Archive for the 'Inspiration' Category



Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Searching for the Swallows in San Juan Capistrano

The air twitched with flies. Wild rabbits darted like phantoms from some hallucinogenic come-down; lizards crawled like insects out of the eyes of middle-school acid trips. Rocks and weeds tumbled down into a tight ravine; on the other side, trains rumbled past and the interstate roared like a wild thing. A weathered “No Trespassing” sign grew small behind me. I wasn’t concerned—this was bigger than trespassing. Down an abandoned road, amid the unkept overgrowth of a forgotten corner of Orange County, I was searching for what I’d come for—the swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

It started with the tattoo. I, like half of the tattooed population of the planet, have swallows. Not that I’m a sailor, bird enthusiast or have any particular affinity for traditional tattoos. But it means that every little old lady I meet asks me, “Have you been to San Juan Capistrano?” I found out that San Juan Capistrano was the town where swallows migrate back to every spring, after their trip down to Argentina. They arrive like clockwork every March 19, swooping around the old alcoves of the Mission there, building their bizarre nests and diving through the calm air and whispering history. I got tired of answering “no”—this year, I was going to the god-damn Mission and seeing some god-damn swallows.

I drove into the belly of the beast—Orange County. Motherland of every suburban California stereotype: sixteen lanes of chocked traffic, smog-smudged horizons, Del Taco and Starbucks, too-skinny arms and too-hard boobs. But somewhere amid all that was a kind of authenticity, a tradition, a natural phenomenon that hadn’t been strangled out by sprawl. I’d sat on the balcony of my cheap hotel in the Fez medina one dusk and watched the sky come alive with the swoop and screech of swallows: black, like shadows, fast, like phantoms, so that they almost seemed unreal. I wanted that rush again, that marvel and awe, in what seemed like a most unlikely place, this suburb of all suburbs.

The return of the swallows is San Juan Capistrano’s biggest event of the year. The Mission opens its doors to tons of visitors; I learned too late that the main event was the Swallows Day Parade on Saturday. But whatever. The main event for me were the birds themselves. I ditched my car about a mile from the Mission, hiked through the traffic and crowds of families and old ladies. I bought a couple $2 tacos, a pan dulce as big as my head, and entered the Mission.

Only the swallows weren’t there. Crowds milled around with their audio-tour headsets, their cameras and sun visors, through the neon flowers and crumbling edifices of the Mission, looking skyward at nothing but blue. “Ooh, there’s one,” an elderly man exclaimed. “No, dear,” his wife answered, “that’s a blackbird.”

What the hell? I sidled up to a ranger and asked, “So, um, where’s all the birds?”

“They don’t really come here anymore,” she answered in a hushed voice.

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t really know. Some people think it’s climate change, but more likely it’s urbanization. The area was all rural when the Mission was built—lots of bugs and dirt for the birds. But now, you know—” she waved her hand at the hiss of traffic from beyond the Mission walls. “I’ve heard they’re mostly down by the creek.” She gave me directions to a creekbed just outside of town, where a small colony of swallows was rumored have nested, to be swooping through the skies. “Lots for them to eat out there,” the ranger told me with a smile.

I wandered around the Mission. It was beautiful in the way that Southern plantations are beautiful—peaceful and shady, but with something sinister inside the breezes and gardenia scents, a hint of haunting in the wild-blowing quietude, as though if you listened very closely, you could hear the echoes of crying, of cultural genocide and Christianization. I listened to my headset, watched the candles flicker in the chapel, observed the statue of missionary taming the savage, lion-cloth-wearing Native American.

“Are those swallows on your arms?” a woman wearing a swallow-studded t-shirt asked.

“They sure are.”

“Can I take a picture?”

I turned around and squeezed my elbows together, so that the birds on either sides of the arms were touching. The woman snapped her photo. “Those are the only ones I’ve seen today,” she told me wistfully.

I laughed. “Me too.”

Like everyone else, I kept looking up, searching the squinting blue sky for signs of the birds. Phantom swallow syndrome: kept thinking I saw the diving wings and forked tails of the elusive birds I’d come for. It seemed like a metaphor—like gentrification, like the more predatory forms of tourism, we’d descended en masse and through our seeking of something authentic and real, we’d driven out the very thing we sought. And I was, of course, one of them, in the way you never want to admit you’re really one of them (“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”)—with my digital camera, snapping photos at ghosts.

I’d find them, I decided. I got back into my desert-dust, dead-bug covered car and went creek-ward. I curved down a quiet road, spied the cleave in the green earth when the creek was, searched for somewhere to ditch my car that didn’t have an ominous “Tow Away” sign. I pulled up to a driveway and asked a little old man if he’d seen any swallows. He scratched his head, answered in a heavy accent, “No, but maybe down by the Church.”

