Sun, sea, sand and of course, the beautiful people. My first taste of LA certainly fulfilled my movie-stereotyped expectations of the USA’s largest county. But after spending 34 hours here on the first stop of a West Coast road trip to Seattle, I find myself surprised, shocked and ultimately gagging to get the hell out.
Chaos and burn
Arriving at LAX airport at midnight on Friday took me back to the chaos of bus stations in West Africa, as we stood trying to figure out why the baggage belt was broken and none of the hundreds of shuttle buses ploughing through one of the world’s busiest airports went to our hotel. After taking the wrong bus and speaking a little French and Spanish in our quest to get some sleep, we eventually made it to the Doubletree Hilton El Segundo – as luxurious as it sounds.
The following day, with only one day to do it all, we took to the city’s incessantly busy roads aiming for the reputedly diverse entertainment – some say freak show – of Venice Beach boardwalk. Alas, hoards of tanned Tinseltowners meant parking was laughable and we could only take in the shabby chic back streets of LA’s Bondi equivalent. Instead, the enormous artificial beach of Santa Monica, a short drive north, gave us our first taste of LA beach life.
At Santa Monica, hundreds of 4x4s stood burning in the sun, as the pasty and overweight mingled with the bold and the beautiful. A flock of brown pelicans soared overhead. Loners lay sprawled on the searing sand, apparently unable or unwilling to join the crowds lining the chilly water’s edge, where Mexican and American families were periodically drenched by the modest surf.
A barefoot girl walking her pet iguana beamed at the crowds on the boardwalk while a fluorescently-dressed octogenarian whizzed past on rollerblades. On the heaving pier, the world and his anthropomorphised dog plied tourists for money, while kids scrambled round the local aquarium’s touch tanks, daring each other to tickle a starfish.
Glitz and tradition
Leaving the beach, the constant blare of the traffic and inherent aggression of LA drivers grew increasingly apparent. We were subjected to at least one barrage of abuse from a disgruntled LA driver during the half hour journey to Downtown. But driven by the suspicion we had already bitten off more than we could chew in one day, we embarked on a whistle-stop walking tour of the city’s cutting-edge core.
For a city so dominated by cars, Downtown LA is surprisingly easy to walk around and, never far from the glitz of Hollywood, we soon stumbled upon a red carpet hosting So You Think You Can Dance? “celebrities” attending a Dizzy Feet Foundation gala – if that means anything to you. I admit, I was more bemused than starstruck.
In contrast, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the edgy, millennial architecture towering over the central district. Somehow, LA city planners have managed to remain ahead of the game despite the global economic crisis, and everywhere I looked futuristic and environmentally-friendly endeavours complemented their Arte Moderne forerunners of the 1920s and 30s.
Just northeast of Downtown sits El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the original 1781 Spanish settlement which gave rise to the sprawling behemoth of modern day LA. Its cobbled streets, adobe architecture and somewhat touristy market are considered state historic monuments and seemed to immediately transport me back to my days in Mexico. The central plaza was brimming with Mexican locals, swirling around the ornate green and white bandstand in the centre of the square as Mexican musicians played música norteña. I might not have been dancing but it was difficult to drag myself away.
Hollywood and back again
Keen to keep indulging my love of all things Mexican, we headed down the traffic-jammed Sunset Boulevard to El Conquistador Restaurant, where pretty standard enchiladas were taken to new heights by enormous servings, an extremely flamboyant owner and the fact that a tree seemed to be growing into the restaurant and around our heads.
One strawberry margherita later and I thought it would be a good idea to take the scenic route back to our hotel, through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, past Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In the dark. In Saturday night traffic. In one of the biggest cities in the world.
Predictably then, our time in LA ended as chaotically as it began, as we trawled the streets like the characters of Swingers, gaudy headlights littering the multi-lane highways, hoards of gay and straight partygoers crowding the sidewalks and roads – yet everywhere a sense of total disconnectedness.
Returning to the hotel battered and bruised, after a couple of hours spent ploughing through thick LA traffic and repeatedly failing to stay on the freeway, we all agreed. We couldn’t wait to hit the road the next day.