninsula in the distance. The birds serenaded us while we ate, accompanied by the rolling sound of waves hitting the shore. It was an incredibly beautiful evening.

At some point we found out that it was Andrew's birthday so natural law dictated that we had to keep partying. We drank in our apartment for a bit but were forced to wander out in search of more beer. In the street we ran into some Americans who pointed us at a small cafe that sold take-away beer. One of the Americans was a girl who grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas and knew Murph (my good friend and former roommate). That was my small world experience for the trip... unfortunately I do not remember her name. We followed the Americans to another apartment with an outdoor patio where some more people were partying. Many of them were from Georgia I think. There were also a couple of Canadian girls crashing there who were traveling with no plan whatsoever. They were interesting to talk to.

We hung out at the apartment until an old man yelled at us to be quiet, at which point we headed down to the beach where even more people were partying. Apparently the previous night they had about 20 people go skinny dipping in the dark in the ocean. This night it was too rough and dangerous to attempt that to the disappointment of many. I don't remember specifically when we left the beach, but it was probably around 2:00 when we stumbled back to the apartment to sleep.

The next morning I woke up at 9:00, had a quick breakfast, and headed for the trails. My intention was to get there before most of the crowd so that the trail wouldn't be covered with too many tourists. I can't find a good map of the trails online, but you can check out this one for a general idea. The typical path is to hike along the coastal trail through each of the 5 villages. My plan was to basically just follow this trail the entire way.

The early morning hike started out well, it was cool and overcast. I made the trek between the first three villages in not too much time, seeing very few tourists along the way. The hike was pretty easy up to this point. The next section of trail which ran between Corniglia and Vernazza was longer with more elevation change, but still was not too difficult. I did have some trouble picking up the continuation of the path once I was in each town however.

I arrived in Vernazza at 11:30 and decided to take a small break down by the beach to rest my legs. There were a lot more tourists here than I had seen on my trek so far, I think partly because most people walked the trails in the opposite direction of me. I contemplated obtaining some sort of sustenance but decided to wait and reward myself once I reached the final village of Monterosso. This turned out to be a somewhat painful mistake. I left the beach and walked around Vernazza for a bit trying to find out where the trail picked up to head to Monterosso. It took me a bit but I eventually found markers for what I thought was the correct trail.

The trail headed up a few sets of stairs and then began to curve inland towards the mountains. It was still overcast and a light rain had begun to fall which helped cool me off. The trail eventually became paved with some sort of stone and wound back and forth up the mountain. At each turn was an empty shrine (I think there were 14 of them in all maybe, signifying the Way of the Cross). As I progressed up the mountain I began to doubt that I was on the correct trail, but decided to keep going anyway since I hadn't seen another entrance. The trail eventually stopped winding and instead followed the gentle curve of one of the mountains while still increasing in elevation. I came around the backside of the hill to discover a smallish white, well-kept building. I have no idea what it was.

Farther up the hill I came across a sanctuary/cloister area, which I believe was the Nostra Signora di Reggio. There was an ancient fountain built into the wall and methodically placed trees provided a closed green canopy. The low light, lack of people, and the mist from the humidity gave the area a very sacred, ethereal feel. I walked through the yard, past the sanctuary building, to a lone bench at the edge of the mountain overlooking the valley below. The valley was a sea of green with very few roads visible. The tops of the nearby mountains were obscured by a fog that rested upon each of them like a soft white crown. The weird lighting due to by the mist and cloud cover seemed to really bring out the green of the area so it looked very luscious. I really apologize for not having a camera and taking pictures here. Very few people travel this path apparently and there are no good pictures that I was able to find online. I underestimated the beauty I would find and wish I would have been able to capture at least a pale impression of it.

At 12:30 I managed to tear myself away from the bench to try to pick up the trail again. The sanctuary was at a bit of a crossroads, with a road leading one way up the hill, and a very narrow trail leading up in another direction behind the sanctuary. I tried walking a small distance along each of them, trying to figure out where they were on the crappy map I had, but with little success. Eventually I was about to just head back down the way I came and try to find the coastal trail again. On my way back past the sanctuary I ran into an Austrian couple who were staring intently at a map. I struck up a conversation with them and found out they were about as lost as I was. The man was a doctor who spoke good English, but his wife spoke very little so they conversed between themselves in German.

