Fly Favorites: January 2010

Designer Tyler Thompson spruces up the boring-ass boarding pass.

Matador Trips‘ photo essay “Big Cities Under Snow” knocks ‘em dead with wintry wonder.

Vagablogging outlines a few unexpected Carnival options, should Rio, New Orleans, or Venice strike you as old hat.

wejetset‘s city notes lets you add to or take away inspired urban insights from global cities.

The New York Times scopes out Colombian colonial treasure Villa de Leyva (Remembered it! Wrote it down! Took the picture [above]!).

“Disgraced” Lonely Planeteer “Thomas Kohnstamm” lists “Nine Subversive Travel Books” on World Hum. Don’t miss the “argument” in the comments section on “monolingual, white Americans.” ;-)

Fly Brother welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment and/or click .

And Just Like That, Plans Change


On Monday, I announced that I’d be hitting a Grand Tour of Guatemala and Honduras next month, using frequent flier miles I’d accrued with Delta. On Tuesday, that entire scheme fell apart.

See, what had happened was:

Because Delta was merging the former Northwest Airlines’ computer systems information into its own, many of the functions on Delta’s website were not working properly. I ended up spending a total of three hours on the phone (half of that on hold) while the customer support people tried to square away my award ticket. Mind you, this is after I spent hours on delta.com trying to match dates and destinations to my personal timeframe and mileage account balance. Finally, I was booked to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Guatemala City via Atlanta on February 3rd, returning on the 18th. As I said in the previous post, I was supposed to have been charged $55 for taxes and debited 35,000 SkyMiles. I shot off emails to friends and contacts in Guatemala and posted the news here.

Tuesday morning, I check my bank account balance and notice it’s been debited $150 by Delta.

I broke out the People’s Eyebrow.

Then, I called my dear friends at the World’s Largest Airline to find out what the hell’s going on. After another half-hour wait, I finally spoke to someone who informed me that I’d been charged $55 for the taxes, $20 erroneously for booking over the phone (this was supposedly already re-credited, since it was their website that was screwy), and $75 for booking a ticket using miles within 21 days of departure.

Two things:

  • Out of the three hours and three customer service agents I spoke to, not one mentioned the $75 fee.
  • I could eat off of that $75 for the WHOLE TWO WEEKS I was supposed to be in Central America.

Her: “I’m sorry, sir, but your SkyMiles account is self-service, and if you check the rules and regulations section, you’ll see that the penalty for booking within 21 days is $75.

Me: “I acknowledge that I might need to go back and review the fine print, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect somebody at Delta, while booking the ticket and reiterating the tax amount, which is even LOWER than the booking fee, to say, ‘Mr. White, you are aware that you will incur a $75 fee for booking this ticket on these particular dates, are you not?”

To make matters worse, cancelling the ticket altogether and having my miles reinstated carried a penalty of $100.

Rock. Fly Brother. Hard place.

I explained to the agent that I know $75 might not sound like a lot, but in this economy…! And that normally, even non-refundable tickets can be cancelled without penalty within 24 hours of booking, and I had about 3 hours left.

She spoke to her superviser, and to Delta’s credit, the entire itinerary was voided, my miles were reinstated, and I should see an additional $150 back in my bank account within a few days (otherwise, I would have talked lots of shit about them on this blog).

Checking back on delta.com for flights leaving 21 days later, I found I could leave for Guatemala on February 16th and, for the same amount of miles, return February 18th or March 3rd (two weeks after I’m supposed to have the visa paperwork back from Brazil). Sayonara, Guatemala.

So for 25,000 miles and $7.50 in taxes, I’m heading to San Fran from February 16th-23rd (Bay Area Fly Brother fans, make some noise!) with a raincoat and two lessons learned:

  • Read the fine print in your frequent flier account.
  • Be flexible with your plans (which is easier said than done, especially if you’re going to a wedding or Carnival or to see that hot jump-off you’ve been chatting up on the Internet for the last few weeks).

