Friday, October 31, 2008

Time Out

It’s not all gnashing of teeth around here. Tonight Pipi and I will be far from the angry corner. We’re told that trick-or-treaters do come to this neighborhood, so we’re staying in tonight to hand out candy.

This may not be the most impressive Halloween display in the neighborhood, but it’s our first ever, so please cut us a little slack.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


The first word every Western visitor to Fiji learns is “bula.” It’s kind of like “aloha.” It’s a versatile word that can stand in for many things, including “hello” and “thank you.”

I think that what bula literally means, though, is “welcome,” and as you can see, Fijians are a very friendly and welcoming bunch. This photograph was taken at a checkpoint near the international airport in Nadi as I was on my way home from Fiji several years ago. There had just been a coup, and I had been invited to Fiji as a journalist to document the fact that the islands were once again safe for tourists.

This soldier was supposed to be guarding the airport and looking for the leader of the coup, who was then still at large. (Somebody did catch him later, but I somehow doubt it was this guy who nabbed him.) I had asked the soldier if I could take his picture because I thought he looked very fierce in his guardhouse, and I thought a photograph would reassure my readers that Fiji was well protected.

I really wanted a picture of him by himself, with his gun and his imposing bulk, but what I got instead was a man transformed into a giant golden retriever, all eager goofiness and affection. I understand that this kind of unguarded openness is common to the people of the South Pacific and I certainly saw a lot of it in Fiji. I really got the sense that everyone I met there would have given me the shirt off his or her back if I had asked.

I’m trying hard to keep that in mind as I deal with a neighborhood that is invaded every evening by Tongans intent on taking something away from me and my community. I confess that I’ve been struggling with some ugly thoughts lately, stemming from the fact that while about 45% of the state backs Proposition 8—a large cross-section of the California population, in other words--virtually all of the people who have gone to the trouble of waving rude signs in my neighborhood are of Tongan descent.

So I did a little research. I learned that there are thought to be about 20,000 Tongans in California, 75% of whom live in the Bay Area. That means there are about 15,000 Tongans here, and only about 100 of them are actively campaigning against gay rights. That’s actually a pretty low bozo rate—less than 1%--which makes me feel better.

But mostly I just like to remember the chorus of “bula” that greeted me at the airport on arrival in the South Pacific and followed me for 10 days across three islands. I’m trying to hold onto the welcome that was extended to me with no regard for whatever strange or maybe even offensive cultural baggage I brought with me from home. I only wish I were doing as good of a job accepting Tongan guests into my neighborhood, but I have to admit, right now it’s hard.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

First Time Protesters

The funny thing is I’ve never really been a protester before. Oh, sure, in college I showed up at some Gulf War protests, but everyone does that. I don’t think they let kids graduate if they haven’t, at some point during their four years, protested a Gulf War. But I never really believed that signs and slogans changed the world much.

I still don’t believe they do change things directly, but for once, I feel strongly enough about something that I don’t care. I needed to go out on the corner anyway, partly because I wanted to show that there is resistance to this amendment, and partly because I just needed to make a public scene.

Interestingly, a lot of other people seem to have had the same reaction. Several other people I’ve struck up conversations with have told me that this is their first protest ever. I haven’t asked any of the Yes people, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most of them are otherwise fairly apolitical as well. This just really seems to have gotten all of us here in California pretty riled up.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Signs of the Times

Pipi and I aren’t just sitting around seething. Last night we were out on the corner, too, with a pretty good crowd of like-minded people. I can’t say it was fun—I endured more epithets and slurs in one hour than in the rest of my entire adult life—but it felt like doing something, and I did meet a lot of my neighbors. There are some good, brave people living here and that, at least, makes me feel better.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Suffer the Children

The following isn’t strictly related, in fact isn’t even loosely related to travel, writing, exploration, or cultural discovery. It’s just what’s on my mind and I need to unload.

Lately a group of pro-Proposition 8 protestors have been massing during rush hour at the corner of High and MacArthur Streets in Oakland. This intersection is almost a half a mile from my house, but it’s a major Laurel District thoroughfare, and I seem to have to pass by this group almost any time I go anywhere.

Every time I do, my blood boils. Proposition 8 is a proposed state constitutional amendment that will outlaw gay marriage, a right that, believe it or not, we actually do have in California right now. So every time I go on an errand, I have to pass by this vocal group intent on taking away one of my civil rights. That this group that wants to make me a second-class citizen is composed mostly of people of Tongan descent is just one of the oddities of the situation. Why would a bunch people of color try to impose a separate but equal scenario on anyone else? I don’t get it.

