Two Years Ago, I Saw the World


Everyday this week, when I log into Facebook, I’ve been seeing a little reminder that “on this day, two years ago,” I was hitting up the Notting Hill Carnival or being wowed by the freakish ability of Swedes to dance damn well to hip-hop. And while I don’t believe that living in the past is all that emotionally healthy, sometimes you gotta give big-ups for past blessings you’ve received; my round-the-world trip in 2009 was one of the biggest blessings in life. In life.

After wrapping up a four-year stint as a teacher in Colombia, I booked and took off on a whirlwind tour taking me to six continents for US$3,300 (which could have been done more cheaply through a service like AirTreks, but I was satisfied with the price) – including an LA-Sydney roundtrip for $650 and a NYC-Dublin one-way for $230. I CouchSurfed or stayed with friends, only having to spend money on accommodations two nights out of my entire three months on the road. In the end, a family emergency caused the Australia portion of the trip to be canceled, and I ended up moving to Brazil instead of just hanging out as originally planned, but then, surprises and plan changes are all a part of the game. Still, the ride ended way too soon and I was ready to go again as soon as I’d landed back on US soil.

And I will do it again; there’s no reason not too. And yes, you can do it, too. It is that easy, if you want it to be.

Check out this short video of the friends – old and new – I encountered in ’09, and, if your interest is piqued, check out my blog posts from that era, including reports from the road, starting in August 2009.

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On Paralysis

Sometimes, living abroad can be an experience in cultural isolation. Despite the best efforts on everyone’s part, there are misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misconnections. It can get tiring, the thinking in other languages, the decoding of cultural cues, the deprogramming of absolute truths. Culture shock never really ends.

You get pensive. You start asking yourself and the universe: What’s the plan? What’s the goal? Why don’t I just get a real job and grow up already? But no one can really give you an answer and that questioning, and the fear behind it, becomes paralyzing – for a while – until somehow, you regain motivation through a conversation with a random stranger, the sudden memory of what you had originally wanted, or by simply waking up the next morning.

The key – the hardest part, then – is breaking through that paralysis.

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Dream Destinations, Vol. 1

The other day, a friend asked me where I’d like to go next, now that I’ve got 30 countries under my belt. There’s still much of the world to see, aside from some of my favorite places that consistently call me back. Many places still incite visions of adventure whenever I see their names on a map, and here are a scant few (in alphabetical order):

Angola

Luanda at dusk. Image by Mondo123.

One of the homes of world-famous Brazilian martial art – capoeira – and one of the most expensive countries on the planet, it’s the culture of Angola that interests me. I’ve heard that it’s very similar to northeastern Brazil, but with a particular musical swagger all its own.

Australia

Packing for Perth. Image by TSM Photography.

I’ve yet to make it Down Under, and though Sydney is definitely on the itinerary, I’m also trying to hit Melbourne (artsy, bohemian, so I’m told), Queensland (tropical beaches, tropical beaches, tropical beaches), and Perth (just cuz).

Greenland

Titanic, she ain't. Image by TobyAdamson.co.uk.

Greenland just looks cool as hell. Icebergs, li’l tiny villages at the edge of the sea, ludicrously-large landforms…as a native Floridian who travels mostly in the tropics, I’ve never seen anything like it! Well, I’ve flown over it and was duly impressed.

Libya

Roman ruins in Libya. Image by meena me.

Yes, there’s unrest going on in Libya right now, but unfortunately, unrest is a part of life. That still doesn’t stop me from thinking about trekking up to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins still in existence, called Leptis Magna. I hope to get there before they become – wait for it – ruined by mass tourism.

Papua New Guinea

Li'l Man in PNG. Image by carteretislands.

Not only does PNG, officially the only country in Oceania that borders an Asian country, offer up an interesting local culture and is off the radar of most travelers, it’s also got the Carteret Islands, which are in the process of inundation due to global warming. And, somehow, it’s got black folks. There’s something they’re not telling us (raises eyebrow).

Where do you want to go?

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A Little Late Monday Motivation

Take-off from JFK. Destination: Wherever you want it to be.

In the face of life’s always unexpected challenges, I’ve been needing a little inspiration to stay motivated on many fronts. After searching through some old travel notes, I found a great quote by a great man about a great feat of human ingenuity:

It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt, from a plaque in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building.

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Having Help

The Wind Done Gone, but not everywhere.

