Part of my job as a festival production coordinator is visiting other festivals in the hopes of borrowing some food or craft vendors. Finding the vendors is a challenge and as the event draws nearer, the stress level rises. I’m associated with an Asian festival, so what would happen if I had no kimono, no grass jelly drinks, or no egg rolls?
Last year’s festival went without egg rolls, something that was taken as a huge omission and strong indicator of American idiocy by a major Chinese cultural association. Not only, I also appeared to have forgotten the chicken wings.
What the complainant didn’t realize was that I had spent six months begging local Chinese restaurants to participate in the event. When that didn’t work, I appealed to community groups, only to find that they had no insurance to cover a salmonella outbreak. I even tried calling up other festivals, to learn that the pro vendors were booked years in advance and weren’t likely to skip the Arkansas State Fair for my much smaller event.
In the course of being taken to task for this culinary slight, I was told that I should visit World of Nations in Jacksonville to see how a “real” event was run.
World of Nations is now in its 18th year. It’s produced by the City of Jacksonville, meaning that it correlates with our own city-produced event. The similarity ends there.
World of Nations is a global fair representing over 30 countries. Jacksonville is a much larger and an ethnically more diverse city, giving it a lot more from which to draw. Theirs is a four-day event and I expect the traffic exceeded ours by some enormous margin. They were able to sell meatball subs as the cuisine of Italy and to offer every possible fried item from a pu-pu platter as well as mango daiquiris with jazzy little cocktail umbrellas.
The temperature in downtown Jacksonville was 99 degrees as we snaked our way towards the entrance. Since this was a work-related mission and not just a random adventure, I felt it was my duty to persevere despite my dislike for extreme heat. To that end, I outfitted myself as if going on an African safari. All that was missing was some mosquito netting draped fetchingly over my face.
The festival either was or was not geographically organized. As we entered, I noticed a cluster of island-nation booths strung along underneath the overpass of the Hart Bridge Expressway. This was the only shady area at the festival, which otherwise was subjected to intensely bright sunlight. Mr. B. asked for a map, but they were out. As luck would have it, the Asian cluster ringed around an open field that offered maximum sun exposure. I picked my way from shady spot to shady spot and wondered if anyone would recognize me in my “African Queen” get-up.
We quickly understood that we wouldn’t find any vendors for our festival, so we set about discussing the organization that had the booth representing Poland next to the one representing India, and how it was that Mexico and Italy came to be on the same continent. As we circled the park, one thing came to mind: We are one nation invested in eardrum-splitting music. No matter our other differences, we come together in love of painful decibels.
The aural assault was so intense that it prevented us from entering any of the booths. We walked from shockwave to shockwave, ears ringing, straining to be heard over the cacophony.
No one else seemed to mind, which made me wonder if I lack a festive gene. Why couldn’t I get a buzz on, wipe some grease off my chin and wave my flag? All around us, people milled happily, eating fried plantains and waiting 20 minutes for a pina colada.
We lasted for an hour. What finally did us in was a second tour of the hybrid Asian-Austro-Hungarian section. As we passed by yet another booth selling tourist trinkets, a woman leaned out and waved two cheap paper fans in our direction. “Two for one!” she shouted. When this sales pitch failed to attract a purchase, she picked up a couple of small embroidered wallets and yelled, “One dollah! One dollah!”
On the way out, we walked by an overweight young woman wearing a tight and very low-cut turquoise t-shirt that had gold lettering on the front and which revealed an ample display of tattooed cleavage. I strained to read the shirt through my protective headwear. Surely it didn’t say what I thought it did. I had another look. It did indeed.
In capital letters bedazzled with rhinestones, the shirt read:
We have a wonderful, wacky, and very creative world. Celebrate it.
Belly dancers on a break.
We liked the entry portals and the idea of a pavilion-type set-up very much. It would be impossible for us to do because we can’t ask two competing vendors to share booth space, but the pavilions were a great visual.
As a former student of language, I wanted to learn how to pronounce these simple expressions. However, the pale and freckled redheaded guy behind the booth was angrily telling a fairgoer how his rights had been impinged upon and how he was almost sent to prison; what did the fairgoer think of that? I skipped the Turkish lesson.
The largest crowds were packed into the section under the overpass, where island nations held court. From this, we can conclude either that the day was just too hot to offer oneself to the Sun God or that the people from the islands throw the world’s best party.