Friday, December 19, 2008

Travlin' Music

I was in college when I first started traveling frequently by plane, between Florida and the Northeast on Delta or the defunct MetroJet by USAirways. This was the late 90s and my musical horizons, already broad for having grown up with a band directing father and a soprano-singing mother, were being expanded even further beyond R&B and Miami bass by the international students I interacted with on my internship program in DC, and by a good buddy who studied in Boston and put me onto his own discoveries. Now, electronic (particularly drum-and-bass and lounge/chillout) and world music have become the staples of my aural diet.

One of the first groups to catch my ear and have a permanent space on the playlist was Sade's band, Sweetback. Their self-titled first album dropped in 1996, chock full of songs originally written for their Afro-British muse but sung on this CD by neo-soulsters like Maxwell and Amel Larrieux. Two instrumental tracks, however, have a special transportative power and, when listened to on an airplane, seem to progress at the same speed as the plane traveling over the Earth. "Chord" gives you daytime Atlanta-to-DC while "Walk of Ju" takes you over New York and Philly at night. Ignore the videos and just listen.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


So, in spite of an intense desire to my last US home base amidst the radiant energy of a socio-political paradigm shift, and a $550 ticket from Colombia to NYC (close enough) for the occasion, I have concluded that it's probably in my best (financial) interest not to go to the inauguration in DC. I would have had to borrow money or be sponsored to every event I went to, mooching off of my very hospitable friends, but still starting 2009 in debt, which is never a good idea. My Brazil trip can't be cancelled because I'm going with friends and taking advantage of that cheap airfare would mean taking four days of unpaid leave from my job to comply with the flight dates. Like I said in the comments on my "Decisions" post, the cold or the crowds weren't reasons to stay fact, I was looking forward to being squeezed on the Metro with thousands of other people - Americans of every ilk - excited about a new chapter in our country's history, smiling from excitement and shouting "Yeah!" and "Yes We Can!" and "Obama!" before even exiting the station. I was looking forward to the parties and the conversations and the old and new friends I'd meet and the job offers I'd get (truly) and the photos I'd take and witnessing political anticipation buzzing through the proletariat. But, like this year's Olympics and Sade's last concert (waaaaay back in 2001), I'll have to chalk up missing the inauguration to another instance of not being able to do it all.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

From the AV Room: Rio de Janeiro

No, they don't show the crime and poverty; you can watch City of God for that. Just look, listen, absorb. When I see the people waving at the end, I always get a lump in my throat and find myself smiling. That's saudade.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


So, the plane ticket to the inauguration of our noble president-elect, Barack Hussein Obama, costs around $800. If I spend it, I'll miss out on:

-Three days of work, unpaid.
-Either a Buenos Aires or Salvador da Bahia add-on to my end-of-the-year romp in Brazil.
-A trip to Cuba in February with some of my best friends from the States.
-New York for Spring Break.
-A new digital camera (the one I have now is very "first generation").
-A new iPod (well, an iPod, as I currently don't own one and this Discman is looking more and more like an 8-track player every day).
-Possibly Mexico in March with another one of my cool peeps.

Now, I know you're thinking that all these things couldn't possibly be worth $800, which is true when considering the individual price of each item. However, when taking into account the accrued interest, fees, and surcharges that go along with robbing Peter to pay Paul, the end amount spent becomes compounded.

If I do go, I'll be making a long-overdue and much-needed visit to Washington, where I lived as a sometime political operative before moving to Colombia. I'll be amongst virtually all of my very best friends in life (and get to see my undergrad university especially represented since our band, the world-famous Marching 100, has been invited to perform). And we'll be witnessing the one and only time that the first black president of the United States is sworn into office. I mean, I'm the history teacher for chrissakes...shouldn't I be there for this one and only history-making life-changing event?

I have to decide by next week.


Note: If this post sounds strange and flighty to you, then you should know that I am indeed a sufferer of vagabond neurosis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Faces of Tragedy

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 from JFK to Santo Domingo crashed in a residential area of Queens, killing all aboard and five on the ground. On October 23, 2006, a fire ripped through a packed city bus in Panama City, Panama, killing eighteen people, mostly women and children. I was reminded of these two events by this post on writer Lara Dunston's cool travel guide. In the post, Lara talks about her stay at Mumbai's recently-attacked Taj Mahal Palace Hotel years ago, having lunched and shopped at some of the places that are now the scenes of incalculably inhumane carnage. Having seen people engage each other, going about the banalities of daily life in these places, tragedies like last week's attacks or the 2001 plane crash or the 2006 bus explosion become much more visceral; you can relate to the people because you've seen their faces.

For me, September 11 was an abstract event, seen from Miami on the same TV screens where violent video games and action flicks and cop reality shows parade incessantly. I processed the events cerebrally and intellectually. After all, I was literally a thousand miles away, knew no one who worked in or lived around Lower Manhattan at the time, and had already confirmed the safety of the few friends I did know then living in New York. I was angry and scared and insecure like most people, and I had seen pictures and footage of the victims on the news. Still, I had no real connection to the event because I had no clue of how the towers looked from up-close, how the air smelled, how the doormen or cleaning ladies would smile or snarl at the secretaries as they entered the building just before or just after their bosses. I couldn't relate.

But I had been on a flight to the Dominican Republic by the time Flight 587 crashed just after take-off three months later. I had been on several, enough to notice a large number of children on every flight heading to the island to visit grandparents, cousins, friends, sometimes involuntarily. The first thing I thought when I heard the news of the crash were cherubic, tanned faces framed by dark Dominican curls, grinning gap-toothed smiles and speaking Noo Yowak-accented Spanglish. A good portion of the people on that flight were kids, I knew instinctively. And that hit me hard.

When I visited Panama over the Christmas holidays back in 2006, the citizenry was still in an uproar about the bus explosion, which occured in the middle of the street right in front of my hotel. The legal mechanisms of the country weren't moving fast enough to implicate the responsible parties, and old, faulty, "refurbished" American school buses were still being used for public transport in the city. And when the desk clerk at the hotel told me about the explosion, about how all but one of the eighteen people killed were women and children (this is unconfirmed, but I took her at her word), I immediately thought about the legions of plump grandmothers and aunts and church ladies in flowered dresses who would never have the energy and the strength required to scramble out of an inferno. At school and church back home in Florida, there were legions of grandmothers and aunts and church ladies who looked like the ones I saw walking the streets of Panama City, and I had to assume that these were the same types of ladies who burned to death on that bus. I couldn't shake the image from my mind.

In an age of media desensitization and relative human safety (compared to previous centuries of war and disease and saber-toothed tiger maulings), it's very easy to live most of your life looking at tragedies on the news and, as pointed out in Hotel Rwanda, say "what a shame" before turning back to your dinner. But you can't do that as easily when you've seen their faces.

This New York Times opinion piece puts another face on Mumbai.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Get Fly

A few years ago, edgy London-based airline Virgin Atlantic came up with a kitschy but cool marketing campaign aimed at Jetrosexuals, the breed of international traveler who "leaves terra firma behind each day to move business and culture forward." Though that particular campaign with its snazzy Bond-like mini-movies showcasing the amenities of each US-UK flight has run its course, I'm still enthralled by the idea of being a part of the new jet set, a group that isn't constrained by social norms or even financial limitations. Going global, being worldly, getting fly truly is all about the mindset - allowing a fleeting desire to taste the unknown manifest into a visceral, sensory, life-changing experience.

