One of the main areas of anxiety about moving to another country—in my case, Brazil—is the mystery surrounding vocation. Not vocation solely in terms of source of income, but also in terms of how time is spent and managed, how hours are filled. When I first moved to Colombia, I had a university position lined up before leaving US soil. Not so, this go round. As I’ve mentioned on this blog and repeated incessantly in real life, moreso to convince myself of even the possibility, I plan to go to São Paulo and write. A novel, to be specific; the travel writing and all immediate income-producing pursuits being relegated to secondary priority until a suitable first draft is completed. That is the plan in its most abstract, essential form. But what had induced panic attacks on several occasions over the last few weeks was the inability to plan a route between Point A — establishing myself in Brazil — and Point B — completing a marketable book-length fiction project. How was I going to write if, after this three-month hoof around the globe, I got to a city of 20 million people with less than, say, $500 in the bank? Wasn’t the idea of quitting my teaching job to go write to not have to take up another teaching job once I got to Brazil?
Then, in Portland, I wound up at Powell’s City of Books. Among the tomes I purchased in this cathedral to the written word, I saw Michael Cunningham’s The Hours on the sale rack for $6.95. I’d always liked the movie and heard good things about the book, so I bit. And on the train from Portland to Seattle, I read this section, from icon Virginia Woolf‘s perspective as she contemplates the life of the titular character in the novel she’s writing, Mrs. Dalloway:
“This particular novel concerns a serene, intelligent woman…who is preparing for the season in London, where she will give and attend parties, write in the mornings and read in the afternoons, lunch with friends, dress perfectly.”
Not exactly one of the more striking lines of prose in this remarkable work, but for me, it was an instant literary Rand McNally, a AAA triptych of comportment and action: I will write in the mornings and read in the afternoons, lunch with friends, work in the evenings (language or accent-reduction classes, probably; maybe introductory Spanish). And every now-and-then, I’ll give and attend parties (but I’m a Gap Inc. kinda guy, so…). I may stray from the route occasionally because of circumstance or chance, but the endpoints are fixed and the map is drawn. Nothing’s left but to fill the hours until I arrive.
Through a combination of one-time tip-offs and dogged research, the universe (and the economy) conspired in my favor to send me traipsing round the Urf this fall with the following ticket prices:
Jacksonville → Baltimore – $88 New York → Dublin – $234 Dublin → London – $48 London → Stockholm – $90 Stockholm → Berlin – $13 Berlin → Istanbul – $68 Istanbul → Cairo – $248 Cairo → Abu Dhabi → Mumbai – $370 Delhi → Kuala Lumpur – $197 Kuala Lumpur ↔ Macau – $85 Kuala Lumpur → Los Angeles – $630 (business class) Los Angeles ↔ Sydney – $651 Los Angeles → São Paulo → Orlando – $740
Plus several other bus and train trips and short flights = US$3500
Actually, you can get a cheaper round-the-world ticket from specialized agencies like Airtreks or Air Brokers, which allow changes in routing and scheduling for a year, or you could pay a bit more and have a slew of stops on multiple continents with an airline alliance such as oneworld, but a) I ain’t have all the money at one time, b) I needed to add a wide-open Brazil flight to the end of the trip (I arrive in Sampa on November 20 and head back to Florida for my brother’s wedding next April), and c) what got me on my way was that business class trans-Pacific flight.
Even if you don’t have a month off from work or three grand to spend on some grandiose neo-Grand Tour, the ridiculous cost of airplane tickets these days prove that international travel is not a millionaire’s game; there’s no reason not to pop over for a weekend somewhere that requires a passport.
Check the websites I mentioned here and get packing.
The initial flight schedule I posted last month included some pre-round-the-world flights and some planned, but at that time unpurchased, segments. The current itinerary includes all but a couple of connections within India and Australia. New: Two days in Abu Dhabi!
Shout me if our paths will cross anytime this summer/fall:
And now the confession:
I’m an airline geek.
