Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 9, 2006. Proper Tourism

After my bike ride, I decided that it was time to be a proper tourist. So the next day I left my bike behind and walked along the path to the aquarium, which everyone had said I must visit. It was fine, I guess. It was good to see the huge tank with the kelp, and realize what was underneath the bits of plant I’d see bobbing on the surface when I looked out at the water. The tropical fish were beautiful, of course, amazing brilliant shades of blue and yellow and pink and even, improbably, purple. I stuck my fingers in the “touch” tanks and played with starfish and sea urchins and other critters. I ooh-ed and aah-ed at the jellyfish and tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to photograph them. (I’ve got to figure out how to turn the flash off on my new camera!) I did like watching the local sea birds in their big aviary. Apparently nothing makes those birds stay there; they can fly all over the aquarium if they want to, and at night they do. In the day, though, they seem to prefer their bit of beach and fresh air, so they stay where the tourists can see them.

But the experience of going was more fun than the exhibits themselves. I walked up Cannery Row and studied the murals on a plywood wall, depicting scenes from the Steinbeck novel (which I confess I have not read). In the aquarium I found the children at least as interesting as the fish. The timid ones would hesitate to wet their hands in the icy tanks to touch the animals, but the bolder ones showed each other how the sea urchin would move its spines to grasp their fingers if they poked it, and picked up the starfish to examine their soft underbellies. Eating lunch on the benches of an outdoor amphitheater of sorts, I watched bold starlings and gulls as they tried to steal sandwiches and cookies from unsuspecting people who left their lunches unattended. Children bounced up and down the benches and chased the birds.

The building was interesting too. Large walls of glass offered perfect reflections of the waves, the terraces, and the outdoor staircases. They also framed wonderful views of the bay, and of the other visitors enjoying the outside spaces. There’s something different about seeing things through a window. It’s a glimpse of a different place, just a tiny view of a different world, that could be anything at all. A bit like reading about it in a book, or seeing a familiar place in the mirror and not recognizing it, or hiding in a wardrobe and finding yourself in a snowy wood peopled with fauns and an evil witch. Only this was a sparkling sunny world through the window, not a frightening cold dark one.

I left Monterey early on Sunday, finally heading down the coast on route 1. The sun wasn’t fully

risen when I started, and when it wasn’t blinding me, it was gleaming off the water. There weren’t many people on the road that early, so when I pulled over the world seemed empty and quiet, just me and the ocean and the waves and the hills on the other side of the road. It seemed actively quiet and empty – not just blank, but vibrant and alive in its solitude.

My destination, aside from the coast itself, was, of course, Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Everyone should visit Hearst Castle once, and if the tours weren’t so awfully expensive, they should visit it often. In a way it’s history, but it’s also theater and utter absurdity, that one man would build such an outrageous place for himself simply because he could. An utter anachronism, too, both in the immediate sense of bringing all the medieval and renaissance art from southern Europe to southern California in the 20th century, and in the more abstract sense of anyone having that kind of money to spend in that way. I suppose there still are fantastically rich people who

might choose to live that way – but Hearst Castle is many times the size even of Bill Gates’ house!

It was lovely to visit, though, to see the mix of Christian and Islamic artistic influences, the elaborate ceilings, the stone figures on the facades, the brilliant blue of the water in the pools and fountains. I loved the indoor pool. The room housing it has high arched windows, which created perfect reflections of the sun drenched outside world and the elaborate inside decorations in the still water of the pool. But my favorite has to have been the long refectory room from some European monastery, with its rows of banners from the families of Siena, and its long wood table fully set with blue and white china – and the bottles of Heinz catsup and French’s mustard in the middle of the table. Hearst wanted his guests to remember that they were roughing it in the country, after all!

After the coast, my brief stop in Santa Barbara as I headed south the next day was like a gradual return to the roughness and tastelessness of what passes for civilization in this country. Santa Barbara is actually quite beautiful, a university town set on an ocean of calm, wide beaches, and graceful palm trees. But after even just a day on the pristine coast, heading back into American suburban sprawl was a bit of a shock. I stopped at a slightly anachronistic restaurant on the beach, called Sambo’s, a 1950s restaurant left over in the calm luxury of the beachfront neighborhoods. It turned out they had free wifi, so I ended up staying almost till lunch time playing with spreadsheets about Mount Mulanje forests. I considered going to the gym, perhaps even finding a place to stop for the night. But then I remembered that I did want time in Los Angeles before I headed to Arizona for Buses by the Bridge, so I jumped in the van and hit the road.

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