Sometimes you've gotta channel your inner Tag Team to get things done.
My relationship with Puerto Rico always feels complicated. And subsequently so are my trips there. I often have this sense of being in a space that is quite familiar, yet distant and foreign, which probably isn't particular to me. I think many of us first-generation mainland US-born Puerto Ricans have this sense. Linguistic barriers and bi-racial/ethnic identities further murky the waters of a clear sense of what Puerto Ricanhood means for me. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish, although it was often spoken around me for a number of years. My mother struggled as a child when she arrived in the United States* in the 1950s. Unable to speak English she was kept out of school for a year and attempted to teach herself with her neighbors' schoolbooks. Growing up discriminated against in the North Ward and Ironbound sections of Newark, New Jersey, she was adamant that I wouldn’t have similar troubles with English, which centered on a false belief that bilingualism causes language difficulties as opposed to reinforces cognitive abilities.
*A de facto colony of the United States I prefer to speak of Puerto Rico as a distinct nation
Like my mother initially with English, I’ve struggled to gain fluency in Spanish. A glutton for punishment and determined to master the language, I decided to conduct essentially all of my ethnographic dissertation research in Spanish. What a damn nightmare. But before I officially began this work in Cartagena, Colombia in 2011 I spent the summer in Puerto Rico. And one of the greatest frustrations at the time was speaking to people in Spanish and having them respond in English. This was done primarily in San Juan and sometimes by people who clearly couldn’t even speak English as well as I could Spanish. It just threw sazón on my wounded ego.
But a noticeable shift happened during this trip to Puerto Rico in March. My challenge with Spanish has always been an emotional one, hardly about actual retention and processing. I only came to realize this while studying Portuguese in Brazil in 2001 and finding it easier (even though it is technically more difficult than Spanish) due to the lack of pressure and guilt. Since 2010 my time living in Colombia and Chile has helped to markedly improve my Spanish. While it is still an uphill battle towards what can technically be called fluency, or hell good grammar at times, my confidence has improved dramatically since 2010. So feeling a bit more like didn't have to be ashamed when I spoke brought about a comfort that allowed me to see the island as much more than an ancestral home. It started become more of an extension of myself.
The journey began with my mother and I rolling out in typical goofball fashion.
We kicked it with our amazing friend Sonia who has become so much like family to me over the years. And of course we hit up various beaches around the island because well hell, my soul is tropical and as my girl Marci said, “@machetesymiel is always on the damn playa. I like my fish frozen and shaped like stars muchas gracias.”
I just have to throw this in here because my mother’s obsession with basketball kills me and comes out at the most random of times. This is us at Walgreen’s buying sunscreen on our way to Luquillo Beach.
I visited the town of my mother’s birth, Dominguito, located in Arecibo. By coincidence there was a festival going on and I had brought the family tree I’d obsessed over last year. I was determined to find information about my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jose Ramon Larrieu y Despiau, who was apparently mayor of Arecibo in the 1800s. There’s a legend about him that sounds like some shit straight out Love in the Time of Cholera, well probably because he and bunch of other members of my family all died of cholera. Given his French ancestry my fear is still that our family was plantation owners who fled to Puerto Rico from Haiti during the revolution. I can neither confirm nor deny this potentially shitty historical background. I ended up running into a woman who was selling her book on Arecibo history and I had to point out that she’d missed my great X4 grandpapa. It was a pleasant exchange in my opinion but my mother has since used this incident as an example of something that is just "very typical Melissa.”
(Video Disclaimer: I had not spoken Spanish in 3 mos. #TheStruggleIsReal)
Me, my mother and Sonia hung out in Arecibo for a while. Some of it was quite beautiful and being there was refreshing.
But there was this other side to being in Arecibo that reflected the struggle of the island, one that tourists don't see or care to see. I was struck by the emptiness of the center of town on a Saturday and the abandonment of so many properties.
Yet even amongst the abandonment there were people still trying to make a life in spaces that had lost a sense of vitality, in some ill way like a fetus trying to grow and survive in a mother who has passed on.
We headed to Dominguito and visited my mother’s first cousin who lives in the house once owned by my great-great-grandmother, Concepción “Concha” Rodriguez. I spoke with Junior and other family members who lived nearby about the family tree and although I’d met a few of them before I didn’t feel as connected as I did this trip. I had a sense of who people were, going back for generations, and that made their faces light up. I listened to stories of our family and looked at artifacts of my great-grandmother’s.
Wait, is that antique bottle called, Old Colony??
My mother went back home and I got to spend a few more days basking in the glow of the island. I got to spend time with people who I have grown to appreciate (one of whom will at some point be featured in the memoir... LIBRO!) and see places I’d known over the years.
I was on a quest to buy this serigraph this trip. I first saw it during my summer in Puerto Rico and I had to have it. I shopped around for it and sadly couldn't find it for purchase this time.
However, I did manage to come up on this gem of a silkscreen that I had to cop for obvious reasons.
The struggle for a place in the world is one that is constantly being battled by Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans everywhere. Puerto Rico was one of Spain’s longest held colony (if not the actual longest). It was then almost immediately seized by the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American-Cuban War and has been a de facto colony ever since. Now the island is deep in the throes of a major financial crisis (for a breakdown, check out Ed Morales’ article). As Morales points out, the colonial experiment has clearly failed. American imperialism has rendered Puerto Rico neither foreign, nor domestic. The Immigration and Nationality Act gave Puerto Ricans statutory citizenship, yet the nation remains in limbo without the rights of sovereignty or true US citizenship stemming from the 14th Amendment and statehood. As I struggle to find my own place on La Isla del Encanto I can’t help but to wonder what does all that's happening now mean for its identity and its future? What future will Puerto Rico carve out for itself? What will continue to be imposed upon it? What role do people like me play, those of us who have Puerto Rico in hearts but a life outside of it? My hope is that the we'll see the light before my issues with identity become meaningless because there will be no unique Puerto Rico with which to connect.
