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California

30/11/2012

America was always going to be about big. Even having been at a sumo meeting a few days previously, the people are still big. Soft drinks come in cans twice as large as home. Massive SUVs are everywhere. Even still, I’m surprised by the first sign I see after entering Los Angeles’ LAX airport – “Low clearance! 7’2″”. I duck my head and just about make it through.

It’s 1pm on Thursday when I get out of the airport – a good five hours before I left Tokyo, having crossed the International Date Line en route. It takes a little while to get used to the notion that this time today, I was walking down to the Asakusa metro station to begin my journey to America. Maybe such mild surrealism explains my next action – I went to find the train into downtown LA.

America does not do public transport; buses or trains are generally for the poor and/or mad. And while most of the big cities do in fairness have quite decent public transport systems, LA is very much an exception. However, I’m pleasantly surprised – from the airport, there’s a free shuttle bus to Aviation, a stop on the green line. There, as if to highlight that this is some sort of different world, the ticket machine gives me change in dollar coins – the only time in three weeks I see such a thing. Everyone else uses dollar notes which are practically falling to shreds with use, although at least no-one balks when I try to spend the coins.

At this time of day, the trains are reduced to every 15 minutes, and when it does come, it’s only comprised of three carriages. I hop aboard, find someone of normal size to sit beside and notice with a slight pang of unease that there’s only one other white person in the carriage. The train announcements are called out in Spanish first and English second; ads on the wall ask, in Spanish, if you would eat 20 packs of sugar at one go (of course you wouldn’t – so why are you drinking so much fizzy crap?) and suggest it’d be a nice thing to do for your family if you got tested for AIDS today. Los Angeles is the gang capital of America (although its murder rate is only slightly ahead of Limerick’s) and any of the people on the train with me could be carrying a gun in their bag. It’s barely a month since Rodney King died and I’ve no idea if the place is on edge at all. This is not how you imagine America to be, but of course, the train journey is quite mundane; the views out the windows of endless low-rise suburbia and busy freeways fail utterly to add anything.

After two changes, I reach my hostel in Koreatown, owned by a mildly eccentric Korean who has basically crammed as many bunk beds as possible into two side rooms (12 in total, I think). Still, it is only half a mile from the metro, which does actually go north to Hollywood which, let’s face it, is about the only thing keeping Los Angeles from being an unvisitable hole. After a couple of hours’ sleep to break up what I think ends up as a 41-hour Thursday, I head out to explore.

There are three actually stations called Hollywood – the stations are named after the street junction they’re at and this, combined with the sheer length of main streets in America and the irregularity of trains (every 20 minutes in the evenings), means I get off at Vermont and Sunset instead to walk down Sunset Boulevard. It’s all a bit dull though; a nondescript six-lane street which could really be anywhere in America. Private doctor and dentist businesses are closed for the evening, and about the only places open appear to be a couple of petrol stations. Outside one, a black man in a wheelchair shouts abuse at no-one in particular before taking out a baton, thumping it off the footpath a couple of times and yelling about how “This why no-one representin’ me”. To give him as wide a berth as possible, I cross the road, and find myself outside a large church of scientology offering free personality tests until 10pm each evening. Being perfectly aware that scientology is a scam, I’m tempted to head in for the laugh, but decide against it; scientologists seem to be dangerous people best avoided, particularly here in their heartland. Other than that, Sunset Boulevard is dark, nothing seems open and I opt to head back to Koreatown, ignoring a mad beggar on the train who walks up to people with his hand out shouting “BAM! BAM?” Even when I’m safely back in the hostel, I wake at 4am to hear the sound of a helicopter in the near distance; there’s one person a day murdered in LA, and presumably today’s victim is still fresh.

