Sunday, 15 April 2012

Exiles on Main Street

After forty days and forty nights of wandering in the desert, we had finally reached the Promised Land—California. Joni Mitchell Sang about it, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac wrote about it, and Hollywood movies consistently present it as a land of milk and honey. Early settlers came to California to find gold, and they found it. And in the past two months, people all over the country would see our New Jersey license and ask: “Are you heading to California?”

For us—and particularly for me, a first-time visitor—it was a promised land for all those reasons. But mostly it was a promised land because it promised to provide us with as many days of rest as we needed before continuing our exhausting, albeit rousing, journey.

Aunt Rieva’s house in Irvine—a town in Orange County, just south of LA—was truly an oasis in the desert. A bright California home with a real bed, a real kitchen, and a real living room, it was a kind of luxury we had almost forgotten about. (Side note: Despite the fact that aunt Rieva is not my aunt, and that I don’t come from a family where aunts are called “Aunt So-and-so,” Ricky has engrained this title in my head to the point that I can only call her Aunt Rieva. Even my mother caught on when she sent a package to the three of us addressed to “Brahna, Ricky, and Aunt Rieva”).   

And the timing could not have been more symbolic, as our arrival at Aunt Rieva’s coincided with the beginning of Passover—a Jewish holiday, for those of you who don’t know, that celebrates the freedom of the Jews from bondage in Egypt, and their beginning of a long period of wandering in the desert before finally reaching the Promised Land of Israel.

I was sad to be missing Passover at home. In my house, Passover is a time not only for family and food, but also for a motley crew of friends we only see once a year. On that night, we laugh, sing, make jokes, and do our best to ask new questions about a very old tradition. On that night, we have a 2-hour post-mortem even after the Seder ends at two in the morning. We re-discover, even for the sixtieth time for some of us, why that night is different from all other nights.

But what could we do? We were on the other side of the country, and there was no turning back until we made a complete circle around America.


The day after our arrival in Irvine, we had a few tasks to complete: to give the car a much-needed vacuum and scrub, do some long-overdue laundry, begin the daunting task of researching our post-trip careers, and for me, catching up on the new season of Mad Men on Aunt Rieva’s countless-channeled television. After making ourselves a lavish breakfast of eggs and toast that we ate in the backyard under the hot California sun, we set off to cross these important tasks off our list.

But despite our seeming ability to lounge around that house for days on end, there were still things that we wanted to do and see in the LA/Orange County area besides the inside of Aunt Rieva’s house. Despite Ricky’s protestations, I wanted to do the whole Hollywood tour, and we were both interested in driving the hour south to see the famed San Diego Zoo.  Knowing that these kinds of activities were not in our budget, Aunt Rieva very generously offered to make a trip to the zoo our respective birthday presents.

Like excited little kids, we headed off for San Diego the next morning. After asking Ricky several times whether he had the tickets that we had printed out at aunt Rieva’s—and receiving affirmations—we walked the few blocks from the parking lot to the zoo entrance. Lo and behold! Ricky said that he did not have his wallet and that he would need to go back to the car to make sure it was not lying out in the open. After he returned, and reported that he must have left the wallet at the house, I asked him again whether he had the zoo tickets. Lo and behold! He did not. So after waiting in the customer service line to sort it all out, we finally entered the zoo.

Amidst a sea of overstimulated children and flustered parents, we approached the zoo like we do everything else: we took out a map and marked off exactly what we wanted to do and see. And suddenly, there we were—two civilized creatures who had grown accustomed to living in the wild, visiting wild creatures that had grown used to a life in captivity.
I don't think this tiger was thrilled with his confined surroundings.

A seemingly disoriented jaguar

I enjoyed watching the ferocious yet regal beauty of the big cats—your leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, tigers, and mountain lions. Ricky, meanwhile, was transfixed by the primates. First there were the bonobos performing some kind of sexual act, and then there were the orangutans, who were involved in some kind of game involving untying rope knots and swinging on them. With their eerily human-like behavior, they were indeed fascinating to watch.