I read Today in the Sky, Airline Route Updates, and The Cranky Flier religiously. I know all the world’s major airline hubs (and their three-letter codes) and can guess which airline someone took based on routing. I know which airline is in what alliance and play favorites like any sports fanatic. I get geet when Delta announces a new international route from the world’s largest airline hub in that great Southern city of Atlanta, and I honestly wish American Airlines would shrivel up and die and release us all from its figure-four grip on Latin America. I track my own stats at FlightMemory.com (I’ve flown 0.0019 times the distance to the Sun) and I play around relentlessly with the Great Circle Mapper. I stare for hours at the photos on Airliners.net, sometimes saving them as my computer wallpaper, and sit on airplanes with the in-flight magazine opened devotedly to the route map. And in my dorky nerd solitude, I even created my own fictitious carrier (contingent, of course, upon me being the benevolent dictator of Venezuela and developing the place smartly as a Latin American emirate): Solair—Fly the New Fiesta Route from Europe to Australia, with a free stopover in (fictionally) fabulous Caracas or Tahiti! Naturally, Solair is a member of the SkyTeam alliance.
I’ve always been this way, inexplicably. In elementary school, I began to collect airline timetables, often holding on toll-free numbers for hours to get exotic-looking flight schedules from Sabena, Saudia, and Singapore (this was totally me). I would get my folks* to take me downtown to the main library to study the airport terminal maps in the phone book-sized OAG (international version, of course). I created my own version of Monopoly called Airopoly, in which players would purchase major airports and try to establish hubs. I collected die-cast and plastic snap-together model airplanes at only $20 a pop. I decorated my room with travel posters I ordered from airline marketing departments. I got a special tour of the airport that I arranged myself in the ninth grade, incidentally the year of my very first plane ride. I applied to the airport management undergraduate program at the Florida Institute of Technology (the very inadequate partial scholarship I received called for a major shift in plans).
*These same folks forced me to throw away all of my timetables and not-so-well-maintained model planes when I finished high school. They claim they had no idea any of it would be worth anything nowadays. Ain’t that some shit? Parents.
At college, though, my interests swiveled more towards culture, history, and politics, and the one and only time I seriously applied for an airline job—as a US Airways gate agent in Tallahassee—was thwarted by my ridiculous adolescent driving record (“Heeeeellll naw, you ain’t gettin near our planes,” I’m sure the guy was thinking). Stupidly, it never occurred to me during the four years I lived in Washington to apply for some part-time gig at United for the flight benefits; my driving record had hardly improved. A couple years ago, I saw an opening with Delta for a corporate communications manager based in Buenos Aires, handling the media in fifteen Latin American and Caribbean countries; I would have been espectacular in that position. But in order to secure the interview that would have secured me the job, I had to first apply through the website, and there ain’t nothing on my official CV that would give an airline head hunter pause to consider my professorial self (Shameless plug: I’m great at written/verbal communications, speak Spanish and Portuguese, love aviation, and I’m cute…hire me, somebody!!! American, I didn’t mean what I said about dying, eheheh.).
So now, I’m a run-o-the-mill airline aficionado with no real ties to the industry and no big collection of paraphernalia to speak of. Just my mental flights of fancy on Solair, a crapload of aviation trivia in my head, a love of retro airline imagery, an appreciation for the theoretical (if not always financial) ability to jet in a single day from one major population center to another on the opposite side of the globe, and a hankering to lift off the Earth’s surface every chance I get.
Yesterday, I wrapped up a two-week jaunt out to California, Washington State, and Oregon, for no particular reason other than to meet up with friends on their home turf and to experience a part of the country I’d never been to. Of course, as with most new and interesting places I encounter these days, my mind goes automatically into livability-evaluation mode and I start to assess various indicators (job availability, income potential, cost-of-living, social and cultural offerings) in a semi-conscious litmus test of whether or not I’d be inclined to move there sometime in the unspecified future. This most always happens when I’m basking in the warmth and attention of good friends, who work unintentionally as the best PR agents any city could hope for, and I often leave considering, temporarily at least, a potential home-base that I hadn’t before. So it went as I ventured from the humid semi-tropics of my native Florida over to the green-and-gold splendor of America’s (Upper) West Coast: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.
