shopping

Shopping in Egypt

Whether you’re hitting the Khan el-Khalili or the Luxor souk, here’s what to expect — and how to get the best bargains.

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

A lot of the handicrafts in Egypt are cheap-looking — probably cuz they were made in China

Zeina had warned us — but we didn’t heed her advice. She owned the hotel we stayed at in Luxor, and would make the rounds at dinner, stopping by the tables to chat.

We asked her about good shopping in Luxor, and she said if we wanted handicrafts we should head to the souk.

We weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained.

She pleaded with us to resist buying anything that even remotely resembled an antique, launching into a tale about how the model Kate Moss and someone from Christian Dior had stayed at her hotel last week, and even though they had a private plane, they were delayed two days because something they had purchased at a shop below the Winter Palace hotel looked like it might be a relic.

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Cotton candy becomes an artistic medium at Khan el-Khalili in Cairo

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

Aside from the odd street vendor, this is the only food you’ll find at Khan el-Khalili. There aren’t any cafés — just coffeeshops, where the most you can ingest is shisha (hookah) smoke

The next night, it was someone else who bought something at the same shop, who also had a private plane, but this poor gentleman had been sleeping at the police station for three nights while an expert took their sweet time checking the authenticity of the item.

Afterward, Duke and I smiled at each other. Zeina seemed to be a storyteller. And I’m OK with that. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And I figured there was an underlying truth to her tales, a warning we shouldn’t ignore.

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk has one main drag — and some good finds

The Luxor Souk

We arrived at the souk relatively early, around 10:30 a.m. Because it was a Sunday (Easter, to boot), all of the Coptic Christian stalls were closed. Apparently there are a lot of Coptics in Luxor.

We had just entered the bazaar when I spied a shop I knew would appeal to me and Duke.

And sure enough, once we were inside, we started putting items aside: a stone Anubis head as well as a faded blue baboon statue head, a worn-looking blue mummy and other items you could imagine had just been dug out of the desert after being hidden away for centuries.

In other words, we were doing exactly what Zeina had told us not to do. But we couldn’t help ourselves; old-looking shit is our passion.

In less than 10 minutes, Duke and I had piled a dozen pieces onto the table.

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

A good portion of stalls are shut on Sunday at the Luxor Souk, since the Coptic Christians are at church

It was tough to gauge how much all of these should cost, but we had heard people calling out very low prices at the bazaars you have to walk through before leaving every temple you visit. (Exit through the gift shop.)

So when the vendor said, “$360,” I acted sad and a little disgusted and muttered, “That’s way too high. This is our first shop of the day. We’ll keep going and come back.”

“OK, OK,” the shopkeeper said, laying a hand on my shoulder to prevent me from leaving. “What’s your price?” I was aiming for $50, while Duke quietly said he’d be good with $75.

So I typed 45 on the calculator, to give myself the slightest bit of wiggle room, and the man countered with $150.

“Let’s go,” I told Duke. My famous walk-away ploy.

Again, I was stopped by a hand on the shoulder. “What’s your lowest price?”

“$50,” I said.

“You are tough,” the man said to me. Then, like a predator sizing up the weakest prey, he turned to Duke in a flash. “What’s your final offer?”

And I stood there in a daze as Duke said, “$150.”

“What happened to $75?!” I exclaimed.

But it was too late. Once you agree to a price it’s poor form to then back off.

I shook my head in dismay. But Duke hadn’t done any real shopping the entire trip, and I think he was suffering withdrawal.


The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic

The bazaars are a bit of a maze and can get quite claustrophobic


Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

Motorbikes whizz through the souk — as it got dark, one almost ran right into Duke!

How to Get Detained at the Airport

I told the shopkeeper about my fear that we’ll be detained at customs. He laughed it off but said he’d give us documentation. So before we left I reminded him of this, and he scribbled some Arabic on the back of his business card. He told us he had written that we had bought 13 items that were reproductions. We put that into our bag, along with the receipt.

And sure enough, we weren’t 50 feet inside the Luxor airport before we were detained. We had put our bags through security, and the guard said, “Statues?” and called us off to the side.

We spent the next 30 minutes (which felt like an eternity) uncomfortably watching the man slice into the carefully wrapped items, opening them for a woman in a headscarf who scratched at them with a paperclip and held a lighter to them. She always lit them near the top, but I didn’t feel it was my place to suggest she try the back or base instead.

Every time she burned a section, she’d smell it and, without fail, would rear her head back, her nose scrunched up, obviously having smelled something unpleasant — namely, the synthetic materials used in the (all-too-convincing) replicas. But every time she’d grimace at the smell, a wave of relief washed over me.

In the end, she had taken notes on our items, copied down my passport number, then set us free to pack up the wreckage and go on our merry way.

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

A vendor sips Turkish coffee at Kahn el-Khalili souk in Cairo

How Not to Bargain

I was upset with Duke for having caved under the pressure — especially since it was the second time it had happened on the trip.

Despite our better judgement, we had decided to go to an alabaster shop suggested by our guide. In Egypt they’ll suggest alabaster, papyrus and perfume “factories.” At these shops, they’ll show you the creation process (which is actually quite fun), all the while insisting there’s no pressure to buy.

Of course that’s not true. After the demonstration, you’ll be ushered inside and served up a drink (I went for Turkish coffee), a salesperson hovering nearby.

We had decided to get some small flint canopic jars, the four containers in which Ancient Egyptians would place certain organs during the mummification process. I had played hardball, insisting on a low price; the salesman got frustrated, and pounced on Duke like a cobra, waving me away.

The man had started at the absurd price of $65 apiece, and Duke caved at $125 for all four.

As a rule, it’s best to avoid these types of tourist traps, and a good guide won’t pressure you to go to them. (They get a commission or some small payment for luring in unsuspecting victims.)

But you will hear the depressing refrain, “Everything in the souk is made in China,” so perhaps those type of stores are one of your only guarantees of quality materials and handcraftsmanship.

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

The charming Linda at her Luxor shop, Habiba Gallery

Habiba: The Best Shop in the Souk

If you’re in Luxor and want locally made handicrafts, you have to stop into Habiba Gallery, a darling shop Zeina had recommended, just off of the main street of the souk, toward the Nile and the ruins of Luxor Temple. It’s run by a friendly Aussie named Linda, who has lived in Egypt for 20 years. Her mission is commendable: She only sells items that are indigenous to regions where they’re made. Some whimsical plates with gorgeous trees and serving dishes with a goat’s head and tail were part of a project for children to try their hand at pottery after school. Now two of those kids have grown up and started a business, which is now one of Linda’s suppliers.

