Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Into the Woods November 27, 2008

Filed under: Adventure,food,humor,Life,Travel — wideawakeinwonderland @ 11:30 am
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(Do you remember this musical? I never actually saw it, but I had the soundtrack so I kind of feel like I saw it. Although I didn’t. And now the song is in my head.)

Canoeing across the lake

Canoeing across the lake

Anywho, some friends have an annual Thanksgiving party up at a lakeside resort. They rent a huge cabin and anywhere from 20 to 30 people come and hang and stand around by the bonfire and eat way too much. I’m headed there in a few hours for tonight’s breaking in period. It’s almost like a fast to prepare for the binging ahead, as tonight’s meal is soup (although no one may be able to keep me out of the appetizers I prepared. I’m ready to feast!) Our Thanksgiving meal is a day late, so at least I’ll still be able to button my pants until some time tomorrow afternoon.

I’m looking forward to playing some games, eating some good food, and hopefully catching up on some reading and writing. With any luck, I may even make a few bucks. Last year I was offered $200 to strip nude and jump into the lake. I didn’t do it.

The bonfire (a.k.a. The Man Fire)

The bonfire (a.k.a. The Man Fire)

This year, I’m unemployed, and headed on a two week trip to the east coast next week. I’m thinking if I can get a pool going and get the pot up to $300 or more, they may just have a deal. Presuming I can find a wifi or internet connection of some kind, I’ll keep you posted as to my fund raising efforts.

Otherwise, I hate to cut this short, but with the burden of a todo list as long as my arm to address before I can hit the road, I must bid you adieu. In the meantime, you can enjoy some pictures from last year’s events. Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Thursday depending upon where you live and what holidays you observe)! Bon appetit!

Cheers!

Cheers!

 

Don’t believe the hype November 24, 2008

So I’ve mentioned that I have quite the magazine habit. In Style, Lucky, Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar…I get them all. I look at the pretty pictures, and when I can, I read the articles. Usually they’re about how to style your hair or prevent split ends or achieve a smoky eye in less than two minutes. However, sometime last winter all the fashion magazines started extolling the virtues of expensive juice fasts and liquid detoxes and waxing enraptured about the wonders of a week without actual food.

Almost immediately this got in my head, and hung on like a dog with a bone. The next thing you know, I’ve plunked down a couple hundred in herbs, tinctures, and organic fruits and vegetables – the poor man’s juice fast. The ones I’d read about magazines involved going to a spa where they prepare everything for you or a delivery service where everything was pre-made and brought to your door. Not so much with my budget effort. It was labor intensive food deprivation. Kind of like a concentration camp you set up for yourself.

Anyway, the idea behind a juice cleanse is that it will help your body purge the toxins you build up in your system during the course of your everyday life. Someone had suggested that the fact that my pee smells like coffee after I drink coffee (apologies, as I know that’s TMI) is because my liver wasn’t working up to speed.  This may or may not have any basis in reality, but it got me thinking that maybe my body was crying out for an opportunity to purge itself of all kinds of horribleness? And I started to feel for my poor liver and overstressed kidneys and ravaged colon, and a week of juice seemed like the least I could do.

There are all kinds of cleanses, but for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to go with “The Herb Doc” – Dr. Schulze’s American Botanical Pharmacy.  I think this was in large part because I suspected I went to college with and was once quite friendly with his son, but that’s a long story for another day.

Anyway, and perhaps not surprisingly, I decided to do the liver cleanse, which took five days. They recommended doing it from Monday through Friday so that you were less likely to goof it up while at home or with friends over the weekend. Although probably sound advice, I was working from home at the time, and this turned out to be the longest five days of my life.

Right out of the gates, Dr. Schulze hits you over the head with what will be regarded until the day you die as, “The worst thing I ever drank.” It’s been almost a year, and I still regurgitate a little bit when I think about it. It’s called the Liver and Gallbladder flush, and you have a big foamy glass of the nastiness every morning. For the curious, I offer the recipe:

  • 8 ounces of fresh apple and/or grape juice
  • 8 ounces of Distilled Water
  • 1-5 clove(s) of garlic (start with one and increase daily)
  • 1-5 tablespoon(s) of organic virgin cold-pressed olive oil (start with one and increase daily )
  • 1 small piece of fresh Ginger Root (about 1 inch long)

It’s bad. Baaad. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.

There’s something about the combination of juice, raw garlic, and loads of oil that is so very, very wrong. I honestly think the ginger is in there to keep you from throwing up.

Anyway, if that weren’t horrible enough, fifteen minutes after you choke down this vile mixture, it’s time for your two dropperfuls of ‘Liver/Gallbladder Anti-Parasite tonic’. This I would put into grape juice to mask the flavor. It didn’t work.  I’ve never drank poison, but I think I now know what it would taste like.

From there, you just juice it up. For breakfast you have fruit juice, and for lunch it’s diluted fresh raw vegetable juices,  potassium broth (basically a boiled up drink made of stuff you would normally put into a compost bin) , and herb teas. For dinner, it’s back to fruit juice, and the sad lonely feeling that your vital organs are shriveling up.

Now in all fairness, I will admit that by Thursday I felt pretty freaking good. Kind of invigorated and energized, although maybe that was just an adrenaline rush caused by my body’s fear that I might starve to death? Regardless, in the strangest way, when Friday came around I almost wanted to keep going. Not with the gag-reflex invoking garlic oil drink, but with the juices and the teas and the ascetic lifestyle. It didn’t hurt that I’d lost a couple pounds in the process.

