Montreal Love Fest

Montreal on high

Something’s in my eye. Oh, it’s Montreal!

This rambles, but…that’s the way love goes.

It may be gauche for an American to compare a distinctly non-American city to an American one, but indulge me for a moment, please. Imagine, if you will, New York in summer – without the iconic but overbearing skyscrapers or the ubiquitous scent of urine in the subways, but with the oft-stifling humidity. And the multiple, simultaneous music and cultural festivals happening any given weekend. And the walkable, energy-filled neighborhoods. And the intensely striking variation of skin tones and ethnic origins. And the taxed but generally efficient transport system connecting all the good stuff on offer. Comparing the place to New York would be the easiest, admittedly most half-hearted way to describe Canada’s second- and Quebec’s largest city, Montreal. So I’ll try to do better in the next paragraph.

During one oh-so-short weekend, I trekked up to the summit of Mount Royal, only to trek back down again and cool off at the rooftop pool of a nearby gym (pools are big in landlocked Montreal) surrounded by dozens of sun worshippers soaking it all up while they could. I ate spicy Lebanese sausage and yellow Thai curry and chicken shawarma slathered in hummus and brick-oven pizza and organic bread with unprocessed butter (tasted funny) and a heaping plate of that local French fries/gravy/cheese curd combo called poutine. I discovered my summer anthem (by British electro phenoms Disclosure) and twisted my foot fooling around to a Romanian brass band at the Jazz Fest and recovered in time for a romp at the Piknic Électronik, followed by an all-night afterparty with a clutch of new friends in a three-story rowhouse with a wrought-iron balcony. I asked “Parlez-vous anglais?” to Middle Eastern first aid responders (my foot, remember?) and black convenience store cashiers and Chinese-Malagasy waitresses and sweet little old white ladies in souvenir shops and received a “yes” (or a reflexive “oui”) and a smile every single time. I discussed American politics and Brazilian politics and Quebecois politics and the Quebecois independence movement and the Quebecois fascination with wintering in South Florida and summering in New England. I spent an afternoon marveling at the city with a fellow Murkin travel writer who had just spent a month in Paris and proclaimed her love for Montreal within a week of arriving in the Western Hemisphere’s largest French-speaking city. I responded to her with my own profession of love for Montreal.

Before last weekend, I didn’t know much about Montreal. I didn’t know that the city was as multicultural as it is, with all types of French being spoken by folks with roots all over the globe. I didn’t know that Montreal’s particular brand of French was so appealingly full-bodied, brash, and funky. I didn’t know that its people would be so unfailingly attractive, with Old World style, New World swagger, and a visible profusion of good genes. I didn’t know that many Quebecois do still feel a deep disconnect from the rest of Anglophone Canada as a marginalized people (boy, how I can relate to that!). I didn’t know that I could walk down the street in Montreal and fit right into the mosaic as if I belonged. I didn’t know I’d feel as if I belonged in Montreal. But I did, and Montreal smiled.

Forget Paris. Montreal, je t’aime.

Poutine (with pepperoni)

Poutine (with pepperoni) and a Coke Zero. Avoid empty calories.

Coccinelle cider

Coccinelle cider. It refreshes!

First aid station

My foot hurts and you laughin’, MF?!

Old and New Montreal

Something old, something new.

Montreal subway swag

Montreal subway swag.

Shaky video of the Piknic Électronik:

The Fly Brother Summer Anthem 2013:

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Smushis and Sound Guys: My Weekend in Copenhagen

Historic Center, Copenhagen Despite $5 bottles of water and grey, rainy weather for most of the weekend, Copenhagen proved a welcoming and interesting little city, with an outsized cultural scene and friendly people. I arrived into the Danish capital early on a Friday morning and zipped quickly through the stylish and efficient airport terminal only to have my spirits dampened by the uninspiring currency exchange rate and the uninspiring gloomy skies (underscored by an uninspiring high temperature in the low 40s). With the excitement of getting to know a new place somewhat tempered by my aversion to the cold and my fear overspending—hell, of spending any money, really—I caught the bus from the airport to my friend’s house, passing alongside the blue-gray expanse of the Oresund and coursing through quaint little Danish neighborhoods with quaint little Danish houses, all with quaint little Danish flags flying on flagpoles in each yard. Danish Flag My friend Naomi is in Denmark with her son working on a Master’s degree and she was one of the first friends I made in Brasília when I moved there a few years ago. I was hyped about seeing her and speaking Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen. And speak Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen we did, with people looking curiously, then smiling at the three of us as we took advantage of the one sunny day that weekend and toured the historic canals by boat, wafted through legal weed smoke in the independent little burg of Christiania, and took in a couple of the offerings at the documentary film festival happening that weekend (specifically, we saw Paul Simon: Under African Skies and Tropicália). There’s something to be said for the way people respond to families with children, as opposed to single (and large) men on the street.

While Naomi and filho were at school, I took to the city alone, marveling at the seemingly large number of brown and black people in town (including several city bus drivers) and hitting up a few quirky coffee shops and eateries in search of what the Danes call hygge, which is roughly translated in English as “coziness.” I had a trio of delicious “smushis” (traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches served in sushi-sized chunks) at The Royal Café, proceeded to choke on the prices for curios at the nearby Royal Copenhagen porcelain store, then warmed up with one of the richest cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in life at La Glace, an old school confectionary with enough enticing sweet stuff to warrant an extra hour on the treadmill.

At night, Naomi and I met up with a couple of her school mates at the National Gallery of Denmark and had engaging political debate (Obama vs. Romney, Greece vs. Germany, McDonald’s vs. Burger King) while the DJ spun Scandinavian downtempo and people just sat and watched the light display and drank beer. After chicken curry and shawarmas (at two different places), we ended up at a surprisingly amazing and intimate concert by Alcoholic Faith Mission (had never heard of them); we were being told the happening party we’d stumbled upon was “ladies only” and the concert’s sound guy randomly intervened and invited us upstairs, where the set was already half over. I didn’t get a chance to say it at the time, but cheers, Random Sound Guy!

The weekend ended all too quickly, but I never got around to seeing the Little Mermaid and accidentally left a sweater at Naomi’s house—all the more reason to head back. Copenhagen, you were indeed wonderful. I’ll see you again soon. Save a smushi for me! More photos! Copenhagen Waterfront

The Royal Cafe Smushis

The smushis were good, y’all! (Crabcake, steak, and haddock!)

Golden Eagle, Copenhagen

Get a load of that price tag! This golden eagle is on sale at your local Royal Copenhagen store.

Nordic Sun, Copenhagen Copenhagen Toilet Copenhagen Dusk

Meninos Loucos

“Aiight, no more sugar for you, Li’l Man!”

And special thanks, Henrik at Wonderful Copenhagen, for your humorous and insightful pointers on getting along in “The Kingdom!”

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Sin City—Well, Not Quite

The first thing I did upon arriving in Singapore was look for people jaywalking, littering, and chewing gum, the trifecta of must-not-do’s in many a guidebook to the city. And despite assurances that the local government frowns severely upon these trespasses, people were doing all three. In fact, the idea that Singapore is a soulless, sterile conurbation obsessed with cleanliness and making money just smacks of lazy thinking. Singapore may not have the hedonistic chaos of Bangkok or the dramatic setting of Hong Kong, but it’s got a palpable sense of drive and a reverent appreciation for its surprising cultural diversity.

You can see Singapore’s legacy as a trading center in the vigorous commercial sector of the city-state, where Chinese dried goods warehouses, knock-off electronics emporiums, and multistory Louis Vuitton boutiques all vie for access to disposable incomes. In fact, the subway during evening rush hour is like a fashion show flash mob, as office denizens make their way home in the haughtiest of haute couture. Beyond the brands, however, Singapore’s got a notable mix of inexpensive food options—from Chinese chicken rice to Indonesian barbecue to Indian curries, all for under $2 a meal!—plus neighborhoods like Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street that speak to the city’s diversity in sights, sounds, and flavors. Exhibitions on food, film, clothing, and traditions at the National Museum of Singapore follow these cultural pathways as they weave themselves into the fabric of modern Singapore, and the almost side-by-side Chinese and Indian temples embody the interplay and mutual influence among the city’s constituent communities.

