5 reasons to love magical, weird L.A.

I’ve been to L.A. once, very briefly to score a Hollywood T-Shirt for my friend’s suvenir on the way to LAX airport. It was hot, congested, those two things together rarely a good thing. I didn’t have a favorable first impression of the city of Angels.

I’m loving  California life. The more I explore this place, the more awesome it becomes.

1. People are really…nice: You thought I was going to say weird, didn’t you? Nah, everybody’s weird. But these weird people are nice. They’re the kind of people that will blindly let you cut across 6 lanes of traffic because you’re about to miss your exit. Note to self: Never mistake stupidity for nice. Just kidding, just kidding. Everyone I’ve met has  been hospitable, kind, fun, adventurous, liberal, artistic and passionate. Maybe I instantly fell into the right circle because I’m here visiting a friend, but even grocery store workers, the cashier at the local trattoria and even Santa Monica’s “Downtown Ambassador” (who tried to bust my friends and I street performing an impromtu version of Jason Mraz’s ‘I’m Yours’ with a ukelee) are the downright most open and friendly people. I guess I haven’t had the ill fortune of hanging around “Hollywood celebrity types” yet.

One of the coolest gents I met in Cali

2. I could die for the scenery: Don’t let anyone fool you, the hollywood “hills” are pretty ginormous mountains! Treacherous ones. Ones that kick ass to hike. I’ve hiked through Runyon Canyon, practically passed out from heat and exhaustion, but kept going for the views alone. The views of Downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, The Pacific, everything right there is like a smorgeousboard of gluttony, excess and access, grime and glitter. Venice Beach and Santa Monica beaches are incredible, but nothing beat the shores of Malibu. At Leo Carrillo State Beach just north of Malibu on US 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. Walking on the stony rocks and exploring the cavernous enclaves during low tide was damn near a religious experience.

3. Fit for foodies: I’m a sucker for cheap, great Mexican food. Luckily I’ve come to the land of the taqueria, where the diablo beckons me daily with the promise of tomatillo and cilantro salsa to slather on my torta. Pho is available 24/7. I’ve died and went to Thai food heaven. A local blog, Backyard Bite, examines all the neighborhood gems in L.A. just waiting to be discovered. So get out there and start looking!

4. Places like the Museum of Death exist: Where else could you score a sweet afternoon like this? They didn’t allow any pictures inside, but rest assured the $15 entry fee was worth every minute walking through “Executioner’s Row” and “Suicide Hallway.”

5. Entertainment is still alive and well:  People here still go to the theater. Stand-up comedians and musicians roll through town on the regular. The radio stations out here rock and there is just so many things to do here.

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Stay tuned for upcoming posts on more specific locations in Los Angeles I visited as well as my trip up north to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district and the Sonoma County Redwoods.

Essential Packing List- Australia

I’m in a wonderful and warm (warmer than Chicago, anyway!) Burbank, California. I’ll be in California for a week, exploring L.A., then flying to Sydney next Monday, January 30th.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I’m backpacking through Australia. I hope to stay for a month (maybe longer?). Below is my essential packing list:

Bags:

65 Liter Field and Stream backpack

1 knapsack/purse/laptop carryon

Electronics:

Laptop

Digital Camera

Web cam

Cell phone

Ipod

Power plug for Australian outlets (Note: Oz outlets have a slanted 3-prong system rather than the U.S. 2. Also power outlets in Oz run on 240 V, rather than 120 V in the US. Check that your electronics’ tags say they are meant for RTW voltages. This info can be found on the tag or charger and read 120V~240V. If your electronic only reads 120V, you will also need a voltage converter. Available in most electronic stores)

All related cords/chargers

Clothes:

An array of tank tops and t-shirts

3 long-sleeved shirts (mainly for California. It could get chilly in January!)

1 pair of jeans

5 pairs of shorts (1 jean, 2 Nike workout shorts, 1 pair of capris, 1 pair sleeper shorts)

7 pairs of underwear

4 pairs of socks (2 black, 2 white)

Bandana

3 sun dresses

Bathing suit

2 pairs of sandals (one brown, one black), black TOMS knockoffs, gym shoes, flip-flops, black flats

Small black purse for going out

2 fashion belts, 2 regular jean belts

1 lightweight scarf

1 lightweight jacket (will probably leave behind in L.A. until I get back)

Miscellaneous:

Combination lock

Aluminum water bottle

Sunglasses

Compass

Flashlight

Address Book

Journal

Pens

Slim wallet with essentials (I.D., credit/debit card, health insurance card, Visa gift card- SCORE!)

1 book (will probably need to pick up another along the way)

Copies of EVERYTHING: My I.D., insurance card, passport, birth certificate, social security card, VISA card, flight information, hostel booking, ETA (electronic visa verification email).

Shower and toiletries:

1 bath towel (cute pattern, as to double for beach towel)

1 hand towel

1 washcloth

Travel sized shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, face wash

Toothbrush

Floss

Shaving Cream

Razors

Tampons (in case they don’t carry my brand in Oz)

Q-tips

Excedrin, Advil, Neosporin, Dramamine, Johnson & Johnson First Aid Kit

Sunblock (SPF 50. I’m a fair-skinned redhead!)

Tweezers, manicure scissors, nail file, nail clipper

2 deodorants (in case they don’t carry my brand in Oz)

Jewelry (earrings, bracelets, rings)

Makeup (the basics like powder, concealer, eye shadow and pencil, blush, mascara, chap stick)

Hair products: Straightener, hair ties and bobby pins, headbands)

Things still needed:

Bug Spray

Small bag for site seeing

Hat (mine got lost in transit)

The value in telling the truth. In the shower.

Lately, more than ever, I’ve had to be painfully truthful with myself.

In the last six months, my mind has been plagued with same onslaught of questions: Where am I going? Where have  I been? Who have I met? How have they changed my life? What will I do with my life? Will I be successful? What if he doesn’t call? Why do I feel like ignoring his call when he does?

Some people think best on the toilet. I tend to think best in the shower. There came a time last summer when, taking a cold shower to combat a heat wave, I was content with the way things were going. I was happy to be waiting tables, felt lucky to have the friends I did. I felt proud that I was making it on my own in Philadelphia.

Then something changed. My showers went from a relaxing spot to sing along to my Steely Dan albums to a place that would mask my salty tears. If I cried in the shower, it didn’t count, right? I felt miserable, unhappy. I daydreamed of running away, living in some sort of lean-two in Costa Rica. As I stood under my shower head, letting the water run over my back, I pretended I was in a warm waterfall in South America. I was feeling absolutely trapped.

As time passed and I realized that I’d soon have to leave the east coast to satiate my craving for the weird,unknown world. A shower this past fall gave me another epiphany. Rarely do I speak aloud to myself, but on this occasion it was necessary: “Stop being a pussy. Just do it. Seriously, just do it.” Suddenly my scrub session became a school yard bully berating unto myself. I had to sternly tell myself that my life in Philadelphia just wasn’t working anymore. I had to be honest.

Since then, I’ve become less reluctant to do what I want and what works for me. For a month or two, I feared telling my mom that I’d be traveling abroad to Australia for an extended say. Even my sister said, “Don’t you think mom will be mad?” I thought, “Mad?! Exploration is perfectly natural. It’s not like I’m breaking the news to her that I’m a drug addict.”

In being honest with myself, listening to my intuition and following my dreams, I’ve had to let some people down. I’ve had to quit jobs, say goodbye and move on. I’ve had to surprise people, delight others and certainly disappoint people. But in doing so, I feel like I’m on the path to becoming my best self. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t listened to the voice inside my head constantly echoing to be honest to myself.

Truth is a virtue in my life, perhaps the only driving force in my decision making. Truth is something that cannot be silenced. Try as I might to enjoy the peaceful moments in my shower, when I’m alone, cleaning off, contemplating life and preparing to do what I need to do for the day, the sometimes hard facts creep in. I know now how to differentiate the tears born out of frustration from those resulting from soap in my eyes. That distinction, at one time blurred, is as clear and honest as any shower revelation.

The best restaurants in Philadelphia

Philly food, I will miss you.  You surpass Chicago in a lot of ways (and admittedly fall short in a lot of ways too). I’ve had some great food here, and as a bit of a foodie, I’ve asked chefs, managers, co-workers and long-time residents some of their favorite spots. Here’s a list of some of the best places in the city (according to me) to catch a bite along with their best dish.

Breakfast/Brunch:

Ida Mae’s Bruncherie, Tulip and Norris Sts, Fishtown: Try the tofu scramble and the Huevos Rancheros. Breakfast burrito is great, too.

Hinge Cafe, Somerset and Thompson Sts, Port Richmond: Full breakfast including coffee or juice for under $5 until 10 a.m. on weekdays. ALWAYS try one of the specials on weekends.

Honeys Sit ‘n Eat, Fourth and Brown Sts, Northern Liberties: Some say overrated, but I love it. Try the latkes with sour cream and apples sauce. Single pancakes great too. NEVER go on Sunday (1 hour wait minimum).

Acapulco Restaurant, 1144 S. 9th St. ,South Philly: Any traditional breakfast (sandwich, scrambled eggs, etc.) is less than $5. Try a breakfast Torta with ham and fried eggs. Seriously.

Cafe Estelle, 4th and Spring Garden Sts, Northern Liberties: fresh squeezed OJ, corn beef Reuben sandwich, stuffed French toast. *Update: Now closed

Located in the lobby of a condo building

Oregon Diner, 302 W. Oregon Ave., South Philly: Belgian waffle, French onion soup (best in city).

Pete’s Clown House, 3878 Frankford Ave.,  Kensington: One Egg, Toast, Potatoes or Grits bacon or sausage coffee or tea, $2.95 Seriously good stuff.

Looks can be deceiving

Sandwiches:

Paesano’s, 152 W. Girard Ave., Fishtown: The Arista (suckling roast pork sandwich)

(Check it: http://www.trazzler.com/trips/paesanos-in-philadelphia-pa)

Chickie’s Italian Deli, 1014 Federal, South Philly: Italian Hoagie

Shank’s, 901 S. Columbus Blvd, South Philly: Eggplant parmesean, Roast Pork hoagie

* Memphis Market, Memphis and Huntingdon Sts, Fishtown: $4 footlong hoagie special of day, includes 20 oz. soda

*denotes best kept secret. 2 meals, one sandwich!

Q.T. Vietnamese Sandwich, 48 N. 10th St., Market East: BBQ Pork or House Special sandwiches. Won’t run you more than 5 bucks.

Best Burgers:

Standard Tap, 901 N. 2nd St.

Sketch, Girard Avenue next to Bank of America, Fishtown: Add avocado and grilled onions. Get fries w/side of chipotle aioli.

The gals and I at Sketch

Grace Tavern, 2229 Greys Ferry Ave., Greys Ferry: House burger, mid-rare.

PYT, Piazza at Schmidt’s, Northern Liberties: BBQ Bleu Cheeseburger, Adult Milkshake.

Asian/Chinatown:

Pho Hao, 1111 S. 11th St., South Philly: Any Pho. So cheap, so good.

Han Dynasty, 2nd and Chestnut Sts, Old City: Dan Dan Noodles

Ken’s Seafood, 1004 Race St, Chinatown: Steamed Full Striped Bass. They’ll even catch it in a net at the aquarium in the front of the restaurant and carry it flopping back to the kitchen for its imminent death. SO awesome.

Sang Kee Peking Duck House, 238 N. 9th St, Chinatown: Clearly, the Peking Duck is excellent. Good for 2.

Banana Leaf, 1009 Arch St., Chinatown: Roti Telur, Satay Tofu, Pearl Noodles, Any steamed fish.

*David’s Mai Lai Wah, 1001 Race St., Chinatown: Jellyfish appetizer, Beef Chow Fun with Satay Sauce

*Open suuuuper late everyday of the week. Always a good crowd, even at 1 a.m. Monday morning.

Mexican food:

Plaza Garibaldi, 935 Washington Ave., South Philly: Have the Alambre: Bistek, pollo, y tocino grilled steak, chicken, bacon, with onions, bell peppers, melted cheese, sauteed cactus, rice, pico de gallo, guacamole and beans for $11.

Que Chula Es Puebla, 2nd and Master Sts, Old Kensington: Guacamole, Chorizo burrito.

Loco Pez, Intersection of Norris, Cedar and Susquehanna Sts., Fishtown: Nachos, Pez Tacos, Beans Diablo.

Pez taco on the right. Flash fried Grouper

Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/ Indian/Ehiopian: 

Alyan’s Restaurant, 603 S. 4th St., Society Hill: Falafel Sandwich

South Street Souvlaki, 507 South St., South Street District: Combo platter ( tzatziki, baba ghanoush, houmus, dolmades, feta, olives, skordalia & taruna), any kabob platter (everything here very cheap. Carafe of white wine only $7!)

Byblos Restaurant and Bar, 114 S. 18th St, Center City: Cheap everything, delicious post-meal hookahs.

Sitar India, 60 S. 38th St., West Philly: Well-maintained buffet w/ anything you want for lunch and dinner. Around $12 for dinner buffet.

Sahara Indian Cuisine, 517 W. Girard Ave., Fishtown/Kensington: Vegetable Samosa, Tandoori Chicken, Saag Au Paneer, Baigen Bharta.

Abyssinia, 229 S. 45th St, West Philly: Kifto (rare minced beef), Ye’ Misir Alicha Wot (green lentils, onion, garlic, ginger), Yedoro Alicha (curried chicken with turmeric sauce).

Food Trucks/Random Bites

Guapos Tacos, usually parked at Love Park, 17th and JFK, Center City: Carnitas Tacos, Chipotle Short Rib tacos.

