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Published: December 3rd 2006
The best thing about So Cal is the sunsets. For some reason the precise natural (humidity) and human (pollution) factors combine to turn the skies brilliant shades of orange and pink almost every evening.
I was in L.A for a bit of a reunion. My friend Matt had just moved out there about a year ago, and as luck would have it two more of my friends from University, Rob and Leo would be there at the same time. Now technically Matt doesn’t live in L.A, he lives in Huntington Beach (officially Surf City, USA) a medium sized town over thirty miles from L.A city itself. But it doesn’t matter really because L.A as a city with a coherent center doesn’t really exist. Huntington Beach borders Seal Beach and Long Beach to the north, Westminster to the East and Newport Beach to the south. But, to cross from one into the other you would hardly notice, the procession of strip malls, freeways, palm trees, identical houses and lots and lots of cars continues undiminished pretty much all the way to the heart of the city itself. The idea of L.A that exists in most peoples heads is all of this
giant urban sprawl in Southern California and the strange attitude to living that goes with it.
There are so many movies, books, and films dedicated to the So Cal mindset and lifestyle that I won’t even try and distill it into a few paragraphs, even if you haven’t been there, you probably know everything about it already. Taking the train to Long Beach from the Airport when I first arrived was surreal. It was like stepping into a caricature. I felt like I’d been there hundreds of times before.
I’ve heard a lot of bad things about L.A from a number of people. Were Matt not living there I would have been tempted to stop there for only a few days. Many travelers I know only use L.A as a two-hour stopover from Europe to Oceania. (This is pretty much obligatory on any RTW ticket) The viewpoint held by many travelers I have met is that L.A is a shit hole. While I won’t disagree with them on purely aesthetic grounds, the few times I visited the center of L.A, Hollywood, Venice Beach, Silver Lake, I liked it a lot. Of course it’s seedy, polluted, tacky and false.
But it’s also very seductive; the beach, the palm trees, the girls, and all the orderly shiny chain stores. The essence of the strangely Californian ideal that holds a place in everyone’s subconscious. The appeal for me, as I suppose it is for a lot of people is found in this heady brew, the dirt and the glamour living next to each other. Nowhere is a city such a mess of contradictions, how can one place be so diverse and so homogenous at the same time.
I’m sure I would like L.A a lot more if had a working public transport system and I could actually get anywhere. But I suppose taking away the cars is taking away the essence of the area. Luckily most of the places I wanted to visit Matt or Rachel (his girlfriend) were kind enough to drive me, but it would still have been nice to strike out and try and see some places on my own initiative. Towards the end of my time in America I needed to visit a specific travel agent, and the only way I could get there within their opening hours involved a 15 mile trip on the bus.
It took me over 5 hours.
Although I do like L.A, I imagine living there would be very lonely to live there. There seem to be very few opportunities to meet people and I imagine many of those you do are protected by a bubble of duplicity that that sort of lifestyle demands. Everyone is friendly, but no more than that. It’s the exception when you encounter staff in a shop in a restaurant with any sort of personality, rather than the pleasant corporate drones that most of them are. And of course everyone is in a car, all the time. It’s very hard to meet someone when they’re insulated behind a layer of metal and traveling 60 mph. Huntington Beach does, but most cities seem to have no urban centre, no high street. To me somewhere can’t be city if it’s made of strip malls and houses. No wonder there is so much racial tension, one of the few things that could make someone feel part of a community round here.
Ages ago, back when I was in Paris, I saw a display at the Pompidou centre, about an L.A based architect whose name escapes me. According
to his world view all the cities of the future would eventually become like L.A. There would be no need for a traditional plaza or any sense of community, because everyone gets that now from the internet. If L.A is like the cities of the future, I don’t want to live in a city in the future. I imagine it is much easier to be lonely here among millions of people than in the desert or the jungle.
Soon after I arrived in So Cal, we took a daytrip down to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico just south of Tijuana on the Baja peninsula. It was a gated city and I imagine a very sanitized version of the real Mexico. It was clearly a tourist place, even the drug dealers seemed halfhearted, but it still felt much wilder and more exiting than the U.S only a few miles away. It was fun to sip cheap and strong margaritas over lobster burritos. Mariachi bands played in the street, dodgy stall holders sold anything you could think of, and pharmacies sold pills drugs illegal just north of the border. It reminded me of when I first arrived in Morocco, and I wanted to
keep on going south all the way to Mexico City. Maybe I’ll be back in a few years. The border security going into Mexico was non existent, but there was a two hour wait to get back into the U.S. I can’t help thinking everyone was going the wrong way.
About a week after I arrived in L.A we all took a weekend road trip to Las Vegas. We stayed in a cheap room somewhere in the car park of Circus Circus. We quickly figured out that you get free drinks if you tipped high and were gambling, or at least if it looked like you were. It wasn’t quite Fear and Loathing, but a fairly debauched evening followed. I’ll spare you the details but, we played some craps, drank a lot, toured some of the hotels, and Matt and Leo were obnoxious to a large number of people. Because of the lack of clocks, windows and adequate lighting in the Casinos, it’s very easy to loose track of time. The sun was up and the early joggers were out, before we stumbled back to our hotel.
Unlike L.A, Las Vegas doesn’t even pretend to resemble a nice
place and most of us were sick of it already by the second day. We toured some more of the hotels and their attractions, of which the Grand Canal, in the Venetian, is unquestionably the highlight, but really we were to tired and hung-over to engage and were just killing time until the DJ Shadow concert in the evening (Which was fantastic). Afterwards we had a meal at a late night diner and returned to our Hotel.
In the morning we dropped of Leo (who was flying home) at the airport and began the long hot drive across the Nevada desert, just glad to be away from the sound of jingling coins, neon lights, and flyers for hookers littering the streets. Even 48 hours is too much in Las Vegas.
(More Photos Later)
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