Granted, the heat can be hellish, prices astronomical, and fun shut down by 2am. And the city really is clean and efficient. But for a quick peek at a prosperous, multicultural society with hidden deals and more than a few charms, make sure you spend a couple of days in Sin City.

And don’t forget to pronounce it the British way—Singa-POUR. It sounds sexier.

(Sorry about the paltry number of photos…I had 50 images of the city go missing mysteriously from my computer. :-( Guess that makes for another reason to return!)

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Bali High

Verdant hills, foggy dells, infinity pools, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met in life summed up my brief 2-day excursion to the tropical isle of Bali. The only majority-Hindu island in the mostly Muslim archipelago of Indonesia, Bali has been a major tourism destination–especially among Europeans and Australians–for decades. Pristine beaches, alluring culture, and cheap prices keep surfers and yoga devotees and retired hippies and honeymooners and even affluent young parents coming back. My friends and I tried to avoid all of those people and headed for the hills, far away from the Florida-style hubbub around overbuilt Denpasar and deep into the quiet, calming countryside.

To infinity…and beyond!

My buddies Mike and Ana are a crazy/cool California couple with back-to-back birthdays, which they wanted to celebrate with friends on Bali. Mike found an amazing 3-bedroom vacation villa hidden from the tourist throngs and close to the artistic and cultural center of the island, Ubud. The villa came with stunning views of a solemn valley, a refreshing infinity pool, and a terrific staff who hung out discreetly on-site and whipped up omelets on demand. If it weren’t for the lack of promised internet access, we wouldn’t have left the premises. We did eventually head into Ubud for a little Balinese food and culture, capped off by a fiery performance of the polyrhythmic Kecak dance:

Just a few hundred feet away from the villa sat a secluded Hindu temple, tended by rice farmers from the surrounding villages. But before we knew it, our very quick breather was over and it was time to move on to not-so-green pastures–Mike, Ana, and friends to Kuta and Lombok while I hopped a flight to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.

My most exotic luggage tag yet!

A few more images from the villa and the temple:

Mike + Ana

Soul Glow

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Madrid Madness -or- I Had Coke

A man on a horse, Plaza Mayor

There was no rain in Spain on my recent trip, just dry, cool days with intermittent sunshine and lots of personal warmth. I hung out in Madrid a few weekends ago with a good buddy of mine from Bogotá, Roberto, who was in the Spanish capital studying and performing in a stage play. My only other time in Madrid had been en route to Cape Verde back in 2004—a short, 2-day stopover spent mostly scouring the city for Brazilian parties—so this time, it was all about seeing the sights.

Like most of Europe’s former imperial capitals, Madrid has the palaces, the museums, the landscaped gardens. Unlike other capitals (with the exception of Lisbon), Madrid has a flavor and atmosphere transmitted relatively intact to many of its former colonial holdings in Latin America, while itself being transformed and influenced by the millions of Latin American immigrants who have recolonized the metropolis—after living in or visiting Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Quito, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, and Mexico City, just to name a scant few, I was on familiar territory amongst Madrid’s cobblestone alleyways, arched colonnades, and Arab-inspired interior courtyards.

The sunny side of the street (both).

After a short and restless hop from the States aboard a United Airlines flight actually operated by Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland, clover on the tail and all), I got to Spain* tired, but excited about the weekend in a fun city with fun people and having the opportunity to again speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking society, something I haven’t done since leaving Colombia in 2009 (and Miami still doesn’t count as a Spanish-speaking society).

