Update from the Virgin America JFK-LAS inaugural flight.

Late last month we heard news that Virgin America was kicking off service between New York’s JFK airport and Las Vegas and would be celebrating the event with the christening of HBO’s “Entourage Air” with the cast in New York and a party at the Palms casino in Vegas.

Now, in the midst of the debauch we’re checking in to update you on how the event is unfolding. Just after 1PM Gadling was asked to show up at hangar 12 right outside of JFK airport, an open air structure with the Virgin America “Entourage Air” A320 parked underneath. Walking up to the gate, two models showed up to escort us down the red carpet towards the hangar, where music was playing, couches were laid out and there were a hundred or so people milling about.

With Champagne, Grey Goose and Bombay Dry flowing freely, the crowd patiently snacked on hors d’oeuvres speculating about the arrival of Branson and the entourage until finally the crew snuck into the back of the aircraft, a few suits made some announcements and the entire lot burst from the front boarding door.

I’m not sure how rehearsed the entire spectacle was – apparently Sir Branson was late getting in – but after they posed for a few photos the entire crew of Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connoly, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Richard Branson as well as the creator, Doug Ellin came down the steps, grabbed bottles of Champagne and burst them open in front of the port engine. Someone tracked down a microphone for a few nebulous questions, then the cast unfortunately had to leave. Later, Devon, one of the PR associates at Virgin told me that they had tons of events associated with the HBO premier so had to jet out to the city as soon as possible.

As for the hundred or so people in the hangar, however, we were headed to Las Vegas for the after party and some grand old socializing. At 35,000 feet we were privy to another speech from the brass then delighted with a pre-screening of the first episode of this season’s Entourage which airs this weekend. With four more hours left to Vegas, we were left to explore own wiles, which is where you’ll find me now, tucked under a plush “Entourage Air” blanket.

Supposedly the afterparty takes place at the Playboy club in the Palms. Stay tuned for a full report from the event and all of the juicy pictures!

Virgin America teams up with Entourage for inaugural and promotion

Well, Virgin American certainly has their demographic targeted. The hip startup airline just announced that they’re teaming up with HBO’s Entourage to christen one of their their Airbus aircraft “Entourage Air” and kick off service between New York‘s JFK and Las Vegas.

Yes, this is the same group that also hosted Victoria’s Secret models on one of their transcontinental routes.

Next Thursday the airline plans to host an Entourage party at a private JFK hangar with members of the Entourage crew (no specifics on whether this is going to be some B character or some of the stars), Richard Branson and other celebs for a pre launch party with Dom Perignon Champagne, hors d’oeuvres and other themed goodies.

In flight, passengers will be treated to a special pre screening of the hit HBO show and the airline will kick off special HBO features for all passengers flying on VA for the duration of the month. Later, HBO and VA plan on collaborating in other projects on the airline’s advanced inflight entertainment system.

Naturally, the party finishes off at the Playboy Club in the Palms Casino.

Truly, a magnificent introduction to a route. But will it pay off? Virgin America bills itself as the hip, edgy airline that more often than not is slightly more expensive than the competition. Can their image and inflight amenities sway you over from a legacy carrier?

Letter from Nepal: Watching HBO with a living goddess (part 2)

Patan, Nepal–On this blistering May day, the royal kumari, Preeti, doesn’t bother to show up at the third-story window. And why should she? Last year, the independent girl refused to give tika – a blessing in the form of a red mark on the forehead – to the prime minister, who was attempting to take over from the unpopular king the annual ceremonial duty of receiving a blessing for the nation.

While any Hindu or Buddhist believer may enter to receive a blessing from the kumari each morning, Westerners of uncertain faith are strictly prohibited from even entering the inner palace. My mere request for an interview greatly offends the palace caretaker, who angrily shoos my translator away.

So I head to nearby Bhaktapur, the seat of a once powerful kingdom in the valley and home to a kumari reported to be the most progressive – and accessible – in Nepal. The city has escaped Kathmandu’s building boom and is relatively unchanged, with cobblestone streets and charming squares packed with temples. I eventually find the kumari’s home tucked away in one of the myriad back alleyways.
Unlike Preeti or Chanira, 11-year-old Sajai Shakya is known to lead an almost normal life – a living goddess who goes to school, plays outside, and even visits the US (her unprecedented trip last June almost led to the removal of her title). Her parents, a marketing agent and a housewife, defend the middle path between protecting a girl’s adolescence and fulfilling a religious obligation.

“The kumaris should be allowed to go out,” says her mother, Rukmini Shakya. “If they are confined to their homes for as long as eight years, how can they interact with the world after this part of their lives?”

And I discover, to my dismay, that the Shakya family walks its talk. I’ve come all this way to meet a kumari, only to discover that Sajai had resigned earlier this year to enroll in a prestigious boarding school in Kathmandu.

It’s at Patan, the third major city in the valley, that I come face to face with Chanira Bajracharya the HBO-loving living goddess. Chanira is already in her throne room, decked in full kumari regalia: elegant red garb (she cannot wear any other color), flowery headdress, thick silver necklaces, and a painted third eye that Hindus believe can see for miles – and into the future.

She’s forbidden to smile, though to show any negative emotions would be a deadly omen to the guest. But the 13-year-old seems amused, invoking all her godly powers not to smile at the sight of a Westerner attempting to navigate the protocol for greeting a goddess.

Alas, her mother, Champa Bajracharya, steps in and informs me that outsiders must not corrupt Chanira’s purity by attempting conversation. That’s why she has no friends, explains Mrs. Bajracharya, “she’s not allowed outside.”

Her mother says she always knew her daughter was different. Standing in Chanira’s presence, I sense a sort of dignity and sensitivity you don’t normally see in a ninth grader.

Right before leaving Nepal, I meet 25-year-old Rashmila Shakya, a former goddess who who seems like the girl next door. She is the first kumari to graduate from college, earning a degree in computer science last year. When Rashmila left the Kathmandu palace in 1991 as a 12-year-old, she knew only enough to be placed in second grade.

The two royal kumaris since Rashmila have received better private tutors, though they’re still not allowed to attend school or live with their families.

She regrets not receiving a proper education, but staunchly defends the institution: “If the kumaris started to go to school, then what would be the difference between a kumari and any other girl? The tradition must be modernized with time, but that doesn’t mean the whole system should be changed.”

In a wistful tone, she recalls her former position as a source of spiritual healing. She fondly talks about the 6-year-old mute boy, who was able to speak shortly after drinking water that had been poured over her feet.

But for Rashmila, now dressed in stylish jeans and sporting pink nail polish, that is a past life.

In a noticeably relieved tone, she declares, “My life now is completely normal.”

All images from a BBC slideshow of the kumaris.

Carrie Bradshaw’s Famous Stoop Still Draws Tourists

Sex and the City might be long gone from HBO but its spirit is alive and well in the West Village of New York. At least its less glamorous offspring–Sex and the City tourism–is.

Yes, women from all over the world come here to make a pilgrimage to 66 Perry Street, Carrie’s brownstone apartment (which was actually supposed to be on the Upper East Side), where she used to sit on the stoop and contemplate her love life. They then go around the corner for the infamous Magnolia Bakery cupcake, which–please don’t crucify me for saying so–is completely overrated, especially considering the 100-yard-long line of people waiting to get their hands on one. (They should be selling those things at post offices to make people form lines and wait patiently. They might actually do that if Sarah Jessica Parker tells them that’s what she does.)

NY Times writer Gerri Shanahan was complaining in her article this past Sunday about the busloads of the show fans pulling up at 66 Perry daily to take pictures on the stoop because they are “like so like the characters”, sans the good shoes, of course. Somehow, I don’t feel bad for you, Gerri Shanahan. Perry Street is one of New York’s prettiest and, honestly, I would take it even with the Carrie-wannabes on the stoop.

Talking Travel with Brook Silva-Braga

Writer and director Brook Silva-Braga left his job as an Emmy award-winning producer with HBO’s Inside the NFL to do what many of us dream of, and a few actually go through with: he moved all of his belongings into his parents house and set out on a year long round-the-world trip. With less than five pounds of clothing, and over 30 pounds of video equipment stuffed into a backpack, Brook traveled around the globe, chronicling the entire solo adventure in an outstanding documentary called A MAP FOR SATURDAY (read my review of it here).

We got a chance to sit down with Brook and Talk Travel. What made him quit his cushy job at HBO to travel the world for a year? Does the movie appeal more to those of us who have already traveled a great deal, or those who have yet to catch the “bug”? Find out!

We’ve got three copies of the DVD to give away, so stay tuned after the interview to find out how you can get your hands on one! The contest has ended! Find out where you can purchase a copy of the movie at the end of the interview.

How much traveling had you done before you decided to take the leap and travel solo for a year?

I had traveled throughout the U.S. for work and vacationed in Europe, South America and the Caribbean but I’d never done the budget thing or traveled alone. I remember going to Peru with my family on a package tour — perish the thought — and one guy in the group was traveling by himself. We all looked at him like there was something a bit wrong with that.

What finally pushed you over the edge… that moment that made you decide to commit to spending a year on the road?

It’s kind of ironic how it came about. I was working for HBO and they sent me to the Philippines to produce a story. I figured while I was in Asia I’d head over to the Thai beaches for a few days. So naturally one night in Ko Samui I ended up Jell-o wrestling and that led me to meet Bill and Paul, who had quit their lives in Northern Ireland for an around-the-world year. I was blown away by what they were doing and tagged along for as long as I could. But after a couple weeks work beckoned and I headed back to the New York winter knowing I wanted more of that amazing thing I had felt in Thailand. I quit my job seven months later.

My boss took me to lunch just before I left and asked if I had gotten the idea for the trip during my time in Asia. When I told him “Yes,” he said, “From now on we’re only sending married producers overseas.”

How long had you been working for HBO before you left?

I started interning there when I was 19 and had been there full time for three years, so it wasn’t easy to leave but I knew it was the right decision.

Did you leave on the trip with any sort of agreement with them regarding a job when you returned?

I asked for a one-year leave and they couldn’t give me that. My boss suggested I could just take a few weeks each year and it would add up to the same thing. My co-workers were mostly supportive and a bit envious.

Was your job waiting for you when you got back?

I’m really lucky they didn’t give me the one-year leave because I needed another four months to finish the documentary when I got back. Afterwards I gave a copy of it to my old boss and he very generously offered me a better position than I had when I left. But I’m in a different place now professionally and personally and an office job just isn’t for me.

Did you plan on traveling with the intent of making the documentary from the beginning… or did you come up with the idea of documenting it when you started planning the details of the trip?

The idea to travel came first, but I was a little concerned about throwing away my career, so making a documentary was a way of lessening that concern. I had a million ideas for what kind of documentary to make but none of them were that good so I just started shooting my own preparations and by the time I left I knew it would be about the experience of traveling alone for a long time.

Some hardcore travelers scoff at the thought of bringing large amounts of technology along. What sort of reactions did you have from the travelers you met along the way when they saw you traveling with all of the video equipment?

The bag full of electronics made me a bit of a curiosity I think but it almost never drew a negative reaction. In a way I was an even more hardcore traveler because with all the electronic requirements for making the film my personal possessions were less than 10 pounds.

What about the people in the documentary? Were they excited about the project — or do you think they thought this footage wouldn’t actually see the light of day outside of your family and friends?

I learned that the word “documentary” is thrown around quite liberally these days. Anyone with a camera but without a script is “making a documentary.” So I think most people lumped me into that group. Also, because I didn’t have a crew with me and was mainly shooting people who I had become good friends with I was able to capture moments that a normal production crew wouldn’t.

Now that they’ve had the chance to see the final product, what are they saying?

The biggest rush from this project was watching it premiere in front of 500 people in Cleveland, but the second best moment was watching it in a Berlin hotel room with my friend Jens. I met him in Australia and he’s one of the main characters in the film. After his section played he got a little emotional and grabbed the DVD case. I was videoing his reaction so I know just what he said: “I will have this for the rest of my life…Like my children I tell them, ‘Here, this is a movie about what I have done,’ and they can see me.”

For some reason I was really, really happy to do that for him. I worked 18 months on the movie and it really has very little personal meaning to me because I’ve seen it so many hundreds of times but for him to have a record of his trip like that is really cool.

Do you think the documentary appeals more to people who have traveled in the past or people who plan to travel in the future?

The response from both groups has been really nice. At first I was concerned that hardcore travelers would have a ‘been there, done that,’ attitude but they haven’t. Travelers love travel I think. That’s something we all learn when we get home and the only people who want to hear our travel stories are other travelers.

Where has it shown so far?

So far it’s played festivals in Cleveland, Memphis, Paris and Wales. It will play at the Ischia Film Festival in Italy at the end of June and the Globians Film Festival in Potsdam, Germany this August where it will be the opening film.

Can you tell us anything about the MTV premiere?

A U.S. TV date will be announced soon and international TV details are being finalized as well. I feel very corporate saying all that.

What’s in store for the future? Any more traveling?

I’m hoping to visit some friends in Europe this summer and finally make it to Iceland. I’ve started drawing lines through a map of Africa with hopes for this winter. There will be more documentaries from far-flung places but I think ‘A Map for Saturday’ says what I have to say about the experience of travel. Now I’ll just enjoy it.

Thanks, Brook!

A Map For Saturday can be purchased online at AMapForSaturday.com.