Posts Tagged With: South America

Through Ups And Downs, Walking Shoes Come Undone

Got flip flops, now how about  new walking shoes?

Got flip flops, now how about new walking shoes?

Things fall apart – or are lost – or are simply intentionally left behind.

I’ve lost many items along the way, some through theft, others through carelessness, but the bulk of it all I happily gave away to someone in need. Traveling for a long time you shed things but you also somehow gain things. The trick is to carry just what you need. Your spinal column and aching shoulders sure appreciate it.

Among the things that have mysteriously vanished or I’ve had to let go: a laptop that was nothing but trouble from Day One; two cell phones; a beloved Swiss Army knife; items of clothing for all sorts of climates; shoulder bags and backpacks for day trips; and on and on. Some I’ve replaced. Some, such as the laptop, I still need to replace. And now, one of the few items that has been with me from the first day of this long journey – my trusted walking shoes – must be retired.

It’s been a good run for my New Balance MW955’s. They weren’t built for running, but I ran in them hundreds of times trying to catch some bus or train or boat or plane. Or just trying to catch up and keep up on some uphill trail or jagged mountain slope. In them I’ve sloshed across rivers and streams, their Gore-Tex technology effectively keeping my feet dry. For more than three years, they served me well on rocky trails and city streets. And they even showed their nimbleness on a few dance floors :). In rain or snow, from the beaches of Tayrona in Colombia, to the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, to the high reaches of the Andes in Argentina, these shoes have seen it all. In a deep freeze or extreme heat, they’ve  done their job with magnificent comfort. (Wow, do I sound like an advert or what? 🙂

Over desert sand and mountain snow; these shoes have covered some serious ground

Over desert sand and mountain snow; these shoes have covered some serious ground

But seriously, shoes, any season traveler will tell you, are probably the most important purchase you will make toward fulfilling your travel goals. If your shoes are uncomfortable,  so will your trip, plain and simple. So it was important to me to have the proper shoes for a journey that would involved every conceivable type of terrain and weather condition. A shoe that would hold up over time to overuse and overexposure even to things one could not have imagined. Oil spill? Yeah, I saw that coming! Raw sewage all over the ground? Ah ha. Ice and snow on the desert sand? Very funny, Mother Nature!

I went to an REI store in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., in anticipation of this journey.The store clerk said these shoes would stand up to any harsh environment and golly gee, they did. But nothing lasts forever. They’ve now started to crumble at the soles and comp apart at the seams. As I set out on a short hike recently in Lagos, Portugal, I felt a dampness at the bottom of my feet and at that point realized the shoes were disintegrating. Now they must go – or risk grave injury to my dear ol’ feet. We can’t have that, now, can we?

For those curious or with a deep interest in shoes, a bit more specifics about the walking shoes I chose, as described here on Amazon.com:

  • Leather and mesh
  • Rubber sole
  • ABZORB provides a superior blend of cushioning and compression set features with Dupont Engage and Isoprene rubber for the ultimate ride
  • C-CAP is a compression-molded EVA for superior midsole cushioning and flexibility
  • Gore-Tex
  • ROLLBAR TPU posting system minimizes rear-foot movement that, when combined with TS2 system, achieves the ultimate in motion control
  • 3/4 ROCK STOP plate utilizes a flexible protective layer that protects feet from rocks and shock, minimizing pressure, and dispersing shock energy

Now doesn’t all that sound badass?

A hole in my sole

A hole in my sole

This week I am off to a outdoor store to find a new pair of proper walking shoes. It won’t be easy – shopping for shoes outside of the United States has never been easy for me – because I have big feet, size 13’s to be exact. For years I had been squeezing my feet uncomfortably into size 12’s or even 11 and a halves depending on the cut, in denial that I have big feet. But in the REI store in Portland, the sales clerk was not shy about dishing out a huge dose of reality: “You are size 13,” she said. “Buy size 13 or your extended trip won’t last beyond the airport departure gate.” When I slipped on the shoes I was wowed by that new feeling of shoe comfort, after years of torturing my feet. Heck, I trip over them often enough, how could I possibly deny them?

Just last week here in Portugal, I was shopping for flip flops at the local surf shop where they had hundreds of them on display. But only one pair in my size. One pair! If I didn’t jump on them, I would be out of luck if another guy with oversize feet walked in to buy them. That’s been my challenge with shoes traveling abroad. Big American feet don’t get a break. And Europe isn’t half as bad as South America! I once tried to buy dress shoes in Chile for a special occasion and it became a shopping expedition that lasted weeks through several stores. I finally settled on the largest size one store had buried deep in the stock room – size 12’s – with the sales clerk assuring me that they would stretch after several wears. Yeah, right. After I squeezed my feet into them, not without discomfort, I was out of them before the evening was through, dancing in my socks at one point instead. Everywhere I went I was told there isn’t much of a demand for size 13’s in much of South America where much of the population is indigenous, small in stature, and have small feet. Even South Americans of European descent as a whole can’t touch size 13. Nevertheless, off we will go in Portugal to shop for new walking shoes. I can’t travel the world shoeless, can I? Hmmmm….

