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On a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the modern film adaptation of a Depression-era short story about an unremarkable everyman stricken by sporadic daydreams of heroism. In the story, mundane tasks inspire epic flights of fancy in the mind of the protagonist, who appears zoned out to the rest of the world. The film, however, takes a mild-mannered photo developer for Life magazine out of his fantasies and sends him on a dizzying adventure to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan. Actually, the film takes us along for the ride.

To be certain, seeing Walter Mitty, mousy and unsure, morph into a ruggedly handsome philosopher-hero is to witness Hollywood cliché. And it’s easy to dismiss as corny the abridged Life magazine mantra displayed throughout the film (see image above). But on that airplane, I drank in every panoramic mountain vista, swam in every lush measure of the soundtrack, and swallowed whole each word of that mantra, because I am a true believer. I know first-hand the power of travel, of conquering fear, of exploring the unknown, of accomplishing the extraordinary. But more, I’ve been blessed to interact with, to be drawn closer to other people who also know this power intimately. Extraordinary people who give little girls the world in the form of a small, blue, 32-page book with an eagle on the front. People who coach men on becoming better men, who kayak down the coast of Texas in search of solace and solitude, who supply menstrual pads to school-aged girls in developing countries, who move to New York then Buenos Aires then Boston when the mood strikes, or whose hobby is slowly but steadily becoming a profession. People raising their biracial daughters or autistic sons as single mothers in foreign countries or foreign cultures, who unexpectedly fall in love with a certain city and then make that place home, who connect compatriots worldwide, who capture the essence of life for posterity. People who do oh so many more extraordinary, epic things.

The examples are all around us; it’s really no secret at all. An epic life, an extraordinary life isn’t just for the movies. And it isn’t just for people who throw off the yoke of conventionality to go live in Bali and trade stocks over the Internet. It’s about recognizing epic moments that already happen in your life – running on the beach, hugging a loved one, laughing with friends – and embracing them, then devising a way to maximize the frequency and duration of epic-ness in your life. It’s not always easy, and right now, it may only be five minutes a week. But in a few weeks, months, years, extraordinary could be your new ordinary. Walter Mitty reminded me that, despite my own fears, inadequacies, conflicts, or difficulties, extraordinary is already my ordinary. I plan on keeping it that way.

So, who’s down for a trip to Greenland?

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

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Since July, I’ve been to nine countries on five continents, and I don’t think I’ve spent more than five nights in any one location, with the exception of a 7-day cruise with my family where my movement was essentially limited to the Lido Deck.

During these past two months, I’ve had immovable work deadlines and perilously-late paychecks, last-minute press trips and schmooze-soaked travel conferences, a sobering near-breakup and a sobering death in the family. I’ve juggled professional, personal, and social spheres, seeing friends and family whenever I could and taking on writing assignments as frequently as possible. I have pressures to maintain a positive cash flow, maintain a long-distance relationship, maintain personal relationships, maintain professional growth, maintain a blog and a social media presence, maintain my physical health, maintain my sanity. My fingernails are bitten down to the bloody cuticle. ‘Taint no vacation we’re talking about here.

Life on the road is still life—uncut and unadulterated life, with bills, headaches, disappointments, and unrealized goals. At the end of the day, uncompleted items remain on each to-do list, and at the end of the month, a few days on the bank statement inevitably glow red (for now). But it’s the hope for a fulfilling life that keeps me advancing through air and uncertainty instead of coasting on autopilot through a manufactured existence in service to someone who isn’t me but who profits from my talents and resources. It’s the hope that I’ll eventually get as close to “figuring it all out” as I can, that the effort and striving and leaps of faith will turn into something materially-tangible, yes, but more than that—something soul-calming. Something fulfilling. With as few regrets as possible.

Because there’s nowhere any of us can go to escape uncut and unadulterated life, no country or continent where real life won’t intrude suddenly and without warning. The key to hope—and fulfillment—is to embrace, then face the challenges, tackling each one like a wave on the ocean of adventure.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

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Friends do crazy sh*t together.

