Finding Middle Ground

I recently ran across this short piece on Quito that I had published in the Orlando Sentinel back in 2007. I thought this might be a nice time to resurrect it.

The Middle of the World is a dusty place. And actually, there are three Middles of the World in Ecuador.

The sun beats down ferociously on the equatorial line less than an hour north of this country’s capital, Quito. A bus from the city dropped me off at a rough-and-tumble traffic circle near a couple of very off-priced eateries and the entrance to the Official Middle of the World attraction.

For two U.S. dollars, I entered the site, which straddles the line charted as the equator beginning in 1736. At the center of the complex sits a stone tower topped, cherry-style, by a metal globe. Inside the tower, I found the comprehensive Ethnological Museum, highlighting Ecuador’s many indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian communities with traditionally dressed wax figures and reproductions of houses and fishing vessels.

A pilgrimage to the top grants a panoramic view of exhibition pavilions and souvenir shops surrounding the tower on either side of the red stripe that indicates the equator. I took a picture behind the yellow sign that read “Equator,” each sneaker planted in a different hemisphere.

The second, less official Middle of the World is a few hundred yards to the north along the rough-and-tumble roadway. Entering involves traipsing up a dry, gravel driveway with the hope that no cars pass by and coat you in chalky powder.

At the Inti Nan Solar Museum, where the equator is “calculated by GPS,” I saw traditional indigenous living quarters, shrunken heads and plastic life-sized natives. There was a seemingly-convincing water test in which water spiraled out of a basin in opposite directions in the different hemispheres, which were marked by a red stripe. I took a picture behind a yellow-and-white sign that read “Greetings From the Middle of the World — Calculated by GPS,” each of my tennis shoes on a different half of the Earth.

The third Middle of the World, according to Google Earth, crosses an empty gravel lot, the same rough-and-tumble roadway and a warehouse a few hundred feet north of the Inti Nan Solar Museum. I wasn’t able to take a picture on this equator. I found it after I had returned home — while trying to figure out which of the first two was the real Middle of the World.

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Five Fly Film Spies

Movie spies have always led the glamorous life of cool jazz, shaken martinis, flame-throwing shoehorns, easy sex, and jet-lag-less travel.  With the perfect femme fatale to match each perfectly-tailored blazer, these characters fit the classic definition of “fly” as an adjective: good-looking, sophisticated, memorable.

I’m not a secret agent, nor do I wish to be beholden to someone else’s rules about where I go or with whom I fraternize, but there is something appealing in the way these covert cavorters circle the globe gathering high-priced data and solving crimes.  And even though there is a serious dearth of black, Latino, and Asian international men of mystery on film (I vote Chiwetel for the first Black Bond), when I see these five particular spies on the screen, I can’t help but think, for a few seconds, “That’s me!”  Yeah, yeah…wishful thinking.

Sean Connery as James Bond (obviously) in, hell, everything 007
I grew up on Bond: my folks were hard-core 007 fans and not only did the family gather together for every James Bond Marathon on TBS, one of my earliest movie theater experiences was sitting on Pops’ lap in 1983 watching the suggestively-named Octopussy. Obviously, this early indoctrination in travel and adventure had its intended effect, though I’m not as into guns or accumulating Wilt Chamberlain-like sexual statistics as our Mr. Bond. Still, the gadgetry, sharp suits, and Scottish swagger of the fliest secret agent of the Jet Age makes Bond the ultimate jetrosexual.

Leonardo di Caprio as Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can
If becoming an airline pilot were this easy, I’d have started peeling the labels off of bottles a long time ago. While not an actual spy, Leo’s character in Catch Me If You Can hops around the world impersonating a card-carrying airman of THE pioneering American international airline at the height of its reach: almost 160 countries on every continent except Antarctica! Damn! I’m not the biggest fan of the actor, but this is one of my favorite film roles involving clandestine travel. Sometimes, I just watch the opening titles for a quick fix.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft in Shaft in Africa
Don’t laugh; Shaft was a bad mutha-shutchomouf. The only overseas ass-kicker of color* took it to the Motherland in Shaft in Africa to stop a French-backed modern-day slave ring. Yes, it was blaxploitation; yes, it was the 70s. So what? Roundtree represented all Fly Brothers of the day with his tight ‘fro, Uptown style, and street smarts – from Abidjan to Paris. Check the trailer and watch Shaft go “…into the mother country like a black tornado!” Hee, hee!

