Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

by Steven Brenner

Thanks to the invasion of Starbucks, the worldwide thirst for coffee is higher than it’s ever been, despite the fact that their coffee sucks and is totally overpriced.  Coffee consumption and cafe culture has been around Europe for centuries, around North America for decades, and is now spreading into Asia.  It’s an enormous industry, over 2 billion cups of the stuff consumed PER DAY worldwide,  yet the division of these billions of dollars is completely screwed, with huge wealth being created at the sale and immense poverty forced on those at the origin.

I’m not an expert on economics or world history or agriculture, but what I’ve seen with my own eyes makes me question why these growers, who control this powerful commodity, are so poor?  And when you start to really examine the politics behind it, and just how artificial the whole thing seems, I have to wonder why poverty exists at all and how is it all connected.

I know, heavy stuff, but that’s the way we roll in the MB house!  We travel, we try to see things and form opinions about them from direct experience.  We take tours with people who are passionate and informative about their life’s work, and try to make the world a classroom for us and for our kids.

We were in Boquete, Panama, the mountainous interior part of the country, home to some of the world’s most valuable and prestigious coffee – the Geisha.  When grown at the right elevation, a few growers get such high rankings for this coffee that it is only sold at auction to the highest bidder.  We’d signed up for a tour at the Finca Dos Jefes coffee plantation, an organic coffee farm owned and run by an American expat named Richard Lipner and were amazed at what we saw and heard – eye opening, heart breaking injustices – hard not to think about every morning when you sit down, open your computer, and take a sip of a cappuccino.

Some basics:  coffee is an ancient drink with almost magical properties.  It’s made from little cherries that only grow between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, in 70 countries.   There’s an organization that was set up in the last century to protect the prices, probably helping to stabilize some countries by putting a floor on what other, more desperate countries can charge.  That was when there was a possibility of a coffee abundance.  Now, if anything, there’s a shortage.  And yet, despite the high demand, the farmers are barely able to stay afloat.

The cherries are grown, picked when ripe, usually by hand, then they are either dried outside on mesh beds, or a load of water is wasted and contaminated to remove the sticky “mucilage” around the bean.  There’s a fermentation process and a roasting process – which can be an art form itself, and a variety of ways to brew it (in my opinion, the moka is the best).

If you want to learn all about how coffee is grown and roasted, you can take a tour with Rich in Boquete.  But I don’t want to dwell on the details of coffee itself.  I want to dwell on poverty – because coffee and poverty, at least in Panama, seem to go together.

Around Boquete, cherry pickers make about 5-7 USD a day when it’s cherry picking season.  This is the lowest of lowly work, and almost entirely delegated to the indigenous people who were displaced in the early 1900′s when the French came to build the canal. Eventually, after having their land taken and getting pushed up almost into Costa Rica, they were then given a batch of wild land as an Indian reservation where they currently live.  They have no infrastructure, and thus, no way to get an education (unless you walk 10-20 miles to school in the rain) and lift themselves out of poverty.  Between the poor Panamanian (which by North American standards is quite poor already), and this lower caste of Indian who picks coffee cherries, you go so far down the ladder of “wealth” that there’s about zero chance of any of these people making it on to the ladder, let along climbing up it.

Here’s an example of living quarters for a family of 10.

Note the absence of windows and no ventilation.

Cooking on a concrete slab and dealing with the smoke.   These people actually aren’t the worse off.

Here’s a make-shift home where about 30 people live.  When it rains (which is often) their home is continually destroyed.

Like I said, I’m no expert and I don’t claim to know why the world is the way it is, but I do have to try to string some basics together, to understand what I’m seeing, and to respond to my kids who ask innocently why these people can’t build a bigger house; why they can’t get better jobs; why they can’t just leave.

As I travel more, and especially as I travel with my kids, I find that the more I learn about the world and our interconnectedness, the more I can’t untangle it all.

I don’t know if capitalism can work without cheap labor, or whether an alternative to capitalism could be an improvement.  I don’t know why rich countries can’t coordinate with impoverished ones more fairly, nor am I naive enough to think that simply paying people more will truly solve their problems – it can help, at times, but money, after all, isn’t the same as wealth.  The problem is political, economical, and the power play between them.

What I do know is that it’s 3:45 pm and I’ve just had an espresso, a fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua.  I know that, like it or not, I’m connected to those farmers, even as I leave to go get my youngest daughter from school.

 

Sintra: A Lisbon Daytrip Fit for a King

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A visit to Sintra will have you feeling like a royal for a day.  This quaint little town just 20 miles northwest of Lisbon is characterized by cobbled streets, charming shops and fairytale-like castles built high atop lush green hills.  In the 19th century, Sintra was a summer retreat for the Portuguese monarchy who sought to escape the heat, and is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Lisbon today.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around

The best way to get to Sintra is by train, which departs from Lisbon’s Rossio station about every 15 minutes.  Buy your ticket from a window or vending machine near the tracks or swipe your Lisboa Card at the turnstile – it covers the fare and gives you discounts on some of Sintra’s main sights.  Then it’s just a quick 40 minute ride to Sintra, which is the last stop on the line.

When you get there you can explore the lower town on foot (and you should), but save yourself the steep hike and take bus #434 to see the sights further up.  The bus does a loop every 30 minutes connecting the train station with the main square near the National Palace, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.  You can buy a “Pena circuit” ticket from the driver and hop on and off at any stop on the route. Click here for bus timetables and an interactive map.  You can also get a unique guided tour of the area, including transportation, with our friends at We Hate Tourism Tours.

What to Wear

Chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and castle climbing, so sturdy shoes are a must for Sintra.  A light jacket is also a good idea since it’s a little cooler than Lisbon given its coastline location.  After all, that’s why the monarchy came here to escape the hot summer months.

Rainy season is usually winter through spring (and occasionally in the fall), so pack an umbrella if you plan on visiting during these months, otherwise you may find yourself waiting in line to buy a poncho in the gift shop at Pena Palace.  And since many of Sintra’s sights are outdoors, you may want to bring a hat in the summer.

Sintra Highlights

One way to tackle Sintra is from the top down, which means your first stop would be Pena Palace.  This whimsical palace is an eclectic fusion of architectural styles inspired by the castles of Bavaria.  A prime example of romanticism, its bold red, yellow and purple exterior is hard to miss, complete with Moorish turrets, alligator water spouts and a Triton-flanked archway.

Built by King Fernando II, the palace was home to 5 generations of Portuguese monarchs from the mid-1800s until 1910 when they fled during the Republican Revolution.  Thereafter Pena Palace was converted into a museum, and has been restored with a keen attention to detail, looking as if the royal family left just yesterday.

As you explore the interior, you may notice that the palace is considerably modern as palaces go (i.e. Versailles in France or Schönbrunn in Vienna, etc.), offering up an intimate look at 19th and early 20th century life.  Pena Palace was actually quite progressive, having the flush toilets and hot shower in Portugal, a telephone to listen in to the opera when the king didn’t want to make the trek to Lisbon and an enviously well-stocked kitchen by today’s standards.

The palace itself is surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park, which is more like a forest than a park with dense trees, plants and other hidden treasures.  The palace grounds make for an almost magical downhill walk, otherwise you can pick up bus #434 and head next to the Moorish Castle.

Located on an adjacent hilltop, this medieval castle was originally built in the 10th century by the Muslims as a military fort.  After years of conquest, rebuilding and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that caused considerable damage, King Fernando II launched a campaign to restore and preserve the castle and its surrounding forest.

Buy your ticket and then follow the winding forest path to get to the main entrance.  Once inside, you can walk along the moss-covered ramparts and climb the stone towers for amazing panoramic views on a clear day.   Even if the weather is less than favorable, or you’re left without a view thanks to the thick fog that rolls in off the Atlantic, you can still have a great time, trust me.  Read more about my foggy day in Sintra here.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s also a zip line that allows visitors to soar through the tree tops at the base of the castle.  After you’ve had your fill of castle-climbing, hop back on the bus and get off at the main square where you started for the National Palace (it will stop at Pena Palace first, so sit back and enjoy the ride).

This palace also dates back to Moorish times, making it the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal – and hard to miss thanks to the two white conical kitchen chimneys on top.  The interior is truly a feast for the eyes with highly decorated, themed rooms each with a unique story, like the Swan Room (an homage to the king’s daughter) and the Stag Room (adorned with coats of arms and hunting scenes).  The National Palace also boasts the largest collection of Portuguese azulejos painted tiles in the world.

Other worthwhile sites in Sintra include the Quinta da Regaleira, an elegant estate towards the outskirts of town with yet another absolutely gorgeous park filled with grottoes, fountains, underground wells and hidden tunnels.  It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Palace, otherwise you can take a separate bus #435 from the main square.

This bus will also take you the farther out west to Monserrate.  This palace has a bit of a different flavor than the others in Sintra, combining Gothic, Moorish and Italian styles of architecture (it’s dome was modeled after the Duomo in Florence) and a subtropical garden with waterfalls, palm trees and other exotic plants.  There’s also a free app to guide you through an interactive tour of the palace.

For another unique experience, the Toy Museum is just 2 minutes from the National Palace on foot.  The museum houses an expansive collection of more than 40,000 items from around the world – from ancient Egypt ion toys to Nazi toy soldiers, as well as trains, planes, cars, boats, games, books dolls and even playthings that belonged to royal children – dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.

Finally, for an especially memorable way to see the main sights in Sintra, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city.  Book in advance or look for these old-fashion carriages waiting near the main square.  Tours range from 25 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes for up to 4 people, and can be customized to make your daytrip extra special.  Check out the company Sintratur’s website for tour options and rates.

For more travel tips by Jessica, check out her blog here.

 

City Locker – Paris Luggage Storage in 3 Central Locations

City Locker – a genius idea.  Three locations in the city where you can check your luggage in either while waiting to check in or after you’ve checked out of your accommodation.  They’re open from 8am to 10pm, 7 days a week.  You have to book online in advance with a credit card and they’ll send you a code so you can access your locker without the need for staff.

 

20% off Select London Flats for August

For the month of August, check out the following flats offering a 20% discount!

The Framery Flat 1 – £125/night – £100/night (sleeps up to 3 people)

The Framery Flat 2 – £125/night – £100/night (sleeps up to 3 people)

The Framery Flat 3 – £125/night – £100/night (sleeps up to 3 people)

The Framery Flat 4 – £159/night – £127/night (sleeps up to 3 people)

The Framery Flat 5 – £142/night – £114/night (sleeps up to 2 people)

The Framery Flat 6 – £142/night – £114/night (sleeps up to 2 people)

The Framery Flat 7 – £142/night – £114/night (sleeps up to 2 people)

Shoreditch 1-bedroom Flat – £165/night – £132/night (sleeps up to 3 people)

Regent’s Canal 3-bedroom – £278/night – £222/night (sleeps up 6 people)

Apartment Angel – £182/night – £146/night (sleeps up to 4 people)

The Framery Loft – £300/night - £240/night (sleeps up to 8 people)

 

To see all our London properties, click here.

 

 

Discovering Lisbon’s Belém Neighborhood

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A day spent in Belém is a journey back to a time when Portugal ruled the seas.  This peaceful little suburb of Lisbon played a huge role in the Age of Discovery, as it was the starting point for explorers like Bartolomeu Diaz, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.  Their journeys literally spanned the globe, staking claims in Africa, Asia, India and South America along the way.  Even Columbus landed in Lisbon before returning to Spain after his famous 1492 voyage.

With boatloads of history and impressive panoramic views, Belém warrants at least a half-day of sightseeing, or longer if you have an appetite for discovery.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get to Belém from downtown Lisbon is to hop on tram #15E.  You can pick it up at Praça da Figueira, Praça do Comércio or the Cais Sodré rail station, and in about 30 minutes it will drop you off right in front of the Jerónimos Monastery.  Just be sure to not get off at the first “Belém” stop, rather wait for the next one named “Mosteiro Jerónimos”.  From there most of the main sights will be within walking distance.

Alternatively, you can also take bus #714 from Praça da Figueira or Praça do Comércio, or bus #728 from Praça Comércio or Cais Sodré.  When you’re ready to head back to Lisbon, catch the tram or bus from the same stop in front of the monastery (they come about every 10-15 minutes).  Both are covered if you have a Lisboa Card, otherwise just pay the driver when you get on.