The Hollywood station I need is Hollywood and Vine, and I head there the next day. Even before you exit the metro station, it’s obvious where you are –

IMG_1413

A short walk from the exit, one of America’s most iconic sights can be seen –

Hidden away in the mountains, the Hollywood sign can only occasionally be seen as you walk along Hollywood Boulevard; it needs full zoom on my camera just to make out the sign. You can’t actually get up to it without triggering a direct alarm with the local police, so I have to work out what else to do about town. Maps to movie stars’ homes are everywhere, but I don’t watch enough TV to care about that. In fact, I maybe don’t even watch enough TV to fully get Hollywood. Billboards everywhere announce the latest blockbuster releases; the new Batman is out today, and the TV cameras are out for the premiere –

Even the churches are caught up in things –

– while something as mundane as walking along the footpath sees you still encounter the big screen –

The Hollywood walk of fame sums up Hollywood – the tantalising notion that celebrities are nearby when in reality, what you’re seeing could be on offer in any street in the world. In general, alternate signs are written upside down so that no matter which way you’re walking, half are facing towards you; all this achieves is that I end up walking slowly down the footpath, head down reading an array of unknown names when I spot Angela Lansbury’s name. Stopping dead and turning around to confirm it is her, I cause someone to walk straight on into me. Not the most practical of landmarks.

Instead, I spend an afternoon exploring Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, where Robert Wadlow stands up to greet you in a room where a shark made entirely of playing cards hangs from the roof and a picture of Angelina Jolie made entirely from just five different colours of plastic Airsoft balls hangs on the wall –

Inside is Jimmy Hendrix recreated from guitar plectrums, a stuffed two-headed baby goat and a shrunken head the original Ripley collected from a cannibal tribe on one of his many foreign expeditions. A fun way to pass a couple of hours, and about as cultural as Hollywood is going to get!

After a pint and an introduction to American food menus (almost entirely variations on burgers) in Dillon’s Irish pub – which proclaims St Patrick’s Day to be 238 days, 15 hours, 49 minutes and 18.7 seconds (and counting) away – I head down to the Arclight cinema for the evening to watch Ted, yet to come out in Ireland but out for over a month here. As the cinema theatre fills, a staff member addresses the crowd from the front to say that there will be a collection in the main foyer afterwards for the families affected in Colorado, and then leaves us so some celebrities can tell us just why Arclight is so much different to every other cinema (even though it’s not). I’ve been keeping half an eye on general news from Colorado – I’ll be there in a week – but it’s not until I see the front page of the papers the next day that I realise the collection hasn’t anything to do with the heatwaves and wildfires in the area…

On the last day in LA, I hop on one of the ubiquitous tours; it’s hard to walk down the street without a brochure for one being thrust at you. It is the best way to see LA, though. The city is quite a sprawl, it’s pretty much impossible to get around everywhere on foot, and it has to be acknowledged that there are all manner of interesting stories about. Within 15 minutes of departing from Hollywood, we’re bombarded with all sorts of random sights –

Los Angeles scientology



The tail end (or the start) of Route 66 passes by your more stereotypical LA – Avenue of the Stars, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, where wealth exists to be flaunted –

Nearby sits the second Veyron of the trip. Again – a tantalising glimpse of celebrity – who could it be that I can’t see?! Who could be just inside that shop that I can’t see inside?!

Every corner has a movie story; here’s the fountain from Clueless; there’s a church where some Hollywood actor was involved for years, there’s the estate where Marilyn Monroe was found dead, down there is the house where OJ Simpson didn’t kill Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman (since demolished and rebuilt to deter tourists). Despite myself, it’s hard not to enjoy being where so many famous stories happened. As the bus reaches Venice Beach, we enter thick fog from the Pacific Ocean; half a mile inland, there’s not a cloud in the sky and the temperature is nicely in the high 20s. In and around Beverly Hills in particular, estates have narrow laneways running behind the houses where the bins can be put out for collection without ruining the rich aesthetic of the area. We’re dropped back to Hollywood Boulevard where Buzz Lightyear and Mickey Mouse greet their fans, and a man wearing nothing but silver underpants and copious make-up wanders the street singing loudly to himself.

