Barcelona's La Boqueria

We had the best of intentions while in Barcelona. The Catalonian town boasts some great art galleries – the Picasso Museum, Fundació Joan Miró, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, to name a few. There’s also some interesting museums: the Dali Museum in nearby Figueres and Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera come to mind. We were a bit exhausted after a whirlwind 2 week tour of Morocco and we ended up going mainly to places that were walking distance from our apartment near Las Ramblas. Though not an art gallery, the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is the place where we saw some of the most stunningly artistic displays of fresh food.

I take that back…La Boqueria is an art gallery. The range of bright, vibrant colors is amazing. Rich dark-red chunks of tuna, plump purple-green figs, earth-toned hues of dried fruits and nuts and bright green watermelons cut open to reveal juicy red interiors. It’s also a sculpture gallery. Dangling mobiles of vibrant-yellow bananas, vertical checkerboards of multicolored fruits and candies, neatly-placed rows of crab resembling soldiers in formation and a “fish wheel” of 12 sardines with each eye representing an hour on an analog clock.

I’m just as happy viewing the perfectly-placed pyramids of blood oranges than gazing at Gaudi’s modernist seed pod spires. I find the overlapping arrangement of the fishmonger’s silvery mackerel is as visually arresting as some of Picasso’s early works and the array of colorful fruits and vegetables surpasses the palette range of Joan Miró. How it all happens this way is no accident. Many of the vendors take at least 2 hours to set up their food stalls, spending much of that time carefully arranging displays, lovingly forming pyramids of oranges, apples and peaches.

La Boqueria has been around for several centuries. The first mention of the market was in 1217 when tables were installed near the old city gate to sell meat. Later on it became a pig market, then a straw market and for quite a while it was used for fishmongers and butchers. In 1826 the market was legally recognized and in 1835 a convention voted to build a covered structure to house the market. Construction began on March 19, 1840 under the direction of the architect Mas Vilà. The market officially opened in the same year, but the plans for the building were modified many times. The inauguration of the structure finally took place in 1853. A new fish market opened in 1911, and the metal roof that still exists today was constructed in 1914.

We went to La Boqueria every day. We bought tasty and beautiful green beans from the chatty vegetable merchant. She remembered us when we returned the next day. We stopped at the egg vendor displaying many varieties, all positioned in straw baskets and, after waiting for her to finish her conversation with her boyfriend, purchased a dozen which she carefully placed in a clear plastic bag. We stopped every day and purchased Serrano ham from the meat counter and the baker sold us crusty artisan bread loaves fresh out of the oven. We never made it to the museums that I mentioned above but that was fine with us. Barcelona is fairly expensive, but shopping for food at La Boqueria was an enjoyable way to make the city more affordable.


The Reality Of Traveling With Kids: Routine Can Be Good

In an earlier post I wrote about how we involved our kids in the planning process of our trip. ("A New Beginning") We all voted for the top places we wanted to go and our preferred things to see and do. We also talked about what we didn’t like about our 2005 six-month trip through Central America and Spain. The consensus number one dislike was “packing and moving too much.” We were all in complete agreement that we wanted to slow it down this time, to take a deeper dive into the cultures around us instead of just collecting stamps in our passports. In addition to experiencing more of the culture, we noticed that our kids just enjoy it more when they have more time in one place. They seem to thrive on a little bit of routine.

A 4/29/10 Wall Street Journal article by Nancy Keates observed that “Slow Travel is tied to a burgeoning movement to return to a time when life’s pleasures were savored, to a time when people appreciated the going as much as the getting there.” The article continues, “But slow travel isn’t only about the mode of transportation—it’s also about the way people are traveling. Instead of moving from one big hotel to another and racing to cross off one tourist attraction after another, slow travelers rent a place to stay, often off the beaten path, and focus on interacting with locals and sampling new customs.”

So while we are not alone in slowing down the itinerary, the added benefit to our kids is that they enjoy being one place – even if only for a week – and savoring the things that come with settling into a semblance of routine. We spent 10 days in Cairo and the kids really enjoyed getting to know the hotel staff, ordering their 24/7 complimentary tea like “regulars” and going to our favorite falafel place (Al-Tabeh) just around the corner. It’s hard to have a “favorite place” if you’re only somewhere for 2 days. We spent 6 months in Cusco, Peru and at least once a week my daughter would say, “Let’s go for gelato,” at La Dolce Vita near the Plaza de Armas. There is something comforting in having a favorite place, particularly when you travel frequently from place to place. We spent a month in Florence in a great apartment and the first thing my son did was start rearranging furniture. He knew we weren’t going anywhere for a while and he was setting up his space just the way he wanted it.