With Thanksgiving just days away, I can’t help but thinking about maintaining my girlish figure while knee-deep in food…and the detox came to mind. Nonetheless, although I still have enough tinctures and herbs and tea mixes left to repeat the detox this winter, I think I’ll just try to take it easy around the Christmas cookies, put down the glass of eggnog, and run a few extra miles each week. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll pig out and overindulge…just not so much so that the only way to recover involves drinking the liquified contents of a compost bin.  Salud!

 

Building the Obamas the perfect mutt November 9, 2008

 

Obama has been quoted as saying that the new puppy promised to his young girls will be a “mutt like me.” Now I realize that there’s probably a team of experts now combing every humane society, pound, and rescue group in the country in search of the perfect ‘mutt like me’, but as a seasoned dog owner, I thought I’d weigh in with some insight that may prove valuable in their search.

Unfortunately, right out of gate we hit a serious roadblock. It seems 10-year-old Malia has allergies, so they’ll probably be looking to one of the ‘low dander’ or hairless breeds. That immediately rules out the Alaskan Malamute. If you enjoy eating, breathing, and pooping dog hair and removing it from your clothes every 2.2 seconds, then a Mal is your breed! Otherwise? Not so much.

Anyway, with respect to this allergy issue, what fits the bill is pretty damn exotic – American Hairless Terrier, Chinese Crested, Peruvian Inca Orchid (yes, that’s a dog), and the  Xoloitzcuintli (Mexican Hairless). Moreover, seeing as they want it to come from a pound, the odds that they’re going to end up with a ‘world’s ugliest dog’ contestant have just shot through the roof.

So at this point, I’d like to pause and make a suggestion that may be a little controversial: I think we need to get some top notch scientists on the case. Generally speaking, I am not one for gene splicing, but the man is about to be President of the United States. We can’t have an animal like this running around the White House. Imagine a whole generation of children growing up with this ugly mug staring at them from the front page and splashed across CNN!? We don’t have enough child psychologists to go around!

That’s why I think some top notch scientific minds need to get their @sses into a lab pronto. We’ve got enough heartburn medications already. Put down the beaker, and let’s get some smart folks focused on developing a hypoallergenic Golden Retriever.

Better yet, in keeping with the spirit of our President-elect, let’s mix up a diverse cultural brew. Maybe a little something from Asia? Chows can be snippy, and Akitas are a little scary sometimes too. Maybe part Shih Tzu or Japanese Spitz? They’re cute and cuddly.

Then maybe a little something out of Africa? An Afghan was good enough for Barbie, and I think that’s an argument that would work with Michelle. Again, the Basenjis and Rhodesian Ridgebacks wouldn’t be my first choice for young kids, but the lab can probably whip up a personality fix or partial lobotomy for that?

Europe? Don’t mind if I do! I’m kind of digging the idea of a Bernese Mountain Dog or a Saint Bernard. Set him up with a little wooden barrel and maybe fill it with Tang for the kids?

Now let’s stir in a little American ingeniuty and sprinkle in an addition from the ‘painfully cute yet descriptive name’ category. That’s right, the high-priced American mutt: Perhaps some Labradoodle or Puggle? Maybe a little Cockinese, Malchi, or a Beabull? Hell, let’s just go crazy and add some Bichpoo.

This would be a dog America could get behind. The Satyr or Centaur for the 21st century. In fact, that gives me an even better idea: Why not throw a little cat in there just to keep it interesting? No one needs to know.

How long does it take to gestate a dog anyway? 54-72 days (according to answerbag.com)???

PERFECT.

 

When bon appetit goes bad October 28, 2008

Years ago I went on two-week trip to Thailand. Overall, it was a great experience except for one little tiny glitch – I loathed Thai food. Just the smell of it on the streets would make my stomach turn. I got by on a mishmash of Power Bars, McDonalds, and poorly executed versions of Western classics. You never know what will get lost in translation: breakfast sausage and canned cocktail wieners were considered interchangeable.

Nonetheless, all was well until the day we found ourselves in a small village near the Burmese (Myanmar) border, and there was nothing but Thai food. Absolutely nothing. For three days. Never much of one for food strikes, I put on a brave face and ate most of the rice and as much as I could tolerate otherwise. They say no good deed goes unpunished, and within twelve hours, I was brought to my knees by a ferocious bout of food poisoning. I honestly thought I might die. Somewhere out there are pictures of me lying on a hammock, looking up to the heavens, and praying for a swift death.

This little tale is made extra ironic by the fact that for somehow I was convinced to try Thai food again…and now I really like it.

Anyway, and in contrast, this trip has been a breeze. Minus the very occasional and comparatively mild digestive disturbance, I’ve eaten the local, the freaky, and even the scary (from a hygiene perspective, anyway) without trouble. In fact, street food has been a good friend along the way. I’ve found I like being able to pick up a corn on the cob for my walk across the Bosphorous, and I rarely say no to a roasted chestnut.

However, I must confess that I have hit a food wall. By and large, I can’t do it any more. I’m done. The mere sight of the giant meat log from which the schwarma/kepab/kebab/gyro is cut now turns my stomach like the Thai food of yore. The thought of drinking any more salty yogurt, eating another piece of goat-derived cheese, or laying down good money for some cold eggplant makes me ill. The food isn’t making me sick – I’m just sick of it.

Now I imagine this next suggestion may hurt some feelings. I mean no harm, but I really do think that the Greeks and the Turks must have sat down and drawn up their national cuisines together. You could blindfold me and present me with a ‘best of’ plate from each country, and I swear it’s pretty much the same exact thing. The only clear differences are the names:

  • pastry with either spinach, cheese or ham inside

  • yogurt in varied and sundry forms

  • olives, olives, olives

  • salty crumbly cheese made from goat milk

  • a clear alcohol that tastes like licorice and turns cloudy if you add water

  • meat on a stick

  • fourteen different oily salads made of cold eggplant

And I’m not saying any of this is BAD, I’m just saying I’ve been eating it for almost a month. And I’m starting to hate it. And I think I’m ready to go home. To a large degree, I look forward to the cornucopia that is our lack of food identity. Sure, we have too many choices. Sure, overall we’re way too fat and dying faster than anyone else. But I swear, if there’s anything better than being able to eat from the menu of any country, nationality, or creed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…I don’t know what it is.

I’m sure the day will come that I crave a Greek salad rather than shudder at the thought one, or find myself trying to make a chicken gyro and tzatziki in my own kitchen. It could happen. It probably will. But for now, having discovered an actual jar of peanut butter in the local grocery store, it’s PB&J and Pilav (rice pilaf) until I am back on my own turf. And I couldn’t be happier. Bon Appetit!

 

It’s always good to have a backup plan October 27, 2008

In case you were starting to worry about my job prospects based on my faith based plan to transition to a writing career, you may be relieved to hear I’ve gotten some alternative offers. Saturday I received my first marriage proposal of the trip. Should things not work out for me back at home, I have been invited to live out my days running a cheap hotel in Bodrum, Turkey. This arrangement was suggested during the ride to the airport, along with pleas not to leave or to return immediately after the marathon. At first I was offered the role of business partner, and then my impending departure encouraged him to put all the cards on the table. When my young suitor sensed I wasn’t going to go for it, the ante was upped with promises of regular picnics, fishing trips, and all-night clubbing with the hotel guests in the summers. I’ve hit an age where all-night sleeping is WAY more appealing than all-night clubbing, but I guess this is one of those differences that keeps things spicy?

If you think it sounds aggressive – if not preposterous – to propose to a hotel guest you’ve known for less than 24 hours, then you clearly haven’t spent much time in Turkey.

I had heard the men were pushy in their zeal to sell carpets, trinkets, and fish dinners – and they are – but I seem to be attracting an additional level of attention. For those of you that aren’t naturally aggressive and would like to try these moves on the next interesting female you see, I offer this step-by-step outline:

  1. Make eye contact and stare into her eyes as if you are trying to bore into her very soul. Think about pictures you’ve seen of Charlie Manson or Saddam Hussein and try to emulate that semi-insane and super intense ferocity

  2. Continue stare for as long as humanly possible while simultaneously mustering courage for step three

  3. Break the ice with a cheap and easy pick up line. “Where are you from?” is exceedingly popular, but innocuous. You won’t be original, but you probably won’t send her into a high speed run in the other direction. This is also best-directed at someone you’re pretty sure doesn’t live next door. If you want to mix it up, some other options include:

      • Are you from Heaven?
      • I would like to make your holiday better.

      • Do you know this word, “Gorgeous?”

      • My friend and I have a bet. Are you from <<<insert country here>>> (helps if you have a friend)

      • Buy her a mussel from a street vendor (I fell for this one, and that is how I met Octopus Man)

Octopus Man was no doubt the worst of them, although Carpet Man and Blue Mosque Man were contenders. And, in the hopes you will find it entertaining and perhaps educational, I will share the moves and highlight the fumbles.

Carpet Man: 21 or 22 years old – Stopped my friend and I on the street outside a carpet shop in Sultanahmet. We cannot remember if the pickup line had to do with where we were from (my recollection) or “Can you tell me the most famous thing about Turkey?” The latter line was used at some point, and I guessed carpets and then kebap, but the correct answer was “hospitality!” We were then invited in for apple tea (they all try to get you with the apple tea). However on this occasion, my friend seemed open to it (probably the cold and rain as much as anything) so I went along with her.

I sat on the far end of the couch, and left her with the middle, next to him. Other young men emerged from elsewhere in the store or on the street, and wanted to discuss American politics, the U.S. banking system, and how long Slovenia has been on the euro. Carpet Man seemed disgruntled and moved to the other end of the store to look at a newspaper. At some point, the discussion turned to hammams (the Turkish baths), and where we should go.

A voice that sounded like a robot announced, “I give good massage. I give good massage.” Carpet Man was back in the action. “You do not waste your money on hammam. I massage you best.” We declined, and he waved me over, “Come here. I give you massage. You no like, you leave.” Then he tried to get me to go upstairs because “he had something to show me.” Yikes. What am I? 15 years old?

At this point, I was glad I hadn’t drank the tea (which tasted like hot apple cider). I’m such a paranoiac that after one sip I realized that if he’d slipped something in it, I wouldn’t be able to taste it. Then I noticed that my friend had drained hers dry – one of us needed to be sober enough to get us out of there!

The massage offers were endless, and he eventually placed himself on the arm of the couch just inches away from me. “I’ll massage your legs!” he cried out. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m really horribly sore in my thighs…but there’s no amount of sore that would cause me to go for that. We got up, and as we were walking out, he commented that I had very nice legs, grabbed both my calves, and pleaded for us to come back tomorrow.

Critical blunder: Excessive aggressiveness

Blue Mosque Man: early to mid-30s – Approached us as my friend was taking a picture of me in front of the Aya Sofia. “I will make picture for you!” was the ice breaker. He worked through the usual rigmarole (where from, how long here, what have you seen), to which I kept replying that we were in a hurry and thank you very much, but no thank you. Then I went back to trying to pose for the photo.

At this point, Blue Mosque Man (still standing next to my friend) starts saying, “She is very pretty. Don’t you think she is very beautiful?” Uncomfortable photo completed, I tried to get us out of there by mentioning that we were rushing off to the Blue Mosque. He said that we needed to hurry, because it was closing soon.

