Friday, December 21, 2007

Funny How Things Work Out

Yesterday I thought I had two problems. And I did. But it turned out I also had some solutions, and didn’t even know it.

My first problem was that I was out of milk, so I had to find something other than my usual cereal and coffee for breakfast. The other was that I had a toy I’d meant to donate to a charity for Christmas, but it was getting late in the season, and many charity drives were already closed.

As a solution to my first problem, the breakfast issue, I decided to go to a little place I’d noticed near the West Oakland BART station called The Lord Provides Village Café. That looked like a good place to get coffee and maybe something to eat.

Everything about the place turned out to be surprising.

The coffee, astoundingly, was free. (Donuts: 75 cents.) But what really surprised me was that the business turned out to be more of an urban general store than a cafe. There are coolers of soda and juice, but no booze. There is frozen food, and a microwave to heat it up with. You can buy clothes, toys, and household goods, too. It’s not quite a coffee house, but it certainly isn’t a liquor store, either.

I saw the low, sometimes non-existent prices, and saw how local kids seemed to be encouraged to hang out. I heard the Christmas carols being played, and noted the store’s religious name, and it occurred to me that the face was more or less a community center with a charitable bent. Suddenly I realized I might have a solution to not just my dairy dilemma, but my toy troubles, too.

I asked the man working at the counter if they were having a toy drive. He said it was over, but that he would ask Hendrick if they needed any more.

Hendrick DeBoer, the owner, turned out to be a warm, wiry little guy with a beard and glasses who, oddly enough, looks just like Santa Claus on Atkins. He said he could always use toys. So I bought some milk and went home and got mine. Hendrick was happy to have it, and wished me a very merry Christmas.

Then I took my walk, finishing off the last few blocks of West Oakland on the near side of Interstate 880 that I hadn’t yet explored. I’m a little sad to be done with the neighborhood. It felt like saying goodbye, and it seemed right to be leaving a gift, however small.

The gift I picked will probably strike Hendrick as strange. It’s a mechanical toy I had as a child and remember liking a lot. It’s possible that not every kid would appreciate it, though the fact that they’re still making this gizmo 25 years later is a sign that maybe there are always more geeky children coming along. I certainly hope an appropriately eccentric kid is found and that his or her Christmas is a little bit merrier. If I could pass just a tiny bit of my childhood Christmas on to some other kid, that would feel good.

I hope that all of you who are celebrating Christmas have a very merry one. I hope there’s good food and good company, and I hope you get to give yourself a little bit of a break from work. I plan to take a little bit of a break myself, so I may not post much next week. Enjoy the holiday—and have a very happy new year!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

More Geography Fun

If you think “more geography fun” sounds oxymoronic, then you might want to skip today’s entry. But if you can imagine geography being fun, then click here for the Google map online quiz. It will show a world map and ask you to drag a marker to show where various international cities are. It will then tell you how far off you were. It’s hard! My first task was to find not just Turkmenistan, but a city within Turkmenistan. I didn’t even realize there was such a country—it’s not part of China now? (Maybe I'm thinking of Turkistan.) So I didn’t do so well on that one. But I keep compulsively trying. Procrastination fun for all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Abu Dhabi is not a country, and yes, you have heard of the nation named after a precious metal. It will come to you. (Especially if you’ve ever studied a romance language.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Geography Quiz

Every year around Christmas time, the San Francisco Chronicle travel section runs a geography quiz, and every year I am embarrassed to find how little I know. Although, to be fair, the questions are pretty hard, and they don’t test the kinds of things you learned in school. Knowing your state capitals will not help you here. But it’s pretty fun and I bet you’ll learn something.

You can take the quiz here.

Answers are here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Dynamic Duo

Another pleasant surprise: The article right next to mine in Mabuhay is by my friend, the photographer John Lander. Small world!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Airline Office Update

In completely unrelated news, I am now able to report that the airline office I visited several months ago, the one that was in such disarray that I wasn’t sure I wanted to fly the airline, was in fact in the process of moving. That’s why things were so chaotic. The new office is lovely and very tidy, and gives me full confidence in the safety of the skies over…the place they fly to.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Heart the Philippines

Today I stopped by the Philippine Airlines office in San Francisco to pick up a copy of the December Mabuhay magazine. I’m so glad I did. For one thing, the article I was expecting to find was indeed there—my first for Mabuhay.