This is it (breathy MJ voice), the very last installment of my 2014 travel year review. I'm still behind two trips for 2015 and will be leaving to travel for 5.5 weeks next week. But I'm pleased to have gotten this far. I will not have this blogging lag... AGAIN! (in my mind that time I just sounded like Eddie Arcadian)
So I roll out of Tokyo and take a bullet train to Kyoto.
Now for some reason I immediately became turned around when I left my hotel. Lost, I wander down the street. What do I stumble upon? In true Machetes y Miel fashion, a protest. I don't know why this happens as often as it does. I think I'm somehow lured to all the emotion and passion of those fighting for a cause. This particular event was an anti-nukes protest in front of the Kansai Electric Power Company.
My goal was to get to Guion and Sanjo for shopping and somehow I made it even though I was wayyyy further than I thought.
Can I just tell you that the vintage chain CHICAGO is pretty much my everything?? I hit up the one in the Teramachi Shopping Arcade. Do yourself a favor and make this happen when in Japan. They've got all types of vintage, from Hawaii 5.0 shirts, to 70s booty shorts, to fly ass Kimonos.
The next day I hopped on the bus and went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Nijo Castle. It was lovely, in spite of the fact that it started to rain buckets right after I arrived.
The rest of the day reminded me of the potentially interesting turn of events that can transpire when you're wandering the world alone. I got on the bus to head to my next destination and heard two guys speaking English. Somehow we struck up a conversation and before I knew it we were hitting up shrines, cemeteries, temples and bookstores and dining together (Hey Calvin & Tony!). Our first stop was Nanzen-ji Temple.
Then on to Ginkaku-ji Temple.
Next stop, Honen-in Temple.
I was fairly templed-out by this point (no offense). We hit up a bookstore which sounded interesting online, Junkudō.
What would Colonel Sanders say about this? Hmm, probably something racist.
And speaking about race and racism, I was actually quite taken aback by what it felt like being a Black person in Japan. For one of the first times in my life I actually felt raced in an unfamiliar way. Now Japan is one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, so it's not as if I felt I belonged. On the contrary, I felt very much an outsider, but an invisible one (which I wasn't a huge fan of either). But walking around as a person racialized as Black is typically about more than just being different. It is this constant feeling of being perceived as othered AND simultaneously lesser. Obviously the degree of this is very location-contingent and based on your awareness of what's happening around you. My time in Japan was limited. But I came to sense that anti-Black racism might be a bit less pervasive there than in places I've traveled around the world. It might be experienced differently or revealed in ways unbeknownst to me, but it was nice to walk into places and not feel that my Afro-descendancy would automatically be deemed as categorically inferior. People were exceptionally nice. Of course they could've been talking shit behind my back but I appreciated the overt kindness everywhere I went.
Even the packaging of this chocolate, presumably derived from Ghanaian cocoa, caught my attention. Note how it's not simply called "Afrika Dark Chocolate" as the German company Balhsen did. According to them "In the heart of Africa you will find an incomparably aromatic cocoa bean." Where the hell is the heart of Africa? #AfricaIsNotACountry Note how there's no caricatured brown person depicted on the front to connect the person's flesh to the brown color of chocolate (I'm looking at you Nestle). It might seem minor, but these kinds of advertisements and packaging produce, reproduce and reinforce associations we have about attributes and groups of people. And it was refreshing not to be bombarded by such imagery, if even for a spell.
I also marveled at the co-existence of cultural practices or ideologies that I would consider somewhat contradictory. For example, the scary/cute dichotomy pictured below. On the one hand you have a culture that has produced bad ass Samurai Warriors, a culture that has also historically been ruthless when it comes to combat and has practiced genocide. Juxtapose this with the obsession with all things hyper-adorable and I don't know whether to be worried or get my teeth checked for cavities due to all the sweetness.
I never thought I'd say this, but this is some cute ass rice -->>
Also fascinating to me was the fact that it's a non-tip society yet Japan had by far the best customer service I'd ever seen in my life. Maybe they pay fair wages. But even that wouldn't necessarily produce better treatment of customers. I also watched as parents appeared to dote on their children, yet you don't hear about Japanese children behaving overly "spoiled." A number of people discussed with me the way that Japanese culture has a particular affinity for all things new. For example, houses are not expected to be passed on to family members, but instead you are supposed to build new homes. Heirlooms are not favored, which is one of the reasons the markets are amazing because people are getting rid of awesome shit (also may be a function of limited space). So you have a culture where people don't believe in things lasting for a very long time, yet there is also this emphasis on quality and a tangentially-related value, a reverence for the elderly. I'm sure everything has a sociological and historical root that I'm unaware of but I found it all so interesting to dissect.
The night right before I met Tony and Calvin I ate alone and remember thinking how much I wanted something very basic like dinner conversation. So I was particularly pleased to be able to dine on some great Okonoiyaki with these guys.
The next day I headed out early on the bus to Arashiyama, determined to find this bamboo groove I'd read about.
It's sort of tough to find your way when these are the guide posts.
But eventually I somehow made it!
Then it was back on the bus to the Shinto Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine where I climbed all the way to the top, like a G.
I appreciated the hell out of these directions. Let's hear it for squats.
Back on the bus I went.
The next day I returned to Tokyo via the bullet train. Ya know what? It's fast.
In Tokyo I hit up Toji Temple and Kobo-San Market.
The Japanese are NOT about that darker skin. Gloves, umbrellas, long sleeves, skin brighteners/whiteners, whatever it takes to keep it light.
These products are from Muji but they don't seem available on the US Muji website. Don't know if whitening is supposed to be synonymous with brightening but it would appear that it's NOT just about brighter skin.
I kicked it in Ginza, the 5th Ave of Tokyo.
I hit up the humongous Uniqlo in Ginza. My favorite part, this sign. ---->
After the ground toilet situation I know that sometimes you just need a little help with unfamiliar territory.
My last night in Japan I had a bit of a moment...
It's been real, Nippon!!!
Here it is (a groove, slightly transformed...my bad, force of hip hop habit), the second to last installment of my 2014 Travel Year Review. Aw yeh, aw yeh (Rock dat! See what I mean...).
So I made my way from Prague, Czech Republic to Tokyo, Japan via a 5 hr layover in London. Once again my short term goal was to sleep when I could in order to stay awake when I arrived in Tokyo at 9am and not lose a day. Because my conference was in Yokohama I had to make my way from Tokyo Narita Airport to Yokohama via train. There are various kinds of lines in Japan making it particularly challenging to navigate initially. Multiple train companies mean that if you decide to buy an unlimited card for one system it may not actually take you where you want to go because another company may operate that line you actually need. Not fun or convenient, but manageable. I stayed at a very bare bones spot called Hostel Zen, small single room with a shared bathroom. Nothing to write home about. The first two days I did the Yokohama and International Sociology Association conference deal.
This is what the subway map looked like.
And subsequently, this is what I looked like. If you don't know what this look is, some would call it "confusion."
The conference opened with some sociologist zingers and Michael Burawoy dropping knowledge of sorts.
These performers did their thing.
The next day I played conference hookie and ventured out into Tokyo. It was both cool and exhausting. And not exhausting necessarily because of how tired I'd been from traveling to four countries in Europe before my arrival, which was only made worse by my overpacking. And not just because of all the people dipping and diving around Tokyo, because come on, I live in NYC. But just what it took out of me to navigate such an unknown space alone. I think it's important to punctuate this a bit, not to cause travellers' panic, but because it's crucial for many as they venture out dolo in the world. I've discussed this before. Understand that it's not uncommon to feel a sense of unease. Just leaving the hotel takes a certain degree of courage, figuring out how to get from A to B, how to feed yourself, how to work through being such a visible outsider, how to be someone in a strange place. All of these feelings had been swirling around within me and at this particular point I really became officially over solo travel.
But hey, I was still fortunate enough to be in Japan. Gotta keep it moving. I did just that and ran around Tokyo. First stop, Shibuya.
You never know what kinds of stories you'll hear when you're abroad. The nature of the circumstances leads you to converse with people you may not have otherwise. This is Catherine Fisher. She and I struck up a convo over accessories in a department store. The article I hold in my hand came out the day before we met. She'd just released her book, I Am Catherine Jane, which details her survival and fight as the victim of rape by a U.S. Navy sailor in Yokosuka. I told her I would share her story.
I ate then made my way on foot from Shibuya proper, I guess you could say, to the Harajuku section of Shibuya. I captured this video on the way because it is distinctly what I call a "sound of Tokyo" in all its cutesy and kind of annoying splendor.
Before I went deep into the Harajuku neighborhood I went to the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingū, something completely opposite of the above video. It was this peaceful, green oasis in the middle of the city.
These were the personal prayers and messages of gratitude for the deities enshrined at Meiji Jingū which I could actually read and stood out for various reasons.
Then it was off to the fashionable and festive, Harajuku neighborhood of Shibuya.
I call the next series of pics "???"
And these are from the "you're welcome" collection.
I rolled back to Yokohama on the "Women Only" car which I'd discussed in the article I wrote on street harassment for The Shadow League some time ago. It was a reminder of what things have been put in place to protect women from the sort of unwanted touching I'd experienced on the subway car in Chile.
The next day I distributed my work at the ISA conference in Yokohama.
I'd always thought the Pokemon thing in Japan was exaggerated. Turns out, not so much. They really do STILL love them some Pokemon in Japan. It was everywhere.
During the wee hours of the morning I wrote the only blog post I would come to write while actually in Japan called "Scars." I think the shit is deep, but what the hell do I know?
I always appreciate a good travel mash up. Meeting up with the Danish girl I met in Ecuador in Copenhagen. Kicking it with my Colombian crew in New York. Hanging tough with one of my New York besties in Cairo, Egypt. I had two great mash ups in one day in Japan. You may recall this lovely cast of characters from the Vienna, Austria trip only a few weeks earlier. We all met up for lunch at the conference.
One of the things I noticed in Japan is how often I saw people wearing things that were written in some seriously grammatically incorrect English. At one point I thought maybe it was purposeful, but in the end I thought not. Here the urban sociologists are posing in front of the trendy Urban Research Make Store. Wait, huh? Yeh, I don't know either.
Later that night the mash ups continued as I got to kick it with my fellow urban sociology, PhD hustling cool kid, Nelson, in Shimokitazawa and Shibuya (Soon we'll be in Italy! Woo hoo!).
Next stop, Kyoto!!
The day after I left Vienna I was off to Prague, aka Praha! I was going to take the train again but everyone advised I take the Student Agency buses which were a fraction of the price and to some even nicer. I was so happy I did. They were exactly right.
I stayed at Miss Sophie's which was really lovely. I wandered around by myself the first day.
I hit up a bookstore and learned how to write Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Kenya in Czech and now you did too. #YoureWelcome
This ad just spoke to me because I have long felt that I can Bey like no other.
The next day I was fortunate enough to take the walking tour provided by the hotel with the fantastic Tony. We worked our way around the city.
Once the official tour was over Tony took us somewhere that the lush in me genuinely appreciated: a beer spot where each person controls how much beer they serve themselves and everyone has individual tabs. Brilliant? Or evil? You decide.
Oh and to make matters even worse there was a competition for drinking the most beer between the tables. Yes, we killed it.
That night I rolled out with a group of adorable queer fellas to a gay bar and then a club. There were some cuties up in that party. And every few moments I would catch myself thinking, “Hey, why isn’t he paying me any attentioooo, oh right. Fudge.” But I had such a cool time and in the morning I was off to Japan!!
My time in Vienna was simultaneously fantastic and senselessly annoying. The annoying elements are definitely LIBRO material and speak to so many of the other frustrations in life at the time. So let’s get to the less deep shit for now. I left Budapest and headed to Vienna via train. Here’s my first tip if heading to Austria from Hungary: pay to have an assigned seat. I had no idea that was really an option because the woman at the ticket counter didn’t inform me. And I found myself wanting to later return and tell her about herself, because what that meant was almost the entire trip I was on edge thinking someone would board and force me outta my seat. And since this wasn’t Alabama and my name isn’t Mrs. Parks I was gonna have to raise up out. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but it was anxiety producing.
I was in Vienna to participate in the Marie Jahoda Summer School of Sociology at the University of Vienna. We weren’t put into housing and I decided to stay in the Wombat´s City Hostel The Naschmarkt because, while it wasn’t very close to the University of Vienna, it seemed to be close to other places of interest, like the Naschmarkt. When I got to the dorm room at the hostel I casually checked the mattress for any signs of bed bugs. Tip #2 that I’m sure many of you know: always check the hell out of your mattresses when you stay in hotels, especially hostels. I’ll get more into this in a few. I explored Vienna a bit on my own that first day.
I don’t know what the hell this is about, but it looks a whole lot like cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity but maybe this is something Viennese that I’m totally culturally unaware about. One of y’all tell me.
Oh and this one too…
That evening I met the two women sharing the hostel room, a psychologist from Brazil and a Québécois chef for Cavalia, which apparently is like the Canadian Cirque du Soleil but with horses. The next morning was the first day of the program and I made my way there via train. Public transpo in Vienna is on that honor code shit. You are required to purchase a ticket but there aren’t any turnstiles or people to show tickets. If someone stops to ask for your ticket you’ve gotta be ready to whip it out. But all it took was for me to see a few of the people I’d met who lived there enter sans ticket for me to just start rolling like them. I’m not saying I’m proud of it but man, the Euro was hurting my dollar holding pockets.
The program was set up so that we spent our days listening to one another’s presentations on our various projects in our doctoral programs, had lunch in different places and a few evenings had things scheduled. I don’t know what it was about this group but we all genuinely bonded (Hey, Summer School Crew!). I felt like we all had gone to university for years together and not just spent 4 days running around Vienna like the less romantic version of Before Sunrise. By the end I had new buddies from the US, Austria, Namibia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Albania, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Hungary (sorry if I'm leaving anyone out!) and learned all different types of interesting information about the development climate in cities in these countries and more.
For our first lunch we went to Gangl.
And for dinner we all took a few trollies/buses to what is apparently the only vineyard located in a capital, Heuriger (Tavern) Zadowsky. This is where I had my very first Vienesse Spritzer, which of course I had to say over and over again in my best Viennese accent as I was properly taught.
We had a lovely time but in true-Valle fashion I had nothing prepared for my presentation the next day and needed to get back to the hostel to work. I was up all night, laying down for about 2 hrs then hauling ass to the university. My presentation was too long, as usual, and I ran through it likely confusing everyone, especially all my non-native English speakers. But when I was done I felt like I could conquer the world and could more importantly, eat, drink and be merry without the burden of work. We all kicked it after, exploring the city, then drinking and rapping for hours. Super cool.
So I get back to the hostel late and see the chef from my room in the lobby and she’s like, “have you been to the room yet?” Um, no. “We have bed bugs.” WTF!? No exaggeration: bringing bed bugs back to my home is one of my GREATEST fears. So it’s around midnight maybe and I’ve got to wash allllll of my clothes and put my suitcase in their freezer after it’s been sprayed with pesticides, just thinking, "is this my life right now?" This went on for hours. It was awful. I didn’t know if I’d gotten bitten but knew that sometimes bites can take a while to show or I may not react at all. The only good thing was that I had so little sleep the night before so hadn't been in the actual bed much. The Brazilian woman on a different bed apparently got to' up. I was over WOMBATS. They said I wouldn’t have to pay for the night. Ya think?? I spent hours trying to find somewhere else to stay. But it was the wee hours of the night and was having no luck. I changed rooms and couldn’t even stay for more than one night in the new room. I found one spot that I could only spend one night in a hotel. I had to go to the university in the morn then come all the way back to change hotels at lunch. Ridiculous.
We all spent the afternoon touring the Museums Quartier area.
Then we listened to a lecture by Ash Amin, who was participating in the summer school.
Then the gaaaaaames began! We took the bottles of wine from the event and just had a ball in the Museums Quartier.
I went to the new hotel and had to pack up allllll my shit the next day. We had our presentations at the Museums Quarter. One of the people attending the Univ. of Vienna was an awesome dude from Guatemala (Hey, Estuardo!!) and when I told him what the deal was he offered to let me stay with him for my last two days. And I moved everything for a THIRD time to his spot and totally missed all of the afternoon presentations. Ugh. This was me looking and feeling like I was gonna pass out from exhaustion.
