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Old Jun 13, 06, 12:24 am   #1
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The Double-Almost-RTW, Part 1: SIN-BKK-ICN-LAX and back on OZ C/TR Y

Prologue

Last year I spent a month going around the world, covering a safari in Africa, an iceberg cruise in Svalbard, live octopus in Busan and (the scariest of all) poutine in Ottawa. I'd been planning to top it this year with a two-month RTW that would take in various obscure Pacific islands, but due to time and finance constraints this seems imprudent at the moment... so I decided to fly almost all the way around the world and back instead. Twice.

SIN-BKK-ICN-LAX-ICN-BKK-SIN-FRA-LHR-LTN-LJU-CDG-BRU-STN-HEL-STN-LHR-YOW-YUL-YQB-LHR-SIN

Total 42562 miles, at a cost of approximately 25% of what I paid for my 28984-mile CRWSTAR1 last year.

To be covered in this thread is the first half:
  • SIN-BKK on Tiger Airways (TR)
  • BKK-ICN on Asiana (OZ)
  • ICN-LAX on Asiana (OZ)
  • and back, with a 5-day loop through South Korea (Seoul-Cheonan-Suanbo-Danyang-Guinsa-Seoul) on the way
And the trip starts tomorrow!

Last edited by jpatokal; Sep 23, 06 at 5:51 pm Reason: final itinerary
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Old Jun 14, 06, 4:43 pm   #2
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TR 116 SIN-BKK Y free seating A320-200

I was about to fly halfway across the world and back in business class on my own dime, but first, it was time to repent for my sin and pay penance. After suffering through that oh-so-annoying hourlong wait between finishing all my pre-trip preparations and the point when it actually makes sense to leave for the airport, I counted to ten, bolted the door and lugged myself and my rollboard through the tropical afternoon down to the nearest subway (MRT) station. I can get to the airport by taxi in under 20 minutes, but doing it this way involves a transfer at City Hall, another at Tanah Merah and a third onto a bus from Changi T2 to the Budget Terminal. (The upside is that it costs $1.50 instead of $15.) The rush hour was just starting and there were no seats to be had on the train, but I didn't particularly mind -- there was plenty of sitting around ahead.

Almost precisely an hour later the third and final train pulled into T2's MRT station. Newly added signage showed the way toward the Budget Terminal shuttle buses, through a bewildering warren of underground passageways leading past, among other things, a frosted-glass door signed "SIA Cabin Crew Control Centre". Alas, any reveries of obedience training for SQ girls gone wild, involving spanking pert behinds wrapped in kebayas, soon evaporated when I emerged into the harsh flourescent light of the underground T2 bus terminal. One of the bus bays had a few signs with random colorful swirls, a sign stating that shuttle buses run every 10 minutes, and a bent length of steel pipe to balance your butt on (a task I'd imagine even well-controlled SQ stewardesses would find a challenge). After I'd inhaled my recommended daily allowance of exhaust, the bus eventually rolled up and I boarded, the only passenger aside from an Indian uncle toting a cup of teh tarik on a plastic strap.



The bus pulled up to a squat building painted creamy yellow and violet (I think Changi could use an Interior Design Control Centre) and I savored my first visit to the Budget Terminal, only opened in April 2006. Check-in queues were slim and my thumbprint-equipped Access Card eased me through immigration. Inside, the terminal bore a remarkable resemblance to a suburban Toys'R'Us: it's a giant warehouse with an aluminum roof, lots of brightly colored gewgaws for sale and gobs of signboards from the Angry Fruit Salad school of design. But the duty-free shop had the prerequisite bottle of Singapore Sling premix, Genki Sushi sold me a bowl of noodles for $3.80 and there was seating to spare.

The Budgeteers had one clever if evil trick up their sleeve: to prevent kiasu Singaporeans from camping out, gates were not announced in advance. Instead, 30 minutes before departure the flight monitor just silently switched to "Boarding" and the gate number appeared, precipitating a good-natured stampede towards it. But a Tiger guy with spiky blond hair was standing guard and proceeded to divide all entrants into two queues: one for families, one for the rest. The system worked smoothly and half an hour later we were ready to go.

