Wow.

As 2009 ends and I prepare my annual review à la Chris Guillebeau, I had to stop and think about the insane amount of experiences I’ve had and people I’ve met along the way. “Whirlwind” can barely capture the appropriate velocity of the past twelve months, during which time I went from living in Colombia to prepping for a move to Brazil, and an index card bluebrint of arrows and airport codes turned into a series of places and faces that passed all too quickly from dreams to memory. Since bringing in 2009 with millions of people on Copacabana Beach, I’ve been to 35 cities in 15 countries on five continents. Wow.

It’s only now, looking back, that I realize the magnitude of those statistics. After all, while on the road, more attention had to be paid to details like food, lodging, transport, and other logistics than to the entire scheme as a whole. Outsiders had the luxury of awe and wonder; I had to figure out how to get from the airport to my CouchSurfing host’s house and where I could find wireless Internet.

Now, I think about the new friendships forged, the old friendships strengthened, the innumerable moments that I yearn to repeat, the people with whom I want to hang out again, dance with again, smile at again, hug again, make love to again, meet again, and say goodbye to again. These memories serve as bittersweet affirmation of the transitory nature of life; that nothing is permanent and every present moment is just that, a present to be treasured.

So, at the end of this calendar year, I give thanks to the Cosmos for 2009 and everyone in it. And for 2010 and everyone in it.

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Re-post: Missing Middle Florida

I haven’t been on vacation in Florida with my entire family since the mid-90s, and spending this Christmas with them in Orlando brings back and brings up all sorts of memories and madness. Back in March, while still living in Colombia, a bout of homesickness caused me to pen an homage to my home state, a celebration of both the geographic and temporal location that serves as my cultural foundation. Being back home, I find these same sentiments echoed in family conversations and collective memory, in spite of mindless sprawl and cultural homoginization, increased population and pervasive plasticity of modern Florida. For new readers, I hope you find this post enlightening and entertaining. For long-time readers, I hope this re-post is just as engrossing as you originally found it (well, assuming you found it engrossing, originally :-)

Happy Holidays to all the Fly Folk out there. Thank you for reading.

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Missing Middle Florida
(Originally posted March 10, 2009)

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 highways 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.

I think I’m just getting old.

From the AV Room: Late Night Underground

Yeah, there are rats, service disruptions, drunken old men, drunken young women, and the pungent odor of pee, but dammit, the New York City subway runs 24/7. And I mean the whole system, not just a couple of train lines here or there. In the city that never sleeps (an oft-quoted untruth), the 24-hour bars and 24-hour diners and 24-hour pharmacies and 24-hour gyms and 24-hour Apple Store remain connected by underground rail. The late night trains that stop at each station don’t convey the same warp-speed urgency of the express trains that race underneath the grid of Manhattan at ten blocks a minute, but the lower number of riders means available seats and fewer obstacles when rushing through the maze-like transfer stations.

There’s also the loopier entertainment; at midnight, you not only get the drummers and the guitarists and accordion players, you get to see punchy folks getting jiggy like this in the subway:

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One Nation Under a Groove

NEW YORK—

A couple months ago, after a week in London, I posted a comparison of the English capital with its New World offspring and giving the marginal victory to NYC. After last night’s Giant Step Records (free) holiday party at the Hudson Hotel, the Big Apple pulled much farther away from London, cementing its title, in my book at least, as the hottest city on the North Atlantic. Here’s why:

On a bottom-lit dancefloor the size of a small hotel lobby, black-white-and-Latin b-boys, Asian ballet dancers, 40ish couples from Spanish Harlem, 50ish couples from Harlem Harlem, Korean-American salsa instructors, A&R execs, mailroom gofers, baldies, dreadheads, girls-with-girls, guys-with-guys, professional dancers, occasional two-steppers, Southerners, Northerners, foreigners, and a middle-aged woman with a cane all samba’d, salsa’d, and shook assorted and voluptuous body parts in the spirit of the way the truth the light the drum.

What might have been an underground incarnation of the nearby United Nations headquarters jammed to an intoxicating, almost religious confection of Diasporic rhythms tracing the triangle from Banjul to Buenos Aires to the Bronx and back, conjured up by musical sorcerer Nickodemus and supplemented by live percussion. As soon as mi gente’s hips got used to swiveling, feet got called into glorious church-stomping candences, arms enlisted in jazzy flourishes, and heads involved in breakneck floor spins. Continuous smiles shifted from toothy and excited grins to coy, Mona Lisa-style expressions of contentment that body and beat worked in unison. Couples formed and broke apart, partners shifting among the crowd of one-time strangers who at once recognized each other as disciples of the music. There was no pretense, no posturing, no being too cute or hard or proud to nod, smile, or give a thumbs-up. Of all the people in New York, it’s the house heads who embody the ideas of borderlessness, of universality, of humanity in celebration of diversity and ignorant of demographics, all the while charging and being charged by the eternally pulsing heartbeat of enchained masses ferried across the Atlantic centuries ago.

London tries, but this happens no where else but New York.

Here’s a little shadow-dancing footage for those of you who couldn’t make it to the event. You can’t see much, but you can feel it. Sorry I couldn’t film more…I was too busy gettin’ my own groove on.


