Please be patient while I figgur this here thing out.
Please be patient while I figgur this here thing out.
This summer, I’ll be joining a group of friends in Southeast Asia to celebrate our buddy Mike‘s birthday. Mike is on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in rural Malaysia, but we all plan on bouncing through several countries in the region throughout the month of August, coming together at various points along the way.
A few weeks ago, I found a decent (i.e. less than $1500) round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia, arriving at Singapore and departing from Bangkok. This week, I’ve been buying tickets between cities in the area, connecting the dots of the trip and stirring up a little bit of excitement for what will be my second visit to the region, but my first time in three countries: Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Low-cost carrier Air Asia will be shuttling me first between Singapore and Bali ($80), where I’ll be joining Mike and crew for the birthday bash; then I’ll hop aboard a bus, ferry, and train to get to Jakarta (thanks to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for all the excellent in-depth info about rail journeys in Indonesia), followed by an Air Asia hop to Bangkok ($102), Lufthansa flight to and from Kuala Lumpur ($104!!!), and bus travel around the Cameron Highlands and coastal islands of Malaysia. The purchase of plane tickets is truly one of the significant pleasures in my life.
So stay tuned to Fly Brother for developments on the upcoming Whirlwind SE Asia Tour 2012 and other travel tidbits and commentary. And don’t forget, you’re always welcome to tag along!
There was no rain in Spain on my recent trip, just dry, cool days with intermittent sunshine and lots of personal warmth. I hung out in Madrid a few weekends ago with a good buddy of mine from Bogotá, Roberto, who was in the Spanish capital studying and performing in a stage play. My only other time in Madrid had been en route to Cape Verde back in 2004—a short, 2-day stopover spent mostly scouring the city for Brazilian parties—so this time, it was all about seeing the sights.
Like most of Europe’s former imperial capitals, Madrid has the palaces, the museums, the landscaped gardens. Unlike other capitals (with the exception of Lisbon), Madrid has a flavor and atmosphere transmitted relatively intact to many of its former colonial holdings in Latin America, while itself being transformed and influenced by the millions of Latin American immigrants who have recolonized the metropolis—after living in or visiting Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Quito, Havana, Cartagena, San Juan, and Mexico City, just to name a scant few, I was on familiar territory amongst Madrid’s cobblestone alleyways, arched colonnades, and Arab-inspired interior courtyards.
After a short and restless hop from the States aboard a United Airlines flight actually operated by Aer Lingus (the national airline of Ireland, clover on the tail and all), I got to Spain* tired, but excited about the weekend in a fun city with fun people and having the opportunity to again speak Spanish in a Spanish-speaking society, something I haven’t done since leaving Colombia in 2009 (and Miami still doesn’t count as a Spanish-speaking society).
A 30-minute subway ride later, I had a sparse Iberian breakfast of coffee and a churrito (fried dough stick) before meeting up with my buddy and his stage mates at the cool little garage theater—Garaje Lumière, it was called—near the historic district of La Latina, where I’d be crashing with one of the actresses in the play. After greetings and introductions, I sat at the main entrance of the theater reading and fighting sleep while my friends rehearsed for that night’s opening performance. I tried to make it through until at least nightfall, but after lunch, I crashed, waking up every few hours to work or read. So much for sight-seeing on that first day.
I didn’t awaken until Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet Roberto and friends for paella, the famous Spanish dish made with rice, seafood and other meats, and special seasonings. Num! Drinks and convo in the Plaza de Santa Ana led to scrumptious paella at Marina Ventura, then to more drinks and convo at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Óscar. Compared to the exorbitant prices of everything in São Paulo, enjoying an urbane lifestyle in Madrid is pretty affordable—and 700-euro-a-month rents for refurbished 19th century apartments with two bedrooms and balconies overlooking Spanish plazas calls for serious chin-stroking consideration.
The sun dipped lazily below the horizon after 8pm as it is wont to do in the upper latitudes in spring and summer, and no sight-seeing was done. We did throw Roberto a surprise birthday party, though, and danced to Ne-Yo (not my choice) while imbibing adult beverages (I had Coke).
Sunday, we finally made the rounds of the historical center of Madrid. We didn’t actually go inside anyplace, but we wandered through the vast and crowded Plaza Mayor—prototype for every town square in the Americas from the Guadalupe River to Tierra del Fuego—, past the world’s oldest restaurant, complete with official Guinness Book recognition, across the courtyard of the royal palace, past the labyrinthine royal gardens (we were too lazy to walk back up the steps we would have had to descend to enter the gardens), and finally into El Corte Inglés, a fancy department store with a very necessary coffee shop where I could re-boost my waning energy with a one-euro-fifty-cent coffee that I paid for by credit card.
That night, I saw the final performance of the play—something about corporate secrets and lady torturers and jumper cables attached to gonads—über-experimental and completely in Spanish, so I got like 60% of what they were saying. Afterwards, we congratulated the cast on an amazing performance despite somewhat underwhelming material and everyone else congratulated themselves with alcohol (I had Coke) for the next five hours. Indeed, it was almost 4am when we left the theater and there were pretty much zero food options at that hour (which, back home, is called ‘fore-day-in-the-morning), so we settled for late-night grilled cheese sandwiches.
Question: In this age of globalization and multi-national corporations, why the hell isn’t there an IHOP in Madrid (or Berlin or São Paulo)? They would make a killing!
We woke up at noon on Monday, just in time for me to dash into the shower, pack up my crap, and hightail it down to El Retiro, where Roberto had a picnic planned for all his artistic peeps in celebration of the play and his birthday. Over homemade paella (Thanks, Roberto’s friend’s mom!) and some damn good cake and we lazed about on the grass, laughing about the jumper-cables-to-the-gonads and being serenaded with flamencos and boleros by several of the picnickers—there were at least four acoustic guitars in attendance at the picnic.
Soon, it was time for goodbyes and promises to email and/or call, then I headed with carry-on in tow towards the subway station with zero cash, thinking that I could pay for a ticket by credit card. Nope; the machine wanted the PIN that I never memorized because I never use the debit function of my card. This also meant that I couldn’t get money out of an ATM. And the Brazilian reais I had on me were no good because, at almost 5pm on a Monday afternoon, no banks in the immediate vicinity were open to exchange my cash. And I had no telephone with which to call Roberto or any of my other newly-minted friends for a two-euro loan. I was left to rely solely on the kindness of strangers, and in this case, that meant the subway security guard and the station attendant, who listened to my tale of touristic stupidity with understanding smiles and had pity on my poor cashless soul (an affected “foreign” Spanish accent and pre-printed boarding pass showing an imminent flight departure time helped, no doubt). They printed up a special subway ticket, swore me to secrecy, and sent me on my way with handshakes. Gracias, dudes!
*Important aside: The only major road bump and one of those things that tend to permanently shade your opinion of a place, or at least of a place’s government: suspiciously-long questioning by the immigration officer. The two other (non-black) Americans ahead of me flitted through with a few words and the quick thud of the passport stamper. My mistake, of course, was speaking in Spanish. I was asked about my arriving flight (normal), how long I had planned to stay (normal), and if my trip was business or pleasure (normal), then asked where exactly I was staying in Madrid (strange), then where my letter of invitation was (what?). Apparently, I was supposed to have either pre-booked accommodations at a hotel, or have a letter of invitation issued to me by the friends with whom I was staying (procured at the local police station, no doubt). I’m sure my face said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about” and he asked if it was my first time in Spain. I said no, the I’d been there in 2004, neglecting to mention that I had no hotel reservations even then, and had booked a nice little cheap hotel upon arrival at one of the tourist kiosks in the airport. I said that I’m aware that policies can and do change frequently, but as a U.S. citizen, I’d never heard of having to provide proof of accommodation for entry into the European Union (in fact, it’s NOT required, asshat). In Latin America, Spain already has a reputation for the “funny attitudes” of their immigration officials, and while the international gatekeepers of the U.S. certainly have a propensity for douchebaggery, let’s have a little perspective for chrissakes. You see that eagle on my passport? Stamp my shit and be done with it.
This weekend, I popped over to San Francisco on business and caught a bit of the city’s kinda underwhelming Cinco de Mayo celebration at Dolores Park (I think there was a ban on alcohol at the event. While I’m no drinker, I do concede the libation’s role as social lubricant and crowd loosener-upper). The standout presentation was the traditional Mexican dance company Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco, which gave an impressive performance of the various regional dances of Mexico.
Here’s a brief clip:
May 1st is International Workers Day (aka Labor Day everywhere else in the world but the USA). In Berlin, it’s known for anti-capitalist riots that started among the radical West German left in the late ’80s and even today, despite diminished ideology and heavier police presence, draws crowds of people anxious to throw their first Molotov cocktail as part of the perplexing concept of riot tourism. But in an effort to stave off destruction of person and property, the city redirects the energies of a contemporary wave of disaffected youths with MyFest, a vast music festival with sound trucks featuring house and reggae DJs, and live rock bands, with a name derived in hipster fashion from the German word for May (mai, pronounced “my”) and the desire to keep the young citizenry from tearing up their own ‘hoods. Local businesses participate by selling discounted food and cocktails on the sidewalk, in a not-so-secret effort to keep their windows from being broken. By the time night rolls around, the hope is that everyone’s too party-tipsy to care about beating “the system.” Hell, the system’s pretty much won anyway, so why not hit the streets and have a good time? I did!