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‘Living’ at SFO cheaper than renting in the city?

Fri, 18 Aug 2017 15:55:02 UT

The airport. It’s not a place where most people want to spend more time than is absolutely necessary. Stand in line, have your documents evaluated, walk around, repeat. Even fewer people would consider living there, even though most of them are already packed for it. But why? San Francisco International, like most big metro airports, has many of the same features as a city neighborhood — restaurants, shopping, museums, cranky neighbors, rail transportation and public art (and the renovated Terminal 3 is only slightly more gentrified than Valencia Street in the Mission District). And the cost of living there, apparently, is comparable to that of a San Francisco apartment.

Tourists vs. travelers: What’s the real difference?

Fri, 25 Mar 2016 21:49:50 UT

Cuba was on the TV news again for the latest U.S. move to end the long-pointless embargo, and the young, earnest backpacker guy next to me at the airport decided to share. Never mind that Cuba isn’t going to change as fast as most people imagine (a case of Americans thinking the world revolves around us — a topic for another day). “Traveler Versus Tourist” is not only one of the most pointless and, frankly, tiresome conflicts in the realm of travel, for the most part it’s only furthered by people who want to feel superior about the way they see the world. A more realistic (and less judgmental) way to look at travel is in terms of Leisure Versus Discovery. Sometimes, you want to wander down that alley in Istanbul to find a great bookshop, or visit that incense-clouded temple while trekking through Bhutan, or take a moment of quiet reflection among the stones of mystical Machu Picchu. [...] it’s a sliding scale from leisure to discovery — most travelers (and most trips) are a combination of both. [...] because only one side is fighting. While I’ve never heard leisure-leaning people complain about the discovery folks, it seems like complaining about leisure travelers is a full-time job for more than a few discovery people. [...] we should define the travel, not the traveler. [...] at a time when only 30 percent of Americans have passports and 40 percent of us never go anywhere (not out of town overnight), we should be encouraging all travel.

Changing the angle can work wonders for people, places

Thu, 21 Jan 2016 08:01:00 UT

Changing the angle can work wonders for people, places Paynesville is a hamlet in the Gippsland Lakes region of the East Gippsland portion of Gippsland in the Australian state of Victoria. The “Lakes” are a network of inland waterways that, according to the tourist brochure, are fed by “three of the biggest inland lakes systems in Australia.” “Did you ever watch the American show ‘MASH’?” she said, still looking at the horizon. All I could remember about those choppers, despite having seen the opening credits 6,397 times, was that the cockpit was tiny. The helicopter, a Bell Model 47G, landed in the middle of a grassy field near the marina and we crouch-walked to the door and, to my unending relief, we both crammed in next to the pilot. Any building here taller than two stories is considered a skyscraper. The lakes were mighty inland seas and the waterways were blue-green serpents that had carved the landscape into a flowing paisley of Mother Nature’s design. A pair of long, narrow islands snaked in unison, having been created by the outflow of a river. George, who heard me through the noise and earphones, just gave me the same baffled look and shrugged. The chopper ride had been a terrifying prospect for me, but it was just a bicycle ride across town for him.

A poignant return trip to beloved Paris

Fri, 27 Nov 2015 22:15:22 UT

Five days after Islamic State terrorists stunned Paris by killing 130 people in seven locations, my husband and I landed before dawn in the City of Light. At Hotel Mansart near Place Vendome, Patricia Miotello, the 60ish reception manager, welcomed us effusively. “Thank you for coming,” she kept saying, telling us that 170 room nights had been canceled so far for November. Terrorists were killed by police and troops in St. Denis. At Brasserie Royal Vendome, where we went twice for the reasonable grilled salmon and warm apple tart, the waitress said only 22 of 44 people who booked showed up Monday after the Friday, Nov. 13, attack. The otherwise effusive maitre d’ at Le Procope, a popular Left Bank restaurant, looked frustrated when he said banquet reservations had been canceled for 500 people. After the attacks, friends at home had asked, “Are you still going?” Keith and I both said, “Of course.” Paris was bleak and cold during our visit, and police cars and troops with guns were visible on the streets, in the Metro and train stations. Another afternoon, we waited only 10 minutes to go into the newly renovated Rodin Museum, his onetime home, seeing famous sculptures such as “The Kiss.” There were more than 25 white tents protecting international TV crews and cameras from the rain. Some mourners stood, just staring at the masses of flowers, votive candles, stuffed animals and signs, one proclaiming “Your wars, our deaths.”

Short road from Hana is long on Paradise

Fri, 20 Nov 2015 02:38:00 UT

[...] do not eat of the apple. [...] do not drive the back side of Hana in a rental car. Driving to the small town of Hana, a three-hour meander down an improbably narrow, twisty byway lined with Eden-inspired waterfalls and the kind of red and yellow flowers a kid buys for his prom date, is the grail quest of a trip to Maui. The car rental companies all say turn around, you dope, what are you doing to our car? Driving the back side of the Hana Highway “violates your rental agreement.” If people read the fine print, they’d never do anything exciting, like journey to the moon or fall into the Pacific Ocean in a rental car. There were rocks to drive around, branches to steer clear of, and gooey mud puddles that might have been deep enough to get stuck in. Around the next blind curve could be a fellow dope equally determined to assume all liability, but coming in the opposite direction. According to maps, it was the same Pacific Ocean that touches San Francisco. Driving it was, for want of a better word, an adventure in a place where most other adventures — volcano bike descents, zip line flights, submarine voyages — tend to come pre-packaged at $100 a pop. The narrow overgrown road opened up to long dry stretches that could pass for Highway 1 near Big Sur, minus the sea lions. To the right, the flowers smelled like the lotion bottles in the gift shop, especially if you gazed at the breakers and listened to the crashing ... A $24 bottle of pineapple wine signaled a return to the more familiar Hawaii born of the Enchanted Tiki Room. The hardest part is avoiding a sheepish look when returning the rental car at the airport. [...] with all the tourist taxes, collision waivers, facility fees and surcharges tacked on to most rental car bills, it’s clear that there are other, deeper deceptions in play.

At Thurber House, you can use James Thurber’s toilet

Fri, 1 May 2015 02:20:38 UT

A bathroom being a bathroom, however, the docent at the front door told a visitor to go ahead and use it. Surrounded by such trappings of humility, a visitor could scarcely imagine all the great stuff that happened within its brick walls. In Thurber’s tales, the quiet house on Jefferson Avenue where the family lived from 1913 to 1917 (it was built on the grounds of the state lunatic asylum) was generally a booby hatch of chaos and confusion, with three generations of Thurbers dashing about in pajamas and panic, throwing shoes at imaginary intruders and worrying whether electricity was leaking out of wall sockets. Thurber, half blind, was himself a squinter whose poor vision did not prevent him from drawing an amiable amalgam of dogs, seals, rabbits and battling spouses. Upstairs is the hallway where Rex the terrier slept, on the rare occasions he wasn’t up to something. Rex, Thurber wrote, “never lost his dignity even when trying to accomplish the extravagant tasks my brothers and myself used to set for him.” Rex never ran after cars, because he “didn’t seem to see the idea in pursuing something you couldn’t catch, or something you couldn’t do anything with, even if you did catch it.” Outside, in a small park, is the garden that Thurber’s famous unicorn never visited. [...] his fable about the unicorn appears, in its entirety, on a brass plaque. [...] they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. In the dining room is a TV, a later addition to the The video, in which Thurber complains that his blindness must have been punishment for writing about human foibles, is the only sad thing about Thurber House. After you see it, you walk into the dining room, which has been turned into a store that peddles knickknacks. A Thurber pencil, with a picture of one of his cartoon dogs on it, costs 50 cents. Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Author James Thurber (1894-1961), creator of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and scores of stories, essays and cartoons for the New Yorker magazine.

Serenity on an A380 — without leaving the ground

Thu, 23 Apr 2015 23:10:40 UT

The trouble with flying across the Atlantic Ocean is that passengers don’t breathe right while they’re doing it. [...] again, if you don’t want to get clobbered by the mindful passenger sitting 31 inches directly behind you, you might not. Take a moment to notice what’s it’s like to be sitting here on this plane mid-flight. On an airplane you can feel cool, fresh air only if you open the window, but it’s not recommended. Perhaps British Airways, being based in London, lacks experience with fresh air. The worry most airplane passengers have is what holds the thing up in the sky and whether it will keep doing it for 11 hours, until the other side of the world arrives. [...] he’s sitting in business class, where the seats not only recline but lie flat. British Airways shot the mindfulness video while the A380 was parked at the gate. [...] he need not worry about driving his car on the left and eating steak-and-kidney pie. A British Airways spokesman said Coleman shot the videos as part of the airline’s debut last month of its A380 Airbus service from San Francisco to London. Mindfulness, the spokesman said, is big, and the British, after that little misunderstanding with us colonials in 1776, are always looking to make amends. The two-story leviathan carries a staggering 469 passengers, all of whom get served British food for dinner, to get them ready for what’s coming. When it comes to relatives, the mindful thing to do is to leave your judgment on the other side of the ocean.

Departures: Power of surprise kindnesses in travel

Fri, 27 Mar 2015 02:24:21 UT

The moment I saw the heavily embroidered sleeves, I began looking for an escape route. The uniforms were not terrifying, nor did the men and women wearing them look particularly menacing. Typically I encourage tipping of street performers (especially if you post photos or video to Facebook or Instagram), but costumed “performers” have always been a quandary. Is putting on an unauthorized Mickey Mouse suit and posing with kids in Times Square really performing? Costumed characters already are so prevalent, I’ve thrown money in the hat for Spider-Man in Venezuela, Generic Panda Guy in Paris and Levitating Jesus in Madrid. Originally, the plan for the day, after two weeks in Latvia and Lithuania, had been to hunker down in the hotel room, despite being in the middle of Vilnius’ historical center, until it was time to catch a cab to the airport. The places and people in these Baltic states had exceeded my expectations, but the strangeness of foreign places that I seek out at the beginning of a trip — few recognizable meals, constant linguistic bungling and only random moments of familiarity — often wear me down by the end. Locked in the hotel, I had managed to shun further exploring, even while surrounded by cultural wonders and rare opportunities. Eventually, curiosity about the cathedral across the street pried me from the room and my self-pity. At the cathedral, I noticed the dramatic statue of some medieval leader, which in turn lured me past the museum, into a tree-shaded park and up a hill of crude cobblestones. The road ended at the castle courtyard, near the tower, where the costumed group stood — the group that had started singing. By the third song, I recorded some audio, knowing I might use it later, and tried to find a way to tip them and talk with them. [...] at a break in the music, I approached. Any other time, it would have been the universal opening line of tip-seeking street performers. “Please tell them their music fills my heart,” I said, clasping my hands to my chest. There were hugs and handshakes, kisses on the cheek and “Farewell” butchered in two languages, until I had to walk away — before I got too misty. Walking the cobblestones back down, I thought about having been “too tired,” and about past times I didn’t go out to explore more.

Departures: Life of a railroad timetable

Thu, 18 Dec 2014 05:44:04 UT

Sometimes it arrives at 6 p.m. Sometimes it arrives at 8 p.m. The last time I rode it, the California Zephyr arrived in Emeryville around Inconvenience” is what Amtrak says instead of “We’re sitting on this siding, waiting for another freight train to go by. Conductors apologize for it, when they aren’t knocking on the lavatory doors, checking for stowaways. Inside the front cover is a map of the United States, crisscrossed with red rail lines that look like arteries even though it’s been a while since trains counted as the lifeblood of getting around. Through the window, the moon waltzed across the desert, keeping pace with the Southwest Chief and the headlights of passing automobiles where the fathers were busy driving instead of snoring. The song lyrics say that all along the southbound odyssey the train pulls out of Kankakee. On the bottom, almost as an afterthought, the timetable says “Scenic Highlights” and then lists “High Sierra, Rocky Mountains, Moffat Tunnel.” What the rider sees in the blackened window is a reflection of his own grungy self, which is rarely scenic halfway through a two-day train trip. The great Chronicle reporter Art Hoppe hiked 4 miles through the snow to the trapped train and didn’t care much for the scenic highlights. “This dispatch is being written by the light of an emergency lantern in the dark, damp interior of the train,” he wrote. A train timetable is a best-case scenario in a script full of alternate endings. The Amtrak timetable says the westbound segment from Chicago to Napierville takes 34 minutes. Either that or Amtrak is padding the schedule to allow a chronically late train to have a snowball’s chance at arriving at its last stop on time. Things printed on paper are an endangered species, especially things offered free of charge. Gas stations stopped handing out highway maps decades ago. According to the timetable, it’s one minute to midnight.

Singapore’s theme park of the damned

Fri, 24 Oct 2014 19:23:01 UT

Thieves were being frozen into ice blocks, drug traffickers grilled on rotisseries, kidnappers impaled on trees of knives, porn possessors sawed in half and classroom cheats meticulously disemboweled. [...] there was one piece of the action that I wasn’t able to make out through the cluster of young families with small children who had stopped for a good, long look. Picture “It’s a Small World” with set design by Hieronymus Bosch, and you start to get an idea of the “10 Courts of Hell,” a detailed tour of the sinner’s afterlife, and the centerpiece of Singapore’s Haw Par Villa. [...] what emerged was a special place in hell for the unfilial. Normally, I phoned home from wherever I turned up on the planet, but between the almost unnavigable time difference and overflowing itinerary on this trip, I resorted to quickie e-mails instead. [...] one woman I chatted up told me that her brother — having just acquired his own mac daddy massage chair — decided to buy a burnable version for their mom, who surely would appreciate being as pampered in the afterlife as he was on Earth. With that, I was officially guilt-stricken, and filial piety was all I could see, whether in the local papers, where pundits explored the economy’s impact on filial duties; on TV, where politicians condemned “the outsourcing of filial piety” to retirement homes; or in temples, where ancestral tablets filled entire pagodas.

Survival and surprises in the Brazilian dunes

Fri, 12 Sep 2014 01:48:12 UT

When the dune-buggy driver asked if we wanted the experience “com emocao” (with emotion), I nodded a noncommittal “Si.” Thirty minutes later, after our driver eagerly offered some of our petrol for another driver, whose passengers looked horrified at being stuck in the dunes, the buggy did a doughnut and my husband nearly flew out of the backseat. I could guess which “emotion” the driver was trying to induce. In local Brazilian circles, a thrill ride through Natal’s sand dunes is something of a rite of passage. As one Brazilian friend said, “It is the most exhilarating adventure you’ll ever have.” These sand dunes are the highest in the country and span nine beaches and three lakes.

In the anxiety of the unfamiliar, a little help from our friends

Fri, 29 Aug 2014 20:49:29 UT

Tall grass punctuated with sprawling trees lines each side of the highway, and what lies beyond is protected by chain-link fencing. After 10 minutes of waiting for the snake to move, a truck turns off the road. Solomon strides back to his truck, reaches inside and pulls out a bag and cooler. In less than a minute, he’s set the picnic table and laid out his meal to share with me. Concerned e-mails from home ask if I’m staying safe and locking my hotel room door, tell me to watch out for strangers (which is everyone), and advise me to “be careful in Africa.” When asked by the country’s tourism office if I felt comfortable driving a rental SUV around by myself, I hesitated. [...] when I checked in at the rental car agency and was presented with a two-wheel-drive car instead of a four-wheel-drive SUV, I realized that my tire-changing skills were more than rusty. There’s no such thing as an auto service club in Namibia, and obstacles abound — from deep water holes to families of warthogs that seem to wait until the last moment to hurl themselves across lanes of traffic with their skinny tails in the air. Nobody is here to help if things go badly. [...] many people think that’s the only way this scenario can end, as if Africa is too dangerous to bother trusting. The cooler is packed with frosty bottles of Hansa Urbock, a bockbier that gives a subtle nod to the country’s German settlers. Back at home,” he says, “if you have car trouble, do you wait for help? [...] every time I spy another animal — no matter if it’s an elephant, leopard, cheetah, honey badger, oryx, jackal or baboon — it’s as if I’ve seen it for the first time. “That’s how it should be with everything,” he says, and looks into the distance after the giraffe.

Small town's heart found in a desert cafe

Fri, 1 Aug 2014 01:38:52 UT

The isolated, lonely landscape gnawed at our psyches and cooked our brains and bodies in 100-plus-degree August heat in our non-air-conditioned Vanagon camper rolling along Highway 50, the "Loneliest Road in America." The brown desert and barren ranges of Nevada had replaced the red canyons of Utah two-thirds of the way through the 600 miles my husband and I had driven since early morning when we departed Telluride in Colorado on our way home to San Francisco. The brightly lit cafe was filled with people sitting on vinyl-and-metal kitchen chairs at a dozen wooden-topped tables. The waitress showed us to a table along the side wall near an oval frame holding an antique photograph of an owl. Most of the women in the cafe wore simple print dresses, and the men had on long-sleeve shirts, blue jeans and "feed caps" - baseball hats sporting the names of farm- or ranching-equipment companies. On the opposite side of the room sat an older, heavier man with a handlebar mustache and overalls and a Boss-of-the-Plains rounded cowboy hat with the front brim turned up. At the table next to us a stylish couple in their 40s speaking French ate with heads down. The door opened again, and in walked a young couple who paused dramatically on the threshold. The waitress brought us a huge slice of coconut cream pie mounded high with whipped cream.

Little RV proves to be fun despite its flaws

Fri, 18 Jul 2014 01:35:31 UT

After returning the scraped-up rig - its physical scars matched my emotional ones - I swore there would be no more RVs. A bunk bed on wheels with a neat little kitchen, all on a standard minivan wheelbase. The van was purple and green and covered in ads and everyone wanted to talk to us about it. [...] have fun, he said, with a salacious wink. To convert the cargo pod - the penthouse - into a bedroom, you push a button. Gardner, a big guy who crests 6 feet, stepped on the bottom rung of the ladder. The plan? I will sleep inside the van, Gardner will pitch his tent. After figuring out where to stow the luggage - some of it on the front seats - we fold down the bed. The blankets in the provisioning kit aren't up to the task, and I regret not packing a sleeping bag. The back of the van swings up, revealing the neatly designed little counter, sink and a pull-out burner. Seals are barking somewhere nearby and fishing boats are motoring out of the marina. The van comes with a DVD player and a second battery to power the lights, but it's only got one USB plug, and it's dead slow to charge anything. There are plenty of charger ports but no actual chargers. In a campground in Olema, we park in an RV slot and tether our gadgets to the power hookups. While I'm charging my phone and brushing my teeth, I get a text message from Gardner who is sitting in the dark in camp. The penthouse seems as if it would be fun for kids, but less acrobatic types might rather forgo the pod for improved mileage or just have it for storage.

Thin bivvy bag offers deeper connection to world

Fri, 4 Jul 2014 00:53:07 UT

Since sleeping in on holiday is deeply self-disgusting, I prepare to get up. A mile or so away, through the racing gloom, the English seaside town of Bridlington is filled with such folk, remaining in bed, protected by four walls and a roof, accepting that the best thing to do in England when the weather turns foul is to stay indoors or leave the country. If you want the real deal, look toward Alastair Humphreys, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2012. Misery and pleasure"This book is about misery that's mixed in with pleasure, rather than taken straight: about self-indulgence rather than mere survival," Turnbull writes. [...] all bivvy bags do have a secondary function as survival aids, and it's true that you can't have much of either fun or suffering if you died the previous winter. A bivvy bag is a human-size pouch that you lie in, usually in mild agony. There are certain kinds of British people who embrace self-inflicted misery as if it's a form of national service. When a flysheet is touching a tent's inner liner, moisture wicks inward - so how was this going to keep me dry when it rained? The rain is coming down hard enough to feel like I'm being trodden on - but my sleeping bag is dry.