San Francisco Bay
I got to San Francisco International at almost midnight on July 1st, and was whisked away into the city in a black Toyota Prius (that I promptly nicknamed “Kit”) by Mike and Ana, a neo-California power-couple-in-the-making whom I met in Colombia over a year ago. We spent the first couple of days on both sides of the Bay Bridge whetting our collective appetite for Thai food and tribal house, and getting our intellectual grooves on at the stunning California Academy of Sciences (NightLife on Thursdays, featuring a DJ and an albino alligator) and the Oakland Museum of California (featuring a poignant exhibition on the African presence in Mexico and a live salsa orchestra – thanks to reader Keith for that tip). Independence Day meant a breezy barbecue (featuring Jenkins Barbecue sauce specially shipped from Jville) out at Fort Mason Park and accompanying fireworks, with fifteen cool peeps huddled under three blankets and swathed in hoodies, hats, and scarves to watch the show; Mark Twain wasn’t lyin’ about these San Fran summers. A couple days later, Mike dragged me with him for indoor rock climbing before we had a BBQ re-do under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (there was sauce left, so…), and while M&A worked, I either hit the gym (Crunch Fitness in the Alhambra Theater – phenomenal – click for free pass), hit the streets (Black man taking snapshots of the mansions of Pacific Heights – talk about tempting fate), or hit the first season of “Mad Men” on DVD (the show’s hot, y’all). I even got a chance to meet some West Coast cousins I’d only heard of, but had never seen, over some Burmese food that I’d only heard of, but had never tasted.
Frisco has two serious downsides: the weather (fog and frost in August!) and the expense. My friends’ small-but-comfy studio rents for $1300 a month and no meal at any sit-down restaurant clocks in at under $8 (that includes breakfast)! The city is known as being the most expensive after New York, and for an aspiring writer without some type of independent wealth, you can hang San Fran up. That being said, the enormous natural and architectural beauty of the city—a 19th-century masterpiece perched atop commanding peaks over a turquoise bay—coupled with a cultural mix that truly does seem to get along better with each other than any other place in the country (even Oak-town represents with a large black middle class, thriving in spite of trigger-happy transit cops), the friendliness of service people (not one but two foreign convenience store owners welcomed me into their shops without a sign of resentment or bitterness…they clearly have never been robbed), the cult-like devotion to Obama (we started playing punch buggy with Obama t-shirts), and the urbane quirks (two skinny, butt-nekkit dudes walking hand-in-hand in the Castro in 50-degree weather; Asian girls jamming to Jade on their iPods; street names like Divisadero and Guerrero; super-futuristic-warp-speed-high-pressure bathroom hand driers; Bollyhood and Little Baobab and Escape from New York Pizza!) put SFO high up on the list of Fly Brother’s hang-out spots. I just can’t afford to live there.
After my Golden State interlude, I carried it up the coast via plush Virgin America to the Emerald City. My grad school buddy Lisa scooped me from Sea-Tac and drove us on a gray, overcast afternoon through forests of dark and piney Christmas trees into downtown Seattle, named after a vanquished Indian chief and squeezed on a hilly isthmus between Lake Washington and Puget Sound. We dined on fish and grits (which they called polenta and charged $18 for) with views of the busy seaport, downed just-cool-enough-to-drink-immediately mugs of coffee, and caught up on life as the sun finally came out, then slid under the horizon just before 10 PM. Flannel was the order of the day, especially in Lisa’s Scandinavian-inspired barrio of Ballard, and even though my few days in Seattle were sunny and warmer than San Francisco, a green, underlying coolness permeated the air and always seemed ready to pounce like an animal on the nascent daytime heat. I crashed the next day on free-wheeling, centrally-located Capitol Hill with mohawked Brazilian Couchsurfer Gabi, who invited me to a samba set at Cellars Belltown (free on Thursday nights) and got jiggy with the strong contingent of Brazilians, Dominicans, and other assorted black and brown youngins who came out of the woodwork (I was too busy dancing and trying to get laid to take photos, sorry). Friday, after hitting a hangar-sized 24 Hour Fitness, I spent the afternoon horsing around with Lisa and Dutch Couchsurfer Ozella in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (see me on camel below) and down by the Space Needle. The tower’s twenty-dollar admission fee was enough to discourage me, but we took photos and rode the Seattle Monorail and the carnivalesque Windstorm roller coaster. In full-on daylight, the Space Needle does indeed look like a relic from the Jetsons Pavilion at EPCOT, but at night, against the boxy, sparkly rectangles of downtown Seattle, with dots of light gliding through the sky in succession towards the airport, the fluid, illuminated white structure stands cool and imposing, the embodiment of the future we’re living.