A 30-minute subway ride later, I had a sparse Iberian breakfast of coffee and a churrito (fried dough stick) before meeting up with my buddy and his stage mates at the cool little garage theater—Garaje Lumière, it was called—near the historic district of La Latina, where I’d be crashing with one of the actresses in the play. After greetings and introductions, I sat at the main entrance of the theater reading and fighting sleep while my friends rehearsed for that night’s opening performance. I tried to make it through until at least nightfall, but after lunch, I crashed, waking up every few hours to work or read. So much for sight-seeing on that first day.

The facade of my temporary digs.

I didn’t awaken until Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet Roberto and friends for paella, the famous Spanish dish made with rice, seafood and other meats, and special seasonings. Num! Drinks and convo in the Plaza de Santa Ana led to scrumptious paella at Marina Ventura, then to more drinks and convo at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Óscar. Compared to the exorbitant prices of everything in São Paulo, enjoying an urbane lifestyle in Madrid is pretty affordable—and 700-euro-a-month rents for refurbished 19th century apartments with two bedrooms and balconies overlooking Spanish plazas calls for serious chin-stroking consideration.

The sun dipped lazily below the horizon after 8pm as it is wont to do in the upper latitudes in spring and summer, and no sight-seeing was done. We did throw Roberto a surprise birthday party, though, and danced to Ne-Yo (not my choice) while imbibing adult beverages (I had Coke).

Sunday, we finally made the rounds of the historical center of Madrid. We didn’t actually go inside anyplace, but we wandered through the vast and crowded Plaza Mayor—prototype for every town square in the Americas from the Guadalupe River to Tierra del Fuego—, past the world’s oldest restaurant, complete with official Guinness Book recognition, across the courtyard of the royal palace, past the labyrinthine royal gardens (we were too lazy to walk back up the steps we would have had to descend to enter the gardens), and finally into El Corte Inglés, a fancy department store with a very necessary coffee shop where I could re-boost my waning energy with a one-euro-fifty-cent coffee that I paid for by credit card.

The palace.
The gardens.
World’s oldest restaurant.
Cuban bar, before hours.

That night, I saw the final performance of the play—something about corporate secrets and lady torturers and jumper cables attached to gonads—über-experimental and completely in Spanish, so I got like 60% of what they were saying. Afterwards, we congratulated the cast on an amazing performance despite somewhat underwhelming material and everyone else congratulated themselves with alcohol (I had Coke) for the next five hours. Indeed, it was almost 4am when we left the theater and there were pretty much zero food options at that hour (which, back home, is called ‘fore-day-in-the-morning), so we settled for late-night grilled cheese sandwiches.

Question: In this age of globalization and multi-national corporations, why the hell isn’t there an IHOP in Madrid (or Berlin or São Paulo)? They would make a killing!

We woke up at noon on Monday, just in time for me to dash into the shower, pack up my crap, and hightail it down to El Retiro, where Roberto had a picnic planned for all his artistic peeps in celebration of the play and his birthday. Over homemade paella (Thanks, Roberto’s friend’s mom!) and some damn good cake and we lazed about on the grass, laughing about the jumper-cables-to-the-gonads and being serenaded with flamencos and boleros by several of the picnickers—there were at least four acoustic guitars in attendance at the picnic.

Rosa, Ernesto y Roberto conquistan el parque.

Soon, it was time for goodbyes and promises to email and/or call, then I headed with carry-on in tow towards the subway station with zero cash, thinking that I could pay for a ticket by credit card. Nope; the machine wanted the PIN that I never memorized because I never use the debit function of my card. This also meant that I couldn’t get money out of an ATM. And the Brazilian reais I had on me were no good because, at almost 5pm on a Monday afternoon, no banks in the immediate vicinity were open to exchange my cash. And I had no telephone with which to call Roberto or any of my other newly-minted friends for a two-euro loan. I was left to rely solely on the kindness of strangers, and in this case, that meant the subway security guard and the station attendant, who listened to my tale of touristic stupidity with understanding smiles and had pity on my poor cashless soul (an affected “foreign” Spanish accent and pre-printed boarding pass showing an imminent flight departure time helped, no doubt). They printed up a special subway ticket, swore me to secrecy, and sent me on my way with handshakes. Gracias, dudes!

