A “Big Sur” State of Mind

During the last week of July, I got to visit Los Angeles for the HCII conference. I had a few extra days prior to the conference and decided to make a trip up the coast along Big Sur to Monterrey and Salinas. My father decided to join me for the trip which was fantastic!

Griffith Park

Griffith Park

Our trip started on a Thursday morning in Griffith Park with panoramic views of LA. The first time I came to LA was more than 12 years ago and I vividly remember the pictures I took with James Dean’s statue on this hill overlooking the legendary Hollywood.

This moment made me reflect on how much my relationship with North America has changed over these years and what a complex relationship it is! I saw myself as an adventurous ant who landed onto a large comfortable immigrant bubble in Toronto, before stepping onto an unstable but exciting leaf and surfing the warm, sometimes threatening but always exciting ocean of multicultural North America and beyond and encountering many other strange and wonderful sea creatures!


After a little picnic on the hill, we drove through the land of dangerous dreams: Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard and Beverly Hills to The Getty Center. For me these parts of LA epitomizes the American Dream with a hallucinatory combination of dreamers, visionaries and madmen who came here searching for fame and fortune, a small number making it and many others falling through the cracks onto the cruel pavements of skid row.

Getty Center

Getty Center

The Getty Center is a marvelous museum (amazing architecture, intriguing but not mind blowing art collection). J. Paul Getty (and many other California tycoons, like Hearst) were obsessed with ancient Mediterranean cultures (Greek, Roman, etc.). This passion for everything Greek and Roman (including a Californian interpretation of the lifestyle) is apparent to this day in many places (including in the fake arches and statues of some  downtown mid-range hotels!).

Getty Villa

Getty Villa

After visiting the museum and a stroll down Santa Monica beach, we headed to San Luis Obispo, a university town a few hours north. An interesting sight in this small town is the Bubblegum Alley, a small street with thousands of bubble gums stuck to its walls!

Bubblegum Alley

Bubblegum Alley

In preparation for this trip, I had re-watched Citizen Kane which made visiting The Hearst Castle even more fascinating.  William Randolph Hearst was a media tycoon and millionaire who was also an avid antique collector. This castle is the second largest home in the US and is located on a very large ranch (80’000 acres +). It is now a state park (although the Hearst cow herds still can graze the grounds). We took a short tour through the castle that was quite interesting: priceless ancient (sometime more than 3000 years old!!!) pieces were worked into the building (including complete roofs from the Middle Ages and statues from ancient Egypt).

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

The guide described that it was a great privilege for people to be invited to the house and on many occasions Hearst had packed his guests bags if he wasn’t approving of their demeanor. At the end of the tour we saw an interesting docudrama on his life and the guests he had at the house (including a clownish Charlie Chaplin and a reflective Winston Churchill). The visit was quite interesting, and, for me uninspiring! I did not feel admiration for this man or his “achievements”. Similar to Orson Wells, I felt the castle was a grandiose sign of an inferiority complex, a need to prove to the world that the owner was cultured and is worthy of admiration. I felt much more at home beside the sea elephants that were sunbathing in a cuddle puddle by the beach, a few miles from the palace!


Leaving the sea elephants, we started driving along Highway 1, in the legendary Big Sur area. The views of cliffs meeting the ocean are simply breathtaking and have been a source of inspiration to many writers including Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. The area is full of scenic spots and we stopped frequently to look at mind-blowing views that were visible at every turn. On one of the stops, we saw a whale puffing in the distance and in another, the beautiful Pffiffer Beach, we looked at the sun turn the sky red beside roaring majestic wave. The sound reminded me of the episode in Jack Kerouac‘s novel, Big Sur, where he is staying in a cabin in this area: listening to the ocean and sometimes screaming back, and writing poetry composed of only ocean sounds.


Driving up and down this route with my dad, also reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the protagonist rides down the coast with his son on a motorcycle. I immensely enjoy traveling with my dad and have been to several interesting places such as India and Mexico together.

Henry Miller Memorial LIbrary

Henry Miller Memorial Library

We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where a collection of his art and books are on display. Although, I’m not a big fan of Miller, I think once in a while there are moments of genius in his sexist and depressing work. Mehdi found a literary magazine called Ping Pong which according to him was mostly full of pictures of people’s behinds! We shared some good laughs on this trip!

John Steinbeck National Center

John Steinbeck National Center

We ended our trip up the coast at Salinas, a working class town that was the birthplace of John Steinbeck. In preparation for this trip, I had read Cannery Row and re-read Of Mice and Men. With Mehdi, we had a lot of discussion around his role in transforming literature (especially for championing the “everyman”) and capturing the voice of people (especially national and international immigrants in the US). Salinas is still a working class, agricultural town with farms surrounding it. On the way to the excellent John Steinbeck Cultural Center, we stopped by a farmers market and picked up a lot of fresh plums and peaches.

The cultural center was excellent and was curated around Steinbeck’s major novels that ranged from the serious Grapes of Wrath to the fun Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats. During the trip, Mehdi picked up a second-hand copy of Steinbeck’s last novel, The Winter of our Discontent, which he avidly read during the rest of the trip.

Pacific Biological Labatories

Pacific Biological Laboratories

After the center, we visited the actual Cannery Row in Monterrey which is a very popular tourist area on the water with many restaurants and souvenir shops. The only fun part left is the original site of the Pacific Biological Laboratories where Steinbeck’s buddy Ed Ricketts used work collecting samples of marine life for museums around the country. There are also some fish cannery worker shacks that are reminders of how hard it was to live there in the past.

That evening an incident reminded us that Salinas still has its rough social dilemmas and things have not changed that much since Steinbeck. We were having a hard time finding a place to stay the night (it was a Summer Saturday with lots of families coming to the coast to enjoy the beaches). I eventually found a motel online. When we arrived there, groups of men were hanging out in the front and back of the property. We took our luggage in the room which was worn-down but not too bad. Later on, when I went to get more things from the car (which we had parked in the back of the motel), I saw rows of cars cruising in the back of the motel where women were standing in the door of rooms. I realized half of the motel was a brothel and the other half was rented to unsuspecting (or suspecting!) travelers! The back of the motel was full of big pick up trucks with men sitting in them! I moved our car to the front of the motel, which was quiet and literally a “front” for the motel’s real operations. As I walked back to room, I saw another group of bewildered travelers in the room next to us. As it turned out, our room was quiet and we had a good night sleep (with all the locks on the door fastened, of course!), before heading out early next morning.



On the way back to LA, we stopped at two very different but interesting towns: Solvang is a small cute town that is built like a Danish village (complete with windmills and Danish pastry shops). It is interesting to walk its tourist-filled streets and then go to a grocery store to pick up great Mexican food! After Solvang, we briefly stopped at Santa Barbara which is a gorgeous town and a hangout of the rich and famous and has cinematic beaches and Spanish-style buildings (especially the courthouse).

Cinemas turned into shops, LA

Cinemas turned into shops, LA

Once we returned back to LA, I became busy with the conference and spent some time walking around LA’s old downtown area, a place filled with characters who have fallen through the cracks of society. Some of the original grandeur of the streets are still present but the site of many cinemas turned into cheap jewellery shops and old hotels turned into vacant properties are signs of a glorious bygone era.

One of my (and my dad’s) favorite places was the LA Central Library which is a really nice breezy building with comfortable desks and a good collection of books. Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite dark birds of the soul got inspired to write in this building, where he would devour books by Dostoyevsky and Celine. He started to write and send his work to publishers who kept rejecting him. He took on a menial post office worker job and toiled for years, drinking his days away and living in poverty but still writing. Eventually, he started to get published and became one of the most famous poets of America.

The last great cultural experience we had was when we stumbled upon the Museum of Contemporary art which has a great video installation by LA native, Kahlil Joseph. I did not know of this artist but his compassionate insider view into the impoverished and crime-ridden black neighborhoods of LA is eye-opening. I recommend two of his online music videos: “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar and “Until the Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus.


As we left California and its dreamy sunsets, in LAX, my phone slid out of my pocket onto a bus. I tried to find it to no avail. A few days later, someone from Texas called my dad and told him he had the phone and kindly send it to us via UPS. It was a great moment of kindness and I was grateful to him, reminding me that there are a lot of kind people in this world (especially as something very similar had happened to me before with the same phone!).


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