Monthly Archives: March 2009

The title “Third Largest City* in the World” never moved beyond the abstract until I found myself circling over the Valley of Mexico on the descent into the Mexican capital back in 2004, when I actually had hair and the associated hairline (and before I caught a whiff of that very special mega-city further south). Golden brown fields gave way to barren mountain peaks that seemed to reach for the underside of the jet. Those gave way to the sprawling mass of Mexico City, nestled on the floor of the ancient Lake Tenochtitlán, and smothered by a cloud of smoke and exhaust trapped by the ring of mountains. It was like flying over the über-expanse of Los Angeles, but three times bigger. Mexico City is big, huge, gargantuan, as in big-ass biscuit big.

On my final approach to Benito Juárez International Airport, I caught glimpses of expressways, tree-lined streets, apartment towers, and skyscrapers which lent a surprising sense of modernity to a place Americans in their cultural isolation typically have no thoughts about whatsoever. Just before I landed over the densely-packed shotgun shacks the surround the airport—the “real” Mexico—I spotted signs that the country is indeed tied economically to the US: Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Don’t think you can get away that easily.

Once I arrived, I hopped on the retro Mexico City Metro, designed in the 1960s and apparently not refurbished since, so it’s become stylish again. During rush hour, the trains were packed, the A/C was often broken, and peddlers pushed through the cars loudly offering everything from pens and notebooks to bootleg CDs and DVDs for 10 pesos each. Yes, they were selling Barbershop 2 in the Mexico City subway the week it had been released in US theaters.

With a population of 8.6 million in the Distrito Federal, and another 23 million in the metro area*, I found the streets of Mexico City to be surprisingly clean. The air was dirty, though having already traveled to other Latin American cities, I had previously been introduced to swallowing black clouds of exhaust while walking down the street. Also, being 7,300 feet in altitude, the air is much thinner than that of the low-lying East Coast. So, climbing the stairs from the Metro, doing any cardio in the gym, and getting my merengue on in the club became a spectacle of gasping for air and having to sit down for a hot second before I had a heart attack. The girl in the gym said it takes about four days for coastal folk to become accustomed to the mountain air.

During my five days in town, I hit the Frida Kahlo house in Coyoacán, a poignant arrangement of the artist’s life and work, with colorful statuary and paintings on display no where else in the world. The humungous Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) has the world’s largest collection of indigenous artifacts from Central and South America. There is a great crafts market in the Cuidadela, where I got all kinds of Mexican knick-knacks that my pops put in storage the day after I presented them to my parents. One afternoon, I rode out to the 2000-plus-year-old pyramids at Teotihuacán, built by folks that predated both the Toltecs and the Aztecs.

I wrapped up my days of exploring with a $3 all-you-can-eat buffet around the corner from my hotel, where I met three African dudes on vacation. They were originally from Cameroon, but lived in France, where they sold gold jewelry at a flea market in Marseilles. They were traipsing around Mexico for three months. Play on, players. Then, my last night, I was adopted by a group of youngins who liked hip-hop and took me out for a night of, hell, everything: reggae, house, hip-hop, salsa, norteño, mariachi, swing…they could dance it all; I was very impressed.

Mexico City, you are indeed the cradle of a great civilization!

Check my photos, check Frida and Amores Perros, check these interesting websites (AfroMexico and Africa’s Legacy), and check the US State Department travel warnings for a heads-up before heading south of the border (along which most of the trouble is, not in Mexico City).

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Lately, I’ve been reading through traveler extraordinaire Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity, an inspiring multipurpose blog encouraging people to live, work, and travel outside the box. With posts like “Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World” and the downloadable “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” Guillebeau seems to have found that elusive je ne sais quoi that allows him to jaunt off to far-flung destinations at a moment’s notice (being debt-free and having operated several successful small businesses being a part of that je ne sais quoi), and he’s willing to share the knowledge of being your own boss, traveling the world, and improving our planet to anyone who’s open to non-conventional wisdom. Each one, teach one.

