Whoa. My Travelblog is Evidence.


On Monday, September 22nd, 2008, I boarded a flight for JFK. I’d been invited to cover Conde Nast Traveler’s World Savers Congress on Twitter and CNT was picking up the tab. They’d booked my ticket, airport limo, and a shoebox room right off Times Square. Wendy Perrin had invited me to dinner; I was starry eyed over the whole thing. It’s a pretty fancy day for an independent blogger when Conde Nast Traveler calls and wants to fly you out for an event. I was psyched.

Then my plane broke, and I didn’t get to have dinner with Wendy Perrin, and that bummed me out a lot. I did get to be one of the first people to tweet about an airline emergency, a status that has earned me exactly…. nothing. I wrote a blog post about the landing that a lot of people read — it got linked to from local newspapers and aviation blogs. Later, I learned that one of the passengers, Jewel Thomas, filed a lawsuit against American Airlines:

Thomas said that after the cabin lights went out, passengers were told to prepare for a rough landing at O’Hare, and that many began to pray. She said she was terrified and called her children on her cell phone, leaving messages saying she loved them.

About six months ago, I got a phone call from the law firm that’s representing American Airlines in the lawsuit. And on November 1, 2011, I attended a deposition. I answered a lot of questions about what, exactly, I saw happen when the plane was diverted to O’Hare.

It was nearly three years ago; there’s a lot I don’t remember. I didn’t remember, for example, that there had been firemen on the plane until the lawyer showed me a picture I’d taken. He passed over a print out of the blog post I’d written that day, comments and all. It was kind of weird to see that little post that I’d scribbled on the continuation flight from O’Hare to JFK handed back to me in this context.

You’d think I’d remember that, right? I didn’t. I also didn’t remember much about the people in my row — I was in an exit row at a window seat. I have zero recollection of people crying, praying, or making phone calls to their loved ones. I don’t remember what I did on the flight, not at all. What did I remember? Something big happened, right?

I remember a landing that was nowhere near as bad as a typical landing at Vienna, Austria’s perpetually windy airport. I remember a shift in realization that, oh, all those emergency vehicles racing this way? They’re for my plane! I remember the guy in the blue jumpsuit — in the terminal he patted me on the shoulder, very kindly, after I told him what had happened. I remember the smiling face of the woman on the grass at O’Hare. I remember that the cabin got very hot, and I remembered a woman walking her cooing baby in the aisle. I remember the stewardess on the replacement flight bringing me a couple of bottles of scotch, which I stowed in my backpack and drank later at my hotel. I remember buying a sandwich from a deli just a few doors from my hotel. When I walked in, two enormous African American guys in big blocky specs were playing chess and they were wildly friendly. They asked me where I was from and when I told them, one of them, the guy in a white track suit, responded, “Damn, girl, what are you doing all the way out THERE!?” as though I was his cousin and had moved too far away.

I hate to fly, though over the past three years I’ve become more relaxed on a plane. I still get green pretty easily, a little turbulence will cause me to break out into a sweat and wish I’d chosen an narrower obsession, one with rail travel, perhaps. Coach aggravates me to no end. I can’t get comfortable enough to sleep, and I’m a pacer, I get up and walk to the lav very frequently. I think it’s because I’m nervous.

There were two points that the lawyer for the plaintiffs — they’re plural, I learned today — seemed to be trying to lock down. The first was that perhaps I’d somehow just missed what was going on around me. I wasn’t paying attention. Passengers may have been praying or crying or making phone calls to their loved ones on the ground and I just didn’t notice it.

The other was that I’m somehow biased positively towards air travel because I’m a travel writer. At this point, I really had to try hard not to laugh. “Would you say it’s your job to promote tourism and travel?” I had to think about that. I suppose so, but I’ve also written about seasickness and the tragedies of history and just recently about how I had to haul myself across the planet in a blaze of fever. The premise that I just might be a booster for the airlines — well, it’s not fair, really, the lawyer doesn’t exactly know me.

“Flying,” I said, “is a necessary evil. If I could take the train everywhere, I would.”

I don’t watch the lawyer shows anymore, so I’m not exactly sure what happens next. I know I’ll get a copy of my deposition and I’ll probably read it over and think, “Oh, did I really say that?” Still, I stand by my potentially poorly observed and possibly pro-airline biased story: You’ve been in worse landings. And when a pilot puts a broken plane on the ground and everyone walks away, well, I’m all for that. Though I kind of want my New York dinner with Wendy Perrin. I feel like I got cheated out of that.

Photo credit: Pam Mandel. I took it while walking from the plane to the shuttle they’d brought to bring us to the terminal.

Excavating Central Park’s forgotten village

Central ParkCentral Park is sometimes called the “lungs of New York City”. Locals and visitors alike come here to enjoy a bit of fresh air and greenery. The park was approved in 1853 in order to leave a green patch in the rapidly expanding metropolis. The city government took the land between 59th and 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, by eminent domain. About 1,600 residents were paid for their property and forced to move by the summer of 1856.