I'm a high school teacher, which is hardly a job that entails jetting up-front between Ny-Lon-and-Kong every week, crashing at this Hilton or that. But I move culture forward every day by virtue of just living abroad. Like it or not, in the classroom and in the street, I represent Americans in general, Black Americans in particular, Floridians who aren't from Miami, Southerners, English-speakers, people from the "First World" (hate that term), and just about any other category that can be identified one way or another by my birth, upbringing, or experience. I constantly challenge or confirm stereotypes and every moment is educational - for me, the person I encounter, or both. And having the power to shape and change perceptions positively and on an international level, to me, is fly.

Consider the impact you have on other people and whether or not you're influencing them positively. Even if, at this point, it's only on a local level with your feet planted squarely on terra firma, if what you do makes people feel good or brings a smile to their faces or inspires them to be better, then that's fly. But what's supa-dupa-fly is taking the show on the road (or to the skies, rather), flexing that passport, and accepting your role as lay ambassador with verve and aplomb.

And you don't have to be all slick and flashy in Trump-wear at the airport, but it does help if you're rolling with the fly carry-on.

11 Commandments of a Jetrosexual

Thursday, November 27, 2008

¡Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias!

Other than Christmas, Easter, and New Years' Day, Colombia and the United States do not share holidays. So for the last three years, I've spent the very American celebration of Thanksgiving Day with other expats eating turkey imported from Peru (which, incidentally, is the word for turkey in Portuguese). We have sweet potato pie and pumpkin cheesecake made by folks who've been scavenging the country for months to get the appropriate ingredients. Thanksgiving with friends isn't new to me - I haven't been home to Florida for the holiday in about seven years, opting for the less expensive and longer Christmas season to head south. And here, we drink wine and laugh and never have much time to get really nostalgic, considering it's a regular workday.

But for me, there's a slight strangeness at the fact that, back in the States, I would have probably never interacted with most of these people. When you live overseas, you form bonds with people in a way that never would have happened back home: my best friends in Washington were other young, upwardly-mobile, semi-bourgeois Black Americans with a sprinkling of three or four white classmates from my graduate program. In Bogotá, my best friends were (are) an actor from Ecuador, an Irish attorney steeped in hip-hop lore and Black American literature, a seventy-year-old Irish-American New Yorker who rode down to Alabama during Freedom Summer and has lived in Colombia for 40 years, a gay ex-Mormon missionary from Seattle who was sent to Colombia twelve years ago and never went back, and a stout Frenchman born in Malta to a British father who (the Frenchman) formerly ran an art gallery in Paris and now runs a Mexican restaurant in Bogotá.

Amazing who you meet on the outside. I'm thankful to the cosmos for these relationships and these experiences, which never would have happened had I never left the comfort of familiar surroundings. And I'm thankful for having been born in the United States, which issues a pretty strong passport that allows me to have these relationships and experiences.

Happy Thanksgiving, to all my fellow expats and to all my peeps stateside.

Prayers to all those affected by yesterday's terrorist attacks in Mumbai and by continued attacks and instability in the Middle East.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Where I've Been: Havana

Three times, legally, I've crossed the Straits of Florida to that elegant, aging lady lounging ninety miles to the south, Havana. Once the crown jewel of Spanish America, Havana was the primary point of entry for settlers and slaves and the last point of departure for the gold and sugar reaped from the depths of Spain's colonial empire. Now, the weathered dowager is home to around three million restless, educated, cultured, industrious souls who barely have five cents to make a dollar of, let alone fifteen. Cubans (on the island, not the exiles) are the physical embodiment of what's good and bad with the 49-year-old Castro regime: a well-educated, physically-fit, intellectually-sophisticated population with every basic human need provided for and absolutely none of the wants. Cubans keep their one good guayabera or Sunday dress sparkling clean and pressed, their one pair of patent leather pumps or loafers gleaming despite the torn insole or the worn-down heel. They stay clean and fragrant when there's barely any soap and sometimes share clothes with friends so as not to always be seen in the same outfit. They remain keenly aware of world events, despite hardly ever being allowed to leave their own island. They could be a street sweeper with a masters in engineering or an ecology-degree-holding fisherman. They could be a prostitute with a law degree who speaks five languages and the hope of one day using one of those languages when some European decides to take her away. They know all about Li'l Kim and Li'l Wayne, and they can identify a black American male by the li'l hop or pimp that we do when we're walking in "don't fuck with me" mode. They are easy to become friends with and will take you to their homes to meet their families and share with you the lil-bit-a-nuthin they have for dinner. They'll order food for you on the street to keep you from paying foreign prices. They'll take you to the beach and to the best ice cream place in town, Coppelia. No matter what age, they'll dance to 90s hip-hop and 40s mambo, and again, no matter the age, they celebrate everything with a rumba. They'll pick you up on the side of the road in their 1958 Studebaker and take you to the other side of the island, if that's where they're headed. They'll make you want to leave your suitcase of clothes for them when you leave, knowing you can replace everything on the outside. I did that once. And I also left my half-read copy of The Souls of Black Folk with an English teacher who worked at my hotel.

See, Cuba, in its virtual isolation from modern Western consumerism, has retained its blackness, more than any other place in the hemisphere except Haiti. You see Santería practiced openly. You see the swaying hips of Africa in every dance, salsa included. It's in their faces, their attitude, their friendliness, their loudness, their sense of humor. You see Tío Juancho and Pepe arguing just as fervently about politics/sports/women in the barbershop as Uncle Junebug and Pookie-nem, only in Spanish. And while you see lots of kids running around trying to be grown (the children are referred to as "futuro" - the future), you also see lots and lots of elders; they aren't locked away and kept from sight...they're out and about, dancing, flirting, remembering the past and participating in the present (I remember how one of my friends' elderly father thought I was an American fuckin cool is that?!).

I can't give you a post full of links to night spots and restaurants in Havana. All I can do is show you the paltry 20-some-odd photos to which I have digital access and hope that you're inspired enough to find a way to the island before it is opened completely to the utterly destructive power of mass tourism. While I wish for my brothers and sisters there to have the same rights and freedoms I do, I secretly rue the day when the dollar casts a death blow to the already waning innocence of these amazing people.

The photos are from 2003, when I attended and photographed a friend's beachfront wedding.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Points of Departure": A Little Inspiration

Just as there are destinations you “must visit before you die,” there are also must-do travel experiences. High on the list: traveling luggage-free.

“Will you be checking bags or just carrying on?”

The next time you respond to that question with a proud “neither” you’ll be embarking on one of the most enjoyable journeys of your life. Leave the house with nothing more than the clothes on your back. Arrive at the airport stopping only to grab a stack of new glossies, newspapers, and a bottle of water. Yes, it’ll feel like you’re doing something unnatural. Because everything is easier. Your fingers aren’t raw from carrying a bag. Your shoulders don’t ache. The security line seems almost tolerable! Sure, you still have to take off your shoes, but provided you didn’t wear lace-up boots (few people should) that should be easy enough to survive. And more than just enjoying the sense of luggage-free travel, you’ll be savoring that most crucial of all pleasure-travel emotions: impulsiveness.

We’ve all looked up at the itinerary board, rested our eyes on our destination and flight number, and then scanned up and down the flight list: Hong Kong, Cape Town, Dubai. What if I had chosen another destination? Is it too late to change my flight? What if I could just change my ticket to…Paris? Savor those urges, and promise yourself that sometime soon, you’ll just drive to the airport as is, and board a plane.

