I flew to Los Angeles slightly apprehensive of the grilling I would get again at passport control. Clearly spending three weeks in Mexico sounded like a drug run. Fortunately the only odditiy I had, was having to show a second form of ID besides my passport. The lovely officer decided not to ask me any questions and happily stamped me through. Phew! I still want to know why Houston had such an issue.
So having been allowed in the States, I made my way to Hollywood. I am not sure what I expected but I guessed tall high rise, neon everywhere and store after store devoted to the art of cinema. I was in for a let down. As I made my way down Hollywood Blvd I past sex shops, smoke shops and odd clothing stores. It had a sleazy feel to it and not the grandeur of the Stars. I looked at the Stars on the Walk of Fame but to be honest I did not know many. It was quite a surprise. However, it was nice to be back in an English speaking country with English habits -like being able to put toilet paper down the toilet again! I had forgotten it was Valentine's Day and shocked the waiter when I turned up to an Italian restaurant asking for a table for one! He asked if I wanted a Valentine's sending over- I should have said yes, but instead preferred the company of a glass of wine and good book. I was definitely getting old.
I started my first full day in LA doing a walking tour of the Homes of the Stars. I am probably the worse person in the world at knowing who a celebrity is and certainly would never recognise them, so I thought I should have some help. Our tour started with a look at the house where Michael Jackson died. On the gate were still roses and cards from the people who came to pay tribute to him. It was quite a surreal experience. Across the road was Snoopdog's house then further up the road the home of Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney (whose house is a castle with train line running underneath), Julia Roberts and Nicholas Cage. We could only get a glimpse of them of course. Massive gates and hedges ensured the stars had privacy. We did however look under Nicholas Cage's gate and take a picture of a statue that he had just at the entrance!! Our walk continued and we saw houses of people whom I had never heard of and interest soon waned. We did see Matt Le Blanc and a house that Liv Tyler used to live in and we thought we saw Johnny Depp drive past in a Rolls!
After a spot of lunch at a proper American diner, we were off to Rodeo Drive to look at the shops I only wish I could shop in. Part way through our tour our guide suggested we should pretend he was a star, take photos etc. We were by some restaurants and all the patrons of these restaurants stopped eating and starting taking pictures of him. The power of suggestion hey! It was a fun tour but in reality we actually did not see much.
On the tour I got talking to an Aussie called James who then accompanied me for my next few days. Together we went to explore the handprints in front of the Chinese Theatre and to find stars names that we actually confessed to knowing on the Walk of Fame. It turned out that I was not the only one who did not know many people, and James confessed to being a film buff! We then went to see a re-run of the Malcolm X film, which, at the end had a Q&A session with the producers, casting director and costume designer. It was really quite interesting.
The next day we planned to go and see the famous Hollywood sign. Phil, who I travelled with in South America, was joining me in LA so we met up with him. Just as we were about to leave the receptionist mentioned that there was a protest going on and that the sign would be covered. Looking out the window sure enough the Hollywood sign read as Save the Peak. Apparently some of the land around the sign had been sold to developers and people were protesting to stop the building from going on. The protest had been going on a week but was theoretically due to come down that day. Hmm, knowing my luck it would be up the whole time i was in Hollywood!
So instead we chose to go to the Warner Bros studio and take a tour there. We must have spent about three hours touring the 110 acre site and on the whole were shown the outside of studio buildings or sets that had been designed for films no one in our tour knew anything about! The most memorable was being allowed to go into the studio where Two and Half Men was filmed. Although we did not see any actors, it was good to see where this happened! We also got to see a museum of cars, the most notable being the Bat mobile and Austin Powers Union Jack car- one of the highlights of the tour along with the prop storage, and a museum of costumes including those used in Harry Potter. Finally we were able to go onto the set of Friends and sit on the sofa of Central Perk. The tour was fun, but like most of Hollywood, a little bit of a let down. We did not get to see where the cartoons were made or how. The only famous person we saw was Tia Carrere from Wayne's World. Good but not good enough.
Heading back to Hollywood we realised that luck had actually worked our way and the Hollywood sign had now been unveiled. So the 3 of us decided to head up there and watch the sunset. A bus took us half way and then we were faced with a massive walk up the hill but in doing so, we passed fantastic houses some designed like castles with turrets, and every one so different from the last. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the summit the sun had nearly set. In the twilight we tried to find a good place to see the sign, but trees always seemed to be in the way! Finally we found a dirt path and got the view we wanted. Not close to the sign but ok. As the light faded we had expected the sign to light up but this was not to be. We were amazed that there was no proper tourist path/viewing sight. It was one of the main attractions but California was definitely here missing out on a trick.
