Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival #7: Internet Connections

Back when my wife and I were in our late twenties we each spent a couple years backpacking through Asia, Africa and South America. One of our fondest memories was of arriving at various poste restante (held mail) locations after months of overland travel and eagerly opening our mail from home. Family and friends who knew our itinerary would time their letters to arrive just before we did. Letters from home were read and re-read several times to savor news of the familiar, a commodity that was in short supply in exotic third-world locales. These days, that connection to home is more immediate. Instant, 24/7 communication is the norm and the places that you can go to escape the web are getting fewer and fewer.

People stay connected these days by email, instant messaging, skype, chat and many travelers and expats have travel blogs. One of the benefits of my association with Lonely Planet is that I regularly get to read great travel blogs written by bloggers from all over the world. To find them, I didn’t have to slog through thousands of travel blogs on the web…Lonely Planet had already done it for me (list here). These blogs are all connected by quality travel writing and by the Internet. As such, the 7th Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival is fittingly called “Internet Connections.” As your carnival leader this time around, I doff my top hat and say, “Let the carnival begin!”

First up is Liz at “Travelogged,” who is based in New York City and has been writing about her travels and those of others since January of 2009. Drawing on her experiences as a senior editor at as well as other publishers, she incorporates the perspectives of other travel “insiders” to give a fresh and varied perspective on the world. Much of her writing is done on the road but that leads to occasional challenges. When Liz was in Rome she found that her fancy hotel charged an outrageous €25 per day for use of their wireless connection. Read “Finding Wifi in Rome” to find out where she went to get connected. I’ll give you a hint: along with free wifi, they also have great Guiness.

Claire at “First Time Travels” writes from the Philippines and her blog was “created to help first-time travelers as they embark on something different. It is an assurance for every tourist and traveler that even the most seasoned one has started out as a neophyte.” Read her post "Internet Connections" to learn her convoluted yet effective technique of penetrating “The Great Firewall of China” while accessing Facebook and Twitter on her last visit to Shanghai. I’ve read it and I’m still not sure how it works.

Sash at “Barefoot Inked” is an Australian woman living in a tiny muslim fishing village in Indonesia. Sash is adventurous and feels that in order to experience the sand between your toes, you need to take your shoes off. According to Sash,”My office smells like the ocean, tastes like chillied fish and wraps me in the sweet air of the salted sea brushed with coconut leaves. Read her post “A Tough Day at the Office” and you’ll understand why her multiple re-writes are not a perfectionist habit but a technological reality imposed by the constraints of an internet connection “so unreliable that you often can’t upload a simple photo.”

Jen at “The Turkish Life” is a California girl from San Francisco who lives in Istanbul, Turkey and works as an editor for a Turkish publication. Her blog is a rich tapestry of expat life in Turkey seasoned with vignettes of her ongoing battle to learn the Turkish language. Read her post “The Tie that Bonds and Binds” to understand how the internet can be a double-edged sword to the traveler or the expat. Jen muses, “I do wonder how much my experience here has been shaped, and limited, by the ready ability to keep close connections to home. Without them, would I have immersed myself more fully in all things Turkey, improved my Turkish, made closer local friends, spent less time inside?” Jen writes from Turkey, but this idea is universal.

Bret at “I Moved To Africa” is an American marketing and advertising executive from New York City who spends a year in Africa. Bret states, “This blog is about my travel adventures in a country I never heard of before, my experiences within the U.S. Embassy community, the NGO community and befriending expatriates abroad.” Read his post “Internet Connections” to find out why he says “Everyone talks about how wonderful skype is, especially when traveling. Those people have never been to Gabon.” I smile every time I read that line.

Jennifer at “Orange Polka Dot” is a Californian living in Barcelona with her husband and kids. She is the English-language resource for what’s happening in that vibrant Catalan city, especially when it comes to doing things with children. Read her post “Internet Connections” to learn more about staying connected in Spain when the wait for a phone line is measured in months. Jennifer writes, “In the meantime, I sat in the parking lot of my nearest university to bum the free wifi, which by the way, in Spain is pronounced "wee fee." On the weekends, I would bring the kids so they could skype with my parents back in California.”

David and Tamara at “Quillcards” run a combination blog and e-greeting card business. David is English and Tamara is American and they’ve lived in England, the USA, South Korea, Finland, and Israel and have traveled in Europe, Central and South America, India, Japan, Australia, and Morocco. David gives a concise and thorough review of which accessories you should take to the subcontinent to stay connected with your MacBook Air in “Travels With a Macbook Air in India.”

As we close this carnival, it is interesting to note that over the years technology has changed considerably but the human need to feel connected has not. You can still enjoy the previous carnival (#6), titled "Encounters" at “The Brink of Something Else” and the next one (#8) will be hosted by Sash on September 1st 2010 at “Barefoot Inked” and it's called "Love on the Road."


Dahab, Egypt: Incense And Squirt Bottles

We arrived in Dahab after a long 18 hour overnight bus ride from Luxor and the difference between this seaside scuba haven and the rest of Egypt was immediately apparent. The sea breeze was a welcome respite from the dry desert heat, the men wore T-shirts, shorts and sandals instead of dark-colored robes and skull caps and for the first time we met a woman who was actually in charge of something. Dahab sits on the Gulf of Aqaba directly across from Saudi Arabia and is a laid back corner of Egypt, a virtual paradise…except for the flies and the cats.

We knew that we wanted to have our kids get their scuba diving certification while near the Red Sea but we had to decide between the European tourist hotspot of Sharm el-Sheik and smaller Dahab. Dahab was the easy choice -- it was less touristy, less costly and more laid back – and we set up a dive course for the kids beforehand. While the kids went off to their daily lessons, Mom and Dad each prepared to cross an item off their respective bucket lists: my wife wanted to dive “The Blue Hole” (“The World’s Most Dangerous Diving Site”) and I wanted to visit Petra in nearby Jordan.

Dahab is a small town located on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. When we arrived by bus, a smiling Hosni Mubarak waved to us from a large billbord in the desert that said "Welcome to Dahab." Formerly a Bedouin fishing village, located approximately 50 miles northeast of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab is considered one of the Sinai’s most treasured diving destinations. Following the Six Day War, the town was occupied by Israel and is known as Di-Zahav, a place mentioned in the Bible as one of the stations for the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt. The Sinai was restored to Egyptian rule in the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1982.

These days tourists are flocking to Dahab for its warm weather, clear waters and excellent diving. It is a paradise with the two exceptions mentioned in the first paragraph. I remember visiting the Balinese town of Ubud 24 years ago, a town with a reputation as a cultural and artistic center set amongst beautiful rice terraces in the center of Bali. I also remember that the town, for all its beauty and art, was plagued by dogs: dogs digging through garbage, dogs prowling the streets and dogs barking all night. The Balinese just shrugged and said that “Even paradise needs balance.” Perhaps that’s why Dahab needs the flies and cats. Sit down to breakfast or lunch and as soon as the food is set at your table, the flies are everywhere. Kick back on your cushions for dinner and cats will arrive with your meal. In Ubud I never walked anywhere without a large stick for fending off any aggressive dogs and likewise, Dahab has its unique solutions to the fly and cat problem: incense and squirt bottles. The waiters at the seaside cafes bring several smoking sticks of incense with every meal, strategically placed around the table, creating a forcefield that keeps many of the flies away. While occasionally you inhale some frankincense while eating, it does seem to keep the majority of the flies away. At dinner, waiters bring you squirt bottles to keep the cats away from your food; after every few bites you can perfect your aim by hitting a feline between the eyes. Our kids loved the target practice and within minutes water was flying everywhere. After a few minutes we had to insist that they hand over the bottles. Like the incense for the flies, the squirt bottles kept the cats mostly at bay.

Despite these twin nuisances, Dahab was a peaceful and enjoyable stay for us. Our point of contact for our kids’ diving was Hanan, who very competently dealt with all our questions and concerns. Aside from a female doctor working in a Cairo pharmacy, all businesses we'd seen were run and staffed by men and we had virtually no interaction with women. Hanan was from Cairo and moved to Dahab with her husband several years back when she got married. She was drawn to Dahab for the same reasons that tourists love it. If you haven’t been to Dahab, I suggest that you plan a trip there. Just don’t forget the incense and squirt bottles.

Sinai, Egypt: Only Four Camels For Our Daughter?

After Abdul asked my daughter’s age, he was quiet for a minute. The sun was going down over the rough craggy hills of the Sinai, washing them in a dark reddish hue. Abdul continued, “Your daughter is very pretty. I can pay four camels.” My first response was Marriage? She’s only 12 years old! but I collected my composure and asked, “Why only four?” “Four is a good price,” he said, “I am poor Bedouin man.” I wasn’t sure if Abdul was serious or just playing with me, nevertheless, I countered with ten camels, not having any idea if his initial “bride price” was fair or not.

Like most traditions, the “bride price” is rooted in economics. Bedouin boys have traditionally stayed with their family and tended goats and camels or helped in the family business and girls were married off to join a new family. Girls offered more than cooking and cleaning in terms of economic value…they had the ability to generate more boys, thus more laborers who could work for the receiving family. It made economic sense to be compensated for this loss. In addition to labor and food, the camel is a medium of exchange and it's appropriate that camels would be the basis of the “bride price.”

This was all interesting, but what I was dying to know was had I been insulted? Is four a good price? We knew from our visit to the Birqash camel market outside Cairo that a large camel could be bought for $700 (see Cairo Camel Market blog post), so that would put the monetary value of my daughter at $2,800. Later Internet research told me that anywhere between 2 and 20 camels is customary for the Bedouin but, most importantly, it depends on the potential groom’s ability to pay.

Bedouin people have been traditionally poor, but few live like their ancestors these days, especially those who are guiding tourists for a living. Abdul’s ancestors, those of the Muzeina clan, lived in camel- or goat-hair tents and raised livestock, hunted and raided their neighboring tribes. Bedouins of the Sinai are going through dramatic changes and are forced to rapidly adapt to a new way of life due also to the impact of tourism. Since the rise of Islam, Bedouins have acted as 'tourist" guides, leading pilgrims across the Sinai to places of worship: Mecca, St. Catherine’s Monastery and Jerusalem. The Sinai Bedouins are split into roughly 10 tribes. The oldest tribes inhabiting the Sinai desert are the Aleigat and the Sawalha sharing a territory between Suez and Al Tor reaching into the high mountain region around Wadi Feiran and Sarabit el Khadem. For the last 500 years the Muzeina tribe occupies the territory from around St. Catherine to the Gulf of Suez and from Al Tor covering the southern Sinai from Sharm el Sheikh to Nuweiba. The Tarabin Bedouins are located just north of Nuweiba and arrived to Sinai some 300 years ago.

We sat a while longer enjoying the view of Dahab, a fishing village turned into a scuba diving haven for backpackers, and watched the distant lights of Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Aqaba. We walked over to where we’d have dinner and Abdul brewed us some strong, sweet mint Bedouin tea as he made dinner. Dinner was roast chicken, vegetable stew, rice, unleavened bread and a tasty taboulleh-like salad. Abdul and I didn’t speak again about the camels. He drove us back to our hotel and we tipped him well for his guide services. My wife and I occasionally make jokes about our daughter’s “bride price” but I still wonder, “Had I been insulted?”


Moroccan Mosaic

As Published in Hand/Eye Magazine on August 5th, 2010

Putting the Pieces Together in Fes

For centuries, in the Imperial Moroccan city of Fes, mosaic craftsmen have chipped away at ceramic tiles, shaping the tiny pieces that comprise zellij, the art of glazed-and-cut tile pieces arranged in complex geometric patterns. The fruits of their labors can be found everywhere within the 1,200 year old Fes medina: gracing the walled city’s countless water fountains, adorning the tomb of Moulay Idriss II (the founder of Fes) and decorating the Karaouiyine Mosque and University, which vies with Al-Azhar in Cairo for the title of world’s oldest university. About a mile outside the stone walls of the medina is the Poterie De Fes factory, where pottery and mosaic craftsmen continue their work, one small piece at a time.

Late in the 8th century, Fes was founded by Moulay Idriss II, who carried out the wishes of his dying father by moving from the small ancient Roman capital of Volubilis. The new city started as a modest Berber town and grew with the influx of thousands of exiled families from Al-Andalus (southern Spain) and later from Arab families fleeing Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia. The town rose to prominence with the construction of the Karaouiyine University and it emerged as the pre-eminent city in the Maghreb, the North African region comprised by the present day countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. Within Fes is the walled medina, known as the “the city of ten thousand alleys.” It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.

Just outside those ancient city walls is the Poterie De Fes cooperative. The factory is easy to find; look for the kilns producing black smoke fueled by olive pomace. This recycled fuel -- pulpy residue from the olive oil process--is what allows the furnaces to get hot enough to fire the clay. Our tour is led by Abdellah Idrissi, who points out that his name is derivative of Fes founder Moulay Idriss II. Abdellah is one of many craftsmen in the cooperative and he starts his tour by showing us large mounds of clay, all with fresh footprints from workers using their feet to work the clay to the desired consistency. We then move to the pottery wheel and watch a craftsman spin out about 7 or 8 pieces in 15 minutes. While the pottery is interesting, it is the mosaic process that is really unique. We walked over to the furmah tiles, the raw materials for the mosaic pieces and Abdellah explains that these tiles are molded from a hardy clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq. Once the tiles are fired they can be scored and chiseled to break cleanly along straight lines. From here we move over to the furnaces, two large bi-level clay kilns. “The first floor is hotter–about 1,200 degrees–because that’s what terra cotta tiles need,” says Abdellah. “The second floor is about 980 degrees because that’s what the coloring and glazing require.” The tiles are fired twice; the first time in the hotter, lower furnace after being glazed and a second time in the upper level furnace after one side has been colored. The principal colors are blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from cadmium and red from iron oxide. The temperature is increased by feeding the kiln with more olive pomace.

From the furnace we move over to the craftsmen cutting the furmah pieces. Islamic mosaic work is characterized by geometric multiple-point star, medallion and polygonal figures. Start in the center of a multiple-point star pattern and follow one of the lines radiating outward until your eyes land upon a satellite star figure. From there follow any of its lines and you’ll find yourself in the center of yet another multiple-point star pattern and on and on. This subliminal sensation of movement is what gives the geometric designs their sense of life. Islamic art forbids figures or likenesses, so its artisans have focused on creating stunning graphic and geometric shapes and patterns. We watch craftsmen carefully chip away with hammers at tiles pieces, against an iron anvil and occasionally a terra cotta surface for the more delicate and detailed work. The men working are paid by the shape and in a good day they can churn out over a hundred mosaic pieces. Once the tiny pieces are cut and arranged into beautiful geometric patterns, they are placed face down on the ground. The flat surface keeps the faces of fountains and the tops of tables flat as the patterns are held together with a sand-lime or cement mixture and allowed to dry upside down. The cycles of creation and destruction and re-creation of zellij are time consuming and therefore make it a relatively expensive art form. From the elements of earth, water, and fire furmah tiles are created, only for craftsmen to slowly and skillfully destroy each one. From here it is the zellij designers who re-create, putting the pieces together upside down in brilliant geometric patterns. It is only when the entire process is finished –creating, destroying, re-creating –and the surface has been dried and turned over, can one appreciate the stunning work.

