Fly Brother Destinations

The first thing I did upon arriving in Singapore was look for people jaywalking, littering, and chewing gum, the trifecta of must-not-do’s in many a guidebook to the city. And despite assurances that the local government frowns severely upon these trespasses, people were doing all three. In fact, the idea that Singapore is a soulless, sterile conurbation obsessed with cleanliness and making money just smacks of lazy thinking. Singapore may not have the hedonistic chaos of Bangkok or the dramatic setting of Hong Kong, but it’s got a palpable sense of drive and a reverent appreciation for its surprising cultural diversity.

You can see Singapore’s legacy as a trading center in the vigorous commercial sector of the city-state, where Chinese dried goods warehouses, knock-off electronics emporiums, and multistory Louis Vuitton boutiques all vie for access to disposable incomes. In fact, the subway during evening rush hour is like a fashion show flash mob, as office denizens make their way home in the haughtiest of haute couture. Beyond the brands, however, Singapore’s got a notable mix of inexpensive food options—from Chinese chicken rice to Indonesian barbecue to Indian curries, all for under $2 a meal!—plus neighborhoods like Little India, Chinatown, and Arab Street that speak to the city’s diversity in sights, sounds, and flavors. Exhibitions on food, film, clothing, and traditions at the National Museum of Singapore follow these cultural pathways as they weave themselves into the fabric of modern Singapore, and the almost side-by-side Chinese and Indian temples embody the interplay and mutual influence among the city’s constituent communities.

Granted, the heat can be hellish, prices astronomical, and fun shut down by 2am. And the city really is clean and efficient. But for a quick peek at a prosperous, multicultural society with hidden deals and more than a few charms, make sure you spend a couple of days in Sin City.

And don’t forget to pronounce it the British way—Singa-POUR. It sounds sexier.

(Sorry about the paltry number of photos…I had 50 images of the city go missing mysteriously from my computer. 🙁 Guess that makes for another reason to return!)

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Austin, Texas might get all the hollers from mainstream media, but I think it’s that other college town and Southern state capital a few hundred miles down I-10 East that speaks surprisingly to all-inclusive diversity and the rack of artistic expressions, cultural encounters, and eating options that entails. No, this ain’t your granny’s Tallahassee.

Nestled amongst the red clay hills, moss, and magnolias of North Florida, Tally indeed reminds folks that it was “the only Confedrit capital east of the Mis’sippi not captured by Yankee fawces during the waw of Nawthun aggression.” And while the atmosphere is still not exactly “We Are the World,” the city’s third black mayor currently holds sway over politically blue territory in a decidedly red region of the country, while students, alumni, and faculty of (my alma mater) Florida A&M University continue making socioeconomic headway at a percentage unmatched anywhere else in the state. Adding to the mix is a burgeoning Latino and Asian student population, especially at Florida State University, and many young people unaffiliated with government or university who’ve visited, liked, and stayed, and who’ve carved a niche of professionals and bohemians that have, in turn, spawned an explosion of alternative activities to traditional Homecoming games and massive barbecues (not poo-pooing either, mind you).

  • If you’re in town on the first Friday of the month, head to the aptly-named First Fridays at Railroad Square, a gathering of eclectic visual and musical artists showcasing their wares among off-price wine and grilled snacks. I bought a t-shirt with an outline of Florida and the tagline, “No Other State Has Sunshine.”
  • From now through March 23rd, Black art collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey display paintings and historical documents, including a hilarious Dear John letter from Zora Neale Hurston, at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science. The exhibition goes to the Smithsonian when it leaves Tallahassee.
  • Next week, hit FSU’s 7 Days of Opening Nights, wait til March for Handel’s “Xerxes” at the Florida State Opera, or swing down in the fall and rattle to FAMU’s Marching 100 at one of the football games.
  • Saturday afternoon, stroll through the mangrove forest at the Tallahassee Museum and watch the black bears and Florida panthers frolic with man-sized yarn balls, or soak up the silence in Princess Murat’s modest plantation house. Saturday night, get yo salsa on at Atlantis Bar and Grill or have a drinky-poo in the lobby of the Aloft Hotel (a much more welcoming atmosphere than at the Hotel Duval down the street).
  • Skip Chik-fil-A and TGI Friday’s. Head for Super Perros for Colombian fast food, Bahn Thai for (you guessed it), Uptown Cafe for the hot pulled pork, The Black Bean for comida cubana, and Bird’s (Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack) for the nominal oysters or the baddest-ass hamburger in the Lower 48.


Thanks, John and Nina, for the bomb Super Bowl weekend!

