A 10-day Californian road trip...

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July 1st 2006
Published: October 22nd 2006
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We arrived in California just over a week ago, on Wednesday... it all started with: Culture shock!! California developed quite a reputation internationally while being at the forefront of the social revolution of the 1960s, and never shook off its image of being laid-back, liberal, and in all a great state to visit or to live in. I was expecting to feel right at home in San Francisco, enjoying what is sometimes described as its "European" feel, after spending the last couple of months in Asia. At the start, it wasn't to be.... Since then, I've come to really enjoy my time here, but learned to turn a blind eye to some aspects of life in the Golden State.

We left Japan mid-afternoon on the 21st, and arrived in San Francisco at 9 a.m. on the same day. While it felt like we must have travelled in some innovative Japanese time capsule, the real reason was of course that we crossed the International Date Line on the way. In any case, the rest of the day was always going to be hard to get through, courtesy of the monumental jet lag which I had developed. We cleared customs, which was surprisingly straight-forward in spite of stamps from several Middle Eastern and (former) Communist nations taking up a prominent place in my passport, and caught the BART direct train service to SF city centre. We had reserved beds in the Hostelling International City Center Youth Hostel, and were planning to take it easy the rest of the day.

My first impression of SF came when we walked from the Civic Center towards our hostel. It suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of homeless people were roaming the streets, and that soberness and consciousness were not necessarily the norm. We had arrived in Tenderloin, apparently one of the least appealing parts of SF with problems such as crime, drugs, and prostitution. Compared to what we had seen in Japan and China, this seemed like a different world. I'm not suggesting that such problems don't exist in these countries, but merely that they hide it more successfully, for better or for worse. First up was a woman who was sitting on the pavement while talking to a couple of biscuits, referring to them as her friends. Next came several more people who seemed to be in dire need of some professional help. The hostel itself was pleasant enough though, and we spent the rest of the day watching World Cup football and drinking large amounts of coffee to keep ourselves awake. The next morning, I decided to find a place to do my laundry and made my way to the local laundromat. While waiting there, I got talking to a woman who had clearly been living on the streets for a while. When she asked me how old I reckoned she was, and I replied "About 45", even though she looked like someone aged 60 who's just been hit by a bus, she proudly told me that she was 46. This was quickly followed by the story of her son who, at age 18, had been shot in the head by the police. While the woman was nice enough, and was just looking for someone to talk to, I was quite happy to return to the hostel an hour later.

Things could only get better after my initial Tenderloin experiences, and during the next couple of days, they certainly did. On Thursday afternoon we went on a harbour cruise, which took as past the sea lions and Alcatraz, and all the way up to the Golden Gate Bridge, which looked magnificent in the sunshine. On Friday we had lunch in Chinatown, walked up to the Coit Tower in North Beach, got around using the famous cable cars etc. All in all, the city was growing on me all the time!

On Saturday we picked up our rental car, which we had booked several weeks before in Asia. We had a brief discussion with the rather unfriendly staff of the rental agency about the fact that we had to pay a $25 per day surcharge for enabling me to drive the car, as I'm not yet aged 25 and thus am expected to be a reckless driver. They partly made up for the increased cost, however, by giving us a free upgrade: instead of the "compact" car that we had reserved, we got a very powerful Pontiac Grand Prix. It's surely not very logical to give someone who you expect to abuse a car an even faster one?! We were happy enough though in the end, having secured a very comfortable ride for the coming week.

Before embarking on our journey towards Los Angeles, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. The view from the other side of the Golden Gate towards San Francisco was somewhat obscured by the fog which often hangs in the Bay. Still, driving over the landmark was quite exciting and definitely a "must do". After this little detour we drove south towards Santa Cruz, where we arrived late in the afternoon. In the evening, we walked around the town and its famous Beach Boardwalk, a 1906 amusement park. Unfortunately, the Boardwalk was a bit of a disappointment, with its boring attractions (supposedly "a reminder of a bygone era in amusement") attracting a crowd which suggests that Santa Cruz reputation of being hip also refers to a bygone era... Nonetheless, we enjoyed having a walk and dinner on the Pier. After dinner, Phil tried to get some police attention by buying a beer and drinking it in our parked car. The reason was that our overly-protective American hosts wouldn't allow people to take any alcohol into the hostel, under threat of expulsion! He managed to get away with drinking in the car though, but I didn't join in as my craving for beer was less urgent.

On Sunday, we first drove the 17-Mile Drive just Southwest of Monterey. At the time, I really enjoyed the scenic coastal landscape and affluent residential areas that we drove through. Still, now I know it was to be only a taste of even better things to come the next day... That afternoon we visited the Monterey Aquarium which was wonderful. Having done a fair amount of scuba diving in recent years I'm nowadays not easily impressed by aquariums. Monterey's enormous tank with tunas, and a big moonfish (Mola mola) which Phil tried in vain to photograph for quite some time, were quite a sight. Monterey turned out to be a pretty nice town, and was a pleasant place to stop on the way South.

The next morning, we set out to drive the Big Sur part of the Coastal Highway 1 to San Simeon, and then on towards San Luis Obispo. Phil had already told me that this part of California's coastline is quite a sight, but still I was amazed by the stunning views. We took our time, stopping regularly to admire the raw beauty of the landscape, and even found a beach with a colony of sea elephants (wow they're ugly!). Phil was brave enough to venture into the ocean at some point for a swim. I was however happy enough to stay warm and dry, and spent some time looking at a sea otter which was swimming just off the coast. All in all, the drive was wonderful, and shows the US at its best: away from the big cities, which in my opinion culturally can't match the metropolises of Europe, lies a wealth of natural beauty not found in many countries in Europe.

After spending the night in yet another bunk bed in a crowded youth hostel, this time in San Luis Obispo, we drove back up the coast the next morning to visit Hearst Castle, which we hadn't had time to visit the day before. It used to be the estate of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose life story is told in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. Hearst used his wealth to build up an enormous estate with buildings and gardens filled with treasures from all over the world. It is a very interesting place to visit, especially because the sheer quantity of riches creates a sight which is so kitsch that it's borderline vulgar. Many of the antiques could take up prominent positions in museums around the world, yet all put together I would hardly call them beautiful.

Monday afternoon we picked up two Dutch girls who we'd met in San Luis Obispo, and who we'd offered a ride to Santa Barbara, where we were planning to stay in the same hostel. Right from the start, Santa Barbara turned out to be the kind of place which I had looked forward to find in California. It's a town with a great atmosphere, some very nice bars and restaurants, and a nice beach: a perfect place to relax for a couple of days. By this stage we had decided not to spend much time in Los Angeles, from where we were to fly to Toronto on Thursday. Pretty much every Californian we'd met had told us that while LA is a nice place to visit if you have time to get to know it and learn to appreciate its quirkiness, it could be a pretty horrible place for a short visit. Also, at the time I was struggling with the question whether to accept a job in Papua New Guinea for two years, an offer which I've since accepted, and felt in need of some relaxation and fun. Santa Barbara proved to be just the place I was looking for.

On Tuesday we went on a day trip to the wine country North of Santa Barbara with the two Dutch girls. We followed in the footsteps of the cast of Hollywood film Sideways, which was filmed in and around Santa Barbara County. The others tasted wine at one of the wineries featured in the movie, bit I as designated driver had to settle for buying a bottle for later consumption (which never even happened!). On the way to the wine country, we drove past a cave with some Native American cave art which was quite special. In the end, it was a really fun day, with some good company.

After several days of taking it easy in Santa Barbara, the sad day of our departure from the US came on Friday. That morning we drove towards Los Angeles via Santa Monica, planning to spend a couple of hours in the city before catching a plane to Toronto from LAX. Upon arrival we drove part of Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills and Hollywood, stopping off for lunch at Cheebo on West Sunset Blvd, a great spot to grab a bite. After lunch, we walked around on Hollywood Boulevard with its Walk of Fame, before driving towards the Hollywood Sign for a compulsory picture. On our way to the airport we made a photo stop at the Whiskey a Go Go, a nightclub on the Sunset Strip, where musical legends The Doors performed as house band for a while in the 1960s. In the end, it almost seemed a pity to have to leave LA again so soon, but we had something good to look forward to: in the evening we flew to Toronto, Canada, in order to be able to take a flight to Havana, Cuba, the next day. Next update from perhaps the most un-American place on the planet! It will be quite a contrast, I'm sure!

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