Monday, December 14, 2009

No Discernable Difference

After rounds and rounds of rigorous scientific testing, Pipi and I are able to report that the Tim Tams and the Arnott’s Original cookies sold in the United States appear to be identical in every significant way.

There are tiny differences. One brand has a slightly higher percentage of its calories from fat, and the other has slightly more carbohydrate. The ingredient lists aren’t quite identical, but the differences could just stem from there being two ways of saying the same thing. I can’t taste any difference between the two kinds, and they both taste just like my memory of the Australian version.

The conclusion? If you see something—anything—that looks like a Tim Tam on American grocery story shelves, buy it!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Partial Explanation

According to Wikipedia (I also verified this on the Tim Tam/Pepperidge Farm site), Pepperidge Farm is distributing honest-to-goodness Tim Tam cookies in the United States. They originally had a deal exclusively with Target, but now you can find them in lots of grocery stores all over the country

That’s the good news. The bad news is that they are only available in the United States between October and March. I don’t know why. Consider it a Christmas present from our friends down under. (I’m talking about the Pepperidge Farm version; I don’t know about the availability of the Arnott’s brand cookies at Cost Plus. You can bet I’ll be looking into it!)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sweet Confusion

In Australia, as I may have mentioned a few dozen times, they have these great cookies called Tim Tams, made by the Arnott’s company.

In the United States, you can get what seems like the same cookie at Cost Plus stores, only they aren’t called Tim Tams. They’re called Arnott’s instead.

Recently, I discovered that my favorite grocery store in the Bay Area, Farmer Joe’s, sells a cookie that’s actually called Tim Tam. Only these cookies are manufactured by the Pepperidge Farm Company. They, too, seem to be the same cookie (or should I say “biscuit”) that is so popular down under.

Can all three of these things really be the same product? What is the difference, if any, between the Tim Tam and Arnott’s cookies sold in the United States? If only there were some way to compare and contrast the taste of the two cookies, Wait, I just thought of something….

Monday, December 07, 2009

Bye Bye, Tai

I have to stop getting so attached to baby pandas. They always grow up and leave me. Pipi and I just saw this one at the Washington zoo in October.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The More Things Change….

I imagine nepotism in government is a problem many cities have. I know it has come up a lot lately in Oakland. Most recently a City Administrator was fired for allegedly putting several family members on the city payroll despite their shaky qualifications. She didn’t go down without a fight and the case has been in the news on and off for what seems like years now.

But here’s something I found on one of my walks that assures me that nepotism is nothing new in Oakland, and probably is no worse now than it ever was. Take a look at this plaque, erected in 1931. It’s posted in front of a sports facility then called the Davie Recreation Stadium, and now known as the Davie Tennis Stadium. The sign reveals that by 1931, three members of the Davie family had worked for the city of Oakland—one of them as the mayor.

Five times.

We just don’t have political dynasties like this in the East Bay anymore.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

No Block Left Behind

Before Thanksgiving I thought I had finished the area between Grand and Lakeshore Avenues. And I had, all except for two blocks at the very pinnacle of the steepest hill, and, about a half a mile away, one block of a street that is mostly in Piedmont but which starts in Oakland.

Or maybe it ends in Oakland. I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Such are the hazards of exploring the non-grid neighborhoods of the city. The Grand Lake/Lakeshore area is hilly, and the streets tend to twist and turn, seldom meeting each other at right angles. And for some reason, somebody thought it would be cute to give most of the streets names that start with the letter “W.” It can be hard, at times, to remember if you’re supposed to be on Wickson, Walker, Winsor, or Weldon. That last one ends abruptly and then begins again a few hundred yards later on the other side of a hill, making it seem like there are two different streets with exactly the same name.

Navigationally, this was my most challenging neighborhood yet, and with all the hills, probably my most physically taxing, as well. But that’s all good. I’m doing this largely to get exercise and to get better at navigating my city, so the more mountainous and confusing the terrain, the better.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Do you have a Thanksgiving-day ritual? Watching the Macy’s parade, maybe, or fighting with your siblings over who gets to open the can and dump out the quivering cylinder of cranberry sauce? My traditions involve the ritual consumption of exactly one Brussels sprout, just to make sure I still don’t like them; taking a post-meal walk; and compelling everyone to read the story of my first Thanksgiving away from home.

A Tale of Two Turkeys

Even though it was speaking English, I wanted the voice in my head to go away.

“You’re forgetting something,” it murmured as I stepped off the train in Shijiazhuang, in China’s Hebei Province. “Didn’t you have another bag?” it asked, more insistently, as I dodged touts and money-changers on my way to the bus stop outside the station. By the time I was boarding the local bus that would take me to my friend Sarah’s apartment, the voice was bellowing like a Red Guard. “Hey, you left something on the train!”

Halfway to the teachers’ college where Sarah taught English, 175 miles southwest of Beijing, my day flashed before my eyes with sudden clarity. I remembered waking up in the women’s dorm room at the Qiao Yuan youth hostel in Beijing. The long room full of closely spaced cots had all the ambiance of an orphanage. The beds’ occupants weren’t real charity cases, though, just frugal European and American backpackers like myself, new university graduates taking a travel deferment on adulthood.

I remembered taking a bus to Tiananmen Square. The Beijing bus had been so packed that sardined riders in front passed their one-mao bills hand-over-hand to the fare collector perched in the back.

I remembered walking from the square to the friendship store on Jianguomenwai Boulevard. There had been crunching locust-tree leaves underfoot, and the crisp air smelled like coal dust and candied crab apples.

I remembered picking up a box of Australian chocolate cookies and an over-priced, under-fed frozen turkey from Hong Kong. I remembered tucking the bird under my arm like a clammy football and trotting off to the central station, where I just made my train.

I remembered getting on the local bus in Shijiazhuang, feeling strangely light in spite of the frame pack on my back and the daypack slung across my chest. It was then that I understood what the nagging voice in my head was talking about: Out there in the darkness, chugging through the Chinese countryside, nestled cozily in the overhead storage area where I’d stashed it so a conductor could sweep up sunflower-seed shells and cigarette butts, was my Thanksgiving dinner.

Brandishing the cookie box before me like a protective shield, I knocked on Sarah’s door. “Hi, I brought cookies!” I yelped, hoping this would make my friend forget our deal: Sarah had promised that if I found a turkey, she would find a way to cook it.

Sarah considered my maniacally proffered gift. She also eyed my suspiciously light baggage. “You forgot something, didn’t you?” she asked. I replied the way anyone who’d just ruined her first Thanksgiving away from home would have: I burst into tears. Sarah responded by doing the very last thing I expected: She laughed until she needed to sit down.

As soon as we both could speak, we agreed that it was too late to do anything that night. Sarah, in fact, seemed to feel that although we’d lost a turkey, we’d gained a great holiday-gone-wrong story that shouldn’t be spoiled with a happy ending. I however, tossed and turned on the couch for hours feeling like the world’s biggest turkey myself. I’d spoiled Thanksgiving. I’d wasted a piece of meat that had cost more than most backpackers spent in a month on food. If I ever returned home my mother and grandmother, who between them effortlessly orchestrated a 10-dish dinner every Thanksgiving, would undoubtedly disown me. And that’s assuming I was even allowed back into my home state of Massachusetts. I slept fitfully that night, haunted by visions of puritanical authorities in buckled shoes sentencing me to wear a scarlet letter for the sin of Absent-mindedness.

Early the next morning I set off on a borrowed bicycle, armed with directions to the train station and a command of Mandarin about as reliable as the local electricity: adequate as long as I didn’t ask too much of it, but flickery, and prone to abrupt shutdowns.

Conversational circuits blew almost immediately at the station information booth. “You left what on the train?” the attendant asked incredulously, “You’ll have to go talk to security,” she snapped, and slammed the window shut. The brownout continued at security. “Did anyone turn in a frozen turkey?” I asked the matron at the desk. She sighed and rummaged half-heartedly through a box of thermoses, ceramic mugs, and other train detritus. “No, no turkeys here,” she said. “Try the information booth.”

I pedaled dejectedly back to Sarah’s, trying to cheer myself up by imagining my dinner being discovered by one of the starving Chinese children American mothers like to invoke to make their kids eat, but it didn’t help.

Sarah seemed almost relieved that the bird had not come home to roost. But because I felt so terrible, she volunteered her semi-bilingual neighbor, Mr. Yan, to help me talk turkey with security.

Talking about turkeys, incidentally, has not always been possible in China. Mandarin has a well-established word for chicken: ji. But the more recent introduction of turkeys required a new word, and the neologism chosen was huo ji, meaning, literally, “fire chicken.”

My understanding is that the “fire” part is meant to convey something like the English prefix “mega,” or “deluxe.” All I have ever been able to picture, however, when I hear the phrase is a rocket-powered Henny Penny doing screaming barrel rolls over her henhouse, shooting flames from her tail like a MiG.

