Musings of a morbid mind

The general ravings of Scott Baldwin

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Highway 1 and Santa Barbara

Having made a few friends from Santa Barbara at the milongas in LA, I had no shortage of people willing to show me around. Firstly though, I really wanted to do one of the suggestions my Taxi Adventure friend had made. Hwy 1 runs up the coast of California, and promised some pretty spectacular scenery, so after the conference had ended, I attempted to set off.

In the hotel car park, I decided to try to find my passport so that I had something to show the police if I got pulled over. I went through my carryon, without success, I then opened the trunk of the car and pulled out my suitcase, unlocked it and went through that. It then dawned on me that I had left it in the hotel room that I had since checked out of. I raced to the concierge, and was informed that the room had yet to be cleaned. He arranged for security to meet me at the room. When I arrived at the room, the cleaner had her cart sitting outside my door, but was nowhere to be seen. As the security arrived, the cleaner heard the commotion, and came out and before we even entered the room, told me “here it is”, opening her top draw and handing me my flight centre travel pack containing my passport and flight tickets. I was very relieved. After struggling with the GPS lock code that I hadn’t anticipated, I was finally on my way.

First stop however was a cafe called Intelligencia in Venice (suburb of LA) that a friend had recommended after hearing me complain about the “hideous coffee in the US, and that Starbucks actually made sense here”. As I walked into the cafe, I immediately felt completely out of place. I’m not sure what the collective noun for turtle-neck-wearing apple mac users is… flange??? band???? flock???? pride???? culture???? hive???? whatever, there was one there. I ordered my cappuccino, found a seat and resolutely took out my brand spanking new Windows 8 (developer preview) slate PC… and proceeded to play Word Hunt in resolute defiance of the obvious protocol in place. The coffee was a tad bitter for my liking, but certainly was by far the best coffee I had consumed in the US. Sorry, but still not as good as Melbourne.

After making a few mistakes with my GPS, and the damn thing freezing on me, I eventually found a petrol station. I pulled up at the pump, selected the fuel I wanted, and then waited…. expecting the attendant to allow the pump to flow. I waited for a good 2 minutes before reading the sign “Cash customers must pay before fuelling”. After working things out with the attendant, the fuel flowed, and I was on my way.

My next destination was Malibu, but only after navigating LA peek  hour traffic. One experience I would rather have done without.


I Travelled along Highway 1, which displayed some fantastic scenery. Reminding me a little of The Great Ocean Road, although, much more built up, and much wider highways. I arrived in Malibu just in time to see a spectacular sunset that stayed with me pretty much all along Highway 1.


I eventually arrived in Santa Barbara a little after 8pm.

The next day my friend took me to yet another coffee shop, determined to convince me that coffee in the US could actually be palatable… and yes, it was palatable, but sorry… still not as good as Melbourne. After this she took me to Sterns Wharf where we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day by the sea. We walked around the beach, and then decided on “Moby Dicks Restaurant” for dinner, where I tried the Oysters Rockafella for the first time, and really loved it.


I was also able to witness another spectacular Californian sunset as we dined.




The next day, my friend took me to an Australian owned winery called Kalyra, but not before taking me to yet another coffee shop. This time I ordered a dark chocolate mocha which was really nice, even though I would have to class it as lolly coffee. We did some wine tasiting at the winery, and purchased some nice dessert wines.

After that, it was a quick dash back to LA to squeeze in 45 minutes of dancing at the Argentine Association, and then back in the car to catch the worlds longest flight from LA to Bs As.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


It was always a childhood dream of my sister and me to visit Disney land, but 2 things made this dream impossible as a child. Firstly, we were never really well off enough to afford such a trip, and secondly, my father would never have flown. As we got older, we learned to sublimate our childhood yearnings for such frivolous fun into a cynical critique of western consumerism and that seemed to satisfy us as adults. I had pretty much resigned to the fact that I was never going to see Disneyland, as there was no real reason for me to go out of my way to visit Anaheim California. It wasn’t until I booked my tickets for the BUILD Windows conference which just so happened to be in Anaheim, that the question arose again.

I struggled with the question of wether to go or not, I wasn’t quite sure how the leftist, sceptical adult that I had become would react when faced with some of the most banal displays of western consumerism known to man kind. However, I figured that the odds of me being that close to Disneyland again were pretty slim, and I may as well suck it up.

I decided to go the day before the conference. I was advised to take plenty of water, and food as the prices in Disneyland were extortionate. I payed my $80 entry fee, and proceeded.


I have to say that Disneyland certainly had a magical charm to it. I discovered that my inner child had not quite been strangled to death by the cynical adult, and in fact both of them were able to have some fun that day. Although primarily for children, the people at Disneyland had not forgotten that children often drag adults along with them, and so there was adult based entertainment as well. I stopped by the Disneyland opera house and saw an animatronics feature called “Memorable moments with Lincoln”, and I was reminded powerfully of just how much the civil war still impacts on the psyche of Americans today.


The one ride that I really wanted to go on “Pirates of the Caribbean” was closed, so I had to make do with others. I enjoyed the splash mountain and the Thunder Mountain rides. Also The American rivers cruise on the steam boat was very relaxing.


There was also a demonstration of the robot ASIMOV in tomorrow land which was aimed more at children, but had enough content to keep the science geek in me happy.

I decided to abuse my digestive system and try a corn dog from the “traditional corn dog stand”, and it lived up to my expectations, which is more a reflection on my lack of expectations than any quality on the part of the corn dog. It reminded me of the pluto pups we used to get in Australia as a kid, although, I have to say pluto pups are much better.

I stuck around for the parade which is the main event in Disneyland. It was an extravagant display of all of the Disney cartoon characters bought to life with music and dancing, and I could see how children would really enjoy it.

All in all, I enjoyed my day out, but I think it would be much more fun either as a kid, or with a group of friends. I don’t think I’d go back if I was in the area, I’d probably prefer to spend the day in LA and catch a milonga, but I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to go.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tango in LA

The first thing any self respecting tango dancer does when they decide to visit another city in the world is to open Google, and type in the name of the city, followed by the word “tango” to see what their options are. It is always exciting going to a new city with lots of people that you have never danced with before, but it is also sometimes a little confronting as you don’t know anyone, and you don’t know the subset of the protocols used within that scene. Basic things like do they play tanda’s, do they use the cabaceo to invite etc…. Of course when I typed in the words “Anaheim Tango” into Google, I really didn’t get much joy. It was then I decided that I may just have to spend the weekend before the conference in Los Angeles. Typing in “Los Angeles tango” got better results, but it wasn’t until I typed in “Los Angeles milongas” that I eventually found a blog that aggregated all of the tango in Los Angeles. I also managed to make contact with the blogs author so that I felt like I actually knew someone there. As it turned out I never actually met up with the blogs author, however his advice on tango and other matters proved invaluable.

When you only have 2 days in a city, it tends to focus your efforts, so after getting off the plane at 6:30am, the first chance to go out for a tango was later that same night at El Encuentro in Sherman Oaks. I arrived about an hour after the milonga had officially started, and dropped the blog authors name and that I was from Melbourne, Australia to get me a warm welcome from the organizer. I watched the floor for a while, and noted the good dancers. There seemed to be a reasonably good level, and I knew that if I could just get over the nervousness about asking for a first dance, I should be in for a pretty good night. As it happened, I accidently stared at one of the girls who I had picked as being a good dancer for a bit too long, and she took it as a cabaceo, and promptly agreed to dance with me. Aside from a few refusals later that night, I barely sat down all night. I think it was about 2:30am when I finally and dragged myself away. I had some wonderful dances, and was overall very impressed with the level of dancing in LA. I also had a few not so fabulous dances, but that' happens from time to time, especially if you are not known in the scene, and if you ask women you’ve never seen dance. I met a table of people who drove down from Santa Barbara, and told them that I had been toying with the idea of driving up to Santa Barbara after the conference. I was quickly offered a couch by one of the girls I had connected with particularly well, and we danced about 6 tandas together that night. My trip was starting to come together, and it was only my first night in LA. The music was reasonably good, although there was an extraneous vals inserted in the middle of a tango tanda, and some of the the tandas didn’t flow that well together, but I managed to have a thoroughly enjoyable night, and made a few new friends.

The next night was The Argentine Association. I got there about 8ish and the class was still going, so I got talking to the Argentinian man at the door, it was good to get a bit of Spanish practice. There weren’t as many good dancers at this milonga as there was at El Encuentro, however, my friend from Santa Barbara made a special effort to come down, so I still had a good night.

I was pretty sure that the conference would take up most of my time during the week, but my friend from Santa Barbara turned out to be very persuasive, and got me to drive up to LA on Tuesday night after the conference had devolved into lots of drinking and playing computer games which didn’t really interest me. It was a quite night at Leonardo’s Night Club, and mainly danced with my friend.

My final tango in LA was a flash 45 minute visit (due partly to traffic, and partly to my fear of missing my flight to Buenos Aires) to The Argentine Association, where I managed to squeeze in 5 tandas before diving into the car and racing to the airport.

All in all, I really enjoyed the Los Angeles tango scene, and would love to go back there sometime.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

LA–The Food

I have to confess, I have inside information when it comes to this. A friend of mine grew up in California. She is also a well known food critic, so if I couldn’t get a decent meal in California, there was something wrong. I met Layne in Buenos Aires a few years back where she captivated my imagination with a project she had started and referred to as “Taxi Adventures”. Someone seriously needs to give Layne her own travel show, but while the networks have foolishly ignored her, the rumour is there’s a book in the works based on her taxi adventures.

My first meal in LA was certainly not from Layne’s list of suggestions, and was more out of necessity, cheapness and jet-lag that I took advantage of the free breakfast at “Denny’s” that came with signing up the “The Best Western” customer loyalty program. I won’t go into details, but lets just say that I’ve learnt my lesson, and will avoid Denny’s in the future.

Anyhow, Layne made a number of suggestions with respects to eating in LA. Unfortunately being there for only the weekend, I was not able to sample all of them. Of her suggestions, I was able to try two. Firstly Tommy’s Chilli Cheese burger from the “original” and in Layne’s opinion, the best Tommy’s hamburger stand on Beverly Blvd.

I found it no problems (thanks in no small part to the advice she and others had given about getting a rental with a GPS), and as I wasn’t very hungry, decided to walk a bit down Beverly Blvd. I have to confess, it wasn’t quite the glitzy glamorous LA I had been expecting. This was definitely the low socio-economic side of town, and very obviously heavily Hispanic. In fact, most of the signs in this area were in Spanish, and I only heard English spoken when I went back to get my hamburger. After walking about 7 or 8 blocks, I decided I was hungry enough and headed back. I asked for exactly what Layne had suggested, a chilli cheeseburger. I was asked if I’d like fries with that, and remembering the lessons I’d learnt from Morgan Spurlock, declined. She seemed to look at me a bit weird, but I wasn’t that hungry. I waited about 1 and a half minutes before my burger was un-ceremoniously dumped on the counter in front of me. I found a bench near-by and examined what I had been given. The meat paddy was a big thick slice of beef, it had a thick slice of tomato, and some pickled cucumbers, all of which was drowning in a mixture of thick, rich chilli sauce and melted cheese. It tasted very decadent; the rich chilli sauce was just hot enough, but not too hot, and combined with the cheese, it oozed out everywhere. I now understood why people generally have chips with it. Deep fried potato chips would make the perfect dipping implement to clean up the fallout as you attempt to consume the burger. Definitely worth checking out.

The Second was to eat as many bagels as possible from the “Brooklyn Bagel Bakery”. Now we have pretty good bagels back home, and to be honest, it’s not something I’d regularly go out of my way for, however, I enjoy them from time to time. The Brooklyn Bagel Bakery was just a few blocks up from Tommy’s Hamburger stand, so it felt a little like deja vu when I rocked up to roughly the same place on the second day. I walked into the bakery, and started to look at my options. I was second in line, and as I had picked out the bagels I wanted, first the cheese and onion, then the cheese, one by one the woman in front of me who was obviously planning a big party, cleaned out the bakery of those flavours. How rude. I ended up settling on an onion bagel and a jalapeño bagel. I also purchased some cream cheese to go with them, and decided to try to find myself a near-by park to eat my lunch. I decided not to switch the GPS on this time, but instead to just drive down Beverly blvd. Block after block I kept driving, and no park did I find. I did notice though that as I travelled, the houses slowly became more grand, until I felt so far from the scenery of the bakery, I could have easily been in a different country. The run-down units and street full of homeless had given way to pristine tree lined mansions and fancy cafe’s. This is the more glitzy side of LA that I was expecting. Eventually after driving many miles (yes I am getting into some Americanisms as it confuses them when you talk about kilometres), I eventually found a tiny square of grass that could almost (if you squint hard enough) be called a park. I parked the car and sat on a bench in the “park” and ate my bagels with cream cheese. They were very nice, and compare favourably with those from home. I actually regretted not buying some more for my adventures the next day.

After my lunch I decided I needed a coffee (and maybe some dessert). So I walked a few blocks up and found a cafe called “Shaky Alibi” that looked promising.


I had decided to set my expectations for coffee fairly low as I know that it’s very hard to compete with Melbourne for coffee, unless you’re somewhere like Italy. Having said that, my expectations where lowered even more when they bought me a cappuccino in a soup bowl. Even with my expectations lowered, the coffee struggled to meet them. At the end of the day it was a source of caffeine and being an addict, I wasn’t likely to refuse it.


However, they also had waffles, and the awesomeness of a waffle covered in home made dark chocolate ice cream, and bananas, and the chattiness and friendliness of the servers managed to take my mind off the coffee.


As grateful as I am for Laynes suggestions, I do always like to discover one or two things for myself as well. I noticed in one of the guide books in my Hotel room a reference to a place on Santa Monica Blvd called “Bar Pintxos”. As I am a big fan of Sheryl Crow, and having the annoyingly addictive melody “until the sun comes up over Santa Monica boulevard” rattling around in my head, I decided to check it out. I also wanted to see how authentic pintxos were done so I could see if we were getting something similar at “Naked For Satan” (a pintxos bar that has recently opened up in Melbourne.

I sat down at the bar, and after ordering a local beer started browsing the menu. I struck up a number of conversations with other patrons at the bar, and we compared food as they bought it out. LA people seem to be very friendly. All the food was delightful, the mushrooms were particularly good as well as the garlic prawns (although I probably shouldn’t have had them before going out to tango), and I couldn’t help thinking that “Naked for Satan” was relatively authentic in that they are charging quite dear prices for tiny amounts of high quality food. I guess it comes down to a value judgement in the end, and for me pintxos will always be a special treat for when I am feeling rich.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Driving in Los Angeles

I asked a few locals advice about what to do in California, and all of them unanimously said “rent a car with a GPS”. Hrmmm… being a huge public transport advocate, and also having lived in Melbourne for 7 years without a vehicle of any description, I was initially a little bit reluctant. Add to this the whole issue of driving on the right-hand side of the road, and I was especially hesitant. But, I asked their advice, and knowing that I did have a fair bit of travelling to do, so I decided to overcome my fears and ideologies, and rented a car. The first obstacle was figuring out where to rent them from. After clearing customs at LAX, I thought I’d just follow the signs to the car rental places like at Sydney or Melbourne airport. No such thing. All I saw were signs that said “Rental Car Shuttles”. After walking around for a while trying to find where the rental car kiosks were, and flip-flopping between just getting a cab or shuttle to my hotel, and sorting out car rental later, I eventually figured out that the rental car places were so far away from the terminal that they required a shuttle bus to pick potential customers up and take them there. Not having a booking, I hopped on an the first shuttle that came my way. It was an Avis shuttle. Not having a booking wasn’t a problem at all, and I was soon in my Kia Rio with a GPS programmed to take me to the hotel.

I was very aware of the fact that I had never driven on the right-side of the road, and that made me super conscious of the fact. I kept repeating to myself, I’m in the US, they drive on the right, right-hand turns don’t cross traffic, left had turns do”. I discovered soon enough that there was much more I needed to be aware of than just which side of the road to drive on.

Firstly, a lot of the iconography you rely on for fast information assimilation is different in a foreign country. This affects more than just driving. Even crossing the road takes me a good few seconds to figure out exactly where the signals are, I have been trained by conventions in Australia to expect them to be in a certain location and to have a certain look. In the US they are in a different relative location, and look significantly different. Add to that they often don’t have pedestrian buttons at intersections, but just rely on the continuous cycling of the lights to give everyone a fair chance at the intersection.


This difference in iconography was important on my trip from the airport to the hotel, as I could not seem to find a speed limit signs anywhere. My brain was just not picking up the differences in the signs. Of course to add to it, in Australia we use kilometres, but the Americans use miles. It is quite interesting how your eye becomes trained to picking up on certain visuals.



US speed limit sign vs Australian speed limit sign.

Thankfully stop signs are exactly the same, and traffic lights aren’t too different either.

Another thing that I’m finding is doing my brain in at the moment is the concept of the driver being on the left-hand side of the vehicle. This really messes with years of ingrained spatial awareness. Keeping the car in the centre of the lane gives you a very awkward feeling that you constantly have to fight against. So many times I have gone to look in my right-hand rear vision mirror to change lanes only to see the GPS I had set up on the dash-board exactly where my mind expects to see the potential on-coming traffic.

Also the road rules are subtly different. The “Right turn on red if clear” rule makes complete sense to me, but it is just so hard to break my conditioning and actually go through a red light, but of course if you don’t, you risk the wrath of drivers behind you who also want to turn right.

All this requires you to be in a state of awareness about your driving that years of driving in your home country has rendered unnecessary for day to day driving. The danger is always present that the mind will simply slip back into auto-pilot and you’ll do a left-hand turn and end up facing on-coming traffic, or make some other driving guffaw calling down the ire of other motorists and pedestrians just going about their normal lives.

Travelling Again

I am currently travelling overseas, partly for work partly for pleasure… actually mostly for pleasure. As with other times, I find that travelling to foreign countries creates a lot to reflect on, and consequently write about. My first stop will be California. I am currently in a hotel in Los Angeles, on Monday I will be driving to Anaheim where I will be attending the Microsoft Build Windows conference, then I am planning to head to Santa Barbra for a bit of R & R. After that I will be visiting Buenos Aires. I will use this my personal blog as essentially a travel diary, but my geek blog as a means of recording my thoughts on the conference.