Monthly Archives: September 2008

September 12, 2008

damascus: middle east travel with a baby

Several years ago when my son was about a year old, and I was five months pregnant with my daughter, we were trying to find a place to take a last family vacation with our small family before we grew one more person. At the time, we were living in Qatar and looking for an escape from the boring city of Doha during the Eid al-Adha holiday. We desired a fairly short flight, but insisted on going somewhere with real culture (ruling out the Gulf). This essentially meant Cairo, Damascus, Amman, or any number of cities in India. I was not ready to brave India with my pregnant self. Flights to Cairo and Amman were booked so we were left with Damascus.

Turns out this crapshoot turned into a wonderful trip.

Despite the fact the cobble stone-lined streets were not designed for our $40-lightweight stroller; the kebabs from the street vendor did not sit well with my pregnant belly; the Damascene taxi drivers didn’t have seat belts in their cars; very little English was actually spoken outside the major downtown area — it was still one of the most memorable weeks.

My son didn’t seem to care about the bumpy roads. We put aside our fear of taxis not driving in their lanes. No seat belts = no car seats so we hung on for dear life and prayed. If you’ve ever been to Damascus, you know why.

It just goes to show you first impressions can be deceiving. This poor smog-filled city proved to be a very family-friendly one. Even with our limited Arabic language, we had no trouble interpreting kisses the Syrian women planted on my son’s blond head. We even figured out bargaining at the souqs. They are master negotiators, but not necessarily great at math. We scored five Damascene tablecloths for less than $100. We hit all the major sites, Straight Street, the Umayyed mosque, and the Souq Hamidiyeh. Part of why my husband and I loveto travel is to see things from the other side. So during our trip, we spent the vast majority of the time in Damascus walking through regular city streets, sitting in local, non-touristy restaurants, and observing how Damascenes live their lives.

We were relieved that we could still do this, even with a young child. The trick is to revamp your traveling expectations. Kids still may need naps so plan for shorter outings and stay close to the attractions. Eating at nice fancy restaurants never works out with little ones. There are always great eats off the beaten path that will be just as yummy and cater to kids. Spending time in lines to see “sights” just for the sake of saying you were there, may not make the most sense. A trip to a neighborhood playground might give you all the insight you need into the local culture. Which was exactly what we did one day. Turns out next to it, you could get a small cup of Arabic coffee and smoke a shisha pipe while the kids played. Excellent!

Food and lodging are two of the major hurdles when traveling with kiddos. Our philosophy is to splurge as much as you can afford on the hotel and eat cheap.

Our hotel was the Cham Palace, classified by them as “one of the Leading Hotels in the World.” It was pretty weak for an ostensible five star, but it sufficed. One decision we made early on was that, if at all possible, we’d either spring for a suite or two rooms. Our son at the time slept for 12 hours at night, and another two to three during the day. So spending six waking hours in our hotel room every day walking on eggshells while he slept would, essentially, suck. The separate, connecting room turned out to be a fantastic investment. It meant we could put him to sleep, and then I could run out and get takeout from a restaurant, and we could have a good conversation over dinner, keep the lights on and read, etc. And by investment, I mean we managed the “embassy rate” for $85 a night, which came with two rooms smelling a bit like sewage and probably a wire-tapped room. But it was a cheap, clean and came with free yogurt one evening when my son wouldn’t eat anything else. Fortunately, the hotel was in the heart of everything (less than a 10-minute walk or death-defying $2-cab ride away) so made it easier to pop back and crash for nap each day.

When it comes to food, fortunately for us, our kids eat just about anything as long as ketchup is offered as a condiment. The Al-Kamal restaurant turned out to be our best bet. They had everything my son would eat: hummus, yogurt, cucumbers, lamb and french fries. We ate there at least everyday, sometimes just to get take out. Their family-friendly atmosphere allowed us to sit alongside several tables full of locals with strollers. The one day we decided to splurge on a fancy feast near the Umayyed mosque it was just as good, but twice the price and we had to keep our son contained as high chairs were not offered since you sat on the floor.

While I know my son will never remember this trip, I like to think these worldly experiences make us better parents. And if not, I’m sure it explains why both my kids love hummus.

saving the world, one kid at a time

We at Tea believe that traveling with kids is a fundamental part of raising a generation of little citizens. Seeing foreign places opens shows them that we are all connected, a thread running through many of our stories over in TRAVEL. As the season of plane trips abroad slows down, though, why not continue engaging in citizenship by thinking locally?

Cool Moms Care is a great site to check out for thoughts on how little citizenship can be inspired on a local level. From lunches to pack and dinners to cook, to how to volunteer or donate to charity with your kids, Cool Moms Care is a rich source of references for engaging your little citizen right in your own neighborhood. You can even sign up for their “5 minutes of caring” email to receive a daily tip on how you and your kids can make a difference.

haggling by the pound

My husband tapped his foot impatiently as my son started to squirm in his stroller. It was time to move on — the morning was getting late and Cairo’s famous open-air bazaar, the Khan-al-Khalili, was becoming crowded. The alleys of the market were filling with tourists, fresh off the tour bus, and over-ambitious baksheesh men looking to take them to the “best” stalls for a small fee.

But I wasn’t quite ready to leave. No deal had been struck.

The shopkeeper, sensing my family’s irritation, looked at the small, ornate brass teapot in my hand and magnanimously said, “I can see your family is waiting. So I will give you a good price. Usually, this is 150 pounds. But for you, I can offer 100 pounds.”

It wasn’t a shocking sum. One hundred Egyptian pounds is less than $20 U.S. I would pay much more at the hotel gift shop or a store back home. And I could certainly afford to spend the money. But I knew I could get a lower price. I couldn’t walk away now. The competition had only just begun.

“Too much. But I can give you 20,” and then giddily waited for the expected outraged rebuttal.

I love to haggle. Whether it is in the bazaars of the Mideast, the open markets of South America, or just the guys selling fake designer bags on Canal Street, I cannot resist the heated back-and-forth price negotiation that transforms shopping from leisure activity to sport. Ever since my father introduced me to bargaining as a little girl while traveling in western China, I’ve been enamored with any situation where I can negotiate my own price. I love the feeling of having some say over whether an item costs too much, to assign my own value to the things that I want to buy.

And yes, I am not too proud to admit that I also enjoy the fight — with all the tricks, guilt trips, and fast talking that come with it.

So now, as my husband looks on with annoyance — and quite often, embarrassment — I am all too willing to insult merchandise, ignore tales of woe and throw small tantrums for monetary discounts that, in the country’s home currency, usually amount to only a few dollars off asking price.

The shopkeeper twirled the end of his mustache thoughtfully. “I can see you drive a hard bargain. You are a mother. You must appreciate value. But only 20? I am a poor man. And look at the fine work of this teapot. You will not see such quality in another shop. But maybe I can give this to you for 80 pounds.” He opened his arms and smiled widely as if he were bestowing a great gift.

I raised my eyebrow. By Cairo standards — a poor city at best — the shop seemed fairly prosperous. But by mine? It is unquestionable that the few dollars I would save on the exchange would mean much more to him than to me. And despite knowing this, I still could not relent. At least, not by more than it would take to keep the game going for a bit longer.

“Twenty-five. And I can go no higher. My husband and son are waiting,” I said with little remorse as I put the teapot back on the display case.

“Not enough! 70 and no less! Do you think I am Ali Baba?” he asked, raising his arms in mock offense. This is a phrase I heard often as I traversed the market, an allusion to the story in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, an insinuation that the shopkeeper is a thief and can therefore let go of his merchandise for less than it’s worth. I smiled every time I heard it.

“No, no. But 70 is still too much,” and raised my offer to 30 pounds. He glared at me, tapping his fingers edgily on the counter, expecting me to become uncomfortable enough in his silence to increase my price. But I would do him one better. I nodded, thanked him for his time, and turned to walk out of the shop.

Before I reached the alley, he called after me, begrudgingly accepting my offer, his face fixed in a frown. I happily returned to receive my prize, trying not to look too smug in victory.

As I walked on to the next shop, ignoring my husband’s remonstrations so I might begin a new match over some papyrus and a small perfume bottle, I thought again of the shopkeeper’s reference to Ali Baba. Of course I didn’t think he was a thief.

But maybe, every now and again, I can see the attraction in thinking myself one.

francoise and the haiti house

“I love Francoise. She’s such a special, pretty girl!” Mila tilts her head and squeezes her eyes shut, her own little body language for conveying love or approval.

