Three Days in Mexico — Part Two: Finding Glory

IMG_3548Read Part One here.

The crack of dawn occurred after Rogue Priest, Pixi, and I had woken up and took to the road in search of breakfast. The Hotel La Turbina advertised a restaurant that didn’t actually exist, and, Sabinas Hidalgo being a relatively small town, most eating places didn’t open on Sundays until seven (in principle), but not really until about 7:15 or 7:30 (in practice). For the second time on the trip, we ended up at a restaurant with a severe dearth of cars in the parking lot. This time, though, we were on the town’s main drag and didn’t expect to have our pictures on milk cartons this time.

The Restaurant Acira (all restaurants in northern Mexico seemed to use the English version of the word, though they still seemed to pronounce it restaurante. I guess dropping the final “e” lent a place a certain je ne sais quois) served up traditional Mexican breakfasts in what was, if you bothered to look past its crusted-over, forlorn ambience, a surprisingly attractive, mid-century Modern roadside diner. The parking lot’s rusty awning probably shielded snazzy drive-in customers from the fierce Mexican sun when served in their 1955 Chevy Bel Airs. Along the northern wall glittered a giant, intricate tile mosaic depicting cows and cowboys locked in their historic and essential wrangle. The restaurant’s Jetsons-style sign, in desert pastels, perched almost demurely at the edge of the parking lot and, like most of the other impressive design elements of the place, outshined by gaudy, artless kitsch, required keen eyes to appreciate. Even the waiter had a classic air about him, with his elegant mustache and diction, that seemed to belong to an era of service long dead and buried. And the breakfast was pretty good, too.

After filling our bellies, Rogue, Pixi, and I stocked up on provisions and hit the road, saying our private goodbyes to lovely Sabinas Hidalgo as we passed tree-shaded yards and whitewashed houses en route to the verdant hills ahead of us.

As the arid carpet of northern Mexico unrolled ahead of us, we continued adelante, emboldened by the previous day’s triumph of reaching our first stopping point without incident. Rogue and Pixi biked briskly, maintaining a steady pace as the sun, and the land itself it seemed, rose steadily higher.

It was here, in the midst of the fluttering Monarch butterflies, bright yellow wildflowers, and sturdy cacti that lined our route, that I soon began to ponder my own path. Where, indeed, was I going to?

The previous few months had meant leaving my teaching job and apartment in Miami to focus on my PhD, my writing, and my relationship in Germany. The relationship—five years and almost married—ended suddenly, but not without good reason, just as I’d visited South Africa for the first time on a press trip that I’d put off for two years. And now, here I was: traipsing through Mexico with only a few freelancing gigs and my part-time airline job for money, my doctoral studies on indefinite pause, the solid relationship I had counted on no longer in existence, and an intense and unexpected romance in South Africa suddenly interrupted by fear and uncertainty.

To be honest, for the past several weeks, I’d been struggling greatly with all the great existential issues that plague the aimlessly intellectual and creative: why am I here? For what purpose? What is happening to me? Why didn’t my relationship work out? Why isn’t this new one working out? Why isn’t the love of my family and friends enough? Why is my bank account perpetually empty? What happens now? Where am I going to? Where am I going to?

And as I tossed these things about in my head, silently rejoicing about the awesomeness of the trip but a bit more loudly despairing of my life situation at that moment, I heard Janelle Monae sing: “To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

And this refrain, undergirded by the gentle yet unrelenting reminders of numerous friends, family members, the universe really, of how wonderful and one-of-a-kind every single moment of my life was, took on a greater significance.

How many other people had the time and ability to fly down to Mexico and help a good friend realize his life goal? Or help a new friend realize how far beyond her limits she could push herself? How many other people were freezing up in colder climes while I was able to drive through some of God’s most thrilling countryside ‘neath nuclear skies, where most people don’t even fly over, let alone experience by land? And despite my physical remoteness, I was still in contact with my familiars around the world—in Brazil and Sweden and the US and South Africa—checking in on me, thinking about me, praying for me, loving me. All these little things.

“To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.”

There is more to the story. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving.

Snaps from the road:

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Select sounds from Day Two:

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Three Days in Mexico – Part One

Antique Mexico mapAt the spur of the moment, and in what I would consider to be a bit of cosmic planning, I found myself with some unexpected free time with which to head down Mexico way and drive the support car for my buddy Rogue Priest and friend as they cycled through the dry and dangerous northern borderlands between the Rio Grande and Monterrey.

Rogue’s epic journey—to bicycle the length of the Americas—combines adventure, danger, courage, spirituality, and heroism. His embodiment of these virtues (well, danger isn’t a virtue, but…) and his neverending quest for knowledge of all kinds are the reasons why I admire him, and why I agreed, offered, really, to be his support driver. Rogue opened up the Mexican portion of his quest―called The Fellowship of the Wheel―to the public and had a few interested parties sign on. Some backed out because of safety concerns; others agreed to join at points further down the road. But this first three-day stretch, with its forbidding terrain and criminal notoriety, required someone who understood the importance of the quest and who wouldn’t allow fear to interfere.

And so it was that I followed Rogue and Pixi south from Texas, crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico by foot from Laredo, a 10-minute jaunt for which the US Government charged 75 cents. Rogue met me in Nuevo Laredo with a smile and a hug, unable to look anything other than hopelessly American with his bicycle, and dashing my hopes of neutralizing our obvious foreignness with a little faux Dominican-ness of my own. The soggy, gray clouds lay thick and humid over the city as we trudged through the mildewed and crestfallen blocks of the old central business district looking for a rental car agency that was not where Google Maps said it would be, and I began my role as official translator when Rogue handed me the iPhone he waved about so liberally to confirm the exact address of the place (“What good is having a phone if not to donate it to those less virtuous than us?”).

Because of the complex nature of US-Mexico border relations, rental cars fall under a strange set of rules: only a select few rented in Texas can cross into Mexico, and even then, must stay within a certain distance from the border. Since we were taking the car just south of Monterrey, and therefore past the border threshold, we had to rent the car in Mexico, opting for returning the car to Nuevo Laredo rather than the more expensive one-way rental which would have allowed me to fly out of Monterrey three days later. But we were adventure seekers, and what kind of adventure would this have been without some sort of return dash north to La Frontera?

Car rented, I got directions to our CouchSurfing host’s house from Rogue and drove on ahead, getting accustomed to our silver Chevrolet Aveo and covering the distance in about 8 minutes that it took Rogue to cover in 15. In no time, he appeared and we stepped through a pair of wrought iron gates and past three cats and a dog into the house of sushi restauranteur and gentle giant, Scotch (who, at that very moment, was away managing one of his restaurants). There, among the visual noise of a modest Mexican homestead, I met quiet, reserved Pixi, who, like Rogue, hailed from the stoic wilds of the Upper Midwest (Minneapolis, to be exact…Rogue’s from ‘scahnsin). We then piled into the Aveo for trip provisions and a late lunch, as Scotch had promised a hearty dinner that evening.

The thing many people who don’t travel abroad fail to realize is just how Americanized life has become in many places around the world. Mexicans and Brazilians and South Africans and Malaysians and Germans all pull into the parking lots of big-box retailers in their SUVs to purchase American-inspired, Chinese-made groceries and household items. Disaffected teenagers swipe through Instagram on their smart phones while parents mull over which revamped Ninja Turtle toy to buy the kids. Sure, there are and will always be significant cultural differences, but in early November, in Mexico, leftover Halloween candy was still in the clearance bin and the Christmas decorations―replete with a rosy-cheeked Santa and fake snow―were being set up at the front of the H.E.B. supermarket in a strip mall in Nuevo Laredo. We stocked up on water, bananas, bran crackers, and tuna (with veggies!) for the road, then went to the Chinese take-out joint next door and ate greasy, plastic chicken and lo mein that sunk like the Hesperus in my stomach.

We capped off the night in Scotch’s dining room with scrumdiddlyumptious bowls of beef and rice stew, along with heaps of laughs and mostly-English conversation with his family about travel, music, and the general safety and sanity issues raised by a bicycle trip through northern Mexico: an arid and inhospitable hinterland pockmarked by gangs of drug- and human-traffickers, some even masquerading as “legitimate” law enforcement and setting up roadblocks to rob motorists, a most useful factoid on the eve of our excursion into said hinterland.

What seemed like a mere five hours later, just before 6am, we were up and out of the house, Rogue and Pixi on their bikes, peddling through the Saturday morning twilight at ten-to-fifteen miles per hour, me following behind in the Aveo, hugging the side of the road behind them with emergency flashers blinking and Janelle Monae hyping me up for the journey ahead. Initial fatigue aside, the excitement of supporting a good friend of mine on his life-quest, with the heightened sense of adventure associated with traveling through Narcolandia, kept me alert at the wheel. As the sun rose higher into the cloudless sky, I could sense the cosmic approval of this endeavor; we were going to be okay.

