Leaky Con 2012

We take a break from your regular scheduled programming to bring you the latest news from Chicago. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and assure you that, following this, full reports on previous places visited will continue to be aired as usual.

It’s hard to describe what the last weekend was like, even amongst those I shared it with. We used words like “amazing,” “awesome,” and “intense,” but those on their own don’t do justice to the experience we had. Every place on this trip I have been to so far has been incredible, and I’ve loved it all, but all in different ways. The beauty of the Grand Canyon is not comparable to the pretty streets of San Francisco, and, in the same way, the fun I had at Walt Disney World was different from the fun I had this last weekend.

Think about, if you will, something that you’re passionate about. Perhaps it’s your job, or a favourite hobby like quilting, or hiking. Perhaps it’s a particular food, or a sport. Think about what it’s like when you’re indulging in that passion, and the enjoyment you get from it. Think about how excited you can get when you share that with other people, and how they get excited in return. Think about other things that tie into your passion, like documentaries on it, or new products that have been released for it, and how that can give you a thrill too. Think about what it would be like to be gathered in the same place with 4000 other people who shared your passion.

Now imagine that passion is Harry Potter.

That was Leaky Con 2012.

It began on Thursday 9th  August, and the Hilton Hotel in Chicago didn’t know what had hit it. I would love to have had more in-depth conversations with the people staying at the Hilton not attending the conference, because they must have been completely confused by the people filling every corridor dressed in robes and carrying wands, talking about Hogwarts, and Starkid, and the Whomping Willows, and Potter Puppet Pals.

We had four days of panels and workshops, discussions and meet-ups. You could walk into a room to find people seriously debating the similarities between Harry Potter and Star Wars, or the importance of Fawkes the Phoenix in Dumbledore’s life. The presenters may have been academics, or youtube famous, or sixteen-year-olds. The people attending were equally varied, and came from all over the globe.

And I mean all over.

And yes. A lot of them came just for the convention.

I met people from Germany and the Czech Republic, and plenty of attendees from Australia. It was not uncommon to hear a British accent, or to hear people complaining about the flight from New Zealand. Such a mix of people meant that everyone had a different point of view, and I think that was one of the things I loved about the conference.

We had four days of waiting in lines. Lines for signings, lines for special events, lines for food, and concerts, and buying merchandise. We had lines for registration and lines for the leaving feast. The running joke was that it wasn’t Leaky Con at all but “Line Con.”

The funny thing was though, that even though we did do a lot of waiting around, it rarely was a bad experience. To be surrounded by people you had so much in common with meant that you could strike up conversations easily, and pass the time discussing Snape’s morals, or your favourite scene from A Very Potter Musical.  There were loads of people in costumes, and they wandered around, perfectly happy for you to have your picture taken with them, or sign your book if their costume was so frighteningly perfect you felt as if they were that character. And then of course there was the singing.

For those who haven’t delved very far into the Harry Potter fandom it’s hard to explain the music culture surrounding it. There is the musical, called A Very Potter Musical, which now has two sequels (A Very Potter Senior Year was performed for the first and only time on Saturday), and there are people like Hank Green who have written songs which may as well be Harry Potter anthems, like “Accio Deathly Hallows.” And then there are tens upon tens of Wizard Rock bands.

Harry Potter fans rarely do things by halves, so if they know a song, they know all the words by heart, and chances are so do half the people in the line. People brought guitars. That should tell you all you need to know.

Playing Quidditch, Muggle style.

We had four days of catching glimpses of celebrities. Whether they be stars from the movie, like Evanna Lynch (who played Luna Lovegood), who was waiting behind me in the line at Starbucks on Friday morning, or actors from Glee, or the youtube famous Starkid. We went to panels where they discussed what it was like to be part of the Harry Potter phenomenon, and panels where they discussed their latest project. There was even a yoga class run by Evanna Lynch and Devin Lytle (of Starkid fame). There were authors there too, like John Green and Maureen Johnson, and literary agents who discussed how not to get published, all adding to the feeling that this was a very in-crowd.

We had three nights of concerts. Wizard rock bands like Tonks and the Aurors played to a crowd of wildly energetic fans. The Ministry of Magic had their songs sung by the majority of the audience, and by the time Harry and the Potters came on just before midnight on the first night, the entirety of the ballroom was going crazy. The floor was shaking as thousands of people jumped up and down in time to the beat, screaming the lyrics fiercely into the dark.