Clive Owen as Ray Koval in Duplicity
Clive brought levity to the spy genre with his smug/snarky brand of corporate espionage in Duplicity, which is more my bag than the heavy artillery of government intelligence.  He also looked fly as hell in his suits-and-shades, tailing company secrets, and perfect match Julia Roberts, from Rome to Dubai to Nassau to Zurich.  I wish I had one of those cheeky Midlands accents!

Tom Hardy as Eames from Inception
Tom Hardy’s Eames is the coolest character in all of Inception, not least of all because he hangs out in Mombasa, but also because he’s a shape-shifter in people’s dreams.  That’s bad-ass!  He’s just the right mix of brash and classy that makes me want his gig over the potentially-more interesting position of dream architect.  Did I mention dude hangs out in Mombasa?

*I know there was The Rock in The Rundown, but I’m not really inspired by a big dude thrashing through the Amazon in a sweaty, dirty white T-shirt.  That’s pretty much how I look leaving the gym every day.

Who are some of your favorite/inspirational movie spies?

Fly Brother Profiled in DC and BA

Me in DF (Brazil, not Mexico), which is neither BA nor DC.

Over the past couple of days, two very writerly young ladies interviewed me about my travels and life in Brazil: DC-based Lisa Schamess of the monetarily non-conformist blog, CheapBohemian, and Cathy Brown, editor of Expat Daily News South America, who runs the site from beautiful downtown Buenos Aires.  Both interviews went live today and below are a couple of excerpts to tease you into reading both profiles in their entireties (because I know how short people’s attention spans can be…I teach high school!):

From the CheapBohemian interview:

CB: You’ve said that you first got travel fever as a kid, when you were presented with a copy of Free Stuff for Kids. You know as a fellow Cheap Bohemian I’ve gotta love that. Do you think you also acquired a Cheap Aesthetic as a kid, and how does that influence how you travel now?

FB: Actually, I think I acquired whatever semblance of a cheap aesthetic I possess from my mother, who always accused me of having a “prince’s taste and a pauper’s pocket.” I look more for value than for the absolute lowest price for anything. Give me a $30/night fleabag in Paris over a $20/night hostel because at least at the fleabag, I get privacy and relative quiet. I’d pay a bit more for airfare if the departure times were later in the day, the connection were shorter, or I could earn frequent flier miles. In the end, for me it’s about reconciling my baseline comfort level with the maximum price I’m willing to pay.

From the Expat Daily News South America interview:

Q: What was the hardest part about moving abroad?

A: Waiting for the visa, LOL. Seriously, the hardest part has been feeling left out of my friends’ lives back in the States. I check my Facebook and see the barbecues and parties and concerts and sporting events, and whatever else I missed out on, and that makes living abroad tough. Of course, I have friends here in Brazil, but when I’m away from my old crew, I kind of see how life indeed moves on without me.

Check out the full profiles and let me know what you guys think.  Then discover the other goodies at CheapBohemian and Expat Daily News!

Many thanks to Lisa and Cathy for the excellent questions and opportunity to talk about myself, yet again. :-)

Fly Brother Podcast – Season 2, Episode 4: Fantasy Flight 525 – The Black Gold Express

In this episode of the Fly Brother Podcast:

Fantasy Flight 525 – The Black Gold Express
Journey with Fly Brother on an ethereal, all-music flight from the capital of oil- and culture-rich Venezuela to the capital of oil- and culture-rich Nigeria—Caracas to Lagos—featuring recent and classic house, salsa, downtempo, acid jazz, and funky Afrobeat. Whether its to work out, chill out, or make out, this compilation will transport you each time you listen. Download and get lifted.

