Today, I’m taking my last transoceanic flight of the RTW, leaving Kuala Lumpur at midnight and arriving in Los Angeles at 10am, via eight hours in Seoul. Total travel time: 25 hours. Because of a hook-up, I’m in business class. But watching this commercial, Korean Air even makes their economy service seem appealing:
Then, there’s this enticing ad for their Seoul-Los Angeles-São Paulo service. Tell me you won’t wanna be on the next flight down:
In India, there’s often just too much traffic for an American-style SUV to go barrelling through the streets of Mumbai or Delhi. So, they’ve motorized an Asian transport icon, the rickshaw: originally a two-wheeled wagon pulled by a runner to move the social elite from one place to another without having to exert themselves. Over time, the runners stopped running and started pedaling, pulling the cart on a modified bicycle, as seen in this photo from gridlocked Karol Bagh, New Delhi. Cheaper than cabs, but certainly more convenient than buses, modern ricks rip and run throughout North Mumbai (they’re not allowed in Town because of the chaos they’d cause), seemingly squeezing into whatever places, roach-like, the driver can fit the front wheel. Their hand-eye coordination and faith in bus and truck braking systems is phenomenal.
Steamy and sensual, a masala of disparate peoples, faiths, and tongues facing the Arabian Sea, Mumbai (still called Bombay by many of its residents) sprawls in languid grandeur like a vine-covered statue of Lakshmi in repose. At once chaotic and laid-back, the city dons the role of its most famous monument as the Gateway of India, riding astraddle its identity as wholly Indian with imported British sensibilities, place names like Chowpatty and Marine Lines only superficially reflecting this duality. If Mumbai’s punctual, if crowded, commuter train lines were more like New York’s subway system, I’d say I spent most of my time trundling the Number 1, between grungy Downtown, simply called “Town” and studded with oxidized colonial jewels such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly “Prince of Wales Museum”) and the imposing Victoria Terminus (also, like the airport and aforementioned museum, named for ancient ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji), and Uptown, a mix of close-in residential suburbs bustling with upscale-to-low-end commercial strips and anchored by the heavily Christian colony of Bandra, where I stayed with friends of Protestant religious affiliation, Goan ancestry, and Portuguese nomenclature.
After a weak Monsoon, resulting in imposed water cuts to the more impoverished areas of the city, the heavens decided to make up for lost time and dump large quantities of precipitation over the country for four days straight; in southern India, hundreds of people were killed and over a million displaced as flood waters washed away their homes. Luckily, I stayed dry in the luxury of my friends’ large concrete home; millions of others, of course, live in make-shift lean-tos along the many waterways and railroad tracks coursing through the city. I will say, however, that the shocking thing about India’s poverty that I glimpsed only briefly in Mumbai, wasn’t the degree of poverty—there was nothing I hadn’t seen after four years of living in and traveling around Latin America—but the magnitude, caused only by sheer overpopulation. And while I am aware of the horrifying child deformity, elucidated in the controversial Slumdog Millionaire (which features a protagonist who, my friends say acidly, speaks English not as if he learned it from touting tourists at the Taj Mahal as suggested, but by having his knuckles rapped more than a few times for mispronunciation by a proper Catholic Mrs. Krabapple), other poverty-stricken burgs, like Rio de Janeiro with its astronomical crime rate and accompanying off-duty police brutality, have their own location-specific monsters to slay. I’m not saying, “See…India’s not the only place with problems!” I’m saying that India’s poverty is the most exoticized, as if the subcontinent is more of a lost cause than any other potential power (though some might say that with nuclear ambitions and plans to build a harbor statue bigger than Lady Liberty, our girl India might want to re-examine her priorities).
While I wouldn’t say that Mumbai has the worst traffic I’ve ever seen in a major developing-world metropolis, I would say that it has the loudest I’ve ever experienced, with incessant high-decible horn honking despite government campaigns encouraging a quieter commute. But that Indian attachment to noise also stems from being a country delightfully smothered in sound: from the cawing of scary crows in the trees to the festive shouts of delivery boys (grown men, really) in Crawford Market to the bangalangalanga of Punjabi percussion and orgiastic hip-and-neck-popping Bollywood production numbers to hip-hop with DJ Candy at Zenzi—don’t nobody know music like Indians know music!
Then there’s the food, slammin’ spicy cuisine with innumerable stews and rice dishes with a whole lotta names I can barely pronounce (plus okra) that tastes like somebody’s Louisiana grandma put her foot in it (a Southern phrase for those who don’t know). And the discourse: at birthday parties and in rickshaw rides, I became engaged in conversations about not just Obama, but black feminism and The Color Purple, spanking as essential to child-rearing, disgust at the continued availability of Pond’s White Beauty cream and its perpetuation of self-hatred, and heated debate over non-violent Ghandi-style protest against oppression versus a more by-any-means-necessary approach (up for a spirited Martin v. Malcolm convo, anyone?). I’m starting to think that Indians are just black folk with straighter hair.
