Posts Tagged 'independent travel'



Interstate to the Underbelly: Digging Around Underground LA

 

Not my photo

 

Freeways are the subways of LA.

I had that realization as I ached red-brake-light through the afternoon traffic, slugging from Orange County to my sister’s apartment in North Hollywood. The New York City subway system seemed to me, on my first trip there, like a whole nuther underground world—its own city, separate from the other city, living and breathing and pulsing passengers just beneath the surface of the streets. And the freeways in LA are kind of the same thing, choked and crawling and lined with furry-necked palm trees—a world within a world, a sub-city. And it seems you could live your whole life within its concrete confines, going back and forth and never arriving, not needing to arrive, having come to a place beyond arriving. (And you may not be able to buy a hot dog in the middle of the LA freeways, but you could always pull off and grab some oranges alongside the exit ramp.)

It’s been a busy four days in Los Angeles, poking, prodding and trespassing into the underbelly of the biggest un-city of the US. I’ve got about 100 stories to tell, and even more poorly shot photos—marginal neighborhoods and abandoned places and esoteric cults, street art and Santeria markets and a female-run strip club. I’m debating how I want to organize and present it all and, as usual,chronologically seems the least linear, in terms of telling the story of it. The lines curve and arch and connect like the freeways, tangentially, seeming to move independently and with their own direction.

Most of my best finds and coolest adventures came as the result of totally serendipity and randomness. I dug for hours on the internet and then, three days before I left, I happened upon a not-quite guidebook in a bookstore: LA Bizarro (whose blog component can be found here). Cheesy in parts, genius in others and snarky throughout, the book brought me to some seriously hidden gems. And one that had fallen off the edge of the continent.

Sunken City was one of the coolest places I went to. A piece of San Pedro that had crumbled into the ocean during a mud/rockslide, Sunken City is the name given to the concrete, graffitied remains. Quardened off by a barrier wall and a couple of easily shimmied-under fences at the end of Point Fermin Park, Sunken City is technically off limits, but we found it full of about a dozen people—including a bunch of ballsy teenagers skateboarding the broken surfaces. Palm trees, grass and wild chard (from someone’s old vegetable garden?) punctuated the wind-swept rubble. It’s a wet dream for anyone who loves abandoned ruins, low-level trespassing, oceanside vistas—or anyone dreaming of the day California falls into the Pacific and floats away. Expect a photo essay soon.

I got word of another killer abandoned place from an old friend via Facebook. I drove into the green hill of Griffith Park, and poked around the rusty abandoned cages of the Old LA Zoo. Parts are a proper picnic/park area, while others lie behind a well-bent fence. The further into the hillside you go, the weirder and more graffitied the remains become. The zoo closed as a result of poor funding and animal deaths, and looking at the archaic cages, it’s easy to feel the suffering of the long-deceased captives. Especially since you can climb inside the cages.

Again, it was me and the teenagers—digging around behind broken fences is a fairly juvenile activity. We smiled and exchanged sunny day pleasantries, them choking on blunt smoke and remarking on all their friends’ tags, “Damn, blood, everybody been up here.”

I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon the MAK Center’s How Many Billboards project, but it totally intrigued me: artists taking over billboards in one of the most heavily advertised/commercialized/image-obsessed cities on the planet. I missed the bus tours and I’d feared the whole exhibition, but a bunch of the billboards’ leases got extended beyond the show’s original run. I hunted around town and found a couple really cool ones:

I also somehow stumbled upon the New Image Gallery, and found out legendary LA artist RETNA was having a solo show. I missed the opening reception on Friday, but stopped by today. Combining fashion photography with layered scrawlings, advertising with graffiti, glamour with grit seemed like the perfect collision of LA cultures. And it looked bad-ass.

Another thing I’m totally mystified as to how I found was Jetset Graffiti, my new favorite nerdy obsession. The site recently featured the latest Saber mural, part of the LA Freewalls project; I scurried down amid the warehouses and day laborers of 7th and Mateo to snap some photos. Expect a lengthy photo and word essay on LA street art I stumbled across, including stencils, wheatpastes and works by DFace and the ubiquitous Shepard Fairey.

Saber mural, "Pepper's World"

 

 

I discovered Esotouric by Googling “Charles Bukowski landmarks” (I said I was nerdy). Offbeat, indie and utterly obsessed with LA’s underbelly, Esotouric has an entire “Haunts of a Dirty Old Man” Charles Bukowski tour—plus John Fante, Black Dahlia and Tom Waits tours, among others. They only run tours once a week or so; I wasn’t super stoked on the one they were running while I was in town, but figured entrusting myself to people so dedicated to the strangeness of LA would be a damn good way to spend an afternoon, regardless of the subject matter.

“Maja’s Mysteries” focused on spiritual sites—the truly marginal and counterculture ones. Some might call them cults, some might call them New Agey nonsense, but all had found a home in the City of Angels. Maja, the White Witch of LA—tall and blond and subtly doused in glitter—grabbed the bus microphone and instructed us on karma and grace as we toddled up the hills and along the highways. We stopped at historic spiritual centers, founded by estatics searching for Utopia. They were all evangelists and mystics and soothsayers that prayed into crystals, channeled the cosmos, allowed the voice of Jesus to speak through their voicebox, clogged the old streetcars with thousands of revelers on a weekly basis, and generally used the power of prayer to create oodles of good mojo.

Though I didn’t connect to the spiritual eccentricity, and was downright spooked by the haunting recordings of George King’s contact with cosmic voices, I realized something on the Esotouric tour: all these people had come to Los Angeles from somewhere else. All of them seekers, searching for something, looking to fill a void or answer a question amid the swaying palm trees and quivering fault lines. Long before Scientology, long before Hollywood, long before reality shows about struggling actors and wannabe models, the magnetic currents of LA had drawn these misfits into the sunshine, the skin-piercing, cancer-blooming sunshine. They found followers, built philosophies, perfected their teachings, erected buildings—and fell off, eventually, into obscurity, settling into the dust between the hills, just under the surface of all that pavement.

Seen in that way, Hollywood isn’t some departure from the true, wild spirit of LA—it’s a continuation of the soul-hungry-ness, the seeking lonely and the elusive mirage that almost, but never quit fills the void—that circles and circumvents, glittering hoods and gleaming break lights—touches on a tangent, an overpass, for a moment, then glides off along the concrete arteries, the highways of LA, never arriving.

Searching for the Swallows in San Juan Capistrano

The air twitched with flies. Wild rabbits darted like phantoms from some hallucinogenic come-down; lizards crawled like insects out of the eyes of middle-school acid trips. Rocks and weeds tumbled down into a tight ravine; on the other side, trains rumbled past and the interstate roared like a wild thing. A weathered “No Trespassing” sign grew small behind me. I wasn’t concerned—this was bigger than trespassing. Down an abandoned road, amid the unkept overgrowth of a forgotten corner of Orange County, I was searching for what I’d come for—the swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

It started with the tattoo. I, like half of the tattooed population of the planet, have swallows. Not that I’m a sailor, bird enthusiast or have any particular affinity for traditional tattoos. But it means that every little old lady I meet asks me, “Have you been to San Juan Capistrano?” I found out that San Juan Capistrano was the town where swallows migrate back to every spring, after their trip down to Argentina. They arrive like clockwork every March 19, swooping around the old alcoves of the Mission there, building their bizarre nests and diving through the calm air and whispering history. I got tired of answering “no”—this year, I was going to the god-damn Mission and seeing some god-damn swallows.

I drove into the belly of the beast—Orange County. Motherland of every suburban California stereotype: sixteen lanes of chocked traffic, smog-smudged horizons, Del Taco and Starbucks, too-skinny arms and too-hard boobs. But somewhere amid all that was a kind of authenticity, a tradition, a natural phenomenon that hadn’t been strangled out by sprawl. I’d sat on the balcony of my cheap hotel in the Fez medina one dusk and watched the sky come alive with the swoop and screech of swallows: black, like shadows, fast, like phantoms, so that they almost seemed unreal. I wanted that rush again, that marvel and awe, in what seemed like a most unlikely place, this suburb of all suburbs.

The return of the swallows is San Juan Capistrano’s biggest event of the year. The Mission opens its doors to tons of visitors; I learned too late that the main event was the Swallows Day Parade on Saturday. But whatever. The main event for me were the birds themselves. I ditched my car about a mile from the Mission, hiked through the traffic and crowds of families and old ladies. I bought a couple $2 tacos, a pan dulce as big as my head, and entered the Mission.

Only the swallows weren’t there. Crowds milled around with their audio-tour headsets, their cameras and sun visors, through the neon flowers and crumbling edifices of the Mission, looking skyward at nothing but blue. “Ooh, there’s one,” an elderly man exclaimed. “No, dear,” his wife answered, “that’s a blackbird.”

What the hell? I sidled up to a ranger and asked, “So, um, where’s all the birds?”

“They don’t really come here anymore,” she answered in a hushed voice.

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t really know. Some people think it’s climate change, but more likely it’s urbanization. The area was all rural when the Mission was built—lots of bugs and dirt for the birds. But now, you know—” she waved her hand at the hiss of traffic from beyond the Mission walls. “I’ve heard they’re mostly down by the creek.” She gave me directions to a creekbed just outside of town, where a small colony of swallows was rumored have nested, to be swooping through the skies. “Lots for them to eat out there,” the ranger told me with a smile.

