Pacific Bytes

Spring break and it was time for a get away. I was west coast bound this time and all set to fly out on Friday the 16th. The snowstorm had other plans for me however so after a failed attempt to leave on Friday, I was rescheduled to leave on Monday the 19th instead. This meant a slightly curtailed itinerary and a missed weekend in LALA land. What worked in my favour though was the chance to meet a friend who I would have missed on my earlier itinerary (courtesy of him being away to China at the time) and a quicker connection on both legs of my journey. The first such connection was made at Salt Lake City in Utah after an early morning departure from NY’s snow covered Kennedy airport. Unknown to me, a few hours later, the A380 would touch down there on its maiden commercial flight.

The lady sitting to my right was heading to Salt Lake City for skiing – an annual pilgrimage she and her husband made. She couldn’t stop raving about it and hard sold the place to me through the 4 + hr duration of the flight. The views while landing and taking of and the lookout through my departure gate seemed to suggest she was right.

No less than 6 airports serve the LA area and my cheap fare necessitated a landing in a relatively new one by the name of Ontario International in the San Bernardino County – about 45 minutes from downtown LA. A nice new facility with limited or no public transport connectivity – a reminder that I was now in ‘automobile friendly’ west coast. I made it to Ajay’s dorm in swanky Pomona College, Claremont via Super Shuttle (the over priced share a van service).

Ajay was still in class at the time so after I was let in by one of his pals, I made my way to the bathroom to have a shower and was a little taken aback to see this sign.

So not only was their dorm unisex but so were there bathrooms!!! I might have appeared to come across as close minded and regressive in my reaction but honest to god, this really took my by surprise. I mean I have stayed in a dorm myself and visited dorms of friends before but never come across such a, shall we say, ‘open ended’ system before! And open ended it was – with just a flimsy translucent curtain for company, I may as well have been out on the street taking a shower. On the one hand they seem to encourage this really open system and on the other hand it’s mandatory for all students on campus to be armed with a whistle to ward off any sexual abuse attempts they might be witness to.

We took a walk a little off campus and wandered into Claremont Village which is celebrating a century of its existence this year. Nothing to festive apart from a few banners but a quaint little street nevertheless dotted with shops and eateries of varying colours and sizes. What was evidently missing though was the all essential masses!!! We stopped by one such eatery for a bit of indulgence.

Later that day, after Ajay gave me the grand tour around campus (and what a campus it is!), I made my way into LA on one of Metrolink’s swish double decker commuter trains – a poorly patronized service unfortunately. My cousins picked me up from LA Union Station and drove me down to Beverly Hills for some Indian dinner. With dinner done, they drove me past some of the sights starting of with Rodeo Drive (or Miracle Mile as it’s better known as), over to Santa Monica Blvd (which I immediately connected with Sheryl Crow’s song) onto Sunset Blvd and finally Hollywood Blvd.I was to return to most of these places later so more about them then. Back to Pasadena from there which is where they live and where I would be staying over for the next couple of days.

Day 2 and I was still hell bent on utilising LA’s seemingly sufficient public transport network. So I walked over from my cousin’s house to the closest light rail station possible – Memorial Park – and waited a few minutes for a train to ferry me a few stations away. The stations were well designed and clean, the trains looked brand spanking new (a welcome change from NYC!) but patronage or the lack of it continued to surprise me – it was just way to low. Heck, some stations even had commissioned artwork to boot!

Ajay met me at the Budget Rental and we were soon on our way to Hollywood. I had finally succumbed to the lure of the west coast – I had rented a car! With rentals as low as $27 a day LA is about half the cost of NYC not to mention parking which is not only easily available but also dirt cheap. LA began it’s public transport initiatives as late as the early 90’s and has since built a sizeable network of subways, light rail and buses but probably not enough and probably not worth it after all – it’s the mindset that has to change in a city that has always been dominated by the motor car.

45 minutes of driving and we were now in the heart of Hollywood.

Karambir’s express instructions were to visit Mulholland Dr and locate Brando’s star on the walk of fame. Sadly our GPS didn’t have Brando’s house number on it and worse still this was the only star I could come up with..

We walked past all of the major attractions – Hollywood Wax Museum, Guiness Records Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Kodak Theatre, Chinease Grauman Theatre and so on. The kind of stuff one would like to see from the outside but never want to pay to get into! On the other side of the street were some beautiful theatres with old world box offices and grand entrances. The ceiling of one such theatre caught my attention.

After having our fill with the stars, we ventured away from the thoroughfare onto the hills of Hollywood. Some really steep roads led away from the maddening crowds and would lead us to areas that reminded me of good ‘ol Malabar Hill in Bombay. Palm lined streets, gorgeous villas and the promise of chancing upon a celebrity walking his or her dog!

Judging from the sparse surroundings, we didn’t come across any – not even a dog for that matter!! So we wandered further up the hillside and came across a walking trail. Gladly abandoning the car, we made our way up the trail and looked back to a view that transported me right away into the Khandala ghats shrouded in mist.

