Friday, November 30, 2007

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

The buildings in downtown Oakland have their decorative roof lighting up, which adds a little something to long winter nights, even in a place like the Bay Area, which doesn’t get very cold.

My favorite urban Christmas decoration of all is the little tree on the roof of the apartment building on the far right. That building isn’t really downtown at all--it’s an illusion that the structure is a part of the main skyline--but I love that it’s trying so hard to fit in. Something about that tree way off to the side of things perfectly captures the Charlie Brown-like (Charlie Brownian?) mix of hope and melancholy that can permeate the holidays.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Basking in Reflected Glory

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been hoping to score toward the more adventurous end of the scale on the travel personality web site I’d discovered.

I didn’t get my wish, but at least someone in my family is representing: My grandmother scored a full point (on a scale of one to six) ahead of me.

This might sound like a joke, but I assure you, it isn’t. My grandparents have lived and traveled all over the world, and they aren’t afraid to take a cargo ship or a military transport plane if that’s what they have to do to get there. So my hat’s off to the real adventure travelers in the family.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Travel Personality Test

Pipi found an interesting web site recently. The site tests your travel style. The author’s somewhat confusing scale rates travelers along an “Authentic-Venturer” continuum. People on the “Authentic” end of the scale like things to be predictable and comfortable. They go to well-known tourist locations and stay in name-brand hotels because they know what they’re going to get there. They like group tours, tend to go to the same places over and over, and typically don’t wander too far from home.

People at the extreme “Venturer” end of the scale are adventure travelers, people who seek out undiscovered locations and would rather camp or stay in an independent inn or hotel because they find known quantities boring. They would rather die than be constrained by a group tour. They aren’t necessarily into high-adrenaline activities, but that does seem to go with the territory.

I was sort of hoping to score in the extreme adventure range, but I wasn’t too surprised to find that I’m a garden variety Centric Venturer—that is, somewhat adventurous, but not very. This makes sense. I will travel independently to places that most people tour, like China. But I also did once travel with an organized group (to Cuba) and I don’t regret it. I look for hotel names I recognize when I travel abroad, and I definitely don’t bungee jump.

Luckily for me, Pipi is also a Centric Venturer. That doesn’t surprise me, either, but it’s good to get reassurance that we have the same travel style.

Here’s where you can take the quiz yourself. (Click on the Plog Travel Personality Quiz link.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food for Thought

You are no safer than your most careless act

--Spotted on a sign in the parking lot of a sheet metal factory in West Oakland.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pipi and I will be spending the day with my parents in San Francisco. I hope everyone out there has a very happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Doing Good by Doing Well

Bill Gates won’t give you five dollars for every email you forward. You can’t get good luck by passing on a chain email. But you really can do a good deed by clicking on this web site.

Freerice is the most excellent time-waster ever, and it appears to be completely on the up-and-up. I checked it with Snopes, the urban-myth debunking site.

Here’s how it works: You go to the site, and answer multiple-choice questions that test your vocabulary. For every question you get right, 10 grains of rice are donated to the UN World Food Program. (The rice is paid for by advertisers.)

The questions start out pretty easy, but get harder. After a few questions, you will be assigned a vocabulary level, and you jump one level every time you answer three in a row correctly. You drop back a level every time you get one wrong. The site says there are 50 levels, but that it’s rare for anyone to get past the 47th. So far I haven’t done it either, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

I urge everyone to check it out. You get to put that SAT prep to work. The hungry get fed. Procrastination is accomplished. Everyone wins.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The City of Living Dangerously

What do Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area have in common? They each contain two of the nation’s ten most dangerous cities, according to CQ Press.

Michigan gets the most dangerous city, Detroit; and #3, Flint. The Bay area gets Richmond at #9, and Oakland, coming in as the fourth most dangerous city in America.

This is discouraging, of course. For one thing, it means there’s no end in sight to the stupid comments and questions people in other parts of the country offer when I tell them where I live. (Dumbest to date, asked of Pipi and me in Memphis: “So, y’all must be the only white people there?” There’s no answer to that.)

I get a little tired of defending Oakland, a city that has a very real crime problem but which isn’t the war zone with a football team that most of America seems to think it is. So thanks a lot, CQ Press. I’m curious to see where your hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) comes in on the list.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Way into WAYN

I just spent most of my afternoon uploading travel photos to WAYN. Boy is that site addictive!

I also spent part of the afternoon deleting obscene emails that came through the site, so it’s definitely not perfect. Pretty good, though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I’ve discovered an interesting site recently. It’s called WAYN, which stands for “Where Are You Now.” It’s mostly a social networking site like MySpace or Linkedin, but its focus is travel. You can keep track of past trips and show where you plan to go next. You can also keep people abreast of where you happen to be at that very moment.

One feature of the site is that it keeps a running total of what percentage of the world you’ve seen. Unfortunately, it’s not based on landmass but simply on the number of countries you’ve visited.

I say “unfortunately,” because the way they calculate it, spending three months traveling all over an enormous country like China boosts my percentage by exactly the same amount as having once touched down on the island of Anguilla when I was 12. And naturally, being compulsive, I am interested in boosting my percentage. I’m currently at 10%. That’s not bad, but you’re probably not going to be surprised to hear that it’s my dream to hit 100%.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hangzhou Hogs

I think I may have mentioned that I didn’t like Hangzhou, China all that much. I found it oppressively hot and as a tourist attraction, a little underwhelming. Our team got beaten badly in a soccer game we saw played there, and to top it all off, I dropped my camera in a lake. Not that that’s Hangzhou’s fault, it just didn’t help matters any.

Over the weekend, however, I noticed a blurb in the travel section that made me understand that our experience there could have been far worse. How, you ask? Three words: ravenous feral pigs. (Please note that this would also make an excellent band name.)

Apparently enormous and famished wild boars have been ransacking buildings all over town, and one even tried to ram a taxicab, making me feel much better about the times we had trouble hailing one. The problem has gotten so bad that officials are considering allowing hunting. “We will try to drive them away, but shooting will be allowed if necessary," one spokesman said.

So on top of the already documented hazards of sightseeing in Hangzhou—heatstroke, aggressive drivers, and dining dysphoria, you can now add boar goring and stray bullets. We will not be returning any time soon.

Friday, November 09, 2007


My walk today took me past Lonely Planet’s North American headquarters. It’s right next to the railroad tracks, which seems somehow appropriate for a travel publishing company. I’m glad to finally know exactly where the office is.

It turns out to be very close to a brewery I didn’t know about (the Linden Street Brewery). You learn something new every day!

Thursday, November 08, 2007


There’s a charming phrase I learned reading an article about people who bicycle across the country. Some riders, or at least the group I read about, were constantly vigilant to make sure that on their journey they covered “EFI”—let’s say it stands for “Every Fabulous Inch.” In other words, they wanted to be able to say they’d covered literally the entire length of the country. If they stopped in a particular place one day, and then got a ride to a hotel or campground, they had to start the next days’ ride at exactly the point where they had left the road the night before. If a portion was washed out or closed for whatever reason and they had to portage around it, this was cause for great consternation. I think, though, that they decided that riding every inch of available road counted—they didn’t have to penalize themselves for impassible stretches.

So I’ve been asking myself lately how strict I need to be with myself. Somewhat to my surprise, the answer has been, “Not too strict.”

I’m surprising myself because I know I do tend slightly toward the compulsive—it’s not enough to collect pennies, for example; I have to have one from every year. And every mint. I can get rid of duplicates—I’m not a hoarder—but I do want that sense of completion and order.

So far, I lead a mostly normal life thanks to low-volume collections. But I know I have it in me to take things too far, so I’m happy to report that I’ve been coming up with some pretty reasonable rules for myself. I don’t have to walk every literal inch, for example. I know I mentioned that I felt like I had to go down even short dead-end streets, but I don’t have to compulsively walk to the very end and squish my toes against the fence or whatever it is at the very end of the pavement.

I don’t have to walk on both sides of the street except in special cases like the Mandela Parkway, which is a road divided by a median strip so wide it has landscaping and benches. I don’t have to do anything heroic, like walk on freeway ramps, or through hard-hat construction areas. No trespassing. No poison oak. No superfund sites.

My guiding philosophy is that I’m exploring to learn about Oakland, not to bump into every wall in town.