I don't particularly like Tiger as far as Singapore's LCCs go, but I seem to end up flying them quite a bit anyway -- they fly to all sorts of interesting places and regularly offer the cheapest fares. The major problem for me is the seat pitch, which is bad by any standard, and I can't really imagine sitting on one of these birds for over three hours. Today the load was 60%-ish, so I had a free seat next to me, and as the plane accelerated towards takeoff and the little pigtailed girl in the seat in front of me squealed with excitement I smiled and thought to myself: "BAM -- on the road again!"

Last edited by jpatokal; Jun 16, 06 at 9:30 am Reason: +pics
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Old Jun 14, 06, 4:48 pm   #3
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Bangkok

I disembarked at good old Don Muang, inhaled the distinctive smell (which is neither good nor bad, just Don Muang, and quite different from Bangkok's overall funk) and reveled in my first Rot saap, thiu bin thii T-R-neung-neung-hok thammasaa Sin-ka-poh pai Krung Thep laew announcement in almost a year. How many more times will I pass through before Suvarnabhumi finally takes over?

I'd always thought transferring at BKK to be painless -- but I'd never actually needed to use the transfer desk before. I trudged across the terminal only to find that the Asiana desk wasn't open yet, and the sign saying that Thai is Asiana's handling agent did not mean that Thai would actually condescend to handle their pax. I squatted on the floor next to a power outlet for half an hour, watching as World Cup coverage was interrupted to show King Bhumibol celebrating his 60th year on the throne by welcoming an endless stream of dignitaries ranging from the Sultan of Brunei to the Prince of Liechtenstein, and then tried again, only to find three poor Burmese migrant workers flailing in a thicket of red tape and poorly photostatted documents with huge official approval seals. I'd already learned the hard way to never, ever end up behind anybody holding a Union of Myanmar passport in an immigration queue, but here there was no escape. Tappity-tappity-tap, and another half-hour later all three were dispatched... to sit on the sides and wait some more.

Now it was my turn. My ticket was accepted without question, but then the grilling started. Where did you come from? Where is your visa for Singapore? What do you do there? Where is your return ticket? What is your address in LAX? A few ''mai mii'' (not have) and ''mai dai'' (not can) punctuated phone calls later I was granted my boarding card to ICN and told that I'd need to check in again tomorrow for LAX.

I was given an "Asiana Lounge" coupon and, hearing for the first time about the existence of such a beast at an airport I thought I knew well, I embarked on a quest to find it. The map on the back of the coupon promised that the ASIANA LOUNGE should be between piers 2 and 3, next to the information booth and CIP First Class Lounge, but it entirely failed to manifest there -- until I saw the cut-out of an Asiana girl in her military gray uniform behind the CIP Business Class Lounge desk, smiling in a pose that said "I'm hiding a bayonet-tipped assault rifle behind my back and will march off to Pyongyang tomorrow if the captain so orders". With foreboding, I entered a dank cellar of crusty brown leather sofas and tortured souls sighing in corners as they counted minutes until their flight, and after raiding the triangle sandwiches (your choice of dry ham, buttery cheese or dodgy food poisoning) contemplated whether my penance had been sufficient. I could tighten my cilice and flagellate myself a little more by staying... or I could go for a massage at the TG lounge instead. Lead me not to temptation; I can find it myself. (It's right next to gate 32, and yes, it is a Star Alliance lounge although any signs saying so have been hidden.)
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Old Jun 14, 06, 8:15 pm   #4
  
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Hurrah, a jpatokal trip report is always a happy discovery, and this is no exception. Looking forward to more...

Quote:
Originally Posted by jpatokal
After suffering through that oh-so-annoying hourlong wait between finishing all my pre-trip preparations and the point when it actually makes sense to leave for the airport...
Wow, that is something I have never experienced. Far more familiar to me is the realisation that the hour between now and the point at which it makes sense to leave for the airport will be entirely insufficient for the several hours of pre-trip preparations that I still need to do
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Old Jun 14, 06, 11:15 pm   #5
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ah yes the sudden realisation that you have to leave in an hour and haven't started packing, or the wondering whether you've misremembered the time and perhaps should already be on your way, or thinking about the 3 things you have to do on the way to the airport

Another good report from jpatokal to look forward to - yaay.
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Old Jun 14, 06, 11:47 pm   #6
  
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The Budgeteers

I kinda like that word.....
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Old Jun 16, 06, 9:31 am   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mad_atta
Wow, that is something I have never experienced. Far more familiar to me is the realisation that the hour between now and the point at which it makes sense to leave for the airport will be entirely insufficient for the several hours of pre-trip preparations that I still need to do
This is a familiar feeling for me as well, and the main reason why I now err on the side of caution
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Old Jun 16, 06, 9:36 am   #8
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OZ 742 BKK-ICN C seat 1K B747-400

So the reason for this trip was that I had to go to LAX on business, and I spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out a way to do it in business without bankrupting myself in the process. SQ's direct flights from SIN were out, and are pretty darn expensive even in (executive) economy, so I initially opted for the next best thing, namely TG's direct services from BKK. Economy rates here were surprisingly affordable, clocking in around S$1400, but executive econ upgrades would have doubled that and business would have been triple -- still a tempting proposition, it must be said. But then a Flyertalker tipped me off about OZ's US$1600 deal from Bangkok, a little research indicated that correctly chosen flights have lie-flat seats, and a friendly TA in Bangkok told me that stopovers are free and scored me seats on the dates I wanted, and the proverbial dice was cast.

My previous experience of flying SIN-ICN in a regional B757 almost put me off OZ for life, and I still didn't really believe the decent seat would materialize until I clambered on board and sat down on it. This 747 has obviously been around for a while and the seat, too, looked like the kinda thing you'd have seen in First circa 1980. There were three controls, two of which did the important bits (pushed back the seat and pushed up the leg rest), but the mysterious middle button didn't do anything despite the best efforts of a FA to coax it to perform. Biz looked full today and my seatmates were all Thais decked out in royal yellow.

Dinner was served promptly after takeoff and, as the menu was snatched away, I'll recreate it from memory:

Smoked salmon with grilled eggplant
Green salad
Assorted seafood brochette with rice and vegetables
Cheese and fruit platter
Banana cake


Presentation was impeccable, the starter was blah and I once again found myself wondering how much of my ticket price goes to pay for this pseudo-gourmet food and the FAs who bring it to me plate by plate. The main, though, was surprisingly tasty, consisting of juicy prawns, scallops and other "assorted seafood" grilled on a stick (I wonder how many people on board understood that from "brochette"?), although I declined the FA's offer to slather it with barbeque or chilli sauce, and the accompanying Californian Sauvignon Blanc was quite drinkable. I nibbled at the cheese and fruits, skipped the cake and coffee and tried to hit the sack. The Thai uncle next to me, though, savored his to the last crumb and drop, jabbered away with the aunties across the row for another half an hour, and when the lights were finally turned off fell asleep immediately and started snoring loudly. And, while thinking how annoying this is and what a waste it was to pay for biz, I fell asleep and slept soundly until morning.
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Old Jun 16, 06, 9:49 am   #9
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ICN & Yeongjong Island

"Oh boy", I told a friend before my departure, "another 24 hours and the escalators will start talking to me again!" And lest you question my sanity, she understood exactly what I meant -- Korea and Japan share the distinction of being the only countries in the world where it is considered par for course for these devices to dispatch useful information like "Please hold onto the handrail" and "Warning: end of escalator, watch your step".

I've always had miserable weather in Seoul (rain, sleet or both) and the weather forecast didn't look too promising, but an unbroken layer of cloud started to break as we approached ICN and flew over Yeongjong-do, my planned destination of Muui-do glinting in the dawn light. After a smooth touchdown and entry into ICN's space-age terminal, I queued up at the OZ transfer desk, got my boarding pass and headed up to the ICN lounge to munch on cornflakes and sip at bizarre Korean drinks (what on earth is nokcha?) while waiting for my turn for the shower.

Ablutions performed, I set out in search of luggage storage and a bus to Muuido, only to find out at the Asiana transfer desk that, as my layover was >6 hours, I was entitled to my choice of a transit tour or transit hotel. I opted for the hotel, figuring it'd be as good a place as any to store my stuff, and was duly transshipped to Airport Town Square's "Hotel Airpark", where a surprisingly large and decent room awaited me, containing a huge personal vending machine retailing, among other things, grilled squid and glow-in-the-dark condoms.


