Trainspotting Serendipity

My third visit to LA was a bit longer than the previous ones; exploring the metro system looked as a good method for discovering new destinations in the area. Long Beach appeared in the metro destinations list and soon I was in a train leading there.

Trainspotting Serendipity

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on September 18, 2009

I did comment several times that arriving at an unknown place without preparation allows serendipity to play at its best. Furthermore, arriving off-hours, not knowing the local language and having no local money assures a fast-learning experience. In California it is difficult to fulfill all these requirements, but serendipity still exists.

Los Angeles and San Francisco served me several times as the gateway to Asian destinations. Instead of making specific exploratory visits, I toured both cities randomly, in between flights. Feeling both cities are too well known to be able to say something new, I didn’t take those tours too seriously.

My third visit to LA was a bit longer than the previous ones; exploring the metro system looked as a good method for discovering new destinations in the area. Long Beach appeared in the metro destinations list and soon I was in a train leading there. I knew the name, but thought it was just one of LA beaches.

Twenty minutes later I became worried. The train had emerged from its tunnel a long time ago and we were traveling along low suburbs that seemed to reach infinity. I couldn’t see any beaches. From the supposedly near Pacific Ocean didn’t emanate even a trace of salty smell. Moreover, many businesses featured Khmer letters. The stations had signs in Khmer. I love Cambodia, but I was planning to reach Southeast Asia on another day.

Soon we stopped at a station named Anaheim. I remembered the name from a friend that participated in a convention there. She called it a city. I took a closer look and found a sign clearly stating "City of Anaheim." It meant I had left LA, though I obviously haven’t reached Long Beach. Something was wrong.

Yet, the route printed within the car showed Long Beach was ahead and that the train will draw a loop and eventually return to LA; I had nothing to lose.

Other stations taught me that Long Beach was also a city and soon I left the train at Long Beach Transit Mall, next to the loop drawn by the Metro Blue Line at its southern end. Being on an elevated spot, it allowed seeing the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

While leaving the car, I briefly noted an ad showing passengers. Above them it was written "Which one is undercover?" I took a picture of it and forgot about that. A new city was waiting ahead.

Before heading downwards to the sea; I walked around the railway loop. The area was attractive, the train stations were open and at the street level. Unobtrusive, they gave the area a look of urban efficiency. I took a few pictures. For one of them I was unable to get rid of a big sign. Instead I read it. Worried, I looked at nearby signs and read them as well. Surprised, I took pictures of them. The messages were incredible, the first one stated:

10 PM – 6 AM
Minors under 18 not allowed without adult"

The second sign was too long and complex to quote here. In the attached picture, the most interesting item said in English and Spanish:

"No Spitting or Chewing Gum"

Half an hour earlier I thought I was in Cambodia. Now it looked like a combination between Singapore and a Soviet Gulag. A curfew in California? Luckily I was an adult and it was the early afternoon.

The third sign read:

Three times past same point within four hours is cruising"

I could imagine the previously met – at list in a sign – undercover agents making lists of who is passing and when. I took note to cross the same spot for the third time only within four hours and a minute.

Would I be able to memorize all these new rules?

Yet the place looked peaceful. In the second look, it also looked empty. Probably it meant people run away from the frightening signs or were already imprisoned. Was this America, the Land of the Free?

There was nothing I could do but walk downwards, towards the Pacific Ocean.

How Do You Spell Out "Railway" in Khmer?

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on September 18, 2009

Efficient transport systems are complex, featuring more than one transport method. Before reaching Los Angeles, I was warned that moving around was difficult and that the (relatively) new metro system was below the expectations. Yet, once there, I found myself moving from one system to another efficiently. I mean, except for the curfew issue I mentioned in the "Trainspotting Serendipity" entry. Apparently the curfew was applied also to the metro at the time since I find myself riding on the last train while still enjoying the sunset from its windows. Having played such an important role in the trip described in this journal, giving some attention to the transport issues in LA metropolitan area is inevitable.

The transport focal point in LA is the Union Station. Many foreigners that have never visited the city would deny knowing any distinctive building in it; yet the vast majority of them would recognize Union Station if shown a picture of it. Simply, it has been featured in many movies. The most impressive apparition of the building was on the monumental Blade Runner, where the station's waiting area appears as the year 2019 police department.

The "Last of the American Great Railway Stations" was inaugurated in May 1939 in downtown Los Angeles, opposite the historic Olvera Street; it was built on the site of LA's first Chinatown. Nowadays it serves as a meeting point for several transport methods, including Amtrak trains, Metrolink subways and buses, Dash shuttle buses and the FlyAway service to the LAX International Airport. Those were described in my first journal of the area, and serve mainly the City of Los Angeles. However, the Los Angeles County Metro Rail is the mass transit rail system of the Los Angeles County. For somebody coming from a small country, I always find surprising the distinction between cities and surrounding counties. In my place, a city ends where the next one begins. Yet, America is big and different rules apply, as I find out while traveling to Long Beach.

Metro Rail Lines

The Los Angeles County Metro Rail includes three light rail lines and two rapid transit subway lines, as follows:

The Blue Line light rail runs between the 7th Street/Metro Center station in Downtown Los Angeles and Transit Mall station in Long Beach.

The Red Line subway runs between Union Station and North Hollywood.

The Green Line light rail runs between Marine/Redondo station in the South Bay region of Los Angeles and Norwalk. It offers access to Los Angeles International Airport via a shuttle bus from the Aviation/LAX station.

The Gold Line (it looked yellow to me) light rail runs between Union Station and Pasadena.

The Purple Line subway runs between Union Station and Mid-Wilshire district.

History and Practicalities

The history of this system is complex. In 1963 all the streetcar lines were closed in exchange for an extensive freeway system. Since 1990, the railways system described above was the way to bring back an efficient mass transport system to the most congested city in the US.

A point to keep in mind while traveling around is the artwork in the stations, each one is unique. Another important feature is that all the tunnels can resist a magnitude 7.5 earthquake; bringing an excavations’ kit is superfluous despite the area’s sensibility to the issue.

The basic fare is $1.25 per trip and can be paid at automated machines at the stations’ entries. However, for travelers is recommended to buy a day pass, which costs $5 and gives occasional discounts at other places (for example, at the time of my last visit, Subway used such a tactic for attracting customers; the pun was probably intended). A weekly pass costs $17. Other fares and special discounts exist.

Before planning a trip out of town, it is important to check out the operation hours of the relevant line; those change from one to another.

Long Beach Blues

Since this journal deals with Long Beach, the Blue Line is the star of this entry. As I found out while randomly choosing it for a trip, this is the longest line in the system (22 miles with 22 stations) and the second busiest light rail in the US, serving roughly twenty five million passengers per year.

The line offers connections to other rail and bus lines; the relevant information is easily accessible in all the stations. As well, every other train during the peak hours runs only between Willow and 7th Street/Metro Center. Many of the stations offer a "Park and Ride" lot which allows easy access to downtown for those traveling around by car.

In its first stretch in downtown LA – between the Pico and 7th Street/Metro Center it runs under ground, but once the city grows less dense, it surfaces and lets the traveler enjoy the – mostly flat - surroundings. Most of the trains feature six cars. At least during my use of it, finding seating places was easy once the downtown area was left.

Roughly from Anaheim southwards, the art in the stations is located mainly on round cement board atop columns running along the stations. The works include descriptions – often only one key word – in English, Spanish and Khmer.

On the Long Beach end of the line there is no proper final station. Instead, the line draws a small loop around Long Beach’s First Street. The stations here are at street level and on the avenue’s median line, creating a friendly and accessible transport method almost reaching the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

A Day by the Beach

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on September 18, 2009

As commented on the first entry of this journal, after arriving at Long Beach, I took a few pictures of the strange signs surrounding the metro station, and decided to walk towards the Pacific Ocean. It was time for a day by the beach.

A wide avenue led downwards, allowing generous views of the area surrounding the shore. Having arrived unprepared, the sight was a bit strange. Along the way down was a large structure by my right and then the shoreline was unclear. I failed spotting a proper access path to the beach. Big ships adorned the horizon. Over-trusting my (non-existent?) traveler’s special senses, I decided to advance until the water front. A beach must appear. After all, I was at "Long Beach," wasn’t I? Mmm...

Meanwhile the large structure turned out being the Long Beach Convention Center. Being just a large rectangular structure it was of little interest, but it was surrounded by an awesome park, which later I discovered was part of a complex of several parks separating the town from the shoreline. An artificial pond undulated here among a large green area and reflected in its waters the surrounding buildings. Next to it a bridge allowed crossing a wide avenue and reaching the waterfront. Eager to enjoy the beach, I crossed it and entered a different world.

A narrow path advanced through a beautiful and large park. Several structures were amidst it, an obvious amphitheatre, a Chinese pagoda styled building and the Japanese Tokyo Restaurant were obvious. Palms, a flat fountain, and an elegant Navy Memorial were an expected must. Yet, I wanted to see the beach and until now the only related sight was the nearby Ocean Boulevard.

