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A RETURN JOURNEY TO THE EAST

September 20, 2014

I’ll admit I wasn’t very kind in reviewing Journey to the East Banquet during my last visit. Back then although this ‘celebration of Asian culture’ was still in its toddler years, the overwhelming covers of Top-40 pop songs didn’t allow me to view ‘cultural performances’ as the event boldly proclaimed.

JE - Sign

Fast forward to last weekend—the University of South Florida was hosting its 7th annual Journey to the East Banquet. As a USF Asian organization alumni (specifically from the Association of Filipino Students) I felt compelled to show some support. This Banquet was the final celebration to a week full of JE events celebrating Asian culture.

And now I’ll admit—I was blown away. Dare I say jealous too? The theme this year revolved around Elements and Change. Although there were still hints of the old JE, all elements had evolved. We could only dream of something this grand when I was still a USF student helping to organize events.

Lo Mein and Fried Rice

Not the best photo I’ve taken I’m sorry. But here’s the Lo Mein and Fried Rice

The lights within the Student Center’s Ballroom were dimmed allowing the flickering from tea candles (battery powered to avoid the school’s fire hazards) to cast shadows around the tea pots serving as centerpieces. Rather than the Ballroom’s cluster of wall lights projecting distracting glare, a very large poster was placed over the lights with the words “Journey to the East” in cut out. The result served as a background for many group photos while being both artistic and imposing.

As with other JE events, free admission and food were a draw. Instead of the pasts’ stampede to the buffet line, volunteer student servers dropped both drinks and food to each table. I nibbled on the lukewarm Fried Rice and Lo Mein while wondering out loud the discipline of these servers. During my USF years as soon as the performances began the volunteers would mysteriously disappear—but these guys were professional throughout.

JE - Folk

Philippine Performance Arts Company

Ah yes—the talent is what makes the Banquet. Among the variety of entertainment celebrating Asian culture were brightly colored Filipino Folk dancers waving their flower arcs, a Lion Dance that weaved its way around the room before settling on stage, Judo demonstrations, and even a rap in the Chinese language. Scattered between performances were entertaining videos strong audio following the inception of Journey to the East and all the organizations involved.

JE - Performers

[Left to right] Lion Dance… Joe Lin rapping in Chinese… Din Tao Drum performance

Although a handful of performances weren’t explicitly cultural (does having Asian performers count?) I’ll give them passes. The two dance groups kept up high-energy moves while the singer Sabrina Santos belted out powerful vocals. Out of all the performances perhaps the only questionable one was the ending headliner, a budding singer named Albert Posis. Although talented in vocals and guitar he was just a stranger wooing a crowd full of students who were more excited at seeing their friends perform.

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

Final Boss Dance Crew capped off the USF performances

I’ll admit my expectations going in were rather low but that’s not why I was greatly impressed and entertained the whole time. This Banquet was better planned than other events I’ve attended organized by older adults. Perhaps next time I’d just suggest more interactive elements—who wants their name written in Chinese Calligraphy? Or their photo next to costumed entertainers?—but nahhh this is a free event after all totally run by volunteers and donations. I’m proud of the current leaders of the USF Asian organization and (in some way) I’m also wishful this JE event became this good because of the bases left by my generation.

SHADE AND A SHOW AT BUSCH GARDENS TAMPA

August 26, 2014

Florida’s humidity was sapping my energy as I trudged through Busch Gardens Tampa feeling like I was really on a safari… aka… barely any shade. Instead of melting in the heat like a fallen Cherry Popsicle, I decided to take advantage of the attractions where shade always guaranteed… the shows! Due to time restraints I wasn’t able to watch ALL staged shows.