And the people were so nice. The whole office was decorated for Christmas—not the holidays; Christmas. (The Philippines are about 85% Catholic.) The lady I talked to was so excited to meet a writer; she introduced me all around, showed my article to a bunch of people, and gave me not just a magazine but also a calendar. And while we were talking, another woman came by with a big tray of cookies and offered me some. The first lady told me to come back any time, and after that reception, I think I’ll stop by tomorrow, too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More Fun Than Losing 10 Pounds

An editor at Philippine Airlines emailed me today to ask if I happened to have any stories ready to go on Sydney or Melbourne. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve always wanted to go—I never really got over that whole Men at Work/Crocodile Dundee craze from the early eighties. But I’ve never made it happen. Maybe this is the year. It is a far more appealing idea than anyother New Year’s resolutions I’ve contemplated.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bono is African

Walking through a part of West Oakland near the BART station that I just learned is called The Bottoms, I found a great place on Pine Street. It’s called the Black Dot café, which is part of a larger group called the Black Dot Artist’s Collective.

The Black Dot is a brand new café, so new there’s no food yet, although they do serve tea and coffee. There’s art on the walls, and a larger studio/gallery space upstairs. One of the artists who shows in the space happened to be there, and he gave me a gallery tour.

I confess that I don’t remember his name. He told me, but it was hard for me to pronounce and I lost it on the way home. I liked his art, though. He often includes the outline of the continent of Africa in his work. Sometimes he makes the shape of Africa out of repeated smaller images, like soccer balls in a piece dedicated to Pele, or drums in a work inspired by a Congolese drummer.

One other piece that I liked contained the phrase “Bono is African.” Bono in this case refers to the lead singer of U2, who is, of course, Irish, but because he has done so much work for African debt relief and AIDS funding, the artist feels that in his (Bono’s) heart, he must be African.

I love the idea that someone could become an honorary citizen of a whole continent. I’m not expecting it to happen to me, but it’s something to aspire to.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Quite a while ago now, I blogged about Oakland celebrity sightings. Among my favorites were Bonnie Raitt and a member of the band Green Day. A surprising number of interesting people pass through my city and it always makes me proud that I’ve seen more famous people in Oakland than in San Francisco.

Recently I added another celebrity to my list. I’ve been told that the actor Delroy Lindo, who is British by birth, lives in Oakland. A few weeks ago I finally saw him, strolling through Glenview (that’s near me!) with a cup of coffee. People were leaving him alone, so I did too. He seemed to be a pretty regular guy, albeit with a nicer car than most of us.

(You’d know him if you saw him. He’s a character actor, and he has a holiday movie out this year, called This Christmas.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Putting the “on” Back in “Mormon”

Here’s something I meant to show you a few days ago. This is Oakland’s highest-wattage holiday display by far. It’s at a Mormon temple. This temple, which is high up on a hillside, can normally be seen for miles. During the holidays, I would not be surprised if it were visible from space.

As strange and frightening as the place is—the trees are lit but the grounds are dark; there are no visible doorways into the temple; and disembodied choral voices follow you everywhere—I still like to take people from out of town here if they visit in December. A Mormon temple at Christmas is just not something you see every day.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Wish I Hadn’t Thought of This

Earlier this week I was walking in a part of west Oakland that has several new condominium complexes in development. One in particular that I noticed is being built on what seems to have been most recently a huge empty lot. Suddenly a new cluster of buildings has popped up, and with it, several brand new streets.

This raises a whole new concern for me. How do I deal with new streets? These don’t actually exist yet; the signs are up, but they aren’t paved and are in any case behind fences so I can’t get to them. Do I have to come back later? Do I have to continually monitor the whole city for new construction projects? I haven’t decided yet and it gives me a headache to think about it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


The article will appear in the My Word section of the Chronicle Sunday Magazine on March 16, 2008. The piece is being held that long because the editor thought it would go well in the annual travel issue, appearing on that date. I love that idea, so I don’t mind waiting!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Which Article?

It’s an essay about encountering beggars in Asia. I’ve always been troubled by the needy I meet traveling, and this essay is about one meeting that went particularly awkwardly in Ulan Bataar. It’s a little lighter than my last Chronicle piece—which isn’t saying much, I realize. I can’t say too much about it, but I can at least promise that no one dies.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Change of Plans

Today I was going to eat lunch at a West Oakland restaurant I just discovered, and then blog more about public holiday displays. Fortunately for you, I checked my email just before lunch and got the news that I have sold an article to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine.

The article is mostly about Mongolia, so I decided a trip to my favorite Oakland Mongolian eatery was in order. It’s actually Oakland’s only Mongolian eatery, and it’s primarily a pizza place, but I’m sure that if Oakland had more restaurants like this, it would still be among my favorites.

The pizza menu is professionally printed in English, but the Mongolian specialties are listed on a whiteboard, handwritten in Mongolian script. I like to pretend that that makes the meat dumplings a secret. (I delude myself this way with In-n-Out Burger’s secret menu, too.)

The dumplings are called “buuz,” they’re greasy, and they’re pretty yummy. Imagine a steamed pot-sticker with less ginger and garlic, and more onion, and that’s more or less it. They hit the spot.