The bonobos.
A curious orangutan.
The following day, we battled the traffic and ventured into the world of Los Angeles. Our first stop was Venice Beach, which we figured we’d stop by just for kicks. What with the surfers, the skaters, the stoners, and the greasy beach food, I felt like I had stepped into a really bad 90s movie. There were also the “doctors” in green coats trying to offer “consultations” to determine whether you needed medical marijuana.  Ricky and I agreed that if people really wanted weed to be legalized, they would have to stop making a complete mockery out of the idea of “medical” marijuana. After eating French fries and ice cream on the beach, and then declaring ourselves sick to our respective stomachs, we decided to move on to the next LA circus.

With careful highway instructions from Aunt Rieva, we drove into the posh neighborhood of Bel-Air.  Looking highly conspicuous in our beaten up Honda in a sea of Porsches and BMWs, we did our best not to linger for too long. At any rate, most of the houses were hidden behind vast hedges, and the many cul-de-sacs made it difficult to maneuver the car. So after our stint in Bel-Air, we moved on to Beverly Hills, which gave us better views of the obscenely-sized mansions. “It’s important that we see the lives of the one percent,” I told Ricky. “They represent this country as much as the 99.” I was only half joking.

After visiting the places where celebrities live, we went to visit the places where celebrities are enshrined. We haphazardly strolled through the Hollywood walk of fame, and looked at the handprints in front of Grauman’s theatre. It was what Ricky likes to call a massive cluster fuck (CF for short), and it kind of made us long for nature.

Ricky looking at somebody's hand and foot prints--not really sure whose.

A random choice, I know. Gilda was a lot less crowded than Christina Aguilara next door.

That night, the first night of Passover, I put together the best ad-hoc Seder that I could for Ricky and Aunt Rieva. My mom had sent me a large package with matzoh ball and cake mixes, so instead of paying sixty dollars to share Passover with a random family—that’s apparently the going rate for the many shuls I called in Irvine—I decided to see what I could do to put together my own Seder. It was quite nice actually. We read from the hagaddah and tried our hand at askomg new questions about a very old tradition. It wasn’t quite the marathon I was used to, but still tired and weary from the last eight weeks on the road, Ricky and I could relate to our wandering predecessors a lot better than we otherwise could.

After making the next day yet another day to chill and catch up on a few odds and ends, we decided that it was time to venture off, albeit reluctantly, from the enjoyment and comfort of Aunt Rieva’s. But before our departure, Aunt Rieva first took us on a tour of Orange Country—including Laguna Beach (home of the eponymous reality show), Newport Beach (home of that horrible melodrama The OC), and Huntington Beach (home of the Beach Boys)—before sending us off for good.

That night, we only made a bit of headway driving up Highway 1, the magnificent coastal highway, and stayed the night at an overpriced campground near Malibu. It was kind of pointless, but at least we beat the Monday morning LA traffic. The following day, we continued our drive up 1—stopping briefly at a cafĂ© in Santa Barbara to put up the last post—and spent the night at a motel in Morro Bay, a coastal town known for its large rock in the sea. 

Morro Rock.
When we woke up the morning, we eagerly headed for Big Sur—a place that is known for its unique marriage of mountain and sea, and a place about which Ricky has been waxing poetic since the day we met. Our plan was to stay at a National Forest campground, which was situated right next to the ocean. Unfortunately, it began to pour around two in the afternoon, and after racing to the campground, we ended up pitching our tent in the rain anyway. It was a game of hide-and-seek, involving connecting the poles and hammering in the stakes from under the rain tarp. Barely getting the tent wet, we emerged triumphant. Before capitulating and heading into the tent for the night, however, we decided to take a quick jaunt on a path leading to the ocean.

After walking only a few feet, we became wet and muddy. But the walk was absolutely glorious. After a month in the desert and almost a week in LA—a desert of a different kind—we reveled in the ocean, the muck, the lush green landscape, and in the smell of things that are actually alive.

Ricky reveling in the muddy path. (The pictures are blurry because of the Ziploc bag I put over the camera to protect it)

In front of a very rough Pacific Ocean. 
When we got back to the site, we had to do a little dance involving taking our wet clothes off, putting dry ones on, and running into the tent. But once we did, it was surprisingly warm and cozy.

Despite the pouring rain and the imminent threat of our tent collapsing on us, we slept soundly through it all. 

1 comment:

  1. It was absolutely a pleasure having you here. Honored to share the holiday--and the very interesting conversations.

    Aunt Rieva