That night we headed out to Leopoldstadt (I believe was the neighborhood) to watch the Brazil v. Germany soccer match.
On the way I saw this street sign. And of course my "racism" bell goes off. Ding! I confer with those who speak Viennese/German and they confirm that this does indeed mean something related to black or little nigger or something that's a definite #racefail. I recall someone telling me later she got into an argument with her mom about it before. Can anyone tell me the exact translation again?
We get to the bar to watch the game. And if any of you saw this game you know why we all looked like this…(great shot, Nikolav)
The shit was a tragedy. But it served Brazil right for displacing so many poor people to carry out these games! Yep, I said it. Hmph!
We all then made our way to Bricks where before I knew it we were hopping around and going HAM. Hilarious.
Our final day we had a few more presentations, lunch and said our farewells.
And of course we had to close with our soccer stance, in honor of the World Cup.
I headed from Copenhagen, Denmark to Budapest, Hungary on July 3, 2014. The problem with writing this retroactively is that there are particular planning headaches about which I can’t give you great detail because I only vaguely remember them. Hell maybe, that’s for the best. But I’d like to help you avoid similar headaches if possible. For this Euro/Japan adventure I had to make reservations for 5 different spots (stayed in 6 places by the end) and because I can be a littllllle, let's say persnickety, I had to spend a great deal of time weighing between different locations and costs. But guidebooks and websites can go a surprisingly long way, even though they don't compare to the word of someone whose opinion you trust.
So for those of you that don’t know, Budapest is the capital of and largest city in Hungary. Budapest was once two separate cities, Buda and Pest, before unifying in the early-mid 1800s. I had no clue and it only became clear when I was fortunate enough to have a friend of a friend tell me the following when looking for accomodations:
"She should probably look for a place around the 5th, 7th, 13th or some parts of the 8th district. Main thing: She should look for a place in Pest, not Buda."
The city is broken up into hella districts so this was quite helpful info. I settled on one of the two Maverick hostels, Maverick City Lodge (24-26. Kazinczy Utca). It was cute, clean and hip and worked for the two nights I was there. I didn’t do much the first night but catch up on sweet, beautiful sleep.
The next day I met up with my fellow Columbia University doctoral candidate sistren, Yesenia, and her partner, Mark, and we ran around Budapest 'til we basically tuckered ourselves out. We stopped at the Jewish Quarter which was near my hostel.
We made our way to the Danube River across the Chain Bridge and saw Buda Castle.
From the other side of the bridge we walked around historic Castle Hill in Buda.
These definitely required some historical context which we were clearly lacking.
We saw the lovely Matthias Church...
And that this is encouraged...
And why not get flipmode style on the edge of the Chain Bridge over the River Danube? Why not?
In search of a café I came across more folks of the African Diaspora getting their hustle on. And I love it but hmm, "Afro Exotic Beauty Shop"?? But hey, I don't know what it takes to make a way for a person from The Continent up in Hungary. So let me not knock your perpetuation of Afro-exotification. As long as there's not some European behind the operation like, "yeh, let's call it that!" :-/
And of course here we have what should seem like a sadly familiar representation of the Black woman if you've read other posts of mine. Cofesa is a Spanish company apparently. In this one she's sort of Josephine Baker meets Aunt Jemima. Womp womp.
Later that night we went out to eat with a woman studying in Budapest, Natalia, and then hit up what is part of a very cool looking bar scene in Budapest, the ruinspub. Is this part of some gentrification/displacement process? Don't know but it definitely has all the trappings of it. I hope not though because they were so damn funky. I believe the one we went to was Szimpla Kert "Simple Garden" (VII., Kazinczy u. 14.) one of the oldest and most popular ruins pubs in Budapest. Why I don't have any of my own pics from the spot, I don't know.
But it looked something like this...
Budapest was a lovely city from what I could gather from my quick visit. It was great having cool company to explore with for a bit. I know that there was so much more to see and I really wish I had hit up one of the classic spas. Maybe there will be another opportunity one day to get my Budapest bath on.
And I'm not ashamed to say that in the end, one of the things I appreciated most was seeing this in a restaurant...
I love when travel tales come together. Do you remember Pil, the Danish girl I met in Otavalo, Ecuador? Well when I was preparing for my July 2014 Europe and Japan trek I was working out how to get to my first destination, Budapest, in the most economical way possible. I found a flight with an 8.5 hour layover in Copenhagen and I asked Pil whether she thought it was worth coming for such a short period of time. And even though she said the city would be dead because everybody and their mother would be heading out to the ginormous Roskilde music festivaI, she said I should totally come. That's all you gots to tell me. My flight headed out at 7:15am from Newark and had a stopover in Stockholm, Sweden before ending up in Copenhagen. And the only thing that broke my little traveling heart was that I got no passport stamp for Denmark, in spite of leaving the airport and wandering around Copenhagen for the day. Oh well. I put my luggage in a locker and Pil and I rolled out (which reminds me, this is a really helpful site for how to make layovers work with lockers, things to do, transpo, etc. -The Layover Guide). I was so damn tired but my primary short-term goal was to enjoy Copenhagen and make it to nightfall in Budapest without sleeping so I could get caught up to Euro-time.
I've said it before, I LOVE being abroad with someone from the country I'm visiting. Besides just getting to experience things I would probably never without local folks, shit is just more efficient. All the time I would've taken to figure things out was eliminated as Pil and I combed through Copenhagen and in a matter of hours and I felt like I had a nice little sense of the city. This is going to seem like an overly simple description but I was just taken aback by how nice Copenhagen was. Like that's all I kept thinking, "man, this place is so...nice." All picturesque and clean and functional. Ya know, nice.