Safe travels.

John F. McDonald
Editorial Director & Publisher
CITY Magazine

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Doing the Math

Itau 19:06
Originally uploaded by anselmoportes
If you hate math, traveling overseas might be somewhat of a headache. You knew the balmy reputation of Jamaica before you booked the ticket, yet you packed a couple of sweaters, just in case, when you read the average temperature was 25 degrees. And you had to do a double-take when you noticed the flight departed at 18 o’clock. What the hell is 18 o’clock, anyway?

The United States is pretty much the oddball when it comes to numerical representations—still using weights and measures descended from the British imperial system (pounds, miles, feet and inches), Fahrenheit for temperature, and a twelve-hour am-pm clock instead of the metric system, centigrade temps, and “military time” used all over the rest of the world.

So to keep you on top of the numbers game when traveling abroad, I’ve provided a couple of handy equations that will give you equivalents for the most commonly required measurements. Yes, this involves addition, subtraction, and sometimes, multiplication and division. You might find a calculator to be especially nifty if you haven’t studied any of these operations since the sixth grade.

· Time: The 12 versus 24-hour clock
This one is easy. Most digital clocks outside of the United States (have you ever seen a traditional clock go past 12?) run on a continuous 24-hour time scheme, as does the US military. This means there’s no 6pm. There’s 18:00. The time between 1:00 and 11:59 is automatically considered morning, just as 12:00 until 12:59 is automatically considered afternoon. Once the clock strikes 13:00, the math part comes in. From every hour until 23:59, you’ll have to subtract 12 from the hour slot (18:00 – 12 = 6:00pm). The midnight hour goes from 0:00 to 0:59. Neat, right?

· Temp: Fahrenheit versus Centigrade
A Uruguayan math teacher taught me this trick. If you’re already overseas and the temperature is something like 32 degrees Centigrade, you simply multiply by two, then add 32 for an approximate temperature in Fahrenheit. So, 32 × 2 = 64 + 32 = 96. Don’t be fooled—water don’t freeze at 32°C. For the reverse, maybe 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you have to subtract 32, then divide by two. So, 32 – 32 = 0 ÷ 0 = 0°C. Brrrrr. (For the exact temperature, use 1.8 instead of 2 to multiply or divide).

· Distance: Miles versus Kilometers
Get your calculators out for this one. One mile equals 1.61 kilometers. That means, if the distance between the airport and the nearest Hilton is 100 miles, it is 161 kilometers away. 100 × 1.61 = 161 (I know, I did an easy one). For the reverse, if a distance is 145 kilometers, then you multiply by 0.62 to get the mileage. 145km × 0.62 = 89.9 miles.

· Altitude: Feet versus Meters
This one’s also for the big brains. One foot equals 0.3 meters. Damn. So someone six feet tall is only 1.8 meters (or 180 centimeters). 1 × 0.3 = 1.8. A meter, however, is 3.28 feet. That means if the altitude of a place is 3,000 meters, you’re actually 9,840 feet into the air. 3,000m × 3.28 = 9,840’.

· Weight: Pounds versus Kilos
For the muscleheads, most gyms overseas have weights in both pounds and kilos, and many of your fellow gym rats can give you approximate conversions. But in Brazil, for instance, the gyms feel like they’re far enough away from the United States that they don’t have to use pounds, and you may end up learning the hard way that 20 kilograms absolutely does not equal 20 pounds. The rough conversion is that one pound is almost half a kilo (actually 0.45), while one kilo is a little more than two pounds (2.21 to be exact). Anyone on a structured workout plan, which can be difficult to maintain while on the road, might need exact conversions, as rough approximations can grow rougher rather quickly. A 20-kilo dumbbell equals 44.2 pounds (20kg × 2.21 = 44.2lb), while a 20-pound dumbbell weighs 9 kilos (20lb × 0.45 = 9kg). Gastronomists can also use this equation for buying rice, grains, vegetables and such at super- and flea markets.

Happy measuring.

Extended Routes

In an update to my post about Delta Air Lines' new expanded service in Africa last month, just three days ago, the airline announced weekly and biweekly routes starting next June from Atlanta to Abuja, Nigeria; Luanda, Angola; and Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, all via Ilha do Sal, Cape Verde. The Atlanta-Johannesburg route will become nonstop and ATL-Nairobi will finally take off, as will the JFK-to-Lagos run.

I'm geet! Here's an updated map:

Monday, November 10, 2008


Two weeks ago, when I mailed off my absentee ballot, I did so with the anticipation of an impending Obama victory, where I'd cry tears of joy at the most important accomplishment a black American could attain in a country where we, for so often and for so long, were not counted as part of "we the people." I would play Sam Cooke's bittersweet "A Change Gon' Come" and call my friends and family back home and hoot and holler and say silly stuff like "us got us a pres'dent, nah!" (I did actually call my father and say that to him).

But when November 4 rolled around, I was nursing the wounds of a three-day old heartbreak, when the day after my birthday I was told by the person I was semi-dating in Bogotá that (long story short) they were going back to their ex because they "couldn't see a future" with me. And it's true, my plans are to move to Brazil at the end of my current work contract. There was nothing but logic and self-preservation behind that statement, that decision. And I was crushed.

Living overseas, it's very easy to drown in loneliness and cultural isolation. I live in a country full of black and brown people who look like me, but don't think at all like me; where the prevailing political tendency is very much to the right; where a large number of people don't bother to even learn my name, choosing the arguably rude appellation "el gringo" when referencing me. In fact, I live in probably the only country where the majority of the people wanted McCain to win the election; though in Colombia's defense, much aid from the US stands to be cut as Obama works to rebuild the country from within and that assistance is the basis for their bias. But in this sometimes hostile cultural environment, I was moved by one person who showed me concern, compassion, and above all, possibilities. No regrets; it was easy to fall in love.

And when the pollsters officially handed over the presidency of the "free world" to Brother Barack, I, caught up in my own personal knot of desire, allowed the single most important political event of my lifetime and of the last forty years to pass with little more than a raised eyebrow and a "good for him." I felt cheated out of the climactic fruition of hope and aspirations, while folks danced through tears in Times Square and in front of the White House. I was completely numb to the seismic paradigm shift whose epicenter lay, that night, in Chicago.

This, my friends, is one of the costs of exile.

And now, a week later, my wounds are healing and I can feel myself rebounding both stronger and wiser (clichés, I know), pero cada vez mejor. And I can feel, belatedly, the change radiating from up north. I can look in the mirror and see, belatedly, an All-American face where before, I only saw a nation-less, black face. Because the Face of America now looks like mine. And, belatedly but nonetheless, I can play "A Change Gon' Come."

Yes it is, y'all.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Voted!

And I'm perfectly euphoric. Today, I mailed in my absentee ballot, voting for president (B. Obama, of course), a Florida state senator, about six judges, the Duval County clerk of court, some folks for the soil and water commission, and on a couple of state constitutional amendments (including pro-non-citizen property ownership rights and pro-gay marriage).

I've done my duty. If Obama loses, so will be forever lost the modicum of faith I have in the U.S. electoral system and its citizenry, and I will never vote again. What would be the point after that? This, from a political science major and former political campaign operative turned international blogger.

Here's hopin'.

