Every year since 1971, iFest has grown. And every year, it becomes less and less distinguishable from any other festival in Houston, for better or for worse. This year's iFest spans two weekends and roughly ten city blocks around City Hall. It's filled with more sights, sounds and sweets than ever, but it's also filled with the sort of odd bric-a-brac you'd expect to find in a half-abandoned mall or a shady shop on Harwin.
The good: This year, the spotlighted region of the world -- The Caribbean -- has an amazing Living History Museum set up in Sam Houston Park (pictured above). Ringed by food stands selling curried goat, jerk chicken and something called "bake 'n' shark" (Hair Balls intends to find out what that is next weekend), the museum is entirely outdoors and features nearly life-sized models of the El Morro fort, complete with functioning cannon, and a pirate ship, among other things. And lest you think the area is only interesting to children, adults will find exhibits such as the Alto Vista chapel and the Caribbean Nature and Spice Center equally fascinating.
The better: Even though it's not a spotlighted country, Ethiopia has an amazing display set up at the edge of Tranquility Park that you shouldn't miss. Not only does it feature a life-sized replica of the famous rock-hewn church Lalibela, you can also visit with clergy from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Their priest, resplendent in rich purple vestments and a gleaming gold cross, will tell you all about the incense and drums used in church services, why the congregation wears white robes trimmed with soft blue and gold, the significance of the hand-painted icons and Ethiopia's patron saint -- the same Saint George slaying the dragon familiar to the Greek Orthodox church and its vibrant iconography. Afterwards, you can partake in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony (pictured above) to the joyful sounds of a steel drum band floating across the park.
The bad: As you walk the streets and parks of the festival, bouncing from street vendor to stage, you'll have to avoid the hawking calls of commercial services like Green Mountain Energy, Sparkletts Water and various cell phone companies. You eventually become numb to the pitches, but it's still aggravating to pay $17 to have salespeople constantly bombard you with wasteful flyers.
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The ugly: Discount perfume tables. Cheesy holographic posters of Drew Brees and various other sports and/or music personalities. Knockoff purses and cheap jewelry. Isn't this the kind of stuff you buy off the back of a truck? Why is it here, at iFest? Similarly, mixed in amongst food stands selling various ethnic cuisines and good, old fashioned festival food (i.e. hot dogs and funnel cakes) are the stands becoming ubiquitous at every festival, fair or rodeo: Deep-fried Oreos. Hot beef sundaes. Deep-fried Twinkies. Boring, calorie-laden monstrosities that you can find at any festival anywhere. The iFest money has to come from somewhere, we suppose.
But instead of that money coming from sketchy vendors, it can come from us through ticket sales. Head out to iFest this weekend and show your support for keeping iFest more unique and less Harwin.
iFest runs this weekend -- April 24 and 25 -- from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $17 at the gate, and children are free on Sunday. For more information, visit www.ifest.org.