Santuario di Nostra Signora di Soviore

(courtesy of Davide Papalini)

Using our combined powers of intellect and guesswork (and some small signs), we eventually determined that the small, narrow trail (8b) was the one that we needed to take. We followed the trail up through some dense underbrush before it emerged onto a road which we followed for 100m or so. On the road we met some hikers coming from the opposite direction who confirmed that we were indeed going the right way. After the road the trail picked up in a far more open area. The trail itself was still narrow and wound around the steep mountain at roughly the same elevation most of the way. It took probably an hour or so to hike this leg of the journey since we had to go a bit slower, but along the way we saw hundreds of butterflies, a wide variety of plant life, salamanders, and even a couple of what I believe were Iberian Emerald Lizards. Eventually we came to the end of the 8b trail at the sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Soviore. This was a cool little sanctuary with a pretty tree-covered walkway along the front side. We stopped here to fill up our water bottles (or, in my case, my camel pack). The Austrians had also (thankfully) brought along a couple of baguettes which they shared with me.

The last 45 minutes of the hike were straight downhill from the sanctuary towards Monterosso. Going downhill is actually a lot harder on your legs than uphill, which is something I didn't fully realize until this hike. By the time we reached the village my ankles were killing me. I parted ways with the Austrians and set out in search of something to eat, or the train station, or something. It was approaching 15:00 so many of the shops and street vendors were closed to the dismay of my stomach. After wandering around for half an hour, I figured out that I needed to go through this tunnel to reach the other half of the town, where I found both pizza and a train. The pizza in Cinque Terre was delicious and was some of my favorite from the trip.

I got back to Riomaggiore at around 16:00 or a little after and showered/rested. Overall I estimated that I hiked ~13km, with an unknown elevation change throughout. Getting "lost" on the trails was the best thing that could have happened to me, as it allowed me to explore some of the less traveled, and in my opinion more beautiful, trails. It also allowed me to discover some of the secluded beautiful areas with no preconception of what I was getting into. It is a very different experience to stumble upon something beautiful when you don't really expect it. If you ever head to Cinque Terre in the future I would recommend exploring some of the higher trails (and wearing pants if you do).

That evening Marta, Pat, and I once again cooked dinner in our apartment, this time pasta with a red sauce and some bell peppers along with a salad, tomatoes, and garlic bread. We ate up under the sunset again before hanging out in our kitchen with some other Australian friends of Andrew and Courtney. At some point we once again headed down to the beach where we found a much more chill crowd from the previous night. There was a group of Australians sitting around a campfire that they had built. The group was basically just camping/squatting on the beach and was traveling about as cheaply as you possibly could. We stayed and chatted with them until an unidentified time, before heading back to sleep.

That night it stormed and some of my clothes that were hanging on the clothesline to dry blew off onto the ground. I woke up in the middle of the night and went out in my boxers to rescue them. The next morning I found my towel soaked, hanging over a fence a few meters up the hill from our apartment.

The next morning I said goodbye to my four fantastically fun friends, then hopped a train towards history.

Cinque Terre was an incredible experience and taught me something about traveling with a camera. Namely that I should bring one if I am going to go anywhere remotely obscure. The experience was a fun mix of nature, hiking, cooking, and partying. Unfortunately I realized a bit later that I had accidentally left my sunglasses there and went the rest of the trip without any.

At this point in my trip I began to wonder at my incredible luck with the people I had been meeting. Everybody I had met at hostels so far was super nice and fun. I was worried that I was using up all my good luck and was due to meet a few ass-holes in the near future. I'd tell you whether that was the case, but I'm going to leave you hanging on this one. Oh the suspense.

to be continued...

16 July 2009

The Selfishness of Apathy

"What kind of muffin would you like?"
Alfred: "I don't care."

When faced with a mostly inconsequential question like this many people often respond like our friend Alfred. At first glance the use of this phrase may seem like an altruistic endeavor, deferring the power of judgment to your question asking friend. In reality this is often not the case. Instead of shifting a privilege, what actually happens is a burden is passed from Alfred onto Oscar. Oscar must now exert energy to make the decision himself rather than simply responding to the request of his friend.

In a perfect world, Oscar would not think at all and merely make a choice at random. I tend to think this sort of ideal is rarely manifested in daily life. Instead Oscar will spend a few moments weighing any number of factors: the number of muffins remaining of each type, a past history of Alfred's choices, his own preferences for which muffins he would like to get rid of quickly, what Alfred actually wants even though he is saying he doesn't care, etc. This results in a momentary deadlock and a small but unnecessary amount of extra stress.

The point I'm haphazardly trying to make here is that passing the decision buck is in many situations not a gift, it is a responsibility. Nobody knows your own preferences better than you do, so take half a second to make a decision so that "Oscar" doesn't have to try and guess what you actually want. Consider this my formal plea that you consider the selfishness of this scenario in the future before responding "I don't care."

I met an Aussie during my travels who refused to accept this "gift" of responsibility in many circumstances. He would meet an apathetic foe head on in exchanges that went much like this: (Our hero here is played by Oscar).

Oscar: "What kind of muffin would you like?"
Alfred: "I don't care."
Oscar: "Well, what would choose if you were by yourself?

At this point the burden of decision making is once again shifted back to Alfred who must search the depths of his soul for an actual preference in order to come up with a decision. Nobody stands deadlocked on inconsequential decisions for very long when they are alone.

Perhaps a more illustrative example for the usefulness of this rebuttal is something like the following:

"Where do you want to get lunch?"
"I don't care"
"Where would you go if you were by yourself?"

This is a linguistic tool that you may find useful in future conversations. Wield this new found power with discretion.

And no, I'm generally not an Ayn Rand fan.

15 July 2009

Torri Superiore (6/2-6/4): Where Nature Dreams

If you read my first post, you might remember that Torri Superiore (TS) was one of my favorite destinations on the trip. Often times when I tell people about it I am asked how or why I decided to go there for two days, so I present that information here (feel free to skip ahead if you don't care).

The Prologue

Although I did minimal research for my trip before I left, I did spend some time looking for some areas where I could "get away" so to speak from the city/touristy travel. I had a couple of recommendations for Cinque Terre (my next destination), but I was struggling to come up with other concrete locations. Having just finished the book Deep Economy, my search quickly took a turn towards environmentally conscious or ecologically sustainable communities. I had also recently discovered the concept of Earthships so I ended up down that path. I was unable to find any Earthships near train lines, but I did stumble across the term "ecovillage" which led me down a promising tree of links.

Searching for ecovillages in Europe proved to be a more difficult task than I had first assumed, even with a website such as the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), mostly because the individual websites (if they existed) were rarely in English. I don't remember if I found Torri Superiore through GEN or if I just got lucky, but it was a gem of a find. Their website is not only in English but it is also well put together. The main reason for this I found out later is that Torri Superiore differs from most ecovillages in that it places an emphasis on something called ecotourism. In fact most of the income for the village comes from the guest house.

I contacted the village while I was in Paris and reserved a room for two nights. The rooms were €39/night which included dinner and breakfast.

The Story

On my way to TS I stopped off very briefly in Monaco and got lost before finally finding my way from the bus stop to the train station. I grabbed a train from there to Ventimiglia, which was just up the coast. In Ventimiglia I was to catch a bus the 10km up to TS. Nobody at the train station spoke English very well so it took me a while to find the bus stop. I waited there a while, gelato in hand, for about 45 minutes while I watched different numbered busses drive by. Eventually I stopped one and asked about the "number 6" bus. I was told that that #6 wasn't running that particular day because it was a national holiday. At that point I walked back to the train station to grab a cab for what was about to be the most frightening car ride of my life.

If you've ever been to Italy then you probably understand the reputation that Italian drivers have. They play by different rules. My particular driver basically flew down the highway weaving in and out of traffic at his leisure. When we got closer to the village of Torri the road became winding and too narrow for more than 1 car to drive down. In Italy when this happens you don't slow down. Instead you just honk the horn a few times before flying around corners so that people know to get out of the way. I eventually made it to the middle of Torri safely and my heartbeat slowed some.

TS is actually located slightly north and up the hill from the village of Torri. Torri itself is located at the foothills of the Ligurian Alps in a valley with the Bevera River running through it. It has a population of maybe 150 and you can cross the village on foot in less than 10 minutes. TS is a short walk up the hill in a 700 year old building that the small community has spent the last 20 years renovating, while still preserving the old architecture and walls. The building is built into a fairly steep hillside with a few solar panels located up the hill above it to provide electricity. There are around 20 or so permanent residents of the ecovillage, and any number of visitors depending on the space available and the season. There are a few guest rooms available for rent as well as a small campground nearby for tents and campers. I could spend all day describing the ecovillage, but in the interest of space I will let you read the rest on the website.

I arrived at about 15:30 or so to find some people walking around sleepy-eyed. The previous three days had been spent in celebration with over 150 guests coming together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the cultural association that founded TS. I gathered that very little sleep had been had in those three days.

I met the two people who were "in charge" of the administrative/tourism activities for the village. Lucilla was the lady I had been in e-mail contact with. She showed me around the place briefly before showing me to my room. It has a large, well laid out kitchen, a couple of dining rooms lined with environmentalism books and magazines, a nice patio overlooking the village and the valley, and a variety of homes for the permanent residents along with the guest rooms mentioned earlier.

My room was refreshingly simple, with two single plain beds, two small tables, and two small windows which I quickly threw open letting in the gorgeous northern Italian weather. The bathrooms/showers were just a few steps away in another room. The door had a lock on it but I never felt the need to really use it.

