From the AV Room: Trekking to the Pyramids

Since Flickr is blocked here in the United Arab Emirates (among other sites such as X-Tube), I’ve decided to post another of my “road movies.” This time, watch as I approach the Pyramids at Giza, literally right across the street from a joint Pizza Hut/KFC, via an elevated expressway from Downtown Cairo. No camels were injured during the making of this film.

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The Truth About Alex

With a romantically crumbling 19th-century air, the famous Egyptian port city of Alexandria (dubbed Alex by locals and Cairenes) basks in the Mediterranean sun along a narrow strip of land between the sea and the marshy Nile Delta. The wondrous lighthouse may no longer exist, but the renowned library of old lives on in the form of a brand-new structure opened in 2002. Sixties-era Ladas and Fiats zip past couples and friends strolling arm-in-arm along the palm-lined Corniche. If it weren’t for all the robes and head coverings, I could have been in Havana. The bustling, dusty train station is total Bond meets Death on the Nile, and the friendliness of the people has been unmatched by any nationality I’ve encountered thus far in my travels. I’ve never been “Welcome[d] home!” before so much in my life. It’s especially nice to be back in a place where the people identify with me and my “Egyptian face.”

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A City By Any Other Name

The name of Istanbul comes from the Greek for “in or to the city.” Throughout most of its history, Turkey’s largest city and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires has been The One and Only City (how ya like them apples, Noo Yawk?). And with over 12 million people within city limits that straddle two continents, it’s impossible to even get a passing understanding of a culture nearly three millennia in the making.

Despite being in Istanbul (née Byzantium, followed by Nova Roma, Constantinople, then its current nom de guerre et plume) for a week, I chilled mostly at coffee shops in the European side’s 19th century districts sipping Turkish tea and trying to write and stay dry in intermittently rainy weather. I barely scratched the surface of the Old City, but when I did, crossing the Golden Horn at sunset amidst thousands of Turks in the streets celebrating the end of Ramadan, swarms of ferries steaming up and down the channel, and stately minarets lording over lands as far as the eye could see, I felt, for a brief second, the constant bustle and flow of what was, barely even a century ago, still the world’s most important crossroads.

I know some Catholic churches in Latin America with a lock on reminding sleeping sinners that they should have their butts in the pews on Sunday morning, but the five daily prayers at the hundreds of mosques in the city ain’t no joke:

Indeed, not knowing the language proved to be a hindrance, because even though many people know some English, it’s pretty hard to connect with folk when grunts and pantomimes are the sole method of communication. At least Turkish, a non-Indo-European language (meaning it’s very hard for English speakers), uses a phonetic spelling and a recognizable Roman alphabet. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get by in Egypt (here’s hoping a few decades of British colonial control have worked their linguistic hoodoo in my favor). I didn’t get a general concensus on Turkey’s accession to the European Union or public opinion about the relatively conservative current government or Kurdish nationalism. Hell, I could barely order a meatball dinner (köfte menü, I finally mastered). But I did get the sense that Istanbul reveals her true self at her own leisure, and that she must be courted before she lifts the veil.

Guess which moment I get thrown against the seat back in front of me:

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The Case for Berlin

Before moving to a new place, you have to establish your priorities; what exactly do you want from the city you’ll be calling home? Beyond the adrenaline rush of changing trains at peak hour or grabbing a cab with friends from the club to the after-hours, you’ve got to factor in cost-of-living, employment possibilities and earning potential, cultural offerings and entertainment, and transportation costs to other places. Unexpectedly, Fraulein Berlin plead her case for becoming my next home base while I visited last weekend.

For a few years now, I’ve been dedicated to marrying São Paulo, that raucous, gaudy Brazilian gal who pussy-whipped me good-fashioned when we first met back in ’05. I’ve been there four times already, the longest for two months. I’ve made friends, researched the job and housing markets, and have a pretty good notion of how much it would cost to see my Fly Mother at Christmas. In the face of Berlin’s possibilities, however, Sampa’s starting to seem slightly like an overpriced, if exciting, fling.