Not that our―or their, rather―safety was always readily apparent. On the multilane highway heading southwest from Nuevo Laredo, 18-wheelers flew by at astronomical speeds, often belching black clouds of exhaust and kicking up dust into Rogue’s and Pixi’s faces. Sometimes, the two had to ride single-file on the jagged edge of the road, dodging debris and potholes; I even had to keep a sharp eye out for abrupt slow-downs so as not to accidentally run over my own daring charges with the Aveo. Still, with me behind them, vehicles tended to give Rogue and Pixi a wider berth, often changing lanes completely and respectfully, with nary a beep or a toot. Typically, all heads in a passing vehicle or standing along the road turned in our direction, some spectators even waving, but all with a look on their faces that seemed to say “¿que carajo are these fools doing?”

The objective of the day was to get as far away from the border, and out of perceived danger, as quickly as possible, reaching the town of Sabinas Hidalgo―85 miles away―by afternoon’s end. The chosen route, the toll-free and therefore curvier and more-heavily-traveled version of Highway 85, spanned the fertile flatlands of the Rio Grande before the leafier, more vivid foliage gave way to paler greens and the spiky flora of the scrublands. By mid-morning, the sun burned hot overhead, a heat lamp quietly and deceitfully roasting the immediate environment while the actual air temperature remained mild, and every bird seemed, for a split second, to resemble a vulture. Yellow wildflowers clung boldly to the sides of the road and golden butterflies fluttered like confetti over the roadway, especially once the number of lanes dwindled to two.

Rogue and Pixi pedaled and pushed themselves along the route, their long-sleeved shirts shielding them from the sun and remaining virtually dry in the near-desert air, me rolling behind in relative luxury, South African house DJ Black Coffee’s rhythmic wizardry as much in place on the golden plains of Nuevo León as in the orange hills of KwaZulu-Natal. We stopped every hour along the route, chatting for a few minutes about their impressive progress while bladders were emptied and water bottles refilled. I respected them incredibly for their bravery and drive in this undertaking, and not for a single moment did I wish to be changing places with either of them at any time during the trip.

It was just before noon when we stopped at the first respectable-looking, and open, restaurant we came to along the route. While the front door gaped wide and the “Open” (yes, in English) sign was illuminated, not a solitary car occupied the muddy parking lot, but we decided to take a chance anyway. We’d settled around the table for totopos when the clock struck 12 and darnit if the place didn’t fill up with hungry truck drivers, relieving us of our apprehension about eating in a tiny diner in god-knows-where without any customers. But then, I guess it would have already been too late for us had there been any truly sinister shenanigans at that place.

Three full stomachs later, we hopped back onto the road, our sights set on Sabinas Hidalgo and an early arrival into town. About two hours later, though, as the afternoon sun beat down on the adventurers and the terrain started inching upwards, Pixi decided that she would join me in the cool, conditioned air of the Aveo, leaving Rogue to continue ahead of us on his own. Personally, I couldn’t blame Pixi―as I said, I had zero inclination to peddle even a tenth as far as she did…and this is due to falling off my bike in front of a bus at age 16…I’m scarred―and Rogue didn’t either; she had come over 60 miles of tough terrain and should be proud of the effort.

And so we pushed on, away from the US and ever deeper into Mexico. Shortly thereafter, weathered road signs welcomed us at last to Sabinas. At the leading edge of town, just as rain-heavy clouds closed in and the incline became ever steeper, we stopped for gas and snacks. I couldn’t resist a sliver of cheesecake in the freezer case labeled “Pay de Queso” (the “pay” pronounced “pie”), but I hadn’t been resisting much during the entire trip. I’m a grazer and had torn through half the box of bran crackers and at least five pouches of tuna during that day’s drive, and I hadn’t peddled an inch. But it seemed like every ten minutes, I was reaching to put something in my mouth. I vowed to stop the insanity after just that one slice of “pay.”

Pixi and I hopped back into the car and followed Rogue into town. The road became a city street, cross-streets and driveways depositing slow-moving small-town traffic onto the thoroughfare. We passed through the main commercial strip, banks and drugstores and gas stations and cocinas mexicanas on both sides. The local Church’s Chicken-cum-Subway stood proudly and colorfully as one of, if not the, newest buildings in town, a sign that modern globalization had not forgotten about little Sabinas Hidalgo.

Rogue peddled and I drove, exchanging glances with Pixi when Rogue seemed to be unsure of which route to take to our hotel, and unsure ourselves of the name and address of the place, necessary facts for any GPS search. Yet our trust in Fearless Leader unwavering, we ended up at the decrepit, yet still somehow cozy Hotel Las Turbinas, a small motor lodge located on the far end of town that glowed Dr. Seuss pink in the waning afternoon sunlight.

After a quick bed bug spot-check and verification of internet access at least somewhere on the premises, Day One was done.

To be continued…

Snaps from the road:
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15588723408_0c1a517835_z15772267581_6323ab8078_z15588676218_c496aae562_z15588982117_8e5f63140c_zSelect sounds from Day One:



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Welcome Home: My Introduction to South Africa

South Africa or Southern Georgia? Babylonstoren, Western Cape.

South Africa or Southern Georgia? Babylonstoren, Western Cape.

“Welcome Home” was a refrain I heard often during my two week trip through South Africa.

I heard it from Sandro, our tour van driver who was built like a linebacker and hipped me to house music maestro and native son Black Coffee. I heard it from a young travel assistant with cornrows who rerouted my return from Cape Town so I’d be able to visit the beach city of Durban. I heard it from porters on the Blue Train, from fellow diners at an eatery in Soweto, anywhere there were people who recognized me as black American and conscious enough of our shared histories. It might have been a throwaway line for some, but it felt good to hear; I’ve only been “Welcome[d] Home” to the United States twice, ever.

Despite my desire to visit sub-Saharan Africa, the country of South Africa was perhaps a strong third or fourth place on the list: I felt a visit to Ghana or Nigeria or Senegal first would better speak to my own cultural history as a black American and give me more of an authentic, and admittedly ill-defined, “African” experience than would a country which only emerged from tyrannical white-minority rule a mere two decades ago and had been listed alongside Brazil, Russia, India, and China among the world’s biggest emerging economies. Oh, what a foolish assumption to make.

What I found was a country with a people so rich in complexions, ethnicities, and languages that I didn’t feel out of place for a moment. I found a country with an incredible music scene, including Zulu-and-Indian-influenced, and an accompanying love for black American soul divas. I found a country with wizened grandmas serving the side-eye of life, and saucy young things dropping English attitude with “swee-ty” and “this one chick” and “Can we organize some coffee here?” I found a country with terrain both otherworldly and intimately familiar, a country of silver mornings and golden afternoons, of moon rocks and Georgia clay.

And I found a country where the younger generations, no matter the complexion or ethnicity or language or even previous forced homeland, feel like they each have a hand in building a new nation.

To them, all of South Africa is home.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from Fly Brother’s recent journey to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. And please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Air and Opportunity: World Domination Summit 2014

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A lesson from the very first WDS. It’s only just now sinking in.

Back in grade school, whenever there was static between any of the kids, one of the favorite refrains spouted by the mouthier of the two was, “ain’t nothing between us but air and opportunity.” Of course, this was said as a stalling tactic, as neither of the kids wanted to be the first to throw a punch. But the concept still resonates with me to this day:

There is nothing in front of me but air and opportunity.

I actually vocalized a version of that phrase this past weekend at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. Despite the snarkily ominous name, this annual two-day conference, organized by unconventional non-conformist Chris Guillebeau, is all about out-of-the-box thinking, positive energy, personal (and professional) connections, and do-gooding. I had the absolute good fortune to be at the first WDS in 2010, a moment of  dare I say  magic, where a few hundred current and would-be world changers got together, with no expectations, to reaffirm that it is indeed okay to forge one’s own path, and to see what kind of impactful projects can come from allying with like-minded individuals.

Let me be clear: at almost $500, the ticket price isn’t cheap. I’ve heard people say that it’s cheaper than other conferences, but many of those people seem unable to relate to those of us with finite financial resources and who rarely attend conferences. But the fellowshipping and inspiration that happen at this event makes WDS a downright steal; it’s an investment in self. And this event allows volunteers to attend sessions and associated events for free, so there are ways to access the magic without going broke.

But the magic, nay power, of possibility is what it’s all about. At that first conference, all of us were attracted to or intrigued by Chris’ mastery of travel hacking and his quest to visit every country in the world by his 35th birthday. The speakers inspired the attendees in unexpected ways, and I ended up meeting gracious and engaging long-term travelers Jo and Marvin of Intrepid Motion, gregarious Rog Law, freshmaker Abe Cajudo, fly sista Nailah Hayward, and humble heartthrob Mike Hrostoski, just as the seeds of his new career as a life coach were being planted. I also encountered a trifecta of powerful, electric ladies  Karen Walrond, Desiree Adaway, Pam Slim  who have subsequently been incredibly inspirational and instrumental in my personal and professional development, and who I love talking to any chance I get. The major takeaway was that I already had everything I need for greatness. I am believed in, even when my own confidence in self flounders.

