Sunday, 25 July 2010

(North) America

I was looking forward to the USA. I was looking forward to reliable modern plumbing, outdoor gear shops with quality-guarantees, clean streets and efficient public rubbish collection. I was looking forward to catching up with Barbara (my host), whom I had last seen one evening early in November as she helped me and my stuff down the perilous steps from my Himalayan guesthouse in Dharamsala and saw me into the taxi that was taking me to the bus to Rishikesh. I was looking forward to meeting the people I had been corresponding with about a possible doctorate (long, surreal, Indian story) and drinking overpriced chai lattes from monolithic coffee chains, that bear very little resemblance to their Indian inspiration (well, maybe in sugar content). Despite all of this, I was reluctant to leave Asia, suffering a big pang as I drove from my $4 a night hotel room through early morning Phnom Penh in my final tuktuk ride, drinking in the last of the incongruously piled-up motorbikes, fruit stalls and life and paraphernalia that seem to be the major common feature of the streets of the different Asian countries I have been lucky enough to pass through.

Flying over LA I felt fear for the first time. It was so enormous. And so full of concrete. And so organised. An endless grey grid, lit up by never-ending lines of yellow street lights. Barbara is normally a very organised person (she’s a nurse) but in a lapse of habit, she had managed to lose both the emails I’d sent her with my flight information. All she knew was my arrival time and that I was coming from somewhere in Asia. Now, LAX is a big airport. With two international arrival terminals. By the time she did eventually find me, waiting by my luggage trolley, she was nearly in tears. But all’s well that ends well.
Barbara gave me her spare keys and sallied forth on her very busy work schedule. For the next two weeks, I had the run of Santa Monica, an uncharacteristically easy place to get around if you don’t have a car. I walked long distances through huge sparklingly clean blocks and worked out the bus network (miraculously, there is one in this corner of LA, a city not known for its public transport). The local starry yoga studio (Exhale Centre for Sacred Movement) was doing a special 2-week introductory deal incredibly cheaply and so I signed up and checked out some of the yoga names that plaster DVDs and posters at a fraction of the price I’d have to pay if I were to try them out on one of their touring workshops through London. Santa Monica (Barbara’s home) is a bit like a Primrose Hill by Sea, all fashionable yoga studios with fantastically overpriced and rather gorgeous paraphernalia, organic chichi cafes and bars and beauty salons galore. Neighbouring Venice Beach is a bit more Soho-cum-Hackney by Sea (apologies to anyone who doesn’t know London). Wandering through Venice Beach one day, I was very amused to see exactly the same clothing on sale as in the street markets of Bangkok or Phnom Penh, only rather more expensive. Ahhh, globalisation.
Here’s somewhere between Venice Beach and Santa Monica:

One day last November in Rishikesh, Swami Aparokshananda in his Katha Upanishad class had mentioned someone he’d met who was doing a PhD in the States on yoga. This got me thinking. For a while now, I have been interested in the relationship (as I see it) between certain aspects of yoga philosophy and certain practices within postmodern dance. It’s research and work I plan to continue, in whatever context but this did start me wondering whether a doctorate might not provide the framework to make this possible. Some weeks, later, lost on Brigade Road in Bangalore, trying to follow a typically erroneous set of directions from some Indian friends (wrong street name, wrong crossing, but in true Indian fashion we eventually found one another against all logical odds), a gentleman approached me.

