Friday, August 31, 2007

Short Break

There’s no real news today, and Pipi’s getting off work early, so in that spirit, I’m taking the rest of the long weekend off. Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

And it Was Uphill Both Ways

Maybe you’re wondering what I did the first time I went to China, before the World Wide Web. The answer is I winged it, making reservations in person the day I arrived in a new city. This actually worked pretty well, and I never had to spend the night in a park or anything. (There were a few nights where I might have been warmer and more comfortable if I had). As well as it worked for me, however, I don’t wish this lifestyle on anyone I love, so I recommend it only for solo travelers.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I Knew I Was Forgetting Something

When I said yesterday that the China trip was just about set, I was leaving out one detail: We didn’t yet have hotel reservations.

We do now. I don’t know exactly why I procrastinated so badly on this. I think it was because I knew that making the reservations would be an adventure. I don’t feel confident enough with my Chinese to try making a reservation over the phone. (And at the price I’m willing to pay, you can forget about English.)

Not every Chinese hotel has online booking yet. Many have web sites, but few let you book directly. At best you can email a reservation request and wait for a reply in creative English.

That leaves Western chains and online travel sites as the best option. I ended up using both. In Shanghai, we’re staying at a Chinese hotel that is bookable through In Hangzhou, we’re staying at a Best Western that was bookable through the Best Western site. It was fairly exhausting narrowing down all the options to get to this solution, but I’m happy with our rooms. And happier still to have this over with.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Special Delivery

Alert readers will remember that about two months ago, I attempted to buy World Cup soccer tickets over the Internet. It took five or six tries spread out over two days and two computers, a couple of trans-Pacific phone calls, a fax to Beijing, and a call from my bank’s fraud prevention department (right; they contacted me), but I’m happy to report that on Friday a DHL envelope arrived from China containing all the soccer tickets I was expecting.

In other news, I picked up our visas today at the Chinese consulate. The trip is just about all in place now. We have tickets to China, permission to enter the country, and tickets to all our matches.

I suppose I could have let a travel agent or a tour group operator take care of all this, but that wouldn’t have been sporting. Me with my limited Mandarin skills against a communist bureaucracy…now that’s an exciting matchup. Let’s hear it for independent travel!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Road Work

I’m a member of a writers’ group called Left Coast Writers. One of the perks of membership is that you can submit your writing to the group’s web site and if you’re lucky, they’ll post it online.

This week, I got lucky. A piece that has previously appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle just went up in the Road Work section of the Left Coast Writers site.

Actually, LCW accepted the essay first, but there were delays (circumstances beyond my control) getting it up online. But the piece is there now, and I’m grateful to LCW for believing in it before the Chronicle even did.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Do You Copy?

Sometimes my parents are big copycats. I moved to California, they moved to California. (It took them seven years, but I think that was just to make it look less obvious.) Then I started a blog, and look who’s blogging now: My father.

He’s using it to post articles about aviation. Some of the articles that will appear have been published already and some will be original. He’s hoping to compile them into a book one day.

When I was in college, my father suggested to me that I should pick elective courses based on the professor’s reputation, not the subject matter. He believed, and I think he’s right (he’s got some pretty good advice for a copycat), that a good teacher can make any subject interesting.

For an example of what I mean, I don’t need to go any further than my father’s latest blog entry. It’s on a navigation system that’s on the brink of extinction. Maybe that doesn’t sound like something that would grab you, but he called it “Breathing Life Back into Dead Reckoning.” Good, no? That made me want to read further, and I’m glad I did. You will be too. Please check it out!

Oh, I guess I ought to mention, since you’ve probably noticed, that yes, my father and I are both writers. He kind of thought of that one first, though. Like I said, he does have some really good ideas.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Tahoe can be expensive, but I’ve found a way around that: Sleep somewhere cheap and spend your days in places that look like a million bucks.

I spent both nights of my trip in motels. They were definitely bare-bones, especially the one in South Lake Tahoe, a family-owned, cash-only operation where not even shampoo was provided. But both were clean and quiet and provided a place to sleep for less than $100, which was all I wanted out of a solo trip. (The place in Tahoe City had free wi-fi and included continental breakfast--not bad.)

Both days I was in Tahoe I visited grand old houses that are open to the public. True, nobody let me take the boat out for a spin, but it was fun to pretend that I knew the kind of swells who had vacation homes like this. Pictured is the Thunderbird Lodge, near Incline Village, Nevada. This place was owned by a guy named George Whittell, Jr., who was basically useless while he was alive, having inherited so much money that he never had to work a day in his life. He spent his days collecting knickknacks, building a menagerie, and investigating mysteries such as the age-old question, “Can an elephant survive at an elevation of 6,200 feet?” (Sadly, the answer is no, but there was a lion named Bill who fared a lot better.)

After Whittell’s death, his land, which included virtually the whole Nevada shore, ended up in the hands of the state. Most of it is protected, and the eastern side of the lake is still undeveloped and beautiful. So by ostentatiously buying up more land than any one person needs, Whittell was actually doing more good than anyone could have envisioned.

And today you can hang out at his house and pretend you’ve been invited to a weekend at Jay Gatsby’s.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Toeing the Line

One other thing that’s interesting about the Cal-Neva Resort is that the California/Nevada state line runs right through the lodge. (Hence the name.) How often do you get to stand with one foot in the Silver State and one in the Golden State? Okay, it’s not exactly straddling the equator, but it’s still worth a photograph.

And I’m guessing the equator isn’t highlighted in gold and silver paint. (I’ll have to ask Pipi; she really did straddle the equator once, in Kenya.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

But Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels

I didn’t do much after arriving at the lake the first evening. Just a disappointing dinner at a family restaurant where the surly teen-aged hostess (sometimes I hate summer) acted like one single grown-up can be safely ignored.

After breakfast the next morning I started driving around the lake. One of my first stops was at the Cal-Neva resort, in Crystal Bay, Nevada. This casino/hotel used to be owned by Frank Sinatra, and it still has a retro coolness to it without actually being stuck in the past. It looks sort of like the Ahwahnee Lodge would if the Jetsons did the decorating. There are all the usual casino favorites, like blackjack and craps, and of course, lots of slot machines.

Now, I know there’s no such thing as a professional slot player, and I know why: Because the house always wins. But I like slots. I can’t help it. I like pulling the lever. I like handling the coins. I like it when the one-armed bandit flashes and chirps at me like a pinball machine. I just like the whole sensory experience.

The Cal-Neva didn’t disappoint. I bought two rolls of nickels (that’s four dollars, folks) and made them last almost an hour at a particularly shiny machine.

At the end of the hour, I had exactly five cents out of my original $4 left. But the one nickel left was a buffalo nickel. I can only remember one other time that I’ve gotten a buffalo nickel in change, so this was quite an event for me.

If you can get yourself into this frame of mind, where you can lose 79 out of 80 coins and still feel like a winner, then you too can be a slot machine champion.

Later, when I visited some of the casinos at the more developed south end of the lake, I realized that I’d had a very unusual experience at the Cal-Neva. The slots in the south all seem to be virtual. You give the machine a bill or a credit card, and when you’re ready to cash out, it prints a ticket for you that you take to the cashier. You’ll never see a real coin. I understand that cashless machines are cleaner, safer, and more convenient, but they make me sad. Sad enough that the next time I’m in Stateline, I probably won’t even bother stopping.

In fact, you can bet on it.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lake Tahoe

I’ve been neglecting my Lake Tahoe trip. Lake Tahoe is a place I have been to before, but it had been a while, and I wanted to refresh my memory. Plus it was fun to take a little trip in the middle of the week, even though I had to go by myself.

