The Airport Shoeshine: A Tradition Worth Supporting

shoe shine
I’ve been dimly aware that it’s possible to get one’s shoes shined at airports the world over for many years. That said, I’m a chick, and despite my boot obsession, I usually travel in Chuck Taylors. I don’t know from shoeshine, other than my love of Johnny Cash (“Get Rhythm,” anyone?).

A couple of months ago, however, I found myself with time to kill at Denver International Airport (DIA), en route to work a trade show. A deep, syrupy voice called out, “Shine your boots, ma’am?” I looked down. I was wearing my favorites, a pair of motorcycle boots I’d scored on Ebay. They looked like hell after tromping around in the mud and snow.

“How much?” I asked the kindly-looking black gentleman wielding a clean rag. “Whatever you feel like contributing,” he answered.

Seconds later, I was perched atop the adult version of a booster chair, observing the frenetic energy of the airport. I learned the gentleman in question’s name was Leonard, and he’d lived in Denver for over 30 years. As we talked about how the city had changed, and waxed poetic about why we’d both chosen to relocate to Colorado, he brushed, polished, massaged and buffed my boots until they glowed. He sealed the seams along the soles, and meticulously attended to the areas beneath the buckles and straps.

Ten minutes later, I was boarding my flight with glossy, weatherproofed boots (my version of business casual), and a vivid mental picture of early ’70s Denver. Leonard had some cash in his pocket, and I like to think that he, too, came away from the encounter richer not just financially, but emotionally.

Having a genuine, non-self-absorbed conversation with another human being at an airport is all too uncommon these days. Let’s face it: most of our exchanges consist of requesting a specific size of latte, or bitching about our lack of upgrade.

Now, whenever I’m at DIA, I get my motorcycle boots shined, both to extend their life, as well as for the connection, however fleeting, to another human being. And yes, I like that I’m supporting hard-working people earning an honest living. I haven’t seen Leonard again, but I never fail to have an interesting conversation, and learn a little something (many of the people working for this particular company, Executive Shine, are immigrants). If only I could travel in my high-heeled boots more often.

[Photo credit: Flickr user jag9889]

Opinion: Dutch khat ban smacks of racism

khat, qat
The Dutch government recently announced that it will ban the use of khat, a narcotic leaf widely chewed in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

I’ve written about khat before. I’ve spent four months in Ethiopia, especially Harar, a city in the eastern part of the country where chewing khat (pronounced “chat” in the local languages) is part of many people’s daily lives. It’s a mild drug that makes most people more relaxed, mildly euphoric, and talkative. It also helps concentration and is popular among university students.

Of course there are side effects. Short-term effects include sleeplessness, constipation, and for some people a listlessness that keeps them from achieving their potential. Long-term use can lead to mental instability and heart trouble. I met one western researcher in Harar who had been there two years. He’d stopped using khat after the first few months because he was afraid of the long-term effects. If I lived in Harar that long I’d stop chewing khat for that very reason.

So the Dutch government seems to have a good reason to ban khat. Or does it? This is a country where marijuana, hash, herbal ecstasy, and psychedelic truffles are all legal. And if we’re talking about long-term health effects, we need to throw in alcohol and tobacco too.

So what’s different about khat? It’s almost exclusively used by the Dutch Somali community, numbering about 25,000 people. According to the BBC, “a Dutch government report cited noise, litter and the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat as some of the reasons for outlawing the drug.”

Drunks aren’t noisy? Cigarette smokers never litter? The last reason is the most telling: “the perceived public threat posed by men who chew khat.” In other words, black men. In Europe, khat is a black drug, little understood and rarely used by the white population. This ignorance and the fear it generates are the real reasons khat is being banned.

While there are some valid health and social reasons for banning this narcotic plant, they also apply to the narcotic plants white people like to use. But we can’t expect white people in The Netherlands to give up those, can we?

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Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870′s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
telluride ghost towns
Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Watching bullfights with my five-year-old

bullfight, bullfights
One of the facts an immigrant has to accept is that your children aren’t going to grow up in the same culture you did.

When I want to give my five-year-old son a treat, I take him to dinner at El Brillante here in Madrid. You can’t get more traditional than El Brillante–an old-school cafeteria/bar that hasn’t had a remodel since forever, with hefty waiters who scream your order back to the kitchen. All the traditional dishes are on offer, and people throw their napkins on the floor. This may sound gross, but it’s more hygienic than putting your chorizo-grease-stained napkins on the same surface as the plates. Adapting to a new culture involves lots of little shifts in perception.

We walked in the other night and a bullfight was on the television. My son was immediately transfixed, not because of the program but because he got to see a TV. We don’t own one. Spanish TV is as dumb as American TV, and with fewer channels.

I hesitated, wondering whether we should stay. I don’t like bullfights but I also don’t like breaking promises to my kid, and this is one of his favorite places to eat.Then I began to think. Bullfights are controversial here in Spain. Last year the region of Catalonia banned bullfights and many Spaniards see them as a national embarrassment, my wife included. They’re still popular, though, and get lots of coverage. If he hasn’t seen a bullfight already, he’s bound to see one on TV sooner or later–at his grandmother’s house, another restaurant, or a friend’s place. I’d rather he saw it with me than someone whose judgment I may or may not trust. So we sat down and ordered.

Is five too young to see a bullfight? Yes and no. I’m his father. My job isn’t to shelter him from the ugliness of the world, my job is to prepare him for the ugliness of the world. Bullfighting is part of Spanish culture and we’re both going to have to deal with it. He sees bad stuff every day, like the homeless guys drinking themselves to death in the park. There are limits to what I’ll let him see, though. When the news showed the carnage of a suicide bombing in Pakistan, I covered his eyes. I should have covered mine too.

While a bullfight is a needless display of cruelty, there are at least two sides to every issue. After it’s killed the bull is eaten. Bulls live a free-range and well-fed existence, unlike the factory cows penned into stalls so tiny they can’t even turn around. I’ve always been amused by people who get righteously indignant about bullfights and then go eat a hamburger.

A bull has a pleasant life until the last fifteen minutes, when it suffers pain and terror before being killed and eaten. In other words, it has much the same life it would have in the natural world. If I was to be reborn as a bovine, I’d choose a bull’s life hands down.

We ordered our food and my son perched on his stool and watched TV. The last time we were here he was equally entranced by a reality show about a 73 year-old man learning how to cook. But this was no cooking show. As usual, the bull had to be goaded into a killing frenzy. Horsemen called picadores speared the bull, and three banderilleros run out with pairs of spikes and jabbed them into its back. Bloodied, weakened, and enraged, the bull was ready to meet torero or matador. A young man in an elaborate suit walks towards the animals wielding a cape and sword.

“Do you know why he carries a sword?” I asked my son.

“No.”

“Because he’s going to kill the bull.”

He turned to me with surprise. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“But sometimes the bull kills the torero,” he said.

“Sometimes.”

He turned back to watch. I wondered again whether this was a good idea. Farm kids see animals killed, as do children in the developing world, so really it’s our urban, First World culture that’s in the minority with this.

The torero had a tough time. After making a few impressive passes, the bull got wise and stopped just in front of the cape and sideswiped the torero. The guy retreated behind a barrier while two assistants distracted the bull. After a minute he summoned enough courage to go back out. He’d lost his confidence, though, and only made the bull do a few passes before using his sword to finish it off. It was a pointless spectacle, not nearly as entertaining as most bloodless sports. I get the impression that in another generation bullfighting will die. The average age of the spectators almost guarantees it.

By this time my son wasn’t so entranced. He was paying more attention to his salchicas del pais con pimientos and was treating the slaughter on the screen with very Spanish indifference. Being Canadian, I could never be that indifferent to a bullfight.

“So what do you think of bullfighting?” I asked.

“It’s OK,” he shrugged. “Not as good as football, though.”

And by football, of course, he means soccer. Chalk up another difference between him and his old man.

[Image courtesy Marcus Obal]