May 21, 2013

Nerds and Nepal, a mini travelogue of two weekend fairs (blog)

Last weekend was "fair weekend" for us. Saturday we visited the Maker Faire in San Mateo for the first time, and Sunday we dragged the boys to the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley. I would love to live in the neighborhood where the Himalayan Fair took place, but I doubt I'll bother going back to Maker Faire.

Maker Faire
I had high hopes for this after looking at the web site and hearing rave reviews from more than one friend. We expected crowds and were prepared for an all-day affair, but frankly I left feeling that it had all the charm of Comdex with all the discomforts of Disneyland. That is to say, it was devilishly crowded, terribly expensive, and frequently felt as much like an extended sales pitch as a demonstration of wicked coolness.

We started the day arriving at the remote parking lot which had nearly nonexistent signage (which led to many people parking in the wrong lot and getting expensive tickets), then waiting in line 45 minutes for the shuttle bus, which took about 20 minutes to get us to the drop-off point, which was a 10 minute walk from the main gate. All this time, for the price of admission, my expectations were building. This many people must mean it was going to be truly awesome.

The Faire had some pretty awesome things. Watching the Coke & Mentos guys do their fountain was fun, but to see the three minutes of action we listened to a 20 minute lecture we could barely hear, along with 400 of our sweatiest friends. The stage was raised so almost everyone could see, but throughout the day it became apparent that if you really wanted to see a demonstration or show, you had to get there 30 minutes early (or more) and wait. With seating nearly nonexistent throughout the grounds, it gets tough not only on an old guy like me but also on teenagers.

I especially liked the life sized Mousetrap game board. Clever and quirky, and as a feat of raw ridiculousness it really raised the bar to epic heights.

I never did see a 3D printer in action, and the robot competition area was fun but chaotic (it seemed to be a VEX-like competition, but it was unclear where the teams came from). We missed but the flying drones exhibit because we got tired of waiting for it to start, and the main exhibit hall was so crowded between the booths that even if you could get close enough to see an exhibitor's stuff you were constantly jostled and pressed by people trying to get through.

Overall, had we planned it better we may have had a better experience, but for $30 a person for a day pass, and then an overpriced lunch and drinks ($3 for a bottle of water!), I don't see any point in going back next year. Or ever, really.

Waiting in line for the shuttle builds skepticism.

STILL waiting in line for the shuttle.

Go Bears! The Cal version of a solar car.

Life sized Mousetrap. Cool.

More Mousetrap. Still cool.

Exterminate! Exterminate!

Himalayan Fair
The next day was a totally different experience. We found parking in Berkeley relatively easily, walked four blocks through a cute little neighborhood to a lovely, well shaded park, to be greeted by festive music, bright colors, and free admission.

Granted, our expectations were lower than for Maker Faire, but the payoff was far greater. The beautiful day was made more beautiful by the colorful strings of prayer flags and the stream running through the park. The food was very good (though we were hoping for Nepali or Tibetan options to go with the Indian), and the people were terribly friendly. It had an air of community to it. Even in the hot, crowded booths it still seemed happy and pleasant.

The entertainment was hit or miss. One group of drumming guys who I think might have been warming up for their dance demonstration, displayed a charming lack of rhythm. And the guy pouring free tea (for a donation with all funds going to a charity) was unclear on whether he was pouring Chai (as we suspected) or Chia (as his sign said).

Gotta love parking on YOLO street.

Shady goodness, photo taken from where we sat and ate our lunch.

Sam found a cool spot to sit while Mom shopped.

Festive colors!

More festive colors!

Music on the Big Stage.

Sam, caught in a not terribly flattering candid moment, examining the posters of the Himalayan range.

Ethan doing a quick sketch while waiting for the momos to arrive.
All in all, I would return to the Himalayan Fair every year but not bother with Maker Faire again. Maybe that's because I would love to relive our wonderful week in Nepal, but I have no desire to pay for a semi-pro version of Comdex.

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