The grounds of Rancho Capistrano weren’t very welcoming—sprinkled with “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. I left my car between two parked big-rigs on the street outside and tromped in, down through shady grasses and soccer fields, alongside a 6-foot chainlink fence covered in forbidding signs. The grounds gave way to open space, wild grass and small, rustling animals. The natural creek was swallow-less, but as I approached the cement embankments, I saw the diving black figures I’d been searching for.

About a dozen swallows moved through the half-shadowed concrete, white bellies and black wings. I crouched down, snuck under the tall fence and crawled over big rocks to get closer to the birds’ strange dance. I tried to snap photos, but they were too fast, too elusive for my slow fingers and cranky old lens. I put down my camera and just watched, thinking of the balcony in Fez, the long journey of the small creatures, the city they’d shunned and where they’d ended up instead.

Los Angeles, Give Me Some of You!

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

Us Northern Californians are prejudiced.

That’s right: prejudiced. We look down our noses, down the long craggy coastline, at Los Angeles as though it were the traffic-clogged  layer of Hell Dante forgot to mention. Tanned and Botoxed and full of silicone, Southern California steals our water, votes Republican, gave us the Governator. In its smog-laden haze of red carpets and reality shows, it skews our state’s reputation, bogs down our ethereal quest for Prius-driving utopia of gay marriage and legalized marijuana. It’s Sparta and we’re Athens, the “LA face and Oakland booty” that never quite make it onto the same person, never combine to create the ultimate bad-ass state, but instead go careening on their own individual, bickering paths of disapproval (NorCal) and complete unawareness/indifference (SoCal).

I once read an essay that whittled the whole Northern-Southern divide down to the difference between internal and external—Southern California was the glossy, teeth-whitened facade, Northern California the soulful, spiritually searching inside (you can guess which side of the debate the author fell on). It’s Bikram and we’re Hatha. And while Southern California remains too self-absorbed to even notice our despising of them, people write whole books on the cultural clashes of the US’s most populous state.

But I’ve long suspected that there’s more to Southern California than SUV-driving anorexics and flip-flop-wearing bros. It may have given us Kardashians and Speidi, but what about Charles Bukowski and John Fante, Camille Rose Garcia and The Date Farmers, The Germs and NWA? There must be, I’ve thought, a whole nuther Los Angeles, down beneath the glittering grotesque surface, that most people never see—hidden and raw, like an open wound or a small, beating heart.

I’m going to find it. I’m going, filling my beat-up car with gas and kicking the tires to check the air, going down the writhing road of Highway 1, past old Missions and crumbling cliffs, sleepy mansions and under-funded state parks. I’m headed into the desert, to psuedo-Old-West honky tonks and lawless squatter encampments. I’m watching swallows return from their long flight, to build strange nests and swoop their shadows through the dusk. And then I’m headed into the city itself, the city of Angeles and dreamers and dirtbags I’ve adored. I’ve got no traditional guidebook, no road map—just my phone and a smattering of tips divulged by friends and dug up on random websites.

Oh, and I’m taking you along for the ride.

Temporal Permanence: Ruins, Street Art and the Narrative Beneath

The speechless candlelight made the images more powerful. The way the sage billowed, the music groaned, the little light flickered—it made the images seem less like a mural and more like the hallucinogenic remnants of a dream, bloody and hand-smeared on the walls of a very dark cave, or on the inside of your skull—which may be the same thing. Dancing on the under side of your eyelids, before swollen and searching pupils, this was the stuff of mushrooms and all-nighters, of contemporary graffiti and ancient cities, of Latin American travels and my Friday night in Oakland.

The showing of Obi Kaufmann‘s mural The Feathered Serpent at The Oakbook was less like an art show than a ceremonious seance. Painted in the fever and fury of a single day and night (and mushroom trip), the mural was inspired by the artist’s recent travels through Latin America. The distinctive flavor of Santiago’s street art scene and the whispering ruins of Oaxaca’s ancient city Monte Alban swirled around in the artist’s subconscious until a dream pushed images out, from one side of the brain to the other, through his fingers and onto the wall of the gallery.

I am not an art critic, journalist, collector or student, so I won’t try to review or surmise. Instead, I’ll let the artist speak for himself. Here’s his photo essay of Santiago street art on Artopic, and his written essay about the genesis and symbolism of the piece on The Oakbook’s website.

After checking out the essays, I got pretty stoked to see the mural. The work being travel-inspired got my antennas twitching. I’d been to both Santiago and Monte Alban, I love crumbly old ruins, and I really love street art (as you’ve seen before)—often for the aesthetics but more because, as a traveler, I find it reveals so much about the beating heart of a place. I was curious to see how it all connected.