The bike game there was off the chain. Get it? The chain. Yuk yuk yuk.
And ya gotta love the African Diaspora.
(But peep the irony of the first shot below)
A coke and a smile. Thanks, Pil!
I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen many photos, much video footage or any news coverage (short of that in the commentary of comedians) from the recent uprising in Baltimore. It’s too much. It’s too painful to witness, even second hand. It’s not just that we don’t have time to mourn the death of one woman, man or child at the hands of state-inflicted violence before we receive news of another. It’s that every fallen tear, strained scream, rock thrown, or window smashed represents centuries of injustices, of frustrations about hopes dashed, of compounded inter-generational pain and suffering, of communities purposely left to languish. And yes, this is what resistance sometimes looks like.
When I was 12 years old, using a tape deck and a notebook, I wrote out the words to “Trapped” by 2Pac (who called Baltimore his home from around ages 12-17). And when I realized what was going down in Baltimore, those words about police brutality and feeling like prey and the bubbling up that comes from deep within memories of a history so old that you can’t even recall them, all came to me.
They got me trapped
Can barely walk the city streets
Without a cop harassing me, searching me
Then asking my identity
Hands up, throw me up against the wall
Didn't do a thing at all
I'm tellin' you one day these suckas gotta fall
Cuffed up throw me on the concrete
Coppers try to kill me
But they didn't know this was the wrong street
Bang bang, down another casualty
But it's a cop who's shot there's brutality
Who do you blame?
It's a shame because the man's slain
He got caught in the chains of his own game
How can I feel guilty after all the things they did to me?
Sweated me, hunted me
Trapped in my own community
One day I'm gonna bust
Blow up on this society
Why did ya lie to me?
I couldn't find a trace of equality
Work me like a slave while they laid back
Homey don't play that
It's time I lett'em suffer the payback
I'm tryin to avoid physical contact
I can't hold back, it's time to attack jack
They got me trapped
Understand that I’m not quoting Pac to in any way advocate attacks on police officers. But the idea of retaliation harks back to a moment earlier in the week when I found myself proud of my adviser, Shamus Khan. In his lecture to Columbia University undergrads he attempted to put all of the events transpiring in Baltimore in context, weaving together the semester's foci on categorization, decision-making during times of uncertainty, and social stratification. The most poignant moment for me was when he said that we can’t confuse the attention that non-violent protest has been given as meaning it was historically the only mode of protest that brought about change, even during the Civil Rights Movement where it's often highlighted. And it hit on something that I discussed a lot on social media in the wake of the events in Ferguson. Of course nonviolence is the mode that would be ideal for many. Folks don't really want to put their lives in jeopardy or live in communities even more rocked than they had previously been. But we live in a country that was literally founded upon violence, massacre and destruction. So the United States speaks the language of violence quite fluently. And as oppressed people the civil unrest that we have utilized here has often deinvisibilized us and served as a catalyst for change.
The idea that those at the federal level would advocate non-violence whilst simultaneously using violence as one of the dominant courses to achieving its ends of empire and global economic and political domination is but a reminder that they will unequivocally seek to maintain their monopoly on violence, and any sort of contestation of this violence will only be met with even more extreme forms of it. We know how fucked up the response by law enforcement will be when we attempt to challenge the militarized policing of our bodies and communities, yet we also know that there has to be a strategic organization of tactics that will draw attention to the plight of those in communities where disinvestment, criminalization and stigmatization has been the norm. In addition, we have to focus on the simultaneous dismantling of structures that produced those norms.
It sounds and feels daunting as hell. But there can be a few ways for those locked in a cage to break free. Some will sweet talk the guards. Some will slowly file away the bars in the corner on the low. Some will sit around and pray help comes. Some will collude to use their collective strength to bend what seemed unmalleable. Regardless of how it happens, trust that you can’t keep us trapped forever.
**Check out my event post about yesterday's NYC to Baltimore/NYC Rise Up demonstration in solidarity with the people of Baltimore here.**
I started writing this intro in December :-)
I’m writing on a plane en route to my final travel destination of 2014. Until I did a count this morning, I hadn’t even realized that this will be the 10th foreign country I’ve visited this year. Makes me feel like LL Cool J when he came out with his 10th album. So this trip to Mexico will be regarded as "10". These excursions are always filled with so much excitement, anxiety, messiness, beauty, discoveries and fails that I get so caught up in experiencing them all that I don’t document them in the manner that I always want to. So I’m going to attempt to really bring you all into what these journeys are truly like this time around with "10." But before I do, I want to provide a proper review of insights, special moments and maybe some bizarre shit from this year’s excursions to these 10 countries on 4 continents.
Okay, now back to the present. As mentioned in the Mexico posts (I actually did like I said I was going to do! Go me!), I’m still deciding how to buckle down and finish the travel memoir I started writing while I was living Chile in 2013. But since it’s still on the table, there are some juicier, messier, dirtier, and/or just more personal parts that I’m gonna save for the book. And when one such episode or detail comes up I’m gonna drop in a “LIBRO!” so you know.
#1 Colombia (January-May 2014)
Colombia has now become the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time outside of the United States. And when 2014 began I was in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. January 1, 2014 marked the second half of my trip, having arrived the previous August (2013) on a Fulbright award to conduct my 9-month dissertation research. My girl whom I’d met in Cartagena in 2012 (and with whom I rolled to Mexico), Salma, and I had decided to get outta Cartagena to begin the new year in some place a little greener and with fewer people that we didn’t want to see. There was a whooole lot going on in Cartagena at the time. LIBRO. We’d heard a lot about Palomino and went to meet the male member of our parche (crew), Jhonatan, who'd arrived earlier. It took us forever to get to the bus station on the outskirts of Cartagena by bus and then we had to wait forever for another bus out of the city. But we ended up in Palomino late on December 30th with the intention of staying with a woman Salma had met in Cartagena. I’m going fast forward through some rather interesting details of our night and say LIBRO.
Come morning time Salma and I were still on the fence about whether to stay or leave Palomino. We hadn’t bathed and after an encounter that reminded me that sometimes there’s no running away from shitty situations, we resolved to get the hell outta there. The hours were wasting away fast as we tried to figure out what to do and because it was New Year’s eve I wanted us to decide quickly so as to be situated come 11:59pm. We wandered about making phone calls and did end up in beautiful place where the river met the ocean. We then got our hustle on with Jhonatan, hopped on a bus and later the back of a truck.
We worked our way up the mountain to the town portion of Minca to meet Ana Maria who owned Finca La Semilla (The Seed Farm) further up the mountains. We waited for her for hours at a café, just happy to have made it that far at the last minute. Ana Maria’s finca was too far to go to that night and we were supposed to stay in the house of one of her friends who was away. But of course she couldn’t find the keys. The day turned to night and shit got ridiculous. We had nowhere to stay. Folks were charging a grip to stay in a sleeping bag on their property and use the cold water showers basically outdoors (mind you, it’s a good 45-50 degrees up in this mountain at this hour). Things were not looking good for the crew and my face showed how over it I was. Salma and I wandered to a hotel and they offered to let us pay way too much to share a twin bed. It just so happened that I left my wallet with my backback with Jhonatan so we couldn't pay right there. As we walked back I said, “maybe something amazing happened while we were gone.” And it did! Jhonatan had found a spot with a bunk bed and a double and kinda warm water! You would’ve thought the shit was the Waldorff at that point to us. We bathed, went to eat, drink and ended up at a woman’s house in town partaking in local festivities “of the earth.” We played instruments, danced and laughed so hard we almost died climbing up the trail to the few places we visited. It was one of the best New Year’s I’d ever had and I don’t even know why. There was a freeness. We didn’t care what we looked like. The jokes were plentiful and the company was warm.
The next day we slowly but surely got ourselves up.
And had to make our way up the mountain. We took motos at first.
But then it got to the point where you have to hike up. The thing to understand about Minca too is that most places are without electricity. Ya go for the truly rustic experience. There are no grocery stores. So you've got to bring pretty much all the food you want to eat for your time there. Hence this grocery bag in my hand along with an overpacked bag. Smh.
We had a special time up at the finca. Life sans electricity is a really interesting way of being. We built a fire but for all intents and purposes once that sun went down our day was over. At the finca we did yoga, climbed a waterfall, cooked and just enjoyed ourselves.
But we did also learn the importance about coming fully prepared when you make those kinds of excursions out to the middle of nowhere. Pack your meds. LIBRO. Smh.
Living in the center of Cartagena can honestly get pretty boring. Being by the beach and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture definitely makes for some scenic moments but on a regular basis there’s not enough going on to sustain my attention. What is a perk of living there are the various festivals that come up: the Mercado Cultural (Jan.), Bienal Art Festival, FICCI, Hay Literary Festival. Most of these seem like opportunities for the elite from around the country to get together and be “cultured”, but I too did appreciate the opportunity to partake in the artsy activities. They sometimes provided insights for the dissertation research I was conducting, which only really kicked into high gear in January (in spite of having arrived in August). I'm sort of glossing over sooo much of Cartagena but I write about it soooo much in my academic work that I feel myself not wanting to write about it here. But in due time, definitely more to come.
Palenque de San Basilio (February 2, 2014)
I’d long wanted to travel to Palenque de San Basilio, the village established by formerly enslaved Africans who had fled bondage and started a community there during colonial times. During my second trip to Cartagena I went to a program at the Universidad de Cartagena and learned more about the Palenque language, declared one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005.
Merly Beltrán Vargas became a friend while in Cartagena and is the founder of Tu Cultura. She’s been organizing tours to Palenque for some time now and when she called me up saying she had a spot on a her tour leaving nice and early one morning in February, I jumped at the opportunity. As a Cartagenera, Merly has a love and appreciation for the richness of the culture and people of those on the Atlantic coast of Colombia. She has an awareness of the value of this sacred place, as well as a history of working with the people there. I HIGHLY suggest if you are interested in visiting Palenque you contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org in advance. Her organisation promotes sustainable tourism and part of this is not having huge groups travel to the community so plan ahead to get a spot. Here’s a link to what I wrote shortly after my experience and of course, more pics and vid clips!
Barranquilla Carnaval (Feb-March 2014)
The whole Barranquilla thing was nothing like I anticipated. There were far fewer people. Very consistent color schemes of red, yellow, orange, and blue. It wasn’t like anything I’ve seen of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio or Trinidad. It was distinctly Colombian. There was an ABUNDANCE of that Negrita Puloy costume.
Loads of the Marimonda figure (what we call “penis face”), far more than during Cartagena Independence festivals in November.
Far fewer afro wigs but many more men painted black to represent Africans and boys in the street painted black and asking for money. Lots of spears and animal prints. Every poster was either Negrita Puloy, El Son de Negro, the Marimonda or the bull. The bull was the only thing that I wasn't really offended by and that’s only because I don’t know the history. If it involves murdering and torturing the bull then I’m offended by that one too.
