Building in Pasadena, California

Wavering

With bells and whistles

trials and tribulations

unsettled as beach

ups and downs, and sideways too

life, wavering pendulum

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Pasadena walks

Some of my most exceptional experiences in Los Angeles weren’t in the Santa Monica beach or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Why even the eye-opening Griffith Observatory wasn’t the best of everything I did.

The one thing I treasure about every city I’ve ever visited is the time I spent walking around the city’s ordinary streets—not just the downtown areas, but also the residential parts of a town, the school district, the supermarket street—the places where locals feel most at home. These places are more than just an everyday thing for people. They’re their lifestyle, their comfort zone, places they prefer to spend time at. That’s what I love about a city—being a part of the locals’ lifestyle even only for a few hours.

Buildings in Pasadena

And so, not wanting to disturb my colleagues’ sightseeing plans, I stepped out onto the street early one morning just to see what’s what.

As I strode along the streets of Pasadena, I came upon architecture both old and new. Stores reaching for the sky barred at the early hours, mere hours away from playing host to the hundreds of folk who’d come in for bread and butter. Coffee shops buzzed with conversations, while vending machines whirred away, energised by the same Joe they poured out.

Political and social opinions drenched passers-by, with clever wordplay on signboards and uncanny shop names, their lights snuffed out, though not for long.

Summer sunlight streamed through the trees, touching buds with their golden rays, awakening birds, bees, and their birches too. The smell of warmth spread through the air as empty roads stretched before me, challenging me, mocking me, to go as far as I can go. I found myself following the light, towards familiar street names, reaching unfamiliar territories, halting for the traffic signs and crossing through broad walks, stepping on sidewalks with plants for aisles, and staring at a Tesla or a Mercedes, a Beetle or a BMW.

I had the whole town of Pasadena for myself.

And as the clock struck eight, like most people in the locality I entered Trader Joe’s. Unlike them, however, I was there for window shopping. On my way back to the hotel I stopped at the coffee shop I’d seen earlier, only now it was overflowing with breakfasters. Carrying my pumpkin pie about 20 minutes later, I walked back to where I stayed, ready to begin a day of work—just like any other person.

And that’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller. We experience far more than what’s on the brochures.

Observing the skies

Once every while in life, we make a random decision that turns out to be one of the best we’ve ever made. Visiting the Griffith Observatory was one of those decisions for me.

I was with my colleagues in Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles when I realised I’d had enough. I’d already looked up the Observatory, and although I didn’t know what I’d see there, I knew I wanted to go.

Astronomers monument - Griffith Observatory

Astronomers monument

It was quite a long train ride (Vermont/Sunset Metro Red Line) from Hollywood Blvd. However, the best thing about public transport is that you could to go the whole length of the city, and observe life without stopping or taking shortcuts. It’s not just about the destination but also about the journey itself.

Low-cost buses run every 15 minutes to and from the Observatory. I got on one—the Dash Observatory bus—and it took me along a winding path up a steep hill. As we drove I saw private vehicles struggling to find parking spaces all along the mountain—a common occurrence in most places in the United States, but a phenomenal one nonetheless.

As the bus stopped, and I got down, my jaw dropped. I’d let that happen plenty of times during the trip already, and I didn’t care that it’d happen many more times for the rest of the trip.

Before me stood a magnificent dome and square-shaped building. In front of it was a large lawn with a statue of six famous astronomers. Nodding hello to and taking a picture of Hipparchus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and John Herschel, I walked towards the entrance of the building.

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Even as I passed the astronomers, I noticed how there was something to gawk at everywhere I turned. A bronze armillary sphere, a sundial, the Hollywood sign, and the magnificent views of the LA skyline kept me hooked longer than I’d anticipated.

As I entered, I came upon the solar system. Called the Wilder Hall of the Eye, there were exhibits with detailed explanations of the Milky Way, star clusters, ancient telescopes, animated displays of olden time-telling methods, models and artifacts that depict the beginning of sky watching in California, and the most notable of all—the Tesla Coil. Although I didn’t see the sparks of electricity, I felt a thrill run down my spine as I realised what it meant to be standing in the presence of some of the greatest scientific achievements humankind has ever made.

Stepping further within the building, I stopped in my tracks for a moment. A vast hallway had opened up in front of me, its painted ceiling arching high above. I craned my neck to see the Greek-style artwork—Hugo Ballin murals—all around the sky and upper walls. And in the middle, stood Foucault’s pendulum that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation.

Unable to tear my eyes away from the sheer glory of everything that surrounded me, I stood transfixed for a while before giving in to the mad desire of getting everything in one picture. I’d never taken so many photos or videos in one place, but I still couldn’t capture the euphoria of witnessing it live.

On the other side, there were exhibits I was more familiar with—videos displaying the phases of the moon, the earth’s rotation, paths of the sun and stars, seasons, eclipses, tides, and the elements of the periodic table. At the end of it was a live image of the sun along with sun-watching gadgets and NASA videos of the sun.

Skipping the planetarium show, I went back outside to get a glimpse of the looming telescope.

Walking away from what looked like a coffee shop, I strode along the corridor staring at the views, making my way to the viewing area. A small queue later, I faced the large telescope pointed right at the planet Venus. Every half hour, the guard on duty shifts the telescope a few inches to match its movement. As I watched the small, round Venus, half hidden by the clouds and the sun, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much we’ve managed to pierce the mysteries of the sky.