Francoise is a rag doll purchased from a market in Haiti. My mother brought her home years ago after several trips we made to Haiti together, and she gave her to Mila when she started to show an interest in dolls. She’s really a craft item made for tourists and was not necessarily constructed to withstand much actual play. Some of her stitches are coming loose and her dress is missing a few pieces. I’ve set them aside somewhere to be sewn back on but…well, you know how it is!

Flaws aside, Francoise is an integral part of the social scene in Mila’s bedroom. Tea party? She’s there. Play food cooking lesson? She wouldn’t miss it. Slumber party in the doll cradle? If she’s not in bed with Mila, she’s tucked in tight with the rest of the dolls, carefully burped beforehand. And when Mila wants to role play with her dolls, she asks me to “talk Rosalie” and tells me that she will “talk Francoise” (they are dear friends, those two rag dolls).

When we decide to make a little house out of a cardboard box and paint it (thanks to a dear friend of my own for the idea!), Francoise is chosen as the lucky recipient of said house. We have been discussing how to decorate the house and this gives me an idea. I pull out an old photo album, and Mila and I flip through it together. “This is Haiti,” I tell Mila, “this is where Francoise comes from.” I show her some of the little houses my mother and I visited on our trips. They are brightly colored: some are pink, some are blue, some are the sea-green color of the Caribbean. Naturally, they hold great appeal to my three year old daughter. And why not? They are happy colors. I have to admit that the color of our own home, one of a thousand shades of beige to be found in this town, certainly seems rather lackluster in comparison. Mila wants the little cardboard box house to be pink and, inspired by the brightly colored homes of Francoise’s native country, decides that the shutters and the front door will be a lovely sea-green.

Later, I am applying painter’s tape to the wall in preparation for my own painting project, finally applying the finishing touches to the front door and baseboards in our entryway after a little redecorating project we began last summer. I’ve been meaning to get it done all year but…well, you know how it is! Mila is delighted. Her eyes light up at the prospect of another painting endeavor. “Are you going to paint the door blue?! Like the Haiti house?!” She is positively glowing at the thought. It’s not what I had planned but…hmmm. I suppose it is something to consider!

traveling “abroad” in tahoe

Zen (sort of)Earlier this month our entire family went up to Lake Tahoe for a vacation (grandparents, great-grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins – everybody). Our excuse was the wedding of a close family friend who got married at beautiful Chambers Landing on Labor Day, but we ended up staying for the week afterward, and it was glorious! The weather was beautiful, the lake and surrounding towns virtually deserted, the sales on great ski clothes hard to beat, and the mix of visitors was surprisingly international.

As a child, my family would visit Tahoe during the summer and over the winter holidays. But I could not remember ever having been there in the fall or following a long weekend. From what I could tell, most Americans frequented the area at the same times of the year that my family used to. However, this year, we saw a lot of people from western and eastern Europe and the Middle East, who seemed to have the right idea by visiting after Labor Day.

Even our 3-year-old noticed the foreign flavor amidst the pine trees and woodsy fresh air. One day, we were walking to the hot spring that overlooked the lake on the north shore, and we passed a large, young family that seemed to be from the Middle East. They were speaking what I took to be Arabic. After we passed by them, our son turned to us and said, “They’re speaking Spanish.”

My husband and I looked at each other with eyebrows raised, and we shared a silent little laugh and asked, “How do you know it was Spanish?” He struggled for a minute with his answer, so we tried to help him a bit. We said something like, “Are you sure it was Spanish or did it just sound different to you?” He thought for a minute and replied, “It sounded different to me.” We were interested in what he thought about this, so we continued, “did you understand what they were saying?” He said, “No, I didn’t understand what they were saying.” We said that we didn’t understand either, except when they smiled at us and said “Hello,” when they passed by. That seemed to sit well with him, and he nodded in agreement, “Yeah, they said hello.”

Another day, the larger group of us headed to a Mexican restaurant in Kings Beach, called Caliente. (The food was very good, especially the Mahi Mahi fish tacos and their signature drink, a mango tequila concoction called the Chupacabra – mmmmm!) After we told our son that caliente meant “hot” in Spanish, he had a hoot repeating it over and over again with a cheerleader-like fist pump, “Ca-li-en-te!!!” To add to the experience, my brother-in-law, who grew up in Santa Monica and loves authentic Mexican food, started teaching our son and his son (the two cousins were born just two weeks apart) all of his favorite Spanish words. The runner-up to caliente seemed to be picante. The two boys were climbing all over in hysterics yelling “caliente! picante!” Who were we to suppress such enthusiasm? Iye yi yi!

The whole week was relaxed and fun like that. It was great to bum around with the family on the lake and at the water’s edge. Some days the cousins used sticks with skewered hot dog bits to fish for crawdads (crawfish) among the rocks or off the pier, dutifully throwing them back after giving them a good look. Other days we paddled in a raft on the lake or swam in the pool that was fed by a nearby hot spring. At night, we played cards and drank hot cocoa or red wine. That was the Lake Tahoe I grew up with. There were a few moments, though, when we encountered sounds, sights or flavors from places much farther east than Nevada and farther south than Yosemite. And if that is the Lake Tahoe our son grows up with, that will be more than all right with me.

locked inside, saudi arabia!

This is #4 of an ongoing dialog of our travel which included 4 countries and a 4 year old. Please check the prior archives for the previous sagas.

We departed our winter Christmas in Paris and jetted off to Jeddah for new cultural experiences and a new season, Hajj and summer. While there are some interesting things to do in Saudi Arabia, I understand it might not be on your travel itinerary soon but it was an experience of a lifetime for us.

We felt honored to be invited to see this very sacred country. Jeddah is very near both Mecca and Medina. We could not wait to experience living in a completely different society with drastically different customs. In the end, I would say I have never met so many kind people in my life.

We felt a huge resistance in acceptance of our traveling to Saudi Arabia from our friends, clients and even a preschool director. A small percentage of our friends and associates felt as excited as we did for the trip, a sad commentary on this day and age in our world. I was most disappointed in our neighbor who in an agitated state informed me that I, as a feminist, should never set foot in that country that demeans women and treats women as sub human. I told him that I was not sure what it would be like in Saudi Arabia and would go find out first hand before I would make any decisions about a county that I had not been too.

The Polar Bear in Paris was an amazing and unexpected treat for Olivia. The surprise in France, however, would soon pale to the surprise she would receive in Saudi Arabia.

Everything in Saudi Arabia revolves around the 5 prayer times a day. This makes any type of shopping nearly impossible. Stores open at 10am which is much like the U.S., yet less than 2 hours later the doors close and lock, the gates pull down on the windows of the store front and everything closes for the first 30 minute prayer time at 11:45am. The stores do reopen for 45 minutes but then close from 1pm-5pm. Business reopens again at 5pm but only for 45 minutes until the next half a hour prayer. They open again at 6:15pm for an hour then close at 7:15pm for the longest prayer time of the day, 45 minutes. They then open for their final period at 8pm and the stores are bustling until 12 midnight.

Isn’t that insane? People in Jeddah think so too. There was a time when it didn’t all close down. Many people I spoke to thought it should be changed back to the way it was when it would stay open and employees would pray in shifts. For now, though, everything just closes up over and over through out the day. As a visitor, you have to resign yourself to really rush and get in and get out of the shops or grocery throughout the day.

This crazy store schedule is where the most magical surprise came for Olivia, our four year old. If you get into a store and prayer time comes you are actually locked in the store. Olivia and I had an epiphany. The two of us had our driver drive like crazy to get us to Toys R Us by 7:14pm. This meant he went 40 mph not 25 mph; Saudi Arabia is a very slow relaxed place. No one is in a hurry except the Americans who are trying to get themselves locked into a toy store!

The toy store was the ultimate place to be locked in and trapped for the long 45-minute prayer. We rode bikes and scooters around the aisles. We played video games. We read books and drove cars. And we looked at EVERY doll. Prayer time came to an end, the lights came back on and the doors unlocked. We had touched and played with every thing in the store. Of course, you cannot leave the toy store without a little something (not Saudi rule, my rule) so I asked Olivia to pick anything she wanted. She chose a Barbie-like doll called Donya who was one of four in a set of Arabian Friends. Complete with Abaya/scarf and a hip outfit with really cute purse and boots. Then I couldn’t resist buying all the Arabian Friends for her….Muna, Amal and Ahlam.

She and I often talk about that fun experience we shared in Saudi Arabia while at home in San Francisco playing with our Arabian friends. When I say “how were we so lucky to be locked IN a toy store IN Saudi Arabia?” She replies “oh well it’s ma’shallah.”


bryggen, then and now

Bryggen, in between.While walking along Bryggen Wharf in Bergen, Norway, I ran my fingers across the boards of one building facade. The wood had started to soften, ravished by the saltwater air and harsh Nordic winters, but it still didn’t have the pliability I would have expected. It was only one of the little experiments I did during our stay in Bergen, testing to see if the relatively recently reconstructed UNESCO World Heritage site could be trusted to represent its actual history.

The wharf had been a busy thoroughfare in the city for hundreds of years. It existed before the Hanseatic League made Bergen one of their headquarter cities and was greatly improved upon during their tenure in the 1300’s. But the buildings of Bryggen, made of wood, could not resist the fires that plagued the city. Parts of the wharf were destroyed and rebuilt, time and time again, most recently in 1955.

Before we left on our trip to Norway, I had spoken with excitement about seeing the wharf with my own eyes. Between the postcard-worthy beauty of photographs and its inclusion in several period novels I’d enjoyed, I anticipated that the brightly painted buildings, refurbished or not, could hold the magic of the city’s magnificent history for me. A friend I shared my excitement with, however, was not quite so optimistic.

“Bah, I hate those reconstructions,” Robert said. “It’s like a theme park for adults. They’ve rebuilt it, sure, but only to put in a nice souvenir shop, a snack bar, and maybe even a photographer’s studio where you can pay $19.95 to dress up like a nineteenth century Norwegian sailor.”

I discounted his comments until my arrival. To my dismay, I saw that the wharf buildings, now separated from the harbor by a busy city street, were filled with tour operators, restaurants and the dreaded souvenir shops that he predicted. And to add insult to injury, most of the shops carried all shape, size and manner of troll figurines, prominently displayed in the windows.

It was my son who took me beyond this façade, to find something altogether different. Something caught his eye down a small alley. Faced with such curiosity from a toddler, what else could I do but follow?

The wooden buildings were a mish-mash of planked walkways, stairwells and old-fashioned room outcroppings that had, over time, started to lean into each other. The alleys, with some buildings aged over 200 years, had been built upon and over, creating a somewhat surreal maze to navigate. My son thrilled himself by walking up, down and over, the weathered wood making a pleasant stomping noise under his feet.

Medieval lever systems poked out from just under the roof line just waiting for some rope and a load to heave. An abandoned wagon sat behind a stairwell, next to a large door that was probably once a stable. And back here, there were still shops. But they were hidden in nooks and crannies, visible only to the most stalwart explorer – like my son.

As I watched my son once again climb through this wooden labyrinth, I was startled by the footsteps of an oncoming traveler, made all too noticeable by the timber walkway.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” a young Australian man said to me, nodding a hello and giving my son a big smile.

“It is. Although I wonder what it would have been like back in its heyday,” I replied with a smile.

“Probably not too different from now. Up there would have been offices, sure, but down here for the masses? Places to find new berth on a ship, grab a glass of grog and a plate, maybe buy a few trinkets and find a warm bed for the night.”

He was right. As a bustling seaport, Bryggen probably always had an element of the theme park quality that Robert had mentioned. It was an intrinsic quality of the town, something vital and necessary to the success of the port. Though Bryggen’s current incarnation had adopted the more modern ice cream and plastic doll trade, it was not inherently different from what it had been all those hundreds of years ago.

As my fellow traveler snapped a few photos and moved on down the alley, I closed my eyes, breathed deep and allowed my son to draw me deeper into the jumble of staircases and alleys. It was all too easy to imagine a sailor in port for the day, meandering through the wharf to find a way to spend his earnings.

Now it was our turn. My son and I rambled, two pretend sailors on furlough, enjoying the feeling of being a little lost. We kept on until we came across a tiny shop in the shadows of a corner. Inside, we browsed the merchandise, compelled to spend the money burning a hole in my pocket.

I came away with the only thing I thought proper: two small troll dolls, their faces fixed in a comical grimace. One was for my son who had led me to this place and understanding. And the other? Inspired, I could think of nothing better to get as a memento for my friend, Robert.

tea set

We loved this post from Jen L over at Go Get Your Jacket:

Remember Garanimals? They were sets of clothes that were matched by a color or an animal so that you always knew what shirt went with which pants. If the tigers or whatever on the tags matched, then the clothes did, too.

A lot of people made fun of Garanimals. They became a punchline, usually invoked when a grown man looked like he’d been dressed by two different people, both of whom were blind. In the dark.

Not me. If they’d been offered when I was a kid, I think I would have snapped them up. As it is, when I discovered a more upscale version for my own child, I was deee-lighted.

I had just ordered a whole bunch of fall clothes (some from my friend Eliza’s company The Pink Giraffe), when I received the fall catalogue from Tea Collection. Now I’m itching to pull out my credit card for a five-piece ensemble called the Cooper set for William. It consists of a tiger long-sleeved t-shirt, a monkey long-sleeved t-shirt (bonus for the monkey), a striped hoody, a pair of cargo pants and a pair of ticking stripe pants. Five pieces for $105, which ends up being $21 per piece, which, you know if you’ve bought nice children’s clothes recently, is not a bad deal.

And here’s the best part: they all go together! You can wear the monkey shirt with the ticking stripe pants OR the cargo pants, or even put the hoodie on, too. Woot! Let me just give a big shout out to pre-matching clothes. I have rudimentary accessorizing skills at best. I sometimes put outfits together and then stare dubiously at them: “Does that look good together? Is that the same shade of green? Will the preschoolers laugh my child off the playground if I dress him in these two pieces at the same time?” Usually I do okay, but the doubt is always there, lingering at the back of my mind.

So this more sophisiticated modern-day version of Garanimals is just my speed. It doesn’t hurt that the clothes are absolutely adorable. Adorable clothes for little boys that won’t make me doubt my own sartorial prowess (or lack thereof). Here’s my MasterCard.

Note: Garanimals has? have? actually staged a comeback, but they’re no Tea Collection.

red butterfly

I am reading Red Butterfly (by Deborah Noyes) to my daughter, Mila. The book tells the story of a Chinese princess who smuggles the secret of silk out of China. Mila is interested in the pictures, of course: the girl’s long black hair, her red slippers, the sparrows pecking mud along the road to the summer palace, the court musician plucking her pipa, the graceful coppery fish in the garden pool. But the story is about silk and about the little girl who wants to take a piece of home away with her on her bridal journey, even though it is forbidden. Much of this is beyond my own little girl’s comprehension…what does arranged marriage mean to a preschooler in the American Midwest, after all? But I want her to understand at least a little of what the story is about. I want her to understand why the girl speaks of silk as a splendor, as woven wind, why she longs to take its secret away with her on her long road from home.

I put the book down and tell Mila to wait for just a moment. In my closet I have a silk skirt. It’s not really Chinese, but it is silk. And it possesses just enough of that splendor, that woven windiness the princess describes, to do the trick. I set it in Mila’s lap and she oohs and ahs as she fingers the soft fabric. She has been curled up on the couch with a polyester fleece blanket that, for some reason, she’d become inseparable from earlier in the day. She goes from fingering the silk to rubbing it across her arms. Clearly, she is enjoying the sensation. Her expression is beatific. All at once she pulls away the fleece blanket, disdain evident in her gesture, “can you take this off, please?!” And, when the offending polyester has been removed, she spreads the silk over her bare legs, burying her hands in its whisper soft folds. Serenely, almost royally, she asks to continue reading the story. And I do. And I think, this time, “woven wind” and “swirls of silk” and “windy silken promises” actually mean something to her. I think she understands that little Chinese princess better than she did before.

After all, I cannot understand the world myself simply by reading about it. I must taste and see and feel and listen. As we all must. Mila is no different. It is not enough to simply tell her a story or teach her a lesson. I must share with her the warm spices at our favorite Indian restaurant, dance with her to the lilting traditional French songs on her favorite CD. I must let her find illumination in the woven whisper of silk against her own bare skin. If I want her to learn and to love, I must help her to experience. As we read to the end of Red Butterfly, I am already storing away ideas in the back of my mind, thinking about the books we’ve read and the conversations we’ve had and about how I might bring bits of those ideas to life for her in a whole new way.