Indeed, what I found most compelling about the work (aside from the spooky images and skeletal figures) was the way it blended seemingly disparate influences. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between the streets of Santiago and the ruins of the Zapotec city Monte Alban: vibrant color versus crumbled stone; modern versus ancient; temporality versus remains—a continent, culture and two millennia apart, what commonality did these two places hold? For the artist, it was some kind of communalism, each place informing part of a narrative that was at once universal and personal, regionally distinct and part of a bigger story. Obi saw the world, human history, in the cavernous, torch-lit intersection of two places that don’t seem to intersect. And if that’s not some damn good traveling, than I don’t know what is.

The artist

Travel often brings up puzzling paradoxes (thus the tired line, “land of contrasts”). How does one hold, in the same hand, the transience of graffiti and the permanence of hard stone foundations? Or, to extend the metaphor, how does a traveler simultaneously love the spontaneity of the open road and the rootedness of home? I think the answer, if there is one, must lie somewhere down beneath all that, in the narrative thread that ties this big world together—in the collective unconscious, if you wanna get real heady. Or at least, you know, in the images and scrawlings and paint smears that have now been painted over—a wall blazing white and sealed-lipped about the stories it holds.

Lascivious Voyeurism, and The One Double-Decker Bus I’d Totally Ride

Flickr Tourist

To tour or not to tour? Or, better yet, to cruise.

Tours are almost not debatable. Independent travelers are supposed to be “too cool” for them. “Tour” is the very root (not just linguistically) of that dirty word, “tourist.” One of my favorite “knower of things” Mike Barish recently wrote a post on why it’s ok to take tours, referencing another article that also advocated for tours. Both articles received a fair amount of comments, in which readers debated the pros and cons of group tours.

While die-hard backpackers and shunners of all thing commercial loathe any type of tour, there’s one thing I’d venture to argue all independent travelers are averse to: the double-decker tour bus. Amplified, elevated symbols of all things cringably touristic, the most vile and offensive of guided tours, full of fanny packs and clicking shutters, whisking you here and there so you don’t have to actually interact with the place, and its full, living, breathing placeness. They’re bland, overpriced and utterly nerdy.

Unless you ended up in Manhattan in the 90s, with Timothy “Speed” Levitch as your guide—spouting facts and philosophies, possessed with passion, quoting everyone from Ira Gershwin to Thomas Paine to Henry Miller, monologuing, ad libing and waxing poetic about the city that stole his heart on a regular basis. Then it’s about as uncommercial as you can get.

Last night I watched the 1998 documentary, “The Cruise,” a profile of Manhattan double-decker tour bus guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch. To say he’s eccentric doesn’t begin to get at it; a reviewer on the DVD jacket calls him, “the guy Woody Allen can only dream of being.” The 76-minute movie is a peak into the mind of a madman/genius that turned tour guiding into an art. Now that’s an accomplishment.

[I couldn’t get the embedded url to work, but please follow this link to view “The Cruise” trailer.]

In a fevered frenzy of poetic genius, Levitch uses Willy Wonka and Virgil as his muses for tour guiding (um, bad-ass). For him, tour guiding—an extension of his life philosophy of “cruising”—is his chance to divulge riders of the glorious aliveness of New York City, and of life, in a loop of “lascivious voyeurism.” Clips from his tours are more like performance art, aching with a sensitivity and a passion that makes you want to cry—and laugh out loud at the absurd beauty of it.

Levitch is a tragic, intense, complex figure—in short, an artist. He goes off on the alienating confinement of grid-pattern urban planning, has a near orgasmic experience with architecture, relates to the stones of the Brooklyn Bridge like a living thing. It reminded me of the song “Under the Bridge,” in which Anthony Kiedis related to LA like a person, a comrade, a true friend. Levitch relates to New York City as a “living organism,” and has one of the most intense relationships with place that I’ve ever seen documented.

Of course, a person can’t be that insanely sensitive without being a little, well, off. This isn’t a kind world for people with such profound passion, who haven’t learned to filter things out, grow desensitized and most-of-the-time immune to the “frantic chaos of this limitless universe.” Levitch’s life philosophy of “cruising” (exploring/adventuring/seizing the moment and being completely free) versus “anti-cruising” (being confined and held back by societal norms and mediocracies) offers a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of someone that has sought to “transcend… air conditioning, comfortable couches… the magnitude of static that surrounds us.”

After the documentary came out in 98, Levitch enjoyed semi-celebrity, the object of a modest cult following. He relocated to the Bay Area for a time, where he led San Francisco tours and lived in—where else?—Oakland. Promos for his SF tours feel less inspired—by no means generic, but lacking the spark of genius. His band played in various Bay Area nightclubs from time to time, Levitch appearing grayed and reclusive. It seemed as though the light, the fire, had dimmed.