First, there’s employment and cost-of living. In São Paulo, a full-time English teaching position (40 hours a week with very little time for writing) at a language institute would pay about $1000 a month. Rent in a large studio or small one-bedroom apartment in a centrally-located, working class neighborhood would run minimum $400 and easily $500 a month. Working part-time at a language institute in Berlin can net about 1000 to 1500 Euro a month (that’s part-time, I said), with studio apartments near subway stations clocking in at 350-400 Euro. Teaching Spanish would earn me even more in both places, but $10 per hour versus 25 Euro for classes…you figure it out.

Secondly, and very important for a Fly Brother like myself, is ease of travel. São Paulo has the busiest airport in Latin America, but it’s a three hour, typically $200 flight away from the next largest cultural capital, Buenos Aires, and often domestic flights to places like Salvador da Bahia can run into the $300 range (on the plus side, hops to Rio are usually quick and easy, either by air or land). A round-trip ticket to Miami for mid-October: $718. Sampa-Tokyo: $1700.

Berlin, capital of smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-Europe Germany, is a little over an hour by air to London, two to Istanbul. Lufthansa‘s offering flights to Orlando for 499 Euro, Cairo for 279, Joburg for 589, São Paulo for 669, and Tokyo for 649 (I’d be getting paid in Euro, remember). Travel within Europe and even out of Europe—unparallelled. And if I need to pop up to Stockholm to film a toothpaste ad, down to Lisbon for a conference on Portuguese-English literary translation, or over to Londinium for a weekend of debauchery at one of these off-the-hook places my Londophile (“Anglophile” seemed a bit off-kilter and wrong) readers keep trying to sell me on, I can do it for stupid cheap.

Lastly, there’s the feeling of Europe giving me a much larger platform from which to launch a sustainable career as a writer, photographer, bon vivant, or whatever the hell else I choose than South America. While SP has an established and burgeoning artistic milieu, the exposure is much more limited and the pay for creative jobs is atrocious.

I’m still going to Sampa for a few months after my trip to complete the first draft of a novel set there, and maybe the opportunities that present themselves during those months will trump Berlin’s argument. I’m very sure that the exhiliration of my social life there will make it exceedingly hard to pull away. And I hate cold weather, so even sometimes-chilly SP has that going for it. In the end, though, I’m thinking a move to Europe would be sacrificing one great thing for many good things that could potentially become great. As they say in Spanish: unos por otros; not quite literally, one thing for another.

But then, I may decide to move to Hong Kong after a week there in October.

Colombia Mía: Amor y Amistad

Downtown Bogotá from my old apartment

Tomorrow in Colombia is Love and Friendship Day, a homegrown version of Valentine’s Day that includes platonic friends just as much as romantic. It’s strange that I’ve been thinking a lot about Colombia lately, just as this holiday approaches. During the four years I lived there, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with some amazing people, both for short periods of time, as well as for what I hope is a lifetime: co-workers and students, fellow gym rats, neighbors and workers at restaurants I frequented, exes, currents, friends with benefits and without. And even if I’m not in touch with them anymore, there’s still no doubt they’ve made a permanent impact on my life, always for the better, even if it didn’t initially appear so.

I won’t name names, lest I forget someone in my haste to write this post. I’ll just say that the photographs below reflect only a fraction of the memorable folk that have crossed my path (like Angela, Pepe CCS, Tom, Sasha, Ely, Marcie, Giancarlo, Pacho, Carol, Marcela, Chris and Rox, Sandy, Paul…okay, I named names) and that in the course of our interaction, I never got around to taking pictures with some of those very important people (some I deleted along with their numbers out of my cellphone, but that’s another story).