There is a great temptation when planning a trip to see as much as possible. Even in the middle of a long one like ours it is sometimes unavoidable: It’s not that far from where we’ll be. We’ll just stay there one night. Famous last words. When we were in Southwestern Turkey we had planned to see two of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World: The Colossus of Rhodes and the Temple of Artemis near Ephesus. My daughter successfully lobbied us to take a detour to go see another “wonder,” the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in Bodrum, which would allow us to see six of the seven wonders on this trip. We’re glad we did it but at the time it was not fun racing from town to town. It wasn’t until we got to Athens, where we had an apartment for a week that we felt that we could kick back and relax.

Even though the word “routine” has negative connotations – staleness, boredom, sameness—in the context of traveling around the world with a backpack, it can be a good thing. For us we’ve found that a little bit of routine for our kids is a really good thing.


The Reality Of Traveling With Kids: 24/7 Family Time

On the surface, traveling the world with your family sounds like a great thing -- and it is – but being together every second of the day for a year can be a challenge. When we describe our travels to our friends back home we get some interesting responses. When commenting that we are together around the clock for an entire year, we’ve heard, “Oh, we could not do that…we just couldn’t.” Another friend said, “No way. We’d all kill each other within the first couple weeks.”

We’ve previously done another long trip – six months backpacking through Central America and Spain back in 2005 -- so we had an idea what to expect. When a family of four travels on a budget, it’s tempting to save money by having everyone stay in one room. The incremental cost of a hotel manager adding a fourth bed to a triple room is often minimal and sometimes there’s no extra cost at all. Occasionally, when there's only a double room with two larger beds available, the only option is for the four of us to double up and share. The saved money adds up over 365 days but it does compound the “togetherness” factor.

A family member’s habits become magnified when you constantly observe them. My son’s frequent whistling isn’t so bad, but when four people are quietly reading in a 15’x15’ room it starts to get on everyone’s nerves. My daughter has a habit of borrowing my things and not putting them back. Whenever I’m packing up and I can’t find my iPod touch or my 21 function Swiss Army Knife, I head immediately for her. When Mom twists at the hair behind her ears or when Dad picks his nose, the others point it out; 24/7 family time means no privacy. Sometimes I like nothing better than to head out by myself to an internet café to check my email. I’m sure my wife and kids do as well.

While each of us have our own idiosyncrasies, we do share one unpleasant yet unavoidable trait. With all of us walking everywhere in hot weather, a wardrobe limited to what’s in our backpacks and no access to a washing machine, the smell of dirty socks is omnipresent. All four of us relaxing in our hotel room with our shoes off is enough to peel the paint off the walls. Not a day goes by without a comment on someone’s particular brand of stench.

Our kids are 14 and 13, respectively and I think that the constant family time must be hard on them. They’ve entered an age where they are increasingly peer-centered, but there are very few peers to interact with. We have to remember this when the “Got You Last” game turns into a slap fest. On the plus side, my wife and feel that being around them 24/7 at a very confusing and fast-changing time in their lives is a positive thing. We are there to discuss things with them that they might be struggling with on their own back home.

On the whole, the 24/7 thing has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for our family. We’ve grown extremely close and have hundreds of travel stories to tell for years in the future. Yes, it’s been great…except for the smelly socks.


Turkish Connection

As published in Hand/Eye Magazine on May 6 2010

Five generations of carpet salvation at the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, is a living connection between past and present. The Turkish bazaar was a stop on the Silk Road, the ancient trading route that linked East and West and lies steps from the Bosphorus, the strait that both divides and joins Asia and Europe. In the very back of the bazaar, in the Zincirli Han (caravansary), the Sisco Osman carpet business sells beautifully restored Turkish carpets that have literally connected old and new for the five generations since 1898.