Indeed, even here, I was taken as a son of the subcontinent. Folks looked at me all funny when I didn’t speak a word of Hindi. They said I could easily be from Goa, the former Portuguese stronghold in the South where more than a little mixing took place between colonizer and colonized. I can’t seem to get the Indian head wiggle down, though. To see what I mean, check the bobble of my girl Adèle at the end of this video from Crawford Market on a random Thursday night in the heart of “Town,” then enjoy the photos of my stint in the largest city of a country of 1,150,000,000 people. Thems a lotta zeros.
The seat of one of earth’s oldest civilizations has survived into the modern era as the largest city in Africa and the Arab World. And what a city. Riding astraddle the “Lower” Nile, Cairo houses over fourteen million people in an otherwise inhospitable desert. Sand hangs suspended in windless air, coated with the exhaust of a gazillion late model cars, trucks, and vans snaking like Miss Cleo’s asp throughout the whole shebang. And as the gilded disk of the sun arcs through the beautifully apocalyptic haze, it becomes evident that late afternoons belong to Egypt.
With pharaonic heat cooking the city for most of the day, folks don’t start stirring until after 4pm. Greek restaurants and sheesha bars and ice cream parlors and shops selling sparkly hijabs to Egyptians and glittery papyrus art to non-Egyptians stay open until after midnight. Party boats and shopping barges replete with TGI Friday’s bob up and down the Nile while friends and young couples stroll arm-in-arm watching the sunset from the Corniche. The afternoon call to prayer wafts smoothly through the air from muffled speakers in soothing Egyptian Arabic as the whirling dervishes (yes, I saw them for free in Cairo; the ones in Istanbul charged admission) prepare for their religious fervor under a crescent moon.
Spending most of my mornings writing, I barely got out of the house before afternoon myself, stepping out for a shawerma or two to fill my stomach. When I did get out into the city, I felt the familiar buzz of organized chaos that makes me know I’m going to like a place (ou seja, in many ways, Cairo’s like a dry Sampa). Traffic rumbled past ancient landmarks, souks (those world-famous city-sized bazaars) popped with commerce, and I was alternately taken as local and foreigner, and never without the percussively benevolent “Well Come to Egypt.”
Conversations with everyday Cairenes often mean sifting through endearingly unrefined English grammar and in-eloquent pronunciation to reach a breadth of witty observations and humorous anecdotes (like the tale of the poor stray goat being chased in the middle of rush hour traffic by several working stiffs hellbent on bringing home the mutton). And with a religious mix of Christians, Jews, atheists, and a Muslim majority ranging in its orthodoxic* intensity, more than a few of those conversations were with women. That is not to say that the society isn’t segregated—it is, and most of the women do cover themselves completely except for the face and hands and will stand demurely and wait for a man to realize he’s blocking a path as opposed to even intimating he get out of the way—but there seems to be more freedom for Lady Cairenes to determine what they want to wear than in other parts of the region. Still, I couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to have religious and community pressures telling you to look one way and a bombardment of Western media and beauty products selling a competing idea of “modernity and style.” Talk about an identity crisis!
Not only is Cairo a primary gateway into the intriguing Islamic culture, it’s also the center of a youthful, energetic society that I find appealing. With its Venusian skies and Martian landscapes, easy smiles and dreamy eyes, balmy nights and golden afternoons, the Egyptian capital has just hit Fly Brother’s top cities list.
Sugarloaf Mountain, from my window seat - July 2007
I am stoked that Rio de Janeiro was named host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games by the IOC last week. Being the first time the games will be hosted in South America, the second in Latin America, and the third in the Southern Hemisphere is a huge cause for celebration in Brazil, Latin America, and developing nations worldwide. The physical setting could not be any more ludicrously breathtaking: undulating mountains dipping effortlessly into the sea underneath the outstretched embrace of Cristo Redentor. Besides that obvious talking point, the selection is a nod to both Brazil’s constant striving for modernity and its seemingly limitless potential. On those counts, I am exceedingly glad for my spiritual home, Brazil.
But I think my beloved Brazil might be in over her head. I was in Rio during the Pan-American Games held there in 2007 as an attempt to prove the city’s readiness for the larger event it has successfully pursued. The infrastructure still creaked, underpaid police stretched thin in an attempt to secure the Games and still provide protection to a city of eight million restless souls. Street crime is indeed rampant, and not even the unflappable Fly Brother, he of a thousand ethnicities, has escaped being accosted in Copacabana. With persistent social disparities, profound bureaucratic corruption, and an unfortunate propensity (like most Latin American nations) to go about things half-assed, my fear is that Rio won’t be able to overcome enough of these hurdles in time to avoid worldwide embarrassment. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but this reality posits not-so-slight trepidation among many people who love the people and culture and cosmic entity that is Brazil, myself included. All we can do is root for the Marvelous City in her race to Olympic glory and hope that some of her esoteric magic manifests in the physical forms of infrastructure and logistics by 2016.
Check out this promotional video made to sell the city for the Pan in 2007. You’ll be trying to book tickets next week. It’s one of my favorites.