My Travel Map

My Travel Map

17 September 2011

Around LA

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I realized we would be moving to Los Angeles. I had visited here once before, in 2004, and I must admit, I was mostly put off by the city. Driving in from San Diego for the first time, I got hooked on the beauty of California, with the ocean, desert and mountains. Then we hit Orange County and the 405. Coming down those hills and seeing the LA basin filled with nothing but city and smog was disgusting for me. Then we hit the traffic...bumper to bumper on a Saturday morning. I established my first opinion on the city as a den of hypocrisy. I stated how ridiculous it was that people claim to be environmentally conscious and friendly here, yet they have an obsession with driving and some of the most polluted air in the country; how ridiculous it was that you have all of these celebrities "contributing" to the plight of the poor around the world, but doing little to nothing for those just a few miles away in Skid Row; how they claim to have some of the best and brightest working in the various high-tech industries that have set up in state, yet at the polls they continually screw themselves with terrible representation and governance that has literally driven one of the largest economies in the world into the ground. Having lived here now for nine months, I couldn't have been farther from the truth. All those things are true here, but that is a result of long and interesting history and the fact that there are just SO many people living out here! You truly have a little of everything, and you can find and focus on whatever you want. With that in mind, I'm finding so much that I do enjoy and appreciate and am really starting to enjoy living here.

The picture above is an original Banksy...the (in)famous street artist. Note, that the original piece consists of the boy with the machine gun with crayon bullets and the childish, bright flower and butterfly drawings around him. L.A. is one of his frequent haunts, and whenever he makes a visit, his randomly scattered works of art receive a lot of attention and press. Some pieces have even been cut out of the facades to be sold on the black market! It was neat to see this just a few days after he had put it up...especially since Urban Outfitters, on whose store the graffiti was posted, painted over it within a week. I can definitely recommend his movie, "Please exit through the gift shop" for a unique perspective on Banksy's art and glimpses into his world view and sense of humor and wit.

Starting in downtown...I don't take pictures in Skid Row, since I find it may be offensive to the many people who live there. I must say though, every visitor to LA should experience a walk through Skid is terribly eye opening and, when contrasted with the mansions, shops, and cars in Beverly Hills, is a prime example of just how extreme the divide is between rich and poor in LA. Downtown used to be a place to avoid, but it is an "up and coming" part of the city now. I really enjoy wandering around down there. The architecture is great, a neat mix of old and new with a lot of nostalgic, golden-era type buildings and theaters. The picture above shows the skyscrapers on Bunker Hill, a much despised financial fortress-district that is incredibly unfriendly for pedestrians (possibly deliberately so).

The LA Times building. Downtown is a bizarre and intriguing mix of expensive, massive structures and little pockets of awesomeness, Olvera Street, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Grand Central Market, and the Fashion District to name a few. There are some great bars and restaurants around too. It's surprisingly walkable (outside of Bunker Hill) too, though there are probably still some areas you'd want to avoid at night.

Olvera Street...the original LA. This street is testament to LA's Mexican heritage, and now it is a large open air Mexican market. There are some great restaurants and food stalls around here too!

The LA Grand Central Market between Broadway and Hill downtown. This place is AMAZING! Food vendors and stalls from all over the world. Obviously the Latin American nations are very well represented, but there are also Middle Eastern, European, and Asian specialty shops and eatery's as well. This is truly a gem.

Food trucks, an LA institution. These guys are EVERYWHERE and they are delicious! Most of them are either ethnic or specialty (like burgers, fries, or grilled cheese...yes there is The Grilled Cheese Truck). My favorite though are the fusion ones...particularly the Mexican-Asian hybrids. I mean, I guess it is only natural...having such a beautiful mix of cultures and people here, you're going to get a lot of interracial marriages (which is awesome and may partially explain the abundance of really good looking people here), and with those mixed couples will come the mixing of those cultural foods. All I can say is the first Mexican-Korean couple to blend Korean BBQ with Mexican tacos are my heroes.

The LA City Hall. Like I said, the city really has some iconic and unique architecture.