“There are 4,000 carpet shops in Istanbul and 400 in the Grand Bazaar,” Says Bilgin Aksoy, the nephew of Osman Senel, better known as business namesake Sisco Osman (pronounced “chish-ko”). “Of those 400, only a handful sell old carpets and kilims that have been restored. Everyone else sells ‘new’ carpets. They just call a factory with a model number and they make it right away. Our carpets are 100% wool. People who sell new carpets claim them to be made completely of wool, but they are more like 30-40% wool…they have to be for the machine looms to be able to work with the carpet fiber.” Bilgin is one of 4 cousins that are the 5th generation of the Sisko Osman business. Osman Senel has handed over the reins to the business but is still involved in procuring the carpets. He scours the Turkish countryside looking for older, often damaged carpets and then has them painstakingly rewoven to look like new. The carpets are typically “dowry” carpets that brides-to-be have woven for their betrothed, a woven symbol of the bride and groom’s lifelong connection.

“My uncle is somewhere in remote Turkey now, acquiring carpets,” says Bilgin. “Often the village women who weave the carpets and kilims initially don’t want to sell them. But we make a note of a good carpet and come back another time and sometimes later they are willing to sell. Often it can be many years later.”

Acquisition of the carpets is a lot of work. For every 100 villagers contacted on a 3-4 week buying trip, perhaps 5 will be willing to part with their carpet. Most of the company’s carpets are between 30-50 years old, with many being as old as 80 or 90 years old. Sometimes they will acquire a beautiful carpet that is 200 or 300 years old from the Ottoman Period; those go in their private collection that now numbers about 1,700 carpets. The Turkish government prohibits the export of carpets and kilims older than 100 years.

Once the carpets are acquired, the painstaking process of restoring them begins. It takes about a year for a Turkish village woman to weave a carpet, but to restore an older one can take twice as long. The old, slightly faded carpet fibers of the original must be matched exactly and in order to repair a 2-inch diameter hole, the warp and weft must be opened twice that amount in each direction in order to seamlessly repair the carpet. An inventory of older carpet and kilim pieces is kept exclusively for this process and twenty artisans work full time restoring the carpets. Obviously with this labor component, restoration is the most expensive part of the process but the results speak for themselves. Bilgin rolls out a recently-acquired wool carpet and then lays a similar restored one over it and the difference is stunning; a harmonious connection between old and new fibers.

Over time, the Sisko Osman principals have seen tens of thousands of carpets but some are more memorable than others. “One older woman remembers when she wove her dowry carpet many years ago,” says Bilgin. “She knew that her husband really wanted an automobile but had no chance of buying one. When she wove her dowry carpet, she wove a red car in each corner.” Bilgin then has his assistant roll out the very same carpet in the showroom -- a shiny wool-on-wool, red carpet that looks like new. “Another carpet design was the view that the bride and her groom would see from the window of their new house once they were married.” Again the assistant rolls out a carpet with the aforementioned landscape -- a village mosque, trees and mountains framed within a floral border.

With Turkish women slowly becoming more modern, dowry carpets are becoming harder to find. Bilgin acknowledges that it’s a dying art. “Yes, it may be harder to find carpets like these in the future, but we have a large inventory of carpets that we’ve acquired over the years. Enough to keep this generation busy.”

You can purchase beautifully restored Turkish carpets from the Sisco Osman company in Istanbul, Turkey. Their showroom is located in the Zincirli Han section of the Grand Bazaar.


Searching The Souk For The Hand Of Fatima

Bien sûr, j'ai une main de Fatima pour vous. Venez,” said the young man as he motioned us to follow him. We’d been searching for a Hand of Fatima door ornament in the Fez medina for a few days and we remained hopeful as we followed him through several narrow, shady alleys. It takes no more than ten seconds to get completely and utterly lost in the medina, so I carefully noted landmarks along the way: wood scaffolding holding up an archway, powerful stench of urine down a dead-end alley, woman breastfeeding in front of her home. We arrived at the shop and a man showed us a 3-fingered hand of Fatima, unfortunately not the 5-fingered one that we’d admired on several Fes doors in the medina. Our search would have to continue.

The Hand of Fatima is a flat, decorative iron or brass door ornament and it’s thought that the stylized open hand is a good luck charm and wards off the evil eye. It is also known as Khamsa, which is Arabic for five, referring to the number of fingers of the hand. Archaeological evidence suggests that a downward pointing Khamsa has been used as a protective amulet in the North African region prior to its use by Muslims and Jews. It is also thought to have been associated with Tanit, the supreme deity of the Phoenician client state of Carthage (present day Tunisia), whose hand was used to ward off the evil eye.

Fatima herself was the youngest daughter of the Prophet Mohammed and Muslims regard her as a loving daughter, mother and wife as well as a role model for all Muslim women. Because of her moral purity she is to Islam what the Virgin Mary is to Christianity and she is commonly referred to as “az-Zahra” which means “The Shining One.”

