Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How an Overpopulated City dealt with a One-Million Person Parade - The City of Denver and Winning Super Bowl 50

What a million celebration fans looks like

I remember 17-years-ago skipping a January day of 6th grade to see John Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, and the rest of the crew hoist the Lombardi Trophy high in the sky. While Specifics of the day may evade me, as I’ve gotten older, one of my bucket list items was to see one of the Colorado teams win a championship. I’m not a hockey fan, and although the Rapids winning a few years back was pretty cool, I knew for me the ones that would matter would be the Broncos or the Nuggets bringing home the hardware. The Broncos, under the terrific ownership of the Bowlen family, with John Elway at the reigns, and a culture that cultivates winning, was my best hope.

As a traveler, I don’t spend much time in my hometown. I love Colorado. I love Denver. I even find myself enjoying small facets of my actual hometown (Littleton) on the rarest of occasions, but that doesn’t combat my wanderlust. While I do drift more than I settle, the last few years have seen my visits home over the holidays linger just a bit longer, in the hopes that the Broncos may just pull one out.

After the devastating blow that was Super Bowl XLVIII, I found myself questioning if I should let sports interfere with my travel. We all have goals, and I began internally debating whether or not supporting a sports team was really serving my best interests. This past May, I departed the US with a deep-rooted question of whether I wanted to return to the states to try and create a life in Denver, or if I would give-in fully to the pull of the wind. With the latter having won, I know these days in Denver will mark some of my last for the foreseeable future. While I used other excuses for why I was staying for as long as I am (a seasonal job in the mountains, skiing, and most importantly, family and friends) I knew deep down that I had a feeling the Broncos, the Sheriff, and the Denver D had a few tricks up their sleeves this season. 

Part of the reason why I didn’t let this small dream fall from my bucket list was due to a game I watched in Thailand. After only watching highlights for the majority of the season, I decided to wake up at 7 am one day to venture to a local Irish Pub in Chiang Mai to watch the Broncos play the Green Bay Packers. While the traveler in me felt somewhat guilty waking up early to hang out with other westerners, eating western food, and yelling at a television, I remembered what sports have meant to me all my life. I understand the arguments against them, but through playing, as well as watching, sports I have gained so much. Sitting quietly, texting my Dad and best friend in the back of a bar in Southeast Asia somehow packed with Cheeseheads reminded me that there are some things that truly transcend the layers we humans have created. Sports, love em or hate em, are one of those things.

This Super Bowl Sunday, after working a full day at Keystone, I was lucky enough to hightail it down I-70 (a beautiful sight when not littered with traffic) and enjoy the momentous performance with my Dad at his Super Bowl Party. We drank beer, ate copious amounts of food, and celebrated by lighting off fireworks on the frozen lake with all the other jubilant neighbors. After enjoying all the interviews, the awarding of the MVP trophy, and hearing the Sheriff talk a lot about Budweiser, I knew it was time to see what the streets of Denver had to offer. Here in lies the conflict of this tale.

After having the Light Rail cease to take us to our downtown stop, I walked through the lovely Auraria Campus to where myself and other ecstatic, yet in control, fans thought the party would be. We were told the train was stopping because of the police stymying attempts at making it to Denver, which was our first indication the night may not be as fun as planned. This photo was our second :

SWAT police blocking off Larimer Square

With fables of cars being burned and riots ensuing over the last victory, I could understand the apprehension to let a new generation of fan take over the city. The fact is, though, that today's fan has seen the ramifications of the militarization of police. Denver is also a much more mellow city than years past, having seen violent crimes drop subsequently with the passage of the referendum 64. While I was only witness to people dancing and chanting in the streets (and the news echoing this sentiment), the amount of closed bars and police, as well as snarky bouncers stereotyping sports fans as “woo girls,” was enough to dampen my sprits. Sunday night ended on a bit of a low note, but all that would change with Tuesday’s parade.

We’ve all seen the videos, pictures, Tweets, Instagrams, and Facebook posts of the parade yesterday. Hopefully some of us reading this were actually in attendance. I don’t need to go into detail of what happened, with 3oh!3 and Big Head Todd stoking the crowd ("do the Vonnie Miller, and get lots of hits, yeah!"), or seeing the Super Bowl Champs ride by on firetrucks and armchairs. We’ve all seen it, and if not, this isn’t the place to get the recap. What I do want to say, though, is that this parade, matched with a stunning game, as well as seeing this generation of fan celebrate in a respectful way, left me ecstatic. While Sunday left room for improvement, I can say what I saw on Tuesday honestly made me proud of a city whose decisions I have questioned as of late. When one million people show up to a parade, with only a single arrest, well, that is truly a one in a million occurrence. Sure I’ll still complain about the influx of people to Denver. Sure I’ll still be annoyed by traffic. Sure I'll whine about having to share my stellar spot at the parade with folks whom would rather see their hometeam hoisting the Lombardi rather than my Denver Broncos, but the amalgamate of my Super Bowl Championship experience is more than I could have asked for.

Denver has a lot of growing up to do. With the amount of people coming in, our city and state are taxed with a lot of difficult choices on how to deal with the change. While myself and many other folks who were born and raised here are annoyed with what we see presently, maybe this parade will be a jumping point. Maybe we will start to make tough decisions on how to make our city better, more affordable, and more attainable for all. This is, of course, in opposition to the current plan of knocking over any piece of property seen fit by investors to build luxury condos. Maybe we’ll figure out public transportation both in Denver and to the mountains, instead of blatantly ignoring the inability to move people safely from point A to point B. Maybe we will. While I’m not holding my breath (and I am purchasing a ticket out of here soon), what Denver showed me on Tuesday was a good sign for the future. I hope we can continue to work together, with all walks of life, to make our city a better.

Thank you Broncos, the Bowlen Family, and the city of Denver for a great season and even greater ending!

Star Wars and Football!

Photos courtesy of author

* Photo of my Dad and I taken by a friend on my phone at our house!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The most wholesome back-alley transaction I've ever been involved in, and how it serendipitously came about

On the way to the alley

There are very few times in life when one can use the word "serendipitous," in the same sentence as the phrase "back-alley transaction." In fact, this may be the first union of said word and phrase. While most back-alley transactions are far removed from the idea that God, angels, or the universe are looking out for us, the two being linked isn't entirely unheard of. Those whom would consider themselves more spiritually in-tune can often see how the powers that be conspire to look after miscreants, drunks, and others that wouldn't fall under the "spiritual," tag. While I may fall somewhere in between spiritual and miscreant, I can assure you my time in Myanmar, as well as how it came about, were set in stone beyond my own will.

When I traveled to Myanmar in 2012, it was the first year that tourist visa's were being issued. Backpackers and travelers alike were quickly jumping on board to try and get a taste of an unspoiled country that held adventures no internet search could spoil. As I created plans, those of which would ultimately crumble, I found myself reading a Southeast Asian travel guide while waiting on a bus from Denver to Boulder. I had missed the 12:00 am bus, and having to wait another hour, I wasn't too amused. Enter in my now close friend Jen.  We had never met before this, but Jen saw my book, approached me about a fear of traveling alone in Myanmar, and proposed tackling the country together in August/September. Granted, this was April, and I never thought I would see her again, I willingly accepted. Fast forward 4 months and you would find myself and Jen re-meeting (more so meeting for the first time) at a hostel in Bangkok at 4 am, getting ready to hop in a taxi to the airport. The will of travel works in mysterious ways!

Serendipitous meeting number 2, you ask? Enter in Colin. On my first night in Bangkok in May, I randomly met Colin's ex-girlfriend. When I came back to Bangkok in August to get ready for my trip to Myanmar, Colin's ex-girlfriend invited me to stay with her and "her friend," in a hotel that her friend's school in Myanmar was paying for while he sorted out his working visa. This "friend," of course, was Colin. He allowed us to stay with him, and even let us have the hotel room one night when he decided to stay at the luxurious Labua. Colin also invited Jen and I, whom he hadn't met, to stay with him in Yangon when we arrived in Myanmar. This was the final piece needed for our back-alley extravaganza!

In 2012, Myanmar did not have functioning ATMs. Each traveler heading to the recently opened country was warned to bring crisp, new USD that could then be exchanged for Kyat (pronounced Ch-ah-t). Travelers were also warned that Myanmar would be expensive, so bringing more money here than you would normally spend in the other countries was essential. Banks in Bangkok knew this was the case, so they offered the bills with no hassle. Jen took this information to heart. I, on the other hand, grabbed some new bills, but assumed my bills from home would be just fine. This was not the case.

After navigating customs, Jen and I made our way to money exchange with Colin, whom met us at the airport. Colin had figured out the systems already, so he took it upon himself to help us out. After Jen received her money with no problem, I presented around $700 of my $1000 USD to be exchanged. When I passed my USD under the glass windowpane, I was met only with a blank look. These 2012 $100s, $20s, and $10s were of a series that wasn't accepted in Myanmar. I gave him my other remaining $300, only to find out that of the $1000 I had in my possession, 3 $20s and one $10 would be accepted, leaving me with the equivalent of $70 for a month of travel. I never felt so poor carrying $1000 in cash. 

As panic began to set in,  Colin assured me there was another way. While guidebooks promised that only the airport and maybe a few hotels would exchange cash, Colin said there was a man who bought USD that wasn't accepted at the airport, but at a smaller exchange rate. At this point I had no other option, so into a taxi the three of us hopped. Colin directed the driver (whom had an amazing grasp of English) to the spot. We jumped out of the car in front of a fancy shopping center, only for Colin to point across the street to what seemed like a crack between two rundown apartment buildings. That narrow ally was where we were headed.

As we crossed the street and dipped between the two buildings, I started to have thoughts of what it would be like to go to jail in Myanmar. Maybe it wouldn't be as bad as Thailand, but I'm sure it wouldn't be the best accommodation I'd have on my trip. After passing by numerous small portals with curious heads peering out, Colin showed us in through a small door. As my eyes adjusted, I found myself in a small room lit by candles and what little sun passed through the windows in the ally. I was scared, but to my surprise I didn't find a hard gangster surrounded by pools of ammunition, firearms, and plastic bags filled with strange substances. The man sitting there was a normal, smiling, middle-aged guy. He welcomed us, gave us all chairs to sit in, and asked to see my bills. After examining my currency, he smiled and said "all your bills are cracked or broken." Before I could say anything, though, he offered me a rate of around 850 Kyat per dollar (only 10-15 Kyat less than that of the airport), and proceeded to give me the largest plastic bag of currency I'd ever laid eyes upon. We spoke for a few more minutes, graciously accepted his advice for BBQ restaurants, sipped some tea, then made our way back out of the alley.

While I can't speak for all travelers, I know that most of my craziest travel stories all involve a certain element of outside involvement. Be it delivering me safely on rickety transportation, or keeping me out of trouble on nights where my miscreant side shines, I have always landed on stable footing. Though Myanmar found me in some tight situations, I can tell you that those willing to take a leap of faith will always have an unseen, helping hand. As for my back-alley transaction, I may not be an expert, but I can only assume it is one of the most wholesome to ever occur. 

Not all back streets are dangerous, some hold beauty and adventure

Photos Courtesy of Author and friends

For more of my writing on Myanmar, check out the following posts: