Manyana en Bolivia

[Editor's note: Stephanie Bowen is radical smothered in awesomesauce. She's a great writer. And she's a generous person. One particular example of her exceptional verb-against-noun-pushing lies below. Thanks very, very much for sharing your experiential learning of the Bolivian community, Steph. We're happy to have you home soon!]

In the beginning, there was trekking

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not you enemy. This will transform your whole life.”
-Eckhart Tolle

Yesterday I spent 8 hours on a transport truck, wedged between sacks of potatoes, bales of corn, chickens, farmers and their children. I had been trekking through the Maragua Crater with a stellar group of guides and volunteers from Condor Trekkers (my ethical tourism volunteer gig) when wooziness set in. By the time we stopped for the day I had a spiking fever, and by morning it was determined that catching a camion home was my only course of action.

While disappointed to miss out on waterfalls, hot springs, sleeping under the stars and good company, I was relieved that in four short hours I would be back in the comfort of my little apartment.

Given my luck with transport, I´m sure you can guess where is this is going.

When I climbed aboard the camion (ostensibly a pickup truck with 5-foot walls around its bed, used for all manner of transport between country and city), a Bolivian guide named Henrry explained to the passengers that I was very sick. When I smacked my head on the overhead scaffolding, he explained that I was also very tall. My co-passengers nodded and smiled sympathetically, unsure which was a worse affliction. I laid my newly aching head on my pack and tried to ignore the obvious bad omen.

Crowded Camion

Camions are notorious for their cramped, dusty quarters, death-defying driving, and cheapness, with trips costing little more than a dollar. They’re also the perfect metaphor for Bolivia in general: inexpensive, inefficient, surrounded by beautiful scenery and a total test of patience.

The trip from Arapampa, where we’d slept, to Sucre, where I am currently residing, is a mere 65km, which translates to roughly 4 hours of bumpy driving. For no discernable reason, however, that Sunday driver elected to circle the same loop of the crater for four hours before even approaching the perilous switchbacks that would take us into the city. With every stop, new 50lb bags of crops were piled under, beside, and sometimes on top of me as I attempted to steal some precious moments of sleep.

The trip might have caused fond memories of my Mexican highway nightmare had it not been for another Bolivian staple: kindness. After an hour of dodging bags of crops and banging my lolling head against the truck’s walls, I was offered sugar cane to chew by a farmer, to help clam my churning stomach.

Perilous country-to-city switchbacks

When the truck came to an unexpected stop at noon due to a car rally on the mountain, an elderly lady gestured for me to sit beside her in the vehicle´s limited shade. Stumbling awkwardly over bodies and livestock, I curled myself around a bag of potatoes next to my adopted grandmother. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, she gently stroked my hair as I drifted off to sleep.

Beyond the camion walls

An hour later when the obstruction finally cleared, I was woken by the soft cooing of fellow passengers, who grinned as I returned to my place in the sun.

I don’t mean to romanticize my experience. It was hot, dusty, smelly and rough. Dirt roads, virtually no shocks and no seats to speak of do not make for a comfortable 8 hours in any vehicle, let alone one piled 60 deep with bodies. I arrived at my apartment at 5:30 at night, coated in a layer of grime and ready to collapse. Like so many experiences I’ve had thus far in this wonderfully bizarre country, my journey home had been fraught with confusion and discomfort. But the trip was also a testament to the calm stoicism and warmth of the people here.

While in Sucre I’ve befriended a host of lovely, quirky folks, one of whom is an inspiring young woman in the throes of opening a restaurant. She attended one of the world’s finest hospitality institutions, is passionate about healthy, well prepared food, and wants her restaurant to bridge some fairly obvious gaps between locals and travelers. When she arrived in Sucre she was armed with an airtight business plan and had a location all but secured. 6 weeks later, she’s finally been able to nail down some of the specifics of renting her space.

Nothing in Bolivia happens quickly. In fact, nothing in Bolivia happens today. When enquiring about business dealings, administrative protocol, transport schedules, or the cessation of near-daily political protests, the answer is always manyana – tomorrow. Want to rent a vacant space and open a restaurant? We’ll look at the contracts manyana. Need a residents’ ID card? It’ll be ready manyana. Want to know when you’ll at long last be able to disembark from the flatbed of a truck and dead faint into your sickbed? Probably manyana.

Perilous Switchbacks

It can be frustrating to leave a home that prizes efficiency to a fault, and attempt to go about your business in the Land of Manyana. It’s hard to get a lot done here (witness the complete cessation of this blog during my 5 weeks tenure in Sucre). But the upside of all of that inefficiency is that it’s hard to get a lot done here. When things move slowly, so do you. And when you move slowly the world can be a far more interesting place.

Curled up on that bag of potatoes, I realized that my apartment might as well be in Toronto for the amount of time it was going to take me to get there. Bit by bit, the anxious longing I often feel for impossible outcomes ebbed away, and when it did something remarkable happened. I was finally able to feel the relief of the cool breeze that was sweeping through the camion. I cracked open my fever-swollen eyes and stared at the rolling green hills and blue sky beyond the truck’s walls. I marvelled at the comfort of a stranger’s weathered old hands sweeping the hair off of my sweaty forehead with all the gentleness of my mother. And I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for that improbable moment.

In Bolivia, where everything is happening tomorrow, you might as well enjoy what you´re dealt today.

Got Lost in the Andes, but Found Community

[Editor's Note: this article is from a Daily Gumboot spinoff blog called "Steph Bowen: Girl on the Run" - as you can imagine, it's from one of our favourite guest bloggers, Stephanie Bowen. The words below were originally published on March 26, 2011, but they are truly timeless. Thank you for the story of self-finding, misadventure, balls-out-adventure, and community, Ms. Bowen. Safe travels home.]

“When one is lost it is not the number of days that matter, but the absolute uncertainty that claims every moment.”
-Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Roughly two weeks ago I arrived in Bariloche, a mountain town at the northernmost tip of Patagonia. Bariloche is at once eerily familiar and totally foreign: it incorporates German architecture, Argentine food (and the Argentine party ethic) and Vancouver Island-esque scenery. It’s beautiful, but only a shadow of what the surrounding wilderness has to offer.

After a mellow tester-hike, my newfound partner in crime (a sunny Californian girl with a similar appetite for the extreme) and I decided it was do-or-die: time to launch ourselves into a three-day mountain trek and hope for the best. We loaded our packs with -15 sleeping bags, dried food and canteens, consulted our map, and hopped a bus to the trailhead.

Our first day, we had been told, would consist of a simple 5 hour trek to a refugio, a small mountain cabin heated by wood stove, with bunks for rent for roughly $12 CAN a night. It was explained that the last quarter of the hike was challenging (a 900m climb in 2 km), but nothing we couldn’t handle.

Those canyon walls? We hiked up ‘em. No big deal. 

After 6 hours of bushwhacking, slogging through marshland, and scrambling up loose scree slopes, we’d yet to encounter anything resembling a refugio. We were, in fact, at 2000 meters in an unmarked valley in the Andes, with night coming on rapidly. By now our party had swollen to 5, to include two Dutch boys on the third hike of their lives, and a Swiss optometrist.

At the base of yet another shaky ascent to a narrow traverse between valleys, we decided to stop and take stock. Grudgingly, as the wind picked up and the landscape shifted under the receding sunlight, we admitted that we were lost.

To put this into context, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi is 7500 square kilometres and boasts hundreds (maybe thousands) of trails of varying difficulty, not all of which end with a refugio. Or even exist on a map. Also, temperatures in this part of the Andes routinely drop well below freezing. Getting lost is not just a nuisance – it represents legitimate danger.

Lost in an unmarked valley with night coming on? Time for a photo shoot! 

After much discussion and a totally necessary group shot, we decided to double back along the valley and look for the original trail markers we’d been following. There was a good chance we wouldn’t make it to the refugio before dark, in which case we would break out our sleeping bags and spare food (and the two bottles of wine the Dutch boys had brought along), make a fire in a no-fire zone, and attempt to stay warm as the temperature went down. It was a mildly alarming prospect, but the only reasonable plan of action given the circumstances.

Luckily after a further 3 hours of haltingly retracing our steps, we arrived at our intended destination. On shaky legs, we settled in for dinner and conversation in the toasty mountain cabin.

I come from city stock: my first camping trip occurred at the tender age of 18 and true hiking only made its way into my life 5 years ago. I have little experience with the peculiar sensation of being at the mercy of the natural world, but I will say this: I kind of love it. The soaring adrenaline and immediacy of the problems you face bring out your most essential self. In those moments, nothing really exists except your surroundings, and your survival.

The next two days passed without (negative) incident, and describing the sights I saw is virtually impossible. We climbed towering peaks, contended with gale-force winds, made a (planned) detour to a mountain-top lake, drank wine from plastic bottles while huddling around a wood stove, forded streams using guide lines, woke up in the snow, and bonded in a way only the woods can inspire.

Sunrise at Tronador 

And at every crossroad, with every step, we witnessed the splendour of the Patagonia Andes.

On the second morning, while new friends and fellow hikers slept on, I woke to see the sun rising. Shimmying to the window in my mummy bag, I pressed my nose to the cold, cold glass and watched the sky move from blue, to pink, to brilliant red over the silhouette of a thousand peaks. It was so profoundly beautiful that I couldn’t speak, or reach for my camera, or even breathe. It was so beautiful it made me ache.

The last year of my life has been replete with change and all kinds of wonder. Moving to Vancouver was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time, and even from a distance the life and friendships I’ve built there inspire me on a daily basis.

But being in the quiet of the mountains, surrounded by the natural world, powered by sheer determination, has brought me back to myself in a way I couldn’t have anticipated.

I have lost, and found, myself in the Andes.

The Art of Crawling

While crawling through East Van harkens to an entirely different social experience, the Eastside Culture Crawl is a great way to explore Vancouver’s artistic centre.

This weekend local artists situated between Main, First, Victoria and the waterfront will open their doors to the public, allowing us a rare glimpse into their creative spaces.

What began in 1997 with a mere 3 sites is now a complex grid of 70 buildings housing over 390 artists. No matter where you end up you’re sure to find something of interest, but the sheer volume of offerings can overwhelm.

So take it from me, a relatively inexperienced Crawler who writes for a random online publication that has nothing to do with art, and follow these guidelines:

1) Bundle up

 You may have missed this but, baby, it’s cold outside. While you don’t exactly have to cross the open tundra between Culture Crawl sites, you can expect to spend some time on the road. The one outside. That’s covered in snow.

Wear comfy shoes, throw on the parka you only use twice a year, and embrace this dose of winter wonderland we’ve been served. It’ll make you appreciate the (indoor, heated) art spaces you visit all the more.

2) Get whimsical

This isn’t a film or music festival: there’s no set schedule or hot shows to line up for. Download the map from the website or pick up a Georgia Straight on Thursday morning, browse for what appeals to you, eschew function in favor of form, and wander widely.

That being said…

3) Enter the ARC

 Some Crawlers like to get off the beaten track, explore out-of-the-way galleries, and really connect with little-known pockets of Vancouver artistry.

I, on the other hand, am lazy. In the last two years, I have maximized my Crawl time with trips to three particular buildings: the ARC (1701 Powell St.); the Mergatroid (975 Vernon Dr.), and Parker Street Studios (1000 Parker St.). Each building houses 40-100 artists and a diverse cross-section of styles and mediums. You’ll find everything from furniture makers, to painters, to industrial metal workers.

The ARC studios have the added draw of being live/work spaces. Here, you get a peek at the artists’ living arrangements, which are often as interesting as what they create. It’s like the thrill of looking in someone’s medicine cabinet, only that cabinet is a studio apartment. Full of art.

4) Make it your own

 I’m not just talking about buying an incredible piece of artwork that you completely connect with; I’m also being clever.

The Culture Crawl is a formal event, run and managed by a small core staff and a host of volunteers. But it’s also an invitation to experiment with creativity in unexpected ways.

The Stag Gallery, for instance, is hosting an unaffiliated free art show (see their Free Art Manifesto), during which visitors can take anything that strikes their fancy right off the gallery walls. There’s no cost and no catch, but you are encouraged to bring your own piece to leave in place of what’s taken.

Accordingly, I’ll be attending a Make Free Art party, where I’ll sit around a cozy kitchen table with friends and get in touch with my decoupaging, sketching, finger-painting inner self.

I’ll also be attending a (completely unsanctioned) Crawl party with the theme of “Late-1800s Parisian Debauchery”, where canvas will line the walls, can-can dancer costumes will be de rigueur, and shots of absinthe will make the rounds.

The Culture Crawl isn’t just about appreciating the work of some of Vancouver’s most celebrated artists. It’s also about bringing art – in all its iterations – into your life.

5) Get chatty

 Talk to the artists. They’ve been gracious enough to open their work spaces (and, in some cases, their homes) to you, so if you see something intriguing, ask about it.

Art is often a highly solitary undertaking, and a lot of thought and introspection goes into its production. Each piece has a story to tell, and over the weekend you have the opportunity to hear that story first-hand. Seize it!

6) Meet, greet, count

Volunteering is a great way to infiltrate a new community (witness my slow and quietly hostile Gumboot takeover) and experience the best of what it has to offer.  This year the Eastside Culture Crawl is attempting to count the number of people it actually draws, in an effort to improve the event and plan for the future. This will, of course, require droves of volunteers. So sign up for a two- hour shift, meet the people who make this event a reality, have an interactive Crawl experience, and count attendees like heads of cattle. Everybody wins!

7) Be a good neighbour

 During Echo Chamber, a pre-Crawl performance art event, Balkan-brass band Okestar Slivoviva threatened to go out into the streets, cause a ruckus, and generally annoy the neighbors.

To which one audience member responded, “We are the neighbors.”

The Eastside Culture Crawl has been a 14-year fixture in Vancouver precisely for that reason: it’s no imposition on the local community, because it is the local community. The event is an indication of what can happen to a neighborhood when creativity is combined with open doors. So escape the cold and head on inside.

The Etsy-Regretsy Symbiosis

April Winchell, a.k.a. "Helen Killer", the mad, mean genius behind Regretsy.com

One of the guidelines issued to new Gumbooters when we are coerced happily volunteer to write for this publication is to always play nice: while we don’t typically down a valium-vodka cocktail and proclaim that everything is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows (we save that for the Christmas party), we are committed to keeping the nay-saying firmly in check. It’s a way for us to set ourselves apart from traditional media, and highlight the innovative things people are doing to make this world a more palatable place.

But what about criticism, parody, and a little bit of harsh truth? Do these things necessarily deconstruct positive communities?

April Winchell, editor-in-chief of clever, cutting Regretsy.com, thinks otherwise.

Regretsy.com is yin to Etsy.com’s yang. Etsy is an online marketplace where hundreds of thousands of crafters from over 150 countries pay to post their handmade wares. Accordingly, the quality of goods available on Etsy varies.

Widely.

While what you see on the home page of Etsy tends to be stunning, original pieces by crafters-come-artists, Regretsy’s home page is dedicated to the absurd and downright, well, sucky. Winchell trolls the Etsy site on a daily basis, lifting links to some truly bizarre and heinous handiworks and repurposing them as topics of parody.

“Regretsy grew out of my love for shopping on Etsy,” she explains. “In the course of looking for wonderful things, I started to see a whole other world of weirdness, and that’s the stuff I really got excited about.”

By “excited”, she means harshly cynical, and hilarious. Regretsy is “where DIY meets WTF”, and the WTF comes through loud and clear in Winchell’s spot-on commentary.

Not surprisingly, she doesn’t always get the best reception. “I’ve gotten a few emails telling me I was going to drive someone to suicide, and I got an email from someone telling me they hoped my cancer came back. I also had someone tell me they reported me to the police for posting a link to his necklace, but as far as I know there’s no internet-linking division of the police department, so that hasn’t caused much fallout.”

Still, the site does bear the burden of being a critical voice, with little public acknowledgement by Etsy. Which is a shame, because it seems to do a lot to foster the crafting community Etsy has established.

For instance, beyond mere mockery, Regretsy often acts a watchdog, drawing attention to “crafters” on Etsy who are obviously selling mass-produced goods.

Additionally, a lot of what appears on Regretsy becomes successful by virtue of its notoriety. There’s even a section on the site for buyers who have purchased their favorite Regretsy-featured items. This generates traffic and sales on Etsy, and not a negligible amount.

“I got an internal memo from someone who works at Etsy, talking about the need to study the traffic patterns that come from us, and how to use that information better. It’s a little disappointing to me that Etsy is so coy about it, but they’re sort of boxed in by their own culture. They can’t really talk about how useful we are, because we’re not nice. I think that’s doing their users a disservice, because we can do great things for people who would never get on Etsy’s front page.”

While it’s understandable that Etsy would want to protect its members from harsh criticism, it is indeed coy about the symbiotic relationship the sites maintain. In response to an email questioning Etsy’s take on that relationship, press manager Adam Brown stated only that “if sellers use the traffic to their benefit, then that relationship exists between that seller and Regretsy, not between our community or the site as a whole.”

A young Regretsy reader models her new headband, which she later ate, but not until after all of her vegetables had been consumed.

Curiously at odds with a certain memo about exploring the best way for their community to benefit from the traffic generated by Regretsy, no?

Winchell also argues that humorous criticism can lead to a lot of personal and, by extension, community growth: “Parody is funny because it’s based on something you can recognize. That means there’s truth at the root of it, and truth is the only thing you can learn from.”

Jenn Danielson, who sells gift cards, bookmarks and photo prints on her Etsy store (The Photographic Moment) confirms: “I think, if my work were featured on Regretsy, I would definitely re-evaluate my stuff. You have to give credit where credit is due: Regretsy usually nails it.”

So perhaps, with the right delivery, even harsh criticism can strengthen and improve communities. While I doubt the Gumboot will start mocking other community-focused publications (blogs in glass houses, etc.), a good parody can generate discussion, encourage improvement and, perhaps most importantly, cut down the troublesome ego.

“The ability to laugh at ourselves and each other is just completely healing and liberating,” posits Winchell. “It adds instant perspective and takes the sting out of everything. I try to laugh at as much as I possibly can.”

“It’s either that, or never stop crying.”

One Hot Inch Goes a Long Way

My brief forays into Vancouver’s local art communities have yielded talented artists making incredible art, though I’ve noticed that the Vancouver art scene often feels like just that: a hipster-centric scene. Even with the rise of public art and a growing sensibility encouraging widespread creativity, attending events at galleries can be an intimidating and often alienating experience. People line up in front of pieces, exchange considered opinions with their immediate circle, and move along the line.

Which is why it was refreshing to find myself at Gallery Gatchet on Saturday night, sipping beer, admiring art, and bartering for buttons.

Hot one-inches

Hot One Inch Action, the annual button swap created by local artists Jim Hoehnle and Chris Bentzen, saw its 7th iteration come to life last weekend.

The show’s concept is deceptively simple: the public is encouraged to submit original designs measuring one inch in diameter via email. No credentials or CVs are necessary, and only one submission per person is allowed. It’s also totally free.

Hoehnle and Bentzen select their top 50 designs and transform them into buttons. Hundreds upon hundreds of buttons.

The night of the show, one of each button is displayed on the gallery walls with a brief didactic. Attendees can pay $5 for random grab bags of 5 buttons, or can roam the gallery free of charge. The action gets hot – super hot – when people start swapping buttons and hunting down choice pieces.

Bentzen and Hoehnle: artists, button-lovers, and creators of Hot One Inch Action

The work is fresh and funny (think a “Hello My Name is” sticker with a picture of a salmon and the word “Rushdie” underneath, titled “The Sea-Tanic Verses”, making my lit-nerd heart smile); striking (a sketch of twin skeletons); and slightly off-centre (a pair of panties around a pair of ankles, emblazoned with the word “Underpants”).

The artists are also in attendance, partly to promote their work and partly just because it’s a really, really good time. In fact, the majority of artists I chatted with confessed that business connections and sales hardly ever come out of these shows. For them, it’s about connecting with their peers and the public, and going home with a crap-load of cool button. They get 20 of their own design for free, and are among the most ruthless negotiators.

What’s almost more impressive than the art itself is that many of the artists are first-time exhibitors. “I love hearing from someone we’ve chosen to be in the show that they’ve never really considered themselves an artist and this is the first time they’ve ever submitted something to a show,” explains Bentzen.

Hoehnle elaborates, “We want to provide a place for people to interact, as both artists and art lovers. A place where people can come together directly with art as the catalyst.”

Good looking people swapping good looking buttons.

At Hot One Inch Action, art physically forces interaction. People wander around the gallery with their palms up and their goods displayed, prompting an unexpected level of openness.

As the night progresses, barriers are easily broken and insular Vancouverites dissolve into tittering, tipsy school children, performing all manner of negotiation to secure the highly-coveted “Underpants”.

Picking up where more traditional art shows leave off, Hot One Inch Action provides an opportunity to expand one’s aesthetic sense, meet interesting new people, and push some serious buttons.

Hot One Inch Action will return in 2011, but if you want to get in on the action before then, Bentzen & Hoehnle will be hosting a sister event in Portland on Thursday, November 11. A Seattle show also took place on October 9, 2010.

One Man’s Trash

Four years ago, an artist and a documentary filmmaker started talking garbage. Four days ago, the surprisingly uplifting result of that conversation was presented at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Waste Land chronicles renowned visual artist Vik Muniz as he travels to Jardim Garmacho, the world’s largest landfill. There he encounters the strange and illusory existence of the catadores, 2,500 men and women who pick recyclable products from the landfill. Helmed in by the sights and smells of Rio de Janeiro’s waste, the individuals of Garmacho are far from the oppressed figures you’d expect: they radiate humor, intelligence, and transcendent physical beauty.

All of which Muniz seeks to capture and transform into artwork over the course of this 90 minute gem of a documentary.

The premise of the artwork is deceptively simple: six catadores are photographed amidst the rubble of Garmacho. Their photographs are projected on a huge scale (roughly 40 by 70 feet) onto the floor of Muniz’s warehouse studio in Rio, then filled in or “painted” with recyclables under Muniz’s direction from an overhead platform.

The filth-covered materials pulled from the landfill by the catadores quite literally become their image. And, gradually, these images become intensely beautiful. Once complete, they are photographed for exhibition.

While the process of building these spectacular art pieces is fascinating in and of itself, it is the community at the heart of this film that steals the show. Because it’s not fine arts students or eager young assistants crafting the sweeping portraits: it is the subjects themselves.

The film is ultimately a testament to the convergence social work, artwork, eco work, and plain, unhampered human interaction. At its introduction Muniz expresses frustration with the insular nature of the art world, and his desire to make the lives of ordinary people richer and more beautiful. As the catadores in his photographs work alongside him in his studio, we come to see that they are far from ordinary, but that the effect on their lives is every bit as pronounced as Muniz hoped it would be.

The catadores perform an invaluable ecological service Rio de Janeiro, which has no recycling system to speak of. Every day they remove 200 tonnes of recyclable garbage from the landfill, which is equivalent to what a city of 400,000 produces in a year. The importance of their role is obvious, yet working the landfill is so stigmatized that prostitution and drug running are considered preferable vocations.

Finding beauty amidst the trash helps the catadores in Waste Land to articulate the plight but also the pride of their strange community, and hence empower themselves. Ultimately, they are transformed – as is Muniz. As the documentary closes, he wonders who, indeed, benefitted most from the project. Ironically enough, the answer seems immaterial.

All proceeds from Muniz’s artwork have gone directly to ACAMJG (The Association of Catadores of Jardim Garmacho), whose president, Tiao, is a central figure in the film. All prize winnings for the film (currently totaling roughly $300,000 US) have also been donated to the association. The film is not screening again at the VIFF, but will receive theatrical distribution in Vancouver in the near future. Check www.wastelandmovie.com for details.

Run Like a …Girl?

For the three of you reading this who don’t personally know me and haven’t heard my insufferable whining over the past 12 weeks: I dedicated the summer of 2010 to rigours of marathon training.

Come October 17th, I will line up alongside 19,999 other certifiable lunatics and run 42 kilometers around the fair city of San Francisco, in an effort to … well, just not die, really.

To the victors go the spoils.

Beyond the elements that typically get me across a finish line, such as a genuine love for running and sweet, merciful endorphins, this marathon will close with a necklace.

From Tiffany’s.

Presented by a fireman.

In a tuxedo.

I have sagely elected to run the Nike Women’s Marathon.

The race is perhaps the best-known iteration of a new trend in running that targets women, and women only. It is notorious for its tough-but-stunning course and jubilant vibe, and has proven so popular that women-only races are popping up all over North America. While men are not prohibited from running these races, they are not exactly welcomed with open arms.

A recent article in The Globe and Mail (“Dude, you can run but you’d better not win”, September 22, 2010) explores the experiences of a handful of men who have run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon and the Disney Princess Half Marathon. They recall being glared at by other runners, heckled by the crowd, and ignored by announcers when crossing the finish line.

They also recount feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, especially when receiving their finishing medals from the aforementioned firemen.

Um, dudes? The name of the race has the word “Princess” in it.

Though of course it’s not as simple as semantics.

Not the author. Photo courtesy of www.runlikeadiva.com

In many ways, women-only environments for exploring health and fitness are extremely important. Karen Butler, long time Vancouver runner and co-owner of Forerunners, explains the intimidation factor: “Some of the women who run these races are running a 4 hour half marathon [an average finish is generally around 2 hours and 15 minutes], and it’s unlikely that they would ever enter a more competitive, co-ed race. These events are lots of fun, low-pressure, and encourage female comradarie.”

Indeed, in a world where men continue to dominate most athletic fields, and where women are sexualized by the media in practically every environment imaginable, it makes sense to offer a haven from judgment that encourages activity. Be it in a gym or at a road race, everyone has a right to feel comfortable and supported while being active.

Including men.

I won’t deny that the idea of a Tiffany’s necklace as opposed to a clunky finishing medal is appealing, and I love regaling anyone who will listen with the details of my race. I find it funny because it’s such an overblown and ultra simplified version of what women like.

Unfortunately, some of these races are heading in a direction that both alienates men and trivializes women’s participation in the sport.

In the same Globe and Mail article, Robert Pozo, organizer of the Run Like a Diva race series, offers his insight into women-only races: “You take out the testosterone and these races are kinder, cleaner, gentler and sweeter.”

Wait, what?

When it comes to apparel, tutus are light-weight and ideal for water resistance, but often lead to chafing. Photo courtesy of mydisneymarathon.com/princess.

I have trained in co-ed clinics and run co-ed races for years, and have witnessed nothing to indicate that the removal of “testosterone” would make for a more supportive environment. The individuals I’m lucky enough to train with have impressed me time and again with their caring and kindness. Indeed, my (gender-balanced!) running group is one of my very favorite communities in Vancouver.

I also train with a lot of women who are fierce about their sport, and rightly so. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this, but long-distance running is hard work. Like, really hard work. Whether you’re running 42 kilometers in 5 hours or two-and-a-half, you’re still running 42 kilometers. So pardon me for having little interest in being clean and gentle while doing so.

Jerry Ziak, an inspiring 2:17 marathoner who just happens to be my coach, puts it best: “To say that women’s races are ‘kinder, cleaner, gentler, and sweeter’ seems like we are still trying to put women into a box that puts limits on what is allowed or appropriate. What is a women supposed to think if she reads this before going in one of these races, that she’s not allowed to grimace, sweat, spit or compete in a way that goes against their ‘sweet’ natures?”

"Shine like a Diva with the most unique race medal: It's got bling, it spins, and it even has a spot for your picture, too!" Photo and text courtesy of www.runlikeadiva.com

Run Like a Diva is hosting its inaugural Diva Run in four short days, and the blindingly pink website touts it as a Celebration of Womanhood. Event highlights include tiara and feather boa stops throughout (who needs all of those superfluous water stations?!), an ageless category (“for those keeping the secret”), and roses, tiaras and champagne (“to make you feel pretty and strong”).

Pozo explains, “We’re making this race so girly that men won’t want any part of it.”

Well, Mr. Pozo, in the spirit of building strong, supportive, gender-neutral running communities: I’m with the men on this one.

Death Metal, Karaoke and a Gong: A Wedding for the Ages

Here comes the bride, BAH BAH NAH NAAAAH! (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Landucci)

It’s been one hell of a wedding season. Not only did our fearless leader, John Horn, marry the sassy and adorable Michelle Burtnyk; pretty much everyone I know either got hitched, participated in some capacity in a hitchin’, or complained about the lack of potential hitch in their life. It was an exciting and, frankly, exhausting time.

While I would never, on pain of social demise, commend any one of my friends’ nuptials over another, there was a featured event in Weddingmania 2010 that struck a chord in my community-oriented heart.

My very good and very unique friends Jenn Van Elk and David Barnes were married over the Labour Day weekend in Duncan, BC. Jenn and David are the kind of couple Gumbooters get really excited about: they’re natural community builders with the ultimate open-door policy. They are generous, down-to-earth, and two of the funniest people I’ve met.

They also have a knack for flying in the face of tradition.

To demonstrate: the festivities featured 11 bridesmaids – each in a dress completely of her choosing – and a mere 3 frightened groomsmen. The bride wore a $50 wedding dress, purchased from a thrift shop, measuring 50 square feet (approx.). She rode to the end of the aisle on her horse. When she gracefully slid off of said horse, the soothing melody that had welcomed the wedding party ceased and the wedding march began. It was, of course, a death metal rendition.

The Karaoke Gods were pleased that night. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Landucci)

During the ceremony the bride and groom had the Justice of the Peace laughing so hard she couldn’t remember her script. After the ceremony, the couple skipped formal photo-taking in order to spend more time with their guests.

The dinner? A potluck. The speeches? Cut short, if necessary, by a gong. The after-dinner entertainment? Some of the best and most painful karaoke I’ve ever experienced. Did I mention that all of the guests were camping on-site, and that the event was held at a 21-acre horse farm? Because they were, and it was.

From start to finish, the event was a testament to the individuals – all of the individuals – involved. Which makes a lot of sense, really.

The Black Swan, site of countless historical karaoke massacres, proudly hosted the Barnes-Van Elk Stag-and-Doe free of charge. (Photo courtesy of Devon Dobson)

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire… wait for it… community to nurture most relationships. We compliment the love we feel from and for our partners with equally strong friendships, and those friendships serve as pillars of support when our relationships grow cloudy. A strong community will rally around a relationship in need, and reflect all of the positive, beautiful things about a couple. And a good couple, much like Jenn and David, form the cornerstone of any strong community.

Instead of adhering to strict traditions that often prove tedious to all parties, the Barnes-Van Elk tribe chose to serve their desires and those of their community.

Camping and a toonie bar kept the cost low for guests, while the potluck made things manageable for the couple. Eleven bridesmaids lightened the load of preparation, but no unflattering bridesmaid dresses were forced upon us. Friends volunteered to DJ, while still more friends sacrificed their dignity on the alter of karaoke. We all gracefully accepted the audible assault of death metal during the ceremony to humour the groom, who spent the better part of his 20s screaming into a microphone.

And, looming over the festivities, symbolic for all of the reasons you’re likely imagining, the gong greatly benefitted us all.

Sasquatch and the Three Tiers (of Community)

The beauty of the Gorge, home of Sasquatch! 2010

My name is Steph Bowen, and I’m a music festival addict.

It’s been one week since I returned from the Sasquatch! festival at the Gorge in Washington, and I don’t know if I have the strength to hold out until my next scheduled festival, in August.

My love affair with music festivals began in earnest in 2008, when I attended the ill-fated-yet-incredible Pemberton fest. It spurred me on to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and prompted a weeks-long volunteer position with Rifflandia in Victoria in 2009. At one point I was so entranced by music festival culture that I attempted to conduct an auto-ethnography of my time at Pemberton for my graduate thesis. Then I remembered that I hoped to secure employment post-graduation.

My journey to Sasquatch!, which hosts 40,000 attendees and 100 indie-rock bands over Memorial Day weekend in the US, illuminated some of the motivation behind my compulsion. I have always been dedicated to music and a fan of live shows, but last week I realized that, like so many of my extracurriculars, my love of the festival actually boils down to a deep-rooted love of community.

Beyond merely celebrating artists, multi-day music festivals take you away from the ordinary of everyday life, strengthen existing relationships, fuse friendships between strangers, and contribute to an overall sense of oneness with the tribe.

The crowd on the grassy knoll (photo courtesy of Seattle PI)

This can occur in myriad ways, but there are typically three tiers of community development in action at any large-scale festival, as my experience at Sasquatch! 2010 demonstrates.

Tier 1: The Team

Generally teams consist of those you make the journey with, and are hence an extension of one’s home-based community. I was lucky enough to travel to the Gorge with my two best friends and one of their boyfriends. He was a good sport, too, only writing “Help Me” backwards on his window as a plea to other vehicles once along the way.