For this reason, the conversation with security quickly became one of the most surreal I’ve ever had in my life. “Can you describe the fire chicken?” asked the first security officer, who looked like he ate railroad stowaways for breakfast. “She says the fire chicken weighs about five kilos,” translated Mr. Yan. The corners of his mouth twitched, but he kept it together. “Where did you last see the fire chicken?” asked the second officer, almost completely successfully swallowing a smile. “She left it in an overhead rack in a hard-seat car on Tuesday night…right?” Mr. Yan said, glancing at me for confirmation. “Dui, yes” I nodded, as solemnly as I could, desperately fighting back an attack of the giggles.

The men soldiered through the rest of their discussion. I struggled to keep up, biting my tongue every time the words “fire chicken” jumped out at me. Afterward, Mr. Yan explained to me that he’d learned that the train I’d been on had changed course at Shijiazhuang and was now bound for the province of Inner Mongolia. My backward bird looked to be heading north for the winter. “I’m sorry,” Mr. Yan said as kindly as he could while trying not to laugh. “I don’t think they’re going to find your fire chicken.”

Thanksgiving day passed with no sign of the wayward bird. I moped through Friday and most of Saturday until finally the god of feathery edibles decided I’d suffered enough. Returning from an errand, Sarah and I skidded our bikes to a stop in the dusty, brick-strewn courtyard in front of her building and saw Mr. Yan beaming in the doorway. “Guess who called,” he said, trying to sound casual. “The train station. They found your fire chicken.”

An hour later I was holding my well-traveled turkey in my arms. It was still frozen. By the next morning, the prodigal little bird was thawed, stuffed, trussed, and wedged into a portable oven that Sarah had somehow gotten her hands on. The giant egg-shaped device looked more like a beauty-parlor hair drier than an oven, but it did the trick, and several hours later, Sarah and Mr. Yan and I sat down to an inexpertly carved but perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey. We served it doused in a lumpy giblet gravy, accompanied by powdery rolls, banana bread, gluey mashed potatoes, and litchi-fruit salad. We washed it down with Sprite. It was the most modest Thanksgiving I’d ever been part of, but I can’t think of a single meal I’ve ever been more purely thankful for.

A lot has changed since that Thanksgiving of 1992. Sarah got married and moved to New Zealand. (She also became a vegetarian--our ultra free-range turkey turned out to be the last one she ever tasted.) Sarah goes back to China periodically and reports that the Middle Kingdom we remember of bike lanes and old women tottering on bound feet has taken such a great leap forward that I wouldn’t recognize it. Certainly China wouldn’t recognize me, more amply padded than in my backpacking days, and showing some gray in the blond hair that Chinese children used to dare each other to touch.

Even our idea of Thanksgiving has changed. The cozy story I was raised with in Massachusetts, the one with the friendly natives and grateful pilgrims, has been supplanted-- in progressive circles, at least--by a more complicated tale of mutual distrust and limited contact. I accept this revised version, but it has always seemed to me a shame that that first Plymouth Thanksgiving didn’t work out better. Because as I learned in China, it could have. Every part of the story--the bumbling new arrivals, the face-saving locals, the improvised feast, the sharing of unfamiliar foods, the gratitude--it all could all have happened. I know because it all happened to me.

(Published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Dallas Morning News, and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2007.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Today I can say that I’ve finished walking the Trestle Glen neighborhood of Oakland. This is a nice central Oakland area that abuts Glenview on one side and the city of Piedmont on the other. It’s a fine neighborhood full of beautiful homes, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to. For some weird reason Trestle Glen is full of spiders. I think it is a spidery time of year, because right now I’m seeing more in my backyard than usual, but ours are fairly small. Trestle Glen spiders are big and they hang out in the middle of webs spun between landscape elements looking creepy. Did I mention I don’t like spiders? Well, I don’t. I almost think I’m ready for a more urban neighborhood, one without so much flora and fauna.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Isn’t this guy pretty darned cute? He’s my parents’ new cat, Grissom. He’s five months old, and weighs about five pounds, which is pretty remarkable because he appears to be boneless.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another Thought on Cockpit Catastrophes

My understanding is that the crew of the Continental Airlines flight that lost its captain came under some criticism for not telling the passengers what was going on. But count me among those who would prefer to be blissfully unaware. I am of Pilot-American descent, but I did not inherit the unflappable gene. In a situation that sounds serious, but isn’t really, please, for the sake of everyone else in my row, just keep me in the dark.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Well Then, What Would be Dramatic?

In my last post, I mentioned that pilots tend to be pretty even-keeled people, not prone to exaggeration or hysteria. Here’s a good example of what I mean. The following quote is from an interview with an Air France co-pilot. The interview was conducted a few months ago, after an incident where a Continental Airlines captain dropped dead over the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the crew continued the flight without mentioning the loss to the passengers.

This co-pilot was not on that particular flight, but he said that in training he had practiced similar situations where the captain is suddenly unavailable. Did this unnerve him? Not at all. Here’s his take on it:

"It's not a drama. If the captain is ill or incapacitated, you make sure he isn't blocking any controls or the wheel."

So there you have it. If you should lose a crewmember mid-flight, no worries. He or she will be safely stowed somewhere out of the way and everybody else will be just fine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Extra Miles

Another benefit to our unexpected visit to Denver: American Airlines awarded us 4,000 extra frequent-flier miles for our trouble. That’s quite a bonus, considering we only went about 100 miles out of our way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another Learning Experience

Having nearly missed our flight out of D.C., I hoped the rest of our trip home would go smoothly. As it turned out, the self-inflicted portion of the drama was over, but things would continue to be interesting.

The flight from Washington to Chicago was uneventful and got us there in plenty of time to make our connection to San Francisco. This flight, too, seemed routine at first. It took off on time, and was fairly crowded, but the only other person in our row was a tiny teenager in the window seat next to me, so it wasn’t so bad. She was a little chatty, but mostly sat quietly writing out answers to study questions about the French revolution in big round loopy cursive. I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions. It’s been a long time since I was her age.

About 100 miles west of Denver, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that he had some “bad news.” This struck fear into my heart. If I tell you I’ve got bad news, it’s entirely possible that I will follow this statement with, “You’ll never guess who got voted off American Idol last night.” In my experience, though, pilots aren’t like this. If they say it’s bad, it really is bad.

This guy must be considered excitable by his peers, though, because the news wasn’t that bad. It turned out that he had detected a problem with the oxygen masks, and determined that they weren’t going to work if we lost pressure. There was no reason to think we were going to lose pressure, but this seems to be the kind of problem that requires a plane to land immediately, and so we turned back to Denver.

We landed safely, if a little anxiously. This was my first diversion ever caused by a mechanical problem. As we approached the terminal, the one with the weird white peaks on it, the girl in our row asked me if it were a Cirque du Soleil tent. I’ve always thought the Denver airport’s roof looks like angry icebergs bobbing around the ocean, and I’ve never found the sight the least bit reassuring. I liked her perspective.

The plane sat parked near the terminal for about two hours. We were initially told that mechanics would try to figure out quickly whether they could fix the problem that evening or if they would need to put us on another plane. By this time it was about 8pm locally, and I was starting to worry that we were going to spend the night in Denver.

I wouldn’t have minded that so much, except that I was afraid Pipi and I were going to have to baby-sit the fetal flyer. Surprisingly late into the ordeal, it was revealed that her father was in the first-class cabin, but for a while, it looked like Pipi and I were the only grown-ups she knew on board. Because I was immediately next to her, I got the bulk of the wide-eyed questions.

This was sort of annoying, but touching as well, because I realized she was ascribing magical adult powers to me. She had no idea how long we’d be on the ground, and I didn’t either, but she assumed I did, because I’m a grown-up, and grown-ups just know things that kids can’t guess at. When, for example, some of the maintenance crew went to talk to the pilots, she tugged my sleeve and asked how much longer this meant we’d be waiting. I had the impression she thought this was something I might have learned as part of some kind of adult rite of passage. I think she expected me to say, “Well, during freshman week in college, I learned that no means no, that you should never mix beer and hard liquor, and that when the guy in orange talks to the pilot, you’ll be on the ground another 45 minutes.”

I didn’t say this, of course. I told her the only thing I could, which was that I really had no better idea than she did. In doing so, I realize I gave her a piece of information that she’s too young to know what to do with just yet. Eventually, this and other data points will lead her to the inevitable realization that most grown-ups don’t have any idea what’s going on much of the time; that most of us, in fact, barely recognize ourselves as adults, and spend more time than we ever imagined we would at the mercy of big boys with official-looking caps and vests. This girl was a few years away from starting to suspect this, though. For now, she was just an unlucky kid with an absentee Dad and the most useless grown-ups ever for seat-mates. I think she was starting to worry.

Luckily, there was someone in charge, and they got the oxygen fixed and we were able to continue the trip using the original aircraft. We got to San Francisco about three hours late, an annoying delay that kept us all up way past our regular bedtimes, but which did at least put us all a little further down the path toward being grown-ups.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not So Fast

Our flight out of Washington was scheduled just late enough that Pipi and I had time for a quick lunch with my grandparents. I knew we were lingering a little too long over dessert, but it was mid-day, we had our boarding passes, and the airport wasn’t too far away, so what did we need extra time for?

