Why I never became a teacher

February 25, 2015 by

(This is a prequel anecdote to a much longer upcoming piece I am writing for the blog. Writing this episode got so digressive and detailed that I am publishing it as a stand-alone piece.)

Fifth grade had been traumatic for me. It was marked by a ‘it’s-so-crazy-I-still-can’t-believe-it’ incident; the loss of innocence that irreversibly advanced me in one bounding leap from child to adult.

When I was in 3rd grade, Ms. Hydon, the 4th grade teacher, got married to Mr. Lawrence, the 5th grade teacher and became known as Mrs. Lawrence. Young and pretty, Ms. Hydon was considered the most glamourous teacher in school. Getting married —to another teacher, no less— added to the aura of fairy-tale romance.

For 4th grade, I had Mrs. Lawrence. She became pregnant, and was out on maternity leave for the second semester, so we had a long-term substitute. Mrs. Cox, who ended up in our class photo, was middle-aged and decidedly less glamourous.

For 5th grade, I had Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence was the only male classroom teacher in our school. The rest of the male teachers were specialists: Mr. Butterworth taught French to the 5th- through 9th-graders; Mr. Somkid taught PE for all grades; and then there was Mr. Lawson, the headmaster. 

Mr. Lawrence had a reputation for being strict. In fact there was a kid named Steven who was transferred from the other 5th grade class into our class, because his parents wanted more discipline for him. Steven’s mother was the school nurse.

Since I was a quiet and conformist kid, I didn’t think I would have any problems with Mr. Lawrence.

He turned out to be — how can I put it mildly — a pompous, thin-skinned megalomanic jackass.

Mr. Lawrence was actually one Lawrence Kow from Malaysia. He was addressed by his first name. It wasn’t unusual for teachers in our school to go by their first names. For some, they were addressed as Mrs. Suchada or Ms. Sukon because they were Thai. Or they had polysyllabic Thai surnames that were difficult to pronounce by non-Thai students: Mrs. Angela, Mrs. Christine instead of Mrs. Bankerdmuangnorn, Mrs. Namlaifaidap.  The only teachers who were addressed as Mrs. <PolysyllabicThaiSurname> were British women who had married Thai husbands . . . and kept the perverse European practice of being addressed by their married surname, like Mrs. Phavantha, Mrs. Sananikorn.

(I guess I should have explained this at the start, but you’ve probably figured out by now that I went to a British elementary school in Thailand. In Thailand, the universal convention is to address someone by their first name, not surname.)

Now Kow is quite easy to pronounce, but worried about students mocking his name with bovine jokes, he went by Mr. Lawrence. That’s how insecure he was. In matrimony, Mrs. Lawrence had taken not just his last name, but his first name as well.

There’s a section in Roald Dahl’s “Danny, The Champion of the World” where Danny is unfairly accused in of cheating in class.[1]  Mr. Lawrence’s psychological abomination against me played out the exact same way. Except I was charged with lying.  And that even Mr. Lawrence knew better than to try inflict corporal punishment on me…

In 5th grade, I was pretty good about doing my homework.  As much as my dad nagged me about other things, even he didn’t bother to see what homework I had each day, he knew I’d finished it.

We had been doing a series of spelling lists. Mr. Lawson had announced an upcoming school-wide spelling competition, and Mr. Lawrence wanted his class to have the best showing.  Especially since Mr. Lawson’s daughter was also in our class.

We were supposed to write down each day’s words in a notebook, and bring it back to school each day, even though Mr. Lawrence wasn’t consistent about collecting them to check. It was more for practice. On the one day I had left my spelling notebook at home, Mr. Lawrence asked the class to hand them in for a spot check.

“I left mine at home,” I told him.

“You’re sure you didn’t just simply not do your homework?”

“I DID do my homework. I just forgot to bring it.”

“LIAR!”  Mr. Lawrence thundered. In front of the entire class. Without a shred of proof.

“I am not lying!”

(The funny thing was for once my dad knew what my homework was and that I had finished it the previous night.  I had asked Dad for one of the definitions. ‘Why don’t you ask my dad,’ I wanted to say to Mr. Lawrence, but of course this was before the age of cell-phones. It was inconceivable to trek down to the school office to use the only telephone on campus and call my dad at work, just to ask if I had done my homework.)

Mr. Lawrence launched into a slanderous tirade against me, fueled by a vehemently insane conviction he had to be right. There was no room for him to be wrong because he was the adult/teacher, and I was the student/child.

I was rooted to the spot, unable to believe what was happening. I had always turned in my homework, complete and on time. I’d never been in any trouble with Mr. Lawrence before.  I had never thought that adults could be so blatantly unfair and such bullies. Now I knew, I was blown away, shell-shocked.

I don’t know why Mr. Lawrence did what he did. The only remotely plausible reason I can think of is that somehow he was trying to discredit me. In class, I was one of the kids with the best grades, along with the headmaster’s daughter. Mr Lawrence had shown signs of favoritism towards her, to curry favor with his boss, I guess.

I can’t remember if I told my dad about the incident. Whether I did or not, I knew nothing would happen.  My dad didn’t call up the school to make a fuss, to have Mr. Lawrence punished, nor to have me transfer to the other 5th grade class.

(I also did wonder about Mrs. Lawrence, did she know what kind of abusive man she had married and fathered her child?)

After this episode, I resolved to never become a teacher. I knew that as a teacher, I too would become prone to biases, favoritism, and dislikes with my students. If I could not hold myself to treating all my students equally and be fair to all of them, then I would not be a teacher at all.

BACK TO POST [1] Excerpt from “Danny, the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl

A teacher called Captain Lancaster [taught] the nine- and ten-year-olds, and this year included me… He had been a captain in the army during the war… and that was why he still called himself Captain Lancaster instead of just plain mister.

We were having our first lesson of the day with Captain Lancaster. I was sitting next to Sidney Morgan in the back row and we were slogging away.
Sidney Morgan covered his mouth with his hand and whispered very softly to me, “What are eight nines?”
“Seventy-two,” I whispered back.
Captain Lancaster’s finger shot out like a bullet and pointed straight at my face. “You!” he shouted. “Stand up!”
“Me, sir?” I said.
“Yes you, you blithering idiot!”
I stood up.
“You were talking!” he barked. “What were you saying?” He was shouting at me as though I was a platoon of soldiers on the parade ground. “Come on, boy! Out with it!”
I stood still and said nothing.
“Are you refusing to answer me?” he shouted.
“Please, sir,” Sidney said. “It was my fault. I asked him a question”
“Oh you did, did you? Stand up!”
Sidney stood up beside me.
“So you were cheating!” he said. “Both of you were cheating!”
We kept silent.
“Cheating is a repulsive habit practiced by guttersnipes and dandyprats!” he said.
From where I was standing I could see the whole class sitting absolutely rigid, watching Captain Lancaster. Nobody dared move.
“You may be permitted to cheat and lie and swindle in your own homes,” he went on, “but I will not put up with it here!”
At this point, a sort of blind fury took hold of me and I shouted back at him, “I am not a cheat!”
There was a fearful silence in the room. Captain Lancaster raised his chin and fixed me with his watery eyes. “You are not only a cheat but you are insolent,” he said quietly. “You are a very insolent boy. Come up here.”