I do manage to catch sight of one of LA’s biggest celebrities though. In the evening, LA Galaxy are at “home” against Chivas USA – an offshoot of the successful Chivas team in Mexico designed to tap into the massive Mexican community in America, and who actually play in the same ground, the Home Depot Centre. I’d bought my ticket online in Tokyo, turning down a prompt to buy a ticket for a local needy kid while I was at it. The ground is a few miles out of town, in Carson City, and while there are regular shuttle buses the two miles from Union Station to LA Dodgers (the baseball team) games, getting to a Galaxy game is considerably more difficult. It involves taking the metro silver line – which turns out to be a bus – to the Artesia Transport Centre, which is every bit the middle of nowhere bus parking lot it sounds, and then waiting up to half an hour for a connecting bus which goes by the ground. The time spent getting there – and walking past the large car-park in front of the ground; most fans have driven to the game, of course – does at least mean that I’m just too late for the pre-game patriotic charade of the national anthem, and I take my seat just as the game kicks off –

The stand, surprisingly, is reminiscent of the temporary seating in the old Lansdowne Road, when terracing needed to be converted to seating to satisfy silly health and safety laws. Despite it being a derby, there are no more than a hundred away fans present. The big draw, of course, is David Beckham – I work out that it’s actually my first time seeing him play – and whenever the Galaxy win a corner, camera flashes start going wild in that corner. I’d never bother with stuff like that, of course –

15 minutes in, Beckham sets up the first goal with a nice slide-rule pass which cuts open a very static defence and allows Robbie Keane to run on and slot past the keeper for his fifth goal in seven games since returning from Euro 2012. The game stagnates after that; Chivas are struggling in the league with a mean defence but an incompetent attack. 1-0 is a fairly standard score for them, and it remains that way until half-time. I nip down to the club shop to buy an LA-priced Galaxy scarf – $30 (E23) – and return for the half-time entertainment. The clock scoreboard counts down half-time, while the big screen zooms in on random fans who can win a prize by kissing before the the latest results and league ladder standings are brought to us by City National Bank – the way up (onto the property ladder).

Next up, Pollo Campero – just one of the amazing quantity of American fast-food joints I have never heard of – offer a free post-match chicken meal to all and sundry if the Galaxy keep a shutout (sic). It’s an interesting offer; I try to imagine the chipper in Ballsbridge offering a similar deal after Ireland games, and can only imagine that if even 10% of the crowd tried to avail of the offer, most would have to leave empty-handed due to the crowds, maybe even more determined to come back another day with actual money.

Pollo Campero can keep their money this week anyway; after Landon Donovan makes it 2-0, Chivas pull one back and for a while look quite capable of completing the comeback in a highly entertaining second half. They throw on former Aston Villa forward Juan Pablo Angel – the woman behind me asks her husband if there are rolling subs in this game – but Donovan scores his second to seal a 3-1 win and set off glitter celebrations –

Keane is at the centre of most of what the Galaxians create, and is unlucky not to score more than once. But the overall standard isn’t great; while the game can be technically good, it lacks a bit in speed – the defences in particular are fairly slow to react to quick balls – and the Galaxy trio of Donovan, Beckham and Keane are way above everyone else on the pitch, who might be English third flight standard. It’s a nice retirement package for the top players, but there’s still a long way to go before saccer is really established in America – in the previous season’s Champions’ League, the Galaxy sneaked past a Costa Rican side on goal difference in the groups before losing to Toronto. Still, the fans leave happy, and talk switches to their upcoming friendly fixture against the Hotspurs next week.

I wait a while for the bus back into town before giving up and walking the couple of ill-lit miles back to Artesia. There’s practically no-one else walking, and wikipedia had said that Carson City is one of LA’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. It’s probably of the least enjoyable half-hours of the trip, but I arrive safe and sound mere moments before the bus I’d been waiting on in the first place.

I’ve a train to catch in the morning, 12 hours up the coast to San Francisco. Strangely for a country which doesn’t do public transport, the Americans really know how to do long-distance trains. They’ve all got names for a start – I’m riding the Coast Starlight, which already sounds far more interesting than “taking the San Franciso train”. On the platform, the station attendant gives a loud cry of “All aboard!” before waving his flag to set the train off. They’re excellent value; it costs just $389 to get from LA to New York over two weeks and with three stop-offs in between. There’s a viewing car with a tour-guide, while downstairs, a quarter gets you one credit on Virtua Soccer, a game which always seemed outdated when I was in college.

