Tag

tourism

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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Adventure, Travel Advice

12 Ways to Move/Travel to a New City/Country Where you Don’t Know Anyone—and Totally Rock It

I write about venturing into the unknown often.

You might say it’s my favorite theme—in life and in art. You could say it’s my greatest fear—in love and in travel. You could say it is a subject so rich and fascinating it proves an inexhaustible source of meaning and poetry.

You could say any of those things, and you would be right.

Ah, the not-knowing…it is terrifying, exhilarating, life-affirming indeed. But maybe you want a bit more practicality and a bit less poetry; maybe you have concrete travel plans on the horizon (even tenuous possibilities or dreams), and poetic rambling philosophizing isn’t helping all that much. I get that.

I drop myself into cities and countries where I know no one on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge and the freedom, but I also forget that this is a practice like any other, and may seem somewhat inaccessible at first. I want to demystify it.

The following suggestions stem from my years of solo traveling. I don’t necessarily follow them all for every trip, but one could in theory. I believe each one has a deep potential to cushion the fall into unknown territory.

1. Reach out to friends and acquaintances.
A simple “Do I know anyone in _____?” on Facebook can yield unexpected results. This method has found me friends (and often couches) in otherwise totally anonymous destinations from Prague and Montenegro to Berlin, Sicily and more.

2. Mine for connections.
Social media is a multifaceted beast, but it really comes in handy for certain kinds of travel. Asking my Facebook friends (and sometimes blog followers), “Does anyone have any connections in ___?” in the past has found me a house to rent in Cape Town, a Shabbat dinner in Paris, a yoga teaching gig in Zanzibar and so much more. The more I travel, the more this network grows—exponentially, it would seem. Couchsurfing is another amazing resource for making connections for friends and couches both.

3. Be bold—ask questions.
Every piece of information we could possibly need is available on the ground. No need to read travel forums, or even look up directions (although by all means do both if it sets your mind at ease). Depending on where I am in the world, there are metro maps, info centers, or throngs of aggressive taxi drivers at every possible port of arrival. Barring that, the local person sitting next to me on the bus/plane/train/ferry is usually an excellent resource.

4. Get Lost and Like It.
I have developed an impressive habit of always going the wrong way first. If it’s straight, I go left. If it’s left, I go right. I then employ method #3, ad infinitum, to take the longest route possible to my intended destination (thank you, legs). Getting lost is a common consequence of going in blind; even if we don’t like it, we can bring our sense of humor along for the walk.

5. Set up a work trade.

While it is 100% possible (and yes, fun and exciting) to just go explore a new place and find your way upon arrival, I have often found more depth and connection through work exchanges. Websites like wwoofing, workaway and helpx are just a few of many platforms for finding interesting, short-term placements abroad. Working or volunteering is, in my experience, one of the most effective ways to integrate into a community and create my place in the formerly unfamiliar. It is also an incredibly practical resource for information.

6. Set up an Airbnb.
If, like me, you need to work while you wander (or, also like me, you don’t want to commit to too much socializing), but still want an entree into local community, Airbnb is unparalleled. Set your price, browse your options, and choose a host who seems interesting. I’m still in contact with several of my Airbnb hosts, and owe unique memories (like tasting the best chocolate gelato in the whole world) to them.

7. Keep up with hobbies.
I always carry two extra pairs of shoes with me: dance and climbing. Dancing tango in Kenya, salsa-ing in Berlin and climbing in Cape Town, I’ve connected with people I never would have met otherwise. Same goes for surfing in Morocco and hiking in Spain. Those are my passions; follow yours, and you’ll find your people—anywhere.

8. Become a regular.
There is something uniquely grounding in being a regular customer (in a cafe, restaurant or even corner store)—in simply being recognized. When our default mode is anonymity, feeling seen, known, familiar offers a powerful sense of place. Especially when I have a few weeks or months somewhere, I find myself accumulating these “regular” spots. Though utterly departing from all known routine is a key—even necessary—element of travel for me, glimpses of familiarity within the unknown provide welcome—even necessary—moments of respite.

