Monthly Archives: January 2010

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On Monday, I announced that I’d be hitting a Grand Tour of Guatemala and Honduras next month, using frequent flier miles I’d accrued with Delta. On Tuesday, that entire scheme fell apart.

See, what had happened was:

Because Delta was merging the former Northwest Airlines’ computer systems information into its own, many of the functions on Delta’s website were not working properly. I ended up spending a total of three hours on the phone (half of that on hold) while the customer support people tried to square away my award ticket. Mind you, this is after I spent hours on trying to match dates and destinations to my personal timeframe and mileage account balance. Finally, I was booked to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Guatemala City via Atlanta on February 3rd, returning on the 18th. As I said in the previous post, I was supposed to have been charged $55 for taxes and debited 35,000 SkyMiles. I shot off emails to friends and contacts in Guatemala and posted the news here.

Tuesday morning, I check my bank account balance and notice it’s been debited $150 by Delta.

I broke out the People’s Eyebrow.

Then, I called my dear friends at the World’s Largest Airline to find out what the hell’s going on. After another half-hour wait, I finally spoke to someone who informed me that I’d been charged $55 for the taxes, $20 erroneously for booking over the phone (this was supposedly already re-credited, since it was their website that was screwy), and $75 for booking a ticket using miles within 21 days of departure.

Two things:

  • Out of the three hours and three customer service agents I spoke to, not one mentioned the $75 fee.
  • I could eat off of that $75 for the WHOLE TWO WEEKS I was supposed to be in Central America.

Her: “I’m sorry, sir, but your SkyMiles account is self-service, and if you check the rules and regulations section, you’ll see that the penalty for booking within 21 days is $75.

Me: “I acknowledge that I might need to go back and review the fine print, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect somebody at Delta, while booking the ticket and reiterating the tax amount, which is even LOWER than the booking fee, to say, ‘Mr. White, you are aware that you will incur a $75 fee for booking this ticket on these particular dates, are you not?”

To make matters worse, cancelling the ticket altogether and having my miles reinstated carried a penalty of $100.

Rock. Fly Brother. Hard place.

I explained to the agent that I know $75 might not sound like a lot, but in this economy…! And that normally, even non-refundable tickets can be cancelled without penalty within 24 hours of booking, and I had about 3 hours left.

She spoke to her superviser, and to Delta’s credit, the entire itinerary was voided, my miles were reinstated, and I should see an additional $150 back in my bank account within a few days (otherwise, I would have talked lots of shit about them on this blog).

Checking back on for flights leaving 21 days later, I found I could leave for Guatemala on February 16th and, for the same amount of miles, return February 18th or March 3rd (two weeks after I’m supposed to have the visa paperwork back from Brazil). Sayonara, Guatemala.

So for 25,000 miles and $7.50 in taxes, I’m heading to San Fran from February 16th-23rd (Bay Area Fly Brother fans, make some noise!) with a raincoat and two lessons learned:

  • Read the fine print in your frequent flier account.
  • Be flexible with your plans (which is easier said than done, especially if you’re going to a wedding or Carnival or to see that hot jump-off you’ve been chatting up on the Internet for the last few weeks).

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Mohamed and Ahmed

Back when I was in Cairo a few months ago, I had taken a taxi into the Old City to catch a free performance of the Whirling Dervishes (in Turkey, which has higher-profile dervishes, they charge admission). As soon as I got out of the cab near the market, a loquacious peddler named Ahmed approached me and asked me if I needed some help finding something. I told him I was looking for the Dervishes and he said he’d show me where they perform. We walked into the market, down a bustling and colorful alley, to a cathedral-like structure where the show would start in another hour. He invited me to see his papyrus shop to kill time, promising that I had no obligation to buy. What the hell? (By the way, papyrus is the ancient precursor to paper, a writing surface made from the dried reeds of the papyrus plant that grows along the Nile).

After climbing up fluorescent-lit concrete stairwell, with nary an inclination as to any malice on Ahmed’s part (either I’m especially sensitive to the underlying goodness of people or I’m a damn gullible fool), I entered the secluded, second-floor gallery. There stood Mohamed, Ahmed’s Nigerian business partner, who spoke to me about the Egyptian art of papyrus painting. Despite the quesionable location of the shop, Mohamed came off as an expert in his vocation, Ahmed shining equally as a consummate salesman (“Your mother is best mother in the world after my mother, she deserve something from the gallery”). I bought a beautiful $25 papyrus scroll for my mom, but I also got some interesting footage of Mohamed describing the art and craft of papyrus painting.

