All over in LA

Irrigation in Central Valley All journeys, including that through life, come to an end. Los Angeles was the end of a long road for me in more ways that one. I knew within a couple of weeks I would be returning to Ireland, so simultaneously it was the end of the 16 total weeks I had spent on the road, the end of my political activity in North America and hardest of all the end of a ten year relationship including four years of marriage.

For most of the trip I had thought my last stop would be in the Bay Area. I don't remember when exactly LA first came on the agenda, I suspect somewhere in the mid-west. It took a while to sort the details out, in part because the venue name confused me. But it meant the last stop would involve one of the longest trips all the way from Oakland to LA. Still when the opportunity arose I felt this was a city I could not miss, the urban sprawl of LA is infamous, it features strongly in our popular culture, it was a place to have been to.

Checking timetables and prices online had told me that the Megabus was both a few hours faster and tens of dollars cheaper than Greyhound. As with Chicago quite where you caught the Megabus was vague, the departure point was given as the West Oakland BART station. There was an unseasonal heat wave in the Bay Area; it was over 30C as I walked the couple of KM to Berkeley BART station in the morning.

The bag I was travelling with was tiny and with only a few days to go I was dumping clothes but I still felt every gram of its weight that morning.

At the West Oakland BART station there was no sign of a Megabus stop but it was in a quiet spot, a vast car park on one side and a street with some dilapidated shops on the other. Apart from a lone youth who initially tried to engage me with a clipboard but took to cycling around and around the station when I indicated I'd no interest there was almost no one in sight.

I hadn't eaten and I knew that it would be nine hours on bus with perhaps nothing but a vending machine stop en route so I headed over to the run down mini-mall across the road to see what was on offer. Very little, but one place did make sandwiches as you wait. I opted for a beef sandwich but back across the road I'd only eaten half of it when I decided something about the taste suggested at least one ingredient had been in the heat a little too long so I dumped what was left in the trash.

By then I had been joined by a few other puzzled Megabus would be travelers, no one it turned out had taken the bus from here before. As the departure time approach there was a certain anxiety in the air although I took comfort from the fact that there were now a dozen of us so at least I hadn't misunderstood the location. Sure enough only a few minutes late it came into view and it was all on board.

I'm not sure of the exact route but we followed the coast for a before swinging inland and following some vast wide valley (the 'Central Valley'?) where arid scrub and stony desert hills alternated with the brilliant lush green of irrigated fields. Scattered in the fields were antique looking irrigation pumps, something like oil well pumps from the 1920's. And at one spot an array of vast pipelines came across the tops of the hills. Carrying water perhaps to LA from some river inland, for there could be little other water in this near desert. Or perhaps a 10,000-year-old aquifer was being pumped dry, day-by-day, month-by-month?

The panorama of cultivated desert visible from the bus and the industrial methods of cultivation were fascinating. In itself this would have made the journey worthwhile. But there was a downside. I've done a reasonable amount of travelling including to various parts of North Africa and to Mexico. An inevitable consequence of low budget travel is the occasional bout of stomach sickness. So about an hour or two out of LA I got that rumble in the stomach and taste of bad eggs that warns things are soon to get unpleasant.

The worst dose I remember was in San Cristobel, Chiapas, two days before the start of the Zapatista 'First Encounter for Humanity and Against Neo Liberalism'. We'd just run into Harry Cleaver and some of the rest of the Austin delegation and gone to a restaurant near the market for lunch. I'd no sooner sat down and ordered than I received confirmation that my suspicions about a glass of water I'd had with a meal the previous evening were proved correct. And kept being proved correct every three to four minutes until I summed up the courage to make my excuses, pay for the food that had not yet arrived, and fled in shame. A bad dose of the shits in a restaurant where the sole toilet refuses to flush properly is not the best way to first meet a dozen new friends.

The advantage of having bad travel experiences is that the make much milder manifestations of the same thing a lot easier to manage. We stopped for lunch at a McDonalds where the short trip from the bus to the interior of the ‘restaurant’ threatened to bake me.  Between there and the onboard facilities I got to LA without accident.

LA was once part of Mexico, the Spanish founded it in 1781 and when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 it was part of the new Mexican state. Conflict came over Texas to which tens of thousands of English speakers had migrated from the existing states of the USA. There were multiple causes to the conflict including the fact that Mexico had technically abolished slavery in 1829 while over an 1/8 of the new Texas settler population were enslaved Africans or people of African descent.

Texas rebelled in 1836 and although the Mexican army under Santa Anna won important victories at the Alamo and Goliad they were subsequently defeated and Santa Anna gave away Texas. The Mexican state denied Santa Anna had the power to do this leading to war in 1846 when the USA annexed Texas.

This war was opposed in the US by Whigs, including Abraham Lincoln who saw it as an attempt to expand slavery. Although the Mexican armies small force in California was rapidly defeated a pro-Mexico militia was formed which drove the US Army out of Los Angeles and held off US re-enforcement for four months before being overwhelmed as waves of US military re-enforcements arrived in the area.

Of course, in the universal story of North America, the Spanish in turn has seized control of the area from the indigenous inhabitants, the Tongva and Chumash. Both people’s built seaworthy canoes of sewn together planks water proofed with pitch with which they traded years with other people along the coast and the offshore islands. The offshore 'Channel Islands' include the earliest known settlement in the America’s, which have been dated to be 13,000 years ago.

As we neared LA we left the long valley we had been following and the road climbed high into the hills surrounding the city. I knew the city had to be close because pretty soon any flat bit of land or not too steep hillside that was available was built on.

Before long we reached the city itself and the Megabus termination, the back parking lot of the train station. The station turned out to be worth a visit in itself, all what I'd guess to be white art deco columns and palm trees. After a bit of confusion between the back and front I hooked up with K. who was I'd been corresponding with.

The LA meeting was also being hosted by Amanecer so we headed back to a street off Sunset where a couple of them lived. On the way I discovered Echo Beach was in fact a park and numerous other bits of pop trivia as we passed locations and signposts I recognized from songs.

With met up with some of the others and headed to a vegetarian Mexican restaurant they raved about that substituted soya meat for the real thing. The trip helped confirm how central the car is to LA, it felt like we drove a considerable distance to get there. On the way in we'd a strange encounter with a huge cloud of flying insects that were mobbing an ATM machine for some reason best known to their collective intelligence.

I'd been looking forward to being in LA but the reality was that I was beat down from the weeks of travel and sick from that dodgy sandwich. So that night I just collapsed asleep and the following day I just sat around the placed I was staying downing glass after glass of water, although the only food I could manage was some instant tofu soup.

It also means I don’t recall a huge amount of what we talked about. I’ve some vague recollections about talking about student organizing in the city, the rest of my trip and the issues around diversity and the north American movement. S., the women on whose couch I was staying on had migrated with her parents from Mexico and initially lived in Compton which she said was useful for getting kids to shut up in class.

K. worked as a cycle courier, something I found somewhat astounding in a city that was hot most of the year and so vast. It’s a great pity my head wasn’t together enough to do an interview in L.A. or that I didn’t have the time or health to look around the city a bit. My main memory is its vast size and the heat (remember its always cold in Ireland!).

The last meeting of the tour was in the evening, on Friday night. To get to it we drove through downtime where some of the buildings were draped with enormous multistory banners of the characters from Grand Theft Auto 4.

As I mentioned earlier I had been confused with the correspondence over the name of the venue. I'd been told I was speaking at the South California Library, now that didn't confuse me because I'd already spoken at a couple of libraries but I figured that had to be more than one library in South California. Which South California Library?

It turned out that this wasn't part of the public library system but essentially an institution set up by the Communist Party during the 20's Red Scares in order to safely house their archives. The library had expanded and it appears lot any tight connection to the Party, it now describes itself as "a people's library dedicated to documenting and preserving the histories of communities in struggle for justice and using our collections to address the challenges of the present so that all people have the ability, resources, and freedom to make their own histories." Library web page at

Over 20 people attended the meeting which was interrupted at one point when a profusely sweating guy wearing nothing but a heavy over coat on the top part of his body came in and started to rant at me. I tried to keep going but this was pretty distracting for a moment - he was known to the library staff who managed to talk him into coming away.

At that meeting for the last time I passed around the surviving copy of Workers Solidarity. It was pretty tattered at this point having been through over 1400 sets of hands. It's sister copy had vanished at the Oakland meeting, this last copy I gave away as a souvenir to someone who had travelled a considerable distance to get to the meeting.

Afterwards we headed to some famous Diner in downtown. This turned out not to be such a great decision as there was a lack of vegetarian options and the heavy, greasy food was not really what the doctor had ordered in my case. Still another couple of local anarchists managed to catch up with us there including one who was to have some serious trouble from the cops in subsequent weeks.

As in most of the other cities the cops were always around, on the way home that night we say two young guys being arrested over the bonnet of a squad car by a couple of gun toting cops not far from where I was staying.

I had planned to make my own way to the airport the next day but fortunately for me my hosts talked me into being dropped off by them. What had looked like a small distance on the map turned out to be a long drive, I'd been fooled by the sheer scale of the city.

The flight back to Buffalo via Chicago had one last treat that made the trip worthwhile, our route took us out over the desert and over the Grand Cannon so I squeezed in one last unanticipated bit of sight seeing.

There is a strangeness to travelling for so long and moving on from each location so quickly each time. Normal and familiar becomes the time you spend on the bus, they are look pretty much the same after all. Even the bus stations have a certain standard feel to them. Places and people threaten to blend into each other. The extension of the blog entries (this one is being finished January 2009) is giving me a chance to recall and separate but also making me realize how much I missed as I passed so swiftly through. Overall it was an extraordinary journey during which I met many ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I remember in 1996 when I flew to Mexico for the Zapatista encounter we transferred at Miami airport. We never went through migration as they kept us in a big glass walled transfer room used for those heading south. At the time I thought this was probably the only time I’d ever be ‘in’ the US, I’d no interest in visiting anywhere north of the Rio Grande. I was wrong on both counts.

For a full listing of the tour blogs and related links see

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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