I have help; I’ve had it since moving to South America six years ago. There’s a saying round these parts: “You either have a maid or you are a maid.” In my case, it’d be a doorman or handyman or whatnot. Either way, with the daily rate for a housekeeper being an exploitative R$60 (US$37), having help isn’t really seen as a luxury down here. I think of it as job creation. I don’t even want to know how much – or little – the nannies make.

I’ve always paid the help as far above the going rate as I could, considering a) just because I can exploit a segment of the population doesn’t mean I should, and b) most of the help in general consists of black/brown women with kids struggling to pay tuition at a private school so that their kids don’t end up as maids or servicemen themselves, ergo I empathize with the help. As I’ve said on this blog before, had it not been for an Anglo-American slaver bringing my ancestors this side of the Pond, the help could easily have been my mother, sister, aunt, grandma, etc. People here insist that I pay too much, that I “spoil” the help. Yet these same people don’t think twice about requesting raises from their bosses.

My help have always, always been honest, intelligent ladies who have left 100-real bank notes they found balled up in my shirt pocket flattened and pressed on the kitchen table in plain view. They’ve been meticulous housekeepers, and sometimes, expert cooks. My help has better budgeting skills than I do, never complaining even once when I’ve had to miss payment one week because of my own foolishness. The help doesn’t really get a lot of respect, either: “A smart maid is a secretary.” God bless my help.

Hats off to Señora Gladys, Teresa, Diva, and Rosa. Unfortunately, you’ll never know just how much your help means to any country’s “economic miracle.”

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My Seven Travel Truths

Fly and Oneika in Hong Kong

So, I bit Oneika the Traveller’s bait and compiled my own list of seven traveling truths, revealing just a little bit about how I get around (only cuz I love you, gul!):

1. I go solo.
I love traveling with cool people, but I learned a long time ago that if I want to go somewhere, I’ll probably be going it alone. People talk a good game, but when it comes down to actually paying deposits, buying tickets, or moving beyond the planning phase, it’s usually been me all by my lonesome. I’ve had friends cancel on a Cuba trip at the last minute to go to Puerto Rico of all places! If you can get it together, then let’s roll. But I’m not afraid to take the leap on my own.

2. I’m an airline geek.
This isn’t exactly news to long-time readers, but not only am I an airline geek in general – I collected airline timetables and scale model airplanes as a kid; I collect in-flight magazines as an adult – I’m a Deltoid in particular. According to my Flight Memory statistics, almost 30% of my flights have been on Delta. Not only is their biggest hub über-convenient for me as a native Floridian, their route coverage is unbeatable (for now).

3. I’m a city boy.
I thrive on the chaos and disorder of urban environments, especially filthy, sweltering megacities like São Paulo (ok, maybe just São Paulo). Subways and museums and streetlife and nightclubs thrill me. It’s not that I don’t like nature – I do – but I want to be able to take a real shower at the end of the day.

4. I hate hostels.
I’d rather stay at a one-star fleabag (without the fleas, of course) with a private bathroom before I cram into a multi-bed hostel room. I know there are some nice ones, but I’m just not down for the whole group thing, especially with a bunch of noisy post-adolescents with questionable hygiene. And yes, I’ve stayed at enough to know what I’m talking about. Gimme CouchSurfing* anyday!

5. I’m financially hard-core.
This means that I haven’t always made the best financial decisions before embarking on a trip. That means that I’ve run out of money in India, eaten canned tuna underneath the Eiffel Tower (and McDonald’s every day for a week because no place else had a 99-cent value menu), and had to sell all of my clothes in exchange for enough cash to change a plane ticket out of Cuba. I’m working on that. Really.

6. I have sex.
I’m a grown-ass man. I’ve ‘done it’ in virtually every country I’ve been to. I know people don’t really talk about this, but fuck it. Literally.

7. I suck at taking pictures.

I used to snap photos of everything and everybody I encountered on the road, but now, I feel like it’s kind of disrespectful – for me, anyway. I mean, if I were struggling to carry a basket of rocks on my head from the quarry to wherever the hell I was taking them and somebody took a picture of me instead of helping me carry that shit, I’d be more than slightly annoyed. Other times, I just don’t feel like “looking” like a tourist. I have to break out of that habit, I know.

*No, I haven’t used CouchSurfing for hook-ups. They’ve happened a couple times, but CS is about friendships first, accommodations second. If you get a little nookie out of it, consider that a bonus!
;-)

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How to Unintentionally Become an Oktoberfest Legend

Hooters t-shirts ain't got nothin' on the dirndl.

I met the indomitable Nicole of Nicole is the New Black a couple weeks ago in Berlin. The girl’s got humor, moxie, and a phat-ass crib in what used to be West Berlin. As Oktoberfest draws near, Nicole decided to share with us (and Parlour Magazine, for which she writes the “Berlineska: Black in Berlin” column) her how-to guide for owning Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest? Been there, done that, became a legend.

My first visit to Germany was in 2007, long before deciding to move here. I made my way to Munich to attend Oktoberfest. For those of you living under a rock, Oktoberfest is the biggest drinking festival in the world and it’s held annually in late September. The fair is massive with multiple tents hosted by local breweries where guest drink beer out of gigantic maßkruge, eat traditional German fare and enjoy music performed by live bands.

For my inaugural trip to the capital of Bavaria I decided to dress like the natives, convinced that it would enhance my cultural experience. Stupid people believe all Germans walk around looking like the von Trapp family but this is mostly false. Traditional Bavarian clothing such as lederhosen (for men) and dirndls (for women) are primarily reserved for celebrations like Oktoberfest. My dirndl was in an obnoxious pink color, with a blouse and bodice that drew a lot of focus to my boobies. The unsuspecting apron, held the most significance; depending on which side you tie the bow will communicate to prospective suitors if you are a virgin, single, or married.

When I arrived at the fair, the entire scene was overwhelming, from the thousands of people to the rides, food and trinkets for sale. This was also when I started to notice the staring, finger pointing and laughing. As an attention whore, I appreciate and expected a lot of looks. You rarely see Germans outside of Bavaria wear dirndls and definitely not a black American woman with dredlocks. Not too fussed at this point, my friend and I walked around looking for the right tent. We arrived at the Ochsenbraterei that boasted a giant ox rotating on a spit above the entrance, so naturally it seemed welcoming. Little did I know, a few hours later things would begin to get very unwelcoming.

As my friend and I drank our beers, I began to attract negative attention from a bench of locals across the aisle from us. These drunken idiots began throwing bretzels (pretzels) and making monkey noises. I tried to ignore them but they were getting belligerent, the waitress felt so bad that she tried to locate a different bench for me escape but it was so packed that my only options were to suck it up or leave. I decided to leave. While I was saying my goodbyes to my new friends the clock struck 6 o’clock and the crowd began to focus on the stage.

I didn’t know it at the time but 6 o’clock meant the start of the live performance. Before 6 p.m. music can not be played too loudly to encourage a peaceful atmosphere so older people and families can partake in the festivities. The breaking of the silence is a big deal. The first song is usually led by someone plucked from the crowd and it’s considered an honor. I noticed the band leader was walking through the crowd with a baton and a hat, searching for the right person. People were jumping in front of him, begging to be chosen but he already knew who he was after. He made his way down my aisle and stopped right at my bench, placing the hat on my head and handing me the baton. I was so shocked, I had no idea what to do and then he ushered me onto the stage. He introduced me to the crowd and then he started playing “Country Roads” by John Denver. I didn’t have to sing, thankfully I just had to wave the maestro’s baton, do a little jig while blowing some kisses and the crowd loved me.

My performance made me an Oktoberfest celebrity. I literally signed autographs and took pictures with babies. I got free beers and hugs and experienced a complete 180 degree change from how I’d been treated just moments before by those bullying yokels. As I made my way home that evening, tripping over dozens of people who’d drunk themselves to the point of failure, I received yet another pat on the back.

“Nicole from New Jersey,” some guy who’d spotted me yelled. ”That was legend, mate.” Indeed.

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Sunny Side Up

First, I’d like to offer an apology to my readers for not keeping to the content schedule outlined on my “About” page. This week has been a harrowing return to work after an adventurous ten days off, and balancing competing interests is never an easy task. So, dear readers, I’ll try to not let this scheduling burp happen again. I’ll make a seriously-focused effort. I’ll work my hardest. For real. I’m serious. ;-)

Back to the show…

A year ago last weekend, a lovely and technologically-talented French couple, Claire and Max, stopped through São Paulo for a short 48 hours. They put together this humorous film, soundtracked by Sergio Mendes and featuring some of my favorite spots in the city – Ibirapuera Park, Avenida Paulista, Vale do Anhangabaú – as well as my own street corner (see if you can guess). The video description says it was a balmy 30˚C (86˚F) and obviously sunny on that mid-winter weekend. Well, right now, it’s 31˚C (89˚F) and sunny, so I’m posting this for you to get a glimpse of the city I’m ’bout to go enjoy on this sun-filled Saturday afternoon.