9. Let go of should’s.
I believe having a mile-long checklist of “must sees” and “must dos” limits potential for spontaneous discovery. I tend to get a decent amount of touristing in when I visit a new place, but I try not to force it. Excursions happen organically—often with new friends—when I genuinely want to do them, and not because I feel like I’ll be failing at travel if I don’t.

10. Cook.
My experience of travel altered hugely when I started to prepare a lot of my own meals (just as I used to when I lived in one place). Not all, of course, since tasting local cuisines is hands down the best part of traveling, but many. Wandering local markets, I’ve honed new language skills, felt rooted in my home-of-the-moment, and saved serious money. Choosing an Airbnb with a kitchen facilitates this, as does staying with friends. Cooking a beautiful meal has long been my favorite way to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

11. Talk to strangers.
They’re not scary—usually. When they are creepy, it’s usually pretty clear to my intuition. Strangers are typically one of three things: treasure troves of insider information, friends you haven’t met yet, or an excellent story for later. Instructions for talking to strangers: eyes up, shoulders down, words out.

12. When all else fails, fail.
I have days—sometimes weeks—where my social self goes into hibernation, my patience drops to zero, and the challenge of the unknown shifts from exhilarating to tiresome. When that happens, I take time to write, read, call friends and family, and simply be. No one can be “on” all the time. This lifestyle of exploration and discovery has curves and cycles, just like any other. These moments of pause make the adventure all the richer.
 
May your journeys be—yours.

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conscious travel
Nature, Travel Advice

This is What Conscious Travel Looks Like

I wrote this for a masters application, but I think it’s worth sharing with more than a few admissions officers! What follows is an incomplete, but nonetheless important, analysis of the social, political and environmental issues facing the growing international tourism industry—and what we can do about them…

***

The tuk-tuk driver is angry. The passengers are drunk. Instigating.

They don’t want to pay. Too much. A crowd of other drivers and tourists collects around the ugly scene. It’s past midnight.

The situation nearly escalates to blows before friends of the passengers pay for them, and the tuk-tuk driver withdraws, hardly pacified. A bitter tasted remains in the air as the crowd disperses.

Everything wrong with a global, multi-billion dollar industry comes to a head in these few moments. Economic disparity. Cultural ignorance. Tension: between tourist and local. Competition: between local and local. Anger: everywhere.

In several years I have witnessed an excess of these scenarios; it is difficult to choose just one.

Tourism is the fastest-growing industry worldwide, surpassing oil, agriculture and automobiles. Many economies already depend on it, and more will join their ranks as the global middle class continues to expand, nurturing a growing curiosity about other people and other places. International tourist arrivals are forecasted to reach 1.8 billion annually by 2030—up 66% from their current levels.

If anyone thinks tourism is a frivolous area of concern, now would be the time to think again. The industry has a far-reaching impact, touching environmental, social and political sectors with long, insistent fingers.

Now, there are meaningful, constructive, sustainable and mutually beneficial ways for tourism to develop in a community, and then there is everything else.

Unsustainable tourism looks like luxury hotels in Zanzibar that truck in their drinking, washing and toilet water from the mainland (the island was never made to support such population density), and then flush it into the no-longer-so-pristine Indian Ocean. Unethical development looks like private tour companies in Shanghai that exploit local peoples—foreign tour operators organizing for tourists and expats to visit local homes, schools and community centers in order to offer clients an “authentic” experience, yet forgetting to allow those local communities the privilege of self-representation. Economically-damaging tourism looks like property costs rocketing in Cape Town—rendering the cost of living in the city prohibitively expensive to most South Africans, while European visitors happily pay top-euro for short-term rentals.

I have observed all of these trends up close. Working in media and travel, I regularly witness the negative impact of tourism—and the narratives around it—on local communities. I observe traditions warped to a narrow, outsider’s view of what they should be; competition for American dollars festering amongst former friends; natural havens destroyed by overeager and under-planned development; real, complex history and conflict glossed over by an appealing portrait of tropical paradise.