*Important aside: The only major road bump and one of those things that tend to permanently shade your opinion of a place, or at least of a place’s government: suspiciously-long questioning by the immigration officer. The two other (non-black) Americans ahead of me flitted through with a few words and the quick thud of the passport stamper. My mistake, of course, was speaking in Spanish. I was asked about my arriving flight (normal), how long I had planned to stay (normal), and if my trip was business or pleasure (normal), then asked where exactly I was staying in Madrid (strange), then where my letter of invitation was (what?). Apparently, I was supposed to have either pre-booked accommodations at a hotel, or have a letter of invitation issued to me by the friends with whom I was staying (procured at the local police station, no doubt). I’m sure my face said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and he asked if it was my first time in Spain. I said no, the I’d been there in 2004, neglecting to mention that I had no hotel reservations even then, and had booked a nice little cheap hotel upon arrival at one of the tourist kiosks in the airport. I said that I’m aware that policies can and do change frequently, but as a U.S. citizen, I’d never heard of having to provide proof of accommodation for entry into the European Union (in fact, it’s NOT required, asshat). In Latin America, Spain already has a reputation for the “funny attitudes” of their immigration officials, and while the international gatekeepers of the U.S. certainly have a propensity for douchebaggery, let’s have a little perspective for chrissakes. You see that eagle on my passport? Stamp my shit and be done with it.

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Swiss Beat

Fly in the buttermilk.

The first thing you notice about Switzerland’s largest city – Zurich – is that, by comparison, every other city in the world looks worn-down and raggedy. The whole place smacks of affluence, from the clean comfort of the airport to the understated high-end street fashion (even old people rocked dark denim and leather jackets by somebody famous). In Zurich, they riyotch, beyotch.

Early industrialization and the development of banking services (a business not exactly pure as Alpine snow) helped the Swiss obtain one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world. Food and clothing in Zurich aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but public services and infrastructure are top-notch. I flew into a world-class airport on a world-class airline, hopped a train to the main station, where I met up with my CouchSurfing host (Björn – Swedish name, Swiss dude) for some lunch-time Thai, then took a sleek and efficient tram to within a block of his apartment.

Great Domes of Zurich

I rested a bit from the 12-hour flight until Björn got home from work and we hit the streets of Zurich just as the sun dipped behind the Alps to the west. We walked around the old town, and I marveled at how multicultural the place actually is (I encountered Brazilians, Eritreans, Sri Lankans…), in spite of murmurings about Swiss xenophobia. It was strangely comforting to be in a place surrounded so completely by mountains; I’d lived in Bogotá, which sits on a high plateau surrounded by the Andes, but with 8 million people, comforting is the last word I’d use to describe the Colombian capital.

Skyline at sunset.

Conversation took us past 900-year-old churches and 21st century electronics stores, then down towards Lake Zurich where we hopped aboard one of the water shuttles that augment the city’s transportation options.

Lake Zurrk

According to Björn, the whole city is walkable in about 45 minutes, and we seemed to be testing out that assessment. Finally, as the temperature dropped into the upper-40s, Björn broke out the fondue set and we had some traditional Swiss potatoes and cheese for dinner. So much for my no-carb vacation.

Downtown shopping alley. Expensive.

The next day? Cold, gray, and rainy: perfect weather for a museum visit! The castle-like Swiss National Museum – Landesmuseum Zürich in German – chronicles the history of Switzerland from the Stone Age to modern times, even mentioning the Swiss role as financiers of the slave trade (no pics allowed). I’m always shocked in European museums by the amount of guts and gore that appears in depictions of Christianity: severed heads and people nailed to crosses and whatnot. Victory over violence, my brethren! I was also mildly chided by the old lady taking tickets at the entrance to the museum’s World Wildlife Federation exhibition because, as an American, I’m in some way responsible for America’s lax environmental policies. I just let her talk, responding every now and then with a “Yes, ma’am.”

Landesmuseum Zürich, where they filmed 'The Haunting.'

