Convos on the Road

Recently I had the good fortune of being able to visit Malaysia. It was my first trip to the country, and it gave me a chance to meet up with some friends who I hadn’t seen in a few years. I was more than impressed during my time there, and I can definitely see myself back in Malaysia. 

Thankfully I arrived pre-dawn. The temperature was comfortable (for a moment), but the fauna was a constant reminder that I was in the tropics. I navigated the airport and found economical transport to the city centre. Unfortunately, I misplaced my ticket, but I was able to verbally muscle my way out of paying 2x. For my first 36 hours I experienced mild exhaustion, indulged in gastronomic gluttony, and felt bewilderment as I noticed the swelling in my hands. However, I was eventually able to attain a balance of diet, rest, and adventure. 

I was impressed to see such a conflux of cultures, predominately Malay, Chinese, and [Tamil] Indian interwoven, yet still separate. According to everyone I spoke to there is a lot of racial discrimination and animosity that quavers just below the surface. Things seemed to be going well, though; hopefully nothing too dramatic takes off in the too near future. Nonetheless, I was able to move around the country and the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, independently. I found this beneficial as I wasn’t anchored by a group, or slowed down by a less adventurous companion. Also, this forced me to engage my surroundings more, which made for some interesting and unique encounters, and it gave me some rich stories to tell when I did meet up with friends later during my trip. Myself and a young Dutch woman enjoyed a night safari on the back of a pickup, despite being drenched in a tropical downpour. Two young Swiss tourists were on the excursion as well. Even tough the weather was inclement, our spirits were high, and we had a really fun time. We cracked jokes the whole time, and talked arbitrarily about weed, cocaine and other stimulants. 

Having people “on the ground” also helped me gain another perspective on things. During my time playing tourist, I was able to develop my own questions and then bounce them off of locals and long term residents. While touring frequently, I found myself to be the lone American. This feature, when added to my Nubian status, seemed to make some individuals more curious about me. Considering my accent and the cadence of my speech, one young lady called my English tropical. And a nice and inquisitive shop keeper asked me if my hair was real. 

Overall, I was very happy with the variety of people I was able meet while in Malaysia. Of course you meet a few opportunists that want to milk tourists, but I was able to avoid being victimized. As you can imagine my conversations were rich and my interlocutors were from a range of backgrounds. Time didn’t permit, but maybe next time I can take that pop-artist up on her invitation to visit her studio. 

Hang the World in Your Closet: Nubian Drifter's Guide to Buying Unique 'Pieces' Abroad

The world is a runway, and I’m lucky enough to have been given a front row seat. 

One of the most interesting things about travel is the ability to watch people from various cultures exist in their natural surroundings. Personally, I love to observe the many different quirks and idiosyncrasies that are, perhaps, culture-specific. I take pleasure in seeing what local people are wearing, specifically how they go about combining color, print and texture. This inspires me on a number of different levels: not only do I walk away with a clearer understanding of a culture that was previously foreign, but I am also endowed with new ideas, and fresh and innovative ways to bring life to dated ones. I’m able to take bits and pieces from here and there and incorporate them into my everyday existence, wearing my experiences quite literally on my sleeve.

Clothes don’t make the man, but they definitely tell an interesting story… and don’t we all love a good story? I’ve collected a number of different “pieces” from my travels, each item a reminder of a particular image, observation or experience. When I moved to Japan, for instance, one of the first things I noticed (aside from all the masks) were the construction workers’  uniforms— the pants, in particular. They were the baggiest pants I’d ever seen, but they had a unique shape to them, which, in my eyes, made them quite stylish. Of course I began to search for these pants, but with my limited Japanese, my efforts were fruitless. And one day, randomly, toward the end of my stay, I came across a [stylized] version of the pants in a hippie shop in Yokohama. Suffice it to say they went home with me. And were, perhaps, the most seamlessly integrated piece of clothing I’d ever purchased. Imagine that— an item of clothing indicative of a culture completely different than my own, and it was as if it’d been there all along. Gotta love that. 

The trick to picking up interesting and genuine pieces while traveling is simple:

  • Stay away from department stores, and any stores you have at home. As tempting as it may be to visit Gap or Zara or Topshop, resist the urge. Instead, look for outdoor markets, bazaars and vintage/consignment shops. This is where you’re likely to find the locally-made, one-of-a-kind, authentic [to x country] garments that won’t break the bank. 
  • If thrifting isn’t for you, check out the major retail shops that are exclusive to the town, city or country you happen to be in. You may luck up and find that thing you’ve been wanting for ages but thought nonexistent. 
  • Have you been people watching? Great— keep at it! The next person you see whose style you admire, pull them aside and ask where they shop. It’ll be a great cultural moment, and you’ll get the inside scoop on local shopping haunts you’d otherwise never know about. 
  • Take a risk! Try not to limit yourself because an item isn’t necessarily ‘your style.’ If you like it and it’s within your budget, buy it. You’d be surprised how easily things come together once you get them home. That garment spoke to you for a reason!
  • Look for local designers who put a modern spin on classic cultural items. For example, if you’re in Ghana, ask around for a local designer/tailor and get custom pieces made with the bold, stunningly beautiful local fabrics.

Shopping is a great way to not only get to know a particular culture, but to feel like you’re functioning within it (you’ll feel connected to it even after you’ve returned home). It’s also a great way to shake things up and breathe new life into a homogenized wardrobe. So take a chance on a Sari or a Kanga, that Kimono or those Thai Fisherman Pants and find ways to integrate them, or look for items inspired by them. I’m willing to bet it’ll be one purchase (or group of purchases) you don’t regret!

Backyard Travel: Hanging Out in the Bourbon Capital

“Travel isn’t about the distance traversed, but about the memories created.” I tweeted this a couple months ago, and thinking about it today, it couldn’t be a truer statement. One of my longterm goals is to see more of America. As a traveler, sometimes I get caught up in those long-haul, ocean-hopping flights— so much so that I neglect to see what’s in my own backyard. That age-old saying, “The grass is always greener […],” becomes my reality. But there is so much splendor here in America to which I have not bared witness. So instead of booking a trip abroad, I set my sights on somewhere domestic, and ultimately chose the horse-loving, bourbon-distilling, beautifully widespread American state of Kentucky. 

One of my philosophies [in life] is that reality is perspectival. Anyone who knows me will tell you I like to experience culture for myself and draw my own conclusions, rather than listen to someone else’s opinion. For instance, my dad had nothing but negative things to say about Paris and the French, but each time I’d gone, I experienced the exact opposite of his sentiments. Kentucky was no different. Prior to my departure, I heard every reason under the sun as to why I shouldn’t go— spanning from stodginess to racism— which only fueled my desire to get there and check things out for myself. 

A couple hours upon arrival in Louisville—locally pronounced Looavul (see photo to right for right-to-wrong list of pronunciations)— I found myself seated at the bustling-but-amiable Eiderdown. Located in the hip Germantown neighborhood, this rustic, German-inspired restaurant with recycled wood embellishments offers a seasonal menu (composed by local chef Brian Morgan) with locally-sourced ingredients, as well as a reasonably priced, perfectly-balanced beer and wine list. As a starter, the duck fat popcorn— an Eiderdown staple— set the tone for my entire Kentucky experience: fascinating and one-of-a-kind.

After indulging in a number of courses at Eiderdown, the next stop was its hipsteresque dive bar neighbor, Nachbar. A pet-friendly facility (I literally had a dog or two sniff at my feet) with an outdoor smoker’s patio, this effortlessly cool neighborhood bar offers 16 quality taps, and pretty much anything else one could possibly want. It was at Nachbar I got indoctrinated into Kentucky culture: a velvety Siberian Stout (meal in a glass) and shots of good quality bourbon (brought by locals I’d only just met) served as the catalyst for a kick-ass Kentucky night. 

My well-earned hangover was cured by lentil sambussas, misir wot, atakilt, gomen wot and Ethiopian tea at Queen of Sheba, “the first and only authentic Ethiopian restaurant in Louisville.” A gem of a place, the warm, welcoming atmosphere was the perfect contrast to the previous night— a kind of sanctuary where the bourbon-influenced debauchery of yore is forgiven. After an impressive meal, it was onto Bardstown Road (where my Louisville experience would come to an end), a street with an impressive selection of thrift/vintage shops (like the quaint Hey Tiger), music and specialty stores, and friendly pubs. 