I’m curious to see how other walkers handle the “EFI” issue. Anyone have any personal philosophies they’d like to share?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Not What I Meant by “Ladies’ Room”

There was something I wanted to show you all today, but at the last minute, I had another attack of self-consciousness and didn’t take a picture. I don’t think I’m being neurotic this time, though.

I was on Seventh Street and I passed a small mosque with beautiful calligraphy on the outside. What really caught my attention, though, was that there were two entrances, one for men and the other for women. It occurred to me that I’ve never seen this arrangement in a non-restroom situation. And yes, I have seen mosques before; I’d just never noticed dual entrances. (I did once go into a mosque in western China; I hope I didn’t do anything inappropriate.)

This evening I went back to take a picture. There was a man arriving at the same time, clearly there to worship, and suddenly I felt kind of like a hayseed and kind of like a very bad spy taking a picture. So no photo today.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dead End Streets

Dead-end streets are awkward to deal with, and for a long time I had trouble finishing up my very own street for just that reason. The short end of the road I live on is really just a wide driveway for two buildings, but it has a street sign, so I felt I had to walk it. But I worried what the neighbors would think. The stub is so short and exposed that there’s no way to claim you’re looking for an address, or that you thought the street went through. It just wouldn’t be plausible. So for months, self-consciousness prevented me from crossing that block off my map.

Finally a neighborhood block party saved the day. The refreshment table was set up on the short end of the street, and a lot of people were clustered around it. I was able to mingle my way far enough across the intersection that I felt it counted.

Monday, November 05, 2007

I’m an Excellent Walker. Definitely an Excellent Walker.

Sometimes when I’m walking I worry that people are wondering what I’m up to. Generally I write this sensation off as some sort of adolescent flashback, but recently I went on a walk and realized people really were staring at me.

I was near the Emeryville border, in an area where a freeway has cut across the neighborhood. There, many streets that I’m sure used to be longer now terminate in an abrupt dead-end at the freeway right-of-way.

This must have caused enormous upheaval when it happened. I’m sure houses were demolished, and people living on either side of the freeway must have felt like the Berlin Wall went through their neighborhood.

One other very minor but interesting consequence of the freeway is that it’s really hard to inconspicuously walk the streets there. I kept coming to nub-ended roads and feeling compelled to walk to the terminus, then awkwardly turn around and waddle forty or fifty feet back the way I’d come. In most cases it was very obvious from the nearest intersection that the streets dead-ended, and I must have looked strange striding purposefully toward the chain link fence at the end of each one and then turning right around.

Finally a group of guys doing alfresco auto repair work wanted to know what I was doing. They said I looked lost, but I think that by “lost” they really meant “suspicious.” I found myself blurting out that I was compulsively walking the whole length of all the streets in the neighborhood, and that’s why I had to walk through their outdoor repair shop even though any fool could tell the street was not a through street.

They seemed to accept that. They must have seen Rainman.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Best Fifty Cents I Spent That Day

I forgot to say: The coffee was really good, too, and an unbelievable bargain.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Blogging ’Bout a Revolution

I had breakfast this morning at a coffeehouse on Seventh Street in West Oakland called the Revolution Café. It was a great place with a lot of atmosphere. I recommend it if you’re in the neighborhood, which is very close to the West Oakland BART station.

There’s a sign out front touting fifty-cent coffee, and that’s about the extent of the advertising. (Well, there was also a neon sign that said, “Open” and a paper one in the window that said, “Closed” but they cancelled each other out.) Inside, the décor was thrift-store coffeehouse funky, with lots of kitchy knick-knacks. The posters were revolutionary, but fairly subtly so. No Che Guevara or anything like that. I remember a few framed newspaper pages with headlines about the IWW. The Greatest, a movie about Muhammad Ali’s discovery of Islam was on the TV. There were lots of flyers around for anti-racism rallies and self-help group meetings. It was a positive vibe. I got the sense the place was more about internal overhaul than literal bloody revolution.

I had an interesting conversation with the owner, who looked visibly relieved when I mentioned that my Halloween had been quiet. He said he didn’t believe it was a good thing to celebrate death, which is how he saw Halloween. “Why are they calling it a celebration when people are dying?” he said, I think alluding to the fact that last year’s San Francisco Halloween celebration ended with 10 people being shot. “And why are people dying at a celebration? That’s not a celebration; they need to think of a new word for it.”

Ideas, anyone?