“Are you familiar with this area?” he enquired.
No I was not. I was completely bewildered. He proceeded to try and help me, with no greater success than I had had and then insisted on buying me tea. I had twenty minutes before I was due to meet Vibhinna somewhere mysteriously in the area, and after a bit of persuasion, I agreed. It turned out that Shrinivas (the gentleman) was originally from Bangalore but had lived the past forty years in LA and was back visiting family and studying some yoga. We got talking about my idea and he mentioned a professor at Catholic University in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount (LMU). A few days later, I emailed this professor with my enquiry, who emailed me back a very charming reply, suggesting we meet when I passed through LA. I then emailed my yoga philosophy teacher to ask whether he had ever heard of this professor, who emailed me back singing his praises and informing me he was just posting his Christmas card. Then it was Barbara’s turn, the only person I know in LA, who waxed lyrical on the university in question. It’s amazing what you can find when you lose yourself in Bangalore.
This had been last December and we were now approaching the end of June. Amazingly, the bus ran straight from Barbara’s to LMU, with only the huge internal distances to walk (American universities clearly aren’t built for car-less students). I met Professor Chris Chapple on a few occasions over the next days. He was always charming and extremely helpful. The idea presented was that I should do their MA in Comparative Theology and then move on to my PhD. I was concerned about leaving the dance aspect behind for so long and was assured we could make special arrangements. The lovely lady in graduate admissions offered me a 40% scholarship on the spot, which was very charming. Nonetheless, the whole endeavour would still cost about £20,000, before living costs and before a whiff of the PhD. I am not closing that door but I’m not entirely sure it’s remotely viable - but interesting to make connections and explore and ponder.
My other major job in LA was to replace my rucksack and worn-our walking sandals, along with various other lotions, potions and vitamins (India and Thailand are well stocked in these things, Cambodia much less so). All this was done very successfully, leaving a huge hole in my budget. Ahhh, there is a cost to all this cleanliness and convenience and efficiency. And so many people looked so stressed. It struck me very forcibly, coming from Cambodia, perhaps the most consistently poor country I have ever visited, how unhappy so many people looked in LA, despite their comforts and conveniences.
Despite the “June gloom”, the cloud cover that comes from the Pacific and makes coastal LA really rather chilly at times, I enjoyed my walks, my occasional short bouts of sunbathing by the enormous Pacific on beaches where it takes ten minutes to walk from the start of the sand to the seashore.

I enjoyed wandering through Santa Monica Promenade where the buskers sound like stars (better than many of them). I enjoyed a father’s day weekend spent further inland with Barbara’s large family and freezing my toes off watching Barbara’s fire dancing troupe practise in the park one night. LA was a big shock after Asia and I never felt I fully adjusted to the space and the mechanisation and the huge car culture but I was glad to be there and grateful, grateful to lovely Barbara and her hospitality. Here we are as I headed from LAX to Miami, the next stop on my American tour.

In Miami, I was staying with my friend John, whom I had first met at the end of 1997 doing a stage combat workshop in Arizona. He got to impale me on his quarter staff six feet up in the air and watch me slide down it in my death throes. A beautiful friendship ensued. He is married to Jen and they have a lovely daughter called Isabella, who turned one a few days after I left them all.
John had passed through London a few times over the years and had stayed on various permutations and combinations of camp-beds on my various living-room floors. It was now time to swap roles, only I got an extremely comfortable spare room with double bed, all to myself, no camp beds in sight.
John was very busy running the tail-end of a festival of short plays and auditioning for a production of The Tempest he is directing in the autumn. I hung out with Jen and Isabella, watched John’s Tempest auditions and gave my tuppence worth on themes and castings (and oohhh, I do miss working with Shakespeare, such lovely stuff!). Although much warmer than California had been, it rained a lot while I was in Florida, so I only got to the beautiful Hollywood beach (the suburb of Miami Jen and John live in) twice.

Somehow everything felt more exuberant and jolly than California, big Latino families and restaurants everywhere (though I had heard a lot of Spanish in California too). I loved swimming in the Atlantic again, and enjoyed the fact (after Thailand) that I only had to wade out a couple of metres before my feet no longer touched the gritty sand. I kept expecting to see detritus from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but none was visible, only detritus from the rainstorms.
We went into town one night where I was amused to see this very Spanish-influenced church amongst the shops of South Beach. And yes, there are homeless people in the US too.

Here’s the Miami skyline that night (the spots are on the car windshield I took the picture through):

On my last day, John took me to the Florida Everglades, a “sea of grass” (which has been almost entirely cut off from its water source, a lake further north, by agriculture and urban development), home to all sorts of birds and alligators (all hiding in the water on the day we went). We cycled 15 sticky miles in very hot sun, chatting and admiring the view, as John is doing below.

We later drove round my first bone fide Indian reservation. The local Indians have made huge sums (they recently bought out the Hard Rock CafĂ© chain) on the casinos they have on their reservations, so the reservation itself was very spruced up with lots of extremely expensive cars in driveways. We saw a Florida panther in a cage in someone’s back garden, presumably rescued for later re-release into the Everglades. This was quite exciting and we purposely got lost up a driveway to double-check, peering through the windscreen, as the chances of seeing one of these shy endangered creatures in the wild are practically nil.
John and Jen spoiled me rotten and it was lovely to have ten days with them and get to know little Isabella. But soon enough, it was time to pack my bags again, leave the uber-development of North America behind me, head for my first new continent of my journey and straddle the equator for the first time in the many years since my last visit to Gabon. Hello South America. Hello Ecuador.
From Lucy, with love x

1 comment:

  1. Wicked, love hearing about your travels, keep them coming! Candy xxxxx