Argan Oil

September 16th, 2008 by Rita

Every couple of years, the beauty industry announces that it has discovered the Holy Grail of anti-aging treatments, and a mad dash to the cosmetics counters ensues.  Between Botox and progesterone creams, I’m relieved that the latest craze doesn’t involve any ingredients that one might find in improperly home-canned pickles.  Argan oil is derived from the kernels of the argan tree, which currently grow only in Southwestern Morocco.  The oil has been dubbed a beauty “breakthrough” because it contains very high concentrations of vitamin E and other antioxidants, ingredients hypothesized to protect the skin from damage from free radicals.  For centuries, Moroccans have been using argan oil for everything from eczema to split ends, and a less refined type of the oil is also commonly used for cooking.  In the U.S., a single 2 oz bottle can cost up to $50, but bottles of this viscous, golden liquid can be found in herborist shops in many parts of Morocco for far less.  As a result, many travelers to Morocco leave the country with suitcases full of the pure oil, because the local prices are simply not available anywhere else.

If you find yourself in Morocco and in the market for some argan oil, be careful that you don’t end up paying for a vial of overpriced Crisco.  Moroccan vendors are well aware that argan oil has become coveted loot in Europe and the U.S., and the unscrupulous among them have begun marketing adulterated stuff.  Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to distinguish the imitators from the original.  Argan oil should have a mild, nutty scent and be relatively non-greasy (as far as oils go), so if you can ask the shopkeeper to let you try out a bit on your hand, that would be one option.  If you want to be certain, though, your best bet is to visit one of the women-run argan oil cooperatives in Essaouira, should you be passing by.  The cooperatives were set up in conjunction with the Moroccan government to raise awareness about the benefits of argan oil as well as combat the rapid deforestation of argan trees.  The cooperatives have the dual purpose of re-planting argan trees in Southwestern Morocco and improving rural Moroccan women’s social and economic conditions (the production of argan oil is traditionally women’s work).  Argan oil purchased at such a cooperative is likely of the best quality, and you may find some solace in knowing that you are supporting an environmentally and socially responsible organization as well.

Whether argan oil helps slow the signs of aging or not, I don’t know.  Some healthy skepticism is always good when it comes to hypes.  But if you simply want a yummy-smelling, potent moisturizer, then you should give argan oil a try.  You will have to decide for yourself whether it is the true Grail.

(If not, might I recommend investing some money in stem cell research labs?  It’s only a matter of time until the beauty industry decides to market stem cells as an anti-aging serum.  Your portfolio will thank me.)

Forget After-Dinner Mints: Drink Tea Instead

August 31st, 2008 by Andrew

Before Starbucks, there were the coffeehouses of Amsterdam, Vienna, and Venice. Before the coffeehouses of Europe, there were the coffeehouses of the Muslim world in Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus. But before coffee, there was tea. From its origins in South-East Asia, tea spread throughout the world, and is now the second-most consumed beverage on the planet (after water). Most people know the reverence with which the English regard tea, but similar regard exists in India and Sri Lanka, where tea-brewing is an art. In Japan, the tea ceremony holds religious significance, which is unsurprising given its origins as a Zen Buddhist import from China. China is where tea originated, and it remains prominent as the second-largest tea producer in the world. Much of China’s tea output goes to Morocco, which is the largest importer of green tea in the world.

Though relatively recent adopters of tea (it arrived in the 18th century from Europe), Moroccans fully embraced the beverage, from sultans to street hawkers, even adding a twist of their own: mint. While most beverages made from steeped herbs are more appropriately called tisanes or infusions, Moroccan mint tea is made from both gunpowder tea (a form of Chinese green tea) and fresh mint, so it can still be called a true tea. Semantics aside, the tea is amazing, no matter what it’s called. Just like Moroccan cuisine, it is a potent sensory blend. There is the bitterness from the green tea (though that is softened by the initial washing of the tea leaves). There is the sweetness from the heaps of sugar scooped into the teapot. There is the restorative freshness from the mint, which is packed in until the pot is almost bursting with green.

For thousands of years, the peoples of the Mediterranean have used mint to stimulate digestion, reduce menstrual cramps, and aid liver and kidney functions. Adding mint to tea not only makes it tasty but healthy as well. It’s no surprise that Moroccan tea culture considers drinking less than two cups of tea an insult to the host: More tea means more chances to gain the healthful benefits. It’s easy to enjoy and reap the benefits of mint tea in one’s home.  Just brew a pot of green tea, add five teaspoons of sugar and a half cup of fresh mint for every teaspoon of tea used, and then let it continue to steep for 5-10 minutes. The best way to experience Moroccan mint tea, though, is after a satisfying meal on a rooftop terrace looking out over a city that has known the solace of such an action for over three hundred years.

Musings at 20,000 Feet (Part 2 of 2)

August 31st, 2008 by Rita

(Part One of this post can be found here.)

Something that never fails to disappoint me by always being there to disappoint me is those open-air tour buses that one encounters in most major cities of the world. “See London in Three Hours!” they scream in bright letters. “Experience New York City from a Bus!” Perhaps I abhor those quickie tours so much because I grew up going on such tours with my family. My mother enjoyed packaged trips because they saved her a lot of planning time and worries. On one hand, I sympathize. It can’t be easy trying to coordinate the travel logistics of four different people. On the other, I always felt that I was missing something, as if each place we visited had held out to me a palm brimming with gold dust and I had just passed it by. When I was 15, my family and I went to Europe on a tour titled the “European Express.” We visited nine cities in nine days. We spent a total of four hours in Rome. I have not had the opportunity to go back to Rome since, and it saddens me that the only memory of the city I have from that trip involve the mass of tour buses clotting the road in front of the Colosseum, and the click-click-click of the camera as my mother and I stood in front of the building, smiling effortfully as the tour guide took our pictures.

Now the difficult question: How does one shake up expectations, especially when one is traveling to a place where many things have received theme park makeovers in order to encourage tourism? The answer is: I don’t know. It’s often luck. It’s like having the power of invisibility only when no one is looking—in my experience, the best surprises only happen when one is entirely preoccupied with something else. But I suppose there are things one can do so that one is more likely to trip over such surprises.

Though often interpeted as a simple statue of Mary with baby Jesus, Black Madonnas stem from a tradition of goddess-based worship predating Christianity. The dark material is intentional, reflecting the dark color of fresh earth, since the statues played a role in fertility rites. Over time, the cults of Isis and other godesses were absorbed into the nascent Christianity: the names changed, but the images stayed the same.

We found this statue in the necropolis in the basement of L'Abbaye Saint-Victor. Though often interpeted as a simple statue of Mary with baby Jesus, Black Madonnas stem from a tradition of goddess-based worship predating Christianity. The dark material is intentional, reflecting the dark color of fresh earth. Over time, the cults of Isis and other goddesses were absorbed into Christianity: the names changed, but the images stayed the same.

Stray from the touristy paths. Initiate conversations with locals who seem willing to talk and actively participate in conversations locals start. Avoid eating at the hotel. All of those suggestions may seem obvious, but they can be easier said than done. It’s hard to be open to friendly banter when it is 95 degrees outside and you are lost in the Medina. But I try, and sometimes I am rewarded, amply.

My greatest reward of broken expectations happened on that same train ride to Fez. Before the man got on, an older woman had sat in the cabin. She wore a headscarf and a to-the-ground djellaba, all in black. For the first thirty minutes of the train ride, she sat silent in her seat. I thought, with an uneasy mix of pity and condescension, “This poor woman. This poor victim of the patriarchy. I bet this is the first time she has ever gone anywhere without her husband.” Meanwhile, the other passengers in the cabin were conversing in a musical makeshift pidgin: In addition to the older woman, Andrew and me, the passengers consisted of a French speaker, a German speaker, and an Arabic and English speaker. At one point, one of the passengers was talking about her home in San Francisco. The older woman sat up straight and said, in perfect English, “Oh, you have a house in San Francisco? I lived there for years before moving to Dubai.” It turned out that prior to San Francisco, she had also lived and worked in New York City and Marrakesh. She spoke four languages fluently (Arabic, French, English and Spanish) and had spent most of her life traveling from city to city. She talked with as much insight and knowledge about U.S. politics and the presidential candidates as she did about the true message of the Qur’an (“Real Muslims do not condone killing. The Qur’an teaches us that by killing another person, you are in fact killing yourself.). She expressed her sadness at how the poor and uneducated children of certain countries in the Middle East were being brainwashed and bribed by terrorist organizations to sacrifice themselves. During one of her stories about a 13-year-old boy who walked into a shopping mall and blew himself up because the terrorists told him that they would provide for his family if he did so, she teared up and had to stop talking. I couldn’t help but tear up as well. I looked over at her, put my hand on her arm, and we both smiled.

And here I thought I was the worldly one.
Finally, the train arrived at her stop, and as she was leaving, she turned to me and smiled. “I hope you enjoy your time in Morocco,” she said.
“I already am,” I said.

Musings at 20,000 Feet (Part 1 of 2)

August 31st, 2008 by Rita

The way I see it, one can go on either a journey or a trip. The difference lies in whether one is setting out to have one’s expectations confirmed or shattered. A trip to Disney World will invariably contain these things: parades, repetitive theme songs and costumed characters throwing up in their suits in the Floridian heat. Don’t misunderstand, that is not a judgment. There is a time for all things, and I myself have gone on cruise vacations for the express purpose of having my expectations fulfilled. Sun me, dine me, seat me for an overly exuberant Broadway revue and let me waddle off to bed stuffed and mind-numb, thank you very much. The problem comes when people consistently pass up challenging journeys for low-effort dog and pony shows. Andrew and I met a man on a train once—a stout patriarch-type from the U.S. with a jowl like something one could nest birds in. We were on our way to Fez, rolling past flat ochre plains and sudden brushes of unadorned, white buildings. The pale-scented air was laced with dust. We commiserated over the long train ride, talked about where we were from, our work, so on, so on. Finally we came to the topic of travel, and he proclaimed that he was an avid skier, and that in his life he had gone skiing all over the world, from North America to Europe to Asia. This was his first time in Africa, and he was excited to try out the slopes. Trying to change the subject because I didn’t know much about skiing, I asked him about where he had been in the various countries he mentioned. He waved his hand dismissively and said, “Oh, I spend all of my time at the resort. The food’s good, the skiing’s good—what else do you need?”

We discovered this frieze in the basement of L'Abbaye Saint-Victor in Marseilles, an old Greco-Roman necropolis that was later converted into a Christian burial ground. The frieze came from the 5th century Cult of the Holy Innocents, which contained elements of both Christian and Dionysian worship. While in Marseilles, most tourists head for the city's more decadent cathedrals like La Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, but there is also much to be discovered at the lesser-known sites.

We discovered this frieze in the basement of L'Abbaye Saint-Victor in Marseilles, an old Greco-Roman necropolis that was later converted into a Christian burial ground. The frieze came from the 5th century Cult of the Holy Innocents, which contained elements of both Christian and Dionysian worship. While in Marseilles, most tourists head for the city's more decadent cathedrals like La Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, but there is also much to be discovered at the lesser-known sites.

I don’t pretend to be an adventure traveler. When I watch travel show hosts in search of good television eat scorpions and jump off high places, I cringe and thank the gods I don’t have a paycheck riding on me doing what they’re doing. With my lack of coordination and evolutionarily improbable immune system, I would probably die an unpleasant death via amoebic dysentery or a head-first collision with the face of a cliff. It would be hypocritical (not to mention irresponsible) of me to claim that only by surrendering common sense can one truly learn something while traveling. But surely, surely, do the countries of the world have more to offer than ski resorts and the expected monuments. If one expects Paris to be the Eiffel Tower and nothing else, then Paris will be the Eiffel Tower and nothing else. There is a myth—an urban legend, really—about the Ugly American Tourist, and it goes something like this: The UAT shows up in a foreign town one evening, with a fanny pack around its waist and a camera in its hand. It goes to stores and restaurants, where it bellows incomprehensible syllables and then gets mad when other people don’t understand what it’s bellowing. Soon, it joins with others of its horde and together they trample upon important cultural sites and blind locals with flashes from their cameras before leaving to continue their rampage elsewhere. Of course, not all Americans are Ugly and that is fortunate. But even the “pretty” ones sometimes forget that the joy of travel often lies in the unexpected, and that is unfortunate.

I found myself in Provence this year standing in front of the Abbaye de Senanque and its famous lavender fields, feeling inexplicably sad. Yes, the fields were in full bloom. Yes, the air smelled as though it were not from our atmosphere but from the atmosphere of some planet inhabited by the Muses and assorted wood nymphs. Still, I felt a vacancy because I realized that on that trip I had seen only the Provence of the postcards. I turned to Andrew and said, “Let’s drive west.”

(Part Two of this post can be found here.)

Welcome to the World Tree Photography Travelblogue

August 24th, 2008 by World Tree Photography

We are very excited to have an operational blog! (Andrew thinks the name “travelblogue” is clever, but Rita thinks he should stop congratulating himself.)  Here we will share travel tips and some of our thoughts on the places we’ve been, the places we want to go, life, the universe and everything.  We love to travel because we think every culture has amazing things to offer.  In our photographs we try to capture the visual aspects of culture, but there are some aspects that simply do not lend themselves to visual translation like the food, the people and so on.  This blog is where we will try to render some of those aspects.

We hope you enjoy this site and would love to hear your comments.  Also, if you have a favorite restaurant or store somewhere in the world, or if you just have travel tips you’d like to share, let us know!  Our goal is to foster a community of travelers, whether you travel to relax, to learn new things, or to slake an insatiable wanderlust.