Sometimes, Even Fly Brothers Can’t See Past the End of their Noses

Silly Me in Malaysia


MALAYSIA — Kuala Lumpur.

At this point in my journey, after two months and nine countries, I was operating on borrowed funds and becoming just the slightest bit panicky about where the next cash infusion would be coming from. The original plan had been to have enough money stacked to hang out in Brazil for a few months without having to work full-time in order to bang out a few chapters of a novel. Very quickly, zat plen vent kaput.

Meanwhile, I was still on the dream tour, passing through the Kingdom of Malaysia for a couple days en route to Hong Kong, and crashing with a gangly CouchSurfer of Chinese parentage named Dan. A writer and web designer, Dan took a day off of work to show me around his city, peopled with a mix of Asian ethnicities and served by a modern and extensive transport system. Accustomed to giving tours of KL, Dan had a whole itinerary planned, involving mosques and markets. Our first stop: KL City Centre to check out the Petronas Towers, those twin silver, Islamic-inspired spires of Entrapment fame and one-time tallest building(s) in the world. We knew we wouldn’t be able to go to the top, since tickets had to be procured first thing in the morning. In the end, though, we never made it out of the park and shopping mall at the base of the towers.

See, what had happened was, I had found a few teaching job leads online; a couple in Brazil, one in Berlin, and another back in the States. I needed to get my CV sent out to each school, pronto. Immediately. Right away.

There were two Starbucks beneath the towers, both with painfully slow wireless Internet, both chock full o’ foreigners trying to access said Internet simultaneously. What started out as a quick five-minute email ended up takng an hour. Then. we decided to get some food and as we were finishing, it began to rain. I felt like I could squeeze in another couple of emails and a Skype phone call or two. And after another almost two hours, Dan let me know in his calm, measured manner, that most of the places on our sightseeing list had closed. I was in town for only two days and had spent five hours in a mall, most of it hunched over a laptop at Starbucks. Talk about misplaced priorities.

Dan had been gracious enough to take off from work and drive me into the capital city of a country to which I had no clue when I’d be returning on a continent I’d never been before. And because of a very American sense of single-mindedness and goal-oriented-ness, I missed out on who knows how many sights, sounds, and other random and beautiful experiences stressing over something that could have been taken care of during one of my many pending airport layovers (especially considering all major East Asian airports have free or cheap Internet access).

Work-related stress without even having a job, while on vacation. Ain’t that a…?!

Here’s to trying my damndest to never make that mistake again. Cheers, Dan!

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

A Diwali Story ~or~ Check the Local Calendar for Holidays Before Booking the Flight

Image by m4r00n3d

This year, the Hindu holy day of Diwali fell on October 17th.

This year, my twelve-hour layover in Chennai, formerly Madras, fell on October 17th.

As with most religious holidays such as Eid (end of Ramadan) or Hanukkah, Diwali—the Festival of Lights—is celebrated with family. And as I had no family to speak of in India, I was destined to spend my first Diwali alone.

My plane ticket from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur cost me less than $200, but the scheduling called for a half-day stretch in the seaport on the Bay of Bengal for which a juicy cocktail is named. Knowing I’d be stationary for such a long while, I sent messages to a few CouchSurfers in the city hoping I’d have a couple of babysitters. Not knowing I had booked my flight on Hindu’s biggest holiday (though not everyone in India is Hindu, Diwali is also an official government holiday just like Christmas in the US), I had several responses to my queries, but they were all very tentative: “I might/might not be in the city,” “I may/may not be available to take you around town.”

In the end, blood proved thicker than water and my would-be CS day hosts apologized profusely and with great regret that they wouldn’t be available; the last host informing me of this after I had already arrived in lush, tropical Chennai. With most tourist sites closed for the holiday, and with the temperature being in the mid-90s, I decided to spend a couple hours at the movies.

