We left off in my previous post having spent a few days hanging out in the beachside city of Ensenada in Baja California, Mexico before crossing back over the border into the US. The original title for this post was going to be A Tale Of Two Californias, Pt. 2; San Diego, California, because we spent essentially all of our time except for a couple of hours on this leg of the trip in San Diego, however, I realised that I didn’t capture any decent photos while there and the reason will become more evident as you read.
The purpose for our stay in San Diego was because Anna had been inducted into the Macula Society last year and this year we would be attending their 43rd Annual Meeting that would also be hosting a welcome dinner for all new Macula Society members. This was a pretty big deal because, not only is Anna now possibly the youngest member of the society, but she was also one of only three women inducted this time around. Besides the dinner, she would also be presenting at the conference, as well as chairing some events.
Let’s now focus on the American leg of this trip.
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
I ended our last post when we were finally able to cross the border back into the US. When we came out on the other side we were a little confused; we were pretty sure that we were in the correct place, but all of the shops and signs were in Spanish and there were hispanic people everywhere. Had we made some kind of mistake, taken a wrong path, and were still in Tijuana? It sure seemed that way, but we hadn’t veered off the common path while crossing and if so, the signs definitely need to be clearer, because we certainly didn’t want to be subjected to that whole immigration process again! We walked around and eventually saw a sign that said “To Mexico” so we were definitely on the US side of the border, it just happened to be almost entirely hispanic as well. We got into an extremely unroadworthy taxi and went to the San Diego International Airport in order to pick up our rental car, a white Hyundai sedan. While Anna was inside the office signing all of the paperwork, it became apparent to me in the fading daylight that the car had a lot of bumps, scuffs, and scratches all over it. I took photos of them all, which Anna showed to the Avis representative, however, he told us not to worry, “You’ve got full coverage.” As soon as we got in the car, another thing became immediately apparent; the inside of this thing absolutely stunk of weed! It honestly smelled like the person who had just returned the car only rented it so they could spend a couple of days hotboxing.
En route to the resort at which we were staying was a giant factory outlet centre so naturally we stopped in there. There were outlets for pretty much every fashion label and store you could think of, this place was enormous, so Anna looked at the clothing outlets and I checked out the shoes and sporting goods ones, but it was almost impossible to find any sneakers that weren’t absolutely hideous. Denim Air Jordan 6s simply shouldn’t exist, but it was only awful stuff like that that I was able to find.
As we slowly made our way through this sprawling mass of outlet stores, they began to get cheaper and cheaper until we found ourselves at a store we would see several more times over the coming days — Ross, a clothing outlet with the slogan, “Dress for Less.” I don’t recall seeing these stores when we lived in New York City, maybe they’re just predominantly in California, but apparently Ross is the largest off-price retailer in the US. When I was in my very early twenties, I for a time worked unloading trucks and stacking shelves in a similar store in Melbourne called Myer Goodbuy Clearance Centre, an outlet for excess, end of season, and just generally unsellable stock for the Myer department store chain. That place was just like being in a regular department store and you could get really good stuff at a great price. This particular Ross store was on a whole different level completely! It was kind of laid out like a thrift store with just random clothing items crammed onto racks, except in Ross the items were new and people were just ripping pieces off the racks, looking at them, throwing them on the ground, and then grabbing another. It was like the Wild West in there, people in cowboy hats fighting, but instead of over poker games or cattle rustling, they were fighting over extremely discounted clothes. Definitely a site to behold.
When the factory outlet centre was coming close to closing time, we got back into the weed-infused car and drove in the general direction of San Diego until we came to Rancho Bernardo, a kind of upperclass gated community where our resort, the Rancho Bernardo Inn, was located. Rancho Bernardo Inn is an enormous, Spanish-style resort set on a golf course, but it is also still at least a 30-40 minute Uber ride out of the main parts of town so we were going to be spending a lot of time there. When we arrived, a valet took our car to park it, giving a smile and a nod as the scent wafted out, and we checked into the inn. It was a bit of a maze to find our room, but when we eventually did it was big and seemed like a comfortable way to spend the coming days. The TV was already on when we entered, the home screen and movie options both inexplicably presented by Mario Lopez of Saved by the Bell fame. They must also get a few people stay there who become a little tired of the isolation of the place, because there was also completely free porn access in each room.
Here’s a look around ours:
Once we had dumped all of our suitcases in our room we went down to one of the hotel’s restaurants for dinner and then to the hotel bar for a couple of drinks while watching college basketball and playing shuffleboard again like we did in Vancouver. We still don’t know the actual rules to shuffleboard, despite them being posted on the wall in the bar, they just seem too complicated, plus the table had a slightly different layout this time so we continued to do it our way until the bar closed at midnight.
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Anna registered for the conference, met up with our friend from Spain, Rosa Dolz-Marco, who was also attending, and then I went down to have a coffee with them at the hotel cafe. Rosa had to leave so Anna and I walked around with our drinks, just exploring this vast resort, one so large that staff used golf carts to get around the grounds, and that’s not even including the golf course itself. I was wearing a Brant Bjork t-shirt and I’ve found that a lot of Americans aren’t particularly shy about giving you their opinions or asking questions so I wasn’t all that surprised when a grey-haired man with a handlebar moustache stopped the golf cart he was driving , turned to me and yelled, “Who the hell is Brant Bjork?” I told him he was a musician and the man then explained that Bjork was his own surname before driving off again.
Anna soon had to be at the conference and I always love checking out record and thrift stores so my plan for the day was to head into the the Gaslamp District of San Diego, as well as some other nearby neighbourhoods:
The Gaslamp Quarter is a district of San Diego, California. It is a 16½ block historical neighborhood in Downtown San Diego, and is the site of several entertainment and night life venues, as well as scheduled events and festivals, including Mardi Gras in the Gaslamp, Street Scene Music Festival, Taste of Gaslamp and ShamROCK, a St. Patrick’s Day event. Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres is located one block away in downtown San Diego’s East Village.
The Gaslamp Quarter extends from Broadway to Harbor Drive, and from 4th to 6th Avenue, covering 16½ blocks. It includes 94 historic buildings, most of which were constructed in the Victorian Era, and are still in use with active tenants including restaurants, shops and nightclubs.
“Gaslamp District” is the more commonly used name of the neighborhood by local San Diegans, while “Gaslamp Quarter”, despite being on the entryway arch and all official city signage and banners, is rarely used by locals. The use of “Gaslamp District” is so pervasive by locals that it has become a shibboleth to determine who is a local San Diegan and who is a tourist.
I called an Uber to go into town and as I made my way through the lobby of the resort and approached the pick up area, who else was there on arrival but the man with the handlebar moustache, this time waiting with a fellow employee. “Hey!” he shouted. “Show this guy your shirt!” I humoured him by showing them both my Brant Bjork shirt again, adorned with a giant, red marijuana leaf, and they both laughed, shook their heads, and walked away.
My Uber arrived and for a fee of US$35.00 plus more than half an hour of my time I was finally in town and it wasn’t really what I expected. The Gaslamp District had what looked like some cool places to eat and drink, but not a whole lot of shops I wanted to look at. Of course, going out in the evening would mean adding close to US$100.00 to our night out once you include after-hours fees to a ride in a taxi or Uber back to where we were staying, plus we don’t know how dodgy the Gaslamp District is after hours. The shops I wanted to see were deep in the East Village, and my guess is that none of the characters in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (above, right), ever once set foot into the East Village of San Diego:
In the latter part of the 20th century the East Village became known for its vacant buildings, dive-bars, and eclectic dwellings of artists. Prostitutes, drug addicts, and homeless people were common. Beginning with redevelopment, and particularly after the opening of Petco Park in 2004, the area became known for upscale restaurants and trendy shops, although it is still rife with homeless.
I first visited the record store I had intended to and then there were a couple of thrift stores a 20-minute walk away. I figured after paying that much to get here I might as well check out what I’d come to see so I kept walking deeper and deeper into the Village. Sure, the area had become a bit gentrified, as tends to happen often with the shittier areas of cities, but the homelessness was still rife, countless transients everywhere pushing all of their possessions around in old shopping carts. At one stage I thought an African-American guy was walking toward me, resplendent in his tattered rags and a trolley full of trash, but it turned out to be a white guy who was so dirty and grimy that his skin and hair gave him the appearance of being from a completely different race. I had several guys mutter what drugs they could sell me as they walked past and before long I was at the thrift stores. These stores were large, but not quite what I was expecting — There wasn’t a whole lot of goods for people like me that love stumbling across vintage crap, but instead catering to what appeared to be their main demographic, the countless vagrants in the area that were just trying to stay warm at night on the street. The other option for the classier of the homeless community was another nearby Ross outlet a block away.
It was now late afternoon and I had returned to the Gaslamp District and was just exploring the area, browsing in some of the shops and looking at possible options for if we did choose to spend a night out in the city, when Anna messaged me to tell me about the dinner plans back at the resort. I jumped in a cab so I could get back and have a shower and my driver turned out to be this fascinating Moroccan-born data analyst from Finnland who gets bored at work and drives for Uber to improve his already fluent English. We got stuck in traffic for a bit so our ride back to Rancho Bernardo took longer, but we had a really interesting chat on the way, a trip that cost over US$40.00. When I arrived home Anna was giving a talk so I freshened up and later went to dinner with Anna, Rosa, and their crew. The food was an American-international buffet, but the busiest station was true Americana, a build-your-own burger bar. After dinner it was back to the bar for a couple of drinks with Rosa and company.