Thanks for the amazing treks!

Size 13’s, anyone?

Categories: asides, posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

POLAND: Stop Staring At Me!

Many Polish people have only seen black people on television or in movies or in other media they are fed. Here, a billboard in Gdansk, Poland. I was actually once asked on the street if I am Jamie Foxx

Many Polish people have only seen black people on television or in movies or in other media they are fed. Here, a billboard in Gdansk, Poland. I was actually once asked on the street if I am Jamie Foxx

I have traveled to a lot of places around the world and I know that even in an interconnected world made smaller by mass communication, transportation and technological advances, in this the 21st Century there are people on Earth who have never laid eyes on a black person.  I accept that I remain “exotic” in many corners of the world. The reaction I get from those persons who are coming in contact with a black person seemingly for the first time ranges from smiles to frowns. Sometimes there’s lighthearted laughter, sometimes visible anger. No matter, all stare, some quietly while others go one step further and make racist comments or gestures. As a person who has been privilege to travel the globe, I can accurately and confidently report that racism is alive and well just about everywhere in the world, thanks in large part to those very same communication and technological advances that have been the engines of the global economy.

In South America, with large numbers of people of African descent, I still got stares, mainly because people could tell I was a foreigner and they were simply curious about me and where I had come from. In Asia, the stares came because I was the exotic one, not them. I was indirectly the cause of a bicycle pileup in Beijing, China, because dozens of Chinese cyclist  transporting all sorts of goods were riding their bikes and simultaneously staring at me. The result, a huge crash involving several bicycles. In some countries and towns more than others, the stares were epic. Some acted as if  they had seen a ghost or an alien. Others dared to approach to chat and ask questions – some of those questions very telling about the individuals themselves, mainly about their lack of education. They were also very telling in general about television and mass media having done a very good job at exporting racial stereotypes to places where masses of people had never seen a black person – at least not in real life. On a constant basis as I travel, I hear and try to dispel generalizations about whole groups of people conceived in Hollywood for overseas consumption. Some are open to hear. Others are unapproachable.

When I came to Europe – and I have been to Europe many times – I never expected to draw stares. It’s simply something that has never happened in places such as London, Paris, Rome and many other cities where they are accustomed to seeing people from other ethnic groups and nationalities. In such cities, people are long over being surprised when they see a black person – or a person of any other ethnicity, for that matter – on the street or on public transport. Most of Europe is enlightened. That’s not the case in Poland.

There is beauty in diversity

There is beauty in diversity

Poland, Poland, Poland. What can I say about Poland? What I can say is that I generally like the country and the people I’ve met along the way. They are travelers and are among a new breed of Poles who embrace and relish ethnic differences. In Poland I now count so many of them among my friends. They are truly the coolest. But they are a minority in a country that not so long ago was closed off to the rest of the world. The communist kept Poland shuttered and sheltered. Travel was almost an impossibility. And visits by foreign tourists was unheard of. Then communism fell and the gates were flung open, and Poles began to travel – and the world began to discover Poland – and while there are black people in Poland, they are very few. You can go for days, sometimes weeks, without seeing a black person in some of Poland’s largest cities. And it is in these cities that Poles seem in shock – stunned, really – by people  they come across who are not white or don’t look anything like them.

I must say I have never experienced anything like what I have been experiencing in Poland for the past 6 months. If you are black and you walk the streets of Warsaw – the capital, Poland’s largest metropolis – the stares are so intense they would burn a hole through your brain if they packed such powers. Poland trumps any place I’ve ever been. It wins the staring contest hands down. Not even China has anything on Poland in this regard. If you look different in Poland, you will be stared at from the moment you leave your home to the moment you return. But in Poland, not all stares are alike or mean the same. Here are the main types of stares I’ve identified”

THE “WHAT THE  F*&^%$#@! IS IT!?”: This most of intense stare is usually from elderly people. They’ve lived long lives in a historically closed country and are beginning to see black people, some for the very first time. Their facial expression is one of pure fright. They look startled and barely blink, eyes wide open, their brains churning a mile a minute with so many thoughts, the first of which is very likely “WHAT THE HELL?!” No matter how you stare back, they will not look away. They are in a trance. Or maybe just in shock. Makes me want to go “BOO!” to force them out of it, but that would be mean. They are scared enough. I can just imagine the first thing they do when they get home is to report the sighting of what they believe was a black person to a spouse or closes kin or neighbor.