When you’re in Cairo, make sure you say “hi” to Ahmed and Mohamed (and buy something, too):

Alghouri Papyrus Art Centre
28 Ahmam El Mosbagha St. (beside Wokela Sultan)
Alghouri, Al Azhar, Cairo, Egypt
Tel. 2512-5859, Cell 0106695899

Just this week, I had begun the preliminary planning for two weeks of volunteering this summer at an environment-focused work camp run by the NEGES Foundation in Léogâne, Haiti. Just yesterday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the country, its epicenter only a few miles away from Léogâne, just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. With communication lines down and innumerable casualties, this has been the worst earthquake to hit the disaster-plagued and poverty-stricken country in 200 years. According to press accounts, hospitals and other traditional disaster relief locations have been destroyed.

The NEGES Foundation, with the help of my friend Dr. Brandi Reddick of The Green Pharmacist, had been planning a summer camp for kids that focused on environmental awareness and green living, in addition to the foundation’s normal projects, which include planting trees and operating a school, community center, and Internet cafe in the town. One of the organizers, Ms. Marie Yoleine Gateau, had just spoken with me Monday about coming down to work this summer. As of now, she has still been unable to reach her family and friends in Léogâne from her current residence in New York.

The pictures in this post are from Dr. Reddick’s trip to Haiti last summer, when she first volunteered with the work camp. Her enthusiasm in describing her experience inspired me to go myself this year. When I spoke to her today, she said that most people have this abstract image of “those poor people in Haiti already suffering,” and while the poverty is real, the people still lead as normal lives as they can; most were finishing up the work-day, getting dinner started, or out playing soccer.

While I’m unsure as to the status of my trip to Haiti, I still plan on at least volunteering my voice to raise consciousness about this tragedy, and to solicit help and support beyond the brief period of newsworthiness afforded to the people of Haiti this week.

To volunteer funds, clothing, medical supplies, and/or time to the NEGES Foundation, please contact Ms. Gateau via email: p y o 1 [a t] a o l [d o t] c o m.

A few days ago, The New York Times published its list of the “31 Places to Go in 2010.” My former adopted country, Colombia, clocked in at number 26. Certainly, the country is worthy of inclusion on this list; the cultural and geographic diversity alone make it a stimulating visit, and it’s not any more dangerous than much of the US. But it was the last line of this almost-four-paragraph blurb that had the needle scratching the LP in my head: “It has even prompted some travel bloggers to call Cartagena the next Buenos Aires.”

Now, first of all, I’m always annoyed when people dub something “the next” anything, as if there’s a problem with the original something and it needs to be replaced. In fact, for me, that phrase serves as a warning: stay away from Panama because it’s becoming “the next Costa Rica” (read: overrun by drunken Spring Breakers and monolingual retirees).

Granted, travel writers and people in general tend to compare places with others, and that’s OK, especially if the comparison is couched in the writer’s own experience or relegated to certain aspects of a place, such as its nightlife or cultural impact. But as much as I’ve compared São Paulo and New York, I would never call São Paulo “the next New York.” New York, for one, ain’t goin nowhere and São Paulo’s too busy being the next São Paulo to be anything else. There’s also the danger of glaring generalizations and a glossing-over of history, which, as modern and supposedly culturally-sensitive writers, we’re supposed to be avoiding as much as possible. So comparing a tropical colonial port and resort town with a national capital in a temperate climate with a ludicrously different set of demographics and a population 13 times as large is comparing apples to airplanes: they both start with “A.”

I Googled the offending phrase to identify these mysterious “some travel bloggers” that the Times references. “Some travel bloggers” turned out to be one travel writer named Liz Ozaist, featured in Budget Travel magazine back in 2008 with an article titled “From Cartagena, With Love.” The subheading (or super-heading, really, since it appears above the title): “The Next Buenos Aires.” Now, in fairness to Ms. Ozaist, she probably had nothing to do with the addition of that, to my mind, inappropriate heading. She most likely submitted the article to her editor with the title, which alludes to her father’s love for the place ingrained a couple decades before her trip, and hit the road for her next story. I would think it’s the editors at Budget Travel (Lawd, they prolly never gon publish me now) who got it wrong. And though I was drawn in to the article because of Ms. Ozaist’s attention to detail and the interesting characters she meets, I got thrown every time someone compared Cartagena to a place that I feel bares absolutely no resemblence whatsoever. “‘Cartagena reminds me of Venice,’ [Todd] says, ‘it has that same intangible magic about it.'” That’s how Cartagena makes Todd feel, and it’s certainly valid, but I will say this: Cartagena’s surrounded by water, but ain’t nary a gondola floating around in what I would hesitate to consider canals.

