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.

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The Not-So-Secret Life of Walter Mitty

thepurposeoflife

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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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Fly Brother Makes Splash North of the Border…

…and South! Two tiny splashes, really.

The Montreal Gazette just published an article about resources for non-white, non-Christian travelers and quoted/linked yours truly (along with my good peeps I’m Black and I Travel, Intrepid Motion, and Oneika the Traveller).

AND, this month, stylish new iPad travel guide Handstand features a lovely little article about modernist architecture in downtown São Paulo, also by yours truly.

There’s more to come, dear readers!

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me on Facebook
! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Fly Favorites: April 2012

Paulistano hip-hop scion Criolo
You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

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Represent Your Set

Friends do crazy sh*t together.

Sometimes, when you stop just for a second and take stock of the people in your life, you really do have to quietly thank the cosmos for what truly is the blessing of friendship. Many people have a set of good friends that they’ve built over the years through shared experiences in high school or college, on sports teams, in church or at work. Sometimes, these friendships last for many years, sometimes not so many—reason, season, lifetime and whatnot. Mostly, though, they’re established based on geography, which makes sense, since frequent personal interaction is what facilitates the friendship in the first place. In my case, geography is even more of a factor in the friendships I’ve forged over time, specifically because of its frequently changing nature in my life.

I’ve lived in six cities and traveled to three-dozen countries in my 34 years, and I’m actually kind of humbled when I think about the number of quality friends that I’ve made in that time. Some are people I’ve worked with or worked for, or traveled with or hosted or CouchSurfed with. Some I met on the beach in Rio, on the seafront promenade in Havana, on the subway in Paris. A few are from college; fewer from high school (I was an unpopular nerd…oh, but times done changed).

And who are these people? Telenovela and film stars in Bogotá, DJs and journalists in São Paulo, teachers and lawyers in Tallahassee, bloggers and nightclub coat-check clerks in Berlin, special-needs educators in Stockholm, die-hard road dogs in Miami and NY and DC and Jacksonville who can remember each and every one of my previous incarnations and still put up with me anyway. And my actual family’s pretty damn great, too.

Thanks to Skype and cheap airfares, I’m able to maintain and even expand my set beyond physical boundaries. And even when circumstances and logistics call for long pauses between interaction, it only takes a second to fall back into the familiar rhythm and easy laughs (or arguments) that drew us together in the first place. My set isn’t bound by geography or circumstance, but by respect, admiration, affection, and kinship.

So to all my fly peeps the world over, I love you folks and am forever grateful for the $50 that you never pressed me about paying back! ;-)

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