Sometimes, when you stop just for a second and take stock of the people in your life, you really do have to quietly thank the cosmos for what truly is the blessing of friendship. Many people have a set of good friends that they’ve built over the years through shared experiences in high school or college, on sports teams, in church or at work. Sometimes, these friendships last for many years, sometimes not so many—reason, season, lifetime and whatnot. Mostly, though, they’re established based on geography, which makes sense, since frequent personal interaction is what facilitates the friendship in the first place. In my case, geography is even more of a factor in the friendships I’ve forged over time, specifically because of its frequently changing nature in my life.

I’ve lived in six cities and traveled to three-dozen countries in my 34 years, and I’m actually kind of humbled when I think about the number of quality friends that I’ve made in that time. Some are people I’ve worked with or worked for, or traveled with or hosted or CouchSurfed with. Some I met on the beach in Rio, on the seafront promenade in Havana, on the subway in Paris. A few are from college; fewer from high school (I was an unpopular nerd…oh, but times done changed).

And who are these people? Telenovela and film stars in Bogotá, DJs and journalists in São Paulo, teachers and lawyers in Tallahassee, bloggers and nightclub coat-check clerks in Berlin, special-needs educators in Stockholm, die-hard road dogs in Miami and NY and DC and Jacksonville who can remember each and every one of my previous incarnations and still put up with me anyway. And my actual family’s pretty damn great, too.

Thanks to Skype and cheap airfares, I’m able to maintain and even expand my set beyond physical boundaries. And even when circumstances and logistics call for long pauses between interaction, it only takes a second to fall back into the familiar rhythm and easy laughs (or arguments) that drew us together in the first place. My set isn’t bound by geography or circumstance, but by respect, admiration, affection, and kinship.

So to all my fly peeps the world over, I love you folks and am forever grateful for the $50 that you never pressed me about paying back! 😉

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Rob Bixby/Flickr

They used to say you can’t go home again—I don’t know what the youngins are saying these days—but for me, that’s only partly true. With all of the back and forth traveling and living abroad that I’ve done since leaving the nest at 17, I’ve always had a pretty decent time visiting my family. In fact, aside from occasional head-butting amongst the males in the household, there’s nothing unpleasant about going home. Going to my hometown, not so much.

Someone once said to me that she considered Jacksonville to be Detroit with better weather. Before anyone takes that too personally, realize that both places have some great people, but both places are also paeans to bad municipal management in the face of serious historic economic shifts, and have high crime rates as a result. What Detroit has on Jville is an unbeatable musical heritage, dynamic redevelopment effort, and a highly successful airline hub. We’ve got a decent-sized port, some decent beaches, a couple of decent golf courses, and great weather (which, sad to say, is the only thing the place has going for it).

Sometimes I bite my tongue before criticizing “the Bold New City of the South” in front of my parents because they were born and raised here, but it’s not even the same city I grew up in, let alone them. Throughout the middle 20th century, despite segregation and serious racial unrest from time to time, the black community in Jacksonville thrived with commerce and industry, even spawning a little beach enclave in neighboring Nassau County (as the local beaches were off-limits to culluds; see the movie Sunshine State). People graduated from high school, went off to college in Tallahassee or Daytona Beach, then came back home to Jacksonville to raise their children amongst a broad, but close-knit community. Today, my parents still get together with twenty or thirty friends they’ve known for almost seven decades. I get together with maybe seven people, if that.

Some of it has to do with the more divergent paths young black folks take in an integrated society. Some of it has to do with a comfortable complacency that takes root in a place shackled by low expectations and a low cost of living. Some of it has to do with the misguided consolidation of city and county government, leading to sprawling suburban development at the cost of a vibrant urban core and missed opportunities for the city as a whole. Some of it has to do with Jim Crow-era laws, corrupt police, inept officials, greedy businesses, and religious zealots in government (Good Ol’ Boys, allovem). Some of it has to do with willful ignorance on both sides of the color line. All of it is reason enough for me to minimize interaction with my hometown.

Only when I think of the values I learned as a Southerner, a Floridian, and a black man reared by parents who were both educators, am I certain that I wouldn’t want to have been raised anywhere else.

Well…except Hawaii, maybe.

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Sunset from the front porch.