The Lisboa Card also includes free entry to many sights in Belém including the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery and offers discounts on several others.  If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing or using a lot of public transportation in Lisbon, then the card is a good bet.  If your usage will be light, then you can probably skip it.

What to See

Belém offers a good mixture of museums and monuments depending on your preference.  Here are just a few of the top highlights.

You can’t miss the impressive Discoveries Monument soaring 171 feet high on the waterfront.  Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death, the monument immortalizes Henry, placing him at the helm of the ship.  He’s followed by 32 other larger-than-life figures who also played a role in the Age of Discovery – monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists, missionaries and the only female, Henry’s mother Felipa.

As you stand at the base of the monument, look around and take in the view anchored by the 25th of April Bride and Monument to Christ in the distance.  Then look down at the inlaid marble map in the square in front of the monument that chronicles the expeditions of Portugal’s explorers.

Next head to the Belém Tower, which was built in 1515 as a fortress and watchtower to guard Lisbon’s harbor.  The tower quickly became a symbol of the Age of Discovery since it was the last thing explorers would see as they embarked on their journeys and the first sign of home when they returned.


The exterior is an ostentatious example of Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I to celebrate the prosperity during his reign.  This style of architecture is characterized by intricate ornamentation that glorified Portugal’s achievements as sea, like twisted rope, anchors, shells, flora, Manuel’s armillary sphere and Christian symbols because, after all, someone had to finance the journeys.

Cross the makeshift pedestrian bridge to get to the visitors entrance (during high tide the water can completely surround the tower), then spend some time exploring the various rooms that were once used for cannon firing and spoil storage.  The climb to the top of the tower’s terrace is worth the 120 steps for the sweeping view of the Tagus River.

Continuing with the theme of discovery, Portugal’s story of sea exploration comes to life at the Maritime Museum.  Located in a wing of the Jerónimos Monastery, adjacent to Calouste Gulbenkian Planetarium, the museum houses a collection of more than 17,000 seafaring items.  You’ll get an up-close-and-personal look at model ships from the Age of Discovery, ornate royal barges and other vessels, maps and navigation tools from the past few centuries.

From sea to land, the National Coach Museum offers another perspective on Portuguese transportation from a bygone era.  In 1905 when it was clear that motor cars would become all the rage, Queen Amélia had the riding arena at the royal palace turned into an exhibition area to preserve her collection of fancy coaches.  The museum’s unique collection began with 29 royal vehicles, along with uniforms, harnesses and other cavalry accessories, which has grown to include even more vehicles, art and artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries.


Ending up back where you started, the Jerónimos Monastery is another brilliant example of Manueline architecture in Belém.  Construction began in 1501 under King Manuel to give thanks for the successful sea voyages of Vasco da Gama and other great explorers, fitting since it was the sale of spices from da Gama’s trip to India that financed the project.

The monastery was inhabited by the Hieronymite order of monks who provided spiritual guidance to sailors before they embarked on their journeys.  It’s also the final resting place for King Manuel, da Gama and other Portuguese notables.


The real highlight of the monastery is its cloisters.  Just like the Belém Tower, the bold yet elegant, lace-like arches and columns are heavily decorated with nautical motifs, representing a time of Portuguese wealth and sea power.  With such breathtaking architecture, it’s no wonder that the monastery and the tower are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


What to Eat

After a day of sightseeing, treat yourself to one more discovery at Pastes de Belém.  This café, which is conveniently located across from the Jerónimos Monastery bus stop, stakes claim as the birthplace of Lisbon’s trademark custard tarts.

They make about 20,000 of the pastel de nata a day, and rumor has is that the closely-guarded recipe is only shared with 3 pastry chefs at a time.  The tarts are served with little packets of powdered sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top, and usually warm and crunchy right out of the oven.

To read more about Jessica’s travel experiences and tips, check out her blog Boarding Pass.

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Some of the best value can be found in Lisbon on self-catering apartments.  Here’s 3 stylish, central and ultra-inexpensive places to stay in Lisbon:

Lapa D in Estrela – €60/night

Lisbon Core apartment – €60/night

My House in Lisbon – €79/night