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Culture

struggle
Culture, Europe, Nomadism, Travel Advice

Struggle: A Travel Manifesto

If you travel (or live), where the mother tongue is not your mother tongue, you will struggle. The mundane will become complex and challenging, and you will no longer take your habitual fluency in the everyday for granted.

This is a good thing.

It shouldn’t be easy. (Or at least, I strongly believe that it is through challenge, discomfort, dis-ease that we grow best.) So, this is my travel manifesto for you…

Go out into the world, and struggle:

Struggle, to purchase underwear.
Struggle, to ask directions.
Struggle, to talk about the things that matter to you.

Comprehending the cost of your coffee will be a minor victory.
Catching a compliment on the first go will be cause for celebration.
Navigating a simple interaction will thrill you—as it never could at home.

These are all very good things.

For it should not be easy, this day-to-day living.
It should not be easy, this being in the world.

So struggle, to take the bus.
And struggle, to order at the bar.
Struggle, to understand.
Struggle, to say you have understood.

For it should not be easy, this everyday living.
It should not be easy, this quotidian life thing.

When it is easy, we forget—

We forget that buying our coffee is in fact a minor victory,
that a compliment is cause for celebration,
that understanding is a miracle,
and being understood doubly so.

So struggle,
and don’t forget
that it is a privilege to move through this world with grace.

And when you do forget,
as, invariably, we do,
Go out again
and travel.

Remember what it feels like
to struggle for the simplest of rewards.

Remember not to take
anything for granted.

Remember how to move
through this world
with grace.

 

— Monday, 15 May; train Barcelona—Paris

 

*Image photographed in Belleville, Paris. Artwork by rnst.

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sagres, portugal
Culture, Europe, Travel Advice

Some Stuff I Liked in Portugal: A Rough and Tumble Guide

Portugal has made it onto just about every top travel list this year, and with good reason.

I loved the month I spent there in every way, and I want to share some of the goodness with you.

If you’re looking for the definitive guide to the country, this is not it. On the other hand, if you want to know about some of the places, food, and other things I really enjoyed, I’m so happy to share my favorite spots with you.

Enjoy this rough and totally incomplete guide to sunny Portugal. And feel free to ask if I didn’t mention something you want to know about—maybe I forgot!

I give to you…some stuff I liked and things I did in Portugal, in no particular order:

Praia da Areia Branca

Just 70 kilometers (1.5 hours by bus) North of Lisbon, Praia da Areia Branca is (one of) the chillest spot(s) I know to surf, yoga, and write songs in Portugal. Granted, I only went to two areas on the beach, but I’d go back, and that’s saying a lot. A week is perfect; I think less than that would be too short.

Stay:

Lemon Tree Hostel

Gorgeous garden out back, choice of shared or private rooms, super affordable if you go in low or mid season and opt for the surf-yoga-stay package. Comfortable, clean, and graced by the warmest and most welcoming hosts.

Pura Vida Surf Hostel

Dorms, doubles, and privates. Not actual sure how it’s different from Lemon Tree. Maybe cheaper and closer to the beach?

Surf:

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Ripar Surf School

Nicest (and, in my roommate’s opinion, cutest) surf instructors around. Great value for money. Packages available for surf/yoga/stay, or just surf/stay. As it turns out, I don’t like surf lessons, but if you’re looking to learn, this is the deal for you.

Yoga:

Yoga lessons with Carla (organized through Ripar/Lemon Tree) are a necessary complement to hours of surfing in the cold Atlantic. She is a gem of a teacher, and I was lucky to wander into her class for a week.

Eat/Drink:

Foz—

Fresh seafood, sunset views…what else is there to say? Go for one of the grill options. I won’t ruin it for you, but the skewers are served beautifully.

Sol Mar—

Catch the sun from the open terrace and relax to the sound of the waves, or sit inside and enjoy some particularly well-chosen beats. Veggie burger isn’t bad, and I hear their beetroot salad is excellent. Lemon-ginger infusion is perfect for post-surf warm-up.

Bar Central (or maybe it’s Cafe Central…you should probably ask) (Lourinha)—

If you have a car, or a friend with a car, this cafe is worth the 10 minute drive from Praia da Areia Branca for some of the tastiest Pasteis de Nata in the area. Buy a box and bring some back to share.

Dance:

Baracca Bar—

I did not go on working-surfing holiday expecting to stay out dancing until two in the morning, but that’s exactly what I did my last night in Praia da Areia Branca. The DJs on a Saturday night were unexpectedly exceptional.

Shop:

Kidding. This is not where you go for shopping.