I thought a lot about what I’d learned in my interviews in Cartagena where people spoke of the relationship between Cartagena and Barranquilla. The former being the more “Black city.” And I thought about someone from Quibdó telling me that the Black face practice didn’t go down in festivals on Colombia’s pacific coast. (This is really a big part of my future work)
We couldn’t even see the main parade because they’d built these bleachers so that only people who paid could get in to see it. It was so blatantly exclusionary. We saw more of it on the television back at the hotel.
I spoke with folks who, like us, were basically just listening to the parade outside of the bleachers and they said that the more “popular” parade was in another part of town. We made our way over to that and got to actually see a parade.
That night we took part in some street party where I ran into other expats I knew and got properly foamed and powdered as is apparently the tradition.
All of these festivals were a welcomed distraction from all the dude messiness. Oh man. But the reality is that the man situation was a welcomed distraction from the work. No matter how much I said I was going to avoid problems by focusing on the project and platonic friends, somehow they just kept calling me. And what happened? Pookie went runnin’. My romantic relationships from this time in Colombia are definitely strictly LIBRO material but I will say they made for rich, exhilarating and sometimes quite painful life experiences and a key element in Carmen Jones Sandiego tales.
#2 Ecuador (March 2014)
I had plans to visit two countries I hadn’t been to in Latin America while living in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The political climate got a bit too difficult for me to make it to Venezuela but in March I made my way to Ecuador for 6 days. I Skyped with someone from www.myecuadortrip.com and he provided me with great info about the ins and outs of traveling around Ecuador. It really put me at ease. I got to my hostel, Blue House Hostel, in Quito on a Friday and was a bit obsessed with the idea of trying to get to Cusco to visit a friend I’d met there so that I could make up for the Machu Picchu trip I’d missed out on the year before. But in the end the tickets were just bananas for such a short time and distance. I was in a dorm and there was a girl in there that was knocked out when I arrived. I just wasn’t feeling the environment at the hostel. I felt really alone and unsure of how exactly I was going to work the trip. My driver from the airport provided me some options that would get me around some parts of Ecuador but at a pretty penny. I couldn’t make it all the way to the Afro center of Ecuador, Esmeraldas, but he did mention that there was another town with a large Afro-descendant population that was somewhat closer. When I awoke I decided I’d just hit up the sites in the historic center and figure it out. The sleeping girl awoke, a 22-year-old girl from Switzerland named Livia (Hey Liv!). We started chatting and just like that I had a traveling companion for the rest of the trip. And this is one of the beautiful things about taking excursions, especially solo; you end up befriending people whom you would likely never come in contact with and if you did you probably wouldn’t think there was much to bond you. But being out of your own regular space is enough to unite total strangers. And off me and Livia went!
Basílica del Voto Nacional
After leaving the Historic Center of Quito we jumped in a cab and headed to the center of the planet Earth, because why the hell not, right?
There are two different sites down the road from one another both claiming to be the official middle of the world. We went with Museo de Sitio Inti Ñan which the folks I spoke to from Ecuador said is legit. Plus they had cute little experiments.
The next day we headed out to Otavalo via multiple buses. It’s about 70 miles away and just a really chill Indigenous town with an awesome market that's really jumping on the weekends. I bought some great textiles and original artwork.
We met up with a woman Livia had met in another part of Ecuador, Pil from Copenhagen, Denmark. The next day we had a nice little hike out to the waterfalls.
Livia, Pil and I headed back to Quito the next day. Livia and my original hostel, Blue House Quito, had two sites and the three of us went back to the second one but it was just awful. We were staying in a dorm that wreaked of mold and when I looked up at the wooden planks above my head from the bottom bunk I literally saw all the mold. Ilk. The folks working there tried to be accommodating but i wasn't 'bout that dying from spores life. The next day Pil left to head home and Livia and I went to BoutiQuito Design Hostel, which was slightly more money and had great reviews. But it was much further out from the center. But at that point Livia and I had figured out how to navigate public transpo and cabs were cheap enough that we were willing to sacrifice convenience for comfort. And BoutiQuito Design Hostel was damn fabulous (just don't get the breakfast, it seems like a waste of $).
And it’s at BoutiQuito Design Hostel that we met our next travel buddy, Rishan. We all spent the next two days traveling around Quito, eating and watching movies in the hostel. And Livia just happened to be leaving out of Ecuador on the same day, around the same time, and near the same gate. So we were able to share a cab back to the airport and see one another off. It was such a solo-traveller’s win!
Back to Colombia (March-May 2014)
I returned to Cartagena from Quito and everything was a whirlwind. I was doing everything I’d been doing for the 7 months prior but at an accelerated pace. I of course had to get my arts festivals on.
Had to party and bullshit with folks. (Don't worry. No lovely New Zealanders were harmed in the making of this picture)
I, of course, had to continue my work as an ethnographer, documenting happenings in the community and grinding on these interviews, reminding myself on the daily that that's why I was actually in Cartagena.
Oh and I got painted!
Bogotá, Colombia (April 26-28, 2014)
I ran outta Cartagena one weekend in April to make my final presentation before Fulbright staff and my fellow Fulbright US student award winners in Colombia. I had skipped the orientation for the awardees in Bogotá the previous July because I wasn’t ready to go back to Colombia from NY and I’d already been there twice before. This meant that everyone had gotten to know one another before moving on to their respective cities 8 months earlier so I was the new jack to the crew. I gave the presentation on my work.
HU alums & Fulbright awardees!
Then it was time to enjoy Bogotá for a few days. I hadn't been there since my first trip to Colombia in 2011 and while I’m not a fan of the weather, or shit the crime, I'm a big fan of big cities, the diversity, the energy, all the different shit there is to get into. I definitely enjoyed this visit to Bogotá. LIBRO!