Nature supplied MLH’s birthday gift. An eclipse of the sun (partial, but still) in the morning and a glorious afternoon on sandy Santa Monica beach, where we both had our first dip ever in the Pacific Ocean and spent the evening in the elegant town centre. We spent two more days by the sea. One in Malibu, where we found the perfect public beach, off the Pacific Coastal Highway, tucked between the private luxury beach houses. It was almost deserted. The third in Venice Beach, which was anything but quiet.
One end of Venice Beach has superstar beach mansions with a quiet boardwalk on one side, the canal on the other. We arrived, however, at the commercial end of the boardwalk mid-morning. What a weird day we spent there. The surfers were leaving the beach having caught the morning surf; barefoot and wet suit clad, tying their boards to special carriers on the side of their bicycles. The boardwalk was lined on the town side by souvenir and T shirt stores, bars and cafes and ‘The Green Doctor’ stalls, where sales people in medical greens enticed passers-by in for a $40 medical marijuana assessment with a doctor. We saw several ‘patients’ coming out clutching prescriptions on their way to the dispensary, which, of course, was closely linked to the doctor.
On the beach side of the boardwalk, an extraordinary array of hawkers was selling anything from jokes for $1, poems typed on a typewriter for $2, to jewellery, art work and reggae music CDs. Half-way down, the Equal Topless Rights Rally was recruiting men and women to join their protest march, the women having given the men their bikini tops to wear. Six feet away, a fundamentalist Christian group was telling them through a megaphone they were going to Hell. Between the two groups, police officers waited for the march to begin. “You will be ticketed for nudity, you understand?” an organizer was telling a woman as she applied blue electrical tape to her nipples. The recruit nodded resolutely. Further down, body builders in the open-air municipal Muscle Gym posed for photos with teenage female tourists. Later, we joined a group watching a ‘Summer of Love’ rock concert given by a band which formed in 1967. Lots of bright tie-dyed clothes. Although the band took some time to tune up and find the play list through their bi-focals and hearing aids, and their hair was white, they all had plentiful hair – bushy beards and ponytails. Not one bald man. What are the odds?
LA and Hollywood know how to put on a show. We went twice to the Hollywood Bowl (capacity 17,000) for outdoor concerts with The Gypsy Kings and Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington, and to an electronic/jazz fusion free concert in downtown LA with five of the best female jazz vocalists I have ever heard. At all concerts, we used buses to get there and back, and took our own picnic dinner and bottle of wine. Such liberal policies and good organization mean that most of the audience is local, relaxed, and attends often. The Hollywood Bowl has performances six days a week in the summer. Again, the scale (and weather) is such in California that this is possible. The state’s population is the same as Canada’s.
Oil magnate Paul Getty left his five ex-wives and five children penniless when he died but set up a trust to build a place to exhibit his art collection. He stipulated it should be free for the public to visit. The stunning Getty Center opened 20 years ago, and while he didn’t have great judgement in his family life perhaps, he knew how to collect. What a building it is. It stands huge on a hill overlooking LA, clad in off-white Italian travertine stone; the same stone used to build the Colosseum and carefully split to reveal the fossils within. The gardens are also a registered art exhibit. An artist and horticulturist work with a team of 50 gardeners, changing the plants three times a year. The building is designed with the visitor and art pieces in mind, with shady spaces and places to rest between galleries. The galleries are small; the porcelain, statues and paintings restored beautifully. We spent a full day here but did not have that crushed feeling that you can’t look at one more painting for the life of you experienced elsewhere. This is where you come if you want to see Van Gogh’s Irises, by the way. Mr. Getty paid the highest price ever for a piece of art when he acquired it.
LA is full of surprises. Visiting another pristine, new museum, the LA Museum of Modern Art, bang next door we discovered the La Brea Tar Pits, where stinky asphalt bubbles up from an oil field 1,000 feet below the surface. Over the last 100 years, they have extracted five million fossils of animals such as mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, which were trapped in the tar ponds over millions of years.
We could have gone on exploring LA for months and experienced surprises every day, but we left to complete our journey down the West coast of the US in San Diego, California; eager to see how it has changed in the 24 years since our last visit. MLH was driving. He declared driving in California more challenging than driving in Cairo, so I gladly let him do it. As the Maseratis and Lamborghinis hopped lanes in front of us at 140 km/hour and MLH’s head swivelled like a character from The Exorcist, I noticed that the vanity licence plates got more egotistical the more luxurious the car. There was SEXI 1, 1UVAKND, (I know, it took me a while too) and this rather alarming one: RMD. What were we driving into?