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I haven’t been on vacation in Florida with my entire family since the mid-90s, and spending this Christmas with them in Orlando brings back and brings up all sorts of memories and madness. Back in March, while still living in Colombia, a bout of homesickness caused me to pen an homage to my home state, a celebration of both the geographic and temporal location that serves as my cultural foundation. Being back home, I find these same sentiments echoed in family conversations and collective memory, in spite of mindless sprawl and cultural homoginization, increased population and pervasive plasticity of modern Florida. For new readers, I hope you find this post enlightening and entertaining. For long-time readers, I hope this re-post is just as engrossing as you originally found it (well, assuming you found it engrossing, originally 🙂

Happy Holidays to all the Fly Folk out there. Thank you for reading.

Missing Middle Florida
(Originally posted March 10, 2009)

There’s the moonlight and magnolias of the North, the kid-centered wonders of Central, and the tropical swing of the South – the geographic regions of the state of Florida. Then there are the temporal zones: the Old Florida of Osceola and Andrew Jackson, of Saint Augustine and the Confederacy, of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The New Florida of Walt Disney and Jeb Bush, of Little Haiti and Little Havana, of Spring Break and Dave Barry. And I grew up somewhere in between, a native Floridian born to native Floridians, who have a connection to the peninsula, know all the secret places, and how to get everywhere in the state without once climbing on one of those new-fangled interstates. I’m from Middle Florida.

Being born at the tail end of the 70s means my memory only extends as far back as 1980, a time of transition for my home state. Since the late 19th century, hell, since the 15th century when Juan Ponce de Leon named the place for the flowers he saw while killing off Tekestas and searching for the Fountain of Youth, Florida has been a tourist haven. But I came of age just as manufacturing and the military – long mainstays of the state’s economy, lead by Jacksonville (“The Bold New City of the South”) – took a backseat to newly invented mass tourism and an upgraded agricultural sector, just as the Mariel Boat Lift cemented Miami’s status as capital of Latin America, after the influx of snow birds and Baby Boomers but before the boom of babies born to folks from other states and other countries. I’m not pre-Disney, but I’m pre-Disneyfication.

I remember taking U.S. 17 to Orlando, U.S. 90 to Tallahassee, and A1A to Daytona Beach, passing the original themed attractions built along winding highways at the advent of the Motor Age that had already faded in the shadow of their newer, flashier, 2.0 Beta versions in Orlando, before re-inventing themselves in order to compete: the thin, weary dolphins at Marineland; corny water ski shows at Cypress Gardens; determined young synchronized swimmers in mermaid outfits at Weeki Wachee.

I miss those days: school field trips to the fort at the “Nation’s Oldest City,” Saint Augustine, marveling at the kooky billboards for the Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not Museum and stopping to pick dates off the palms that lined U.S. 1 out of town. Gatorland, Gatorade, the Gator Bowl, and a fierce, sometimes irrational devotion to the University of Florida Gators. Crosstown high school football rivalries between Raines and Ribault and cross-state rivalries between Lake City Columbia and Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee back when high school football rivalries mattered. Indigenous place names like Okeechobee, Okefenokee, Ocoee, Loxahatchee, Pahokee, Immokalee, Kissimmee, Ichetucknee, Chattahoochee, Apalachee Parkway, Miccosukee Road (shouts to Tallahassee). The ease of slipping between Southern and tropical cultures as effortlessly as organizing a random crab boil or barbecue on a typical hot-ass April or September afternoon. FAMU‘s Homecoming Parade, which always started out on a freezing November morning and ended up blazing hot by 10 AM, and the FAMU-BCC Florida Classic, back when it was held in Tampa, back when the Tampa Bay Bucs sucked. Kennedy Space Center and Melbourne Jai-Alai. Dances like the Tootsie Roll and the Tawlet Bowl, accompanied by syncopated Flawda Bass and the raunchy lyrics of Dade County’s poet laureate, Luther “Luke” Campbell. The Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop and Flea USA and the Opa Locka-Hialeah Flea Market (straddling Lock-town y la República de Hialeah). Miami with only a small cluster of skyscrapers Downtown and televised vice on run-down South Beach and the original Orange Bowl and an equal number of everybody from everywhere back when, it seemed, more folks got along better (though the 1982 Overtown riot told a different story). Tropical storms with names. Blue skies in the east and black skies in the west. Miles of undeveloped coastline. Flatness.

No, I don’t miss the stench of the pulp mills and the knowing where you could and couldn’t go as black folk after dark, lest we forget the Florida was indeed a slave state and didn’t desegregate schools until almost 1970. After all, many strange fruit-bearing trees grow alongside palm trees. But I do miss the strong black communities and institutions that were established and thrived in that environment of hate. And I miss being in a place where I have roots as exposed, yet as deep as the mangroves in the Everglades.

And I miss Publix and Winn-Dixie.

And skee-ball and go-karts at Fun ‘n Wheels.

And Wild Waters.

And Jenkins’ Quality Bar-B-Q.

I think I’m just getting old.

Flying to Caracas last Saturday, I sat next to a woman with a facemask who seized into a death cringe every time someone coughed lightly from a speck of dust. It wasn’t until I walked through the airport terminal in Venezuela that I realized the code-red-style measures transport authorities were taking in light of the A1H1400tothe17thpowertimes84≠3.14∞ virus, though the facemasks and surgical gloves worn in South America looked absolutely wimpy next to the full-body toxic waste suits the officials wear in Asian airports.

My good buddy Jorge/George (used interchangeably), who I met on my first trip to the Venezuelan capital in ’04, pressed his friend Alaa to scoop me from the airport in his tiny, dark blue Fiat with opaque, dark-boy window tinting I hadn’t seen since it was outlawed in Florida in the 80s. Three big-ass dudes piled into the thing (I’m 6’1, George is like 6’4, so I got the backseat), and we snaked down the freeway, through tunnels and past hills blanketed with the reddish constructions of the slums—called favelas in Brazil, cerros in Colombia, ranchitos in Venezuela, “the hood” in the States; all the same damn thing. It’s these areas, coupled with the vast and impoverished rural interior, where Chavez gets his support. After all, these are the marginalized people in what had been an up-and-coming capitalist society throughout the 60s and 70s, but as typical of developing countries, never had their basic needs met on a regular basis. I don’t know enough of the history to understand why counter-governmental forces like the guerrillas in Colombia, Nicaragua, or Peru were never formed, but Chavez has taken it upon himself to incite a social revolution, no matter how misguided, unorganized, or self-defeating it might be.

We bouncedrockedskatedrolled over the glistening asphalt path into the forest of concrete and glass towers of this mini-São Paulo, clowning around and snapping photos like this one –

Grams pimpin’ the Z28 with Gramps ridin’ bitch.

– then dropped off my suitcase at Alaa’s clothing stall in the popular, populated, and poppin’ Chacaito section of town

and hit Burger King for lunch. Damn all y’all…I wanted me some BK and they only just opened in Colombia this month. The plan was to find me a cheap, clean hotel that didn’t have a website (those that did were running at US$107 a night, the JW Marriott clocking in at $329), but that also wasn’t a matador (love motel).

Important side note: money is truly funny in Venezuela, and I don’t mean ha-ha, neither. There are two types of currency, the bolívar and the bolívar fuerte. The fuertes just have the extra three zero’s behind the comma removed (100,000 VEB = 100 VEF). That’s not the foolishness, though. The kicker is the exchange rate, which for me was almost at parity with the Colombian peso (100,000 COP = 120 VEF). But on the street in Barranquilla, a point of departure for many Colombians overland to Venezuela during the tensest times of the conflict and now point of return for home-coming Venekolombians, I got bolívars at three times the official rate. It involved a series of phone calls, dropping off pesos at one place and picking up bolívars at another, but for 630,000 COP I got 1,700 VEF. Cha-ching!

So, after some running around in the Fiat, stopping at in the driveways of various familiares and underground parking garages of various matadors, some of which wouldn’t allow check-in until 10PM, we found the enticingly named Hotel Harmony. At 160 fuertes a night, I slept under frigid air and beneath the worldly sounds of Nat Geo Music in a basic but clean room for $30: a damn steal.

G and A headed off to the store for a bit and once settled, I pretty much did the only thing you can do during the day in Caracas: cruised the mall. Believe me, folks, let Chavez try and change this country into a version of Cuba; that fool would be shot dead. Caraqueños are some shoppin’ mofos and won’t nobody tell them they have to give up their Gucci knock-offs and TGI Friday’s ribs in the name of some stupid social experiment. He might get away with some big industry privatization, but there’s just way too much deep-rooted foreign investment in the country at a level unimaginable in 1950s Cuba when the United Fruit Company was the only game in town. Anyway, looots of hotties, including this young lovely performing Middle Eastern dance at a Lebanese restaurant in the El Recreo mall.

In the evening, I met up with George in Chacaito and we took the Metro (fast, efficient, clean, quiet) out to Xica da Silva’s (SHEE-ka da SILL-va) house so he and Xica could get ready for a night of samba and stripping: George “dances” with a Brazilian samba group that performs for private parties, and there were three engagements that night (in Colombia, people always order mariachis for weddings and birthdays…to me, booty-shaking beats drunken group singing anyday). I went as unofficial group photographer snapping stills of the three garotas, the batucada drummers, and George’s samba-esque gyrations.

Three birthday parties and four hours later, everybody was dead and we scratched the planned night of partying in exchange for some needed (and very short-lived) shut-eye.

Next up: me, at the ass-crack of dawn on a Sunday morning in Caracas.

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All the pieces of the puzzle.

Behold the itinerary* for my upcoming round-the-world jaunt (click image to enlarge), touching six continents and ending this November in Brazil. In the coming weeks, I’ll delve into the details of the planning, including ticket costs, accommodations, and activities. If you’re in any of the scheduled destinations during the schedule dates, let a Fly Brother know:

*subject to change.

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.

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)

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