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Playlist:
“Intro/Arepa 3000” – Los Amigos Invisibles
“Got to Be in Love (Dub)” – Barbara Mendes
“Bruja” – Los Amigos Invisibles
“Guaio a Caracas” – Paul & Mark
“Llorarás” – Oscar d’León
“Cashmere” – Audio Lotion
“African Loungesters” – The Dining Rooms
“Opposite People” – Fela Kuti
“Ezuku Buzo” – Bola Johnson & His Easy Life Top Beats
“Lagos Speedway” – Captain Planet

Links mentioned in the podcast:
Fly Brother Blog – fly-brother.com
Fly Brother Podcast – flybrother.podomatic.com

Shoot me your comments, questions, suggestions, requests, or just a shout-out: flybrother [at] rocketmail [daht] kom.

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Flying Solo

Image source: Reuters

Recently, I was discussing last year’s round-the-world trip when the person I was speaking to asked incredulously if I’d done the entire trip alone.  “Why, of course,” was my response.  “How else would I have done it?”

See, most people I know have some type of full-time job that only gives them a couple weeks of vacation (unless they’re teachers), and part of that is usually spent visiting family.  Then, there’s the issue of financial priorities; most people find other things to do with their money than book plane tickets just for the  intangible sense of enjoyment and personal development that comes with travel, not when there’s a plasma TV to buy.  And also, some people just need to have companionship on the road.  Nothing at all wrong with that; it’s actually wonderful to share a travel experience with people who have complimentary chemistry.

But the friends I do have who travel often are either working while I’m traveling (or vice versa), or they’re already traipsing off to the other side of the world from where I am.  If there’s no barbecue involved, very rarely am I able to coordinate friends and family for an international trip.  In fact, I can only count four independent trips that I’ve ever taken with people whose company I can stand for more than ten minutes.  Romantic trips, even less (hook-ups don’t count).

The major flip side, however, is that when I’m traveling solo, I have those incredible interactions with people I’d never have if I were trying to keep up with my travelmate.  I’d miss out on many a hottie while hugged up with the honey I brought from home.  And I’d lose the freedom that comes with not being responsible for anyone but myself.  For me, that’s motivation enough to fly solo.

That, and the fact that if I waited for other people to get it together and buy the damn plane ticket, I’d never be going anywhere.

VTP: Paris

This post is part of a (quasi-)monthly series of eye candy at Fly Brother, imaginatively named VTP (short for Vintage Travel Posters). We’ll see how travel companies and bureaus have been enticing people off the couch since international leisure travel first became a bourgeois conceit.

The very name of Paris implies joie de vivre, je ne sais quoi, and savoir-faire.  Seriously, no other city compares with the French capital as a must-do-at-least-once-in-your-life destination and anyone who says they have no interest in visiting the place is just being a belligerent douche.  True, Air France is heavily represented, but what better carrier to whisk you off to a Weekend à Paris?  Unlike the service on US airlines, Air France at least offers stank attitude with panache!


Check out previous Vintage Travel Poster posts: Rio and India

Reconciling with Rio

The Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Contemporary Art, with Sugar Loaf in the distance.

Three years ago, shortly after dusk on a crisp July evening, I left the gym and walked with a friend down a cavernous back-street in Copacabana, the gritty, dense, intense, world-famous beachfront neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  At that time, my Portuguese skills were nonexistent, and I conversed with my friend in an uneasy Portuñol that was more functional Spanish with a passable Brazilian accent. Being the intrepid, street-wise flâneur that I am, I dressed in nondescript shorts, a white t-shirt, basic black sneakers, and took along a Discman: a) to have some music to listen to in the gym, and b) specifically to ward off anyone interested in making even the least bit of profit by robbing me…who the hell would want a Discman in the 21st century?