THE “I HATE YOU JUST BECAUSE”:  Oh, let’s not kid ourselves. Poland has its share of racists, hooligans, neo-Nazis, skinheads. Call them what you will. I’ve crossed paths with a few of them, but none of them have been gutsy enough to take it to the level of violence. But their brand of stare breathes fire. It’s one that says “I don’t like you…What are you doing in my country?” with a few racial epithets thrown in for good measure. The thing about these types: They are big cowards. They will only act in groups, which means if they are alone, they are not interested in a fair fight. They’d rather beat the crap out of people they outnumber. Alone, all they can muster are nasty stares.

Of all of this type I’ve come across in Poland, the one that has stuck with me is a guy on the metro. He was a big guy, more than 6-feet tall and beefy, but flabby. As soon as I boarded the train he locked his pale blue eyes on me. His stare was filled with such hate, he never once diverted his eyes away from me. Sometimes you feel someone’s staring at you and you look in that direction and sure enough. It was the same with this guy. At first I decided to ignore him, as I do so many of these starers. But then I felt his stares had shifted into high gear and an attempt to intimidate. And so I made the decision to look him directly in the eye with equal disdain. And when I did that, guess what? The mad hater looked away. Still, he from time to time would glance at me, and each time I caught him staring, he’d look away.

World-class cities act like it: Nobody cares if you're pink, black or blue in places such as Budapest and Krakow.

World-class cities act like it: In places such as Budapest and Krakow, who cares if you’re pink, black or blue. Some things are given much more thought, like whether to have your picnic in the park or on the living room floor.

When he brushed past me to leave the train, he gave me one last dirty look. And as the train rolled away, from the platform he telegraphed another mean look. Yeah, whatever, fool!

THE “IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY?”: This from women and men who have sex on the brain. They believe the hype and think all black men have big you know whats. They inevitably are caught shifting their stares from above the waist to below. They usually sport a mild smile, as if to say “I’m cool with you, I’m interested down with it”. To them you are nothing more than a sexual fantasy. And given the right circumstance, you are perhaps their best hope of experiencing something possibly monumental. Seriously. You would not believe to what lengths some will go. Recently, one woman at a Starbucks tried just about everything to grab my attention and when I showed no interest – sorry, definitely not my type – she walked over to my table and bent over to expose her assets.  Oh-kay, got my attention, now what? As she left down a set of stairs with her chuckling girlfriend, she gave one last look with a big smile. Yeah, sister twister, you’re just the sort of girl I would take home to mother. Move along.

THE “ARE YOU JAY-Z?”: Yep, I’m Jay-Z riding a public bus in Poland with you, because I abhor my limo. This stare comes mainly from children, and teenagers to 20-somethings who think you are either a Hip Hop star, an NBA player, or just someone they’ve seen on television, in the movies or on MTV. Their stares usually looks like a mix of constipation and puzzlement, a struggle to recall where they may have seen you before. And don’t start speaking English. Then they will be completely convinced they saw you on BET – late-night.

Okay, so I get that I am the oddball in Poland and as my Polish friends like to gently put it,  “exotic” in a land of fair-skinned society still emerging as a player in Europe. And I understand that if I visit a small village I am guaranteed to draw curious stares. That I get. But that these stares happen in Warsaw, Poland’s capital and largest city, full of well-educated and well-traveled professionals, is beyond me. And it’s not just Warsaw. Many of Poland’s other large cities, same thing, with the exception of  Krakow, which seems comfortable with cultural and ethnic diversity perhaps because it’s a city that draws tourists by the millions and it’s teeming with university students from all parts, including from abroad.

It’s fascinating to me that if I go just across the border into say Berlin, Germany, the staring ceases. It just doesn’t happen there. My most recent trip to Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Prague, Czech Republic, made this fact clear: Poland may be a member of the European Union, but it is anything but world-class in its behavior. I am told by my Polish friends that in Poland, staring is considered rude. But people still do it. They do it because they are not comfortable with people who look different. How do I know this with such certainty? Because not long ago, I was walking in the center of Warsaw and getting the usual stares. Then I caught up with a woman walking ahead of me. Suddenly, it was as if I did not exist. Everybody was staring at the woman, who was white and Polish. Nobody now seemed to notice  the black guy next to her. The woman was getting all the unwanted attention because she was a “little person”, and stood barely 4 feet tall. Her height difference was apparently more jarring than my ethnic difference. That was the moment I realized  that for the vast majority of Poles, the stares are less about racial differences, and more about people who simply are physically different… I think.

Categories: posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 84 Comments

A Walk In Warsaw In Winter

I take a walk through the Praga neighborhood in Warsaw, Poland, and give you a sense of what it’s like.

 

Categories: posts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: