Thursday, December 27, 2007

Two headlines that should never share the same computer screen...

Particularly with both "above the fold"

Benazir Bhutto assassinated
Fergie engaged to actor Josh Duhamel


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Top 10 Places of 2007 - (Local Edition)

It's the end of the year! Every blog needs a top 10 list. So here it is...

1. The flower garden behind the Smithsonian castle at sunset

2. Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, where a giant hand reaches out of the side of the building to wish you welcome

3. Rock Creek Park. One moment you're walking past Quebec House, the next you're descending into the Blair Witch Project.

4. U Street/Mt. Pleasant (hipster tie)

5. Fort Reno Park. A bit of Booeymongers, a blanket on the grass, a concert - summer Mondays after work start the week off right

6. Embassy Row, particularly the swerve-and-squint driving by to read the small lettering on the coats of arms

7. Takoma Park's old Victorian houses and Ukrainian churches

8. The Metro Yellow Line stretch across the Potomac, any time of day, any kind of weather

9. Baltimore's factories from I-695/the Mormon Temple from I-495 (cool cityscape tie)

10. Chevy Chase. Because it is where I live. Because it is pretty and convenient and comfy and it scores me points when a (ahem) *charmingly status-conscious individual* asks me "Where do you live?" And because Gucci and the fire-side conversations at Panera never disappoint for blog-fodder.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Giving thanks for chewing gum

Usually I hate the stuff. Loud chomping is among my pet peeves. Why? I wonder on the Metro when I'm inevitably surrounded by riders gnashing their molars and reveling in winterfresh flavor. Just eat something if you want to chew, I'd think. (Oh yeah, I'd then realize, the $100 fine for consuming food on the Metro.)

But I digress. In any case, I scorned gum.

Until the flight to Miami, that is...

In the airplane bathroom, I took off my eyeglasses to wash my face. The lens popped out! The good news: it did not shatter. The bad news: I was on my way to a connection to Rio De Janeiro and a 7-day vacation in South America.

Do I use the 8-hour layover in Miami to get a taxi and track down a Home Depot or 7-11? Would Crazee Glue work or would I need something specialized? I weighed these options as we flew over Georgia, clutching the lens in my palm.

Then I remembered US Weekly.

Thankfully I read such trash (in between issues of The Economist, of course, as a sorbet to cleanse the mental palate). Just a few weeks before Angelina Jolie had split the back of her leather pants en route to a premiere. Intrepidly, she and Brad Pitt had patched her up with a piece of chewed-up Wrigley's.

Those were very tight leather pants, I recalled from the photo, and figured this gum thing might work for my glasses, even without the aid of Mr. Pitt's expert hand. Upon release at the gate, I ran to the nearest kiosk, bought a few varieties of gum and found a secluded but well-lit corner of the airport to chew and paste away.

Thank you, US Weekly. Thank you, Angelina. Thank you, Wrigleys and the forest trees of Brazil.

Che (yeah, the guy on your t-shirt) wants you to click here

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On standing out

The advantage to booking a tour is the no-brainer factor: your hotel, intra-country transport, daytrips and meals are all taken care of. No haggling in a language not your own. No surprises when the map is wrong, the place is booked or the office is closed for a holiday - and the closer you get to the equator, the more likely any day that ends in "y" is a holiday.

The disadvantage: You immediately announce yourself as a tourist.

Whichever option you choose - wing it or book a tour - there will be a time on your trip during which you regret it. Perhaps you are being interrogated by train authorities in Monte Carlo because of the Barcelona train manager's bad handwriting on your ticket. Wouldn't have happened with a tour.

On the other hand, perhaps you're pulling up to a market in Beijing and the t-shirt merchants are flocking to your group as you pour out of your incredibly conspicious Grayline bus.

"Extra large! Extra large! We have extra large over here!"

Okay, if you are Caucasian and taller than 5'4", you will stand out in China regardless of your mode of transportation.

My personal preference is to try to blend in as much as possible. I get a small thrill of happiness when a local stops me on the street and asks me for the time or directions in that nation's language. (Sometimes I'm even able to respond!) The desire to blend began with realization of how unpopular U.S. foreign policy is in many corners of the world. Like many, I contemplated tacking the usual maple leaf to my duffel bag.

But the more I travel, the more I realize that most people regard others independent of their nation's leader du jour. Think about it, when you meet a Russian, do Putin's oil and trade policies immediately come to mind?

For many, the motivation is just wanting to be a fly on the wall and see the city or countryside in its unfiltered day-to-day glory.

Often the stuff on the tourist maps just scratches the surface - just like the "You Don't Know Me" t-shirt stands downtown are only a small, small part of what makes up this fascinatingly complex and multifaceted metro area of Washington, DC.

Besides, when you stand out as a tourist, a wall immediately goes up between you and the environment and people you're visiting. For some locals, every negative U.S./Western/North American stereotype might come to mind - loud, obnoxious, demanding.

In most non-Euro places an American visits these days, you're the rich person. So you will be hit up. People will take your photos then present you with the print and a request for money 10 minutes later. Taxi drivers may or may not give you an inflated fare. The tour itinerary inevitably will stop off at the "jade factory," "wool museum" or "diamond cutters shop" which is in fact a glorified store which sells goods for 3x that of the town markets. Inexplicably, you find yourself dropped off here for a good two hours.

On one hand, you can't fault someone for trying to make a living - especially when a big amount of money to them is a small amount to you. On the other hand, most people taking an international trip through these services are middle class and have saved up for this indulgence. We're not the Bill Gates of our nation.

My conclusion: The ideal tour is one where the details are taken care of but one's presence isn't announced as if by loudspeaker by massive buses and fannypacks.

Spot the tourists at this Brazilian samba show

On this tram ride up Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain, the tour operator's camcorders focused more on people funneling into the tram car than the spectacular views of the city.

Nacho the hot Argentine polo player wants you to click here

Monday, December 10, 2007

Futbol: Only for los hombres?

"I'd love to see a soccer game but I won't get a chance to this trip," I told my tablemate, an American who frequently visited Brazil and Argentina, at the tango show.

"That's for the best," he said. "A woman showing up at the stadium would not be recommended." His tone was forboding, implying that I'd be raped, ripped apart limb from limb or both in broad daylight.

Excuse me?

I've gone to soccer games live in Africa and in the United States and watched them in bars and restaurants around the world - never received a bit of trouble. Could I believe this guy? He was, of course, the same one with the wild tales of Copacabana beach.

It seems true, however, that participation in soccer remains guys-only in many areas of the world. My male colleagues in Africa were able to pick up games with the locals, while that option was never available for us women.

Living here in Chevy Chase where every teenage girl seems to pop into Panera wearing the gear of her private-school team, it's hard to believe (and a testament to how much Title Nine has accomplished in the United States).

Maybe los hombres just need a break from las mujeres at times and the stadium/tv set is where they find it - sacred territory like the fishing hole, duck-hunting blind or the poker table in the U.S.

Chauvanistic? Maybe. On the other hand, even though women aren't welcome on the soccer field, in some of these nations (Chile, Argentina, Liberia), they have found their way into the president's office.

The Boca mascot in storage

Outside the stadium

A pick-up game

Evita (not Madonna or Andrew Lloyd Webber) wants you to click here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ar-che!-tina: The revolution will be commoditized

Latin America's tumultuous socio-political history has inspired great literature, cinema, even an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (great? hmmmm). Refrigerator magnets sold on the streets of Buenos Aires were the logical next step.

"Commandante me a beer, woman!"

"Don't cry for me, empty crisper!"

"Crisp! Refreshing! Like a string of insults from Hugo Chavez."

Is your kitchen a tool of the capitalist pig-dogs - or a warm haven for the proletariat?

Brad and Angelina want you to click here


Brazil: Anything goes at the Copa-copa-cabana

Family friendly... swim

This famous beach in Rio de Janeiro is notoriously divided into sections:

- A family area, with helpful changing tables for the babies

- Gay and lesbian-friendly, where a man can check out another man in a thong unafraid

- The pot-smokers section (follow the wafts and the dreads, which I learned at the Smithsonian's Rastafarian exhibition this Saturday, are "antennae to God")

Apparently, according to one frequent tourist I spoke with, many other subcultures emerge after 1 a.m. - most which could be defined draw from health education literature, "sex positive."

I've seen things on that beach that would shock you!

Like what?!
I challenged him. I'm not easily shocked.

I can't tell you.

What? Now I'm delicate company or something? You don't bring up this subject and then act coy.

Well, he hedged. It's not just threes and's eights and nines.

Hmmm....I thought. How does that work? Like a conga line? (That's a lotta limbs flailing about.)

Giselle (though not Tom Brady) wants you to click here