Friday, 17 October 2008

The end of the beginning

The same day in Guadalajara and I have a couple of hours to kill before arranging to meet Hugo. I'm now psyched to finish off the account of my trip through the USA.

I realise that I have subconsciously been aping the temporally-disjointed style of a Latin American "boom" narrative: I began with a recollection of the beginning, before jumping into the middle (which was then the present), then going back nearer the beginning and now finishing the beginning from the present perspective, which is somewhere near the middle. Carlos Fuentes would be proud. Maybe this blog will one day be looked on as groundbreaking in its stylistic innovations. Maybe it won't.

So I was heading down to Los Angeles. I should note that San Francisco had sadly slipped off my itinerary. The reasons for this were (in order of significance): I was spending to much money in the USA and needed to get somewhere I could stay for free (LA) and get nearer to Mexico (LA); I had been to San Francisco at least twice before, most recently aged about 13, so I felt under less pressure to see the city; and Perrine, who I knew from salsa classes back in Gdl, is European and I expect i will one day see her over there again. (In fact the previous time I had seen her, I was dressed as a pornstar and she as a French maid at a party in Oxford, circa February 2006. the costumes may change but we will meet again.)

So I arrived in LA at about 5pm on Friday September 26, more or less exactly two weeks after my initial arrival in the USA. Sarah, a friend from London, picked me up at the Amtrak station and drove me to her neighbourhood in East LA (50mins). We stopped off in a Starbucks for a chat en route (I think I see a theme developing in this trip around the US, which I hadn't quite noticed before.) Then we made it to her home.

Sarah was born in the USA to Mexican parents - her dad is from Guadalajara, in fact - and she lives with her parents, brother, sister, cousin and neice in a house in the Mexican bit of town (actually LA County rather than LA). I was somewhat apprehensive about arriving there, based on my knowledge of Mexican family dynamics. The unnattached, male friend coming to stay with the youngest sister of the family is not necessarily a character who will be welcomed with open arms. I had intended to shave my week-and-a-half's beard off in advance of my arrival to look younger, but didn't find time. I did at least pick up a box of Belgian chocolates at the last minute. But I needn't have worried. I was warmly welcomed by Sarah's dad, and was soon having some beers on the porch with Sarah's family and friends (all Mexican by origin or birth).

Despite my protestations that I was exhausted after 1.5 hours proper sleep, a long journey and two nights' drinking behind me, I really enjoyed the evening with these guys. George, in particular, a native of Morelia, Michoacán, was a very interesting guy to speak to. A semi-legal Mexican immigrant, a metro-sexual lover of Morissey and The Stone Roses, an enemy of feminism - he was one of those individuals who was such an interesting mix of conflicting characteristics that he has stayed in my mind vividly. All of Sarah's friends were very welcoming, though. When I said this to S the next day she guessed that it might have been my Mexican credentials which served me well. At one point I did crack out some proper Mexican spanish for the first time in ages, and the loosening effect of several beers and minimal sleep made it flow off my tongue readily. I honestly don't think I've been able to speak so well since I've actually been in Mexico! I do remember, though, when it came to telling a few (anti-)Mexican jokes, my standard two went down a treat but the third was like a lead balloon. It goes as follows:

Why was Jesus Christ a Mexican?
Because he believed that his mother was a virgin and left home aged 30.

*My other two jokes are available on request, but I don't want to publicise them too much, as I always get great mileage out of them in this country.

That was the only point in the evening where I felt i might have overstepped my welcome as a white Englishman in East LA in the home of some welcoming Mexicans.

Overall I really enjoyed the evening and I was conscious at the time of the cultural shift i had experienced over the course of 24 hours, moving from Northern to Southern Cali, from a white college town to the heart of Latino Los Angeles. I was loving it.

The next day, S played tourguide, taking me to the observatory, from where we could see the Hollywood sign (1hr) and then to Hollywood Boulevard (15mins), where we walked up and down, looked at the hands at Mann's Chinese Theatre and then went to an excellent Thai restaurant for a late lunch. The best salad I can remember having for a long time.

In the evening, I was still gunning for a quiet night, but it was Saturday and I couldn't let down S, so we went to her friend Liz's appartment in Long Beach (1.5hrs). I had breifly met Liz once before in London. We then went out to a street in Long Beach, picking up more people on the way (20mins), where there were three store openings going on. One was a sort of kitsch-cool baby clothes store, another a vintage clothing store, and the third a rollerskating/clothes store, which had a rollerskate fashion show at one point. All these stores, within 2 mins walk, were giving out free drinks and the baby store was giving out free food as well. What economic slowdown? AFterwards we went to a couple of bars, one of which I found myself left in for a while, as someone had forgotten their ID and I was again lured by the pool table, leaving a trail of destruction as the generous American pockets made me look like some kind of superstar.

At about 1am we went back to S's friend's flat and I and fell asleep in front of a vintage horror movie, as did Liz's boyfriend, whilst S sobered up enough for the drive back to her place in East LA (30mins).

The next day I went for breakfast with S, her sister, cousin and neice. I had said I was up for some proper American pancakes, so we headed for the nearest IHOP (can't be bothered to spell out that acronym. Whoops, now I've spent more time explaining that than....) But in the post-church Sunday rush we couldn't get into the nearest one so had to drive to another one in the vague area (45mins). I had an awesome dish of blueberry pancakes, ate about two-thirds of it and was stuffed, courtesy of the Rodriguez family. I noticed at one point in the meal (as the girls were teasing the neice for looking white) that I was the only non-latino in the place: staff and customers. I loved it, particularly as I knew I was heading to Santa Monica that day, which I sensed would be somewhat different.

It was. S drove me there and I thanked her for the fantastic job she had done as chauffeur and tourguide. I would estimate that we spent at least 5 hours in the car from Friday till Sunday afternoon (the true LA experience that many tourist will fail to see), and I got to see Hollywood, so I was happy.

In Santa Monica i checked into the HI hostel, where a classmate from Edinburgh, Lene, was staying. The fact that I was meeting Lene at all owed to the chance that she had read my facebook status update the week before when I was in Sacramento, and it turned out that she was heading to LA that weekend as well. Not wanting to stay overly long at the Rodriguez household, and not knowing how the hell I would get to Rafe's, in downtown LA, or what i would do there, I jumped at the chance to spend a couple of days by the beach in SM.

I eventually met Lene that evening, after a game of Facebook tennis that was getting progressively more frustrating. (L had a British mobile in LA but it stopped working the day I tried to call her, so our only chance of communicating was via Facebook messages.) We went for a civilised drink in SM (I had been hitting it hard the past five nights since arriving in Chico) and retired to our dorms in the hostel.

I slept about 12 hours that night, only interrupted by the violent snoring of one guy in my dorm. A Scotsman accross from me eventually had to wake him up and tell him to roll over. Remarkably, it worked. In the morning I met L and we agreed to meet on the beach later that day.

It was a lovely day at the beach and L and I played a lengthy game of gin rummy. Since I began evangelising this classic game of the 1970s, L is the only person to have a 100% record against me. Eventually, i will have to hunt her down to win back some honour. I have never once hung out with L within the UK. We happened to be in Hamburg at the same time in 2006, and we happened to be in LA the same weekend this summer. Odds are we might both wind up in the same part of Mongolia in a couple of years. I'll be sure to have a pack of cards.

L went off to San Pedro, another bit of LA that night to stay with some friends of friends and I wandered round SM in the evening. There was a really nice promenade (nice compared to Hollywood, anyway, L said she thought the place was incredibly tacky - but then she had just come from SF) and I ended up picking up a book by an American sports writer who moved to the UK and followed Portsmouth FC for a year. War and Peace it wasn't, but I enjoyed reading it that night and the next day.

I had made vague plans to see L the next day and visit Catalina Island, just off the coast. However, when i looked into how difficult it would be to get out there from my hostel, and how expensive, and how hard it would be to meet L along the way, what with neither of us having a phone, I decided to make the much easier (and cheaper) trip to San Diego. I had spoken to Rafe the day before, but it looked like meeting him would also be very difficult and "cost" me an extra day in LA. I will see Rafe back in London before long.

So I left LA the next day. I took my one public bus in that city to get back to Union Station (1 hour) and then got straight on a train to San Diego (2.5hrs). I was delighted to get out of LA. I had had a great time with S and then a nice day on the beach with L (barring a degree of sunburn: I was far too blasé about sunblock) but i still felt delighted to get out of the city with the worst public transportation I have ever encountered.

In SD I checked into another hostel, wandered around town briefly and went to bed. I decided to leave the next morning for Mexico.

SD was a place I had been looking forward to visiting and heard many good things about. However, for me it was the first destination i had been to (bar Sac, which I looked on merely as a stop off) where I didn't know anyone. And I wasn't particularly keen to get into the hostel vibe of meeting fellow backpackers when i was just about ready for things to get cheaper (and easier) in Mexico. Also, I did have a ticket booked on the Greyhound that next day to get to Tijuana. (I booked this ticket, for $12, back in the UK with little intention of actually using it. The date I picked, 1 October, sounded about right but I only purchased it in case i would have to show US immigration that I was in fact intending to leave their country.)

The next morning, i ended up meeting Sam, a guy from Birmingham, who was heading down to Tijuana that day. We quickly agreed to do the trip together. He was a sound guy, who I realised immediately I'd be happy to travel with, and maybe he realised that my experience of Mexico could help him on his way. In any case, in that strange way that friends are made whilst travelling, within 5 mins of meeting each other, we agreed to make a trip of several hundred miles together.

Half an hour later we met in a Starbucks (...) and headed to the greyhound bus station, beginning Greyhound experience number two:

They accepted my email reciept for arrival, checked my bag with no hastle, and i settled down to watch the end of Mission Impossible 2 (or 3) in the departure lounge, whilst Sam went off for what must rank as the one of the worlds's speediest haircuts (to my knowledge he didn't even know where he was going when he walked out the station). We waited a while. And waited. A bus which looked like ours arrived, early. And left.

No warning. No call for anyone to get on. The driver didn't even enter the bus station. S and I explained this to the people at the desk and the supervisor eventually gave us refunds, and then we walked off to the nearest tram stop. We payed $2.50 ($9.50 less than the greyhound) to get a tram down to the border. This must be the only time in my life I've taken city public transport to a different country.


Next I will continue the narrative at the Mexican border, and soon the temporal paths will coincide somewhere in central Mexico, late October. Before I inevitably dip back into the USA to give a more reflective account than the blow-by-blow stories of this post and the last. For now, Churchill's words will suffice: the end of the beginning.

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