Maximum Mexico City

The title “Third Largest City* in the World” never moved beyond the abstract until I found myself circling over the Valley of Mexico on the descent into the Mexican capital back in 2004, when I actually had hair and the associated hairline (and before I caught a whiff of that very special mega-city further south). Golden brown fields gave way to barren mountain peaks that seemed to reach for the underside of the jet. Those gave way to the sprawling mass of Mexico City, nestled on the floor of the ancient Lake Tenochtitlán, and smothered by a cloud of smoke and exhaust trapped by the ring of mountains. It was like flying over the über-expanse of Los Angeles, but three times bigger. Mexico City is big, huge, gargantuan, as in big-ass biscuit big.

On my final approach to Benito Juárez International Airport, I caught glimpses of expressways, tree-lined streets, apartment towers, and skyscrapers which lent a surprising sense of modernity to a place Americans in their cultural isolation typically have no thoughts about whatsoever. Just before I landed over the densely-packed shotgun shacks the surround the airport—the “real” Mexico—I spotted signs that the country is indeed tied economically to the US: Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Don’t think you can get away that easily.

Once I arrived, I hopped on the retro Mexico City Metro, designed in the 1960s and apparently not refurbished since, so it’s become stylish again. During rush hour, the trains were packed, the A/C was often broken, and peddlers pushed through the cars loudly offering everything from pens and notebooks to bootleg CDs and DVDs for 10 pesos each. Yes, they were selling Barbershop 2 in the Mexico City subway the week it had been released in US theaters.

With a population of 8.6 million in the Distrito Federal, and another 23 million in the metro area*, I found the streets of Mexico City to be surprisingly clean. The air was dirty, though having already traveled to other Latin American cities, I had previously been introduced to swallowing black clouds of exhaust while walking down the street. Also, being 7,300 feet in altitude, the air is much thinner than that of the low-lying East Coast. So, climbing the stairs from the Metro, doing any cardio in the gym, and getting my merengue on in the club became a spectacle of gasping for air and having to sit down for a hot second before I had a heart attack. The girl in the gym said it takes about four days for coastal folk to become accustomed to the mountain air.

During my five days in town, I hit the Frida Kahlo house in Coyoacán, a poignant arrangement of the artist’s life and work, with colorful statuary and paintings on display no where else in the world. The humungous Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) has the world’s largest collection of indigenous artifacts from Central and South America. There is a great crafts market in the Cuidadela, where I got all kinds of Mexican knick-knacks that my pops put in storage the day after I presented them to my parents. One afternoon, I rode out to the 2000-plus-year-old pyramids at Teotihuacán, built by folks that predated both the Toltecs and the Aztecs.

I wrapped up my days of exploring with a $3 all-you-can-eat buffet around the corner from my hotel, where I met three African dudes on vacation. They were originally from Cameroon, but lived in France, where they sold gold jewelry at a flea market in Marseilles. They were traipsing around Mexico for three months. Play on, players. Then, my last night, I was adopted by a group of youngins who liked hip-hop and took me out for a night of, hell, everything: reggae, house, hip-hop, salsa, norteño, mariachi, swing…they could dance it all; I was very impressed.

Mexico City, you are indeed the cradle of a great civilization!

Check my photos, check Frida and Amores Perros, check these interesting websites (AfroMexico and Africa’s Legacy), and check the US State Department travel warnings for a heads-up before heading south of the border (along which most of the trouble is, not in Mexico City).

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Fly Brother’s Fly-By-Night Dime-Store Travel Philosophy

Photo by barb 11

Lately, I’ve been reading through traveler extraordinaire Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity, an inspiring multipurpose blog encouraging people to live, work, and travel outside the box. With posts like “Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World” and the downloadable “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” Guillebeau seems to have found that elusive je ne sais quoi that allows him to jaunt off to far-flung destinations at a moment’s notice (being debt-free and having operated several successful small businesses being a part of that je ne sais quoi), and he’s willing to share the knowledge of being your own boss, traveling the world, and improving our planet to anyone who’s open to non-conventional wisdom. Each one, teach one.

Anyway, I recently read a post titled “Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel,” in which Guillebeau describes his motivation for and styles of travel. His current goal is to visit every country on Earth (nearly 200 sovereign nations) before his 35th birthday, and he’s well on his way to accomplishing that goal via round-the-world plane tickets, finagled stop-overs, and a rainbow of sleeping arrangements – from airport floors in Texas to fleabags in Ulaan Bataar (that’s Mongolia, folk) to the overpriced Le Meridian in Malta. And he got me thinking about my own travel philosophies, those objectives, habits, rules, and stimuli that drive me incessantly to the nearest international airport whenever time and income allow.

  • As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I’m drawn most strongly to Latin American cultures with a very visible African element, particularly in terms of music and dance: the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil most notably. I also like cities with large Afro-Diasporic populations – London, Paris, Toronto, Montreal, and the States-side stalwarts NYC, DC, ATL, and MIA. Basically, I like to see myself reflected in the people when I travel. And I like to travel under the radar, where if I don’t speak, people don’t know I’m not from there.
  • That doesn’t mean I limit myself to the lands of salsa and samba. Within the next five years, I’m trying to hit Mozambique, South Africa, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tanzania in the Motherland. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Turkey. Hong Kong. Australia. Papua New Guinea. India! And, of course, wherever a cheap last-minute plane ticket takes me.
  • I’m a true urbanist: the bigger the city, the better. Give me a week in Sydney over a week in the Outback any day. Not that I’m averse to hiking or outdoor activities (I quite enjoy rafting), but the humthumpbuzz of an urban center stimulates more of my senses than the whistletweetshush of the campo. I enjoy museums and mass transit and people watching at the mall. I would, however, make exceptions for natural wonders like Ayers Rock, Victoria Falls, and Antarctica.
  • I like to spend an entire week or ten days in a city (more, if possible). It’s a great way to see sights and stake your claim on a neighborhood or local routine for a short while. I like getting lost among the crowds and making my way “home” or getting to know the waitstaff at my corner breakfast nook. After a few days, I start to notice commuting patterns, discover hidden delicacies, and sometimes even get to indulge in a nice romantic fling (I have, in Paris, Havana, and London).
  • I don’t like hostels. I’d rather stay in a 1-star matchbox that’s reasonably clean than at party-central for a gaggle of 20-something, boozy backpackers. No thanks. There’s also CouchSurfing.
  • I haven’t done my first round-the-world trek yet, but I’m planning one soon. I could be an airline network loyalist, racking up the frequent flier miles with SkyTeam or Star Alliance, or I could go with Airtreks or Air Brokers to get the cheapest deal (as low as US$1700, taxes included). Either way, I get geet (as they say in Atlanta) whenever I think about jetting ahead of or against the rotation of the Earth.
  • I try never to check a bag. My size-13 tennis shoes often hinder that little plan, especially on smaller planes in South America.
  • On trips to developing countries, I try not to take photographs of people, especially folk doing heavy lifting or unpleasant drudge-work. I mean, I’d be pissed if somebody snapped a Polaroid of me struggling to balance a 50-pound basket of trout on my head. Don’t take a picture, you bastid…help me carry this!
  • I am a travel crackhead: I’ve been known to spend my rent money on a plane ticket. Not recommended (but I don’t regret it).
  • I’m usually a loner; I like to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I do enjoy trips with my friends or other travel companions, but mostly when they’re also experienced travelers and are keen on doing their own thing for part of the trip. We don’t have to be together every waking minute: we can spend our afternoons making independent memories that we can share with each other later at dinner. Besides, there’s too much inadvertent cock-blocking that can happen when you travel with other people.

My travel philosophy, in two words: Do you. Cuz I’m damn sure gon do me.

What’s your travel philosophy?

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Fly Brother and the Curse of the Aimless Intellectual

Image by 60$

Warning: Long post, but good. Really.

There is one tiny personality quirk that separates me from millions of other second-generation college grads who went into the career field they studied and now bring home mid- to high-five figures (if, alas, they are still employed), pay a mortgage (well…), and own a flat-screen plasma TV: incurable wanderlust.

It’s this wanderlust that first sent me to Sweden at age 16, then to the Dominican Republic five years later, and now to a life of indefinite and bittersweet self-exile. Not that I’m anti-American or anti-9-to-5; I’ve just always felt called toward a less traditional path to greatness. My problem, however, is that I haven’t the foggiest idea about the actual endeavor in which I will become great.

From elementary school until about the 10th grade, I wanted to be a great architect. Then I failed algebra. I entered undergrad a broadcast journalism major and graduated with a degree in political science; I just knew I was going to be a congressman and eventually a senator representing the Sunshine State in Washington. But after working in state and national government, I learned that, sadly, if “they” can’t find any dirt in your past, “they’ll” make something up. I saw many a young, promising, politically-inclined brother sidelined this way. So, I gave myself two choices: grad school or the Foreign Service. I applied to both; passing the written Foreign Service Exam, but declining to take the oral because I had been accepted to the University of Miami‘s creative writing program with a full scholarship (and W. had just been elected, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, defend that bastid or his policies). After a year, I transferred to the American University in Washington, where I snagged a TESOL certificate along with my Masters. From there, I headed to Colombia with the intention of teaching English until my Big Break – essentially “waiting tables” until the heartbreaking work of staggering genius also known as my first novel was published.

Four years and a very-close-but-no-cigar-moment-with-a-big-publishing-house later, I’m at the crossroads of another major life decision. Youthful, foolish, uncapped discretionary spending sent me from a stimulating-yet-poorly-paid university teaching post to a lucrative-yet-lunacy-inducing high school position (résumé titles for this job include Booby Hatch Babysitter and Shawshank Security Staff). And despite glowing references from supervisors and unexpected appreciation from students, I realize that teaching ain’t where my greatness lies (or, at least, not my greatest greatness).

I am surer than ever, though, that the astonishingly intoxicating Brazil is indeed the place where that greatness will come to fruition, and no matter where I see myself in the very-short-term, I’m poisoned with a visceral desire to live there soon.

There’s still a persistent, nagging hope that writing is the path (and that six-digit student loan debt was not accrued in vain), hence this blog and several oft-discussed fiction and non-fiction projects. Some suggest my photography, which is decent and has been occasionally published. Considering that teaching has always been my fall-back plan, though, it’s no wonder that I’ve been more successful at my fall-back plan than at my other pursuits; considering that I hardly have the time or energy to pursue those pursuits because my fall-back plan is full-time. (Are you noticing that I like to use hyphenated words, repetitive conjugations, and “considering” in my writing?) Still, a brotha gotta eat.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve pondered several possible paths to greatness, considering my talents, expertise, experience, education, interests, and desires:

PhD candidate in history and writer: I contacted faculty members at the universities of Florida, Miami, and Emory in Atlanta about history doctoral programs at their institutions. Both Florida and Georgia have all-expenses-paid fellowship programs for students of color (click the state for more info), and I was definitely hip to the idea of teaching for a few semesters, traveling in-between, going on sabbatical for a year to write, then completing that cycle again for the next thirty years. Then I read this. And this. And this. So basically, according to The New York Times at least, I can forget about that little pipe dream.

Diplomat and writer: Inspired by Presidential Fly Brother Obama’s pledge to increase the agency’s reach, and having passed the written FSE once before, I figured I’d make a dashing, culturally-informed addition to the U.S. Foreign Service. However, being sent from Baghdad to Astana to Ouagadougou every three years before finally getting to choose my posting, plus not being able to go to certain neighborhoods or cities or use normal forms of transportation seemed to shackle the very freedom that travel and living abroad is supposed to represent. I’m a dictator, I don’t get dictated to. But then, who knows what I’ll decide after five more years of unfettered globetrotting?

Model and writer:
Why not?

Flight attendant and writer:
Seriously. Before the bottom dropped from under the economy, it dropped from under the aviation industry during the gas spike last summer. Before that, I was actually considering a job as airline steward for Delta, which publicly advertised for Portuguese-speaking hosties and privately intimated that they needed more men on the planes for security reasons. Though my personality and physical being is better suited to the position of pilot, I had not the money nor the time/patience to enrol in flight school, and I certainly didn’t want to spend years of my life flying Flint-to-Fresno when I should be traipsing off to Dubai for the weekend and writing about the associated exploits. But on a 5:45am flight from JFK to Miami last year, I realized that the passengers were better off not having me as their in-flight server, lest coffee be spilled not-quite-accidentally on some besuited Neanderthal’s head.

Writer: Ain’t nothin to it but to do it, right? I could take my pithy little savings, all $4,500 of it, set up shop in some shoebox with a magnificent view of São Paulo, eat lámen noodles, take photos of this megacity, and write prose and posts for the six months my tourist visa grants per year, before starting a translation program which would let me translate fiction and poetry from Brazilian authors into English, or before working with Brazil’s first historically black college, Faculdade Zumbi dos Palmares, whose noble mission is to create a class of professional Afro-Brazilians.

