fly brother's trips

Which one of these two women represents the real China?

In response to someone who told me I hadn’t been to the real China because I didn’t visit a hutong:

People like to say that Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Beijing these days don’t represent the real China, with their modern skyscrapers, ubiquitous Starbuckses, and global influence. The real China is rice paddies and opium dens, Little Red Books and old ladies with bound feet, straw hats and bicycles and dragon lanterns, right?

When people who fancy themselves “travelers, not tourists,” visit foreign countries for the first time, they often verbalize their desire to see the real place. The real Paris. The real Brazil. The real Australian Outback. (Though, I concede to not hearing very many people expressing a yen for the real Orlando.) In my opinion, this quest for authenticity is as romantically futile as it is superficial – places, like people, are multidimensional entities that embody contradictions and eschew easy categorizations.

In the present, more than at any other time in history, the emergence of a global urban culture has transformed, if not usurped to some degree, the local “authentic” culture of cities. And while that global culture is indeed dominated, somewhat shamefully, by American hegemony, it is still the local incarnation of global culture that visitors to the world’s largest cities encounter – homegrown fast-food chains next door to McDonald’s, hip hop artists rhyming in Yoruba or Finnish or Bahasa Indonesia, jeans and sneakers and hoodies everywhere – evidence that anything can become tradition, given time.

True, once-unique locales have begun homogenizing, morphing into glass-and-steel clones of New York or – gasp – Dubai, with air conditioned shopping malls housing branches of the same mid-range-to-luxury goods purveyor found in commercial centers the world over.

But this is the world we live in now. Yuppies in Beijing use smart phones to order Thai takeout to watch in front of their flat-screen TVs. Students in São Paulo organize anti-corruption protests via Facebook, likening themselves to anti-corruption protesters half a world away in Turkey. It’s the technology that’s connecting us as well as conditioning us into a state of global citizenship (with its concomitant dark side, global consumerism).

Nonetheless, are these places any less real because the people who live there utilize products and services that may not be homegrown, or that many more people in a given country live in abject poverty? Is New York any less American, Paris any less French, or Bangkok any less Thai because of globalization? And does a visitor to the U.S. need to spend a night in the hood or a trailer park to experience the real America? I think far too many people conflate realness in travel with slumming, or at the very least, with what the “average” [insert nationality here] person does or doesn’t do. Every place on the planet is comprised of conflicting realities, one no less real than the other.

What I experience when I travel is as real as it gets, be it an hours-long conversation at a Krispy Kreme in Seoul or comparing dance moves in front of a chaiwala in Mumbai. It’s through genuine human interaction and an openness to learning that I get to know the real place, the real people. And that means first letting go of my own preconceived notions of realness and authenticity.

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Image sources: Lauren Nelson & Eightfish

Outside the Colosseum
                                      Yeh, Bad Angle

There’s not very much one can do on a weekend in Rome if one doesn’t have one’s itinerary planned before one steps off the plane. I was one who hadn’t planned my itinerary in advance, so I missed out on a few of the Eternal City’s eternal attractions: the Papal capital of Vatican City, the shabbily romantic warrens of Trastevere, the noble and numerous Spanish Steps (though I may have walked down them). What I did get to experience, however, was the delightfully unsettling buzz of being in a space so dominated – physically – by a history so pervasive in Western culture that I felt at once connected with a place I’d only seen in books and on film. But despite the easy connection, I had much left to discover in the Italian capital.