Memphis Taproom Hot Dog Truck, Cumberland and Memphis Sts, Fishtown: Sriarcha and bacon wrapped hot dog (only available in summer in beer garden), deep fried pickles w/ garlic aioli (available all year round). GREAT beer selection.

Rocco’s Italian Sausage, outside of Home Depot on Aramingo Avenue, Kensington: Sweet Italian sausage sandwich with sautéed onions and peppers.

Franco’s, Tulip and Huntingdon Sts, Fishtown: Garlic knots: they are like 35 cents a piece and the best goddamn things in the world.

Rocket Cat Cafe, Frankford and Norris, Fishtown: Everything bagel with housemade veggie cream cheese.

Reading Terminal Market, 51 N. 12th St, Center City: Just about anything. Special mentions: Amish Apple Dumplings *best thing in the world. Get it a la mode*, DiNic’s roast beef and pork sandwiches, Profi’s Creperie.

Photo Courtesy Bethany Kozak

Believe it.

10 Things I learned in Philly

I moved to Philadelphia post-college in October 2010. I’m moving back to Chicago (my home town) tomorrow. 15 months have gone by, and my, how I’ve grown! This is the obligatory moving on post. Here is a list of things I’ve accomplished/learned in my time on the East Coast.

1. I learned how to parallel park: Once the cause of contention and frustration, parallel parking has become so easy for me, I can practically do it with my eyes closed. In from the left or right, I continue to surprise myself at how, in one fell swoop, I’m able to inch my way into a narrow space.

2. I love roast pork sandwiches: Philly is a great foodie city. I never before knew the wonders of roasted pork, au jus, sharp provolone and brocoli rabe. I will dream about this sandwich for years to come.

3. The woods can be a dangerous, but magical place: I’ve spent a lot of times hiking the beautiful woods in and around Philly. Wissahickon Creek, Brandywine Hikes, Valley Forge State Park, Jim Thorpe, anywhere in the Pocono Mountains…all old, living, breathing spots. I’ve enjoyed swimming holes, creeks, rivers, gazed at (and swam in) some beautiful waterfalls, and had a head-to-head battle with mother nature lost in the Appalachians one fateful day. I’ve also learned to pack a compass and a map. 

On a hike with my friend Marley at Wissahickon Creek

4. Making friends with the neighbors: If you ever decide to live in city, which everyone should at some point, make it a point to be friendly with the neighbors. They’re the first people you want to ask about garbage day and the last person you want to piss off when shit goes down.

5. I became a pro at using chop sticks: Pho, how didn’t I know of your existence before I ventured to Washington Ave. in south Philly for some hangover Vietnamese? Your lovely beef and tripe soup smothered with chili flakes and Sriracha has somehow been what I’ve always needed.

The only photo to date of me enjoying Pho

6. I became a master of public transportation: Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, I was afraid to take public transportation. “What if I get off at the wrong stop?” I constantly argued with myself. But then, I took the leap and never looked back. El? Taxi? Bus? You name it, I’ll take it. 

7. I learned the value of talking to strangers: I’ve had more of my fair share of solo exploring days. They were all made better by a chat with a random stranger. It’s this way I’ve learned the value of Death Metal music, been on some incredible hikes and met some wicked-cool talented people.

8. Once you go microbrewed beer, you’ll never go back: Is it possible that I’m a beer snob? Yes. In all likelihood, it’s a fact. Within two miles of me are 3 microbreweries, all of their pours on tap at the onslaught of gastropubs in Philly. Slyfox, Kenzinger, Yards, yum. Please, sir, may I have some more?

9. Collect something, anything: Although I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m wanting to shed possessions, it’s always good to have a growing collection of something. As the adage goes, “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have anything on their walls.” That being said, I have a decent vinyl record collection now, something I didn’t have before. Just a few of my favorite artists. That’s all.

10. The value of putting myself out there: My time in Philly taught me to take a chance. I put myself out there. I wrote for the community newspaper. I acted like I belonged. I talked with bartenders, restaurant owners, priests, the homeless, morning commuters, freaks, actors…and I’m a better person for it. I’ve become more comfortable with my travel mindset and learned that in order to get anywhere, you have to move.

Inside the Indie Travel Mindset

A friend on my upcoming backpacking trip to Australia: “What are you running away from?”

Me: “It’s not what I’m running away from, it’s a question of what I’m moving toward.”

The indie traveler marvels

An indie travel mindset is optimistic. It’s brimming with possibility, wanderlust, the excitement, rather than fear, of the unknown. Indie travel means stepping outside of the box and really thrusting yourself full-throttle into an adventurous, uncertain future. It’s living above and beyond the norm.  An indie traveler makes ordinary life extraordinary.

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This post was inspired by BootsnAll and their Indie Travel Challenge 2012.