Porto

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Porto and I are totally going steady. Portugal’s tiled, hilly, artistic northern city won my heart within twenty-four hours. I even forgive it for being uphill in every possible direction. A three-hour train or bus ride from Lisbon, it’s an easily accessible (and, in my humble opinion, unmissable) stop for any itinerary.

Stay:

Salema Cosy Home

I would highly recommend the Airbnb studio apartment I rented just to the north of the city center. Ideal for solo travelers, couples, or really good friends. Hosts were kind, solicitous, and excellent communicators.

Eat:

Ristorante Sai Cão (Rua do Bonjardim)—

Keep walking up past Trindade metro, cross the main road, and look for a blue awning on your left. Great local spot—according to my hosts people come from all over Porto to eat here—and menus for 4-5 euros.

Raiz—

Menu looks great. Comes highly recommended. I didn’t actually get a chance to eat here.

Foz Fish Restaurants—

Follow the Douro River toward the sea (walking). When the ocean comes into view and Foz is just around the corner, you’ll come to a strip of seafood restaurants on the sidewalk. Pick the busiest one, and enjoy some of the freshest, cheapest fish around.

Francesinha—

The famous Porto sandwich—layers of meat and cheese, and covered with a tomato-based sauce—available at just about any restaurant for 5-8 euros. I recommend sharing with a friend to avoid instant heart attack.

Drink:

Bar Candelabro—

Enjoy a coffee or port wine surrounded by old books. This quickly became my favorite spot to read and write in the whole city. Social hub by night, calm cafe haven by day.

Cafe Majestic—

Gorgeous (almost over the top) explosion of mirrors, brass, candelabras, and overdressed waiters. Have high tea for 20 euros…or sit down, take pictures, look at the menu and walk back out and head for Bar Candelabro instead.

Maus Hábitos—

Art gallery with bar/restaurant space, situated above a parking garage (you have to know to look for it). Funky, creative ambiance, perfect for a drink with friends, and supposedly there’s dancing on the weekends.

Dance:

Rua Cândido dos Reis—

Take your pick from a whole street full of standard bars-with-dance-floors. Nothing exceptional, but they serve their purpose if you’re looking for a party on a weeknight. Bar hop to get the full experience—Britney Spears one minute, Kizomba the next, and old school hip hop after that.

Party Boat—

Not sure how to give instructions for this…Walk along the river in the early evening. Look for a cruise boat blasting music and crowds of young people waiting to get on board. Get lucky, and buy the last two tickets to a sunset cruise dance party. Alternately, river sightseeing cruises are available daily (without the party).

Shop:

Out To Lunch

Tiny but ultra-chic selection of footwear, bags, and a few clothing items, owned and stocked by a man from Tokyo with a great eye for functional-yet-beautiful style. Boutique prices.

Pop-Up Store—

Good luck finding it, as it comes and goes, but if you do manage to stumble upon it there’s a whole world of local designers and cooking classes inside!

Do:

Rent a Scooter (140 Rua da Alegria)—

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They think of everything, so you don’t have to. Equipped us with helmets, smartphone charger, maps, plans for the day, goggles. All we had to do was hop on and get lost—and we did this spectacularly well. Set your map directions to “bicycle” to avoid highways and get into some interesting wooded situations.

 

Matosinhos

Don’t go here unless there are waves. Maybe for an afternoon to eat fish (Matosinhos has the best fish in the world, according to their tourism office).

Surf:

If there are waves, Matosinhos is an easy day trip from Porto. Take the A metro or the 501 bus from Porto center, and hop out half an hour later in the dilapidated, possibly haunted, urban surf spot. Many surf schools on the beach where you can rent equipment.

Stay:

Fish Tail Sea House

Good value for money. Well-equipped kitchen. Free bikes. Comfortable beds. Private rooms and suites available.

Do:

Kidding. Go for walks on the beach. Enjoy the downtime.

Lisbon

Charming, imperfect, and full of unexplored corners, this is my kind of city. Come for the food, the walking, and the music.

Stay:

Dom Dinis Studios

This one’s a splurge. Save it for a special occasion or for traveling with your mom. 😉 Ideal location if you like things quiet at night, walking distance to Bairro Alto and lots of funky bars and restaurants, but situated in a local, not too touristed part of town.

Be Lisbon Hostel

Budget option. Basic, but nice breakfast, clean rooms. Basically all you can ask for from a hostel.

Do:

Take a Cooking Class

lisbon, portugal

Another splurge, but a day-long adventure complete with visiting a local food market, learning loads about Portuguese cuisine, and cooking a ridiculously tasty multi-course meal, wine included.

