Archive for the ‘ Travel ’ Category

SXSW in over 10,000 words

Last week I had the good fortune to be sent to sxsw for work, which is really the only way to enjoy all three portions of the festival–interactive, film, and music–unless you’re independently wealthy or live in the Austin, TX area. I read a satirical online article that mentioned that the word “amazing” was barred from descriptions of sxsw after the fourth day. That being said, it was an amazing experience. There were multiple components that I enjoyed: the sheer number of people in the city and corresponding energy, the always surreal tradeshow experience, the ability to spend four days drinking beer and listening to music, and last but not least, the quirkiness of Austin and its residents.

The first night I spent wandering around the city, floored by the number of bars on 6th St. and the number of people within them, but altogether feeling left out because I did not have my badge, the golden ticket which intermediates all of those awkward lines and entryways. During sxsw, Austin is a city of opportunity, but also a city of thresholds–venue lines, club doors, upstairs access, panel entry. And it’s a lot more difficult–if not impossible–to move through the various thresholds without a badge. So I was extremely grateful that I got the badge with the highest powers, and I tried not to let it go to my head.

The next day, once I received my golden ticket, I attended a few sessions, the most interesting being Mobile App Development in Africa. I was impressed by Nairobi’s iHub, the tech center focused on supporting Kenya’s coders, designers, and entrepreneurs. The main points from the session were that SMS data can be leveraged with apps to help local communities and support businesses, and of course that Africa is a huge emerging mobile market. If you travel to an African country you are immediately aware of this, because everyone has a cell phone, even if they don’t have adequate access to water.

Later that evening I happened to meet some of the guys behind the Opera browser at a local bar called The Jackalope. It connected to the Africa panel because while Opera takes a beating in the U.S. in terms of market share, it has a lot of headway in Africa, as well as most of Eastern Europe. They also seem to have developed a great mobile product with Opera Mini, which I agree will take on greater importance in places like Africa and other parts of the developing world.

Hanging out at The Jackalope was also cool in the sense that it gave us a break from the throngs of conference attendees. There were lots of locals in the bar, hip folks that looked like they were members of bands, pedicab drivers, or roller derby athletes, or maybe all three. They were also playing a film so terrible that it seemed to transend its premeditated campiness and obscurity. It involved 80s wrestlers and some demonic death match ending–it’s a shame I can’t remember the title.

The tradeshow started the following morning, which was difficult because I had been playing soccer, inebriated, in the middle of 6th Street the night before. It was great to have complete strangers come up to the booth saying how much they love our books. When you work behind the scenes in a world of metadata, sales numbers, and corporate politics it can be very refreshing to meet your customers face-to-face and have the experience be very positive. There was also a large number of people, both individuals and represntatives of large companies, asking about ways to access our content via subscription. This is the next investment that my company–and other publishers–need to make: a xml database that fully searchable and can be accessed through an array of subscription models.

There are of course the surreal parts of tradeshows that seemed especially pronounced at sxsw. We were across from a company selling software/hardware that allowed local news and cable shows appear like ESPN SportCenter. A representative who was handsome in a informercial kind of way would stand in front of a green screen and recite the same pitch over and over again, which multiplied by 7 hours x 4 days, became almost demonic. And to top it off, when the foot traffic died down on the last day, he would do the pitch with no one there–thus the surreal element. There were also “booth babes” dressed as nerds floating around, a man wearing skin-colored underwear and covered in stickers, women with mustaches, as well as Matthew Lesko, who I later learned is somewhat of a celebrity, offering ways for any American to get free money (or more rightly written FREE $$$) from the Government.

The nights of the tradeshow before the music portion began were spent exploring various bars and tex mex restaurants in Austin, and meeting some interesting locals. “Keep Austin Weird” has become a marketing slogan, but the locals I met definitely gave it credence. One such individual appeared mild-mannered when she sat down next to us, but proceeded to down 4 beers like it was nothing, and turn into a serious but entertaining liability. She was able to convince us to head to a karaoke bar names Ego’s–she treated karaoke “very seriously,” which seemed odd, and I was up for an adventure. But it all came crashing down when she grabbed a stranger’s breasts on the way out of the bar because she “liked her shiny shirt.” We parted ways, but not before she seemed to look into my soul, stating that “I pretended to be good and laid back with my glasses on but really I am mischevious.” I also managed to take an accidental photo that reveals her drunken aura.

