Posts Tagged With: New York City

The River Surfers Of München

The EisbachGerman for “ice brook” –  lazily snakes its way through one of the largest city parks in the world. The English Garden, as the park is known, draws locals and visitors by the thousands each day. In Munich, one of Germany’s best cities for just about everything, the park gets used in every season. It is a source of pride, much like New York City’s Central Park, except much larger. In summer, the English Garden is where everybody in Munich goes at some time or another. Every kind of activity imaginable happens there, including nude sunbathing near the Eisbach. But at the mouth of this artificial stream, one activity has been drawing more and more tourists, forcing the local government to end its prohibition: surfing.

On any given day in summer, dozens of surfers can be found at the mouth of the Eisbach, where just under a bridge a water-pumping system produces very strong waves perfect for surfing. For more than 40 years, surfers have been flocking to the spot to put their balancing skills to the test, to the chagrin of local officials who had threatened to destroy the waves, leading residents to protest and start a “save the waves” campaign. It wasn’t until 2010 – after noticing that the surfers were a big draw for tourism, that officials removed the ban on surfing, even if the ban was never really enforced. From the bridge and from the banks of the Eisbach, tourists can be seen snapping photographs while the surfers ham it up.

I’m not a surfer and I didn’t know anything about this river surfing in Munich until I got to the city and locals told me about it. They said if there’s one thing you should do in Munich, is head for the park and see the showboating surfer dudes and dudettes. I went and I was not disappointed. I even shot some video (above). The photos are also pretty cool, if I may say so myself. 🙂

Anyway, Munich bustles with activity when summer comes. So much to the city beyond what goes on in and around Marienplatz. Just ask a local – connect with one – and you will find yourself at a free outdoor concert on “the beach”. Or eating curried German sausages where the locals eat. And seeing the city in a way you normally would not see. So go on and check out the surfers if you get to Munich during the warm weather months. Cowabunga! (sorry, I had to say it 🙂

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No Celebrity, But Be A Fan

D. Washington, Berlinale 2000

Denzel Washington in 2000

Del Toro at Cannes 2008

Del Toro at Cannes in 2008

I’ve never been comfortable with being a celebrity. And I’ve never really gone gaga either over celebrities. During my years living in New York City, I became accustomed to seeing celebrities on the streets. Most of the time, I’d just walk right by them as if nothing. If it was someone whose work I at least appreciated, I’d tell them so and keep moving. I rarely reached for a camera, and never for a pen for an autograph. Truth is, I’m no fan of most of them. Many of them don’t want anyone to bother them, and so in public they are not very nice people. I totally understand that their fans can be pushy and make unreasonable demands, but they seem to treat even nice fans with nastiness. Of course, there are exceptions.

I’ve met a shipload of celebrities in my lifetime, either through my career as a journalist, or simply strolling along someplace, somewhere, or in some start-studded universe. I was even in a couple of movies – no big roles – just as an extra. The first one was  “Glory” with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick. Denzel won his first Oscar for his role in Glory. The next one was “The Hunted,” with Benicio del Toro.

I had a day job, working as an education reporter with The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon. One afternoon, as I was having lunch in Downtown Portland‘s Pioneer Courthouse Square, I was approached by a man and woman who were scouts for a local talent agency. They asked me a bunch of questions about me and then asked if I’d be interested in being added to a portfolio of  people they keep on file to appear in print and television ads, movies, whatever. I asked them a lot of questions and then said thanks, but no. The woman persisted, stating that “frankly, we don’t have many African-Americans and we’re looking to change that.” She said that I’d probably never hear from them at all. Geez, thanks for the ringing endorsement! Still somewhat reluctant, I agreed Right there in the square, they took my photo – I was wearing a suit and tie – and gave them my body measurements, age, and contact information.

