Tuesday 30 October 2012

USA 1 - LA/San Diego/Tijuana

My first trip to Los Angeles was in the early 90s. I was enroute home (via the Pacific) after an engineering mission in the city of Indianapolis, Indiana and decided to stop over for a few days.

Being a film buff, it was exciting to finally set eyes on the white 'sci-fi' arches of LAX airport. I had seen them often in the movies and looking at them made me wonder where my own journey would take me. I got the answer not long after getting onto the highway. Sounds of gunfire could be heard coming from a suburban sprawl on the right. Later on TV I found out that it was due to some domestic disturbance. Shots were fired but there were no casualties. I had thought it was a gang turf-fight or worse, random shooting.

The place I was heading to was a girlfriend's aunt's home. This GF had suggested that I drop by LA for a bit of sightseeing and to do her the favour of passing her aunt something. Stuff that could break in the mail or cost a bomb to send via airmail. Stuff like, for example, a bottle of precious chinchalok (preserved shrimp paste). There was also a can of less expensive fish floss, something the aunt always requested from relatives in Singapore. She loved to have them with her rice porridge.

My cab arrived in Orange Country and stopped at a small suburban plot. The house was a modest one in grey and white with a garage and driveway. It was very clean and neat. Typical, I thought, remembering the countless ones I've see on TV, like in the X-Files. What mysteries lurked in this innocent looking suburban abode, I wondered. Will alien were-worms emerge from underneath and gobble me up?

I pressed the doorbell and an elderly lady opened the front door.  "TC?" she asked.

"Yes. Aunt Annie?" I countered.

"Yes. Come on in, come on in," she ushered.

The inside of the house was as nondescript as the outside but just as neat. Obviously, she kept a clean and tidy home. The hall opened to an open-plan kitchen. I noticed a cage. Inside was a middle-aged African Grey Parrot. "His name's Howard," Aunt Annie informed, moving to the counter to make me a drink. "Mind your fingers. He can be nasty with strangers."

"Tea or coffee?"

"Oh, coffee please," I said. It had been a long day and I wanted to perk up.

I liked animals and tried to coax Howard into make small talk. No luck. Howard simply edged away looking wary.

I next opened my suitcase and brought out three tubes of Pringles potato chips. "These are for you... from May," I said to Aunt Annie.

Upon hearing that, she opened her eyes wide, surprised and quite unbelieving. She then said: "We have these here, TC. You shouldn't have brought them!" Inside, I was smiling at my own prank and thought, As if!

"No, Aunt Annie," I confessed, "THESE are for you!"

At that I removed the contents inside the tubes. They were the bottles of chinchalok and fish floss.

Aunt Annie laughed. "Oh, TC, that was funny!"

"Do you know that I simply love these?" she added, fondling the chinchalok like some ash urn of a dead lover.

I smiled back at her feeling happy to have done something good. It also broke the ice. Aunt Annie, with her cultured manner of speaking and coiffured looks reminded me of women who grew up rich and powerful (kind of like Lucille Ball in her later years). I wasn't far off. I later learnt from May that her side of the family owned Gay World in Geylang and other properties. Home was along East Coast Road.

(I don't know why, but women of powerful men from the '60s era tend to have high foreheads, bouffant hair and a disproportionate head. Large pieces of jewellery too. They often speak with a deep, raspy voice. Their larger than life looks were probably to complement the men they marry: Men with big egos and ambitions.

I then sat down with Aunt Annie and made small talk. I found her to be a really nice person, down-to-earth and caring. She was also quite Christian in her beliefs.

In the evening, her son Steve, a systems analyst, came home. They then set about making me comfy in a spare room.

Steve was in his mid-30s and mild-mannered. When I told him about the shooting coming in from the airport, he pulled out a case from under his bed. "Oh, we are well protected," he said.

In the case were an M16 rifle and a Colt 45 revolver. I was gobsmacked!

The only M16 I ever handled was during National Service where it was kept in an armoury when not in use. Here, it is under a bed!

