Archive for the 'Oakland' Category



Painting the Town: Street Artists Bomb the Bay

One of the nice things about living in the Bay Area is that people come here. Just, you know, to visit. We’re coming up on the high season, when the streets swell with tourists, clicking their cameras and speaking their different languages, hanging limbs off cable cars and sharing undoubtedly brilliant commentary in the halls of museums. We don’t complain so much about tourists in the Bay Area—aside from the fact that they spend a shitton of money (and have hopefully read the part in their guidebooks about tipping), it makes us feel good: we live somewhere people want to come to.

It makes us feel especially good when those people are street artists who leave us little gifts.

The Bay Area has been freaking out over the past few days about 6 Banksy pieces that have surfaced in San Francisco. We’re a medium-sized city, so it makes us feel special that an artist that big would come out and leave his mark. I, for one, had to take advantage of a sunny spring day and go on a taco-fueled, MUNI-powered mission across the city (cause, you know, why not?) to see as many as I could. But here on the quieter, slower side of the Bay, a couple other street artists/collectives have made visits. They may not be as big as Banksy (who is?), but spotting their work made me feel, I’m not gonna lie, a little warm and cozy about my hometown.

The blogosphere has been abuzz over Banksy lately. With the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, everyone’s favorite British recluse has been hitting up spots where the film’s debuted. (His recent work in LA caused quite the stir when it was physically removed to be sold in a shady art gallery.) The San Francisco debut of the film went down recently, and we were all waiting, holding our collectively aerosol-stained breath, to see if any Bay Area pieces would surface.

They did. Warholian broke the news, spread the word and even got himself on TV:

I had to wait a few days, for a full day off (new waitressing gig = mucho trabajo) to embark on the mission. Luckily, Warholian posted exact locations on his Flickr stream (along with far better photos than I took). Oh, the digital age…

What was funnest about missioning around to find the pieces wasn’t really the art; it was seeing all the people come out. Folks were really excited to see the work, like a treasure hunt where the reward wasn’t some crappy Easter egg but sick-ass stencils that spawned social commentary—and a nice dose of civic pride. One guy I met was super stoked that a piece ended up abutting his soon-to-open bar (“It’s like free publicity!”). A group of European kids posed for photos by the Native American stencil while a hip dude explained in Spanish to a passer-by what all the fuss was about. On Haight Street, I met an old dude with a serious camera—miles of lenses and clicky gadgets—who told me, “I’ve never been that into this whole street art thing. Always looked like a bunch of scribble to me. But I read about this in the paper and thought, well, that’s pretty cool. So I wanted to come out and document it.”

Doubt this one will be winding up in a gallery

Yeah, my camera sucks. You should really just Google this shit.

Say what you will about Banksy—publicity stunt conspiracy theories and cries of being too mainstream—but that Bristol boy got San Francisco juiced, taking pictures and making missions and actually chatting with each other (usually a more Oakland phenomenon). And at least one cool old dude seeing street art as something other than vandalism.

But I’ve been noticing more cool pieces around lately, on my own side of the Bay. One of my favorite street art blogs alerted me to that fact that Feral was in town, and I spotted one of his pieces (now gone) by the MacArthur BART station.

Abandoned furniture and trash-feasting pigeons: that's my town!

And up on Telegraph, the epicenter of gutter punks and flip-flop-wearing bros, I spotted one of TrustoCorp‘s guerilla street signs. These have been making me giggle for months, and I was stoked to see some stuff locally.

I’m not sure who did this piece, but I liked the placement of it—a busy intersection across from a Whole Foods—and its stark insistence on being noticed.

I’m continuing to think a lot about street art and what exactly it is that draws me to it—what exactly it is that seems so undeniably related to travel. It’s got something to do with place, with the insistence of place, the immediacy and intimacy of interacting with a place on such a visceral, physical level (the subject of one of my first ever blog posts). The words are forming, the drooling gibberish shaping itself into discernible sounds under my wet pink tongue (“mama,” “dada”).

