Archive for August, 2009

P-town and D-boyz

And so I arrive in Portland. But first, what’s happened since San Francisco?

Well, I was left with two unallocated days, which simply wouldn’t do. I couldn’t really stretch to another two nights at the pricey accommodation in The City By The Bay, so I shuffled off on a Greyhound bus to Merced, the so-called ‘Gateway to Yosemite’. Arriving fairly late in the day, with the sun set and the warm night air stirring the empty streets, I finally made it to the hostel at about eleven. En route, someone asked me if he could borrow my phone. My spider-sense tingled and I replied that the battery was flat. He then asked me for some change, which I didn’t have. Then he produced another phone from his jeans and asked me if I wanted to buy that one. I’m not sure if he didn’t think I’d make the connection, or what, but he wasn’t exactly the brightest of buttons.

Merced was a strange little place though. It clearly had a firm sense of its own little history, and I ate at a surprisingly good organic restaurant called Bishop’s, but at the same time it’s small and barren, without much in the way of things to see or do aside from the astonishingly comprehensive town museum, set up in the old court house and free of charge. I didn’t go to Yosemite in the end, as I had to make the call between seeing the park or seeing an ice hockey game. Whilst this may seem a no-brainer, the park was currently on fire because a controlled burn had decided it was going to be uncontrollable, which mitigated my enthusiasm somewhat. I was also so run down by the gauntlet of California, with my shapeshifting itinerary being the mother of last-minute necessity, that landing my feet on friendly ground for more than a day seemed like a very attractive prospect. And anyway, I’m seeing Yellowstone. So I wandered around Merced for half a day and jumped on the bus back north.

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The bus was overnight, and I braced myself for the usual mishaps – but actually, it was okay. At 2:00am I was transferred to a nearly-empty bus whilst we stopped over, due to some practical problem solving by the two drivers. So the rest of my journey was in relative comfort, shared with about six people who seemed as tired as I was. I arrived in Salem, which I didn’t really see much of, at seven in the morning and Bionic Monkey was there to pick me up. We drove the forty-odd minutes back to his place, through misty, pine-speckled countryside, and I lasted until the early afternoon before my ability to stay conscious ran out. Waking some hours later, we headed into the city to see the game.

Ice hockey, I have decided (after seeing some other sports on tv), is the best American sport. It plays a little bit like football – proper football – in some ways, or at least this game between Portland and Seattle did. The scores weren’t astronomical, with Seattle winning 4-2, although the last goal was scored because the keeper had been taken off in a last-minute offensive push, and there’s a fluidity and long-term flow to the game that’s pretty appealing. Portland were the aggressor, putting shot after shot on target, and were rewarded with the first goal. However, their defense had seen so little of the puck that when Seattle lashed back (from a penalty, after one of the notorious fights broke out), they simply weren’t alert enough and it sailed in unopposed. Seattle grabbed a second in similar fashion, from midfield, and then a third. Portland fought back hard and managed to slot a consolation prize into the back of the net, but it was too little too late. Still, it was good fun to watch. There’s no ‘plays’, there’s no tedious stoppages all the time, the rules don’t suffer from the American football’s problem of basically making almost everything but a few options illegal, and like I said, it’s a long-term game. It’s split into three periods instead of two halves, but you’re still seeing a good twenty minutes of relatively uninterrupted action. Oh, and no ad breaks!

Another thing: we (Bionic is married, to a demon cook no less) were with some others, one of whom seemed to be a magnet for projectiles. Twice the puck chipped up from the ice to whistle into the somewhat diminutive crowd, and both times it landed within five feet of us. The first time, the kids in the row behind us got it, and though I may be a despicable, almost Lovecraftian monster in many other ways, I wasn’t about to headbutt a small girl for it. The second time, however, it landed practically at my feet, so now I have a pretty great memento:

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Ignore the red, I’m still working off the burn. The guy with the ponytail is the bullet magnet, so if you’re ever in a war, y’know… find him.

We went into town again today, but this post is getting pretty long so I’ll write on that tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Have camera, will travel

Another bumper photo update for you guys, here covering San Francisco.

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California, n. (kælɨˈfɔrnjə)

‘Oh, when I’m abroad, I don’t say I’m from America,’ my busmate told me, ‘I say I’m from California‘. She waited a moment and then added, bashfully, ‘it helps’.

