One of the great things about travel is that it makes you look at your home town with a fresh set of eyes. It makes you question what visitors would want to see and do in and around your home town. It makes you feel like you’re traveling even when you’re not.
So, with a fresh perspective and a new appreciation for our surroundings, we’ve started to explore Orange County and Los Angeles more.
Last weekend we penetrated the bubble of smog that encloses L.A., braving drivers who refuse to utilize turn signals that come free with their expensive cars, withstanding clumps of traffic, and dodging pot holes that will never be filled, en route to downtown.
The L.A. skyline is always an underwhelming sight. It doesn’t have the look or feel of a big city, not like Chicago or New York. That’s probably why historically I avoid downtown. I never thought there was anything to do there except increase my odds of being mugged.
And as soon as we got off the 101 freeway, it looked like that’s where my future was headed. The streets were relatively empty save a few suspicious people at a bus stop who were dressed as if they stepped out of an ’80′s time machine and a couple of homeless people making conversation with street signs.
Each block we moved further from the freeway became cleaner, and in my book cleaner means safer.
We passed the historic Los Angeles Times building and Los Angeles City Hall (where Mayor Villaraigosa is ignoring requests to fix potholes) and finally arrived at Angels Flight, one of the last operating funiculars in the United States.
I’ll take the railway to heaven over Led Zep’s stairway to heaven.
It may not be as famous as the Hollywood sign, but it carries a big distinction: “The World’s Shortest Railway”. Despite the heavenly name, Angels Flight doesn’t have an immaculate track record. Since opening in 1901, two people have died on it. The last death, in 2001, was caused by a runaway car. Angels Flight stayed closed until new safety measures could be installed and it reopened just last month.
Luckily we found out about all this after we took a ride.
In any event, the risk of death is worth it because a ride on Angels Flight is the cheapest thing you can do in L.A. The 30-second ride up the 315-foot track costs only 25 cents each way.
No wonder the price is low, there’s not much to do once you get to the top… unless you’re really in the mood to sit around a big fountain tucked between office buildings and join miserable businessmen speeding through lunch purchased at a corporate cafe.
We waited for the fountain to do something — anything — to cure our insatiable thirst for cheap and/or free entertainment. Never happened. Fortunately, it wasn’t a total letdown. We witnessed a bird bathing in the fountain and Jackie found a couple of dollars on the ground near a duck sleeping under a lunch table.
This duck confounded me. I have so many questions for this duck: First, I see no other ducks in the vicinity, so how did you get here and why? Where did your duck brethren go? Why did you confuse this fountain for a lake or some other body of water in a natural environment that provides life-sustaining sustenance? What is your preferred food: burrito scraps or the left over salad from girls who stopped eating half way through because they claimed they were “full” even though they’re liars who are starving themselves to lose weight? Lastly, are you dead?
I didn’t want to wake the duck or realize my worst fears, so we bought our return trip tickets on Angels Flight and ventured directly across the street to Grand Central Market, the oldest and largest open-air market in Los Angeles.
Some people come here to buy fresh and cheap produce, but the market is popular for its array of ethnic food stalls. I read good things about an El Salvadorian place called Sarita’s that serves something I had never heard of before: pupusas.
Despite the humorously unappetizing name — I don’t like to be reminded of what comes out after I eat before I even eat it — I had to have one. Pupusas are kind of like quesadillas — bread stuffed with cheese and other optional ingredients — except the corn tortilla has the thickness and consistency of an English muffin. I ordered mine with cheese and steak.
The pupusas are made to order and there were already a handful of people waiting for their pupusas to come off the griddle, so we had to wait a while. I asked the man sitting next to me if he had eaten at this place before and he said this was his first visit to L.A.
He and his wife had traveled from a small city in southern Brazil and arrived at 3 in the morning — how they were awake for an early lunch, I have no clue. Here’s what I love about traveling: everyone is so hospitable and trusting. We asked him a lot about his home town and what Brazil is like, and he said, “We’re going to open a new house next year. You can come and stay with us!”
This isn’t the first offer we’ve had to stay with someone we’ve only known for a few minutes. Like I said, the more you travel, the more you appreciate your home. And the more you appreciate your home, the more you want other people to appreciate your home too. I love how people can be so welcoming, eager for visitors to see what life is like in places that even guidebooks don’t know about. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to visit them in Brazil.
When my pupusa arrived, a lady sitting next to me said the proper way to eat it is to add spicy cabbage and salsa and fold it like a taco. I soon discovered this was a messy tactic as clumps of tangy cabbage and strings of melting cheese fell from the hot dough. Next time I’ll go for the fork and knife method. At only $2 each, I can afford to be experimental.
For dessert I got a sweet empanada, a fried ball of dough the size of my fist stuffed with a mushy warm banana filling. Totally worth it for $1.50.
I’m a sucker for cheap and authentic ethnic food, so I had to try a Mexican food stall too. The most crowded was Ana Maria’s and after ordering two carne asada tacos, I can see why.
The tacos are HUGE. They provide you with extra tortillas because they stuff the tacos so thick that you’re bound to remove some of the filling and make a whole new taco. Suddenly my two taco plate morphed into four. The meat was tender and flavorful, the tortillas were soft and warm, and the salsas were tangy and spicy. Can’t beat that for $5.
After stuffing myself silly, we made our way back to the car. If I had to say anything bad about Grand Central Market, it’s the parking. If you spend $10, parking is free for the first hour, but then it’s $1.50 for every 15 minutes after that. I’m not used to that kind of price-gougery in the ‘burbs.
Jackie found a great deal on baseball tickets on Travelzoo — $70 tickets were reduced to $18 for the final preseason game between the Dodgers and Angels — so we left the market to get to Dodger Stadium early.
Two asides here…
First, a brief geography lesson. Our home baseball team is called the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. But Anaheim is NOT in Los Angeles. Anaheim isn’t even in Los Angeles County. It’s in Orange County. Which is completely unrelated.
Second, the truth about baseball. When we went to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we talked about various sports with Canadians, and the one sport that they didn’t “get” (despite having a team in Canada) was baseball. Here’s all you need to get about baseball: nobody watches the entire game. Not unless it’s playoffs.
There are like 180 games in a season. And the highlights you see on ESPN are about the only interesting moments in a game. Outside of those moments there is a lot of down time. So why do Americans pack baseball stadiums? It’s a social gathering. It’s a time to catch up with your friends and family. We often miss entire innings or even runs scored and not even notice. The next time a game is on TV, turn it on and see how many people are actually focused on the game. Minus the few diehard fans in the first couple of rows, everyone else is yapping away.
For instance, at this particular game, Jackie and I had a lengthy debate about what was more disturbing: wearing an Alvin paper mask that was given away at the game…
…or, conversely, wearing only the paper eyeballs removed from the sockets.
Clearly, replacing your eyeballs with giant cartoon eyeballs is more terrifying. I can live in a world where people have chipmunk faces. I cannot live in a world with disproportional eyes.
The game itself was okay… or at least what we saw of it. I had never seen a grand slam in real life — actually, I have only witnessed a handful of grand slams on TV ever — so it was pretty cool to see Kendry Morales clear the bases to the chagrin of Dodger fans. That shot in the fourth inning won the game for the Angels 6-4. The rest of the game was scoreless.
Angels Flight. Heavenly food. Angels baseball. Pretty close to a religious experience. The only thing it was missing was an image of Jesus appearing in my pupusa.