The Esther Earl Charity Ball.

This was a group of people who shared one love, and knowing that everyone else shared it too meant that they were unafraid to be themselves. Harry Potter is not exactly the most mainstream passion to have, and the nature of society means that it’s not always easy to broadcast your love for it. This was a place where you could broadcast it, and have it reflected back threefold. I’ve never seen a group of people dance as crazily as that for five hours, night after night. I’ve never seen a group of people as easily pleased, as happy to let go, and as welcoming of every other person in the group.

We had shared in Harry’s journey, and we had shared the discovery of that. We’d waited impatiently for each book, and pored over magazine pictures of who was going to be portraying our favourite characters. We might have toured Oxford and taken photos of the Great Hall, or visited Hogsmeade in Florida. We’d made wands out of the sticks in our backyards, and Sorted all our friends and family. This was a story that had reached into our childhood, and stayed with us as we grew.

Perhaps that was what was so wonderful about Leakycon; I felt as though not only could people there understand me, but that I could understand them, and some of their story. Sure, I loved the academic side of it, and I loved the literary side of it, and I loved the partying side of it. But what I loved most about Leakycon was getting to share Harry.

For those four days, Harry Potter became more than a kid’s book, or an idea concocted on a long train ride. It became real, and all of us there were part of the magic. We were magic.

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The Most Magical Place on Earth

A good friend of mine convinced me that I couldn’t very well go to Orlando without going to Walt Disney World. I was making the stop purely because of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, like any other normal person. But hell, I thought, Disney might be kind of fun. I’ve been to Disneyland Paris, so I thought I knew what I was in for. I certainly came prepared: I’d photocopied sections from a guidebook that gave instructions on how to avoid queues,  I was wearing my most comfortable shoes, and we had plenty of water. I was lucky enough to have the company of the lovely Cecilia, who, although she tends to bring out my more childlike side, can’t entirely account for the transformation that occurred that morning.

We chose to visit Magic Kingdom, which is the most Disney-fied of the parks, and to get to it, you take a special Disney ferry. Somewhere on that ride across the water, possibly when we saw the spires of the Disney castle rising up in the distance, I became about eight years old, and everything else that day seemed filled with the kind of joy you only experience as a child.

There it is in all its glory.

We were as excited as the kids around us when they opened the park, and we were gazing around as wide-eyed as any child in a stroller when we walked down Main Street. We rode Space Mountain, and the Winnie the Pooh ride, and got just as much enjoyment out of both (and thanks to our guide, I don’t think we waited any longer than 10 minutes for a ride all day). We were singing “It’s a Small World” for pretty much the whole day, and we accosted a stranger so that they could take the obligatory photo of us in front of the Disney castle. But I think the height of our childish enthusiasm was reached when we watched the parade.

And now I’m remembering how hot I was. And how hot they must have been.

I was not brought up on Disney. I didn’t have any Princess dresses, or own any of the films on VHS. I didn’t have a favourite Disney princess until we performed “Beauty and the Beast” in my last year of high school. And yet, there I was, clutching Cecilia’s hand in excitement as each float went past us. We were right in the front and got handshakes from many of the characters walking by. We laughed for ages over Cinderella’s stepsisters greeting people with “Pleased to meet me!” and were practically squealing when Mary Poppins and Bert rode by.

Belle. AKA: My favourite.

I don’t know what it was that gave us such delight in seeing people dressed up as cartoon characters (and it carried through to when we had breakfast with Minnie Mouse). I guess I’ll just have to put it down to the magic of Disney.


Viva Las Vegas

As you can imagine, after spending a week in the middle of the desert without showers or toilets, any place that had both of those within easy access would have been a welcome sight. If it came with air-conditioning, I was pretty much going to be in heaven.

Well, I don’t know that I would call Las Vegas heaven, but it was certainly out of this world (world: n. the earth. out of this world: id. not existing on the earth.) When I flew into Vegas the first time, I thought I may have been dreaming. One moment all you can see is desert, and the next there are these odd buildings rising up out of the sand. Buildings that look like they’ve been airlifted from famous cities. The Eiffel Tower, for example. I spent a lot of time in Vegas trying to convince myself that it was an actual place, that someone had decided, “Hey, you know what would be fun? If we built a hotel based on the city of Venice. Complete with a canal. And gondolas. Everyone’d love that.” And then someone else went: “You know what would be even more fun? If we built New York City. Like, the entire city. And we could put the casino inside it.”

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See?

It certainly didn’t feel like a normal city.

Especially when I checked into my very fancy hotel, and realised that I had a giant bed all to myself, that it would be cold enough in there to sleep with the doona on, that there was not only a shower but a bath, and the toilet flushed. (And yes, I may have flushed the toilet more than necessary just because I could. Don’t judge until you’ve spent a week doing your business crouched behind bushes). My fancy hotel had a volcano out the front. Which erupted on the hour come nightfall.

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There was super dramatic music playing as it did its thing, too.

Vegas is supposed to be the city of sins or something overdramatic, and it would certainly be easy to give into temptation there. Every single hotel is a casino, and you can purchase alcohol from street-vendors. Any other, ah, urges, you may have while you are there would also be pretty easy to fulfil… I don’t know whether people are more likely to be disappointed or impressed, but I did not spend any time partaking of these sinful activities. I spent the whole time wandering through all the hotels, and then walking out onto the street and remembering I wasn’t actually in Paris. Or Rome.

I saw the Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian (the Venice themed hotel, did you guess from the name?) which was performed in a theatre built specifically for the show, and I celebrated the Fourth of July at the rather rocking Fremont Street. But I think the highlight (other than the bed, air-conditioning, shower, and toilet) was having brunch at the Bellagio. The most elegant of all the hotels, the Bellagio aims for extravagance rather than a particular theme. They have a ceiling of glass-blown flowers in the foyer, and a courtyard/garden area that has special designs for each season. It was the beginning of summer when I was there , and hot air balloons floated gently over sunflower-filled garden beds and a carousel. The hotel cafe overlooks this garden, and I had as much fun watching the people dining there as I did eating my french toast.

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I can’t say I was sad to leave, because it wasn’t my kind of place to be, but I am definitely pleased I got to see somewhere I would never have been able to imagine.


The Grand Canyon River Adventure – Part 2

It became a running joke, the extra activities on the trip.

On the second day, after we made camp for the night (at a campsite that has apparently been voted one of the top ten best campsites in the world), we hiked up the side of the cliff to look at where some Native Americans used to store the food they harvested from the land below. And to see the best view of the Grand Canyon. As in. The very best view it’s possible to get.

See?

It’s the longest stretch of visible river, because there are no cliffs obstructing it, so you watch the Colorado winding its way down the Canyon, with the green of the banks blending into the blue of the water, and the stark browns and oranges of the Canyon walls rising above it.

We stayed there for a while, just gazing out. It occurred to me, like at the Getty, that this might be the only time I would ever see this magnificent view. You can’t helicopter in, or do a day trip. The only way is to paddle (or motor…) down the river, and hike up. I wondered how few people had been lucky enough to look out at this vista. I knew that nothing was going to beat that moment.

I was, as I’m sure you’re beginning to anticipate, wrong.

The next day, we came face to face with the Little Colorado River. Or, as our boatmen affectionately called it, the Grand Canyon’s little slice of the Caribbean. The water was ocean blue, that perfect kind of pale turquoise that just seems to be saying “Come on. You know you want to go swimming.” I wasn’t really paying attention, but it has something to do with a mineral deposit a little further upstream. I was more concerned with how cold the water was going to be.

Practically bath temperature.

Just your average day in the Grand Canyon.

We were in heaven. And then they showed us how to strap our lifejackets to our legs so that we could ride down the rapids. Of course, we didn’t just go once. By about the third time, people were hurtling down in pairs, and then in threes, and some were attempting to go backwards. Another rafting group arrived and suddenly there were kids going down on blow up animals, and someone wanted to see how many people joined together could make it down. I think the final count stood at about 21.

Complete with blow-up whale.

Well, clearly, nothing was going to beat that. But amongst ourselves we began talking. That was two days of incredible activities that hadn’t even been achieved by doing any rafting. What else would they be able to pull out of their sleeves?

As it turned out, waterfalls. The fourth day we made camp and then rafted a little further up the river to a small pool (again, beautiful, warm water) which had a small waterfall cascading into it. One you could sort of slide down. It felt like the sort of place you could never be unhappy in.

By that stage we were expecting to see unicorns on the following day. Instead, we got more waterfalls. A waterfall we jumped off the top of, a waterfall that was like nature’s own shower, and a waterfall so high the pressure of the water caused people’s hats to blow off. The challenge was to swim under it and see if you could touch the back wall. Spoiler: I couldn’t. (Although certain people were in fits of laughter at how I’d been just sort of swimming on the spot).

We treked up Havasu Creek and played in the small pools there, again the same beautiful colour as the Little Colorado. We watched the stars come out at night, so much brighter than we’d ever seen them, without any other light competing for the sky. We learnt about rock formations, and the explorers who’d travelled the same waters we were. We dined on the best prime rib steak I’ve ever eaten, and had peach cobbler for dessert on our last night. (Eugene wanted a note on logistics: Everything we needed came on the rafts. All the food, all of our packs, all the tents and the chairs and cooking equipment. And of course, the toilets. And the solid waste from the toilets that couldn’t be left in the Canyon…)

Havasu Creek. Incidentally, to get here, they had to park the rafts in the middle a rapid. Took skill, I’m telling you.

It was a week of spectacular experiences. The things I loved most weren’t what I was expecting to love most. My favourite time of day was just after dinner, when the heat had receded, and the sun was setting over the Canyon walls, and everyone was sitting in a circle, talking and laughing and sharing stories. I felt as if home was a trillion miles away. I felt as if home was there.

Tell me you’ve seen a sunset that beats that.

To the four guides from Wilderness River Adventures, thank you for making it such a fantastic experience. And to all the wonderful people I was lucky enough to share that week with, thank you for being so welcoming, and so caring, and such magnificent friends.


The Grand Canyon River Adventure – Part 1

Seven days. Six nights. Twenty-six passengers. Four guides. Two rafts. One river.

Your typical view of the Grand Canyon from the Colorado River.

I had many expectations. In many ways, this was the part of my trip I was most looking forward to. After all, how many people get to say that they’ve rafted through the Grand Canyon? I also had a lot of misgivings. I didn’t know a single other person on the trip. Seven days is a long time to spend with anyone, let alone a group of people who may end up being really, really annoying. My worst fear: what if they were all Americans?

Spoiler: They were all Americans.

But by the end of the first day I realised that I had been totally stupid. I also realised that I had got very, very lucky. There was not a single person on the trip that I disliked. There were five families on the trip, with eight kids under 19, which meant that we had a good dynamic, with a playful attitude and a tendency to look out for each other. Over the week we bonded over the usual things like books, and music, and tv shows. We also bonded over the lack of privacy (most noticeable whenever you wanted to go to the toilet), the animals that threatened the camp at night, and jumping off waterfalls together.

A moment of peace. The calm before the storm, if you will.

I have a friend sitting here telling me I should write an entry about how the rafts crashed and we were stranded in the middle of the canyon and had to hike out into the Arizona desert with only a water bottle and a pick-axe. Luckily, our trip wasn’t quite that dramatic. But it did have its moments.

We learnt to fear names like Hermit, Horn Creek, and Crystal. You would think that after baking all day under the sun, and sweating off any water we drank, we’d be thankful to be utterly drenched as we powered through the rapids of the Colorado. But this would not be taking into account the freezing temperatures of the river. It was definitely a week of extremes. We were either chilled to the bone, shivering as we waited for our rain gear to dry out, or getting sunburn on our sunburn and ready to give our right leg for a glass of iced water.

On the first day they told us there were three spots you could sit in on the rafts: in the boat itself (up against the bags which were stacked in the middle), on the side of the boat on the pontoons, or right in the very front, in a seat called “the bathtub.” For obvious reasons.

I, like any sensible person, avoided the bathtub. I managed to gain a seat toward the back where I was safe from a lot of the spray and didn’t spend the entire day feeling like a drowned rat. On the second day, I wasn’t so lucky. Somehow I found myself in the seat next to the bathtub. This, I later found out, was affectionately called “the shower.” You got almost as wet as in the bathtub seat, plus you got all this annoying spray from any small waves, and you didn’t get near as good a view. So on the third day, I decided to brave the front. After all, I couldn’t get any wetter than the day before, right?

Us. And the Canyon.

The third day happened to be the day we went down all the big rapids. So: wrong. Our boatman kept gleefully telling us that no one else in the world was getting better white water than we were that day. I’d like to give you a blow-by-blow description of what it’s like to hurtle down rapids at break neck speeds as the waves tower above you and then crash down so hard you’d be swept off the boat if you weren’t hanging on for dear life. But to be perfectly honest, I kept my eyes closed for a lot of it.

I definitely emerged from some of the rapids surprised to still be a) alive, b) sitting on the raft in the same position that I entered the rapid, and c) still wearing my hat and sunglasses.