I discovered that speaking Spanish with an improvised “Italian” accent gets one through most interactions on the street, and people are generally friendly, except for most older men working in service positions, who are all kinds of surly. I discovered that one’s obvious reluctance to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic pegs one squarely as a foreigner, if one’s looks and accent doesn’t give one away beforehand. I discovered that one can keep up with the renowned Roman sense of fashion with a dark gray blazer, jeans, button-down shirts, and black leather loafers – I got a few winks and smiles for the trouble. I discovered that the temperature need not be warm for Romans to gorge themselves (sexily) on gelato. I discovered the three-day Roma Pass, which was the absolute best 30 euros one could ever spend: free entry to two historical sites – including the gigantic Colosseum (Yowza! One really has no idea of its sheer size, name notwithstanding!), where one gets to skip all the other losers waiting in the hours-long line because they didn’t get the Roma Pass –, free and unlimited access to the public transportation system, and a rack of other deals and discounts one probably won’t end up using. I discovered that walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome, one feels suddenly urbane and energized, an exotic sophisticate surveying the latest great city to fall at one’s feet, until one’s feet begin to ache and one realizes that leather loafers were never meant for so much aimless walking.

Alas, my Roman holiday proved too short, though I managed to squeeze in a couple of brief, bright meet-ups with street art maven Jessica Stewart of RomePhotoBlog (at her book signing, no less!) and fly sister-slash-interior designer Arlene Gibbs, formerly of travel blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza. Still, the City of Seven Hills holds many secrets, and once Rome has whispered in one’s ear, one is obliged to return and discover the others as well.

Take a look at some of the admittedly boring pictures of Roman architecture and other random stuff that I like. If you don’t like, then go to Rome and take your own pictures of the stuff you like!!!!! 😉

Ancient Tile Mural
Rosetta Stone
Coffee and a MapRoman Ruins
Vintage Airline Decals
Really Inside the Colosseum
Shadow and LightTeatro Metropolitano
Vespas Vespas Everywhere

Roman Architecture through the Ages Red Lights
Inside the Colosseum

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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!

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1. The Skyline
Atlanta’s sparkling skyline stretches over two miles from Midtown to Downtown, a line of striking, gem-cut towers punctuating the Southern sky. Whether it’s heading towards the city along one of Atlanta’s interminable freeways, catching surprising vistas of the array peeking above the treeline, or ambling amongst the towers on a Friday night bar crawl, the commanding presence of the city’s skyscrapers asserts‬—physically and visually, at least—that as a metropolis, Atlanta ain’t no small potatoes.

2. The World’s Largest Hub
Delta Air Lines and AirTran (quickly becoming Southwest) call Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport home, but it’s Delta that is known for its mega-hub at ATL—the world’s largest, with 1,000 daily flights to 215 destinations around the world. As a Southerner, I’ve always been more than a little bit proud of not having to traipse all the way up to New York to access the rest of the globe, and as an airline geek, that’s just a cool fact. I love that Delta’s inspiring presence—“Fly Delta Jets” one vintage billboard reads—is felt throughout the city.

3. The Legacy
There was Selma, there was Montgomery, but Atlanta formed the epicenter of the American Civil Rights Movement that earned equal treatment under the law—on paper, anyway—for the black citizens of this country. The combination of a large and upwardly-mobile black professional class, influential black colleges and universities, and fearless campaigners like MLK set the city aloft as a beacon of black cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievement. It didn’t last (see: integration not exactly being the great societal panacea it was cracked up to be), but the historical legacy—and way more than a few black folks in Benzes—remains.

4. The Food
Say what you will about the healthiness of Southern cooking, soul food, barbecue, and what not, I have but two words to offer you: Waffle House.

5. The Accent
Many of us grew up with the clichéd dichotomy of Scarlett and Mammy informing us of what someone from Atlanta (or a plantation in the immeejit viciniteh might sound like), but anyone who takes the time to actually listen to the fashionable ladies shopping at Phipps Plaza or the round-the-way girls on the MARTA can perceive that native speech patterns include a little bit of both. Living abroad, urban Southern speech (NOT hick tawk, ya heah meh?) is one of the things I miss most about the States and it’s one of the first reminders that I’m back home. It’s just nice, like unlimited refills of sweet tea.

What are the things you like about Atlanta?

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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).

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.

Part 1 of a 4-part series on my year-end jaunt through the Promised Land, aka Brazil.

It all started with a 6 AM (Colombian time) flight out of Bogotá, two days before Christmas. Armed with distastefully warm chicken sandwiches and virtually no sleep, Roberto and I coasted down the spine of the Andes to Lima, then crossed over altiplano and forest toward the beckoning, green crests of the Brazilian Highlands. After being attacked by air pockets during a treacherous descent through a thick mass of afternoon storm clouds, we landed a little after 6 PM (Brazilian time) at Guarulhos, one-hundred-thousand miles outside of the city it serves, São Paulo. A slight, unseasonal chill accompanied the Venusian gloom of the sky, which looked ready to burst into a monsoon at any moment. We hit the ground running, thanks to the overly-air-conditioned Airport Bus Service, Roberto and I cracking jokes and snapping pictures of road signs and billboards and the federal prison and favelas (shantytowns, for the unlettered) that greet the visitor to Brazil’s largest city. Soon, though, Roberto quieted in awe as rows and rows of skyscrapers sprouted behind one another with every highway curve, a shark’s mouthful of concrete blocks housing over 20 million people in a metro area not even half the square mileage of Atlanta’s. I’d seen it all twice before, but the sheer amount of human development in one physical location is incessantly impressive. Cars, trains, trucks, helicopters, motorcycles, airplanes, rats all whiz by over and around each other in a city whose only constant is flux – in the last fifty years, the city proper grew from 2.2 to 11 million people…and counting.

Based out of our centrally-located, US$22/night cubby hole-in-the-sky, Roberto and I recharged as we met with some of my old friends on Avenida Paulista, the ultra-post-modern financial heart of the country which was set ablaze by innumerable Christmas lights and displays. Near the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP), delighted kids watched a cartoon Santa’s Workshop projected against a high-rise, while a rag-tag circle of street percussionists got some of the ancestral spirits moving underneath the elevated edifice of the museum. We spent Christmas Eve roaming aimlessly past shuttered storefronts in an attempt to soak up as much of the varied neighborhood vibes as we could right before the world’s biggest holiday and ended up at one of São Paulo’s gargantuan all-night mega-house clubs, tripping the light fantastic to tribal beats while practicing our Brazilian Hellos (full-frontal French kisses first, names afterward) with numerous and assorted Brazilian hotties. Needless to say, I can hardly remember Christmas Day; I think we slept for most of it.

The next couple of days included walks through Old Downtown (São Paulo has four downtowns, y’all) with its curvy, concrete, Jetsonian constructions of iconic architect Oscar Neimeyer, navigating the sightssoundsandsmells of the subway, whisking through the stately Pinacoteca art museum (see…we cultured!), meeting up with new friends (some club DJs, club groupies, expat bloggers, other random geeks and whores), and mixing it up again with the locals, this time at a samba/funk/hip-hop-n-r-n-b spot on the South Side called Kamaroty. I swear, I’ve never been to a place where the girls have been nicer about having their drinks accidentally spilled on them. Again, my bad, ladies; thanks for being so understanding. And all too soon, our first week in Brazil came to a close and we jetted off to Rio de Janeiro for US$49 each way for some hot New Years beach action. My only regret was that the Museu Afro-Brasil was closed until January; otherwise, despite being tempered for the holidays, Sampa did exactly what she was supposed to do: engulf, overwhelm, impact, incite, impress.

I’d be back.

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Yesterday was the end of my three-week long Christmas vacation in Brazil. There was sun, sweat, sand, sex, song, and samba in varied combinations on various days. My buddy, Roberto, and I conquered the mean streets of that tropical urban behemoth, São Paulo, before jetting over to raucous Rio to ring in the New Year with millions of Brazilians on the beach at Copacabana. I resurrected old friendships, established new ones, soaked up the music and dance of my cultural cousins, renewed, refreshed, recharged, and gave it up to God, the Cosmos, Iemanjá, whatever you want to call it. Next week, I’ll lay out the adventure with incriminating photos and juicy details in a three-part series guaranteed to titillate and inspire. Because that’s what I do here at Fly Brother…titillate and inspire. 😉

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