Travelogue: A Weekend in California

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By Dr Wale Okediran

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Simi Valley. Midnight. I was woken by the flapping of the trendy silk window curtains, then the howling of the wind. From a whimper, the howling ascended in intensity rising to the level of a growl. Sounds hesitating and vague now flooded the room to be followed by dry creaking sounds as the branch of the tree in the lawn outside rubbed against the window.

Waking up with a start, I thought I was on a seaside with a turbulent sea storm orchestrating the midnight melee. The truth was that, I was miles away from any body of water. I was right in the middle of a valley with rugged dry mountain peaks all around me in the heart of Southern California precisely, in Los Angeles, “the city of Angels”.

“We call it the Santa Ana” my friend and host in Los Angeles, Tayo Popoola explained to me when I later asked him about the tempestuous wind that had aroused me from my midnight slumber. “It comes from the mountains and it can be so strong as to cause serious damage to houses and facilities’’ Tayo added.

The Santa Ana was still in full force, hours later when I went outside to view the beautiful mountains and valleys of this angelic part of “Gods own Country”And as I stood outside admiring the view around me, I could feel the full force of the gusts of hot, dry air on my face as it continued its journey from the surrounding mountains. Legend has it that the wind, just like many winds usually brings with it the smell of distant mountains and hills. It was said to also bring with it “the sweat and dreams of men who had once left to search for the unknown, for gold and for adventure”. And if you listened carefully, legend insists, you could hear the singing and dancing of the native Indians who actually owned the land before the advent of the white men.I therefore tried to listen, but all I heard were the howling noises of wind and dust under the blistering midday sun.

The Santa Ana is said to be a periodic wind that blows in sporadic bursts from October through March and presents a triple threat of wind, heat and dryness which often turns the region’s hardscrabble flora into explosive fuel for the wildfires. While drying out vegetation, the winds fan any flames that ignite leading to widespread forest fires that can span hundreds of thousands of acres.

According to records, perhaps, the most serious Santa Ana to have ever occurred was the one that blew sometimes in December 2011 when the wind was said to have exceeded 80 mph in speed. The winds that year was said to have overturned tractors, trailers, downed trees and knocked out the power supply to Los Angeles International Airport as well as an estimated 200,000 homes.

I had come to Southern California as part of the last leg of my “US Coast to Coast Book Reading Tour” sponsored by Arik Air International. New York, Atlanta, Boston, Providence, Rhode Island and Los Angeles were the six city stops for the reading tour.

After my New York reading, I had departed the JFK International Airport for the 6-hour flight to Los Angeles aboard an American Airlines flight. The flight had a lot of Chinese on board who I was told, were going for holidays. A few days earlier I had encountered another large number of Chinese tourists on the grounds of Harvard University in Boston. This sudden swarm of Chinese tourists on American soil has been linked to China’s new found affluence.
Unknown to me, there was no complimentary in-flight refreshment on the 6- hour transatlantic flight and many of the passengers who were aware of this, had come with their own meals. The Chinese lady who sat next to me ate a sharp smelling stuff that briefly disturbed me even though she had politely asked my permission to eat before starting. Since California is 3 hours behind New York, we landed at the Los Angeles International Airport at 10.55pm L.A time even though it was still 9.55pm in New York and 3.55am in Nigeria.

To receive me at the airport were my high school mates Tayo Popoola a practicing LA lawyer and Toks ‘Cappello’ Yerokun an Atlanta based Professor who had also made the long haul to LA to be part of my reading.

Despite the weariness of my long trip, I was excited when Tayo suggested that we immediately go on a quick visit to Downtown L.A where we went straight to the Civic Centre which housed the City Hall, City Building, and the Country Building Annexes where Tayo worked.

I was also shown the Criminal Court Building where the celebrated case of OJ Simpson took place, the Staple Centre, home to famous Basketball and Ice Hockey teams such as The Lakers, LA Clippers among others. The buildings despite the history and fame behind them all looked simple and humble in their darkened surroundings.

Even though it was late, downtown LA was still very active as could be seen by the bright lights and heavy human and vehicular traffic.
“Brown faces have surpassed black faces in southern LA” Tayo said in obvious reference to the teeming population of Hispanics who dominated the region. So obvious is the Hispanics presence in LA that many of the traffic directions and instructions in the region are in Spanish. This development could be due to the fact that most of California was originally Mexico. The joke in California according to Tayo is that the US bought the state of California from Mexico for just a dollar!

However the truth of the matter was that as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexico – US war in 1848, the US “bought” much of the Western US for just $15 million (about $300 million in current rate). This part of the US includes California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and parts of Colorado and New Mexico.
In Mexico, this historical incident remains a sore point and generations of Mexicans grow up thinking that the land was stolen from them and so the joke about the land being sold for just one dollar.

In addition, although the US promised to honour the land rights of Mexicans living on the land, allegations abound that it failed to do so. Since the deal came before the California Gold Push, the riches gained by the US far surpassed the amount paid for the land. In what seems like a revenge move, Hispanics have now moved into South LA pushing blacks to other parts of the city and creating a lot of racial tension in the process.

I was also shown the site of the 1999 Rodney King race riot, an amorphous boundary between the high density downtown region and the affluent Simi Valley part of the town.

Expectedly, the most interesting part of my downtown visit was the visit to Hollywood. Even though it was late, a throng of tourists could be seen by the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunshine Boulevard admiring and photographing important sites and statues. It was all glitz and light as tourists went from studio to studio posing with the wax figures of some of their favourite actors and actresses.