Meanwhile, if some foul shit goes down in Florida, if they try to hoodwink us, bamboozle us, lead us astray, or run us amock like in 2000, my girl Cyndi got proof that at least one vote was cast for Barack Obama in Dade County:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Routes to Our Roots

Yesterday, my favorite US airline, Delta, announced a new weekly flight from their hub in Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia, with a stop in fabulous Cape Verde. Not sure how much business travel there is between the States and either Cape Verde or Liberia, but I'm definitely hoping this route takes off. Now, Delta hasn't paid me anything to talk about this, but I'm compelled to because I appreciate their expansion efforts into Sub-Saharan Africa since 2007, the only major US airline to do so. Granted, there's eight months of uncertainty between now and the scheduled start date for the flights next summer, and Delta already canceled a planned route from New York to Lagos and postponed another to Nairobi, but I'm sure those are business decisions in the face of economic challenges instead of the airline reneging on its move to offer extensive service between the States and Africa (something not done since the '70s). The company seems to be testing the waters for lucrative destinations on the continent, which means there might be some wishy-washiness, but I'm still excited about the idea of flying nonstop from the cultural capital of Black America to the source of that culture.

Currently, Delta flies daily or several times a week from Atlanta nonstop to Lagos, Nigeria and to Johannesburg, South Africa via Dakar, Senegal. New York-JFK has more offerings, with nonstops to Cairo, Egypt and Accra, Ghana, as well as a flight to Cape Town, South Africa, with a stop in Dakar to allow passengers from the Atlanta flight to board or folks flying in from NYC to switch to the Jo-burg flight. Book here.

In other news, with the approval of a new bilateral aviation agreement between Brazil and the US that has finally opened up direct routes beyond the megacities of Rio and São Paulo, Delta (along with another airline that I shall not name because my experiences with them have been exceedingly horrible each and every time I've been forced onto one of their unpainted, AA-initialed transport tubes from hell) is offering nonstops from Atlanta to Northeast Brazil, historically and culturally the South American equivalent of the American South.

I'm awarding Delta a strong Black Power fist for attempting to connect the folk in the Diaspora via their route network. One-time, Delta!

(Yes, I'm an airline geek.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where I've Been: Bogotá

Modern office buildings tower over centuries-old cathedral spires. Yellow, bug-like taxis dart past ragged horse carts. The electric pulse of international house music compliments a full repertoire of folkloric standards from the provinces. Contemporary art galleries and explosions of graffiti. Boutique hotels and backpacker hostels. Theatre festivals and street performers. Five-star restaurants and five-thousand-peso luncheonettes. Highlife on 93rd and whores on 23rd. Ten minutes of equatorial sun and ten hours of ice-cold rain. Vast flatness leading to a jagged horizon of green mountains, Monserrate and the Virgin Mary blessing the whole array. Developed-world comforts and developing-world chaos. Rags and riches. Bogotá is contrast, perched 9,000 feet above sea level. That’s high.

If the only picture you can come up with when you think Bogotá is bands of kidnappers and narco-traffickers ducking and shooting at each other through a veil of chicken feathers and dusty haze in a sweltering, tropical hellhole, you've been bamboozled like most of the world by erroneous Hollywood imagery and selective news reporting. The Colombian capital is at once New York, Denver, Zurich, and Mexico City: a (more than) mile-high city with inroads into finance, fashion, commerce, and design, ringed by colonial architecture and pockmarked by squalid refugee encampments. It is, at heart, an Andean metropolis, most people being reserved and stoic and polite; but the influence of the warmer regions of the country is felt throughout the city as music and food from Cali, Medellín, and both coasts add spice to Bogotá's frigid, rarified air.

For 18 months, I lived in the historic district of La Candelaria, just south of modern downtown at the foot of Guadalupe, Bogotá's answer to Rio's Christ of Corcovado, and a stone's throw away from the site of the current city's founding in 1538 (the original inhabitants, the Muisca, had been there for centuries). Yes, I did see nuns slowly parading past pidgeons and soccer-playing schoolboys in the shadow of colonial church towers and indigenous Andean women lugging pack-laden llamas up and down cobblestone streets. I'd hang out at matchbox-sized salsa spots in Downtown and multi-story electronica clubs filled with drug-addled glamazons up in the Zona T. I'd take tango lessons on the 30th floor of the Residencias Tequendama or Afro-Brazilian dance classes at the Instituto Cultural Brasil-Colombia. Taxi drivers were nuts, buses jerky and old, and the TransMilenio crowded, but there was always somewhere to go: cruising at Gran Estación over in Ciudad Salitre, catching the ever-changing exhibits Downtown at MAMBO, chilling at Juan Valdez in Chapinero or Andino, or seeing an art film at Cine Club El Muro's various participating theatres. There's the world's best burgers at La Hamburguesería in La Macarena and Ciclovía Sundays on the Séptima, where the whole city turns out on foot, bikes, or roller blades to take it all in. There's Rock al Parque and Salsa al Parque and Hip-Hop al Parque, and in this corner of South America, Bogotá's the only place to catch the Black Eyed Peas, Caetano Veloso, Lenny Kravitz (though he "got sick" and cancelled), and Kylie Minogue (eh, not so into her, but...).

I had to move because my job there paid peanuts, but there's much to miss about Bogotá (except the weather...think springtime London), which is why I'm there every chance I get. And it gets better cada vez.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Get in a Travelin' Mood

A true Fly Brother or Sister is restless. He or she cannot stay put in one place for very long, lest neurosis set in. But many aspirants are not yet in the habit of stepping out the front door for anything other than work, personal errands, or picking up the Sunday paper.

With Netflix, broadband, and on-demand cable, there's no reason to leave home. For many people, being home is comfortable, as it should be. But for many of those same people, the idea of travel, of experiencing something different, is an actual desire that they may not yet know how to turn into a reality. And it's much easier (and cheaper) to catch an episode of Wild On: Panama than to actually get crunk in Panama (Panamá, that is, not Florida).

Well, I'm here to change all that. You've already ordered your passport, but while you're waiting the six weeks for it to arrive, you can get your minds right and get out of the house!

Honestly, it's as simple as gassing up the car, breaking out the Rand McNally, and hitting the road.

(This may be a little difficult for car-less folk, but we'll make the assumption that most of that group lives in the Northeast and has rail and bus access to other cities.)

Day trips are a great way to ease yourself into more extensive travel. There's much of America to be explored within a couple-hours' drive of wherever you are. And if the mood strikes and the finances are right, weekend road-trips can always be arranged. Though the more the merrier, even solo soldiers can discover their surroundings and catch the adventure bug.

For day trips, fuel is usually the primary cost factor ("costly" being an understatement these days). But to compensate, stop by a grocery store and stock up on fruit and snacks, or maybe pack a cooler with some lunchmeat and a loaf of bread. It sounds collegiate, but college is where you should have learned how to live lean but still live. You can be grand and get the deli-sliced imported turkey from France to go with your Grey Poupon, but it's still more fun and less time consuming than wasting hours waiting for food in a restaurant when you should be enjoying the journey (unless, of course, that particular restaurant is a focus of the trip...some folks drive hours just for some Jenkins' Barbecue in Jacksonville, Florida).

Don't know where to go? Most large cities in coastal states, even if they aren't located on beaches themselves, are within a two hour drive of a beach or waterfront area. National and state parks are always excellent bets for nature lovers (the National Park Foundation offers a great $80 twelve-month pass to all US national parks that require an entrance fee...more incentive to get outdoors). Alternative newspapers like the Village Voice, Washington City Paper, or Creative Loafing are loaded with info about places to go in and more importantly out of the immediate vicinity (usually just the print versions, though). Also, most cities and regions of the country have ready-made Internet guides with insight on where to go, where to eat, where to shop, and where to stay. Use an Internet seach engine to find local city guides and tourism websites, as well as other independent sources. Among some of the day tripping websites that caught our eye:

USAToday offers a great article on "seven fabulous escapes" from New York City. has a section that features day trips from all the major Texas cities like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.

Day trips around the nation's capital, Washington DC, are even outlined on the US Senate website in a comprehensive, if not graphically appealing way.

ATLiens are blessed with both urban and rural excursions nearby, as covered by the Journal-Constitution's day trip page, while Viator serves up info (and prices) for South Floridians needing a break from the 305.

Chicagoans can hit up Metra's "day trips by train" page and not have to shovel their car out until Monday morning.

And when it's not raining in Southern California (they tell me never), check out's LA page.

In fact, Viator and have the most comprehensive listing of interesting excursions that I've found, covering almost the entire US.

Lastly, if you still need advice on where to go for a day or quick weekend escape, ask around. Surely your friends, neighbors, co-workers, or even strangers might have an idea of something, anything to do that doesn't involve a remote control.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On the Road

Originally uploaded by dianiro78
I haven't posted lately because, on top of a demanding work schedule, I have been and will be traveling in the next few days. Last weekend, I popped out of Barranquilla unexpectedly, finding myself in the tranquil lil burg of Valledupar (va-yay-doo-PAR), about four hours down a winding, rickety road in the north of Colombia. Valledupar is the "World Capital of Vallenato," an ultra-popular brand of Colombian folk music centered around the somewhat shrill accordion. I don't like the music, but I enjoyed my stay in the city. The people I bunked with (a friend's family) showed me the town's beautiful swimming gorge, lorded over by a two-ton bronze mermaid; never once called me "El Gringo," respectfully using my name the entire time; and made sliced cow tongue with coconut rice for lunch on Saturday. Yes, it was good! I should have taken pictures but, alas, I'm dumb.

Friday, I'm off to the 23rd Annual Drum and Cultural Festival at San Basilio de Palenque, near the former slave port of Cartagena (two hours down a slightly better highway). Palenque was established as a runaway slave settlement and has been honored by UNESCO (the United Nations' cultural arm) for being the only such settlement still in existence today (though now its residents are, of course, not runaway slaves), and is one of only a few cultural offerings universally recognized in Colombia as African in origin and not absorbed into the mainstream (yet still Africanized, whether they admit it or not) culture of the Caribbean coast. Despite this honor, Palenque remains a marginalized community mired in poverty and lack of opportunities for young people. In 2006, CNN aired a story on Palenque's history, Creolized Spanish, and "talking drums":

I'm excited!

Saturday night through Monday finds me in Bogotá, the boisterous capital of Colombia and site of much debauchery. No, I won't be taking pictures of that. ;-)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Going Native"

This essay was originally published in 2006 at the now-defunct InverseOnline, a website dedicated to all things South American.

Barranquilla, Colombia:

“Where you from?” the driver asks in Spanish after a few minutes in the air-conditioned cab. He had picked me up on the corner near my apartment, sweating under the morning sun in my khakis and button-down dress shirt with the sleeves rolled-up to the elbow. He was running me to the university, but it wasn’t that fact, or even my appearance that tipped him off to my foreignness. In fact, it’s never my appearance.

“Take a guess,” I say, playing this game for the zillionth time.

“I don’t know. Aruba, maybe? Curaçao?” The nearby Dutch Caribbean has been the most common guess since I moved here to Barranquilla, trumping even perennial favorite, Brazil.

“No, neither.”

“I don’t know then,” he concedes.

“San Andrés,” I lie.

“Ah, okay.” And this satisfies him.

San Andrés is one of two small islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, but officially belonging to Colombia. It has a history typical of the area—strategically located during colonization and therefore christened repeatedly under shifting European banners, including Spain, England, and the Netherlands. The English maintained dominance for a while in the early 1600s and the language stuck among the few colonists and their many African slaves. Spain regained control and later, the islands became an administrative department of Colombia.

Everyone here knows that though sanandresanos are Colombian citizens, most speak English and a West Indian patois spiced with Anglicized Spanishisms, which explains my trouble with masculine and feminine articles and other lapses in grammar. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “poor” Colombian and, thus, not a “rich” gringo.

“So do you study at the university?”

“Yes,” I lie again. “Business administration.”

“Nice,” he says.

That explains my khakis and button-down. It also keeps the cab fare from increasing, since I’m still considered a “struggling” student and, thus, not a “well-heeled” professor. English professor, to be exact.

To be honest about my job or my nationality would have been an invitation for an endless slew of questions: How do you like Colombia? How about the women? How about the weather? How about President Bush? How’d you end up in Colombia? But the women, they’re hot, right?

He says something else that I can’t make out exactly, but by the tone and his face, it sounds like a joke, so I nod and smile. I hope he just turns up the radio and quits talking, as I’m not in the mood for further interrogation. He does and the recycled salsa saves me for a while. I’m only functional, not fluent in Spanish, and my listening ability is much worse than my ability to construct sentences and articulate myself—it comes and goes in waves.* Half the time, I can ask a question with complete accuracy and not understand a word of the response. It doesn’t help that I’m a good mimic with a great accent. It also doesn’t help that, thanks to my own ethnic hybridity, I happen to look Colombian. Or Brazilian. Or Aruban.

Or maybe it does.

My white co-workers at the university often get quoted higher everything. Higher cab fares. Higher prices for that hammock or hat. It pisses off my friend and colleague, Kelly, from rural Ohio. “We’re not all rich,” she often says. Sometimes, after pizza and a movie at my apartment, she gets me to hail her a cab so I can negotiate the cheapest fare. With short sentences in a commanding voice, I can be as native as anyone else, and I still have to laugh at the idea of me hailing a white woman a cab. In New York, it had usually been the reverse.

I don’t often hang out with my co-workers, not least of which because I really don’t drink and, despite having a population of almost two million, there isn’t much more to do when you’re living in Barranquilla. But it’s also the idea of being singled out as one of “them.” One of the gringos. One of those norteamericanos who comes down to the tropics to drop large quantities of dollars indulging in large quantities of alcohol and sex. A perpetual spring breaker in a Hawaiian shirt with sunburned skin and rhythm-less hips. Not that my co-workers are like that, but it is the prevailing perception, and not without good reason. I get to overhear people talking about “those gringos” when they don’t know I came with “those gringos.” Then there are the looks I get from Colombian women when they see me walking innocently with Kelly. Or from Colombian men when they see me speaking fluent English. It’s humorous and sad at the same time, that I’m seen as a social climber. A gringo-lover. Sometimes, on road trips, the police look suspiciously at my foreign resident ID. Much more suspiciously than they inspect Kelly’s.

On occasion, I hang out with my friend René, a Canadian who teaches at a local bilingual high school. His father is originally from the Congo, and René tells me in his French-accented English how in certain restaurants and nightclubs, employees come up and ask him to leave. That is, until they hear his French-accented Spanish and realize he’s foreign and therefore obviously loaded. We understand each other because, while in Colombia we occupy two different places on the Latin American racial spectrum and are therefore treated differently, we’re both from North America and subsequently both subject to the same “random” searches at Customs and Immigration once back at “home.”