Take a look around Rancho Bernardo Inn, some stuff I found in town, and Anna having dinner with some international colleagues:
Thursday, February 20, 2020
Anna didn’t have anything on in the afternoon so we decided to check out some shopping malls, however, they were still about 30km (18.5 miles) away. The valet brought over our dope-odoriferous car, smiled as he handed us the keys, and it was time to hit the road. We soon came to another outlet mall and although she wanted to do some shopping, there is another thing that Anna surprisingly has a soft spot for whenever she’s in the US, one that I would never have expected — In-n-Out Burger. Despite the fact that we had just had lunch, we pulled up a seat in the old-school burger joint from the Happy Days era, and had a burger each before going to the shops. We spent a bit of time looking around, but there wasn’t a whole lot there, although I did manage to pick up a nice tie to wear to the dinner the next night.
Anna was going to have work drinks with her colleagues so I showered and went down to the hotel bar, which was showing the NCAA basketball. I pulled up a seat at the bar next to an older gentleman and we both took in a great game between Oregon and Arizona State, fortunately for us with it on mute and some music playing, otherwise we would’ve got stuck listening to Bill Walton talking about composting or his time hanging out with the Grateful Dead, anything but the game. I got talking to the guy next to me, an ex-Marine who had lived briefly in Broome, Western Australia before retiring in Florida, and then recently moving to the Rancho Bernardo neighbourhood. He said he moved to San Diego because his main hobby is sailing, but ultimately regrets it due to the cost of living and how spread out the area is. In fact, he was drinking in the hotel bar because it was the only one even remotely near his house.
The old guy left after the game was over and Anna joined me in the bar for more shuffleboard to finish off the night.
Friday, February 21, 2020
The big day was here, Anna’s welcome dinner for the Macula Society would be later that night, but first after she gave a presentation and chaired a panel I would join them at one of their lunches. Might as well just pull up a seat and grab a bite to eat while they all talk shop. One of the Irish doctors in attendance had just been for a swim in the ocean, because it was about 25°C (77°F) and she told me it pretty much never gets that hot back in Dublin. After lunch we had a look around Fashion Valley mall, although there wasn’t a whole lot for me to look at, however, Anna took advantage of the situation and stocked up on miniature bottles of hand sanitiser, something that has been a little tough to come across for hospital staff in Singapore since the coronavirus outbreak. She bought 40 bottles to be precise. I just picked up an awesome pair of Andre the Giant socks and before long we were headed back to Rancho Bernardo again.
They had a really good band playing at the dinner, everyone one was standing around having more drinks, and Anna and I were catching up with fellows of hers from around the world that we hadn’t seen in quite a while. Soon we were seated, speeches were being made while several people felt the need to passive-aggressively hit their champagne glasses repeatedly with a spoon at the slightest hint of noise, and then after the main course, the highlight of the night for us took place:
Moments like this make me extremely proud, especially, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Anna was one of only three women inducted this year and is now possibly the youngest member of the Macular Society. It’s just a shame she didn’t get to keep that saxophone.
The rest of the dinner was spent doing more mingling and catching up, interspersed with Anna being congratulated and being asked to be in photos. When the band wrapped up and the dinner came to a close, the older doctors and professors went back to their rooms, while some of the younger ones went down to the bar for more drinks and some drunken, novice attempts at shuffleboard with the uninitiated. The barman had seen Anna and myself every night since we had been at Rancho Bernardo Inn and asked what the occasion was when I went to the bar to get Anna a drink. I told him about Anna’s achievement and he soon returned to present her with a celebratory cupcake, the perfect way to cap off an awesome night.
Anna with her fellows at the welcome dinner, as well as my new socks:
Saturday, February 22, 2020
Our last day in California was upon us so we checked out of Rancho Bernardo Inn, got in our stinky car, and headed for Los Angeles, stopping off in Ladera Ranch to visit Anna’s uncle and auntie, Bob and Susan, the latter of whom is suffering from a degenerative neurological condition, so they were glad they had a chance to see us while the opportunity was still there.