For a week now, I’ve been trying to write a post about the decline, nay, decay of my hometown Jacksonville in general, and of the black community that I grew up in, in particular. It’s been hard; I still haven’t figured it out. After this last trip home, I agree even more with my parents’ assertion that integration wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My mom was, after all, fully 30 years old when the school system in my hometown finally desegregated, and both my parents remember well the benefit of having successful, accessible community leaders in the community. I remember it, too. It almost feels like I’m from the last generation to actually have that benefit, since nowadays, the only community leaders seem to be drug dealers and thugs. Despite everyone else in our family staying on the straight-and-narrow, we’ve got one little knucklehead who just refuses to do right. I say it’s all that hip-hoppin’, gang-bangin’ garbage they’re listening to these days (or is that just me getting old?), since he certainly wasn’t brought up that way. Then, I question my own role as a “community leader” who, while not necessarily all that financially successful, can certainly stand as an example of how staying out of trouble can lead to an extraordinary life. But then, I left the community, too. The reasons are various and justifiable, but the fact remains that I went back to my hometown, observed the sorry state of affairs amongst what should be a proud people, reasserted my conviction to never move back there unless absolutely necessary, and flew back off to my own life. So the quandary, then, is how to have my own life and still serve a community that I do care about and am still a part of. Or is there no longer a place for community-mindedness in “post-racial” America? And who, exactly, is my community?

The answer will come.

For a little background, see Missing Middle Florida.

Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

The first thing you notice about Switzerland’s largest city – Zurich – is that, by comparison, every other city in the world looks worn-down and raggedy. The whole place smacks of affluence, from the clean comfort of the airport to the understated high-end street fashion (even old people rocked dark denim and leather jackets by somebody famous). In Zurich, they riyotch, beyotch.

Early industrialization and the development of banking services (a business not exactly pure as Alpine snow) helped the Swiss obtain one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world. Food and clothing in Zurich aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but public services and infrastructure are top-notch. I flew into a world-class airport on a world-class airline, hopped a train to the main station, where I met up with my CouchSurfing host (Björn – Swedish name, Swiss dude) for some lunch-time Thai, then took a sleek and efficient tram to within a block of his apartment.

Great Domes of Zurich

I rested a bit from the 12-hour flight until Björn got home from work and we hit the streets of Zurich just as the sun dipped behind the Alps to the west. We walked around the old town, and I marveled at how multicultural the place actually is (I encountered Brazilians, Eritreans, Sri Lankans…), in spite of murmurings about Swiss xenophobia. It was strangely comforting to be in a place surrounded so completely by mountains; I’d lived in Bogotá, which sits on a high plateau surrounded by the Andes, but with 8 million people, comforting is the last word I’d use to describe the Colombian capital.

Skyline at sunset.

Conversation took us past 900-year-old churches and 21st century electronics stores, then down towards Lake Zurich where we hopped aboard one of the water shuttles that augment the city’s transportation options.

Lake Zurrk

According to Björn, the whole city is walkable in about 45 minutes, and we seemed to be testing out that assessment. Finally, as the temperature dropped into the upper-40s, Björn broke out the fondue set and we had some traditional Swiss potatoes and cheese for dinner. So much for my no-carb vacation.

Downtown shopping alley. Expensive.

The next day? Cold, gray, and rainy: perfect weather for a museum visit! The castle-like Swiss National Museum – Landesmuseum Zürich in German – chronicles the history of Switzerland from the Stone Age to modern times, even mentioning the Swiss role as financiers of the slave trade (no pics allowed). I’m always shocked in European museums by the amount of guts and gore that appears in depictions of Christianity: severed heads and people nailed to crosses and whatnot. Victory over violence, my brethren! I was also mildly chided by the old lady taking tickets at the entrance to the museum’s World Wildlife Federation exhibition because, as an American, I’m in some way responsible for America’s lax environmental policies. I just let her talk, responding every now and then with a “Yes, ma’am.”

Landesmuseum Zürich, where they filmed ‘The Haunting.’

Then, I shivered over to the nearby Museum of Design Zurich, mostly because I was sans-umbrella, and caught the temporary exhibition on skyscrapers (my favorite type of building). Photos, blueprints, and scale models of structures in major cities comprised the exhibition, and I took the opportunity to draw São Paulo’s Copan building in the guest book, since other people had drawn buildings in the guest book.

I took this picture on the low-low.

Soon, it was time to grab my onward flight to Berlin, departing from Zurich Airport’s über-chic “low-cost” terminal.