In the meantime, I’m thinking a trip to Italy for Fame Festival might answer some questions and cure some wanderlust. Just in case the Bay doesn’t receive any visitors for awhile…

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Ass Whoopin on the AC Transit: Epic Beard Man, and Why I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore

Celebrity sighting on the 53

The voice was barely discernible, muffled by whizzing traffic and excitement. “I just rode the bus with Epic Beard Man! He was giving out candy bars and autographs, and I got a photo with him!”

My friend’s Friday evening commute home had been spiced up by a sighting of Oakland’s latest internet phenomenon. As the number 53 heaved down Fruitvale Avenue, passengers posed for pictures and chanted “Epic Beard Man,” as the grizzlied old dude distributed candy from his backpack and basked in the adoration of the bus riders.

Regardless of your take on Oakland’s latest internet sensation—racist, vigilante or mentally ill bad-ass—one thing is for sure: Epic Beard Man has reached celebrity status. And while a heated, racialized debate rages in chat rooms and on blogs, the actual riders of AC Transit appear to have risen Epic Beard Man to the revered status of folk hero.

Quick low-down, in case you’re out of the loop: earlier this week, a YouTube video of an AC Transit (Alameda County Transit) altercation between a middle-aged black man and an elderly white man (now dubbed Epic Beard Man) made quite a stir—over a million page views in its first day, and countless comments and ensuing discussions over issues of race and safety in Oakland. The story was picked up by local blogs, news outlets, even the Huffington PostKnow Your Meme offers the most complete run-down of the controversy, featuring video responses that capture some telling Oakland sentiments.

You can go to YouTube and dig through all the remixes, follow-ups and tributes, but here’s the original video. Yes, it’s graphic:

It’s no surprise that the video is so popular. It’s another opportunity for people to glimpse into the dysfunctional “urban” reality of Oakland, and people outside of Oakland never seem to tire of that. Several years ago, the city’s other big internet phenomenon fascinated outsiders with its oh-so Oakland cultural collisions and colorful characters (I was living in East Oakland at the time, and the screeching sound of whistle tips really did echo through the streets at all hours).

While responses to the latest video vary, they largely fall into two camps: Epic Beard Man is a racist, or a hero. He’s either an old redneck who asks a black man to shine his shoes, then beats him, or he’s a tough dude who stands up to a punk-ass thug who’s instigating and harassing him. In general, the first camp seems to be populated by guilty white people and advocates of all things ghetto, while the second camp is composed of kids, bus riders and enthusiasts of drama and smack-downs.

My own response lies somewhere between the two. Both men are unstable, not the kind of people you want to sit next to and exactly the kind of people you meet on East Bay buses. Epic Beard Man is obviously not well, further evidenced by follow-up interviews; turns out he was also the star of another YouTube phenomenon, a video where he gets tased at an A’s game for unruly behavior. He’s a deranged old Vet with a tenuous grasp on reality, prone to violent outbursts. Not someone who should be milling around the streets, trying to take care of themselves, but hey, that’s America (thank you, Ronald Reagan). The other dude should have left it alone, realized Epic Beard Man was not all there and not worth the trouble—but in his bravado, he got pumped full of ego and shit-talking and, well, he got served.

What’s most interesting to me is how the people most closely related to the issues raised in the video reacted—that is, AC Transit riders and people with exhaustive experience dealing with both the tiringly whacked-out and tediously ghetto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to feel that while, yeah, Epic Beard Man is totally deranged, dude got what he deserved.

It reminds me of an issue several years ago when an Oakland resident was both vilified and exalted for standing up to the thug kids that plagued his block, in what became a violent incident. While both parties in this instance were African-American, so the race issue wasn’t raised, responses were similar: he was either a vigilante hero, or a villainous attacker of innocent youth. Throughout the controversy, the man insisted that all he wanted was a safe neighborhood in which to raise his kids—what I’d argue the majority of people in Oakland are looking for. In the end, he did what most of the families I grew up with did—unable to afford a nicer neighborhood in Oakland, he moved to one of the outlying working-class suburbs.

Responses to that issue, as well as this one, tap into some very central Oakland issues. While the man from a few years back was a much more sympathetic (and sane) character, and didn’t want to be a hero, many people regarded him as such. I think it speaks to the extent to which people are sick of all the bullshit. People are tired of dealing with puffed up a-holes who think they can say/do whatever to whoever and get away with it, tired of shit-talkers, instigators and intimidators. So much so that they’re willing to revere violent behavior.

The riders on the 53 last night, majority non-white, were literally cheering for Epic Beard Man. Yes, some of it was surely star-struckedness and a glorification of school-yard theatrics, but I think there was something deeper going on there, something almost beyond race. Most of the video responses I’ve encountered are, in fact, from people of color. Epic Beard Man may be nuts, but the other guy was an ass. There’s no video glorifying him—and I don’t think it’s just cause he was the loser in the altercation. It’s a strange thing: an incident so racialized, that at its core, to the people who deal with this stuff day in and day out, has more to do with harassment and basic respect than race.

That the incident took place on a bus is no coincidence. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger (and fellow gym goer) centered his coverage of the issue on the ridiculousness of AC Transit—for him, it was all evidence for why he doesn’t ride the buses in Oakland.

Word. I grew up riding AC Transit, and it served as a serious education in the world. The first post on this blog was a reflection of how riding the East Bay buses prepared me for world travel, while the very first piece I published, as a teenager in The East Bay Express, was a narrative about my fucked-up experiences on AC Transit (I used a line from the piece as the title for this post). While shit like this doesn’t go down on the vast majority of bus rides, it’s not some sort of exceptional incident—it just happened to be captured on tape. I’m grateful for the schooling AC Transit administered; as a result of vital life skills learned on those blue plastic seats, people generally don’t fuck with me. But I’m even more grateful to have a car now.

The Epic Beard Man hype will surely die down—like everything these days, it’ll be discussed and linked to and tweeted wildly, then fade into the buzzing gray, the next craze taking its place (in the digital age, it seems everyone’s 15 minutes of fame are whittled down to 15 seconds). But for the rest of us, the issues the video captures will continue on: race, safety, the crazies that fill AC Transit. They’ll continue to roam around, screaming and bleeding all over our commutes, and I will carry on with my self-centered, polluting aversion to East Bay mass transit.

But I will say—being on that 53 with my friend last night would have been an experience. If for nothing else than the photo ops.

Flowers and Hair Dye: Getting Ready for the New Year in Oakland’s Chinatown

Short women elbowed through stacks of neon flowers. Banners boasted the rejuvenating wonders of herbs, tea, hair dye: “No. 1 Selling Brand in U.S.A.”, “Prince of Peace, The Name You Can Trust!” Distorted pop vocals crackled and hummed from a far-off stereo. Children gazed up at their toy windmills, decorated with carton tigers or Dora the Explorer, black eyes shinning and mesmerized by the spinning, spinning.

This last weekend was Oakland Chinatown’s annual Lunar New Year “Bazaar.” Not quite a street festival, not quite a farmers market, and anything but the well-known San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade (ahem, the “Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade”), the event captured Oakland’s Chinatown: non-glitzy, utilitarian, and not particularly concerned with outsiders.

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Oakland’s Chinatown for awhile. As its Chamber of Commerce website declares: “Oakland’s Chinatown is one of the most fun and authentic of the American Chinatowns. It is quite safe. It is not a line of t-shirt and postcard shops like much of other Chinatowns.” I recently tromped through San Francisco’s Chinatown with out-of-town relatives, which actually gave me a renewed appreciation for its lanterns, pagodas, skinny alleys and countless trinket stores. Growing up here, it’s easy to get blase about what remains alien and alluring for a lot of people. My cousins loved SF’s Chinatown, and I wouldn’t think of bringing them to Oakland’s—it would be totally uninteresting to tourists.

Diagonal crosswalk

Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t glamorous; there’s no self-conscious gestures towards exoticism. It’s not even really a “Chinatown” as much as it is an “Asiantown,” filled with a good number of Southeast Asians (and thus, one of the best Vietnamese sandwich shops around). Still, the history of the neighborhood is Chinese—as evidenced by the bilingual street signs—and the attitude, well, that’s Chinese too. It’s not hostile by any means, it just doesn’t go out of its way to include outsiders. It reminds me of the sentiment Pico Iyer captured in his 1980s essay “The Door Swings both Ways.” A lot of the stores and markets don’t bother to translate signs. Despite one of its main thoroughfares being four lanes wide, double-parking is so rampant it still takes ten minutes to drive two blocks. People ignored crosswalks and traffic signals so much that the city eventually gave up and installed Oakland’s only diagonal crosswalks.

Dingy awnings, block construction and an eerily empty mall are part of the unexotic offerings of Oakland’s Chinatown. And, this last weekend, two of its main streets were closed off for what’s marketed as a Lunar New Year Bazaar, but what’s really a stock-up opportunity for locals. I ran into an old friend who was working the event, and her aunt helped illuminate my hazy understanding of New Years traditions, informed mostly by the annual dragon dance on the playground of my grade school, when we got to throw cabbage and eat those chewy candies covered in rice paper.

Aunt Kathy told me about the purpose of the market, which is to stock up on bright flowers to decorate the home with. Yellow mums and reedy stalks (whose English name we couldn’t figure out) are most popular for their bright color and longevity. People also bought up red envelopes, for money giving; what I didn’t know was that only single people receive envelopes (hint, hint). As opposed to Chinese celebrations, when people have a week off work to visit relatives and feast, American celebrations are more condensed—people usually gather at a relative’s house for a night, eat a ton, and exchange envelopes, candy and sugar-coated fruit. “Like Thanksgiving”—but with a lot more red.

Like most things in Chinese culture, the traditions of the New Year seem to all go back to “good luck.” “Why the colorful flowers?” “For happiness and good luck.” “What’s the significance of the long stalky flowers?” “They live long, don’t die. Bring good luck to the house.” “Why all the candy?” “It’s sweet, bring good luck.”

Oakland’s Chinatown doesn’t hold a New Year parade or celebration, just one big market for all your flower, herb, sunglasses, socks, DVD and good luck buying needs. A couple of other non-Asians milled through the crowd, not quite sure what to do with themselves or why they were there. Where were the food stalls? The ethnic trinkets and radio stations? Meh, it was Chinatown. This was their affair, and they weren’t gonna dress it up for anyone.

Photos by Theo Auer

Aw, crap, forget my pocket phrasebook

Booth selling hair dye

What language is that under "Fast"?

Celebrity endorsement

Digging for goods

Flowers and sunshine

Another mystery booth

Dora the Explorer Windmill

Peeking in to a random shop

Ummm...

"Alright, alright, we'll give you a pagoda."

A jay-walker no more

Exotic...

Even Citibank is in the Year of the Tiger spirit

Buddha and a Raiders Logo

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?

Hipsters Vs. Homeys: Oakland YouTube Travel Guides

“Oh hell no,” the text read. “Hipster douches filming Oakland travel video outside the shop.”

This was my best friend, writing from her post behind the counter of Tattoo 13. For years, she and the fellas have maintained a comical running commentary on the goings on of the now-trendy Temescal neighborhood, knowing every event, incident and wily character within a 10-block radius. Of course, she’d be the first person I’d hear about such shenanigans from.

It actually turned out pretty good, with the bit filmed in front of the shop capturing hipster sentiment with striking accuracy. Amid the recent annoyance over the woefully narrow Cool Hunting’s Oakland Word-of-Mouth Guide, I was inspired to dig the “hipster douche” video back up, and discovered some other YouTube gems along the way. And I hate to say it, I think the douches did it best. Or at least the most forthrightly.

Cool Hunting promotes independent art and design, featuring video guides on artists, cultural events, how-tos and destinations. The most recent installment visits independent businesses and local artists in Oakland, interviewing “the people who call it home.” They hit some great, popular local spots, but there’s a problem—the video only visits a very narrow section of the population, and the city. Businesses featured are almost exclusively in the North Oakland/Temescal and Downtown/Uptown areas, and, um, all the people interviewed are white. There’s a lot more white people in Oakland these days, but not that many.

Perhaps in an attempt to be inclusive, the video includes a couple shots of non-white, non-artist folks. They exist as passing, silent figures, riding bikes and making sandwiches—almost as though on another plane. I think it’s rather telling; I’m sure there’s people who’ve moved to Oakland that interact solely with the arts/”yuppie” communities, who experience the rest of the city only in tangent, realities that intersect on sidewalks and in cheap cafes, but no where else. I’m stoked to see my city getting recognition, but sad to see the guide left out so much of the city, what makes Oakland Oakland.

On the complete other side of spectrum, I stumbled across Thizz Nation’s neighborhood guides during my YouTube quest for the “hipster douche” video. Amid Mac Dre’s ever-generous contributions to Bay Area culture (I’m not really being sarcastic here), his Thizz Nation & On Point Productions created Treal TV Series, video guides that feature notorious Bay Area neighborhoods that birthed prominent figures in the rap community. (If you’re wondering what “thizz” is, check out old high school buddy Rachel Swan’s East Bay Express article from a few years back.) Installments include North, West and East Oakland.

I’m convinced these will someday be used as important specimens in some cultural anthropological study of Oakland. These guides do a little more to reveal the history and culture of certain neighborhoods, as rugged as they may be. But of course, they are also terribly narrow, and could leave one with the impression that Oakland is filled with nothing but 20-something, hard-as-shit black guys. Murder Dubs was one of the better ones:

A stab at a more balanced portrayal is made in the endearing “Oakland B Mine” video. A trailer for a short film that will be showing on a 30-foot screen at the Oakland Airport’s baggage claim, “Oakland B Mine” is pretty damn sweet. I never thought of my city being the backdrop for an artsy dialogue-less love story, but hey, I can roll with that. The trailer features some shots of everyone’s favorite farmers market (okay, my favorite farmers market), and the bad-ass old folks that do Tai Chi by the Lake Merritt BART station in the morning. While definitely more balanced and definitely the most well-done, one could still walk away from this one with the idea that Oakland is filled with nothing but good-looking, casually well-dressed hiply ethnic types. Which is fairly accurate, but still incomplete.

Which leaves the douches. While still narrow and incomplete, their video does something the others all don’t: makes fun of itself. It doesn’t just make fun of hipsters and gentrifying yuppies, it makes fun of cheesy travel guides and the abhorrent “staycation” phenomenon. But most importantly, the video gets at some of the very real issues inherent to living in Oakland, the preposterous dysfunction that manifests in sideshows, prostitution and, yes, the smells emanating from the Lake. And while the underlying message is that Oakland is “crappy,” the video captures the kind of delusional exoticism so many fall spell to.

Leave it to the hipsters…

Thanks for Nothing / Everything

I celebrated this Thanksgiving at two long-standing Oakland events: Thanks for Nothing, the legendary potluck of punk debauchery, and my family’s annual Day-After-Thanksgiving party, legendary in its own right. Both events were a little less epic this year, with an intimacy that reminded me of what’s good about Thanksgiving and about family—as untraditional as they may come.

Anyone in the East Bay who’s ever donned liberty spikes and a studded anything has gone to Thanks for Nothing. And possibly passed out at it. Now in its 18th year, the Thanksgiving potluck is an Oakland punk tradition, a place for all the family-less kids in black to come together, at picnic tables under jimmied lights, and create their own family.