Approximately two months passed and I heard nothing. Could this have been some sort of scam? But no, they gave me business cards and I checked. It was a legitimate agency. I put it out of my mind and sunk into my very demanding day job. Then one morning my cell phone rang. I was asked if I’d have time to show up to audition for a television commercial. Sorry, I said, I have to go to work. I have a couple of stories and a column to write. That phone call was the first of many for commercials, modeling jobs, and even movies.

Ohhhhhhh, nooooooo, you're like a shark, you crazy fan!!!

Do you want to be a movie extra? Each time I turned them down, because I wasn’t about to quit my day job. My job was extremely stressful and demanding, but at the end of the day I loved it. This call to acting was not my thing. I had had a taste of it with Glory and I didn’t like it one bit. The hours were incredibly long and doing a scene over and over again drove me nuts. I did gain some renewed respect for actors, but it just wasn’t my thing. I was convinced of that after filming Glory in harsh conditions on Jekyll Island, Georgia, getting a 5 a.m. wake up call and not shooting a scene well past noon. Then shooting that same scene again and again. Ugh! I get bored with repetition. That’s perhaps why I loved being a journalist. No two days are the same.

So the phone calls kept coming and finally one call for”The Hunted” starring Benicio Del Toro. I knew they were filming that movie in Portland. Everybody in Portland knew it. They had taken over several parts of the city, including the downtown area, causing some mild inconveniences getting around town. When I was asked to be an extra, I immediately said no. I simply couldn’t. I had a very important school board meeting. If I wanted drama, there was certainly plenty of drama at the school board. Nope, no can do. Click.

After I turned down an offer to be an extra, a few days later another call came. This time, the movie producers wanted me for a bigger role – a tad more than background fill, she said. She said they would pay me handsomely. And what would I be required to do? Just walk, bump into Benicio, he says something like “hey, watch where you’re going!,” I flip him the bird. No speaking, but some acting. Simple. Sorry, I told her, I would be delighted to flip the middle finger to some actors, but bad timing. I have a school board meeting to report on. Big issue on the agenda. She hung up obviously very disappointed. I thought, wouldn’t be surprised they threw my photo into the shredder.

Later I told my editor about it and he said I should have said something to him, that he would have found someone else to cover my school board meeting. Really? Hmmm. I called the agency and asked if they could do it some other day. She said probably not, but if I were interested in being an extra I could go on a day I was not busy. Feeling bad about never accepting a job, I said sure, and headed for the set.  After waiting and waiting for hours, (ugh!) I join a bunch of other extras walking about.  But because of some mix up, I also get to bump into Benicio and flip him the finger.  Action! The spotlight. I hate the spotlight. Action! We do it in way too many takes. My shoulder was sore. Take 943. Action! Ouch!

The movie comes out, and that scene ends up on the cutting room floor. Great. “But did you have fun?” the agency mucks ask. My response: I love movies. I love watching them. I don’t like making them. And though I have a new-found respect for actors, given the rigors of the job, I now think movie producers are a bunch of pretentious boobs!

Still, I was paid, handsomely 🙂

So my brushes with celebrity have never impressed me. And I never had any interest in being one. Not that I ever was one. As a journalist, I was recognized here and there around town in cities I worked in. Strangers on the street would ask, “are you Michael Ottey?” and my initial reaction would be to reply “yes” all while wondering do I know this person? After all, if someone knows who I am I fully expect to know who they were. It never initially occurs to me they saw my mug in the newspaper under something I had written. Or that they may have been part of an audience that had invited me to speak. At first, my friends got a kick out of it. Then after more than a few interrupted restaurant dinners and conversations, they were slightly annoyed.