The selection at Habiba is amazing — we just kept adding more and more to our pile, including a handwoven hammam towel, scented soaps, a veiled doll with silver bangles, a framed piece of jewelry and a cloth with a local village scene woven onto it.

The best part is that the prices are fixed and totally fair. Take a break from haggling and stop in for a chat with the charming Linda. You’ll come away with some great finds — whether you give them as gifts or keep them for yourself. –Wally

A Perfect Afternoon in Artsy Coyoacán

Follow our six-stop walking tour of Mexico City’s bohemian neighborhood, including Plaza Hidalgo and Los Danzantes restaurant.

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

After visiting Frida’s house, explore the boho hood of Coyoacán and purchase some traditional regional handicrafts at the artisanal market

There’s much to do in the charming neighborhood of Coyoacán beyond La Casa Azul, the lifelong home and studio of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The municipality’s name comes from Coyohuacan, Nahuatl for “the Place of Coyotes.” This colonia, or neighborhood, features meandering streets filled with well-preserved colonial buildings, delicious restaurants and handicraft markets waiting to be explored.

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

You’ll see balloon vendors all over CDMX

All you’ll need for a perfect afternoon in Coyoacán is a comfortable pair of shoes and a sense of adventure — the area is walkable, and all of the stops listed below can easily be explored by foot.

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

The Fuente de los Coyotes in Coyoacán

Make a Splash

Stop 1: Plaza Hidalgo

Your journey begins in the historic heart of Coyoacán, just a few blocks from La Casa Azul. On Avenida Francisco Sosa, you’ll find not one, but two public squares: Jardín Centenario, which memorializes the 100th anniversary of Mexico’s independence, and the Plaza Hidalgo. Together they form a typical colonial town square, complete with benches for people-watching, gazebos for music and vendors selling balloons.

Near the entrance of Plaza Hidalgo, a street artist was selling woven palm-leaf crickets. We purchased a pair for 50 pesos each (about $2.50), and as the vendor was handing them to us, a woman seated on a nearby bench offered her advice by telling us to use hairspray to keep them green.

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

People push crickets on you everywhere you go in Mexico City. These palm ones are more appetizing than the ones in the croquettes we ate

Here you’ll find a circular stone fountain known as the Fuente de los Coyotes, or Fountain of the Coyotes, the animals from whom the borough takes its name. The iconic landmark occupies the center of the plaza and features two bronze coyotes by sculptor Gabriel Ponzanelli. Numerous spouts located around the perimeter spray graceful arcs of water into the air over the playful pair.

Be sure to stop into the exquisite Iglesia de Coyoacán, the large cathedral, across the way.

Ignacio Allende Esquina Avenida Miguel Hidalgo

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Grab a bite on the patio of Los Danzantes, just off the park, for good food and people-watching

Let’s Dance

Stop 2: Los Danzantes

On the periphery of the square is Los Danzantes, the Dancers, a multi-story restaurant in a colonial-era building with panoramic views of the park. Wally’s coworker Juls lived in Mexico City, and this is one of her favorite restaurants. We were seated outside on the patio terrace, and similar to the cafés of Paris, it was a great place to watch the world go by and enjoy a leisurely meal. While we were there, a guitarist paused for a moment as he passed by, looking to see if there might be an interested party willing to pay him to play a song or two. The restaurant also has its own mezcal distillery and grows seasonal produce in garden plots called chinampas in Xochimilco.

The bar at Los Danzantes

The bar at Los Danzantes

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

We had ceviche, cricket croquetas and hoja santa (holy leaf), a local specialty stuffed with goat cheese

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Mezcal and a mariachi are all it takes to make Duke happy

Plaza Jardín Centenario 12

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Look for these yellow arches across from the Jardín Centenario to enter the handicraft market

Get Crafty

Stop 3: Mercado Artesanal Mexicano

After lunch, visit the Mexican Craft Market and walk beneath garlands of fluttering papel picado, colorful cut-tissue paper bunting. The two-story market has dozens of craft stalls featuring a wide variety of traditional Mexican handicrafts and regional specialties from all over the country, all in one place.

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

You’ll spot the coyotes for which the colonia is named all over the place

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

Colorful skulls on offer at the craft market

We headed upstairs first, but it seemed to be endless stalls of tattoo artists and not many handicrafts. The first floor, though, was more our speed. Wally and are were especially drawn to the colorful Oaxacan alebrijes, traditional folk art depicting fantastical creatures embellished with brilliant patterns and colors. (We have a thing for the surreal.) Each small wooden totem is carved by hand, often using nothing more than a simple pocket knife. We brought home a strange little skeleton, a green and orange insect and a black cactus with a bright pink flower and hummingbird on top of it.

When I purchased an unusual-looking doll made from a bulbous gourd with coarsely braided rope pigtails, two tiny breasts and coconut shell limbs (200 pesos, or $10), Wally replied, “You like things that look old, are a little bit cuckoo and are unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.” He knows me so well.

Stalls often sell the same crafts at different prices, so shop around — but don’t expect to bargain for a lower price.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto 25


coyoacanchurchaisle.jpg

BONUS STOP!

Pop into la Iglesia de Coyoacán (aka Parroquia San Juan Bautista) across the square.

The façade looks plain, but the inside is awash in gilded niches, sweeping arches and hand-painted ceiling frescos, with a peaceful cloister around back.

If that hasn’t convinced you, you can hunt down the creepy life-size mannequins of Christ and a dead baby!


Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Grab a coffee and snack at Panadería Pública

Take a Coffee Break

Stop 4: Panadería Pública

If shopping has worn you out, we recommend stopping for a delicious pastry paired with a great cup of coffee at the Panadería Pública for an afternoon pick-me-up. There’s an array of options here, including traditional conchas, campesinos and orejas, as well as French baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat to name a few. I ordered a café con leche and Wally got his latte con leche light. We also purchased a pastelito de guayaba, a puff pastry similar in size and shape to a turnover, filled with cream cheese and guava paste. Stop to chat with the friendly staff.

Higuerra 22
La Concepción

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

The marigold yellow façade of La Conchita has seen better days but still has charm

Goin’ to the Chapel

Stop 5: Plaza de la Conchita

A short stroll southeast is the leafy Plaza de la Conchita in the colonia La Concepción, a quiet sanctuary that feels worlds away from the crowds of tourists visiting La Casa Azul just a few miles away. The small square contains a pale yellow, timeworn and weather-beaten beauty of the 16th century, the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque-style, chapel known as La Conchita. One of the oldest in Mexico, it’s said that the conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered the church to be built on top of a Toltec altar soon after he settled in Coyoacán. The village was used as the base for the conquistadors after they conquered the Aztec Empire.

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

The church is designed in the Churrigueresque, or Spanish Baroque, style

Duke sits on the steps around back

Duke sits on the steps around back

Unfortunately, the chapel was closed, so we couldn’t venture inside, but the building itself is a charming example of colonial architecture.

The fellas love to take jumping shots

The fellas love to take jumping shots

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Golden hour made the church walls glow

Fernández Leal
La Concepción

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Teenagers practice salsa moves at the end of a striking, geometrical arbor

Park It

Stop 6: Frida Kahlo Park

Just steps from the Plaza de la Conchita is Frida Kahlo Park. Here you’ll find a menagerie of topiary animals at the entrance and a fountain with a bronze sculpture of a nude woman with her legs drawn up, also by Ponzanelli. A group of teenagers was practicing salsa routines under an arbor of bougainvilleas.

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Like the coyote fountain in Plaza Hidalgo, this woman was sculpted by Ponzanelli

Wally loves Frida

Wally loves Frida

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

Is Diego jealous of Duke’s attention to Frida?

The park is a bit small in scale, but it’s worth stopping by to take a photo with the larger-than-life figures of Frida and Diego and to see the brightly colored mural by Dan Silva aka Polvoe, across the way on Tepalcatitla street.

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

The mascots of Coyoacán, as depicted by street artist Polvoe

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

A colorful mural across from Frida Kahlo Park caught our eye

Fernández Leal and Avenida Pacifico
La Concepción


Coyoacán was easily one of our favorite places we visited in CDMX. You can see why this enchanting and storied part of the city has attracted artists and intellectuals over the years. –Duke

 

The Creepy Witch’s Market at Mercado Sonora

Head to the back left corner to enter a world of magic potions, Santeria, brujeria, voodoo dolls and Santa Muerte.

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

When you start seeing skeletons, you’ll know you’ve found the witch’s market

Ever since Duke and I stumbled upon a witch’s market in a corner of the souk in Marrakech, Morocco, we’ve been addicted.

What’s a witch’s market, you ask? It’s sort of like a farmer’s market — only with a lot less local produce and more skulls and potions. Filled as they are with often disturbing items, witchcraft markets appeal to our warped sensibilities.

Our Uber dropped us off at the sprawling Mercado Sonora in Mexico City in front of a line of yellow awnings. At first we wondered if we would even be able to find the section that contained the witch’s market. Stall after stall stretched out before us, filled with brightly colored, super-sized stuffed animals like those you hope your honey will win for you at a carnival. Some stalls had lights swirling like a discotheque and housed banners and other decorations that screamed, “¡Feliz Cumpliaños!” Women sat under large cutouts of Disney princesses, Mickey Mouse and superheroes. Piñatas hung from the ceiling. Men tried to tempt us with rows of technicolor candies.

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

The back right corner of the Sonora Market has live animals in cages

As we wandered toward the far right-hand corner of the massive market, we started noticing a disturbing trend: This was where live animals were sold. We witnessed a young boy dump a cardboard box of full of puppies onto the floor and hastily put them into a cage near crates packed with birds, lizards, cats, rabbits and goats.

I stopped to take a picture of a cage full of mangy-looking puppies, but a man wagged his finger at me, saying, “No fotos” in a stern voice.

“I’m not surprised,” Duke mumbled. “He doesn’t want documentation of how inhumane this is.”

It really was quite depressing. So we were relieved when, as we moved to the left, still at the back of the market, we noticed a life-size skeleton wearing a wedding dress, a string of pearls around its neck and a tiara atop its skull.

We knew we were in the right place. We had found the witch’s market.

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

The Catholic church isn’t fond of Santa Muerte and has called her worship blasphemous

Santa Muerte and Santería

The figure we happened upon is Santa Muerte, the goddess of death, a popular figure in Mexico. The stall took up a corner space, more of a small boutique. We looked around, seeing strings of beads, skeletons carved from bone (Duke still regrets not having bought one), candles in glass containers and a stone head with cowry shells for its eyes and mouth. I called Duke over. This last item was just the type of unexpected and slightly disturbing thing that he would love. We of course purchased it, for 100 pesos, or $5.

By the way, at markets in Mexico City, unlike those in Southeast Asia or Morocco, for instance, you’re not expected to bargain. The prices are set, but that’s OK, as you’ll find that most of them are quite reasonable.

The man who ran the stall was friendly, and grabbed a pen and paper when I asked him to write down what the head is called.

“Elegua,” he scribbled. I later found out he’s the god of beginnings and endings in Santería. He’s a bit of a trickster, which explains why I was so drawn to him.

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

Stalls filled with Catholic icons are side by side with ones selling Santería and brujeria totems

We made our way through the labyrinth of stalls, surprised that they didn’t connect in any sort of logical manner. You would wind through a narrow space and then find yourself at a dead end, having to backtrack. The market was pretty crowded when we were there on a Sunday morning — “These are all the naughty people who should be in church,” I told Duke — and there was still a bit of jostling in the corridors as people stopped to look at goods or tried to pass by. Every now and then, a vendor would appear, carrying a stack of large boxes, and you’d have to press yourself against the wall to let them pass. It wasn’t long before Duke was feeling claustrophobic.

But I wasn’t done exploring this weird and wonderful market.

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

You can buy a baby Jesus in all sizes and skin colors

Brujeria Meets Catholicism

What’s strange about brujeria, or Mexican witchcraft, is that it exists alongside Catholic beliefs. Whereas the mere whiff of something witchy prompts Christians in the United States to scream, “Satan,” Mexicans are much more sanguine. In the heart of the witch’s market, you’ll find statues of saints and baby Jesus dolls, Virgins of Guadalupe and crucifixes galore right next to the scythe-wielding Santa Muerte, looking like the Grim Reaper’s soulmate.

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Santería and similar religions started amongst descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

Mexican Catholics don’t see any problem with mixing the worship of Jesus and the Virgin Mary with magic potions

As we wandered down a narrow corridor, something caught my attention: what was obviously a Barbie doll, entirely covered in red ribbon with a few nails stuck into it. The vendor told me it was a voodoo doll, but an expensive one, he said, apologetically. You see, it cost 100 pesos, or a whopping $5. He showed me a package of smaller, cheaply made dolls, pointing out how much more affordable they were. But I had to have the other one, of course.

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

You’ll see quite a few of these creepy but artistic dolls hanging in stalls. They’re representations of Santería deities

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

Here’s Lucero Mundo, god of the crossroads and bestower of spiritual power

At stalls in the witchcraft market, creepy dolls hung on the wall, some with their eyes and mouths sewn shut. One that immediately appealed to me had its face painted half red, half black. Sage smoke from a burning smudge stick filled the dark corridor, making me a little lightheaded. The vendor appeared intimidating — an intense young man with long hair, numerous piercings, tattoos down his arms and triangular studs in his earlobes. But he turned out to be friendly and wrote down the name of the god represented by the red-and-blacked-faced doll: Lucero Mundo, or Star of the World. He’s a deity from Palo, a Santería-like religion that originated in Cuba amongst descendants from the Congo. A god of the crossroads, Lucero witnesses everything, and without his consent, no spiritual power will flow.

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Whether you want money or love, there’s a potion you can buy in the witch’s market

Potions and Notions

Brightly colored bottles and boxes promised the solution to any problem. Got a crush? Spray some Ven a Mi (Come to Me). Want a successful small business? Spritz some Llama Cliente (Call Customers).

I’m not sure if you’re supposed to drink these potions, but I wouldn’t put those toxic-looking, neon-colored bottles to my lips no matter how desperate I was.

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

Head to the back left corner of the Mercado Sonora to find the witch’s market

“I was thinking there’d be more desiccated animals,” Duke sighed. These are the types of things that disappoint us. But then, as if he had conjured it by sheer willpower, we almost walked right into some sort of flayed ball of fur, which looked more like a cross between roadkill and beef jerky. It was hardly recognizable as having once been a small animal. We have a taxidermied squirrel climbing our wall, a dried-out bat in our living room and a desiccated chameleon inside our glass-topped coffee table. But this macabre monstrosity was too much, even for us. –Wally

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Nacimientos, or nativity scenes, galore

Mercado Sonora and the Witch’s Market
Fray Servando Teresa de Mier 419
Merced Balbuena
15810 Ciudad de México, CDMX
Mexico

Bali Then and Now

In the post-Eat Pray Love world, Bali has lost a bit of its charm. Ubud has become a more congested tourism hotspot, but parts of the island remain a paradise on Earth.

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001  Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

Bali then: Malcolm and Wally at Tirta Gangga’s lotus fountain in 2001

Bali now: The royal water garden has been renovated and is much more crowded

We had been planning the trip to Bali for half a year. And then, less than two weeks before we were set to leave, 9/11 rocked our world. The entire country was in a daze. Americans had been living in a  bubble of isolation, of false protection, thinking that our global actions wouldn’t have severe repercussions. And the idea of an attack on our own turf was incomprehensible. But then the World Trade Center towers fell, and that bubble popped horrifically and unexpectedly that morning in September.

The United States, so often a place of optimism, had turned utterly depressing. I eagerly grasped at the chance to escape the overwhelming malaise. “I’m still going to Bali,” I told my travel companions.

“I reserve the right to back out, even up to the last minute,” my friend Christina told me. It probably didn’t help that she was unnecessarily taking malaria pills at the time, which can induce paranoia as a side effect.

We were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world.

Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

When the day came, Christina and her then-husband Malcolm joined me at O’Hare in Chicago. The airport had only recently reopened, and everyone still seemed scared to fly. The corridors were empty. I felt fatalistic, numb. It was difficult to care what happened, but I was willing to take the risk.

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

I decided to bleach my hair before our trip to Bali back in 2001. Here Malcolm and I tried posing as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

And here I am, 17 years later, back on Bali, this time making a point to visit the gorgeous Tegalalang Rice Terrace

What ended up happening was that we were able to flee a country at a desperate time, and instead explore a vibrant culture on a tropical isle halfway around the world. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I recall that trip, back in 2001, as one of the best of my life. Bali shimmers in my memory as a paradise on Earth.

So I was eager to share the magic of Bali with my husband, Duke. We had visited other parts of Southeast Asia, our favorite region on the planet, and I decided it was time I returned to Bali.

Here are some ruminations on my experiences on this one-of-a-kind Indonesian island 17 years ago and how it differed on our recent trip.

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali then: We passed by the Saraswati Temple every time we left our hotel

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

Bali now: One thing hasn’t changed — the Saraswati Temple is still the centerpiece of Ubud

For one thing, the city of Ubud has grown exponentially. When I was here before, I remember it being a sleepy little town, with one main drag. We would wander into town in the morning, find a driver parked along the side of the road, negotiate a day rate and hop in. We would say, “Take us to a cool Hindu temple and an art village.” I don’t recall us ever having a set itinerary; we put ourselves entirely in our driver’s hands.

We did take some farther-afield trips, tourist attractions two hours or so away. Of course back then it might not have taken so long because the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now.

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Traffic has gotten a lot worse on Bali, from motorbikes to construction vehicles

Speaking of traffic, there are certain stretches of the small winding two-lane roads where traffic becomes impassable. A lot of it has to do with the construction vehicles that are all over the place now as the city and the island itself gets built up more and more.

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Last time, we stayed at cheap villas with hand-carved teak details for about $15 a night. This time, we went for a luxury resort

Beggars now plead for money in parts of Ubud. We didn’t see any homeless in the streets in Ubud on our trip 17 years ago. But there were plenty of signs of poverty in the small city of Kuta, which is popular with Aussie surfers. (This was part of reason I had zero desire to go back to Kuta on this trip. If you’re going to visit a tropical paradise, why surround yourself with the filth of a city?)

You don’t see a lot of people begging for money in Ubud, but we did see about 10 the five or so days we were there. In fact, one homeless woman was holding up her young daughter as she squatted over an open sewer grate to take a dump.

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

When we visited temples in 2001, there weren’t many other tourists, and locals would dress us in sarongs, sashes around our waists and headdresses

A lot of the handicraft items were no longer anywhere to be found. When I was here before, there were certain items that lined stalls in every market you visited but had, for some reason, vanished: shadow puppets, wooden frog instruments, blow dart guns, hand-carved chess sets, colorful kites in the shape of ships and the wavy ceremonial daggers called kris.

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

The only time I saw Western toilets on Bali in 2001 was at hotels (usually series of bare-bones but dirt-cheap villas). This sticker showing people how to use them — don’t squat right on the seat! — never failed to amuse me

Last time I was here, you literally only found Western toilets at your lodging. In fact, they had stickers on them to tell people who are unfamiliar that you shouldn’t squat on top of the seat. This time there was only one bathroom I went into where there was traditional Balinese toilet, which is really ceramic hole in the ground with treads for your feet. You “flush” your waste by dipping a plastic pot or bucket into the garbage can filled with water.

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

A Balinese cockfight from the late 1950s

When I visited last time, Ubud felt more like a traditional village. One afternoon we wandered behind a temple and stumbled upon a cockfight. We had heard about this popular pastime and stopped to watch. A group of men waved bills, placing bets on their favored bird.

Each contestant held his prized cock and tied triangular razor blades to the back of its leg, just above the talons. Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust. In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

It struck us as extremely anticlimactic. I imagined the roosters circling each other like boxers or sumo wrestlers, making parries and retreats. But no. It was over in about a second.

A man told us that we the rooster would be eaten as an offering at the temple. He said this almost apologetically, I imagined, to justify this violent pastime — though I probably imposed that sense of guilt upon him. To him, it was just a way of life. –Wally

Everyone gathered in a circle, the roosters were released, and they flew at each other in a puff of dust.

In the blink of any eye, one of the poor birds had fallen to the ground and lay there, dead.

Weird Bali: 7 Crazy Balinese Customs

Cat poop coffee, temples of death and Balinese names are a few of the unusual aspects of Bali culture.

What makes islands so interesting is that they act as closed environments and often adopt their own distinct cultures. It’s curious that Bali is a Hindu island in the midst of the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Its unique religion permeates daily life.

Here’s a sampling of seven unusual things we observed or learned about on our trip to Bali.

The passage of the beans through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands makes the resulting coffee to die for.
Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

1. A popular coffee on Bali is made from animal poop — and it’s the most expensive coffee on Earth.

Known as kopi luwak, this is essentially coffee beans that have been eaten, digested and shat out by the palm civet, a cute animal that looks like a cross between a wild cat and a mongoose. You’ll see signs for kopi luwak all over Bali, and Duke and I were like, no thank you. The British couple next to us at dinner one night said they quite enjoyed it, though, that the beans were a honeyed color, that the coffee was smooth, and they’d have gotten some if it wasn’t so bloody expensive.

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Civets are shy, nocturnal creatures that roam coffee plantations at night, eating ripe coffee cherries. They can’t digest the pits, or beans, and poop them out. Somehow locals got it into their heads that the passage through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands, somehow makes the resulting coffee to die for.

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

What’s sad, though, is that the novelty of kopi luwak has turned into a booming industry, with many coffee farms mistreating the animals. They “suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their scats, and frequently die,” writes Tony Wild, the man who blames himself for bringing the kopi luwak craze to the West, in The Guardian. Treating an animal like that is just crappy.

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

2. All the kids have the same names, depending on their birth order.

As you become acquainted with more and more Balinese locals, you’ll notice something strange: They all seem to have the same name. And it’s not just that certain names are popular, like John and Jennifer in the States — there literally seem to be only a few names on the island to choose from. As bizarre as that seems, that is indeed the tradition on Bali.

In most cases, Balinese parents from the lower caste (that is to say, most of the population) give their children the same names, depending on their birth order — whether or not they’re boys or girls. Firstborns are named Wayan, Putu or Gede; the second-born is Made or Kadek; the third-born is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth-born is Ketut. What happens if you have five kids? The cycle repeats itself, with the addition of Balik. So the fifth-born would be Waylan Balik, which basically means Waylan Returns.

You’ll meet tons of Wayans and Mades (this last one is pronounced Mah-deh), so how do people know who’s who? Most Balinese add a nickname or middle name. Our driver, for instance, was Made Ada.

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

3. Every village has at least one temple of death.

Known as pura dalem, every village has at least one death temple, often located in the lowest part of town, facing the sea, which is considered the gateway to the underworld. Bodies are buried in the nearby cemetery, awaiting the purification of a cremation ceremony. Pura dalem, not surprisingly, are typically dedicated to the most gruesome gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon: Shiva the Destroyer, Kali, Durga or Rangda.

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Monstrous demonic statues line the entrance — many featuring bulging bug eyes, fierce fangs and large, saggy breasts. Some hold innocent babies in their arms as they stand atop a pile of skulls. These serve as a vivid reminders of what awaits the wicked.



The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

4. Wearing a skirt and tucking a flower behind your ear is thought of as the epitome of masculinity.

At temples on Bali you have to wear a sarong, wrapping these bright cloths around your waist like a long skirt. When I first visited Bali almost two decades ago, I’d wear a sarong every day, and it was common to see local men doing the same. On this visit, though, we only saw one young man wearing a sarong in Ubud (and that’s why I approached him to be our driver for the week).

I’d also pluck a flower and put it behind my ear, having seen temple priests do so. When men on Bali would see me with my sarong and flower, they’d exclaim, “Look at you! You are so masculine!” Bali has got to be the only place on Earth where a man is considered macho for wearing what’s essentially a skirt and a flower behind his ear.

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

5. Babies on Bali aren’t allowed to touch the ground for the first three months or so.

Being Hindus, Balinese believe in reincarnation — more specifically, newborns are thought to be the spirit of an ancestor returning to live another life. Because babies are still so close to the sacred realm they came from, they should be venerated. And in a culture where the ground represents all that is demonic and impure, that means newborns aren’t allowed to touch the earth for at least 105 days after birth, and up to 210 in some communities. That’s when the soul officially becomes a part of the child.

At this time, there’s a ceremony called nyabutan or nyambutin, where the baby’s hair is cut off and he or she touches the ground for the first time. It’s often at this time that the child is given its name.

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

6. In Indonesian currency, you’ll be a multimillionaire.

Literally every time we hit the ATM, we got out the maximum amount: 1.5 million rupiah, which, at the time we visited, was only about $100.

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

7. There are Ralph Lauren Polo stores everywhere.

The preppy look is huge on Bali, at least among tourists. The island is lousy with Polo stores — though they might be of dubious affiliation with the brand. Walking through Ubud, we passed at least six Polo stores. Let the buyer beware: The online consensus is that these deals are too good to be true and are most likely knock-offs. –Wally



Gaya Ceramic: Italy Meets Bali

If you’re interested in handmade pottery, stop in this charming Ubud boutique.

An Italian couple took their native country’s dedication to quality and paired it with Balinese craftsmanship

An Italian couple took their native country’s dedication to quality and paired it with Balinese craftsmanship

It's true, Wally and I have a shared fascination with folklore, history and handicrafts which ultimately drives most of our travel destinations, and is why we decided to stay in Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. The island has a special energy all its own, but if you want to enjoy it and have only a few days, you may find that seeing everything you would like to on your itinerary is logistically impossible. However, one of the places I refused to cut was the Gaya Ceramic showroom.

Gaya Ceramic has formed a perfect marriage of Italian design and Balinese craftsmanship.
Stop by Gaya Ceramic to pick up some gifts for family and friends — and treat yourself while you’re at it

Stop by Gaya Ceramic to pick up some gifts for family and friends — and treat yourself while you’re at it

The boutique is located on Jalan Raya, the main thoroughfare that passes through the center of Ubud, in the village of Sayan. If you’re hiring a taxi or driver, make sure to let them know that it’s not the smaller branch of the road, as our driver took us to the Ceramic Arts Center by mistake. While this educational division with classes, workshops and a residency program for artists from around the globe is certainly interesting, I wanted to see the goods for sale at the shop.

