Bait and Switch: Travel Style

Whimg_0608en I decided to escape from winter, I coordinated events quickly not certain if I wanted a sit-on-the-beach-sipping-fruity-drinks kind of experience, a cram-in-as-many-things-as-you-can experience, or perhaps somewhere in between. After a day or two of just relaxing in the sun, taking long walks on the beach, and playing in the surf, I decided it was time to stray from the tranquility of the resort.

I had heard great things about the Arenal volcano, so it seemed a reasonable place to start. Off to the tourist desk I went and signed up for a trip the following day to Arenal and Baldi hot springs. I paid little attention to the mention of hot springs. They seemed a side note to the majesty of the volcano. But I played along, wearing my swimming suit and packing a change of clothes and a towel.

The following morning I met Ronald, the driver and guide for the day, in the lobby and off we went with two other women. We turned our backs on the coastline and  headed northeast back toward San Jose and the interior of the country. The drive is 2.5-3 hours, depending on traffic, road conditions, weather. We made a single stop at some lovely gardens that naturally included a souvenir shop, bathrooms, and coffee samples – rather delicious, I must say.

As we headed further into the clouds, the once clear skies turned from fog and mist to an angry downpour. And that’s when it dawned on me why the hot springs are included in the trip…the chance of actually getting a glimpse of Arenal, much less a full, unencumbered view was relatively low. Somewhere between being hit by lightning and winning a Powerball.

The drive was great though. We went through a few small towns, so got to see homes, schools, bus stops, roadside stands, grocery stores – all the everyday sights that make traveling such a rich experience. Our drive was slow during some of the periods of heavy rain when navigating potholes ranked among the most steely-nerved of Olympic sports.

To their credit, the hot springs are lovely. There are 25 different pools, a few cool, but most warm. It was an excellent place to relax and imagine the skies lifting and Arenal making an appearance. During the few hours we were there, it looked like it could happen once or twice, but, alas, it was not to be.

It reminded me of my trip to Japan a few years ago when several of us piled into a bus to go to Mt. Fuji. About an hour into the trip, the guide mentioned that the mountain could only be seen once every three to four days. But then, we saw it. It was more amazing than I’d expected. At each level we stopped, we got a slightly different view. It was windy. It was cold. No one cared. Because on that day, our 25% chance had skyrocketed to 100% and it was like we’d been struck by lightning.

I should have known better than to think it might strike again at Arenal, but you don’t know if you don’t try, you always have the hot springs to distract you, and now there’s even more reason to return to Costa Rica!

 

Escaping Winter

So there I was on the first day of the year, contemplating life, holiday-induced cookie consumption, and the cruelty of single-digit temperatures, when it dawned on me that I didn’t have to passively watch the season take root. More importantly, I recalled that I had an airline credit that was about to expire and was generous enough to take me almost anywhere I’d like to go.

Within minutes, I’d booked a flight to Costa Rica for five days later, found a hotel right on the water, and secured transportation to and from the airport. For someone who’s general nature is to plan and research, and perhaps plan some more, this frenetic but focused activity was a bit of a jolt to the system.

Sometimes less planning is better though, and this happened to be one of those times. The less planning I do, the less expectation I’ve created that things will (must?) go a certain way. I’m more open to just take things as they come, play it as it lays.

And that’s how I found myself with nothing more than carry-on luggage (you have to love the low profile of summer clothes) and my passport on the evening of Epiphany, heading to the airport and putting piles of snow and ice in my rear view mirror. The flight, while delayed, was uneventful, other than it acted as a reminder to me why I try to avoid red eyes at all cost. I chose it because it was either that or arrive in Costa Rica quite late at night with an hour or more drive to the hotel in Puntarenas – not that I was going to do the driving, but since I’d never been to Costa Rica before, the better bet seemed to arrive early in the day, be able to see the surroundings while on the road, and have time to get my bearings rather than losing the day to air travel.

Nice hotel – check! Good food – check! Friendly people – check! I couldn’t have planned it better. Escaping winter has never felt so subversive, and I still have a few more days to explore, relax, do nothing, or do everything. Dealer’s choice.

24 Hours in Los Angeles

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The Getty Museum

A few weeks ago, a friend and I decided to spend a cultural weekend in Los Angeles. We live in a relatively small town, and while it’s not completely devoid of cultural opportunities, town is definitely skewed toward outdoor activities rather than cerebral pursuits. Sometimes you just have to escape to the big city!

The focus of our weekend was two companion exhibits showcasing the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, famed and controversial photographer who died in 1989, just a few years after his work started to garner the attention he craved.

In today’s climate of selfies and Instagram, we’re inundated with photographs all the time. Everyone’s taking them, everyone’s editing them, and everyone’s an artist.We don’t question photography’s place as a legitimate art form. So it can be hard to fathom that as recent as thirty or forty years ago, photography, especially portraiture, was not widely accepted in the art world. Mapplethorpe’s seemingly innate understanding of composition, lighting, and perspective were undeniable – at least among those who were able to look past some of the shock-and-awe subject matter for which he became so renowned. But to dismiss his work at first sign of something that makes you uncomfortable is all too easy. It’s deserving of a second look, and then some.

The exhibits are at The Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Each museum is worthy of a day-trip, but it’s possible to see the two Mapplethorpe exhibits in a day, if you’re able to pass up all the other art each has on offer.

We started at The Getty right at opening time (10am), followed by lunch in their beautiful restaurant. Make reservations beforehand if you want to ensure a table. The setting is so gorgeous that people come just for the restaurant. Entrance to The Getty is free, but parking will run $15.

The Getty exhibit featured work mostly from Mapplethorpe’s later years. The polish and perfection were evident. These weren’t works of an artist trying to find where he fits. While there are plenty of pieces that portray everyday subjects, there are several explicit pieces as well, all from his aptly-named X Portfolio. They are relegated to a separate room (something I understood, but quite frankly found a bit disappointing), and there’s a sign on the wall as you enter. So if you want to avoid them, certainly you can.

The LACMA exhibit costs $25 (includes their vast permanent collection and the Mapplethorpe special exhibit). It showcased more of what can be considered Mapplethorpe’s formative works – some early short films he directed, several works of collage, and even a few pen drawings from his student days at Parsons School of Design. Normally, I prefer seeing an artist’s work in chronological fashion, but in this case, I liked the order in which we experienced Mapplethorpe’s work. I felt a deeper appreciation for his earlier work after seeing the work for which he’s best known.

Both exhibits are on display until July 31, 2016. Get there if you can. If you want to do some homework beforehand, I highly recommend the recent HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”. For a slightly different introduction to Mapplethorpe, his work, and what living in Manhattan was like at that time, read Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids”.

Why The Bad Kids Aren’t So Bad After All

This morning I hoofed it to The Egyptian Theatre near the top of Main Street to see the documentary The Bad Kids. The movie follows the students and educators at Black Rock High School, in what feels like a forgotten part of the Mojave Desert in California. Black Rock is a last resort for many of its students, most of whom live in extreme poverty, with inconsistent parenting and living arrangements, where drugs and low expectations permeate the air.

The school is self-paced, giving kids who’ve fallen behind a chance to get back on track or perhaps even graduate early. The kids receive help and support that seems elusive in their home lives. Staff, led my hands-on principal Vonda Viland, phone students who don’t show up for school, offer rides if transportation is a roadblock, but perhaps most importantly, these dedicated educators hold the kids accountable while at the same time letting them know they are capable, worthy, and loved. The challenges are real. The road out’s not always so straight or clear, but this school provides a chance.

Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe have been making movies together for twenty years, but prior to the beginning of the film, they both said that following and crafting this story reminded them both of why they got in to film making, particularly documentaries, in the first place.

During the Q&A following the film, Fulton and Pepe seemed to have genuine relationships with the people they followed in the film. To me, this was exhibited even more by how they encourage the two students (both of whom have since graduated) and Principal Viland (far left in picture) to field most of the questions.

The story was well-crafted and the location in the desert made a real difference to the telling. You know those movies where they say New York (or some other iconic location) was a character n the film? Well, that’s the way the desert feels in The Bad Kids. It’s austere and isolated, angry during a storm, hopeful when the rainbows appear.

I left the film humbled and a bit saddened actually because I know this community is but one across the country where younger generations are plunged into adulthood at an early age, living each day wondering if they can bother to dream, wondering if they’ll be the one to break the cycle of poverty, abuse, and drug use.

The movie is a call to action. Take a few minutes to check out their website and learn about the story and how you might be able to help.

Documentaries, Music, and More

HooliganSundance started last night, and had its first full day of activities today. My first event was a movie in the World Documentary category titled Hooligan Sparrow. The original interest for filmmaker Nanfu Wang was to follow activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) who had been making a name for herself with her advocacy work for the rights of sex workers. Ye Haiyan had a small group of activists working with her, and their efforts had gained the attention of the Chinese government, along with the international community.

Nanfu Wang, who no longer lives in China, travelled to Hainan Province to document Ye Haiyan’s latest protest of some young girls (as young as 11 years old) who were sexually abused by their principal.

This is where the story takes a turn. Early in to the experience, Wang realizes that perhaps the real story concerns the risks that human rights activists endure. Wang, along with Hooligan Sparrow and her group, becomes a target of intimidation and threats. In some cases, it’s clear the threat is from the government. In other cases, it’s unknown if it’s the everyday man sympathetic to the government or perhaps recruited by government officials.

The story is well-crafted, haunting, and educational about the changes that have been made in China, and those left to be made. Strikingly, Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang’s feature-film debut. It was a great way for me to start the festival.

In the afternoon, I headed to the ASCAP Music Cafe, relaxed and enjoyed some live music. My favorite act of the afternoon was Air Traffic Controller, an indie pop band fronted by Dave Munro,  a real-life air traffic controller for the US Navy. There were six people on the stage, but they played like a twelve-piece band, each member deftly moving from one instrument to the next, often within the same song. Listening was great, but watching was even better.

In the evening, I saw another documentary. This time it was NUTS!, a documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane entered in the US Documentary Competition. What a departure from the earlier film. The film tells the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley, a small-town doctor with an entrepreneurial spirit who starts performing goat gonad transplants to solve impotency problems. Sounds like a guy you should have heard of, right? He lived in Kansas in the early 20th century, and in addition to his medical prowess, he also starts a successful radio station among other pursuits. I won’t give away the twists and turns in the tale – just know there are some.

Much of the story was told through animation, which was certainly unexpected. Some of the animated re-enactments are taken directly from available transcripts, but some were fabricated. This all adds up to a blurring of the line between truth and fiction, which ultimately is a bit of a parallel of Brinkley’s life.

 

 

#Sundance – 10 Days of Right Turns 

It’s that time of year again when Park City, a town of around 10,000 year-round residents grows four-fold to accommodate movie enthusiasts, film industry professionals, celebrities, and those on the brink of celebrity. And truth be told, not everyone’s happy about it.

The idea of it’s lovely, and there’s no doubt that it brings a boost to our local economy that doesn’t depend on Mother Nature the way the ski industry does; but it also means that everyday activities can become anxiety-inducing, time-wasting, patience-testing events. Think you’ll just run in to the grocery store to grab milk? Drop by the post office to pick up that package? Head to the gym for a quick workout? Not gonna happen! Try again in February.

If you watch Parkites prepare for Sundance, you would think you’d missed the warnings about an impending hurricane. Okay, so we don’t tape our windows or fill the tub with water, but we do stock up on groceries, fill the gas tank, and either fast track or postpone any upcoming appointments, errands, or chores. If you travel for work, now’s a good time to get out of town.

The other choice is to dive right in and play tourist in your hometown. This year the stars have aligned for me to do just that, and I’m giddy with anticipation. Tickets purchased. Credential secured. And to keep me somewhat sane, I’ve got everything in a spreadsheet, which might sound like overkill to the uninitiated, but it’s really quite essential if one doesn’t want to be in a panic trying to figure out how they could have double-booked two movies Thursday morning, how they’re ever going to get from the Library Theatre to Eccles in thirty minutes, and how they missed that hot new group at the Music Cafe that everyone’s talking about. Let’s just say, a little bit of organization can go a long way.

Top Tips for #Sundance Survival

If you’re coming to the Sundance Film Festival this year, Park City welcomes you! Each year it seems that more and more people join in the 10-day celebration of indie films and the creative process. There are movies, of course, along with panels, live music, cooking demonstrations, celebrity sightings, and high stakes deal-making.

But there are also winter conditions, long lines, large crowds, and limited parking. If you want to focus on the fun stuff and leave the frustration behind, then here are my top tips for doing just that.

Leave the heels at home

Trust me, now is not the time to choose fashion over function. Chances are you’ll be doing more walking than you typically do, dodging black ice, and skirting snow banks. Bring the boots and commit to wearing them. By boots, I mean the warm kind with some serious tread on the bottom, not those cute ankle ones with the leather soles you picked up at a sample sale. When you’re running down Park Avenue to catch the next bus to Prospector Square, you’ll be happy you did.

And speaking of the bus…

Unless you’ve secured a private driver for the duration of the event (and plenty of people do), you should plan on using a combination of public transportation and your feet. Do not rent a car or bring your own. Parking is severely limited (even the paid parking), and the snow will not dissuade the tow trucks. The good news is that taking the bus is easy, you’ll meet other festival goers, and it’s FREE. Park City provides year-round free bus service, and during Sundance they augment that service with an additional brigade of buses, so one is typically never waiting for long. If you want to learn more, visit the official transportation website, pick up a transit map when you get to town, or even download the myStop mobile app for schedules and trip-planning. We do have taxis, and Uber operates during the festival, but be prepared for longer than average waits and higher than average prices.

I know I’m not your mother, but…

Park City is a mountain town with an elevation over 6500 feet, depending where you are. Unless you already live at high altitude, your body may balk at the sudden change. Be prepared to drink more water than you normally do, particularly in the first few days. Most theatre venues have water available for those long waits in line, so bring a water bottle and take advantage of refilling when you can. You may also want to limit your alcohol intake, since alcohol not only has the effect of dehydrating you, but also its general effects will be accentuated by the altitude.

So, you really want a drink, huh?

Should you decide to ignore the alcohol advice above, or perhaps you ignored the bus advice, so now you’re so amped up and frustrated that you’re body will only respond to vodka, then here’s what you need to know. Wine and liquor are not available in grocery stores in Utah. You can purchase beer in the grocery store, but beware that it has a lower volume of alcohol than what can be bought at the liquor store. All the good stuff is available at any of the three state-run liquor stores, which sounds fantastic, but note that they aren’t open on Sundays or the wee hours of the night, so plan ahead. At a restaurant, you may be required to order some food along with your drink. Just go with it. Everyone’s just doing their job, not trying to cheat you out of your well-earned adult beverage. Promise.

 

 

Putting Down Roots: A Twenty Year Journey

Roots and Wings I achieved a milestone recently. It may not seem like much to many, but to me, living in the same town for twenty years is something I never really thought I would achieve, or perhaps wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. I grew up in a military family, which meant lots of beginnings, lots of tries at fitting in, making new friends, and finding the concept of home in people, rather than place. Overall, that type of childhood worked for me. I never knew any different, so I didn’t have much reason to question it until I got older, was out on my own, and knew I could (at least conceptually) pick anywhere on the map and make it mine, even if just for awhile.

I have to admit, my ‘plan’ to move to Park City was not wildly complex or thought out. I only knew a few things for certain – 1) I was ready to leave North Carolina; 2) I wanted to move west (which wasn’t hard since east of North Carolina lies miles of ocean); and 3) I already knew some people in Park City and it seemed prudent to start with at least a bit of a network. I told myself that my real objective was to get to San Francisco or Seattle, but Park City would be a good place for me to get my feet under me before continuing the rest of the journey to the coast. This is the kind of logic that makes absolute sense in your 20s. Suffice it to say, it made less sense to my supportive but cautiously suspect parents.

Before I moved, I’d only visited Park City two or three times during the summer. I’d never been during the winter. I only knew how to water ski not snow ski. And I moved without a job. I did have a place to live though, and a roommate who was a good friend who setup all our living arrangements before I had my last bag packed.

I loaded up my Chevy Cavalier with whatever wasn’t loaded on the moving van. I added one very confused cat, an equally confused mother, and we left North Carolina in early January. Because isn’t the middle of winter when everyone thinks it’s a great idea to drive a couple thousand miles to snow country? I don’t recall the exact date we left, but I do know that it coincided with the Blizzard of 1996, a storm so significant that it has an entry in Wikipedia.

We diverted ourselves south through Chattanooga to try to avoid the ice and snow. About three days later, we rolled in to town and set about waiting for the moving van to arrive. My mother stayed for several days to help out, leaving on a day of another huge Utah snow storm. I don’t think she’s visited me in January since.

In some ways, I don’t know where twenty years went, but of course, if I stop and put some thought in to it, the details materialize. The job that started a career, the friends that became family, and the houses that became homes.

It’s all right here, in my little mountain town.

 

#Expo2015 – Milan Welcomes the World

For six months this year, Milan has expanded beyond its fashion and design personality to act as a window to the world for Expo 2015. The Expo used to be better known as the World’s Fair, but over time, the Expo has prevailed. Major, or universal expositions (like the current one in Milan) take place every five years. The last one was in Shanghai in 2010 and had the theme “Better City, Better Life”. In between the Shanghai Expo and the current one, there was a smaller one held in South Korea. This intermediate event was considered a specialized exposition, one that usually lasts for three months and has a more narrowly defined theme; in this case, “The Living Ocean and Coast”.

The theme for Expo 2015 surrounds food and feeding the world – “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. The Expo is a mammoth event with participation from over 140 countries, each with its own pavilion showcasing foods abundant in the area, strategies for agricultural growth, and general cultural information. There are special events throughout the day, tons of activities for families and kids; and if you’d been around in June, you would have been witness to the setting of a world’s record for the longest pizza.

In the many months (May-October) that the Expo has been in Milan, I sadly only managed to make a single evening visit in late August. (And, yes, I know there’s still time between now and the closing in October, but I’m back in the US without plans to return to Italy until November.)

So, here’s my evening at Expo 2015…

ExpoCrowdsWe left the city center on the metro at about 6pm on a Saturday, along with a couple hundred of our closest friends, a few more piling into the cars with each stop. The evening Expo ticket is a bargain at 5€ (the full day pass is 39€), and is good from 7pm until closing (11pm or midnight, depending on day of the week). Although the metro station is within easy walking distance from the ticket booths and general entrance, it’s a long slog from the turnstiles to the real center of activity. There are several entrances though, so find the one that works for you, wear comfortable walking shoes, and bring an extra dose of patience if you’re someone who doesn’t readily embrace crowds!

ExpoStatuesWe stood looking at these statues, each honoring certain categories of food – sweets, fruits, meats, bread, wine (my kind of category!), while also trying to make sense of the map so we could plan our time. You may want to skip this step…the map can be overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good map, but this one only served to let us know how sprawling the event is, and that chances were low, even with the best plan, that we would see everything we hoped to during the remaining evening hours.

The better plan was for us to take it as it came. Follow what looks interesting, try something you didn’t think you would, and keep the map handy should you find yourself hopelessly lost somewhere around the backside of Poland. Trust me. This can happen.

Argentina!For me, the highlight of the evening was arriving in Argentina just a few minutes in advance of a fantastically fun dancing and music performance. Not surprisingly, the

line for food in Argentina was discouragingly long. It almost caused us to turn away, but thankfully we navigated around the lines of hungry folk and started walking up a circular ramp. We ended up one floor above ground, facing a stage with a screen indicating a show was starting in about five minutes. The show was 20-30 minutes of nonstop action, and we had the best view in the place.

The Expo is where entertainment meets education. After our stint at Argentina, we flowed through a couple other countries and wound our way over to the chocolate section. We watched a video about the (incredibly elaborate) process required to go from cacao bean to edible chocolate. It’s quite involved and made me feel guilty (which didn’t last long!) for munching down a bar so quickly without much consideration of what it took to make it.

When our stomachs started grumbling we headed for the food trucks in the America section. The lines were manageable and the food familiar. We’d been inundated with so many wonderful aromas as we moved from pavilion to pavilion. Trying something new would have been the adventurous play. In any case, Food Truck Nation was where we ended up. I had the spicy shrimp roll. Can we say, “yum”?

After dinner we skated through a few more places and made it back to the Tree of Life in time for its presentation of lights. Simply lovely, and while I’ve never seen it during the day, I can’t imagine that the backdrop of the night sky isn’t the preferred way to see it.

Time’s running short to plan your visit to Expo 2015, but if you find yourself in the vicinity of Milan between now and mid-October, make the effort to get there. It won’t happen again for another five years. And at that point, you’ll need to be in the vicinity of Dubai. If you can’t make it there in person, or even if you can, here are some social media accounts that can give you the flavor of what’s happening:

Instagram:

@Expo2015Milano – official site for the Expo

@USAPavilion2015 – official site for the US Pavilion

@UKPavilion2015 – official site for the UK Pavilion

Twitter:

@Expo2015Milano – official site for the Expo

@BioParkExpo2015 – site dedicated to the biodiversity park within the Expo grounds

@USAPavilion2015 – official site for the US Pavilion

@UKPavilion2015 – official site for the UK Pavilion

 

Round about Town

By the end of this post, it will be abundantly clear timagehat you have not unwittingly landed on the next Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, or even <insert favorite Instagrammer here> . However, I do get a chance to see some cool things, so thought I would share. Plus, I’ve got some mad iPad skills.

This striking mural of a woman clutching a heart can be found in Via Morosini in Milan. It’s part of an urban regeneration project that’s goal is to take back an abandoned area of the neighborhood and establish it as a “cultural garden”. There’s certainly not much traditional gardening going on, but the space is clean, safe, and interesting.

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There are actually two murals spanning the entire side of adjacent apartment buildings. This picture gives you some perspective of how the murals really command the space. The area has quickly become a meeting place, as evidenced by the three men relaxing and chatting on the bench.

imageOn the day I visited, there was a lending library displayed on several benches and tables around the garden. The rules were quite simple – take a book, leave a book. There were even
some books in English, but since I came without anything to leave, I amused myself by browsing the collection. A few women sat at nearby tables visiting, but keeping an eye on the books the whole time, lest the threatening clouds open up and drench them – something that seems to happen often at this time of year.

After I left the cultural garden, I wound my way through the sleepy, Sunday streets back to my apartment in Porta Venezia and came upon this street art. I know, I know – back in your day, they would have called it graffiti. They did that in my day too, but times they are a changin’. I’m doing my best to change with them; but mostly I just want people to think I’m a cool hipster (that’s redundant, isn’t it?)

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Milan is filled with graffiti, both the kind that can easily be elevated to the category of street art as well as the kind that’s simple vandalism. I would argue that this picture qualifies as street art. There’s definite artistry at play, and I love the message – “The important things aren’t things.” It’s not every day that you get a life lesson from the side of a building.