"We can go shoot in the desert when we find time," Steve suggested. I was ecstatic and looked forward to it. I then struck a James Bond pose in the doorway with his Colt 45 and had him  take a picture too. I still have that photo.

Bombay Masala

When time came for dinner, Aunt Annie asked what I wanted to eat. I had been away from home for more than a week then and missed my curry fix, so I cheekily said Masala Thosai. I was only half serious about it. The other half wanted everybody to eat something different.

But Aunt Annie took it to heart and actually brought the family and I to a small Indian eatery cum supermart in Orange County. What surprised me further was to find her conversing with the owner-chef in fluent Indian! I was again gobsmacked. In my whole life, I could count only two instances when I had seen a Chinese speak Tamil. Both happened in the 80s. One of the speakers was a public bus driver (Service 170); the other was a tailor.

Over dinner, Aunt Annie explained the reason behind her talent. She had spent her childhood in India. Her father was a career diplomat and she had schooled there for a number of years and so picked up some dialects; Tamil being one. She later married and followed her husband to America. He was Chinese and worked in law enforcement. But he had since passed away, leaving Aunt Annie with sons Raymond and Steve, now in their 30s. At the dinner was also Raymond's Ecuadorean wife and their two kids, both aged roughly five and two.

After dinner, the whole family adjourned to a cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator II had just be released. The world world had been waiting for a sequel since the first movie premiered in 1984. And here it was in LA. (Back then, film releases in Singapore still lagged those in the US. The situation has since changed. So I was glad to have caught the T2 movie.)

Darkness Redefined

The next day, I decided to visit Disneyland. It is in Anaheim, very close to where I was in Orange County. It would be my first time there.

The theme park was exactly what I had seen on TV. Main Street, the Disney characters, etc. As an adult, these held little interest for me except as nostalgia. I had seen the images often on TV as a kid, especially that castle graphic during the closing credits. Back then we kids fantasized about going to Disneyland and didn't think we would ever get a chance - it being so far away in the "US of A". And there I was, walking behind those iconic castle walls and spires and mingling amidst its fairy tale characters and such. I was glad but felt maybe the visit was a couple of decades too late.

I explored Disneyland as much as I could and looked out for something to do that was age appropriate for myself. It would be a memento of sorts. Halfway through, I ran into the daily parade on Main Street. It was lively and a great photo opportunity.

After that, I found Space Adventure Tours and queued up for the ride. By the way, many of the kiddy rides around the theme park had super long queues, so I was glad I came by myself and not with a family of kids. Imagine having to spend half the time at the park waiting for stuff to happen! Fortunately for me, the queue at SAT was not too long.

I liked the SAT building. It has sweeping curves and fins reminiscent of the '50s jet-age. The Jetsons would feel right at home.

But the indoors were a different story. The design looked more like something from Star Wars. The whole place was modelled to look like a space port boarding facility (adventure tour, get it?)

Basically, the ride at SAT was an indoors roller coaster ride in this huge darkened dome. There was no light except for some distant pinpoints of light representing stars. The last visible thing I saw was a sign overhead that warned folks with heart ailments and on medication to quit the queue and give up. Otherwise, once the cart entered the blackness within, it was anyone's guess which way the roller coaster would turn, dip or climb. It's like wearing a blindfold but worse.

The darkness inside was so complete it felt like a bubble was pressing against me. It was suffocating like that. Also, unable to see anything, I wouldn't know if something was going to hit me. I would just die there in the dark. So the ride was unnerving in that sort of way. Otherwise, the twists and turns slapped you the same way any normal roller coaster ride would.

Sea World

Going to LA made me wonder about the whole Californian Peninsular. After seeing a Sea World promotional brochure, I decided to head on down to San Diego.

To get there, I booked  a seat on a coach tour. How I did it was quite efficient: I made use of hotel facilities nearby. About a mile from Aunt Annie's home was the Buena Park Hotel. Various transport options were available from there: tour coaches, shuttle services, cabs, etc. It did not matter if I was a guest. I could get in touch with the relevant service provider from a counter there. Also, in the hotel lobby was a rack full of tourist brochures of what-to-do and what-to-see. That beat planning my holiday from Aunt Annie's home and going through the Yellow Pages.

