Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fun Fact

The longest commercial flight you can take is the 18-and-one-half-hour Singapore Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Singapore.

The longest commercial jet flight ever was a test flight of an Airbus A340-500 aircraft. This flight took off from Hong Kong and landed in London—23 hours later. The flight could have been accomplished more quickly, but the pilots purposely took a longer route than necessary because the point of the flight was to prove that the plane could stay airborne that long.

I would not want to have had the middle seat.

Monday, July 30, 2007

International Woman of Mystery

I’m feeling very mysterious again. On Friday I wired money to China for the second time in my life. (The first time was to pay for trans-Siberian railroad tickets.) This second missive was a payment requested by the company from which I bought world cup soccer tickets. Apparently they mistakenly charged me a domestic delivery fee and needed me to send them a few extra RMB. That’s kind of annoying, especially since the wire transfer fee was almost as much as I owed them, but at least I know I’m not being ignored. I remain cautiously optimistic about getting my tickets before we leave for China.

(We’d better get them before departure, because the will call office is in Beijing, a city I don’t expect to visit.)

Friday, July 27, 2007

Where the Sidewalk Really Begins

This morning I finished my walking tour of the Adams Point neighborhood. I’ll miss that one, because it’s really nice. There are lots of magnificent old houses, and streets shaded by leafy trees that have been around long enough to grow impressive canopies.

I discovered one other thing about the area that’s old: the oldest piece of sidewalk I’ve seen yet. This one was dated 1907. I’m curious to see whether or not I ever find sidewalk that survived the 1906 earthquake.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blog Now Appearing on the Olivia Web Site

Olivia is a company specializing in lesbian travel. They’ve been around a while. I think they’re celebrating their 35th year soon. In observance of this, they have recently redesigned their web site to include (among other things) blogs by various writers. They call them “Voices.” And guess who has voice number 13? Yes, me. The screening process wasn’t exactly grueling, but I’m proud of this nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nippon Currency Exchange

Traveling to exotic places is well and good, but sometimes the exotic comes to you.

Last night I had sushi in the Castro with my sister. We went to the so-called No-Name Sushi restaurant on Church Street, which turns out to have a name after all. Nippon something. I forget. It will always be No-Name Sushi to me.

It was great--probably the best sushi in the city for the price. Hilary, who knows her sushi better than I do, thought it was better than Blowfish, which is considerably more expensive.

Almost as exciting as the food for me was finding what I thought at first was a euro coin sitting on a windowsill. It wasn’t a euro, though; it was a Paraguayan 100 guarani piece dated 1990.

I wasn’t even sure I dared take it. (Did I expect an angry South American to come back looking for it? I’m not sure.) I felt like I ought to leave something in return, so I put a dime on the sill. I wanted to leave a quarter, but I didn’t have one on me and Hilary thought even the dime was probably overpaying. She’s right. I looked it up this morning and 100 Paraguayan guarinies is worth the tiniest bit less than two cents. With currency-exchange fees, I’d be lucky to get a penny for it. No matter. I left the restaurant feeling like I was the one who had gotten a tip.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Truckin’ to Truckee

There is some good news, though: My friend John, the photographer, had a commission to write an article on Lake Tahoe for Mabuhay magazine, which is the in-flight magazine of Philippine Airlines. He is swamped right now, and is trying to concentrate on photography rather that writing anyway, so he talked the editor into asking me to write the article.

This gig pays very little--almost not enough to justify the trip up there, but it’s a foot in the door with a brand-new editor, so I enthusiastically accepted. I’m planning on spending a couple of days at Lake Tahoe next week, driving around the lake until I find an exact angle to go with. Ideally I’ll come up with more than one, and I can sell the other article to another publication if it’s different enough.

If not, I think I can still make the article break even, and what more can you ask for?

Monday, July 23, 2007

An Eccentric Orbit

The moon takes 28 days to go around the earth. The earth revolves around the sun in 365 days. These things are comfortingly predictable. But other orbits are harder to plot. Comets, for example, take wildly different paths. Some zing around the sun every few years; some take eons to make their return. My understanding, though, is that all these trajectories still can be predicted, if you do the math. That’s because they rotate around bodies of known mass and substance.

No so objects that have been trapped by the black hole of editorial indifference. Most items that get sucked into this ominous void are never heard from again.

Every once in a while, stories thought lost do return. Whether they’re managing to break free of their orbits or getting sucked in and spat back out through a hole in the space/time continuum I can never tell, but every once in a while it does happen.