Of course, by “kids” I mean “punks” and not kids at all, anymore. These are the die-hards, wearing smile wrinkles and old band shirts—the folks that, once the scene-ness melts away, once all the other folks have grown out of what was just a phase, are still there, purely for the love of it. Punk may be mostly dead, but it’s not all-the-way dead; it just lives in the hearts of a small handful. And, on Thanksgiving, in an East Oakland backyard.

Thanks for Nothing has taken on a larger-than-life status; the woman that puts in on is convinced that even if she were out of town one year, people would still show up. They didn’t pump it too much this year—no flyers or MySpace posts, just word-of-mouth—and the result was a smaller, friendlier crowd, that was also a bit tamer. The event historically gets increasingly raucous as the evening progresses; as the steam from the turkey table cools and the toddlers konk out, staggering, slurring sing-alongs ensue (among other things). This year, the pot food table was nearly empty and the jar of homemade Bailey’s went fast, but the Jell-O shots were plentiful, tossed around in a haphazard game of catch that somehow didn’t end in neon goo being splattered across someone’s head.

Despite the uber-punk name, this year’s Thanks for Nothing felt more about community than anything else. Family, as most travelers know, isn’t really about blood lines; it’s got little to do with genes or ethnicity or even, as we learn on the road, nationality. Family’s about people that share similar values and perspectives coming together and sharing, growing together. (And at Thanks for Nothing, singing along to Cock Sparrer together.) It sounds more one-love than punk, more Berkeley than Oakland, but sometimes it takes unexpected manifestations to drive a point home.

But most of my “family” growing up wasn’t about blood lines—a lot of Californians’ aren’t. My parents moved my toddler brother and my infant self to California with only one blood relative within 2,000 miles. Once my uncle passed away, it was really just the four of us for holidays. Plus an ever-growing band of fellow Bay Area orphans. It seemed that my dad’s first couple of years in the fire department, he kept having to work Thanksgiving (turkey at the fire house!). So we started having all our family friends over the day after, when we’d sit back and talk and laugh and eat for hours. We invited everyone, and it became a kind of neighborhood affair. A tradition was born, and yesterday, carried into its 22nd year.

Like Thanks for Nothing, we don’t really need to invite people anymore; everyone just knows to show up. Charles deep-fries two turkeys in the driveway, Karen and Jamal make the marshmellow sweet potatoes, Nhu and Jacobo bring the bread pudding, my brother makes the famous firehouse Caesar (I used to make the vegan entree, but those days are long gone…). My parents’ small bungalow overflows; there’s an incessant wait for the one bathroom and a warm glow from the fireplace. It’s consistently one of my favorite days of the year.

The event was smaller this year, just under 60 people, and I had a couple bittersweet moments, missing people who used to come—people who’ve moved, who we’ve lost touch with, but mostly people who’ve passed away. But at the same time, there were folks there that I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life, that are the aunts and uncles and cousins I otherwise wouldn’t have really had, so many miles and states away.

Family is one of the most important things to me, as traditional or untraditional as mine may be regarded. Of course, much has been written about the “demise” of the American family, and holidays like Thanksgiving hold a particular weight for those from untraditional or un-intact families. But I’d argue that the American family isn’t crumbling, just reshaping; seeing as though this guy got a book deal out of the concept, I don’t think I’m alone. And as travelers know, the traditions of a family are some of the best glimpses you’ll get into a culture—whether it’s making stuffing with your play-cousin, or pounding Jell-O shots with punks. It may not be a Norman Rockwell painting, but it’s as close as some of us get.

The French Won’t Save You: Recklessness, Fear and Safety Abroad

Military chillin in central Bogota

Military, chillin in central Bogota

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. Only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to this afternoon, as I rattled down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, windows down and blasting NPR (yo, turn it up so it bumps). I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean. Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s Current Travel Warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Fear is one of three reasons discussed in Nomadic Matt’s article, Why American Don’t Travel Overseas. Once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself in brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous. One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters. As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses (snark alert). They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town. “The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—“If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.” Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, and comfortably cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

DSCN1202_2_2

Good times with the Colombian military

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.


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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