By now it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, little fluffy clouds floating in the clear blue sky and a gentle breeze making sure that it was nice and warm in the sun, nice and cool in the shade. I asked at the front desk about getting a bus or taxi to Muuido, but after much collective head-scratching and sucking air through teeth they (for at least 4 hotel staff were summoned to deal with the problem) concluded that it would take me a minimum of 60,000W to the trip, using arithmetic which never made it past the language barrier. (The taxi there would've been 15K one-way, but what was the bit about needing to pay 30K for entrance fees and the ferry when my guidebook tells me it should be 2K?) I suggested plan B, the Haesupia Spa, and with relieved smiles was told that they'd be glad to shuttle me there for free.

Haesupia is a squat block of a building just off the road to the airport. I paid my 6000W (~US$6), stripped down to the altogether and traipsed off downstairs in search of hot water, which was indeed available in copious quantities. The trick here is that they use heated deep sea salt water, probably a wise move given the amount of bilge in badly polluted Incheon Bay, but salty or not, a soak in piping hot water does wonders after a long flight. My Nordic heart was warmed by the spread of no less than 5 saunas, ranging from the almost traditional charcoal sauna to the mysterious "Jewel" (yok) sauna, tiled in raw jade with sacks of herbs by the stove, producing an effect like being stuck inside a microwaved menthol inhaler. The outside section had panoramic views of a concrete wall painted with a cheesy seaside mural, and with recorded birdchirps in the background I suntanned myself in the morning breeze and thought that hey, this is a pretty nice way to start your day. (Wanna see me naked? Find the spa on Google Maps/Earth (37.28'17.43" N, 126.31'10.29" E), zoom to maximum and switch to satellite mode. The courtyard is up top, and I'm the very relaxed-looking pixel on the top left side.)

After a few hours of this, interspersed with occasional masochistic bouts of standing under a waterfall of unheated (=4 deg C) seawater, I was as limp as an overcooked noodle and ready to head back and sleep. Before I could, though, the front desk called me up and ordered me in no uncertain terms to "Have lunch now". Airpark's a fine hotel, but steer clear of the restaurant -- I made the mistake of trying the proverbial free lunch, and it was easily the worst meal I've had in Korea. My curry rice contained apples and boiled dill pickles, and the Vietnamese-American guy next to me glumly hacked away at the inch-thick coating of his cutlet and wondered at the mysterious meat inside. I suffered through it, detonated a few tastebuds with the kimchi, headed to my room and crashed for 3 hours.
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Old Jun 16, 06, 1:24 pm   #10
  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jpatokal
sip at bizarre Korean drinks (what on earth is nokcha?)
Nokcha, if indeed you are getting the right word, is green tea. So was what you drank sort of greenish colored tea? If the tea was brewed a bit too long, then it may have been brownish color.
If it was not a tea but an alcoholic beverage, then it's something else.
I like reading through your reports. Continue the great work.

HJ

Last edited by hyunja; Jun 16, 06 at 1:30 pm Reason: Forgot to say how much I liked the TR
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Old Jun 17, 06, 12:53 pm   #11
  
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jpatokal, I'm thrilled to see another TR from you. The one you did last year about visiting Svalbard still sticks in my head as one of the best trip reports ever posted. Looking forward to follow this one as it unfolds!
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Old Jun 17, 06, 1:23 pm   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hyunja
Nokcha, if indeed you are getting the right word, is green tea. So was what you drank sort of greenish colored tea? If the tea was brewed a bit too long, then it may have been brownish color.
I'm still puzzled by this one. I'm fairly sure I got the hangul right, but the drink wasn't tea at all -- it was a goopy sweet white liquid much more like yulmucha (Job's tears drink) or the barley drinks you get in Singapore. I'll try to take a picture on my way back.
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Old Jun 17, 06, 1:28 pm   #13
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OZ 204 ICN-LAX C seat 1K B777-200

OZ has two flights daily from ICN to LAX, and I'd specifically booked myself on this one in anticipation of the lie-flat seat that awaited me. Imagine, then, my disappointment on finding that this was one of the unrefurbished models with only pathetically modest recline. To add insult to injury, the auxiliary power unit (APU) gave up the ghost at ICN, so we were delayed by the better part of a sweaty hour with the air-con turned off (and no, I don't know why it was so hot in the plane when it was nice and cool outside).

But a glass of champagne helped soothe my nerves, and I decided to be generous and permit OZ one last chance to serve me a Korean meal. Today's offering was bibimbap, which consists of rice, veggies, and meat served with a dollop of chilli paste, furiously mashed together until you're left with a sticky, orange but (if done properly) very tasty mess. It's probably the only Korean dish even I can prepare adequately at home, and I'm pleased to report that OZ finally pulled the first halfway decent Korean meal I've eaten on a plane. Congrats!

The meal was served Korean style with a banchan assortment of beansprout soup, kimchi, those tiny dry fish and a bowl of something that approximated egg shells dusted with green tea in texture and taste (although I'd hazard a guess that it was some kind of seaweed). A Western-style cheese platter closely mimicking yesterday's followed, with a very drinkable Sandeman's 20 y.o. tawny port, and the final touch was a poofy cappucino mousse drizzled with strawberryish sauce. All in all, a competent but unextraordinary performance.

I then made the mistake of asking the crew if they happen to have an adapter for the 15V Empower power socket in my seat. For the life of me, I don't understand why airlines go to the trouble of fitting these things if there's no way for anybody to use them, but at Asiana the staff appeared to never even have heard about this feature of their own aircraft: three stewardesses convened a war council beside my seat, taking turns to peer at the mysterious socket with a green LED on top and scratching heads in confusion before disappearing into the galley. A few minutes later one returned with a smile and produced an adapter with a flourish and a smile, but I had to break her heart as it was a dime-store Euro-to-US adapter. Sigh.

I tossed and turned in my seat for the next six hours, occasionally attempting to find something interesting on the personal screen (many channels but no AVOD), which just resulted me in flipping back and forth between the airshow, King Kong, Pink Panther and a Becks & Posh documentary like a teenager with ADHD. Eventually, though, my level of tiredness surpassed the suckiness of the seat and I slept for a grand total of perhaps 3 hours total.

Breakfast... no, lunch... no, "snack" came two hours before arrival, consisting of an appetizer of smoked salmon, a spring-roll-ish thing with a mysterious wrapper and a main of mystery beef or mystery chicken. I groggily opted for the mystery beef (the mystery chicken looked way too much like something from Airpark's restaurant) and was treated to slabs of cow in goopy, tasteless brown sauce with lashings of chili -- evidently Asiana was back to its usual form for Korean food.

Half an hour before landing the aircraft nosed into Californian airspace just south of San Francisco, and the ridges and dried rivers of the desert soon gave way to the massive urban sprawl that is Los Angeles -- endless rows of flat, low-rise housing in a strict grid pattern, marching off into the smog, with only Downtown's skyscrapers breaking the monotony. The aircraft banked past a HoJo's (they still exist!) and an In-n-Out Burger before touching down the cracked brown concrete of LAX.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Seoul Incheon Inter..." Pause. Switch mental tape. Rewind. Play. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Los Angeles International Airport."
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Old Jun 17, 06, 2:59 pm   #14
  
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jpatokal
until I saw the cut-out of an Asiana girl in her military gray uniform behind the CIP Business Class Lounge desk, smiling in a pose that said "I'm hiding a bayonet-tipped assault rifle behind my back and will march off to Pyongyang tomorrow if the captain so orders". .)
Hahaha absolutely brilliant. Hope don muang is still open when i do a rtw in october (odds are it will be) so I can look her up

Keep'em coming!
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Old Jul 1, 06, 1:56 am   #15
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Los Angeles

Los Angeles started demonstrating its love affair with the car at the airport, where OZ's 777 was unceremoniously docked next to a CX 747 at a bus gate. We were shipped out into the Tom Bradley terminal, where lack of signage and dim lighting were compensated for by irritated staff yelling the same near-incomprehensible instructions over and over ("FOUR FIVE VISITORS TWO THREE RESIDENTS YOU SIR LEFT QUEUE FOUR!"). There wasn't much of a queue though -- thank you, business class -- and my interrogation was completed in three simple steps:

- So what are you doing in LA?
- Business.
- What kind of business?
- Meetings.
- What kind of meetings?
- Dot com.
- Thank you.

And the conversation above repeated itself word for word at Customs. So remember folks: if you're a terrorist with a record of felonies and genocide, entering the United States to deal drugs, overthrow the US government and commit immoral activities, just tell 'em you're coming to LA to see a dot-com and all will be forgiven.

