Monday, December 31, 2012

It Was a Very Good Year

Actually, 2012 was a very bittersweet year for TPD. It's been a roller-coaster, in fact.

In 2011, I was approached by the parent company to The Venture Channel, the network that has licensed the first television-length season of The Peregrine Dame.

In 2012, we signed the contract, making the deal legal, although it's not hard to get out of; contracts in TV land are often not as valuable as, oh say, toilet paper. The network was due to launch in several countries this fall, the first in late August, then more in October. Then it all turned into early December. None have gone up as of today.

That's the bitter. The sweet is that I still spent a large portion of my year getting to do what I've wanted to do for years now: traveling and teaching people about it. I filmed in six countries this year. Well, five and a U.S. territory, but if you ask Puerto Rico, they still call themselves a commonwealth country.

I hope that people do learn new things when they ultimately watch the series. And I still think they will be able to, albeit later than either I or the network planned. I hope it motivates and inspires people to do some things they've always wanted to do, but were afraid to do by themselves - whether those things involve traveling or not. But the truth, for me, is that even if it's never seen, if the worst happens and I never make a dime back on the whole project, what I have learned is worth much more than gold.

The process has taught me patience in a measure I could not have fathomed before starting the whole adventure. Individual countries have shown me where my values lie and what my hypocrisies are. Preconceived notions and believed-in stereotypes have been blown away. I have realized what it means to feel lonely, to be an outsider, a curiosity. I've also experienced kindness and good faith from total strangers all over the world. Help and support have come from people I now am grateful to call friends.

I still have moments of breathtaking anxiety when I think of the possibility of utter failure from a professional and financial angle. But when I can quiet those thoughts, I find reason and comfort in a couple of things I've learned from this complex trip: we, as humans, are all much more alike than we are different, and if we are to survive as a species, it will only be through person-to-person contact and discovery that we will make it. It's much harder to hate someone - for no reason - who's completely different from you once you've gotten to know them.

Thankfully, travel is getting easier and easier with technology and innovation. Believe it or not, it's also becoming less expensive if you're willing to reach beyond your comfort zone and use some of the incredible tools out there. So, here's to a new year, and new adventures. To self-discovery and education, however you go about it.

I am still hopeful, for the show and its future. And although it's certainly not in my nature to be, I'm even optimistic. I'm also thankful I can spend one last day this year doing what I enjoy. Time to get back to editing.

Happy New Year, everyone. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Long Haul is Just Beginning

In the past seven weeks, I've flown more than 14,000 miles, bought and forgotten one pair of sunglasses (at home), replaced one pair of sunglasses in Mexico (I hate them), lost one hand towel (Belize), caught one chest cold (Mexico), pulled a hangnail that got infected making my finger swell like a balloon (Argentina), and gouged my big toe on a rock so badly that for the next three days it split open again each morning when I put weight on my foot (Brazil). But the footage looks great.

Even if I do say so myself. In the span of years that I've been working on The Peregrine Dame, I've filmed in 14 countries, first for the web series and now for the TV series that's going to The Venture Channel. This has been the first trip where I looked forward to coming home. Don't get me wrong; I had an incredible time, with wonderful, kind people, and I miss them all already. Each of the five countries I filmed was a fascinating, eye-opening place to experience. But by the sixth week of seven, I was ready to be in my own bed again. Mostly, my own bathroom. I stayed in hotels in some locations, and with couch surfing hosts in others. Both have their merits, but I'd forgotten the amount of sheer stamina it takes to pick up and travel every seven days when you don't get more than a day off in each location. The last two weeks, I didn't take a day off at all. If I was just hosting a show, it would be different. I wouldn't have to work on the days when the camera crew filmed B-roll, but I am the camera crew. I'm ready to produce and show that has a camera man. Or woman, I don't care. Not that producers get days off, either.

It was an odd sensation for me to be excited to put my key in the door to my apartment when I got home from LAX. Maybe I'm just getting older. Maybe I'm just exhausted and tired of sharing space with people and being endlessly social, which goes against my solitary nature. But you can't make a show about traveling and not get out and do things. All I know is it won't last, and I'll be longing to split again after I've recovered. And done laundry.

It always happens this way. I know, as with my previous long filming trips, I'll be ready to go again in a week after I've rested and eaten and knocked around my house and acted like a hermit. But I won't be able to leave. For the next couple of months, I will be chained to my editing system, actually making the show out of the dozens of hours of raw footage. I hate the tedium of the editing process, but I love the creative control. I will bitch and moan and gripe, but I will be happy to have my own particular set of problems. It could be worse. For now, the mission is clear and simple: make the best show I can out of what I shot, and deliver the episodes. If people watch, my dreams will come true. If they don't, I'll go back to studying journalism because traveling and writing about it is a helluva lot easier than traveling and filming it. Either way, I'll be back out on the road by hook or by crook. There's just so much more to see. Though I may have to get some antibiotics for my finger, first.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Kissing Strangers

I've been kissed by 16 people in the last two hours - men and women. When half a dozen pizza boxes arrive, they're filled with small half-moon-shaped savory pastries. Empanadas. Unlike their Mexican counterparts, these are filled with all manner of things European, as in the caprese that I inhale. It's an Italian margherita pizza wadded up and stuffed into a fist-sized pouch. I may never leave this country.

The mood is festive, sitting among an impossibly hip crowd of young Argentine filmmakers in an impeccably appointed apartment in Paternal, an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood. It's a wrap party for a short film directed by a 20-something named Pablo, who has already won awards for cinematography at the Festival de Cannes.

My couch surfing host Natalia, a bubbly 23-year-old working actress, invited me to join her this evening. The electricians and grips are a small delegation from Costa Rica, having moved here to study film and work in entertainment. One woman is from Spain. Director Pablo is about to leave for Jordan for six weeks to work on a new film. I get the feeling that there are more passport stamps represented in this room than there are words for stamp.

Buenos Aires has always had a level of European-influenced sophistication that captivates people fortunate enough to come to this smash of a city that exists in its own bubble, well detached from the rest of the rugged country. And the generation of Argentines I'm hobnobbing with proves that the reputation for international flavor is holding.