Sea World was huge and reminded me of Sentosa. There were exhibits both indoors and outdoors for creatures large and small. One very popular attraction were the staged shows at the Pool Arena. It could seat some 300 visitors. When I was there, I watched a fun and boppity '60s-themed ski and dance beach party act. Seals, dolphins and small whales were also part of the performance. There were also water ski stunts (skiers forming a two-tier tower) performed in the ocean right beside the Arena.

One of the outdoor exhibits I found fascinating was the Pink Dolphin Pool. You wouldn't expect a creature so large to be swimming in a low circular tank outside. But it was just that. Folks could come up close and touch them if they wanted. Another popular exhibit was the Ray Fish Pool. I liked that I could stroke and play with the creatures inside. There were starfishes and corals as well. To prevent abuse, staff were around to monitor and educate.

Sea World had a novelty machine I have never come across before. A coin-operated machine that presses a copper penny into a longer and flatter souvenir. Quite useful, actually. I also bought a fishing boat captain's cap: Blue with a black peak cap in front. It had followed me on many long cycling trips.

After Sea World, I went further south and crossed into Tijuana, Mexico. It was all part of the tour package that I had bought from an agent at Buena Park Hotel.

Tijuana Zebra

I was looking forward to Tijuana as I am a fan of the tequila drink. I used to be able to drink shots of it without getting drunk. I know, it is kind of weird considering that it has high alcoholic content. But then again, youth is youth. It can be like a filter that lets everything through. Only when you get older that that things start to get clogged up.

Tijuana was right at the border between the US and Mexico. As such, it's also a cowboy town. By that I mean it gives off a feral and "anything goes" kind of aura. I guess this is what happens at boundaries. Things get blurred and less definite. Escape and return; escape and return. It was the same at Golok, a town between Malaysia and Thailand.

The contrast on both sides of the border couldn't be more stark. As our tour bus rolled into Tijuana, a hillside shanty town came into view. In the bright sunshine, it didn't look dirty. But it was still a shanty town of zinc sheet and plywood homes. The only modern feature were the many satellite dishes that sprouted from the rooftops.

Further in were rows of two-storey shops (with five-foot ways) and an assortment of low tenements. They existed on both sides of this four-lane road our bus was on. The buildings looked dated and reminded me of the '70s and older. You could say this road we were on was then the main road into Tijuana. I could see it stretching all the way to a plateau mountain on the horizon and into the interior of Mexico (pronounced "meh-hi-ko").

Our bus eventually stopped near some sidewalk vendors outside a tequila shop. I noticed walking around that there were quite a few of these establishments, each touting their own gold standard of fine T (which is incidentally gold in color too). The proprietors were quick to leverage on the "worm in the tequila" myth, preferring to offer such fare eagerly, and claiming erroneously that such liquor was "better".

The sidewalk vendors, with their mats of wares on the floor, sold souvenirs and ethnic stuff. I observed that leather products (treated or otherwise) were popular. But mostly, they were too folksy in design to appeal to me. But I did pick up a rather cute tiny leather figurine of a sheriff on a keychain; it was two-tone in color and even had a star on its chest. Lacquered and hardened paper sculptures of rural folk - a farmer, a village woman with child, etc. - about a foot high, were also popular at the time. I bought two from a street vendor and hoped they won't be crushed on the flight home.

Perhaps the strangest sight I saw in Tijuana was this half ass and zebra. Folks could pay a fee to have their picture taken with it. I didn't after realising that the animal was actually a donkey painted to look like a mutated animal. I mean, it was pretty obvious. So how dumb did these folks take us for? Incredibly, this tradition (of painting donkeys) began in the early 20th century to make the donkeys appear better in black and white photos. They are now called Tijuana Zebras.

Next story: USA 2 - LA 2

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