Project Bly Brings World Street Market Culture To You

Mumbai street market
Courtesy of Shriti Bannerjee, ProjectBly.com

If you are the kind of traveler who lives for digging through flea markets and wandering through souks, you might want to travel over to ProjectBly.com, a new lifestyle website featuring a rotation of world street market collections. In addition to shopping for carefully curated home goods and textiles, you can also check out street photography, food, fashion and members’ profiles.

Bly highlights a new city and one-of-a-kind market goods every two months, working with local photojournalists to capture the style and spirit of each place. The website works with local vendors and artisans directly to get a fair price on goods, and gives 5 percent of proceeds to local charities. The first featured city is Mumbai, India, with La Paz, Bolivia, debuting in early June. Other cities planned for the first year include Kumasi, Ghana; Bukhara, Uzbekistan; Malacca, Malaysia; and Berlin, Germany.

Bly is named after Nellie Bly, a pioneering female journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days in 1889 with just two day’s notice and one small bag (check out a nifty drawing of Nellie Bly’s packing list, which included a flask and a jar of cold cream). The founder of Bly, Rena Thiagarajan, was born in the former Indian city of Madras (now Chennai) and now lives in San Francisco, and has traveled the world in search of unique design finds and street culture.

​%Slideshow-83%

Get hunting at ProjectBly.com and check out the slideshow of street photography featured on the site.

Video Of The Day: Modern Day ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’

Before beginning his doctorate in biomedical sciences, “Alex the Adventure Biker” took a break to realize his lifelong dream: to ride a motorcycle through the Americas. Over the course of nearly a year and a half, he rode his bike through 22 countries as he made his way from El Paso, Texas, to Argentina and then back up through Brazil and all the way to Alaska – a journey of more than 82,000 miles.

“In short I drove solo half way around the world, through interstates, highways, dirt roads, no roads, mud, rivers, through hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, rain, hail, sun shine, snow, ice roads you name it and I made it back,” the adventurous biker wrote on his website. Ride along and check out the varied landscape as he saw it (and some disco dancing, too) in the video above, which was created from more than 600 hours of footage.

Photo: A Thoroughly Befuddling Tent Tag

chinglish
If you travel, without question you’ve had your share of experiences with “Chinglish,” or other corrupted forms of the English language. After all, there are books and websites devoted to this stuff. But while trekking in Bolivia last month, I discovered an entirely new form of linguistic weirdness, in the form of a tag on my (outfitter-supplied) tent.

It was a brand I’d never heard of, called Alpkit, and the tent had no information as to its origin. You can imagine my befuddlement upon reading this after a full day of trekking at 15,000 feet. I thought perhaps I was hallucinating.

Now that I’m home, I’ve discovered that Alpkit is a UK outfitter, and upon reviewing their site, I realize the above is entirely tongue-in-cheek. That doesn’t make it any less amusing. Here’s to more gear manufacturers having a sense of humor.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

A Visit To A Bolivian Medicine Woman

yatiriI’d never heard of a shaman until my first class on my first day of college. I’d signed up for “Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion” as an elective on a whim. It turned out to be one of my favorite undergrad classes and has been highly inspirational to my work as a travel writer.

The instructor was a short, plump woman of a certain age. She’d lived on a Hopi reservation while working on her doctoral thesis. She looked so exotic, always bedecked with ropes of beads, silver and turquoise necklaces and rings, and dangly earrings. She wore colorful indigenous skirts and told incredible stories, some of them involving the words “peyote” and “ayuhuasca.” She’d traveled all over the world. I wanted to be her.

So, it’s no surprise that I developed a fascination for indigenous cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons I find them so absorbing is because I don’t subscribe to any religion myself, so I find the concepts of animism, polytheism and shamanism particularly interesting. I’m spiritually bankrupt myself, although I studied holistic massage in the ’90s (big mistake), and through that developed a respect for certain alternative modalities of medicine.

But fortune-telling? Soul cleansing? Killing endangered species and then ingesting their body parts in foul-tasting teas? Um, no thank you. I find this stuff interesting, but I don’t believe in it, nor do I endorse anything that involves sacrificial offerings in the name of fortune, fertility or romance.