This year, I was able to reconnect with some of the incredible people I met first go round, but I also had the double pleasure of meeting a slew of interesting folks (including three fans of Fly Brother), as well as connecting with good friends from other places and times in my life who happened to be attending WDS as well. Some of the speakers were better than others, but I didn’t go for them; I went to meet, and meet up with, people.

But what does all this connecting mean? It means gleaning wisdom from free-thinkers and people desirous of seeing others succeed. It means thinking about my own career as a writer, educator, speaker, and traveler in ways that I had never considered before. It means knowing that I already have everything I need for greatness. It means there is nothing in front of me but air and opportunity.

One of the young ladies I met the first day of the conference, a fly sister and reader of the blog, mentioned to me that she’d just quit her office job and, when I asked her what she planned to do next, she said “there’s nothing in front of me.”

I said, “No…there’s air in front of you. You’re flying.”

Air and opportunity.

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I Am Afraid

Doubt and Fear

I am afraid.
I’m afraid of choosing the wrong path.
I’m afraid of getting lost.
I’m afraid of regret.
I’m afraid of missing out.
I’m afraid I’m not smart enough.
I’m afraid of being inarticulate.
I’m afraid of being ridiculous.
I’m afraid of being mediocre.
I’m afraid of never being a published author.
I’m afraid of being a published author, but a commercial (or worse, critical) failure.
I’m afraid I won’t ever realize my full potential.
I’m afraid of always being broke.
I’m afraid of fucking up.
I’m afraid my people – black people – will always be marginalized, forever, and that people – non-black people – really just don’t give a shit.
I’m afraid of people – guys, mostly – acting “funny” because I’m gay.
I’m afraid of losing my looks.
I’m afraid there’s not enough time.
I’m afraid of getting fat again.
I’m afraid I have ADD (seriously, I can’t focus for shit).
I’m afraid of getting physically or mentally ill.
I’m afraid of Alzheimer’s and strokes and shitting on myself.
I’m afraid of getting old.
I’m afraid of the 21st Century (WTFITCS?!).
I’m afraid of losing loved ones before I’m ready to let them go.
I’m afraid of disappointing my parents.
I’m afraid of cheating on my partner.
I’m afraid of catching something when people don’t cover their mouths when they cough.
I’m afraid of becoming bitter.
I’m afraid of not living my best life.

I am afraid every single fucking day of my life. Because all of these risks, dangers, challenges, troubles, and eventualities are real, possible, probable. And so what? Am I supposed to stay in bed until time to go to work at a dead-end job, eating store-brand ice cream and masturbating, afraid to step outside my door? Hardly.

It’s not even a question of fighting fear, really. It’s walking right past that fear as if it didn’t exist. Not that fear doesn’t cause me anxiety, trepidation, or stress. But it’s useless anxiety, trepidation, and stress, so there’s nothing left but to walk past it. And I do it every day. Because for every one of those fears, there’s an unfear – an unfear of flying, an unfear of going someplace where I don’t know the language, an unfear of asking strangers for help, an unfear of engaging in passionate discussions about life, an unfear of escaping my comfort zone, an unfear of trying – I am just as unafraid as I am afraid. More unafraid, even. It’s true; sometimes, the forces of fear win a battle or two. But it’s unfear that has the nuclear bomb in its arsenal.

I repeat: I am unafraid.

You repeat: I am unafraid.

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Special, heartfelt thanks to Mike Hrostoski, men’s coach and powerlifting yogi, who openly discusses his fears as he prepares for his first ever Conference for Men, and to soul brother and secret superhero Rogue Priest, whose spiritual and worldly musings regularly inspire in me reflection and awe.

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

The Not-So-Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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On a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the modern film adaptation of a Depression-era short story about an unremarkable everyman stricken by sporadic daydreams of heroism. In the story, mundane tasks inspire epic flights of fancy in the mind of the protagonist, who appears zoned out to the rest of the world. The film, however, takes a mild-mannered photo developer for Life magazine out of his fantasies and sends him on a dizzying adventure to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan. Actually, the film takes us along for the ride.