I printed up the boarding pass for my international flight, which departed a little before midnight, and after a short stroll around the compact airport which included an abortive attempt to secure a banana-chocolate milkshake (apparently, adding banana to a chocolate milkshake necessitated consultation with the restaurant manager, restaurant owner, and airport authorities), then argued with a rickshaw driver over the price to take me to the Chennai Citi Center mall (got him down to 130 rupees, about $2.80). We arrived at the boxy, but baroque, shopping center after a half-hour of whizzing through relatively empty streets and past shuttered storefronts. I had my mind all set for something Hollywood or Bollywood. I got nothing: every showing of every film was sold out for the entire day. I guess it was for the best, as all the movies were in Tamil anyway.

After another haggling session, this time with a pack of audacious but idle rick drivers trying to finance a very merry Diwali on my lone airport run, I trekked back to the terminal.

I was sleepy and sweaty.

I still had six hours before my flight.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration with a boarding pass printed from the website.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration without a departure form from my airline.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration to just sit and wait at the gate.

The airline counter didn’t open until two hours before my flight. There were four hours left.

I bought a bar of soap at the pharmacy and took a bird bath in the bathroom, changing into a clean shirt and the least-dirty of the two pair of jeans I had.

And I sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Sat. Whistled. Sat. Twiddled. Sat. Watched the old school departure board letters flap around, spelling the names of far-off-sounding destinations one letter at a time (very cool!). Sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Etc.

I checked into the flight and scored a window seat on an exit row.

I marched triumphantly, for the second time, to Immigration. “Happy Diwali,” I said to the officer who immediately frowned and gave me a defiant Indian head wiggle.

“Not everyone in India celebrates Diwali, you know,” he schooled. “We Tamils celebrate the Harvest Festival in January, called Pongal.”

I stood stunned, but I guess I would have responded the same way had I been working somewhere and was greeted with “Happy Kwanzaa.” In fact, I know I would have (I told y’all Indians were black).

The moral of this story: Stop trying to be a smart ass by erroneously invoking people’s cultures when a simple “hello” would suffice.

Happy Thanksgiving, errbody!

Delhi Denizens

Dry and monstrously big, India’s capital city houses over twelve million people who, despite sprawling over 570 square miles at the apex of the Indo-Gangetic plain, still seem stacked on top of one another. The New Delhi train depot served as my introduction to the city and my most uncomfortable experience in India: thousands of people milling around the dusty platforms, spitting phlegm despite signs discouraging the practice (hello H1N1/SARS/bird flu/regular flu!), kids running around in tiny t-shirts and no underwear, pulverized fecal matter rising with the clouds of dust as trains pulled into the station. I was afraid to lick my lips. At the station, I was conspicuously foreign, which for me is unsettling in chaotic environments like this, and I was stared at more than at any time on my journey. One guy came up to me with a gob of amber wax at the end of a stick and offered to clean my ears for me. I responded in Spanish, and he retreated with a grin that said, “What the hell is this muhfuka speaking?”

Unlike Mumbai, where I stayed with a friend I already knew who doubled as a translator and had easy access to transportation, Delhi meant the renewed adventure of traveling solo. And while I met many interesting people and had numerous profound conversations via that friend, it’s always when I’m alone that I meet the most surprising people. North India was not short on surprises. In fact, during my five days there, I met:

Willy and Ula, an inspiring middle-aged German couple I met on the train from Delhi to Agra. With their grown children off raising families, Willy and Ula had already trekked through Latin America for a month with rudimentary Spanish before traipsing off to India with rudimentary English. They had been taken advantage of by the staff of their hotel and were trying to cope with thickly-accented Indian English by the time we met. I decided to ask if my CouchSurfing host could help them once we got to Agra. It turned out to be the best decision I could make.