With their easygoing local bars, cafés and parks, both Richmond and Lexington (like their Louisville predecessor) were friendly, welcoming and generous, a stark contrast to what I was told I would experience. Landing (conveniently on the night of a pub crawl) at the local Irish Pub in Richmond, Paddy Wagon— and later in the night, a quirky house party— I was barraged by an array of unique, smartly tattoo’d, spirits-amplified personalities I’d never forget (most notably a drunk blonde with the most stereotypical southern accent who informed me how much she loved my ‘fro) and met someone with whom I instantly clicked and began to call friend. And at the local-favorite Marikka’s in Lexington (where I tried my first-but-not-last Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale), I was in awe at the list of over 700 beers the bar-restaurant offered.

Lexington and Richmond offered more than just cool places to get bourbon and beer. Rolling countryside, old wood barns and horse ranches were ubiquitous. Richmond’s Lake Reba (left) was a beautifully relaxing place to fish, engage in sport, picnic or simply have a walk, as was Lexington’s Transylvania University neighborhood, which was was beautifully scenic, filled with whimsical statues and quirky little café’s and shops. Third Street Stuff & Coffee (pictured above) was perhaps the coolest coffee house I’d ever been to: candy colored with dim lighting and a continuously relevant, mood-evoking playlist, the shop boasts an array of locally roasted, fair trade coffees and espressos, and offers yummy, sweet and savory coffee-shop staples. Elsewhere in Lexington, POPS Resale is one of the best indoor thrift shops I’d ever shopped, a clearinghouse with 6000 square feet of vinyl, vintage garments, retro game consoles and other trinkets you may not need but end up taking home anyway (photo below, courtesy of Pops).

My time in the bourbon capital proved my [reality being perspectival] theory to be correct and reaffirmed my reasons for wanting to travel. Because I went with an open mind, ready and willing to engage in and be engulfed by the local culture, I had a fantastic time, one that left me not only pleased with all that transpired, but ready to prolong my trip— I had a feeling I’d only scratched the surface of what this unexpectedly hip and welcoming place could offer. Until next time, Kentucky!

(Special Thanks to Cecilia, Connie, Eric, Lauren, Laura & Dougie)

New Year… New Goals!

Hi Drifters! It has been a while since our last post, and for that we apologize. The holidays were strenuous, and we had a lot going on. But we’re back, and with newfound perspectives!!

We’ve been thinking a lot about what we’ve accomplished as a blog, and what it is we would still like to do. Of course, for those of you who come to read our offerings, you know that our aim is to make travel accessible so that others may take pleasure in the exploration of Mother Earth. We’ve come to realize that for those of you who frequent this site, this is already your reality. 

So with this new year, we want to put a heavy focus on reaching out to the youth, especially those who might not be privy to this breed of information (as even the thought of travel is far removed from their everyday existences). As the age-old saying goes, “The children are the future.” What kind of future will come to be when much of today’s youth are without the mentors and role models that would normally provide encouraging, upwardly-mobile, above-adequate guidance? One shudders to think.

What this means to us here at Nubian Drifter is that we need to take a proactive stance in providing our youth with worthwhile options. And we challenge all our friends out there to do the same. I’m sure we all know of a child at risk of being “at-risk.” Let’s strive to change their reality… find out how to speak their language and give them something to not only dream about, but actually work toward. 

Let’s change some lives in 2012! Happy travels! —VJ

The First Neegah President

Kids can be ignorant. So, one has to consider the context as to whether or not a child is being malevolent or is merely uninformed. 

During a recent class the kids were working together on group projects. The assignment: If you could be like anyone famous, who would it be and why?

One group of girls chose Kim Yuna; another group, a footballer, while another chose to focus on President Barack Obama. There were 4 kids working on the project, and their reasons included that President Obama is smart and handsome. One rogue group member was off on a tangent drawing a rather koonish picture of Mr. President.

Rather than take offense I let him continue his art undisturbed. I felt that he had freedom to express his own ideas, and I wasn’t going to chastise him over [my interpretation of] the picture. 

Now, one of his group mates proceeds to ask me, “Teacher, what is Barack Obama…he’s the first what….his skin color???” I told him that Obama was the first black president, and he retorted, “Teacher he’s not BLACK, he’s BROWN.” “Ok,” I responded. “You’re right. You can say that he’s the first African-American president.” Suddenly, our portraitist went into a spasm. “Neegah, he’s the first neegah president!”

What would you do in this situation?