Finally tearing ourselves away from the meal, we stopped a mile or two down the road to top off the gas in the rental car. I’m glad I stopped there and not someplace closer to the airport because as I tried to activate the pump, I realized I didn’t have my wallet with me.

I got that sick feeling that you get when you know you’ve messed up very badly. I was too worked up to think clearly, and it took me a long time to remember the last place I’d seen my wallet. Although checking for I.D. is normally a part of my packing-up routine coming and going, I wasn’t actually sure I’d seen the wallet since dinner the night before.

At first I thought I must have left it at Pipi’s aunt and uncle’s house. I knew we’d never make it back there in time to catch the flight, so I started formulating a plan to drop Pipi off at the airport, extend the rental car, and then spend the rest of the day driving around Virginia by myself trying to retrace my steps.

Suddenly, though, I realized what had probably happened: Just before lunch, which we’d eaten at the dining hall at my grandparent’s retirement community, Pipi and I had stopped by their condo to print our boarding passes. I must have taken my wallet out of my knapsack to retrieve my frequent-flyer card, and left it near the computer.

A quick call to my grandmother confirmed that this is exactly what I’d done. We made a rapid return, and my grandparents met us outside their building with the wallet. Then it was back to the gas station. I might not be able to avoid paying a rebooking fee for our missed flights, but at least I could head off the $8-per-gallon fee for bringing a car back empty at National Airport.

We filled up, got to the airport with the needle still indicating “Full,” and dropped off the car. Security wasn’t bad, and we got to our gate just as they were announcing that the last boarding group was free to get on the plane.

I’m not going to say that our making the flight was miraculous. It was very lucky, though. Let’s call it a happy ending to what could have been a painful lesson about the importance of allowing extra time when traveling and keeping track of your things.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Going Gaga in D.C.

The National Equality March took place on a beautiful day. It was sunny and dry, with a hint of fall in the air. It was a perfect day for a stroll to the Capitol Building with 100,000 or so of my closest gay friends.

I’m guessing wildly at the number of people in the crowd, of course. As with most protest marches, estimates varied wildly depending on who was doing the estimating. I heard everything from tens of thousands to 200,000. I have no gift for crowd counts myself. All I know is that it was a huge swathe of people that stretched for blocks and blocks.

The march started at McPherson Square, circled Lafayette Park, passed by the White House (I seemed to be the only person in the crowd alarmed by the snipers on the roof—apparently they’re old news to Washingtonians), and then headed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Building lawn.

Although the route covered more than two miles, the march was over more quickly than I expected. The crowd was very well behaved, and if there were any counter protesters, they behaved themselves, too. It was a nice day, and I think everyone was in too good of a mood to get testy with anyone.

When I was younger, I almost never stuck around for the speakers after pride parades and protest marches. They were usually the least interesting part of the day for me, far overshadowed by the people-watching, sunbathing, and public consumption of alcohol. On this day, however, Pipi and I, happy to sit down for a while, listened to most of the speeches. I’m glad we did. Matthew Shepard’s mother spoke briefly, and I honestly don’t remember much of what she said, because she could just stand there silently and we would still love her to pieces. Cynthia Nixon spoke, which excited me in a star-struck kind of way. Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point-educated Arab linguist who is currently being discharged from the army for being gay spoke incredibly movingly and eloquently about the need to be brave and love whom you must no matter what the consequences—and he should know.

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was the musician Lady Gaga. Before traveling to Washington, D.C., I was only dimly aware of her. In the days before the march, I got a crash course in all things Gaga from Pipi’s fabulous 16-year-old cousin, who is a big fan, but I still wasn’t overly impressed.

It turns out that music is probably the least interesting thing about Lady Gaga. The musician, who is all of 23 years old and sings pop songs that are no more intellectually challenging than Madonna’s early hits, is an incredible ally to the gays. She wasn’t the most gifted speaker that day, but she was one of the most earnest. She just loves her gay fans and wants nothing but the best for us. So bless God, bless the gays, and bless Lady Gaga, who is doing what the HRC, Barney Frank, and even older pop stars like Melissa Etheridge and Elton John can’t do: Bringing a message of tolerance to the future voters of America.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Although the National Equality march was scheduled for a leisurely noon start (the Queer Nation does like its brunch), Pipi and I were up early perfecting our signs. We each came up with a double-sided sign on foamcore with a sturdy handle. I can’t tell you how many newbies there were out there holding floppy pieces of cardboard over their heads with both hands. Handles, people! Your arms will thank you later.

I didn’t feel up to trying to out-fab the crowd, so my signs were fairly straight-forward. One side said: “What’s the Hold-Up? End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” and the other said: “Obama, If Not Now, When?” Both were inspired by the president’s speech the night before where he promised to abolish both policies, but gave no hint about a timetable.

Pipi’s messages were more inspired. On one side, her sign said: “Help Gays Be Patriots—End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The other said: “Repeal DOMA—Don’t Let Canada Make us Look Bad.” (DOMA is the Defense of Marriage Act—please don’t ask me how anyone thinks they can defend marriage by prohibiting it.)

You can usually count on the gay community to come up with good signs. This crowd didn’t disappoint. The cheekiest one, one that I might not have had the guts to carry even if I’d thought of it, read: “Jesus hung out with 12 guys and a prostitute. He was more like me than you.” Another creative one said: “Jesus had two daddies, and someday so will my kids.”

Our signs didn’t get us on the evening news, but that’s okay. I think we did a pretty good job with them. We didn’t try to use them to address the haters. (Good thing, too. They’ve twisted Jesus’ words so much I’d hate to see what they’d do with mine.) We just stated what we wanted, plainly and simply.

Plus : Handles.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Unlikely Allies

See, you just never know who your friends are.

(Actually, I think it was well known that Bea Arthur was a friend of the Friends of Dorothy, but still, $300,000 is above and beyond.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unexpected Allies

The renaissance revels were just the beginning of our Saturday. We still had some serious work to do, including stalking the cast of Glee and making a scene in front of the president.

Let me back up. We timed our trip to Washington, D.C. to coincide with the big National Equality March on Sunday, October 11. But of course, that wasn’t the only big event in town that weekend. Saturday night, there was a gala dinner in D.C. hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. President Obama was scheduled to speak, which was cool, but if Pipi and I were being honest with ourselves, we’d have admitted that the people we were really hoping to catch a glimpse of were the cast of the show Glee, some of whom were supposed to be attending the dinner. (I like this show so much more than I want to!)

Quick glimpses of these stars were about all we could hope for, because we were not guests at the dinner. We were just part of the motley crowd standing outside the venue with signs.

It would be unfair to describe us as protesters, because that would imply some sort of unified message. We were more of an accrual of people with assorted gripes. A few people were protesting the dinner itself, feeling that the time and money might be better spent doing….well, that part of the message wasn’t clear. Abolishing formal wear, maybe.

Most of the one hundred or so people milling around with signs were, like us, there to urge Obama, whom we generally support, to get moving on promises he made during his campaign. These would include ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. The gathering felt more like a constructive criticism session than an angry, confrontational protest.

Then there were the people that I suspect show up at most events where the president might see them. These included an anti-war contingent, and some pro-life protesters. There was also a crazy van circling the block plastered with pictures of the twin towers burning, New Orleans under water, and the tsunami-ravaged coast of Samoa. Captions blamed all these things on gays. The rumor was that this van was driven by, if not Fred Phelps himself, then by some of his people. We were not able to confirm this, however, which is a shame, because there’s a guy I’d really love the opportunity to personally scream at.

We never did see the cast of Glee—they either got there very early or else they slipped in another entrance. But we did see the presidential motorcade, which was exciting.

I saw one other thing made it all worthwhile: Two women in dresses who just happened to be walking down the street asked Pipi and I what the crowd was all about. We told them it was a pro gay-rights protest, and they said that they supported us and wished us well.

That was a nice moment, but I probably would have forgotten about it right away if I hadn’t noticed them again about 10 minutes later. They had by this time somehow gotten ahold of a large rainbow flag, and were holding it up proudly as they marched around in a circle with a knot of protesters.

My gut feeling is that these two women were straight, but of course, it doesn’t matter. What I take from the encounter is that issues like gay marriage and defeating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell have a lot of mainstream support. Fifteen years ago, gay rights were the sole provenance of severely coiffed people who yelled a lot. Now we get help from sitcom stars and people on their way to cocktail parties.

They say love conquers all. Consider yourself warned, crazy van guy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Renaissance Festival

Pipi’s 16-year-old cousin took us to Maryland for what was, remarkably, our first renaissance festival.