Once I was on a high-speed train somewhere in Germany and a woman and her daughter came over to my seat and the young girl sheepishly asked if I was, well, me. When I said yes, the two glowed with delight because first, they could not believe they were face to face with me in Europe, and second, that I was, well, really me. They were on vacation and there I was, on the same train as them, thousands of miles away from the United States, from their hometown. I’ve never seen two people so happy to see a stranger. That, in my mind, is what I was to them, a complete stranger. And yet, they felt as if they knew me. And inside, I was feeling anything but glee. A bit of discomfort is what I felt. It was that unease I got and still get every time I am approached by a stranger jumping for joy over me. How weird.  When mom and daughter asked to take a picture with me, I agreed, returned to my seat and buried my head in a book. I pretended to read as I thought, man, it’s not like I’m Denzel. (Who, by the way, has it in for me – long story 🙂

I know hundreds of journalists and many of them, especially the ones on television, are always approached and even treated like some sort of celebrity. It has its pluses and minuses.

All this wind up about fans and celebrities to tell you about my new venture: my Facebook “fan” page. Just saying “fan page” brings unease. And yet, that’s what Facebook calls them. That’s what they’re known as. That’s what some of my far more famous journalist friends, who are indeed celebrities, have. No, not trying to keep up with them. Hardly. But since starting this journey I have acquired quite a bit of following around the world. And most of those individuals are on Facebook and are not my Facebook friends, given my new criteria to be added as my friend on Facebook. Recall My So-Called Facebook Friends?

For those who don’t know. I have a private Mike Tends To Travel Group on Facebook. The members – 192 of them at last count – are Facebook friends who are genuinely interested in my travels. I post a lot of stuff there that’s hidden from my larger group of Facebook friends. You join that group by invitation only. But this new fan page – coupled with this blog – allows all the millions of people on Facebook to join this journey, even if we’re not friends on Facebook. It gives me greater exposure, which again is a bit unsettling. But here we are in the age of social media.

So,  go to my fan page and LIKE it! Click MIKE TENDS TO TRAVEL to do that. I promise, I will not behave like a celebrity, and will never treat you like a fan 🙂

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Alone But Hardly Lonely

Padre Miguel and I in the heart of colonial Quito, Ecuador

I have known loneliness. I don’t recall exactly at which point in my life the feeling washed over me. I do know I felt alone, adrift. But I also remember shaking off whatever it was and going out to do something fun. That’s just me. I have lived byars longa, vita brevis – “art is long, life is short.” Why sit around moping. Life is too short. I have seen too many of my peers die young. Snatched by illness or circumstance. I, too, have had some close calls and I’m lucky to be alive. Happy to be!

So when a friend, former newspaper colleague and now loyal follower of this blog asked me if I ever experienced loneliness traveling alone, especially for such a long period of time, my immediate response was no, not really. Sure I sometimes miss family and friends, but it’s not something that ties me down. And it’s hard to feel lonely when your spirit is continuously lifted by the breathtaking beauty of places I’ve already visited. If anything, I feel a bit of sadness, wishing friends and family could see what I am seeing.

I truly believe that the energy you project is what draws or pushes people to or away from you. It’s called aura. With apologies to Odd Couple Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, I don’t always feel “happy and peppy and bursting with love”. Sometimes I just want to be alone. But my good aura never shuts down, sometimes a bad thing because it also acts as a magnet for the world’s wackos:

“Quickly, do you know the capital of Bolivia?” a reasonably sane-looking man stops me on the street and asks.

“Yes, La Paz”.

“No it’s not!” he says to me. “Bolivia doesn’t exist, so how can it have a capital?”

“Okay,”  I say as I shift to flee mode.

“Bolivia only exists in your head. Your mind plays tricks. Tells you things. Makes you do things.”

“Aha…” is my simple response.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“The United States.”

“Do you know the capital of the United States?” he asks.

“No, I don’t. Goodbye!”

Then I think what the heck! Of all the people on this street, why does he pick me?