Initiatives in sustainable tourism, ethnotourism, slow travel and community-driven tourism are numerous and promising, however.

As I see it, for the travel industry to move forward—toward promoting cross-cultural understanding, integration and peace, and away from perpetuating disparity, conflict and ignorance—it must proceed in the following ways:

>> Industry professionals must empower local communities to represent themselves—their stories, traditions, spiritual practices and identities—and move the typical industry narratives far beyond the usual stereotypes and generalizations. Words like “authentic,” “real,” and “untouched”—frequently used in marketing by tourists, professionals and locals alike—must be scrutinized for the rigid cultural portraits they propagate and the complexities they belie.

>> Local communities must leave space for multiple storylines, idiosyncrasies and complexity to coexist. The wealthy, privileged male perspective commonly embodied by local leaders in tourism is not the only one. Creating space for female voices, religious and ethnic minorities, and other less favored stories to be heard—diversifying tour guides, business owners, service industry professionals and marketing materials—will be a crucial element of inclusive development.

>> Both local communities and industry professionals must seek to integrate education, interaction and meaningful connection to place wherever possible. It is not enough to gloss over conflict and offer an artificial, romanticized image of a place and its history and people. Moving beyond one-line summaries and fantasized, fetishized representations of otherness, we begin to foster true cross-cultural awareness.

>> Foreign visitors must seek out experiences of cultural exchange and learning. The power of asking questions, listening (with open ears and closed lips), and maintaining an open mind and heart cannot be exaggerated. Good intentions are not enough; tourists have tremendous power to change industry standards by demanding sustainability, social justice and cultural awareness from the industry they fuel.

In addition, growing numbers of Chinese and African tourists—both domestic and international—are introducing a new demographic into the industry, with all the challenges that entails. Any initiative in sustainable, socially conscious travel must take into account the varied cultural norms and values of a shifting clientele. Working to understand the market they wish to influence, industry professionals will better develop it to positive effect.

Lastly, in particularly conflict-prone regions such as Israel and Palestine or post-conflict regions like Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is crucial to take into account the intersection of political events—past and present—and international tourism. Much as one might try, a visit to a foreign country does not occur in a vacuum. The political climate and history of a place are unavoidably relevant to the foreigner, impacting as they do the development of the tourism sector, the on-the-ground experience of the visitor, and the very identities with which one interacts. Moreover, the foreigner acts as a mirror and ambassador, influencing, at the micro level, global awareness and perception of a given place. Given these considerations, we cannot underestimate the power of 1.8 billion people moving around the globe to reflect and influence political, social and cultural dynamics.

The responsibility for further development lies not only with industry professionals, nor only with local communities or foreign visitors. Indeed, only with a concerted effort from all three sides will this massive modern entity act as a positive force for understanding, tolerance and harmony.

***

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Adventure, Africa, Europe

Johnny Cash and Slow Travel

8:15 a.m. Self-Service Restaurant “Mediterraneo.” Grandi Navi Veloci ferry from Tangier to Barcelona.

I look up from my breakfast—a somewhat sad assortment of boxed orange juice, cold croissant and drinkable cappuccino—and observe the other diners. Some are in groups or pairs. Many are young Moroccan families. Many are alone.

Of this last group, few are doing anything (checking phones, or even reading). They’re just sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around. For some reason it reminds me of Johnny Cash’s famous response when asked for his definition of paradise:

“This morning, with her, having coffee.”

I’m not even a particular Johnny Cash fan, but something about that phrase—or more, the slowness it implies—fits this mood.

People choose to travel by ferry (around thirty hours from Tangier to Barcelona, rather than two or three by plane) for many reasons. The slightly cheaper cost. The relative ease and comfort of sleeper cabins and lots of space to roam. The vaguely romantic allure of faded, Titanic-style old world luxury.

And—I suspect—some people choose it for the slowness.

Sitting in a deck chair for hours watching the boat’s trailing wake. Pacing the endless red-carpeted hallways, hands skimming smudged brass banisters, stepping inside and outside and inside again with no special aim.

Sitting there, drinking coffee, looking around.