Back on the roads and we made our way to Sunset Blvd looking for a suitable place to eat at. After a lot of aimless driving and lack of decision making, I decided to park opposite a strip club (which I had spotted the night before and remembered as a landmark). No I wasn’t planning on spending the afternoon there but I did recall the area around it to be busy with a lot of people, shops and restaurants. I wasn’t completely wrong. We walked a few minutes away from the spot and came across Carney’s.

Touted as the best hot dogs in LA, this little eatery was carved out of an old Union Pacific railway car – couldn’t be more perfect for me! Without any hesitation we sauntered right in and relished what were most definitely the best hot dog’s we’ve ever eaten. Trust me it wasn’t just the ambience that contributed to my vote 😉 Came out of there and for a moment I felt I was back in NYC..

LA’s fire trucks still carry a remembrance to their brothers on the east coast – a nice gesture which I haven’t come across in other cities in the US.

Cut to : Newport Beach!

What’s a trip to LA without running into a film production? After lunch and dropping of Ajay to the nearest Metro station, I drove south about 50 odd miles to Newport Beach in Orange County (‘santra tehsil’ as Utsav refers to it). Picked up Kapil (who’d just moved there from Delhi) and drove straight to the beach. The first thing we spotted near the pier was a production in progress complete with lifeguard running up and down! We almost thought Baywatch was under production again. Apparently not – Discovery was shooting some sort of documentary. Overcast, windy and nippy conditions as you can see and then suddenly the sun comes out and leaves us gaping at a wonderful rainbow!

The town of Newport Beach has some gorgeous beach front houses, a huge harbor full of private yachts and a main street lining the beach with shops, pubs and eateries. Add to that golden sands, deep blue waters, fishing, kayaking and some friendly Seagulls to..

We even spotted a dolphin close to shore while we sipped on chilled beer at the restaurant on the pier. That was one of the most relaxed and enjoyable afternoons on a beach from recent memory and I could easily see myself sitting there doing nothing at all for days on end. I hope to be back there someday to do just that 😉

LA traffic was surprisingly kind to me on my return journey to Pasadena and with Garmin (my GPS silly!) for company I made it back in a little over an hour. Dinner was with my cousins at their neighbourhood Chipotle which served up an unexpectedly good Margarita. More was in surprise for us as the lights went out about 10 minutes into our meal and stayed that way till we walked out of the restaurant! For a moment I thought I was back in Greater Kailash Pt 1 but then my cousin reminded me that in GK1 the generator would have been started up in no time – no such luck in California!!!

On my last day there, I returned the car in the morning after struggling at the gas station to top up the tank (to embarrassing to get into details!). Made my way from there entirely by public transport (changing trains twice) to Pico station in South west LA where Gaurav would pick me up. Pico was the closest station to his school (Uni of Southern Calif) and was also the stop for the famous Staples Ctr – home of the LA Lakers! Not that anyone used the train to come there – there was just to much space around there to park your car!

Except for a few hours at Newport beach when the sun came out, the weather had been very un-California like on my trip and I seemed to have brought the bad weather with me. On day 3 however things changed for the better and the sun shown bright as we made our way north on the Pacific Coast Highway.

We drove past Santa Monica and Malibu and had we gone any further we would have probably hit Santa Barbara – home of Cruz Castilo!! But we turned back just in time and made a longish pit stop at Gladstone’s for some fabulous sea food by the beach.

The Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1 as it’s better referred to connects LA to San Francisco and further north to Seattle if I’m not mistaken. Without doubt it is a stunning drive and the kind you wouldn’t tire of even if at the wheel! Vistas like this are a dime a dozen and I could only envy all the people who live in those beautiful houses by the sea..

Post lunch we drove straight back to Gaurav’s school and I sat in on a B School class for the first (and possibly last) time in my life. All I can say is it was very different from the set up in my school or program! Nevertheless I did have a couple of learnings from that 60 minute long session – the bond market is bigger than the stock market and more bonds are bought in Europe today than in the US!! Not bad eh? After absorbing little or nothing from that class, Gaurav walked me around campus and I took an instant shine to Southern California’s belles!!! He of course insisted that it wasn’t the best day for spotting!

We then drove down to his house on Hermosa Beach – about a half hour commute from his school. Gaurav had a class at 6 and we thought we had left home with enough time for him to drop me of to Pico stn and make it to class. Not so easy when you have to deal with rush hour traffic in LA! While most states in the US have 6 or 8 lane highways, California takes it to another level literally..

A majority of highways I saw in and around LA were between 10 and 12 lanes with a lane reserved in each direction for heavy occupancy vehicles or HOVs. Get this: their definition of ‘heavy occupancy’ is 2 or more people!!!! So on roads where no further horizontal expansion was possible, they’ve actually gone vertical – building a separate deck (as you see in the picture above) over the central verge to accommodate those HOV lanes!! How’s that for ingenuity? Welcome to highway land!

We made it to the station a little past 6 – late for Gaurav’s class but with enough light for me to get that one shot of downtown during magic hour.

Goodbye California. It was short but sweet!

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