After the visit we were back in the general direction of Los Angeles. I mentioned the first time we came to LA how bad the traffic is, but what I didn’t mention is how difficult it is to navigate the closer you get to the city, a good example being this image to the left. That may appear confusing at first glance, but it is even more difficult in the dark using Google Maps and let’s not ignore the fact that there are many of these types of junctions. Sure, the traffic jams of endless SUVs make it relatively slow, but if you look closer you’ll notice in that image that in some areas there are four or more layers of traffic and in others you can be on a road following the same route directly above or below another road, making it impossible to figure out which path you are following on Google Maps. Add to this exits splitting into multiple exits, other exits barely metres after the previous exit, and if you miss the one you require, you may need to rapidly cross six lanes of traffic to counter your mistake by taking another exit, this time on the other side of the freeway. But there is no other option, the city is so sprawling with pretty much only taxis for public transport so you either have to drive or get driven.
We had given ourselves plenty of time to get to LAX so we had a couple of hours to spare before we needed to be there. We decided that we should get something to eat as the food in the airport lounge would probably be kind of ordinary, plus Anna knows that my favourite record store in the entire world, Amoeba Records, is on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood so that’s where we’d be stopping, we just forgot how awful that part of town is. It’s strange how revered and lauded Hollywood is, Sunset Blvd. in particular in music and film, the place where dreams are realised, but that is only for a small few. In reality it appears to be where all hopes are dashed. Our plan was to park in the lot out the front of the Jack in the Box across the street from Amoeba, but there was the small issue of the two violently alcoholic bums that would be directly in front of a car full of our belongings, one of whom could barely stand and the other who was screaming and threatening to glass him with a half-empty wine bottle. I made the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comparison the first time we were in LA, but it is impressive how accurately they managed to encapsulate this city, the only main differences are that in reality the traffic is worse and the streets are dirtier, but why would you want blocked roads in a game that involves endless driving? Anyway, we contemplated the situation for a good couple of minutes, figured it wasn’t worth the risk, especially when there was a little tent city on the same block containing more people who would probably be more than willing to cash in on the items inside the multiple suitcases in our car. It turned out that there was a multi-storey parking lot with guards just around the corner so we dropped off the car and went to Amoeba. I won’t bore you with the details of me shopping, I could’ve spent all day there and picked up some great stuff, it was just fortunate that we hadn’t gone the day before, because Ozzy Osbourne had done an in-store signing there. Don’t get me wrong, I love Black Sabbath, but it would’ve made looking around a tad difficult, where as now I could embrace it. Time was soon running out so we went to a Japanese restaurant around the corner for some dinner, then it was back in the car and on our way to the the airport.
Our last day in California:
After dinner we were in the car for the final time. Google Maps was trying to get us to go back on the freeway in a huge arcing loop of endless traffic that would most likely result in us taking multiple wrong exits in order to get to the airport, when there was also another more direct route through back streets that would take essentially the same amount of time. Obviously we opted for the second option and got to the airport completely hassle-free with time to spare.
We dropped the Hyundai off at the Avis lot at LAX, hoping we didn’t smell like pot after a day of sitting in that thing, and then had to take a shuttle to get to our terminal, the driver supposed to tell us when we arrived. Only she didn’t, she drove straight past it without us knowing and about half an hour later we were back at the Avis lot. The driver told us she had forgotten that we were stopping there, but wouldn’t forget this time so after close to an hour on the shuttle we were finally ready to check in, leaving us in the usual mad rush that we always seem to end up in, despite initially arriving at the airport with plenty of time remaining. I hate airports at the best of the times, but the ones in the US are among the worst, all patrolled by security staff not smart enough to pass the police exam, but still with the cop mentality. When we had our boarding passes we went through security and the first point was the sniffer dog phase, despite the fact that we were leaving the country and would be arriving in one with some of the strictest drug laws in the world. One security guard at the back was telling the line not to stop, just forcing us to keep moving, yet the guard at the end near the dogs was telling everyone to stop moving forward and back up, causing a bit of a squishy situation in the middle of the queue. Then it was on to the metal detectors, where you have to remove boots, but not shoes. One man in the line who clearly didn’t understand English just saw people taking their boots off so he decided to do the same with his sneakers. “Sir! SIR!” the security guard shouted into the crowd angrily, but the man had no idea it was him being yelled at, he was just doing what almost everyone else was doing. The guard approached him and continued shouting, but the man had no idea what was going on, he just put his shoes in the tray, and went through the metal detector while the guard rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath. After a quick stop in the lounge and changing into some cooler clothes, we were seated and on our way home.
This was an awesome trip, we absolutely loved Mexico and had a complete blast there and yes, we may have spent our time in a more tourist-friendly area, but when we returned, people in both the US and Singapore couldn’t believe we weren’t attacked or killed, but to be honest I felt a lot safer in Mexico than I have any time on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood! It would’ve also been cool to see a bit more of San Diego and get some photos around the town, if we go again we’ll try to stay in the city, but it was all worth it to see Anna get welcomed into the Macula Society.