Speaking of iconic architecture...the LA Police Dept. This building is massive and imposing, with practically no windows (symbolism anyone?). The LAPD is a true force in the city...they even boast tanks (really armored vehicles) and gunship helicopters. Hopefully they learned a lot about restrained force from the Rodney King Riots in 1992.

Downtown during the Red Bull Soapbox Derby races. There is always something fun going on in the city. Missy and I spent the first 8 months here and only left the city one weekend to go surfing in San Clemente (when we weren't traveling that is). We kept saying we wanted to check out other places (like the Sierras, Santa Barbara, San Diego, up and down the coast, the desert, etc), but there was always something great to do in town!

The Bradbury Building...on Broadway amongst the crumbling and dilapidated old theaters is this architectural wonder...a must see and totally free to wander around.

Possibly, the ugliest cathedral in the world.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall...this place is amazing. Designed by Frank Gehry (seriously AMAZING architect...just google his name to check out his other works). You can spend a couple hours just wandering around this place, inside and out, though you need tickets to see the main concert hall, which I've heard is incredible as well!

Now, beyond downtown another architectural masterpiece: Watts Towers. Built over 33 years in the first half of the last century by an Italian immigrant and construction worker, Sabato Rodia, these complex structures peak at nearly 100 feet tall. They are constructed of cement and a variety of random materials, mostly collected scraps of garbage that have been so uniquely recycled here. Interesting decorations include pieces of colored glass, bottles, cans, jars, dishes, cups, tiles, and imprints from various objects like hammers and hands. The whole thing was structurally tested for stability before it was protected as a heritage site. The structures rise up out of the Watts area...a terribly impoverished area of the infamous south-central LA region.

A closer view at some of the random features in the Watts Towers.

A view of Griffith Observatory and downtown LA from Griffith Park, truly one of the highlights of the city! This is supposedly the larges metropolitan park in the United States, and it has some great peaceful spots, hiking trails, and bike paths. The observatory is an added gem; it is free to the public and has a great variety of science exhibitions. They also do free planet and star viewing with their large telescopes at night!

As close to Hollywood as this post is getting. Taken from Century City and the Annenburg Space for Photography, a brilliant, and free, gallery of photography. I really don't like Hollywood too much; the main drag is an awful example of tourism gone reminds me a lot of Niagara Falls actually. There are some redeeming qualities though. There is a pretty interesting theater district, some genuinely great clubs and bars for live music, and movies and music in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It's just another example of how shifting your perspective and focusing on things you enjoy can overcome some truly negative aspects of the LA area.

A building at the Annenburg was supposedly designed to reflect a camera...pretty neat. Another great visit is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). We were there just recently for the amazing Tim Burton exhibit, with over 700 pieces of original art by the famous Hollywood director. There are multiple galleries there though, and we just barely scratched the surface with our wander through the special exhibit and the gallery of modern art. Nearby are the La Brea tar pits, another interesting and bizarre feature of the area. After these, you can grab a delicious and authentic Ethiopian dinner in Little-Ethiopia on S. Fairfax.

View of UCLA (foreground) and downtown LA (background) from the Getty Center.

Views of the Hollywood Hills and the Griffith Observatory (big white building) in the foreground with the snow-covered San Gabriel mountains in behind and GoodYear blimp above. This was also taken from the Getty Center on a clear day after rains. I would highly recommend visits to either the Getty Center or Griffith Observatory on days after rains, when the basin is most free of the disgusting smog.

The Getty Center...another wonderful, and free, center of culture. There are various art and historical galleries in this massive complex, but these are just an added bonus on the incredible architecture, beautifully manicured grounds, and overwhelming views of the LA basin and Hollywood hills.

Onto the Westside now...the beautiful and peaceful Venice canals. Venice Beach has entirely it's own vibe...extremely bizarre, hip, chill, and vibrant. Wander just a few blocks in and you stumble upon the practically opposite world of the canals. Wandering around these canals and taking in the peaceful atmosphere and interesting hodge-podge of incredibly expensive homes is definitely amongst the best walks in the LA area.

Many of the homeowners have little docks and boats for relaxing on the water.