The music started on Wednesday, and I kicked it off by going to visit an old friend from Berkeley who runs the L.A. label Anticon. His show was good, although I missed an act I think I would have enjoyed–Gold Panda–and caught Baths instead. After that I found myself bobbing my head to a solid set by rapper Curren$y, followed by Big KRIT. Return of 4eva!

Thursday night’s musical escapades began with a free St. Patty’s day show, complete with a Gn’R wannabe band fronted by a practically prepubescent Tejano youth with long hair and a lot of attitude. The frontman was actually pretty inspiring, he was clearly out to rock that night and hopefully take home the best looking high school senior in the crowd. After downing a Guiness much too quickly, I split from the non-badgeholder group and hustled across town to catch Spank Rock. The DJ peforming between sets was solid and refreshingly Euro, and the crowd responded accordingly. Spank Rock laid out some good rhymes, and came off as a genuine character, if not a little lazy. I tried to stick around to see Boys Noize, the Berlin artist who’s monicker was displayed prominently above the stage, but ended up ditching out once the interim DJ’s tracks became stale.

I wandered over to a different venue to see Surfer Blood. I don’t know if it was the transition from hip-hop to hyped indie rock, but I really was turned off when they took the stage. The sound at the outside venue was bad and it seemed a little too precious. I realized there was another venue behind the outdoor stage, so I wandered inside. Thankfully, there I discovered Zoobombs, who played a rousing (and loud) set, ending with a moving personal statement about the recent earthquake in Japan.

First in the lineup for Friday night was Times New Viking, who were moderately impressive. The were followed by Apex Manor, a band from the city where both of my parents were born, who inleashed some solid melodic guitar riffs and Budweiser-in-the-air anthems. I went to see MNDR and the Cool Kids soon thereafter, but was not allowed into the venue with my d-slr camera, because the entire evening was “copyrighted.” I laughed in a passive agressive way when I heard this, but they really won in the end, as I dashed back to the hotel to drop of my camera (watch quality of shots decline below) and avoid being thwarted in the future.

At that this point I was growing increasingly pessimistic about indie rock shows. Fortunately I hooked up with some folks that I met at the tradeshow and went up to the inconspicuous 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. I maintained my dubious mindset, as the person I met up with referred to band we were seeing as “the best band ever”—right after she went to see someone who toured in support of John Mayer and OAR. Furthermore, I was a bit confused when I walked in: everyone was sitting down and looking serious, and I began to wonder if I had wandered into a late night music industry panel hosted by No Depression. But a Oh Ruin! started to tune up soon enough, and we when they started playing I was really impressed. It was a very quiet show, everyone sitting, no dancing, yet thoroughly enjoyable. The sincere folk rooted in Irish ballads was spiced with some slide guitar, which made it feel especially at home in the warm Texas night, as well as some riffs that I’ll call “post-punk,” because if I could describe it better I might be writing for money right now and not blogging.

Less classy and ambiguous was the theme of the rest of the night. After some drinks at the plush Driskill hotel, which soon became less classy as an ambiguous smell that could have been either vomit or pizza filled the bar, I took the group to see Daedelus, the dapper electronic beat maker. That show was very, very loud and danceable, an atmosphere which, like the Driskill, became more sketchy as a young man desperate for a dub latched on to one of the females I was with and didn’t let go. I chose not to interfere, as the girl gave off that ambiguous help me/but I’m having fun vibe, but it all ended peacefully, and the guy ended up being a decent person once the beats gave way.

Saturday night started off with some more rock: a good but very early performance by In Tall Buildings, followed by a local Austin band whose blend of stoner rock and electonica sounded much more interesting on the website than next to the speaker. Nate Dogg had passed away a few days prior, and I noticed that Vibe had put together a party in his honor. I decided to stop in and pay my respects, watching Casey Veggies from Odd Future perform. He was solid, but now that I am searching his name on Google Images, I’m realizing that I don’t think that it was Casey Veggies. Warren G was reported to be appearing later in the night, but I decided to head out, which may or may not have been a mistake. Having Regulate…G Funk Era be corrupted by a lackluster performance would have potentially damaged fond childhood memories.

After wandering through an overcrowded Billboard showcase with a less inspired Curren$y, I began to hit the wall after 5 days of drinking and standing. Exhaustion and solo-wandering awkwardness were bringing me down, and I almost gave in to the idea of returning to the hotel to try and figure out what the hell was going on in Libya. I’m a person who likes to finish the night out, so I fought this trajectory, and obtained a pulled-pork sandwich. With calories and fatty meat in my body, I walked to the Mad Decent party. Heavy dubstep was filling the rather small club, the crowd was jumping, I was offered a beer out of a tub, and a smile filled my face: the night’s energy had changed for the better. I ended up dancing for another three hours, with a sprightly and elfin Portuguese girl on one side and a rather large but much endearing Texan girl on the other. Diplo never even showed up, which was anticlimactic for some, but really hilarious in the end.

SXSW, I will miss thee.

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Ghana

In January I spent 10 days in Ghana. It proved to be the best travel experience of my life thus far. Despite it being a fairly brief trip and covering only a portion of the country, I definitely felt different after returning to the U.S., altered by the insights and friendships I collected along the way.

It was my first trip to Africa, and it came along with what I assume is the normal amount of pre-departure anxiety. Like most Americans, articles on BBC and NYTimes.com chronicling disease, war, genocide—the bad stuff, in general—shaped my perceptions of Africa. So the week before I felt a rollercoaster of thoughts. At first I felt apprehensive to step foot into Ghana and travel by myself for the first part of the trip. Then I came to the conclusion that these were just naïve Western fears, and that Accra would actually prove to be a modern capital, not much different from other cities I’ve traveled through around the world.

I had to laugh though, stepping off the plane and moving through the city to my hotel, because the mental judo I went through prior to arriving really didn’t matter, I still looked around me and had a “Holy shit, I’m in Africa” moment. Tall, bespectacled, and freshly pale from the New York winter, I definitely stuck out. It’s a very interesting experience to constantly be aware of your skin color. It just doesn’t happen if you are a Caucasian in America. When I ventured to Kaneshi, the crowded and somewhat chaotic bus station in Accra, I remember wishing that I were black so that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

In other ways, being a tall, white, and friendly American was the best part of the trip. Ghanaians would often come up to me and want to know where I was from, how I was liking the country, if they could have my email address or Facebook name, etc. For the first three days, despite my smiling face and earnest conversation, I had a hidden guard up. In the back of my head I wondered if this person was trying to sell me something, trick me, or rob me. Granted a large number of people did try to sell me something, most just were being really nice, in a sincere way that was totally foreign to a New Yorker.

It was this process of dropping my guard—of letting go of the fear and paranoia that is drilled into your head as an American—that was especially profound. My new friend and unofficial tour guide Prince was the catalyst in the process. Following him through the dark labyrinth of apartments in Cape Coast to meet his family one night, I finally fully relaxed and opened up to the experience. I also felt something akin to depression on that side trip to Cape Coast, realizing that I had met some really kind, cool friends right next to a slave castle. The juxtaposition of kind, happy Ghanaians and the horrific legacy of the slave trade was haunting.

There were many memorable moments that I should and will record: playing drums in a Rastafari shack, being awoken from dreams by a late night religious experience at the Pentecostal church next to my hotel, passing sinewy hunters selling bush meat, listening to “Like a G6” in Frankie’s in Accra with new friends, and so on. But I’ve been busy, and so I’ve only gotten as far as the first day, which you’ll find below. Hopefully there will be more to come.

The plane sets down on the runway, with a small terminal on the left and red earth and overgrowth on the right. We exit the plane and are caroled into a shuttle bus—it moves about 100 meters and then stops, and I realize that it’s only purpose was to drive those 100 meters, as there is only one terminal. Strange. I cruise through customs with surprising ease and stop by the currency exchange booth. I receive around $100 worth of cedi, and I proceed to awkwardly remove the off-white and conspicuous travelers wallet from my bag and stuff the cash inside along with my passport. Then I hang it around my neck and hurriedly place it inside my shirt. As I walk away, the wallet makes a sharp square bulge in my shirt, and I look like I am either forced to wear some hidden medical device, or I am unnecessarily paranoid about hiding money. I realize that it’s unnecessary to carry this ridiculous wallet around my neck. Another $10 to Conair for no reason. I place some cash in my pocket and put the wallet in my bag as I exit the terminal.

I soon remember how confusing it is when you exit a foreign airport. Taxi drivers rush towards me, and I move through them and spot a short, bored-looking man holding a card with my name. As the first Ghanaian I will meet, I greet him with an enthusiastic and hearty hello, but he is rather terse, and he rushes me towards the parking lot where a rusted minivan is idling. I realize that the card holder is merely just that, not the man who will drive me to the hotel, and another man with some kind of a eye ailment and a friendly smile soon comes up to me, and welcomes me to Ghana, and mentions the my friend the card holder would really appreciate the tip. I take this as customary, and hand the cardholder 5 cedi, which is far too much and could almost pay for a cab ride to the hotel.

I enter the minivan and my driver say hello, and pulls out of the parking lot. As we drive though Accra, I am suddenly hit with the realization that I am actually in Africa. There Ghanaians are on their way to work, and women are balancing huge containers of various snacks and beverages on their heads, selling items to cars and pedestrians that pass by. The thought crosses my mind that this might not actually be the hotel driver, and I could be on my way to getting robbed. How funny that would be if it happened in the first 15 minutes. This thought, along with general enthusiasm, pushes me to converse with the driver, who is friendly and randomly mentions a group he met from Tufts University, as if to quell my fears. I soon relax, and push the paranoid thoughts from my mind, feeling a kind of internal embarrassment. We stop at an intersection, and a young man in a wheelchair asks for some cedi while his friend tries to sell candy. I don’t feel obliged to give away money out the window, so I say, “no, I’m sorry.” The man in the wheelchair says, “Come on my friend” and seeing that I am not budging, his friend says, “welcome to Ghana…whiteboy,” and laughs.

I arrive at the hotel a bit bewildered, thinking for some reason that it is the afternoon, when really it’s only 8am. The man behind the desk tells me that I can either wait until noon to check in, or pay an extra $30 (more than half the room charge) to check in now, and I make the easy decision to loiter around the hotel until noon. I take off my shoes and put on sandals, which I will wear for the rest of the trip besides the four hours I spend in the rainforest. I feel a bit awkward sitting on the couch in front of the guy who is making me wait until noon, so I grab my backpack and head down to check out the beach. Once I reach the undeveloped little plot of land in the back of the hotel that overlooks the beach, I look out at the Gulf of Guinea and am stunned at how beautiful it is. The ocean surface is glassy, and the morning light is sparkling off the top of small sets hitting the sandbar. I wish I had my surfboard. Fishermen are launching long wooden fishing boats off the beach, and farther out they are padding the same boats up the coast. I take in a deep breath and feel the strong sun, happy that I am out of the urban canyons of New York City.

I soon realize how tired I am, and I lie back on the wooden bench overlooking the beach. I see a young man approaching out of the corner of my eye. I say hello, and he begins to ask me where I am from, as he takes a seat in the grass. This is Joseph, the first Ghanaian I would get to know. Joseph seems keenly interested in New York, American politics, West African politics, why I am in Ghana, and so on. His face is kind, showing a perfect scar under his left eye that I will later learn distinguishes lineage, as well as scars from acne. He explains how poor most Ghanaians are, and how me must work and work, but still seems to have no savings. Joseph offers to walk me down to the Osu Castle, and I tell him that that sounds great, but I want to check in to my room and shower first. As retreat back to the hotel, enter my room, and collapse on the bed, I can’t help but to feel a strong emotion, a sadness in my heart when I think of Joseph—how kind and genuine he is, but how he feels so beaten down by poverty.

I return to the bluff overlooking the ocean and spot Joseph by the nightclub that’s been under construction for almost a year. He speaks to his boss about taking 15 minutes to show me around, and then we walk down to the beach. The sun feels very strong; I am dressed in conspicuously indistinct clothing: white t-shirt, khakis, and a generic Addidas hat. I could be either a recent California-to-New York transplant who never bothered to do shopping in the summer, or an up-and-coming Ukrainian arms dealer. Either way, people on the beach make an effort to come up and say hello. Joseph leads me to a fishing boat that’s just returned from a day at sea. Men with tank shirts and built of nothing but muscle are leading the boat through the small surf, while naked children are playing in the water and holding on to the hull for a free ride. The fishermen’s expressions show neither annoyance nor gregariousness, but just a patient tolerance for a curious Obruni.

Joseph and I continue on and reach a large derelict nightclub on the bluff with a military officer standing in front. He speaks to Joseph briefly and informs him that we can’t go any further towards the towering Osu castle, due to security concerns. Joseph apologizes for this news, and says that they’re probably concerned about bombs. On our way back to the beach, one of Joseph’s coworkers spots him, and yells out from across the beach. It’s clear that he’s teasing Joseph for walking the beach with me, asking if I’m a “special” friend, and Joseph replies that it’s just his job, which is partly true, but partly a way of deflecting the jab. We meet Joseph’s coworker, a Rastafarian in his 30s. When introduced, I shake his hand in the normal Western fashion. As we walk away, Joseph warns me of shaking hands in that way with Ghanaian men—in particular Rastafarians–saying that I should instead offer a fistbump. I ask him why, and he tries for a few minutes to explain how the men that I meet could “keep a bit of me here in Ghana with them, even after I return home with my wife.” I am totally puzzled by this bit of advice, and will go on to refuse handshakes, be laughed at for it, be told by other Rastafarians that Joseph was trying to “mess with my head,” resume handshakes, and finally, once back in the States, understand a bit of what Joseph was getting at, but still acknowledge that the phenomenon has nothing to do with handshakes. At least not all was lost in translation.

An Afternoon at Coney Island

The F train stops on corner of my street and continues all the way to Coney Island. Today I decided to get on the train with a few cameras in tow. I couldn’t tell how long the ride was because I was engrossed in reading The Dog of the South. I think it took around 45 minutes. I knew I was there because the train made this horrible screetching noise–the same howl that trains in Peru make when they have reached the end of the line, oddly enough.

I exited the train, walked down the stairs, and spotted this creepy painting on a glass wall inside the station.

I felt a sense of excitement when I passed by this foreboding image. I figured if MTA managed to post this green monster on the wall, there was more oddity in store once I walked out of the station. And boy was I right. When I spotted the dilapidated carnival rides and graffiti-covered game booths, I felt at one with the strangeness of Coney Island. It might not be strange for a New Yorker, but for someone from the West Coast, it may have well been Mars.

So please allow me to walk you through my Coney experience, in pictures:

I was happy to see a game called “Shoot the Freak” set in a sketchy abandoned lot, where you can shoot a man with a paintball gun 75 times for $20! However, upon further examination, I realized that the booth may be closed down. As my friend Nick’s grandpa always said: “you know the economy is really bad when the live human target shooting gallery has closed its doors.”

Along the boardwalk I encountered this elderly gentleman skipping rope on a bench in the sand. Legend has it he had all the ladies he wanted in his youth, due to his abnormal clam spinning abilities.

Sometimes I wonder where the 21 million people in the New York City metropolitan area hide away. Then I remember there are buildings like these everywhere.

Just soaking up the rays by the palm tree. Wait, this isn’t a real palm tree. Is it a cell phone tower? Are the authorities watching us beachgoers? Are they watching this young man feverishly shooting a carnival rifle? I think yes.

And now I leave you with a touching black and white landscape.

Window Seat

I really enjoy shooting photos during flights. I realized that I have never witnessed someone else do this. I think it enhances the flight, at least for those passengers with an interest in photography. I suppose most would rather watch the latest Pixar film, and I’m therefore not enhancing the flight in the least by refusing to kindly lower my window shade.

Here are two shots from a San Francisco to D.C. flight. Both were taken on the east side of the Sierras. I remember, many years ago, shooting a whole roll of film on a flight from Las Vegas to Oakland. There were high winds over the Sierras, and huge plumes of snow were tearing up canyons and exploding over ridges. Sadly, I was young, dumb, and hungover, and I lost the roll. This was an attempt to make up for it.

Update 2010:

from over the Atlantic

And again over the Atlantic (Long Island) in 2011: