SXSW Diaries – That Sunday I felt like Russell Crowe before the last fight in Gladiator…


Note/Warning: My proper reviews for SXSW will be on La Pop Life and Gold Flake Paint soon(ish). For Sloucher, I’ll be posting diary-style stuff, mostly unedited (barring a few typos that had to go away, replaced by more typos. Most of these diaries were written late at night and honest to God, this is how they went. No clear cut narrative is intended, just general ramblings. Enjoy this Gonzo-style experiment.

Sunday, 6 AM. The flight to Dallas is pretty much deserted and before taxing off the terminal, the captain just tells everyone to grab a window seat and that they will be “lax with the complimentary drinks.” I was already in a window seat, watching the blue and black gradient of dawn while thinking about the trip.

“I should be married by now. Have a stable job. Kids. Mortgages. Not gallivanting off to SXSW.” The plane takes off and the myriad points of lights scarring Mexico City slowly fade away. The ipod is on random and the first song I listen is Lynyrd Skynyrd.

A smile draws. I’ve only seen Almost Famous once and even if it somehow pushed me towards writing about music instead of peddling shit stories, I don’t feel the need to rewatch it. Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken album is now my music and I try to forget about my mental noodles.

Dallas Fort Worth has always felt like a friendly airport. Never had a problem with immigration and the people with green vests feel like slightly distant grandparents that care about you when they see you in trouble. You know it’s a Sunday when Immigration and Security take less than 20 minutes. I still feel a little guilty of wasting money like this, but if I get a job (or marry), I won’t have a chance to do this kind of trip. Red House Painters’ Trailways (THE best feedback solo in history) soothes my worries while the train takes me from terminal D to C.

I don’t even have to look for the departure gate; I just keep an eye for a place where half the people waiting have musical instrument cases, wear trendy clothes or the look of a tired music journalist. No, wait, scratch that one, it was a mirror.

A girl with grey and purple hair catches my eye. She catches me looking at her. I avoid her afterwards, even if she ends up in the seat across mine. The flight to Austin is like the flight from Mexico City to Tampico and those childhood memories of short trips come back. Alas, the skies in Austin are overcast and it’s pretty chilly; it seems Sheffield is following me both in spirit and weather conditions.

Bus 100 takes you into Austin city centre and University of Texas for a dollar fifty. Somewhere in Congress Avenue, the bus driver just announces to get off the bus as he is driving back to the airport, do not pass University of Texas, do not collect 200 pesos. He is kind enough to tell me that the bus I need (10) to get to Motel 6 has moved its stop to Lavaca and 3rd. Even so, I manage to get lost. I want to say I want to soak in the atmosphere and catch a few conversations by the people attending Film and Interactive, but no, I’m just disoriented, both literally and figuratively.

A guy pretty much begs people to come to a taco cart. They are giving away cold brewskis (his term) and tacos. The tacos were okay, perhaps too spicy to hide the quality of the meat. The beer was a Corona with half a lime carcass stuck in its throat. It tastes wonderful.

I finally find the way to Lavaca and a guy in a 7-Eleven uniform looks at me. He looks desperate and is carrying a pizza box.
“Free pizza, sir!”
“But I just had some tacos!”
“Free pizza! Come on, man, take my pizza!”
“No, sorry.”

I start to move away, hauling ass and my stupid wheeled luggage and he follows me like a bad lover, saying “take my pizza, c’mon!” like some sort of double entendre you might foolishly use in a low lit bar. Two blocks after, he manages to overtake me and I accept his pizza. He goes away with a blank expression. I sit at the row of benches where the buses stop, with a quartet of nerds in powersuits tap frantically at their smartphones while grunting about “last night’s party.” I think they are making fun of me, my ponytail and my smelly 7-Eleven pizza. I think they are. I KNOW THEY ARE.
“Hey, can I have a slice?”

A homeless dude with bloodshot eyes is looking at me. I’m still too tired and weirded out and I just give him the whole pie. He mutters “thanks” and goes away. The pizza smelled real good but extra cheesy goodness is not a good chaser for a cocktail of fear and confusion.

25 minutes pass and the bus picks me up. Austin feels like your average American city up to the moment you pass the Capitol, it then goes straight into University and looks like the University campus of every single film I’ve seen, only 4 times bigger, with a couple of Brutalist buildings and a stadium with Greek columns/ruins that looks pretty awesome. There’s also an arts centre where Wicked is being performed.
We then turn into something that put me into shock. Everywhere North of the University of Texas reminded me of Tampico. The small hills, the one floor houses with little to no fences, the trees lining everywhere. Sure, it’s a higher income, less violence-stricken version of Tampico, but it just feels so…familiar. I get a spot of “bus fever” and decide to get off the bus a few blocks before.

49th and Duval. How far can it be to 53 ½th street? Well, there’s a reason “Texas sized” is a term. Half an hour through streets that were missing sidewalks in some bits, a very slippery patch of mud that made me scrape my knee (much to the entertainment of a couple of hicks having a beer sacrifice on their porch) and weather very much in the Sheffield scale of cold meant that when I got to Motel 6, my English was some sort of morse code. Grammar be damned!

The woman at the reception was very friendly and it took a couple of “sorry, I don’t understand” from them for me to recalibrate my brain. She asked for the licence plates of my car, I explained I just walked from 49th and Duval and she did her best not to laugh at me. I’m sure I became:

a) A cautionary tale to other guests.
b) The punchline of every joke about SXSWers for the next week.
c) Another newbie for the pantheon of “Bad Idea Sams” that pepper the world.

Some guy comes to complain about his room just when I leave and the receptionist is very diplomatic. I fear for a moment, as I read some pretty nasty comments on Tripadvisor but once the keycard opened the room, all fears left like butterflies. Lots of space, a big ass bed and a clean bathroom. This is heaven.

I sit down to catch my breath and turn on the TV. CNN is speculating in a very unprofessional way about that missing Malaysia Airlines flight. I lie down for a second and wake up 6 hours later. 9 pm. I almost think about getting some crap from the vending machine but decide to walk towards the other side of the street, where some shops are still open. Something has to be there. Now, I knew there was a bit of a walk to do but crossing the I-35 was one of the weirdest things I had to do. There were buttons to press at the stoplights, but a couple of them didn’t work so I had to trust on the friendly nature of Texans to cross unscathed.

A car blasting Ranchero music almost runs me over. “Viva México” I think sarcastically to myself. I try to find a way into the shopping area. By this I mean: a way with a sidewalk. No sidewalk, so I do a little prayer and YOLO my way across the street. Everything but McDonald’s and Walgreens is closed. So I go for a Quarter Pounder meal. I don’t know if it was because I was too hungry or if the meat is actually better, but that fricking thing tasted good.

I remember when McDonald’s started in Mexico, somewhere around 1987. The novelty of the place meant that sometimes you had to queue for 30/40 minutes to get a meal and for a while it was trendy and upscale, then it became middle class, then it became, well, just McDonald’s. This McDonald’s was some sort of wormhole into Mexico City, as everyone (staff included) spoke Spanish.

Walgreens is a drugstore that is dear to me. Probably more because of memories, as whenever my parents drove us brats to McAllen or Brownsville, we usually got a treat at Walgreens. A candy bar, a toy or, if you were lucky, a G.I. Joe figurine. They don’t sell them anymore, but I still buy some candies, ear plugs, root beer cans, toothpaste, a journal where I will write every day and plasters. The cashier asks me how my day was, I just quip “Lynyrd Skynyrdish.” A wry smile draws on his old Texan face and he wishes me a goodnight.

The walk back to the hotel is 20 minutes long (I sauntered) and I call my parents to let them know I’m a-ok. My dad jokes about “Saint McDonald’s” saving the day and I say goodbye. One of the walls in my room is painted green and people say green is a good colour to stimulate creativity. I turn my chair around, showing y back to said wall and start typing a review after taking a few inspirational sips of Root Beer. Before dozing off, I forgo listening to music, as the cacophony that is the I-35 somehow soothed me into a peaceful sleep.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

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