Visit Sintra—

Again, I didn’t actually do this, but my friend did, and suggests taking a train to Sintra, renting scooters there, and then motoring out to the Westernmost point in continental Europe, Cabo da Roca. I’d take her word for it.

Walk—

Everywhere. The famous Tram 28 is crowded, to say the least; if I had to do it again, I’d probably just pull on my walking shoes and take a three hour wander from Bairro Alto to Alfama (wonderful twisty little roads) and back.

Go to Belém—

portugal

The port of departure for some of the most famous naval expeditions in history, Bélem is an easy (though hot and crowded) bus ride from the center of Lisbon. Wander over to the fort, but by all accounts don’t bother going inside, eat the Original Pastel de Belem at the cafe of the same name, Pasteis de Belem, and pause to soak in the ornate architecture of the Jerónimos Monastery.

Listen:

Fado—

A Tasca do Chico in Bairro Alto came highly recommended for a Fado music experience. Don’t make the same mistake we did; you need a reservation or you will not get a table in this tiny spot. Go for the music, not the food.

Eat:

Everything.

 

Sagres

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I couldn’t resist visiting the farthest southwest town in Europe, and it far exceeded my expectations. This place is definitely magic. According to my airbnb host, it has something to do with the rocks. Whatever it is, this would have to be my top pick for a chilled out beach holiday. Go out of season; I hear the summer gets hectic.

Stay:

Sunshine Guest House

I loved my stay at this laid-back oasis right at the edge of Sagres. Liz is a wonderful host, the garden is as peaceful as peaceful can be, and you could comfortably fit two people in the double room.

Memmo Baleeira Hotel—

If you’re going for upscale, this four-star hotel has some truly beautiful views of Sagres harbor. That’s all I can tell you about it, since I never actually stepped inside.

Do:

Surf—

Watch out for the rocks at Tonel Beach, especially if you’re like me and wipe out more than you ride waves. But the water is beautiful, not as bitingly cold as farther north, and the dramatic cliffs surrounding the beaches make an unbeatable view once you make it past the break point.

Cabo de São Vicente—

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This marks the actual farthest southwest point in all of continental Europe. It’s a slightly-hilly-but-enjoyable 6km pedal from Sagres town; if that’s not your windy cup of tea, I believe the regular local bus goes that way several times a day. Leave time to wander the paths along the cliffs

Wander—

The beaches. The cliffs. The harbor. The one sleepy main road that cuts through town. Time slows down here—let it.

Eat:

Mum’s

This could not be more inaptly named—definitely not home cooking. A little pricey, but a good “last night of vacation” kind of treat.

Agua Salgada—

Casual, affordable, tasty. Fast wifi…if you’re into that kind of thing.

Mar a Vista—

Another beautiful view. Pricey-but-delicious food.

Drink:

Kiosk Perceve—

Unassuming local cafe overlooking Mareta Beach. Nice spot for a morning coffee; I’d skip the pastries.

Dromedario—

Apparently where all the surfers hang out at night. I went too early. Good atmosphere. Drinks are pricey but good.

 

***Note: If I have not linked to something, that’s because you 1. can’t miss it, 2. can’t find it online, or 3. can easily Google it. Enjoy! Xx

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teaching, facilitating
Africa, Culture

How I’m Overcoming the Tension of Teaching Storytelling in Africa

In my first workshop meeting, I share a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she discusses how throughout history those in power—especially colonialists—have dispossessed others by choosing how to tell their stories.

I am a young, white, American woman facilitating a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa sponsored (I think) by the U.S. embassy.

The title of this workshop? Storytelling for Social Justice.

As my “students” introduce themselves at our first of five meetings, they speak with courageous vulnerability about identity, hope, passion, and overcoming adversities I can scarcely imagine—genocide, violence, disease, loss.

They are mostly African, mostly POC, and mostly ten years older than me.

Sitting at the table with these eight extraordinary individuals in a bland classroom in the “American Corner” of the Central Library, I facilitate a discussion about “finding our authentic voice.”

Am I following in the well-worn tracks of those colonialists and neo-colonialists who sought to dictate how the stories of the African continent should be told?

Am I, too, somehow disempowering my students by seeking to facilitate their storytelling? Is “facilitate” just a nice word for “control”?

Damn, I sure hope not.

But I also hope that my race, age, and nationality do not disqualify me from sharing what I know with this exceptional group of human beings. They have honored me with their trust, their time, and their attention—and I feel humbled and motivated in equal measure. I want to support them in telling their stories, and I want to do it in the right way. So, as I do, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the “right way” would be.

I’ve never quite faced a situation like this before. I’ve taught dance and yoga, but writing is another level. When we talk about telling stories—our stories—we step into sensitive territory.

For too long academia has arrogantly claimed ownership of the world’s stories. For too long,  media and politics have propagated incomplete stories, visiting a kind of violence on their subjects by flattening them into one dimension. For too long, those who possess privilege and power have thought to police the self-expression—the stories—of those who have less.

And on and on and on…yes, storytelling is sensitive territory.

But, I’m still facilitating the workshop. This is how I’m moving past these stumbling blocks:

1. I choose the word “facilitate” over “teach.”

I would not presume to teach a group of people older, wiser, and more seasoned than me. I prefer to understand my role as that of facilitator, enabling my workshop participants to learn from one another and from my experience. (I also expect to learn just as much from them as they do from me!)

2. To that end, I focus on the knowledge I do have to share, which may be of value.

Introducing this workshop, I told my group that I came to them primarily as an editor who has worked on thousands of articles and several full-length books. I also come to them as a writer who has published for years on many online platforms. I believe the knowledge I have gathered from that work could benefit anyone wishing to improve their writing skills.

3. I accept the tension.

I think there is an inherent tension to my position. There are layers of nuance whenever a person steps into a teaching role, travels in foreign countries, or enters any cultural context other than their own—and I’m doing all three. That’s okay. I hope that by keeping those nuances in mind I will manage to avoid any particularly inappropriate gaffes.

 

***

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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dance
Africa, Culture, Poetry & Fiction

When the World is in Chaos: Dance

“Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougotta dance. Don’teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you’restuck. Sodon’tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’re tired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.” ― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

7:00 p.m. Table Mountain summit, Cape Town, South Africa. 

The sun is setting, and we are dancing.

Two hundred participants, most dressed in white, headphones on—we are praising the earth, this mountain, the clouds streaming across the rocks and bathing the world in dreamlike mist.

It’s my first time at a “Secret Sunrise” (or, in this case, Secret Sunset) event.

I’ve taken the hard way up, along with one friend and two strangers picked up along the way, and my endorphins are already surging after a two-and-a-half-hour hike.

But the world is in chaos.

I can’t glance at Facebook, work a shift at elephant journal, or even have a casual conversation without this truth becoming painfully apparent.

I, like many, feel compelled to do something say something change something—but, paralyzed by the overwhelming madness of it, I do little, say little, change little. And yet, and yet, and yet—every day I work to promote mindfulness. Every day I write to nurture cross-cultural understanding. Soon, I will return to school to study the art of peacebuilding.

And yet, and yet, and yet—more importantly, in my humble opinion—every day I seek joy.

The world is full of fear. So I fight my own demons. The world is full of chaos, and so I strive for inner balance. The world is full of uncertainty, so I dance with it.*

And here we are. Dancing.

Piano keys draw clouds through the sky. Eighties rock compels bodies—eight years old to eighty-eight—to move to the same beat. House music lifts feet up, gravity-defying, and down, solid and real.

Each of us in our own headphone-cordoned world, we dance. Alone and together. And hell, if that’s not an apt metaphor, I don’t know what is.

Alone and wrapped up in our own worlds, we are all nonetheless connected to one another by the same melodies in our ears, the same rhythm in our blood, the same music in our bones. We are all dancing, whether we realize it or not, on the same sacred ground.

So, is this an odd time to be turning to joy, music, community?

I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say that moments of chaos, uncertainty, fear are very much the right time to dance. To connect, however we do that. To create. To keep pushing for meaning.

Because if we lose that now, then we’ve lost.

So dance—not in spite of the chaos, but for it, with it, and through it.

Dance—”as long as the music plays.”

Dance—and don’t stop, because the world, chaos and all, is still spinning.

*This is a poetic response to turmoil; none of it is meant to underplay the value of activism in our current global climate. Act. Protest. Make change, by all means. But don’t forget the value of personal growth. I genuinely believe in “the power that living a good life can have,” as a friend once put it. Ideally, do both!

 

Photo Credit: Juliette Bisset Photography

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Culture, Nomadism

The First Time: When the Travel Bug Bites

Some people will reminisce—with nostalgia, regret, or a little bit of each—about their first cigarette, their first drink, or their first time trying X (fill in the blank with your substance of choice).

Me?

Alcohol was never a big deal in my family, and I’ve stayed away from cigarettes like my life depended on it (oh wait, it kind of does).

That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have a “first” on which to reflects with the romantic fondness of well over a decade of distance.

I’m talking about travel, of course.

Several early family vacations could count as that first—London, Canada, Florida—but one in particular stands out in the box of mismatched, half-faded memories I carry: Italy.

Italy, first and most enduring love of my life… after horses. That first visit I only remember in glimpses: The heat (there was a record-breaking heatwave that summer). An old woman in a bead shop, and a strand of irregular, aquamarine beads (I would finally turn them into a necklace some fifteen years later). Crisp, white slices of coconut beneath a cascade of water glittering in the sun. Venice canals and dreams of carnevale (I have yet to visit at the right time). Cappuccinos for breakfast, and several subsequent bathroom breaks over the course of the morning. Fairytale mountain villages, and cities shimmering under summer sun.

I have since been back to visit nearly a dozen times, learned the language, and made numerous friends across the country. I have bungee jumped in Piedmonte and reignited a passion for adventure in Sicily. I’ve indulged in pizza in Napoli, anchovies in Genoa, and fiori di zucca in Rome.

Just thinking of it makes my mouth water and my palms tingle.

Italy.

But the dreamlike beauty of these childhood memories is about so much more than one country. It marks a beginning.

I could trace my enthusiasm for the wonder of discovery to many moments—many trips:

Dancing in a circle of women in rural Senegal at age sixteen.

Wandering the streets of Spanish cities at Christmas-time with my peers, age fifteen.

Age seventeen, arriving in Paris alone, and growing into a sense of adventure once too big for me.

I could pick any of those or countless other journeys, but I choose to locate my travel awakening in that sweltering Italian summer many years prior. A seed already planted. A map already drawn across my future—big, swirling letters spelling, WANDER.

And so I have. And so I do.

The first time we meet ourselves is extraordinary indeed. Even if we’re too young to realize it. Even if we repeat the experience countless times thence. Even if we’re full of shit, and it wasn’t like that at all, and that dreamlike beauty is just the result of fifteen years’ obfuscation.

So, I’m curious: what was your first time traveling like?

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

White Spaces: Combatting Racism with Subtle Awareness

Here’s a totally irrelevant picture of penguins to lighten the mood…

Late December, Sea Point, Cape Town

The walls and tables are painted a matte black, with the name of the cafe written in white. The decor is rustic-chic—a style I’m beginning to identify as a hallmark of upper-middle class Capetonian hipster culture. Bonobo plays on the stereo.

When I look around, I’m not surprised to see that all of the customers here are white. The servers (just as predictably) are black, but let’s leave that aside for now.

While the prevalence of these “white spaces” no longer surprises me here (or anywhere, for that matter), I still find them troubling: the climbing gym, music venues, bars, cafes…

A conversation with my new housemates this morning brought this subject to the front of my mind, though I’ve repeatedly followed this line of thinking during my time in Cape Town—both this year and last. And I think it’s pretty relevant to any society (not just South African) that is both highly stratified and intricately diverse.

Disclaimer: This is one tiny, ~800-word slice of a massively complex issue. I am not offering any solutions. If I make you stop, think, examine, I will be more than satisfied.

So.

The reason for which these white spaces exist are plentiful and fairly obvious. A massive wealth gap divided along racial lines, cultural differences in taste and recreation—the list goes on. Rather than discuss why we have them, however, I’d like to focus on how (or even if) we can confront this phenomenon.

To be precise, I would like to share how I confront it, in the hopes that it may help someone else. Note that I’m sharing from my position as a white woman experiencing “white spaces”—I’d be curious how the response changes (or doesn’t) when the deck shifts.

Situation One:

You walk into a funky little cafe, bar, concert, fill-in-the-blank, and the homogeneity of the whitewashed crowd immediately strikes you, given that you’re in a country whose population is less than 10% white.

Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t turn around and walk out, because you actually dig this band, the coffee’s awesome, or you’re getting super hungry. You don’t harangue your fellow customers with your guilt-laden complaints about the bitter vestiges of apartheid ruining your cappuccino, because that’s pointless. And you don’t call up your non-white friend to see if they want to hang out—immediately—because, well, I think it’s obvious.

Here’s what I actually do; it’s something I’d call subtle awareness, and I believe it to be meaningful:

> First, I acknowledge that I have indeed entered a glaringly white space. I’m not going to ignore it or deny it. The first step to addressing any issue is being aware of it.

> Second, I examine my motives for being here. Am I drawn to this cafe because it is comfortably, familiarly, safely white? Or have my 25 years of cultural conditioning simply predisposed me to seek out cafes, bars and activities that equally appeal to others of my socioeconomic and cultural background? It’s probably the latter, but it’s always good to check in—honestly—with myself.

> Lastly, I enjoy my goddamn cappuccino and write this blog while I’m at it, because at this particular moment, what else am I going to do?

Situation Two:

You start to notice a pattern. You seem to be consistently ending up in these homogenous spaces, and you’re worried that it’s not helping you become a more aware, cross-culturally fluent or educated individual.

Here’s what you don’t do: Dig in your heels and maintain your status quo, all the while patting yourself on the back for being more enlightened than “those” people at the table next to you. You don’t immediately dump all your friends and hobbies and look for better ones, either, because that’s silly.

Here’s what I’ve done in the past:

> If I think I’m ending up in these spaces because my neighborhoods of choice are problematically homogenous, I may choose to spend time in other, more integrated areas.

> If I notice that one of my activities (like salsa dance) or one of my favorite bars appears to be more inclusive, I may give that preferential treatment when deciding how to use my time.

> If I observe one of my regular cafes promoting exchange and openness of any kind, I will offer it my patronage more frequently.

I don’t know that any of these actions are solutions, really, but I believe they are steps we can take as individuals to ensure that—at the very least—we are not unconsciously supporting subtle segregation in our cities.

And, I’m not saying there’s not a time and a place for homogenous spaces. Religious, ethnic and other identity groups have every right, and valid need, to assemble as such; however, when we never step beyond our insular spaces, everyone loses.
Don’t you want to meet and learn from as many (and as many kinds of) people as possible? I certainly do.

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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

It’s. A. Trap! (Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal)

Ourika Valley, near Marrakech, Morocco

“Very good price. Very low. Better than free.”

We’re standing outside the van on the road to Ourika Valley, a verdant, majority-Berber region about two hours from Marrakech, popular with tourists for its many waterfalls.

A half-dozen camels on short tethers wait for curious tourists to approach. It’s well past 11 o’clock, but the sun is just making it over the mountains to warm the deep valley.

The man speaking proffers a tangle of necklaces. Plastic. The artisanal products are waiting in well-planned shops, with tougher hagglers behind the counter. My companions for the day, a French couple from outside of Paris, laugh and tell him that’s a good marketing plan.

In a way it is, but then…maybe not.

You see, I don’t want anything for free (unless it’s a sincere gift). I don’t want the cheapest price (anymore). I want a fair price.

And that’s a very different thing.

Ostensibly we’ve stopped for photos, but the view was around the last bend, and we’re really here to have time to spend money. We’ll stop at three more tourist establishments (some would call them traps, but I won’t today and I’ll explain why soon) before actually reaching our intended destination.

> The Argan Oil Cooperative. Smiling women sit outside the building grinding argan nuts into a paste, which will later be separated into cosmetic oil and the base ingredient for savon noir (black soap). They beckon us to sit beside them. Ashkid, ashkid. (Come, come.) You can take pictures, we’re told. No problem. There’s a dish in front of the women with a few dirham notes in it. We can leave money there.

> The Berber House. A traditional Berber house, which I might have found more exciting had I not spent a great deal of the last five weeks visiting my Berber friends in their (yes) Berber Houses. We’re shown the kitchen, the store room, the family room, the hamam (bath) and the backyard. You can take pictures. No problem. On the way out, there’s a well-placed souvenir shop and a donation box for the welcoming Berber House family.

> The Guide. We stop in the village near the waterfalls to pick up the guide. We haven’t asked for the guide, but the guide is going to come with us. He accompanies our small group halfway up the trail, to the first set of falls, and then tells us it’s time to turn back. When we insist on continuing, and he insists on not going back without us, I convince him to wait at the halfway-up cafe while we finish the hike.

Now, I don’t like being forced to pay for things I didn’t ask for or want in the first place. I also don’t like not paying someone for work completed or services rendered. I don’t like feeling cheated out of my money. And I don’t like feeling I’ve cheated someone out of their fairly-earned money.

Most people in the world would probably agree with those sentiments.

I think all of these scenarios and concerns come down to the same fundamental issue: fairness. Fairness to local people working in the tourism sector, and fairness to tourists seeking to spend their money well (ethically, reasonably and in a way that feels good to them).

So, what’s fair?

I’m going to seriously oversimplify for a moment. The tourist-local marketplace dynamic—as I see it—breaks down like this:

Tourists don’t want to feel ripped off or trapped. (That’s a low bar.) These things are traps: Telling someone to take a picture (no problem, pictures are free!), and then asking them to pay for it. Insisting someone take a bracelet as a gift—and then insisting they pay for it. Following someone through the souk, though they have clearly stated they do not want a guide—and then asking them to pay for it. (These are all common experiences for unsuspecting foreigners in Morocco.)

Tourists do want to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Sure, some are pinching pennies, but most just want fair. Many, like me, will feel frustrated when they know an item’s market price, and then are asked to pay four times that because said item has been handily transported into a souvenir shop. They don’t want to pay “tourist prices.”

Local people want to make a decent living. They see foreign tourists and assume (reasonably) that if they had enough money to pay for a plane ticket to Morocco, they also have enough money to pay a few dollars above market price for a bottle of oil, silver necklace, taxi ride, and everything else. They might also encourage (or push) said tourists to spread their money evenly—a few gifts at the Argan Cooperative, a dollar to the Berber House, a tip to the guide. From this perspective, those tourist establishments mentioned above are not traps, but simply an integral component of the day’s adventure.

Some believe that tourists should pay tourist prices, because they can. And hey, I get where they’re coming from.

Naturally, I also get where tourists are coming from. I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, and I think the fair solution is neither “equal” (tourists often do earn significantly more than the locals they’re buying from, so why shouldn’t they pay more too?), nor excessive (no one likes traps and cheating). Rather, it’s somewhere in the middle, where everyone is happy—or at least not pissed off.

So, when buying abroad, keep three questions in mind:

1. How much is this worth to me? (How much do I want to spend on it? Keep in mind, for perspective, what you would spend at home.)

2. What is the “market price”? (What would this cost a local?)

3. What can I afford? (What’s my budget for this day? Week? Holiday? Will this meal/souvenir/excursion put me over?)

The “fair” price exists somewhere at the nexus of those three answers.

Happy shopping!

*** 

And to justify this blog title:

 

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6 Awesome-Sauce Pictures of Morocco (or, Why you Should Follow Me on Instagram)

 

I haven’t been writing much the last couple weeks. I think sometimes, when it comes to writing about our experiences, there have to be periods of writing—and then periods of experiencing. So, let’s just say it’s been the latter, and I’ll get to the writing part again soon.

In the meantime, did you know I’m on Instagram these days? I share snippets of writing or travelogue with nearly every post. Here are five reasons to follow me:

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How to Pour Tea, It’s Out of our Hands, and Other Lessons from the Moroccan Coast

View of Taghazout from one of my favorite cafes.

We watch the waves crash against the cliffs beneath our table, the spray catching the sunlight over and over again.

Our tea arrives—the classic combination of Moroccan mint and strong green that everyone drinks, but without the usual pound of sugar, per my request. A simple silver teapot with a long spout. Two small glasses (not mugs, but glasses).

I lift the teapot and pour, starting low, then lifting higher, and higher, and a bit higher, steam rising up from the cascade of tea and a slight froth forming at the top of each glass.

(If I wanted to mix in sugar, I would pour out glasses of tea and dump them back in the pot several times to avoid using a spoon—bad luck, I learned later. But I don’t, so I only pour once.)

I can’t remember where I first learned to pour tea—properly. I think it was in a Senegalese village when I was 16. Everyone laughed at my first attempts, of course. Even today I spill more than any veteran tea pourer ever would. But I know the technique, and I can make a few bubbles.

It’s a small thing, arguably, pouring tea well, and yet drinking tea proves such a fundamental aspect of so many cultures that I think it’s important, too. Worth learning. Worth sharing.

***

Let’s drink tea together tomorrow!

Inshallah.

You should open a cafe there—you would get so much business!

It’s a good idea. Inshallah.

Are you moving this week?Inshallah.

When does the high season start?

Things will get busy next week—inshallah.

Inshallah (also written insha’Allah). If God wills it. God willing. Used throughout the Arabic-speaking and Muslim world—and often. At times my plan-making mind gets irritated by the ceaseless string of Inshallahs spoken and exchanged each day.

Is nothing certain?

Well, no, it’s not—is it? To visitors from outside cultures, I think this nonstop Inshallah business can seem like a cop out. Noncommittal. But I suspect (I don’t know nearly enough to say for certain) that it stems more from a different perspective.

Everything—everything—is out of our hands. Maybe. It’s probably a good brain exercise to consider the possibility, even if you disagree. Living here, then, is like a daily mind workout.

***

Every day I learn here.

I learned that until the 1950s there was a small Jewish settlement alongside the Berber ones in the mountains behind Taghazout. I visited a new friend’s home in those mountains, and I could feel the history in the ground under my feet.

I learned that Friday is couscous day and that soup is a summer food.

I learned that no length of fabric will cover my foreignness here—no matter how Mediterranean I like to think I look.

I’ve learned that if you sit long enough in one spot it is really possible to see every person you know in this town, and that if you start walking you can spend a whole day just stopping in for chats with old and new friends.

I’ve learned how to roll under a wave with my surfboard, and that lip sunburn is real.

