Around the World With a Vagabond October 8, 2009

Filed under: We are all connected . . . — christynichols @ 6:02 pm

This is an excellent source of inspiration, for those of us who need assurance the future will be a bright one if we pay attention.


Filed under: We are all connected . . . — christynichols @ 5:59 pm

Good friend, good writer, good thinker.  Take a look.


my niece is a squeaky toy October 2, 2009

Filed under: Children Stories (not for children) — christynichols @ 5:29 pm
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Usually my stories of collisions with kids are of my school teaching days, where I’ve had my leg snotted on, or made a child cry (he was a little LIAR!).

But now, my sisters are popping out babies like the population depends on it, and I have been upgraded from step-aunt to aunt-aunt and I am TERRIFIED. I don’t know what to do with them, except for try to hold them without dropping them, or letting their little heads roll back too much. I hope I don’t make them cry.

My  little baby niece is 3 weeks old. When I held her yesterday, she had the hiccups for almost 15 minutes, and her fat little body bounced every few seconds. I think she wanted to cry some, but kept hiccuping instead.  She reminded me of a pink squeaky toy you throw around with roly poly puppy doggies.  I heart her.


It’s all changing October 1, 2009

Filed under: February Doesn't Suck — christynichols @ 6:44 pm

It feels like I’m falling.

Ha ha, okay. Sorry for the crap joke.  It does really feel like Fall in southern California today. (I never know if I am supposed to capitalize the “s” in Southern California.  Probably not.)

Anyway, I did get out of my car this morning to a sunny, blue, breezy world. And it smelled like fall. I’m not even sure what that is. Dead leaves aren’t what I’m getting at, but something about the air today was especially autumnal. I’m such a summer beach girl, and I know that spring is traditionally the season of new beginnings and fresh starts. But to me, Fall means new things too. Perhaps because that’s when school starts, and I’ve been a student or a teacher for most of my life.  Perhaps because I was born in late September, and Fall is when my new year always starts.

I think good things are going to happen this Fall.

And if they don’t, I’ll be too distracted by Christmas to worry for too long.


Gollum (extract from Bulgaria)

Filed under: Crazy Travel Stories — christynichols @ 6:26 pm
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When I first set eyes on Gollum, she scared me. Diminutive and frail, she seemed to be very old; however, she smiled up at us kindly enough, and her eyes glistened from behind round glasses that were too big for her face. She lived alone in the hut, isolated in a frozen fold of the mountains. She stayed through the fierce winter months, with only a souring outhouse and no heating other than a stove fire, and welcomed weary trekkers who stumbled into her doorway.

Her name wasn’t Gollum. However, her thinning hair, dark skin, and small wiry frame bore an uncanny resemblance to the fictional creature. I’m ashamed to say I know her by no other name.  But she spoke no English, and I could only say “hi”, “please”, and “thank you” in very bad Bulgarian.

Len and I followed her inside. We’d been climbing towards the seven lakes cupped in the peaks of the Rila mountain range.  I stomped in my boots free from frozen mud, and shut out the gusts of icy wind behind me.

I was a little nervous.  The hut had three floors, and narrow corridors.  We seemed to be the only lodgers.  The hut perched next to a reedy, frozen lake at the peak of the Rila Mountains. There were no roads, no trails, and no other care takers, other than the shrivelled enigma who handed us firewood for our stove, along with a room key.

Although she babbled pleasantly, and welcomed us with “chay” – hot herbal tea to defrost our frozen fingers, I still regarded Gollum with some distrust.  What was she doing up here, in the wilderness, all alone?  Was she somebody’s grandmother?  She looked to be at least 70. Her white hair was held back with a child’s plastic barrette and even though it was only late October, she wore a dark blue sweat shirt with “Silent Night” printed in silver glitter.

No matter the strange appearance of our host, we could not refuse the hospitality, and thanked her as she left us in her canteen with warm cups against our fingers. The aroma of spices and roasted dried fruits wafted from a corner stove. The scent infused the air, cloves and apple settled over us like a thick blanket.

Sitting in the heated room, Len and I paused for a moment with our chay to contemplate the problem of my busted zipper and open coat. It had become stubbornly snagged on the cloth at the base of my coat that morning, and we’d been unable to free it, or even budge it in the slightest. My yanking proved futile. Len was out of ideas, when from the shadows this tiny Gollum-shaped Bulgarian woman approached and did an incredible thing. She saw me struggling with the damn stuck zipper, mumbled in Bulgarian, and took my coat off my lap. She then reached for a large jagged knife, and aggressively began to saw the sharp knife back and forth against the zipper teeth and the fabric. We watched in horror as her thin wrinkled skin came dangerously close to the blade. Her hands moved furiously and after a few minutes, she cut victoriously through the stuck cloth.

I felt shamed. Len and I had worked for ages and neither of us could get it to budge. We’d even tried using the same knife we’d seen Gollum just use. This was truly a mountain woman. She retrieved a sewing needle and thread and sewed up the torn jacket. What an amazing lady!! I exclaimed “Thank you! Thank you!” in very bad Bulgarian – probably the equivalent of “Me thank! Me thank!” She beamed back at us, and dismissed us with a wave of her wrinkled hand, and a tumble of laughing Bulgarian.

Len, in his patchy grasp of her language, braved asking Gollum about our planned destination: a trail over the peak then down the mountainside towards a monastery. Gollum eyes grew wide as she shook her little wrinkled head. Her lips blew out and she waved her hands, and said in her crackly voice something that sounded like “snitch, snitch”.  Snitch? What is snitch?  Snow. And from her somewhat frantic gestures and lip-blowing, the snow was bad snow, and we understood that it was unsafe to attempt the climb.  We were a little disappointed, but if this mountain woman can survive winters in isolated huts on the Bulgarian mountains, content herself with using a damp and souring outhouse, and free stubborn zippers from their tracks, and she said it was unsafe, then it probably was.