On one of our many rambles through the medina, we passed a Hand of Fatima adorning a large thick cedar door and I made the casual comment “We should get one of those.” For the next few days this idle statement became a quest and we did not leave a shop without asking about a Hand of Fatima. My wife and daughter love nothing better than to spend hours shopping in souks, comparing features, benefits and prices. They enjoy the hunt as much as the prize. My daughter's occasional nickname is "Soukie", a reflection of her enthusiasm for Middle Eastern and North African markets and bazaars. My son and I have a much shorter attention span and we will tire out after about an hour, so the driving force behind this particular quest was the female side of the family. The last couple days in Fes, they asked in dozens of places, but had no luck. I was skeptical.

When my son and I gave up the hunt and retreated to our cool massreiya apartment, the girls continued their mission. On our last full day in Fes, they returned to a shop where they had already purchased glass perfume sprinklers (to be used as oil and vinegar cruets). Realizing that they had not yet asked this particular shopkeeper, they inquired and he ran off saying “Une minute.” He came back shortly with a five fingered Hand of Fatima that was half the cost (after a little bargaining) of the three-fingered one referred to above. When they walked into our massreiya, they couldn't conceal their smiles as they showed off the fruit of their labors. It was a win-win situation; we got to relax in our nice apartment and they had the thrill of the chase...and we all got our Hand of Fatima.


Support For A Traveling Family

Ever wonder how an itinerant backpacking family that is away for a year gets their letters while on safari in Tanzania? Ever thought about how various checks get deposited in our California bank while we are in the Bolivian Amazon? What about the occasional bills for which checks need to be written…do those pay themselves while we’re snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos? And how do we process all the paperwork for my son’s enrolment in high school while we are shopping in the souks of Morocco? The three-letter answer is a familiar one: Mom.

My mom swallowed hard when I told her we planned to take a year off, but -- as always -- she was ready to help in any way she could. The first thing we had to do was to set her up. We gave her our checkbooks, added her as a signatory on our checking accounts and gave her our sign-on and password codes. Once that was done we had to give her a technological makeover in order to make communication easier. We yanked out the dial-up modem cord and fired up a new cable broadband line. We got rid of her 5 year old desktop computer and installed a brand spanking new system complete with webcam to take advantage of Skype video call functionality. I brought over my Canon scanner and hooked it up to her system so she could make digital files of our snail mail.

With the technology in place and us on the road, Mom settled into her bi-monthly schedule. After scheduling a time with our tenants, she would drive over to our house to pick up our two-weeks-worth of mail. Bringing it back home, she would take a first pass through the pile, sending the mail order catalogs, flyers, discount coupons and junk mail to the shredder pile. Her eye became adept at finding the items that required immediate attention. A random sampling from her “mail report” from a few months back reveals several W-2 and 1099 tax forms, registration forms for the kids summer camps, a handwritten letter from the son of my pen pal of 30 years, a check from Hand/Eye magazine, few bank statements, a solicitation to join AARP (how do they know?) and a bill from our gardeners.

As if this weren’t enough, we crammed about 150 cubic feet of storage boxes and a Toyota minivan in her garage. Our silverware was stuffed under her bed, my wife's jewelry was tucked away in her bedroom and my large box of old photos was put in her closet. There are thousands of details to conquer when a family takes off and travels for a year. Fortunately we have the ultimate in logistical support.

Thanks Mom.


Morocco Impressions

Prior to visiting Morocco my perception of the country was filtered by movies (Casablanca, Babel, The Wind and the Lion) and by music (Crosby, Stills and Nash’ “Marrakech Express”, the Moroccan influence on the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Donovan and others). Now that we are here, it is our experiences in other Muslim countries, particularly Egypt, that have influenced our first impressions of Morocco. We spent 5 weeks in Egypt earlier this year and it’s fitting that the two countries that bookend North Africa are our comparison points.

Even though one of the first Moroccans I met – a taxi driver at the Nador border – had a bruise on his forehead, we saw very few of these “piousness indicators” while in Morocco. In Egypt, many men had these bruises, clearly the result of vigorous prayer when pressing their foreheads to the ground. According to a 2007 New York Times article, “The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.” The Moroccans with their blemish-free foreheads could have been from anywhere in the non-Muslim world. The decibel levels of the call to prayer are also lower in Morocco than in Egypt. We were in the heart of the Fes Medina for 2 full days before I heard the muezzin’s call. In Cairo and other Egyptian cities, the call to prayer could be heard from anywhere at full volume. One would think that with a more fervent outlook on Islam, that access to mosques would be tighter in Egypt than in Morocco, but this is not true. Ironically, mosques are closed to non-Muslims in Morocco yet open in Egypt.

Another thing that stood out for us was clothing. In Egypt, men typically wore gray gowns and almost every woman we saw in public wore a black or gray gown and veil and many had their faces covered. In the traditional Moroccan cities of Fes and Marrakech there were definitely some older women dressed that way, but most of the women wore jeans and dresses and did not have their heads covered. The young trendy Moroccans walking through the Medina wearing designer clothing could have just as easily been in New York or Paris.

Perhaps Egypt’s proximity to the Middle East and to Mecca explains why they seemed more intense to us. One thing that Morocco does share with Egypt is the intensity of bargaining inside the souks. The Moroccans may be more laid back when it comes to Islam, but step inside a carpet or leather goods shop and you’ll be lucky to leave without a purchase.


Essaouria: Of Dung, Goats and Argan Trees

We’d never heard of Essaouria until we started planning our trip to Morocco but the walled medina, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, with waves from the Atlantic ocean crashing against its ramparts, sounded too good to pass up. We also learned that this arid region around Essaouria was where goats routinely climbed trees looking for food. The bizarre video (below) shows 16 goats munching argan tree fruit 20 feet in the air. As we learned about where to see the goats, we also learned about the very versatile and useful fruit that they eat. We decided to hire a taxi from Essaouria and visit an argan oil cooperative and perhaps along the way see some goats climbing trees.

After negotiating a taxi for the four of us to visit the Marjana cooperative, we sped along the highway to Marrakech keeping an eye out for goats. The argan tree, which only grows in this part of Morocco, clicks all the right boxes when it comes to trendiness, health & beauty, women’s rights and the environment. It’s drizzled on salads in hip, cosmopolitan restaurants and it’s routinely sold in Provence markets alongside designer olive oils. It is high in vitamin E and essential fatty acids and is believed to help all sorts of skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema and wrinkles and medical evidence suggests that the oil may help reduce cholesterol and prevent arteriosclerosis. The cooperatives are run almost exclusively by women; usually older women cracking, roasting and grinding the seed-nuts and younger bilingual women leading the tours. The tree is extremely hardy and helps prevent desertification of the region and virtually all the by-products of the production process are recycled (nut shells fuel the roasting process, discarded pith fed to goats, etc.). And if that resume isn’t impressive enough for you, local Berbers also mix it with ground almonds and honey to make amlou, a sweet delicacy reputed to be an aphrodisiac.

We arrived and asked for Fatima, the sister of a man we met near our small riad guesthouse. Fatima took us over to the work area where we were greeted by a loud ululation from one of the older women. The women wore headscarves and sat against the wall, all of them holding a smooth rock between their legs while working at separating pits from almond-like seed-nuts. Fatima explained that the pit must first be separated from the pulpy fruit matter, and then the "almonds" must be extracted by chipping away at the pit. It was at this point I asked about the goat dung. I’d read that as the goats climb the argan trees and ingest the fruit, they poop it out and the nuts are recovered from the goat dung. The goat’s strong digestive juices act to eat away the tough elastic coating over the pit. Fatima smiled and told us that this is the old process and they no longer do it that way.

The sound of rocks chipping away at the hard pits served as our syncopated soundtrack while Fatima continued. “Now, if you are making oil for eating, the almonds must be roasted.” she said. We watched two women in another room fanning the nut-shell-fueled fire to slowly roast the almonds. From there, we walked back to the first work area and watched a woman slowly grinding a roasted almond-and-water mixture until oil started pouring from her stone pestle into a plastic container. From here it was simply a matter of filtering the liquid so that all that is left is a clear golden oil. To make one liter of argan oil it takes 36-40 kilos of fruit, which produce 2.5 kilos of almonds. Fatima tells us that this process takes one woman three days to complete.

At the end of our tour we bought some argan shampoo, olive oil, wrinkle cream and amlou and headed back to Essaouria along the same road. About halfway back I did see a goat standing on a branch about 8 feet off the ground, but nothing like the video I’ve posted above. I’ve since read that there is a concerted effort to keep the goats from eating the increasingly valuable argan fruit. Next time we’ll stop the car and fork over a few dirhams to the goatherd boys and watch them climb up the trees.