Rajat, a no-limit soldier stationed at one of the many military installations in heavily-fortified Agra. Soft-spoken and sharp-featured, he commanded respect from his on-base inferiors to the off-base touts and rickshaw drivers swarming around us at the station. He met us with the names and phone numbers of a couple hotels in town and before taking me back to his place to grab a shower (this was post-14-hour train ride from Mumbai), he made sure Willy and Ula were safely tucked away in a hotel and that we had decently-priced transport to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort the next day. The consummate CouchSurfing host, Rajat introduced me to Tulsi Mulethi tea and the Hindu tenet of present-focused living. ‘Preciate ya, brother.

Jag, the film and television director who grew up in Australia to Indian parents and brought her cross-cultural perspective back from Oz. Our paths crossed at another CouchSurfer’s house in Delhi and I knew we’d be hanging hard once I saw her large eyes and wide smile. We got our grub on at a frou-frou restaurant on Delhi’s periphery, then our club on at a crowded nightspot a few barrios over. It was just a day in Delhi, but memorable nonetheless.

Tino and Tony, dance instructors imported from abroad to establish the Indian National Ballet who happened to be crashing one floor down in my central Delhi guesthouse. Tino, a hip-hop and jazz teacher from the Canary Islands who spoke English with a British accent and black American idioms, sat pulling his hair out over a girl in Mumbai who had turned him out. Tony, a fellow Southerner, whipped up some slammin’ gumbo and garlic pasta using recipes he had learned from his ex-wife. Tino and I sat and sulked (in Spanish) in their apartment because it was Diwali—the biggest Hindu holiday—and salsa night had been cancelled. Family holidays always suck when you’re on vacation.

I was honored to have this diverse group of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells cross my path. It’s the type of interaction that makes traveling alone worthwhile; I’d never have met any of them had I been rolling with one of my peeps. And I’d be six friends short.

And watch the Magic Carpet Maker waterproof one of India’s famous rugs at the carpet factory in Agra. Sorry about the sideways video, folks. Just turn ya head. ;)

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

United to the East, AA f/Fly Bro, FB Winter Tour


United joins Delta in Africa

Image by AV8NLVR

Last week, United Airlines announced service from Washington-Dulles to Accra, Ghana, continuing on to Lagos, Nigeria. When the flights start in May, UA will become the second major American carrier to serve the Motherland, giving the large Nigerian population in the DC area nonstop access to the country’s largest business center and former capital. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines already flies to Accra and Lagos, as well as Abuja, Nigeria; Dakar, Senegal; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Cairo, Egypt, though they’ve announced several routes to other African destinations in the past year that either have been terminated or never took off for various reasons. It’s nice to see other airlines taking the (lucrative) chance of serving Africa, but I can’t imagine the in-flight service even approaching that of the European airlines already flying from the US to the continent via their hubs.
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AA’s new black travel website, featuring Fly Brother

Image by caribb

In October, American Airlines started a travel website centered around the black travel experience called Black Atlas. Headlined by writer and “travel expert-at-large” Nelson George, the site highlights 27 domestic and 15 international destinations sure to resonate with affluent African-American travelers. Readers can submit blog posts detailing their experiences on the road, as well as search for airfares with a special interactive map. They’ve also been kind enough to feature ya boy, Fly Brother, and his scribblings on Salvador da Bahia, Paris, and Mexico City. Now, that’s fly.

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Fly Brother Winter Tour 2009

LOS ANGELES, November 18-23
NEW YORK, December 11-20
ORLANDO, December 20-26
MIAMI, December 29-January 6

If I’m headed your way, shout me!

Photo Essay: The Faces of the Taj


So, enough personal foolishness; back to the trip:

Following what most guidebooks recommend, I hit the Taj Mahal (attractively pronounced “Taj Mel” by the locals) a little after dawn, before the balmy air in the ancient military city of Agra thickened to a hearty stew of celestial heat and earthy odors. It was tough not getting people into the shots, considering every other gringo seemed to follow the same guidebook advice. Still, I managed to capture an infantesimal degree of the wonder and awe induced by early morning sunlight striking a structure as magnificently designed as the Taj, a confection of marble as intricately woven as lace. Indeed a monument to eternal love. Enjoy.