The Wackness That is L.A.

Charming, beautiful, ageless strangers in their best cocktail wear at Bar Chloe in Santa Monica on New Year’s Eve, with too-expensive Stella Artois, warm bodies lightly touching as they move through the crowded club, silky fabrics, dim lights and dance rhythms pounding…it was a great way to spend the holiday. I met a group of wonderful ladies (including a jewelry designer whose elegant pieces you can order here), one lovely man, and flirted with everyone. I am visiting my friend Paige, though I know several other people scattered about L.A., and have now met many more. It is my favorite part of traveling, meeting people. I have realized over the years that I collect them. I connect, collect, re-connect, and I may suddenly show up one day asking to sleep on your couch. But I will also return the favor, cook you a tasty meal and even do the dishes. And couch-surfing is indeed what I am doing here…figuratively. On New Year’s Eve I slept soundly on an Ikea futon cushion on the floor of an apartment in Venice. The following night I dreamt Grimm’s-like visions of forests and wolves at Paige’s place. Tomorrow I’ll head up the coast to my friend Jay’s parents’ home, and my last night will be spent at my friend Nancy’s apartment. It is a whirlwind itinerary on paper, but day-to-day it has been low key.

I am taking it slow, savoring each moment. I have no major plans apart from visiting friends and seeing a few museums, eating a taco or two, and writing. New Year’s day was spent walking on Venice Beach, watching people. The tourists wore shorts, the locals heavy jackets, but everyone donned sunglasses and enjoyed the bright blue sky. Often, I was watching people and their dogs. The dog culture here appears to rival that of New York. Dogs are everywhere, and the only difference I have noted so far is that in New York they may be allowed into a greater proportion of retail establishments than here. For every dog person there was some other wacky individual making him or herself noticeable or at least at home. It’s hard to say whether the extreme individuality is a result of comfort or exhibitionism. There was a 60ish man dancing in shorts and no shirt next to the skateboard ramps in the heart of Venice in between roller bladers, some of whom appeared to be swing dancing; there were kids skateboarding, even girls, something I’ve rarely witnessed in my life; small children sledded down the low sand dunes; and an older woman wearing a heavy winter coat and cashmere beret sat in a lawn chair on the beach near the pier, reading a book with an empty chair beside her, perhaps waiting for someone. Eccentricity is an understatement here.

Yesterday morning, Paige and I took a walk to the Farmer’s Market on Grand View in Mar Vista where I ate a scrumptious savory crepe with fresh spinach, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, drank coffee served up by Homeboy Industries, and purchased fresh blueberries…in January! It seems so wrong to this Northern girl, but I’m not complaining. After our food shopping excursion we stopped at Soaptopia, a local soap maker on Venice Blvd. If I lived here I would be a regular. They offer soap-making classes, sell all-natural products and deliver nationwide. If you like yummy bath products, you must visit their website.

The rain hit around midday and indecisively sputtered on and off into this morning. It is a shame on one level, but in the grand scheme of things it does not make a difference to me. I visited with a friend for lunch in Santa Monica and then went to the Getty Villa where we briefly admired various Greek, Roman and Etruscan relics, making the most of the gray, chilly, dampness. The museum itself is small but the grounds are stunning, and worth the visit even in the rain.

I keep saying that I am in “L.A.” but in truth I have not really seen L.A. since I’ve been here…not in the proper sense. I have been in the greater metropolitan area. Today I will see more of the city when I visit with another friend in West Hollywood. More on that later.

I’m not sure what I think of the city yet, but one thing that I was sold on immediately is the plant life. The combination of the plants and the home architecture makes me think of South Africa, but without all of the high security fences. The plants are glorious. The cars I could do without.