Or I could work for another year in, say, Korea, saving more money, exploring Asia and the Pacific, and cleansing my mental palate before returning to Latin America with a better financial cushion.

Or I could do Korea and then get a one-year Masters in literary translation in Barcelona (hot, right?), gallavanting around Europe and Africa before settling in Brazil.

But I really want to do a round-the-world trip before nesting someplace.

See the problem? Curses!

My parents gave up along time ago on encouraging me to settle in one place and get a job like everyone else; I haven’t ever been everyone else. They’re just content knowing that I’ll probably make it back States-side when I’m 40 with a family (I want my kids raised in Florida, summering in Brazil, of course).

Now, I realize that to many people, this whole jet-setting “lifestyle” seems decadent and irresponsible. But my résumé is indeed solid and consistent. What concerns me most, and what keeps me up with anxiety many nights, is whether or not the decision I take makes the most long-term financial and professional sense, vis-à-vis mental and emotional security. Every choice is a gamble. My curse/blessing is that all of my options are great ones.

Greatness, here I come.

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Cubano Libre

This month, the brief but insightful CNN program “My City My Life” follows brotherman and ballet phenom, Carlos Acosta, around his beloved Havana. Having been forced into ballet by his father as a way to keep him out of trouble, Acosta wound up being the first black principal dancer in the London Royal Ballet, followed by a starring role at the Bolshoi. In this short clip from the special, he intones the musicality and flow of the everyday Cuban’s walk, labeled esoterically by Cuban novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo as “a certain kind of way.”

See full video here. (I love the group of men arguing about sports and politics in the park around 3:00; from the barbershop to the park to the church picnic…there we are.)

Click here to learn more about Fly Brother Carlos Acosta, “My City My Life”, and the beautiful Caribbean queen, Havana.

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Missing Middle Florida

There’s the moonlight and magnolias of the North, the kid-centered wonders of Central, and the tropical swing of the South – the geographic regions of the state of Florida. Then there are the temporal zones: the Old Florida of Osceola and Andrew Jackson, of Saint Augustine and the Confederacy, of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The New Florida of Walt Disney and Jeb Bush, of Little Haiti and Little Havana, of Spring Break and Dave Barry. And I grew up somewhere in between, a native Floridian born to native Floridians, who have a connection to the peninsula, know all the secret places, and how to get everywhere in the state without once climbing on one of those new-fangled interstates. I’m from Middle Florida.

Being born at the tail end of the 70s means my memory only extends as far back as 1980, a time of transition for my home state. Since the late 19th century, hell, since the 15th century when Juan Ponce de Leon named the place for the flowers he saw while killing off Tekestas and searching for the Fountain of Youth, Florida has been a tourist haven. But I came of age just as manufacturing and the military – long mainstays of the state’s economy, lead by Jacksonville (“The Bold New City of the South”) – took a backseat to newly invented mass tourism and an upgraded agricultural sector, just as the Mariel Boat Lift cemented Miami’s status as capital of Latin America, after the influx of snow birds and Baby Boomers but before the boom of babies born to folks from other states and other countries. I’m not pre-Disney, but I’m pre-Disneyfication.

I remember taking U.S. 17 to Orlando, U.S. 90 to Tallahassee, and A1A to Daytona Beach, passing the original themed attractions built along winding hightways at the advent of the Motor Age that had already faded in the shadow of their newer, flashier, 2.0 Beta versions in Orlando, before re-inventing themselves in order to compete: the thin, weary dolphins at Marineland; corny water ski shows at Cypress Gardens; determined young synchronized swimmers in mermaid outfits at Weeki Wachee.