Two Weeks in Central America

Photo by youngrobv

Because of a bureaucratic bottleneck involving my Brazilian work papers, I’m not heading down to Brasilia for another month. So I decided to use the 40,000 Delta SkyMiles I had stashed in my account for an excursion to warmer climes. In my last post, I asked readers for suggestions on how to use the miles, mostly to get ideas but also to maybe get some lurkers to out themselves; that didn’t work very well (thanks, Ali La Loca, for your input) but some of my friends did weigh-in via phone and email.

So, after many, many hours of checking and cross-checking dates and destinations, I snagged a round-trip to Guatemala City for 35,000 miles (plus $55 in taxes). I’ll be gone for two weeks, making the circuit from Guate across the Honduran border to Tegucigalpa, the Caribbean beach town of La Ceiba, industrious San Pedro Sula, then back into Guatemala to check out the Mayan ruins of Tikal before heading back to the capital for my return flight.

I get to see stunning Mayan pyramids, experience the Garifuna culture of the Honduran coast (a mixture of African and indigenous flavors alongside crazy-gorgeous beaches), and spend about two-thirds less money than I’d be spending just chilling in the chilly—and expensive—US of A.

See, travel can help you save money!

If you’re in the area during the first two weeks of February, know someone who is, or know of something I should experience while in Central America, definitely give me a shout!

And, of course, you’re certainly invited to come with.

(By the way, I’m not going to the colonial city of Antigua because, well, after Saint Augustine, Santo Domingo, Havana, Cartagena, Bogotá, San Juan, Panama City, Popayán, Quito, Villa de Leyva, and Salvador da Bahia, I’m kind of colonial-ed out!)

From the AV Room: Egyptian Papyrus Art

Back when I was in Cairo a few months ago, I had taken a taxi into the Old City to catch a free performance of the Whirling Dervishes (in Turkey, which has higher-profile dervishes, they charge admission). As soon as I got out of the cab near the market, a loquacious peddler named Ahmed approached me and asked me if I needed some help finding something. I told him I was looking for the Dervishes and he said he’d show me where they perform. We walked into the market, down a bustling and colorful alley, to a cathedral-like structure where the show would start in another hour. He invited me to see his papyrus shop to kill time, promising that I had no obligation to buy. What the hell? (By the way, papyrus is the ancient precursor to paper, a writing surface made from the dried reeds of the papyrus plant that grows along the Nile).

Mohamed and Ahmed

After climbing up fluorescent-lit concrete stairwell, with nary an inclination as to any malice on Ahmed’s part (either I’m especially sensitive to the underlying goodness of people or I’m a damn gullible fool), I entered the secluded, second-floor gallery. There stood Mohamed, Ahmed’s Nigerian business partner, who spoke to me about the Egyptian art of papyrus painting. Despite the quesionable location of the shop, Mohamed came off as an expert in his vocation, Ahmed shining equally as a consummate salesman (“Your mother is best mother in the world after my mother, she deserve something from the gallery”). I bought a beautiful $25 papyrus scroll for my mom, but I also got some interesting footage of Mohamed describing the art and craft of papyrus painting.

When you’re in Cairo, make sure you say “hi” to Ahmed and Mohamed (and buy something, too):

Alghouri Papyrus Art Centre
28 Ahmam El Mosbagha St. (beside Wokela Sultan)
Alghouri, Al Azhar, Cairo, Egypt
Tel. 2512-5859, Cell 0106695899
www.alghouriartcentre.com

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

Fly Brother Podcast Premiere: Let’s Get Lifted

I told y’all it was coming. In the debut episode of the Fly Brother Podcast:

[PLAY]

Who Is Fly Brother?
Behind the Haiti Earthquake
Why Be Fly?
Getting Your Walking Papers

Playlist:
1. “Prelude”/”Let’s Get Lifted” – John Legend
2. “Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” – Dionne Warwick
3. “Lakou Trankil” – BélO
4. “Paris Tokyo Remix” – Lupe Fiasco f/Pharrell, Q-Tip, & Sarah Green
5. “Adore” (Fly Brother Theme Song) – I:Cube

Download, relax, and get lifted.

[PLAY]

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

Help for Haiti


Just this week, I had begun the preliminary planning for two weeks of volunteering this summer at an environment-focused work camp run by the NEGES Foundation in Léogâne, Haiti. Just yesterday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the country, its epicenter only a few miles away from Léogâne, just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. With communication lines down and innumerable casualties, this has been the worst earthquake to hit the disaster-plagued and poverty-stricken country in 200 years. According to press accounts, hospitals and other traditional disaster relief locations have been destroyed.

The NEGES Foundation, with the help of my friend Dr. Brandi Reddick of The Green Pharmacist, had been planning a summer camp for kids that focused on environmental awareness and green living, in addition to the foundation’s normal projects, which include planting trees and operating a school, community center, and Internet cafe in the town. One of the organizers, Ms. Marie Yoleine Gateau, had just spoken with me Monday about coming down to work this summer. As of now, she has still been unable to reach her family and friends in Léogâne from her current residence in New York.

The pictures in this post are from Dr. Reddick’s trip to Haiti last summer, when she first volunteered with the work camp. Her enthusiasm in describing her experience inspired me to go myself this year. When I spoke to her today, she said that most people have this abstract image of “those poor people in Haiti already suffering,” and while the poverty is real, the people still lead as normal lives as they can; most were finishing up the work-day, getting dinner started, or out playing soccer.

While I’m unsure as to the status of my trip to Haiti, I still plan on at least volunteering my voice to raise consciousness about this tragedy, and to solicit help and support beyond the brief period of newsworthiness afforded to the people of Haiti this week.

To volunteer funds, clothing, medical supplies, and/or time to the NEGES Foundation, please contact Ms. Gateau via email: p y o 1 [a t] a o l [d o t] c o m.





The Importance of Going Places for Yourself ~or~ Even The New York Times Occasionally Doesn’t Know What the Hell They’re Talking About

Walled City, Cartagena

A few days ago, The New York Times published its list of the “31 Places to Go in 2010.” My former adopted country, Colombia, clocked in at number 26. Certainly, the country is worthy of inclusion on this list; the cultural and geographic diversity alone make it a stimulating visit, and it’s not any more dangerous than much of the US. But it was the last line of this almost-four-paragraph blurb that had the needle scratching the LP in my head: “It has even prompted some travel bloggers to call Cartagena the next Buenos Aires.”

Now, first of all, I’m always annoyed when people dub something “the next” anything, as if there’s a problem with the original something and it needs to be replaced. In fact, for me, that phrase serves as a warning: stay away from Panama because it’s becoming “the next Costa Rica” (read: overrun by drunken Spring Breakers and monolingual retirees).

Granted, travel writers and people in general tend to compare places with others, and that’s OK, especially if the comparison is couched in the writer’s own experience or relegated to certain aspects of a place, such as its nightlife or cultural impact. But as much as I’ve compared São Paulo and New York, I would never call São Paulo “the next New York.” New York, for one, ain’t goin nowhere and São Paulo’s too busy being the next São Paulo to be anything else. There’s also the danger of glaring generalizations and a glossing-over of history, which, as modern and supposedly culturally-sensitive writers, we’re supposed to be avoiding as much as possible. So comparing a tropical colonial port and resort town with a national capital in a temperate climate with a ludicrously different set of demographics and a population 13 times as large is comparing apples to airplanes: they both start with “A.”

I Googled the offending phrase to identify these mysterious “some travel bloggers” that the Times references. “Some travel bloggers” turned out to be one travel writer named Liz Ozaist, featured in Budget Travel magazine back in 2008 with an article titled “From Cartagena, With Love.” The subheading (or super-heading, really, since it appears above the title): “The Next Buenos Aires.” Now, in fairness to Ms. Ozaist, she probably had nothing to do with the addition of that, to my mind, inappropriate heading. She most likely submitted the article to her editor with the title, which alludes to her father’s love for the place ingrained a couple decades before her trip, and hit the road for her next story. I would think it’s the editors at Budget Travel (Lawd, they prolly never gon publish me now) who got it wrong. And though I was drawn in to the article because of Ms. Ozaist’s attention to detail and the interesting characters she meets, I got thrown every time someone compared Cartagena to a place that I feel bares absolutely no resemblence whatsoever. “‘Cartagena reminds me of Venice,’ [Todd] says, ‘it has that same intangible magic about it.'” That’s how Cartagena makes Todd feel, and it’s certainly valid, but I will say this: Cartagena’s surrounded by water, but ain’t nary a gondola floating around in what I would hesitate to consider canals.

"Buenos Aires By Air"

Now, I must admit that I’ve never been to Buenos Aires myself. However, as a student of Latin American history and culture and as a traveler who has spoken to many people about Buenos Aires, I have a pretty decent idea of the kind of city that it is: fairly affluent (for Latin America), boldly planned with broad boulevards and Parisian-inspired architectural flourishes, sidewalk café culture, and peopled largely by the descendents of many European immigrants.

On the other hand, for most of my time in Colombia, I lived less than a 2-hour drive away from Cartagena and spent many weekends rambling the streets of the “walled city.” I called up a good friend who had also lived there, married a Colombian girl, and honeymooned in Buenos Aires:

Ring, ring.

“Hello?”

“What’s up, T? It’s Fly Brother. Lemme ask you something. How would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“What do you mean?”

“The two cities, how would you compare Buenos Aires and Cartagena?”

“In what way?”

“Just, like, in general. Like comparing DC and New York, how would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“You can’t compare them. They’re not comparable.”

“Well, they’re both Spanish-speaking cities in South America.”

“That’s about it.”

“I thought so. Thanks, and Happy New Year.”

Click.

"Bazurto Market Buses, Cartagena" by Cade

Cartagena’s a small, provincial capital supported by tourism and secondary port facilities. The streets of the old quarter are narrow and, like most Spanish colonial cities, disorderly. Most of the people are descendents of the African slaves that passed through the city’s gates as the principal slave port on the Spanish Main. It’s a place for a slow, sunny Sunday afternoon in a hammock, listening to some Cuban son, knocking back the aguardiente; a beach town with fruit sellers and hair braiders and high-rise condos to prove it.

While Ms. Ozaist makes one reference to Cartagena reminding her of one particular neighborhood in the Argentine capital, she alludes to Havana, Cuba’s capital and Cartagena’s closest relative, at least three times in her article; that is the city most evoked while strolling along cobblestone streets under grand arches and pastel facades, something I can speak to personally, having been there thrice. The unmistakable African influence, from the cooking to the music to the lilt of costeño Spanish, that sets Cartagena in the gilded frame of other New World treasures such as New Orleans, Santo Domingo, and Salvador da Bahia, is the single most noticeable feature that separates it from Buenos Aires (also a former slave port, but most folk don’t even know that).

In 2007, the Times published this article, offering up a true serving of Cartagena’s richly tragic past and present. The author, Tim Parsa, seems to have researched the history and culture of the place before penning the piece, an effort that appears to be lacking in this week’s Times blurb by Denny Lee (Did you just Google Cartagena, dude?).

I’m not saying any of this to poo-poo The New York Times or Budget Travel or any particular travel writer or editor or whathaveyou. All I’m saying is that folks, travelers in particular, need to research multiple sources beforehand, then visit a place for themselves in order to get a real sense of their destination. Clearly, relying on media (including Fly Brother) can mean getting erroneous descriptions and untenable comparisons in a subjective attempt to make a place seem more or less appealing than it is.

Unless, that is, you combine both Times pieces and surmise that Cartagena becoming the “next Buenos Aires” means becoming the “new gringo mecca.” If that’s the case, I’ll be off trying to find the “next Cartagena,” someplace Spring Breakers fear to tread.

Global Juke Joint: Miami Sound Machines


Cruising around Miami for New Years in a rental car with no iPod dock meant much radio time. Thankfully, 93.9 (in spite of random and agonizing bursts of “I Gotta Feeling,” “Dancing Queen,” “Single Ladies,” and “I Will Survive”) took it back to 1980s Dade County, when no ethnic community was a true majority, South Beach was still gritty and vice-ridden, and everybody punched it down 95 South to locally-produced freestyle and bass music*. Here’s some of Miami’s finest (plus a little Crockett and Tubbs action) to carry you from MIA across Biscayne Bay:


*For my true booty music aficionados, check this classic 2 Live Crew performance on The Phil Donahue Show.

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

Conclusión y Comienzo: Annual Review 2009


Before heading down to Copacabana for last year’s countdown, I sat with a very good friend on the balcony of our apartment in Rio and, from a deck of Osho Zen Tarot cards, selected the card that would indicate my karmic/spiritual/essential theme for the year: “conclusión” (that would be “conclusion” in English). As these mystical consultations can be from time to time, my selection proved prophetic. 2009 did indeed become a year of conclusion, from ending a challenging work situation in a difficult environment and completing one of my major life goals (for the first time, anyway) to bowing out of a few long-standing but unhealthy relationships and transitioning from an archaic dependence on CDs for the more modern MP3 musical format.

During the first few months of the year, I was confused about continuing at my job as a high school English teacher in Barranquilla that offered me financial security, versus pursuing artistic goals that may not provide immediate remuneration. Added to the uncertainty was a severe case of incurable vagabond neurosis, so I chose to not renew my contract and embarked on my first round-the-world adventure. Between June and December, I traveled to 16 countries:

From a creative standpoint, despite barely posting timely content on my own blog, I had writing featured on, or was interviewed by:

And I’ve expanded my social network exponentially, crossing paths with blogging luminaries like Farsighted Fly Girl, A Brother in Sweden, Adrianne of Black Women in Europe, Nikita the Traveller, Felicia of This Time in Seoul, Stacy of Bisous from Paris/Baci from Rome, Anja Mutic, Brian of No Debt World Travel, The Green Pharmacist, and Brandie of Out and About Africa, in addition to forging new friendships and creating new memories.

Lastly, I’ve found a pair of investors who are interested in seeing Fly Brother soar to greater heights. You’ll learn more about that later.

Comienzo - 2010
“Comienzo” means “beginning” in Spanish, and though I’m using that word for the title of this particular section since it applies to new projects coming down the pipe as well as renewed energy and focus (and it fits nicely with last year’s word, “conclusión”), I’m lifting my official word for the year straight from the prolific Lola of Geotraveler’s Niche: discipline!

Regardless of whether or not we’re talking about staying on task, on budget, on diet, on an exercise plan, on time, whatever, it ain’t gon get done without discipline. So with that in mind, here are some of the upgrades and objectives I’ve plotted for 2010:

  1. A deepening and diversification of what you can find here at Fly Brother. This includes a fresh and clean podcast where I discuss issues related to travel, culture, history, and music, and interview interesting and otherwise fly folk, appearing bimonthly (on the first and the fifteenf, naturally). I also plan to update the blog with text, photos, and video at least ten times per month (allowing for one less in February, of course), and to monetize the site through travel-related products that I produce and sell directly, as well as inspiring products and services produced by others and available through affiliate marketing.
  2. An increase in overall presence and name recognition. I’ll accomplish this by submitting articles to both print and web-based media (my goal is a minimum five articles published on highly-trafficked websites and five published in print during the year), creating fan pages on MySpace and Facebook, participating in travel writing forums, and establishing Fly-Brother.com. I’ll also work on increasing my own personal accessibility by tweeting more frequently and responding to every email personally within ten working days.
  3. A shorter, yet exhilirating list of international destinations for the coming year. Living in Brazil means trips to cities I’ve not yet visited, such as Brasília, Florianopolis, and Recife. Argentina rises to the top of the list, with non-stop flights to Buenos Aires from my new homebase. This summer may bring a two-week volunteering project in Haiti, followed by a week of R&R over the border in the Dominican Republic. And on tap for next Christmas, should the stars align themselves appropriately, is a Southern Hemisphere Round-the-World trip featuring Australia and South Africa. Who’s down?

With my readers as motivation, cracking the whip whenever discipline fails me, 2010 will rock. So get them seatbelts fastened and those tray-tables in the upright and locked positions. It’s time to get fly.