I think of calling René about a doing a trip somewhere off-limits to foreigners in the interior of the country when the driver asks me at which entrance gate I want to be dropped-off. I tell him the back gate, partly because it minimizes the walk to my office, but also because it’s where a couple of the security guards I’m friendly with are posted. I’m actually friendly with all the guards, hard workers from the south side of the city who are doing good to have landed this particular gig. They’re a mixture of young and old, all but one are men. And all, given a different set of historical circumstances, could have been me, guarding an ivory tower of academia that they’ll never be a part of. Maybe that’s why they greet me with firm handshakes and smiles and shoulder pats, the more familiar—Eric and Rubén at the back gate—playfully saluting me with great flourish: “Oh, Professor Ernst Koeningsburg.”

I’ve exchanged cell numbers with a couple of them, the ones around my age who always invite me down south to eat at their house some lazy Sunday afternoon. At the time, I have every intention of calling them. But a tiresome schedule and my own laziness usually trump those planned encounters; visiting a place and working there are two completely different animals. Yet when I see them on campus, we have our brief conversations like a couple of neighbors, or cousins, maybe. And I think that, in some respect, they’re proud of me. They see a little bit of themselves, as if given a different set of historical circumstances, they could have been me, a college professor, teaching my native language in a foreign land.

And so I pull up to the back gate at a private university with only a handful of students darker than I, giving the driver a blue five-thousand peso note, knowing I could have argued the price down a thousand, but not wanting to haggle over the equivalent of not even fifty cents.

“Okay, thanks friend,” he says as I exit. “Good luck!”

“Thanks. You too,” I say and close the door, smiling in anticipation of this morning’s non-Spanish-sounding baptism.

“¿Qué tal, Eric?”

©2006, EW2

*My Spanish is actually much better now.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where I've Been: Paris

My relationship with the City of Light was not love at first sight. The first time I laid eyes on the French capital was in March of 2004, when I snagged a $350 round-trip ticket from Washington to Paris for Spring Break. I spent much of that week trying to not slap the hell out of waiters, cashiers, and one metro station attendant who better be glad there was a plexiglass window separating my hand from his face. But the people on the street were polite and courteous and gave me no attitude whenever I asked what arrondissement I was in or for directions to the nearest McDo (in my defense, I was on a student budget).

Because of that, I decided to drag my family along for another try. Maybe it was because we had a ten-year-old traveling with us, but everybody, including the amazing waitstaff at Café Odeon, showed us the utmost respect and made sure we enjoyed ourselves. Many thanks to "Shrees le chef," as they dubbed my little brother Chris; he'll realize when he's like 30 how much we pimped him on that trip.

Also, forget the Paris you see in Meg Ryan-type romance movies. I mean, that's Paris too, but real Paris is very colored. Folks from all the former French colonies - from Africa (North and Sub-Saharan) and the Antilles to Indochina and the Indian Ocean - paint Paris more shades of brown than you can get mixed at Home Depot. Good-looking brown folks, too! And this diversity is manifested in the thousands of nook-and-cranny nightspots dotting the city, where hip-hop, house, rock, lounge, soul, samba, and salsa all get played sometimes under the same mansard roof. I don't want to even start on the food in a place where even a dollar-bag of cheap croissants from Ed is packed with lip-smacking buttery goodness.

Paris is like New York in the sense that when you exit almost any metro station, the scene is on-and-poppin, and each neighborhood has distinct characteristics that keep you firmly rooted on the same side of town. Barbès, Montmartre, and Pigalle in the north are all different, but united under an urgent energy transcending Barbès' controlled chaos, Montmartre's bohemian chic, and Pigalle's titillating trashiness. More centrally located, Le Marais is all nouveau flash and glamour, whereas the Opéra and Place de la Madeleine are old-school opulence. The Champs-Elysées in the west and the Bastille in the east form the poles of Paris nightlife, while the Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market just outside the Périphérique has hotties, hoodies, and hummus all in one place. And that's just the Rive Droit; Left Bank, I hardly knew you.

There are, of course, the "must-sees" - the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe - but I was moved more by the ethnographic busts and scale models at the Musée D'Orsay, or the intriguing design and exhibits at the Institut du Monde Arabe (where, incidentally, I had my first official Parisian date!). But, like anywhere, it's the atmosphere that seduces you: the stylish old ladies with poodles in pea-coats, the inexpensive wine and inattentive drivers, the canned mackerel with mustard sauce, catching the eye of someone still on the train as it pulls away from you and the platform, movies like Amélie, First Ladies like Carla Bruni, and the packing of as many unnecessary letters into a language as possible.

Paris, je t'aime*.

*Unlike it's amazing, multicultural predecessor, I do not expect much from the whitewashed New York version.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Generation Fly - For Fly Students

Originally uploaded by Payuta Louro
A few months ago, über-chic German airline Lufthansa unveiled its plucky, student-oriented travel website, Generation Fly, which offers special student (and faculty) fares out of New York and other gateways on their expansive global route system. Now, they've upped the ante and are offering the chance to meet and interact with fellow young and nubile collegiate travelers via their slick new social networking site, GenFly Lounge. To keep random dirty old men from defiling the co-eds, an email address with the suffix .edu is required to become a member. Any of my university-affiliated readers willing to join and review the site? The panoramic photos on the homepage make me want to dive through the computer screen. Why didn't these bastids have this thing up and running back when I was in school?

"Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?"

According to the short bio in the back of his best-selling "self-help" tome, The Four-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, Tim Ferriss "speaks six languages, runs a multinational firm from wireless locations worldwide, and has been a world-record holder in tango, a national champion in Chinese kickboxing, and an actor on a hit television series in Hong Kong." Dude is my age. Damn.

Fundamentally, Ferriss is all about "lifestyle design," which includes personal outsourcing, information management, and mini-retirements that maximize personal free time (to be filled with things you want to do, not have to do). On his blog this week, Ferriss interviews one of his own inspirations, Rolf Potts, writer and professional vagabond who just released his second book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There, "a philosophical book about seeing time as wealth and using travel to actualize that wealth." Now, many folks might not be all that into philosophy, but picking up and traveling, leaving our comfort zones, experiencing the unfamiliar all require a philosophic leap of faith that both Ferriss and Potts try to encourage through their books and websites.

Granted, looking at them - young, Abercrombie-esque, "affluent" white guys - a person of color with a possible interest in international travel might not exactly see themselves reflected in the life experiences of these guys. In fact, the dearth of recorded, comparable experiences by colored folks is the reason for this blog. But these two gentlemen have inspired me to take their advice, borrow some of their techniques, and use their knowledge and experience, plus the seemingly-inexhaustable positive energy reflected in their writing, in planning my life journey.

I've certainly encountered racism in my travels and would never assume that the same open arms extended to Nordic-looking Tim Ferriss by the TV producers in Hong Kong would be extended to Caribbean-looking me. But that doesn't mean I couldn't get on a show in Germany. It doesn't mean I couldn't write my own show and have it produced in Venezuela (or Hong Kong, for that matter). I also know that there are streets I can walk down in Latin America and not get a second look as an easy tourist target, while Tim Ferriss wouldn't last ten seconds without being swarmed by screaming multitudes hawking native trinkets, blood emeralds, overpriced designer knock-offs, or underaged girls. But it's not about comparing myself to these guys with an attitude of disdain or jealousy. On the contrary; right now, I'm trying to do what they're doing - traveling and writing professionally - and damn if I'm not going to learn a thing or two from these intrepid lads. As deceased black muti-billionaire Reginald Lewis once asked, "why should white guys have all the fun?"