The hoodrat section of Zurich Airport.

Björn, thanks a lot for the Alpine hospitality! Zurich, you are small but sophisticated and your people are worldly and affable. I will be back!

Zurich’s got “something for every taste.”

Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

Though there is no substitute for actual travel, there is something you can buy at your local bookstore or newsstand that’s as close as you can get to scarfing down a Turkish döner in Berlin, catching an Argentinean documentary in Quito, hanging ten off the coast of Bangladesh without actually coughing up the airfare: Afar.

Based in San Francisco (check out the minds behind the mag), the bi-monthly magazine focuses on “experiential travel,” which it defines as being connected with “the authentic essence of a place and its people.” This theme pervades every page of the magazine, from feature stories that take you into the dumpling kitchens of Shanghai and Lee Harvey Oswald’s former apartment in Minsk to double-page spreads featuring the beer cans, national birds, and traditional hats from around the globe. The articles, expertly-written and as respectful of other cultures as I’ve ever seen in print media, keep me in perpetual wanderlust, tinged with a bit of envy at the caliber of the text and slight annoyance that the editors haven’t tapped me for one of their “Spin the Globe” features (where they drop you in a foreign place with nothing but a few dollars and your own travel wits; I’m available, Afar…I’ll call in sick to the day job if I need to! *wink*).

And in the vein of experiential travel, Afar sponsors educational excursions and youth development programs through its foundation, coupling social change and personal development with international travel.

So if you haven’t already checked out a copy of Afar, run to the nearest B&N, or better yet, subscribe through their website to get your bimonthly dose of travel porn, stuffed with gems like this (from “When Being a Good Traveler Means Being a Bad Guest” by Chris Colin, May/June 2011 issue):

“The poignancy of a place lies at the intersection of its virtues and its flaws…
To care only for the airbrushed version of a place is not to care much for it at all – it’s hardly love if your partner knows your charming smile but not your bad breath. So, too, with a place: Your affection takes on depth only after you’ve glimpsed the imperfections and made room for them in your embrace.”


Please tweet your comments @FlyBrother, or email me (see About page). And don’t forget to “like” me on Facebook!

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Sometimes, living abroad can be an experience in cultural isolation. Despite the best efforts on everyone’s part, there are misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misconnections. It can get tiring, the thinking in other languages, the decoding of cultural cues, the deprogramming of absolute truths. Culture shock never really ends.

You get pensive. You start asking yourself and the universe: What’s the plan? What’s the goal? Why don’t I just get a real job and grow up already? But no one can really give you an answer and that questioning, and the fear behind it, becomes paralyzing – for a while – until somehow, you regain motivation through a conversation with a random stranger, the sudden memory of what you had originally wanted, or by simply waking up the next morning.

The key – the hardest part, then – is breaking through that paralysis.


Recently, I was discussing last year’s round-the-world trip when the person I was speaking to asked incredulously if I’d done the entire trip alone. “Why, of course,” was my response. “How else would I have done it?”

See, most people I know have some type of full-time job that only gives them a couple weeks of vacation (unless they’re teachers), and part of that is usually spent visiting family. Then, there’s the issue of financial priorities; most people find other things to do with their money than book plane tickets just for the  intangible sense of enjoyment and personal development that comes with travel, not when there’s a plasma TV to buy. And also, some people just need to have companionship on the road. Nothing at all wrong with that; it’s actually wonderful to share a travel experience with people who have complimentary chemistry.

But the friends I do have who travel often are either working while I’m traveling (or vice versa), or they’re already traipsing off to the other side of the world from where I am. If there’s no barbecue involved, very rarely am I able to coordinate friends and family for an international trip. In fact, I can only count four independent trips that I’ve ever taken with people whose company I can stand for more than ten minutes. Romantic trips, even less (hook-ups don’t count).

The major flip side, however, is that when I’m traveling solo, I have those incredible interactions with people I’d never have if I were trying to keep up with my travelmate. I’d miss out on many a hottie while hugged up with the honey I brought from home. And I’d lose the freedom that comes with not being responsible for anyone but myself. For me, that’s motivation enough to fly solo.

That, and the fact that if I waited for other people to get it together and buy the damn plane ticket, I’d never be going anywhere.