The previous record for re-entry was nine months. Today that record was shattered by a piece that had been in radio silence for over two years. A story about Milan that I sent to a newspaper on April 20, 2005 recently found its way back to my mailbox, a round-trip journey of nearly 3,500 miles.

There was no note attached, but I think it’s safe to assume that this is a rejection.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Flight Times

People keep asking me how long the flight is from here to China. From SFO to Shanghai it’s 12 hours and 35 minutes. The return trip is only (only!) 11 hours and seven minutes long.

I imagine they’ll show a movie or two.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Ultimate Cheap Ticket

I’ve never been to Shanghai mid-summer. I have been in the late spring, and it was already very hot. By mid-July, it must be so hot that you can’t believe it’s cold anywhere on earth. I bet if you told the average person in Shanghai right now that there’s a place just six miles away where it’s 40 degrees below zero, they’d laugh.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for this guy.

I’m always surprised, too, when I’m on a flight that has screens displaying the airspeed and outside temperature. It’s amazing to me that you can fly through the tropics and at 35,000 feet, it’s way below zero. What’s even harder to believe, though, is that the word hasn’t gotten out in the stowaway community that wheel wells are cold and unpressurized. You’d think this would be common knowledge among people who need to know these things.

What makes this a little more sad and horrifying for me is the fact that the flight this guy stowed away on is exactly the one Pipi and I will be taking home from Shanghai. It’s sobering to know that this trip is one that people will literally die for.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Fun Fact

There are only 11 flights per week between the United States and China. That’s all of United Sates, and all of China. Doesn’t that seem like a small number? It does to me. I feel particularly lucky to have found non-stop flights on exactly the days we wanted them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Done Deal

I just got our plane tickets to China, so we’re definitely doing this.

Here’s an interesting thing I noticed while shopping: I found that on the days I wanted to travel, I had a choice of two non-stop flights. One was on United, and the other on Air China. Two round-trip tickets on the United flight cost about $150 more than they would on Air China--strange, since they seemed like very similar itineraries.

When I looked more closely at the flight times, I realized that they were exactly the same. And the flight numbers were suspiciously similar. The outbound leg was United flight 857, for example; the Air China outbound flight was #8857. Finally I found a notation that explained that the Air China flight was operated by United. Tickets on the same plane were being sold at different prices, depending on how you wanted your ticket branded.

As I was making the Air China purchase, I did discover that the extra money might buy more than just a brand name, though. Travelocity wasn’t able to issue an e-ticket for the Air China flights, so we’re getting the old-fashioned paper kind. That’s a little bit embarrassing, like wearing a Walkman in an iPod world, but I can live with it.

The only real downside--and I didn’t realize this until I’d completed my purchase--is that they won’t assign us seats until we check in on the day of our flight. So I’m afraid we’ll get to the airport and find that all the United passengers have reserved the best seats.

But, having missed the last flight we tried to take, we’ve resolved to get to the airport as early as possible this time--days early, if necessary. So we’ll at least get the best of the worst.

And even if I do end up in a middle seat, I’ll be smug in the knowledge that that guy on the aisle next to me paid dearly for his legroom.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On Second Thought

Having looked at an atlas, I think I’m going to be strong and not submit to the temptation to make a 1,500-mile side trip. Guilin is just a bit too far--further than Beijing, in fact, and probably harder to get to.

We do have a week between our first soccer game and the next one, with nothing else set in stone on the agenda, so we could take some side trips. Just not that one. I’ll see what I can come up with to keep us out of trouble between games.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Well, Somebody’s Got to Not Do It

Who hasn’t been to Guilin? Can you all raise your hands if you haven’t been? Allrighty, then. It is just me.

My grandfather informs me that he and my grandmother went there once, and it really did look like the paintings, and the fishermen really do use cormorants for fishing.

Seriously reconsidering my multiple-city stance….

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Women’s World Cup Soccer

Our excuse for going to China is that the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament is—finally—going to be there this year. China was supposed to host in 2003, but at the last minute SARS caused the World Cup to be moved to the United States. Ironically, Pipi and I didn’t see any of those games because the nearest ones were in Los Angeles, and at the time that seemed like a long way to go for soccer.

There are still parts of China I haven’t seen (I never did get to Guilin, for example), but we’ve discovered that multi-city trips are pretty exhausting, so we’re trying to stay in and around Shanghai. There is a first-round game there featuring the United States, so we’re sure to see our women at least once.

We’re also going to Guangzhou for a semi-final match. It’s not a long trip—about three hours by train—so I don’t think it’s too much. We’ll spend a night there. Guangzhou is another city I’ve never been to, so I’m looking forward to it in any case. In addition, there is a strong possibility that this semi-final game will be a match between China and the United States. Those are my two favorite teams. I hate to see one go home early, but at least I will have seen them both play.

The final game is being played in Shanghai. It’s a double-header, with the first game being a consolation match determining who gets third place. This means we get to see the top four teams that day, so there should be lots of good soccer. (I’m predicting a USA/Norway final; China/Germany consolation. You heard it here first.)

Train in Vain

No, seriously, buying a train ticket in China is harder than you might think. I know because I once spent three months there traveling by train. Well, more like two and a half months. Just before Thanksgiving, I was in Chongqing, a strange little city at the navigable end of the Yangtze River, and spent most of a day at the train station trying to buy a ticket to Guilin. Guilin is in southern China and is famous for its misty cliffs—if you’ve ever seen a Chinese landscape painting, you’ve seen Guilin.

I waited in several lines. A couple of times I got to the front of one, only to be told “mei you”—there aren’t any. I remember it taking about five hours to get someone to sell me a ticket to Guilin.

When I got on my train, the conductress in my car struck up a conversation with me. She was very sweet, and seemed to be charmed by my imperfect Mandarin. We made small talk for a while, and I felt the conversation was really flowing for a change—my Chinese must have been improving. “Where are you from?” she asked; “How long have you been here? Where are you going now?”

I told her Guilin and her face fell. She shook her head and turned my ticket over to show me. “No, you’re not,” she said sadly. Sure enough, the ticket said “Xian” on it.

To put this in geographic perspective, this is like getting on a train in Denver, thinking you’re going to New Orleans, but finding out hours later that you’re actually on your way to Chicago. I don’t know exactly how this happened. Probably the ticket salesperson panicked when she saw a foreigner, didn’t understand what I said, and was too embarrassed to ask me to clarify. Possibly Xian was the only destination sold at that window, so when I said I wanted a ticket, by golly, I got a ticket. At any rate, it was at that moment that I knew my adventure was more or less over. I knew I wouldn’t be extending my visa. It was time to go home. At the next major rail junction, I got off, bought (correctly) a ticket to Beijing, a city I’d gotten to know pretty well, and stayed in that area until it was time to fly home.

It doesn’t have to be that hard, of course, and didn’t even then. If I’d just stayed at a decent hotel instead of a bare-bones youth hostel, I could have had a concierge handle it. But decent hotels cost upwards of $20 per night then, and what backpacker has that kind of money? (Answer: Lots of them, including myself. But it’s easy to get caught up in the backpacking mania of doing everything on the cheap.)

Nowadays, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were possible to buy tickets over the Internet. But you can see why I might have some issues surrounding the situation. Please wish me luck as I attempt to climb back on that iron horse.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. More and more, though, that first step takes me to my computer.

Pipi and I are in the process of planning our next big adventure, which is a trip to China in late September for the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. Since soccer is the focus of the trip, I started by going to the Chinese version of Ticketmaster to buy tickets to the games we want to see in Shanghai and Hangzhou.

In summarizing the experience, let me just say that there aren’t many things scarier than making a purchase through a shaky Chinese web site. The transaction failed a couple of times, and every time I started over, the purchase page was subtly different, like one of those puzzles where you have to find the four things different between two very similar drawings. One time the navigation text would ask me what country I was from; the next time it didn’t care. Or the price to ship the tickets would have changed by a few yuan. (The Chinese really do like to bargain, I guess.) The whole process bogged down for quite a while because every time I tried to enter my name, I got an error message suggesting that I might have used "special characters"-- an odd complaint coming from a land with no alphabet. I had to call China twice (thank you, Skype), once to pre-order and once to vent about the special character problem, which turned out to be an Apple incompatibility issue.

I did discover one thing scarier than using a Chinese Web site, though, and that’s using a Chinese web site and getting a call from your bank’s fraud services department in the middle of the transaction.

It all turned out fine, though. It was more or less a coincidence. I apparently had made an unusual number (for me) of purchases for which you don’t need to sign your name or provide a PIN; minor purchases like concert tickets ordered over the phone, and songs from the itunes store. I hadn’t even realized I was establishing a pattern. But after that, multiple attempts to access the Chinese site was just too much weirdness for one week.

I think the story has a happy ending. I don’t have the soccer tickets in my hand yet, but I got a charmingly ungrammatical email from “Alice” saying my transaction went through and the tickets are on their way. I checked my bank account—no one has bought airline tickets to Hong Kong with my credit card. So far, so good.

Tune in next week when we attempt to use the information superhighway to purchase train tickets from Shanghai to Hangzhou.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Book Passage Reading August 12

During the spring, it looked like I might be participating in several bookstore readings. As it turns out, I’m only participating in one, but it’s a pretty big one. It’s at the Corte Madera Book Passage, my favorite Bay-Area bookstore. They’re having a reading event to help promote their annual travel writing conference. I have been to this conference twice and loved it, so I’m pleased to be a part of the event.

Five of us who contributed to Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 are going to read our pieces. The essay I’m reading was originally written for the 2005 travel conference, so there’s a pleasing circularity there.

The reading starts at 7. Book Passage isn’t hard to find. Anyone interested in stopping by is encouraged to follow that whim!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Stockholm By the Bay?

No, it’s not Northern Europe. It’s downtown Oakland, as seen from a tiny street at the top of a hill in the Adam’s Point neighborhood. Something about the spire reminds me of Stockholm a little bit, though. I like this perspective.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fear of Not Flying

I mentioned that there was a story to our having missed our flight out of Boston coming home from my reunion. I’m afraid that was a little bit of an empty promise. It’s not much of a story. Just a cautionary tale.

I remembered the flight as being at 5:30 pm. I realized around noon that I was off by 15 minutes—it was really at 5:15—but I didn’t worry. It seemed like it would be easy to make up the time, and how much difference could 15 minutes make anyway?

What followed was one of those anxiety-dream situations where nothing goes horribly wrong, but nothing goes really well, either. I just couldn’t get ahead of anything no matter how fast I worked. There was always one more thing to check online, one more lost belonging to track down, and one more errand to run before we could get out the door. I never did catch up, and ended up leaving the house about 15 minutes later than I wanted to, without having managed to check us in for our flight.

None of this should have been a big deal, because I can still get to get to the Mass Pike from Northampton in my sleep, and the airport is now very easy to find from I90. Traffic wasn’t bad. We lost a little time waiting for a shuttle at the car-rental drop-off point, but because neither of us had to check anything, I remained hopeful right until I tried to check in. By my watch I had a half hour before the flight departed, which I knew to be close, but the security line was short so it all ought to have worked.

Except that when United says they want you checked in 90 minutes early, they mean it. The kiosk told me it was too late to issue boarding passes.

It’s a very frustrating thing to be told you’ve missed a flight that you know is still sitting there at the gate. It’s depressing to know that a machine doesn’t believe that you are capable of hustling down an airport corridor. But that’s the way it works. And now I know.

The story has a mostly happy ending. After a few false starts, including a United customer service telephone agent who tried to charge us $900 to change our tickets, we talked to a real person at Logan. She got Pipi the last seat on a direct flight that got home earlier than our original itinerary at no extra charge. I ended up on a later flight to Chicago. Due to bad weather in the Mid-West, I caught up with our original ORD-SFO flight, which was very delayed. Someone who looked a lot like the actor Alan Cumming was in the boarding area, so I was able to while away the waiting time stalking him to determine if it were he. (It was.)

The only bad part was that I got home after 3am. But I learned a lesson about time management on the road, which, now that I’ve caught up on my sleep, I appreciate. (I’m also hoping this episode will put an end to a recurring dream I have about missing planes. Now that I know it’s not the end of the world, maybe my subconscious will stop tormenting me.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Fourth of July

Have a very happy Fourth, everybody! We don’t have any big plans, just eating hot dogs, watching fireworks from our kitchen window (we can see the Berkeley show pretty well) and enjoying the day off.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Painstaking Research

My friend John, the photographer, was in town for most of the month of June. This was fun because we hadn’t seen each other since the end of our trip last summer. His main rationale for coming was to take some Photoshop classes. One other goal, though, was to produce a joint-venture article or two, much like the Mission District article we sold to Malaysian Airlines’ in-flight magazine last year. We thought about doing one on markets, but neither of us found our way to very many.

This was because we were so busy researching an article on San Francisco cafes. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. As you can see from this photo, it was actually so tough that we had to recruit a friend to help us. (We didn’t ask her to wear the Mrs. Madrigal hat, but she couldn’t have been more appropriately dressed if she had bongos and a goatee.)

We ran into an old roommate of mine at a café in North Beach. (This is coincidentally the neighborhood we lived in back in the day.) I had the embarrassing task of explaining that I was not really sitting in the sun drinking coffee at 4pm on a weekday; I was actually doing research. Like I said, tough job. (I even had to eat a cannoli, because it’s the house specialty.)