With all the dot-coms based in the area, Seattle’s also not the biggest budget destination. And while the short summer is pleasant, with lingering sunlight and lots of parks to play in, it’s still damn short; wintry rain sounds even less appealing than snow. Garbage Nazis are everywhere: you can’t just throw shit away out West…there’s recycling, compost, then regular waste. The city’s also more ethnically diverse than I had anticipated, though much of that mixture seems to occur among the homeless population. People in crowded clubs and bars are exceedingly polite, random skyline and water views pop out of nowhere, and the double happy hour menus (4-7pm, then 10-midnight)—La Isla, anyone?—mean a slew of late-nite eats. Despite other people’s disparaging remarks about dullness, Sea-town’s done right by me.
I took Amtrak’s Cascades route from Seattle to Portland, a three-hour rail expedition alongside the vast Puget Sound, past hulking, forested islands like Chia-whales rising from the glassy water, and under trestled and suspended bridges painted in earthy colors. Adam, my old roommate from Bogota, now permanently bearded and managing a hostel, picked me up from red-bricked Union Station, gave me a quick tour of the surprisingly large and bouncing downtown area, and we grabbed brunch over at Genies Cafe (the crabmeat omelet was slammin’). Afterwards, he went to work and I met up with Erika, colombiana and one-half of a couple I met in Rio over the holidays, and we walked around and hit some of the famous food carts downtown. Then it was Tori Amos at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a stupendously beautiful rococo theater with a gargantuan “Portland” spelled out on the marquee. We were eight rows back from the stage; Tori toe it up, focusing mostly on the new stuff, but sated us old heads with “Cornflake Girl” and “Little Earthquakes.” Lots of things like, “Tori, you’re my goddess,” and “Tori, I wanna have your baby,” were shouted from eager fans. I just said, “Woooo” a couple times. Sunday, after a stupid-big breakfast at a place called Gravy in the gentrified Mississippi neighborhood (guess why it’s called that), I hooked up with the great Kate, 50-year-old native Portlander and hardened traveler (Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, Venezuela—on her own, ladies!) who’s off to Abu Dhabi next month for a couple years, and we strolled through the Portland Saturday Market (open Sundays) before entering ginormous Powell’s, the world’s largest bookstore and nerd crack house. I escaped after an hour, having spent only $29 for four books and leaving most of my travel budget intact; another ten minutes and things would have been grim. Later, after a stop at too-ballyhooed Voodoo Doughnut, I caught up with Lance, the other half of the couple from Rio, and had meatballs and mac-n-cheese at Savoy Tavern before crashing from exhaustion and starting the 24-hour journey back to Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, and home.
When I got to Portland, I had no expectations of what the city might be like, other than a populated outpost in whitest Caucasia. Thanks to the urban growth boundary implemented in the 70s to combat sprawl, downtown’s thriving and enjoyable, surrounded by walkable, quiet, compact neighborhoods with little eateries and shops in each one. I saw very little vacant commercial spaces (unlike my own hometown, a port city roughly the same size and with better weather) and lots of people riding absurdly tall bicycles. I also so lots of people wearing absurd-looking headgear, including lots of Robin Hood-style caps. Because of the economy, many young, hip liberal arts degree-holders are waiting tables or slinging coffee for a living, and that same many have an aloofness that borders on rudeness, for a Southern boy like me who is accustomed to expecting a level of service commensurate with the amount of the final check. A Waffle House waitress can fling my $2 waffle at me, but if I’m paying $8 for some eggs, we need to be clear about who’s doing who the favor. I didn’t like that air of hipster arrogance, and I think a nice spate of violent crime might serve to put those attitudes in check. Of the three cities I visited, Portland seems to be the fullest of strivers, good and bad, proud of their strides in urban planning, transportation development (convenient and quick), and environmental awareness, but just a little too caught up in their own specialness in a place where everyone’s off one rocker or another, and in one-upping Seattle. Anyway, in spite of a couple of gloomy, drizzly days, and a shocking amount of homeless people in their 20s, Portland proved a chill conclusion to my western adventure.