LA we felt, was not living up to expectation, so we headed back into town for dinner and a few drinks for James' last night. We decided to be proper tourists and go to the Hard Rock Cafe. Having first stopped at the shop to inspect the merchandise we then hunted high and low for the cafe only to realise the cafe was not open and would not be until June. Why the sign was lit up and the shop open we do not know and was the perfect ending to a disappointing day.
The next day we had booked to go to Universal Studios and headed out bright and early to get there for when the park opened at 10. Unlike Warner Bros, Universal was not only a studio but also a theme park- and a brilliant one at that. The first ride however was a haunted house where people jumped out at you. Not my favourite. Next was the Simpsons ride- an awesome high tec simulator. It was hilarious and had me screaming and laughing at the same time. Next followed two slightly poor rides, a water based Jurassic park and the Mummy ride which was far too short. Slightly disappointed, we took a break from rides to see how they do their special effects. This was presented by a camp but very funny commentator and was followed by Backdraft- a look at how they do fire special effects. Now this was incredible. We were allowed to stand close to where the effects happened and you could really feel the heat hitting you.
Finally it was time to take the Universal tour. This was very similar to the Warner Bros except it incorporated some rides into it making it a fun experience. Definitely a highlight. As the day drew to an end we saw a version of Shrek 4D (i.e. 3D but your seats move, there are water and gas effects - say no more!) The technology was really advanced and was one of the best 3D experiences I have ever had - only topped by the Terminator 3D that ended the day. Overall Universal ranked high and I would recommend it to anyone.
I decided to spend my last few days away from Hollywood and at the beach. I took a shuttle from the hostel to Venice Beach. Once settled Phil and I walked down the boardwalk to Santa Monica Beach. The difference between these two beaches was astonishing. Venice Beach was more of a shanty hippy town with many homeless people and plenty of weed being sold (legal for medical purposes in California). You could get high by literally walking down the path. Santa Monica in comparison was upper class, with nice houses and hotels overlooking the beach. It was crazy.
As Phil had not done Rodeo Drive or the tour of the Star Houses, I went with him to explore this again. We decided to go to the Beverley Hills Hotel and see if we could see anyone famous. After a brief wander around the hotel, we inspected Gordon Ramsey's restaurant and decided the prices were not ridiculous so treated ourselves to a very nice lunch. It was good to feel like a normal person and not a backpacker for a few hours. After filling ourselves we needed to walk it off so I took Phil around what I could remember of the walking tour I had done of Bel Air. It started off well and with a possible sighting of Bruce Willis driving past in his car. However, I got lost and soon we were winding our way round the suburbia of Beverley Hills. I was able to correct this though and Phil managed at last to see Nicholas Cage's house etc.
With this ticked off the list we realised we had not seen Sunset Blvd Strip, so we hailed a cab and headed up there. I don't know what I was expecting but it was just like any other normal road. Hmm. Hollywood all over again.
Finally my last day of my trip had arrived. After some sad news from home that my grandma had died, I needed some space so headed to the beach to reflect on memories. A shoal of dolphins started playing in the water just beyond the tide and stayed there the whole time I was on the beach. It was a magical sight. But still not feeling up to much and with the weather cold and overcast, I just wandered for a time around Venice Beach. Needing some distraction, I decided to go to the cinema accompanied by my dorm mate Daniel. The cinema was in Santa Monica just a stroll down the beach. It was a pleasant evening and an excellent film and we were delighted to find as we came out the cinema, that we had been able to avoid the rain that had been falling whilst we were inside the cinema.
As it was my last night we decided to have a glass of wine, and found a lovely bar overlooking the sea serving an excellent bottle of wine. This then turned into several more drinks and before we knew it, it was 2am! I had not yet dipped my toes in the sea so I made Daniel head down to there. At that time in the morning it was pretty cold, but an excellent way to end the night.
So LA. An amazing place but a disappointment too. Though surreal and good to be back in Western culture I can't say it was the highlight of my world tour. However, it was a good place to end my trip and I am very glad I got to experience LA culture.
After 365 days away it was time to return home