My friend had been in Istanbul a couple weeks ago and went into the mosque at 7pm, so she vaguely implied that she thought he might be mistaken. From there, he demanded to know why she thought he was lying. As we approached the mosque, I stopped to take a photo. At this point, I was pretty sure I heard him ask, “Where are you from? Are you from Mars?” I took a couple pictures as they walked away together. As I just about caught up to her, he turned around and walked toward me. “Oh great,” I thought…and then he walked right past me without a word. When I caught up to her, he had apparently been incredibly obnoxious and even mean to her! This, I think, only works with women who are into being abused.

Critical blunder: Unfounded rudeness

Octopus Man: 25 (he showed us his ID, born in 1983) – You can buy a wide variety of foods from the Istanbul street vendors – corn on the cob, cashews, rice and garbanzo beans, sesame bagels, and mussels. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t feel compelled to try them all. I stopped to ask if the mussels were raw, and the vendor cut one open and presented it to me. “Is it raw? Is it raw!?” I kept asking, but he didn’t speak enough English to answer. He’d already cut it open, so I felt compelled to take it. It was, by the way, totally disgusting. It had all this bumpy stuff – like eggs or something. I like mussels, but this was sick. Are they all that way raw!?!?

Anyway, a guy in a suit showed up and ate a few mussels. When I tried to figure out if I needed to pay the vendor, it was clear that the suit guy (later to be re-dubbed Octopus Man) had taken care of it. I thanked him, and we walked away.

Seconds later, he came up alongside us with the typical questions. His English was abysmal, so we slipped into silence and continued walking. He trailed along all the way. Then he started reaching out via pantomime. “Do you dance?” he asked me. (and if I’d had the words, “Not well” would be the accurate answer. I try to avoid dancing because I have no natural sense of rhythm and am quite a pitiful sight.) We tried to explain about the marathon the next morning and were not partying and needed our sleep, but it wasn’t getting through.

He spent a lot of time on his phone, and eventually communicated that he had friends that spoke good English. He wanted me to come with him to meet them. Obviously this was not going to happen.

I had a list of Turkish words translated into English given to me by Orhan, and I pulled it out to see if it would help. In response to my sorry attempts to communicate, he put his arm around me and squeezed in a “You’re so cute” kind of way. But then the arm didn’t leave. And then he kept trying to kiss my cheek. I kept looking at my friend – now laughing uncontrollably – and mouthing the words HELP ME. I would slip out of his grip, and he would come back twice as strong. I remember reading that if you SCUBA with giant squid they will wrap themselves all around you. The same can be said for young Turkish men who buy you a disgusting raw street mussel.

Anyway, as we walked down the street, my friend got stuck in the role of translator, even though she doesn’t speak Turkish. At one point, he pulled out his wallet, which she understood to mean he wanted to know how old I was. “I’m old,” I told him, “OLD. Too old or you,” but he didn’t understand, and kept looking at me deliriously.

Having been through this the night before with Orhan who had seen my passport and still didn’t believe me, I really didn’t want to go through this again. Octopus Man was telling us that he was 25, and started guessing my age. “21?” he guessed. No. “22?” On it went. When we got to 27, he pulled out his wallet again, apparently thinking we didn’t understand what he was asking.

“Just agree,” I told her. “Tell him anything. I do NOT want to get into this with this guy.”

The numbers started over. Eventually, she nodded to him, “Yes. 26. She’s 26.” He hugged me again in sheer bliss. By now we were to the hostel, and said goodbye. After thwarting yet another attempted kiss, he touched me on the cheek, “Baby face,” he said, smiling down at me, “Baby face…”

No kidding, baby face. You have no idea, my friend. NO IDEA.

 

This is Your Home October 24, 2008

Bodrum harbor

Bodrum harbor

Wow.

The Turks know how to treat a guest. I am sitting here with Orhan, his brother, and his mother. We are eating dried garbanzo beans (not much better than they sound and causing some FEROCIOUS heartburn) and pistachios and watching The Assassination of Jesse James because it’s the only English-speaking movie they own. The Southern accents are tough, even for my American ears, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who has a clue what’s going on. As I result, I keep sharing these elaborate explanations about the “wild west” (and just making the bulk of it up as I go along) in order to keep them involved. Did you know Jesse James invented moonshine? Yeah, well, as far as my new Turkish friends go, that’s a fact. Don’t go blowing my rep…

Meanwhile, Orhan himself has admitted to me he can’t understand what any American says, let alone the men in this film. His impersonation of an American talking is, ‘Dontcha think, Dontcha think, Dontcha think, ummmm, ummmm, ummmm, You know, you know, you know” (which ain’t half bad. You could take that act on the road.) He has commented that I don’t talk like an American (add that to “don’t look like an American” and I hope they let me back into the country next week!), but that is a deliberate act. When in the presence of someone whose English is intensely difficult for me to understand, I slow way down, simplify my vocabulary, and annunciate with a slight British accent. Basically I try to sound like the tapes they learned English from. I figure it’s the least I can do since my Turkish is so rusty.

Case in point, while being driven to the Turkish baths tonight, we stopped to pick up Orhan’s relatives. His aunt and uncle and their young children piled in, and after a moment of discussion, everyone was enthusiastically saying ‘VaNESSa.” I turned around to smile and wave, and the aunt told me, “My name is Sophia,” the same way I must sound when I say “Je m’appelle Vanessa” to the French. Then the kids were instructed to say, “How are you?” To which I responded, “Fine, thank you. How are you?” and we all happily took turns like this for five minutes.

In the same vein, my vulgar Turkish is rapidly improving. Orhan has printed out a list for me, and I can now hold my own in what could only be described as a very alarming conversation while in Istanbul. I can’t say ‘good morning’ or ‘how much does this cost?’, but I have learned that the number 81 is pronounced “sex and beer.” I have my fingers crossed that I’ll end up in room 81 in Istanbul. For tonight, I’m bunking in lucky #13, and that number didn’t make it onto my vocabulary sheet.

Bodrum in the distance as seen from the Kos-Bodrum ferry

Bodrum in the distance as seen from the Kos-Bodrum ferry

Otherwise, in addition to being the lavished-upon American guest, I suspect that tonight I am the only guest. I arrived here around dinner time, and was asked if I was hungry. Unable to face the buffet this last day, I ate pretty sparingly and had to admit that I was. Before I knew it, I had a hot bowl of what I would describe as mint and garbanzo bean soup in front of me. Then my dinner of barbecued chicken wings, rice, and a heaping helping of yogurt arrived.

After two weeks with the Greeks, I thought I wouldn’t be able to look at yogurt again for months, but it was a surprisingly pleasant combination. The Turkish – people after my own heart – are big eaters. While snacking on a substantial amount of garbanzo beans and assorted nuts, we’re drinking tea that is being kept warm on an elaborate kettle set up. Although I don’t know this for certain, in most countries it’s quite rude to reject any hospitality, so I am – despite being very tired and not really hungry for a third tangerine – going with the flow.

For example, i was poured a couple glasses of raki (Turkish ouzo). I was also told that I had to toss it back. It was ‘the way.’ After chugging my second gasoline-strong glass, I was informed through peels of laughter that raki is drunk like ouzo – slowly and mixed with water. Great. Now that I’ll burst into flames if anyone lights a match within ten feet of my breath…

However, despite treating me a little bit like a trained chimp, I would still rate this family highly in terms of hospitality and warmth. It’s not every day I find people that are wiling to spend two hours of their life watching a movie they don’t understand, while continually urging me to eat and drink more because, ‘This is your home.”

 

Tourist killed by angry mob of peacocks. October 21, 2008

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

This is the headline I envisioned as no less than 50 of them inched closer and closer and closer to me at the ‘Hidden Forest’ in Plaka here on Kos island. For such a pretty bird, they have mean faces. Menacing. And did that one just give me the evil eye? Lest you think a bird is a bird is a bird, follow me in this logic: Parakeets, and finches have cute faces. Owls look smart. And vultures? Enough said.

Anyway, on paper it sounded really cool, if not a wee bit complicated. Go about 30 kilometers out of town, just past the airport and shortly after the road bends to the left, take a right by the small blue and white church (they’re ALL small blue and white churches, but that’s just details), follow the road, cross the bridge and you’re there. A magical forest in the middle of the island.

At first, I sat on an empty bench near a couple with a German Shepherd puppy. A happy, exuberant little four-month old puppy that kept tearing after the peacocks like they were littermates, sending the birds – terrified – up into the trees. Then she would run over to me, and jump up waiting to be praised while her owners called for her by a name she was too young to recognize as her own. I wasn’t able to explain in Greek that I LOVED the attention from their dog and she was no bother whatsoever, so soon they put her on a leash, and walked away.

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

Shortly thereafter a female peacock (peahen? Is that right?) arrived to fill the lonely space left by the puppy. And then another and another and another, until there was no loneliness, but a fair amount of anxiety. Why are they getting so CLOSE? Is this normal?

A picnic table opened up, and I moved over there…and all the birds came. And it started to seem like a scene from an M. Night Shamalyan movie. And those so rarely end well.

It was at this point that a car full of Australians pulled up, and for a good long while they had to settle for pictures of the birds with me in the midst. One of the guy commented that it was “very Jurassic park”. Another series of movies that don’t always end so well.

I guess I felt nervous because I don’t really know anything about peacocks. I don’t know how to read their body language, and I don’t know if they’re dangerous or placid or bite or peck or get an inch from your ear and let out a shrill call just to see if you’ll drop dead. And I suppose all these ideas got in my head when it became clear that the three resident cats were afraid of the peacocks. This didn’t require anthropomorphizing on my part: The cats would try to slink by the peacocks, the peacocks would notice, get pissed, and start lunging, and the cats would run 15 up a tree to get away from them.

Your own private beach oasis in Ag. Stefanos

Your own private beach oasis on Ag. Stefanos

If you’d asked me yesterday: Peacock versus island cat, my money would have been on the cat. No questions asked. Thus, watching a lone female peacock threaten a cat…and the cat back down was a little intimidating to me. Vanessa versus peacock? I say put your money on me. Vanessa versus 50 peacocks plus however many are still in the trees waiting to swoop down and peck out my eyes? Well, let’s just say it might end up being a closed-coffin funeral. To paraphrase Julius Caesar: I came, I saw, I cowered.  And when a big one jumped up onto the picnic bench next to me, I left!

In other news, it’s only been about 48 hours, but my stomach is revolting against the buffets. I don’t know if it’s the quality or the repetition, but either way, I’ve spent some time on the gastrointestinal equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. At the same time, not only does the buffet menu repeat regularly, so does the music. Every day it’s the exact same rotation of 20 songs. Its kind of like the movie Groundhog Day. Hey, wasn’t I eating greasy pork and listening to Endless Love last night? WAS that last night? What day is this!? Wasn’t Tom Jones Delilah playing the last time I had oily chocolate cake with clove-flavored ‘Coca Cold’? However, I will admit that I enjoy that part of “Let’s Dance” where she transitions from a slow ballad about “last chance for romance” into the thumping disco groove. Almost makes you want to get up, dance to the keg, and pour yourself another glass of carbonated red wine. Opa!

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

 

You’re either in or you’re out October 20, 2008

There are some things in life where there is no gray area: Cat Person or Cat Hater. Winner or Loser. Kosher or who cares. Capitalism or Communism.

Buffets,it seems, are such a thing. So is Las Vegas. You either love them or you hate them. And the two combined might be your heaven or your hell.

I happen to love Las Vegas. I don’t really gamble. I just like the lights and the energy and the sheer audacity of the place. It’s big, it’s bright, and it’s larger than life. It’s like a party that never ends. Similarly, I feel the same way about buffets. Particularly Vegas buffets. My favorite is the one at the Wynn, followed by The Paris. As much as I like being able to walk from New York to Paris to Venice in 45 minutes, I also like to see my pizza rubbing elbows with my California rolls, Alaskan crab legs, and prime rib. Buffets represent the glory of choice.

However, I have standards. And I don’t get excited about just ANY buffet. Like the one in Vegas Vacation where you decide between the green stuff and the blue stuff? Not so much. Or your average cruise ship? No thank you. That’s why it was probably a sight – even to myself to a certain extent – to see me going to town on the Gaia Garden breakfast buffet this morning.

Let’s be honest here. This buffet would’ve been laughed out of Circus Circus. It wouldn’t even be up to snuff at the Four Queens..but it was the first such morning feast I’d seen in almost three months. Sure the bacon was raw, and the eggs sunny side up – and made seven hours ago. Admittedly, the coffee was cold and the apples had cinnamon on them to hide the brown spots, but it was a big spread of sub par products, and the cost was included with my room.

Put it all together, and I was positively thrilled.

If you haven’t guessed, the last few weeks have been a little tough in the food department, and I’ve got some calories to make up for! Although I’m a fairly intrepid eater, and a big fan of the schwarma/kebap/gyro/kebab/souvlaki pita, I have seen and sampled some wares that would make your toes curl:

  • Pizza covered in canned corn

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, canned peas, and canned carrots

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, peas, and carrots and then taken over to a counter by the pizza cart and drenched in ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise (Surely this is dinner in hell?)

  • Schwarma (gyros) heavy with French fries (what IS that!?)

  • Sidewalk corn on the cob that looks (and tastes! Oh yes. I bought one like a fool) better suited to a scarecrow decoration than to eating

  • Sidewalk fried pig’s ears

I actually have to stop here, because even recalling some of this makes me feel a little ill….

That stated, I find myself particularly pleased with my choice of an all-inclusive option on Kos. Is the food wonderful? Well…not really. I’d say somewhere between public school cafeteria and cheap cruise. Is there variety? Ummmmmmm….not so much. All in all, the Greeks slap some stuff between pastry or grill meat. There you go. Greek food. And there are only so many variations on two songs.

But is there plenty of it? Check!

And it is free? Absolutely!

And is there unlimited horrible wine, cheap beer, and Greek ouzo? Oh yeah, baby.

And you can blame the third for the reason this post is so short.

So forgive me. I took good notes in Athens, and I have tales to tell. I just need to be slightly more clear-headed to write clean copy. So, tomorrow, tomorrow! It’s only a day away…

 

We’re not cooking with gas October 15, 2008

Greetings from Naxos, Greece, the largest island in the Cyclades. There are dozens of Greek Islands, but the Cyclades chain is probably the most famous due to its proximity to Athens (six to ten hours by ferry), and the fact that it’s the chain that includes the two islands with the highest name recognition – Santorini and Mykonos.

As for Naxos, the ancient Greeks believed that Dionysus (aka Bacchus) – the god of wine and revelry – came from here, and there are still some ancient Greek ruins scattered along the coastline, including a pretty amazing arch right by where the ferry comes in. The middle of the island is filled with olive trees and vineyards, and I booked a little room with an ocean view which ended up being a rather large two-bedroom, four bed suite with no chance of seeing the ocean whatsoever. I hate to be judgmental, but the claims of an ocean view have been irrevocably exposed as a balls-out lie. Nonetheless, it’s spacious, so if any of you are in the neighborhood, come on by!. Although the view is blocked by the hotel in front of it, the room is just 50 meters from the beach…and a mere 5 kilometers from civilization.

Unlike Santorini, which is very tourist-focused and has several decent-sized ‘towns’ spread quite a bit apart, Naxos consists of many independent, tiny villages a few kilometers from one another. In Santorini, you are very isolated from the rest of island (25 minutes by car, an hour by 4-wheeler) and the routes are quite mountainous and not walkable. However, when you’re in your little town (Perissa, in my case) the area is heavily laden with grocery stores, restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars, Granted, 75% of them are closed in October, but there’s still a fair offering. Every building that isn’t a hotel is set up to sell something to the people staying in them, and whatever you need (within reason) can be found.

I think one of the things that perhaps made me a little overconfident about what I might find in Naxos is that Perissa (on Santorini), had not one, but two 24-hour bakeries. I don’t know how the local baker got swindled into this deal, but it seems unfair. They’re already making their product, do they really need to available at any time to sell it?

Meanwhile, on my birthday I took a late night walk in the moonlight. I decided to go by the bakery I came to prefer for its lower prices and friendly owner and see if he really was open and if he had any spanikopita. He had been there the last two times I’d gone by, so I was surprised – if not a little dismayed – to see him dozing in a chair at 11:30pm. Remember those “Time to make the donuts” ads for (Dunkin Donuts? Well, on Santorini it’s ALWAYS time to make the donuts.

In contrast, when i got to Ag Anna here in Naxos, I was informed that there are no longer any restaurants open this time of year…and the one mini-market would be closing in ten minutes (at 7pm). I rushed over there, and was immediately flummoxed. It was extremely small. And the cabbie who had charged me an arm and a leg for the ride to my studio was running the cash register. At first I thought I was hallucinating or maybe he was a twin or something, but after I stared at him for about five seconds in disbelief, he threw up his hands and gave me a sheepish smile as if to say, “Busted!”