“Buenos Aires By Air”

Now, I must admit that I’ve never been to Buenos Aires myself. However, as a student of Latin American history and culture and as a traveler who has spoken to many people about Buenos Aires, I have a pretty decent idea of the kind of city that it is: fairly affluent (for Latin America), boldly planned with broad boulevards and Parisian-inspired architectural flourishes, sidewalk café culture, and peopled largely by the descendents of many European immigrants.

On the other hand, for most of my time in Colombia, I lived less than a 2-hour drive away from Cartagena and spent many weekends rambling the streets of the “walled city.” I called up a good friend who had also lived there, married a Colombian girl, and honeymooned in Buenos Aires:

Ring, ring.


“What’s up, T? It’s Fly Brother. Lemme ask you something. How would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“What do you mean?”

“The two cities, how would you compare Buenos Aires and Cartagena?”

“In what way?”

“Just, like, in general. Like comparing DC and New York, how would you compare Cartagena and Buenos Aires?”

“You can’t compare them. They’re not comparable.”

“Well, they’re both Spanish-speaking cities in South America.”

“That’s about it.”

“I thought so. Thanks, and Happy New Year.”


“Bazurto Market Buses, Cartagena” by Cade

Cartagena’s a small, provincial capital supported by tourism and secondary port facilities. The streets of the old quarter are narrow and, like most Spanish colonial cities, disorderly. Most of the people are descendents of the African slaves that passed through the city’s gates as the principal slave port on the Spanish Main. It’s a place for a slow, sunny Sunday afternoon in a hammock, listening to some Cuban son, knocking back the aguardiente; a beach town with fruit sellers and hair braiders and high-rise condos to prove it.

While Ms. Ozaist makes one reference to Cartagena reminding her of one particular neighborhood in the Argentine capital, she alludes to Havana, Cuba’s capital and Cartagena’s closest relative, at least three times in her article; that is the city most evoked while strolling along cobblestone streets under grand arches and pastel facades, something I can speak to personally, having been there thrice. The unmistakable African influence, from the cooking to the music to the lilt of costeño Spanish, that sets Cartagena in the gilded frame of other New World treasures such as New Orleans, Santo Domingo, and Salvador da Bahia, is the single most noticeable feature that separates it from Buenos Aires (also a former slave port, but most folk don’t even know that).

In 2007, the Times published this article, offering up a true serving of Cartagena’s richly tragic past and present. The author, Tim Parsa, seems to have researched the history and culture of the place before penning the piece, an effort that appears to be lacking in this week’s Times blurb by Denny Lee (Did you just Google Cartagena, dude?).

I’m not saying any of this to poo-poo The New York Times or Budget Travel or any particular travel writer or editor or whathaveyou. All I’m saying is that folks, travelers in particular, need to research multiple sources beforehand, then visit a place for themselves in order to get a real sense of their destination. Clearly, relying on media (including Fly Brother) can mean getting erroneous descriptions and untenable comparisons in a subjective attempt to make a place seem more or less appealing than it is.

Unless, that is, you combine both Times pieces and surmise that Cartagena becoming the “next Buenos Aires” means becoming the “new gringo mecca.” If that’s the case, I’ll be off trying to find the “next Cartagena,” someplace Spring Breakers fear to tread.

Cruising around Miami for New Years in a rental car with no iPod dock meant much radio time. Thankfully, 93.9 (in spite of random and agonizing bursts of “I Gotta Feeling,” “Dancing Queen,” “Single Ladies,” and “I Will Survive”) took it back to 1980s Dade County, when no ethnic community was a true majority, South Beach was still gritty and vice-ridden, and everybody punched it down 95 South to locally-produced freestyle and bass music*. Here’s some of Miami’s finest (plus a little Crockett and Tubbs action) to carry you from MIA across Biscayne Bay:

*For my true booty music aficionados, check this classic 2 Live Crew performance on The Phil Donahue Show.