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.

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

Memories Of Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, Syria
I pulled into Aleppo, Syria, on January 10, 1994, and had a hard time caring that I was in one of the most historic cities of the Arab world. I was in the grip of a bad flu courtesy of a combination of a desert hike and an air-conditioned bus ride. I barely looked at the sleek minarets, medieval citadel and bustling markets. All I wanted was a bed, medicine and solitude.

Grumpy and harassed, I elbowed my way through the crowd of Russian prostitutes and smugglers who seemed to dominate the neighborhood around the bus station. Hotel after hotel was full. I was feeling weaker by the minute. Then I came to the Hotel Syria and was greeted by the manager Sali, a thin man with excellent English, graying hair and a ready smile. He took one look at me and tut-tutted.

“You shouldn’t be traveling in this condition. Come in and I’ll get you tea.”

“All I need is sleep,” I replied.

“Rest, I’ll bring you tea.”

I remember nothing of the room I collapsed in, or indeed anything else about the Hotel Syria. All I remember is Sali. Bringing me tea. Bringing fruit form the market. Bringing me medicine from the pharmacy without my asking.

“No, keep your money. You are a guest. Not like those Russians. They spend four days on the bus to come here and only cause trouble. I’m going to buy some disinfectant and spray them when they come through the door.”

%Gallery-168005%I was soon on the mend and out exploring Aleppo. From the citadel I could see the city spread out to all horizons, minarets pointing to the sky and chemical factories belching poison in the distance. In the evenings I’d return and sit with Sali drinking tea and recounting my day.

The best days were spent in the famous souk, once the western terminus of the Silk Road and one of the best preserved in the world. I wrote in my journal that it was “everything Westerners think of when they think of bazaars. A low roof arches over smoky stalls selling spices. Trucks and donkeys jockey for position in crowded alleys. Everything is for sale here: spices, clothing, sweets, all kinds of fruit, shoes, rope, gold jewelry, silk, dishes, pipes, toys, cigarettes, nuts, tea sets, gravestones, tiles, soap, leather, perfume, brooms, combs, juice, wedding dresses, etc. I saw no tourists.”

As I wandered down one of the little streets, two men in a tiny silk stall on a corner called out to me, “Where are you from?”

“Canada.” I replied.

One of them brought up two fingers in front of his eyes and brought them together, saying, “I crush you.” A “Kids in the Hall” reference in Syria?

I had found the famous Mohammed brothers. I’d heard about them a month ago in Turkey from other travelers. These nine brothers were the queens of the souk, flamboyantly propositioning passersby and grilling foreigners for pickup lines and dirty words that they carefully entered into a little black book.

They weren’t really gay (I think) they just found it fun. As we sat in their stall drinking tea they told me, “You nice, but no gay. Want to go to Turkish bath?”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Too bad,” one said, then turned to the crowd to call out in English, “I love you! You nice!”

An old guy tottered past. One of the Mohammeds turned to me.

“He not nice, maybe 50 years ago.”

Back in those days no tourist made it through Aleppo without meeting these guys. They had a constantly growing photo album of their guests, including pictures of people I’d met weeks before. The whole Mohammed family owned eight shops (“we’re mafia”) and basically ran the street. That didn’t stop them from occasionally getting in trouble from Syrians who didn’t like their queer routine.

Now their shops have burned to the ground along with the rest of the souk, victims of the fighting between insurgents and soldiers of the Assad regime. The Mohammed brothers can no longer sit behind piles of silk propositioning Arabs in English and expanding their dirty vocabulary with the help of a steady stream of bemused foreign guests.

What happened to them? Are they hiding in their homes waiting for the storm to pass? Are they among the crowds of refugees fleeing to Turkey? Or did their sense of fun finally catch up with them and they fell victim to the Islamists who have joined the ranks of the insurgency? And what happened to Sali? He was old enough that he might have mercifully died before his world fell apart. If he still lives he’s in his 70s, and a war zone is pitiless on the elderly.

One of the affects of travel is that these places are no longer abstract images on the news. They’re real, with real people who are suffering real hardship. Perhaps if Sali had nursed Obama and Romney back to health, or if the two candidates had sat for a time sharing tea and dirty jokes with the Mohammed brothers, the sufferings of millions of Syrians would be a burning issue in this election.

Perhaps our leaders should get out of their political bubble and travel more.

[Photo courtesy Luigi Guarino]

Useful foreign phrases, Part 1: how to say, “I’m just looking” in 10 languages

useful foreign phrasesI’ve frequently pimped Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on this site, but I swear I don’t get kickbacks from the company. It’s just that I’m a big believer in not being a). A Tourist (although, let’s face it, if I’m not at home, I am indeed A Tourist) and b). helpless.

Even if you’re the biggest xenophobe on earth–which would make foreign travel a really weird and pointless pastime you might want to reconsider– it’s hard to dispute the importance of knowing how ask “Where’s the bathroom?” in certain urgent circumstances.

It’s with such experiences in mind that I came up with this fun little series. There are a handful of phrases I’ve cultivated in various languages that have served me well, in situations both good and bad. Not only are they inscribed on the dog-eared inner covers of my trusty Phrasebooks; they’re etched into my mind, so I can summon them at will. Whether you need to ward off annoying vendors, personal humiliation, potential suitors, or would-be attackers, it pays to be prepared and know what to say, when. Since things like “Yes, No, Thank you, Please, Hello,” etc. are generally not too challenging, for the purposes of this series, I’ll leave them out. That doesn’t mean they’re not very important to learn, however.

This week’s lesson: “I’m just looking.” Invaluable for politely but firmly stating your desire to see with your eyes, not your wallet. It may not stop persistent hawkers from trying to close a deal, but at least you’re showing respect by speaking in their native tongue (or an approximation thereof). And who knows? If you change your mind, that alone may help you score a better bargain.

P.S. I don’t claim to be polylingual: I’m compiling phrases based on past experience or research. If I offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section. Be nice!

1. Spanish: Solo estoy mirando.

2. Italian: Sto solo guardando.

3. French: Je regarde.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Gerry Balding]useful foreign phrases4. German: Nur schauen.

5. Czech: Jen se dívám.

6. Portuguese: Estou só a olhar.

Many languages, especially those spoken in Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. Transliteration will vary, depending upon the guidebook/translator, which is why the spelling or phonetics below may be different from other sources. Since these languages are largely tonal (and may require accents or characters not available on a Western computer), look at this way: odds are you’re going to mangle the pronunciation anyway, so just do your best! It’s the thought that counts.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Tái haa.

8. Japanese: Watashi ga mite iru dakedesu (here’s to Japan getting back on its feet and attracting travelers soon!) To make a Red Cross donation, click here.

9. Vietnamese: Tôi chỉ xem thôi.

14. Moroccan Arabic: Ghir kanshuf.

What’s the most useful phrase you’ve ever learned in a foreign language? How has it helped your travels? We want to hear from you!

[Photo credit: Flickr user wanderer_by_trade]


Marseille’s Noailles quarter: a taste of Africa, in Provence

The Provencal port city of Marseille has historically been associated with bouillabaisse, and, to a lesser extent, whores, thieves, and the usual debauchery that goes with being a sea port. Things started to turn around about a decade ago, and today it’s a safe, vibrant, thoroughly charming city whose cuisine and culture reflect its past as a colonial trading port with North Africa.

When France acquired Algeria in 1830, Marseille, the second largest port in Europe, saw a major influx of immigrants from North and West Africa that continues to this day. You can even take a ferry to Tunisia, 550 nautical miles away.

I was in Marseille researching a bouillabaisse story when I serendipitously discovered the Noailles, the city’s Arab quarter. It’s located a short walk from the Vieux Port, Marseille’s bustling, bar-and-restaurant-lined waterfront, off of the main artery of La Canebiere. It was like stumbling upon a Moroccan souk: narrow, cobbled streets lead away from a central square that is home to a daily outdoor produce market. Small, dark, cluttered shops sell tea sets and spices; markets carry everything from meat and seafood to Middle Eastern pastries, dates, pistachios, glass-like, crystallized whole fruits, and tubs of olives and harissa, a fiery red North African chile paste. It’s the ideal place to pick up edible souvenirs or picnic fixings.

Men in djellabahs sit at outdoor cafes, talking loudly over bracingly strong demitasse’s of coffee, while women draped in sifsaris paw through bins of vegetables. The quarter is a kaleidoscopic mélange of colors, sounds, and smells: rotting produce, incense, sizzling kebabs of chicken and lamb, and the comforting aroma of baking flatbreads and sugary almond cookies. My favorite part of this untouristed neighorhood, however, are the tiny Egyptian, Tunisian, and Algerian food stalls and bake shops that specialize in mahjouba–giant, rectangular-folded crepes filled with sautéed tomato, red pepper, onion, and harissa.

The takeaway shop Le Soleil d’Egypte makes a particularly delicious version, as well as selling a variety of North African flatbreads that are baked fresh throughout the morning. Mahjouba are a satisfying, inexpensive (under two dollars) snack–I was so besotted, I even took a couple on the train to Cassis with me. But they’re also special in that they’re a nod to the Marseillaise love of street foods.

All over the city, particularly near the port, street food vendors sell everything from croque monsieur and pissaladiere, to panisses–delicate, fried chickpea flour cakes. I love them all, yet visiting the Noailles for mahjouba is my pick. They’re a quintessential–if little known–Marseillaise treat: a melding of sunny Mediterranean vegetables, classic French cuisine, and North African culture.

For a harissa recipe, click here.

[Photo credits: man shopping, Flickr user Trilli Bagus; buildings, Flickr user Marind is waiting for les tambours de la pluie; rooftops, Flickr user cercamon]