Well, some ten-year-old kid shows up asking me for who the hell knows what and I told him, in Spanish, that I didn’t really have anything to give him (I didn’t). He then grabbed my arm. I flipped: “no me toques, hijueputa” I said and jerked my hand back. Then he started shouting in Portuguese, I shouted back in Spanish, and then he hit me in the foot with a rock. I swear, if I had had on a belt, that woulda been his ass, but my friend dragged me away and the kid ran off. It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that I thought about what would have happened had the kid pulled a gun: you could have cast me in Airplane!.

Never, in all my years of travel, had I been accosted in the street by anybody. I mean, I’m a 6’2, 210-pound black man…I’m the one who makes people nervous.  In fact, it was the lack of control that was most unsettling aspect of what happened.  And it didn’t matter that I understood all the socio-economic history behind why this kid was running the streets, probably high on glue, looking for hand-outs.  In that moment, I was just a “rich” foreigner, nothing more.  I’ve not felt 100% secure in Rio ever since.

I’ve been back to the city several times; twice, I’ve rung in the New Year on Copacabana.  And there are myriad things to like about the place: the attractiveness of the people, the stunning landscape, beaches with actual waves, the history and the music.  Still, I’ve always seen Rio as Miami/LA to São Paulo’s New York: plastically attractive, with no real depth; a city full of shameless social-climbers, hooligans, and a large percentage of strivers you never meet in person because they’re working themselves to the bone while the first two groups crowd the beaches (no shade on Miami or LA, y’all).  The coolest Cariocas I’ve ever met have been ones living outside of Rio, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any person I know there who I can count as a true friend (the friend who was with me when Lil Zé tried to get at me actually spends most of the year in his hometown of Porto Alegre).

Downtown Rio de Janeiro

But the last couple of times I’ve visited the city, I’ve ventured out of chic and/or titillating Zona Sul into regions I hadn’t charted before: Downtown, full of neo-classical architecture from Brazil’s Belle Epoque that’s slowly-and-surely being restored; the hilly boho enclave of Santa Teresa, with its feijoada dives and political graffiti; futuristic Niteroi, the burgeoning suburb across the bay full of Niemeyer architecture and the vibe of Rio before the crack epidemic.  Hanging over the “Marvelous City” is an atmosphere of tense anticipation, a mixture of hope and anxiety about hosting the 2016 Olympics in a city notoriously besieged by bad management and corruption, class and racial conflict (don’t let ‘em tell you differently), and lawlessness (shooting down a police helicopter? Damn!).  There’s also the promise of an Olympic-sized renaissance, a reversal of the former capital’s fifty-year decline since losing that title to Brasília and a return to the world stage of one of Earth’s great urban playgrounds, anchored by a remarkable history as the hemisphere’s only imperial capital and an indefatigable culture of music and dance centuries in the making.

In spite of our shaky past and my status as a bona fide gringo paulista, I’m excited about witnessing Rio’s resurgence.  I hope, soon, that we’ll be completely reconciled and I can name her as one of my favorite cities; after all, Paris and I didn’t exactly get along at first, either.

Chillin' at the feet of Jesus, overlooking Ipanema.

Fly Brother Podcast – Season 2, Episode 3: Do(n’t) Try This At Home

Photo by kcolwell @ Flickr

In this episode of the Fly Brother Podcast:

Do(n’t) Try This At Home: On Quitting (My Job) and Living (My Dream)

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Playlist:
“Symphonies (Remix)” – Dan Black f. Kid Cudi
“Like Minded Sista” – Paul & Price (background)

Links mentioned in this episode:
Fly-Brother.com- fly-brother.com
Previous Post on Quitting and Living- here
Chris Guillebeau and the Art of Non-Conformity- www.chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/

Shoot me your comments, questions, suggestions, requests, or just a shout-out: flybrother [et] rocketmail [daht] kom.

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You also might find this blog post interesting, about the choice between financial security and personal fulfillment.