I admit that I was a little apprehensive. It’s not that I shy away from the nerdier things in life. I actually was worried that I wouldn’t be nerd enough. I had an idea that this would be a place where Dungeons and Dragons freaks and drama geeks would rule, making life difficult for anyone who didn’t have a costume or who doesn’t have perfect facility with Shakespearian insults. (I also just don’t have the build for the serving-wench look—this was also a concern.)

It wasn’t like that at all. William said that we weren’t expected to come in costume, so, like at least half the spectators, we didn’t. It soon became clear that the event was more about bawdy fun than historical accuracy. Just about everything else, though, was what I expected. There really was jousting (although nobody got knocked off a horse—disappointing); you really could purchase various bone-in, hand-held meats to gnaw on; and people really did address me as “M’lady.” There were lutes, and jesters, and all the runic knives anyone could ask for.

After about 15 minutes, when I realized nobody was going to yell at me for anachronistic dress and speech (and having noted that there were a wide variety of fried things for sale), I relaxed and enjoyed myself.


Friday, October 23, 2009


One day Pipi and I went to the National Zoo with Pipi’s aunt. Highlights were the pandas (three of them!), a baby gorilla, and these little guys. They are Asian small-clawed otters, the world’s smallest otter species. They’re awfully cute, and if you like the still photo, you can watch them in action on the zoo’s otter cam.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


One other interesting find we made in D.C. was a gay sports bar. Who knew there was such a thing?

It’s called Nellie’s Sports Bar, and it’s located at 900 U Street, NW. It was in some ways very much like every sports bar I’ve ever been to, which is admittedly not that many. There were TVs everywhere, each tuned to a different channel. Every one seemed to be showing a mainstream sporting event. Really the only difference between what was going on here compared to a regular sports bar was that the set showing the men’s diving competition was getting the most attention.

One other difference is that the food was really good. They have the burgers, wings, and nachos you’d expect, but they also have a few South/Central American specialties, including empanadas and arepas. I’d never had, or even heard of an arepa, so I had to try it. The outside is something like a tamale casing, but chewier. This is folded over two fillings of your choice. I had ropa vieja and queso blanco in mine. It was like a Venezuelan cheese steak, served with fried plantains and sour cream.

I guess there were a few other differences between Nellie’s and conventional sports bars, but they were subtle. For instance, there’s bingo every Tuesday, but the caller is a drag queen. Card night is called “Pokerface,” after the Lady Gaga song. And they sponsor teams just like any other popular bar, but those teams have names like D.C. Divas and the Washington Wetskins.

To top it all off, I also determined that Nellie’s often shows women’s soccer games on TV, so now I officially like everything about Nellie’s. I know exactly where I’ll be going if I ever happen to be in Washington when there’s a big sports event going on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Time out for Chocolate

For part of our trip, we stayed with my grandparents, and the other nights we spent at Pipi’s aunt’s house. Both families live in the Northern Virginia suburbs, so it was easy to get into Washington, D. C. during the day.

On one free day we went to the spy museum. This was fun, but a little bit overwhelming. Exhibits told the story of spying from biblical times until today, and I barely made it through the Cold War. My brain was full long before I got to cyberspying, so I’ll have to go back someday to find out how the Internet changed sleuthing.

Another fun discovery is the fact that Washington is a great chocolate city. We went to three different chocolate shops. The first one, Locolat wasn’t bad—I had very good hot chocolate and a yummy truffle—but the guy running the place was inexplicably cranky. How can you be in a bad mood surrounded by chocolate? Something strange was going on there.

The second place, Biagio Fine Chocolate, was a gourmet shop that carried some truffles (we were surprised to see our favorite Oakland chocolate maker, Michael Mischer, represented there), but it specialized in chocolate bars. They’re big on single-origin chocolate, and even bigger on free samples. They had a number of bowls out, each containing pieces of chocolate with various cocoa levels. We knew we were supposed to start with the mild stuff and work our way up to 85%, but Pipi’s cousin William discovered that if you taste one of the really intense dark squares and then eat one of the mild ones, it’s like popping butter into your mouth. This kept us amused for quite some time, but don’t worry, we did buy some.

ACKC Cocoa Gallery, which we went to the next day, sold not just house-made chocolates, but also chocolate drinks. It reminded us of our Australian obsession, Max Brenner. ACKC is located near Dupont Circle, and we spent the better part of an afternoon nursing caramel cocoa, buying rounds of chocolate, and just basking in the general fabulousness of the place.

(Yes, we managed to eat dinner both nights. We’re pros.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fort Belvoir

Fun fact: I was born on an army base (Fort Knox), but my family moved when I was only a few weeks old, and until just this month, I had not been on an active military installation in the intervening 39 years.

When Pipi and I were in Washington, D.C., my grandparents took us to see Fort Belvoir, in northern Virginia. I’m not sure we could have gotten onto the base on our own, and we almost certainly couldn’t have had coffee at the officers’ club without my grandfather, who was stationed at Fort Belvoir several times over the course of a long military career.

I thought we’d feel like imposters, but everywhere we went—the PX, the officers’ club, the parade ground where my grandfather used to march--we saw a lot of people in civilian clothing and contemporary haircuts. It was all far less mysterious and martial than I expected. It was almost disappointing how normal everything looked, but finding the familiar in the exotic is a big part of travel.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back From Hiatus

I didn’t mean to take such a long break. I was getting ready for a trip to Washington, D.C. and somehow just didn’t get to my blog…for about three weeks. Anyway, I’m back now, back from D.C. and back from outer space. Posting should resume this week.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I'm working in my San Francisco office today--otherwise known as Cafe Flore. My co-workers here are a little zany, but I've never worked in a place with such good coffee.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Entertainment Options

Disappear Fear is playing in Maryland during the time we’ll be in the area. The first time I ever saw Disappear Fear was at the 9:30 club in Washington D.C. when I was there for a march in 1993, so there’s a certain symmetry.

Monday, September 28, 2009

More Trip Planning

Now that we’ve got plane tickets, a rental car, and beds all lined up, we can start planning fun stuff in D.C. First up: International Spy Museum tickets.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Next Trip

People like to ask me where I’m going next, but for a while, I didn’t have an answer. Now I do: Pipi and I are headed to Washington, D.C. in October. We’re timing the trip to coincide with the National Equality March. (I’m not under any illusions about marches changing anyone’s mind; I just still have some yelling to do.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Submission Creep

I entered another contest, the Solas Awards. This one is sponsored by Travelers’ Tales, a local publisher of travel essay anthologies. The deadline was today, so in typical style, I just made it. We’ll find out about this one on March 1, 2010.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Submission Accomplished

I entered an article in the writing contest. On principle (because author identities are supposed to be kept from the judges) I probably shouldn’t say which piece I picked. I will say that it’s an article with a lede I’ve always liked, and that it’s the only article on this particular topic the judges are likely to receive. We’ll see if these things count for anything on February 20, 2010.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Writing Contest

I gleaned another interesting tidbit from last night’s Left Coast Writers group meeting: I learned that I’m not quite too late to enter this year’s Bay Area Travel Writers contest. And neither are you. Most BATW events and contests are closed to non-members like me, but this one’s open to any writer. Details here.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Art of Failure

I just got back from seeing Ayelet Waldman speak to a writers’ group that I am a part of. She spoke very candidly on the subject of failure, which made me feel good, and not just in that schadenfreude way.

She talked about twice having to throw away novels in which she’d invested a year each. That really put things in perspective. I’ve definitely had pieces not work, but never anything I’d put that much time into.

More interesting was a story about a novel that she thought was pretty good, although she’d gotten negative feedback from everyone she’d showed it to. I’d always thought that writers needed to maintain a strong faith in their own work, and not let criticism lead to self-censorship. But in this case, Waldman went to a two-week workshop and allowed herself that time—and only that time—to entertain the idea that she was focusing on the wrong part of her story, and that she ought to re-work the novel.

Once she started down this path, the new novel just poured out of her at the rate of 8,000 words a day (1,000 daily words is pretty typical for a writer whose book is going well). She finished a strong draft of it during the workshop, and got it published soon after. (I forget which novel this was—I’ve never actually read any of her work.)

The moral, as I see it, is that when things are going badly, you don’t always know it. But when it’s going well, it just feels right.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A Chill on a Warm Day

More distressing than the skinned knees was the fact that when I got back to my car, there was a police car parked in front of a house nearby. As I was getting into my car, another police car pulled up, and as I was driving away, a third was coming toward me, followed by a fire truck. (Morbidly curious, I drove by the house again more than three hours later, and there was still a cruiser and a police van parked on the street.)

The most distressing detail of all is that as I was approaching my car, I became aware that I could just hear a sort of a screeching sound. It was probably just a bird in the distance, but it’s not out of the question that it was shrieking from inside the house.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Good Walk Spoiled

So far Trestle Glen, to my surprise, isn’t agreeing with me. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, but I seem to have quite literally gotten off on the wrong foot. At least I think that’s what happened. All I know is that one minute I was walking along a crumbly section of sidewalk, and the next I was on my hands and knees—mostly knees—trying to look like I meant to do that.

