Believe it or not, this July marked my first ever visit to the United States. I have never had a reason to go there, and flights were too expensive anyway, so it took a work-related conference to get me there. Well, get me there… I was denied an ESTA on account of having traveled to Iraq recently. I had not quite understood that this was a possibility, as I had quite clearly asked everyone around the office and our travel agent what I should do visa-wise; but I guess they did not remember I used to work in Iraq, and it never occurred to me to look up whether this would be a problem… so I realised I needed a visa only about a week before my trip. I tried to get an emergency appointment in London (denied) and Vienna (where I was working that week) (accepted!) and picked up my shiny 10-year visa on Friday morning, about 20 hours before my flight to LA. Stressful. And not cool: what is so wrong with working in Iraq? (Not a rhetorical question. It is a lovely country in many respects, and I would 100% choose it over the US any time.) The big and bold US visa was stuck to the page next to my Saudi visa. My passport feels a little violated I have to say.
Anyway, I Ubered over to a hostel on Venice Beach (which was the only neighbourhood I knew the name of near the airport) and befriended my room-mate. She asked if I was hungry. Yes, obviously. So, she googled the nearest vegetarian place for me, which turned out to be an amazing Mexican restaurant. I think my favourite thing about the US thus far is Mexican food. It was probably a chain and there are probably better home-cooking-style places out there, but I had a brilliant guacamole and possibly the best margarita I have ever tried. Next, we walked down the beach, all the way to Santa Monica pier – and then back again. I did not hugely enjoy the shops and many (really, many) psychics? I saw one shop called ‘native America land’. Is that allowed? Is that ok?!
The next day my room-mate and I took a bus to downtown LA. I think this bus-ride was one of the most educational parts of my trip. Waiting for the bus was a little bit sketchy. The bus-stop itself was very dirty, and the bins next to it had been plundered, so we had to stand a good 10 meters away from it to breathe. The bus-driver only accepted exact change, which I did not have, so she kindly took my offering of 1 dollar. We proceeded to spend well over an hour on this bus, so that was excellent value for money. On the bus, I was the only white person. Many people were either elderly or clearly homeless. I guess the LA-ers from instagram don’t take the bus?
On which note. Did you know that LA has more homeless people than the entirety of the Netherlands? (And this is not down to population: LA has 4 million inhabitants of which 50-60 000 homeless, the Netherlands has 17 million inhabitants of which 20-30 000 homeless.) I did not either. I have traveled to a lot of places, including some very poor countries, but I have never felt quite as shocked by the homelessness problem as I did in the US. It should not be so surprising, as the US has been described as a developing nation or ‘third world’ country… but I guess media subconsciously make you think differently? One of my Uber drivers mentioned that a large part of the problem in LA is due to drug testing: if you do not test clean, you do not get shelter or food. I suppose I am writing from a Dutch perspective, but that system seems counter-intuitive to me? Those who struggle with addiction are arguably one of the most vulnerable groups of people out there, and they are being refused help? Is that true? If so, I am at a loss for words.
The bus finally dropped us off at the train station.
LA Union Station is actually one of the most historical and prettiest buildings in the area (the waiting room and ticket lobby are, anyway). It dates to the 1930, so it was built less than a century ago; but for the US that’s pretty old. Wikipedia describes it as a combination of ‘Art Deco, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne, and even elements of Dutch Colonial Revival architecture’. It did turn out there is no luggage storage in the station however (well, it cost over 20 USD which is outrageous); apparently lockers have been removed because they kept being broken in to. So, my friend and I walked into near-by China town to leave my bag for a few hours via a website I found (yep I am willing to risk dirty laundry and one pair of nice conference shoes like that).
From there, we took an Uber up to the Griffith Observatory. First thing’s first, we snapped some pictures of the Hollywood sign. One of those ‘bucket-list’ moments I suppose – but with everything I had seen and learned about LA up to that point, perhaps anti-climactic. The glamour is even more fake than I thought it would be. Anyway, the Observatory made an interesting and worthwhile visit. It has some very basic info on things like the phases of the moon, which I am sure is great to show small children. It also has some amazing telescopes, and a model of the big one there, which you can move with buttons – as well as models of rockets and satellites and general good space exploration bits. Downstairs there was also a huge exhibition on the moon and all the planets, including meteorites from the moon and Mars which you can touch. I am sorry, but that is very cool!
Getting an Uber back down to town was considerably more difficult (we did visit on a very busy weekend day) but we made it in the end. It was a pool situation, so we drove around for an hour with various people getting in and out. Although this took a long time, it provided an opportunity to see all kinds of different parts of central LA. We got off at the Grand Central Market, another location on my ‘sort of historic LA’ list. It is situated in the Homer Laughlin building, originally designed at the very end of the 19th century (ooh older than the train station!). It housed a department store, before it became home to the market in 1917. There are a load of cool places to eat in there, so of course we struggled to decide on one. The Chinese we liked the look of did not do vegetarian, and Mexican we already had the day before, so we landed on Thai. It is expensive, but then, I found everything in LA expensive, so I am not sure what 15-20 USD means to you. I just hope my office accepts the receipt for that meal I guess? (Because officially, I was on my way to a conference of course.)
Last on my self-designed tour of downtown LA was The Last Bookstore. I wish I could bring my London book-club there, it would suit us perfectly. This shop is located in an old bank, with beautiful high ceilings. They sell old books, used books, new books, and upstairs there are a couple of cute shops as well. A lot of the books are purposefully not arranged too well, to really make the reader browse the shelves; and there is even a labyrinth. It is a must-visit if you are a book-lover. I could have easily spent a day inside, chilling in one of the many chairs, trying new books. They also have ‘merch’ and if it had been ethically/sustainably made I would have come home with a fan T-shirt.
So that’s it. After this I strolled back to China town. I was a little worried at this point about a half hour walk by myself through downtown LA, but I followed the main road, and promised myself I would get on a bus if it did not look ok. It was fine; the walk was lovely and the weather was beautiful. However, the Flix Bus station turned out to be behind Union Station and … that was not so great. It was Sunday, so the main office was closed, and at least three homeless people approached me in a not-so-good way (making a grab for my luggage, etc.), which was very uncomfortable. I was not sure where to go or where to wait. Fortunately the bus turned up a little bit early, and I could get on it. It had WiFi! Later that week, I took a Greyhound bus back, which was much less good; it took longer, and also stopped at a totally different station in LA, which I had not prepared for (did not look it up on the map, did not know how to get to the airport). It was not a nice place at all, and I asked a security guard to help me call an Uber to leave asap.
What do you think about my LA experience? What should I do differently if I were to go there again (keeping in mind I do not have a driving license, and 30 USD Uber rides or 20 USD meals are not in my non-work budget!). I definitely need to visit the Getty Museum next time, I know that. If there will be a next time, because I am not too sure.