The duo behind the craft are husband and wife Marcello Massoni and Michela Foppiani. Both passionate creatives who caught the attention of Gaya Fusion's director, Stefano Grande. After meeting with Stefano, they made the decision to move from Italy to Bali and established Gaya Ceramic. It should come as no surprise then, that their aesthetic is the perfect union of Italian design and Balinese craftsmanship.

One of the first things we noticed when we arrived at the showroom were exotic, climbing vines with pale lavender blooms. The dense growth framed and partially concealed the façade, lending the exterior an air of curiosity, as if letting you know you’re about to enter somewhere enchanting.

Marcello Massoni, the CEO of Gaya Ceramic, still throws the original prototype for each new piece

Marcello Massoni, the CEO of Gaya Ceramic, still throws the original prototype for each new piece

The Gaya Ceramic shop is like walking through an art exhibit

The Gaya Ceramic shop is like walking through an art exhibit

Inside, a rich, jewel-tone malachite green tile covers the floors. The boutique contains an array of luxurious, refined hand-crafted objects. Gaya’s designs include sculptural porcelain and lava sand mortar and pestles, to more elaborate ceramic coral wall art, bowls, plates and one of my personal favorites, “tattoo” vases embellished with a deconstructed pattern of twining cobalt blue chinoiserie flowers, all handmade in Bali.

What’s most impressive, though, is the relationship Marcello and Michela have fostered within the village of Sayan, where the company is based. Villagers who have mastered the intensive hands-on apprenticeship program have gone on to become fully vested employees, ensuring that these skills live on for generations to come.

Gaya makes up to 9,000 pieces a month!

Gaya makes up to 9,000 pieces a month!

Intricately patterned Raku ware pottery pieces are grouped together

Intricately patterned Raku ware pottery pieces are grouped together

A couple of the delightful employees who work at Gaya

A couple of the delightful employees who work at Gaya

Every element, from the wireless radio — they even have a Spotify playlist — to the small circular clay tokens with their logo stamped into them that adorn their shopping bags, has been thoughtfully considered.

Visit their showroom and take your time to admire the beauty of each piece. And if your suitcase isn’t big enough, they ship.


Q&A with Marcello Massoni, owner of Gaya Ceramic

How has your cultural background been incorporated into Gaya?
We always put a bit of Italian flavor into our ceramics. The innovation and attention to detail that Italians are well known for is embedded in all our creations.

 

How has the culture of Bali influenced you?
Balinese culture helped us to reach a high level of craftsmanship and inspires us every day with its architecture, nature and ceremonies.

 

Tell about us your process. How does a lump of clay become a beautiful object?

All of our pieces begin their life in the studio. I still throw the original piece from which a prototype is made. For our hospitality projects, we custom create ceramic collections based on a client’s functional and aesthetic needs. We use different clays, glazes and diverse firing techniques (gas, raku, wood firings). All of our processes are handmade.

 

On average, how many pieces are produced per month?

Between 7,000 to 9,000.

 

Now for a few fun non-business related questions. What are a couple of your and Michela’s favorite local restaurants?  

Locavore or the restaurant at Bambu Indah.

 

Where’s the best place to get a cup of coffee?  

My house.

 

Favorite place to visit on Bali?

Pura Gunung Kawi or Geger Beach in Nusa Dua.

 

Best place to get gelato (and we know you’re biased)?

Gaya Gelato :)

gayaubud

Gaya Ceramic
Jalan Raya Satan No. 105
Sayan, Ubud
Bali, Indonesia 80571

All About Indigo: A Natural Color to Dye For

Our favorite tie dye clothing designer in Chiang Mai explains how indigo is made.

Pattaya Mee, owner of HaNa Natural Indigo, with one of her designs

Pattaya Mee, owner of HaNa Natural Indigo, with one of her designs

Mysterious and alluring, indigo has a long and storied history, spanning millennia, cultures and continents. One of the oldest natural dyes known to man, its hue is a symbol of status amongst the nomadic Tuareg of the Sahara. In Hinduism, the god Krishna’s complexion is depicted as blue, and the Virgin Mary is typically draped in a blue veil in Christian art.

There are many different species of indigofera, the plants used to produce indigo dye. One of the most common is the indigofera tinctoria, native to India and Asia. Indigo is the only dye in the world that starts blue, changes to green, and transforms itself again to blue.

I love it when the dye changes from green to blue with oxidation — it’s magic!
— Pattaya Mee, owner, HaNa Natural Indigo

Though it has been used continuously for thousands of years, the natural dyeing process is long and arduous. In order to extract the dye, the leaves of the plant must be fermented for a week. To achieve the darkest of indigo blues, the fabric is dyed as many as 40 times!

A dip-dyed ombré T-shirt Patty created hangs to dry

A dip-dyed ombré T-shirt Patty created hangs to dry

HaNa Natural Indigo

While exploring the Anusarn Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Wally and I were drawn to Pattaya Mee’s booth with its variety of beautiful hand-dyed apparel. We struck up a conversation with her and were charmed by her smile and her story.

Before starting HaNa Natural Indigo as a full-time business, Patty worked at a media company in Bangkok. In her spare time, she attended workshops, where she learned about natural dyeing. With no formal training, she began nurturing her hobby, selling her pieces around Bangkok and Chiang Mai. In 2015 she relocated to Chiang Mai and established HaNa Natural Indigo.

What drew you to indigo?
I experimented with many different types of natural dyes, but fell in love with indigo. I love it when the dye changes from green to blue with oxidation — it’s magic!

 

What type of plant does the indigo you dye with come from?

I use the leaves from the Baphicacanthus cusia Bremek plant, which we call hom in Thai.

The Baphicacanthus cusia Bremek plant, or hom, can be used to make indigo

The Baphicacanthus cusia Bremek plant, or hom, can be used to make indigo

How is your indigo dye made?
The exact recipe is a secret. Every artist and studio has their own set of ingredients. I can’t tell you what they are, but I can tell you that many use a dye-producing leaf mix that’s soaked in water and fermented until the mixture becomes yellow or green in color. This is an indication of good-quality indigo.

The exact method Patty uses to create her indigo paste is a secret

The exact method Patty uses to create her indigo paste is a secret

What are the steps taken for the dyeing process?

  • Step 1: Plant
  • Step 2: Harvest
  • Step 3: Soak
  • Step 4: Ferment
  • Step 5: Oxidize
  • Step 6: Filter
  • Step 7: Collect the paste
  • Step 8: Prepare the vat
  • Step 9: Dye
Creating and dyeing with indigo involves a nine-step process

Creating and dyeing with indigo involves a nine-step process

Your pieces are diverse and imaginative. Where does your inspiration come from for the designs?

Nature and music. There are always imperfections in nature, and with natural indigo dyeing, no two garments will ever be alike. Some patterns are exaggerated like the mountains or the sea. I listen to silly pop songs while creating and like to think that whimsy is reflected in my work.

Blue hands are a telltale sign that the person works with indigo (or is the god Krishna)

Blue hands are a telltale sign that the person works with indigo (or is the god Krishna)

One last question: How do you get the dye off your hands?

You can’t. :)


If you happen to be in Chiang Mai, you can visit Patty at the Kajidrid shop at the InterInn Hotel just outside the Old City. We purchased an indigo dyed T-shirt and silk scarf all at reasonable prices for handmade pieces — plus they’re easy to pack! –Duke

The adorable Kajidrid shop sells HaNa Natural Indigo products

The adorable Kajidrid shop sells HaNa Natural Indigo products

Kajidrid
17 Thapae Road, Soi 5
ChangKlan Sub-District
Mueang District, Chiang Mai

Where to Eat and Shop in Cassis

Spend a charming day wandering this pretty Provence port — and pick up a bottle of crème de cassis and marc while you’re at it.

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Book a tour of the calanques, then spend the afternoon in lovely Cassis

Built on a hillside, the 17-century medieval town of Cassis, in the South of France, is clustered around a harbor shaped like a crescent (or, one might say croissant). Many of the buildings have beautifully weathered shutters and the town’s warren of charming narrow streets are lined with cafés, restaurants, shops and residences easily accessible by foot, or à pied as the French say.

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

The lighthouse marks the entrance to the Port of Cassis — one of the best-kept secrets in the South of France

C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.
With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

With such a picturesque port and beautiful weather, you’ll want to dine al fresco

Time for Lunch

After our afternoon excursion on the Mediterranean touring the white cliffsides known as calanques, the Shirl, Dave, Wally and I had worked up an appetite and decided to have lunch on the seaside terrace of the Marco Polo Restaurant.

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

Watch the boats come and go in the harbor as you wander this adorable ville

What appeared to be a regular diner was enjoying his meal near the entrance to the restaurant. When he finished, he lit a cigar. A waitress drizzled water across his lap and told him to put it out. When he refused, she threatened to pour a full glass over his head — and he finally acquiesced.
Each of us ordered the Marco Polo salad. The mixed greens included shredded chicken, Granny Smith apple slices, Belgian endives, cherry tomatoes, kernels of corn and a light mustard dressing. We all enjoyed them — a nice light break from all the fromage and cured saucissons.

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Food, drink and shopping in a pretty Provençal port town

Wally and I also ordered Kir Royales, champagne with the addition of the syrupy blackcurrant apéritif liqueur crème de cassis.

As an interesting aside, the Provençal region is known for rosé and Sauvignon Blanc — not crème de cassis, which is a specialty of the Burgundy region.

 

Le Marco Polo
4, place Mirabeau


This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

This chien has the right idea — Cassis has a laidback vibe

Time to Shop

Should you decide to wander the streets of Cassis after lunch (and you really should), there are plenty of shops and boutiques to whet your appetite, offering local wares — but you may find many of them closed. Shops close up to three hours for lunch between 12 to 3 p.m.

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

The streets are narrow, rounded and lined with brightly colored buildings — some of which are striped!

One shop in particular that piqued our interest, the Cassis-Provence shop, allegedly resumed business at 2 p.m., but didn’t unlock its doors until 2:45 p.m. (We know cuz we kept checking back, we were so eager to get inside.) C’est la vie, as they say — life follows a different schedule in Provence and even more so in a seaside town.

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

Climbing flowers and bright colors are at the heart of Cassis’ appeal

The shop proprietor was wearing a voluminous pink cotton candy cloud of a dress which made her look like doll, earning her Wally’s fitting nickname Madame Poupée.

A Cassis courtyard

A Cassis courtyard

We purchased the following from this well-stocked shop, which featured wines, aperitifs and olive oil:

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

Wally’s mère became obsessed with this blue door — it represented everything she loves about Provence

  • Margier extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlaban marc (a digestif Mme Poupée told us is a local specialty and drunk after every meal)
  • Crème de cassis
  • Château de Fontcreuse rosé
  • La Cagole (une bière blanche, or white beer, which Wally and I realized is our favorite type of beer)

Cassis Provence
9, rue Brémond


It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

It’s tough to take a bad picture of the narrow rainbow-hued shops and apartments with boats out front

Cassis remains a friendly, unspoiled spot on the Mediterranean coast, where you can easily spend a relaxing sun-soaked afternoon enjoying the picturesque landscape and tasty food in an enchanting Provençal village. –Duke

Saturday Night Market, Chiang Mai

Forget the Night Bazaar and hit this market by the Silver Temple when you’re in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Saturday Walking Street Night Market has some good handicraft stalls — but we loved this mini food court most of all

The Saturday Walking Street Night Market has some good handicraft stalls — but we loved this mini food court most of all

Wualai Market, also known as the Saturday Walking Street, is a lively outdoor market with hundreds of street vendors that runs from 5-11 p.m. every Saturday evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since we were visiting Wat Sri Suphan, known as the Silver Temple, on a Saturday and the market was conveniently located nearby, we both agreed that it was the perfect opportunity to check it out.

An artist selling her charming linocut postcards

An artist selling her charming linocut postcards

You can purchase everything from a variety of traditional handicrafts, clothes, tote bags, handmade hill tribe products to local herbal remedies. A short walk from the Old City’s South (Chiang Mai) Gate, the market takes place on Wualai Street, home to silver craftsmen. The enclave was resettled in the late 18th century by Burmese Shan state refugees, and its name refers to Ban Ngua Lai, a Shan village on the Salween River.

The Saturday Walking Street Market feels more authentic and less tourist driven than the better-known Sunday Walking Street Market.

Perhaps because it’s the smaller, secluded sibling of the better-known Sunday Walking Street on Ratchadamnoen Road, the Wualai Market feels more authentic and less tourist driven. The market spans the entire length of Wualai Road, a few of the narrow lanes in between, and is closed to motorized traffic.

Get to the market early if you want to escape the crowds

Get to the market early if you want to escape the crowds

Prices are incredibly reasonable, so you’ll be sure to find some bargains here. Many Chiang Mai University art students use this marketplace to display their wares. Wally and I discovered a young woman selling charming linocut postcard-sized art and purchased a few of them as souvenirs.

Wash down dinner with a couple of local beers

Wash down dinner with a couple of local beers

Just follow the flashing lights and pumping music to find your way to the booze cart at the back of the food court

Just follow the flashing lights and pumping music to find your way to the booze cart at the back of the food court

Giant shrimp peeked out of our delicious, piping hot tom yum soup

Giant shrimp peeked out of our delicious, piping hot tom yum soup

If you get hungry while shopping, you’re in luck. Scattered along the Saturday Walking Street are food stalls to satisfy your appetite and quench your thirst. Look for the small courtyard with makeshift tables amongst a cluster of market food stalls with vendors selling a wide selection of Thai street food fare. Wally and I feasted upon a delicious bowl of spicy and sour tom yum soup, washed down with bottles of Leo beer purchased from a bar-like cart at the back.

In the mood for a snack? This vendor sells a variety of crispy insects to fulfill any craving! (No, we did not partake)

In the mood for a snack? This vendor sells a variety of crispy insects to fulfill any craving! (No, we did not partake)

If your tired feet need some help, there are plenty of makeshift street-side massage shops to choose from.

Street art along one of the main drags of the Saturday Night Market

Street art along one of the main drags of the Saturday Night Market

Periodically, you’ll encounter street musicians performing for donations. While the market is smaller than the Sunday Market, it becomes more crowded as the sun sets, so it’s worth turning up early. By 8:30 p.m., when we left, the streets were bustling with pedestrians, and progress through the crowds was slow.

There’s a line of tuk-tuks to take you elsewhere — just make sure to agree on the fare before you get in. They were all quoting the same price, one that was much too high for the journey back to our hotel, so Wally and I walked a block or so away and found someone who wasn’t charging an exorbitant sum. –Duke

9 Tips for Navigating the Fes Medina — and Making It Out Alive

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. But Fez, Morocco is an intense city to explore. Read these tips before you go.

A donkey overpacked with boxes is about as much of a traffic jam you’ll encounter in the Fès medina

Fès is a city of discoveries. You never know what lies around the next corner. You cannot imagine the beauty that hides behind a plain wall once that wooden door opens.

As such, though, it can be intimidating as well. I’m not gonna lie: That first day we had booked to explore the medina on our own, we were hesitant to leave the riad. We really had to work up our courage. Because once you step foot outside the door, you have to be prepared to not only get lost, but also to deal with local men making snide comments, hoping to get you to pay them to act as guides.

For the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Landmarks like mosque towers don’t really help you find your way around the medina — there are lots of them, and once you turn a corner, they’re gone

1. Get a guide on your first day.

It’s nice to put yourself in someone else’s hands on your first day in Fès. Our guide, Abdul, was fantastic, and we just followed him around as he led us to the major sites. It’s nice to get them out of the way, know you’ve ticked the “important” stuff off your list, and that you have nothing left but to shop and eat (and hit a hammam for a spa day).

 

2. Pay close attention to how to get to the Blue Gate.

It all comes back to the Blue Gate, it seems. We took a daytrip to the Roman ruins and mosaics of Volubilis, and had a guide from the riad lead us to the Blue Gate just outside of the medina to meet our driver (there aren’t any cars allowed in the medina — and anyway they wouldn’t fit on the narrows twists and turns).

I literally just kept track of the major turns we made: left, left, right, right, right. And that was all we needed to retrace our steps the following day. Sure, we took a turn too soon a couple of times, but just backtracked once we hit a dead end. We got back to the Blue Gate eventually. And from there you can hit one of the major thoroughfares of the medina.

You never know what lies around the next corner in Fès. It might be a bunch of roosters tied to a cage in front of a gorgeous doorway

3. Ignore the hustlers.

As mentioned, you’ll pass young men every so often who want to con you into paying them to act as guides. “There’s nothing that way,” they’ll tell you. “The Blue Gate isn’t down there,” they’ll say. Don’t pay them any mind. Unless, of course, you truly are hopelessly lost. And then agree to a reasonable fee before you have them lead you back to your hotel or guesthouse.

We didn’t end up having to do this in Fès but did so twice in Marrakech.

 

4. Chat with your fellow travelers over breakfast.

Because we talked with a lovely British couple, Susan and Colin, our first morning at Dar Bensouda, we learned about the gardens (which happened to be closed for the Sacred Music Festival, but still) and the tapas bar across the street, Mezzanine (a welcome change from couscous and tagines).

They also told us about the Ruined Garden, which was close to our riad, and ended up being our favorite restaurant in Fès.

 

5. Follow the signs.

One of the best ideas Fassi business owners ever had was to put up small rectangular signs throughout the medina. Coming back from the souks or the Blue Gate, we started noticing signs for nearby dars and riads (guesthouses). After a day or so, we knew which ones would lead us close enough to our own lodgings that we could find our way.

We also knew that there were signs that led from Riad Dar Bensouda to the Ruined Garden. So once we passed that, we followed the signs back to our temporary home. This gets a bit tricky — you have to turn a corner and then glance back to make sure there’s a sign pointing back to the restaurant. But for the most part, it worked, and we were able to follow the trail back, like Hansel and Gretel.

Abdul took us to the narrowest street in the medina:

6. Walk with confidence.

This was advice given to us by Susan and Colin. It really did help put some of the would-be guides in their place. They’d look at us, walking with a purpose, and then go back to their conversations.

To help get you into the mindset, imagine yourself a local. Or at least someone who’s been in the city for some time.

This was harder to do when we made a wrong turn, hit a dead end and had to walk back past a group of men. But fake it till you make it. If they say something, just tell them, “We’re good.”

 

7. Try your smartphone.

We didn’t have a data plan abroad, so we didn’t use use our phones. But fellow travelers said that there were Google Maps or another app that was surprisingly helpful for navigating the medina. I’m a bit skeptical, given the labyrinthian nature of this ancient city — but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

A butcher in one of the more-populated areas of the medina

8. Let yourself get lost.

Everyone doles out this advice. And it’s all well and good, as long as you’re not trying to find something specific. For our third day in Fès, we had nothing planned but wandering the medina and shopping. And that was the day we didn’t worry if we didn’t know where we were going — just so long as we were back in the safety of our riad by dark.

 

9. Friday is a great day to have as an early day in Fès.

This is the day of worship for Muslims. So wandering on Friday is actually a lot more chill. You’ll get hassled less, as mosques keep many of the people away. As an added bonus, shops that are open are often willing to give a good deal since business will be slow.


As I mentioned, the Fès medina can be intimidating. But by following this advice, you should be able to navigate the seemingly endless twists and turns on your own…somewhat successfully. –Wally