I wasn’t seriously hurt. I just needed some Neosporin when I got home. I may have just turned 39, but I have the knees—or at least the Band-Aids--of an eight-year-old.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Putting it All Together

One of my many documented navigational problems is that I often know where I am, but have no idea how to get to another neighborhood without going back to my house first. Anything that can help me get oriented can only be good.

Since moving, I’ve covered all of the Laurel and Dimond Districts, as well as Glenview. Now I’m in Trestle Glen, working my way toward the Grand Lake/Lakeshore neighborhood. It’s interesting to see how these areas knit together and segue into one another. Pipi and I once got so lost in Trestle Glen that we weren’t sure we’d ever get back to the affordable part of Oakland. (And we were driving.) I think I understand how to escape now.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Life

Things have more or less returned to normal here after our trip. One by one we have picked up our old routines, which for me include my Oakland walking project.

When I started this trek, I began walking west from my apartment. When I’d covered all that ground, I started exploring east of where I lived. Then Pipi and I moved to a house several exits east of where I’d been walking, so I switched directions and started going west again, trying to fill in the neighborhoods in between the old and new places.

If this sounds confusing, welcome to my directionally challenged life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Never Miiiiind….

Have you ever gotten the words wrong to a song? Of course you have. Everyone has. There are web sites dedicated to this phenomenon, the best of which is called “Kiss This Guy,” after a mis-hearing of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

So maybe a better question is, have you ever gotten the words wrong to a song…and liked your version better?

This happened to me with the Paul Kelly song I mentioned yesterday, “Careless.” Alert readers will probably have already guessed why I had no luck Googling the line, “How many cats in New York City?” I couldn’t find the line in any lyric database because the question is actually, “How many CABS in New York City?” I’ve been humming this wrong for the better part of two decades.

Paul Kelly is generally regarded as the closest thing Australia has to a poet laureate, and rightly so. He’s a master storyteller, and a brilliant songwriter. The collection I picked up in Australia, Songs from the South, has been in my car CD player for weeks now.

But, come on. Cabs? Really? Don’t you think the question of how many cats there are in New York is a lot more interesting? Taxis are regulated—someone somewhere must know the answer to that question. But how many cats…? I mean, how would you even count them all? My version really gives you something to think on.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Australia Is Not Done Surprising Me

As I mentioned before, Australian music had a lot to do with my interest in going to the country. I can trace much of this interest back to my favorite radio station ever, The River, WRSI 93.9, in Northampton, MA.

I accepted this station into my life in my late teens, when I was ready to graduate from top-40 radio to something more grown-up. The literate, melodic pop they were playing, heavy on singer-songwriters, filled a Tracy Chapman-sized hole in my heart that I hadn’t even realized was there.

Really only two quirks have ever kept this station from being the best radio station in the whole world. One is the fact that back in the day, the DJs didn’t always treat the vinyl as carefully as they might have. They also had a tendency to wander away from their posts, leading to a general belief in the Pioneer Valley that ’RSI, as we called the station, stood for “Records Skip Incessantly.”

The other quirk, which has continued into the compact disc era, is that their DJs have always been sparing about providing artist information after playing a song. This has led to all kinds of confusion on my part. For months after I started hearing them, I thought the Indigo Girls’s early songs were performed by Lucinda Williams, and I only got to know one of my favorite Australian groups, The Waifs, because I called the station and demanded they tell me who had performed that great song about the waitress.

With the advent of the Internet, this lack of attribution isn’t such a huge problem anymore either, but some songs are stubbornly hard to track down. I’m thinking of one song in particular, dating from the late 1980s. I knew that a man sang it, and I remembered that the song opened with an intriguing set of rhetorical questions, each unanswerable in its own way. Years after I’d last heard it, I tried Googling the opening lines, but so little came up that I began to worry I’d invented the whole thing.

This worry persisted until after I got home from Australia. A few weeks after my return, I finally got around to listening to one of the CDs I’d bought, a two-disc collection of Paul Kelly’s greatest hits. This purchase had been a little bit of a gamble. WRSI used to play a few of Paul Kelly’s songs, and I’d always liked them, but I worried that he couldn’t possibly have two hours’ worth of strong material.

I shouldn’t have worried. The album is great. The first disc is so good that each song left me wondering how the next one could top it. So I was completely unprepared for the excellent song “Sweet Guy” to segue into the opening lines of "Careless":

How many cats in New York City?
How many angels on a pin?
How many notes on a saxophone?
How many tears in a bottle of gin?

I know travel can be educational, but who knew that a visit to a Sydney music shop could clear up a 20-year-old mystery?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goodbye to Oz

On our last morning in Australia, I woke up early to the sound of pounding rain. By the time dawn would normally be breaking, the rain had stopped, but I could see that it was still misty and overcast outside, with red mud puddles everywhere.

Pipi and I were in the hotel lobby before it was fully light because, having had so much fun riding camels in Alice Springs, we’d decided to go for an early morning ride at Uluru. When the tour operator showed up, though, he had bad news: Camels, he said, get “very silly” in the rain, and the ride would have to be cancelled. I said I’d pay good money to see a camel act silly, but he insisted that silly camels are not safe to ride. So we had a free morning before starting our trip home at around lunchtime.

We had one last hot Aussie brekkie at the hotel and took the first shuttle to the Uluru Cultural Center, which had a lot of good exhibits about the Anangu people, including an interesting explanation of how the local people managed to regain some control of their land. The Cultural Center was a few miles away from Uluru, and all morning we were treated to what I think is an unusual sight, which is that of the rock half shrouded in low clouds that made it look perfectly flat-topped.

When we were done with the Cultural Center, we made our way to a shuttle stop. Waiting for the bus, I felt a strong pang of sadness because I knew that at this point, our trip was essentially over. We were still standing on red Australian soil, but we were done having Australian experiences. From this moment on, our very long day would be dedicated to the logistical details of getting out of the country.

This shuttle would take us back to our hotel, where we would pack and catch another shuttle that would take us to the tiny Ayers Rock airport. From there we’d get on a two-and-a-half hour flight to Sydney, where we might catch an aerial glimpse of the Opera House, or Bondi Beach, or one of the neighborhoods we’d explored three weeks earlier. But we’d be stuck in international travel limbo, and they’d be out of reach, on the other side of doors marked “Security,” and “Passport Control.” Soon our Australia would be the size of an airport departure lounge.

There were five or six of us on the bus back to the Ayers Rock Resort, and I noticed that none of us could take our eyes off Uluru, visible in the distance through the back window, and getting smaller by the moment. I wondered if everyone, like me, was trying to savor the last sweet crumbs of what had once been a towering three-week slice of vacation. It certainly seemed that way as we all bounced around the mostly empty bus, constantly changing seats to try to get the best last look possible of the rock formerly known as Ayers.

Still feeling a little melancholy at the airport, I started thinking about how few people live in this part of the world, and realized that hardly anyone on the flight would be leaving home; that the majority of people in the airport were, like us, heading back to where they belong. How many of them would be following Pipi and me all the way, from Uluru to Sydney to Honolulu and finally to San Francisco?

It would be easy enough to tell, if I really wanted to know. I would just have to look at my fellow travelers’ shoes. Mine, I realized just before boarding, were covered in the red dirt of Central Australia. Everyone’s were. Anybody who’d literally set foot outside on this muddy morning had ochre splotches on their footwear.

Normally stained shoes might bother me, but in this case, I liked the idea that my sneakers would always be marked by this trip. (I lack the courage to commit to a tattoo, but if my shoes want to bring back a souvenir of their travels, I have no problem with that.)

Ayers Rock Airport is truly tiny, with only two gates, each of which is a glass door opening directly onto the tarmac. There are no jetways—you just walk out the door and climb the stairs to your plane. I don’t think it would be hard to get on the wrong one. The food court consisted of exactly one restaurant. I bought the last two sandwiches in the whole airport for Pipi and me and ate mine staring at my dirty shoes.

Finally boarding was announced for our flight. I clicked my red heels together, said, “There’s no place like home, mate,” and left Oz behind.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One Real Thing

We had successfully determined that the Ayers Rock Resort is not what is real about Uluru. Whatever real experiences were to be found in the dead heart of the country would obviously be found at the rock, as far as possible from the over-priced shuttles, snooty restaurants, and other quotidian concerns at the hotel complex.

We’d already decided not to climb Uluru, but when we got there, we discovered that because it had rained the night before, park rangers had closed the trail to the summit. So nobody would be finding their bliss on top of Uluru that day. We decided to follow ours on the six-mile path that circles the monolith. We knew we didn’t have time to hike the whole path but we started around the rock in a clockwise direction, hoping fervently that Uluru’s reality wasn’t hiding on the far side.

We couldn’t have covered more than two miles, but Uluru had plenty of surprises for us on that short stretch. The path often gets so close to the rock that you can touch it. In places it’s relatively smooth, like granite; in some it’s almost scaly, like slate, and at least one section was full of pits like a meteorite (which people used to think Uluru was—it makes as much intuitive sense as any other explanation).

Much of the rock on this side is eroded by wind at the base, so that there is a low overhang near the path. There are petroglyphs in some of these hollows. In other places, the scoop worn away by the wind is so dramatic that if you stand under the roof, it looks like you’re inside a perfect surfer’s curl that is about to crash on you—it’s a disorienting effect.

One benefit of arriving on one of the 14 days out of the year that it rains is that you get to see the rock’s true color. Uluru normally shows an oxidized rusty red surface. Underneath her blushing exterior, though, Uluru is a gray iron lady. On the day we visited it had rained overnight, and rivulets of water were trickling down the rock. In places, the flow was enough to wash away the red layer. The wet, raw rock underneath showed a metallic spectrum of colors, from platinum to bronze to blue steel.

Pipi and I stopped at one such place. There were a surprising number of trees around—this spot felt like an oasis. At the base of the rock, there was a long shallow pool, almost like a moat between the rock and the path. If I listened very closely, I could just hear water trickling down the rock face and filling up the pool.

While straining to hear the almost imperceptible stream, I realized that as quiet as the sound was, it was the loudest thing I could hear. For the first time in three weeks I was in a place that was almost completely silent. There were no city noises. No train wheels grinding against rails. No wind howling across the Outback. Nobody good-naturedly bellowing, “How ya going?” Even the birds were quiet. Everywhere you go in Australia, even in the urban areas, there is a constant chorus of parrots squawking, mynas chirping, and ravens chortling. But not here. Here was all the cool, calm quiet I hadn’t even realized I was missing.

Suddenly I knew what, for me, was the real thing about Uluru. It was the tranquility. There was peace and quiet all around me, and all I had to do to find it was to take a break from looking for it.

Which certainly made me glad I hadn’t climbed up a thousand-foot mountain in search of it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Search of Something Real About Uluru

Uluru turns out to be one of those places where it’s a lot easier to identify what’s not real about it than it is to see the real parts.

One unreal thing about the area is that there is no real residential community. There is only a large hotel complex, the Ayers Rock Resort, with several different properties catering to everyone from campers to luxury travelers. The resort has a few shops and restaurants, but there is no place around Uluru that feels like a real town.

The resort is located about a half-hour’s drive from the rock itself. If you’ve rented a car, you can come and go as you please, but if you haven’t, you are at the mercy of the hotel shuttles, which operate regularly but cost a staggering AU$40 per person (about U.S.$33) on top of the one-time AU$25 park-entry fee.

Getting around the resort is easy enough. It sprawls, but there is a free bus that circulates among the various properties. Pipi and I took it after dinner the day of our hike. This dinner was to be our last one in Australia, and we wanted to cap it with a memorable dessert, so we set off for the nicest property.

We found there the two most pretentious restaurants in all of Australia. The first one wouldn’t let us in because, they said, they were full. (Some strange confluence of events seemed to have sent the occupants of half of those full tables to the restroom at the exact moment we arrived.) Even if there hadn’t been the problem of too many phantom diners, we still wouldn’t have been allowed to order dessert, because their policy was to seat only patrons who agree to order two or more courses.

The situation was even more hopeless at the other restaurant. At this establishment--which, to review, is located in a vacation spot, in the middle of a desert, in the country that brought you the tank top as everyday wear--we ran afoul of a dress code. I could have gotten back on the bus, gone back to the room, and changed out of sneakers and into nicer shoes, but the dessert selection was so avant-garde awful—think prune and chickpea ice cream—that capitulating was unthinkable.

We ended up back in our room, satiating our sweet craving by devouring the last of our Tim Tams. These cookies are about as fair dinkum Australian as you can get, so there, finally, was one real thing about our evening.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Uluru at Last

Finally, we caught a glimpse of the big rock we’d traveled hundreds of miles inland to see: Uluru (pronounced “Ooolooroo,” with equal emphasis on every syllable).

We arrived at our hotel in time for a late lunch, and took the first available shuttle to the rock. The shuttle lets passengers off right at the base of the trail used to climb to the top of Uluru. This surprised me because I already knew that visitors are strongly discouraged from summiting.

My guidebook says that Uluru is considered to be a sacred place by the local Anangu people, and that seemed reason enough not to climb. I wouldn’t swing from the rafters of the Blue Mosque, so why should I be allowed to leave footprints all over Uluru? A display at the visitors center elaborates, explaining the top of Uluru is a place traditionally reserved for men who have been through a special initiation ceremony, meaning that even Anangu women would not be allowed to climb. Seen that way, I felt like I definitely had no business on top.

Near the trail entrance, there are numerous signs asking visitors again not to climb. Two caught my eye. One was printed in several European languages, although for some reason English was not one of them. I could read enough of the French to get the gist of it: The sign reminds you that if you should manage to kill yourself climbing, this will not only be a huge issue for you, it will also make your parents and friends very sad. The Anangu will also be sad, it says, so just think about that before you go risking your life on the steep, slippery rock.

It was the second sign, though, that really cinched it for me. It had a quote from a local tribal elder saying simply (in English): “You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place.”

This sounded like something out of the Book of the Tao, and I loved it. I decided that the elder’s words could almost be interpreted to mean that the Anangu discourage visitors from climbing not so much because they find the ascent offensive, but more because it drives them crazy to see us wasting so much energy on what seems to them like a pointless endeavor.

What, then, is the real thing about Uluru? I had no idea, but I hoped I would find it on the Anangu-approved trail that circles the base of the monolith. (Photos from our hike are here.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is That Uluru?

When traveling between Alice Springs and the Ayers Rock Resort, I think a lot of people mistake this monolith for Uluru. (At least I hope I’m not the only one who has done this.)

The rock pictured here is actually Mt. Conner, a few meters shorter, a few million years older, and 55 miles distant from Uluru. Both Uluru and Mt. Conner pop up out of the desert in a similarly dramatic fashion, and both were probably formed by the same process of erosion.

One major difference between the two is that the former Ayers Rock is now often called by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, while Mt. Conner appears stuck with its plain old European moniker.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lonely Highway

A lot of people—including me, until very recently—think Alice Springs and Uluru are just a kangaroo hop away from each other. In fact, they are separated by almost 300 red, dusty miles. It took us close to six hours to make the trip by bus. It took this long partly because there were a number of stops for photos and shopping, and partly because the road pictured is the second-largest road between Alice and the rock.

This road is the Lasseter Highway, and yes, I was standing right in the middle of it when I took the picture. Seeing this made me wish that for this part of the trip, at least, I had rented a car. Driving on the opposite side of the road in a major city like Sydney would probably be beyond me but on a road like this, I think the only hard part would be staying awake.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Emotional Emu

I guess I’d be in a bad mood, too, if I were left out in a cage in the rain. So I’m not hating on the bird or anything. I’m just making an “I” statement, which is that I was very scared of this emu. It was as tall as I am (okay, I’m not all that tall but I would be FOR A BIRD!) and it had red eyes. My sister used to have a cockatiel (an Australian bird, incidentally), and it could leave a welt if it put its little mind to it. I shudder to think what a bird 400 times that size could do.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Dingo Ate My Preconceived Notions

We took a bus from Alice Springs to Uluru, a distance of almost 300 miles. This coach tour came with narration and several planned stops. The very first one was at a camel farm that had several other exotic animals on hand. We were told there was enough time for a quick camel ride, but it was beginning to rain, so we just said hello to the dromedaries, waved at the alpacas, gave the angry emu a wide berth (seriously, I don’t know if it’s rain or tourists that they don’t like, but I think that thing would have taken a finger if we let it), and set off in search of the dingo puppy we’d heard lived on the farm.

We found him here, hiding under a rock because of the rain. He wasn’t overly friendly, but he let us pet him. I didn’t get the impression he wanted to eat anyone’s baby, although naturally no one offered him one. Either someone was pulling our leg about it being a dingo (entirely possible, although this is what they look like), or else these animals have gotten a bad rap.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Walking a Mile on a Camel

As I mentioned a few posts back, early explorers of Australia often used camels to get around because they could handle the desert conditions much better than horses. Camels were also used to help transport people and supplies when rail lines were first being laid in Australia.

When the bulk of the exploring and building was done, a lot of camel drivers made the grimly practical decision to let the camels go free, even though there was no reason to think the domesticated animals would survive in the wild. But they did, to the point that today there are so many camels in Australia that some are exported back to the Middle East.

No one knows how many camels there are down under. Estimates run from the tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands. All we can say for sure is that with this many camels, riding one isn’t really an exotic experience. But it felt like one when we went for a sunset camel ride at a farm just outside of Alice Springs.

Luckily the riding didn’t involve a lot of skill—the camels just loped along very slowly in a single-file line, led by a rancher on foot. It wasn’t even very hard to get up on the camels. Unlike horses, camels can kneel right down on the ground, making it really easy to step into the saddle. The only hard part came when the camel stood up. They’re really tall, and they rock forward and then back as they stand up straight. The lurch is a little bit scary and so is being up so high, but we got used to it quickly.

Pipi and I both rode a big guy named B.J. Like all the camels there, B.J. had one hump, which I rode in front of and Pipi sat behind. I’d heard that camels can be foul tempered, but B.J. was nothing but accommodating, and by the end of the ride we decided that we liked camels almost as much as kangaroos.

We wandered through the desert for about an hour, watching the sun set through increasingly atmospheric clouds. We saw wild kangaroos. Afterward, we got to stick around and help feed the camels hay with the rancher and his wife, a self-described Bondi Beach girl who still can’t believe life led her to the desert. Apparently she came to Alice Springs on vacation, and like Mary Anne Singleton in reverse, realized she’d found her place and decided to stay.

We liked Alice Springs, but not enough to do anything rash. We would be sticking to our itinerary, and early the next morning we departed for Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the giant, mysterious monolith that pops up out of the desert in the middle of the country

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thorny Devils

Pipi and I both arrived in Australia with ideas about things we were hoping to encounter. For example, I’ve known since I was a teenager that I like Australian music and furry Australian animals, and I planned our itinerary in such a way that I could experience both.

Pipi, too, arrived with a dream about something she’d like to see, but it wasn’t anything she’d known about since high school. In fact, it wasn’t something she’d known about when she got on the plane. Pipi fell in love with a thorny devil lizard she saw in documentary during the flight across the Pacific.

For this we have the excellent Qantas in-flight entertainment system to thank. There were so many films, documentaries, and TV programs to watch that I don’t think we saw very many of the same shows. I did steal a few glances at the reptile documentary while I was watching (but mostly listening to) something about the band Hunters and Collectors. I noticed that Thorny devils are cute by lizard standards. They have spiky armored skin, and look like little stegosauruses, only adobe-colored and about the size of a kitten. They even walk a little bit like newborn kittens, with a funny stuttering gait that makes them look like they’re not quite sure what to do with all those legs yet.

Thorny devils are native to central and western Australia. We never saw one in the wild, but we did encounter two lizards in captivity at the Alice Springs Desert Park. This was a peak experience and we watched them snuffle up ants for quite a while. (And dreamed about getting one to live in our kitchen. One winter in our old apartment I thought we’d have to get an aardvark to keep things under control.) We were nearing the end of our trip, and getting close to seeing everything we had reasonable hopes of seeing.

Friday, August 07, 2009

R.I.P. Sam the Koala

Thirsty little Sam, the koala who survived the bushfires near Melbourne last winter, died in surgery recently. I do realize that the real tragedy is the huge number of animals--not to mention all the people--who died in the actual fire, but still, this makes me sad.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Change of Plan

We had an ambitious plan for our one whole day in Alice Springs. This plan involved the Aboriginal culture museum, a museum devoted to women of the outback, and the Alice Springs Desert Park, featuring the flora and fauna of Central Australia.

The park was our first stop. Gradually, though, it dawned on us that we could spend all day here. So we did. We took our time, seeing all the animals and reading every sign that caught our eye. It felt liberating to jettison our itinerary.

Among the many tidbits of information we learned at the park is that Central Australia used to be covered by an ocean, and that there are only two or three bird species in the world that use tools, and this park has an example of one—an eagle that uses rocks to crack open emu eggs.

We also stumbled upon a lecture on Aboriginal culture given by a man from the Aranda group (or “mob,” to use his word). We got a crash-course in the complicated customs and rituals that enable people to survive on land that doesn’t have a lot to offer. The talk was pretty interesting, and we felt a little more comfortable about our decision to skip the Aboriginal museum and give our one activity for the day the attention it deserved.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

When You See the Southern Cross for the First Time…

…You inevitably hum that song to yourself.

This particular night in Alice Springs wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen the Southern Cross. The very first time was several years ago in New Zealand, and yes, the Kiwi friends who showed it to me did serenade me with a chorus of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song.

On this trip, I saw the Southern Cross dimly from an observatory in Sydney, and spectacularly late one night going through the outback on the Indian Pacific train. Alice Springs, though, was the first place I’d ever had the chance to take its picture.

Here’s how you find the Southern Cross: There are two bright stars on the far left of this photo. If you draw a line through them and extend it, it bumps into the constellation, which is fairly close to being upright. There are five stars, but I can only see four in the photo, and the one on the far right is dim. The cross is proportioned like a kite.

The Southern Cross is no Scorpio, or Orion (who is sometimes visible in the Southern Hemisphere, but he stands on his head—it gives me vertigo to even think about why that is). The Southern Cross is not very dramatic. But it’s elegant, it’s iconic, and it is off-limits to us northerners. Catching a glimpse of it really did make me feel just a little bit more like I understood why I came this way.

(See, actually if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere, you hum the song to yourself pretty much every time you see the Southern Cross.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A River Runs Under It

I didn’t mean to be too harsh on Alice Springs. The Aboriginal situation was troubling, but I did like the town. I came to Australia hoping to find some of the characters and customs, invariably described as either “offbeat,” or “quirky,” that are so often seen in Australian movies. I found them in Alice, where even the pigeons are a little off. Look closely at this one—he looks pretty normal, except he’s got a Mohawk. That’s one tough-looking pigeon.

We visited at the wrong time to see the wacky sporting event that is Alice’s claim to nautical fame, but it was enough for me to know that I had visited the only town in the world with a boat race that is cancelled if there is too much water. Or really any water. This race is the annual Henley-On-Todd Regatta. It happens every August and is run along the course of the Todd River.

The Todd is dry for all but a few days every year. Only a sustained downpour will make the riverbed fill up, and this just doesn’t happen much in the Red Centre. (It was explained to me that in central Australia, rivers run upside down, with the sandy bottom visible and the water normally flowing just underground.)

Most years, the regatta takes place on bone-dry land. Participants compete in Flintstones-style bottomless boats. Racers carry the vessels and run with them along the riverbed. A trickle of water is no big deal, but if the actual river should make an above-ground appearance that day, the race has to be postponed. (This really did happen in 1993.)

A hydrophobic boat race definitely qualifies as quirky in my book, and added to Alice’s appeal. In addition, we had a good dinner at a restaurant with a menu emphasizing bush tucker ingredients, and I finally got a picture of myself with a bottle of the Pure Blonde lager I’d been seeing all over.

One last appealingly oddball aspect of Alice Springs is that it was the queerest place we went in all of Australia. At dinner, surrounded by short-coiffed, sensibly-shod women who appeared to be either lesbians or German tourists (for some reason it can be really hard to tell the difference), Pipi wondered aloud if an Olivia cruise was in town. I didn’t even realize she was joking until I was gently reminded that we were 750 miles from the ocean. Alice Springs is just that kind of surprising place, and we could have used more time there.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Town Called Alice

On the afternoon of the day after we left Adelaide, we arrived in Alice Springs, a town of 27,000 that is about as close to the middle of nowhere as I’ve ever been. It’s also as close to the middle of Australia as most visitors ever get. This whole area is known as the Red Centre, and is indeed both red and central.

Two things about Alice reminded me of Arizona. One was the MacDonnell Ranges, a ridge of adobe-colored, weathered hills that looked like rocks I’d seen in the Southwest.

The second thing that made me feel like I was in Arizona was the sad collection of dilapidated houses on the outskirts of town. Watching the news the day we arrived, I saw a report about the Aboriginal people who lived in these houses. The structures were provided by the government but were so inadequate that residents had taken to cooking in their front yards. The situation shocked me a little, and reminded me of a depressing college road trip across a Native American reservation in Arizona.

Alice Springs was the first place where Pipi and I saw Aboriginal people in any number. I don’t mean to make the situation sound entirely bleak. A number of businesses in town did seem to be Aboriginal-owned, and galleries sold a lot of quality indigenous art. But it was hard to ignore the aimless crowds of Aboriginal people congregating in the dry riverbed that runs through town. Some sat reading like they were at the beach, some painted, and some stared into space like they were just taking a personal moment to regroup. But as we crossed the river on our way to dinner, it was clear that most were hunkering in for an evening spent drinking around bonfires.

Pipi and I were a little taken aback, especially since we had seen so few homeless (or under-housed) people so far in Australia. We had been hoping to learn something about Aboriginal culture, but this wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Luckily, we were soon to see a more positive side.

Friday, July 31, 2009

What’s up With the Name?

The Ghan is named after the Central Asians who were some of the first to regularly trek into Australia’s parched interior. They were a lot more successful than Europeans because they thought to use camels rather than horses. In actual fact, not very many of these explorers were from Afghanistan. Most were from Persia and what’s now Pakistan, but the name stuck around long enough that the rail line following their route became known as first “The Afghan Express,” and later, “The Ghan.”

The current route of the Ghan takes it from Adelaide, on Australia’s southern coast, almost directly north to Darwin, on Australia’s Top End. Cathedrals have been built in less time than it took to construct this line. Ground broke at Port Augusta in 1878, and by 1929 it had only gotten as far as Alice Springs, in the middle of the country. So many of the original track’s ties (or “sleepers,” as Australians call them) were eaten by termites that long stretches had to be re-laid. This took until 1980, and the extension to Darwin didn’t open until 2004. (I’ll save you the math—it’s 126 years.)

The stretch between Adelaide and Alice Springs, which took 51 years to build, now takes the train just under 24 hours. After the three-night trip on the Indian Pacific, it felt like a commuter jaunt. It seemed like we’d just set up the beds, arranged our nest, and taken a few glances out the window looking for kangaroos and suddenly we were pulling into the outskirts of Alice Springs.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Take a Gander at the Ghan

Here’s the Ghan at the town of Port Augusta, South Australia. This was the only major stop for us, as all the organized tours along the line were in towns north of where we got off the train.

We didn’t see much of Port Augusta. The train didn’t stop for long, and the station is not in an exciting part of town. The most interesting thing to look at within walking distance of the train was the train itself, almost eight football fields long. The locomotive was much longer than the platform it pulled up to. Pipi and I were lucky enough to be in a car that was easy to disembark from, but many passengers at the end of the train had to walk through several cars until they got to one that opened onto the platform.

The landscape on this trip started out as familiar flat, scrubby outback, but gradually got redder and more eroded, until it looked a little like Arizona. I expected blazing sunshine, but for most of the first day, the sky was moody and overcast, and I could see rain in the distance.

After Port Augusta, the Ghan’s route turned northward away from the coast and did not pass through any sizeable towns until it arrived in Alice Springs about 18 hours later. At about 9am the morning after leaving Adelaide, the train crossed the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory. This was a big deal. An announcement was made 15 or 20 minutes early so we could be sure to be watching for the signs that marked the otherwise undetectable state lines. We all lined the corridors, and at the climactic moment I, like everyone, took a picture. I’m glad I have a picture because I didn’t really see the signs—I was too busy trying to take a picture of them.

There’s probably a lesson there, but my point is that this was not the kind of trip where you can expect the scenery to entertain you. You make your own fun on the Ghan, which, as I have said, is the kind of trip I like. Australian train travel is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it, and if your idea of a relaxing day is one where a road sign is the biggest thing that happens to you…well, I think you people know who you are, and I urge you to hit the rails if you’re ever down under.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Well, It’s Not Like There’s A Secret Handshake

I learned two things the day news of Prop. 8 reached the Ghan. (Well, three, if picking up a new form of non-violent protest counts.) The first thing I realized is that Australians are much better informed about the world than the world is about Australia.

The second is that you just never know where you’re going to find allies. Who knew Linley was gay? Who would have guessed that his big, burly bloke of a co-worker would be perfectly comfortable talking about wedding details with him? It just goes to show that you can’t make assumptions about anybody. (And that my gaydar goes seriously on the fritz in foreign countries.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Redecorating

Just before departure from the Adelaide station, Pipi went off to purchase some snacks and came back nearly in tears. She’d walked past a TV tuned to the news, and had seen a report on how California’s Proposition 8 had just been upheld.

We were surprised that California politics were news at all in South Australia, and I wondered if we were the only ones who had noticed.

We hadn’t been on the train long before I had the answer. In the dining car, I heard the big, red-faced guy serving dinner ask our car attendant, Linley, about his upcoming wedding. Linley, who had not, up to this point, set off my gaydar, mentioned that the ceremony would take place in Europe. “Good thing it’s not in Los Angeles,” said the ruddy one, “They just outlawed it there. Six people got hurt protesting.”

I expressed my dismay at having missed the protests. Part of me was ready to overturn a car. “Surely you don’t actually want to be destructive,” said Linley, “Maybe you just want to sneak into politicians’ offices and redecorate or something like that.”

It was an odd proposition, but not a bad idea, really. I’m thinking Brokeback Mountain posters all over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sacramento lair. Or even better, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert memorabilia. Those girly men were fierce.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Into the Dead Heart

Adelaide we also left by train, specifically the Ghan. The Ghan goes from Adelaide all the way north to Darwin, on the north coast, but we were only going as far as Alice Springs, about a 24-hour journey.

During the afternoon of our departure, we skirted two bodies of water, the Gulf St. Vincent, and the Spencer Gulf. This was the last we would see of water for the rest of the trip. It was also the last we would see of major population centers. Eighty-five percent of Australians live within 30 miles of the coast, and we were heading inland rapidly. Our destination—and the end of the trip—lay in the area known as the Red Centre; the dry, landlocked, camel-dotted interior of the country. This part of Australia is also sometimes referred to as the “Dead Heart,” but as we were to see, it was actually pretty lively.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wobbly Wallabies

Pipi and I got to five out of seven Australian states. The ones we missed were Queensland, which has the Great Barrier Reef and seems like it deserves an undivided vacation to itself, and Tasmania.

I have nothing against Tasmania, and wish I could have fit it into our itinerary, but something had to give. I don’t really regret passing it over…or at least I didn’t until I read this. Tiny, meandering marsupials on opiates—now there’s something you just can’t see in this hemisphere.

Thanks to my sister, Hilary, for bringing this to our attention!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One of Those Cities No One Cares About

In Adelaide, we watched an Australian game show called “Talking About My Generation.” This show pitted contestants from three different generations (Boomer, X, and Y) against each other. I am good with trivia, so I thought I might do well with the Generation X questions. But the very first one required knowledge of a 1980s vegemite jingle, and I realized that my knowledge bank is virtually useless down under.

One question involved knowing which Australian city was the first to see a certain product on grocery store shelves. The generation Y man guessed it was Perth. (Actually, he said, “Parth;” he was Irish.) This was wrong. The correct answer was Adelaide, the very place where we happened to be at that moment. “Ah,” he sneered, “I knew it was one of those cities no one cares about.”

This seemed harsh, especially in regards to Adelaide, a lovely city with nice parks, a gentle climate, and a surprisingly broad array of available foodstuffs. It is, as I have noted, a city so nice we went there twice.

And if our snarky Irish friend thought Adelaide was provincial, then it’s a good thing he wasn’t with us for the remainder of the trip, because our itinerary was about to get even less ready for prime time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Adelaide has the distinction of being the only place in Australia (aside from the Sydney airport) that we visited twice. Both visits were very short, however. The first time was a stop of a few hours on the Indian Pacific train. I spent just enough time there to get mad at a tour bus driver, and then we were gone.

The second visit was also train-related, and also short. We arrived on the Overlander train from Melbourne at about 5pm, and the Ghan, the train we would take to Alice Springs, left the next day at around noon.

Adelaide is not a nightlife city, so that evening, we didn’t do much beyond dinner and laundry. I once paid $15 to have a resort in Hawaii wash a pair of pants, so I was happy to discover that our Adelaide hotel had self-service laundry machines. (I didn’t even mind that the laundry room was so far from both the front desk and our own room that I was given a map to follow.)

The next morning we explored what we could of the city. The hotel was within walking distance of Adelaide’s Central Markets, the largest produce market in the southern hemisphere. It had row after row of stalls selling fresh meat, produce, and other tasties. If you can imagine Seattle’s Pike Place market, only with fewer flying salmon and more kangaroo, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

Pipi and I stocked up on bread, cheese, and jam for the upcoming train ride. This photo was taken at a stand where we only window shopped, having been cured of any desire to eat kangaroo in Perth. The array of goods was pretty amazing, and I learned more than I ever wanted to about kangaroo preparation. It was as if Forrest Gump’s army buddy was from Australia: “Kangaroo sausage, kangaroo fillet, kangaroo pepperoni, kangaroo curry, kangaroo stir-fry….and that’s about all you can do with kangaroo.” You could also get crocodile several different ways, and they had a few emu steaks. This was not your typical Bay Area farmer’s market, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do

When it was time to leave Melbourne, we did so by rail, taking the Overland train. This train is named after the so-called “overlanders” who first explored the interior of Australia, and it runs between Melbourne and Adelaide at approximately the speed of a trotting emu. I believe the journey took about 10 hours, but it’s hard for me to do the math because there was a confounding 90-minute time change at the South Australian border.

This train journey was memorable for being possibly the most sedentary experience of my life. Because the journey is a day trip, there are no sleeper cars on the Overland, just two classes of seats. We splurged on the top class, where food is not free, but it is delivered to you. There are no stops on the route. There is no observation car to go to. There was enough room in the passenger car that I could have moved around if I had wanted to, and once I realized that, I didn’t feel like I needed to. I just settled in, made a little nest of reading material for myself, looked out the window, and ate what came my way.

Enjoying—as opposed to merely enduring--a train journey depends on your ability to do this, to slow yourself down to a near hibernating state. I love situations where there’s nothing to do because it means nothing is expected of me. And if nothing is expected of me, it doesn’t matter how quickly the time is or isn’t passing. After a while, I stop even looking at my watch.

I know some people, people whose sentences are peppered with words like “structure,” and “goals,” and “accomplishment,” find boredom stressful. Not me. I think it’s liberating.