A lot of stories abound of many aspiring actors and actresses who came to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune only to end up being destroyed by alcohol, drugs and disappointment. Luckily, a fair number of the fortune seekers finally made it.

And as we cruised round the glittering edifice that made up the number one word film region, I could not but marvel at the sheer industry and legendary of Hollywood.

It was almost midnight when Tayo turned back to the Freeway and proceeded to his house in the Simi Valley region.

After a restful Saturday morning after I had been prematurely aroused by Santa Ana, Tayo drove me to the venue of my reading at Ramada Inn in Chartsworth at the other end of town. And as we traversed the width and breadth of Los Angeles, I observed the very dry vegetation with craggy hills and mountains while Santa Ana continued blowing. Many of the houses were built Mexican style with fire resistant brown roofs as a precaution to the notorious fire outbreaks for which the region is well noted. As if to confirm its reputation as a fire prone area, I saw far in the horizon the beginning of a mountain fire, sparkling and cracking as the dry dusty Santa Ana continued to fan its embers.

I was informed that most of those fires were caused by carelessness … smokers, campers and others who carelessly throw burning matches or cigarettes anywhere.

It was a motley crowd of Africans and Americans that attended my reading which commenced around 2pm. Being a weekend, some of the guests came with their whole family. I was particularly delighted to see that due to the wide expanse of the State of California, some of the guests had driven long distances some for about two hours just to attend the reading.

I was especially happy to see Dr Sotu Omoigui a joint author of the current Nigerian Anthem who came with his family to the reading. According to information, the lyrics of the Nigerian anthem is a combination of words and phrases taken from five of the best entries sent in by John A Ilechukwu, Eme Etim Akpan, B A Ogunnaike, Sotu Omoigui and P O Aderibigbe in a national competition organised in 1978. The lyrics were subsequently set into music by the Nigerian Police Band under the directorship of B E Odiase. Dr Omoigui, a chatty and friendly man, was a LA based medical doctor.

The very lively Book reading which was followed by a hearty ‘question and answer session’ was brought to an end with an autograph session and cocktails.

As I later departed for dinner with my quests, Santa Ana was still performing, blowing off caps, hats and in some cases, groceries. We ended up at Cheese Cake Factory at Thousand Oaks a few kilometres away from Simi Valley. I was dumbfounded when we were informed that we had to wait for 50 minutes for a table to be available! I could not imagine waiting for even ten minutes for a table in any Nigerian restaurant. However, my hosts made me realise that being a weekend, it will be difficult to get another restaurant so, we just had to wait. To kill the time, we went round the Shopping Mall for some ‘window’ shopping.

We were soon back for dinner. And as I tucked into my delicious order of Grilled Salmon, Mashed Potatoes and Artichoke, it was obvious that the 50 minute wait for a table at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant was worth it. Moments later, we were back home in the Sycamore Village Estate in time to watch a wrestling match, a favourite past time of my host.

It was blazing hot and bright when I woke up refreshed the following day. Like a ghost, Santa Ana had suddenly disappeared. I was informed that the dry gusty wind comes and goes on its own volution. With the rigours of my travels and readings behind me, I was now relaxed and in a good form to do some shopping and sightseeing. Our first port of call was a nearby Shopping Mall where I picked up a few items at Mercy’s, JC Penney, and Target supermarkets.

From there, we proceeded to the Ronald Reagan Memorial Presidential Library on 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley, an expansive facility which housed the former President’s Mausoleum, the Library, an old Air Force One Plane as well as his official Chopper and Armoured car.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Centre for Public Affairs is the presidential library and final resting place of Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. Designed by Hugh Stubbins and Associates, the library is located in Simi Valley, California, about 40 miles (64 km) northwest of Downtown Los Angeles and 15 miles (24 km) west of Chatsworth. The Reagan Library is the largest of the thirteen federally operated presidential libraries. The street address, 40 Presidential Drive, is numbered in honour of Reagan’s place as the 40th President.
The Library/Museum is located on top a hill with a great view of the Simi Valley. Due to the then ongoing economic shutdown by the US Congress, the facility was not operating at full strength on the day of our visit. Thus, there were very few visitors around, still, the staff were very friendly and helpful as we went round the facility.

At the entrance to the Library’s hallway was a large life like portrait of the former President where I happily posed. As we later went on a guided tour of the Air Force One which last flew on September 8 2001 when it was brought to the museum, it was obvious that the Boeing 727 aircraft still looked elegant. We were shown the Cockpit, Communications room, Forward Gallery where meals can be cooked for the President and his team as well as the President’s Office, State Room Two, Board Room, Senior Staff Room, Security Compartment as well as the Press Compartment. I also had a quick look at President Reagan’s marble mausoleum in the Library’s courtyard. The highlight of my visit was however, Air Force One, the official American Presidential aircraft. You can walk through the plane that was used by several U.S. Presidents. We were not allowed to take photographs while on the plane, but we got our picture at the gangway taken by a staff member for $15.

The visit over, I went for a walk in the Sycamore Village and Sycamore Heights neighbourhood with my host. Nice and beautiful buildings some belonging to the rich and famous could be seen high up the mountains and hills their lights beaming and twinkling like a thousand stars. The area I was told was home to some famous Americans such as Clint Eastwood and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger among others.

As if waiting to wish me a good bye, Santa Ana was back as I made my way to the Los Angeles Airport the following day for my departure to New York. From the comfort of the air -conditioned car, I watched as pedestrians struggled with their flapping jackets, hats and handbags as the gusty dry wind resumed its activity. Far in the horizon, on a mountain top, I could see a pall of flickering light and smoke, the beginning of another wildfire as I took my exit from the ‘City of Angels’.

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