Did the shoe fit? Let’s see if I start to miss it after a little while back East.
With the close of the school year two weeks ago came the close of four years in Colombia: an era of discovery and disappointment, growth and growing pains, experiences and memories. My relationship with the country has been like a romance that ended unexpectedly, but with mutual respect, increased maturity, and improved understanding. It was a necessary courtship, a necessary break-up, and a necessary chapter in my life.
I arrived in Barranquilla in 2005, thinking that I’d be embarking on a sensual Afro-Latino adventure in the Antilles, replete with easy friendships, easy sex, drum rhythms as constant as the Caribbean tides, and impromptu street salsa sets a la Washington Heights or Little Havana. I’d previously traveled through Latin America and had expected little order or organization, but I figured giving up these paragons of Anglo-American society was worth it in exchange for the daily hot-blooded passion of life in the tropics. I hate disagreeing with the Beloved and Most Royal Highness, Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa, but life ain’t no carnival, and my own illusions vanished within a month of my arrival. The first lesson was that there is an ocean of difference between visiting a place and living there, between paying a hotel bill and paying a light bill. I learned patience.
Then, I had to face the hard realization that I was living in a society that never had an American-style Civil Rights Movement, and therefore witness systemic injustice against a group of people with whom I identified racially and culturally as a, literally, foreign and seemingly powerless observer. But as a professor, I wasn’t powerless: there is always the space and necessity for cultural education in the language classroom. I did, however, have to learn to tailor my message to my audience, because most places on Earth are not nearly as accustomed to political discourse framed by race and class as we are in the States (and even in the USA, those conversations are often limited to academic and intellectual circles or fraught with emotion and misinformation). And, begrudgingly, I learned to appreciate the US for providing the tools for success, even if those tools are hidden in waist-deep scrub and not always clearly visible; they’re there. I learned pragmatism.
I learned about the give-and-take of platonic and romantic relationships, the unexpected logistical challenges of trans-cultural and bi-lingual relationships, and the absurdity of perceived differences in interracial relationships. I learned how to keep expectations realistically low and hopes realistically high. And I started initiating the nascent beginning of the first primary part of the process of knowing when to hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away, and run. That applies to people, places, jobs, habits, behaviors, tastes, attitudes, ad infinitum: life’s too short. I learned prioritization.
Regret and Redemption
In spite of the oft-renewed resolution to take life by the horns and have no regrets, I inevitably have them. I regret not focusing more on improving my Spanish. I regret not taking more time to visit some of the more marginalized Afro-Colombian communities in rural areas of the Caribbean or on the Pacific coast. I regret not doing more volunteer work while I was in the country, besides the occasional free English lesson. I regret not maximizing my writing time, especially during my year-and-a-half in Bogota, the physical and cultural high point of my time in the country. I regret hardly ever getting out of the upper-class social milieu I was employed around (prep schools and private unis are the only teaching gigs that pay) and opening my circle to folks with less empirical experience but more profound interests and insight than the vapid wannabe gringos I found myself around (admittedly a generalization, but nonetheless true).
But in the face of all these regrets, I realize that when I chose to do or not do something, it was the decision that felt the most circumstantially prudent at that particular moment. And some of the mistakes or unfortunate choices I made in Colombia, I’ll try not to repeat in Brazil; others, I will, and hope the consequences won’t be too disastrous. I can only do my best, which I believe is better for having lived in Colombia. In the end, I’ve left the country a fuller person, with a hard-earned appreciation for a place that was my home for the last four years, for better or worse. Was I ready to leave? Yes. Would I ever move back? Not for a long while. Do I encourage everyone to visit? Abso-fkn-lutely. I’ve met some incredible people, had once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and can say I’ve been to Colombia and brought back much more than a damn T-shirt.