The documentary isn’t strictly a travel piece, becoming more of a tender glimpse into the heart and soul of a true eccentric, but I couldn’t help but wonder what must have been going through the minds of the people on those double-deckers. Unsuspecting, herding onto the bus, thinking they’d learn a little history and snap a few good photos—and then delivered a fantastic, fanatic monologue that captured not just a love for a city, but for life. That included little gems like: “Down the street, commuters, running towards their destinations—and from themselves.”

If a double-decker tour can be turned into a work of art, well, traveler scene cred be damned. Sign me up.

Lady Love: Digging In to the Blogroll

Thank you, Flickr, for another gem

I’ve got a long Blogroll. What can I say?—I gotta lotta love.

Recently, I’ve seen some fellow bloggers do posts breaking down their favorite blogs. I was honored to be included in both Abbie Mood and Nancy Harder‘s lists, along with some really great writers I often read.

These posts got me thinking: I should really call out some of my own favorites. Many of my go-to blogs aren’t as widely read as I think they should be, and this’ll serve as a chance for me to give an extra shout out to some deserving, ass-kicking writers.

So I’ll start with the ladies. Five of my absolute favorite lady travel bloggers are…

Click Clack Gorilla

I’m not sure how I discovered Nicolette’s blog, but I’m stoked I did. This girl is old school, a DIY, dumpster-diving punk currently living in a house without heat in Mainz, Germany. She writes killer prose about digging around abandoned buildings, au pairing, living on the cheap and trying to keep warm through the winter. What I love about this blog is that it’s something different—utterly non-corporate and unapologetically  its own. It reminds me of the kind of writing the filled zines I’d find at the old Lookout Records. Thanks for keeping it real, lady.

Girl, Unstoppable

I’ve been following Ekua’s blog for awhile, so I was excited to see her get some big-time props from the folks over at Matador recently. The blog’s title says it all: Ekua is an adventurous lady who writes from a Bay Area perspective about her travels around places like Ghana and Bolivia, as well as her life here in San Francisco. One of my favorite features of her blog is travel quotes, especially this one, from a kid she works with—priceless! Despite living just across the Bay, and talking about it for months, Ekua and I haven’t been able to get it together to hang out yet. One day…

Kanitha Heng

Kanitha’s self-titled blog is a well-kept secret that shouldn’t be. Her stuff is seriously off the hook. She’s an engaging, provocative American writer currently chronicling her travels through her parents’ homeland, Cambodia. Her prose is both unafraid and tender, exploring cultural chasms and haunting histories. Kanitha’s writing consistently blows me away. Get on this shit, y’all.

Posa Tigres

Okay, so technically it’s a joint blog between Sarah, who does the writing, and Jorge, who does the photography. It’s quite the dynamic duo, and Sarah’s writing is some of my favorite out there. She doesn’t water shit down, or shy away from tough subjects—case in point, one of my favorites of hers, about the cultural implications of taking a Dia de los Muertos tour. She writes about living in Oaxaca with her boyfriend—beautiful prose that’s not nuggetized or easily digestible. Get ready to think.

The Mija Chronciles

I started reading Lesley’s blog a few months ago, enraptured by the photos, recipes and, most of all, her sumptuous descriptions of regional Mexican food. She’s currently living in Mexico City with her husband, and writes not just about food, but Mexican culture and the expat life. She’s a solid writer with journalistic credentials, and her tweets about what she’s cooking constantly get me salivating. She once casually invited me to come down to Mexico City for a foodie tour. What she doesn’t know is that I totally plan on taking her up on it one of these days…

Honolulu, Black and White and Back in Time

Faces stare out from a two-dimensional black and white. They are laughing, posing, cast in shadows and cut-and-pasted beside lush palm trees, neon hummingbirds, tan thatching and pinkened skies. Sometimes they smile; other times they gaze off, someplace beyond the camera, looking out from thin layer of time and plastic. And I am completely obsessed.

It’s my weirdest and raddest score from the Bay Area’s rummage event of year. The annual Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale is a cult event local collectors, scavengers, cheapskates and lovers of vintage live for. The Oakland Museum benefit is held out in a Jingletown warehouse, and hosted by the spunky white-haired ladies of the Women’s Board. Donations are collected throughout the year, culminating in the kitschy bonanza of bargains. The event takes over the neighborhood, complete with taco trucks and a free shuttle to the BART station.

While the main event is a two-day affair held on the first weekend in March, this last Sunday was the special preview—when the die-hards shell out $10-15 months in advance to get first pickings. A friend finagled us onto the guest list; we traipsed down across the train tracks, through the sour estuary smell and into the warehouse bustling with bodies digging for treasure.

