Lake Merrit, Oakland
Lake Merrit, Oakland

A vast blooming dale

sans awe, for all eyes elsewhere

sales on Bloomingdale’s


A walker’s haven

I always appreciate a good walk. And that’s why I can’t get it out of my head how accommodating the streets of Portland, Seattle, and Oakland were to the pedestrian. I love big broad walks and I cannot lie.

This was at the Oakland Civic Centre.

Oakland Civic Centre

That which cannot be

As far as I knew, sassiness wasn’t Oakland’s specialty. And so I had to be there to see it for myself. If someone had told me that there’s a car in Oakland that’s beaded to the brim, I’d have said—no way.

Fancy car in Oakland

A lesson in pride

After a long walk around the infamous Lake Merritt, I wrote to a friend saying I was in town. When she replied that she needed another hour to get ready and walk up to where I was, I decided to walk to her place, instead. It was only then that I realised she lived on the other side of the lake, another half a mile away. Not wanting to go around the lake again—the sun had come out stronger than I expected—I took a path through the streets observing the buildings flanking the sidewalks.

Oakland was quiet even for a Sunday. Having experienced flabbergasting activity in the streets of San Francisco, Oakland was such a contrast. Walking down empty streets I realised that Oakland was more of a residential town. It helps that Oakland has far fewer attractions than San Francisco. Tourists don’t spend five days sightseeing Oakland. Although there’s plenty to see and do in Oakland—not much interests typical tourists. I was glad I was atypical that way. Spending hours on Oakland streets was great for me.

After a cinnamon coffee and a lengthy catching-up conversation, my friend suggested we hit the Oakland Pride Festival. It was the day after my visit to Castro and so I was all in for another such experience. What I wasn’t sure of, however, was the meaning of pride festivals.

Oakland Pride Franklin Street

It was mid September, and according to my friend, Oakland always has its pride festival in September or October, unlike the rest of the US does in June. I listened in polite silence. What she said meant nothing to me. I had no idea what a pride festival was, how it’d be, or what people would do there.

I was curious, though.

Perhaps that’s why she suggested it in the first place. She knew I wanted to learn and understand and visiting the festival would be a good way to start. And so we walked a little more. The festival took up two entire streets and traffic was re-routed. Even as we walked towards the end of a long line, we heard music and singing ring through the air. The queue moved fast enough and before long we had our own pride bracelets. Everywhere we turned were people sporting multicoloured clothes, waving flags, calling out hellos to each other, and drowning bottles of water and soda—it was a warm day.

I made a quick observation: Oakland has a massive LGBTQ community. The moment we walked in, high-energy music and excited voices hit us that it was hard not to join in. It wasn’t crowded, though, for which I am thankful. The pride festival of San Francisco, according to my friend, attracted thousands of people every year. Oakland contented with a few hundreds. There were stalls on every side and people walking from one to another buying pride merchandise or just saying hello to each other. Everything imaginable was shaded rainbow—bow ties, flags, t-shirts, scarves, jewellery, fancy costumes, and even eye masks. It was a congregation of all things bright and colourful. Pride festivals are for the allies and the LGBTQ community to flaunt their existence at the same time. Not only is it a way of declaring their rights, but also a celebration of it.

It wasn’t all happiness and laughter, though. Pride festivals bring out so many emotions, I learnt from my friend. Most LGBTQ people have a rough time coming out to the world. Parents shun children, and society gives ill treats them every where they go. This was even more dire during the 60s and 70s. That’s when pride festivals took root. That’s when all these people whom society disregarded came together to share their stories and to encourage each other to stay strong. Nowadays, though, pride festivals have transitioned as a more lighter gathering. Nevertheless, the price scene still invites everyone who’s been hurt or hurting and embraces them with encouragement. After all, everyone should be proud of who they are.

Oakland Pride was a lesson I’d cherish forever.

It’s a walk by the lake

While in Pleasanton, I asked my colleagues about places I could look around, walk by, and just spend a quiet day. In a unanimous voice, most of them responded with: Lake Merritt. I looked in to it. It was a huge lake in Oakland, California, and—according to my maps—lots of space to walk around.

That was more than enough to hook me in. Although, I realised as I prodded my map further, I would have to take a 20-25 minute train ride to get there. Lucky for me there’s a train station right by the lake, making it easier to get to and from the lake. Everyone I spoke to agreed the lake would be worthwhile indeed.

Lake Merritt 3
The heart-shaped lake is a 3.4-mile (5.5 kms) walk around.

It happened to be the day after I visited the Golden Gate Park. I had walked about 23 kilometres at the park and woke up the next morning with my legs stretched out in an awkward angle. My thighs were sore, my feet were tired, and yet I was excited beyond words to see the lake. I left my hotel at about 7:30 and reached Oakland’s Lake Merritt station at about 9:15. It was a bright summer day and the sun showed signs of warming up later. I walked on to the street.

The first thing I noticed was the silence. Then I realised why: lack of people. I was at the Oakland Museum of California and I saw no one in sight. It exuded the feeling of a narrow dark alleyway without the stink or the unfriendliness of it. My first impression of Oakland was that it was a weird combination of a welcoming and, yet, human-deprived place. I loved it.

Following the map on my phone, I stopped when I saw the lake stretching out in front of me. I had arrived at a main street juncture. With long and tall buildings flanking either side of me, lots of greenery extended in front of me. Beyond it I could spot a streak of blue that’s Lake Merritt.

Oakland Museum of California

Vehicles whizzed past, people going to do whatever they had to do on a Sunday morn. Even then, there were fewer vehicles than in San Francisco. Oakland yet again presented a smaller, quieter, city. The massive open space in front of me housed railings and benches, glittering in the morning sun bearing early walkers and joggers. I crossed the road and approached the railings. It was 9:30 and all around me people stretched themselves, talked to each other or into their earphones. Some walked with children, some walked with parents, and even a few dogs walked their humans.

Lake Merritt 2

Finding no sign or guide lines about walking the lake, I took to my right and started off staring at the lake and at the buildings that loomed over it. Although Oakland didn’t compare to the glamour and rush of San Francisco, it’s in no way secondary to the high-rise buildings it prides upon. Towering structures made me pick up my jaw many times over. And I stopped walking every few minutes to try and encapsulate entire buildings into the screen of my minuscule iPhone 6.

Lake Merritt is huge, and beautiful. It was still early in the day when I started walking around the lake and the moon from the previous night lingered until about 10:00 am. For some weird reason I felt so at peace seeing the moon hovering on the left side over my head while the sun shone on my right. It was as if I stood in between the best of two worlds. The lake, I later learnt, is in fact a lagoon, and was formed in 1870 and is home to the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States.

As I walked around the 155-acre lake, I experienced mainstream life of Oakland. Everywhere I went in the US with fellow travellers, we were tourists. But on that day, not only was I alone, but I also had a backpack like any college student. I strolled for a while, stepped up my pace in some places, and stood gazing at the water in most instances. And as I walked, I encountered people going on with their lives unperturbed by this scrawny person unfamiliar with their town. A couple discussed alternative running locations for the following week while two older women fed pigeons in silence. Parents dragged kids in trams, and a teenager argued with her mother on the phone. Glass buildings floated on the water and elegant trees, twisting from the ground up, posed for cameras without a shame.

No one noticed a duck doing a backflip. They’d seen in hundreds of times already.

It was all new for me, though. It was a glorious day to spend outside, and joy from inside of me. It wasn’t until I finished a complete round of the lake that I felt the pain in my legs return. But it was nothing—numbing physical pain was no match to the soul-touching experience of inhaling fresh water breeze.