Friday, 28 February 2014

Days 335 to 343: Lima to Los Angeles

I hadn't intended to visit Lima. In December and early January, we spent about five weeks travelling through Peru, but aside from eight hours in the airport, none of that time was spent in the capital. I anticipated only another airport visit to the city, passing through en route to Los Angeles. But Danielle persuaded me otherwise. She was keen to check it out, and had spotted in the Lonely Planet that there was a hostel designed by Gustave Eiffel (although he'd assumedly designed it as a grand house rather than a cheap hotel for backpackers). Sold. South America has been a mini Eiffel tour - we saw a staircase in Arequipa, a bus station in La Paz, a church in Arica, and a train station in Santiago. There's a lot more too. I liked the sound of staying in a building designed by the man that built the Eiffel Tower, and we opted for three nights in the city. It was probably two nights too much.

Although Lima isn't without its charms, it's not a city of anyone's dreams. It is vast, flat and spread out, and terribly linked by public transport. Sure, there are buses, but good luck on figuring them out. Taxis are cheap, but with a pretty bad reputation surrounding them. In fact, Lima in general doesn't have the best of reputations. As our taxi driver from the airport drove us to our Eiffel hostel, he advised us to be careful. Our area - right in the centre of the city - was not a good one, he said, and to demonstrate it he pointed out the many prostitutes on street corners. A different taxi driver, a couple of nights later, cautioned us with touching sincerity to be careful as we stepped out of his taxi, returning to the hostel. The Lonely Planet advised not straying off the main streets.

We encountered no trouble at all though, except for a creeping boredom. Our first day in Lima was fun, we took a walk down the main street, past a couple of the city's main squares, and admired the palaces, churches, and lovely old buildings. A particular highlight was the Monastery of San Francisco, in which a growling guide seemingly remote controlled by a robot showed us around. Pretty but unspectacular from the outside, it was truly gorgeous inside, tiled and carved and painted, with a simply delightful library straight out of a fantasy ye olde world. Catacombs packed with human bones and skulls made the Japanese tourists with us squeal with excited horror. Photos weren't permitted, frustratingly, so you'll have to make do with an exterior shot.

But the remaining days were spent just filling time. We walked the same streets, drank a Pisco Sour at the Hotel Bolivar, went to the flash but not terribly thrilling Miraflores district, and got so bored we even played a couple of games in the hostel pool table (Danielle has many talents, but pool playing is not one of them). The hostel had a bar but it was very subdued while we were there, only coming to life on the final night as we were leaving. I'm sure that Lima has many charms that reveal themselves over time, but after the obvious splendour of Rio de Janeiro, it just seemed drab.

Los Angeles isn't drab, but it does share many qualities with Lima. It is a vast, spread out city, with poor public transport. It's kind of featureless, just an endless sprawl of buildings with vast highways between. Lima is a crumbling city designed for taxi drivers and minibuses to beep their horns; Los Angeles is a shinier city, designed for private motorists (mercifully quieter on the horn front). Neither suit pedestrians very well - they are terrible cities to walk around. Here's a typical view of Los Angeles.

It's fair to say that LA is not my kind of city. I like a city that has a centre, around which the rest of the city revolves: the heart and the history. But LA is a city built for cars not people and this makes it a strangely impersonal place. Sure, it's got a centre, a parody of New York with a cluster of skyscrapers, but it feels like a film set. It's hard to believe anybody is inside these buildings. Find a city square in Manhattan and feel life burst from each corner; the central square - Pershing Square - of LA is curiously empty however, making it seem vaguely post-apocalyptic. Many of the streets are busier, but take a closer look and you realise that much of the crowd is not the bustling hive of activity and industry you commonly see in a city, it's the aimless shuffle of the homeless and the mentally ill. Los Angeles is a weird city.

Indeed, the homeless are a very visual part for the visitor to Los Angeles. They are everywhere, not just clustered at the centre or tourist locations, but pretty much anywhere we found ourselves. Homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, or simply poverty stricken, there is a significantly higher number in LA than I have ever seen in any other Western city. Or almost any city in the world, pretty much, come to think of it. Poor souls, Danielle called them. For the Los Angeles motorist, driving from home to shopping centre or office to restaurant, perhaps this massive forlorn community is never noticed, but for us, on public transport for around two hours every day and on foot for about the same, they were a constant presence. Los Angeles may be the City of Angels, but if you're a pedestrian or rely on public transport, it becomes the City of Poor Souls.

But despite all this, don't think I didn't enjoy myself. LA might not be my kind of city, and I'd hate to have to live there, but visiting it was great. The people are friendly, sometimes superficially but very often entirely genuinely so, and there's plenty to see, including my very own "celeb-spot" of William H. Macy, in Starbucks (he says hi). Given the awkwardness of traversing the city without our own car, we opted for the Hop-on-Hop-off bus tour, which was a convenient way of getting about and seeing the place. This way we were able to see places like Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica, and of course Hollywood.

It has been suggested to me that the Hollywood sign could be considered a Wonder, or at least a candidate on my list, and while this is clearly far off the mark, there's no doubt it's a very iconic sight. But Los Angeles has another structure that has a far better claim of making my list:

This is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003, and if it looks familiar it's either because you've seen the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or have an over-enthusiastic relationship with aluminium foil. Like the Guggenheim, it's by the architect Frank Gehry, and is quite audacious, sitting at the north end of downtown, at the top of a slope. In my opinion, it is LA's finest moment.

Like many daring, avant-garde even, works of modern architecture, I can absolutely see that it's not everybody's thing. It is very weird, very unconventional, very metal. Looking at it, it's not easy to get an immediate handle on. It swoops and juts out and bends and resembles in some way a massive tin can that has been thoroughly defeated in combat. It doesn't even have windows! But like the best works of architecture, it rewards a closer inspection. Happily the Walt Disney Concert Hall offers free audio tours to visitors, and the tour is excellent. Taking you across various levels of the building, it becomes clear that Gehry wasn't just trying to mess with our heads (although I'm sure it was part of his strategy) but there is in fact a coherency to the madness. All the light streams through structural gaps from above, lighting up the interior very successfully. Acoustics are said to be excellent. There is a delightful garden area on the third level, giving views across the city. Sure, it looks a little like an alien spaceship has crashed in LA but the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a surprisingly friendly building. Irregular, sure, but in many ways more natural than the square box-shaped towers we conventionally go for.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall was only finished a decade ago, although the design actually predates that of its more famous sibling, the Guggenheim, completed in 1997. It was a delight to look at - in the manner of the Sydney Opera House it offers very different views depending on where you stand - and a pleasure to walk around. I think I can safely put this on my nebulous list of "Unofficial Wonders".

But otherwise, well, LA underperforms. For a city with such a worldwide reputation, it doesn't pack the thrill of being there that a high profile city should. It's famous because of the films, but take these away and you simply have a very spread-out series of buildings and roads without any strong sense of heart or history or community. Dotted about are great individual moments, but these are single scenes rather than a narrative. I can imagine falling in love with Paris, with Buenos Aires, with Zagreb, with Kuala Lumpur, with Sydney, with Glasgow, with Cairo, with New York, with Beijing, I can imagine falling in love with many cities. But I can't imagine falling in love with LA.

And our four days there were barely a fling. It was time to fly west, across the International Dateline and skipping 1st March 2014 entirely (where did it go?). The glitz and darkness of LA was to be swapped for the island paradise of Fiji.

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