Inside the warehouse

There was a little of everything: antique furniture, vintage suits, old Polaroid cameras, $1 LPs, 80s action figures that brought me back to my childhood—even a box of expired condoms. The prices put any flea market to shame, and everyone was in a good mood. The staff was sweet and grandparently. An old dude with a vest full of buttons from previous years’ sales stood by a Thomas Edison record player, explaining to whoever passed how it worked and the history behind it. Some staff dressed up—I saw a Napoleon look-alike—which added to the festive atmosphere and reconfirmed my aspiration to be a cool old volunteer/docent person when I retire (like I’ll ever be able to…). A truly awesome moment came when, rifling through old records, a tween boy with shoulder-length blond hair picked up a Van Halen LP and let out a long, “Yessssss.”

I scored a couple cool vintage-y household items, but by far the coolest thing I came across was a 20″ x 16″ photo collage. It’s cheaply framed, cost $1 and is full of the kind of mystery that gets my wheels turning, my imagination shooting sparks.

The artfully executed collage of photos is from a group of young people’s vacation to Honolulu. The handwritten note on the cardboard back guesses the year to either be 1939, or 1940-43, World War II. Beneath that, four names appear: Virginia Matthiesen, Cole McFarland, Bud Matthiesen and “Sailor Friend.” Those are the only tangibles I have to cling to, the only ones I want. In the grey photos of shorelines and hotel rooms, a garden and a roadside, I have all the fodder for fantasy I need.

The group is young, mid-20s I’d guess. They have the eyes and expressions of old-school rebels, a kind of pre-Beatnik vibe, something carefree and a little wild in their smiles and poses. One has a Neal Cassady look; a girl has sharp cheekbones and piercing eyes; another stares off from above bare shoulders and a shell necklace. In a different photo, Neal Cassady is wearing the shell necklace, leaning in towards the girl as she looks away. The light has caught her blouse, making it blaze with a whiteness that obscures her face.

There’s an impossible number of stories inside the collage, silent and lost like a dream you can’t remember. Whoever made it set it in a border of tiki-style thatch print, then pasted a couple cut-outs of palm trees, to add color and a tropical vibe. It’s visually cool and kitschy enough to be hip. But really, it’s the faces that make me love the collage.

Of course, I’m projecting all of this—maybe they’re not artsy rebels at all. But that’s the fun of it, imagining a trip like that, then: how long it must have taken to get to Hawaii, how rustic and undeveloped it looked, how more pointed and romantic everything looks in black and white. And the timelessness of getting into adventures on the road. I haven’t found the perfect place for it yet; one of my roommates loves it, the other thinks it’s creepy. For now, it’s leaning against my bedroom wall, where I can stare and dream.

At the center of the collage, pasted on a pastel sunset, is a solo shot of the sharp-cheeked woman. She’s looking back, over her shoulder, holding a straw hat down against what might be wind, what might be the passage of time. I like to think she’s looking back at me, out from a moment that’s long passed, a place that isn’t the same, a youth that is gone. Probably, she was looking back at one of the boys in the collage. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

Forget the Guidebook, This is the VICE Guide to Travel

Dolores Park: "You would think VICE Magazine threw up there."---SF Comedian Ali Wong

At the risk of sounding like a gold-lame-wearing, ironic-mullet-sporting Dolores Park denizen, I’m gonna say it: I like VICE Magazine. And I fucking love the VICE Guide to Travel.

Quick run-down, in case you don’t know: VICE grew from a Montreal zine into global empire of youth counterculture, serving as a kind of hipster voice of a generation in what some could argue was the next CREEM magazine. By 1999, VICE had exploded on to the hip-slick-and-cool scene. A free, glossy magazine peppered with American Apparel ads, you’d find issues at trendy clothing stores and serving as coasters on your friends’ coffee tables, or stacked beside the toilet for inspirational reading material. Having reached new heights of hipness, VICE was nearly immediately deemed as have “been better” in previous years, in the perennial way that everything was better before it got big. But here’s a little secret about VICE: it’s got some killer articles. Some are better than others, for sure, and many breach a little too far into the snarky, too-cool-for-school realm. But I’d argue a good half of the magazine is usually filled with quality journalism, covering super interesting international cultural phenomena.

Which leads to the VICE Guide to Travel. It’s not Rick Steve’s, or even Lonely Planet. VICE goes to some of the most fucked locations on earth, “the kinds of places that nobody else wants to visit”; digs up shocking and bizarre stories; sends sweaty dudes in v-neck t-shirts to interview warlords/cannibals/other locals; films it all, and sets it to a soundtrack of doom, gloom and rock. It’s “edgy,” it’s “off-the-beaten-path” (to say the least), and it’s some of the most bad-ass travel journalism out there.

First, some clarifications on the meaning of “bad-ass.” Empty, self-serving sensationalism with no emotional depth or historical perspective is not bad-ass. And there’s plenty of that out there in the travel world.

A couple months ago, I complained about this kind of trying-to-be-bad-ass-edness in a post blog and subsequent Matador article. Later, I came across an article titled “5 Totally Bad-Ass Travel Experiences” that made me want to vomit. The article listed 5 “daring” travel experiences, two of which capitalized on some of the most heinous aspects of a country’s history. The perspective reeked of a privileged disconnect with the suffering caused by events like genocide and drug wars:

Home to one of the biggest genocides and mass killings in modern history, Cambodia is awash in guns and weaponry. It’s a pretty peaceful place these days but there are still opportunities to get a taste of the weapons of war.

Oh, well, bummer the murdering is over, but at least there’s still cool guns to shoot off. I wanted to reach through the computer and punch the writer. Granted, the article struck a personal nerve; I guess when you know people who escaped the Khmer Rouge, but who’s families all died in the killing fields, well, that takes the thrill out of shooting war weaponry in Cambodia.

What separates the VICE Guide to Travel from lame travel “journalism” like this is skill (they hire professionals)—but more importantly, approach. Traveling to some of the most depraved and damaged places in the world, VICE toes the line, certainly runs the risk of lapsing into one-dimensional exhibitionism and aren’t-I-cool pats on the back. Some in the series are stronger than others, but I’d argue that all stay true to the basic purpose of bringing obscure, untold stories from the gnarliest corners of the world to a Western audience. The liner notes of the original 2006 DVD explains:

The news is all bad. Sitting in our Western comfort, it’s easy to forget that most of the world is hell. War, disease, famine, genocide, and poverty dot the globe like big chunks of cancer. Basically, humans are fucked.

We thought we already knew something about current international events, but we didn’t really know shit until we set out and started doing some serious traveling. These aren’t vacations to Disney World, Paris or even some Outward Bound safari. These are trips to the places that you see once in a while on TV and think, ‘No way in hell am I ever going there.’

Well, we went so that you never, ever have to go for yourself as long as you live. We went, and we’re glad we did. Here are the stories to prove it…

What the VICE Guide to Travel offers is what some of my most difficult, but ultimately most illuminating, travels have: a new perspective on this crazy-ass world we live in. It’s tough to watch—the visit to the shell of a high school in the episode in Chernobyl made me tear up—but I think it’s some of the most interesting and important stuff out there in the travel world.

Which brings us to the new series, the VICE Guide to Liberia. The 8-part series is being released on their website; currently, the first 4 installments are up. Prepare yourself: this is some severely brutal material.

While I don’t think I’ll be going to Liberia any time soon, I’m glad that these guys did, and that the stories they found are getting told. In a world of SEO, Twittered trends and Top-10 lists, the VICE Guide to Travel gets down to the unmarketable, inconvenient bone of what travel (for me) is all about: seeing how other people live, and glimpsing into the strange stories that compose this world.

(Okay, so, it may or may not be a secret fantasy of mine to one day tag along on one of these installments. But for now, the website’ll due.)

Che Marti-ni: The Cuban Cocktail of National Heroes

Oh, the sweet taste of revolution. And martyr worship.

There’s no escaping Cuba’s two biggest icons. Revered, quoted and placed on pedestals/t-shirts, these tragical heroes loom large in the national psyche. They give impassioned words and a photogenic face to the struggle for independence that has characterized the country for centuries. One, you’ve heard of; actually, you’ve had him shoved down your throat by starry-eyed ultra-lefties. The other lurks in the dusty corners of used bookstores, in the syllabi of Latin American Studies courses; you’ve heard his words, but never his name. Until you land in Havana.

Che stencil I saw around in Berlin. In case you can't tell, Che's wearing a Che shirt.

Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. One is Che Guevara, the Argentine renegade who’s become synonymous with Cuba, guerilla warfare and revolutionary politics. He’s arguably the country’s biggest cultural export, and a ubiquitous presence within Cuba (hey, an atheist country’s gotta worship something). This is relatively unsurprising as a visitor; what’s more surprising is this fetish they’ve got for Jose Marti. You could call him the OG—he advocated and fought for Cuban liberation from Spain, calling on the same ideas of Latin American unity and anti-imperialism that Che later did. But when you actually start to read his essays and poems, you wonder why in hell you haven’t been inundated with Marti your whole life too (one answer: he shoulda swapped the funny moustache for a guerilla beard—far more flattering). Even more intriguing is what lies at the intersection of these two figures, and what they reveal about the country that adores them.

Jose Marti and Che Guevara share more than just a saintly status in the heart of a nation. The die-hard revolutionaries were both privileged boys of good education, who gave voice and garnered fame for the struggles of Cuba. Both were seasoned travelers; both had a vision of a unified Latin America free of imperialism; both died fighting battle for their cause, the cause of “the people.” Both pumped out enough good quotes to rival Mao, and both are exalted in the streets of Cuba. And both were, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, guided by feelings of love.

"Viva Che." Etched into the sidewalk in Berkeley. Spotted this on my Marti hunt this morning.

Jose Marti was a 19th-century Cuban-born revolutionary, poet, writer, thinker and traveler. His writings about the Cuban struggle for independence captured the culture in a way no one previously had, and his words served as the voice of a people. So much so that the first lines from his famed poems “Versos Sencillos” were adapted as the lyrics of Cuba’s most famous song and de facto anthem, “Guantanamera.” But what’s most interesting about Marti is how his writing has endured, and the ways it’s remained relevant.

Already a national hero, Marti’s anti-colonial, pro-America (Latin America, that is) ethos was invoked during Castro’s revolution. Castro framed his revolution as an extension of the one Marti fought and died for, and depending on your politics, it’s pretty easy to agree. What fueled all Marti’s work was a fierce defense of justice inspired by a complex and tender understanding of human nature. I won’t play lecturer and drag you through tedious citations, as the Marti Wikiquote page serves as evidence enough. But the famous poem “I Grow A White Rose” captures the Marti sentiment pretty well:

I grow a white rose
In July just as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his frank hand.
And for the cruel man who pulls out of me
the heart with which I live,
I grow neither nettles nor thorns:
I grow a white rose.

Che cigarettes, purchased in Peru. Each cigarette had a tiny Che on it.

And then there’s Che. Aside from being charismatic and hot as hell (yeah, I said it), Che’s enduring legacy, I’d argue, comes from his compassion. Not necessarily for his enemies, but for the people, the struggle. Sure, he had the bad-ass lines like, “I would rather die standing than live life on my knees,” but he also came out with quotes like, “One must harden without ever losing tenderness.” It’s not just rebel girls that swoon at lines like these; a whole nation does. And that says a lot about them, wouldn’t you say?

You definitely get beaten over the head with the two in Cuba, a combo that will flatten you faster than a Cube Libre (not really). Che’s legacy does retain a little more depth here than in the rest of the world, where the commodification of Che is more depressing than consumerist Hot Topic punk. And to be fair, the elevation and exaltation of national poets isn’t purely a Cuban phenomenon, but a Latin American trait; Gabriela Mistral is also pictured on the currency of her native country, Chile. (Imagine paying for groceries with a Walt Whitman note.) Call it the Latin flair for passion, but it’s enough to make a US Creative Writing major weep.

Wheatpaste in London. Che's image composed of corporate logos.

Together, Che and Marti conspire to create a revealing picture of the Cuban culture and psyche: revolutionary, lyrical, learned, passionate, martyred. Both figures have been reduced, their lives and work co-opted for the purposes of others, commercial or otherwise. And while the world is oversaturated in Che juices, Marti remains little-known, a recluse of national monuments and smelly old bookstores. But the true picture, I think, lies somewhere between the two—between national fame and international obscurity, the commodification and the worship, the intrigue of an outsider and the love of a people.

I’ll end with a Marti poem I worked hard to bring you. I once owned a Marti collection; who knows who I lent it to or what move it got lost in. I remembered a poem that captured the intricate relationship between colonizer and colonized, and decided to find it. Google gave me nothing, so today I missioned to 3 book stores and 1 library. In a dim, 4th-floor corner of an independent bookstore, I finally found the poem, in the lone Marti book stuffed amid the over-packed shelves. I slyly photographed the pages with my phone, and transcribed them. As far as I know, this is the only available translation of “Little Prince” on the web. Enjoy. And keep fighting.

Little Prince

This party is for

A little prince.

He has long hair,

Soft blond hair

That hangs over

His white shoulders.

His eyes appear

To be black stars

That move like the wind,

Shine, quiver and give off sparks.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

My hand, that bridles

Horses and hyenas,

Goes where e’er he takes it.

When he frowns, I tremble.

If he complains,

My face, like a woman’s,

Turns white as snow,

Then red, as blood

Pours through my veins.

His pleasure causes

My blood to ebb and flow.

This party is for

A little prince.

/

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

When he appears

Within my sight,

It seems a pale star

Casts its opal

Brilliance o’er all

In a dark cavern.

/

When he goes by

The shade acquires textures

Like the sun,

That wounds the blackest clouds.

Behold me, at arms,

In the struggle.

The prince wants me to fight again.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

And, just as the sun,

Breaking up the black clouds,

Turns shadows

into bands of colors,

When he touches the thick wave,

He embroiders

My red and violet

Battle colors there.

So, my master wants

To return to life?

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

Let me offer life

To him, to him.

This party is for

A little prince.

Subtle Like T-Rex: My Obscure Top 10 Travel Songs

Just in case there’s someone who hasn’t got enough of the Top 10 list, get ready for another nail in coffin.

When it comes to songs about travel, there’s plenty looming giants that drown out the subtler stars. Now, I love “Route 66” and “On the Road Again” as much as the next red-blooded American. And I’ve got a well-bred affection for “Graceland,” “Booby McGee” and “I’ve Been Everywhere.” But when it comes to the songs that really get my feet itching and fingers a’packing, it’s all about the lesser-known jams.

Call it the forever-to-the-contrary, anti-mainstream, cranky old punk in me, but I think these songs kill the more widely embraced classics (though, baby I was born to run too). I’ve listed them vaguely in order of ranking, but more in terms of a flow fit best for you’re listening pleasure.

In the spirit of old mix tape, my early Christmas present to you:

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1. Hard Travelin’, Woody Guthrie

Whenever a bus is delayed or flight canceled, I wanna bust out a harmonica (that I don’t own and can’t play) and break into a freestyle rendition of “Hard Travelin'”. I may have been born three generations too late to live the train-hopping, vagabonding hobo dream, but Woody’s keeping it alive for me.

Best Line: “That mean old judge done said to me / It’s 90 days for vagrancy / And I’ve been hittin’ some hard travelin’, Lord”

2. Ramblin’ Man, Hank Williams III and Melvins

Not the Allman Brothers. With the heart, soul and twang of the original in his DNA, Hank Williams III buddied up with, that’s right, Melvins, and well, they killed it.

Best line: “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / Till I hear those freights rollin’ down the line / Then I hurry straight home and pack / And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow stack” Amen.

3. Ready for More, Murder City Devils

AKA, the best show you went to in 2001 (really, no one lights their drums on fire anymore). The boys that made the trucker hat cool wrote this one about the exhaustion of hard-partying touring/traveling that only copious amounts of cocaine can fuel you through. I may have missed the boat (or tour bus) on that one, but I can get down with the angsty howlings of Spencer Moody any day.

Best line: “And I’m subtle, subtle like a T-Rex / And I haven’t even started yet / One week on the road / One week, and I’m already wrecked”

4. I’m Moving Along, Patsy Cline

With the guts and growl that can only belong to one woman, “I’m Moving Along” is an anthem for anyone that’s split town to heal a heartbreak. The way Patsy belts out that last line always make me wanna grab a suitcase and slam the door on whatever’s bumming me out at home.

Best line: “I’m moving along, I gotta be free”

5. Gone Till November, Wyclef Jean

He may be pretentious at times, but god damn, it’s a pretty song. If you’ve ever had to reconcile the traveling lifestyle with leaving loved ones at home, this is the jam for you.

Best line: “See you must understand, I can’t work a 9-5”

6. Sloop John B, Beach Boys

Not every trip is awesome. And even in the best of em, there comes that moment when, say, you’ve had diarrhea for two weeks and are really over the whole squat toilet thing. For moments like these, “Sloop John B” ‘s refraining “I wanna go home, Let me go home” hits the swollen and tender spot.

Best Line: “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” (though, with Charles Manson running around the sandbox, we can’t be totally sure what kind of trip they mean…)

7. Board of Tourism, This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb

The touring-est band I’ve ever known wrote this cheeky tribute to the “attractions” their hometown Pensacola, Florida. It perfectly captures the two-bit claims-to-fame that small cities grasp at. And it’s adorable.

Best Line: Tie between the refrain, “We got a drive-thru funeral home” and “You know they even filmed a movie there one time / They had James Brown and gave away hot dogs”

8. Rock Island Line, Leadbelly

This song is the definition of bad-ass, by the guy that created the word cool. Nuff said.

Best Line: “If you wants to ride, you got to ride it like you find it”

9. Unknown Passage, Dead Moon

By another band that spent half their lives on the road, the hypnotic riffs of “Unknown Passage” hauntingly capture those road-tripping 3ams full of dark highways and strange landscapes. (And if you wanna know how to build a house, raise a family, travel the country six months a year, and rock and roll like it’s going out of style on less than $20,000 a year, check out the Dead Moon documentary by the same name.) Just don’t put this on if you’re trying to stay awake while driving.

Best Line: “There’s a red light on the hill / And a bridge out going down / There’s a city limits marker / Of an unfamiliar town”

10. So International, B-Legit Featuring Too $hort

Nothing like a little local love to round it out. Hometown boy Too $hort teams up with B-Legit and flows about, well, mostly having sex around the globe and flying first class. Can’t relate, but the hook is catchy as shit.

Best Line: “Yea, we fly first class, touch down like pimps / What’s the next event, tell me what town it’s in”


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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