To be certain, seeing Walter Mitty, mousy and unsure, morph into a ruggedly handsome philosopher-hero is to witness Hollywood cliché. And it’s easy to dismiss as corny the abridged Life magazine mantra displayed throughout the film (see image above). But on that airplane, I drank in every panoramic mountain vista, swam in every lush measure of the soundtrack, and swallowed whole each word of that mantra, because I am a true believer. I know first-hand the power of travel, of conquering fear, of exploring the unknown, of accomplishing the extraordinary. But more, I’ve been blessed to interact with, to be drawn closer to other people who also know this power intimately. Extraordinary people who give little girls the world in the form of a small, blue, 32-page book with an eagle on the front. People who coach men on becoming better men, who kayak down the coast of Texas in search of solace and solitude, who supply menstrual pads to school-aged girls in developing countries, who move to New York then Buenos Aires then Boston when the mood strikes, or whose hobby is slowly but steadily becoming a profession. People raising their biracial daughters or autistic sons as single mothers in foreign countries or foreign cultures, who unexpectedly fall in love with a certain city and then make that place home, who connect compatriots worldwide, who capture the essence of life for posterity. People who do oh so many more extraordinary, epic things.

The examples are all around us; it’s really no secret at all. An epic life, an extraordinary life isn’t just for the movies. And it isn’t just for people who throw off the yoke of conventionality to go live in Bali and trade stocks over the Internet. It’s about recognizing epic moments that already happen in your life – running on the beach, hugging a loved one, laughing with friends – and embracing them, then devising a way to maximize the frequency and duration of epic-ness in your life. It’s not always easy, and right now, it may only be five minutes a week. But in a few weeks, months, years, extraordinary could be your new ordinary. Walter Mitty reminded me that, despite my own fears, inadequacies, conflicts, or difficulties, extraordinary is already my ordinary. I plan on keeping it that way.

So, who’s down for a trip to Greenland?

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

How I Became an American Douchebag at the Great Wall of China (Despite Good Home-Training and My Best Intentions)

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Douche-y American teeth.

“Hey you,” the vending lady barked at us. “You buy souvenir.”

“No, no, thank you.” I said, as politely as I could, pressing my lips together in that unintentionally patronizing, very American way. She stalked off, muttering not quite under her breath. I didn’t understand the words, but I understood the meaning. We were being cussed out in Mandarin.

Over the next few minutes, as we moved from the ticket booth to the entrance of the gondolas that would take us to the Great Wall of China, women in jeans and sweatshirts approached us in brusque English, insisting that we purchase a souvenir book or a set of postcards or a Chinese fan. And with each rebuff, they’d turn away abruptly and say something to the others that would either elicit a laugh or a hmph from the group. My traveling companions and I all looked at each other, not wanting to be rude but wanting to be rid of the hassling. We’d come to see the Wall, not to be pressured into buying overpriced kitsch.

One lady in particular, however, had a different approach. She calmly asked us if we would consider taking a look at her souvenirs on our way back down from the Wall. Responding to her relatively polite demeanor, I told her that we’d think about it, but no guarantees. She then said that she’d be heading up to the Wall as well and that she’d see us up there. I said that was fine, but we weren’t promising that we’d buy anything. She disappeared and we hopped into a couple of gondolas for the ride up to the Wall.

Swaying a few hundred feet in the air over steep, verdant hills, we could see an unpaved pathway running parallel to the gondola route, the woman who I’d last spoken to and her friend trekking along it at a brisk pace. The gondolas, however, moved slowly, granting us striking views of the undulating hills crested by the Wall, but also giving the saleswomen time to reach the landing and offer their hands to help us alight.

A gravel path led the hundred or so yards from the gondola landing to the Wall and the ladies trailed us, hanging back a few feet and talking to each other. Meanwhile, our little group decided to take a few pictures before climbing onto the Wall itself. The women offered to take our pictures for us, the one I’d been talking to speaking quite good English and the other not speaking much at all. But we declined, knowing that we’d be expected to pay for that offer. I reiterated our intention to consider her wares at the end of our visit, but not promising to buy anything.

Still, she followed at a respectful distance, offering unsolicited but informative insights about the length of the Wall and on which side lay Mongolia. We walked up the stairs and onto the Wall in silence, awed by the ancient and imposing energy of the thing. The overcast day and remote location of this particular piece of the Wall meant very few visitors that day; the saleswoman explained, matter-of-factly, that because of the low tourist turnout, the vendors were all strapped for customers and, therefore, cash. She said that most of the women, herself included, had been farmers in the nearby villages, but could make more money with the increased tourist trade, as more and more foreigners visited China. I understood and appreciated her straightforwardness, thinking that, unlike the others, she understood how to approach a potential customer and that I’d at least consider buying something small.

