Testing times in the city of Angels… December 2009
What do you think of when you hear the words, ‘Los Angeles’ ?
Is it: Hollywood? Movie-stars? Glamour? Sunset Boulevard? Beverly Hills?
All sounds so nice, right? That’s what I thought too when I booked my seat on Trek America. Feeling as though I should probably take a bit of time out to myself at some point, I booked to stay an extra few nights to everybody else, at the Hacienda Hotel in El Segundo where we’d be staying at the end of our journey. “Are you sure, ma’am?” asked the telephone saleslady. “There’s room available, but this is an airport hotel, you might like to stay somewhere more central” “I’m fine in the Hacienda” I replied with Google Maps open on my computer screen, confidently thinking that the location was a good one. A massive error of judgment on my part, was thinking that I was within walking distance to Santa Monica, a place I had heard was definitely nice.
Little did I know that this ill-informed decision to stay longer in Los Angeles in general, nevermind just at the Hacienda, would be one that I would later consider to be a little stupid.
People warned me that Los Angeles was a dump and nothing like the glamorous hotspot it appears to be on television, but I wanted to find out for myself and was quite excited at the thought of several days hobnobbing amongst some of the most famous celebrities in the world. I’ll say now that I didn’t like Los Angeles and I wish I hadn’t stayed there for as long as I did, but I don’t regret my time there. In my mind there is not a single destination in the world that isn’t worth seeing. Not everywhere is going to be as magical as Memphis, as cultural as Padang or as astounding as Petra, but for me travel is all about experiencing life as it is in another part of the world; and even though I may not inherently ‘like’ Los Angeles, I’m glad I went and experienced it.
Los Angeles was the ultimate destination of Trek; which meant that it was always going to be tinged with a hint of sadness as we all split up again after three weeks of living in a minibus together. The journey up from San Diego had been a short one which had left us with the bulk of the afternoon to see one of the only things worth visiting in Los Angeles – Hollywood. The experience began with a drive along Mulholland Drive and Mandy frequently pointed at driveways and explained which famous person lived there. I guess that my problem is that I don’t really know enough about Hollywood, nor the Celebrity A-List culture in general to be overly intrigued about the significance of a particular concrete frame with windows, particularly when the buildings themselves are so covertly hidden amongst high-rise shrubbery and fencing. It was interesting, just not really interesting. That said, seeing the infamous Hollywood sign over the luscious sandy-green Santa Monica mountains with the Pacific Ocean in view on the left, was definitely a worthwhile experience – this is why we’d gone up Mulholland Drive in the first place. It was worth having the panoramic view of the mountains with downtown Los Angeles poking up on the horizon.
Following on from this alpine adventure, Mandy dropped us off on Hollywood Boulevard, and I’m happy to say that this was a lot more exciting – but mainly because of the lively vibe that seemed to fill every outlet along the street. There is a real energy about this place and as you stroll over the likes of Keanu Reeves and Barbra Streisand on the infamous Walk of Fame you get a genuine sense of awe about where you are. You instantly know that the most successful, richest and renowned people in the media world have probably walked these very same streets, breathed that very same air and had a box of McNuggets in that very same branch of McDonalds. Just like you did today. Walking along Hollywood Boulevard feels certainly more involved than simply glancing over at a celebrity home and as the December sun beats down on the pavement you could just tell that this was a place in which the sun always seems to shine. Be prepared also to bump into Marilyn Monroe or Shrek as you make your way down the street. I was delighted to see that Hello Kitty had made it all the way over from Japan and better yet that she let me have a photo taken with her, but be aware – if you want to have your photo taken with any of these stars, they’ll expect at least a couple of dollars tip for their time. Hang about a bit longer and, just like we did, you might even see the likes of Yoda having a coffee (mask removed whilst he sips to reveal a young, Hispanic man with a stubbly chin who looked extremely bored of being Yoda).
We went out for dinner and drinks that night in a bar Mandy knew that was near to the hotel. It was a nice end to the trip, but at the same time it felt somewhat subdued. Some of the Trekkers had already departed for the airport and the group had dwindled in number. We spent that evening sat together with a few drinks around the hotel pool reminiscing the funny moments from the past three weeks.
Thankfully I still had Kirsty and Lauren around for a couple of days. Everybody else had left that next morning, and Lauren and I took the L.A Metro from Mariposa Station, back to Hollywood Boulevard where Kirsty was staying in a hostel. Until now, Los Angeles had been about Hollywood, Hollywood aaaand Hollywood, but that trip on the Metro showed me why I had perhaps heard such negative things about L.A prior to visiting. The Hacienda Hotel is near to the airport in a significantly Hispanic-influenced district of L.A known as ‘El Segundo’. This is an area popular for it’s petroleum and aviation industries. It is grey and uninviting and not somewhere in which ones feels entirely safe. Los Angeles in general, is not a safe place – and the Metro journey was somewhat intimidating. You couldn’t help but be wary of the fact that at any given time, you are probably around somebody who has a gun in their pocket. As the train rattles along, eight-year old boys with trays of what looks like imported chocolate that has become misshapen in transit approach you and ask you, in Spanish, if you’d like to buy any of it and you are almost afraid to say no thank you. Arriving back at Hollywood Boulevard, things felt safe again, but I couldn’t help feel a slight concern about the return journey.
The three of us began our afternoon with a ‘Tour of Celebrity Homes’ jeep-ride around Beverly Hills and Sunset Strip. Mulholland Drive had underwhelmed me somewhat, but this trip was a lot more involved and interesting. As far as I recall, there was a relevant celebrity-related story with every 10 metres of movement, if not less. Amongst other places, we drove up close to the house where the Fresh Prince of Bel Air was filmed, saw the indentation on the bush into which Lindsay Lohan had crashed her car, saw the Playboy Mansion and possibly most interesting at all – the house on Carolwood Drive at which Michael Jackson had died just six months earlier. The jeep-ride also took us fleetingly along Rodeo Drive (aka where she goes shopping in Pretty Woman). Now here’s the place to go if you want that hallowed Los Angeles glamour, a place where the richest people in the world will descend upon to buy their designer handbags and perfumes from immaculate shop windows, where even the mannequins look like millionaires and the paving stones look like they’ve only ever been stepped upon by the most dainty of crystal slippers! Oh reverie!
This does not excite me at all. What?! Do I need to check that I’m even a young woman? Well, I like to dress up just as much as anybody else, but my problem with Rodeo Drive was the fundamental lack of life and atmosphere. Sure there were people there – several people – all walking around in an air of wet silence. Where is the atmosphere beyond the big names? Why does everybody look so serious? Maybe I didn’t see enough of Rodeo Drive to cast an accurate judgment but I can’t say that the visit left me feeling compelled to go back. A load of nice but hugely over-priced things and not much else. This isn’t for me.
Rodeo Drive seemed generally as blank as Prada’s entrance
For lunch that day we ate in an awesome restaurant off Hollywood Boulevard called uWink where you each had a touch-screen monitor at your seat on which you could select what you wanted, and how you wanted it, without the involvement of waiting staff. Whilst waiting for your food you could draw pictures on the screen and even compete with another diner at a quiz, though we didn’t try that. uWink put us all in a great mood, and afterwards we took a tour around the Kodak Theatre. Prior to the trip I didn’t know what that was exactly, but Lauren and Kirsty were really enthusiastic about it – it is the site of the Oscar awards and also where the live-shows of American Idol are filmed. Being a big Simon Cowell fan, this pleased me no end.
The next day the three of us did a spot of shopping. We tried on elaborate dresses in Macys and looked at wedding dresses in a crowded shop in the city’s Fashion District. Don’t get excited, it sounds nicer than it was. In reality it was more like a huge market-place which sold dust sodden goods for expensive prices. Our main difficulty in Los Angeles was finding an area which was central for good quality but affordable shopping – like we were used to in the UK. American cities don’t really have ‘centres’, they are more like an urban sprawl that has little definition, and when you don’t really know where you’re going, or have a Mandy there to guide you, it can get a little frustrating. The end of the Trek was nearing and I realised I still had gifts to buy for various people. I hadn’t considered how hard it would be to shop in L.A!
That evening the others went to an L.A Lakers game and I went home to unwind. I was exhausted after walking around all day, not to mention from three weeks of constant movement and excitement. That evening, I just fancied chilling out in my hotel-room by myself; with some pretzels, a can of Budweiser and channels upon channels of trashy American t.v. I took a cold and dark Metro journey home and walked back along Mariposa Avenue to the hotel, scared stiff that any second now somebody would jump from behind the bushes and run off with my bag. When I eventually got back to my room I felt a sense of insecurity. Something felt different. I opened the door cautiously and then it occurred to me – Goldilocks style – somebody was sleeping in my room! No no, the hotel hadn’t made a mistake. This was Trek’s doing, and they warned me that it may happen. They had put me in a double-room. For the first night at the Hacienda this had made sense as I’d shared with Ellen, but after she left the bed became vacant and I didn’t realistically think that anybody else would be put in there with me. All I could see was a head of black hair asleep in the bed next to mine, her belongings strewn all over the room, and I was mindful of waking her up so lay awkwardly on the bed for an hour or so looking back fondly through the photos on my camera. Eventually, the girl awoke from her nap and introduced herself. I don’t remember her name, but she was a Japanese-Australian who had just been on a different Trek tour and, similar to me, was spending a few days in Los Angeles with other members from her group. I remember thinking that she had a nice white jacket and seemed very intelligent, but also that I wanted to dance around the room and sing in the shower and eat pretzels off my belly – all of which are things I didn’t feel comfortable doing around somebody I’d only just met. I was also missing my other Trekkers, and feeling really lonely now that most of them had gone home. I wished I’d chosen to stay in the city centre, then I could have at least been with Kirsty and Lauren, but the hotel had already been booked and couldn’t be refunded. My new room-mate headed for an evening out and shortly after she left I went to the lobby and asked to switch to a single-room, which the hotel permitted me to do. The new room was a lot nicer – it actually had windows for one thing, and a great balcony and view out onto the courtyard. I do feel bad for not explaining to the girl why I’d suddenly left – I hope she didn’t think I’d taken an instant dislike to her or anything because she seemed nice enough, but in truth I just needed my own space to relax and I wasn’t sure how to really explain that without seeming really strange, particularly to somebody I’d only just met. As soon as I changed rooms, I jumped into a hot, bubbly bath, had a sing-song and felt immediately rejuvenated. I’M IN LOS ANGELES BABY, and it may not be the nicest or most relaxing of places but it’s a million times better than Watford, so bring on the rest of the week!