The Places We Think We Hate…and Love

One of the many travel bloggers I follow recently posted a thoughtful piece on how much he hates Los Angeles. The point of the entry was not “why I hate L.A.” but rather “why DO I hate L.A.?” Why does anyone “hate” a place where they have never lived, or possibly never even been? I could apply this just as easily to why some people “hate” certain public figures like Oprah or Michael Moore. How can you really hate what you don’t know? To push it a bit in the other direction, how can you hate what you DO know? I like to think we can find something non-hate-worthy in everything.

I am not interested in delving into this topic in some broadly philosophical way. Rather I want to explore my own perceptions of the places I have been and the places I will go. I am going to Indiana for Christmas, to visit family and friends. Then I am going to L.A. for New Year’s to see more friends and enjoy a little bit of warmish weather (let’s hope this is not a repeat of my freezing New Orleans adventure last January). My associations with these two places are worlds apart. Having lived in NYC or at least the Tri-State area for 17 1/2 years, I no longer identify as a Hoosier. I never fit in all that well to begin with, and now when I go “home” I focus on the things I did love…people. True, there is some pride associated with being from a small town in the midwest, but most of that pride comes from shallow boasts such as being able to tolerate blizzards considerably better than New Yorkers. But I spent years going on and on about how much I hated Indiana, how much I hated my hometown of Plymouth and how much I hated small town politics. Being from the place, there may have been some basis for my bitterness, but really, what did I hate so much? I had a fairly cushy childhood. I was a good student, I sang in swing choir and acted in school plays, played drums in the band and was one of the “stars” of the speech team (not tooting my own horn here, I actually won quite often). I also had good friends and a supportive family. If I had to pinpoint the one thing that distinguished growing up in a small town from that of a big city, it would be simply this – I lacked anonymity. It was never true that I lacked opportunity, but I believed I did, and I wanted out.

With my friend Beth…and Miny the cat (as in eeny, meeny, miny, mo) in my backyard…circa…1987ish?

I managed to get out. Then at some point I realized I don’t hate Indiana anymore. True, I would never want to live there again, but I don’t hate it. Maybe I never did. Maybe I have softened over the years. Or maybe it is from having traveled to other places in the world, finally seeing what I thought I was missing. Most likely, that contributed to a new worldview, one which includes my hometown in a more loving, respectful way. Now I think about the vitriol I once spewed and I’m a little bit disgusted with myself. There was no cause to hate. There rarely is. What is striking is that as far I can recall, there has never been another place for which I felt such revulsion. This brings me to Los Angeles. Unlike my fellow blogger, I do not hate L.A. I kind of love it. But I’m not sure why. My family lived in Riverside, California when I was three, a city east of L.A. We were there for less than a year. And hey, I was three; I don’t exactly have meaningful memories of the place apart from some vague, playful memory of trying to ride my neighbor’s dog. Yet I was apparently quite distraught when we moved back to Indiana (“back” because I was in fact born there). From that point forward, I associated L.A. with something I’d lost and something I wanted very badly. It was a big city, it was on the coast, it was filled with mysterious strangers and endless opportunities…it was far far away from Plymouth, Indiana…and I dreamed of going back.

When I was 13, my dream partially came true. My parents and I went to L.A. for spring break and I eagerly absorbed every eclectic aspect of our experience. My mom’s cousin lived there. She was (and still is) an art dealer. She had fascinating artist friends. Her daughter took riding lessons at the same place where Loretta Swit rode (I know this because we saw her in the bathroom). We ate some of the best food I’d ever tasted and shopped at the Beverly Center. How much more glamorous and exciting could it get for a midwestern teenager? To add to L.A.’s allure, I was deeply in love with the “hair band” movement taking MTV and VH1 by storm in the mid-late ’80s. Yes, I was one of those kids. L.A. was the epicenter of that movement (I realize “movement” is a gross exaggeration, but I feel it necessary to add some kind of self-respect to those trashy musicians who I once so admired). L.A. was where I wanted to be. Alas, it was back to Plymouth after a week. Apart from Chicago, I would not see one of our country’s major cities again until I was 17 (I don’t count Washington, D.C.). That trip was to New York City for a national speech tournament. It took me approximately zero minutes to fall in love with NYC. It was a no-brainer. I was home. Two years later I moved here. My first apartment was in a residential hotel on the Upper West Side. I attended a musical theater conservatory, shopped at Fairway, hung out in Sheep Meadow late at night with my acting buddies and ate bagels every day. But I never lost any love for L.A. Yes, I went through one of those typical New Yorker/Woody Allen-esque phases where I scoffed at the idea of ever living in L.A. The shallowness, the absurd health trends and lack of any “real” culture…but that was just my new hometown snobbery talking. I was going along with it. The truth is, deep down, I never stopped feeling like I was missing out on something that only existed in Southern California.

During my last trip to SoCal – San Diego 2006

Before you start asking the obvious next question, no, I am not thinking of moving. I love the East Coast despite my annual whine about “why do I live someplace that gets cold during the winter?”…and I have no intention of leaving. But since this is a travel blog, I hope that I will be able to talk about many future visits to L.A. and other areas of the West Coast in the years to come. I don’t know if I am really missing out on anything there, but whatever I think I love must be worth exploring.

Exploring the Familiar

A great journey can happen, from start to finish, quite close to home. It can happen three blocks away. In fact, it can happen in one’s home, or one’s new home as the case may be. I am moving. It is not the first time I’ve lived alone, but it will be the first time I’ve done so in a space other than a shoebox-sized, cockroach-infested rooming house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That building is now being transformed from an SRO (single resident occupency) unfit for rats much less people, to either a boutique hotel or swanky new apartments. Such is my completely uninformed speculation. In sharp contrast, my new place is a real home with so much more to discover than the peeping tom who used to try to watch me shower. (Long story.) My new neighborhood is a precious little slice of Jersey City called Bergen Hill. It is a historic district on a hill, as the name suggests, and the view from my windows looks out from the summit north east toward downtown JC and Manhattan. Summit Avenue is the name of my new street. Perhaps it is the highest point in JC. I’m not sure, but on a clear day I will see Brooklyn. The heart of the “hill” is my new house. It is the oldest house in the hood, built in the 1860s by a man whose name and history I will have to write about at some other point as they escape me at the moment. Being a huge fan of old houses, and having lived in them most of my life, I am thrilled about this move. It took me approximately 30 seconds to decide that I wanted the place.

There is an enticing mystery about old houses. I like to imagine what life was like when they were built, what the challenges and the attitudes were of the people who lived there. But I don’t need an old house to get this excited about moving. Each time I move, I get a little hit of the travel rush. There are hole-in-the-wall spots that only the locals know about, hidden architectural gems around the corner and maybe even cobble stone streets waiting to be explored, to be trod upon. Yet this apartment is so close to where I live now that I am only changing my daily commute by a few streets, a few different buildings to drive past, a different main drag to stroll along. The wonder is in how much that does not diminish my excitement for my new territory. If I were a cat I would have untold number of creaky old basement windows to sneak into, trees to climb, and territorial boundaries to mark on moonlit nights as I wandered between houses in search of food. Exploration could go on indefinitely in this stunning neighborhood that I did not know existed only one month ago. The distance from my current home may not be far as the crow flies, but it is worlds away as my eager heart sees it.

I don’t want to imply that this is the perfect situation. There is no such thing and in fact part of what makes it interesting is its utter lack of perfection. There is no coffee shop on the corner and for the first time since the late ’90s I will not have laundry in my building, but I never really had a coffee shop on the corner, I prefer my french press anyway, and the upcoming laundry schlep is a small inconvenience well worth the price of my beautiful new digs. The house itself is in need of thorough exploration, but the neighborhood, the history and the tiny park across the street will be the primary targets of my wanderlust, at least for the first few months.

There is a more self-reflective piece to this story. This move represents a new phase in my life in more ways than one…physical, emotional, even intellectual. I am taking a semester off from school and exploring my own motivation, not just for academia, but for everything in my life. The travel analogy is useful here because when we travel, we notice things. Alain De Botton called this a “traveling mindset.” My expository writing students would surely appreciate that I am discussing this on my personal blog, but it is a useful and I think important thing to consider. When we travel to a place that is new to our senses, we are overwhelmed in many ways but we also notice details that locals take for granted. We notice colors and language and smells, the shapes of buildings, the way the streets curve or do not, and when we move to a new place, whether it is literal or figurative, we are stimulated in much the same way. The difference, the place where the analogy falls apart, is when we have been in that place for an extended period of time. Maybe it takes one month, maybe one year, but we reach a point where the newness fades and we may even forget all of those glorious details that at first drew us in and excited us. This is normal. We all do it, but maybe if we seek out a new route to work now and then, or get a drink at the bar on the corner that we always thought was too skeevy to go into, we can discover something extraordinary in our all-too-familiar surroundings. We can challenge ourselves in ways that enrich our lives. People who travel as a way of life often find that being in one place for too long makes them restless. Indeed, the more I have traveled over the years, the more quickly I find myself in this place. I crave newness, something to explore. And it turns out that there is always something new to explore, or something old, it is only a matter of looking, really looking, as if for the first time.

A Travel Poem

Meditation on Africa
Six trips to Africa
And what do I have to show?
Beaded earrings, necklaces
A bracelet or two
Desert stones, a seed husk from a tree I cannot identify
Memories and photos
Barack Obama kanga purchased on the roadside in Tanzania
A friend
A namesake
Six trips to Africa
Ghana, Ethiopia
Kenya and South Africa twice
And finally Botswana
Picking up bits of Twi, Amharic, Swahili
I never managed Zulu
There was not time for Setswana
Countless marriage proposals I could not understand
Six trips to Africa
And what have I learned?
Stigmas prevail
HIV, homosexuality
Heineken is preferred over Windhoek and Castle
Malaria is miserable and prophylaxes are ineffective
Ghana has the best food
Kenya the most breathtaking landscape
The best fossils…”Kenya dig it?”
Six trips to Africa
And I want even more to immerse my heart in the place
That has given me so much
A richly complex element to my morality, my mortality
My white skin paled against the landscape
Leaving its mark on me
Faint sunspots emerging after each foray to the equator
Exchanges of bananas for t-shirts and cheap cotton dresses
Echos of an idea I once had about doing…something
Six trips and Africa
Is my second home
Where I am not at home, but challenged
Geometric patches on my National Geographic map
It is a vast space even in miniature
Barely known to me, to its permanent residents
Six trips
I have just begun to explore
And truly sought far too little

Life changes

I have written “life changes” in the subject line of about 20 emails in the last week.  It is a statement and a description.  It is what happens, if we are lucky and brave enough to face it.  The end of a relationship, a change in career, a child, a marriage, a death, political upheaval, natural disasters…everything.  Change is the very essence of life.  Yet there is resistance.  Each step we take is met by a hesitation and perhaps even a half step back.