February 7, 2015 by

I’m sitting at a table in the middle of a cafe.

At the table to my left, someone is talking very loudly. I put on my earphones, blast on my iPod and tune him out.

At the table in front of me, someone is viewing p0rn on his laptop. I rotate my seat, so that I don’t have to see what he’s looking at.

At the table to my right, someone is quietly reading a newspaper. But he smells really awful. I move to a table at the far side of the cafe, because I am incapable of switching off the scent receptors in my nose. I mentally apologize for shunning him. I hope the quiet news-paper reader doesn’t notice.

Hygiene is a challenge, if you are homeless. What facilities are open and/or accessible to the general public, where a homeless person could not be barred from entry? Which facilities are free, or cheap enough that a homeless person could collect enough spare change to afford?

Toilets are the easiest: public libraries, fast food restaurants, any building open to the public. Laundry is a realistic possibility: coin-operated laundromats are widespread. There are even car washes for cars, but no people-washes for people. (It’s a little weird, if you think about it that way. Except for this one case (at the 18 second mark).) Bathing is an exponentially greater challenge. Where could you find showers open to you? (Even some homeless shelters don’t have bathing facilities.)

In the US, we have an obsession with daily showers and deodorant, and a big thing against body odor (BO). In contrast, Europeans are more lackadaisical about bathing – notice how much perfume they use, in part to mask BO. Maybe that’s why Americans are more sensitive to bodily odors, because we’re not as desensitized to those types of smells … anymore. Apparently, Americans used to bathe only 1-3 times each week.*

Being able to keep clean is critical, when you are trying to maintain personal dignity and social respect, especially when you are homeless. Having people wrinkling their nose when they pass by you probably hurts your self-esteem. It will maintain your health/well-being, boost your morale, and even help you get and keep a job.

There are several examples and options for solutions for bathing when homeless. But it’s all piecemeal, nothing that addresses the large scale, systematic problem.

  1. Public bath houses are an established part of some historic cultures: northern Chinese (澡堂), Japanese (浴場), Turkish/Central Asian (hamam), Russian (баня), which were open to all. They charge a nominal fee. They are usually segregated by sex, with separate facilities, or open to men and women on different days. Everyone is required to scrub down thoroughly with soap/shampoo before soaking in the communal pools. For those which offer a co-ed option, users wear bathing suits. But the bath houses are dying out even in those countries, as indoor plumbing and piped hot water has become the norm. They function more as a socializing/cultural experience, less a hygienic necessity. (There are even a handful in the Bay Area, which cater to those ethnic enclaves, such as the Kabuki Springs in San Francisco Japantown.)
  2. In the second half of the 20th century, Bay Area bath houses gained a notorious reputation as places where gays went to connect. But as homosexuality is more acceptable, and with other avenues for hooking up, those bath houses have almost all closed. Some bath houses also catered to a more ‘hippie’ clientele, offering hot tubs and saunas as well. Today, spas have become very popular, but usually market themselves as upscale and exclusive.
  3. In south and south-east Asia, many people bathe for free in rivers, canals, ponds (tanks), lakes, etc. They bathe in public, each with a sarong wrapped around their privates. The practice is not a practical option in the Bay Area — there is a drought; the water is cold; there would be concerns with soap pollution impacts on wildlife; and there is no easy access to creek banks.
  4. In the Bay Area, some large employers and building managers provide showers. The showers are for employees/tenants after sweating on their bike ride to work, or exercising. Only for the handful of homeless people who happen to work for an such employer or building could this be an option.
  5. Many cities also have public swimming pools with separate showers for females and males. They usually charge user fees, which includes the use of the showers with the swim. Most pools are only open summers; some are open year-round. It is conceivable that public swimming pool showers could be made available to homeless people for showering? Most swimmers, on first instinct, would likely oppose the idea of sharing the showers with the homeless, so such a scheme would require a lot of thoughtful planning, and education and outreach to the swimmers.
  6. There’s an innovative approach in a project called Dignity on Wheels, which is launching in East Palo Alto. It’s a shower truck – a vehicle fitted with showers and toilets, which can be driven and parked at different locations (analogous to a food truck!) for the homeless to come use. (There’s a similar project called Lava Mae in San Francisco.) The concept is very promising, although it’s hard to imagine if it can be scaled up to serve the over 7,000 homeless people in Santa Clara county. Please consider donating some money to Dignity on Wheels, as I did, even as it is in my own self-interest.
  • When we went on a historical tour around Pendleton, Oregon, we found out that in the 1800’s, Chinese who ran the laundries would also have a hip-bath in another part of the shop. While a customer’s clothes were being washed, he could have a hot bath himself. The bath water was not changed between uses, if there were men queuing up to bathe. There might have been a discount if you were at the bak end of the queue.

Update to Part 1 of Counting the Camouflaged: Homeless Census

February 5, 2015 by

1) I made a surmise regarding transgender people in the original post. Sadly, the reality is harsher than I thought.

2) Anne pointed out that she’s known of the biennial homeless census, since she’s remained a constant subscriber to the San Jose Mercury News. I did find quite a few articles by them going back a few year when I was doing research for the original post.

Counting the camouflaged: the Homeless Census – Part 2 of 2

February 5, 2015 by

IF I WERE HOMELESS, which types of places would I go to shelter myself? More to the point, where would I park my car for overnight sleeping?

In our census tracts, the homeless kept a low profile. Attracting notice would risk harassment. Local residents might be alarmed if they noticed homeless people in their midst, and call the authorities to eject them.[7] For the homeless, this meant avoiding private properties like housing developments[8], apartment complexes, office campuses, and streets within these private jurisdictions. So public streets and public parking lots were the way to go.

There are long stretches of frontage roads alongside freeways, soundwalls, and overpasses in our census tracts: these were popular refuges. Most homeless’ cars would be parked on the ‘wall’ side of the frontage roads. Typically on the other side of the street were industrial/office parks or abandoned/unoccupied properties. After the businesses shut down for the night, their absent workers pay little heed to cars parked overnight across the street. There was also less through traffic on these roads, which meant less notice of the parked homeless’ cars.

We checked out the restroom at a neighborhood park, a rarity in this day and age. (One good thing about Randy and I as a team was that we could check the ladies’ and the gents’!)

Restrooms have been eliminated from most local parks due to maintenance, vandalism and security issues, but not this one. On that morning, the park was well used — grandparents pushing strollers with infants, toddlers on play structures, pet-owners walking their dogs, joggers, tennis-players, etc.

Along with the tennis-courts, the restroom at this park attested to the affluence and safety of this neighborhood of single-family homes. (The restroom was closed at night.) We counted one woman sleeping in a van parked in the small off-street parking lot of the park.

As a woman, if I were homeless and single, security would be a greater concern than if I were a man. Somehow I felt relieved on her behalf that she found this safe haven, one that even included a decent bathroom.

ONE OF THE LIGHT RAIL STATIONS we surveyed had a large parking lot . . . and negligible transit ridership. However, the parking lot was quite full, because it was served by employer shuttles. We parked and surveyed the parked cars on foot. To our surprise, the one homeless’ car we found was not in the station parking lot, but in the adjacent parking lot, an industrial/office complex next door. The public and private properties were divided by a row of scraggly landscaping, easy enough to walk through.

It had only been by chance that I noticed car keys dangling from the ignition. There was a device being recharged through the ‘cigarette lighter’. Walking around the car, one tinted rear window was slightly rolled down. We didn’t approach any closer, since clearly someone was inside.


Homeless people live in vehicles of all models and vintages. It could be a matter of what car you had when you became homeless; we counted some higher end vehicles.

RVs stood out, easy to spot. In our census tracts, all but one RV we spotted parked on public streets was a homeless’ home.[9]

People living in their cars usually try to keep it discreet and avoid attracting attention. There’s the desire for privacy; self-consciousness or embarrassment about being homeless; worries about break-ins and thefts, or even concerns about light/heat damage to things kept in a parked car baking in the sun all day long.[10]

Most of the homeless vehicles we saw had tinted windows or windows covered from inside, shielding the interiors. It’s slightly ironic that this thwarted us from seeing if the car was a homeless’ home — information we were collecting precisely on their behalf. There was some trepidation each time we approached a vehicle for a closer peek — the owner might be inside, and get startled by or offended at us.

With cars that clearly had lots of stuff, but no one inside, it was harder to gauge. Many people spend a lot of time driving, and keep tons of things handy in their cars, but sleep in a bed at home — the phrase ‘I live in my car’ metaphorical, not literal. The tell-tale signs of bona fide cases were poignant. A comforter neatly rolled up in the back seat. A potted plant gloriously sunning itself on the dashboard. Through a side window, we caught a still-life glimpse of an apple, an orange and a banana — in a wire fruit basket.

During orientation, we were recommended to survey inside fast food outlets, cafes, and the like. In the early morning, homeless people would likely be there to use the bathroom (public institutions like libraries wouldn’t be open yet), get coffee or breakfast, etc.[11]

In the census tract where I live, there was a mini mall with a donut shop, a cafe, a small Subway, and a Carl’s Junior. We headed first to Carl’s Junior, because we needed to use a restroom, which was most likely to be found there.

There was a hatchback with a faded paint job parked at the Carl’s Junior. Through its windows, we could see it was fully packed; even the front passenger seat was piled high. It was obvious only one person lived in it, there was space for no other.

Inside Carl’s Junior, there was no one to be seen in the seating area. But one of the booths was taken up, strewn with domestic items: letters, odds and ends, a full-sized bottle of breakfast syrup. It looked as domestic as the kitchen table surface in my own breakfast nook, strewn with letters, odds and ends, and a bottle of soy sauce.

A man with a bushy salt-and-pepper emerged from the men’s room, morning ablutions presumably completed. He headed towards his table.

I often meet up with a friend on Saturday mornings at the cafe in this mini-mall, three minutes away by bike. But in over a decade of living here, I had never been inside the Carl’s Junior. (I only eat at fast-food outlets on road-trips where there are no other options.) Otherwise I would have already known there were indeed homeless people in my neighborhood.

“HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN HOMELESS?” I asked Randy as we drove around the streets of Mountain View. It was not the most tactful of icebreakers, but as good as any other in getting to know him, given the circumstances.

“Oh, I’m not homeless, I’m at a hotel,” he quickly replied.

In his defensive tone, I read the implication that staying in a hotel was ranked higher than homeless shelters, or sleeping outdoors — even if he was forced to split the hotel room with a roommate who snored and hogged up the bathroom.

In his realm, there were delineations of ‘housed’ vs. ‘homeless’ which tied in to one’s self-respect, depending on where one slept. In my view, I considered him homeless, since he didn’t have a permanent domain. It was all relative.

Fortunately, he didn’t take offense with me. He was cordial, telling me just about everything I asked about his life. He was from Colorado, but when his parents split up, his mom moved the kids with her to Cupertino. “She wanted us all to go to college, but I didn’t.” He had held various jobs in the past; stockroom at Lockheed; TSA at SFO; security guard.

Currently he was unemployed, but was interested in computers — “I heard there’s a lot you can do with marketing.” He was involved with City Team downtown, occasionally helping pick up trash. He marveled that he had made $125 as a poll worker on Election Day. “But it was a really long day.” He would also be getting paid as a guide for this census.

ALL SURVEYORS HAD BEEN ENCOURAGED to drive their own cars for the census. Guides would be paid $10/hr for about 5 hours of work. Volunteers would not be paid, nor reimbursed for mileage.

On the immediate surface, it seems unfair. But it was reasonable, considering:

  • Volunteers were probably self-selected by empathy; willing to help the homeless with this survey effort without compensation.[12]
  • Since funds are usually limited, it was fitting to prioritize them for the neediest.
  • The homeless guides were doing legitimate work, earning their pay by using their expertise in identifying their brethren.

AS THE MORNING WENT ON, Randy became increasingly animated, excited about our progress. We worked well together— we were both diligent about trying to spot as many homeless people as possible, yet conscientious in reviewing candidate cars as ‘homeless’ or not.

For him, it wasn’t just about the pay, but also a sense of altruism. But the competitive instinct in human egos is strong. Whenever we identified and confirmed a homeless car/person, we’d grin at each other victoriously, like kids sweeping all the candy at an Easter egg hunt.

“I wonder how we’re doing, compared to other teams, if they’ve spotted as many as us?” he said several times, as if mentally vying to beat them in bagging sightings.
“I totally know what you mean,” I said. “But the numbers would depend on where they’re at, like if it had a lot of places where the homeless were likely to hang out.[13] But we can be proud of ourselves for being accurate, we know our data isn’t fudged. Our data is probably the closest to reality compared to other teams!”

In fact the homeless woman we spotted at the park was only due to Randy’s insistence on backtracking for a second look, long after we had driven around the park perimeter. We came across her van when we walked the park.

But in hindsight, we likely missed some also.

There was one hospital in our census tracts. It had urgent care, which would have been open 24/7. We merely drove by. In retrospect, we should have parked and walked in, since people in the waiting room were not visible from the street.

The day after the census, I biked past the parking lot of a shuttered free-standing supermarket in another part of town. With my new-found sensitivity, I had immediately noticed several RVs in the parking lot, and guessed they were homeless’ homes. I mentally gloated . . . and face-palmed myself. There had been a supermarket in our assigned tracts, but we had not checked it out. I had forgotten it was permanently closed. There could have been homeless cars parked there, which we may have missed. Lessons learned.

I THINK MY WORK EXPERIENCE in transportation and city planning was helpful in this survey work. This was the first time I had ever used my professional knowledge as a filter to consider homelessness — it felt novel and visceral. Frontage roads with soundwalls were built to reduce traffic noise for neighbors, but also provide a refuge for homeless people in cars. Whether it’s parking lots or streets in residential neighborhoods, the private vs. public distinction has major implications for where the homeless park. Recent requirements for large employers to provide showers at work stemmed from policies to encourage bicycle commuting, but could also serve homeless employees.[14]

“IF YOU BECOME HOMELESS, you’d be able to find somewhere to stay, wouldn’t you?” Randy asked me. It may or may not have been a rhetorical question. “Well, I guess I’m quite lucky. I do have family and friends around here whom I could probably stay with.”[15]

If I were to free-fall into destitution, and lose my home, I would hock every big-ticket item I own for cash: the Renoir, the TV set[16], jewelry, laptop, and even at last resort, my bike. But I would hold onto my car.

The car would be more than just transportation and housing. It would be modicum of control and certainty I had, where my hold over everything else was tenuous. The homeless already face so many obstacles and challenges in helping themselves/getting help. To have to contend with the vagaries of time-consuming transit trips and the fickle availability of shelter spaces on top of that would be beyond what I could bear. . . จนปัญญา

With a car, I wouldn’t consider myself ‘homeless.’

BACK TO POST [7] In 2013, the City of Palo Alto banned people from living in cars.

BACK TO POST [8] Newer housing developments (usually have HOA fees) usually have private streets, maintained by private contract.Older housing developments are usually on public streets maintained by the city.

BACK TO POST [9] It can also be tricky to determine if an RV is being used as a home in desperation, or simply a workweek home for people who live far away, and only drive home on weekends. During the dot-com boom of the late 90’s, I worked for a Bay Area transit operator. Some of the operations staff lived in the Central Valley. During the work week, they would live in RVs parked at work, at the operations yards (with management permission), and then go home on the weekends, which would be a 2+ hour drive.

BACK TO POST [10] When I lived in an apartment with uncovered parking, I often laid out my wet laundered sweaters in my parked car to be dried by the ambient solar heat. My sweaters dried quickly, without stretching, wrinkling or shrinking. It also saved money and energy by not using a machine dryer.

BACK TO POST [11] It’s interesting that you can tell which commercial districts have a high level of foot-traffic (and a dearth of public restrooms), by how many merchants post ‘restroom for customers only’ signs, or require you to get a key/code to enter the restroom. The heavy foot-traffic does not necessarily correlate with high numbers of homeless/street people; some businesses may simply be fed up with free-loading toilet-users.

I had recently had coffee in a cafe where I wished they had a ‘restroom for customers’ only policy’. There was only one toilet and I had to wait for four other people in line ahead of me — none of whom had purchased anything at that cafe. It was in Berkeley, of all places . . . on tony Fourth Street,

BACK TO POST [12] Helping the homeless by impersonally surveying them doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart as mach as doling out turkey dinners to them on Thanksgiving. But this data collection will help them in the bigger picture – to determine funding for them. Sympathetic cynics like me may prefer to contribute time and car mileage, rather than cash anyway. I have doubts about giving spare change to a panhandler on the street — would it go for booze or bananas? With the survey work, I know what the ROI of my time and gas will be.

BACK TO POST [13] This is a game where you don’t want a high score: more points means more homeless. It’s better to have less rather than more homeless people in this world.

BACK TO POST [14] At one point, Randy was working for Lockheed in Sunnyvale, but sleeping in his car. He could have theoretically used the showers there.

BACK TO POST [15] Last year we lived with my mom for several months, while our house was rented out.

BACK TO POST [16] Can you name that Duran Duran song?

Counting the camouflaged: the Homeless Census – Part 1 of 2

February 3, 2015 by

A couple of weeks ago, Martina forwarded an email solicitation to Anne and I. Volunteers were needed to conduct a countywide homeless census. Martina herself wouldn’t be able to volunteer (nor Anne, both of them had schedule conflicts) but she was VERY curious about how it was set up, especially the sensitivity training for the volunteers. Since I didn’t have anything more pressing to do; and as I am always looking for new experiences, I signed up. I told Martina and Anne I’d tell them how it went. So this is it. There’s a also good account of the census in San Jose from the Mercury News.

In Silicon Valley, the supply of housing has lagged far behind demand. We need more housing to accommodate people at all income levels: the software engineer; the barrista who makes the software engineer’s daily latte; the venture capitalist who funds the software engineer’s product development. But affordable housing, for the ‘barrista’, is the most critical aspect of the housing shortage — and homelessness. For those with lower incomes, the pressure to continue living here must be like a vise, as rents have skyrocketed. Even for tech workers making six figures, housing prices should be considered stratospheric.[1] The median monthly rent for a 2-bedroom is around $2,500.

The Mountain View Voice weekly newspaper recently ran two excellent stories on homelessness back to back. It was eye-opening for me — the how’s and why’s of being homeless in this area became understandable and relatable.

I became curious: how many homeless people were there in my neighbourhood? Were there even any? I had no idea what to expect. At this rate, zero seemed as likely as many.[2]

ON A MILD WEEKDAY AFTERNOON, I biked over to the Opportunity Center on Encina Avenue in Palo Alto. It was wedged between the PAMF hospital and the Town and Country shopping center. I’d never known until then there was a one-stop facility providing services for the homeless on Encina Avenue, in the midst of such prosperity. It also explained why I had often seen homeless people while biking along the Embarcadero bike path (which is accessible from Encina Avenue).

I had come for one of the six 1-hour volunteer training sessions being held around Santa Clara county. The meeting room where the training was being held was filled. The turnout was higher than had been expected, as the organizers (from a professional research company) kept going out to other rooms to bring in more chairs. Those already seated around the big conference table nudged their chairs closer to their neighbors to make room for newcomers. About two-thirds of the folks in the room seemed like clients or residents of the Opportunity Center. The rest were the likes of me (or Anne or Martina, if they’d been there.)

It was a good sign that so many people were willing to help to count the homeless.
It was a dismal sign that there were so many homeless people to be counted.

FOR MOST PEOPLE, ‘homeless’, in its extreme image, brings to mind a panhandler on a downtown sidewalk, clothes greasy from prolonged grime, pungent from the lack of hygiene. Anchored by plastic bags holding all their worldly goods. Under the influence of something, they shout loudly or mumble incoherently, intimidating passers-by like you or me avoiding or ignoring them.

There are more types of homeless people beyond that stereotype in Silicon Valley. Some of them have jobs, they are even a part of our everyday lives. The clerk at the check-out counter. The waxer at the car wash. The security guard in the lobby. They don’t look like what we think of as ‘homeless’.

But their jobs are at hourly wages, part-time, no benefits. A medical emergency hits, rent hikes, a lay-off — such events may ping-pong the financially fragile between housed and homelessness. The woman assembling your gluten-free wrap or vacuuming your office carpet could be involuntarily couchsurfing, or living in her car.

EVEN THOUGH THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME I (or Martina or Anne) had heard of the homeless census, it’s been conducted systematically for over a decade.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a point-in-time (PIT) count of the homeless every two years during the last 10 days of January. This takes place over the entire country. HUD does not pay for the data collection — it is an unfunded mandate. The 2013 census found 7,631 homeless in Santa Clara County — an increase of 8 percent from 2011.

The data is used to help determine the level of funding HUD will provide to local agencies for homeless services. The data is also used for analysis and understanding of the current homeless situation, as well as a record to be compared over time with previous and future counts.

The legal definition of ‘unsheltered homelessness’ is “individuals and families with a primary night time residence that is a public or private place not designated for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

This would include people spending the night in:

      • makeshift shelters
      • in the open
      • vehicles
      • parks
      • abandoned buildings
      • bus/train stations
      • airports
      • camping grounds

Those following would not be counted:

  • couch-surfers
  • doubling-up
  • in homes awaiting eviction or foreclosure
  • in jail
  • in rehabilitation/mental heath facilities

In Santa Clara county, this point-in-time homeless count was to be a 24-hour exposure snapshot on January 27-28. The count included three components:

  1. a shelter count of people staying the homeless shelters or (subsidized) hotel rooms;[3]
  2. general street count (for which the 400 volunteers were needed); and
  3. a follow up survey in February.

For the General Street Count, the surveyors would be divided into teams. Each team consisted of a ‘guide’ and 1-2 volunteers. The guide was typically someone who was, or had been homeless. The guide would know better who might be homeless, and where they were likely to be. The volunteers would help drive and look. Someone on the team would tally.

Each team was assigned two census tracts.[4] Using maps provided, the team would drive along every street in our assigned tracts to spot the homeless. Where it was applicable and safe to do so, we would park our cars and walk as a team to see where the homeless were.

Teams would fan out starting around 6 AM — before people who were in homeless shelters would be forced out by lock-out hours, to minimize double counting. Most teams would complete their survey between 10 to 11 AM.

As the General Street count would be a visual count, surveyors were not to approach or interact with the homeless people being counted. We were only to observe and tally, in order to maintain the dignity and respect of those being counted.

IN SILICON VALLEY, big data and metrics have become the new big thing. Algorithms track each and every click on the internet as grains of data, harvesting them insatiably, the haul insidiously monetized. If you surf the web looking for Elsa party invitations and Frozen ice-cream cakes, within five minutes your browser will push an ad your way for local bouncy house rentals shaped like ice palaces — before you even remembered you will need one.[5] To be tallying the homeless with pens on paper, using wooden clipboards for this census seemed quaint and antiquated. I found out later there was an app for that (of course), but it still required humans to go out in the field to observe and tally on their tablets.

At the training session, the organizers went over the scantron tally sheets, which would be correlated to the census tracts. Survey teams were to note

  • gender
  • age
  • single or families (at least one adult over 18 and one child under 18)
  • the type of dwelling (rent, building, car, RV/van)
  • if the location was an encampment

There were no street names.

Almost all the categories included an option for ‘unknown’ — it would often be hard to determine the age, gender or even number of people if they were huddled under blankets. The organizers stressed that it was better to have a smaller amount of imprecise actual data, rather than a large amount of data that was filled with assumptions.

There was lots of tittering over the options in the ‘gender’ section. It included

  • male
  • female
  • transgender female to male
  • transgender male to female
  • unknown

Apparently, data from this census would be cross analyzed with other data sets which included transgender information. So the transgender options were included on the scantrons to ensure consistency.[6]

A LITTLE AFTER 6 AM, I was not fully awake. I tried to remember the last time I was forced awake by an alarm clock as I drove to Fair Oaks Park in Sunnyvale to check in as a volunteer. Even though the parking lot was full of cars, there wasn’t a soul in sight. In the darkness, it was foreboding. Did I have the correct date? But in the distance a building was glowed flourescently through the windows from within.

The building was a single large room, reassuringly bustling with people. Even better, there were many to-go cartons of coffee, as well as snacks. I poured myself a cup. I wondered what the flake-out factor was — would-be volunteers might groggily tap the snooze button and roll over, unwilling to get out of a warm bed into pre-dawn chill. I could have been one of them.

The survey organizers gathered the surveyors, and described the census tracts up for assignment. We were encouraged to pick areas we were familiar with. Naturally I picked the census tract I lived in. It was paired with an adjoining census tract in Sunnyvale, which I frequently bike through.

The surveyors were then organized into teams, one guide paired with one volunteer. I was paired up with a guide who was a man. Randy was slight, middle-aged, white, with glasses and a muted air. He was neatly dressed, even if his clothes were dated. Like me, this was his first time surveying the homeless.

As we walked to the parking lot, I suggested I drive, and he tally.
“OK,” he paused. “But let me get my reading glasses.” To my mild surprise he walked to a car — his — and got what he needed.
“He has a car?” I wondered mentally.

SINCE NEITHER RANDY NOR I had any previous experience in looking for homeless to survey, we started methodically. The first area we drove through was all apartment and town home complexes. We drove slowly, squinting hard at the landscaping lining the perimeter walls/parking lots, to see if we could spot anyone sleeping in the bushes. There were none.

“Well it’s January,” Randy pointed out. “When it gets warmer, in the spring and summer, maybe more of them would be sleeping outdoors.” Nights are very chilly, even in California. Homeless people who sleep outside in warm weather would have sought more protected shelter during the winter. In Santa Clara county, some homeless shelters are only open during the cold season.

Then we spotted our first homeless: an RV parked next to a freeway sound wall at the edge of this residential neighborhood. We realized we should concentrate only vehicles, not persons. As it turned out, every single homeless person we came across was living in a vehicle.


BACK TO POST [1] Several doors down from where I live, a 3-bedroom townhouse was recently listed at 99% of $1 million. It was sold in less than a week, probably for over seven figures. When I first moved to this neighborhood, it felt outrageously overpriced. Enough years have passed that it seems reasonably priced. If we had to move here today, we wouldn’t. We probably couldn’t afford it.

BACK TO POST [2] “Wealthy people who live in economically diverse areas are more generous than those who live in exclusively wealthy areas” — this line in the 1/29/2015 NYT opinion piece on empathy by Nick Kristof struck a chord. I won’t comment on philanthropic tendencies, but I do feel that as much as people are open to diversity in in their social circles (ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation,etc), they should also be open to having neighbors of all income levels. It’s another element in keeping us real, a reminder of how varied the world is.

BACK TO POST [3] The Route 22 bus that runs between Palo Alto and San Joe operates 24 hours daily. The homeless who rode it as a ‘mobile shelter’ would also be counted. Likewise the creeks and adjacent trails were surveyed by others as part of this census.

BACK TO POST [4] Each census tract has an average of 4,000 residents. Census tracts can straddle city limits, but are always contained within a single county.

BACK TO POST [5] I made up this example about online shopping for a birthday off the top of my head. But today, I got a mail-order catalog from a high-end furniture store which I had never patronized — whose website I had searched a few months ago, when I was looking extensively for a dining room lamp. Big Data = Big Brother = truly omnipotent. Whoa.

BACK TO POST [6] I would think that there is a higher percentage of transgender people amongst the homeless than the general population. People who identify as transgender may be ostracized or discriminated against. If they are youths, they may run away from home, ending up homeless.

Lagniappe (2013-) 2014

January 5, 2015 by

1. Blurred Lines    Robin Thicke featuring T. I and Pharrell
Was admittedly apathetic to this when first heard on Beats Pill commercial.

2. Fernando    ABBA
Visited the ABBA museum in Stockholm this fall. Flashback to Fernandomania.

3. Camino de Rosas (Road of Roses)    Alejandro Sanz
Very taken with his raspy voice.  The ‘plot’ in the music video is mildly hilarious.

4. Boys of Summer    Don Henley
Saw our first cover band concert—Eagles, at an Indian casino of all places. (This track might be missing from some of the hard copy CDs).

5. “O Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka (opera)    Renée Flemming

Optimism of anticipation before cold hard reality kicks in. Big fan of Renee Flemming. Watched the Met Opera broadcast this spring; and got to see her in Capriccio in Chicago.

6. Olive Tree  橄欖樹 (gan lan shu)    黃江  Huang Jiangqin
Cousin-in-law Wei Long Tao (Yan’s husband) performed this at a concert for the Chung family reunion in Vancouver that was a birthday party for 3 family members celebrating their 90th birthday. When I heard the original version as a child, I thought it was sung by Teresa Teng, but it’s actually 齊豫 Chyi Yu. I also found out that the lyrics were written by San Mao 三毛, who had also translated Mafalda (my favourite/ a famous Argentinian cartoon) from Spanish to Chinese.

7. They Don’t Know    Tracey Ullman
Song in Arizona café brought back memories of Rodney on KROQ pushing this then-Fox star.

8. It’s a Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall    Leon Russell
We went to Yoshi’s with Bill (who knew Leon in high school!) to see him. 
Prior to his concert, the only song of his familiar to us was another cover of this Dylan song from Born on the Fourth of July.

9. Me Gustas Tu    Manu Chao
From the ipod of a travelmate in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. But it was Matthias (my cousin from Switzerland who was doing a school stint in Chile) who told us the name of the singer.

10. Chop My Money  -  Henhouse Prowlers
Bluegrass cover version of a Nigerian hit by P-Square, which we discovered on NPR while on road-tripping through Nevada on our way back from our Canadian (Jasper and Banff) and American (Glacier) Rockies national parks trip.

11. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)    Tanghetto
Bought cheap tix to a performance by this electro-tango band in Salta, Argentina. Fortuitous discovery. Best 25 pesos we spent on whim.

12. Vivir Mi Vida    Marc Anthony
On days when we didn’t hear this song in South America, it felt like something was amiss

13. I Believe That We Will Win
Props to Navy on this cheer, not the US men’s soccer team nor San Diego State.

14. Seven Nation Army    The White Stripes

We watched all but 3 matches of the 2014 World Cup.

15. Cadillac Ranch    Bruce Springsteen
Requisite soundtrack while visiting this Amarillo, Texas attraction.

16. Bailar Contigo (To dance with you)    Carlos Vives

Part of our South America soundtrack memory. The plot of the music video is sweetly romantic.

17. Serpentine Fire    Earth Wind and Fire
Opening number in Buenos Aires concert of tribute band led by original EMF member Al McKay.

18. ต่างใจเดียว  (tang jai dieow)    ละอองฟอง La Ong Fong
Discovered this group on the Thai music channel on a trans-pacific flight!

19. Darte un beso    Prince Royce

Part of our South America soundtrack memory

Giving Thanx for X’mas themed wear

December 6, 2014 by

2014-12-05_09-50-54_457 2014-12-05_09-50-23_327


I sheepishly admit that I was inspired by a current Bank of America TV commercial to make an ‘ugly’ Christmas sweater.  Well, mainly because I’m cheap: why pay money for one when you can make one yourself for practically free. (See my post on World Cup soccer gear).

We went down to spend Thanksgiving week with Joe’s parents. I usually bring sewing projects with me on those visits, because there are almost no distractions and I can make a lot of progress on them.

I’m proud of myself that I actually planned far enough in advance to do this in time for Christmas. But it’s also appropriate that I completed this around Thanksgiving, because  almost all the materials used were upcycled/recycled from items from friends and family. I’m grateful to them, for both the intangible relationships I have with them, as well as the actual material items that live on on the project.

Joe is modeling the completed project in the photos. It’s a sweatshirt from a time when clothes were cut baggy, so even though it’s labeled an “L”, it’s quite loose on him. However, he does not want the sweatshirt, since it doesn’t fit with his sartorial style. So I guess I will wear it.

Christina L. gave to him when she was attending University of California at Santa Barbara – which is what it says on the original front of the sweatshirt. It is now covered up with a white ‘snowflake’ on a background of dark red T-shirt material, so that it ‘pops’ more.  The snowflake is actually a doily made by my cousin-in-law Simone. She made it by hand on cross-stitch material, and there are little patterned holes cut into it. I think she told me there’s a specific name for this craft, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. I decided the doily was eminently and magnificently Christmassy – a better fit for my sweatshirt than the rare occasions where I might put a vase of flowers on top of it.

An old green T-shirt was used for the Christmas tree, decked with a multitude of Christmas tree ‘ornaments’ of colorful buttons I got from someone on freecycle.org

The back of the sweatshirt has a reindeer head from:

1) Fingerless brown mitten: I found this on the street one day and saved it because you never when it might come in handy. Like when you need to make a reindeer head on a Christmas sweatshirt. Or there’s a pocket-sized two-headed chihuahua that needs a sweater.

I often find things on the street when I’m biking with Anne (who let’s me pick up the things. Like today I found a dime, a bungee cord and a head-lamp), or walking with April (who doesn’t let me pick up things because she thinks they’re dirty and crawling with who-knows-what).

2) The shoelaces that make up the reindeer horns are from Joe’s old hiking boots, which was a previous Christmas present from sister-in-law Betty.

3) The button nose and eyes were from the same freecycler.

4) The “Noel” spelled out it candy-cane striped ‘ribbon’ is something most people would consider overkill in frugality. They’re actually old white shoelaces (from discarded sneakers). I took red fabric ribbon that were originally tied around gift boxes of See’s Candy from Joe’s mom, and sewed each red ribbon twist in place onto the white shoelaces. Somehow I felt it would be cheating if I simply took the short cut of buying candy-cane striped ribbon at a crafts shop. But I really wanted to have some sort of candy cane element on my Christmas sweatshirt.

I did go slightly against principles and bought another sweater at a thrift shop to make into another Christmas sweater. But it was only $1.25. I have a ton of salvaged sewing/fabric materials in my rag bag. I don’t know if I will get it done in time for this Christmas.

The coin toss landed on . . . Chiloe

December 23, 2013 by

So we were dithering on our last day in Santiago whether to go to Mendoza (back in Argentina, 6 hours by bus) or Chiloe. We ended up on an overnight bus (Hangover 3 for the 4th time) to Puerto Montt, and then rented a car to ferry over and drive around Chiloe island. Chiloe is famous for its sixteen UNESCO designated heritage churches made of wood. It’s got good shellfish, and fish. There are also lots of farms with cattle, sheep, pigs, and it’s very green and lush.

It’s been sunny and warm, which is great for touring around, but it’s also a little unusual, since Chiloe is characteristically known for its rain and fog. In fact I’m almost a little disappointed that I don’t get to experience the wet, damp and cold.  (Rather like going to Guilin and seeing it under sunny clear skies, instead of the mist like the stereotypical Chinese ink paintings.)

Every women on Chiloe seems to know how to knit: lots of sheep providing lots of wool, but the designs could do with some updating. If they knitted poncho or sweaters with churches on them,  that would be more appealing to tourists like us!

Lovely Ritas
They have these meter maids here in Chile, even in small towns like Ancud and Punta Arenas.  I guess it helps with employment. They hang around every few blocks, dressed in dark jumpsuits embellished with florescent yellow or orange safety accents.
Where/when you park on street, they punch into their hand held gadget, and print out a timed slip which they place under your windshield wiper. When you come back to your car to leave, you take the slip and pay the meter maid.
So you never run out of time on the parking meter and thus you don’t parking tickets for overstaying your paid time. And I guess if the meter maid doesn’t come to your car until X minutes after you arrive, you get those minutes free (the equivalent of getting someone else’s leftover paid time on an American parking meter.)
But I wonder how many people drive off without paying if they don’t see a meter maid to give money to? We were very honest; when we walked to back to our car, we asked to meter maid to come.

ทำบุญ (making merit) for Christmas: Since we’re not home and thus not caught up in the mad bustle of getting X’mas presents for folks; the only ‘giving’ (which is better than receiving, of course) we can do is giving rides to people. We have a rental car that’s a four-seater. Gas is expensive here. Might as well ammortize the mpg.  Chiloe is very rural in the sense that it’s not densely populated, and bus service is very infrequent. So as we’ve driven along country roads to check out the churches in small villages, we’ve stopped to people a ride home. It’s selective: the city slickers in us go by gut feeling to pick up people who seem harmless, like the family of 3: dad, mom and 5 year-old daughter. Or a farm laborer lugging three tanks. Or a mother on her way back home from a shopping trip in big-town Castro, weighed down with bags.

It’s also a proactive karmic safeguard: I worry about the car breaking down or getting stuck. A lot of these  rural roads in Chiloe are not paved, simply graded; and some are quite steep. We’ve had a couple of close calls going uphill on stick shift without enough traction. Thank goodness it’s been sunny and dry, and not rainy and muddy.

If I don’t post anything before then, Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to whomever is left of this blog’s readership!

Chile is the midpoint between California, Switzerland and Boston

December 16, 2013 by

It’s a rare treat to meet up and spend time with family/friends while travelling for such an extended period. We got a double dose of socializing in two days when we met up with my cousin Matthias in Valparaiso for lunch last Friday. Then we spent the weekend hanging out with Loutz and his friend Matt in Santiago.

Matthias is one of my cousins in Switzerland, who happened to be doing a study abroad program in Valparaiso. We hadn’t seen each other in over ten years; the last time being our cousin Jason’s wedding in So Cal over 10 years ago. He took us to lunch at a very Chilean place that had good empanadas, but only after 6 PM. We had very good tomaticon (a tomato, beef and bean stew) instead.

Loutz of ice cream fame was doing a bike trip around central /south Chile with his buddy Matt from North Carolina. (Apparently, Dave and Matt, who’ve known each other since college, do a bike trip abroad every couple of years.) So we arranged to meet up in Santiago, which was great, because we hadn’t seen Loutz since 2009 when we went to visit him in Boston.

Better yet, Loutz had been to Santiago 6 years ago, so he was able to be our tour guide.  Even better, Loutz is a transportation planner, so we were able to geek talk, which I haven’t done in a long time. Like discussing . . . .

Santiago vs Buenos Aires: Metro system comparison:

  • Price per ride: US$1 vs. $US 0.35
  • Smartcard name: Bip! vs. Sube
  • Able to ride on negative balance: No vs. Yes
  • Cleanliness: Santiago
  • Age: Buenos Aires  (100 yrs old)


Christmas decorations: We’ve seen some Christmas trees festooned with lights in building lobbies, etc, but Christmas decorations seems more low key here. We could count on one hand the number of homes with outdoor Christmas lights. I think that’s because energy costs are so expensive. The most common small Christmas decoration we’ve seen is a Santa climbing up a rope ladder to get in through a building window. That makes sense, since there are almost no chimneys around here!

Long Bean Slivers: A sandwich universally contains some sort of meat and some sort of vegetable. Back home, the vegetable component is usually sliced tomatoes and lettuce. I usually find it underwhelming. Tomatoes in the winter are tasteless: I used to wonder why they couldn’t be substituted with a slice of orange instead. Lettuce has very little nutritional content, and is insubstantial.

In Chile,  you get sandwiches at fuentes (or fuentes de soda), literally a “(soda) fountain”.  The common fixings in sandwiches are sliced tomatoes, mashed avocado, chucrut/sauerkraut, and slivers of cooked  green beans, which are still green/not overcooked. I really like the green bean slivers, there’s more texture, taste and nutritional value to them than lettuce.  They also remind me of my step-mom, who used to put them in noodle soup when I was growing up, although she would cut them in short twigs, rather than slivers. I wonder why Chileans cut the green beans in long slivers, that would seem to take more effort and knife skills.

Chileans are also very big on mayonnaise in their sandwiches, less you think them all health-nuts. When we went to our first fuente today: Fuente Alemana across the street from where we were staying, we thought the glop was melted cheese. But there was a sign on the wall “Our mayonnaise is made with pasteurized eggs.”

The sandwiches here are so enormous that you have to eat them with a fork and knife. At Fuente Alemana, they didn’t bother offering french fries or any other potato product as an accompaniment. Very tasty, rather old-school with a long lunch counter like Apple Pan in LA, but very spick and span.

Dandelions: I’ve mentioned the llao llao, which are very unusual orange fruit-looking fungus which grown on tree trunks in Patagonia/Tierra del Fuego. They looked so wonderfully exotic to me, that it shock to see another plant so familiar: dandelions. I wonder if they came with the European immigrants, or if they were indigenous to the New World. And if so, did dandelions first appear in North or South America? They were all over the trails in Tierra del Fuego park outside Ushuaia. Of course you’re not supposed to pick the flora in national parks, but if I were hungry and scavenging young dandelions leaves for salad along the trail, wouldn’t I actually be doing a good deed of weed eradication?

Seafood and fruit vs. beef and ice cream. In Argentina, it was all about the steaks and helado. In Chile, to my relief, good seafood is everywhere, and relatively good value for price. Most of it is fish (white) and conger eel and lots of bivalves like mussels, clams, razor clams, and some abalone/geoduck. Most salmon is farmed. Scallops are called ostiones, which confused us, since that refers to oysters in Mexican Spanish. But they are really good here. I missed erizo (sea urchin) season, which is a pity, because I’d love to know how they prepare it here.  There are two types of crabs: king crabs (centolla) and jaibe (stone crabs.) I don’t eat king crabs in California, because they are usually frozen from Alaska.  But here, they are fresh, and very tasty, and better yet, they are usually served peeled. Still, my palate is tuned to Dungeness. There’s not a lot of shrimp (most are labeled Ecuadorian).  I tried to convince my parents to come travel for a bit with us in South America, but they were intimidated by the distance. I think if I told them how good the seafood is here, they’d be more willing to come. The preparation styles are relatively simple as well, which lets the 鮮 (sweet/fresh) flavor of the seafood shine through. Lightly cooked in their own juices, with some aromatics (onion perhaps), lemon juice, and a dusting of chopped parsley, cilantro.

There’s not as much ice cream here, but since it’s summer here, there’s good stone fruit like strawberries, cherries, peaches,  apricots and pears. It’s easier to find jugo naturales (fresh fruit juice) here, than in Argentina.

A lo pobre: A common style of food presentation is some sort of meat or seafood, served with french fries, sauteed onions and topped with a fried egg.  We’re very happy to find it in Chile, as it tastes great with fried fish. I wish it was as easy to find at home.

Reading vs. speaking Spanish: We’ve picked up a fair amount of survival Spanish, at least for reading menus. In some cases, even when there are English versions of the menu available, we prefer to read the Spanish version, since some restaurants simply applied Google Translate and came out with dish names so mangled, it would take us much longer to figure out what they meant in English. “A lo pobre” comes out as “at the poor.”  “Media luna” is literally “half moon”, which is a croissant.

The other thing I like doing is when we’re hanging out at a cafe (really, travelling life is just like life at home in some respects) is to read the local magazines (glossy pages of fashion, ooh!) and the newspaper (it’s good to get a sense of what goes on in real life for people who are living here, as opposed to just passing through.) And usually there is something that is relevant to our travel as well.

I can generally get the gist of newspaper articles, since a lot of the vocabulary is similar to English. But occasionally it backfires, as people might ask me something in Spanish, like “can I have that paper when you are done,” and then my response is a confused look of incomprehension. They’re probably thinking “why doesn’t she understand what I said, when she must know Spanish, since she’s able to read a Spanish newspaper?”

Interesting things can be gleaned from advertisements. Like credit card payments and discounts. Maybe I’ll get around to discussing that next time, but I need to go to sleep now.

Where next?

December 8, 2013 by

“I’m worried about you guys,” said Serge, as he left last Sunday afternoon to go back to the Bay Area after a week’s visit with us in Buenos Aires. “I can’t believe you don’t have plans yet for Tuesday onwards…”

Tuesday was the day we were to leave the apartment we’d rented for a month in Buenos Aires, where we became wannabe porteños* and became experts at getting around everywhere by bus**; and learnt to make ‘sh’ sounds where other Spanish-speakers make ‘y’ sounds, as in “Me shama Uzbekcelia”, instead of  “Me yama Uzbekcelia.”

We luxuriated in not having to pack our clothes in/out of the backpacks. We luxuriated in having mod cons of a dishwasher, washing machine and centrifuge*** in the apartment. We consumed copious amounts of steak, red wine**** and ice cream.  We took lots of naps, watched lots of TV, surfed the net.  I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes, plus reread almost all of Jane Austen’s works (there were lots of books in Spanish, English, French and German in the flat).  We were sedentary, there were days we didn’t leave the flat, except to go out for our daily ration of steak, wine and ice cream.

We played host to Linda for two weeks, and Serge for one week. So we took them to La Boca and Uruguay.

I didn’t blog at all in that time. . .

Monday morning we woke up, looked at the map and decided we should go to Patagonia, as opposed to Medoza or Bariloche, since it would get more ‘crowded’ as the season peaked.

Monday afternoon we went  to buy plane tickets at the airline office in downtown (the only branch that takes cash***** payments.)

Tuesday: we flew to El Calafate. Had patagonian lamb for dinner.

Wednesday: we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier in the southern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. We lucked out with decent weather, but quite windy. Had patagonian lamb for dinner.

Thursday: we took a 2 hour bus ride to El Chalten, gateway to the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and did a 6 hour day hike to see Mount Fitzroy. We lucked out, it was not windy nor cold, and Fitzroy was clear, even if there were high cloud cover. I had patagonian lamb ribs with calafate berry sauce for dinner (It was called sweet and sour lamb on the menu!)

Friday: we did a 6-hour day hike to see Cerro Torre. We lucked out, it was sunny, not windy nor cold, and Torre was clear. Fitzroy and Torre are what’s on the Patagonia clothing logo. Had patagonian lamb . . . and chicken for dinner.

By the way, both the Fitzroy and Torre day hikes are relatively easy, and reward you with such incredibly stunning views. We decided we wouldn’t need to go to Parque Torre del Paine on the Chilean side of Patagonia.

Saturday: we did a 16 hour bus ride to Ushuaia. We had to cross in and out of Chile to get back to Argentina. I saw some guanacos, which are related to llamas. Ate centolla (king crab) for dinner.

Sunday: we did a 6-hour day hike along the coast in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. We lucked out: it was sunny, not windy nor cold. We saw lots of llao llao, also known as pan de indio, which looks like an orange ping-pong ball of a fruit, is edible, but grows as a fungus on trees.   I didn’t try any. Instead, we had more centolla for dinner. Joe is going through steak withdrawal. He also sprained his ankle  while jogging towards the end of our stay in Buenos Aires, so the two of us are hiking much slower than usual. (Or maybe it’s due to our age, or the fact that we’ve worn out our hiking boots so much in the past 5 months.)

Anyways, we are definitely rolling  on the road again . . .

* Porteño is local term for a person from Buenos Aires

** There’s now an app for it, course, but the old school transportation geek in me loved the convenience and DIY challenge of the little Guia Transportes booklet, which has an street index, a Thomas Brothers-type grid map, and a turn-by-turn description of of every bus route so your could figure out how to get from any address to any other address in Bs. As. I don’t know why other cities don’t have the same. Maybe London A to Z has similar details, but not for riding the bus?

*** Centrifuge: Argentinians don’t typically have a machine clothes dryer that heats up. Instead they have a centrifuge, rather like the ones in the swimming pool locker rooms, where you put in your sopping wet swimsuit, and push the lid down for 5 seconds, and it emerges damp, but dryer than hand wringing.  A largish one for an apartment operates by a switch, and the most common brand is “Koh-i-noor”

I was talking to a taxi driver about this and told him Koh-i-noor was the name of  an Indian diamond that the British took when they colonised India and stuck it in a royal crown. “Ah the British . . . they are always such pirates . . .” he said. The Falkands  Malvinas War is still a bit of a sore subject around here.

**** When Serge was here, the three of us would usually order a bottle of Malbec (red wine), and comfortably finish it without getting too buzzed, i.e. 250 ml per person is good. (Linda is mostly a diet Coke person.) After he left, we realized that splitting a bottle between 2 of us was a bit more than we should drink: 375 ml per person takes more effort. But we don’t like wasting wine/leaving wine left on the table. . .

***** The official exchange rate is about 6 Argentinian pesos per $US 1. That’s what you get if you withdraw cash from an ATM, or use your US-issued credit card. However, the ‘blue market’ exchange rate is 9 to 1. It’s so widely accepted that both the official and ‘parallel” exchange rates are actually printed in the daily newspapers. You get this rate by changing greenbacks in person. So to get 30%-40% more bang for our bucks, we changed US dollars for pesos and paid for everything in cash. We have never used an ATM in Argentina.  It’s  long story, but has to do with the economic situation and the government’s clumsy policies to deal with it by putting more restrictions of foreign currency flows, rather than letting it float to the equilibrium in reality.


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