I’ve learned to count to ten (though I’ve forgotten at the moment), and how to greet.

There’s no other message today. There are lessons everywhere, every day and in every culture; I hope you’ll go find some!

***

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3 Macabre Stories that Capture the Essence of Napoli

Climbing hundreds of stairs for a good view, as per usual.
Thursday, 1 September, Napoli, Italy

The weather was a bit mercurial, and we took shelter from a sudden downpour in a nearby cafe. As the storm passed and we prepared to continue on our way, my friend (a Napoli native) informed me that we were about to cross an invisible boundary. 
The police don’t come to this part of the city. It’s controlled by a powerful family (think mafia). Recently, three young men from a different, neighboring family were shot dead as they walked down the street.
Suffice it to say, this was not a safe neighborhood. At least, unlike most tourists, I was acutely aware of the risk involved as we ambled onward on our quest for the best sfogliatelle in Napoli (and thus, seeing as it’s a Neapolitan specialty, the best sfogliatelle in the world).
Go fish! Can you find this famous Napolitano bakery? 🙂
Now, if you’re thinking it’s insane to risk your life for a pastry, you’ve never eaten sfogliatella.
Flaky layers of crisp pastry, artfully shaped to resemble a seashell, filled with sweet ricotta cream lightly flavored with local orange, and dusted with powdered sugar—one is already too much, too rich, and yet I bought four just in case.
Napoli has a bit of a reputation as the more dangerous, more sordid Southern cousin of the well-frequented tourist destinations to the North (Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan). And indeed, the crowded warren of twisting streets layered atop a cavernous subterranean void (in turn layered atop the lava fields that fuel Vesuvius) is not the Italy many tourists may imagine.
It may be better.
As we walked from one end of the city to the other on our quixotic pastry mission, my friend, uniquely knowledgeable about Napoli’s architecture, history, language and culture, regaled me with stories—many macabre—that endeared me to this dark gem of a city.
Here are three of them:

Rub a skull for good luck.
The Old Ladies and the Catacomb Skulls
Twenty years ago, the old ladies of Napoli still maintained this tradition, originating in the plague years, or perhaps the war years (regardless, years of extraordinarily high mortality rates). Each would “care for” a particular skull in the catacombs beneath the city, bringing it flowers, offering it prayers, and grieving the death of a stranger who perhaps had no family left to mourn their passing. Sometimes, vicious arguments would break out over a particular skull when more than one woman lay claim to it. Questa è la mia testa! No! È la mia! (This is my head! No! It’s mine!) Talk about macabre.
San Gennaro (Saint Januarius), Patron Saint of Napoli, and the Curious Affair of the Keys to the Church
San Gennaro is not officially a saint, but don’t try telling that to the citizens of Napoli, who are particularly dedicated to their patron. A vial of the saint’s blood purportedly resides in the main church of the city, and twice a year, the miracle of the liquefaction takes place, in which the dried remains turn to liquid once again. Interestingly, the remains of San Gennaro do not belong to the church, but rather to a mysterious ancient sect with a centuries-old history in Napoli. They allow the church to hold the remains in exchange for the keys to the building. If you’re picturing creepy Satanic rituals in the catacombs of the cathedral, yeah, I’m right there with you.

L’Ospedale delle Bambole (Doll Hospital)—a whole different kind of creepy.
The Hospital of the Incurable Ones
In medieval times, when pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a popular undertaking, Napoli occupied an important step along the journey. In plague years, and other times too, pilgrims would frequently fall ill and find themselves unable to complete their pilgrimage. Many of these stopped in Napoli, and the city became their final resting place. The Church built a thriving business around this occurrence, constructing buildings to house the sick and dying—partially out of Christian charity, surely, and partly because dying pilgrims, unable to reach Jerusalem, proved particularly disposed to leave everything to the Church instead. One of these, L’Ospedale deli Incurrabili (Hospital of the Incurables), still operates today, although I believe it is more concerned with saving lives than saving souls.

This dark and fascinating history lays a particular foundation for the vibrant crush of life filling Napoli today. Young people sporting dark 70s-style fashion, 80s-style hair, lots of attitude and even more tattoos loiter outside cafes, nightclubs, pizzerias and bars. Crowds line up outside the best gelateria, stroll along the waterfront and press into the narrow streets of the Old City. The Napoletano language is alive and well, spoken by many if not most locals, changing and adapting as any healthy, living language should. Musicians play tarantela in the streets, and motorcyclists and pedestrians weave past, seemingly unaware of one another, in a seething dance. 

There is life here. Tons of it. And maybe that’s the point of all the macabre underpinnings; they tell a story about all the living happening now.

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