My relationship of seven years is now over.  I am not angry.  Some part of me is grateful for this opportunity.  I am in some pain, but that will pass.  What fills me now more than anything is fear.  I am groundless and struggling to regain my footing.  With each passing moment I fear that I will trip.  It is this fear that could prevent me from taking a big enough step forward.
During such periods, and even during times of relative stasis, there is a tendency to cling to familiar things, fearing some inevitable change.  I must have this kind of food and drive that kind of car.  I will take 2 ½ sugars in my coffee thank you very much, and not a grain more.  I only watch serious dramas on television and resent anyone who does not share my political opinion.  This is not me.  It is all of us.  We fear the unknown.
How do I…how do we…accept that life presents us with challenges, and that we are indeed strong enough to embrace them?
The other night I spoke with an old friend.  We had not talked in over seven years – the length of my relationship.  We had written emails here and there and of course connected, however imperfectly, over everyone’s favorite and most hated social networking site, but we had not talked.  Voice to voice.  Person to person.  Heart to heart.  When we did, it opened up something in the very base of my being.  It gave me courage.  We are two people who have moved through very different lives, reconnecting and bringing our strengths and our weaknesses to a moment of deep trust and sharing.  We did not talk about television or the latest political battles.  We talked about change.
The stimulation and excitement that can come from change is a large part of why I travel.  When I am away, whether it is Kenya, Paris or upstate New York, I find myself in a different state of mind than when I am home.  I am more open, more flexible, more capable of dealing with unexpected events, with change in general.  I can more easily let go of that tendency to have expectations at all.  I want that feeling in my daily life.  Curse the anxiety and the neurosis.  I want to be fearless.
When my students express their frustration with the uncertainties of science, with the ever-changing nature of discovery and falsifiability, I tell them, that’s part of the fun.  It’s true.  I believe that.  It is the beauty of how much we have yet to discover that makes science compelling.  It is why I have pursued it as an anthropologist, asking questions that are never truly answerable.  Yes, it is challenging.  Yes, it is often frustrating.  But there is always something new and wonderful to explore.  When we discover that thing, the one that throws our old ideas of how things work out of balance, we must adjust.  And we do, but it takes time.
Change happens.  From an objective point of view, facing change in our personal lives should not be more complicated than facing it in science or when traveling or when we fail to find our favorite food on the menu at a restaurant.  Yet we push and we pull and we struggle to maintain the status quo.  Our emotions reign supreme and we often take that half step back.  Perhaps I can only speak for myself, but I have a goal.  With each new day I will take a tiny step forward.  It might be 15 minutes of meditation, taking a yoga class or calling old friends.  The thing I do is less important than the significance it holds in terms of moving in a new direction.  Somehow I will find that fearlessness.  For those who know me personally, I hope that you will remind me of this if I start to step back.

Ghana Essay Now Published

Over the summer in between teaching, working on my degree and stressing about money, I wrote an essay about making connections in the so-called developing world. Specifically, this essay is about my friendship with a man I met in Ghana and how it has evolved. It was a challenge to write something so personal but very fulfilling and I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It has just been published at a travel network site called Bootsnall. Click HERE and enjoy. Pam

Sneaking a peek at Jozi

I did not see much of her, but Johannesburg (“Jozi”) is a huge city, peppered with steep hills, lovely gardens and a true urban feel. We stayed at a cozy B&B in a suburb called Melville. Melville is something like a mini East-West Village hybrid set against a hilly, African landscape with walled single-story homes lining the residential streets rather than multi-storied apartments. Good food, loungy as well as grungy bars, vintage clothing shops, tasty brunch and gay friendly attitudes abound. It is distinct from Durban’s more conservative vibe. Mixed race couples walk down the street past used bookstores and coffee shops. It felt very much like home.

Our B&B was the Ginnegaap Guesthouse. That is pronounced “hinneh-hahp” but the ‘h’ sound is made in the back of your throat. After being in the field, we felt extremely pampered. It was luxurious. There was chocolate on the pillows, cable tv, and a king sized bed. Breakfast was made to order and the omelette I ate that first morning was absolutely perfect.

We only had two full days in Jozi so we did not get to do much. We had two priorities apart from seeing friends and colleagues of mine: see some of the fossil cave sites in the Cradle of Humankind, and visit Soweto. We managed to do one of the two. A friend of mine picked us up our first morning and drove us out to the Cradle to see caves. We visited Sterkfontein first, probably the most touristy of the caves. They have a small exhibit before the tour. It seemed to have been recently done and elegantly so to boot. The exhibit prepped us for the tour providing the scientific backdrop to what we were about to see in the caves. Sterkfontein is an enormous cave system, considerably larger than I’d imagined over the years of reading about the place. It is no Mammoth Cave, but it is big. Our guide provided us with sound bites about the history of excavations in the cave and other odds and ends, but in truth the tour left a bit to be desired. The caves were fantastic, but we would have liked more stories and details about the science of the hominin fossils found there, who found them and when and so forth.

Before we exited the caves, my friend Chris met us near the exit and we snuck away, crawling out through an opening in the cave that was not, strictly speaking, open to the public. Apart from almost tearing my jeans on the fence that we had to scale, it was fun. She then took us to Swartkrans, just down the road from Sterkfontein. Swartkrans is smaller and more romantic than Sterkfontein. Maybe it was the stories Chris told us, the history that I already knew or the fact that it is not open for tourists and we were getting a private viewing, but Swartkrans had a magic to it that Sterkfontein seemed to lack.

For the last stop on our private tour, Chris took us to her site, Cooper’s Cave. It is quite different from the others in that it doesn’t feel much like a cave just yet. The excavations are going on at a level that is a bit more at the surface and there are not yet open caverns requiring ladders to enter. But Cooper’s was more exciting than the others because there are many fossils. One can hardly look at the site without spotting multiple fossil bones. I think I might want to go and work a season with her one of these days.

After our tours she took us to a lunch place where they specialize in pies. These aren’t pies like apple or pumpkin, nor are they even like shepard’s pie. They are more like hot pockets but considerably better. Most are meat pies. I had a chicken curry pie with salad and a ginger beer. A perfect end to the afternoon.

That evening we were on our own and went to a traditional sushi restaurant followed up by a local bar where we had an interesting conversation with the bartender/dj, whose name was Wellington. He told us what he thought about the political situation in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We’d been hoping to make some connections like that and we managed to get a little taste of it.

Our task for Sunday was to take a tour of Soweto, the famous township outside of Jozi. We’d arranged a tour with a company recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook, but somehow it never panned out. It was rather confusing, but it seems that the tour guide was being given directions to our location by a dispatcher and the directions were wrong. He never found us. Almost three hours later, we canceled and went to a nice little restaurant where they served hot-off-the-grill braai. A braai is a barbeque. Yes, I ate a lot of mammals on this trip, something I do not ordinarily do. One of those “when in Rome” things. The food was good, the waiter was kind, and the people at the neighboring table were entertaining. Plus, there was a cat. We ate our food, read the newspaper and soaked up the atmosphere.

Ciprian left the following morning to head back to Durban. I was in Jozi all day before my evening flight. I went to the University of the Witswatersrand (“Wits”), met with my advisor and enjoyed the Wits Origins Centre. The center is fairly new and has exhibits on early humans as well as on local people who produced remarkable cave paintings in the more recent past. The dim lighting of the museum provided it with a haunting air, and I was startled at one point when I turned a corner and saw an eland, stuffed of course, but real and in a dying position, with its head on the ground and turned to the side, with its rump still up and its forelegs collapsing underneath. It was graceful, but sad and somehow incredibly profound. The exhibit was focused on a group of people for whom the eland was a vital and even mythical animal.

I finished my Jozi experience with a surprise private viewing of some hominin fossils. It was quite a treat. I was then shuffled off to my B&B to get my luggage and catch the taxi that had been arranged for me. On my drive out of the city I saw parts of Central Johannesburg, much of which was very run down, even depressed. Other areas were buzzing with life. I am still struggling with my opinion of Jozi and of Durban and South Africa in general. Maybe I should live there for awhile in order to figure out what I think. Then again, maybe that’s not necessary. I only know that my feelings and thoughts are complex and often evade articulation. I cannot help but compare South Africa with other African countries that I know, and that may be a mistake. What I do know is that South Africa is beautiful, has good, hard-working people and certainly has the capacity to build itself into a great nation. But there are so many uncertainties and challenges, so many wrongs that must be righted, and so often a dearth of hope, that I sometimes fear for its future. I will go back at some point. Perhaps there will be something or someone new to inspire new hope.