I miss those days: school field trips to the fort at the “Nation’s Oldest City,” Saint Augustine, marveling at the kooky billboards for the Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not Museum and stopping to pick dates off the palms that lined U.S. 1 out of town. Gatorland, Gatorade, the Gator Bowl, and a fierce, sometimes irrational devotion to the University of Florida Gators. Crosstown high school football rivalries between Raines and Ribault and cross-state rivalries between Lake City Columbia and Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee back when high school football rivalries mattered. Indigenous place names like Okeechobee, Okefenokee, Ocoee, Loxahatchee, Pahokee, Immokalee, Kissimmee, Ichetucknee, Chattahoochee, Apalachee Parkway, Miccosukee Road (shouts to Tallahassee). The ease of slipping between Southern and tropical cultures as effortlessly as organizing a random crab boil or barbecue on a typical hot-ass April or September afternoon. FAMU‘s Homecoming Parade, which always started out on a freezing November morning and ended up blazing hot by 10 AM, and the FAMU-BCC Florida Classic, back when it was held in Tampa, back when the Tampa Bay Bucs sucked. Kennedy Space Center and Melbourne Jai-Alai. Dances like the Tootsie Roll and the Tawlet Bowl, accompanied by syncopated Flawda Bass and the raunchy lyrics of Dade County’s poet laureate, Luther “Luke” Campbell. The Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop and Flea USA and the Opa Locka-Hialeah Flea Market (straddling Lock-town y la República de Hialeah). Miami with only a small cluster of skyscrapers Downtown and televised vice on run-down South Beach and the original Orange Bowl and an equal number of everybody from everywhere back when, it seemed, more folks got along better (though the 1982 Overtown riot told a different story). Tropical storms with names. Blue skies in the east and black skies in the west. Miles of undeveloped coastline. Flatness.

No, I don’t miss the stench of the pulp mills and the knowing where you could and couldn’t go as black folk after dark, lest we forget the Florida was indeed a slave state and didn’t desegregate schools until almost 1970. After all, many strange fruit-bearing trees grow alongside palm trees. But I do miss the strong black communities and institutions that were established and thrived in that environment of hate. And I miss being in a place where I have roots as exposed, yet as deep as the mangroves in the Everglades.

And I miss Publix and Winn-Dixie.

And skee-ball and go-karts at Fun ‘n Wheels.

And Wild Waters.

And Jenkins’ Quality Bar-B-Q (Lawd, they got a website nah?).

I think I’m just getting old.

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Colombia Mía: Doggy with Blow Hair, Bogotá

This lil fella belonged to a locksmith in the Soledad neighborhood of Bogotá. While I was waiting for some keys to be cut, he sat down in the doorway to take in the breeze and watch the traffic go by. I’m not that into pets, much less pets with clothes, but I couldn’t resist this shot.

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Global Juke Joint: The Fly Brother Theme Song

“Adore” by I:Cube. The sonic embodiment of travel.


The video’s not bad; I love his jog through the terminal. Flight 245 to Caracas: I’m on it!

First heard:
Atlanta to Madrid
First Class Cabin (buddy pass)
Delta Air Lines
August 2004

Last heard:
Five minutes ago

Appears on:
Adore
Hotel Costes Vol. 2 – La Suite
Afterdark: Paris

Longer, better version here.

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Fly Original: James Weldon Johnson

Black History Month ended on February 28th, and though it wasn’t mentioned much on Fly Brother, all month long, my ninth-grade world history students had to present an African-American hero to their class for a test grade. One of these heroes seems to be channeling me from up above.

A native of my own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was the son of an educator, who would later become an educator in his own right, in addition to being a diplomat, poet, novelist, lyricist, and civil rights activist. At only 24, Johnson became a high school principal and founded a newspaper, before being the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam. Soon, he collaborated with his brother, musician John Rosamond Johnson (who happened to be the musical director at the church I grew up in, decades prior, of course), on several theater projects, and penned the amazing lyrics of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which I had learned at least by age six).


These ten li’l high school jitterbugs better sang! (‘Specially the last verse at 2:45).

Tired of the racist buffoonery of popular music at the time (hmmm…so nothing’s changed?), Johnson left that industry, entered Columbia University, and in 1906, was named U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. After being transferred to Nicaragua, where he wrote his impactful novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, he left the foreign service (they weren’t trying to hook a brother up with a decent post back in 1913), settled in New York, became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920, published three anthologies on Negro poetry and spirituals, a collection of poetry, and his own true autobiography. Sadly, he was killed at the age of 67, when a train hit his car in 1938. Still, Johnson is remembered by the students of the various schools that bear his name (my brother went to the one in J-ville) and by the millions of black Americans who get teary-eyed at the last lines of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,

True to our God,
True to our native land.

In belated honor of Black History Month, Fly Brother salutes fellow Duvalian, Renaissance Man, and Fly Original, James Weldon Johnson. May I be half as prolific as he.

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