Anyway, I recently read a post titled “Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel,” in which Guillebeau describes his motivation for and styles of travel. His current goal is to visit every country on Earth (nearly 200 sovereign nations) before his 35th birthday, and he’s well on his way to accomplishing that goal via round-the-world plane tickets, finagled stop-overs, and a rainbow of sleeping arrangements – from airport floors in Texas to fleabags in Ulaan Bataar (that’s Mongolia, folk) to the overpriced Le Meridian in Malta. And he got me thinking about my own travel philosophies, those objectives, habits, rules, and stimuli that drive me incessantly to the nearest international airport whenever time and income allow.

  • As I’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, I’m drawn most strongly to Latin American cultures with a very visible African element, particularly in terms of music and dance: the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil most notably. I also like cities with large Afro-Diasporic populations – London, Paris, Toronto, Montreal, and the States-side stalwarts NYC, DC, ATL, and MIA. Basically, I like to see myself reflected in the people when I travel. And I like to travel under the radar, where if I don’t speak, people don’t know I’m not from there.
  • That doesn’t mean I limit myself to the lands of salsa and samba. Within the next five years, I’m trying to hit Mozambique, South Africa, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, and Tanzania in the Motherland. Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Turkey. Hong Kong. Australia. Papua New Guinea. India! And, of course, wherever a cheap last-minute plane ticket takes me.
  • I’m a true urbanist: the bigger the city, the better. Give me a week in Sydney over a week in the Outback any day. Not that I’m averse to hiking or outdoor activities (I quite enjoy rafting), but the humthumpbuzz of an urban center stimulates more of my senses than the whistletweetshush of the campo. I enjoy museums and mass transit and people watching at the mall. I would, however, make exceptions for natural wonders like Ayers Rock, Victoria Falls, and Antarctica.
  • I like to spend an entire week or ten days in a city (more, if possible). It’s a great way to see sights and stake your claim on a neighborhood or local routine for a short while. I like getting lost among the crowds and making my way “home” or getting to know the waitstaff at my corner breakfast nook. After a few days, I start to notice commuting patterns, discover hidden delicacies, and sometimes even get to indulge in a nice romantic fling (I have, in Paris, Havana, and London).
  • I don’t like hostels. I’d rather stay in a 1-star matchbox that’s reasonably clean than at party-central for a gaggle of 20-something, boozy backpackers. No thanks. There’s also CouchSurfing.
  • I haven’t done my first round-the-world trek yet, but I’m planning one soon. I could be an airline network loyalist, racking up the frequent flier miles with SkyTeam or Star Alliance, or I could go with Airtreks or Air Brokers to get the cheapest deal (as low as US$1700, taxes included). Either way, I get geet (as they say in Atlanta) whenever I think about jetting ahead of or against the rotation of the Earth.
  • I try never to check a bag. My size-13 tennis shoes often hinder that little plan, especially on smaller planes in South America.
  • On trips to developing countries, I try not to take photographs of people, especially folk doing heavy lifting or unpleasant drudge-work. I mean, I’d be pissed if somebody snapped a Polaroid of me struggling to balance a 50-pound basket of trout on my head. Don’t take a picture, you bastid…help me carry this!
  • I am a travel crackhead: I’ve been known to spend my rent money on a plane ticket. Not recommended (but I don’t regret it).
  • I’m usually a loner; I like to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I do enjoy trips with my friends or other travel companions, but mostly when they’re also experienced travelers and are keen on doing their own thing for part of the trip. We don’t have to be together every waking minute: we can spend our afternoons making independent memories that we can share with each other later at dinner. Besides, there’s too much inadvertent cock-blocking that can happen when you travel with other people.

My travel philosophy, in two words: Do you. Cuz I’m damn sure gon do me.

What’s your travel philosophy?

This month, the brief but insightful CNN program “My City My Life” follows brotherman and ballet phenom, Carlos Acosta, around his beloved Havana. Having been forced into ballet by his father as a way to keep him out of trouble, Acosta wound up being the first black principal dancer in the London Royal Ballet, followed by a starring role at the Bolshoi. In this short clip from the special, he intones the musicality and flow of the everyday Cuban’s walk, labeled esoterically by Cuban novelist Antonio Benítez-Rojo as “a certain kind of way.”

See full video here. (I love the group of men arguing about sports and politics in the park around 3:00; from the barbershop to the park to the church picnic…there we are.)

Click here to learn more about Fly Brother Carlos Acosta, “My City My Life”, and the beautiful Caribbean queen, Havana.

Image courtesy Havana Cultura

This lil fella belonged to a locksmith in the Soledad neighborhood of Bogotá. While I was waiting for some keys to be cut, he sat down in the doorway to take in the breeze and watch the traffic go by. I’m not that into pets, much less pets with clothes, but I couldn’t resist this shot.

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A native of my own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was the son of an educator, who would later become an educator in his own right, in addition to being a diplomat, poet, novelist, lyricist, and civil rights activist. At only 24, Johnson became a high school principal and founded a newspaper, before being the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam. Soon, he collaborated with his brother, musician John Rosamond Johnson (who happened to be the musical director at the church I grew up in, decades prior, of course), on several theater projects, and penned the amazing lyrics of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which I had learned at least by age six).

These ten li’l high school jitterbugs better sang! (‘Specially the last verse at 2:45).

Tired of the racist buffoonery of popular music at the time (hmmm…so nothing’s changed?), Johnson left that industry, entered Columbia University, and in 1906, was named U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. After being transferred to Nicaragua, where he wrote his impactful novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, he left the foreign service (they weren’t trying to hook a brother up with a decent post back in 1913), settled in New York, became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920, published three anthologies on Negro poetry and spirituals, a collection of poetry, and his own true autobiography. Sadly, he was killed at the age of 67, when a train hit his car in 1938. Still, Johnson is remembered by the students of the various schools that bear his name (my brother went to the one in J-ville) and by the millions of black Americans who get teary-eyed at the last lines of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,

True to our God,
True to our native land.

In belated honor of Black History Month, Fly Brother salutes fellow Duvalian, Renaissance Man, and Fly Original, James Weldon Johnson. May I be half as prolific as he.

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So you want to get in on the Carnival action but don’t know where to start?

Find out when.
First, you need to get the dates cornered before embarking on any pre-Lenten debauchery. True Carnivals – be they in Brazil, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, or any other Catholic-leaning society – occur simultaneously, which means ix-nay on a year-round party binge (unless, of course, you count New York’s West Indian Day parade, Calle Ocho in Miami, the Notting Hill joint, or innumerable other Carnival-esque activities that are not True Carnivals and can happen on any random date); you can only choose one event per year. Also, just like Easter, which is always forty days after Fat Tuesday, Carnival jumps around the calender every year: for 2010, the main events run from February 13th through the 16th, with celebrations kicking off a few days beforehand in spots like Salvador.

Find out where.
Besides the biggies (Rio, New Orleans, Venice), you’ve got the Carnivals featured here on Fly Brother (Salvador, Barranquilla, Trinidad), plus parties in Panama, Santo Domingo, the Canary Islands, Florence, Cologne, Sydney, Port-au-Prince, Goa, Buenos Aires, and Mobile, so language-barriers and dislike of long flights serve as week excuses for not going buck-wild at somebody’s fête-a-tête-tête.

Find out who.
You could choose to hit Carnival solo, which is always a good way to meet new people on the road. Still, heading down with an established group is the best way to maximize your enjoyment and minimize hassles. You may think of yourself as an independent person, but you can always break away from the group for some alone time while still taking advantage of discounted airfares and accommodations, and the knowledge of local tour guides or experienced travelers. Each year, in addition to traditional travel agencies, educational institutions and individuals arrange group packages with which anyone can become affiliated: Dr. Jan DeCosmo of Florida A&M University organizes inexpensive packages to Trinidad and Salvador under the banner of “Friends of the Caribbean” (email her at k d e c o s m o [a t] h o t m a i l [d o t] c o m for more information) while Atlanta-based dancer Jazz Baptiste has established a Meetup group for next year’s do in Rio at only $5 a day. And the closer it gets to the blessed event, impromptu travel groups spring up on websites like Virtual Tourist, BootsnAll, and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.

Find out more.
English-language websites for Carnival in Barranquilla, Salvador, and Trinidad.

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