Then, I shivered over to the nearby Museum of Design Zurich, mostly because I was sans-umbrella, and caught the temporary exhibition on skyscrapers (my favorite type of building). Photos, blueprints, and scale models of structures in major cities comprised the exhibition, and I took the opportunity to draw São Paulo’s Copan building in the guest book, since other people had drawn buildings in the guest book.

I took this picture on the low-low.

Soon, it was time to grab my onward flight to Berlin, departing from Zurich Airport’s über-chic “low-cost” terminal.

The hoodrat section of Zurich Airport.

Björn, thanks a lot for the Alpine hospitality! Zurich, you are small but sophisticated and your people are worldly and affable. I will be back!

Zurich's got "something for every taste."

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Warsaw Packed

In October, the air in Warsaw is cold.  Broad concrete sidewalks and large, drab Soviet-era constructions refract that chill, always present in spite of waning autumn sunshine.  But there is color that warms the streets in bursts: the golden, meaty glow of 24-hour Turkish doner kebab stands; the fluorescent charge of rooftop corporate logos that read Marriott, Orange, and Marks & Spencer; the multi-hued hum of nightclub signs hawking boobs and booze.  This weekend, with nighttime temperatures in the lower 40s, I was tempted to drop by one of these clubs for a little post-Cold War action and see how the Poles party.  With the Polish economy on fire and a future as bright as the Coca-Cola sign overlooking downtown, Warsaw is already overcoming its woeful history with vigor and style.

Warsaw’s story is a tragic one, full of conquest and destruction: after rounding up the Jews into Europe’s largest ghetto, the goddamned Nazis razed 80% of the city in quashing an uprising of the oppressed Poles, with over two million killed under Hitler’s grand plan for the virtual eradication of Poland and its people.  Once solidly under Soviet influence, the Russians imposed on the city Europe’s then-tallest building, the 757-foot-high Palace of Culture and Science, an ornate but foreboding skyscraper that reigned in solitude over the Polish capital for three decades. But sleek, modern towers in blue-tinted glass and corporate marquis now vie for air supremacy and a colorful, completely rebuilt Old City vibrantly outshines the functional but dour residential and office blocks built during the Cold War.  Almost no flat surface is spared from advertising pasteboard, not even the Palace of Culture and Science itself, as Warsaw proudly asserts her devotion to capitalism.

A brief weekend in the city certainly isn’t enough time to get to know the people, but I found the Poles to be polite (my presence elicited a few looks of interest, but hardly any stares in an overwhelmingly white—pale—city) and quiet, but helpful when asked and generally very fluent in English, which was good since I didn’t understand a word of Polish.  Not a word. A trip to a party or two gave a glimpse of Polish rhythm (they kept up pretty good with Rihanna) and the women are attractive and stylish (read: hot), high-heeled boots being the ladies’ footwear of choice.  Clothes, I found to be inexpensive.  Food, not so much.  I did, however, snag a 50-euro-a-night rate at the four-star Mercure Warszawa Grand via Momondo.com only two nights before the trip (no, they did not pay me to say that).

As Poland marches toward further integration with the European Union—they still use the złoty, not the Euro—prices will go up, but so too will the number of visitors, who come to experience this accessible bit of the former Communist Bloc (or, literally, Warsaw Pact), or to take in a bit of history about Nazi occupation and Polish resistance or research composer and favorite son Fryderyk Chopin at the city’s inexpensive but excellent museums.  Warsaw will also lose a bit of its Wild West feel, that air of anything-goes recklessness and conspicuous consumption that accompanies the first throes of unbridled capitalism in a society that hasn’t had it for very long; now is the time to go, before Starbucks, KFC, and Subway complete their conquest.

Meanwhile, even the city’s youngins are staking their claim on the de facto anthem of worldwide youth culture, hip hop (I mean, we don’t really break dance no mo’, but we applaud the effort).

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Fly Brother Podcast – Season 1, Episode 7: Especial Colombia!

In this episode of the Fly Brother Podcast:

Colombia, with two O’s and no U

[PLAY]

Playlist:
1. “Calle 19” – La Mojarra Eléctrica – www.myspace.com/lamojarraelectrica (Spanish only)
2. “El Mapalé” – artist unknown
3. “Somos Pacífico” – Choc Quib Town – www.chocquibtown.com/english.html

Links mentioned in the podcast:
Fly Brother – fly-brother.blogspot.com
NEGES Foundation – www.negesfoundation.org

Official Colombia Travel Website – www.colombia.travel/en/
Cartagena Tourism – www.turismocartagenadeindias.com/ingles/es/general.htm
Bogotá Tourism – english.bogotaturismo.gov.co
Cali es Turismo (Spanish only) – www.caliturismo.com
Medellín Tourist Guide – www.guiaturisticademedellin.com/index.php?lang=en
San Andres and Providencia – www.sanandres.gov.co/turismo/home.php

AIRES (Spanish only) – www.aires.aero
Avianca – www.avianca.com
Continental Airlines – www.continental.com
Delta Air Lines – www.delta.com
JetBlue Airways – www.jetblue.com
Spirit Airlines – www.spiritair.com
Copa Airlines – www.copaair.com
LAN Airlines – www.lan.com
TACA Airlines – www.taca.com

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

[PLAY]

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Keepin’ It Sassy

Austin, Texas might get all the hollers from mainstream media, but I think it’s that other college town and Southern state capital a few hundred miles down I-10 East that speaks surprisingly to all-inclusive diversity and the rack of artistic expressions, cultural encounters, and eating options that entails. No, this ain’t your granny’s Tallahassee.

Nestled amongst the red clay hills, moss, and magnolias of North Florida, Tally indeed reminds folks that it was “the only Confedrit capital east of the Mis’sippi not captured by Yankee fawces during the waw of Nawthun aggression.” And while the atmosphere is still not exactly “We Are the World,” the city’s third black mayor currently holds sway over politically blue territory in a decidedly red region of the country, while students, alumni, and faculty of (my alma mater) Florida A&M University continue making socioeconomic headway at a percentage unmatched anywhere else in the state. Adding to the mix is a burgeoning Latino and Asian student population, especially at Florida State University, and many young people unaffiliated with government or university who’ve visited, liked, and stayed, and who’ve carved a niche of professionals and bohemians that have, in turn, spawned an explosion of alternative activities to traditional Homecoming games and massive barbecues (not poo-pooing either, mind you).

  • If you’re in town on the first Friday of the month, head to the aptly-named First Fridays at Railroad Square, a gathering of eclectic visual and musical artists showcasing their wares among off-price wine and grilled snacks. I bought a t-shirt with an outline of Florida and the tagline, “No Other State Has Sunshine.”
  • From now through March 23rd, Black art collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey display paintings and historical documents, including a hilarious Dear John letter from Zora Neale Hurston, at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science. The exhibition goes to the Smithsonian when it leaves Tallahassee.
  • Next week, hit FSU’s 7 Days of Opening Nights, wait til March for Handel’s “Xerxes” at the Florida State Opera, or swing down in the fall and rattle to FAMU’s Marching 100 at one of the football games.
  • Saturday afternoon, stroll through the mangrove forest at the Tallahassee Museum and watch the black bears and Florida panthers frolic with man-sized yarn balls, or soak up the silence in Princess Murat’s modest plantation house. Saturday night, get yo salsa on at Atlantis Bar and Grill or have a drinky-poo in the lobby of the Aloft Hotel (a much more welcoming atmosphere than at the Hotel Duval down the street).
  • Skip Chik-fil-A and TGI Friday’s. Head for Super Perros for Colombian fast food, Bahn Thai for (you guessed it), Uptown Cafe for the hot pulled pork, The Black Bean for comida cubana, and Bird’s (Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack) for the nominal oysters or the baddest-ass hamburger in the Lower 48.

Tally-ho!

Thanks, John and Nina, for the bomb Super Bowl weekend!

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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.