Best and maybe most surprisingly of all, though, American train journeys outdo most of the rest of the world in terms of scenery and company.

After pulling out of LA, past a car-park where three hobos push shopping trolleys containing their worldly possessions, we pass along a single track line alongside Highway Route 1, the famous scenic route up the Californian coast. The single track is the bane of Amtrak – because America is about the only country in the world where freight trains have priority over passenger trains, it’s not uncommon to be stopped for half an hour or so waiting for a freight train to pass by at one of the intermittent passing points. I’ve been warned in advance that Amtrak timetables are more an expression of hope than expectation.

Beside me is a kid of maybe 16 or 17. The train attendant comes around to check our tickets; I hand mine over, signed twice as per some pointless regulation. After a frantic search, the kid finds his and hands it over. “Signed twice – twice the security, twice the fun. Sorry about the flaking skin. I’m on medication that causes dry skin and liver; it’s to push my zits down”, he says, hopping from subject to subject with barely a pause for the attendant to respond. It’s a subtle hint that I’m not about to get an enlightening conversation on this train…

He – he never profers his name, and I never ask – takes out his laptop and searches for internet. Finding none, he minimises everything and proudly shows me his background picture, a scene from My Little Pony. He laughs as he points it out to me.

“What do you think? Cool, isn’t it?” Asking for my approval rather than conversing.

“Well – it’s My Little Pony?”

“Yeah. It’s cool now. My Little Brony. It’s like a cool subculture for bros. I’ve downloaded all the episodes.”

I point out that I grew up in the 80s and remember My Little Pony, and that it was most definitely a cartoon for girls. The fact that it features pink ponies is a hint. Undeterred, he starts searching for files and brings up a folder of memes he’s created. He brings up one of a fat girl at the top of a set of stairs, holding an arm aloft and scowling. Above it is written “RRRAAA KAAY EFFF CEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!” He reads it out – “Arrrgh! KFC!!!” – and laughs. I’m not sure what to say. He closes it and brings up another one; some cartoon scene with some barely literate text scrawled atop. I look at it for a few seconds before honestly saying “I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, neither do I. Look at this one.”

As he brings up more unintelligible memes for my approval, all I can imagine is Paul Theroux, inwardly rubbing his hands with sarcastic glee at the thought of another chapter done in a new best-seller.

After about ten minutes, the kid turns his attention to two guys in their early 20s reading in the seats across the way.

“Are you into, like, reading?”

A confused look, and the standard glance at the book cover which accompanies any question on one’s reading material.

“Well, yes.”

“Oh. I like computer games. And TV. What sort of music are you into?”

One of the guys gives this a moment’s serious consideration before replying.

“Well, I guess at the moment, my favourite band would be Steely Dan.”

“Oh, right. Boring music.” He gets out a set of headphones, put them on, removes them to around his neck, allowing loud beats to stream out. He turns back to me. “I like my music to be loud. Like really intense. You can’t listen to music unless it’s intense.” As patiently as I can, I ask him to either put the headphones back on or turn the music down, and try to really obviously read my own book. But it’s clearly going to be a long trip, and when Chip The Dining Car Attendant comes through to take bookings for lunch, I book myself the earliest possible time.

The Amtrak dining car is one of the great secrets of travel in America. The food is standard American fare – a burger, a different kind of burger and a steak burger – while soft drinks are cheaper than water. But as you’re being seated, the staff make absolutely no bones about the fact that no matter how many are in your group, there’s going to be four at your table, so you may as well start talking and becoming friends. It’s a superb policy; on this journey, I’m paired with an American heading north to look after her young grandchildren for a few days (“Highway 1 is beautiful, but it’s so crowded nowadays, so I prefer the train.”) and a Vietnamese woman and her 10-year-old daughter. The woman was born in Hue, where I’d been a couple of months before, but after her father escaped from jail towards the end of the Vietnam War, the family fled the country on a raft, bound for the Philippines. She was three at the time, and remembers little of the trip, but does recall that Hue to Manila on a raft is a hell of a long way (close on a thousand miles, in fact). You simply don’t get that on the 12:30 to Rosslare.

“So why did ye come to America?”, I ask.

A small pause to consider.

“Freedom.”

“But why would you travel to the country that was attacking you? Isn’t the reason ye had no freedom in Vietnam because America invaded your country?”

“I don’t think they really see it that way though”, the other woman interjects. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese woman had little interest in her Vietnamese heritage; she was 100% American. She had never been back to Vietnam, let along Hue, and I knew more about the city from my three days there than she did. I showed a few photos of Hue, to little interest. The American mindset is unbelievably insular at times.

Still, once we moved on from politics, an interesting conversation was had over the 45 minutes or so of lunch, and I returned to my seat much happier, having almost forgotten why I was in such a rush to leave in the first place.

“Where are you going? I’m going to San Luis Obispo.”

“Oh right. So are we. It’s a nice town. Actually, I think Jack Kerouac stayed in San Luis Obispo.”

“Do you like frozen yoghurt?”

“I’m sorry; what?”

“It’s just something I say to go off on a tangent.”

Oh God.

At one stage, I think he’s talking to me, but I’m not sure, so I play safe and ignore him. He turns to the other seats.

“Did you ever sit next to really boring people?”
“Sorry – do you mean me?”
“Yeah. And this guy here.”

San Luis Obispo can’t come quickly enough, although I do get a brief chat with the other two shortly before all three get off. The ADHD kid asks briefly about travelling, and when one of the guys says he’s been to a couple of countries in Europe, including Ireland, I decide to jump in.

“What did you think of Ireland so?”

“Well, actually, I thought the Irish were the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere.”

“Why thank you!”

“Oh, are you Irish?”

The random joys of travel.

It’s still only early afternoon when we reach San Luis Obispo, and ADHD kid is replaced by a man who’s spent the past two days cycling down the California coast, and is now getting the train back. Thankfully, he’s in full control of his senses, and we alternate between periods of reading – I Christopher Columbus’ expedition diaries (a hugely entertaining read where at one stage he speculates that the southern hemisphere is in the shape of a woman’s breast with the seas rising up like a nipple at one point) and he the Wyoming Socialist newspaper – and chatting: our respective trips, the situation in Europe, the local landmarks –

I’m told this isn’t Folsom, but that we are at least in the same state as one of the most famous trains in American music.

Outside, the scenery alternates between beaches, cliffs, golden hills –

California coast
California interior

– and mile after mile of strawberry fields, which I’m told are an absolute curse when you’re cycling by them. Meanwhile, from the rows behind me comes a fascinating snippet of conversation which I wish I’d started eavesdropping on earlier –

“But that’s just a German being unacquainted with a staple of elementary school lunches.”
“Hm. And did he eat it?”
“He ate it. But he was disappointed…He was shocked.”

We’re due in to Emeryville – the train doesn’t actually go to San Francisco, as the city is located at the tip of a large tongue of land branching off from the mainland – at 10pm, but as the sun sets across the California hills at 9 – the latest sunset of the trip so far – it’s fairly clear that that’s quite optimistic. When the inevitable announcement comes to say we’ll be an hour and a half late, there’s a bit of grumbling about Amtrak, but most recognise the confines it has to work within. It’s close on midnight by the time I get to my hostel in San Francisco; for many others, the delay can only get longer – the Coast Starlight continues on to Seattle.

In the morning, I head out to walk San Francisco, armed with the slightly unusual information to avoid the Tenderloins for fear of being mugged. San Francisco is a ridiculously hilly city –

San Francisco

San Francisco

– whose streets are plied, uniquely, by cable cars –

San Francisco cable car

These are proper cable cars as opposed to trams. The cables are buried under the road, and the rattle of the metal cables over the rollers is a constant background noise on the cable car routes. The cable cars are actually manually controlled – the only manually operated cable cars left in the world – and being a cable car driver is a tricky job (the test has a 30% pass rate). All this means the cable cars are actually quite pricey – $6 a trip, and as I’m getting fairly budget conscious as I near the end of the trip, I opt to walk instead.

From California St, I crest the hill and turn onto Hyde St, where San Francisco Bay opens up before me, with a familiar sight in the middle –

Alcatraz

Unfortunately, boat trips out to Alcatraz are booked out two weeks in advance, which means I don’t have to worry about whether or not I should cross the picket line. The only franchise allowed to operate boat tours out to the island recently changed hands, and the new (non-union) company promptly hired its own staff, ignoring the existing (unionised) staff and adding 60% onto the ticket price while they were at it. Quite how a monopoly on Alcatraz tours squares with the self-styled greatest open capitalist market in the world is a question left unanswered.

Still, it’s a lovely day out – not a cloud in the sky, but temperatures down to the mid 20s, and as I get to Fisherman’s Wharf at the bottom of the hill, I find myself in a bay-side park where some people sit around sunning themselves, some queue for the cable car to roll onto the turntable for the return trip –

San Francisco cable car turntable

– all while an ageing hippy in the home of the hippy strums a guitar and sings “If You’re Going To San Francisco”, and I get the feeling that this must be one of the best cities in the world.

And yet. I could sit here by the bay for the afternoon, but I need something to do. And I don’t quite know what that thing is in San Francisco. It’s pleasant, to be sure, but in the same way that somewhere like Greystones is, and while I’d live there, I wouldn’t necessarily go on holidays there! So I head a couple of miles along the bay to tick off the next big sight –

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

Fog City is starting to live up to its name, however, and the bridge is less than radiant this afternoon. Still, for want of something to do, I walk across, taking in the slightly hazy views back to a non-descript metropolis of skyscrapers. There have been some spectacular photos taken of the bridge down the years (here and here, for example), but as I reach the end of the bridge, the view behind is slightly more mundane –

San Francisco bridge

At the other side, there’s a viewing area to look back across the bay. A telephone booth has a sticker up for free calls – “Receive God’s Blessing Get Daily Prayer”, “Need Cash Now Easy Loans Quick” or, oddly, “Wells Fargo”. “Check the Weather” is at least potentially useful as the far side of the bridge is the start of a park twice the size of San Francisco.

I head back towards town and end up in the Irish Times, where the San Francisco Giants – who’d end the year by winning the World Series – are showing live. A handful of people watch closely; others glance up if something happens (which is rare enough!) One of the regular ads is for a new model of car and proclaims 40mpg highway – “The fuel mileage is for real!” It sounds as if America still hasn’t discovered the fuel-efficient car, but then I remember that the gallon is different over here; they’re actually boasting 48mp(real)g. So it still sounds as if America hasn’t discovered the fuel-efficient car.

On the American leg of the trip, to fit my stops into the train ticket I have, I’m stopping off in five different places, staying two full days in each before moving on. Arriving at midnight on day 1 and leaving at 9am on day 4, San Francisco is by far my shortest trip. But I’m out of things to do. So when the day dawns bright and sunny, I head again for the Golden Gate, hoping the weather will hold up nearer the Pacific. It does –

Golden Gate Bridge in sun

But a bridge is a bridge, and after seeing Harbour Bridge in Sydney and Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo and a bridge of bamboo over the Mekong in Luang Prabang among others, it can only hold your attention for so long. I head south towards the Golden Gate Park and the museum centre of the city. Outside the Academy of Sciences Museum in San Francisco is a familiar name –

San Francisco Robert Emmet

In 1919, Éamon de Valera unveiled this statue when he was on a fundraising tour looking for enough money to break away from the British.

The Science Museum is actually typical of any museum I saw in America – very well presented, but pricey ($29.95) and full of stuff I’d seen on my trip so far. So I could be in a simulated earthquake – but I was in a real one in New Zealand anyway. I could head into the jungle to see some exotic animals – except I’d ticked that box in Thailand. The excellent Field Museum in Chicago had an exhibit on the rise of the Mongols under Chinggis Khan, and a section on Tibet (including, interestingly, a section on how maybe China should leave Tibet alone). In New York, the Terracotta Warriors were on show. It would have been nice to see a museum particular to America. But maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. Or maybe Ripley’s in LA was it!

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