Now, instead of giving y'all a blow by blow of every taco I ate for a week, I'll just limit myself to a series of sneering vignettes on what the rest of the world finds weird about California, the promised land where coffee is cold, drinks are large and tits are silicone (with apologies to K).

You can tell a lot about a country by its newspaper ads. In Singapore, foreigners occasionally whinge about why the Straits Times' ads seems to consist of nothing except bust enhancement creams (my theory is that the boobs sitting in the editorial office need all the help they can get), but as the bra of the average Californian female can contain a Singaporean and two bags of groceries, you don't see much of this in LA.
It's not that Angelenos aren't into big mammaries, far from it, it's just that the idea of rubbing on a little cream and hoping for some results, oh, a few months down the line is just so insufficiently instantly gratifying. Instead, the LA Weekly's ads promise augmentation the old-fashioned way with knives and guaranteed results, or alternatively Botox, "vaginal rejuvenation", medical marijuana evaluations, colon hydrotherapy, strip clubs and "jobs wanted" ads for porn movies -- and I won't even mention the personals (although I do hope the admirably modest Mr. Multi-Millionaire finds the young buff transsexual into plug play that he's looking for).

The scenery was itself quite fascinating in its repetitive suburban blandness. For an entire hour, as the bus cruised down Venice Blvd towards Downtown LA, all I saw out the window was a seemingly endless series of auto repair shops, used car dealerships, smog check stations, window-tinters, fast food chains, carpet shops, and furniture stores, plus a few check-cashing places, Western Unions, and taquerias mixed in for variety's sake.

The ride gave me a feeling I imagine many visitors to New York get: the feeling that this is a city so big, you can get lost in it. That never happens to me in New York, it seems too small and familiar, and there are always too many people around. But something about the way the sun shines so unforgivingly on everyone in LA makes this place seem huge and impersonal. The sidewalks are not constantly crowded with people, and there's something private and nice about that, if not a little isolating. --New York Hack
It's been over 12 years since I last set foot in these United States -- what has changed? Surprisingly little, it seems; the strip malls have continued their inexorable march during the time that I was away, but the endless sequence iterated above doesn't actually look any different than 12 years ago. Coffee shops have multiplied though (thank you, Starbucks), juice bars also seem hip (or this is just a Cali thing? I'm pretty sure the organic smoothies are), and gas certainly wasn't $3.30 a gallon last time around.

American supermarkets are large, slow-moving targets popular with foreigners firing cheap shots, but I think it's safe to say that only in California will you find an entire aisle called "New Age Beverages". In the name of science, I purchased a dildo-pink bottle of SoBe(r) Lizard Fuel(r) Strawberry and Banana Flavored Beverage with a Blend of Astragalus, Ginseng & Yerba Mate ("BRING ON THE BIGGEST AIRS AND THE BIGGEST FLAIRS", quoth the back of the bottle), but after the first gulp I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. I'd assumed that "Lizard Fuel" was a metaphoric expression for an energy drink for Californian dope-... hepcats like the baggy-pantsed fellow falling off his BMX bike on the bottle's illustration, but no, based on the taste it appears that Astragalus is a genus of iguana and yerba mate is Oacaxan for "kerosene".

So while an insane array of options certainly counts among the upsides of American grocery stores (I'm fairly sure the rather ordinary Ralphs in El Segundo stocks more products than all of Singapore combined), the downside for the single non-resident that everything comes in American-sized packages. It took an active search to find orange juice in a container of under a gallon (I settled for half), or a package of less than 300 Q-tips, and even yogurt was mostly sold by the 20-pack. Still, I was too busy drooling over twelve flavors of bagels and Key Lime pie to care -- say what you want about American cuisine, but it certainly is possible to eat well in this country if you want.

As I usually do, I did my best to stick to local cuisine, which in California tends to mean a) Caesar salads, b) anything involving Hawaiian fish with strange names like ahi, mahi-mahi, hula-hula and wiki-wiki-burger, and c) great big sticky cheese-laden refried-beany macho-nacho globs of food from south of the border. As a colleague noted, in California "authentic" means "meaty and greasy", while any restaurant without that tag will gladly serve you, say, a nice organic vegan tofu burrito with sprouts and low-fat salsa. But I didn't mind one bit: Madre de Dios, why is it so difficult to export halfway decent Mexican food outside the Americas, and why is it that every two-peso taqueria in Los Angeles kicks butt? Probably the best of all was my last meal, a Burrito Grande(tm) at a Mrs. Garcia's chain outlet, stuffed to the bursting point and a little beyond with pinto beans, dirty rice, salsa and incredibly mouth-meltingly smooth slices of beef tongue all melded together into a fat tube of perfection.


One Sunday afternoon, I rode the Ghetto Blue to the city center. The station list of the Metro Blue Line, which crosses through South Central, reads like a Top 10 list of gangster rap and urban violence: Watts, Compton, Inglewood... and the consequent emphasis on safety and security, reinforced through posters, signs, cameras, emergency buttons etc is in itself more akin to provoke anxiety attacks than the reality of trolley-pushing Hispanic moms, frazzled Vietnam vets and black guys in big pants that populate the system (with the occasional big-eyed white girl making the long haul to or from Long Beach). Being an ex-New Yorker, my idea of an inner-city ghetto is a crumbling housing project in Harlem with a few blown-out crack house shells around it, but in South Central even the ghettos look like strip malls -- it's just that nobody's watered the lawn for a while, half the shops are boarded shut, and the rest are hiding behind iron bars and advertise bail bonds, instant pregnancy tests and pawn shops.

The really amazing bit is that the Blue Line is the only form of public transport that runs north-south across greater LA, a region of 13-14 million people, and it's an at-grade tram with a frequency of a train once every 12 minutes. I originally planned to go check out the Getty Center, but it turned out that on Sundays most of LA's already sufficiently pitiful public transport shuts down entirely, and there was no way to get there that didn't involve a minimum of three bus transfers -- and the MTA's otherwise fairly decent site omitted any indication of whether the neighborhoods for these changes are the kind of places where a lost-looking white boy can stand around at a bus stop without getting relieved of excessive possessions.


So I ended up Downtown, which, this being LA, really isn't. In any other city of over ten million, prime lots of land next to the main train station and its subway interchange would be 50-story office towers and condos; in Los Angeles, they're parking lots and four-story "lofts". I munched on French dipped roast beef at Philippe's and watched America flagellate itself over concentration camps in the Japanese American Nat'l Museum, which was done well enough, but I couldn't help being a little cynical on two fronts. First, if you're going to equate the relocation era with Nazi Germany and use the word "concentration camp", then maybe quotes where ex-inmates ..... about the mosquitoes and slow legal aid isn't quite right approach. And second, if you're going to go on a "Never again" theme with assorted rants about constitutional liberties and whatnot, then when's the Guantanamo branch opening? At least the volunteer guide had found a novel enemy to oppose, as he spent 5 minutes ripping the ACLU a new one as if this was all their fault.


After pottering about in the plastic wonderland of Little Tokyo and drooling over the delightfully brutal metalscapes of the Caltrans building and the Walt Disney Hall, I descended into MOCA to get a dose of modern art. The main current exhibit was by Robert Rauschenberg, whose works incorporate various banes of the archivist including -- and I quote -- "pants fragments", "elephant dung" and the admirably honest "unidentifiable debris". It was OK, but as usual my eyes glazed over when exposed to excessive repetition of the same theme. Except for one video clip of people calling and putting each other on hold, Norma Johnson's whiny Afro-American angst didn't fare much better, but the permanent exhibition tucked away in the basement proved a little more interesting, if ultimately forgettable to the point that, two days later, I can't actually remember any of the works. Blah.


On my last day I ended up in Culver City for the afternoon, and promptly set out to its most famous(?) sight, the inimitable Museum of Jurassic Technology. Imagine a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not?" teleported from the 19th century, curated by obsessively detailed pathological liars, and you will have a vague idea of the sheer weirdness that permeates the place -- some of the stuff inside is true, some of it is entirely fabricated, and all of it is so strange that there's no way of telling which is which. I spent a good 3-4 hours poking around, watching the videos on topics all and sundry, culminating in "Levsha: The Tale of a Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea", which may sound like an obscure Russian art-house movie, but was in fact a surreal yet utterly poker-faced documentary of a thoroughly pointless story that may or may not have happened. I'm sure there's a parallel to Los Angeles as a whole somewhere in here.

Last edited by jpatokal; Apr 11, 08 at 9:12 am Reason: fix images
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