Authentic urban festivals- a tale of one city

We all love a festival, right?  We do–except when it feels as though the same event gets trotted out year after year, with the same displays and activities, just reinvented for a different theme.  My shorthand for this type of festival has become the grocery store tent festival- where the same small group of corporate sponsors has their flimsy set of tents and single staff person on hand to buoy up the proceedings.  And because the rest of the event is so thin, the grocery store tents seem all the more prominent (hence my label).

Of course, even when a festival is slicker, and has more going on, it doesn’t always make the event any more authentic.  I was reminded of this dilemma last weekend when we had a chance to experience two festival events: The Victoria Busker’s Festival and the Moss Street Paint-In, sponsored by the Art Gallery of Victoria.  Both events had been held in prior years, and both acted as a magnet for large crowds.  We left the car at home, and cycled to both.  While neither felt “perfectly” authentic, I felt that the Moss-Street Paint-In had far more of the right ingredients than the Busker’s Festival.  Why was that?  Especially since there were ways for people with little or no income to participate in both (buskers and the gallery asked for, but did not require, donations).

Pets were invited to get into the act of making art (fortunately a kiddie pool was around for clean-up). Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

In sum, the paint-in felt more real because it was:

  • in a residential area, further aware from the city’s more overtly touristy district, and thus felt more like an event attended by, and catering to, locals (even though there still may have been a number of tourists there too);
  • quite varied, and yet far more laid-back, allowing people to drift in and out of displays, without being on a schedule, and without being urged to clap and cheer every five minutes to buoy up the buskers’ spirits;
  • trying hard to be participatory (full of happy volunteers, and complete with events for kids and dogs);
  • a place where people with a range of art budgets could find something to take home (lots of art cards from $2-$5 were on sale at most of the booths- a nice way to take home a memento of the larger art work if you couldn’t afford it);
  • directly linked to raising awareness of the gallery as a civic resource; and
  • physically linked to a weekly farmer’s market, that brought some of the same people, but also a few others who might not have otherwise attended the art event.
Some artists took advantage of the festival’s residential setting.  Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Where I was disappointed with the paint-in related mainly to the mainstream nature of the art displayed (and the fact that fewer than 10% of the artists seemed to be under age 50).  While I felt that all of the art was beautiful and took talent to produce, I didn’t feel particularly challenged by most of the art, even though the gallery itself is not shy about pushing the envelope.  Still, this event has been a staple of Victoria’s art calendar for several decades, and I hope it continues.  I have gone in past years, and this year’s felt like the most fun and diverse yet.  Click  here  for more detail.

One of several participatory features of the Paint-in. Photo by Laura Tate, July 2017

Interestingly, the Buskers festival was also anchored by another event – the market at Ship’s Point which sells arts and crafts, but of the variety one sees in a tourist attraction gift shop.  This market overtly caters to Cruise Ship passengers who typically get to spend no more than 24 or 32 hours in the city, tops.

While I’m glad that Victoria hosts both events, I would love to see more emphasis on the types of event that interest locals and more discerning tourists.  In fact, had cruise ship visitors been aware of the paint-in, they might have enjoyed it as much as the rest of us.



Counterculture and Authenticity

Summer has found me terribly lazy, and so today’s post is actually a link to another post I wrote for a blog on planning and authentic communities.  It addresses links between countercultural expressions and authenticity.  Enjoy, and happy June!


Vancouver’s Yaletown- a debate on authenticity

Just for something different- I also publish a monthly planning blog on authentic communities (distinct from, but related to, authentic travel).  The latest looks at Yaletown, a gentrifying neighbourhood in Vancouver, rooted in a past of brick warehouses, extended loading docks (now converted into patios- you can see part of one in the header of this post), and an old railway roundhouse now used as a community centre.  To get your urban planning geek on, check out this posting here.

Marking territory -Part 1

Authentic travel includes getting to know the people living in your destination. Talking to locals is a start. But with only a few days or weeks in a place, building understanding can be a challenge. That said, other telling details that can help. Among the most fascinating: how people mark out (in an attempt to claim or conquer) their territory.

What territory says

Architectural details, public art, fencing, murals, landscaping details, signs, hedgerows separating out farmers’ fields – these items say many things.  They speak of what people value; what they fear; their sense of humour and/ or curiosity.  Marked territory can tell you about how locals lead their lives, and who benefits (or fails to benefit) from flows of power.  The photos below are all examples of local territory marking.  They speak to me of who (at least some of) the locals are and how they relate to each other.


