"Morena. Mooooreeena." With my nonexistent Portuguese and dormant Spanish, it took a minute to realize the man selling bracelets on the beach was calling my name. "Morena" meant me, "black girl." Now, in the States, strangers don't try to grab your attention by singing to you about your skin color — at least not the ones trying to sell you stuff. But in Brazil, a country where nearly 40 percent of the population identifies as "mulatto or mixed raced," being called "morena" to my face meant nothing and everything.
In São Paulo, three of us were checking out the skyline from Paulista Avenue when an Asian woman with glassy eyes stopped us to ask where she could find "the black man. You know? The South African president." Apparently she was supposed to meet him at the Museum of Art and he was late. Seriously. "You mean Nelson Mandela?" my friend Johnica tried to clarify. Ernest White, our unofficial tour guide, knew what she really meant.
"I've been confused for a rentboy — that's male prostitute in Brazil — a drug dealer or a random social climber," explained White, creator and editor of the travel blog Fly-brother.com. In the case of the Asian woman outside the São Paulo Museum of Art, "drug dealer" was the stereotype du jour. But that doesn't keep White from loving South America, where he's lived for more than five years, first teaching English and now as an editor of Time Out São Paulo.
I chatted with White recently to get his take on what it's like not just to travel while black but also to live in a place larger than the contiguous United States as an expat who speaks perfect Portuguese.
The Root: Is it really a different experience to be a black man traveling?
Ernest White: One of my favorite quotes from Passing Strange is, "We're all freaks, depending on the backdrop." The number of places where I've blended in with the locals has actually been surprising: Western Europe, Egypt, India and, of course, Brazil and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. In Bolivia and Korea, not so much.
TR: You spent a few years in Colombia before "settling" in Brazil. Why São Paulo?
EW: While New York is chaotically ordered, São Paulo is ordered chaos. Streets and even buildings curve and rise and fall with the landscape. São Paulo is organic; it's tropical and sensual and intense. It's messy and it can crush you. As a foreigner, especially, you have to want to live here, or you won't last. I love this place, nastiness and all. When that energy's flowing just right, this place is like a cosmic orgasm.
TR: Yeah, "cosmic orgasm" is my new thing. So when did this travel love affair start?
EW: I've always been a geography nerd and used to collect travel posters and airline timetables as a kid — I was born with the travel bug. My first overseas trip was a six-week summer exchange to Sweden just before my senior year of high school. I was way in the north, near the Arctic Circle, the only nonwhite person in town except for this Indian girl who'd been adopted by Swedish parents. I actually had a good time: People were nice, spoke English and even jammed to Toni Braxton.
TR: You've got trips to South Africa, Angola, Australia, Malaysia and Argentina in the pipeline. What is it about traveling that you love so much?
TR: Is that why you started Fly Brother? To get the rest of us addicted?
EW: I started Fly Brother as a creative outlet and a way of encouraging people — specifically black people — to travel abroad. There is no better experience on earth than communing with people in different countries, in different languages, and reveling in the similarities and differences. If I kept my experiences to myself, I'd feel like they were wasted.
TR: What advice do you have for future black travelers? Tips? Things to do? Things to avoid?
EW: Get a passport. Use it. There's no form of racism you'll encounter abroad worse than what we've already gone through, so that shouldn't be a deterrent. Yes, you might need a foreign-language dictionary, but so what? As long as you know how to say "food," "bathroom" and "hotel," you're good to go. Be open. Meet people. Ask questions. Listen. Ladies, keep a Taser in your bag; knuckleheads exist everywhere. "Now, voyager … go forth to seek and find."