Travel: Finding la la land in Los Angeles!
Having spent some time in New York City during my formative teenage years, I’m not sure when the dislike for LA set itself firmly into my head.
Los Angeles and New York are rivals for reasons nobody can explain. The Internet is full of New Yorkers cracking mean jokes about Los Angelians, and getting it right back from them. You could draw similarities between the rivalries of other world cities: Melbourne and Sydney, one more fashionable, the other more open-minded. Or closer home, Mumbai and New Delhi. (Being a Mumbai guy living in Delhi, I’ll refrain from providing an analogy, lest I offend my friends or current neighbours!)
Growing up, one was overwhelmed with stories about the crime in Los Angeles. The home of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters had a reputation in the 1990s of having a downtown so full of homeless people, it could rival parts of “the third world.” Gun culture was rampant (many would say it still is in America), crime was everywhere. If you were in LA, you stayed in spots where you were safe, and found transit (usually your own car, that led to the infamous gridlocks) and avoided areas you didn’t know.
Contrast that to my last trip to Los Angeles. I lived in a trendy theatre-turned hotel in downtown LA, went on a morning run every day appreciating the retro touches in a downtown that hasn’t modernised itself to glass and steel as fast as others, and one morning on my way back, I even had an unusual experience: I entered the only store I found open at 7.20 am, and was asked to show age ID and give my email before entering. It was a store selling cannabis, now legal in California, and while I didn’t buy any, I now get weekly offers in my email that I wonder who to pass onto, and whether I should!
On my second night in LA, a jetlagged me found myself wide awake after dinner, so I booked tickets to the much talked about Upright Citizens Brigade across town in Hollywood, requested an Uber, and felt unsafe for not a single second. My lady driver looked like an older struggling actress who never quite made it, and told me, “Oh, LA’s safe now, though there are some areas where I wouldn’t pick someone up and just drive off!”
Here’s the story of my shift in perception of this glamorous city, though I must admit upfront that my loyalties still remain with the other one.
In the summer of 2011, I was appointed editor of the world’s most respected luxury magazine, Robb Report. I was to launch the Indian edition and had to meet my counterparts at their offices in Malibu, just outside LA.
I had never really thought of visiting Los Angeles before that; if you are a New Yorker, you won’t ask why. So I was devoid of any ideas of where to stay, what to do, what not to. I stayed away from downtown for obvious reasons, and on the booking website, recognised a hotel from a TV show called America’s Next Top Model. It was called The Standard and had its name at the entrance displayed upside down. At that time, it seemed cool to me and most importantly, it fit my not so generous budget.
The hotel turned out to be average at best (no air-conditioning and I had to request a floor fan on the second night, which I carried from the reception to the room!). But it was situated bang in the middle of the Sunset Strip. To my left was the hotel where one of the big Oscars after parties took place, and opposite it was the Hyatt Andaz, an old, but well-maintained property that I have stayed at a few times in the years that followed.
So Sunset Boulevard was my first introduction to Los Angeles City. It was everything I had imagined it to be, except for the setting sun. Glamorous hotels, expensive cars, beautiful people; but for someone like me who wants to see beyond the glamour, it was full of different discoveries. For instance, comedy clubs towards West Hollywood turned out to be the great undiscovered entertainers of the city: a town that attracts the world’s best acting talent and leaves a majority of them without jobs should have a thriving stage culture… nobody seems to talk about it!
Another standout for me was the number of tarot readers and faux fortune tellers (pardon my use of sarcasm, traditional print doesn’t yet allow the use of the rolling eye emoji!) For a kid who grew up in Bollywood, it made me wonder: must the pursuit of fame always be tinged with leanings of insecurity?
Thought for food
If I were to pick a food that personifies New York City, I’d choose the large slice of pizza, which…sorry, Italians…is as American a dish as it can ever be. During my many trips to LA, I tried hard to find what food best represented the city.
In 2011, it was the burger. Old fashioned burger joints with red booths and generous helpings of ketchup dotted every neighbourhood. On a trip a couple of years later, Mexican influences seemed stronger. And most recently, Los Angeles has given itself up to vegan food.
The Impossible Burger, these days, is everywhere. Made by one of two companies that uses a complicated concoction of plant-based proteins to create a patty that tastes like meat, the burger should be a dream come true to the vegetarian Indian, should it not?
The real truth: it isn’t!
The Impossible Burger is meant to replicate the taste of meat, and make those non-vegetarians who have given up meat feel like they’re eating the same old thing. For the Indian vegetarian who has often never tasted meat at all, this is nothing but an alien taste that often invokes disgust.
That having been said, the options across cafés and restaurants for meat, fish and dairy-free meals are overpoweringly apparent, and if India is a great place to be vegetarian given the number of options you have, Los Angeles could well be the second very soon!
Five things to do
So where must one go when visiting Los Angeles? To the Boardwalk and Venice beaches that offer unlimited entertainment? To the film studios that offer guided tours? Or to the Hollywood sign for that Instagram pictures?
My answer: Google all of that and find what piques your interest the most. Fall into the tourist trap you want to.
But while you’re in the city of Angels, do the following: Walk inwards from Venice beach through the little houses that line the canals. Go during the day, as there are no lights at night. If you stop to listen, you’ll find stories that’ll delight, and pretty, pretty photographs too!
Stop by the original Muscle Beach. It’s an open air gym where body builders and body exhibitionists (still mostly men) continue to work out and aren’t averse to tourists taking their pictures.
Give Downtown a chance. It’s a city waking up to development. The buildings from the ’70s make charming facades, and the number of farmers’ markets, food courts and organic street food stalls is increasing.
Ride on horseback towards the Hollywood sign (you’ll find plenty of options online). It’s less disappointing than trekking up only to realise you can’t really get as close to the letters as you’d hoped to.
Visit Artesia, the Indian neighbourhood, to see how immigrants who moved decades ago continue to hold on to India in their hearts; though, on closer examination, you may find it’s a different India than the one we live in today!
The final word? I now realise my perceptions of LA were harsh and unjustified, quite like the jokes. New York New York is grime and reality, LA is la la land!
What works for you?
Follow @JamalShaikh on Twitter
From HT Brunch, September 29, 2019
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch