Saturday, October 08, 2005

Storied Passage

I live on a row of little houses in the southwestern corner of Berkeley, California. Our teal bungalow with purple trim is tucked somewhere near the corner of Ashby and San Pablo Avenues. San Pablo is a main artery which runs from Crockett through the malls of El Cerrito and past Berkeley into the heart of Oakland. The strip on the edge of Oakland has changed rapidly in the past several years.

When I first moved to Berkeley, I'd drive down University Avenue on the way to the 580 freeway, and I'd pass the intersection of University and San Pablo and barely notice it. There was a cheap clothing store on the left with big signs offering shirts for $10, pants for $25. On the right was a Long's Drugs. It wasn't until I discovered Cafe Trieste that I started to feel the renaissance of San Pablo Avenue, this storied passage, the old Lincoln Highway, the final leg of America's first transcontinental highway connecting New York and San Francisco in 1913.

Since 2004, Cafe Trieste has become a hub for the neighborhoods in west and southwest Berkeley. Cafe Trieste first started serving espresso in the 1950's in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. It has deep rich coffee, wine, surly barristas, a dark wood bar, and local opera and jazz. Locals sit and sip coffee and eat almond torte and discuss Supreme Court nominees. A dad with spiked hair and tattoed biceps buys gelato for his little girl clad in a Ramones t-shirt, and Berkeley cops nurse lattes at the outdoor tables.

Next to Cafe Trieste is Good Vibrations, a brightly-lit sex shop, and then Sea Salt, a busy new restaurant that serves oysters, littleneck clams and a yellowfin tartare with orange and basil. There's also Sign-a-Rama, a bamboo nursery, a used clothing store, Omega Salvage, a pet store, the Ecology Center, dive bars, and an old butcher shop that sells rabbit and goat to immigrants from Nigeria and Guatemala. San Pablo Avenue then crosses Ashby and continues to Oakland.

The eastern terminus of the original Lincoln Highway was across the country at Times Square, near the current Lincoln Tunnel. Then it wound into New Jersey, through Jersey City and Newark and then southwest through Rahway, Edison, New Brunswick, and Trenton. From Edison, take I-287 a couple of miles to the Garden State Parkway and then cruise for about 21 miles until Exit 105 and there you are, down the shore, back at Asbury Park.

Friday, October 07, 2005


I grew fat the last time I was in Bali.

In my early twenties, I'd go there for six weeks and lose twenty pounds. I'd first puff from the heat, but then after a day or two of jukut, vegetables in broth tasting of coconut oil smoke, sambal of hot chili and garlic and shrimp paste, mounds of rice, I'd not feel hungry again.

Once I spent all night at an odalan up in the hills in Kayuputih to celebrate a temple birthday. I watched a woman fall into a trance and roar like she was a tiger. The next morning I was vomiting, my stomach seized in pain. Bapak, Pasek's father, told me it was from a black magic spell cast by villagers in Kayuputih. He had told me that it was dangerous there. Meme boiled cinnamon leaves in water and then made me drink the bitter liquid, which made me vomit even more violently.

But I'd forget about the day of vomiting, and every day I'd wake and pump water into a bucket for bathing, and walk down the mountain path, and swim in the Java Sea, and weeks would pass and I'd be muscle and sinew.

The last time I was in Bali, I had just taken clomiphene to force my ovaries to release their eggs. I was 35 and determined to become fertile. A sonogram at UCSF had revealed ova sticking to the sides of my ovaries and forming cysts instead of traveling down my fallopian tubes. Clomiphene blew up my ovaries to softball size and they felt hot and buzzing. My flesh grew full and soft and thick, so much so that Luh asked me if I were pregnant.

Belum, I answered. Not yet.

If you are not pregnant now, you will be next month, Luh told me.

Luh was right.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bali Bombing

One of the places I have spent a lot of time in is Bali. The last time I was there I drove up to Jimbaran Beach, where there were several different restaurants grilling fresh-caught fish near the road, and tables down on the sand where families and friends sat and ate. Many guests were tourists eating one more meal before heading to the airport in Kuta.

The tuna at Jimbaran were tender and exquisite; the ginger-soy sauce delicately sweet and zingy. Our hands got sticky, we reminisced about our trip, someone was playing guitar. Waves crashed in a quiet roar. A little boy walked up to where the sea met the sand and peed.

My friend Matt was laughing his bellowing laughter and passing us plates of rice. He told us about the villages with the most talented mask carvers, his wife Desak's stream of pembantus hired and fired, and her encounters with a dukun intended to help create peace in their house in Gianyar. After having two children, they had moved back to her birthplace from San Jose, California, where Matt used to be an emergency manager for Apple.

I was in an Internet cafe in Bamako, Mali, several years later and hadn't checked my email in several weeks. I had just returned from Gao, on the edge of the Sahara, where I encountered one of the last remaining tribes of desert elephants far out in the bush. My feet were dusty. I saw a recent email from Matt and the subject was: Matt Wyatt Cremation.

Always joking, I thought. That Matt. I thought of him laughing at Jimbaran. He wouldn't let me pay for dinner.

I opened the email and it wasn't from Matt, it was from his good friend still living in Bali. Matt had just died of pancreatic cancer. Surgeons in a Bangkok hospital were unable to save his life. There were earlier emails in my inbox from Matt, ailing, optimistic that he was going to make it. And then a last one where he apologizes to everyone he knows about anything bad he ever said about his wife.

A few days ago, a suicide bomber blew up a seaside cafe at Jimbaran, ruining the livelihood of many Balinese grilling the catch-of-the-day to make tourists happy and to support their families. I imagine the the smoke of grilling tuna mixing with the smell of opened flesh. They found the bomber's head and legs but not his middle.