It was like a scene from an Adam Sandler movie: You’re on a small island and everywhere you go, the same guy is working there, waiting to overcharge you. The same guy played (poorly) by Rob Schneider. Unrelated, there was a Rob Schneider doppleganger working at the hotel in Santorini. i considered pointing the uncanny resemblance out to him, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

As for the market, I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised by anything anymore, but this place hit a new low. Among the limited offerings and vast empty shelf space, one could find potatoes with very healthy looking 3′ sprouts (at 1 euro a pound, a virtual steal!), oranges from 1981, a variety of cheeses that expired in August, and a package of hotdogs with no expiration date, but an usual white hue along one side. In the mini-market’s defense, they did have piles and piles of canned dolmathakia (dolmas) – rice wrapped in grape leaves (as well as a variation in cabbage leaves), but unfortunately for me, I don’t like those.

As with the markets in Santorini, the place was desperately in need of restocking. The freezer had two gigantic restaurant supply-sized bags of peas and an entire octopus. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but this was no squid. The arms alone were the size of specimens more commonly seen at an aquarium. However, between the dog food and the dish soap I did find a package of linguine and a jar of Barilla spaghetti sauce. In need of protein, I threw caution to the wind ad bought a tin of meatballs. I know, I know. Normally I would be having the same reaction, but I’d already stared down an entire octopus, so I was feeling unusually bold.

Besides, I didn’t really eat much of anything today (mistakenly thinking I could get a nice dinner once I got here), and I’m hoping that they taste like Chef Boyardee ravioli or something in that ballpark. I don’t know that I’ve ever in my life WISHED for food to taste like Chef Boyardee, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I hauled my wares back to my studio, and surveyed the scene. Somehow I hadn’t registered that one of the two kitchen hotplates was no bigger than the palm of my hand. If I had, I might not have gone with a meal plan that involved boiling water, because as it turns out, that was the only burner that worked. They’re electric and the light to tell you they’re on isn’t working, but I cranked them both up to to “3” (the max) and waited. After about five minutes, I came back and threw a little water on each of them. The larger burner didn’t react. The mini burner sizzled a little. Emphasis on the word ‘little.’

Long story short, I couldn’t really get anything warmer than tepid water out of the tap (something I will be discussing with the owner, as my shower was the same temperature), but I put a pot on the tiny burner, put a lid on it, and waited. And waited. And waited. And when the water finally got to a ‘pre-simmer’ (the most it appeared it would ever be able to achieve), I put the noodles in and waited, and waited, and waited.

In the end, they were crunchier than I might normally prefer, but they softened enough to be edible. In the same vein, the meatballs were bearable, and the tomato sauce they were in was better than the Barilla. The balls themselves were fairly standard, except for the unexpected yet unmistakable flavor of mint. It was an aftertaste, but mint is one of those things that’s so strong that even a little bit can be overwhelming. The effect was like a meatball with a smear of toothpaste on it.

Thankfully, the water here is not nearly so funky as Santorini, because one of the many things not offered by the Ag Anna mini-market was bottled water. For your drinking enjoyment, they carry a wide array of hard liquor, wines, and some orange Fanta. If you’re not in the market for booze, hopefully you’re looking for a sugar high and some orange dye.

Anyway, I realized I was thirsty about 10 minutes after I got back to my room…and 15 minutes after the market had closed. After making my linguine, I found a little tiny pot (probably meant for heating milk) and the same size as the little burner and boiled up some water. Well, I didn’t BOIL it, that’s not possible under the circumstances, but you get the idea. It’s my personal theory that if you’re going to drink something bad, may as well drink it through a veil of Earl Gray tea. Thankfully the tea tasted more or less normal, and a later sampling of the unadulterated tap water found it drinkable.

Food acquisition troubles aside, the Greek islands are incredibly beautiful – chalky white buildings along jagged coastlines, delicate olive trees, and endless blue water. I took the most gorgeous ‘sunset on the water’ photo today as the ferry was arriving in Naxos. Moreover, if you’re the kind that tends to wander on foot (like me) you will come upon hidden little spots with natural panoramas that are jaw-dropping perfection. Like something out of a calendar.

Otherwise, and to be honest, I am way out in the sticks. I thought I was in the sticks in Croatia, but I think I’ve topped myself here. For example, I have never actually seen a horse give birth, but if I had to wager a guess on the noise coming from outside my room right now, that would be my first guess. Seriously though, it’s kind of alarming, something akin to a child bawling mixed with a donkey noise, although it does help distract from the half-dozen roosters braying.

It probably goes without saying, but if you find yourself on Naxos and decide to drop by and crash on one of my unused beds, follow the sound of the distressed mule. I’m right next door. And if I’m already asleep, feel free to help yourself to some of the leftover peppermint meatballs in the fridge.

(And just so you aren’t feeliing too terribly sad for me, I will add that I ended up walking to Naxos Town this morning – which took over two hours. I didn’t mind. I could walk all day so long as it’s warmish and the sun is shining. Plus, I think it would have taken more like an hour if I hadn’t stopped on this one beach and also taken a bunch of picures on the way. And played with some cats. By the way: DO NOT PICK UP GREEK CATS NO MATTER HOW FRIENDLY THEY SEEM!!! They go from friendly feline to whirling dervish of claws, fur, and maybe even a couple switchblades in 0.3 seconds.

Anyway, I am currently savoring a lovely lunch rich with local feta and heavenly tzatziki and calamari and Greek salad AND it turns out they have free wifi, so I can post the blog! All’s well that ends well…)

 

Excuse me while I do a little dry heaving… October 12, 2008

Admittedly, I’ve never been to Egypt or India, but if there’s ever a ‘world’s worst tap water’ contest, I’d like to nominate Santorini, Greece. It is AWFUL. Actually, that’s not a strong enough word: HEINOUS. HARROWING. HORRIFIC. BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD.

I thought maybe if I boiled it…??? I succeeded in ruining a perfectly good tea bag. Earl Gray, no less.

I don’t really know what is occurring, but I’d say the closest description is the ‘water cure’ at the Turkish baths in Budapest. I took a single mouthful of the salty sulfur water at the baths (out of the spigot intended for drinking), and it was warm and creepy, but bearable. The Santorini tap water is in the same genre, but not as curative. Just plain old gross.

As a coincidence (or is it???), I caught a small bit of ‘Erin Brokovich’ on the TV while using the wifi in the reception area earlier today. Just enough to remind me that the lawsuit was about poisonous water caused by PG&E. Just enough to feel a little tiny bit uncomfortable about all that I have consumed while on this trip.

In the same vein, I had my first glass of Greek wine today. A white wine apparently made in the traditional style. I had a sip, and I didn’t like it. The flavor was strange. Like herbs maybe. I couldn’t quit put my finger on it, but it was familiar.

I took another sip.

Oregano?

No.

Basil?

No.

Thyme?
No.

Mold?

Without a doubt.

Probably it came from a bottle that was corked, but I’m not sure. I know there’s a whole world of wine flavors. Is mildew a legitimate flavor profile?

Meanwhile, the hotel I’m staying at sells a glass of local white wine out of a box (less chance of corkage!) for 3 euro. However, if moldy is just the way it tastes, I really don’t want to waste the money. Thus, for now, I’ll just stick with my bottled water. On the other hand, tomorrow is my birthday (how weird is that???), so maybe I’ll live large and order up a glass of the box wine then? And I’m definitely getting some calamari.

Meanwhile, I had a strange night. After a solid week or more in hostels (and listening to people snore in all forms and fashion), I was so looking forward to peace and quiet. However, the universe had other plans. First, there was the wind. It got up to 45mph, and the sound of that is something else. At the very least, it’s not something I’m accustomed to, and some primitive instinct inside me finds it a little bit alarming. Especially when I’m on an island.

Next, there was my room. Not to pick on it, but the construction quality is little bit shoddy. The window has two panels – one glass and another wood – and they fit together and are held in place by a metal hinge that reminds me of a bobby pin. One strong breeze and they both come flying open.

Furthermore, the door to the room is jimmied into place, and a solid inch of daylight peers through when it’s shut. However, they have thoughtfully provided a sheet on a curtain rod, which I suppose is to try to block out the light or the breeze or ??? With respect to the door, the only thing that keeps it from flying open is a deadbolt which fits loosely in its slot. It’s a very casual arrangement from a security perspective, and if I knew I wouldn’t have to pay for the damage, I’d kind of be curious to see if I could body slam the door open using just my weight. I suspect I could.

Thus, due to the questionable craftsmanship and the intense winds, the door and windows spent the night slamming open and closed and creaking and straining and rattling against the deadbolt. It was incredibly noisy, and I probably woke up six or seven times. Then I would just lay in the darkness and listen to the wind and marvel at the fact that I’m lying in a bed in Santorni, Greece and my stomach is turning a little too much and does that water just taste bad or does the bad taste serve as a warning, like the stink applied to natural gas?

(Now you know why that little snippet of Erin Brokovich was particularly alarming…)

If the wind and the slamming and the creaking weren’t enough, there was the crying. At first, while still asleep, I thought it was a child. Then I realized it was a dog. In my sleepy confusion, I thought maybe it was in the courtyard of the hotel. I got up to look for it and maybe give it something to eat (I don’t have much in the room, but I do have some milk, some eggs, and an unlimited supply of hideous water). There was no one there but the wind.

I went back to bed, fell asleep, and heard it again. At this point, I realized it was coming from above my head, on the other side of the hotel. It cried and cried and cried, and I could occasionally hear it shake and the sound of a chain around its neck. I figured it must be afraid of all the wind or cold (or both), and it made me incredibly sad.

Today, I went looking and discovered a dog tied up behind a house near the hotel. I talked to the people here and they agreed that it was probably the same one I heard crying, that it’s always tied up, and that it “isn’t very nice.” I hate these kinds of situations. As much as I’m reminded of the magic in the world, it’s also hard to deny that people can be thoughtless idiots, if not worse.

If I were at home, I would go and talk to the owners and maybe even see if they would give me the dog or let me buy it from them. Anything to give it a better life. Here, and in these circumstances (with three weeks of backpacking left to do), I feel so helpless. I had to give myself firm talk about the insanity of trying to rescue a Greek dog. Or take it with me. Although if I can figure out where, I may go and buy it some meat or at least a bone. A birthday present to us both.

Speaking of birthdays, I was looking for a quote for tomorrow’s blog, and I ran across one so simple and yet profound, that it kind of made me tear up. As an added point of significance, it was said by Jonathan Swift, the writer that ‘invented’ my name (Vanessa) as a nickname for a student of his.

Moreover, it is a sentiment that has come to exemplify how I intend to live my life: by following my instincts, my heart, my emotions, and my gut. By noticing coincidences and doing what feels right. By being flexible and open and real. And by not being afraid and trusting the universe to throw out a safety net when I need it. And those ideals – as simple, as elusive, as liberating and as complicated as they are – can be summarized a little bit like this:

May you live all the days of your life.

 

 
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