So many things in the universe that we wouldn’t have heard of or seen are now common textbook knowledge. It made me understand how tiny, how small our lives are, as compared to the expanse of matter out there.

With that shuddering thought, I made my way back.

And until a few hours ago, I didn’t realise that I’d missed an entire range of exhibits in the lower levels of the Observatory. The lower level begins from the Café at the End of the Universe, a restaurant operated by the renowned chef, Wolfgang Puck. My bad, I should’ve researched the place before going there. I’m disappointed. But if you’re ever in the vicinity, you shouldn’t miss this place—it’s a great way to make an afternoon enchanting.

Well, hello there, Hollywood!

The only time I had the opportunity to visit Hollywood, I didn’t want to. My colleagues and I were in Pasadena for an event and we’d spent the weekend afternoon in a rather unusual way at the Santa Monica beach and pier.

Next stop, my team was all jumpy about it, was to be Hollywood. After all, as one of my friends pointed out, we were so close that it’d be a shame not to stop by. For you see, even in the nation that gave Bollywood to the world, the American version is quite popular.

Except, I didn’t want to go.

However, peer pressure works in weird ways and having spent the first half of my day with the team, I gave in and ended up taking the window seat in the cab. Our destination was the Walk of Fame. I wasn’t sure what incredible experiences awaited us, but my fellow travellers seemed to know what they were doing. And so for the first time in a long time, I just went along with someone else’s plans.

About 20-30 minutes later, our driver pulled up. It was time to get down. Just before the doors opened, I happened to turn to my left. There, nestled amidst the fog and the mountains, was a big fancy sign—Hollywood. We were there.

Hollywood sign as seen from Hollywood Blvd

Hollywood sign as seen from Hollywood Blvd.

I pointed it out to my colleagues and in a fleeting second, their dreams shattered. They hadn’t expected to see the sign that way—crouching, peeping through a rather spotted glass window, squinting to get a better view. But that was it. We’d seen the sign.

Our driver seemed to share our disappointment, although for another reason altogether. Hearing frustrated “ahem”s, we realised with a jolt that we should let him go. Thanking and apologising at the same time, we got down looking all sides for the Walk of Fame. We turned this way and that for a while trying to spot directions before I looked down and saw I was standing right on top of it.

The sidewalks on both sides of the street was the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“So what next?” I asked my colleagues. We’d seen the Hollywood sign, we’d walked the Walk of Fame. The only thing left to do—in my opinion—was to go back or go elsewhere. For goodness sake, we’d even seen a statue of Lord Ganesh!

Everywhere I turned, tourists clutching over-priced souvenirs, licking extra-large ice creams, or wearing over-the-top hats. People pointed in random directions, peered at their mobile maps, got on an off tourist buses. A few locals strode in and out of shopping malls, branded bags weighing them down. It was a hot spot, for sure. But boring unless you have a ton of money and the excitement to spend it all right away.

I’d had enough. But my friends had other ideas. They wanted to visit the Madame Tussauds wax museum down the street, and then grab lunch at the California Pizza Kitchen.

Excusing myself, I walked in search of the nearest train station. I caught some interesting attractions along the way, but I’d had enough of Hollywood. I headed, instead, to the Griffith Observatory.

A day in Santa Monica

It was Saturday and my colleagues craved beach breeze. We were in Pasadena, a graceful town not too far from the Santa Monica beach.

Although I had my eyes and mind set on visiting the Griffith Observatory, my colleagues had planned to take a cab—first to the beach and then to Hollywood. Calculating the time and effort it’d otherwise take me to get to the Observatory, I caved to peer pressure, spending the afternoon with my colleagues and then taking public transportation to the Observatory. After all, it was closer from Hollywood than it was from where we were staying.

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As we walked down the wooden ledge that led to the Santa Monica pier, I wondered if I made a mistake. Rows and rows of cars lined the parking lots and crowds of people swarmed every restaurant. Flashy candy floss, drippy ice creams, and crunchy pop corns jumped out at my eye. Thousands of people bathed on the water while a hundred more sniffed at the fresh seafood platters on their table. Kids of all ages and sizes ran about, liquidating their parents’ credit cards for merry-go-rounds and two-hour crash courses on the trapeze.

None of them were locals. The whole place was more touristy than I’d ever imagined possible.

While I turned my attention to the many souvenir shops along the way, I couldn’t help but nod along to the live music around. Individual string artists demonstrated their prowess as passers took to applauding and Instagramming their appreciation.

Standing inside a souvenir store, I realised Santa Monica was exclusive for visitors of California. It’s a nice ocean spot for those who don’t have beaches at home, and it’s a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon—swimming, eating, musing with live music, and a day of rest and relaxation. It’s not for everyone, however, it sure is ideal for those who can afford to spend the time and money. It’s not for me, I understood, but the experience did show me a lifestyle, which although I’d never adapt, was still interesting to watch.

To end the eventful afternoon, we spent some time overlooking the ocean from the pier. After spotting exotic birds no one knew the names of, taking selfies to preserve a lifetime of memories, and strutting along as if we knew where we were doing, we left Santa Monica for our next spot: Hollywood. But that’s another post altogether.