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.