Because there’s nothing better to do. Because the boat will get there—slowly—and we have time. Because, just like Johnny Cash, we recognize that the smallest moments contain the whole universe—if we slow down enough to dwell there for a while.

For me, that is the essence of slow travel: dwelling in a moment while everything shifts around us, knowing that we’re on our way.

Another reason to take the ferry: They have puppies!!! (If you’re lucky…)
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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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Culture, Europe, Food

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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Culture, Europe

La Notte della Taranta—or, Where I was on Saturday

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On the road to Melpignano

Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.

The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.

Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.

It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.

The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.

The History:

In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.

According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.

Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.

La Notte della Taranta Today:

I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.

But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.

Worth the trip? Absolutely.

Some outcomes of this excursion:

  1. I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
  2. I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
  3. I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.

Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.

Skip to minute 4:00 if ten minutes of Italian folk music isn’t your thing.

 

Skip to minute 5:00 to see a bit of traditional dancing.

 

***
 
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Europe, Food

Olive Oil on Everything—A Gastronomic Diary of Italy

Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.
Florence, Tuscany
Gnocchi with fennel, mint and gorgonzola. A generous drizzle of olive oil (the frisky, green, good quality kind) on plain, unsalted bread.
A lake near Rome somewhere
Tiny fried fish, fresh marinated anchovies, mussels, salad with potato and octopus. Gnocchi with clams. Zucchini with mint. A drizzle of olive oil.
Perugia, Umbria
Hands dry from chalk after climbing. Spaghetti with shrimp, zucchini and tomatoes. Olive oil from my host’s grandmother’s home. On the pasta—and on my hands.
It was in Italy that I learned you can truly put olive oil on everything. 

This most recent visit was no different.
I mean the good stuff, of course. The fresh, tangy-green and gorgeous kind. The kind with bite and soul that tastes like it came from somebody’s grandmother’s farm (it probably did).
Here is a short list of ways I have seen olive oil used to perfection:
  • Drizzled (well, poured, really) into tomato sauce after it is cooked and off the heat.
  • Applied to dry hair, skin and lips—best directly after the shower while skin is damp.
  • On a plate with sea salt and balsamic vinegar, for dipping (soaking) bread.
  • Drizzled over pasta, salad, cut vegetables, meat, pizza—everything, I’m serious.
  • Straight from the jug—just a taste, a drop.

Olive oil is everything. Condiment and cooking base. Start and finish. Salve for the body and soul. I suspect it could heal a broken heart, too, though I haven’t tried yet.

In the North, butter features prominently in many recipes—but in the South, it’s always olive oil.
And that’s really it. I mean, I could keep listing mouthwatering Italian meals. That never gets old for me… but I suspect others might have a shorter attention span.
Olive oil. On everything. My time in Italy, in a nutshell.
Try it. Don’t be moderate. Italian grandmothers never are. 
Find the good stuff. Apply liberally. Buon appetito!

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Europe, Food

What Makes this Mountain Different from all other Mountains?

Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome
Valle Aurelia, Rome, Italy
This could be any street in any city.
Mixed-era apartment buildings. Imposing stone architecture at turns. Cobblestones and pavement following no particular logic. Crush of cars and scooters. Cafes. Hairdressers. Passerby dressed in scales of gray.
So, what makes this different from any other street—any other city?

***
As we made our way along a dry riverbed, through native South African fynbos vegetation, toward a spectacular (but, again, arguably nondescript) stretch of shoreline, my friend put to me a similar question. Not quite verbatim, it was this:

Most mountains are pretty similar. Most cities are pretty similar. There are trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. There are streets and cafes and passerby in scales of gray. So, what makes these mountains different? If we can go hiking at home, why ever go anywhere else? And if we do go, how do we choose? 

Why these mountains?

The question was philosophical in nature. My friend is nearly as avid a traveler as I.
I would like to offer three answers to these questions—one of which sounds nice, one of which I believe most strongly, and one of which I feel, irrationally, to be true.
It doesn’t matter which is which.
First, terroir. Terroir is a French term I fell in love with while studying the anthropology of food. Essentially, it claims that taste is deeply rooted in place—territory. The elements unique to a given locale—water, specific bacteria, culture, human traditions, soil, weather, everything—combine to create the particular circumstances in which a given food item is produced. And we can taste it. While terroir is a culinary concept, I believe it can just as easily apply to cities, landscapes and really anything else.
Thus, these mountains are made unique by an intangible yet undeniably meaningful agregate of water, culture, air, bacteria, soil, and human idiosyncrasy. 
Why go anywhere? Terroir.
Second, intuition. Some part of our deepest self knows where we need to be. It doesn’t make sense, and it can’t be proven, but those who have experienced will swear that the voice of intuition is real—and that it is always right.
So, how do we know, how do we decide where to go? Instinct.
Or third, the difference isn’t out there at all. It’s us. The mountains are, more or less, all the same. Trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. The cities, too. We, however, change, and we can understand that change by observing its reflection in the places we visit—or rather our experiences of them.
What makes these mountains different from all the rest? We do.
Or, most probably, the answer is some combination of the three.
What makes these mountains different from any others? Nothing, or precious little. Yet, they will be different, because we will change—always.
Why go anywhere else? Terroir. 
And if it’s all the same, how do we possibly decide on one mountain, one city, one street over another? Oh yes, intuition.
Maybe this could be any street in any city, but it isn’t. It’s this one—the one I’m in. And it is utterly unique, both for its composition of individuals, elements and other intangibles, and for my experience of it, in this particular moment. No other street in any other moment will ever be this. I don’t know why I’m here—and not in another street, city, mountain—but I trust the voice that called me.

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Africa, Nature

De-Nile, and other Ugandan States

Last week, I visited friends in Jinja “Source of the Nile” Uganda and stayed with them at the lodge they manage.
Between playing sharks and mermaids with their two beautiful children, drinking excessive amounts of African tea laced with ginger, feasting on their restaurant’s famous ribs (had to be a bad Jew for a day before heading to Israel for Passover!), practicing yoga poolside and working full time, there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.
So, for my last day in town, all of us—plus a few extra kids and friends—hopped on a boat to check out Lake Victoria, some wildlife, and the infamous source of the Nile.

Jinja lay claim to an impressive 5-meter column of water springing from the river’s start at the edge of Lake Victoria. The world class rapids along this following stretch attracted droves of adventure seeking tourists, fueling an industry of rafting and whitewater kayaking.
On August 3rd, 1858, an avidly adventurous Englishman named John Hanning Speke “discovered” the source of the Nile, although it wasn’t until after his death that his claims were finally verified. Our guide, however, pointed out the exact spot from which Speke first spotted it.
A few minuscule drops of rain excepted, it was a perfect afternoon for a boat ride. We observed vibrant-hued kingfishers and bee-eaters, ungainly pelicans and a particularly ugly vulture-type bird whose name I’ve forgotten, monitor lizards, otters and more.
When we neared the source of the Nile and our gaze followed our guide’s finger between two small Islands, I already knew what to expect:

The construction of two hydroelectric dams downriver in 2012 quickly turned the wild origins into the Nile into the still lovely—but rather more staid—river that meandered past my tent:

The full ecological (and economic) implications of this shift remain to be seen.
In classic irony, we had to run generators at the lodge for nearly two days when the power cut out. (Rumor has it Uganda is selling all that juicy new electricity from the dams to neighboring Kenya.)
The car ride home hosted a 45-minute game of “I Spy,” in which I participated as a laughing spectator to the shenanigans of three rowdy kids (two small, and one grown up). Back in Entebbe airport in Kampala the following day, I studied a bevy of glossy banners promoting the #PearlOfAfrica’s lush green landscapes, diverse wildlife and smiling inhabitants.

Juxtaposing those lustrous landscapes and straightforward hashtags, I am struck now—as I so often am—by the depth of the gray space between simple facades and complex realities. Fraught with tensions, ironies, vibrancy and intensity as they are, I’ll always choose the latter.

***


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