The four of us were a lean and highly mobile music-seeking unit, from the moment we threw down our backpacks and danced crazy to Broken Social Scene, to the final group sway to Ween as the festival closed.

Our sense of unity was remarkable, but not unusual. Your team keeps you fed, sheltered, and motivated. It provides comic relief in low moments and camaraderie in high ones. They are the individuals you will reminisce with post-festival, when you struggle to recapture the energy of the event in your day-to-day life. Your shared experiences will also strengthen and enrich the community you collectively belong to back home.

Tier 2: Camping Companions

I missed this crucial component of the festival experience when at Pemberton in ’08: there is nothing like being parked in a field, sleeping in a tent, cooking over a single gas burner, and not showering for four days to bring people together.

Our camp-based community began with an oversight, as we’d forgotten our Coleman stove and were attempting to cook meals for four people over a tiny hiking stove. The lovely Montana couple camping on our left offered up theirs, while the three Midwestern academics to our right provided highly coveted barbeque space.

During our four-day interaction we also shared beer, reviews of our favorite shows, and details of our lives at home with the freedom relative anonymity allows. By the festival’s final day we were sitting together on a grassy knoll at the main stage, passing around bootlegged drinks and laughing like old friends.

They look like they're mindlessly worshipping celebrity, but really they're building community (During Broken Social Scene, photo courtesy of Seattle PI)

Tier 3: The Tribe

There was a moment during the LCD Soundsystem set when I looked up from in front of the main stage to the top of the Gorge’s natural amphitheatre and saw that the entire hillside had broken out into coordinated dance. The movement spread rapidly to the floor, and in seconds I found myself dancing along with the crowd.

More than being visually stunning, this kind of spontaneous, large-scale coordination creates a sense of oneness within an otherwise disparate group.  It’s a visual representation of what’s going on just under the surface at any festival: individuals sharing the joy and beauty of art with like-minded individuals. You can’t help but feel at peace with your tribe when you’re all cheering, or clapping, or dancing perfectly in sync.

Be it with your closest friends, people you’ve just met, or a more universal crew of music lovers, the festival is ideal breeding grounds for community development. Give one a try. But be warned: you can get hooked your first time, and the effects may be far-reaching.

Anatomy of the Clothing Swap

The change of seasons is upon us, and while impending beach time is no doubt significant to both sexes, we ladies have an added challenge when dressing for the weather. Though both men and women change the basic nature of their wardrobe come summer, an inevitable (and, some might argue, unnecessary) shift in women’s styles and trends seems to accompany any shift in temperature.

Blame it on our materialistic, consumer-driven culture, but as the days grow longer it’s hard to avoid the pull to purchase the season’s myriad offerings.

Enter the clothing swap.

For the last 3 years, be it on natural-fibers-centric Vancouver Island or in fast-paced, fashionable Vancouver, my girlfriends and I have assembled to combat the shopping beast (or barely satiate it, as the case may be). We trade up our old goods for new ones in an effort to save money and diminish waste.

Here’s how it works: The week, month, day, or hour before a clothing exchange, we each review what in our closet no longer needs to be. Just as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one woman’s ill-fitting sweater may flatter her friend’s figure to a tee.

At the event items are amassed into a heap and then sorted, typically while a considerable amount of wine and baked goods are consumed. Then, we model. The friend-filled environment provides an opportunity to try out styles we might not touch in a store.

Numbers are drawn and top items are selected in succession. This keeps the distribution of goods fair and civilized, so of course we only go a maximum three rounds before things descend into an adrenaline-fueled free-for-all. The elbows come out and the hip checks are vicious as we dive for choice items, but thus is the cost of fashion. Pain, after all, is beauty.

For those of you wondering at this point what fashion has to do with the Gumboot (although gumboots are pretty hot right now), swaps also contribute to incredibly positive female communities.

Think about it: shopping tends to be a social activity for women, but the clothing exchange takes it to the next level. Instead of wandering malls fraught with unrealistic body images, urging women to purchase their way to self-acceptance, swaps happen in cozy living rooms full of all shapes and sizes. We advise, opine, model the goods, and subtly and overtly remind one another that size 2 does not necessarily equal beauty.

And when you’re standing in your living room, in your underwear, balancing a glass of wine and a brownie while trying to squeeze into your best friend’s high-waisted button-front shorts that you’ve secretly coveted since she bought them in March of 2004, only to realize that they never, ever would have fit you anyway, that’s a good thing to be reminded of.

In hosting these semi-regular exchanges, we actively build the kind of community we admire: one that recreates what being a woman’s all about. We are feminine, eco-friendly, supportive, slightly boozy, and, by the end of the night, incredibly well-dressed.

Dedicated to the Estronauts and their impeccable style.