Most of the people in this place are my age. Well-educated, successful, and by the looks of it, not too affected by the rampant inflation and stagnant politico-economic environment. These people are on the top half of the great divide that's widening when it comes to the middle and upper classes here.

It's a sharp contrast to Natalia's childhood home, where I'm spending half my stay while filming an episode here. In order to have the freedom to pursue her burgeoning career, she moved from the shabby-chic city center back to her father's home in Castelar, a suburb about 45 minutes away. The house is under never-ending construction.

Naty says her father has single-handedly renovated the old split-level home, adding a second story, and building her a small custom suite at one end. But the project isn't anywhere close to finished. She tells me her father works on it piece-meal, doing things as he comes up with the money. Which is harder and harder because of the high tax rate that hits her dad, who owns a small electronics repair shop. She's not a fan of the current president, Cristina Kirchner, whose policies Naty feels are geared toward hand-outs for the poorer classes and economic favor for the wealthier. It's harder to stay middle class, she says with a frown.

Tonight, as we sit in the perfectly preserved 1930's-era building with exquisite hardwood floors and a marble staircase, we don't talk about politics. Everyone is here to celebrate an achievement. But listening to all of the chatter about jaunting here and there across the map to make more movies, I wonder about something else Naty said.

One of Kirchner's other policies is meant to encourage people to stay in Argentina - in some cases by simply making it more difficult to leave. Natalia would like to vacation in the U.S. To do so, in addition to getting a visa from the United States, she has to ask her government for permission to go, and then they decide how much foreign currency she can have. She's not allowed to buy U.S. dollars in Argentina, a country that not too long ago pegged their peso to the dollar. She tells me that Argentines are being exposed to expensive advertising campaigns touting the amazing beach destinations within the country, except that it's more expensive to vacation at many of them than it would be to fly to Rio de Janeiro instead.

The capital city has intrigued and baffled me. It's full of painfully beautiful architecture - that's covered in graffiti. Nearly every inch of surface here within arm's reach is coated in spray-paint. Within the past year, a law legalizing gay marriage was passed, but women may not have abortions. At all. I find this mind-boggling since the president is female. In the case of pregnancy by rape, a woman has to present her story to a court of law, a process which can often take longer than the pregnancy, forcing her to carry a fetus to term, wanted or not. One of the more recent high-profile news stories was about a girl with Down syndrome who was denied an abortion after she'd been raped.

It's hard for me to come to reconcile these issues with the reality of a city that's my kind o' town: huge, freakishly fast-paced, sophisticated, and moody. So I stop thinking about it for tonight. It's enough just to try to remember which cheek to turn to strangers for kisses when they meet me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Holding Court on Caye Caulker

Author's note: The men quoted in this piece are not official sources of information and should not be taken as such. Their opinions are their own. 

"Belize is fucked." Steve has a frustrated scowl on his face.

The dark-skinned native Belizean has his toes in the sand under the narrow bench he's planted on, the Caribbean Sea 20 yards behind him. A head of massive dreadlocks is covered loosely by a knit cap. It's got to be hot as hell under all that. I'm dripping with sweat in the salty, humid air, but he looks fresh as a daisy.

Steve and his friend Alfred scan the dusty, packed-sand main drag that Alfred's hut sits on where he sells art to tourists. People on bicycles trail through, and the sporadic golf-cart. There are no cars on the island.

"We're losing all our youth to other countries. All our young labor and talent," Alfred adds, shaking his head. "They all go to America. No one wants to stay here."

I've read the stats; some estimate that there are as many Belizeans living outside Belize as there are in the country, and it only has a total population of around 300,000. "How are we going to live? How are we going to survive, if all the people leave," Alfred asks.

I was on my way up Front Street in Caye Caulker, heading north to The Split to meet a few other people for drinks. I've been filming on Caulker for two days now, which means with only 1,300 or so people living on the minute islet 45 minutes off the point of Belize City, everyone in the mile-long village knows I'm the girl with the camera. Steve and Alfred stopped me to see what I was filming.

Right now the camera is in the ever-present backpack slung over my shoulder. This is precisely when I want to break it out, and exactly when I can't. The spontaneity and naturalness of these two would vanish. I know, I've tried it before. They didn't ask to be filmed and they would clam up. So although the producer in me is screaming "Do it, do it now!" I bite back the urge to bust it out and stick it in their faces.

And they keep talking. Sometimes over one another, but with a unified message. They tell me of the government's corruption; the brain-drain that their tiny country is experiencing.

Just a few days before, I was in Belize City staring at the not even half-completed Marion Jones Sports Complex. The track superstar gave the government of Belize $2 million to renovate the National Stadium years ago. The previous government squandered most of it instead. Basic needs in the city, things as simple as garbage bins on street corners are not provided because there is no money.

"Nobody cares," Steve says. Alfred echoes Steve's statement. They hold court from their beach bench and wonder aloud why there aren't more Belizeans who give a shit. Both men are in their 50s, I'm guessing. They lived through the peaceful break from British rule in 1981, and watched British Honduras become Belize. Alfred is lighter than Steve, a Creole of mixed British and African descent. If you listen to the official message coming from Belmopan, the nation's capitol, they are all enormously proud of their mixed-race ancestry.

But to hear Steve tell it, there is still a great deal of tension between ethnic groups, namely the Creoles and Mestizos - people of Native American and Spanish blood. Creoles sometimes bristle at Mestizos when they refuse to speak English, the official national language. Each group largely keeps its own company.

Then there are the tourists. "We thought the tourism would be good. We thought before the cruise ships came, they would be good," Steve says. The country's biggest industry is tourism. I mention that I've heard there's a plan to build a Four Seasons hotel on the island. Caulker is the last of the Northern Cayes that has famously kept large-scale development out as a matter of lifestyle choice.

"We don't want that here," Steve says. The problem is not tourism as a whole industry. It's that when large multinational corporations come in, they set up their tours and land excursions with a select few operators, and do their best to make sure they scare the travelers out of using other companies. "We can tell when they're scared of us. You can see it. So none of the money gets to us, it stays with the big operators."

It's true that on the mainland Belize City has a high crime rate, and parts are definitely dangerous, but the serious crime doesn't normally affect tourists, and a sharp-minded traveler will avoid the pickpockets, anyway. Every Belize guidebook has a section warning travelers of the imminent danger, and people disembarking at Belize City from large ships are told not to leave the "tourist village," an adult playpen that forces the less intrepid to stay inside a fenced area with taxi checkpoints on either side.

"We need to get together and talk about these things," says Alfred. "We have to sit down fix this, but how? No one cares. There aren't enough people to do it." I tell them they seem to care and suggest they start a group on Caye Caulker. They admit that they should, instead of just sitting on a bench talking about it. I seem to be in the group too.

"You care, you've listened to us. You can tell people too," Steve says. Then he tells me to come back tomorrow to film his sailboat.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Mexico Border Test: Passed

It's a bit of Mexican travel knowledge that has passed into infamy. At the Mexico/Belize border crossing, the Mexican Government charges a MX $200 departure tax, averaging out to U.S. $20, give or take. It's been standard practice for many moons, and hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists pay it each year.

Except it's got nothing to with the government and you don't have to pay a thing. But only if you know what to say.

The ADO bus - a clean, large, and modern coach - that runs from Cancun to Belize City makes the run overnight, smacking anyone on it with a rude awakening at about 4:30 a.m. when it arrives at the crossing. A genteel old Mexican official invites everyone off the bus and over to a window where a not-so-genteel stoic man asks for your passport and the exit half of the immigration document you receive upon arrival in Mexico.

I'm leaning against a wall behind five other people, sleeping with one ear open when I hear confused European accents at the window. The couple didn't know the "tax" existed and aren't sure they still have 400 pesos. They step aside worried and confused to talk while a trio of Brits gives it a go.  I can hear the immigration officer's voice demand the MX $240 each. The fee's gone up since the last blog I read about the scam was written. I was expecting this. No one else knew about it.

The more vocal of the three British argues with the man: they paid the tax to the travel agent when they bought their flights into Mexico, she's sure of it. She thinks the fee is legitimate; just that Mexico is trying to double up on it.

After some heated words, the stoic officer gives the woman her passport back, but without a stamp, and she didn't know if she was supposed to get the immigration document back or not. The three also step back from the window to powwow.

I approach them and tell them that, so far as my research took me, there is no such tax either on the federal or local level in Mexico and that what the officer is demanding is time-honored extortion. Open corruption that bullies busloads of people into coughing up $20-$25 dollars on a routine basis for fear that they will not get back into Mexico. I'm casual in tone, but within earshot of the stoic man's window.

I hand him my passport and document. He asks me if I'm returning to Mexico? I say no, then the magic words "I'm in transit" with a smile. The British pack's jaws hit the ground when he stamps my passport, nearly cracks some sort of smile and hands it back to me. No word of a departure tax whatever.

I thank him kindly en español, grin at the English, and wander back to the bus. So remember the magic words: "No, I'm in transit." If your final destination is outside Mexico and you don't let them know if you plan to come back across the border, you keep your Piña Colada money. And in Belize, that's a lot of rum. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Hopes for an Overnight Success in Four Years

Four years ago this week, I walked out of my comfortable office on Sunset Boulevard for the last time. A month before, I'd given my boss 30 days' notice, making the conscious decision to leave a well-paying job that would've led to a very successful, lucrative career in film marketing. I'd already bought a round-the-world airline ticket and a video camera.

As I left the sleek, brown glass and steel headquarters of the Directors Guild of America, with its windows that didn't open, and circulated air that made me and nearly everyone else in my office sneeze, I felt the enormous weight of uncertainty bearing down on me. But I also felt relief. I didn't have to help sell films I didn't care anything about simply for the sake of a paycheck and health benefits.

The distribution company that I worked for is a good company; it continues to do very well. Everybody there - including the bosses - are still friends. But I was bored. I worked in the TV and film business for most of my career, but had never known what it was to commute to a desk with a computer on it every day and do the same tasks day-in and day-out until my late 20s. There were some perks, for sure, but none worth the nerve-dulling, monotonous boredom.

I had no idea what I was going to do with the camera. I had a loose daydream that I would use it to film a hosting reel during my travels. I wanted to work in the kind of television I liked to watch and that inspired me: documentary series, a la Discovery Channel-style programming. I'd make a reel, maybe a short web series, and try to find an agent and weasel my way into hosting a real travel show someday. Or become the female Mike Rowe. Blend some of my favorite things, namely, educational TV that's also entertaining, and experiencing new parts of the globe and different cultures.

My then-boyfriend, a brilliant television editor, volunteered to edit the footage I brought back, which was exceedingly kind of him since I left him behind for two months and traveled around the world on my own. (Dodging come-ons from men in every country I visited.)

The footage that he saved (since I had no idea how to film anything), turned into The Peregrine Dame, a small web series that got mediocre views, and didn't even bring me an agent. My boyfriend and I, and then just I, worked on it for another three years off-and-on around other jobs in TV, then around going to school to study journalism.

In 2011, I edited the third season of the series, and washed my hands of it. I put some money into advertising and then let it go, just looking to monetize the existing work. It would live on, and I was proud of it, but few people were watching and I had only made a few dollars back. I decided to learn to write so I could travel and sell articles rather than videos. It's just a hell of a lot less work that way. And I don't have to put makeup on every morning I'm out there.

Just as I made the decision to leave it alone indefinitely, I got an email from a woman in acquisitions at a tiny start-up travel and adventure network called The Venture Channel.

A year-and-a-half after resolving to stop working on TPD, The Venture Channel is about to launch in four countries, with another half-dozen in the works. China is coming online any day now, and India will go up October 1st, if all goes according to plan. The Peregrine Dame looks to be one of Venture's anchor shows, and the CEO of the network and I have grand plans.

In two days, I leave home one more time to Latin America for seven weeks in order to film and deliver five more episodes of TPD, rounding out 10 half-hour shows for the first of what I hope is many seasons of TPD on The Venture Channel.

When I stop fretting for a moment about the details, logistics, story ideas, permission to film in other countries, visas, booking travel, having the right wardrobe, equipment, cameras, power adapters, enough tape stock, budgets, and whatever else bashes around in my brain nonstop in the lead-up to shooting, I look back on the past four years and get emotional.

I started out just wanting to host a travel show and be like those guys on Discovery. Instead, I ended up producing and editing one too. I've had wonderful experiences during my travels, met people I will forever call friends, and have been very fortunate to see a huge chunk of this beautiful, inspiring, frustrating, calming, maddening, exciting world. I've also had moments of deep self-doubt, insecurity, and pain going through the steeper-than-Everest learning curve trying to absorb all the new knowledge that the scope of work I've taken on has forced upon me. My relentless, unapologetic work ethic strained my relationship with that brilliant TV editor, who saw me in sobbing hysterics more than once when it looked like the project would never go anywhere. I've seen who my real friends are after I disappeared for months on end to edit around school and other work, and they'd still be there for me when I came out the other side. Some days I don't know whether to feel extraordinarily grateful or scared shitless. Most of the time I feel both, simultaneously.

It's difficult to tell exactly what will happen until the network gets its legs in each new market, but I can say that for the rest of this year, at least, I get to do what I daydreamed about when I left my real job behind years ago. I still don't have an agent. No one but me has ever pitched this show, and no production company in Los Angeles would look twice at it. I owe a life-long debt of gratitude to my now ex-boyfriend - who has become a genuine friend - for the work he did and for believing in me, my ability, and potential.

The angle of the show has changed from its beginnings as a short format series. Originally, I traveled without a crew because I couldn't afford one. Every time I told someone about the project and mentioned traveling alone internationally, 70 percent of men and 99 percent of women would immediately ask if it was scary or dangerous. First question. I found my angle from those conversations.

The message of the TV series now is to encourage people - especially women - to break out of their fearful mindsets and have experiences that they've always wanted to have, regardless of whether someone can go with them. I've been welcomed into homes and to tables in restaurants full of strangers because they found out I was on my own. People reach out to me in amazing ways, and look out for me at the same time. The statement "I don't have anyone to go with" is not an excuse to not do something you've always wanted to do. The world isn't going to wait for you.

Like I say in the new main title sequence of the show, it's about learning that going solo isn't so scary and that being alone doesn't mean you're lonely. See you on the other side of Latin America.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Things to do: The 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival

Angelenos are music lovers. And not just those who work in the biz in the music industry capital of the world. Fortunately, an inordinate amount of the music lovers are jazz lovers, to boot. Like me; and Hugh Hefner. It's about all we have in common, really. 

This weekend, the two-day 34th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival takes place at the Hollywood Bowl. Tickets are still available, and if you're in the L.A. area, it's one of the coolest summer kick-off traditions we have. 

The lineup this year includes Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Sheila E., Ozomatli, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Bring your favorite picnic and picnic partner, and celebrate the unofficial launch to the Bowl's summer season. 

And if you don't want to take my word for it, take it from Hefner himself, one of the coolest cats to ever swing: “I've had a lot of things to be proud of in my life. But nothing more, quite frankly, than the Jazz Festival.” 

Now that's an endorsement. 

June 16, 17
Hollywood Bowl

Monday, June 04, 2012

Things To Do: NASA's Annual JPL Open House

NASA's annual open house at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., takes place June 9 and 10. 

Each year, JPL welcomes more than 38,000 visitors during the two-day event and invites them to interact with engineers and scientists, attend lectures, view demonstrations, high-definition and 3-D videos, and participate in games and simple experiments.  

Other highlights include updates on current NASA missions to Saturn and Mars. 

The open house is free of charge and this year's  guests will get a first look at JPL's new Earth Science Center. 

For directions to JPL click here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Endless Summer, Surfing on a Couch

Free accommodation and built-in tour guides may make hostels obsolete.

In 1999, 1,500 students at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland got an email from a young American, Casey Fenton. They didn’t know Fenton, but he introduced himself and asked each of them if he could come stay with them for the weekend.

Fenton got so many responses inviting him to come that he realized the ancient tradition of true hospitality—inviting strangers into your home to stay—still existed, and what’s more, there was a market for his brand of people-centric travel. He saw an opportunity to facilitate the service. In 2004, he and three partners launched a website called, and Couch Surfing was officially born.

“I had done my own form of couch surfing prior to Casey’s trip to Iceland,” said Couch Surfing Co-Founder and President Daniel Hoffer, one of the three men Fenton formed the company with.

Based on their similar travel experiences, he and Fenton had a common vision, Hoffer said. They wanted to create a world “where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter,” according to the Couch Surfing website.

“It seemed like an exciting idea and one that made sense to me, and I wanted to be part of it,” Hoffer said. In the beginning, they had no idea how meaningful a world they would create. “We did not have any funding. We bootstrapped it and used volunteer labor. We just wanted to throw something together for fun and see where it went.”

It went from a lark to an online social community of more than four million members around the globe.

“I’ve hosted probably 120 people or so,” said Sujan Varma, a native of Durban, South Africa. “I’ve never surfed myself, but I’ll host anyone. We had 14 people staying in our house during the World Cup,” he said, grinning.

The practice of couch surfing means that large global events such as the soccer World Cup are attainable for those who might not be able to afford to stay near an event, if they could even find rooms available, which is rare.

Hosts are not allowed to charge for their couch or—if the surfer is lucky—their guest bedroom. And that’s a better deal than even the cheapest hostel.

Membership on the website is free, and the only revenue Couch Surfing generates is from a fee charged for a feature that lets members have verified listings, meaning the member’s real location and profile information has been checked, but it’s not mandatory.

The community is completely self-policing, and members are encouraged to use their own best judgment when accepting an offer from a host or a surfer. They are also urged to leave referrals on their host’s or surfer’s profile, vouching for or warning against the person. Couch Surfing doesn’t censor these in any way so that a prospective surfer gets unbiased information.

Hüseyin Goubella, a Couch Surfing member, has stayed with hosts in eight countries and has hosted surfers at his home in Brussels. “I’ve never had a bad experience,” he said. “It’s great.”

Although there are drawbacks to sleeping on a stranger’s couch, the positive experiences outweigh the inconveniences for many travelers. Local hosts like Varma who are eager to show off their city or town clue surfers in to things they’d otherwise never know about.

“When I was traveling in Sicily with my then girlfriend over Christmas, our host told us of a New Year’s Eve party off the coast on a cruise ship,” said Hoffer. “We went with our host to that party and had an amazing time; we danced all night. We wouldn’t have known about it if it wasn’t for our host hooking us up with it.”

For Varma, who keeps in touch with many of the people he’s hosted, the personal relationships are lasting. “There are several people I’ve had deep connections with. I’ve even had people stay with me and go to another host’s house and call me a few days later and ask to come back.”

While Varma may be a super-host exception, the growth and momentum of the site are undeniable. An indication that for humans, there’s still a curiosity about each other’s cultures and lives that keeps people reaching out to each other. Now, it’s just a whole lot easier.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mike D Delves Into Visual Art

In Los Angeles? There's one week left to catch the art exhibit curated by Mike D (Beastie Boys) at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. Now through May 6. #travel

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Extra Airport Security Should Evoke Gratitude

Recently, I flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I’d been filming new episodes of The Peregrine Dame, home to Los Angeles. I’ve worked in SA before, and I knew what to expect from security at O.R. Tambo International Airport.

Prior to boarding, at each gate for international flights, passengers are separated into two lines by sex and given pat-downs. Carry-on luggage is then searched by hand. This is in addition to the standard security - x-ray machines and metal detectors - which I’d already cleared to get to the gate, as in any airport.

It’s thorough, but it’s not the toughest security I’ve ever been through in an airport. What took me by surprise, though, was who complained about what they perceived as extra measures instead of being thankful they’re in place. 

The flight was a long haul, from Johannesburg into Washington D.C., via Dakar, Senegal. The majority of the passengers were Americans, going home from safari vacations.

 “I fly all the time, and I’ve never seen this,” a Caucasian man with a flat Midwestern accent said. He was beside me, in the men’s line speaking to a woman from the U.S. just behind me.

He wondered if they did this for every flight? She told him they did; her friends who had been to South Africa before warned her about it. They agreed that it didn’t seem necessary and found it amusing, as a new experience.

It’s my opinion, given that we were about to fly into our nation’s capital, it was all quite necessary.

After our boarding passes were scanned, we entered the sky bridge, and were each given a small plastic card with a number on it.

“What’s this for?” the Midwesterner asked his new friend, snickering. “I guess it creates a job, huh? That’s it.”

At the door of the aircraft, we gave the cards to another staff member. It’s a head count to ensure that only the number of people who are checked in end up on the plane.

“There’s another job,” the Midwesterner said of the man taking the cards.

I kept my thoughts to myself, but the slight touch of lighthearted ridicule in his voice made me bristle. I, for one, was glad to see the precautions taken. I thought woefully that, except for a brief period immediately following September 11, I haven’t witnessed the Transportation Security Administration in the United States taking any more action than airport security did when I flew as a child 25 years ago, as a general rule.

Ten years away from those attacks, and I still get the same personal safety checks as I did in the 1980s, except occasionally when the threat level has been momentarily heightened. I found it reassuring that I can fly in and out of another country multiple times, with a span of a year-and-a-half between visits, and the security is consistent. In the years since 2001, I have yet to see the same uniformity in security throughout the airports of the United States, from one year to the next or one city to the next.

I wondered why it seems that, on a passenger-by-passenger basis, America has slipped back into a comfortable old routine, although I know that behind-the-scenes security has changed. The T.S.A. agents at Los Angeles International Airport barely acknowledged I was there, the morning I left the States for South Africa.

When we landed for a one-hour stopover in Dakar, Senegal, airport security boarded the plane after passengers who were disembarking in Dakar left. They searched every crevice of every empty seat. This is a regular routine for them. Then, every person who had a piece of luggage in the overhead compartment was asked to remove it so that each bag was accounted for and the compartments could be searched.

The woman sitting across the aisle from me, a former top executive at Time Warner Cable, looked me in the eyes and snapped “ridiculous!” as she stuffed her novel in the pocket in front of her and got up to yank her bag out of the bin. There was a chorus of grumbly discontent around me.

If anyone but the American citizens on the flight had anything to say about it, I couldn’t hear them. They may very well have, but I was surrounded with my countrymen who were pissing and moaning about removing their bags for a few minutes.

When I landed at Dulles in Washington D.C., I cleared immigration and customs, and changed terminals to catch my domestic flight, all without any further checks. I hopped on Twitter and sent out a tweet, musing about the Americans who’d been inconvenienced in the name of their own safety, and wondered if we hadn’t yet learned our lesson as a nation.

I got a reply to that tweet from someone I know; an American, telling me that as Americans we’re conditioned to expect liberty. My answer to that is I do not believe that someone searching my hand luggage one more time, or submitting to a professional pat-down, or having to remove my bag from the overhead bin in any way infringes on my liberty.

My Twitter follower then asked me what lesson it was that the terrorists were supposed to teach us? Was it fear?

My answer to that was of course not fear. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of The Peregrine Dame, or spoken to me at all about my philosophies on why travel is so vital, so necessary a human experience knows that I advocate travel as a means to break through fear; to learn about oneself and others. To use it to overcome hate and fear and bias on all levels from personal to cultural. To answer terror attacks on all societies with bravery and a sense of adventure.

Fear is the last lesson anyone should learn in life, and although a healthy dose of common sense and alertness are requirements for travel, fear certainly doesn’t belong in the equation.

The lesson I want Americans to learn is to be thankful. Thankful that extra safety precations exist. Thankful that there are governments out there who have been far more prepared for the bad stuff than ours for many more years. Thankful that their vigilance extends to us.

We should demand more of the T.S.A. Yes, it was hastily set up as a split-second reflex to September 11, but it is necessary. Yes, it needs work, but we have to accept that it serves a purpose. What we should be demanding is a stricter, completely uniform and consistent security process in the hubs of travel in the U.S.; and be thankful for it when it does come about.

And yes, although I know proponents of absolute liberty in the United States will howl at this: we must learn to give a little. We must realize that it’s not an inconvenience to have to submit to reasonable searches - even pat-downs. It’s a necessary thing that goes hand-in-hand with the privilege of being able to travel, whether around our country, or around the world. After all, it doesn’t revolve around us.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Passing of a Conservation Giant

It is with a heavy heart that I announce Lawrence Anthony, founder of The Earth Organization, environmentalist, author and adventurer, passed away last Friday in his home at Thula Thula in South Africa. I featured the game reserve in season 3 of TPD. I'll be going back to Thula at the end of March, but it will be a much different place without him. 
When I shot at Thula Thula in October 2010, he and I missed each other by a day. I was supposed to get to follow him around for a few days and interview him, but he was called away at the last minute. When he watched the completed episodes on Thula last year, he called me to say that he loved them and that I was welcome to come back anytime. 
I was very much looking forward to meeting him in person, and am deeply sad that I never will. You may learn more about Anthony's incredible conservation work and his legacy at The Earth Organization
You may also watch the episodes featuring Thula Thula at, under Season 3.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Still Time to Enjoy Europe Before the Zombies Come

It's hot, it's humid. There are thousands of people smashed into a village that's not big enough for the full-time residents even without the tourists. The air is thick. The sun is blistering. There's no air conditioning in the hotel rooms. There's no room to move down some pedestrian thoroughfares. Sweat is running down the temples of everyone on the street. The heat makes people move so slowly, they look like zombies out of a movie.

If I asked readers to name the place I just described, I'd get a thousand different responses from Asia to South America to Brooklyn. A few people would no doubt claim it was "all of Europe in the summer." And they'd be right.

That's why I'm not talking about the summer. Spring is fast approaching and if you want to do Europe, any of Europe, the spring and fall seasons are the way to go. Avoid the summer, and August in particular at all costs. For seasoned travelers, I'm preaching to the choir, I know.

This advice is really for those well-intentioned souls who are salivating over that precious two-week vacation they get once a year and want to go lie on a beach somewhere listening to the French or Italian chatter coming from all around their beach umbrellas. Don't do it in the summer. You will come home pissed off and decidedly un-relaxed.

Aim for May or October. Airfares are reasonable, the weather is warm but mild, the locals are less tense, and there's no need for air conditioning. I've spent hours lying on perfectly warm Italian beaches in October, with only a handful of other people; including the waiters from the bar where I rented my umbrella.

The picture I painted at the beginning of this piece is of Cortona, Italy. Tuscany in the high season is my idea of hell on Earth. Cortona's population swells by 5,000 to 7,000 people during the summer. I muse on this astounding fact as I spend several pristine, calm, romantic evenings meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets of the town that you can easily see all of within an hour or two. It's tiny. But it is a fairy tale when the timing is right. When it's not, it's horror sci-fi.

As of the date of this post, there's still time to get to Europe in April or May. Check travel sites like Travelzoo for bottom-barrel deals on flights for the off-season. The standard travel hotspots will still be busy, but it will be bearable. And those waiters will be extra attentive. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cover Your Ass

International travel is one of the most exciting things you can do in life. It's mind-broadening. It breaks down biases and bigotry. It opens one to new cultures and ideas.

And while it is true that more people are killed in domestic auto accidents each year than are killed in attacks or accidents abroad, there is one thing that you can do to help mitigate certain circumstances if the crap hits the fan in the country you happen to be vacationing in.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs runs the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which allows the State Department to keep track of you in the worst case scenarios, aiding them in getting you out in the case of evacuation, or simply by helping to get your passport replaced faster if you left it in the cab the night before. Register with the State Department before you head out at:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Five

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


Five days is scarcely enough time to build a new relationship from scratch. There's so much to learn that only time can reveal. However in some cases, five days is enough to rekindle a romance, or at the very least, revive some interest in it. Sometimes it's enough to remind you that there was something you valued about it to begin with. 

And so it has been with the relationship between myself and my hometown. It's true that we were never in love. When I was younger, I never had the feeling that Ft. Worth was where I would live my whole life; or even where I belonged. I wasn't sure where that place was, it just didn't seem like it was in Cowtown. 

But after 14 years away, with only intermittent visits, the past five days in Ft. Worth have given me a fresh perspective on the city that I spent my childhood and teen years in. I've been reminded what I valued about it to begin with: the cross-culture, the music, the food, the relationships with the people I care about. The city has grown and changed, and so has my relationship with it.

In the years since I moved away, I've traveled all over the world. Most of the time, it's hard to even scratch the surface with less than a week unless one has some pretty good insider information. Thankfully, I still know plenty of insiders here. They're all friends and family, however. Which means that some days, I don't get to go out. I have to catch up with people. On my fifth day home, this is what I do. 

My mother and I stay in our pajamas all day, pop open a bottle of champagne, and watch George Bailey help Clarence get his wings. For me, it's the perfect end to my time in Ft. Worth. 

But it may not be yours. After all you don't know my mother or where she lives. So for the rest of you, here's an itinerary for one of the most popular destinations in the city if you're in search of the real flavor - and smell - of Cowtown. 

In the mid-1800s, what had been a sleepy little army fort and settlement overlooking the Trinity River after the Mexican-American War became a stop on the famed Chisholm Trail. 

Credit: Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau
Millions of head of cattle were run from all over the region north to Dodge City, Kansas. Cowboys would come through with their heard, stop to stock up on rations, and blow off a little steam one last time before the long drive north into no-man's land. 

In 1893, after the addition of a railroad to the already strong cattle industry, a local businessman formed the Fort Worth Stockyards Company. The city had staked its claim to fame. 

Located just under three miles north of Downtown's Sundance Square, the Stockyards National Historic District runs along Main Street at Exchange Avenue. Street parking and lots provide ample space for stowing your car. Once you're there, everything is within walking distance. 

The old cattle pins and slaughter houses are still there, although they no longer work as such. Now they're home to shops, bars, museums, and restaurants. Although there are re-enactments of cattle runs through the streets of the district; check the Stockyards website for details.

The main drag really is Exchange Avenue. Lined with saloons named things like Booger Red's and Filthy McNasty's, it's hard to know where to start sometimes, I know. I like to start at the seminal White Elephant Saloon near the corner of Exchange and Main. 

The hats that line the ceiling of the White Elephant come with some famous signatures.

With live music - leaning heavily toward country, for obvious reasons - every night, it's one of my favorite spots in this neighborhood. People still wear cowboy hats and Ropers here without a hint of irony. In the late 1800s, there was a well-publicized shoot out in front of the White Elephant. It's as authentic as the district gets. 

The Stockyards was a working cattle industry hub until the 1960s when the two largest meat packing houses  closed their doors. The history is exciting and rough, and you can learn more about it by tripping down Exchange to the east and visiting the Stockyards Museum and the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. You can even prevent yourself from walking the next day by going on a horseback ride from the stables located near the  Hall of Fame, if you'd like the full western experience. Contact Stockyards Stables for more information. 

Stockyards Stables

Spend the afternoon wandering the district - if you can still wander after that horseback ride - and find your own favorite spots. At the opposite end of Exchange from the museums is Pearl's, a dancehall and saloon that folklore has it was started by Buffalo Bill Cody when he arrived and decided the neighborhood's nightlife was lacking. In response, he opened Hotel Pearls, a bordello.

The last stop on this itinerary is one of the most hallowed institutions in Country Music. If you're a Country fan, you've most likely heard of it. If you're not, you'll get it once you're there. Either way, head on into the world's largest honky tonk, Billy Bob's Texas

From Exchange Avenue, cruise up Rodeo Plaza and you'll come face to face with the legend. Superstars of the Country scene still play here regularly, and the venue is the perfect size for intimate shows with people you otherwise may not see outside of a stadium. 

On nights when a huge headliner isn't there, you'll find solid local acts and smaller touring bands that have a lot to offer. 

There are dance lessons at least once a week so you can get your two-step on without fear, and there's a bar about every three feet inside the gigantic space. 

When you're tired of all the line dancing and the games of pool on dozens of tables, there's the bull riding. And not on the mechanical bull, either. They sadly did away with the old girl a long time ago. I remember it from when I was a kid. No, I'm talking about the real bulls, being ridden by the pros. 

Billy Bob's prides itself on the fact that it operates a full size rodeo arena in one end of the complex. This is definitely where you get the full sensory experience of the Stockyards. It brings new meaning to the phrase dinner and a show

And see? You got out and didn't have to sit at my mom's house all day in your pajamas. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Four

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


OK, kids, everyone on the bus. It's time for a field trip. Museum-style. 

If you just got excited, congrats; you're one of the nerds like I was in my school days in Ft. Worth. If you just groaned; sit at the back with the rest of the ADD kids and don't throw stuff. 

So far my five days back in Ft. Worth - my hometown - have centered around food, booze, and music. All worthy of attention, certainly. But every now and then one has to dry out and see the daylight. My cholesterol is cresting at dangerous levels and my kidneys hurt.

I came back to spend the Christmas holiday with my Mother and friends. Although I visit occasionally, I've been away for 14 years now. I grew up in Ft. Worth at a time when the social centers of the modern city didn't exist. But the cultural ones did. 

And so each year, our class field trips centered around one or two of these old faithfuls. But here's my confession: I would actually hang out at these places when I wasn't in school. Don't tell anyone. 

Much to its credit, Ft. Worth has always had a solid - if small - cadre of theater and museums. The old oil and cattle money going back generations made sure of it. The upper crust has always been proud of the cultural institutions of the city and its patronage has kept many of these organizations kicking when their counterparts in other cities slowly passed away. 

The Cultural District of Ft. Worth lies along the south side of Camp Bowie Boulevard between Montgomery and University. It's a compact few blocks that are easily walkable, and street parking is available as well as museum and city lots. 

As a young student, the obligatory yearly visit started with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which was most exciting because of it's planetarium and Omni Theater (the permanent collection of the history of medicine and the dusty cavemen are a little too creepy when you're 7 years old). 

Now, though, the entire collection as well as the attractions are top-notch. The Omni is still the driving force, screening full IMAX films in a spectacular wrap-around dome theater. Originally opened in the 1940s under the name Fort Worth Children's Museum, the organization now caters to adults as much as children with adult lecture series and even an Adult After Hours series, featuring bi-monthly nights open to people aged 18 and up, featuring music, food, and drinks. Oh my kidneys. 

Just north of the Science and History museum is the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. In his will, newspaper publisher Amon G. Carter Sr. stipulated that his private collection of Remingtons and Russells be preserved and presented to the people as part of a new museum that should remain free to the public. Today the Amon Carter houses one of the most impressive collections of exclusively American art in the country and is still free to the public. 

To the east of the Amon Carter lies my favorite, the Kimbell Art Museum. The Kimbell was famously designed by Louis I. Kahn and opened in 1972, providing an ultra-modern backdrop for its collection of antiquities. The architecture is as much a draw as the art. 

The permanent collections range from Egyptian, Grecian, and Syrian antiques from as far back as the third millennium BCE, to masterpieces from around the globe through the mid-20th century. 

The founding policy was to concentrate on the quality of the acquisitions, not the quantity, and the complete permanent collection totals fewer than 350 pieces. The Kimbell purposely stays away from collecting American art so as not to compete with the Amon Carter, as well as not holding any art from the modern era, so as not to compete with the Cultural District's newest shining star, The Modern. 

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is the district's newest sibling; born in the 1990s. Designed by Japanese Architect Tadao Ando, it consists of five pavilions surrounding a 1.5 acre pond. The 2,500 plus pieces in its permanent collection boast the usual superstars of Modern art, from Pollock to Serra to Picasso. And yes, the obligatory Warhol is there too. But the main attraction is still the site itself. The buildings look as if they float on top of the reflecting pond and it's worth at least having lunch in the cafe that edges up to the water. Or if you're particularly flush, do dinner. The food is gourmet and so are the prices, but it makes a lovely topper to the day. 

©2007, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, all rights reserved.
Photographs by David Woo, Tom Jenkins, and provided by courtesy of Tadao Ando Architect & Associates.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Place: The Dresden

The Dresden, in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. Two ancient lounge lizards play to a young, eclectic crowd nearly every night. Saturday nights you almost can't most through the bar. Full menu. 60s kitch is alive and well. #travel

Monday, January 02, 2012

Five Days in Ft. Worth, Day Two

Home for the holidays, this travel journalist approaches her hometown with the fresh perspective of a traveler.


Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you think Texas? Cowboys and country music, right? Of course you do. Everyone does. Or possibly the theme from the TV series Dallas (the first time I went to London, locals made a point to tell me how much they loved that show). They wanted to know if it was really like that? 

But that's not the Texas I grew up in. No one I knew looked like Patrick Duffy, unfortunately.  

The corner of Texas I grew up in was filled with neither cowboys nor country music. It was filled with classical music from all of the ballet classes I took as a child, and later, by The Blues as a teenager. Good Texas Blues in the vein of Stevie Ray and his predecessors. It's one of the handful of things I actually miss about the culture there when I'm between visits. 

So on day two of my five days in Ft. Worth, I get out and get my fix. 

I start by grabbing dinner with my mother and friends, because tonight calls for fortification. 

Benito's isn't authentic Mexican food. It's authentic Tex-Mex, which is a slightly different animal. 

It's been in a one-story corner shop on Magnolia Avenue in the Fairmount/Hospital District since before I was alive, and I think most everyone in the kitchen has been too.

The salsa is melt-your-brain hot, as always, and the chicken soup, which includes a full half-chicken is worth the flight from L.A. alone. In all the years I've eaten here, I've only had one meal that wasn't up to snuff, and that isn't tonight. 

I order my old standby, cheese enchiladas, which come characteristically with chile con carne, a Tex-Mex standard. The meat sauce is rich and fattening; I can feel my cholesterol shooting up nearly instantly. But damn, it's good. And good for absorbing whatever I'm about to imbibe. Which starts with a frozen margarita swirled with sangria. 

The place is always busy, but it's large enough that there's rarely a wait, and the crowd is friendly. It's a tradition of mine, since I was raised on this style of Mexican (I think a tortilla was the first solid thing ever stuck in my mouth once I had teeth). 

Having paid homage to the Tex-Mex gods, we take off for a temple of another kind of cultural worship: The Blues Bar. 

I refer to the tradition of Blues throughout Texas and the South in religious terms, because the men and women who play this stuff live and breathe and perform it with such conviction that you get the idea that there is something intangible taking them over when you witness it, as with any real art-form. 

And the great thing is, you can swing a cat and hit any little dive on any given corner in Ft. Worth where you'll find pretty darn good locals who have some serious chops. Which is fortunate, because no one wants to hear the Blues if it's bad. 

My little group starts at Keys Lounge, a notch-above-dive bar in a utilitarian neighborhood called Wedgwood East. It's not much to look at, but we're not here for the scenery. 

Keys is wedged into a run-down strip mall which seems to lend itself well to playing the blues. It's open Wednesday through Sunday nights and they charge a minimal cover on Friday and Saturday. People can still smoke in bars here, which I always forget about when I'm away, and I have to adjust to the air quality for a few minutes.

The acts are usually relative unknowns who tour the region regularly and the music is solid, ranging from traditional Blues in the electric Texas style to Rockabilly. Tonight's a jam night, with locals and semi-pros rotating out every few songs, playing old standards and generally just doing it for the love of the music. 

There's a big dance floor, which is always in use, and neighbors and Blues fans mingle and dance and drink out of Mason jars. The crowd is largely made up of blue collar, middle-class baby-boomers, unless they bring their grown kids in, like me. I only spy a couple of other people my age in the place, which makes me hope somewhere people younger than me are still being exposed to this American art. 

Drinks are cheap, strong, and big (Mom orders a White Russian and it comes in the afore mentioned jar), and everyone circulates past your table at one point or another and says hello. 

Our last stop is the new incarnation of a Ft. Worth Blues institution. 

Tucked in the shadow of downtown Ft. Worth, 
J & J Blues Bar was, for decades, such a stalwart member of the blues scene in town, that it basically was the scene, at times. 

It was known for great regional acts, but it also had feathers in its cap because men like Kenny Wayne Shepherd would occasionally show to sit in on the twice-weekly jams when when they were in town playing larger venues. 

It started going downhill in the mid 2000s, musicians started favoring other bars, and it closed its doors a year or so ago. 

New ownership came in and breathed life back into the place, renamed it NOS Bar, changed very little else about it (except for removing the ancient, dusty collection of women's bras hanging from every inch of the exposed metal rafters), and threw the doors open again a couple of months ago.

I've been coming to this bar since I was 15, and it's nice to see it kicking again. Although it is off to a slow start. My mother, a huge fan of the Blues, has been invited here tonight by some members of the band, who are friends. They're solid musicians and again, the drinks are strong and cheap. There are even a few new bras hanging from the rafters. 

The only drawback I know of tonight is that two of the large doors are left open and it's a little too chilly for that, but on hot, sticky, Texas summer nights, it's perfect. 

The bar could still use a few more bodies coming in, but it will take some time for the community to realize that it's back. There are a few preppy college kids at the bar, beside a few middle-aged cowboys in Ropers and Wranglers, and all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors in between.

It's great to be back in the place, with The Blues.