Thanks Claire and Max!

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Accessible Africa

Last week, fellow fly brother Greg Gross of I’m Black and I Travel posted about African-Americans, Africa, and why we should be traveling more frequently to the Motherland (read his entire posts here and here). Acknowledging cost, distance, and lack of familiarity with the continent as historical barriers that can and should be overcome, the issue of time remains a persistent hindrance to American travelers of all races, simply because our workaholic culture allows for a mere two weeks of vacation each year (and how many people even actually get to spend those entire two weeks on vacation?). Brother Gross says that a minimum of ten days in Africa is required, but I’m willing to argue that there are at least two or three city breaks you can do from the East Coast of North America to the West Coast of Africa over three or four days, if you’re serious about setting foot on African soil without having to use up any sick days. The flights are shorter than nonstops to Rome, and these may not be the cheapest of weekend jaunts, but consider this: that bargain airfare you get to Europe is often off-set by lodging, food, transport, etc.; you may pay more up-front to get to Africa, but on the ground, it’s a different story. If you’re truly serious about heading “to the East,” you can make it happen.

Dakar, Senegal

Image by Catherine Hine

Cosmopolitan and exhilarating, Dakar packs an unbeatable music scene, jammin’ nightlife, busy beaches, and exuberant street-life onto a pointy peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. This geographic situation made the city an important – if nightmarish – port-of-call during the slave trade; if nearby Goree Island and its Door of No Return doesn’t leave a lump in your throat, you’re a heartless douchebag.

South African Airways links DC and Dakar daily as a stopover en route to Johannesburg, and Delta hits town thrice-weekly from New York-JFK.

Accra, Ghana
Pronounced uh-KRAH – not AK-rah – this bustling English-speaking burg serves up surf and sound, with year-round beach weather (of which Europeans have been taking advantage for a while, now), laid-back riddims, and an intense bargaining culture for those sale-hounds up for a little friendly back-and-forth over that perfect, handcrafted souvenir for Grandma-nem.

United runs five times a week from DC to Accra, while Delta does a daily NYC and thrice-weekly Atlanta nonstops.

Casablanca, Morocco

Image by Jean-Claude Morand

Yes, despite arguments to the contrary, Morocco counts as Africa. The city captured on celluloid as the Bogie-Bergman jump-off may not be sub-Saharan, but Africa – the second-largest continent on the planet – is not ethnically (or even racially) monolithic and Casablanca is a hot-and-spicy concoction of centuries-old Arab, Berber, and black African cultural interaction.

Delta codeshares with Royal Air Maroc on the 7-hour NYC-Casablanca hop.

No excuses.

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2AM in the Biggest F*ckin City in South America

Image by Andre Kenji

It’s 2AM on Saturday morning and you leave the club early because you’ve had a long-ass week at work and you’re tired and you just want everybody to shut the hell up already and go to sleep. You work your way past the line of partiers, in various states of inebriation, waiting to go in while you’re going out. Your ears thump with the muffled beat of the pop and house music playing upstairs as you break through the sweaty brightness of the club entrance and into the smoky chill of the dark, damp downtown streets.

A haggard-looking woman sells packets of gum and the Halls throat lozenges popped like candy in Brazil and a bus passes by, the tires making a splashing sound on the pavement as it moves, all lights and noise and a pair of dozing passengers. You could use some IHOP right about now.

You head towards home, a twenty-minute walk away, down almost-empty streets that yawn emptily into the speckled darkness ahead. Six hours before, the streets buzzed with couriers and executives and touts and vagrants. Now, only the vagrants remain, bedded down under lumps of cardboard and rags, steeling themselves against the chill of night. One or two other tired souls pass by, staggering home like you, from work and/or play. The streetlights glow weakly against the black on smoke on slate on charcoal on gray tones of night, the cracked sidewalks undulating with the almost-imperceptible breath of the city and endless rows of towers standing sentry with thousands of dark, mute windows. It takes a few seconds before you realize that you’re holding your own breath.

Up ahead, laughs and music from the corner lanchonete pierce the solitude as weekday working stiffs treat their ladyfriends to pre- or post-club golden fried goodness. You inhale, then consider stopping for a quick coxinha and a Coke. But you keep walking instead, warmed by the thought of just how much you love this goddamned city.

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