I took a brief nap but was once again afraid to oversleep, partly because I had forgotten to ask when dinner was. Afterward I got up and wandered around the village for a while. I was pretty much given free run of the place so I explored as much as I could without invading on anybody's privacy. It only took 10-15 minutes to really see most of it. I ended my exploration up on the balcony where I met an interesting German man named Dominik. Dominik told me about the "trust fridge" where the beer was kept and could be obtained by leaving a euro in the coin box on top. Dominik speaks at least 4 languages including German, Italian, and English and works most of the time as a freelance translator which he is able to do while traveling. When work is slow he also spends time teaching windsurfing, something he has done in a variety of locales including Egypt and the U.S. Basically he is one of the coolest people ever.

View from the balcony (courtesy of sethfrantzman)

After a while I went out and walked around the road that leads up the mountain a ways. I didn't head far since I wanted to be close for dinner, but I got to watch the sun start to slowly set over the small valley as I watched an older man tend a small garden. The man worked with more patience, care, and concentration than anybody I have seen in a garden.

At 20:00 sharp a bell rang which signaled the beginning of dinner. I can't even begin to describe how amazing the food was here. Especially after a week of eating mostly street-stand food, the home-cooked, from scratch with fresh ingredients meals that were served at TS were insanely delicious. The first night I don't specifically remember what we ate, but I believe it was some kind of pasta, risotto, etc along with traditional Italian salad and red wine. Everyone at the village spends time helping out in some way with the cooking, but there are 4 main "chefs" that take turns orchestrating the meals.

Everyone eats together, and since it was beautiful out we spent both evenings eating on the balcony. Almost everybody was speaking Italian at the dinner which was slightly awkward for me but also sort of fun. Lucilla explained that when Italians eat they almost always talk about food, not politics or gossip or anything else. Dinner is not just a time to re-nourish your body; it is the most important social activity of the day. The people there are a very close-knit, friendly community and I felt very welcome.

After dinner some people began to slowly disperse while others stuck around for a while and chatted/drank. I was introduced to two Canadians that had just arrived in the village, a mother and son. The mother had actually been born in Italy and the son spoke some Italian as well. They were both very energetic people and fun to talk to. I also met an Italian guy with a fedora and a backpack who apparently was going to cross the mountain the next day to visit his cousin who trains monkeys to play with mentally handicapped children... at least that's what I gathered, he didn't speak the best English. He was a wanderer through and through.

As the night wore on and conversation began to die, I went inside and received permission from one of the residents to play a classical guitar I had been eying since I got there. I spent the next hour or so unwinding outside with the guitar, working travel stress down my fingers, through the instrument, and out into the night sky. I think it was 23:30 or so when I went to bed.

I woke the next morning at around 8:30 after a great night's sleep. I took my time showering and then headed down to the one small grocery store in Torri to grab some supplies for a hike I was planning later that day. I made it back to TS just in time to grab breakfast before it closed at 10:00. After that I met Lucilla in her office to take care of the financial aspects of my visit.

At 10:20 I met two other guests, Alberto and Maria, for a short hike down to the river. Alberto and Maria were both graduate students in Amsterdam and London, respectively, who were individually working on research related to TS. Maria had just arrived shortly before I did but Alberto had been there for over a month already. He led the way down a small trail past a natural spring that flowed some distance to irrigate the agricultural project for TS on the other side of the river.

The agricultural project was a fairly recent development mostly run by an Australian man who had moved to the area a little over a year ago. He was the only one in the village with much experience running sustainable farms so he was put in charge of the project. The gardens were terraced into the steep hillside and the man himself lived near the top of the hill with a volunteer who was staying for the summer. Water flowed from the spring down one side of the hill into some sort of gravity pump that would push it up the other side, higher in elevation than the source of the spring. I did not quite understand the logistics of how the pump worked, but it seemed fairly ingenious.

Image courtesy of ReverendMungo
Alberto led us off the trail a bit over an outcropping of rocks to a shallow little pool at a bend in the river. The water was so clear you could see the bottom, but it was also cold so I did not jump all the way in. Alberto mentioned that if you swim around the corner there is a small waterfall that you can sit underneath. I regret not checking that out for myself. We stayed down by the river for an hour before heading back so Alberto and Maria could catch lunch. On the way back we quenched our thirst with delicious water bubbling out of the ground at the source of the spring.

Image courtesy of ReverendMungo
I decided not to stay for lunch (an extra €10) and instead head up the mountain for an exploratory hike. Along the way I ate a cantaloupe and a banana that I had purchased earlier. I hiked for 2 hours or so and saw some gorgeous views of the valley. This was the first time on the trip I missed my camera.

The rest of the afternoon after I returned I just chilled out and caught up on some writing. Dinner that night consisted of stuffed red peppers and a few other things I can't remember. After dinner I talked some more with the Canadians and played the guitar some more as well. Before heading to bed Maria conducted a short interview with me for part of her research.

The next morning I grabbed breakfast and was headed to the bus when I was picked up by a nice old lady who gave me a ride into Ventimiglia. She was almost as crazy a driver as the cab driver was, but was somehow able to converse with me while racing into town.

Torri Superiore was incredible and I am very tempted to try living some place like that for a time in the future. The scenery, the people, the architecture, and the food were all amazing. There was luxury in its simplicity and the village was very peacefully free from distraction. Writing about it has filled me once again with a sense of longing.

Alternatively, I think it would be fun to travel around Europe or somewhere else, volunteering on farms for a week or two at a time before moving on to the next one. This is apparently a very feasible way to travel with a little research up front to find places.

Image courtesy of ReverendMungo

12 July 2009

Nice (5/31-6/1): A Cosmopolitan Campaign

Image courtesy of Munford
"Nice was nice," as the typical response goes. Actually it was pretty awesome. The train ride there sucked though because, once again, I hardly slept. But the 26ish hours of sleep I grabbed in Paris carried me through the next day.

The train arrived in Nice at 7:30 in the morning. Luckily Nice is a lot smaller than Paris so it's harder to get too lost. I couldn't check into my hostel until 9:00 so I grabbed breakfast with a side of internet while I waited around.

Checked into an empty 3 bed room at the hostel at around 9:00 and immediately jumped in the shower. After cleansing my body and soul, I thought it would be a good idea to try to clean some of my clothes in the sink "like a real backpacker." That turned out to not be as easy as it sounds. I had a little cheap braided clothesline with me that I used to hang the few washed articles up in the room with. They took forever to dry, even with the window open on the room. The rest of the trip I managed to find washing machines to do the job for me instead, occasionally in exchange for some coins.

The reception desk was just outside the door to my room so I went to check out a laptop so I could grab some internet before heading to the beach. At the desk an awesome Norwegian guy who I got used to calling "Ness" was checking in and was given the key to the room I was in as well. After I grabbed a laptop I went back to my room and we got acquainted.

Ness and I were going to borrow some towels from the desk and head down to the beach, but when we exited the room we found three more people in the hallway: Andrew from Singapore/London, Brian from New York, and Karen from Toronto. Andrew was checking into our room in the hostel and he had stayed the previous night at a different hostel just outside of town with Karen and Brian. This became the solid crew I rolled with for most of the rest of my time in Nice.

We left the hostel and wandered around Nice for a while, checking out the St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral on our way down towards the beach. We grabbed a tasty lunch at a café near the beach and then made our way up towards the Château. Later in the afternoon we headed down towards the beach to go for a swim. On the way there we ran into a friend of Karen's from Switzerland named Katharina who was staying at yet another hostel in town. The swim was good despite the water being a bit cold still.

Post-swim we headed back to Ness, Andrew, and my hostel to change clothes really quick, then headed out to get some food at a restaurant nearby. The food was OK, but the wine was great and started the night off properly. After dinner we walked around for a while trying to find a place to buy alcohol and ended up following a French goth in combat boots and a trench coat for over a mile until he brought us to a little store his friend worked at. The store was not very good and half of the alcohol we bought there was nearly undrinkable because it was so bad. I don't remember the guy's name, or the name of the band he told us he was in (Black Dog or something?), but he was an interesting, friendly fellow. His face dropped quickly however when we failed to invite him back to come hang out with us.

Katharina was staying at a hostel that had an outdoor area in front so we headed there to hang out and have a few drinks. We hung out for a while and met some more people from her hostel, eventually moving inside due to the rain. We made plans to meet the next morning before heading back to our respective hostels to fall into the sweet embrace of unconsciousness.

Karen, Brian, and Andrew had signed up for a scuba diving tour the next morning at 9:00 through their hostel, and they had invited Ness and I to come along. We decided to just show up at 9:00 and see if they had room for us, and if not we'd figure out something else to do. The three of us (Andrew was in our room now) woke up the next morning and left the hostel at 8:20, thinking we'd have plenty of time to walk down to the harbor. In our confidence we even stopped at a pâtisserie on the way to grab some breakfast. Unfortunately we all underestimated how long it would take to get around the Château, and how big the harbor was in Nice. We also ended up taking the long way to get there so we rolled into the harbor area at about 8:55 or so, steadily increasing our pace to match the rising panic of possible failure boiling up inside each of us.

Image courtesy of dbaron
We eventually figured out that our rendezvous location was on the opposite side of the harbor from where we were. We made haste around the harbor, admiring row after row of large expensive yachts, each one labeled with the country of its owner. (Incidentally, the manager of the hostel we drank at the previous night had spent 5 years working as a first mate on various yachts in Nice. He had some good stories). We rounded the corner of the harbor in time to see Karen and Brian climbing into a boat with wetsuits in hand. It was 9:05 when we arrived, and somebody on the boat kindly pointed us towards a little store nearby where we went in, paid the €42, got our wetsuits, and headed back out towards the boat.

Now I am not very good at estimating lengths by eyesight, but I'd say the boat was maybe 30-35 feet in length. We were directed to hang up our wetsuits on a hanger in the middle, and were then given flippers and goggles to keep track of. As it turned out, the 5 of us were the only non-French, non-expert scuba divers on the boat. There were somewhere around 20 or so French scuba divers all piling into the boat and loading equipment as the tourist quintet tried to stay out of the way.

After a little while the captain of the boat, Phillip, beckoned us to the front of the vessel. Phillip was a tall, thin, confident French man who spoke very good English. He wore an old beat up jacket which Karen pointed out to me contained the logo of the Sea Shepherds, an aggressive environmental activist group similar to Greenpeace. Phillip gave us a 10 minute crash course in how to use the scuba equipment and what the trip would entail. Most of us had never been scuba diving much or at all before so the instruction was both interesting and helpful. He did a good job going over everything we needed to know.

Once everybody was loaded up, we headed out of the harbor on a beautiful little tour of the harbor and the coastline around Nice. We saw some interesting and unique houses built into the gorgeous hills. We also had a great view of the Château area from the water. It only took about 20 min or so to get to the dive location and once we arrived the French scuba divers all began to gear up and jump in the water. The five of us were to hang out in or around the boat while they did their dive. At some point instructors would come back and take us out one at a time. A young French boy who spoke very little English was left on the boat to "chaperon" us. While we waited we threw on our wetsuits and flippers and went for a swim around the boat. It was a perfect day out: sunny but not too hot with a very calm sea.

The divers eventually began to come back about 4 at a time and climb into the boat to de-suit. "Instructors" also came back at about 5 or 10 minute intervals to take each of us out for our dive. Karen went first, followed by Ness and then myself. I was paired up with Phillip as my instructor. He helped me put the gear on once in the water then we swam towards shore to the actual dive spot where we began our descent. I had never even been snorkeling before this so going underwater for the first time while being able to breathe was a very weird, awesome experience. Phillip controlled the buoyancy of my vest and took care of checking all the air gauges so all I had to do was breathe and swim. After we reached a decent depth (around 6m or so I think) He stayed behind me and to the right a little while I swam forward. In order to equalize the pressure between your body and the water you need to pop your ears every couple of meters or so while you descend. My right ear never popped so it was in pain the entire time during my dive. A very tolerable and small sacrifice however considering where I was.

I swam for about 15-20 minutes with Phillip controlling our depth and occasionally pointing out interesting things or directing me where to swim. I saw an octopus, a few sea urchins, and a variety of other plant and animal life that I would not be able to name. It was an incredible experience and one I would definitely like to repeat at some point. The best part about it was not having to do any practice dives in swimming pools or any of the other stuff you would typically have to do if you went diving in the states. We were able to just jump right in. After the dive we rode back into shore while sipping on some interesting rum that the scuba divers had brought.

Once back in the harbor, we thanked Phillip and headed off to find some food. We found out the hard way that it was a public holiday in France so very very few things were actually opened. We walked around for what seemed like forever before finally finding a pizza/sandwich stand near one of the public squares. We grabbed a slice and sat down on some steps nearby to savor our find. We were all pretty exhausted from the excitement and exertion of the dive so we ate in a sort of quiet trance while watching a bunch of young French skateboarders lining up behind a makeshift ramp to practice tricks.

We parted ways later in the afternoon after agreeing that it was international nap time. I had to move into a different hostel since I had only booked my room for one night so I grabbed my things and headed down the street a couple of blocks to the new place. Before leaving we made plans to meet up at 21:00 at Ness and Andrew's hostel to go out for drinks.

At my new hostel I walked into the room to find one guy taking a nap. I tried to quietly shower so as not to wake him, then I laid down for a while to try to rest up. Sleep did not come easily however since I was paranoid about not waking up. I was without an alarm clock the entire trip so naps had become a fairly risk endeavor. Eventually I got up and went to find some food. Once again many places were closed so I ended up just grabbing a baguette and some cheese and heading back to the hostel. I wasn't feeling too social at this point so I just sort of hung out or walked around until 21:00.

Our group had grown by the time we all met at the Ness and Andrew's hostel. Karen and Brian had picked up a couple of Americans, and my replacement at the hostel was a film student from Washington. Katharina also joined us which brought the adventuring party up to 9. We headed down towards a bar that was recommended by a couple of French girls that Karen had met at the hostel.

The bar was about a mile away and was filling up as we walked in. We were lucky enough to grab a long table down near the stage where we were able to seat everybody together. We arrived just as a 4 piece band was setting up on stage and I ordered an overpriced liter of beer which I told myself was justified due to the lack of a cover charge. The band was pretty good, with a British front man and Rastafarian guitar player. They played American pop songs from the 60's-90s, every one of which was a huge hit since the bar was completely filled with tourists. Shortly after the music began one of the tables in the front became covered with people dancing on top of it. The rest of the room followed after a while and the entire bar was filled with the excitement of music in motion.

We left at around midnight and on the way out I ran into some drunk high school kids from Creighton Prep in Omaha, who I quickly disassociated myself from. Our party was down to 8 at this point but we felt pretty good making it out of the bar with only a single casualty. We walked about 5 blocks before everyone started asking why we had left. Apparently nobody had actually wanted to leave and we almost went back but instead decided to go buy some beer and hang out at Katharina's hostel again. That plan was executed without too much trouble and we drank/talked until a little after 1:00 in the morning, at which point Karen, Brian, and crew had to hurry to catch the tram back to their hostel. The rest of the party went their separate ways as well.

The next day I headed for Monaco and then passed into Italy.


Nice was an interesting city. It is still a pretty big hot spot for the rich and famous to vacation, but a lot of the city is kind of dirty and more poor, especially as you move away from the beaches. The water itself was beautiful and I understand why it is called the Côte d'Azur. Nice also had some very cool markets and shops in some of the narrow side streets that we visited on more than one occasion.

Nice was my first hostel experience and I somehow lucked into meeting some amazing people. I would definitely recommend visiting the city and the surrounding area, but I am not sure I would return or want to live there.

07 July 2009

Paris (5/28 - 5/30): Je Rêve de Sommeil

The overnight bus ride from London to Paris was not fun by any standards. As mentioned multiple times I was pretty sleep deprived by this point, and this bus ride pointed out to me that at some point during college I lost the ability to sleep sitting up. The ride took about 8 hours total, with a ferry carrying us from the UK to the European mainland. Thankfully we were allowed to get off the bus and walk around once we were on the ferry. It was storming during the ferry ride, the the water was choppy and the boat rocked quite a bit. I tried in vain to sleep on some benches and chairs. We were on the boat for maybe an hour and a half at most. The only redeeming part of the bus ride itself was the passenger sitting next to me watching an English movie on his laptop with headphones and french subtitles. I was able to grasp the gist of most of the plot which helped pass the time.

At around 6:30 the bus pulled into a station on the outskirts of Paris. I wandered up to the giant subway map on the wall where a few other travelers were standing trying to make sense of where we were. Eventually we all figured out how to get where we were going and got in line for the one ticket machine nearby. I ended up buying subway tickets for myself and another couple who's credit card wouldn't work.

I should take a step back at this point and remind the reader that I did not know exactly where I was going to stay. I had been in contact with a couchsurfer who was going to e-mail me his address, so my next objective upon arriving was to find an internet cafe, which I assumed wouldn't be too difficult... Assumptions are risky devices, especially when traveling alone in a foreign country.

I took the subway into Paris proper close to the Bastille, which I knew was the general location of my host's apartment. I got out of the subway and immediately began to search for an internet cafe. My general strategy for these types of things is to walk towards areas that seem to have the most shops/tourists/etc. I wandered around for a bit while Paris began to slowly awake. The city was still mostly asleep which, along with my sleep deprivation, gave it sort of a surreal and dreamy quality which was enjoyable for the first hour or so. After an 2 hours of wandering around in vain (and circles occasionally), I stopped into an open shop to get some water.

I was really really nervous about interacting with the Parisians. I had heard many a tale about how they hated tourists (especially Americans) and would not talk to you unless you spoke French. My fear was not so much about being shunned as much as it was about looking like a "typical" American ass-hole. I had a little bit of French under my belt, but I would not really call it passable by any means. So i sauntered into this little shop and managed to order a water in French. I then try to ask the guy behind the counter where an internet cafe is, but he has no idea what I'm talking about. He had spoken some English, so I whipped out the classic "Parlez-vous anglais?" trying to be polite. He just smiled, shook his head, and stared at me. This was really my only run-in with the stereotype, but it came at an inopportune time.

I left the shop and gave up on trying to find an internet cafe (it was around 9:15 at this point). Instead I pulled out my "book of information about everywhere" and found a hostel nearby where I could hopefully find a bed and crash. Unfortunately when I arrived at the hostel the manager informed me that they were booked, and that I should try back at 11:00 to see if there were any cancellations. He did not sound optimistic about that option. He did point me to an internet cafe around the corner though, my salvation. The internet cafe was closed until 10:00 so I went around the corner and grabbed an espresso and a pastry and hung out until 10:00. I then entered the cafe full of relief as if the cafe itself were my new home and logged on with a sense of peace as I readied myself to discover the location of a usable bed. Disbelief physically shook me when I found I had no e-mail from my supposed host. I did however have an e-mail from another couchsurfer named Thomas that said if I still needed anything to drop him a line.

The lack of information stunned me for a while and I sat there trying to get my brain to process the information. Eventually I decided I did not have much faith in the hostel opening up, and I didn't want to try another one for fear of receiving the same news. Instead I found the cheapest hotel room I could that was fairly close to my current location, booked it, and made my way over there. The hotel was simple but nice, had a shower, and the price was right. They had free wi-fi and overpriced internet on a computer in the Lobby. I was freaking out a little bit at this point so I got online for a while and booked a train to Nice to make sure I didn't get stranded or something somehow. This whole series of events may seem a bit melodramatic, but I was really really tired :).

After some time on the internet I went out and grabbed some absolutely awful Chinese food down the street (ironically, the worst food I had on the trip was in Paris). I was supposed to meet some people that I had met in London at the
Arc de Triomphe that afternoon, but I just crashed instead at around 15:30. I woke up at some point during the morning and spent another hour on the internet booking hostels for the next few days. I also had contacted Thomas and he kindly offered me a room for the following night. I then went back to sleep until 9:00ish in the morning. In all I think I got around 16 hours of sleep that night, which was refreshing.

I don't remember anything noteworthy about the next day. I basically just wandered around Paris, eating delicious pastries and baguettes. I wandered by the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de
Triomphe, a street market somewhere, and a variety of other things. At around 17:30 I made my way up to Thomas' place in Montmartre.

Thomas was an incredible host, an example I hope to be half as good as when I host people in the future. He speaks 3 languages, has been to (I believe) every country in Europe, and knows a lot about art and Paris. We relaxed for a while when I first got there, then he took me out and showed me the area, including the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, located at the highest point in Paris with an incredible view of the city. We then stopped by a grocery store before heading back to Thomas' place for dinner-- his Indian friend Anirban was coming over to cook. Luckily for me Ani spoke excellent English but very little French. Thomas also spoke pretty good English.

The meal was delicious, a traditional Indian dish made with prawns. Thomas and Ani were both PhD students in Art History and Nanotech, respectively, so the conversation was as interesting and delicious as the meal itself.

At around 23:00 or so Ani had to leave to catch the subway home, so Thomas ans I went out and he showed me Montmartre at night, including the cabaret and sex shop area of town. We walked by the Moulin Rouge and a 6 story sex shop. There were also quite a few drug dealers in the area and Thomas explained to me that they rarely have the drugs actually on them. Instead they hide the merchandise inside a door somewhere and when you purchase an amount, the dealer gives you a door code and an address where you can go pick it up. The police apparently tolerate the trade as long as there is no violence. So while there are quite a few drugs in the area, it is supposedly pretty safe.

After walking around for a while we popped into a couple of cool local bars and had some beers. My stomach was killing me for some reason at this point and the alcohol didn't help, so we headed back to Thomas' place at around 2:00.

I woke up the next day around 11:30 and headed in the direction of the Louvre. You can spend days in there, but I only spent 3 hours or so. I saw the obligatory Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Wedding Feast at Cana, etc but the most impressive thing to me was the Code of Hammurabi, which is almost 4000 years old.

Image courtesy of Leslee at 3rd House Journal
After exiting the Louvre museum, I wandered through it's gardens for a bit before heading towards a park Thomas recommended to me called the Jardin du Luxembourg. The garden was really cool and had the first model of the statue of Liberty. In the garden was also this large basin of water with sailboats in it. Children would run around the outside of the pool with sticks and rescue any stuck sailboats by sending them back out to sea. It was really fun to watch.

I eventually reluctantly left the peaceful greenery of the garden and headed back to Thomas' place where I had a bath and some dinner he prepared, including delicious homemade crepes. I then left for the train station to catch an overnight train to Nice, my next destination.

Paris was a very very cool city overall. I could definitely see myself living there if I actually learned enough French first. I love the fact that there is an independent bakery, butcher, and produce stand on almost every corner. The food is fresh and real, and the commerce in general is very local and small. The city is easy to get around in and the public transportation is cheap. Montmartre was my favorite part of the city, as it seemed more laid back and younger than many of the other parts. Thomas and Ani were great people and I was very fortunate to have met them, especially considering my failure from the previous day at finding a place to stay. I would love to go back there some day when I am a bit more organized, know some more french, and have more time.

06 July 2009

My Darlin' Daisy

They'll try to keep us apart,
the bigots and the fools.
A tyranny on the heart
through misguided laws and rules.
You and I both know the facts,
that we love each other more than life.
We will weather these ignorant attacks
and I will have you for my wife.
I will wipe away your oily tears
as they streak down your metal cheeks
They say that robots know no fears…
We'll find out in the coming weeks.
Or maybe I should just give up this passionate vow.
You wouldn't want to marry a human anyhow.