Bank of Hawaii building, Honolulu.  Author photo, February 2016

The above photo shows how a bank operating in a multi-cultural city like Honolulu celebrates the locals who descended from Chinese settlers roughly a century ago. In my  part of the world, which has attracted more contemporary Chinese migration, the  features shown above tend to speak less about current migrants and what appeals to them.

I love how, in the photos below, the business operator is surreptitiously and temporarily claiming territory, without making the same type of investment as someone in a conventional store.  Perhaps rents are far too prohibitive- or maybe the owner just prefers this transient approach.  You see her/him trying to legitimize the mobile business as it takes up a parking space for just hours at a time. Judging from the quality of the sign, it seems to have been working.

Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Author photos, February 2016

Claiming space doesn’t just happen with businesses.  Parking is a big focus of space-claiming.  While on-street parking is typically public, North American city dwellers often view the space in front of their homes as their personal (private) property- particularly when parking becomes a more scarce resource.  Unknown cars parked in those locations may be told about their transgressions through windshield notes- or even more aggressive acts.  But driveways are less clear, and are sometimes used or blocked by others, resulting in conflict and a need for the homeowner to mark that territory as his or her own.  The example below is also from Los Angeles:

marking territory2_LA_claiming parking
Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles.  Author photo, February 2016

And, of course walls and gates are obvious territory markers. They can be beautiful or whimsical. Sometimes the beauty is offered as an apology for space claiming. It may also be an indicator of some shared neighbourhood territoriality- a contribution to the larger public realm even as the individual space is claimed.

Some of my own neighbours in Vic West achieve this by offering of floral bursts beside or through their fences:

claiming territory_Vic West fence_LTate photo
Victoria, British Columbia.  Author photo, June 2016
claiming territory_Vic West fence2_LTate photo
Victoria, British Columbia.  Author photo, March 2017

And here are some other examples of fence appeal, one by a business, and another by an art gallery/ centre:

Houston, Texas.  Author photo, November 2015
Mendocino, California.  Author photo, June 2016

So here is my challenge to you: on your next trip, try to find and photograph as many interesting or appealing territory markers as you can. I guarantee that it will get you thinking about your destination, and the relationships between inhabitants, in new ways. Territory markers are a rich topic for exploring further. Watch for another posting on this topic, and please suggest your own in the comments section of this blog.


Enchantment, Part 2.5

Enchantment is such an   important ingredient of authentic travel.  Besides visits to spaces that are themselves enchanting, how else can we encounter the lush joys of enchantment?  Here are three quick ideas for your next trip.

1. Take something beautiful home with you as a memento

Obtain a beautiful object, and treasure it in your daily life.  It could be an attractive pebble you keep in your pocket to remind you of the wonderful day you spent at the beach with your family.  It might be a piece of art for your home, a hand-made journal, or a piece of jewellery.  But it should be something that will ground, or re-ground you to the place that you visited- far into the future.

Here’s what I mean.

I lived and studied in Montréal  for three years, at a really pivotal time in my life in my twenties, in the late 1980s.  (Yes, I am that old.)  My experiences there were life-changing.  But after moving back to British Columbia (on the opposite side of my country), it took several decades before I would eventually return.  When I finally did go back, I felt an incredibly strong mix of joy and nostalgia.  I can even recall one day, standing in the streets of Vieux Montréal (the city’s historic district), when I felt a wave of anguish about having absented myself from that place for so long.  And, later in the day while in that very district, I bought some ornate silver earrings with the city’s symbol-an abstract flower.  Something about that felt very right- I knew on the spot that the earrings would be an important memento of my earlier life there as well as of my return.  Whenever I wear them now, I re-live my love for Montréal, with fond memories of all my times there.  I also get ideas about my next trip back.

My Montreal earrings! Worn while writing this post. Author photo, March 2017

2. Do something that scares you but that others enjoy 

I’m not talking about taking crazy, unsafe risks.  Think of this as a prompt for a micro-risk.  We all have irrational fears that hold us back.  Is yours a fear of heights?  Of looking foolish?  Of certain animals or reptiles?  Of boating?  A holiday is the best time to try one of these things, because you typically have fewer stresses on vacation.  Go for that hot air balloon ride, that jungle excursion, or that silent meditation retreat.  (Note that I have listed that as a scary thing to do, because the idea of not talking for three days frightens me.)  I am slightly afraid of heights, and so whenever my mountain goat of a husband wants to climb up an historic tower to get a better view of the city below, I gulp a few times, agree, and then feel exhilarated once I’ve climbed back down.

Tower in the Czech republic that I had to climb. Author photo, July 2015.

3.  Be generous

Everything your parents told you about being kind, and how generosity ultimately makes the giver feel incredible is true.  We all know how to be generous- the one thing I would add is that generosity is about ensuring that what you give will be helpful (rather) than harmful to the recipient.  This means thinking about the cultural context and, sometimes, about where the need is greatest.  While travelling in Mexico recently, we certainly ran into many people with low incomes, whose daily lives contained a lot of struggle.  But we also knew that we weren’t sufficiently grounded in the community to know who best to help, or in what way.  And so, we did not give to anyone begging for money on our trip, but on our return home made a donation (much larger than what we would have given in aggregate to the individuals in need who we met—and yes, we did follow through!) to a charity whose work we had learned about while in the community.  The key thing here is that the charity was directly linked with local people who knew best what their community needed.

This post has suggested three active ways that might help you achieve a sense of enchantment on your next holiday.  It is certainly not the last word on this topic, as there are many more ways that you can do this.  Please feel free to suggest your ideas as well!


On the cheap

Saving money

If you crave authentic travel experiences, chances are, you’re  often thinking about that next trip.  This also means reflecting on how to pay for it -and how to save money during the experience.  Here are nine ways to save money while travelling, that also bring you closer to the local lifestyle.

1.  Do lots of walking and transit vs taxis

This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.  It’s comforting to fall into a taxi when you’re unsure of your route.  So instead, make the alternatives easier.  Prepare well, by downloading maps in advance.  And consider downloading an app that allows you to navigate offline.  While it still has some glitches,  the Navmii app is one example.  Finally, don’t be afraid to ask friendly locals for advice. Most people do like to be helpful.

2. Spend less on food

We often try to have at least one meal a day on the cheap.  Often this involves buying street food from a local vendor (see upcoming blog for more tips on this topic).  It can also mean buying fresh produce, cheese, and bread for an outdoor picnic, whether from a farmer’s market or local shop.  And, save costs by eating your main meal at lunch -many restaurants charge less at lunch and more for dinner.  Then have dinner in your room/apartment, freeing up funds for entertainment -or a future trip.

 3. Avoid the guided tour, but if you do one, choose a walking over bus or trolley tour.

We’ve come to love walking tours, both because they are less costly than bus tours, and because they provide a more interactive and immediate way of learning about the local history and current lifestyle.  Walking tours are often more amenable to creative touches, including story-telling and personal anecdotes.  Also, they tend to be smaller.

4. Go to a local sporting event -especially if it’s minor league or amateur.

While travelling in Granada, we stumbled on a local cricket game, which gave us fascinating insights into the local community.  Cricket is the slowest game imaginable (you can tell I’m not a fan).  But an hour watching people just hanging with each other, having a laugh, catching up, was worth the entry fee.

And in Mexico City we took a walking tour that culminated in going to a Lucha Libre match.   Definitely one of our trip highlights.

Lucha Libre. Author photo, January 31, 2017


5.  Use your own steam at local viewpoints

Try to walk up and down on your own steam -or at least walk on the way down.  It’s an antidote to any over-indulgences , and you may get to see some overlooked sites.  We paid to go up in the funicular in scenic Guanajuato, but enjoyed the walk down.  The photo  below is of one of the new friends we made in that process.

A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular
A new friend we made when we decided to walk down the hill, instead of taking the funicular

6.  Research local liquor laws

I can remember taking a picnic to a free summer concert in Florence, complete with wine.  Buying your own bottle is way cheaper, when local liquor laws allow it.  Unfortunately most Canadian provinces don’t, but a blind eye is often turned in Quebec cities like Montreal.  It helps if you’re discrete.

7. Check out the local parks and their programming

At least in summer, many North American and European cities often have free festivals, or free events linked to those festivals that charge admission.  Also, look for buskers.  I do believe in paying buskers, but do so according to what you can afford.  It will still be cheaper than attending a more formal event.

8. Use your social network.

If a friend, relative, or a friend of a friend lives in the spot you’re visiting, buy them lunch or dinner in exchange for a half-day tour.  They may lack the in-depth historical knowledge of a paid guide, but they are more likely to point out sites, features, and customs that will interest you personally.

9.  Learn the language

Or arm yourself with at least enough words/phrases plus Google translate to be comfortable reading basic text in the local language.  How will this save you money?  Any restaurant in a non-English speaking country that offers English menus is at higher risk of charging tourist prices.  Conversely, local hangouts will be more ŕeasonable.

When we stayed in an up-and-coming suburb in Prague, the local bar /restaurant had prices 1/3 the cost of those in tourist areas. We had taught ourselves just eight words in Czech, but using them on Day#1 as foreigners must have endeared us to the locals.  One man with a bit more English than my Czech helped translate a few items so we could order.  And so this helped me, as a vegetarian,  quickly learn to say -and spot Greek Salad on menus exclusively in Czech.  (In case you wanted to know -it’s recky (pronounced “retzky”) salat.)

These are just a few tips which could help you save money while travelling, while also putting you in more direct contact with locals and local experiences.  By saving money you’ll be able to extend your travel budget further, giving yourself room for more authentic travel experiences on your next trip, and others in the future.

Great neighbourhoods and families

The mark of a great neighbourhood -whether at home or abroad- is its kid- and dog-friendliness.  In other words, great neighbourhoods offer something for all members of a family   Kids, the elderly, and dogs are like canaries in the coal mine -the first to suffer in toxic and unnatural contexts.  And as travellers, we recognize something universal when we watch families enjoy themselves.

We’ve just spent a few days in San Miguel de Allende where families mingle freely in the town square, known as El Jardin (the garden) for its lovely shade trees and numerous park benches.  Abuelas (grandmothers) and mothers seem relaxed as they watch toddlers and ten-year olds running with toys on strings, or chasing after pigeons.  Costumed animators provide another family-friendly distraction on weekends.  And, of course, the balloon sellers are doing a brisk business.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, are some photo examples of this family-friendly town.  From an urban design perspective, some of the most notable features are the wonderful nodes that draw people to the town centre, such as the main square (El Jardin), the large cathedral, and surrounding shops.  These are places where people can spend money- or hold on to every cent they own.  The town also shuts off the streets to vehicle traffic, and widens the range of closed streets on weekends.  And, there are  many places to sit comfortably in shade and in sun.



San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.
San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


El Jardin- a square within a square furnished with shade bearing trees to protect against the hot sun, and elevated to allow users a great view of everything else going on in the square. San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017


San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2015.


San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.
San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


Family-friendly square even at night, with costumed animators and musicians. San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.
Family-friendly square even at night, with costumed animators and musicians. San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


San Miguel de Allende. Author photo, February 2017.


Indigenous cultures and museums

As someone of Celtic, German and French ancestry, I am not truly in touch with my own Indigenous roots.  Visiting Mexico City’s Anthropological Museum, I was struck by the richness and diversity of the Indigenous cultures there that pre-dated the Spanish.  It was  also wonderful to see many Mexican people (perhaps also tourists from other regions) spending time and engaging with their heritage. 

In our forthcoming book, my co-editor and I have done our best to invite other contributors who are able to bring in some Indigenous perspectives on planning for authentic communities.  Without this knowledge personally, I hesitate to say more at this point in my blog.  But it is an important perspective.  Instead, I offer a few photos that illustrate the beauty and importance of Indigenous Mexican heritage.  All come from the Museo Antropologico in Mexico City.

Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017
Author photo, January 31, 2017

A postscript on Enchantment

I talked about enchantment and authenticity in an earlier post, and included forest bathing as one possible source of enchantment.  It’s been a long January, with enchantment in short supply.  The weather has warmed up a lot this week, to a balmy 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit), making it much easier to spend time outside.  And so here, for your inspiration, are photos of my forest bathing sojourn at Thetis Lake.

Photo by author, January 2017


Photo by author, January 2017
Photo by author, January 2017


Photo by author, January 2017
Photo by author, January 2017


Photo by author, 201
Photo by author, 2017


Photo by author, 2017
Photo by author, 2017


Mist on the lake. Photo by author, January 2017
Mist on the lake. Photo by author, January 2017


And Gromette, the canine instigator for many of the author's forest bathing experiences. January 2017
And Gromette, the canine instigator for many of the author’s forest bathing experiences. January 2017



Sharing your trip: transcribing or curating?

When you travel, chances are you will want to share your experiences with people you care about. But exactly what and how are you sharing? Are you sanitizing the negative, showing only the good and the beautiful? Or are you complaining, mopey, and negative? Both of those are an extreme form of curation -being highly selective about what you convey and showing it through a particular emotional lens. When you are too selective, people miss the nuances which often give a place its richness.

Transcription lies at a different point on the continuum from curation. Transcribing is about recording something as faithfully as possible, with as little of your own interpretation as possible. Transcriptions can then be interpreted by others, making it possible for multiple interpretations to arise, hopefully with some common ground between them. But travel transcriptions on their own would likely be quite dull. How excited do you get at the thought of viewing the 500 photos your friend took on a weekend ski trip with people you don’t know? Or reading a list of every physical detail your friend saw at the Eiffel tour (2.5 million rivets, 1665 steps to climb to the top of the tower, an average of 19,123 tourists visiting per day, crying child, man in red shirt who needs a bath, 50 loud motorcycles that passed while he waited in line for an hour, or the middle-aged couple he saw smooching at the top viewing platform of the tower).

So for a traveller reporting back to his or her social circle (or even just recording for his or her own future use) which approach is better, curating or transcribing? Neither approach feels fully satisfying somehow. Then, what’s the alternative? You could alternate between the two. Or you could continue to curate, while using some aspects of transcription to spice up or round out your curation. Here are some ideas for how you might do this:

Think about yourself and your own blind spots

Do you typically inclined to overemphasize the beautiful over the ugly?  The historic over the modern?  Bright colours over dark?  The aesthetic over the functional?  The liberal over the conservative? Whatever your blind spot, consider making space for it in one of your reports back home.  As an example, if you tend to ignore the functional, try exploring (and posting about) a local utility or system that helps the city thrive.  You may even find it interesting and beautiful in its own right.  On one trip to London, my husband and I made a point of doing a Thames river tour that went as far as the Thames Flood Barrier.  It’s a piece of critical infrastructure that keeps river surges from causing damage to the city.


Thames Flood Barrier, London. Author photo June 2011


Use help to dig deeper

Dig deeper by looking at your destination through the eyes of one of its historic, political, or artistic figures. We’re planning an upcoming visit to Mexico City, and I’m going to try to read up on artist Frieda Kahlo,  the ultimate selfie queen , and how she experienced life there. I’m looking forward to making at least one Facebook post comparing my impressions of a given site to the impact it is known to have had on her experiences and artwork.


Frida Kahlo, unknown source
Frida Kahlo, unknown source


Join the debate

Before you go, look into some of the political debates impacting the community you’ll be visiting, and try to find out what they might mean for a community’s future (discussed also in five tips for living like a local).  Shape your postings back to your network with this awareness.  Advanced tip:  if you’re a liberal, focus on the conservative viewpoint, and vice versa.

Know your audience

Think about an interest or hobby of a close friend or relative and make space in an email to him or her discussing (and or taking photos at) your destination from that perspective.  Photograph the classic cars of Havana for the car enthusiast in your life, the costume exhibits of the Victoria & Albert museum for your fashion-forward nieces, or the wildlife for your budding biologist brother.)

Show your discomfort

Consider documenting a travel experience when you stretched beyond your comfort zone is part of that.  Did you get lost navigating somewhere interesting?  Feel uneasy or unsure?  I once went to a conference alone in Houston, Texas.  While not afraid to go to Europe alone, or New York or San Francisco, something about Houston scared me.  I left my wedding ring at home (swapped it for a cheap fake band so I didn’t feel naked or dishonest) because I was afraid of being robbed at gunpoint.  I suspect my fear was a response to the state’s overt gun culture and permissive gun laws.  I tried to curate my way out of my fear when posting to Facebook, by sounding amused about the bad urban design, and trying to be light about my time there.  In hindsight, this was insincere.  My reports back home might have been more interesting if I had (at least once) been more up front about my fears and how they limited me.  Even if it didn’t change what I saw or when or how I saw it, perhaps it might have been more interesting if I explained that I chose not to disembark at one light rail stop on my tour of the entire transit line, because I saw people through the window looking at each other with hungry eyes.  How for the first 30 minutes on my drive out of town in a rental car I kept waiting for an aggressive Houston driver to cut me off.  And how this stressed me out so much that my fingers cramped from gripping the steering wheel too tightly.

Houston- known for its past urban design sins. Author photo, Fall 2015
Houston- known for its past urban design sins. Author photo, Fall 2015

How we talk about, and record our travel experiences plays an important role in their authenticity- both for ourselves and to others with whom we share them. There is value in reflecting more on your choices as you curate these experiences, and on the ways that you might enhance their breadth and or honesty (while keeping them interesting and relevant).