The Obama pen: weirdest African souvenir ever?

Obama, Ethiopia
Obama is big in Africa. There are Obama shops, Obama hotels, Obama t-shirts, even Obama: The Musical. A craze of naming babies Obama hit the continent when he was elected. Even better, the proud parents could fill out the birth certificate with an Obama ballpoint pen.

I came across these in a shop in Harar, Ethiopia. A friend of mine worked for his campaign, so it seemed the perfect gift. The box proudly proclaims the virtues of “Quality+Econmy”, promises “maximum writing pleasure and comfort”, and offers a one-year money-back guarantee. How CAN´T you buy this amazing item?

So why is Obama so big in Africa? There’s more to the craze than the fact that his father is African. Many Africans told me they see him as an inspiration, that no matter where your family is from you can make it big. Some also see his election as a hopeful sign that the U.S. is getting beyond its racist past. There was some serious Obamamania in Africa when he got elected but, like in the U.S., that initial enthusiasm has cooled off somewhat. Now Africans are questioning his policies, asking why he hasn’t created closer ties with Africa and why he’s helped some Muslim nations in their struggle for democracy and not others.

It looks like no president’s honeymoon lasts forever.

[Note for the easily offended: the crack about the birth certificate was a joke. I am not a birther. You can tell because all the words in this post are spelled correctly]

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Retail therapy: Istanbul ShoppingFest begins March 18

Istanbul shoppingfestEvery year, many people visit Istanbul to shop in the historic Grand Bazaar to haggle over carpets, Turkish tea glasses, and souvenir t-shirts. But most locals do their shopping in Istanbul’s many malls, markets, high streets like Istiklal near Taksim Square and Bağdat on the Asian side, and neighborhoods such as posh Nişantaşı and funky Çukurcuma. This year, from March 18 to April 26, travelers can take advantage of the best of all worlds with the first Istanbul ShoppingFest, also celebrating the 550th birthday of the Grand Bazaar. For 40 days, shoppers can get special discounts and win prizes, shop late into the night (with bigger discounts after 10pm), and be entertained with performances and events. Each Saturday, one mall each on the European and Asian sides will stay open until 2am, and all malls will be open until 11pm daily during the fest. In addition to sale prices, foreign travelers can get tax back on purchases at various malls around the city and enter raffles with each 40 TL (about $25 USD) spent.

Already established in India, Singapore, and Dubai in usual sale seasons, Istanbul’s promotion will hold a special draw as discounts will apply to new season merchandise and take place over several major holidays including Easter, Passover, and Iranian Nowruz. With this festival, Turkey hopes to carry over some of the momentum from last year’s European Capital of Culture designation, and become the destination of choice for travelers from nearby countries such as Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Rumania, Syria and Iraq.

Check out more details and events at www.istshopfest.com and follow their Facebook page and Twitter @istshopfest. See also the March issue of Time Out Istanbul in English for feature guides to the fest and the Grand Bazaar.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user antonystanley]

Holiday World offers exclusive roller coaster photos online

Holiday World is known for its roller coasters, including The Voyage, which has been named the world’s top wooden roller coaster for the past four years.

holiday world roller coaster photos available onlineThe holiday-themed park plays host to thousands of coaster enthusiasts each year, and many of them like to capture photos of the coasters from different angles. In fact, park officials say, some coaster enthusiasts beg for a behind-the-scenes look, just to snap a few pics.

To feed that desire, Holiday World has introduced a collection of photos of its wooden coasters in its online “HoliShop”.

“Enthusiasts just love taking photos of our roller coasters–but these photos are taken from angles they could never get,” said Holiday World President Dan Koch

The 8×10 photos are matted and framed in an 11×14 black metal frame. They sell for $14.99. These could make a pretty cool Christmas gift for the roller coaster lover in your life.

There are eight different photos in the current collection. Koch says the Santa Claus, Indiana, theme park hopes to introduce new framed photos each season.

Top 10 souvenir hats from around the world

Ever notice how every airport, tourist trap, and hotel gift shop is trying to sell you some kind of hat? That’s because a hat is local. In a globalized world where McDonald’s is universal and Duty Free in Dubai sells the exact same sunglasses and chocolate as Duty Free in Detroit, it’s nice to know that there are certain things (like hats) that you can still only find in certain far-flung destinations. Once upon a time, the hats hanging in the back of your closet said loads about where you’ve been and what you’re been up to, especially if you have the real deal. Read and learn:

Fez This red felt hat may be named after the tourist-loving Moroccan city of Fes, but it’s traditionally found all across the former Ottoman empire as well as much of the Muslim world. Worn by: dancing monkeys, Muammar al-Qaddafi, bellhops in Cairo. Cheap knock-offs: The Shriners and some Istanbul bazaars. The Real Deal: Moroccan hatmakers, markets in Cyprus and the Balkans, the Turkish army.
Panama hat A finely handwoven straw hat still made in Ecuador, even though Panama takes all the credit. Worn by: Teddy Roosevelt,Panama Jack, and the poor laborers who dug the Panama Canal. Cheap knock-off: Paper imitations are made in China and sell for little while lesser-quality imitations are made and sold all over Panama for under $30. The Real Deal: Like sheets, what counts in authentic Panama hats is thread count. The tighter the weave, the better the quality (real Panama Hats will hold water and have more than 1,000 fibers per square inch). Hats must be made in Ecuador from the toquilla plant and have a black silk band around the base. Buy at fine shops in Panama, in Ecuador, or else for several thousand dollars at Christie’s in London.Pith helmet Yep, just like the ones the old explorers used to wear as they swatted flies away from their face in the Congo. Originally made from cork covered in canvas, the classical pith helmet has graduated into an elaborate accessory for spiffy uniforms all across the British empire. Worn by: Dr. Livingstone, Bangkok policemen. Cheap knock-offs: Johannesburg airport,Vietnam. The Real Deal: best found in antique shops and some old English granny’s attic, though certain safari suppliers make a darn good attempt.
Sombrero Says ¡Mexico! more than tequila and food poisoning. Huge and silly, the hat makes a lot more sense when you’re in Mexico and trying to stay out of the sun. Worn by: Mariachi bands, drunk college students, people passing through Miami airport. Cheap knock-offs: Available widely in Cancun, Tijuana, and Ciudad Juarez. The Real Deal: Made in Mexico from either woven straw or stiffened felt.
Beret The classic French felt cap was born in the Pyrenees and has gone global due to fashion magazines. Worn by: wannabe artists, paramilitaries, Monica Lewinsky, Basque separatists, gauchos in Patagonia, and Che Guevara (this hat gets around). Cheap knock-offs: Raspberry-colored–the kind you find in a second-hand store. Also sold at Euro Disney and from tables on Rue d’Arcole on the île de la cité in Paris. (Clue: if it says Paris in glitter script, it’s not real.) The Real Deal: the basque hatmaker “Boinas Elósegui” still makes authentic berets (or boinas in Spanish), as does Tolosa Tupida in Argentina. Make sure it says 100% wool on the label.
Nón lá A symbol of Vietnam itself, the simple-yet-serene nón lá is that conical straw hat worn by Asians in rice paddies everywhere, giving that mysterious illusion that people have triangles for heads. Cheap knock-offs: China owns the market share on these hats, both real and fake, so look for the ones the locals buy and wear (oddly, the hipsters haven’t latched onto this one, yet). The Real Deal: Rural Vietnamese markets.
Shapka (Russia) The fur shapka (or ushanka) is not just an ironic, silly holdover of Cold War aesthetic. When in Russia in the winter, fur wrapped around the head does wonders and millions of people still wear them. Worn by: indie rock stars (ear-flaps down), Vladimir Putin‘s security detail, Cheap knock-offs: Souvenir stands in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. These days, if it’s got a Soviet emblem on it, it’s made in China and is 100% fake. The Real Deal: Your policy on fur aside, high-quality shapkas are made with silver fox pelts, cost a small fortune, and are considered lifetime investments. Still, real shapkas can be made with any fur: rabbit, raccoon, mink, and even dog. In the good old days, you could get a hatmaker to sew you one for a few American dollars–those days are now long gone.
Tweed cap “Top o’ the mornin'” sounds less offensive when you’re tipping a tweed cap. Again, here’s another hat that makes great sense once you confront the local weather–in this case, the blustery drizzle of Scotland and Ireland where tweed was born. Worn by: incorrigible hipsters,your grandfather, college professors. Cheap knock-offs: H&M fall fashion line (every year), also J. Crew and J.C. Penneys. The Real Deal: In Donegal, try Magee of Ireland, who claim to have invented one of the standard tweeds. Also, any non-chain high street shop in the UK where some royal insignia is sewed on the inside of the cap. Don’t overlook British second-hand charity shops, which are like little tweed goldmines.
Andean hand-knit gorro Engineered to make you look like as adorable and non-violent as Droopy, these cute woolen hats with little ear flaps and ties are still wildly popular among Canadian snowboarding bums, as well as serious people with serious glasses. Still, they’re made for the cold, high-altitude climate of the Andes and South America’s Altiplano. Worn by: indie bands touring in the fall, at least one sensitive character in the last indie movie you saw, the Peruvian flute bands playing in Paris and everywhere else. Cheap knock-offs: Gap, J. Crew, Oxfam & any other feelgood fair trade, 100% organic kind of place. If The Real Deal: In Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru or Chile. If you’re a purist, you should get the 100% alpaca wool. Again, avoid the ones with words spelled out in block-knit letters, e.g. BOLIVIA!
Keffiyeh But is it a hat, or is it a scarf? To an almost nauseating degree, the Arab keffiyeh has moved even beyond the tourist claptrap and become a mainstream American college dormitory fashion accessory. Whether showing solidarity with Palestinians or keeping the blowing sand from going down your shirt, this versatile wrap/hat makes a lot more sense in the desert. Worn by: Practically everyone, including the Olsen twins. Cheap knock-offs: Thailand, Venice Beach, 7th Avenue street sellers, and even Urban Outfitters. The Real Deal: Jordan, Palestine, and across the Middle East.

Affordable Paris souvenir: glass yogurt containers as candle holders

Souvenir shopping can be a frustrating and expensive task, but sometimes, you know you’ve found the perfect souvenir as soon as you see it.

On a recent trip to Paris, I was pleased to find that my hotel breakfast included single-size servings of yogurt in adorable little glass containers, which I knew could easily double as candle holders once I rinsed them out.

Over the course of a week, I accumulated a stash of five glass containers, all of which survived the trip back in my checked luggage.

Once I got home and ran the glass containers through the dishwasher, tealights from IKEA ($3.99 for a 100-pack) completed the look. The candles now stand on my windowsill and remind me of my trip to the aptly named City of Light.

Even if your hotel doesn’t include breakfast, most grocery stores around France seem to carry several brands of yogurt in glass containers. For example, I found that the Monoprix supermarket chain sells a four-pack of yogurt for about €2 ($2.50). A snack and a souvenir all in one, imagine that.

[Image Credit: Amy Chen]