Travel “The Local Way”

A few nights ago I attended the March gathering of the New York Chapter of Travel Massive, “a world-wide community of locally organised meet ups for travel & tourism companies, travel bloggers, startups, and travel media to connect and share globally.”

Though I’ve been down with the flu, I went because I wanted to connect with my friends Amanda Rogers and and Steve Mann, the co-founders, producers and videographers of The Local Way, a travel video series. The videos follow local guides as they “take” you on a tour of neighborhoods in a variety of cities – so far in Paris, Dublin, New York and L.A.

What I love about the series, beyond the travel aspect, is how its format captures the essence of a city. The hosts focus on authentic, small, local businesses and how those businesses relate to the microculture of the surrounding neighborhood and its residents. These are the things that imbue a city with the sort of rich, layered flavor mostly absent from the suburbs. It’s why city folk pay twice the rent for a quarter of the space. It’s why they endure noisy neighbors and sweaty, smelly subway commutes.

Visitors come for the shopping and (sometimes) stay for the culture.

“I used to rent out my apartment [to tourists] while I was living in the East Village,” says Amanda over post-TM beers and burgers. “They would always leave behind [emtpy] shopping bags. But when they came back after a day of shopping, they would want to know where to go out in the East Village.” The Local Way New York, she hopes, will offer them a more “insider” option than the Lonely Planet and a more personal option than New York magazine.

The cool part, of course, is that New Yorkers – or Parisians, or Dubliners, or the LA-LAs (what do people in L.A. call themselves?) – can watch the videos to discover more about their own city. The key is that the local guides, because they are local residents, offer an authentic point of view. Sure, a video journalist can parachute in, grab a local, and follow them around with a camera. But The Local Way removes that extra layer between the viewer and the cocktail bar, or boulangerie, or Irish music pub.

So far the whole series has been self-funded by Amanda and Steve, who work day jobs to get by. To make their final push, they just started an Indiegogo (crowd-funding) campaign to raise money to complete their series and take the series from project to business. If you would like to support “travel the local way”, small businesses in big cities, and/or “a new form of documentary” (Amanda’s words), I encourage you to throw a dollar or two their way:

Bear market

“Are you wearing purple on purpose?” Kirstin asks, interrupting my conversation.

I take a sip of wine, blink, and turn my attention away from Dave. I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about. “Uh, well I knew I would be wearing purple when I put on this shirt,” I snark.

Kirstin is the “organizer” (loosely defined) of the evening’s event — a mercifully untelevised, middle-class version of The Millionaire Matchmaker. The men have paid $100 and the women $25 to be matched by Kirstin with other single professionals. The name of the “service” (loosely defined) is Invest in Love.

So far about ten people have filtered in to the event, held in the salmon-and-grey multi-purpose function room of a high-end apartment complex near MIT. The ambiance suggests urban luxury…of the bland sort favored by real estate developers. I imagine the tenants above us, all financiers and VPs of sales & marketing, who wear suits and khakis and talk bigger than they really are.

Down here on the ground floor, we singles mingle. Our ages range from mid-20’s to mid-50’s. Our attire ranges from tight minidress, to navy suit, to jeans the color of dishwater; both they and the person filling them look like they’ve been salvaged from a Dumpster. “Dress code is whatever makes you feel good,” the invitation had said. I’m wearing ink-black cords, mary janes with a 3-inch heel, and makeup hastily bought from Walgreens the day before. And a purple top.

“Oh, don’t you know?” Kirstin prattles on. “Today it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride day. You show your support by wearing purple.”

Is she asking me if I’m a lesbian? After interrupting a conversation with a man she purportedly “love-matched” to me? Is she insane?

Kirstin, as it turns out, is spectacularly incompetent. She has all the frenetic energy but none of the outrageous personality of Patti, the ridiculous yet oddly compelling title character of Millionaire Matchmaker. Patti gets results. She is the Judge Judy of matchmaking: whiny and demanding and opinionated and self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. She is shiny, collagen-enhanced lips; flat-ironed, glossy hair; 6-inch platform heels; d├ęcolletage. Perfect sick-day TV.

Kirstin, on the other hand, is a flowered wrap dress and sensible heels – the event planner, say, for a bar mitzvah. Her wavy, mouse-brown hair is inelegantly tousled. Morning mascara still clings to her lashes, though her peach lipstick is fresh.

It’s 15 minutes into the event and most of the guests have yet to arrive. Kirsten, a furious cloud of manic anxiety, periodically interrupts her guests’ halting attempts at sociability to announce a text or call from an attendee-to-be. “Jane says she’s stuck in traffic,” she shouts over the awkward flirting. The harsh panel lighting illuminates the sweat on her brow. “But she’ll be here in 10 minutes!” None of us knows, or cares, who Jane is.

When she’s not blockading the very reason we’ve all paid her to be here, Kirsten hurries around looking for her phone, perpetually misplaced on the microwave or among the bottles of $20-or-less wine each guest was asked to bring. To ease her anxiety, her customers ask if we can help — find glasses for the wine, perhaps. As we wait, sipping from plastic faux wine glasses, she implores us to eat from the trough of Pad Thai in the kitchen.

In the end, about 25 people show up. Among the men, there’s a lot of greased-down curly hair — nerd-extras escaped from the set of Porky’s IV, perhaps. There’s also Amelie, a bubbly Red Sox fan, and Yvette, an intriguing Japanese/Korean/Mongolian/Polish woman from in Ulan Ude, Russia (“You know it?” she cries, amazed that I have marveled in person at the disembodied concrete Lenin’s head that sits in the town square). Rounding out the group there’s Hair Club For Men guy trying soooo hard to be charming, a frizzy-haired Russian woman wearing a muumuu, and a young Ugandan man who won’t look me in the eye.

And then there’s Mr. Senator – old white guy, greying hair, dark blue suit. Kirstin makes a point of introducing us. “You two have a lot in common,” she says. He smells like talcum powder and aftershave.

“I just flew in from New York,” he starts, by way of explaining the suit. “IBM just bought us.” I sip my wine. Soon we’re talking New York real estate. “Two bedroom, two bath apartment on West 57th Street,” he says. “Guess how much?” (Translation: “What’s the rent in the least interesting part of Manhattan?”)

It’s common knowledge among New Yorkers that all conversations eventually turn to sports, sex or real estate. I’m genuinely distressed to find that the disease has spread north to Boston.

I finish my wine and look around for a refill. “How far west?” I hedge. The stem falls off my “wine glass,” leaving me holding just the bowl. The good news is that I need neither stem nor base; I’m not planning to put the glass down anytime soon.

“Eighth Ave.,” he says.

I throw out a random number, cupping my wine bowl like Shackleton would a hot cup of tea.

“$6800 a month!” he cries. “Do you know what I can get for that in Cambridge?”

The first bright spot of the evening comes when this conversation is interrupted, by Kirstin. Based on a questionnaire we’ve all filled out, she has arranged us into cliques of 4-6 men and women. Over the course of the evening, each clique will spend about 15 minutes talking, aided by party-game conversation starters (Scruples, Two Truths and a Lie, etc.). Then everyone will rotate to another clique, then another. One of the men in one of the groups should spark my interest. In theory.

First session: A Harvard researcher of psychotropic drugs. Cool! Except then he launches into a monologue about how he and his best bud Paul Simon (yes, that one) stole Sting’s limo once. Somehow this story morphs into a lecture on Asian dishes that involve bugs. When I butt in with my own story about sharing a bag of wok-fried bugs with a young Cambodian on a bus to Siem Reap, his eyes dart back and forth in panic. Apparently he’s just realized there’s someone else in the room. To ease his troubles, I let him interrupt and impress me with his Japanese language skills.

Second session: Fifty-ish guy in a comically stereotypical cheap suit, the shininess of which is offset by the matte brown of his hair and goatee, freshly Just-for-Men’d. He wants to hear about my writing, about the places I’ve traveled. But grim, frizzy-haired Russian woman isn’t having it. She keeps interrupting to argue. “My cousin who traveled to Mongolia and wrote about his experience had his story picked up by the Wall Street Journal,” she sniffs. You’re right. I think. I’m wrong. It’s actually really easy to be a travel writer. I change the subject.

Third session: Dave, a film producer/director (in his mind) and real estate agent (in reality), is talking about his favorite subject: himself. Kirstin interrupts to ask if I’m a lesbian. It’s a relief, to be honest. Soon Dave is engrossed in conversation with Amelie. They’re talking about real estate.

The structured part of the evening is over. I fall into conversation with Chris, one of the evening’s “expert” speakers, who also happened to be in both my second and third sessions. He’s the only man here who is relaxed and smiling. He cracks a joke. His eyes sparkle. He’s engaged and confident. Conversation is flowing. I’m interested.

And then he says, “……my wife…..”

Cliche, cliche.

Right now, at this very second, there are 14 just-started, half-assed, or almost-finished blog posts sitting in a cute little folder on my computer. The folder, for what it’s worth, is called “writing.” That number – 14 – is quite impressive, given that over the past 2 weeks, every time I read good writing, or sit down to write, or even think about writing, I feel like puking.