Breezy, affluent, liberal and pancultural, California has been a unique experience in my travels. It’s not hard to see why it’s the most populous state in the nation, with its gorgeous weather, beautiful scenery and easy charm, but it’s more than that. It’s just an opinion, but coming to California feels like I’m stepping forward in time. Not only are the politics here progressive and forward thinking – for example, the state is internationally renowned for its environmental policies – but the food is healthier, the portions are sensible, the people more energetic, active, and technologically savvy. Gender consciousness, gay rights and feminism are all at strength here, as are more socialist ideals pertaining to healthcare and economic justice. The liberalism of the people is not one of anything-goes apathy, either: in Las Vegas, people don’t care what you do. Here, people just don’t mind. Crucial difference. Several times I’ve seen people here, when challenged, rise calmly but firmly to the occasion – but so long as it’s not affecting them, most don’t seem to think that what other people do is much of their business.

Alongside this is an incredibly easygoing culture (and you’re never far away from the rich aroma of cannabis). I thought the south would be pretty laid back – and don’t get me wrong, it is in areas – but it was actually a lot more stressed-out than I had imagined. Inversely, I thought California might be full of OC-style self-absorbed myopics, but I’ve found a people distinctly broad in their styles of thought. Folks will usually be up for a conversation, on any matter.

All this results in a state that feels more like a different country than a part of the rest of the US, and most Californians I’ve spoken to seem to feel the same way. Of the coast, San Francisco is (I believe) the most cultured, well-to-do bastion of intellectualism, which isn’t too surprising given that the liberal stronghold of Berkley, which I explored yesterday with Raslin, is just off the bay. The other areas in CA still however possess the same unique sort of character, to different degrees.

Maybe the post title should be a verb, instead of a noun. To California. Such is the sense of shared cultural priorities I get here.

Naturally it’s not all roses, and like I said, homelessness in San Francisco is just one of the problems I’ve seen here, but I leave the cities of the state with the impression that the rest of America might have a little bit of catching up to do.

My opinions, of course, are my own.

Castle in the clouds

Firstly, apologies, but as usual (for hostels) there is no way to upload pictures. I’m due to meet up with Raslin tomorrow and he has a laptop, so I may be able to solve that particular problem then.

Yesterday I arrived in San Fran via the eastern bridge in the middle of the afternoon – except you wouldn’t know it was the afternoon. Instead, as we drove over the still waters, the city and its turrets were swamped in a thick mist, the looming silhouettes shifting enigmatically. Very surreal – T.S. Eliot’s famous ‘unreal cities’ came to mind. Or Silent Hill.

As I arrived, the slumbering city seemed to wake up; at street level visibility is much clearer and the fresh bite in the air was a more than welcome relief to my British bones. Somehow the city felt very familiar, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just a matter of climate, but it seemed as though this was a real, old city, that has grown over time – like that keystone of my own urban ideals, London. Dominating skyscrapers towered extraordinarily high, but down at gutter level the streets seemed a little on the smaller side, a little more personal, a little more dirty. I suppose there’s not much room on this small island for wide boulevards. Personally I thought it made the place much more engaging.

The brisk walk to the hostel was just the tonic for a soporific nine-hour bus journey that saw us cross through the scenic coastal routes. The landscape couldn’t seem to make up its mind: here it was a seaside spectacular, here golden vineyards rolled away over hills, and here was a winding mountain road smothered in pine. A break from the monotony of the Arizona/New Mexico area roads with their trampled sierras – but the sky had shrunk back to its normal size. A trade-off.

The hostel itself is capacious and newly-renovated and a superb place to stay if you’re here, which probably explains its slightly heftier-than-usual price-tag. But still, I was put in the dead centre of my new surroundings, with City Hall a matter of minutes away. There’s a heavy Vietnamese presence in the immediate area, and in general asian culture clearly has strong footholds here, as in LA and San Diego.

I pretty much immediately went a-walking, as I am wont to do, and unfortunately the first thing that struck me was how many homeless people there are here.

One thing I’ve noticed here is that America is more vicious to its poor than anywhere else I’ve seen in the first world. Job security seems weak and the net of social security has a lot of holes. The amount of people I’ve talked to, for example, who have no healthcare is incredible. Especially as frequently they are actually working. But I think healthcare is another post. On this matter of homelessness, I’ve seen a lot of people in the streets in America, again more than any other first-world country I’ve been to. There’s so many that it’s small wonder people seem so much more scared over here. I’m not one to often be intimidated, but more than a few times so far on my trip I’ve shoved my head into my metaphorical shell and quickened my pace. Crime frequently isn’t so much done by bad people as desperate people, and there are a lot of desperate people in plain view. Not just beggars and homeless folks sitting on cardboard beds in knocked-out doorways, but also people who are quite clearly not all there – talking to themselves; wandering half naked; clutching at their bodies; I’ve seen all of these. And yes, it’s frightening and yes, you wonder if you’re safe and yes, I can see why people don’t walk the streets at night. I’m not saying it’s unique to America, of course it’s not, but it does seem far more prevalent here than in other countries. All I can do is speculate why.

Today, I went out for a deliberately long walk. Taking a circuitous route through most of the north side of the city, I swung by almost every landmark I could fit in. It took seven and a half hours and was a lot of fun, but I hadn’t realized that the lovely cold misty weather I had yesterday wouldn’t hold. In short, I am now thoroughly sunburnt. I don’t know – I go through the entire south and the worst I get is a light red frosting at the Grand Canyon, and then I get sunburnt at the most temperate climate I’ve been in yet. More fool me. I hope it fades in time for PAX.

I started out by hiking up (and I mean hiking; San Francisco has comically steep hills, and one suspects for much of the time that someone is having a bit of a joke at your expense) the unfortunately named Nob Hill – seriously, right next to ‘Tenderloin?’ – and through the tacky bonanza of Chinatown with its insane tourist shops, lined with $200 kimonos and $20 katanas. San Fran’s Chinatown is big and loud and a lot of fun, with plenty of cheap food for the gourmet and a mixture of sublime and terrible souveniers. I then turned on to Broadway with its strip joints and clubs, went all the way to the pier, followed the seafront north and around to the Golden Gate bridge (sadly completely unphotogenic today; I’ll look again tomorrow), and finally traveled back southeast through the crazed up-and-down streets to the hostel.

San Francisco is a very picturesque place with absolutely gorgeous houses. The rich here can’t move out of town unless they fancy living on a boat or in Alcatraz, so they make up for it by constructing these towering, four-storey mini-mansions, painted in bright yellows and blues. I wondered if perhaps this was for the same reasons as the buildings in St. Petersburg: they paint the houses in a bid to combat the heavy marsh fog and overcast skies. Either way, it’s easy to wander into almost any street and find one of these lovingly-crafted edifices, and they are criminally photogenic. I’ve taken far too many pictures of them.

The city itself is, well, hilly, with lots of people both on foot and in cars, and criss-crossed by its famous tram network. It’s hard work to get around, but rewarding. You find things in the oddest places – like Grace Cathedral, tucked away in the shadow of several taller buildings, lurking in its grey webbing. There’s an indeterminate but clear sense of culture here. That is to say, I don’t think anyone could tell me what San Fran is, but whatever it is it’s definitely that. Which makes for frustrating times writing this post, but hey.

I’ll just finish with a word on the piers. This is where Otis Redding wrote his most famous song (if you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know), and although Pier 39 is the tourist area, with its gaudy self-branding, its sourdough loafs and the hundreds-strong colony of braying seals that decided in 1990 it would be a jolly good idea to take over half the jetty, I myself preferred the quiet and preserved ones to the south. No gimmicks, no shops, just a series of ancient planks leading out into the sea, where old men in baseball caps cast their fishing lines and swap stories. The bay spreads before you and the east bridge runs off into the salinated air. If you close your eyes a little, it’s not too hard to imagine it: just sitting here, wasting time.

California dreaming

So I’m in Santa Barbara, just a little ways up the coast from the looming metropolis of Los Angeles. And for the first time in the trip, I’ve found somewhere I could genuinely imagine living, at least for a while.

I suppose I have expensive taste. Santa Barbara is characterized by gorgeous, peaceful streets, pricey restaurants, clean beaches, beautiful weather, and an influx of super-wealthy demigods living in impossibly large mansions – among them, John Cleese.

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The drive up saw the gritty land that surrounds LA change by degrees to soft, parchment-coloured sandstone and wiry little bushes, with thin spits of land occasionally questing into the sea. The pacific has a different sort of quality to other seas I’ve seen – and I’ve seen quite a few by now. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seems more vivid, more lively somehow, as if there exists in it more raw… I don’t know, possibility. I was going to try and nap on the bus, but instead found myself glued to the scratched-up window.

I arrived in the late afternoon and was greeted by Xantus, a tall and carefree chap with a great group of equally carefree (but not as tall) friends. I was taken to their house, which is a large and heavily customized rented property, with dozens of cool little decorations, hanging drapes, curious lights and other oddities, such as a tiny tiny tiny working piano, or an iron-frame statue that threatens to eat your tongue. All very unaffected, and fantastic for it.

The afternoon was spent more or less simply hanging out, eating tacos at a local place and then going to see Joshua Tillman, one of the members of Fleet Foxes, play a solo gig at a local place called Muddy Waters (‘okay, so there are like, a couple of Muddy Waters,’ Xantus’ housemate clarified, ‘but they all feel independent’). It was a good gig, and although he lacked some of the inventiveness of the collective band, when he hit his ‘wall of sound’ mode it was incredibly exhilarating. A good evening.

The next day Xantus and I went for a romantic stroll on the beach. It’s crushingly beautiful and really makes me wish England had better weather. It’s even milder up here, and really is an absolutely lovely climate to stroll around in. Always warm, rarely hot, cool in the evenings and any trace of humidity blown away by the sea breeze. The beach itself is wonderful.

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The town itself is low-lying along the coast, which I found out today is due to heavily specific regulations by the local council: nothing more than three floors, no neon – even the tiles on the rooftops have to be terracotta. The result is an almost painfully pretty town, which I spent today wandering around.

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My lasting memory of Santa Barbara, though, will be what we did last night. As the sun set across the glittering bay, we drove up to the mountaintop. Leaving our car by the road and the city at our feet, we picked our way across the boulders and rocky pitfalls for a few hundred meters to a place called Lizard’s Mouth Rock, a distinctly-shaped outcrop that is apparently a popular place. I say that because there already folk there when we arrived, playing guitars and generally having a good time. We joined them, talked late into the night, watched the sun set and the stars rise, and played around with slow exposure settings on cameras and coloured LEDs.

But why bother expounding on that, when a picture can convey exactly the atmosphere?

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Santa Barbara is just a great place. I used to think Jack Johnson’s ditties were unrealistically saccharine, but after learning he was raised here, it makes sense. I was strolling along the surf with Xantus, when he stretched his arms into the air and gazed up at the sky. I couldn’t help agreeing with what he then said.

‘Life is pretty good,’ he remarked, ‘all things considered’.

Tale of two cities

There’s a reason that I have separate posts for Hollywood and Los Angeles. See, Hollywood is a self-contained little phenomena that just happens to be in LA, more or less content to exist as its own bubbling entity happily guzzling tourist dollars. Los Angeles itself is a very different place.

The city seems bustling and grimy, pocketed with little green enclaves of gardens and small parks. The outskirts are perhaps the most dilapidated, with hurriedly-painted buildings and cracked tarmac crumbling around the roads, but the downtown areas are generally a little more well-to-do. I only had an hour to wander around, with which I traced a broad and circuitous route from Pershing Square to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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The climate here is warmer than San Diego, the air seems somehow richer, or perhaps its coastal cousin’s atmosphere is thinner, I don’t know. But there’s still that blessed sea breeze that launches an otherwise slightly oppressive heat into a perfectly pitched comfort zone. This is helped of course by the block system, the tall, smooth buildings creating steel-and-glass wind tunnels that sweep up the streets from the shore. It makes moving about the city pretty easy, even with my chunky backpack, and it is perhaps because of this that downtown is filled with human traffic; joggers, teens out shopping, mothers with their kids, business folk taking a break, etc. Even the pigeons seem happy just sitting cupped in the basins of the fountains. Far away on the hills that rise out of the bay, a smattering of houses cling to the scrubland in the sunlight.

The first thing I saw was the Angels Flight, a small tram with a fascinating and somewhat tragic history. It was in the process of being restored as I came across it, but it’s obviously a landmark that inspires a lot of local interest. It sat there, suspended on the tracks, waiting for something.

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After heading through the architectural salgamundi of Pershing Square and the shady inner streets, the path I took cut through the sleek financial district, with men and women leaving glossy black buildings in matte black suits; eating sandwiches on the steps; heading to the park on their mobile phones. There’s the smell of money in the air, and some news stations were billeted outside, apparently in anticipation of something. I couldn’t stop though, so instead admired the audacity of the skyscrapers and office blocks as I circled up to the stunning concert hall.

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Walt Disney is something of a minor god here, and it seems like even those who dislike his methods can’t help but appreciate the enormous brute success of the man. It seems fitting that one of his biggest legacies is a cross between a treble clef and a battle-axe.

The spacious luxury of the theatre district was the last impression I had of LA, but probably not the most distinct. The day before, from my Hollywood base, I traveled west to the Santa Monica beach. LA is so staggeringly huge that it’s best thought of more like London, with its individual areas encompassed by the roaming city limits.

Santa Monica is a hip, slightly commercial little part of town, down near the shore. It has a lot of clothes shops, restaurants, and character. I traveled with an Italian woman I met at the hostel, and after the beach, whilst she was in a yoga class, I let my itchy feet roam. I chanced upon a lively bit of street entertainment – a black man, an indian, and a mexican mixing urban dance, gymnastics, and cutting racial satire in an explosive cocktail of social politics and showmanship. Their act lasted a good half hour, perhaps more, and was really pretty great. They’ve been doing it for ten years, so they say, and I believe them, so if you happen to be in LA, head down to Santa Monica and see if you can catch them.

The beach itself I chose deliberately, as the purported fiesta of Venice beach to the south was, for once, not quite what I was feeling like. I just wanted the sand between my toes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for very compelling narrative. You might just have to accept my word that it’s a very pleasant, clean beach. I did say that Santa Monica probably left more of an impression on me than downtown, and it did – but again, like the previous post, I think that that one is another topic.

I’ll leave you with a photo I didn’t have a chance to include earlier. Say what you like about the man, the one thing that nobody can deny is his impact on the world.

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‘Fifty cents for your soul.’

Well, I’m certainly due an update. Last you guys saw me I was in San Diego, and now I’m significantly further up the coast. Let me fill you in on what’s been going on.

On the 19th, I left JAEF and his cookies behind and rolled up to Hollywood, arriving in the mid-afternoon. I do love it when a plan comes together, but it’s equally as fun, sometimes, when it falls apart. A sudden and rather frantic change of circumstance saw me wind up a big converted manor house called Orange Grove, that is now a hostel. It’s one of those odd, turn-of-the-century style houses, all narrow corridors and bewildering staircases, but its location was superb – just off the famous Sunset Boulevard.

I took a series of bus and metro routes (glee! Capable public transport!) from the greyhound, to downtown, then up to Hollywood and Highfield. I jumped out and walked up the star-scattered road, with very well-dressed actors kitted up as The Joker, Bumblebee (of Transformers fame), Jack Sparrow etc. mingling around and doing their thing. All great fun, even if hopelessly touristy.

I was exhausted when I arrived at the hostel, for various reasons, and actually found out quite the extent of my fatigue when I fell asleep whilst making up my bed and woke up a couple of hours later trapped in the twisted sheets and feeling rather confused. But refreshed! By this time it was 7pm, and I decided it was time to eat. What I found was surprising to me, but I think I shall make another post about that sort of thing later on in my trip.

I munched away on my dinner in the hostel kitchen, watched Kill Bill Part 2 (pretty good; Tarantino uses homage so much though that one starts to wonder where the irony ends and the cinema begins), and wandered out into the street at about midnight. I strolled down the broad sidewalks for over an hour until the names beneath my feet got more and more obscure and, finally, flickered out. The Boulevard is a little run-down now, a little seedy, still full of gimcrack gift stores and eagle-eyed tour operators in the daytime, but the actual stars have long since left the place behind, and the old hangout where budding hopefuls would wait to be ‘spotted’ is now swaddled in a slightly dog-eared air of past glory, fringed with nightclubs and the occasional brand store.

It’s still a fun place though, and certainly some people have very definite objectives on their mind for here. Back in the hostel the following morning, I was studying the apparent corpse of someone slumped over himself in the armchair of the tv room, when to my mild relief he suddenly stretched up, rolled over and eyeballed me with a curving grin. ‘Maaaan,’ he said, ‘everyone I was with got laid last night’.

Hollywood has changed, I think. The history is still literally written in the streets, but apart from a couple of glitzy premieres at the Kodak, the modern industry has rather left it behind. That doesn’t mean, however, that what it stands for is any less fantastical, or that it’s not still a thriving hubbub of commotion. It’s very different from LA – I’ll post about the city separately – but should you find yourself in the City of Angels, go visit what used to be the street of a thousand different hopes and dreams, and put your hands into the imprints of long-ago stars.


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