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Beads, Baubles and the Tiles of Lisbon

November 23, 2013

file under GREEN for leftover beer and wine bottles

As members of the Semester at Sea community, students, staff and faculty have the opportunity to sign up (and pay for) organized tours that leave from the ports where the Explorer docks. Large, well-appointed tour buses pull up outside our gangway and, carrying cameras, water bottles, note pads and local currency, we head off for pre-planned day and overnight trips, feeling somewhat despairingly like tourists, but happy for the security of vetted drivers, air conditioning and the comfort of exploring with our friends.

I try to balance each port visit with a mixture of SAS-planned excursions and solo explorations.

The convenience of having an experienced tour guide paid off in St. Petersburg when I was introduced to highlights and backstories of the Hermitage that I would have never discovered on my own. But I also like to visit some of those same places that SAS has identified, but I walk, take a train, bus or taxi to allow for more or less time at my destination than a group field program might accommodate.

In Portugal, I was intrigued by descriptions of the city’s ceramic tile museum, but not interested in the organized tour’s schedule. Mesmerized by the architectural use of ceramic tiles up and down the cobblestoned streets of Lisbon during my first two days of wandering, I chose to find the museum on my own, and ultimately spent an overcast and rainy afternoon at the lovely Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or National Tile Museum. SAS trip participants had a chance to try their hand at decorating a tile of their own; I, instead, wandered lazily through the displays and chatted with two vacationing Swedish sisters over a late lunch in the beautifully tiled, blue-and-white museum cafe. An enjoyable Portuguese afternoon both ways.

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A month later, just before leaving Ghana in sub-Sahara west Africa, I decided I would enjoy taking the SAS-coordinated trip to the Cedi Bead Factory. At this open-air workshop, our small group created a half-dozen beads created from the crushed glass pieces and powders of used wine and other beverage bottles. Mr. Cedi, our skilled host and Ghanaian entrepreneur-slash-businessman, was quick to teach us how he transformed the broken glass into beads using outdoor kilns made from the red mud of African termite hills (Their saliva, mixed with the mud, creates a composite that withstands especially high temperatures.) Our beads were soon firing in the small kilns, fueled with local firewood, and tended by locally hired and trained Ghanaians in this outdoor recycling “factory.” Meanwhile our hired tour guide gave us a detailed explanation of how Ghanaians have traditionally used all parts of the prodigious and ubiquitous date palm trees. The date fruits and its oil are used in cooking; palm fronds are still commonly seen as a resource for roofs. Once the tree’s fruit producing life has ended, the trunk is processed and tapped to create a popular local palm wine; that same sap when distilled, creates a potent liquor (nicknamed “kill me quickly”). After that, the trunk is often used for firewood, as much of rural Ghana still cooks meals over open fires.

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The element of design in stronger in some places than others. I will never forget seeing Barcelona, on my first SAS voyage, a city just oozing with Gaudi and art, though the graphics and textile works of Buenos Aires stand out in my mind and memory this month. Still arts and crafts abound in all our ports. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, the animals abound under the vendors’ tents as well as on the game reserves.

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Those among us looking for more than postcards, magnets and keychains would find these decorative art pieces frequently at street markets, sometimes in retail stores, and sometimes in shops ala the Ten Thousand Villages model.

In Buenos Aires, I took an SAS sponsored tour of street art and graffitti, then pealed off to travel independently with others that afternoon and the next day without a set itinerary. Looking for local color was never so easy: bright barrettes, and earth-toned carved gourds in Palermo, pastel palettes of colored wax-covered necklaces and bold prints in La Boca; and two special favorites: intricate copper wire trees and the black, white and red wire mobiles from street vendors. You have to see the mobiles in motion to fully appreciate them; I so wish I could have brought the piano player home with me.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Barbara Toccafondi permalink
    November 23, 2013 10:32 pm

    Wonderful post and beautiful things. B Toccafondi

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