So tonight, in an attempt to end this nonsense, I decided to join the pantheon of writers who have, at one point or another, written about not writing.

I hesitate to call my recent bout of hysteria writer’s block. It’s not that I lack ideas. The words are swimming around, flying about in, and pouring both into and out of my head. I fear they’ll start leaking out my ears. Which would be embarrassing, and possibly cause a stain.

But for all these messy, persistent words, when I sit down to start typing my heart leaps into my chest, my head swims, my eyes roll back into my head. In short, my body performs all sorts of tired old cliches. You should see the cliches my fingers type.

So, I’ve lost my way. The screen is too close for comfort. Something throws a wet blanket on my efforts. It’s an uphill battle. A tragedy of epic proportions.

The only thing left to do, really, is pop a Lorazepam and watch the Red Sox lose. Again.

The DIY revolution

“We’re still in the punk rock stage,” says Aziz Isham, president of Brooklyn-based digital media publishing house Arcade Sunshine.

He’s talking about the revolution.

No, not in Syria. (Or in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al.) Nor is he talking specifically about Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

He’s talking about one part – publishing – of the do-it-yourself revolution.

From community-made and driven political upheavals in northern Africa and the Middle East, to out-of-nowhere media sites like Instapundit, Gawker and their bazillion me-too spinoffs. From self-organizing interest groups creating metaphysics Meetups and Ron Paul rallies, to real estate being bought and sold without the involvement of any Realtors (r) (and without paying their commissions).

Much of this activity is driven by free or low-cost technology that has dramatically reduced the cost – in some cases, to zero – of starting a business, running a not-for-profit activity, or just getting things done. Free blogging sites like WordPress (which powers this very site!) let anyone become a publisher. YouTube, Vimeo and such let anyone become a video producer or star. Free Google analytics tools let publishers understand their traffic. PayPal makes it (relatively) easy for individuals to make and collect micro-payments. ITunes, Amazon and the like provide a marketplace for anyone to sell music or ebooks. Zillow was among the first to provide transparency to the secretive info-hoarding in real estate.

And these are just some of the well-known platforms and tools; there is a steady stream of new technology services being launched all the time.

Most critically, these transparent, collaborative technologies allow fellow DIYers to share knowledge and experience, and Google, Twitter and Facebook help them find each other.

This isn’t exactly news. Linux Journal senior editor Doc Searls has been talking about DIY technology since 2004. Four years later, thinker, teacher, and and social technology expert Clay Shirky published a book on “organizing without organizations,” called “Here Comes Everybody.” (I’ve always wondered if he stole – sorry, “borrowed” – the name from the Autolux song of the same name.)

Even so: as Aziz’s quote alludes, we’re still in the playing-the-church-basement, couchsurfing, Our Band Could Be Your Life phase of the DIY revolution.

Much more recently, DIY has gone mainstream…at least by my own observations; as Herman Cain once said, “I don’t have the facts to back this up.” In the US, it’s riding a wave of populism. And as I think more deeply about my own plan, and about what “Taking the Fork” really means, I keep noticing DIY everywhere.

Beyond easier-to-use technology, social and economic forces have driven more types of people – critically, non-techies – toward DIY. The theme here is a growing mistrust of institutions.

In the US, the Tea Party movement, not to mention the activist base supporting the candidacy of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, reflects a mistrust of public institutions. The general tone of their battle cry is, “self-sufficiency!”

Private institutions have fared no better. Most blame the financial meltdown in the US on unconscionably idiotic risks by private financial institutions, allowed both by deregulation and the underfunding of any regulatory agencies that did exist; our private institutions screwed us, and our public institutions didn’t do their jobs.

A similar theme is playing out in Europe. An economics-obsessed friend tells me that the Greek crisis came about because of the naive execution of the Euro: Monetary policy, he says, is centrally controlled by the European Central Bank, while fiscal policy is controlled by each member state, with little or no central oversight. So once again, great institutions, because they lacked imagination into the worse cast scenario, failed to do what was expected, if not promised.

And then there’s the issue of transparency – from WikiLeaks to Super PACs to the privacy missteps of Facebook to the growing mistrust of Google, people are demanding better transparency from powerful institutions.

I could point to a thousand more examples of institutions letting people down: sex scandals in the Catholic church, airlines charging you to have a wee, the historic flameout of the Red Sox last September (or maybe that was just one institution returning to its old ways? Anyway.).

There’s a million more examples of DIYing: Home-schooling, micro-loans in the developing world, the slow, locally-sourced food movement, and on and on.

Where is all this going? Stay tuned. Long live the DIY revolution!