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

Great Wall of China by Francisco Diez via Flickr

I’ll be heading off to China for the next ten days – Beijing and Shanghai – and I’m not sure what the restrictions on websites and Internet usage will be. Meanwhile, check out this trailer for the upcoming documentary Gringo Trails, which looks at the impact of mass tourism around the globe. You just might spot a familiar face. 😉


Great Wall of China image by Francisco Diez via Flickr

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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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I consider myself to be an ordinarily savvy traveler, especially when it comes to airfare bargain-hunting. But I’m finding myself in a quandary involving what is probably the most expensive plane ticket I’ve purchased to date: São Paulo to Samoa.

"...come to me...come to me..."

A good friend of mine living in Australia is celebrating her birthday next April in Samoa, and she’s invited a few friends over to help with the shenanigans. Samoa hasn’t been on my radar, but like many places (Poland, most recently), all I need is a good enough reason and I’m on my way. Besides, when else would I ever have the chance to go to Samoa?

Normally, if a ticket is too expensive, I just have to let the opportunity pass. This time, though, I think I just might be able to scrape up enough change between the seat cushions to buy my way out into the middle of the South Pacific. And though April seems far enough away, it’s just barely six months from now, and with only one non-stop from the States a week to the island, fares will only be going up.

Air New Zealand runs to Apia from Los Angeles once weekly, and that round-trip is running at a little under $1000. Whatever, I’m going. The problem is in getting to LA from Brazil. Until recently, there had been two non-stop options between Sampa and LA: Delta and Korean Air. Being partners in the SkyTeam airline alliance, they both operated on alternating days, together offering daily service and frequent flier miles on each others’ programs. Last summer, Delta dropped out and Korean’s left as the only player on that route, three times a week. As such, the fare is a princely $1300 (give or take).

The cheapest alternative is AeroMexico, the sole surviving Mexican long-haul carrier, and also a member of SkyTeam. With seven-hour layovers in Mexico City—each way—this option seems roundly unappealing, until you see the sticker price: $890. That’s $400 less than with Korean Air, but nine additional hours of travel time.See the problem?

But price isn’t just the issue. Korean operates their entire 12 hour, 30 minute flight on a somewhat-spacious Boeing 777. AeroMexico runs from SP to DF on the same aircraft, but finishes the LAX leg on a cramped 737. I’m 6’1; cramped’s not cool. Secondly, I can’t speak for or against AeroMexico’s service, but Korean Air has award-winning in-flight service, as most do most of the large Asian carriers, and on a damn-near 13-hour flight, service matters. I live in and love Latin America, and while the flight crews in my neck of the woods are often pleasant enough, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly service-oriented. At least I feel like I could ask for a glass of water at my economy class seat on Korean Air without getting stank attitude (OK, now I’m projecting the North American lack of service onto AeroMexico…my bad, Mex!). In AeroMexico’s defense, Mexico City isn’t half-bad to bum around in for a few hours, but with a bag, it’s crappy. Also, the flight paths are virtually parallel, so stopping at MEX isn’t out of the way, and the flight gets me in to LA with much more time to get through customs and immigration and checked-in to my (once weekly, remember?) Air New Zealand flight than does the Korean Air arrival.So, let’s line up the pros and cons of each and try to make a decision:

Korean Air Pros

Korean Air Cons

  • Almost $1300 ticket price
  • Almost $1300 ticket price
  • Arriving exactly two hours before my Air NZ flight, with no interline agreement in case of delays or other reason for cancelling

AeroMexico Pros

  • Price
  • Price
  • Extra time for connection to Samoa flight

AeroMexico Cons

  • 22-hour travel time each way
  • 4-hours in a cramped 737 each way
  • 7-hour layovers at MEX each way

One last factor is thinking about “money saved” in broader terms. Sure, I’d save $400 on the airfare, but I’d need to spend some money during those 7-hour layovers, mostly likely on a hotel room in order to rest-up from one red-eye only to board another.

So, what would you do, readers? Spring for the speed and comfort of a Korean Air nonstop or keep some cash in-pocket and give AeroMexico a try?

Part Three of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

We had no exact destination, but we figured that if we headed towards the area of the club from the night before, we’d find out where we could get some samba on a Saturday night. Our bus was full, not packed. Not like the buses that passed us on the way, filled to double the capacity with doors bulging from backs and shoulders and faces pressed up against it. When private companies run public transportation, law and common sense go unconsidered. A guy in tattered orange shorts got on the bus begging for money, and an old woman next to me mentioned that it was better to give him a couple reals than to have him go nuts and try to take them. Amen to that!

Our group hopped off at a random stop that seemed like it was the right one, and it wasn’t. Here I was, a 6’1 black dude walking down a dark street in Recife with two women (and their purses) and a German guy, none of us speaking fluent Portuguese; the possibility of having to fight somebody never strayed too far from my mind. Those pink neo-classical buildings look nice and cake-like in daylight, but come nightfall, they all turn into haunted houses (and not the supernatural kind, neither). None too soon, we hopped into a cab and told the driver we needed samba, stat!

We drove through the run-down downtown area of Recife, passing random off-price storefronts and retro office buildings. The arcaded sidewalks buzzed with last-minute Saturday-night shoppers snagging mops, plastic suitcases, and t-shirts that read “Look Me.” We crossed a bridge and stopped at the tail of a crowded street, boisterous women in halters and Daisies, gregarious dudes in Brasil soccer jerseys or knock-off Ecko shirts. We filed into the flow of people heading under the wash of orange street lights toward the stage at the other end of the street, upon which sambistas drummed, rattled, and sang. Before getting too deep into the crowd, I asked Estrella tentatively if she wanted to head closer to the stage. She said, “If you don’t go hard, don’t go.”

I didn’t need to hear no mo. We dove in.

The current of revelers swept us forward, awkwardly, chest on back on crotch on ass. Perfume and tobacco and sweat and popcorn and weed and funk wafted into our noses. The “ays” and “ows” of stepped-on toes and elbowed ribs punctuated the driving rhythm of the drums and the male singer’s voice, as people yelled the words of the samba in off-key unison. We didn’t know who was performing or why they were so popular, we only knew that a) there were too many damn people on that narrow street and b) our, or at least my, bullshit threshold was quickly drawing near. The deeper we got into the crowd, the stronger the current pushed us, until heads and arms surged forward and upward. People yelled and pushed back and Estrella, Winta, and Mark looked nervous. I probably would have been nervous, too, had I not already experienced Carnival in Bahia once and New Years in Rio twice. Shouting might happen, but that’s about as bad as it would get; Brazilians are pretty reliable when it comes to avoiding conflict. Fights happen, but not during a samba concert, and certainly not because of a little pushing; events with boisterous crowds occur on a monthly basis.

When one short, pushy young lady too many pushed into my stomach, I decided, executively, it was time to carry it back to Boa Viagem for a burger and the bed. It took at least another 30 minutes to work our way laterally towards another street, then out of the fray. We checked inventory next to a makeshift ambulance where three shirtless dudes were trying to revive a fourth who had clearly OD’d on something: we had our wallets and/or purses, our limbs, and our wits. We got home and agreed to hit the beach for a couple of hours before my noon flight back to Brasília.

Then, bright and early Sunday morning, we saw this:

Damn.

In Olinda: churches to the left, churches to the doggone right!

Part Two of a three-part report about my weekend trip to Recife.