UNTAPPED: BURN THE FLOOR

Show - Untapped 1

Untapped - Guitarists

The guitarists on the 2nd floor balcony stage

Ballroom dancers perform spicy and exotic moves with a hint of sexy at the Pantopia Grill—the only dining area in the park to have a stage (you don’t need to eat to watch). I watched in jealousy at the sassy yet graceful way each dancer performed to styles mostly rooted in Latin or Swing… I wanted to do that! Although most dances involved the group moving together, there were still many moments when each of the cast of international dancers was able to show off their personal styles. As each set continued, my dance-dumb self recognized the building blocks of many ballroom moves, but the dancers threw in plenty of tricks to show why they were the professionals. At one point, two guys actually leapt onto the dining tables and competed in a Latin-inspired “Tap Dance” battle within the crowd.

All music was sang by the powerful vocals of two, talented singers. A second-floor stage also featured three men plucking guitar strings throughout. Although it looked visually nice, I’m not sure they were needed because with the accompanying soundtrack I couldn’t tell if they were really playing or not.

OPENING NIGHT: CRITTERS

Be prepared to watch scores of creatures—furry and feathered—as they blur the line between acting and just being themselves. While barely anybody gets stage time longer than 30 seconds, that just means the appearances of mini horses, macaws, and even emus keep coming and coming. While most tricks involve a moving animal moving and activating a switch, there’s some actual tricks such as a Broadway-singing bird, a hide-and-seek dog, and a trio of birds whose tails actually scrape the heads of audience members as they fly above.

Show - Critters - Dogs

 

The story begins with the animals rebelling against the former host of their show. Two stage hands view this an opportunity to take the spotlight—but first they have to prove themselves. A similar “Critters” show ended years ago and close observers will notice several of the old tricks revamped under the new spotlight. And just like the old show—unnecessary singing. Okay, the first song was actually cute because the old host is trying to sing it while the animals prank him—but the song itself isn’t memorable. The remaining songs seem to come out of nowhere and thus become borderline annoying. While the actors can really sing—unfortunately their songs add no memories.

ICEPLORATIONS

At the urging of their Grandfather, a very “plugged in” child joins their Grandpa in his world travels and learns there is much exciting entertainment to be found in nature. Through whimsical sets and large projected backgrounds, I was transported to the Serengeti, the Great Barrier Reef, the Artic and the Rainforest. As the name of the show hints, the centerpiece is the ice-covered stage where at times up to twenty performers danced with half of them skimming the ice in tight choreography—yet a mid-ice collision never occurred.

Show - Iceplorations

Besides ice skating tricks there’s also jumping meerkats, a dragonfly zipping through the air, and monkeys on a trampoline all making appearances. Of course these aren’t real animals—although there are a few animal actors—but very elaborate costumes donned by acrobatic dancers.

By the time you started to appreciate an act, it was on to the next set. Iceplorations could easily stretch into an hour but with the time given the show quickly crammed a lot into a little time.

SOUNDSATIONAL

Riding on acapella’s popularity following movies like “Pitch Perfect” or television contest “The Sing-Off” this show follows an acapella singing competition between an all-boy and all-girl group. While the singers and the songs are hits, the show itself isn’t memorable. I believe most of the audience was more entertained by having an excuse to sit for half an hour in the shade with a fan. Busch Gardens already inserts singing into all its shows (see above) so we know the park is filled with singers—but this is the only show unaccompanied by other tricks.

Show - Soundsational

I was mildly amused by the little ways the actors would make their characters their own even if it wasn’t important to the story—like a girl getting her hair caught in a twirling umbrella or the awkward-seeming nerd on the guy’s team tripping during a dance. Each singer was talented, however in the final song they all sang to a soundtrack which defeated the purpose of this whole show.

KINETIX

Show - Twin HoopsThis summer-only show energized the audience over the big Gwazi field on a great multi-tiered outdoor stage. The only problem with this arrangement was the lack of seat elevation. If there’s a tall person who sits in front of you, you won’t see lower action onstage. Yet you are still bound to see something because every foot of the stage is covered with a performer—most notably the live rock band blasting out music from the top stages. Naturally there’s singing and the songs are all current Top-40 hits such as Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” to Kesha’s “Timber.” Everything is further pumped up by the group of tightly choreographed hip-hop dancers.

But the singing and dancing is only to uplift Kinetix’s main focus – all the crazy stunts. Ample time is given to a very daring balancing act, unique hula hoop tricks (and believe me I’ve seen a lot of hula hoop tricks) and even an almost seductive female duo on a single, twirling suspended hoop. The final act was a bit of organized chaos as the choreographers tried to see how much varied action they could fit on one stage but it was a good way to once more see the previous performers show off one more time while a troupe of fun-loving guys trampolined off the cityscape in the background.

Show - Kinetix Finale

Kinetix has only one performance a day in the late evening. Afterwards, guests only have to turn in their seats to see the Park’s night time fireworks.

PAUSING FROM THE ROLLER COASTERS

At first Busch Gardens’ choice of shows seem strange against an area where the relationship between man and animal is the first theme—but there’s only so many nature-hugging, animal tricks shows you can create. As a result, Busch Gardens has a good show line-up that still has hits or misses. The most obvious mistake is attempting to insert singing wherever possible—please don’t try to be a Disney—Busch Gardens has its own charm! Experience the talent of Busch Entertainment next time you visit… you’ll also get some welcomed shade and a chance to sit.

Please excuse the quality of my photos– flash photography is not permitted in the indoor shows and my little point-and-shoot was rebelling.

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THE EASTERN LOOP HOME

August 13, 2014
Although more than a month has passed since I visited Yellowstone, the images and the experiences are as clear in my mind as yesterday. (I apologize—life has gotten in the way of writing)
Bison relaxing in Lamar Valley

Bison relaxing in Lamar Valley

It was time I bade farewell to my brief couple of days in the cute, mountainous Cooke City, MT (Part of the Top 10 of Best small towns by Budget Travel in 2012) and head back south. It was a four-hour drive from Cooke City to Jackson, WY but heck… we knew there was already enough to see in the eastern part of the “Grand Loop” before the drive would be half over. Four-hour drive? We left Cooke City at 10am and didn’t expect to enter Jackson by sunset.

No journey from Cooke City can begin well without stuffing yourselves from the Bearclaw Bakery. We packed Berry Pie slices and Orange Cinnamon Rolls (with real Orange rinds in the dough!) to keep us company for the ride south.

LAMAR VALLEY

Bison by Lamar Valley RoadThis vast area is probably the most northern part of Yellowstone. There are so many herds of Bison just chilling, frolicking and being bad asses in the valley that you will probably get sick of them (except me as I fought the urge to hug one). We passed this area several times before today and each time our car ran into mini traffic jams caused by Bison crossing the road without a care in the world. The famous Yellowstone Wolf Pack also calls this area home although BF Shoes and I never caught a glimpse of them. No worries, the Bison—carefree giants—were always very amusing to watch.

Lamar Valley barely has any trees. Instead short bushes cover the ground amidst the soft, rolling hills. With the snow-topped mountains looming in the distance and no way to see where the Valley began or ended, you can’t help but feel so small. It’s almost comically futile trying to capture the grandness of the valley with your camera’s zoom lens as you huddle together among your little group of cars.

CALCITE SPRINGS OVERLOOK

An empty parking lot had me worried (a sure sign something is visually interesting nearby) so we walked gingerly down the short path to the wooden railings ahead… and stood at the edge of the earth as it yawned loudly. Left and right the looming faces of cliffs tumbled below to reveal the Yellowstone River rushing below. Straight ahead the cliff’s face was lined with different natural designs—signs explained this phenomenon. BF Shoes and I walked down the short path to get some extra angles on the view. I leaned as far as I could against the railing to watch the earth fall beneath me while the chilly winds rushed by my face—a feeling unmatched!

Calcite Springs Overlook

Calcite Springs Overlook

CALDERA OVERLOOK

The road south of the Overlook is lined with cliffs rising above the road. It was difficult to see where the road led when suddenly, the land opened up to reveal a large valley broken only by soft, rolling hills. Like Lamar Valley, the Caldera Overlook was supposed to be a great area to spot wildlife. The only thing that came to life were our cell phones which had no reception at all for the past few days… but no time for catching up on texts… the views outside the screens were fantastic!

YNP Drive - That Valley

Caldera Overlook

THE FALLS AND ARTIST POINT

Artist Point - Lower FallsThis area’s popularity rounds out the cast of Yellowstone’s most famous. Just head straight for any signs that say ‘Artist Point’ and ignore the others—the number of cars in its parking lot will already signal the treat ahead. The short skip to the vantage point is filled with peek-a-boo views of the Grand Canyon through the trees. Eventually the path veered left… and ohhhh wow this place lives up to its name. From the vantage point you are thrust near the center of the Park’s Grand Canyon and in the distance you can see the Lower Falls Waterfall crashing into the Yellowstone River where it passes by your perch.

The view from Artist Point is almost surreal—in glancing at my photos later it seemed like I had photographed a painting instead of the real thing. Beautiful upon amazing. While the name Artist Point comes from the first explorers admiring the beauty of this location, I prefer to think of it as a reverence to creator God as the artist.

Artist Point whetted our appetites and made us crave more. A small hike (or drive) led us to the overlook of the Upper Falls (where the river eventually feeds into the Lower Falls seen at Artist Point). If your body allows it, take the 324 metal steps down Uncle Tom’s Trail to get an even closer view of the Lower Falls. Going down isn’t the problem—BF Shoes practically ran up the steps later on while I tried to disguise my breathless pauses as photo opportunities. But it was so worth it. Being so close to a waterfall is awe-inspiring. During the ascent back I happened to glance where the Lower Falls met the River just in time to see a perfect little rainbow arch through the mist created.

(Left) Artist Point view from the observation Point (Top right) Stairs down Uncle Tom's Trail (Bottom Right) Rainbow over Lower Falls

(Left) Artist Point view from the observation Point (Top right) Stairs down Uncle Tom’s Trail (Bottom Right) Rainbow over Lower Falls

MUD VOLCANO AREA

After days of being away from the geysers and hot springs Yellowstone is known for, it was almost comforting to see the familiar sight of thin trails of steam ascending into the air much like scattered camp fires dotting a forest. And that’s when the smell of the Mud Volcano area hits you—farts mixed with burnt tires and gasoline penetrate your car- but the giggling, middle-school side of you makes you exit your vehicle.  The mile-long boardwalk led us past small pools of blooping, creamy, gray heated mud. One particular hot spring bubbled like water boiling on the stove but the smell was so bad we couldn’t get within twenty feet of the water’s edge. Instead we laughed, gagged, then held our noses and ran.

Dragon's Mouth Springs

Dragon’s Mouth Springs

This area is also home to the Dragon’s Mouth Spring—one of the coolest natural features I’ve seen. Just check out the photo above. A hot spring is streaming out of this cave in pulsing waves while the boiling steam also pours out of the cave making it difficult to see through the darkness inside. What you can’t see is the low rumbling that sounds like a hungry stomach or angry growl (caused by a combo of natural factors I can’t explain). If this cave had somehow been transported to the entrance of a Dragon-related ride at a Universal Studios theme park I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Cool effect. Very fitting. And I would’ve kept walking on. But it’s crazy to think this is NATURALLY made! (Oh God you crazy, artist you.)

AND THAT’S ONLY HALFWAY

We experienced all that before even hitting the shores of the Yellowstone Lake. It was an easy drive and very scenic and very easy to stop and take a break. And did I mention the weather was finally cooperating to allow jeans and shirts? (No more jackets!) Keep your eyes peeled for the final moments of my beautiful Yellowstone trip as my journey slowly led me back to Jackson, WY.

Click on any of my photos to be taken to Yellowstone with me or just click here.

TAMPAPALOOZA WOOZY

August 2, 2014
Editors update: A Tampapalooza coordinator reached out to me saying this “first day was far less than ideal.” However “we have made some changes” for Sunday’s event to go “more smoothly” and “enjoyably.” I’m adding this hopeful comment to the top of this post– it’s always a good thing when organizers realize mistakes and work to change them instead of acting pompous and ignorant. Thank you for reading and reaching out.

 

Attending free local events in their ‘inaugural’ year is always a gamble because this is the time to make mistakes so you learn from them in the future. Looking back, I wonder if the mistake of Tampapalooza was having one in the first place. But let me rewind. There was no way this Tampa Bay lover could say ‘no’ to a free festival promising to celebrate “everything local in Tampa!” With humid heat and no predicted rain, I armed myself with a frozen water bottle, sunscreen and floppy hat.

Wing of the event

This is one wing of the event… notice how the crowds aren’t even approaching the booths?

Before I even stepped foot in the event, an immediate dislike was planted by the parking admission. While a parking cost was never mentioned on the official website, both Visit Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Times online yelled FREE parking at the event. $6 wasn’t going to kill me, but I had been severely misled.

Still I pressed on into the Fairgrounds. Tampapalooza occupied an area the size of a football field. While that’s awesome and offers lots of potential, there were not enough vendors present to fill that large area. What resulted were lots of empty space and very thin crowds. There were whole groups of vendors the crowds wouldn’t even approach because of the strange layout.

Cigar City Area

Cigar City Brewing had a prime spot under this large tent

There was a running theme throughout the event and it was obvious from the moment I walked in to the moment I exited the gates… the lack of celebrating “Tampa Bay.” There were a few nods to Tampa’s pirate-crazed celebrations as a few costumed characters walked or stilt-walked around. Cigar City Brewing even had a great location under a large, shaded tent… but nothing else screamed Tampa Bay pride. Did the birds from Busch Gardens not want to attend? Were the student performers from the USF too shy? Did the armored vehicles from McDill Air Force Base not want to get touched? And the worst one… not a single known Tampa restaurant was present like the Columbia or Taco Bus— I know I’ve seen them sell food on the streets before. At least an appearance by Gigi’s Cupcakes represented a Tampa store with a booth.

 

Stage

The stage area

Instead half the vendors were similar to the smaller stalls you see at the State Fair selling Kettle Corn or Italian Sausages. Big sponsors Cricket and Mazda both had large booths including a test-driving area for Mazda’s VIP ticket holders. Other vendors weren’t Tampa Bay locals but visitors from elsewhere in the state such as Calypso Salt and Soaps from Davenport, FL (I’ve never seen handmade soap this artistic looking so I bought a couple). All these vendors probably would’ve sold more if they had moved to one of several Farmer’s Markets in the Bay area today.

At least the local talent on the stage was entertaining. Young Francesca belted out original and cover songs while playing an acoustic guitar. Another band (their name escapes me) rocked out. Unfortunately the beating sun kept everyone far away from the stage. I tried to get a schedule of performances but the vendors I asked and even some volunteers in the children’s tent had no idea.

Inflatable playground

Part of the inflatable playground

Perhaps families with small kids were better off. An entire corner of Tampapalooza was filled with an inflatable playground. Under the ‘Children’s Tent’ markers, poster paper, and wind spinners were thrown around and left for the children to get creative with. None of this interested me.

After pushing two hours there (I had to justify paying $6 to enter a place easily completed in less than an hour) I left. If Tampapalooza ever decides to return, please move to a more welcoming location like Curtis Hixon Park. And please bring more Tampa-based representatives and entertainment. There was barely anything for an adult to do except shop—I could’ve just shopped St. Pete’s Farmer’s Market for that. Instead of a winning celebration, this was just a Tampapa-lose-a.

To view my photos from the event, just click on any of the photos above or right here.
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