There's plenty of fun to go around.


Two more short but excellent interviews with Rolf Potts about his new book and the art of long-term travel can be found on World Hum and Vagabondish.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What I Appreciate About the USA

When I left the states for South America in 2005, I was definitely not a patriotic person. I mean, 200 years of slavery, a hundred years of legal segregation, and another forty of trigger-happy police incursions and a societal fear of black men do not exactly compel me to sing "God Bless America." Still, living abroad has instilled in me what I'd call a passive sense of nationalism, manifested as a nostalgia for certain uniquely American cultural attributes that can't be found anywhere else. The United States is absolutely not "the best country in the world." No place is. But the US definitely has a lot of cool stuff going for it. This is my list of ten things I appreciate about the States:

10) Magazines. I mean, damn, one whole wall at Barnes & Noble (or Books-A-Million) is dedicated to the glossy, shiny alternate universe of magazines. There's one for every geek boner you could imagine, from crocheting to dirt biking to porn. And besides the staples of every black household (Ebony, Essence, and the ubiquitous Jet), I get to see gorgeous people of color smiling back at me from the covers of Vanity Fair and Men's Health and Time as if we've actually overcome!

9) Healthy Foods. Here in Colombia, a small, 10-slice pack of turkey breast costs $6. At Winn-Dixie, a pound of sliced turkey breast costs $4. Tropical and temperate fruits. Peanut butter. Protein bars and granola bars and low-carb bars and cereal bars. Yeah, lots of it might be processed and/or preserved, but dammit...we grow tall and big and strong in the USA!

8) Concerts. Mavis Staples. Kid Sister. Seu Jorge. Bebel Gilberto. Afrika Bambaataa. Julieta Vanegas. Dave Hollister. Santogold. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Los Lonely Boys. Black Dice. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens. All free this summer in New York. That's just one venue in one city for one season.

7) American Cinema. Citizen Kane. Gone With the Wind. Imitation of Life. All About Eve. Blazing Saddles. Young Frankenstein. The Wiz. Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. Jungle Fever. New Jack City. Juice. Lean On Me. Krush Groove. Love Jones. Eve's Bayou. I Like It Like That. Casino. Heat. The Shawshank Redemption. American Beauty. Fargo. Requiem for a Dream. Any Given Sunday. A Christmas Story. The Hours. Bring It On (just playin'). And absolutely everything in between. (I couldn't even begin to wrap my mind around a "comprehensive" list.)

6) Landscapes. The amber waves of grain on the Great Plains. Purple mountain majesties of the Rockies. The rocky cliffs of California. The infinite flatness of the Everglades. Volcanoes and pine forests and glaciers and beaches with black and white and beige and coral sands. America is beautiful.

5) Black American and Southern culture. Of course, these often overlap. Grits and eggs and grits and bacon and grits and fish and grits and corned beef hash and grits and fried bologna and cornbread and collard greens and barbecue and boiled crabs (with potatoes and corn and Roger Wood sausages) and, yes, chitlins and music at parties and games of spades and tonk (or "tunk") and drawls and twangs and shit-talkin and rankin' on somebody's mama til somebody gets mad and breakin out movie lines like "You ain't got-ta lie, Craig!" and breakin out old dances like the Reebok and the Cabbage Patch and the Running Man and the Roger Rabbit (and the Squirrel and the Tawlet Bowl and the Woop and the Tootsie Roll) and HBCU football games and step shows and dropped r's (pahk the cah, nah!) and words like chuch and mm-hmm and well! and my-my-my and Jesus Lawd and the odd-count grunt that generations of black women have perfected when receiving bad/interesting/surprising news: mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm. Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm. Thems my peoples.

4) Diversity. There is no other country on Earth with more than two truly international cities. There's always been the gateways - New York, LA, Miami, San Fran. The capital - Washington. The classics - Philly and Boston. The magnet - Chicago. But now, even bastions of regionalized Americana are noticeably microcosmic - Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, Houston. On any given weekend, you can leave your Mandarin Chinese class to fill-up on some pad Thai before hitting a salsa spot and then an afterparty with a Brazilian DJ. Or you could just go straight to Magic City right after that pad Thai.

3) Comparative success of Black Americans. Nowhere else in the hemisphere do the descendants of African slaves have as many opportunities to develop socioeconomically than in the US, in spite of foolishness from both mainstream society (of which we're less than 14% of the population) and amongst ourselves. Black immigrants from the Caribbean might do well in Canada, but not too many of them do that well back in their home countries. Colombia's cool and I love Brazil, but we still got a long way to go in those places, too, which is disheartening since half of Brazil's 200 million people are of African descent, as well as 40% of Colombia's. And there are no Latin American Obamas, Oprahs, Colins, Condis, Kenneth Chenaults, or Richard Parsonses. In many places, like where I live, they still Driving Miss Daisy.

2) Freedom of speech and political discourse. "BUCK FUSH!" There, I said it.
Try saying "Puck Futin," "Chuck Favez," "Ruck Ufibe," or "Cuck Fastro" in their respective countries, and thas yo ass.

1) English. I love languages, especially those of the Romance variety (Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian son mis favoritos). Still, much useful information about the world in which we live is only available in the home language of the country that produces that information, and in English. I haven't seen any Spanish-language publication or broadcast news source that gives as complete coverage to global issues as the Economist. If I get lost at the airport in Dapango, Togo, I guarantee you somebody's gon speak a lil English. It's the lingua franca of the new millenium, y'all, and I'm glad I got to learn it growing up so I wouldn't have to be bothered with learning its ridiculous spelling and pronunciation system as an adult.

What do my fellow expats appreciate about the States?

(Very specific honorable mentions: Marshalls, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and driving on a freeway at dusk with some hot lounge or chill house setting the tempo)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ike Swipes Caribbean

Please send prayers/good energy out to the brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, the DR, and Cuba, who've been ravaged by an active hurricane season this summer. You can watch video of Hurricane Ike here. The pictures below are from eastern Cuba, sent to me by the Saint Augustine-Baracoa Friendship Association (check them out to send clothing and other needed supplies to Cuba). Check out the wave surging over that five-story building! At the bottom are two shots of my very good friends in Cuba. Communication with them has always been limited (phone service in Cuba is spotty and Internet access is a joke) and I hope they're okay.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Making an International Ass of Myself...

...last summer on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, butchering the beautiful Portuguese lyrics to Tom Jobim's iconic "Samba do Avião" (crudely translated as "Jet Plane Samba"):

Gringos cantam no Yahoo! Vídeo

This is how it really go, complete with opening prayer to the Orishas for safe passage into Rio:

Getting Your Walking Papers

By age thirty, most everyone should have a passport. If you are over thirty and don't have one, I won't waste any time criticizing (triflin...). I'll just say that there's no better time than now to start the process, and I've tried to make the process a little easier by sifting through the US State Department's travel site - - for information on obtaining a US passport. I'll also say that the folks thinking they can pop down to Mexico or the Bahamas with their driver's licenses these days are in for a rude awakening at the border.

The State Department operates several passport agencies, located in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Norwalk (CT), Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington (click the city name for info on that particular agency). Lastly, passport applications can be picked up and submitted at almost all US Post Offices.