I once had my palm read on a press trip in Hong Kong. The fortune-teller, a wizened old man, examined my hand (at the time cracked and callused from my part-time jobs as a farmers market vendor and waitress), and asked my translator, “Why no marry? If no marry by 40, never marry. Health good, feet not so good.” Still single at 44, that asshole may well have sealed my fate, but on the other hand, my feet are in good shape.

%Gallery-186949%yatiri Still, despite my non-existent belief system, I was determined to visit a shaman while in Ecuador four years ago, simply because I was curious about the process, as well as what he’d have to say about my psyche. Unfortunately, my session proved impossible to organize on short notice, so when I went to Bolivia last month, I set about finding a contact pre-trip who could hook me up with a reliable medicine man or woman.

Throughout South America, there are variations on the type of people who perform services that, to our Western minds, are mystical, if not demonic. Depending upon the country or indigenous culture, this person might be male or female, and they can variously be considered a medicine… person, shaman, or witch. The most important fact is that rarely are these people practicing what we would consider the occult.

The function of most South American “medicine men/women” and their ilk is to provide spiritual guidance or assist with medical or emotional problems. Whether this involves medicinal herbs, potions, casting spells or purifying rituals is besides the point. For many people, particularly those from indigenous cultures, regular visits to these specialists is a way of life.

Amongst the Aymara people of Bolivia, such a person is referred to as a yatiri, and they may be male or female. While plenty of yatiris can be found in La Paz’s Mercado de Hecheria, or witch’s market, I discovered that the real-deal yatiris (i.e. ones that don’t cater to tourists) are located up in El Alto, a separate city that’s sprung up in the hills above La Paz. This mostly indigenous community is a sprawling cacophony of markets, ramshackle houses, shops, traffic snarls and street vendors, but it’s also an excellent representation of daily life for urban Aymaras.

It was here that my fixer/translator, a British woman who’s been living in Bolivia for 22 years and works as the office manager of a mountain biking company, found Dona Vicentá. A practicing yatiri for 10 years (she says she felt a calling), her services are requested across the continent, including by some prominent government officials.
la paz
Dña. Vicentá agreed to see me thanks to a personal reference from a Bolivian friend of my fixer. She doesn’t usually take on gringos as clients, but for whatever reason she agreed to see me, as well as allow me to document my session. I was given a price range for a fortune telling and soul-cleansing session (the price depended upon just how much scrubbing my soul was in need of, so I steeled myself for the full fare, which was about $60).

My fixer and I took a cab up to El Alto, and there we met Dña. Vicentá in front of a community building. She was an adorable, sweet-natured Aymara woman with remarkably youthful skin, dressed in full cholita (highlands woman) attire. We walked to her “office” along a busy street. We came upon a row of squat, corrugated buildings, most of which had small fires burning in metal pans in front of each doorway. I learned that these were the workplaces of other yatiris. This area is popular with them, because of its prime location overlooking La Paz (above).

Location is, as they say, everything, and for yatiris, the double-whammy of having the soaring peaks of Huayna Potosi to the left, and Illimani to the right has significant cultural and spiritual meaning. It’s also where La Paz’s radio towers are located. This, explained Dña. Vicentá without a trace of irony, makes for excellent communication with spirits and helps her to better receive feedback on her clients. For the record, I believe she was utterly sincere, and for the sake of journalistic and personal integrity, I’d promised myself I’d submit to this adventure with a completely open mind.

My session began with Dña. Vicentá asking me a few general questions, but nothing personally revealing. She asked me for a 10 boliviano note, which she added to a pile of coca leaves on a table. She then began picking up handfuls of the coca leaves, and divined their meaning based upon the way they fell. This lasted approximately 15 minutes.

I’m not going to tell you what she said, because it’s personal, but I can say that she was eerily accurate. Not just good-at-reading-people accurate – she literally nailed certain things that only a long-term therapist, if I had one, or my closest friends could possibly know. It didn’t freak me out so much as astound me, and after that, I began to pay closer attention.