Now, all you out there itching to show off how smart you are, I know Bolivia has two capitals. For those who don’t know, Bolivia is one of a handful of countries with two capital cities. Sucre, where the judicial branch of the government is located, is the constitutional capital, while La Paz, where the Congress and president are based, is the administrative capital. So there! Just saved you some typing 🙂

I’ve always said I’m a magnet for crazy people. Is there anybody else out there who feels the same? Let me know that I’m not alone. But thankfully some people with all their marbles do approach. Because of them,  on this trip I’ve never been alone for any length of time or experienced loneliness. If anything, it’s been the opposite. Now, of course, dear amateur psychologist, you can be alone or feel lonely even in a crowd. But that hasn’t been the case for me at all. Something in my personality? Must be, because even when I’m wearing a frown (we all have our moods 🙂 here come the complete strangers!

On those days I want to be alone with my thoughts it hardly seems to happen. Some soul will look my way and strike up a conversation. Fast forward to us hanging out about town like old friends. It’s happened time and time again on this journey. It happened on the Caribbean beaches of Colombia. On a bus in Cuzco, Peru. Everywhere! But notably, it happened in the colonial center of Quito, Ecuador, where Padre Miguel one afternoon emerged from his church.

I was but one of hundreds of people snapping pictures of the centuries-old buildings when the portly catholic priest walked past a bunch of camera-toting tourists to ask me where was I from. A few minutes into our conversation, the good priest offered to give me a walking tour of colonial Quito, where he was born and reared. It was a fantastic tour, complete with anecdotes about where he played soccer as a child and the troubles he got himself in as a teenager. Father Miguel had information you would not find in the guidebooks, and he presented it with vivid accounts. He was a master storyteller!

I thought a tour like this would cost a lot of sucres, but at the end of the day I rewarded the priest with some sugar cookies he kept staring at in the reception area of a monastery he showed me. He ate the whole bag of cookies, and I chuckled a bit because as he gobbled them all, he didn’t offer me not one. 🙂 He obviously loved those cookies and I appreciated that he took more than an hour out of his busy day – every step along the way people would stop him to chat about this or that – to give me the history and his history of the city.

In nearly six months of travel, the list of people I’ve met just randomly on the street is long, too long to name them all. We’ve exchanged e-mail addresses and become Facebook friends, and I’ve added them to my list of people to visit when I get to their country. Travel does that. But I believe that if I were traveling with someone else, I wouldn’t have met as many people as I have met. When couples travel they generally don’t open up to others or people sense they just want to be left alone. Solo travelers draw conversation. People who travel as a pair or in groups are in their own little circle, forming an invisible barrier that they sometimes don’t realize they’ve erected. Of course there are exceptions, but solo travelers, generally have more fun than people traveling in pairs.

I recently posed the question to followers in the Mike Tends To Travel Group on Facebook as to whether solo or coupled travelers have more fun and I didn’t get many responses (I think couples were biting their tongues 🙂 but my friend Anita Gianella of Milan, Italy (she now lives in New York City), offered that it depends on many factors, such as the situation, mental status or the reasons for travel.

“Generally, travel alone means more time to think about themselves, past, future, dreams,” Anita said. “(It) means to be more prone to meet other people…and so sometimes more fun :)”

Anita added: “But travel with a real love, love with the “L”, I think it’s amazing.”

College chum Gan Sharma of New York City disagrees.

“Single, definitely, single,” he said. “You are not bound by somebody else’s agenda. Some people may not enjoy the same things you do. You are free to meet new people.”

Well, the two of them have good points. Anita is right about if you travel with someone you are madly, passionately in love with, it’s amazing. But does that bond with your significant other lead to meeting strangers, sane or otherwise? The short answer is it depends on the couple. On this trip I’ve met couples but the interesting fact about them is they behave like single people more than couples, even the ones who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. In other words, they sometimes explored the city or some museum on their own, didn’t put up a wall around them and were very eager to chat and hang out with others. And they were great fun to be around. There was never that sense I was a third wheel…Oh, but did we digress? 🙂

My point is Beth, my friend and former colleague who asked the question, loneliness never seeps in with so much going on during travel and if you are open to meeting people – and even sometimes when you are not. It all depends on how you feel about the skin and the world you’re in. When you travel, you must live in the moment. And live as if tomorrow may never come. Because, for all we know….


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