You can purchase zellij tile work and pottery from the Poterie De Fes factory, in the Quartier de Poterie in Fes, Morocco. Their French-language web site is at


The Cairo Camel Market

Quite often the journey is as interesting as the destination and getting to the Birqash camel market on the outskirts of Cairo was no exception. The guidebook made it sound easy to get to (by taxi 30-40 minutes north of Cairo) and Mahmoud, one of the men who alternate at the front desk at the African House Hostel, offered to write down the name in Arabic for us as well as his cell number in case we got lost. He scribbled this down on the back of a business card for the hostel and we were set. Just like a Monopoly “Get out of jail free” card, we had our "lifeline." As long as I didn’t lose my little piece of paper we could avoid any problems getting to where we wanted to go.

Clutching our lifeline, we walked out onto the early-morning Cairo streets. The first two taxi drivers we flagged down stopped and looked at our little piece of paper as though they’d never seen Arabic before. After a robust salaam akiekum greeting, we stood and watched each of them silently as they wrinkled their foreheads, looked at us, then gave us an apologetic shrug before handing us our piece of paper and driving off. The third driver who stopped for us took a glance at the paper and instantly invited us into his taxi. We quickly negotiated what we knew was a fair price and sped off through the half-empty streets. Everything seemed to be going well until our driver turned his taxi around and started coming back the way we came. Then he turned off near some large apartment buildings and slowly looked around. We’d read that the market was on the edge of Egypt’s Western Desert so we knew we were not close. Time to pull out the lifeline: I flipped over the little slip of paper and pointed to Mahmoud’s phone number.

We watched while our driver had an animated conversation with Mahmoud that looked like it involved some re-negotiations. After 10 minutes on the phone, the driver grumbled and we drove back the way we came, finally turning north on a freeway and following the Nile for awhile. After 30 minutes, we turned off the freeway and our driver rolled down the window and asked a man driving a horse cart “Souk gamel?” (camel market?). He pointed to the right and for the next hour we drove through small towns, stopping many times to ask the same question: “Souk gamel?” About two hours after leaving our hostel, we finally arrived at the Birqash camel market. If our journey to the market was arduous, the camels’ were far worse. Most of the camels are from the Sudan and are walked up the Forty Days Road across the Egyptian border to a point just north of Abu Simbel. They are then driven north on a 24 hour dash to Birqash and by the time they arrive, they are not in the best of shape.

We paid our entrance fee and entered Egypt’s largest camel market. In the hot, dusty compound there were hundreds of somewhat-scrawny camels with robe-clad men whacking them with sticks. Aside from some women selling drinks and food near the entrance and a few tourists, there were no women at the market. The compound was surrounded by low, flat stucco buildings with stacks of hay and grazing goats on top. The camels were marked with blue spray-painted Arabic script on their sides and their left legs were folded back and tied to reduce their mobility, their protruding knee resembling an amputee’s stump. Little boys, imitating their fathers and older brothers, whacked away at the camels, many of whom let out loud groans. Navigating the market was difficult; if you stopped to take a picture in one direction, invariably a massive camel would be come up behind you from the opposite direction. We stopped to watch an impromptu auction. Men in blue, grey and khaki robes stood on the steps of a building while camels were paraded in front of them. Multiple hands shot up to place bids and each sale took about a minute. I learned later that prices range from $350 to $700 per camel, depending on the size and health of the camel.

We kept walking through the market and I suddenly heard my kids utter a collective groan. Right in front of them, a recently-purchased camel was being held down and its throat slit. Aside from being used as beasts of burden, many of the camels were used for meat, a fact that was made all too plain for our kids. The market had been great but seeing this definitely put a damper on the experience for our kids. It was time to go. We found our taxi driver and headed back towards Cairo. Presumably, getting back to Cairo would be much easier but we had our lifeline just in case.