I spent two nights in the area, one in Tahoe City, and one in South Lake Tahoe. While I was there, I drove around the lake. The route around the lake is about 75 miles and can be driven in as little as two hours. But I managed to make it last two days, stopping several places and keeping the top down as much as possible. The drive around Lake Tahoe has been described as the most beautiful drive in America, and it just might be. While I was there, the weather was perfect and the crowds were thin. I’m not sure I’d recommend winging a trip to the lake to the extent I did (I didn’t know for sure each morning where I’d be staying that night) but it certainly worked for me. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in Tahoe.

Photos here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Flirting or Mourning?

I mean, I know where the flowers came from, or at least I think I do: There is a tangle of rose bushes hanging over a wall just a few doors down from where I took the picture.

What I’m wondering is, what inspired someone to clip a few roses and leave them here? Right here, on a block that, thanks to an industrial bakery, smells like 20 cakes cooling at once. Here, a block away from a convenience store where a man is speaking to six cruisers’ worth of police officers. Here, a quarter of a mile east of a hovering helicopter. Here, where rolling carts filled with scrap metal of dubious provenance trundle by. Here, where I’ve found myself standing on a corner that smells like a birthday party but looks like a highway fatality shrine.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What Happened Here?

I found this still life at the corner of 32nd and Adeline, which is not the most uplifting corner of Oakland. (Although it’s not far from the robot I found the other day.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I like to listen to music while I walk. Lately, I’ve been going through all of our CDs systematically listening to each one.

Yesterday I found myself listening to an album of children’s music (I have no idea where we got it) while walking through a part of town that was more blighted than I expected. At first this seemed incongruous, listening to silly songs while muttering men with shopping carts full of cans rattled by.

Then I came upon this guy, a relic of my own childhood. He was standing outside a scrap metal yard on Peralta Street. (Which was where all the carts were headed.) Suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Statistical Improbability

At the bookstore reading, someone told me that Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007 is doing quite well. This could just be a rumor, but I hear it has sold in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies, which is a lot for Travelers’ Tales.

I went to the Amazon site to try to confirm this. I was not successful, but I did discover one other interesting tidbit: Amazon, for some reason, always has a section on a book’s information page that lists “Statistically Improbable Phrases” contained within the book. For BWTW 2007, it lists exactly one:

Fire Chicken.

I’m not kidding. The only phrase used in the whole anthology so unusual as to have the word “Improbable” attached to it comes from my story. (It’s the literal translation of the Mandarin Chinese word for turkey.) This somehow strikes me as something to be proud of. Maybe it isn’t; I don’t really understand what it means, even after having read the explanation, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Better Reading Though Chemistry

I had my first bookstore reading last night and it went surprisingly well. I say I’m surprised because I am, as I have mentioned, a nervous performer. But I kept it together last night. Someone once told me that it’s physically impossible to have a panic reaction if you’re breathing regularly, so I spent all of yesterday trying to remain calm and breathe. That seemed to keep the nerves at bay.

Oh, and I was also on drugs. I popped a beta blocker late in the afternoon, and I think it helped. I didn’t do that embarrassing blushing thing I usually do when I realize a roomful of people is looking at me, and my heart didn’t pound like it usually does.

There were probably sixty people at the reading. I went first, and everyone agreed that my piece was a fun way to kick off the event. I know I had fun, anyway, and I never have enjoyed myself speaking before a crowd before. The audience seemed to enjoy it, too. They laughed at all the right things.

Oh, and people wanted me to sign their books! I’d never been asked for an autograph before. Very exciting!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday Fillip

Perhaps I’ve mentioned that I’m writing an article for an airline magazine right now. Perhaps not. In any case, I began my research by going to this airline’s office in San Francisco to pick up a copy of the magazine, since I’d never seen one.

I think they’re in the process of moving. At least I hope so. The place was a study in chaos, with boxes everywhere and people milling around as if, like me, they weren’t sure where to go. There were no labels or signs on any doors—it was impossible to tell where I even should start asking for a magazine. (It makes me wonder what it’s like to fly this airline, but I’m trying to push that idea out of my head.)

The funny thing was that the people who worked there seemed completely unfazed by the discord. They were friendly and untroubled. Surprisingly, there seemed to be some kind of event going on in the office, a big presentation or meeting. The fact that it looked like they were squatting in the building wasn’t going to stop them from having friends over. Dozens of chairs were set up in an otherwise completely bare room with papers all over the floor. No one seemed to mind.

Eventually someone found me and was very happy to let me have as many magazines as I wanted. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the issues available had as its cover story a piece by my friend John about Tokyo. I knew he’d had this assignment, but I hadn’t expected to see it with my own eyes. It’s a small travel-writing world.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Missed Post

Sorry I missed yesterday. I spent a lot of the day driving back from Lake Tahoe and didn’t get to it. I’m happy to be back at sea level. I’ll post more pictures soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Attempting to Be Cool

I am, of course, making a bigger deal out of this reading event than I need to. It’s hardly a book tour. All I have to do is read this one story. There are four other authors reading that evening, so it’s not like I have to carry the event.

I am, however, reading first. At least for now. So far the process of organizing this event has involved more e-mail than a congressional scandal. But for now we’ve sort of decided on alphabetical order, and that puts me first.

It also means that the middle three stories will all be about Italy, which seems to alarm at least one reader, and may cause another lineup change. I’m not too worried about that, though. If someone thought all the Italy stories could co-exist in one anthology, they ought to be able to stand side by side at a reading event. And I think I’d rather go first—I’ll only get more nervous sitting there listening to the others, and I like to be the one who sets the bar, not the one who lands with it in an ungainly heap on the crash mat.

Monday, August 06, 2007


The Dallas Morning News published my Mongolia overview article over the weekend. I’m very happy with it. I can tell parts were edited down, but it was a gentle trim with almost no re-writing. They kept my opening intact, which I’m particularly happy about.

They also made an online slideshow of some of John’s photographs. His Mongolia shots are among my favorites, so this pleases me, too. Here’s a link. Please be sure to check out the photos--there is a link inside a small box labeled “Also Online.”

Friday, August 03, 2007

Such a Lovely Audience

Do you ever talk to yourself when you’re home alone? Of course you do; everyone does. But is it a monologue? Does it ever go on for more than five minutes?

If so, then you know what my afternoon has been like. I’ve been practicing for a reading I’m doing at Book Passage in Corte Madera next Sunday. Practicing consists of standing in the middle of my living room and reading my story out loud to nobody. I’m not normally especially chatty, so hearing my own voice for eight minutes straight (which is an improvement over my initial speed-talking 7:30) takes some getting used to.

Which is exactly the idea, of course.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

About the Carved Animals

I don’t actually know anything about the animals. There are a lot of them, but they don’t seem to be for sale. This may be a labor of love situation. I will try to find out more.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Never Smile at a Crocodile…

…Unless you’re walking along Grand Avenue in extreme West Oakland and you see this one. Then go ahead. It’s pretty charming.

Yesterday’s walk took me to a place where the sidewalk literally ends. It was an interesting part of the city, gritty and industrial, and not very residential. West of the Mandela Parkway, the streets are roughly paved, with no real curbs or sidewalks. The only vehicles were trucks delivering to and from the various warehouses in the area. Even on well-traveled (and well sealed) Grand Avenue, I was treated to the sight of a man in a suit vomiting on a street tree.

That sounds horrible, and it was, but it wasn’t all third-world squalor. Actually, this part of town doesn’t seem all that blighted. Just a little overlooked. There were surprising signs of life, such as cafes and taco trucks seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There were some new condo clusters stuccoed up in trendy Santa Fe burnt umber and ochre hues. People walked dogs. Pit bulls, mostly, but it was practically Mayberry compared to the images most people, myself included, usually think of when someone says “West Oakland.”