The next morning, Kirsty and Lauren came to meet me at the hotel. Lauren was there to take the shuttle service to the airport which meant that there were only two of us original Trekkers left! Kirsty and I decided to head to Santa Monica for the afternoon. Now Santa Monica – that’s where you want to go if you’re in California. It was a wet and cloudy day and the bus journey took a while but again – it’s all experience, and I’m always captivated by bus-journeys in foreign countries. It’s interesting to see the types of people who get on, where they get off, and what they talk about on their journey. Not that I’m nosey or anything… it just gives a genuine and interesting impression of the area.
Santa Monica is a beautiful beachside city with continental style low-rise buildings and a plethora of shops and places to eat. The city runs off renewable energy and all public spaces are kept clean and conserved well. It also has its own famous landmark – Santa Monica Pier – a massive tourist attraction instantly recognisable by it’s luminous ferris wheel. In Summer months I can imagine that the pier really comes to life, but on this wet and windy yet sunny December afternoon there was little more than a man and his dog around. I watched the waves crash into the wooden beams and wondered how it stayed standing. We spent an amusing half an hour or so in a games arcade that was like something straight out of The Lost Boys and then went for a bite to eat in a French bistro along Broadway and all I can really remember of that was that there was a gummi bear in the cocktail and it made my day. That night we went back to the hotel but had a little bit of difficulty orienteering ourselves because it was late and the bus we needed had stopped running. We were dropped off at a different bus station and had to try and navigate our way back to the hotel in the dark, a journey which took us along various highways and freeways and I’m pretty sure that at one point we even walked through the Pacific Coast Highway tunnel that runs underneath LAX Airport (surely I can’t just be imagining that part, right?). LAPD Blue anyone? I couldn’t help but feel on tenterhooks everywhere I went in Los Angeles, especially after dark. A man was loitering around not far from us and we had to be extremely vigilante. In the end we decided to go to the airport and take a shuttle bus. I had never been so happy to see the Hacienda Hotel.
The next morning Kirsty left and I was well and truly on my own. I had the following 3 days to myself and to say that I was starting to count down the time is a bit of an understatement. On one of the days I went back to Santa Monica to do some shopping and enjoyed a sushi lunch. Authentic Californian rolls! I also spent a couple of evenings doing some writing in the hotel bar. Some may say it dangerous, but when alone on travels I think one of the best things you can do is go to a bar and socialise with locals, provided you’re careful about it. I remember chatting to a local couple. They both had the model good-looks that I had expected from California. They asked me how I was finding Los Angeles and I admitted that I hadn’t found it easy. “I’m just not seeing what I do in the movies” I explained. They suggested I try out a place to the south called Seal Beach and it soon became apparent that the best way to visit L.A is with a rental car when you have more freedom to move around in a wider expanse without the worry of being mugged on some scummy metro. As it was, my choices were limited. I was also missing the company of the other Trekkers a great deal. I would sit on the balcony of my room at night with a Bud and a cigarette looking at the red-lights of the aeroplanes taking off into the clouds and think about how just a few days ago we had all been sat round the pool below joking about things that had happened in the likes of Las Vegas and Texas, places I found myself longing for. The party was over and it had been the kind of party you feel sad to leave. I decided to spend the remaining couple of days in a state of complete relaxation – using the hotel hot-tub and eating as many tasty snacks as I could afford from the Ralph’s superstore over the road. It was time to indulge and make the most of my last few days amongst yummy American junk food.
View from hotel balcony
I left Los Angeles to come back to London on December 11th 2009. LAX airport remains the worst airport I have ever had to kill time in and nothing says that more than the fact that my main memory of the place is a man behind me in the Burger King queue who was irritating me by slurping loudly on an orange and leaving pith all over the counter.
And so there we have it, Los Angeles, a hard place to stay but despite the difficulties I’m glad it happened the way it did. Travel shouldn’t be easy all the time. The world is a complicated place. I wish I hadn’t booked to stay so long in L.A but the fact is; I did, and now I know I’d never go back there – at least, not alone.