The whole of the next muggy, gray morning, I spent sidelined with a severe migraine. After much urging, my friends went ahead to get food, and it was already 2pm by the time I felt well enough to drag myself out of bed.  We rendezvoused under the shadow of a periwinkle-colored church in the Praça de Boa Viagem, then hopped a bus to the historic city of Olinda, a few miles north of downtown Recife. As it was Saturday afternoon rush hour, when maids and store clerks are finishing their work-week, the buses were packed with faces in all manner of browns and hair in all manner of curls.  For a while, no one would have been able to identify Winta, Estrella, and I as different than any of the weary commuters aside from our less-weary dispositions and the English coming out of our mouths.  Soon, though, a trio of German tourists boarded the bus, giving Mark’s demographic a boost. We coursed through the commercial districts of Boa Viagem, concrete-and-glass residential towers standing sentry, as we retraced the previous night’s path towards central Recife. Skirting downtown, the size and constitution of the dwellings indicated a lower socioeconomic level than that of where we were staying, and as soon as I saw slender black limbs hanging up laundry to dry or kicking soccer balls around the pools of fetid water in muddy fields, I knew we were entering familiar territory.

I grew up on the black side of town back home in Jacksonville, so I’d see slender black limbs hanging up laundry on my way home from school in the afternoons, though the ball of choice in Florida’s muddy fields was oblong and made of pigskin. But I’d also seen this same image in Barranquilla, the city on the Colombian coast that I lived in for over two years. And I’d seen it in neighboring Panama City and Santo Domingo and Caracas; in Atlanta and Tampa and Dallas. Anyone who’s ever had intimate contact with The Hood knows what The Hood looks like, be it called a ghetto, gueto, or favela, and I had gone to school, church, and summer camp with folks from The Hood. My own street might not have been hood, but damn if you couldn’t walk to it.  And seeing palm fronds sway over low-rises made from concrete block and hand painted with gaudy campaign ads for the upcoming elections made me want to hop off the bus, run up to the nearest little corner store, and buy a kosher dill pickle and a bottle of Nehi Blue Cream soda.

But with that familiarity came the realization that in Brasília, where I live, or in São Paulo, where I frequently find myself, The Hoods are generally in areas so far away from the cities they’re connected to, you rarely see any physical manifestation of them other than in the people who pack onto buses and trains to be herded into town for their eight-to-ten hours of menial work. Except in Recife, where all you have to do is cross a bridge to see all the failures of Caribbean (i.e. ex-plantation) societies from the US down to Brazil―institutional apathy, limited education, reduced opportunity, zero motivation.

Before long, the favela gave way to the lush green of tropical scrub, then to the first set of 19th century storefronts signaling the approach to Olinda. Founded in 1535, Olinda has retained most of its colonial feel, unlike Recife, with cobbled streets and brocaded facades alternating between bright pastels and moldy whitewash.  Royal palms arched over tiled roofs that once sheltered nuns and bankers and masters and slaves.  Over a late afternoon açaí in a tiny sweet shop facing the Praça do Carmo and owned by an amiable and very tanned German woman who’s been living in Brazil for two decades, Estrella and I counted the number of Spanish or Portuguese colonial cities we’d been to (eighteen, between the two of us), whereas this was a first for Winta and Mark. It was nice to be around people who weren’t yet jaded about cobblestone and tile.

At the top of the Monte, overlooking the villas of Olinda and the unexpectedly-interminable skyline of Recife glittering in the distance and contemplating life and all that other crap people do when they’re at high places overlooking villas and what-not, we decided more dancing was in order: that night, it would be samba.

It's blurry...so what?! It's still pretty.

Click here to read Part Three.

On Saturday, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting up with a couple of old friends and more than a few new ones at the first ever Fly Brother Meet-Up, held at the aptly named Fly Bar and Restaurant in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. We talked travel and music and politics, the girls beat the dudes at shuffleboard (twice), and there was even a possible hook-up among two of the guests. We had law students and market researchers and public relations folk and jewelry makers and opera guild event coordinators and half-priced pizzas and nachos with roasted chicken on top. Our tab was picked up by the generous Brazilian husband of the indomitable Ali la Loca (muito obrigado, moço!) and I ran into a surprise celebrity guest!

Thanks to Ali, Ricardo, Mike, Ana, Diana, Sharif, Rasheed, Cassidy, Tommie, Keith, and Dave for a fly weekend in San Francisco!
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