The next morning, after a restless sleep, we departed into the icy wind. We set out down the rocky mountainside, certain that Gollum was snug by her stove, and not loping sneakily between the boulders behind us in the snow.


Bulgaria – first page of a thrilling tale

Filed under: Crazy Travel Stories — christynichols @ 6:24 pm
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We were rescued by a mountain of a man. A self-proclaimed champion of the 100-mile barefoot race in Japan back in ’92.  Or maybe it was South Korea. His English was bad.  My Bulgarian was worse.  But he was strong, and eager, and drove a car that could outrun the bears.

By the time we’d met him, I’d been reduced to a tear-stained, soggy human being. Everything ached. Finally sheltered from the brutal winter storm, I held the hot tea in my pink and clammy fingers. I had pulled my unsteady metal stool as close as was possible to the warmth of the cracking fire licking inside the stove. Steam rose from our soaked-through jeans, our hair in tangled drippy strands.  We still had over 13 kilometres to walk towards the village that offered a bus ride home.  Kostas, boisterous and big, would either be our saviour, or yet another unplanned challenge on our hiking adventure.

He was the second Bulgarian, the second human, in fact, we’d seen in days. An elderly woman lived in the hut where’d we’d spent the last night, isolated in a frozen fold of mountain. She greeted us with wrinkly smiles through rounded glasses too big for her tiny face. Her thin white hair was held back with a child’s plastic barrette, and somewhat resembled a kindly Gollum.  She lived there alone through the winter months, with no heating and a souring outhouse. Babbling pleasantly in Bulgarian, she welcomed weary hikers and offered them “chay” – hot herbal tea to defrost their fingers.

Half a day later, bloody and thirsty, driven down icy slopes by sleet and lightning, we were desperate. The elements were unforgiving, and I found myself trying to remember basic survival instincts:  Keeping my chest dry, wiggling my fingers and toes, despite reopening wounds, keeping to the rise of the hills when trees could not shelter, eating frozen snow to keep hydrated – these reminders kept my mind from despair. My nose was red and numb, and could smell only the bitter cold.

Both Len and I kept our spirits up with the memory of Gollum’s canteen we’d just left that morning. A corner stove warmed the aroma of spices and roasted dried fruits. The scent infused the air, cloves and apple settled over us like a warm blanket.  Somewhere on the mountain between the Gollum’s cloves and Kostas’ chay, we had   frozen and become soaked to the bone, wandering without a clue as to when we’d reach the next hut, not knowing if it would even be open, or would be abandoned for the winter.

But I digress.  The memory of overwhelming helplessness I felt keeps overtaking my story.  It wasn’t this bad from the beginning. The trip began with high spirits and lots of enthusiasm, if not with lots of supplies.


Ode on a Grecian Urinal

Filed under: Crazy Travel Stories — christynichols @ 6:16 pm
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The stench greeted me before the ungodly sight did.  Putrid. Sour. Damp. Incubated in peeling cement walls under an unforgiving sun.  I paused outside the public toilets for a moment and watched the flies buzz inside. Was it an emergency?  Could I hold it? And could I endure the odd glances I would get breaking down with the pee-pee dance if the situation became serious?  I looked behind me. The crowded clamour of impatiently waiting travellers ricocheted across the seating area of the bus station.  German, Spanish, Greek, American. Regardless, we were all united in sweaty misery, not entirely sure of the reason for the delayed bus departure, but all vying with each other for shade, reshuffling baggage, anxious lest the next bus departed without fair warning.

I had abandoned my place in the cluster and queue, and manoeuvred clumsily around irritable would-be passengers, over bubble-gum stained concrete towards the facilities.

What I encountered next was nothing less than foul.  It was possibly the most disgusting toilet experience I’ve ever had in my life – and that includes times I’ve accidentally peed on myself.  Inside the restroom were standing urinals – porcelain ridged foot pads, pee-spattered and grimy, on either side of a tennis ball sized black hole in the ground – and that’s all! No handles, no seats, no nothing. Toilet paper? Please.

I thought for sure I was in the men’s room, and I checked the outside sign no less than three times. I scrutinized the man/woman symbols fastened above the doorways. Yup, there was a stick person in a dress above my doorway, and a little boy hopped out of the doorway to my right.  I had no choice. Tip-toeing in on my flip-flops (although I’m not sure what this accomplished) I entered the stall, only touching the door and handles with the tips of my fingers. I looked up – no spiders.  I scanned the ground – only puddles. Sticking my sunglasses firmly in my mouth, I then carefully adjusted my shoulder bag.  I’d willed myself past germy walls, and avoided dropping belongings onto a swampy floor, now all I had to do was not splash myself. I let out a slow breath, (and inhaling very little), assumed the position.

Several long seconds later, the discommodious ordeal was over. Feeling a strange mixture of success and revulsion, I carefully left the stall the same way I’d entered – with little touching and much tiptoeing. It was then I saw that toilet paper was provided. A ream was spooled by the main door. Too late – I had already air dried.

The wash basin was directly next to the open door, which was propped wide open.  The entire lounge was reflected in the mirror, and the hundreds awaiting a bus had a view into the women’s toilets as I stood there soaping up my hands – all the sweaty men with dirty bags and overtired women could see right in.

Yup, I thought to them, I just peed standing.