The song below is called “Si Tu No Vuelves”: If You Don’t Return. It’s a bit of romance and heartbreak and a tune some may think a little heavy-handed for a post about friendship, but if I had to take away one song from my four years in Colombia, it would be this one. I first heard it on the radio at Indira and Noé’s house in Bogotá on a typically chilly Sunday afternoon, underneath that hated/loved whitish-gray blanket of cloudcover that settles the city in a melancholy mood. And whenever I hear it, I’m reminded of all the chilly Sunday afternoons I spent in BOG, searching for physical and emotional warmth. I’m reminded of endless conversations and rumbas. Of what I loved about Colombia and what I hated. Of my amores and my amistades. And always of that cloudy sky.

Take a look at my time in Colombia, here.

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

Berlin, baby, I wasn’t ready.

I was told by one of the many expat Americans I met living in the German capital that “if New York were a mound of dough, Berlin would be that same dough, only rolled out over the pizza pan.” Translation: lots of shit going on spread out over a larger area. And believe me, you exit any U-Bahn station―Alexanderplatz, Möckernbrüke, Schloßstraße (don’t worry, I couldn’t pronounce ‘em neither)―I guarantee you, something’s on and poppin’, from matchbox-sized art galleries to Vietnamese eateries to budget opera productions to soulful house and salsa spots, and all for bargain-basement prices. It’s cosmopolitanism on sale!

Not having met other than a few aquaintances who’d ever been to Berlin, I had zero expectations of the city other than the supposedly rockin’ night life (verified by yours truly as truly rockin’). I’d seen Cabaret ages ago, but that’s not exactly a Fodor’s Guide to the city (I also know they hated on Josephine Baker, but that was also pre-Allied spanking). But from the moment I hit the streets after arriving, I feltsawtasted the stew of combined creativity, history, youth, ambition, and verve and had snapped 150 photos during the course of three hours. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East(side!) represents the rebirth and vitality of a city where anything goes and anyone’s welcome: outcasts, artists, anarchists, intellectuals, expats, omnisexuals, commies, trannies, all that crazy city shit mainstream moms warn you about. The West’s still got the grandeur of chic high-brow Berlin, made funky by the huge Turkish community in Kreutzburg. The two halves are joined not just by an efficient (and cheap) transit system, but by a civic laissez-faire that allows for myriad cultural permutations to spring up almost everywhere in town. Add artist-wage rents and five-Euro curry and samosa buffets to the mix, and you gotta city to go ga-ga for. And this sentiment was echoed wholeheartedly by the twenty-some-odd American expatriates, white and black, who now call themselves Berliners.

In fact, mein long-term Liebchen, São Paulo, may be in danger of being replaced. Stay tuned.

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Hip-Hop in the ‘Holm

Who would expect hundreds of yellow-haired Vikings to be bouncing energetically to “Bonita Applebum” and not missing a word of Aretha’s “Think” on a random late-summer’s eve? Sure as hell wasn’t me; seeing a rack of blonde “single ladies” bouncing their Nordic booties on-beat (y’all read right) left me verklempt. I have to give it up to the Swedes: they are no joke on the dance floor!

Like in most of the world nowadays, hip-hop is the general soundtrack for Swedish teen love and loss and twenty-something success and angst. Still, unlike in most of the world, that soundtrack seems to have been playing in Stockholm for the last twenty years. With The Voice of Hip-Hop and R&B being the city’s most popular radio station, young folk are indoctrinated in the soul and bounce of “black music” from an early age, both by hip parents and by the prevalence of the music in almost every shop or restaurant staffed by people under 35. And also unlike in other places, because they learn English from a very young age, Swedes actually understand most of what they’re listening to.

I remember first visiting the country as a foreign exchange student at age 16, waaaaaaaaay up north in the tiny Arctic town of Råneå (pronounced RO-neo) and being surprised that one of my friends there knew most of the lyrics to Toni Braxton’s “Another Sad Love Song.” True, her version was “Another Shade of Soul,” but who could blame her for not getting Toni’s husky vocals quite right; the approximation at least made sense. This trip, I scored Scandinavian cool points by arguing that rapper Busta Rhymes is indeed Swedish, since one of his most famous lines is “Ja ja ja, ja ja!,” which is, of course, Svensk for “Yes yes yes, yes yes!” I got the whole carload crunk with me and five Swedes ja ja ja-ing through Stockholm.