At certain point the path became a waterfront promenade. There were docks and a few ships of various sizes and ages attached to them. I couldn’t but wonder for a second time since I had arrived at Long Beach where were all the people; where was my beach?

A prominent sight was a large and elegant looking ship called the RMS Queen Mary. A 1936 art deco ocean liner, it is permanently docked at Long Beach. It was the fastest in the world between 1936 and 1952 and it was longer than the Titanic.

Whale watching tours were offered nearby. A gate over a side path announced this was the Pine Avenue Pier; across it was the avenue of that name. The place was awesome; I have seen many parks but few could compare to this. The fact it was located next to the ocean played an important role in this, fresh and salty breeze refreshed me. Yet, there was no beach. On the contrary, the most I advanced, the bigger the ships along the promenade became.

At least, I reached what looked like the end of the promenade. It ended abruptly over a large water body. The water was vertically under me; the transition between land and water was brutal. In the distance, huge vessels disappeared behind the fog. There was no beach in Long Beach.

By then, I began suspecting the truth. Not that it was very difficult; I had never seen such large cranes in public beaches. Their quantity was also suspicious. But it was becoming late. In a desperate move I walked backwards all along the park and reached the bridge over the wide avenue. I had walked around the Long Beach Port which is the second largest in the US. Together with the nearby Los Angeles Port, they are the main entry port of Chinese merchandise to the country; most of the American Christmas gifts walk this path in their way to their final homes. The park was extraordinarily beautiful, but of course it didn’t have any beaches.

Awakened, I began walking south of the port, to the place I now suspected where the main beaches in town were. I reached the Rainbow Lagoon (which is connected to the Rainbow Harbor) and the Marina Green Park, which delimited the avenue and were connected to the convention center and the Pine Avenue Pier parks, creating an awesome green body. The ponds in them couldn’t be bluer. It was with no doubt one of the most beautiful places I have seen, yet I still couldn’t spot even an inch of its famous beaches.

At certain moment I saw the access path to a still distant beach. Then I looked at my watch and discovered – for the umpteenth time in my life – the Cinderella Syndrome. I barely had time to run back to the last metro train to downtown Los Angeles.

Had serendipity worked against me this day? Not exactly. Had I prepared myself to the visit, I would have found the beaches rapidly and spent a couple of hours in them. Yet, I have seen many beaches in my life, but very few parks with the beauty and awesome location of the Pine Avenue Pier and its adjacent counterparts.

Eat and Drink, ‘Cause Tomorrow...

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on September 18, 2009

By the end of the previous entry, I was forced to run back to LA, after having failed reaching the apparently just mythical beaches of Long Beach. I had two very good reasons for that. The first was extensively described in that entry; the second is explained here.

Non-American readers may be surprised, but in the way from the metro to the ocean, I had stopped for a coffee at a Borders bookstore. What is an oddity in other countries is the American norm. Borders bookstores can be found almost in every corner and they often include a branch of Seattle's Best Coffee.

The point is that in such stores you can pick up a book, buy a coffee and browse the reading material while enjoying the excellent coffee. And all that, while sitting on comfortable coaches. How can one pass in front of one of them without visiting it for a few minutes? Or maybe, just for half an hour. 45 minutes at the most.

In any case, I had a coffee, found out that a book I was interested in didn’t still arrive to this branch, and munched on one of the excellent cakes served there with the coffee. By the time I reached bliss, it was too late for the beach. But I’m running ahead.

Time and Place

Borders "At the Pike" is part of a large shopping complex at 101 S. Pine Ave, Long Beach, just in front of the Long Beach Convention Center, the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Queen Mary vessel. It can be reached from the metro Blue Line Transit Mall Station in Long Beach.

The shop is open daily from 10 AM to 10 PM, with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, when it stays open until 11 PM.

Bean Friday

Most Seattle's Best Coffee branches have a special day in which they offer special coffee deals. Here, on Bean Fridays, the customer gets a free medium beverage for buying a bag of their excellent coffee.


Relatively unknown outside the US, Borders is the second largest bookstore chain in the US after Barnes & Noble, featuring over 500 branches across the country. It was founded in 1971 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As expected, beyond books the chain offers CDs, DVDs, stationery, souvenirs and related products.

Most of its shops are large – though the one I visited in downtown San Francisco was a notorious exception to this rule – and include state of the art search technology as well as are superbly organized. Books are separated in them into specific areas by topics and then alphabetically ordered. Several computerized stations in each shop allow studying the availability of books in the shop as well in another shops of the chain.

Sipping a coffee while reading books in the bookstore seem to be an integral part of the contemporaneous American culture. Spotting people systematically reading books at these bookstores is normal and apparently part of the chain’s business plan. But capitalism holds here more surprises for the traveler carefully taking note of the native culture and practices.

On the Oddities of Capitalism

Seattle's Best Coffee began its operations in Coupeville, Washington in 1970. After a complex history, it was bought by Starbucks in 2003, a fact that is relevant to subsequent events. Then, in 2004, Borders signed a contract with Seattle's Best Coffee and most of its branches feature a coffeeshop managed by Seattle's Best Coffee.

As mentioned above, Border’s main competitor is the largest bookstores chain in the US, Barnes & Noble. American readers of this entry are probably familiar with the fact that the coffeeshops at the Barnes & Noble shops are managed by ... Starbucks, the actual Seattle's Best Coffee owners.
Borders At the Pike
101 S. Pine Ave
Long Beach, California

Los Angeles County

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on September 19, 2009

On the Emptiest Country in the World

The first time I visited China, I entered through the Boten-Mohan border cross, the Laotian backdoor to the Middle Kingdom. From there I advanced northwards through Sichuan and eventually reached the far west. Urumqi and Kashgar provided unforgettable views.

China turned out being empty. In the most populous country in the world, the population was concentrated along the coast; the inner parts of the country were empty.

On an Even Emptier Country

The first time I visited the US, I entered overland from Mexico through El Paso, Texas and crossed – all the time overland – New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. I wrote about parts of this trip in several journals published here. With the exception of two metropolitan areas – San Francisco and Los Angeles – this country was obviously empty. I knew that from the statistics, but seeing it was by far more impressive.

The altitude desert of New Mexico was a wasteland; people in Eldorado - near Santa Fe - were afraid of growing vegetables due to radioactive waste in the ground. Arizona was a low desert; in the way down from New Mexico it featured lush and unexpected forests. I didn’t stop long enough in LA during this trip to get any durable expression, thus San Francisco provided the first close look of an American metropolis. I wasn’t impressed. Downtown San Francisco housed a large financial center, but beyond it, the remaining of the city, Oakland, Berkeley, Freemont and the other towns composing the metropolitan area where quasi-rural.

In Nevada, Utah and Wyoming I became extremely worried. Where were all the people? By the end of this trip I was convinced the US could be defined as a "better-watered-Sahara." There were forests and many signs warning of wild animals, but few people. I had a strange feeling of being in a northwestern version of an African safari.

When waking up in Europe or in Asia, one look out of the window is enough to recognize the city I'm visiting. Amsterdam is Amsterdam, Rome is Rome and Vientiane is unforgettable. However, in the USA, Berkeley reminds vaguely of Albuquerque and Oakland of Phoenix. The places seem to differ only in the way they mark their streets; in this trip, Sacramento won the insipidity contest with plain numbers and letters naming its perfect grid. Cities had a downtown area with skyscrapers and no people living in it and many suburbs with nothing but low houses.

On Countries and Counties

In later trips I identified a more complex reality. Miami looked more like cities I have seen in other countries; people actually lived in the downtown area. Los Angeles turned out being a big city with several, scattered centers. Then, serendipity took me to Long Beach and I discovered the Los Angeles County.

Reality was different here. This large county is the most populous in the US, with well over ten million people living in it. In size and population, the county is larger than many countries. It includes 88 cities. One of them – Los Angeles – is the second largest in the US and it looks itself as a conglomerate of smaller towns. Long Beach is the second largest city in the county and among the forty largest in the country. The county is part of the Greater Los Angeles Area, which encompasses five counties – LA and parts of Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, the four ones surrounding it. Hollywood, the main route connecting the US with China and many corporations operate from here.

The traveler meets here a large city of roughly 13 million people with downtown LA acting as the main financial and commercial center. In the first entry of this journal, I described my surprise in this trip, when I left downtown LA in what seemed to be a regular subway and found myself a few minutes later in Anaheim – a place I knew was a different city and then in yet another city – Long Beach – which I thought it was just one of LA beaches.

But this differentiation between cities could be done only by looking at the street signs. Once out of downtown LA, the train travelled overland and offered views of a continuous urban area – albeit one composed mainly of very low structures. The Long Beach waterfront was another clear center; the second largest port in the US and adjacent commercial and leisure areas transformed it into another attractive part of this metropolis. The cleanliness of the port and the awesome park surrounding it were remarkable; I have seen nothing similar elsewhere.

An important part of any trip is meeting the local people and culture. In my first trips, the US turned out being quite frustrating. People were scarce and were constantly enclosed inside bubbles; they seldom left their cars. Los Angeles County provided the opportunity to see – and meet – a more human America, despite the "Curfew" signs seen there.

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