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It has taken a lifetime of curiosity about it before I could see it, but I’ve finally come to California. One of the things I realized on my first day in Los Angeles was that I am already familiar with almost every street, neighbourhood, beach and road name in the city. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to realize that all these places – Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Ventura Highway – are all part of this great big shiny white city called Los Angeles. And true to most movies, books, songs, and TV shows, excess reigns (at least in the neighbourhoods I was in).

The billboards are as ubiquitous as the howling monkeys back in Costa Rica. In their not-so-subtle way they roar out their demands.

They add a silent soundtrack to the city – as it would happen, this new movie coming out seemed to be speaking to the millions running around LA , and I rarely turned a corner that I wasn’t reminded to kick ass! The signs added to the feeling that this is a playground for dreamers and over-achievers.

I stayed with my friend Terry in the Sawtelle neighbourhood near Santa Monica. She is my friend from Toronto, recently moved here to live with her mother. Although Terry is new as a resident, she has been a visitor to LA for decades and was a great guide and gracious hostess. She took me out each day in that constant warm sun to visit different areas of the city from the Venice Canals to Runyon Canyon to the Santa Monica Pier.

And we did see excess everywhere we went. Many of the streets were lined with tall palm trees (I would always think of Roberto in Cahuita telling me that you don’t want to plant coconut palms close by as they get too tall and fall over – I guess these are a different variety and that the roots have much deeper soil to cling to). The high end shiny cars were also everywhere and came in all sizes…I thought of my sister when I took this picture, as Maggie had an Austin Mini when we were teenagers – it was a car that a teen could afford back in the 70s but I think you probably have to be a student at Beverly Hills HS to afford one now.

The first day we moseyed down Venice Beach amidst the botox-lips and the medical marijuana hawkers, past the hippie artists, rasta musicians and Hispanic jewellery makers, the young and old, the crazy and maybe not-so-crazy. Spent awhile watching the skateboarders playing in their cement jungle then headed to the Venice Canals.

The canals were originally dug in 1904 when Abbot Kinney decided he wanted to make an American Venice. Started in the horse and buggy era, they became obsolete in the car world, impractical for the new addiction, and by 1929 were filled in. Beatniks and artists took over the older houses (including Jim Morrison of the Doors – LA woman Sunday afternoon ringing through my head). Eventually the canals were re-dug and the houses refurbished and now it is an upscale neighbourhood with front yard duck-wading moats and backyard car alleys to accommodate the four-wheeled family pet.

Walking up and down the canals was a garden and architecture tour. I was amazed at the wide array of plants that grow here from pines and cypress to cactus and succulents. I have to do some work on my yard when I get home and have decided that I will redo my little postage stamp front yard in the Hammer as a California succulent garden, albeit that I have a much more limited variety of sedums to choose from.

There was every kind of outdoor space, patio, veranda and deck imaginable. I was amazed at how exposed many of these yards were. Of course I’m not a true city person and I like my bushy privacy, so the idea of having a cocktail party on a deck in the hot sun facing a walkway of tourists isn’t my idea of luxury. With all the money involved in these houses, you would think people would put that one-way glass so people couldn’t look into their homes and use construction or plant materials to screen themselves…

…but in LA, one may just want to “be seen”. I became enamored by the shady, dark spaces that many had created in their tiny yards, where one could retreat from the sun and from being the show. This building kinda sums it up – there wasn’t a single sign on these two spectacular structures near Venice Beach – but as a friend said to me, if you need to ask what these buildings are, you wouldn’t be invited to the party anyway – and you weren’t meant to be seen.

And there were wolves in Venice…

And Walking with Wolf went to Hollywood!

We hiked the second day up the Runyon Canyon near Hollywood. This super dry canyon got me thinking about how much water this huge city must consume – a thought that continued to cross my mind always, especially when I left LA in a bus headed north to Oakland and went through miles and miles of dry high plains that had large irrigated orchards and vineyards. No wonder there is a water crisis looming.

In Runyon, there were lots of walkers and runners  and bitches (of the canine variety of course). This wild space was right in the middle of the city with views over top of mansions on all sides – I’m sure I looked down on homes belonging to celebrities I would recognize but I don’t have an interest in Star Tours (though the maps were everywhere and I do like maps) – I have no interest in seeing just how decadently the beautiful people live. I will look at buildings as interesting architecture and yards as intriguing gardens but prefer not to dwell on the excessive lifestyles that consume much more than their share in this world.

The next day my friend Melody, Wolf’s step-granddaughter, drove up from San Diego to take me shopping on Melrose Avenue. It was a far cry from the dusty roads of Monteverde where I last saw her to the palm-lined roads of Santa Monica and Hollywood! We spent a night wandering the Santa Monica Boulevard with Terry and then went to have some dinner with friends of hers.

It was great food at Monsoons on the 3rd Street Promenade – I finally got some sushi to satisfy my little seal soul – but kinda devolved into a debate about healthcare. I have come to realize that this is an extremely touchy subject here in the US right now – as a Canadian who has lived my life with a right to medical attention when I need it without having to mortgage my home or work for a corporation that provides insurance, to have survived two years of cancer treatments without my parents having lost their savings – well, it is a no-brainer to me. My question remains (this is the one that broke up the swell evening I must admit) – in a country that considers themselves the most generous and benevolent on earth, sending their army and foreign aid throughout the world, how can there be such an issue about providing well-being and good care to their own people?

So once that nice dinner broke up, we wandered down to the Santa Monica Pier where the ferris wheel’s lightshow kept us hypnotized. As did this one-man-band, who was musician, comedian and wannabe “America’s Got Talent” contestant (I don’t think he made it, but I was impressed with him).

The city coastline loomed to one side, the quiet ocean to the other, it was an enchanting night and once the political discussion faded from memory, we enjoyed the glory in the land of the angels.

The next day we spent on Melrose Avenue, shopping in retro stores and cheapo clothing shops, seeing LA fashion, and constantly on the lookout for cowboy boots for my pal Lori back in the Hammer – I saw a lot of great leather but nothing that I was sure enough of that was under about $1000 – tho I knew she would love those ones. Flowers, palm trees, skulls, “peace and love” – all sorts of great boot-art on these high end nose-pickers. I enjoyed the search – and as I head to northern California, I’m still searching.

My last night in LA was spectacular. We went to see Caetano Veloso – often called the Dylan of Brazil,  recently referred to as a combination of Dylan, Bowie and Lou Reed when he is actually the father of Tropicalismo and an elder of bossa nova. And has the voice of an angel with wings of steel. He played at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, outside on a joyous night, to a crowd of excited Brazileños and at least one very happy Canadian. The stage was minimalist and eye-soothing, the music moved through various rhythms, Caetano’s graceful arm movements and dance steps were enticing and we got up to move along with him. The lyrics were in Portuguese so I didn’t catch most of them but I could tell from the energy of the crowd (and from what I know about his music) that they touched people’s souls and moved their minds. He did a beautiful cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean – ending the song with a line from the Beatles…”all the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Perfect for LA.

And it was at this concert that I had my only celebrity moment. I had my eyes out all week for a famous face and I’m sure that I passed a hundred of them without recognizing them – this is Hollywood after all. But Terry’s friend is Brian George and he came to the concert with us. As soon as he walked up, I knew his face. As I’m sure any Seinfeld watchers would – as well as many others, as he has been on many shows and in movies. But on Seinfeld he was Babu Bhatt, the Pakistani cafe owner. He laughed when I said he was my one celebrity-sighting. “You haven’t done well if I’m “it””, he said. But I’d say that I made up for star-power with quality of experience – we enjoyed the concert together, talked about music, and then I got this great picture with him. And I expect he is as recognizable as anyone due to those few episodes he did on Seinfeld. So thank you, Babu Brian. Nice man.

I must thank Terry and her mother  for their warm hospitality. Evelyn turned me on to a new show – the Pawnshop Boys or something like that – when I’m around cable I’ll have to watch it and remember TV in LA. She has a lovely home and garden with a sparkling white kitchen. I came away from LA thinking that this is a very white city – not as in race, but as in clothes and buildings and general color. All cities present themselves to me as a color or texture, and LA is white and shiny! I had a small world moment when the new next door neighbour came over and introduced herself. Turns out she is from the Monteverde area in Costa Rica – her sister is married to a man I know in Santa Elena!

My favourite food find in LA? Two things – a babaganoush made by Sabra – the best commercial baba I’ve ever had, in fact one of the very few that I even like (if it ain’t homemade…). And a new favourite fruit, the lowly loquat! Known as nisperos in Costa Rica, I’ve seen a smaller version there though I’m not sure I’ve eaten it. I think of nispero a great lumber for building. In Evelyn’s backyard, there was a tree just bursting with these juicy little ripe golden nuggets and each day I went up the ladder and brought some down. I ate them morning, noon and night and took a bag on the bus as well. Apparently people don’t really get excited about these fruits around here yet they are abundant. Eat local! I have some seeds with me, hoping to get them back to Costa Rica and see if they will grow, though I think it is too wet in Cahuita for them.

Terry took me to the bus terminal to catch the Greyhound north to Oakland and the next part of my adventure in California. We walked around the industrial end of LA and I got to see some of the lowlier side of the city, where the palm trees hold their own against the concrete buildings and the street people shout out their greetings.

I take away great memories of LA. Yes, it was hazy, yes it was huge, but it was also much more pleasant than I imagined it would be. Every corner was a lyric in a song by Sheryl Crow or the Doors or America or….well, it seems that everyone sang a song about the land of the angels.

Of course it is a place that you could return to over and over and never see it all. But I got a taste and I can now picture all these places that I hadn’t even realized were part of this big city. When the water wars begin, I’m sure LA will be a battlefield – in the meantime, I’m headed north to commence the Walking with Wolf takes the West Coast book tour in Berkeley and to visit the land of big trees and do some serious tree-hugging.

October 2014
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