While a beautiful park was born, its birth was the death of Seneca Village, a prosperous community of almost 300 people. Two-thirds of the population was black and it may have been the first community of middle-class black landowners is New York. The rest were white, many of them Irish immigrants. Of the village’s three churches, at least one was integrated.

Seneca Village was founded in 1825, two years before New York freed most of its slaves, and expanded quickly in the following few years. Living conditions downtown were unhealthy and property prices high (some things never change) so blacks with enough money were eager to move up to this area. The map, Columbia University, shows Seneca Village. Eighth Avenue is at the top of the picture. Seventh Avenue is at the bottom, with 82nd St. on the left and 86th St. is on the right.

Today archaeologists from the Seneca Village Project have finished the first-ever excavation of this historic community. After painstaking research through city records, they were able to locate the precise spots where many of the houses stood. They decided to excavate the property of two black residents: the yard of Nancy Moore, and the home of William G. Wilson. They found a wealth of nineteenth-century artifacts, including some porcelain imported from China, showing that some residents were quite well off. They even found a shoe that may have belonged to one of Mr. Wilson’s children.

If you’re heading to Central Park, check the project’s interactive map to see the history under your feet.

The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

The Afro-Punk Festival: not your mama’s punk show

Each week, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each Wednesday for our picks or find them all HERE.

You think you know what punk is. But you haven’t seen anything until you’ve joined the thousands of head-bangers who make the pilgrimage once a year in June to Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk Festival.

This two-day celebration of music, skating, and film has become a Mecca for the burgeoning movement of Afro-Punk, a collection of African-American bands, fans, and misfits who are embracing hardcore rock culture and making it their own. Launched in the summer of 2005, the festival was the brainchild of record executive Matthew Morgan and filmmaker James Spooner, who wanted to give voice to the growing popularity of indie and punk rock in traditionally urban communities. It has ever since been a focal point of musical and cultural cross-pollination, fueled by an audience as diverse as the music itself.

Each day of the festival features bands ranging from eclectic rockers like Houston-based American Fangs to genre-bending artists like crooner Janelle Monae, that by turns, awe and electrify the crowd. Afro-Punk is the wild, weird alternate universe where anything is possible (I personally will never forget seeing bass guitarist Ahmed of Brooklyn’s Game Rebellion strut onstage sporting a fan of giant peacock feathers). Want to learn more about the Afro-Punk Festival? Keep reading below…

For first-timers, the Afro-Punk mashup of grunge guitar and streetwise swagger can be overwhelming. But have no fear: punk is a contact sport, and no one can stand still for long. Crowd surfing is encouraged, from the tiniest faux-hawked kindergartener to the heaviest thrasher, so dive away! And if you yearn for the days of good ole-fashioned moshing, you’ll have no trouble finding a scrum for a little full-body ping-pong.

Other thrill-seekers can get their kicks on the festival’s custom-built skate park. The dizzying array of jumps, ramps and rails is also the battleground for the annual URBANX skate and BMX competitions, where pro-skaters and bikers defy gravity and common sense for a coveted $5,000 prize.

Listen for the distinctive clink and hiss of spray cans and you’ll also find a one-of-a-kind outdoor art exhibit. At Afro-Punk, graffiti is king, and true to form, the artists work at lightning speed, to the delight of onlookers, tagging a rich tableaux of original pieces along a 30-foot wall of wooden panels.

On Sunday, the festival closes with a block party featuring live DJ’s, fashion, and food. But before you go, take a moment to enjoy the greatest spectacle on display: the crowd itself. Revel in being someplace where piercings outnumber iPhones two-to-one, and ‘business casual’ means keeping your shirt on. There are few places on Earth where dreadlocks and leather chokers so seamlessly co-exist. Afro-Punk is the center of a movement that defies definition. In the end, what could be more punk than that?

The 2010 Afro-Punk Festival hits New York June 26th and 27th, and will this year open in two new cities: Chicago and Atlanta. Check out afropunk.com for dates and updated details.

First all female African American flight crew makes history

I love good news from the aviation world – it really does bring a smile to my face amongst all the doom and gloom stories out there.

A good example of something great comes from regional carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines. For the first time in history, a domestic US flight was staffed by an all female African American flight crew.

The 4 – Captain Rachelle Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, and flight attendants Diana Galloway and Robin Rogers probably did not know that they were about to make history when they boarded their flight from Atlanta to Nashville.

When the crew realized the importance of their flight, they were naturally quite excited, and captain Jones said ” this could be a first, so let’s be on our P’s and Q’s”.

ASA President Brad Holt issued the following statement: “Not only are these women gifted in their professions, but they set examples for young people across the country that with hard work, passion and determination, the sky is the limit.”

Atlantic Southeast Airlines has a special contact page, where you can leave your own message of congratulations to the crew of flight 5202.

Other tales from the skies
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