As I already mentioned, each house is quite unique, which just adds to the interesting atmosphere. Some obviously embrace exhibitionism while others surround their places with dense foliage to maintain privacy. The exhibitionists have a lot to boast though...most of the places have massive patios, balconies, and/or porches to relax outside. Most houses have lots of windows on the canal sides and many even have sliding walls to allow them to open up entire sides of their homes to the open and beautiful Southern California coastal air.

And our local haunt, Santa Monica. This is the great Farmers Market that takes over Arizona Ave. every Wednesday and Saturday. Doing some shopping here and enjoying a nice stroll along the pedestrian-only 3rd Street Promenade makes for a brilliant start to a Saturday.

The Palisades Park on the bluffs above the beach...just a short walk from our place and a favorite place to go relax. This is looking North, with the Santa Monica Mountains in the background. I absolutely love it here; it's peaceful and so beautiful.

The Santa Monica Pier...I'm not a big fan of the pier itself, which again is another example of tourism gone wrong with cheap shops, big unoriginal chains (Bubba Gump Shrimp has set up there), and a variety of opportunistic buskers. Once again, there are redeeming qualities...during the summer they do a series of free concerts and movies at the pier. It's so much fun to pack a picnic and some beer or wine and go relax down on the beach below the pier and enjoy the free shows!

We get some great sunsets at the Palisades Park too...

Just up around the coast is Malibu. This was a nice sunset we enjoyed at Point Dume State Beach.

There is this impressive cliff at Point Dume, which is ideal for top-rope climbing since you can walk up the back side!

Enjoying sunset from Point Dume, some surfers can be seen out in the water catching some evening waves.

Down south now in Huntington Beach for the US Open of Surfing. This is a picture of none other than Kelly Slater, possibly the greatest surfer to ever live and indisputably the most highly decorated in world championship victories.

These guys displayed some amazing control and maneuverability on their short boards, despite the only small-to-medium waves.

There was also a long-board hang ten competition, where competitors get extra points for their ability to walk to the front of the board and dangle all ten toes off the front lip. This is not an easy feat...the board must be positioned just right in a wave to counterbalance the weight of the surfer out on the front edge. The pic above shows a surfer seemingly floating above the face of the wave he's was an incredibly impressive display of skill.

We had a little bit of entertaining showmanship as well including two surfers getting onto the same board (having started on two separate boards, meeting up mid wave, and then transitioning onto one board and successfully riding it out) as shown above and the handstand seen below.

Pretty cool and just one more example of the seemingly infinite opportunities to get out and enjoy all types of different events and activities around the LA area.

28 August 2011

St. John's, Newfoundland

I had three days between when I returned from Moscow and when I had to take back off again for a conference in St. John's, Newfoundland in Canada. I must admit, I was very excited to see a different part of my native country, and I had heard good things about Newfoundland, despite all the silly jokes. I wasn't let down.

If two countries were able to reproduce, then Newfoundland would surely be the love child of Canada and Ireland. I was absolutely floored by how similar Newfoundland was to Ireland, in literally everything from its geography, climate, architecture, accents, and culture. The first thing to reveal this to me were the technicolor houses. All shades of color seemed to have been used throughout town...and as with Ireland, I suspect this is just a little something to keep spirits a bit higher when foul weather sets in.

My next wave of realization came when I stumbled upon George Street, a pedestrian only affair consisting of over 50 bars and pubs. I got in on a Friday night, and needless to say, the place was rowdy. The majority of the pubs are in the true Irish style, traditional music sets and all! I found a great place with modern Canadian folk though (think Great Big Sea or Spirit of the West), which was just what I wanted from live music in Newfoundland.

St John's sits on a harbor on the Eastern tip of Newfoundland Island. The island itself is truly massive, another fact I had not at all appreciated before getting there. I was floored talking to some Canadian tourists in the bar when they told me it took about 7 hours to drive across it on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is by far the fastest way across the island! Looking in more detail at a map however, this is not surprising; Newfoundland Island is as big or bigger than many Eastern US states. So, I resigned to the fact that I would only see the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador's capital (St. John's) as well as a little sample of the small area around it. I'm hoping to get back to Newfoundland at some point though, as it truly is a beautiful and fun place (in the summer).