I wandered around the Mission. It was beautiful in the way that Southern plantations are beautiful—peaceful and shady, but with something sinister inside the breezes and gardenia scents, a hint of haunting in the wild-blowing quietude, as though if you listened very closely, you could hear the echoes of crying, of cultural genocide and Christianization. I listened to my headset, watched the candles flicker in the chapel, observed the statue of missionary taming the savage, lion-cloth-wearing Native American.

“Are those swallows on your arms?” a woman wearing a swallow-studded t-shirt asked.

“They sure are.”

“Can I take a picture?”

I turned around and squeezed my elbows together, so that the birds on either sides of the arms were touching. The woman snapped her photo. “Those are the only ones I’ve seen today,” she told me wistfully.

I laughed. “Me too.”

Like everyone else, I kept looking up, searching the squinting blue sky for signs of the birds. Phantom swallow syndrome: kept thinking I saw the diving wings and forked tails of the elusive birds I’d come for. It seemed like a metaphor—like gentrification, like the more predatory forms of tourism, we’d descended en masse and through our seeking of something authentic and real, we’d driven out the very thing we sought. And I was, of course, one of them, in the way you never want to admit you’re really one of them (“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”)—with my digital camera, snapping photos at ghosts.

I’d find them, I decided. I got back into my desert-dust, dead-bug covered car and went creek-ward. I curved down a quiet road, spied the cleave in the green earth when the creek was, searched for somewhere to ditch my car that didn’t have an ominous “Tow Away” sign. I pulled up to a driveway and asked a little old man if he’d seen any swallows. He scratched his head, answered in a heavy accent, “No, but maybe down by the Church.”

The grounds of Rancho Capistrano weren’t very welcoming—sprinkled with “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. I left my car between two parked big-rigs on the street outside and tromped in, down through shady grasses and soccer fields, alongside a 6-foot chainlink fence covered in forbidding signs. The grounds gave way to open space, wild grass and small, rustling animals. The natural creek was swallow-less, but as I approached the cement embankments, I saw the diving black figures I’d been searching for.

About a dozen swallows moved through the half-shadowed concrete, white bellies and black wings. I crouched down, snuck under the tall fence and crawled over big rocks to get closer to the birds’ strange dance. I tried to snap photos, but they were too fast, too elusive for my slow fingers and cranky old lens. I put down my camera and just watched, thinking of the balcony in Fez, the long journey of the small creatures, the city they’d shunned and where they’d ended up instead.

Wind and Dust and Real Wild West

Two days in the desert—driving, hot wind roaring, through the pebbles and boulders, palm groves and dusty towns, the strange angles of the Joshua trees, arching up towards something, a sky as pale as eyes. It’s not hard to imagine infinity in the desert, that’s it’s all still at the bottom of some great prehistoric sea, that the sky were the lid of the sea and we were all swimming through it, rattling highway through it—the wind, waves; the dust, sand; the crunch under your sneakers some kind of ancient asking.

I arched over the hills, my tired car chugging, and arrived in Joshua Tree, went teeth-chattering down an unpaved road that dead-ended at open lot of strange, scavenged art. I’d read about the Noah Purifoy Foundation on Trazzler, and it immediately rose to the top on my list of things to do .

An LA artist that moved to the desert for more space and peace, Noah Purifoy erected whimsical sculptures out of found and salvaged materials—toilets, old vacuum cleaners, scrapped tin. During the 60s he’d directed the Watts Towers Art Center, and you can definitely see the influence of Simon Rodia—though Purifoy’s creations are more folksy, more political, less abstract. In fact, one of the most powerful pieces in the wind-swept lot was a piece made from materials found after the Watts Riots. To take a tragic, violent event, to sift through its remains and piece them together to create something new, something beautiful—this seems to be what Noah Purifoy was all about.

Admission to the Noah Purifoy Foundation is free; there’s a couple pamphlets at the entrance that guide you through your wanderings. There were only a couple other people there, and I hadn’t read about the place anywhere else. Except that, the next day, I saw on Twitter that it’d been featured in the New York Times. So much for having the edge.

Then it was off into the park itself. You hear a lot about the strange spiritual power of Joshua Tree, and I gotta say, they aren’t exaggerating. The terrain was other-worldly, to say the least. The tumble of boulders looked as though they’d been piled up by a toddler’s hand. The arms of the Joshua trees twisted and reached, fists full of beige spring flowers.  The shrubs had a slight purplish haze, like an old woman’s hair, and the air was full with a charged silence, the sound of wind.

I of course made a beeline to the site of Gram Parson’s impromptu cremation, something of a pilgrimage site for fans and aficionados of the bizarre. I drove out to Cap Rock and walked slowly around the massive formation, searching for the tributes and messages written on the rock that would signal the spot. And you know, I have to say, sitting there, the whole thing seemed much less odd. Well, the bit about stealing the body and having it actually burned on the spot is still a bit far-fetched, but being there—listening to the wind and watching the lizards dart—it seemed less like some kind of opiate-inspired fit of fancifulness, and more like an honest yearning to become a part of the place. It felt like somewhere, very far beneath the surface of it all, those plutonic intrusions that caused the rock formations were still boiling, still shooting up through the crust of the earth, and it didn’t seem so strange to want to become a part of it—to become smoke, twisting; dust, dancing; and at last the wind.

Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

The next day it was off find the Wild West. I’d been stoked about Pioneertown, for nothing more than the kitsch factor. An old movie and TV set from the 40s, my trip to Pioneertown seemed ill-fated from the beginning. The Pionnertown Motel suddenly “closed indefinitely” the week before I left, and Harriet and Pappy’s Palace, billed as the best honky tonk west of the Mississippi, was closed the night I wanted to go boogie down. So I headed out in the morning and I have to say, if it would have been monumentally disappointing if Ice Cube hadn’t been there, in a poncho and a sombrero hat, filming a new video.

I headed back on the highway, through squat, peopleless towns of gas stations and boarded-up buildings. Did you know they grow dates in the California desert? I didn’t. Or that a date milkshake is god-damn delicious?

I made it to Niland, a windy little town with a couple shops, a no-name gas station and a stretch of trailers. There were two big sights there that inspired me to go 2 1/2 hours out of my way: Salvation Mountain and Slab City—the real, modern-day Wild West. It’s fitting that most people know about these places, if at all, from the movie and book Into The Wild, because they capture the kind of not-for-profit weirdness that can only take place in California.

Salvation Mountain is Leonard Knight’s neon, latex-paint monument to God. Really. Radioactively bright, the art installation is covered in biblical passages, odes to God, and topped with a cross. The old dude came out to the desert in 1985, shortly after he was saved by Jesus, and began building the tribute, fueled by some kind of insane passion and other-realm vision.

Leonard was there that day, as he is most. Weathered, red-skinned and still mostly coherent, Leonard showed a small group of us around, spouting his message of God’s love and keeping it simple. He had a 10th grade education, he told us, and was one of the dumbest creatures on Earth, but because he’d repented, God had enabled him to build Salvation Mountain. He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for fame—he did it spread the message.

His paint-stained pants were hitched up high, one of the legs tucked into his sock. The Velcro straps of his stained sneakers flapped, and he’d missed a button on his shirt. Three long hairs grew out of the top of his nose; he had a cold sore and one long thumb nail. He looked like a man that had become the desert, was the desert. He gave us each a handful of postcards and asked us to distribute them. He wanted nothing in return, just for us to spread the word. He repeated “keep it simple” like a mantra.

A quarter-mile down the road was the legendary RV squatter encampment of Slab City—“the last free place,” the sign read. Pebbly and stark and covered with trailers, Slab City is a piece of land no one wants. The government bulldozed a military base that was there in the mid-40s, leaving nothing but concrete slabs, covering the ground like graves. Word got out in the squatter community, and it became a wintering place for “snow birds.” There’s no water, no bathrooms—nothing, again, but wind and dust.

There were a number of “yard sales”—tables and blankets were random stuff was displayed, on sale for passer-throughs like myself. I pulled over to one and chatted with the people there, a desert-skinned man with a scabby elbow on a bicycle, and a sun-visored woman with obese ankles and a gap where a tooth once was. I asked them about life in Slab City, about the community and why they were there.

“There’s no rules here,” they told me. “No one bothers you, and you can do whatever you want.” They let the statement linger, and I didn’t ask what “whatever” was. As long as you were sociable with your neighbors and didn’t steal, anything went.

They told me how they easily lived on $200 a month in government assistance and food stamps, how people helped each other without payment or reward, how there were weekly live music shows and how the cops wouldn’t come out there (since Slabbers provide all the income for the nearby town Niland, they claimed). They talked about local goings-on, about drunk neighbors who’d stabbed each other and a dog that had recently died, a new church that had opened and was going to start giving out food on Sundays. Last year a trailer had burned; there was nothing to do but watch it blaze in the night.

“By April 1,” the guy told me, “everyone will be gone.”

“Where do they go?”

He shrugged. “Oregon. Canada. There’s not many free places left, places like this.”

He looked around the shrubs and dirt, squinted under the heavy sun—a place that had etched itself onto his skin, his sharp blue eyes. This was no OK Corral; this was the realeast Wild West I’d ever seen.

Los Angeles, Give Me Some of You!

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

Us Northern Californians are prejudiced.

That’s right: prejudiced. We look down our noses, down the long craggy coastline, at Los Angeles as though it were the traffic-clogged  layer of Hell Dante forgot to mention. Tanned and Botoxed and full of silicone, Southern California steals our water, votes Republican, gave us the Governator. In its smog-laden haze of red carpets and reality shows, it skews our state’s reputation, bogs down our ethereal quest for Prius-driving utopia of gay marriage and legalized marijuana. It’s Sparta and we’re Athens, the “LA face and Oakland booty” that never quite make it onto the same person, never combine to create the ultimate bad-ass state, but instead go careening on their own individual, bickering paths of disapproval (NorCal) and complete unawareness/indifference (SoCal).

I once read an essay that whittled the whole Northern-Southern divide down to the difference between internal and external—Southern California was the glossy, teeth-whitened facade, Northern California the soulful, spiritually searching inside (you can guess which side of the debate the author fell on). It’s Bikram and we’re Hatha. And while Southern California remains too self-absorbed to even notice our despising of them, people write whole books on the cultural clashes of the US’s most populous state.

But I’ve long suspected that there’s more to Southern California than SUV-driving anorexics and flip-flop-wearing bros. It may have given us Kardashians and Speidi, but what about Charles Bukowski and John Fante, Camille Rose Garcia and The Date Farmers, The Germs and NWA? There must be, I’ve thought, a whole nuther Los Angeles, down beneath the glittering grotesque surface, that most people never see—hidden and raw, like an open wound or a small, beating heart.

I’m going to find it. I’m going, filling my beat-up car with gas and kicking the tires to check the air, going down the writhing road of Highway 1, past old Missions and crumbling cliffs, sleepy mansions and under-funded state parks. I’m headed into the desert, to psuedo-Old-West honky tonks and lawless squatter encampments. I’m watching swallows return from their long flight, to build strange nests and swoop their shadows through the dusk. And then I’m headed into the city itself, the city of Angeles and dreamers and dirtbags I’ve adored. I’ve got no traditional guidebook, no road map—just my phone and a smattering of tips divulged by friends and dug up on random websites.

Oh, and I’m taking you along for the ride.

I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

Livin on a CUC: Independent, Budget Travel in Cuba

Cheesin it up

Backpackers, lefties and dirty hippies beware: Cuba is not cheap. And despite any romantic revolutionary visions, it’s got tourist traps, just like everywhere else. They’re just filled with Che shirts instead of fanny packs.

Several factors might lead one to logically assume Cuba to be a budget-friendly, independent travelers’ paradise: it’s a dirt-poor Latin American country, enamored in the hearts of liberals, intellectuals and military-cap-wearing undergrads. So when you hear that your low-to-mid-range daily budget for Cuba should be around $100/day, it comes as a bit of a shock.

Here’s the deal: after the sugar industry collapsed in Cuba, there wasn’t much left to keep the island afloat. Keen eyes turned towards tourism. Not only does Cuba’s larger-than-life lore hold particular allure for the left-leaning, it’s got an undeniable romanticism—old cars, crumbling buildings, rum and Rumba. Couple that white people’s insatiable lust for balmy Caribbean getaways, and they had the perfect cocktail on their hands—muddled with Euros instead of mint sprigs. Tourism today is “the most dynamic sector of the Cuban economy.”

If you’ve traveled to other places where tourism is a mainstay of the economy, you’ll know what this means: high prices and potential hassle. From Moroccan medina touts to San Francisco’s 14% hotel tax, economies that rely on tourism milk it. In San Francisco, the hotel tax goes to fund all sorts of cool arts endeavors and social programming that other US cities don’t have; you could argue (depending on your politics) that Cuba’s dual currencies are an extension of that. And in Cuba you don’t really have to worry about hustlers and pick-pockets (though they do still exist); tour companies take care of that.

Let's play "Spot the Tourists"

You wouldn’t initially think it, but Cuba’s got a resort, package tourism industry up to snuff with any Caribbean destination. A Hungarian friend won a Cuban vacation as an incentive prize at work; all he saw of Cuba outside of his resort was through a tour bus window. Combine the package factor with the absence of youth hostels and backpacking networks, and the prospects can seem pretty dismal for DIY cheapstakes like me.

But independent, budget travel in Cuba can and does happen. There’s just some special tricks you have to be hip to. My travel companion and I managed to squeak by on $75/day, well under the Lonely Planet budget (but then again, we were both surviving at home on less than $2000/month, so cheap living wasn’t anything new). Here’s what we learned and how we did it.

Resources

My two biggest resources for independent, budget travel to Cuba were Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum, and Cuba Junky, a comprehensive, Cuban/Dutch-run website for travelers (with endearingly odd translations and misspellings). At these two sites, you can find info all sorts of great information, and on the forum you can trouble-shoot and get advice (and suffer through the occasional political debate).

Money

Cuba operates on two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), the money of the people, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), the money of tourists.

Why? As tourism grew, American dollars began to wiggle their way into the country—hotels and tourist restaurants charged foreigners in dollars, while charging locals in pesos. (Considering the average monthly salary for a Cuban doctor is about what I make in thirty minutes, it’s more fair than it seems.) In addition, “dollar-only” shops emerged, where scarce and coveted items like dental floss could be had for a a high price. The influx of money was good, but the presence of American dollars was kind of slap-in-the-face to the government, wouldn’t you say? The government thus created the CUC to keep US dollars out; they did, though, base the exchange rate on the US dollar. Tourists pay for things in CUCs, while locals pay in pesos.

Whenever you exchange money, you’ll be given CUCs, and the majority of places you spend money will accept only CUCs. Invariably, however, you’ll get your hands on some pesos. It’ll probably happen like this: you get seduced by the wafting smell of cooking meats, and buy some street food. You hand the guy your CUC note. He digs around his pockets, shouts over at some other vendors; no one has the proper CUC change. He shrugs and gives your change in pesos. You’ve now got a pocket full of notes and coins, and can pay for small items like coffee and ice-cream with pesos—dropping the price from a couple bucks to a couple cents (literally).

There are of course more nefarious ways to get your hands on pesos, but you wouldn’t do that, now would you? Tourists aren’t really supposed to use pesos, and I have to say, I felt pretty guilty paying the equivalent of 5 cents to someone who makes $10/month—even if I am just a waitress living in a run-down North Oakland Victorian. I don’t recommend trying to use pesos as a way of cutting corners and stretching your budget, but it’s something that will happen at some point.

Casa Particulares

The single biggest way to save money in Cuba is by staying in casa particulares. State-licensed rooms for rent in private homes, casa particulares will also be one of your best glimpses into Cuban life.

Huge-ass main course served at a casa particular

Here’s how it works: individuals apply for a license, which is expensive; they must pay a monthly tax whether or not they have guests. The government approves them, and they can rent rooms to foreigners.

Expect to pay 15-30 CUCs per night (as opposed to 50-100 Euros and upwards on a hotel). Plus, as everyone knows, homestays are a great way to experience the everyday life and culture of a country; we stayed with hosts in Vinales whose teenage son showed us plenty of hip Cuban dance moves (which we were incapable of replicating). Hosts will usually offer to cook you meals, for an additional 5-15 CUCs. This may not be cheaper than eating at a budget restaurant or food stall, but they’ll stuff you silly.

The Cuba Junky site has gotten much more spiffy since I went to Cuba, and you can now book a casa particular room via the website. I did it a semi-old-fashioned way: I got ahold of Potato’s email address on the Thorn Tree forum, sent him an email, and he booked a room for us. He gave us his address; once we landed in Havana, we went to his apartment, enjoyed a cup of tea and chatted (he’s a really cool dude), and he walked us a couple blocks over to a lovely elderly couple who we stayed with for four days (and whose toilet we later busted—more on that later).

I like to have my accommodation arranged for my first couple nights when I arrive somewhere new, but the rest of the casa particulares we stayed in on our trip we booked ourselves. Most people will display their license logo prominently, so you can just knock on their door and ask if they have room (really, Cubans are insanely friendly and won’t turn you away). If the one you go to is full, they’ll for sure have a dozen friends with licensed rooms, and will help you find one. It sounds like a hassle, more for them than us, but I swear it works: a cab driver drove us all around Vinales while neighbors tracked down an empty room.

Bring Every Last Toiletry You May Possibly Need

Basic medical supplies are both costly and in short supply, or nonexistent, in Cuba. Pack all the sunscreen, aspirin, contact lens solution and insect repellent you might need—or risk shelling out painful amounts of money in a poorly stocked dollar-store. Even an extra roll of toilet paper isn’t a bad idea—unless you like wiping your ass with day-old news.

Tours and Entertainment

Cuba has a fairly well-beaten path, and if you stick to the neighborhoods and activities tourists are routinely funneled into, you’ll bleed CUCs faster than you can say “revolucion.” But get a little intrepid and a little chatty, and you’ll stretch your budget big-time.

Everyone knows that Cubans party, and party well, so you can be pretty sure that any club charging a hefty entrance fee is geared towards tourists. And as cool as a Hemingway tour or trip to the Tropicana might sound right now, you’ll quickly realize that they’re the Fisherman’s Wharf of Havana. Get friendly and ask your casa hosts (or random folks on the street) for tips on where to go and what to do. Less tacky companies like San Cristobal Agencia de Viajes are a good bet for more offbeat tours.

Food, Transport, and the Likes

There’s no real trick here: just do what you do in other countries.

Dinners at tourist-geared restaurants will set you back much further than paladares (mom-and-pops) and street food stands. Snack foods can actually be pretty hard to come by, so bringing along some biscuits, nuts or, for the homesick Yankee, peanut butter isn’t a bad idea. You can skimp on transit, but be prepared to pay the price: low-cost buses break down and hitch-hiking isn’t fun anywhere (in my opinion). Walk and take local buses within big cities, as opposed to cabs, and of course, the less you move, the less you spend on bus tickets, trains, etc. Cut down on souvenirs (really, how any Che hats do you need?), and do free stuff like strolling and lazing on the beach.


So, as with the last post, any seasoned Cuban travelers or recent returnees wanna share their experiences? We’re all ears…

Yankee in a Che Shirt: How To Travel to Cuba Independently and Illegally as an American

Americans you're likely to encounter in Cuba

Si, se puede!

Three years ago, I traveled to Cuba. I didn’t get a visa, didn’t book a tour, didn’t go with a dance troupe or salsa band (though that would have been killer). I did it the way I do everything, independently.

Fear mongers, nay sayers and foreign travel agencies would lead you to believe that independent travel to Cuba is dangerous and impossible. They’re the same people that make full and complete stops at every stop sign, and are too scared to ride the subway in NYC. Or else they’re trying to sell you something—the hustling taxi driver outside of the airport. They clamor cowardly behind the embargo.

Here’s the legality deal: as an American, you’re technically not banned from traveling to Cuba; you’re prohibited from spending money there. Whatever. If you didn’t obey your parents’ curfew as a teenager, are you really gonna start heeding authority now?

The fun thing about traveling to Cuba as an American is that it requires more effort, more digging. You can’t buy your plane tickets online; most worthwhile advice won’t come from guidebooks but fellow travelers, via forums like Thorn Tree. Basically, you have to work a little harder. But the reward is getting to go to one of the most un-Americanized countries in the world—remarkably only 90 miles from Florida.

I’m pretty sure it’s technically illegal to give Cuban travel advice to Americans. But eff that too. Here’s how I did it, how it worked and the gems of wisdom I smuggled back (along with the cigars):

Before You Go: Money and Packing

Your most important pre-travel preparation as an American is money. Your ATM and credit cards won’t work in Cuba, meaning you’ve pretty much got to bring everything you plan on spending with you. Travelers checks are a pain in the ass and have a hefty commission tacked on—which means you’ll be bringing cash. Lots and lots of cash.

If you’re like me, you’re not too thrilled at the idea of walking around with $1300 on your person. But keep in mind Cuba’s remarkably low crime rate, the absence of desperate drug addicts and your own street sense—you’re gonna be fine.

Another consideration is which type of currency to bring in. The greenback gets an extra 10% penalty fee on top of the standard 8% exchange commission, so most travelers opt to bring in Canadian dollars or Euros. It pays to do the math on conversions and figure out how much you’ll be hit by commissions and fees for dual exchange (changing from dollars into Euros into CUCs).

Another pre-trip consideration is what to bring, and what not to bring. This is for everyone, not just Americans. Charitable donations like medical supplies and clothes are greatly needed and appreciated, but check out regulations on what and how much to bring. Cuban Customs has some unusual regulations regarding the import of electronics and pornography, and is super strict about narcotics. Of particular concern to Americans is the prohibition of anti-revolutionary literature—make sure you don’t have any crazy right-wing, Miami ex-pat ramblings with you. Not that you would anyway.

Getting In: Booking a Flight

The easiest, most popular and often cheapest way for an American to get into Cuba is through Mexico, namely Cancun. Of course, Cancun is the #1 most suspicious transfer point, and word around the chat rooms is that you’re singled out by US Customs most often when arriving from Cancun. But it’s also an insanely popular destination, and I think the Mexican- to Cuban-vacationer ratio still works in your favor.

American travel agencies and airlines are prohibited from booking flights or giving any kind of assistance to Cuban travelers. But foreign airlines and agencies aren’t. So instead of shelling out big bucks to some Canadian company that’ll orchestrate the whole thing (for a mere 300% mark-up), do what I did: call a foreign airline at one of their international offices. I called Mexicana in Mexico City (52 55 2881 0000), requested to speak to an agent that spoke English (not a bad idea when purchasing something as expensive as plane tickets), and bought tickets from Mexico to Havana. Not as easy as Orbitz, but pretty damn close.

The way the flight times worked out, we ended up bookending our Cuban travels with overnight stays in Mexico. I thought I’d be smart and fly through Merida, whose Sunday night dance parties sounded infinitely preferable to Cancun’s binge-drinking co-eds. Turns out that you can’t fly directly from Merida to Havana, so we had to transfer in Cancun anyway. Ah well, better than a spending a night in Cancun.

Arriving: Surviving Customs

Passing through Cuban Customs is the most intimidating border crossing I’ve ever done. But, as I reminded my then-boyfriend and travel companion, Cuba wants to let you in. They need tourists’ money. They just wanna make sure you’re not there on an anti-revolution espionage mission. Fair enough.

Expect to stand in an impossibly long line. You’ll be instructed to approach the Customs booth by yourself. They’ll scowl at you, tell you to take off your glasses and look into the camera. They’ll photograph you, record you, enter every last bit of info on your passport into their computer. They’ll then stamp your tourist card, your golden ticket. Cuba doesn’t stamp passports, but $20 purchased tourist cards. Mexicana provided mine, but it’s a good idea to check your airline or prepurchase your card at a Cuban Embassy, as getting ahold of one at the airport sucks. And hang on to that baby—losing it is an expensive, bureaucratic hassle.

Once your passport is handed back to you, you’ll get directed through the floor-to-ceiling solid door that the travelers before you disappeared behind. It may seem like you’re being funneled into an interrogation room, but most likely, you’ll be headed off for a quick frisking and x-raying of your baggage. Drug sniffing dogs will accompany female agents in ridiculously short skin-tight mini-skirts—the most amusing part of your Customs experience.

While You’re There

Really? Couldn't have left the Confederate swim trunks at home?

Once you’re in Cuba, there’s not a lot in your day-to-day travels that’ll set you apart as American. You’ll have to deal with the money issue, but the good news is that everyone will guess you’re from somewhere other than the US. It’s a nice change of pace from the Frenchman breaking into sudden English with, “And where in the States are you from?”

Getting Out: Playing Dumb and Looking Innocent

The trickiest and most anxiety-inducing part of any American’s trip to Cuba is coming home. I’ve heard of Americans getting hassled by Cuban customs agents, but it’s pretty rare. The folks you have to worry about are the good ole’ boys (and girls) back home.

But first you have to worry about a double-entry stamp back in Mexico. This means that you’ll have a stamp for arriving in Mexico, no stamps for Cuba, but then another entry stamp for your return to Mexico; there’s a void in there, signaling nefarious activity.

You can handle this one of two ways: bribing the Mexican Customs agent to not stamp your passport (trickier at Cancun, where they’re more vigilant, but still possible), or by hoping for the best with a doubly stamped passport. We opted to bribe the Mexican Customs agent. We tucked a sizable peso note into our passports and softly asked not to be stamped. The agent grunted and handed us back our passports, unstamped. If you’ve got a heavily stamped passport to begin with, it might be worth saving the money and relying on the slim odds that the US Customs agent will bother to inspect your passport closely. I’ve never had an agent more than glance at my stamps.

Aside from the extensive, albeit poorly edited, advice by eco-hippies International Bike Fund (I mean that in a good way), any American who’s ever traveled to Cuba will be eager to give you plenty of tips and first-hand accounts on how to elude US Customs—whether you want to hear it or not. So here’s my two centavos:

Revolution anniversary poster I stole and smuggled back home

Reports vary, but up to 100,000 Americans are claimed to have visited Cuba last year. Most of them breeze through US Customs without a problem. There’s nothing that should single you out as particularly suspicious. Be respectful; don’t roll up to the counter smoking a cigar and wearing a Che hat. But don’t sweat it too much. Customs agents are doing their job, and you’re doing yours. They really don’t want to write out lengthy reports anyway. I truly regarded my traveling to Cuba as not too dissimilar from jay-walking—not supposed to really do it, but no big deal. Folks’ll tell you not to bring anything incriminating and obviously Cuban back with you, but eff that—I brought cigars and stolen street posters.

We arrived at SFO disheveled and tired with a horde of sunburnt vacationers. I of course did not write on my Immigration Card that I’d traveled to Cuba, nor did I list the goods I was smuggling back (why you gonna rat yourself out?). I smiled nicely at the agent, told her yes, I’d had a great time in Mexico, picked up my bags, passed em through the x-ray machine without incident, and headed home.

But enough out of me. Any Americans out there wanna share their Cuban travel experiences?


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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