Unfortunately, this is the part where my fixer and I learned that a visit to a yatiri is a two-part process (at the very least). Dña. Vicentá told me she had a client with a serious family matter waiting outside, and asked when I could return for my soul cleansing. Apparently, the process requires the yatiri to seek guidance from higher powers, in order that he or she might procure and prepare the correct offerings. In order for me to have a certain “blockage” removed that was prohibiting me from achieving certain things, Dña. Vicentá would need time to prepare (much of this was lost in translation, but I do know that a dried llama fetus was required).
yatiri
We explained to her that I was flying out of La Paz at 6 a.m. the following morning, and had no plans to return to Bolivia anytime soon. I actually felt a little distraught. Dña. Vicentá mulled things over and decided to perform a sort of mini-cleanse in order to help me in the interim, but only with the understanding that I would return to Bolivia for the full deal at some point (this I promised, as I do get to South America about once a year).

After about 15 minutes, Dña. Vicentá was ready for my ceremony. A small, incense-fueled fire was burning in front of the office. I was told to kneel on a blanket overlooking the city. She requested my wallet, so that my money would be blessed. She then used a smudge stick to purify me (above), chanting in Spanish and Aymara the entire time. It took about five minutes and when it was over, I felt strangely relieved – like I’d acquired some karmic insurance to tide me over. I thanked her profusely and we exchanged traditional cheek kisses in farewell.

So, now I’m back home and I have to say, it seems some of Dña. Vicentá’s predictions appear to be coming true. Of course, this may well have happened without her, and I prefer to continue to believe we make our own luck, or lack thereof, most of the time. As for the long-term outcome of certain things she told me, that remains to be seen. I do know I’ve given a lot of thought to a few things she pointed out about my nature (which, for the record, she deemed as fundamentally good), and I’m working on trying to change a few detrimental habits.

Do I now believe in witchcraft, shamans and spirits? No. But I’m willing to accept that perhaps there are certain people out there who are blessed with a type of insight that goes beyond what the human mind can readily comprehend. Or maybe Dña. Vicentá has just read some of my writing.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller/Jill Benton]

Picture Perfect: Why Bolivians Insist Upon Flawless US Dollars

moneyMy first encounter with the Bolivian mania for perfect U.S. dollars occurred at 3 a.m., as I blearily stood in line at Immigration, attempting to pay for my entry visa. I’d been in transit for over 30 hours, and was fumbling in my travel wallet for the stack of twenties I’d set aside specifically for this purpose (they want that $135 in USD, no exceptions).

The immigration agent examined each bill with an anal retentiveness surely rivaled by past appraisers of the Hope Diamond. He immediately tossed two perfectly-fine looking bills back at me.

“What’s wrong with these?” I asked. “They are damaged,” he snapped, and returned to closely inspecting my remaining twenties, running his fingers along each edge, and holding them up to the light. I looked at the offending bills, seeing nothing wrong. “Why can’t you take this one?” I queried, holding out the bill in question. My silly question would have made my fresh-off-the-boat status obvious, even if I weren’t standing in the immigration line.

“There is a crease in it,” the officer said impatiently, pointing to a miniscule dent. Fortunately, the rest of my money passed muster. The final insult? Having my visa photo taken (despite the fact I’d brought passport-size photos with me for this very purpose). I now have a very special souvenir of what I’ll look like in another 40 years. That cabin air is really dehydrating.

Over the next two weeks, I continued to observe the Bolivian obsession with flawless dolares de Estados Unitos. By then, I knew the reason. Counterfeit money is a big problem, but they’re not nearly as concerned about the state of their bolivianos as they are our currency. Admittedly, their paper money is fairly pristine. Every trip to an ATM was an anxiety-inducing event … what if the bills were wrinkled, or torn? What if, while in one of the godforsaken, far-flung outposts I was visiting, someone required U.S. dollars and I couldn’t obtain any perfect ones? In Bolivia, you can often pay in either currency, so some travelers prefer dollars because they find them easier to use than trying to convert bolivianos.

Fortunately, it seems most Bolivian cash machines dispense quality bills. I was even able to bail out a befuddled traveler attempting to purchase a bus ticket. His dollars were simply not up to snuff, so I traded him some of my crisp Jacksons to defuse the escalating shouting match.

After I traveled on to Paraguay, I discovered that they’re almost as strict about the appearance of U.S. dollars. It’s a national joke, however, that this attention to detail doesn’t extend to their guaranies. Never have I seen such woefully limp, bedraggled, filthy paper money. Which is ironic, given all the armed guards posted outside of banks and change houses. Then again, money is money, no matter how pretty. If only someone could tell the Bolivians that.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Unhindered by Talent]