My companions and I walked up and down the waves of the Wall, still awe-struck, stopping to take pictures of each other and the landscape and stones and turret windows and Chinese flags atop sentry towers. The tension between our group and the saleswomen gradually eased and I asked the lady I’d been talking to how her English became so good. She said she’d had lots of practice with tourists. Her friend followed along silently, offering a helping hand intermittently when we came to the un-restored portion of the Wall, covered with loose and jagged stones. I kind of felt bad for her, because I knew she’d be expecting something for following us around and I knew she’d most likely be getting nothing for her trouble, bless her heart.

Damp with sweat from our surprisingly strenuous trek up and down a length of the Wall (in China, in August, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity), my group started to commiserate about what we’d try to pay the woman I’d been talking to for her friendliness and guidance on the Wall. We decided on 30 yuan, admittedly not much, but enough for a couple of super-sized combos at McDonald’s or two tall, skinny lattes at Starbucks. None of us were interested in the kitsch, especially at Great Wall prices.

At last, the moment of truth: We announced our intention to return to base camp (i.e. the parking lot) and offered the 30 yuan to the woman I’d been talking to. She immediately insisted that we buy one of her souvenir books at 100 yuan. We immediately said no, offering her the 30 again. She lowered her price for the book to 80 and we said no again and started walking towards the gondola landing, still offering her the 30. Her friend followed along, saying nothing but holding fans and postcard books toward us. She still didn’t seem to want to take the 30 yuan, or the hint that we wouldn’t be buying anything.

Then we tried to board the gondola but got stopped by the attendant. “Your ticket is one-way only. Forty yuan to go down.” (We really should have looked that up before leaving home.)

So, 45 to enter the place upon arrival, 40 to go up to the Wall, and now 40 to come back down. I muttered not quite under my breath, “man, now I know I ain’t buyin’ shit.” The ladies continued to beseech us loudly to buy something. The woman said that there was a cheaper way down to the parking lot; we could walk and then have money to buy something. Exasperated, bamboozled, and with credit card swiped, I said, loudly (not yelled, mind you), “No! You want money to come in here, money to go up, money to go down, no more money. We aren’t rich!”

One of my friends asked the woman, “Do you want this 30 yuan or not?” She had about 30 seconds to make up her mind before we hit them gondolas and she quietly accepted the money. Then, as we boarded, she said “You come see my store at bottom,” and turned towards the path beneath the gondola wires.

“Damn, you try to be nice…” I said, thinking that this must be how it feels for women who try to politely fend off unattractive suitors, when said suitors just don’t get the damn hint. Maybe it’s just better to be a bitch up front.

We passed the ladies on the way down and, once on the ground, joked about needing to run before they caught up with us. Not a New York minute later, they caught up to us on bikes, flying out of the trees like vampires or CGI zombies or whatever brand of swiftly moving undead you’d care to liken them to. I could feel a blood-curdling scream bubble up in my throat, but what actually escaped my mouth and reverberated throughout the otherwise-quiet valley was a corpulent “God dammit!”

Our group remained silent and walked the half-mile or so towards the car, ignoring the ladies on the bikes who just would. not. give. up. We hastily walked the gauntlet, past a row of shabbily arranged souvenir and drink stands, each proprietor holding out her merchandise and yelling “Hey” at us. The silent woman got to her stand first and silently, desperately held out some cookies toward us. There was anguish in her face as we passed her by with shrugs.

The woman I’d been talking to finally reached her booth and said, “Come on, friend, you buy book for 60!” As we passed by, I couldn’t even look directly at her anymore, catching the pained expression on her face in my peripheral vision, as if her I were her best elementary school friend who had dropped her to hang with the cooler kids on the first day of junior high.

And as I write this, I realize that I never even asked the woman’s name.

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In Search of the Real

Chinese women

Which one of these two women represents the real China?

In response to someone who told me I hadn’t been to the real China because I didn’t visit a hutong:

People like to say that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing these days don’t represent the real China, with their modern skyscrapers, ubiquitous Starbuckses, and global influence. The real China is rice paddies and opium dens, Little Red Books and old ladies with bound feet, straw hats and bicycles and dragon lanterns, right?

When people who fancy themselves “travelers, not tourists,” visit foreign countries for the first time, they often verbalize their desire to see the real place. The real Paris. The real Brazil. The real Australian Outback. (Though, I concede to not hearing very many people expressing a yen for the real Orlando.) In my opinion, this quest for authenticity is as romantically futile as it is superficial – places, like people, are multidimensional entities that embody contradictions and eschew easy categorizations.

In the present, more than at any other time in history, the emergence of a global urban culture has transformed, if not usurped to some degree, the local “authentic” culture of cities. And while that global culture is indeed dominated, somewhat shamefully, by American hegemony, it is still the local incarnation of global culture that visitors to the world’s largest cities encounter – homegrown fast-food chains next door to McDonald’s, hip hop artists rhyming in Yoruba or Finnish or Bahasa Indonesia, jeans and sneakers and hoodies everywhere – evidence that anything can become tradition, given time.

True, once-unique locales have begun homogenizing, morphing into glass-and-steel clones of New York or – gasp – Dubai, with air conditioned shopping malls housing branches of the same mid-range-to-luxury goods purveyor found in commercial centers the world over.

But this is the world we live in now. Yuppies in Beijing use smart phones to order Thai takeout to watch in front of their flat-screen TVs. Students in São Paulo organize anti-corruption protests via Facebook, likening themselves to anti-corruption protesters half a world away in Turkey. It’s the technology that’s connecting us as well as conditioning us into a state of global citizenship (with its concomitant dark side, global consumerism).

Nonetheless, are these places any less real because the people who live there utilize products and services that may not be homegrown, or that many more people in a given country live in abject poverty? Is New York any less American, Paris any less French, or Bangkok any less Thai because of globalization? And does a visitor to the U.S. need to spend a night in the hood or a trailer park to experience the real America? I think far too many people conflate realness in travel with slumming, or at the very least, with what the “average” [insert nationality here] person does or doesn’t do. Every place on the planet is comprised of conflicting realities, one no less real than the other.

What I experience when I travel is as real as it gets, be it an hours-long conversation at a Krispy Kreme in Seoul or comparing dance moves in front of a chaiwala in Mumbai. It’s through genuine human interaction and an openness to learning that I get to know the real place, the real people. And that means first letting go of my own preconceived notions of realness and authenticity.

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

 

Image sources: Lauren Nelson & Eightfish

Fly’s Been Getting Around

Fly Brother in the AirThough I haven’t been very active here on the blog over the past few months, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been active on the interwebs. In fact, I’ve been doing some professional blogging and had a few travel-related items published all over the place.

Viator
Most recently, I’ve penned a couple of posts about Rio for art lovers, climbing Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano, and getting around Colombia on tour company Viator’s “Things to Do” blogs.

TripAdvisor
Heading to São Paulo and don’t know what to do? Check out my expertly curated city guides at TripAdvisor, or download one of the São Paulo walking tours I devised on partner website EveryTrail.

Travel Channel.com
Need more SP pointers? Take a gander at my posts about São Paulo’s nightlife, its nearby beaches, and how South America’s biggest city gets down during Carnival.

Tech Page One
This is an unlikely venue, but Chris Colin (one of the freshest writers in the game) interviewed me about travel and race, a major theme of this blog, for Dell Computer’s Tech Page One site.

Travel Channel (not .com)
Some of you may have already seen me on an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Jamaica Bared” show. If not, here’s a clip below. Look for Fly Brother to appear yet again on the small screen in the coming months. ;-)


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Life on the Road

Since July, I’ve been to nine countries on five continents, and I don’t think I’ve spent more than five nights in any one location, with the exception of a 7-day cruise with my family where my movement was essentially limited to the Lido Deck.

During these past two months, I’ve had immovable work deadlines and perilously-late paychecks, last-minute press trips and schmooze-soaked travel conferences, a sobering near-breakup and a sobering death in the family. I’ve juggled professional, personal, and social spheres, seeing friends and family whenever I could and taking on writing assignments as frequently as possible. I have pressures to maintain a positive cash flow, maintain a long-distance relationship, maintain personal relationships, maintain professional growth, maintain a blog and a social media presence, maintain my physical health, maintain my sanity. My fingernails are bitten down to the bloody cuticle. ‘Taint no vacation we’re talking about here.

Life on the road is still life—uncut and unadulterated life, with bills, headaches, disappointments, and unrealized goals. At the end of the day, uncompleted items remain on each to-do list, and at the end of the month, a few days on the bank statement inevitably glow red (for now). But it’s the hope for a fulfilling life that keeps me advancing through air and uncertainty instead of coasting on autopilot through a manufactured existence in service to someone who isn’t me but who profits from my talents and resources. It’s the hope that I’ll eventually get as close to “figuring it all out” as I can, that the effort and striving and leaps of faith will turn into something materially-tangible, yes, but more than that—something soul-calming. Something fulfilling. With as few regrets as possible.

Because there’s nowhere any of us can go to escape uncut and unadulterated life, no country or continent where real life won’t intrude suddenly and without warning. The key to hope—and fulfillment—is to embrace, then face the challenges, tackling each one like a wave on the ocean of adventure.

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