Thursday, February 16, 2012

The City of Angels, CA

Love it or hate, Los Angeles can not be ignored. From inane rom-coms to the grit and funk of Rage Against the Machine or the Chillis, it pumps out its version of culture to the four corners of the planet. That being the case, we thought it would be rude not to pop in on our way down the SoCal coast.

Over the years I have heard two broad categories of opinion on LA. By far the majority say "one big over-hyped freeway.... get out of there as quick as you can". The other is something like "really cool place... something for everyone...loads of cool enclaves... yada yada...". To their credit, most Angelenos I have met fall into the latter category. To my mind there is a striking, if peculiar, similarity here with Johannesburg. En masse, locals (or at least the richer ones) are proud and big it up, whereas visitors are rarely impressed. This intrigues me as in most cities, like my hometown London, it is the other way round.

In short, after an admittedly short couple of days jumping around the city, I sort of see both points of view. Sorry to hedge, but that is the way it is. Yup, undoubtedly it is a monstrous motor city paved in seemingly never ending freeways. I mean, to travel just 2 km from our funky hotel in south Downtown to the old Mexican Pueblo took us on not one, but two 6-8 lane freeways. Madness. Apart from a couple of metro lines, to get around this mega city (or to be more accurate this conglomeration of dozens of interconnected cities) you have little choice but to jump in the car and sit on the freeway. To someone like myself who does not even own a car, this is a crappy way to live and not the least bit endearing. Add to this the mixture of grime, vanity and the corollary juxtaposition of wealth and poor that shows the US at its worst and LA leaves you with a bitter taste.

However, much as I would like to leave the city with such a straightforward dislike I cannot. From the endless beaches and historic pier of Santa Monica to the funky Camden'esque counter-culture of Venice boardwalk, complete with everything from botox bars, through skate-parks to medical marijuana con-shops and muscle beach. From the you so want to hate Hollywood Chinese Theatre, through the weird glow you get under the Hollywood sign to the corporate bonanza that is the LA Lakers - we caught a game. Amongst all the shit, this place has undeniable attitude and a splash of charm.

I hope the next few pics give a better impression of the odd, cool, nasty LA that we caught a glimpse of, then I have written here. I will not be racing to come back, but am mighty happy I dropped by...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Big Sur, CA

Nothing prepared me for the unrelenting beauty of Big Sur, a lengthy chunk of wild coastline 150 miles South of San Francisco.
Here America crashes into the Pacific. Mile after mile of rugged, jutting cliffs plummet into the foaming ocean. Below, whales migrate, seals bask on the golden beaches and brown pelicans skim across the waves. Above and behind, the cliffs fallback into steep undulating valleys, cut by crystal clear streams and lined by the tallest trees in the world, the giant redwoods. An incomparable place.

Into the cliffs is cut Highway 1, a winding, precipitous road which gives with every corner. Vista after vista after vista. This was laboured into the unforgiving landscape over a 20 years period and needs constant maintenance to counter nature's lashing rain, bashing waves and the resultant landslides. Along the road lie a few lodges, a sprinkling of "local" locals, but little else. In land from the road is true wildness for 50 miles. It says a lot for the vastness of the US that such a place can exist on the coast of California, the country's most populous State.
Big Sur is a place where everything slows down. Your senses simultaneously calm from the buzz of normal life and heighten to the nature around you. That constant buzz of our humanised world dissipates, a weight lifts off your back and you feel relief.

We stayed for two nights in small log cabins, one nestled by the Big Sur river, the other on a hillside complete with roaring log-fire. No TV, no phone reception. Each morning we woke with the sun to trek up into the forested valleys and down to the cliff hemmed beaches, each part of a National or State park and invariably manned by a "super friendly" ranger.

The weather is a major player here, one minute shrouding the cliffs in mist, at another breaking open to glorious sunshine. In between rainbows burst out across the valleys. Just such a phenomenon provided us with our quintessential Big Sur moment. Half way up a steep hillside as we came to the end of a trail we popped out on to a ledge to catch a view. Before us the land poured down to the ocean in a steep "V", crossed by a vibrant rainbow. Taking a moment to draw in breath and the wondrous scene, the eye was drawn to a large bird soaring on the thermals over the hill. Closer and closer it came until, shit, could that be a Californian condor? Maybe it was that rare giant or maybe it just a damn big turkey vulture. Either way, to complete the moment, it swooped down and right through the rainbow.

Henry Miller wrote that Big Sur is "the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look". I am not religious, but I can see what he was getting at.