Another thing I don’t get is the fact that most of this group are also Mormon. I know it’s a conservative faith, but you’d think Mormons, of all people, would understand how terrible it feels to have people legislate your relationships.

And it does feel terrible. This is the thing I don’t like to admit, because it gives the bigots power, but it really does hurt. It feels just like junior high school, when the popular kids go out of their way to make it clear how unwelcome you are at their table. This feeling, this shame at being made to feel like you aren’t good enough to be included in something, is apparently one of those things I’m never going to outgrow.

Part of what makes this so painful is the fact that for the Yes on 8 crowd, it’s a big party. They’re out there on the corner dancing, shouting, high-fiving each other, and just generally having a great time.

That hurts, of course; nobody likes to feel that someone’s having fun at their expense, least of all me.

But the thing that’s really disturbing me, that’s actually making me despair a little bit, is the fact that kids are getting involved. These people, pretending that they’re pro family, are dragging their children to the protest. On Thursday night, a large group of adults and children were still out at 9:30pm, when I drove by on my way home from a class.

Now, 9:30 was my bedtime—my weekend bedtime—until I was 14 years old. So here’s the last thing I don’t understand: If these Yes on 8 people are such superior parents, why are their little urchins not in bed at a reasonable hour?

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Room with Access to a View

This is not the view from my house. Like most Oakland residents, I live in what East Bay people call “The Flatlands.” We don’t have any view to speak of out our windows, although I am learning to appreciate living at ground level for the glimpses it provides into our neighbors’ lives. This morning, for example, our firefighter neighbor was pounding something into her lawn with a sledgehammer, though we couldn’t see exactly what, and wasted a good deal of time speculating as to what it could be. But I digress.

The good news is that if you’re feeling energetic, views are not far away. This picture was taken only two blocks from where we live. One of the blocks, though, is very long and graded like a ski jump. The reward for climbing that hill is a view across most of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay, one even better than the one I got the other day.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Walking Down My Street

One of the interesting aspects of moving is that it puts a whole new neighborhood within walking distance of my house. My own new street, in fact, is one that I hadn’t ever been on before we looked at the house. So recently I took a stroll up and down my street so that I could mark it off on my map.

This was harder than it sounds. Where I live, my street is only a few blocks long. Almost a half a mile away, though, the street recurs for about a block. I ended up getting some pretty good exercise just finding my whole street.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I took a great walk yesterday. I was exploring my own neighborhood but I went uphill a little bit and found myself in Redwood Heights, which borders the Laurel District. It’s a wealthy neighborhood full of very large houses, most of them mock Tudor or some other imposing style. It was a little intimidating, but the houses were pretty and I was rewarded for my uphill trudge with a beautiful view of the Oakland flatlands, the bay, and the hills south of San Francisco.

Some of the campaign signs that I saw in Redwood Heights surprised me. There were a lot of “No on 8” signs, just like in my neighborhood. (Proposition 8 is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that will outlaw gay marriage in California. Again.)

There were also a lot of pro-Obama signs. Most of them I’d seen before, but one caught my eye. It just said “¡Obamanos!” I take this to be a play on the Spanish “vamanos,” meaning “let’s go.” I thought that was very clever, and I love that for everyone out there calling him “Osama” or reminding us over and over what his middle name is, there’s another person using his or her powers of name-twisting for good.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The other thing I want to do is ride a bike down Mount Haleakala. You get driven to the top of the volcano very early in the morning to watch the sun rise. Then you are given a bicycle and pointed downhill. You more or less coast back to the bottom.

This is my favorite kind of outdoor adventure--one that has a veneer of athleticism, but which is really all about looking at pretty things. I can look at pretty things all day long and not get tired.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


The first thing I want to do is snorkel at Molokini. This is a partially sunken volcanic crater in the ocean a few miles from Maui. I saw a picture while I was researching luxury activities in Hawaii and knew instantly I wanted to go there; I just didn’t know when I’d get a chance. I’m told you can go on a sort of escorted scuba dive there, too, without being certified, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough for that. Snorkeling works for me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Next Big Thing

Pipi and I only have one major trip planned this year, but it’s a good one: We’re going to Maui in December. The occasion is Pipi’s brother’s wedding. This is the wedding that might have taken place in Australia, but we’re not complaining.

Pipi has been to Maui before, but she was pretty young, and I’ve never been at all. I did write a luxury travel description about Maui a few months ago, so I feel like I know it a little. I’m looking forward to doing some of the activities I wrote about, which actually aren’t all that expensive--they just struck me as cool.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Some Good News on the Candy Front

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that White Rabbit candy will relaunch soon. It will have different packaging, the main feature of which is some kind of message from the company saying the product is no longer made with tainted milk.

I guess this is good news. I’m not sure how much safer the new packaging really makes consumers, but I like White Rabbit so much that I may risk it, once in a while anyway.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Flickr Fun

Here’s another interesting web site I find myself part of. This isn’t one of those wayback searches; this item just went up a few weeks ago.

The site is called Now Public, and it appears to be a user-generated news site, sort of like Wikipedia, only for news. Writers troll sites like Flickr for photos, and recently someone found a photo I took in China to use with an article about traffic controls in Beijing.

Several hundred other photos are attached to the story, so I don’t feel like it’s a huge honor, but it’s kind of interesting nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Pardon My….Turkish?

If you’ve been to Google’s home page in the last few days, you know it’s their 10th anniversary. As part of this observation, they’ve placed a temporary field on the home page that enables you to see what results would have come up if you had used Google in January of 2001.

I was curious what would happen if I Googled myself using the time-machine box, so I did. It found 113 results, about 20 of which were non-duplicates.

Some hits don’t actually have to do with me; they’re news and statistics about Nicole Clausing the Midwestern soccer star. Some are from my ancient history—mostly tables of content for books I edited 12 or 13 years ago. But the very last one amused me. I’ve seen it before, but I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet for years. It’s a link to an article with my byline—but that’s the only part of the article I can read. The text itself is written in a language I don’t even recognize. Turkish, maybe? If anyone knows, I’d love it if you’d let me know.

I think I know what the article is. I’m sure it’s this article that I remember writing (in English, naturally) many years ago with my Travelocity co-worker, Lisa Zeng. What I can’t explain is why someone would bother to translate it. This is the only thing I’ve ever written that I’m aware of having been translated. I guess it’s an honor, but mostly it’s just a fun mystery.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Even Worse Candy News

I spent three months backpacking in China in the early nineties, and one thing I remember fondly about that time is Cadbury chocolate bars. Cadbury isn’t the best chocolate in the world, but all the other “chocolate” products sold in China in those days tasted like brown crayons in colorful wrappers, so I was grateful for it.

I was so grateful, in fact, that I used to buy one or two every time I saw some for sale, reasoning that I never knew when I would next get the chance to have good chocolate.

It wasn’t until very close to the end of my trip that I realized that Cadbury was pretty much everywhere, and that I was actually consuming candy bars at a far faster rate than I did at home. I had somehow convinced myself that I was experiencing a chocolate famine, when in reality, I was putting away three or four bars a week.

I don’t eat Cadbury that much anymore, but when I do, I have a Proust-like memory of traveling on Chinese trains, and I can remember how good it made me feel to taste something sweet and creamy and familiar so far from home.

I am thinking of all the Cadbury chocolate bars I have eaten in my day because I just read that the company is recalling its Chinese-made chocolate because of fears that it might have been made with tainted milk. I’m not concerned for myself—this was a really long time ago—but I am a little sad to think of all those backpackers out there now, scrunched up on hard-sleeper bunks somewhere in the Chinese countryside, scribbling in their journals after an unsatisfying train dinner, and not being able to pop an overly sweet, oddly light colored piece of mediocre chocolate in their mouths.

They’re probably all sipping Starbucks mochas and not missing mass-market candy at all, but that’s a sad thought in its own way, too.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Interesting Article

Today I stumbled upon an article in Travel + Leisure magazine that caught my attention. It listed the scariest airports in the world to fly in and out of. It seemed to be judging the fear factor from the perspective of pilots, but I imagine that in most cases, the approaches would be pretty scary for a passenger, too. There’s an airport in the mountains of Bhutan that’s so hard to get to, for example, that only eight people in the world are qualified to land there. I think that most passengers would notice the rocks and trees whizzing by the window and be a little alarmed.

A few approaches did take me by surprise, like JFK and Washington National. Who knew these airports were so difficult for pilots? But because of airspace restrictions and traffic from other nearby airports, they are.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve flown into three of the ten scary airports, plus one—Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak—that got an honorary mention even though is no longer in use.

There is one I probably never will get to, though. That’s the one in Lesotho where the runway isn’t long enough, so on takeoff planes sometimes go off the edge of a cliff and plummet until they get enough speed to become airborne. I just don’t need that much adventure in my life.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Not Strictly Related, But….

…This struck me as funny and I wanted to share.

I was at Whole Foods last night, and not even the one in Berkeley. This happened in good old Adams Point, in Oakland.

I was standing in line and someone said over the public-address system, “Would the gentleman who wanted the vegan doughnut holes please return to the deli counter?”

I repeat, this wasn’t even in Berkeley. Vegan doughnuts. What will they think of next?