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Photo Essay: The Magic of Macau

Macau. Most people haven’t even heard of the place: a former Portuguese colony on the southern coast of China established as the first permanent European toehold in the Far East back in 1557 and the final foreign stop on my amended round-the-world trip (Seoul doesn’t count, as I was only transiting for eight hours; though I did get to shower in the lavish Korean Air business class lounge and meet up with this sexy sista at Krispy Kreme in the Gangnam District for a short 60 minutes).

Long since overshadowed as a trading and financial center by urbane and much-larger Hong Kong, only an hour’s ride east by high-speed ferry, Macau has reinvinted itself as a combination Lisbon-Las Vegas, with its collonnaded colonial quarter framed by monumental, neon-lit casino resorts. Peopled mostly by mainland Chinese in search of capitalist-country incomes and sprinkled with a few expat Portuguese working in the still-lucrative legal sector and assorted Brazilian showgirls, Russian and Australian ballroom dancers, and Romanian strippers who cycle in and out as casino entertainment (of course, I was there the one night the strippers had off), Macau has the distinction of being the first and last European possession in China, having been handed back in 1999, two years after HK. Under the “One China, Two Systems” plan that also allows HK to flourish with a large degree of independence, Macau still bathes in the collective glow of flickering lights, glamorous floor shows, luxury retail, and palacial gaming halls.

Observe:

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Hot and Kold, Hong Kong

Oh, Hong Kong! How the currents of history and culture have conspired to make you the entoxicating urban assemblage that you are. Poised at the foot of Victoria Peak and gracing both shores of a similarly-named harbor, Hong Kong has lost none of her shine after having changed hands from the British colonial power that created her to the Chinese superpower that is her cultural foundation. Expats from all over the English-speaking world keep the financial sector abuzz, hold-up in luxury skybox apartments and tooling around packed and narrow streets in Maybachs and Bentleys (only the service people—accountants, attorneys and such—whip around in Beemers and S-Classes). The masses, and I do mean masses, aspire to these trappings, though, for the time being, whisking around the city in speedy, efficient public tranport doesn’t make being part of the proletariat seem so bad. Hong Kong is a city of conspicuous consumption and unbridled capitalism, upward mobility writ large. But unlike, say, Dubai or Las Vegas, she’s been handling her business for centuries.

And that’s what makes her somewhat imposing. Arriving by ferry into Victoria Harbour, guarded on both sides by walls of skyscrapers, themselves backed-up by mountain peaks, I felt as if I’d just entered a fortified medieval city with high walls and turrets full of sentries. Once inside, the cluttered and exhilirating commercial alleys of Kowloon City or Sheung Wan contrasted with the sleek and chic straightaways of TST and Causeway Bay, and regardless of the cost of rent, a pair of shoes, or a bowl of soup in any given area, the place was crowded, teeming, jammed, packed, populated. Literally, erybody and they mama lives in Hong Kong.

Despite a population density of 15 thousand people per square mile, I didn’t find HKers to be particularly outgoing. Unlike other places I’d been, in spite of looking conspicuously foreign, I barely got a second glance from anyone. This in itself didn’t bother me. I was annoyed, however, by the few blacks I did come across, and I mean few and far between, who actually looked away as we approached one another on the street. I was aghast; never in my travels had I not crossed paths with a fellow black Westerner (usually distinguishable from black Africans by carriage, demeanor, and hairstyle) and not shared the bruh-man headnod of solidarity and kinship in a foreign land. Well, it was straight “incognegro” in Hong Kong*. Maybe the brothers and sisters thought I was Indian, as there were many in HK, but it was the whites who I was continually greeted by at intersections and on the street. I was hurt to my heart. I was angry.

Fortunately, I had been blessed with a few soulmates in the city who could feel my pain: the lovely and talented Nikita the Traveller kept me company when not parsing French grammar for the kiddies at school; and Victor, novice diplomat and expert translator (homeboy be tawkin’ dat Chinese!) who graciously provided a roof, vittles, and wireless Internet for a week in Wan Chai, as well as a crew of fellow FSOs who knew where to go in Hong Kong for the hot beats and hot grits (yes, grits). We were of split opinion regarding the eye-avoidance issue: Victor saying folk greeted him all the time (I say that’s because of his dreads), while Nikita parked in my lot, highlighting numerous instances of shade. That aside, Victor and his friends provided me with much insight into life as a diplomat (though, to be fair, HK ain’t exactly Kabul or Ciudad Juarez, so I think they might be just a tad biased, understandably), and almost sold me on the idea, until we compared the three-month annual vacation time afforded teachers versus the fourteen days they get in the Foreign Service. You do the math.

When I wasn’t hanging with the homies, I hoofed it around the city, wiping the sweat off my brow while snapping photos of open-air meat and flea markets in Wan Chai, wading through the throngs in Times Square, expanding my mind at the Hong Kong Museum of History, politely declining an offer of tailor-made suits by Pakistani salesmen on Nathan Road, flying over to the Big Buddha on the longest cable-car ride in life, zooming up to breathtaking Victoria Peak on the near-vertical tram, coursing back and forth across the harbor on the Star Ferry, uncovering the lone capoeira class in town, and scouting out the nearest Burger King to ease a craving I’d had for the last month.

Hong Kong is hot. I just wonder why the people are so cold.

*Side note: Subsequently, in both Macau and Seoul, brothers greeted me appropriately; one was from Mozambique and the other Canadian. This vindicates Asia as a whole and isolates HK as a mecca for coloreds with no damn home trainin’.

Then ride with me to the roof of Hong Kong in the glass elevator of the Hopewell Centre:

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