On the walk up to Cabot Tower. The mouth of the harbor was heavily fortified up through WWII, being such an important point on the trans-Atlantic journey, both by air and sea. It was quite interesting to find out that St. John's had one of the busiest airports in the world for some time since most flights had to stop there for refueling between the Eastern North American coast and Europe.

Cabot Tower, one of St. John's key landmarks. It sits atop Signal Hill on the northern edge of the harbor's mouth. It's named after John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), and was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cabot's "discovery" of Newfoundland. Truly, First Nations people had discovered Newfoundland more than a millennium earlier, and then it was "rediscovered" by Norse (Viking) explorers in the Dark Ages. I was interested to hear that Newfoundland is still a very popular destination for modern Nordic people, some of which even make the journey by sailing ship from Scandinavia! Apparently, the Norwegians are big fans of this trip...I met several at the bars.

I mentioned the geography of Newfoundland reminded me a lot of Ireland. By "reminded me", I mean it was damned near identical! A lot of the photos here are coastal landscapes...I won't say a lot about them, but everything from the ruggedness of the coast to the colors of the rock and flora are just like Ireland. Someone even remarked that they look so close because it really is the same rock that makes up both places. Whatever it is, the resemblance is remarkable and definitely explains why so many Irish decided to settle there (explaining the incredible similarities between cultures).

Looking down at seabirds on the cliffs.

This amazing sea fog rolled over me while I was walking back down from Cabot Tower...

Looking across the mouth of the harbor to the lighthouse on the southern side. With mist like I just showed, it's no doubt how important lighthouses are to sailors around such rocky and jagged coast.

On the walk up or back from Cabot Tower, you go through this delightful little part of town: the Battery. Named after the guns that used to defend the harbor, it is now a sleepy little fishermans community of shanty houses clinging to the cliffs.

Newfoundland has a long and proud fishing heritage. The Great Banks just off the coast were once the most fertile seas in the world. As with most seas though, they have been overfished and fish populations are now devastated. Seafood is still the major ingredient on all menus in town though, with cod being a local favorite. One of my favorite things to try was the cod tongues. They are exactly as the name describes, the tongues cut out of cod, battered, and fried up in oil. They taste a bit like calamari, with a slight cod/fish flavor (no kidding) and less-rubbery consistency. Another great one was cod au gratin...cod baked up with mashed potatoes smothered in cheese...mmmm. Apparently, seal fin pie is also a popular one, though I couldn't find that anywhere.

In the distance on the left of this shot (looking back out of the harbor mouth) is Cape Spear...the easternmost point in North America (funny since it's on an island, but whatever...Key West claims the southernmost point in the contiguous USA). Some friends from the meeting and I ended up renting bikes and taking off both north and south from St. John's, including all the way out to Cape Spear, which was a bit of a haul, but beautiful.

Another example of the beautiful and complex coast...

The fishing village of Quidi Vidi...just outside of town

Yes, they have a brewery, and the beer is GOOD!

Further up the coast along Marine Lab drive

And Cape Spear...we were treated with some extra special sights here in the form of whales! There was a pod of humpbacks off the coast, and they treated us to a hell of a show. We even saw two of them fully breach out of the water! It was amazing!

It's funny, I had expected to see puffins, hoped to see iceburgs, and planned on not being lucky enough to see the whales. As it turned out: I saw whales practically every time I was in viewing distance of the Atlantic; I found out that I was there in totally the wrong time of year to see ice burgs at St. John's (though there were some truly unbelievable pictures of the towering behemoths making micro-machines out of tanker ships and molehills out of coastal cliffs and hills); and didn't see a single puffin (they live on islands off the coast supposedly). The whales were such a great surprise though! I've loved these animals since I was a child, and to see them obviously doing quite well off the coast here was spectacular.

Newfoundland is amazing. It's as simple as that. The people are great. The food and culture are awesome. The painted colors of St. John's row houses are warm and inviting, and the geography is breathtaking. It is a true gem of a place.