Don’t let me disabuse you, though. It was terrifically fun. The way your stomach plummets as you go down the first drop, and the cheers of everyone else on the raft as you plunge through wave after wave, and the exhilaration when you come terrifyingly close to the Canyon wall, all of it combines to make it one hell of an adventure. I was definitely disappointed when we surfaced victorious from the horrors of Lava Falls on the last day of rafting, because I knew that I was unlikely to ever experience anything quite like that again.

You might think, after reading all that, that riding the rapids was the highlight of that week. I would urge you to stay tuned for Part Two.


Redwood trees and banana slugs

You might think that there is nothing particularly special about a tree that’s more than a little on the large side. You would be wrong. There is something particularly awesome (in the true sense of the word) about standing in a grove of Redwood trees and looking skyward. The sheer enormity of them, and the knowledge that they’ve been standing there for hundreds of years, makes you intensely aware of your own size and fleeting lifespan.

On Saturday the 23rd of June, I was lucky enough to be taken hiking in the Sam Macdonald park, nestled in the western slope of the Santa Cruz mountains. In the midst of all the trees it was so easy to forget that less than an hour away lay the bustling highways and shopping centres of the Silicon Valley. There weren’t many other people on the track, and we seemed to have the park, and the Redwoods to ourselves, listening to the birdlife and the ocassional deer.

Of course, the other point of interest was an interesting species called the banana slug. Wikipedia tells me that the banana slug is the common name for three species of air-breathing land slug in the genus Ariolimax. But basically all you need to know about them is that they are slugs that look like bananas. No, really. And once we started seeing them, we started seeing them every where. I don’t know exactly what it was that made them so amusing and interesting, but I was so totally unprepared for seeing something that bizarre that I was rather more than fascinated by them.

Just in case you didn’t believe me.

And I doubt that just like I’ll never forget that feeling of looking upwards at the Redwood trees, I will never forget seeing banana slugs in the Same Macdonald park.


A food tour of San Francisco

The first day we visited San Francisco the weather was what you might describe as chilly. It would have been a good day to be homesick because it was basically like your average winter day in Melbourne. There is apparently a saying that goes: “I’ve never been so cold as the summer I spent in San Francisco.” That doesn’t really ring true for me (I mean, it wasn’t snowing) but I am now well acquainted with the irony of a San Franciscan summer. Faced with brisk winds and dark skies, my cousin Clare and I did what any normal people would do: we hid out in places that served food.

Our first stop was the Ghiradelli chocolate shop where we warmed our fingers on mugs of amazing hot chocolate. Stop number 2 was for clam chowder at the Boudin bakery. The Boudin bakery on Fisherman’s Wharf is one of those places you walk into and just know that it’s been there forever. You can stand outside the windows and watch the bakers rolling out the dough, which sounds only vaguely interesting until you realise they’re rolling it into snails, and turtles, and lobsters, and even alligators.

A baker making bread turtles behind a bread alligator.

Luckily, our clam chowder was served in a bowl made out of sourdough bread, because after looking at all those bread animals I was surprisingly lusting after bread. By the end of the meal, the chowder had soaked into the bread, so it was all soggy and delicious, because the chowder itself was so delicious.

Look how delicious it looks. Just look. I want to eat it all over again.

After visiting the sea lions at Pier 39, and seeing spectacular views over San Francisco from Coit Tower, we were about ready for food stop number 3.

The sea lions at Pier 39. In case the sign didn’t give it away.

But not before we’d visited City Lights bookstore, famous for being the birthplace of the Beat movement, and for being home to authors like Jack Kerouac (nope, still haven’t started On the Road). There are a couple of things you sort of hopefully expect when visiting a bookshop like City Lights. But when you actually are accosted by a poet at the door it comes as a bit of a surprise. And yes, I did tell him I liked poetry, so he did stand there and recite one of his poems to us. Thank you, San Francisco, you outdid yourself.
Food stop number 3 turned out to be coffee and cake at a little French-style cafe, which led to the inevitable discussion about how Melbourne coffee is so fantastic and why it is that Americans somehow missed the memo on how to make coffee. It also began my search for really good coffee in America (spoiler: results will be found in Charleston, South Carolina). While they may be lacking in the coffee department, there are some areas of the food department they have well and truly covered, i.e. clam chowder. Stay tuned for notes on Mexican food, breakfast cereal, cornbread, and the mysteries of orange cheese.