With more than just a passing knowledge of soul, dancehall, mainstream R&B, and hip-hop, I sensed a true cultural appreciation for the artists as well as the music; hell, my CouchSurfing host had a head shot of Erykah Badu as his computer desktop wallpaper (“I luff hah!” he said). Then, of course, there are the imitators, like the “modern-day Steve McQueen,” Sven D’Navia, and his dancehall parody “Shejka Bompa.” Keeping in mind that the Swedish “j” has the English “y” sound (ergo, “ja ja ja”), you can figure out for yourself what the title of this song is.

Check the animated booty-popping:

Anyway, here are the photos from my five days in sizzlin’ cold Stockholm. She ain’t cheap, but she’s a definite party girl, ja!

PS – Shouts to Adrianne, Ibrahim, Roland, Nathaniel, and Helena for coming to meet me at our li’l impromptu Afro-Swede Fellowship Gathering at Wayne’s Coffee. Why come nobody got a picture of that?!

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I ♥? LON

The comparison is overused, but with London and New York City being the pillars of global culture and finance, as well as the launchpad and rocket booster, respectively, of the new millennium’s lingua franca, there’s almost no way to avoid comparing the two cities. Even culture bible Time Out London had to ask if New York was the better, upgraded, 2.0 Beta version of the swingin’ British capital.

Though New York isn’t a national capital and was never the center of a colonial empire, it’s always been a magnet for immigrants from overseas and transplants from the nether regions of the US. Still, London has a greater percentage of its population born outside of the UK and is home to much larger groups of various ethnic communities, whereas New York has a little bit of everyone, but certain groups have greater numerical dominance. London wins the diversity prize.

Speaking with some of my newly-minted black British friends in London, it’s interesting to see the relative lack of a unified identity similar to that of black Americans (which, essentially functions as our ethnicity). Unlike black Americans, who’ve been an established part of the US since its very inception, the black British experience has essentially been one of immigration over the past five or six decades, so each different group, be it Nigerian, Kenyan, Jamaican, Belizean, has a different set of identity markers and occupies a different place vis-a-vis other immigrant groups on the path toward assimilation into “British” culture and society, a necessarily basic response to being an immigrant. Folks are too busy trying to survive in a new and sometimes hostile environment to focus on carving out a shared identity with other strivers. This means a less coherent sense of pan-African/”black” identity and therefore less organized efforts to fight discrimination or encourage community empowerment. My friends also tell me that the black professional class in London is comparatively miniscule. Score one for the NYC.

That being said, I certainly see more thorough interaction between people of various ethnicities in London than in New York. I once went to a hip-hop club in Manhattan where there was an even mix, numerically, of blacks and whites. But even though people danced in close proximity to one another, they remained clumped into their racial groups, the dancefloor from above looking like a Dalmation fur rug. In London, I saw countless racially-mixed friend groupings and a few black American expats in the city confirmed that day-to-day interaction in the UK is less yoked by racial baggage than in the States. London’s up on this one.

Notting Hill Carnival was fun, but much more subdued than I expected. There has been recent violence, and a teenager was killed this year, so with ordinarily staid British society trying to deal with that, maybe some of the flavor was lost. We Americans are some violent, aggressive, gun-totin’ brutes, so a shooting at a street festival doesn’t faze us as much. Besides that, summer in Noo Yawk means West Indian Day, Puerto Rican Day, Brazilian Day, Dominican Day, the Irish Festival, concerts in Central Park, house music in Fort Greene Park. Seriously, can hottie watching get any hotter?

Tranportation: New York, all the way. 24-hour subway service. Stations every few blocks in Manhattan. One-way, undiscounted cash fare, US$2.25 (compared with £4.00 on the London Underground – thas almost $7). Though “This is the Piccadilly line for Cockfosters” does sound better cooed over the PA system in Received Pronunciation than “Stand clear of the closing doors (ding, ding)” in some random chicken-fried twang.

Overall, I found London to be exhilirating in some aspects (people-watching in the Circuses, space-age window displays, the accents, the history!), underwhelming in others (semi-wack nightlife, uninspiring pubs, very average-looking people). I had very high expectations of the city and was all set to have it sweep me off my feet as it has several of my good friends, to consider a move to “the centre of the world” and knock ‘em dead as the Next Big Thing From Across The Pond (yeh right), but that just never happened, despite heavy lobbying by my London peeps, Lord love them. I liked it. I didn’t ♥ it.

I’ll be back, though.

(This video has nothing to do with the post, but the song rocks.)
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The Ubiquitous Fly Brother

As the Beatnuts say, “there’s no escaping this:” I’m everywhere, folks. Over the last few months, I’ve been interviewed or asked to submit text and photos to a couple of travel- and culture-related websites either in anticipation of my big trip, or relating to my time in Colombia. Three features went live this week:

Down-home jet-setter, Brooklyn girl, and Lonely Planeteer Anja Mutic solicited a slice of Fly Brother’s life in Colombia for her blog, Ever the Nomad:

[In Bogotá,] altitude and frequent rainy cloud cover conspire to keep temperatures hovering in the 50s and 60s. Colombia’s equatorial latitude ensures the city a Frigidaire-like ambiance year-round; ergo its national nickname, La Nevera, “the refrigerator.” With heating systems being a luxury, most houses have barely more than a fireplace to keep things hot; my old apartment in Bogotá’s historic district was situated in a drafty, Iberian-style colonial home, built with an interior courtyard intended to cool the structure in toasty Spanish summers but only served to suck out what little body heat I could muster in the Andean heights. Click here for the entire piece.

Expatriate Americans Adrianne George and Reginald Smith of the quarterly online magazine, Black Expat, interviewed me in the spring about permanent wanderlust and my then-current position molding the minds of future Colombian leaders in Barranquilla:

Describe your first trip abroad.
My first trip abroad was a six-week foreign exchange home-stay in Sweden in 1994, organized by Youth for Understanding International Exchange. I spent five weeks with one family in the far north of the country, a place of midnight sun, deadly mosquitos, and stewed reindeer called Råneå. My last week was spent in the capital, Stockholm, where I was first exposed to the wonders of European topless bathing. I was but a mere sixteen years of age. Continue reading here.

Lastly, photojournalist Lola Akinmade of Geotraveler’s Niche and the Matador Travel Network was so inspired by my Fly Packing abilities that she asked to republish my luggage photo-odyssey on the Matador Goods blog. Check that out here.

Many thanks to these good people for highlighting a brother on their sites, and thanks to all y’all for reading and inspiring me to write.

Lif Ya Leg Up

Notting Hill Carnival, London’s largest celebration, started 45 years ago among the city’s burgeoning Afro-Caribbean community. Peaking at 2 million attendees, the party gets started on the last Sunday of August with parades and truck-sized sound systems scattered throughout the Notting Hill neighborhood and centered on Portobello Road (of flea market and Bedknobs and Broomsticks fame), and continues all day on “Bank Holiday” Monday. Costumed West Indian carnival groups originating in Trinidad and Guyana make up the parades, with the sound systems pumping pan-African rhythms from reggae and calypso to salsa and house. Unfortunately, since many of “us” don’t know how to behave, the police have clamped down on the event and often restrict the movement of crowds to certain streets, creating a tight, volitile environment (tons of people + tanks of alcohol + police = volitile environment). Still, it was nice to get my wine (“wind” wit a Trini accent) on for a couple hours on a rare warm and sunny summer afternoon in the English capital.


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