You can also download and print a first-time passport application: here.

The total cost (in United States Dollars) for a first-time passport is $100 for anyone aged 16 and over and $85 for anyone under 16. The charge is broken down into the passport fee ($75 for 16 and over/$60 for under 16) and the execution fee ($25 for both). If you apply for your passport directly through the State Department at a passport agency, the total cost may be made in one payment and in several methods. If applying through the post office, the application fee must be made payable to the US Department of State, while the execution fee must be made payable to the US Postal Service (check or money order only).

Additional requirements include a copy of your birth certificate as proof of United States citizenship and a state- or federal government-issued photo ID for proof of identity, along with two 2x2-inch passport photos that can be taken at any FedEx-Kinko's or certain stores and pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS, or Wal-Mart. A list of other acceptable documents and forms of ID can be found here.

Passports can take up to 6 weeks to arrive, but can be expedited by visiting a passport agency, or requesting rush service with the application at the post office, for an additional $60. More information on an expedited passport can be found here.

You can also check on the status of your passport application here.

Passports for adults are usually valid for 10 years. Passports for children are valid for less time and require a different application procedure (check here).

Most foreign governments require that a US passport be valid for at least another six months after the conclusion of the trip. An adult renewal passport costs $75, and more information can be found here.

For international ballers who are running out of room in their still-valid passports, extra pages can be ordered, or you can get a newer, thicker passport here.

September 11 has, of course, caused a tightening in travel documentation requirements, hence the establishment of the WHTI - Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Essentially, all the formerly passport-free areas for road trips and cruises - Canada, Mexico, and much of the Caribbean - will by 2009 require either a passport; a newfangled device called a passport card, good for border crossings by land or sea; or other "WHTI-compliant document." The cards cost $45 for a first-time adult applicant, $35 for a first-time child applicant, and $20 for current valid passport holders. All air travel to these regions will continue to require a traditional passport book.

Any other information you might want, need, or forgot to ask...check the website, because, hell, the State Department ain't payin' a brother.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where I've Been: Cape Verde

Cape Verde is an archipelago of ten teeny-tiny volcanic islands off the coast of Senegal in the North Atlantic. Yes, most hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and the southeast USA start off over Cape Verde as typical summer rainstorms. The uninhabited islands were discovered and populated by the Portuguese in 1460, who brought over Africans as slaves. As was typical of Luso-Hispanic colonialism, blood boiled, races mixed, and Cape Verde was left with a variation of skin tones and hair textures reminiscent of its big brother Brazil. After a brief, shining turn as a major refueling stop for ocean-going vessels and a source of skilled mariners for 19th century American whaling ships, Cape Verde fell into long-term drought-induced economic despair, launching a diaspora now numbering over a million Cape Verdeans in North America and Europe, with less than 500,000 on the islands themselves. Cape Verde's best-known export: soulful morna singer Cesária Évora.

I was invited to accompany my good friend José, Cape Verdean historian and intellectual playboy, to visit his homeland in August of 2004. For two weeks we swatted flies, battled dust and heat, watched Brazilian soap operas, met (literally) boatloads of folks from the States and Europe visiting family for the summer, and relaxing on beaches in the absolute middle of the ocean. Yes, everybody thought I was Cape Verdean ("Hey, why dudn't that kid speak Kriolu?"). No, I'm not Cape Verdean. Would be very proud if I was, though. And yes, I know going there's like going to Hawaii and saying you've been to the USA - technically it's true, so technically, I've been to Africa.

Come Fly:

Cape Verde on Wikipedia - basic overview
Cape Verde Unabridged - news, politics, and culture - tourist and cultural information
Cape Verde Home Page - portal to other sites
Governo de Cabo Verde - official government site (in Portuguese)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Travel

Blame it on the preacher’s wife. I had to have been ten or eleven when Mrs. Estelle McKissick, wife of Rev. Rudolph W. McKissick of Bethel Baptist Institutional (Missionary Rock of Zion Sermon on the Mount in Christ) Church (Inc.) in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, gave me a dangerous little book for Christmas titled Free Stuff for Kids. I can’t even remember most of the trinkets and doo-dads you could order in the mail because my attention was always and forever caught-up in the section that had the addresses of the travel bureaus of all fifty states, a bunch of cities, and a whole slew of countries. In exchange for a 19-cent postcard, I got bushels of pamphlets, brochures, and travel posters—among the more memorable materials, a thick, catalogue-sized guide to Austria; an amazingly ornate, oversized, circus-style souvenir booklet from Singapore; and an envelope royally sealed with red wax from the principality of Monaco—to the point of having my mother lug home an old file cabinet from school to house my nascent travel repository. This was waaaaay before the Internet age and country-specific websites. I became the biggest geography nerd in three counties (went to the State Geography Bee in seventh grade to prove it).

Then, one Saturday at the Regency Square Mall, I ran across a table touting high school foreign exchange programs through a non-profit organization called Youth For Understanding. I asked my folks, both high school teachers at the time, about hosting an exchange student and they balked, saying they wouldn’t have had the time to really focus the requisite energy and attention on a foreign guest (which in hindsight, I think they had a point). But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t go! So, during my eleventh grade year, I saved up money from my telephone customer service job to pay for most of the $2,000 program fee for a summer in fabulous Sweden! Why Sweden? For starters, it, along with Finland, was the cheapest country option that didn’t require some prior knowledge of a foreign language. And I deduced that there were marginally more black people in Sweden than in Finland (thank World Book Encyclopedia for that one). So, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school swatting at Nordic mosquitoes, eating reindeer, and watching the sun dip under the horizon for all of an hour in the far, far, far north of Sweden. Yes, that’s me (many, many moons ago) standing next to a sign for the Arctic Circle. I was sixteen, and I haven’t been able to sit my behind still since.

Writer Paul Theroux says that “travel [is] flight and pursuit in equal parts.” For me, that exchange trip was an escape from the mundane nerdiness of my known existence and, yes, social rejection from my classmates at the decidedly hood high school I attended. But it was also the start of my as-of-yet unquenched desire to know people, places, values, emotions, experiences different from those which I am familiar. To see the sun dip below the horizon for only an hour each night, eat reindeer, and take a picture at the Arctic Circle. To straddle the Equator on its hot, dusty run through Ecuador. To parasail over a cow pasture outside of Medellín and ice skate on a Caribbean mountain top outside of Caracas. To see flying fish leap out of the water on a 24-hour ferry ride amongst the islands of Cape Verde, where at least fifty people vomited on the floor during the trip and one crippled old man slipped and fell in it. To have intense, week-long romances in Cuba. To have intense, two-day romances in Rio only to find out my date was a prostitute and to end up getting the price reduced by half and paying for it and realizing, damn…that was some good sex. To have a place to stay on every continent. To see myself in the faces of summer campers in Santo Domingo, New Years revelers in Havana, and Carnavaleiros in Salvador da Bahia. To catch an OutKast video at a flea market in Paris or at a bar in Bogotá. To see and smell and feel and taste the world; good, bad, and indifferent. To know that, by the time I see every place I haven’t been, it’ll be time to revisit the places I haven’t been to in years. To see the possibility of an airport departure board and, a short while later, to be propelled through the sky towards another delicious uncertainty. To fucking live, and to be forever beholden to that pursuit of life.

That is why I travel.
Photo "Departures" by carovald.