The Amtrak Trilogy Part 1: Costa Rica to New York

timthumbI yawned deeply amidst the luxury bedding of the boutique hotel on the slopes of the volcano in Costa Rica, and prepared to go back to sleep. It was 5.45am, December 21, 2012. I know the date because I just (now, in 2017) double-checked the details of my flight from San José to JFK. This is something I’d been oddly reluctant to do for the previous ten days, which my then-girlfriend now-wife and I had spent enjoying the resplendent flora, abundant fauna and disappointing food of the ‘Switzerland of Central America’*. Occasionally Chiara had reminded me to look up the time of my return journey, which was different from hers because I’d bought my ticket as a special surprise present for her birthday (er…) and the flight I’d booked was half an hour later and (inevitably) on a different plane. I knew that my flight was in the evening, as was hers to Madrid, but whenever the subject came up I didn’t happen to have my phone to hand, or was too busy looking up names of birds, or just trying hard to ignore a muffled thought I’d locked in a cupboard in my head which was saying something that sounded a bit like, Richard, your flight isn’t in the evening, it’s actually first thing in the morning. So I didn’t get round to checking until once again prompted by her on the morning of the very last day, which we had planned to spend eating a big boutique breakfast followed by a stroll to look at the innards of the big farty mountain with the hard-to-pronounce name. When I looked at the details I “gave a start”. Although I’d never consciously reflected on what that phrase means, I now know it means “to run round the room of a boutique hotel shouting fuck! Fuck! FUCK! and trying to find one’s glasses while also having a shower and packing one’s bag. And apologising. A lot.”

The friendliness of the South African couple who ran the place turned out to be able to withstand having their bedroom door banged on loudly at 5.52am, especially when it became clear that the English guy from Room 4 was too lost in panic to understand the value of money. $100 and forty-five minutes later, I was at the airport.

On the plane I had something of a epistomological crisis. What did I really ‘know’? Could I trust my own ‘knowledge’ of the world? Is our perception of reality based purely on choosing to believe that which suits us and ignore everything else? What other blindspots were there in my worldview? What did this imply about our ‘awareness’ of Climate Change? Like, if I was really as worried about global warming as I told myself I was, what was I doing on yet another plane? And what would my girlfriend’s parents and friends say when they found out how stupid I was? Could I even trust the evidence of my own eyes? The ticket before me, for example, clearly indicated a four-hour gap between my arrival at and departure from JFK. That suggested I could go to the centre of New York and walk around for a bit, right? But who was I to judge such a thing? I would need to ask another human, anyone who wasn’t me, to make the decision for me.

Once deplaned at JFK that’s what I did. I asked a nearby baggage handler to confirm that I could safely set foot in Manhattan or The Bronx or wherever and be back in time for the connection to London. I’d never been to New York before, I explained. She peered at the ticket. No, she said.

Twenty minutes later I was walking down a street in Queens. In New York! It was just like in the films, although not so much ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Annie: The Musical’, more like ‘Frozen’, ‘My Fingers Just Fucking Fell Off’ or ‘300 Degrees Below Zero’. I reckoned I had enough time to eat some pizza pie, grab a beer in some nondescript bar, shoot dead Donald Trump and maybe track down Thomas Pynchon before heading back to the warmth of the airport.

How does one order pizza in New York? By the slice? How big are the slices? These were the questions I didn’t want to ask as I stood in line. I wanted to feel like I belonged, like a Native New Yorker, but I didn’t, like the song says you should, ‘know the score’. The guys behind the counter seemed to be Middle-Eastern,  but I could hear some proper sweary Italo-American voices coming out of the kitchen. I confidently ordered enough food to feed the entire population of San José for two months and sat down unobtrusively in the corner to peruse some sports magazines which may as well have been written in Patagonian Welsh for all that I could understand of them.

It was technically my first visit to the US but in a sense I’d been there for the previous ten days. Costa Rica sometimes felt a bit like a Disneyland version of Latin America. We’d met so many North Americans even I’d started pronouncing it Coaster Rica. The first was Darylle, whose Airbnb place we stayed at in San José upon arriving. I hadn’t known much about the country we were visiting except that it once had a President who thought it was sometimes okay to spit on people and that it didn’t have an army. (I knew those things because I’d written about them here.) Having breakfast with Darryle was like doing a Master’s in Costa Rican history, society and politics. (It was also the best meal we would have in Costa Rica.) He was an expat lawyer who, after a spell in the Peace Corps in the ’60s, had moved to San José and was very much part of life there. He also sponsored a school in Nepal along with a bewildering list of other laudable activities.

In a blues bar in Quepos we talked to and danced with exiles from Reagan’s America who’d decided to stay for good; just up the road there was a reminder that Costa Rica had been friendly to the US in more disturbing ways, another remnant of the Reagan years in the form of a plane used to transport ‘aid’ to the Contra death squads in neighbouring Nicaragua. Also in Quepos we came across the remains of a banana processing factory – Costa Rica was for almost a hundred years used as a massive banana plantation by US corporations. On the last night, in that boutique guesthouse on the volcano, we had dinner with a New York couple who talked in quiet tones with immense sensitivity and intelligence about the suffering inflicted by Hurricane Sandy and what we as a species could do to prevent it happening elsewhere. In all the personal encounters I recognised and admired that particular openness and readiness for conversation, that effusive volubility that characterises pretty much all the US citizens I’ve ever met. As I munched on my mountain of pizza pie and worried about missing my plane I had the feeling that this was a country where anyone could start to feel like they belonged.

I’d be back.


* We spent the first couple of days in Cost Ric puzzling over why there were so many Argentinians employed in the tourist industry, but then we realised that Central Americans also go in for that whole voseo thing. Another surprise came at about 4am in a hammock, when I heard this sound from what seemed like less than a metre away. Our favourite animal of the holiday, though, was the local version of the sloth, which apparently only comes down from its tree once every two weeks to take a dump. Pura vida!

Los Angeles: I kinda like LA


The film that LA reminds me of most is not ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Long Goodbye’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’, but ‘Tron’*. The absence of a specific centre is nicely disorientating, like a dream of a city with no centre, or with dozens of centres spread out across an undulating grid of (in theory) highspeed highways. Thomas Pynchon called LA “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts”; as it happens I quite like exploring concepts and I find LA surprisingly pleasant to move around. I am, after all, here on holiday. Those who live with its traffic jams and smog would probably question the impression created by the distortions employed here.

I’ve been to a number of cities modelled on or heavily reminiscent of the rhizomatic layout of LA (Johannesburg, Singapore and the Santa Fé part of Mexico City spring to mind), which have tended to be alienating and lacking in identity. But the original has a distinct character in that it’s suffused with images of itself, so I do feel that its history is present. It helps that I’ve just read Mike Davis’ incendiary chronicle of LA’s development, ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’. Davis writes like an Old Testament prophet, a West Coast Marshall Berman. The book was originally published before the riots of 1992, and mostly details the 20th century battles over local political power, water, and land, all conditioned by race and class. The history of LA is one of small-scale wars over land title and water rights, between newly-established communities and goon squads, vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers. One of those developers says in Pynchon’s novel (and subsequent film) ‘Inherent Vice’:

Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave—a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”


The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saw LA as a mirage, a simulacrum, but if it is true that our mental images  of LA screen out the real city at least they’re familiar ones. The city I come from is famous for one film, whereas LA is known for tens of thousands, many of which by no means show the city in its best light. I knew something about the water wars thanks to ‘Chinatown’ and have learnt about LA’s vice, drugs, corruption and racist police brutality from films like ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘LA Confidential’. Mike Davis writes that the film noirs of the 1930s onwards comprised an ‘ideological assault on the American dream’. Raymond Chandler was certainly not the most radical or critical of noir writers but neither ‘The Long Goodbye’ nor ‘The Big Sleep’ paints an idyllic picture of the city. A lot of the early noirs were written by exiled European writers, like Hans Eisler and Erich Maria Remarque, who hated LA’s lack of a civic centre and thought that the city ‘negated every classical value of European urbanity’. Bertolt Brecht simply called it ‘hell’. Nevertheless Theodor Adorno, someone who you might think, given his active antipathy to the culture industry, would have dedicated LA a particularly scathing Tripadvisor review, instead commented: ‘It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it’. And, in a different mood, Brecht once complained that his cottage was ‘too pleasant to work in’ .


In my case I’m surprised to find that there is, if not a centre, a downtown, and that it’s actually quite likable. The fact that it’s mostly Latino and that casi everyone is speaking Spanish is comforting: given that I’ve just popped up for a week from Mexico City (another city that’s often misrepresented as consisting of nothing but traffic hell but is in reality remarkably walkable), I enjoy the feeling of being doubly foreign. It’s something I regularly experienced going from Portugal to Spain, and also the time when, living in China, I flew to Thailand and bumped into some ‘other’ Chinese people. Downtown LA also has some food markets, tidied-up versions of the ones at home. We visit one of the best bookshops I’ve ever visited (The Last Bookstore), in which I first go a bit mental buying English language novels, and then can’t help but feel a bit disdainful on discovering that they have an entire department dedicated to colouring books for ‘adults’. Out on the streets there are some sights recognisable from Hollywood films depicting a dystopian future. Although we visit on a weekday, most stores are closed and shuttered, there’s evidence of people sleeping in pretty much every doorway and a couple of distressed individuals pushing shopping carts a la ‘The Road’. However, from a Mexico City point of view, it’s all quite familiar – it feels a bit like one of the more abandoned sections of Insurgentes. Down in Chinatown there’s actual streetlife – food stalls, a couple of buskers, and groups of people standing around chatting – and when we pass through the area known as Skid Row people are quite affable, even when they think I’m trying to take photos of them, which I’m not. Much.


The area where my friends live (Mount Washington) is extremely pleasant; it puts me in mind of the more lightly-gentrified parts of Hackney, like Lower Clapton. Some streets are like Dalston without all the ridiculous new apartment buildings. With its lowlit bars, ethnic restaurants, antique shops and hipsters, there’s a strong sense of quality of life. My friends have been here for about three years. When they arrived, she was pregnant and they were panicking about not having health insurance, but it turned out to their immense relief that the State of California has a scheme which meant they avoided having to pay out over one hundred thousand dollars just for giving birth. Even in terms of healthcare, the United States is a more complex society than I had assumed.


Another day we head down to Manhattan Beach, where I’m sort of hoping I might bump into Thomas Pynchon, even though I nor anyone else have seen any photos taken of him in the last sixty years and he hasn’t lived here since around the late ‘60s. ‘Inherent Vice’ is set here during that time. It’s a hippy noir whose detective is permanently stoned, which doesn’t help the reader or viewer make much sense of the shaggy dog plot with its dozens of characters. Like most good detective fiction it’s less about who did what to whom than a study of the texture of a particular time and place. There are police buying off hippies to protect millionaire property developers and a shady operation called the Golden Fang which appears to be some sort of mafioso cartel crossed with a secretive corporation. But the novel shows that the LA ruled by such forces is not the only one that might exist or come to exist: the epigraph to the book is the situationist slogan ‘Under the pavement, the beach!’. The ‘60s was a time when another LA, another California, another America threatened to burst through the paving stones of mainstream society. In ‘Vineland’, a previous novel set (conversely) fifteen years later, one whose characters are addled and incapacitated not just by weed fumes but also by cathode rays, Pynchon explores a similar history to Mike Davis’ book: union battles in the film studios, McCarthyism, the FBI’s attempts to control and buy off any burgeoning countercultural forces and impose authoritarian rule. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, from 1966, was written on the cusp of the hippy years, and has a lot in common with the critique of the situationists of the deadening effects of suburbanisation, bourgeois life and consumer spectacle. Pynchon apparently lived right down next to the beach and spent his time when not writing ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ driving round and discoursing to his hippy companions on LA and its dependence on the war machine. And it’s on the beach that I come across this:


From the beach we drive up to Malibu to a cheap fish and chip restaurant with ocean views and photos of Barbara Streisand, Rod Stewart and Dylan (Bob) on the wall. I pick up a brochure for local property but the prices are even more absurd than the ones in Dalston**. Although they’re very nice I’d actually pay more money not to have to tell people I live in a place which reminds them of one of the world’s most cloying drinks.

The megarich of LA have other concerns, however. Many of them spend their time worrying about the number of thetans they’ve built up, only to find after several years that the secret truth they were striving for involves some total bollocks about “a galactic overlord by the name of Xenu, a volcano, and souls that attach themselves to newborn babies”***. However, contrary to what a lot of people who spend too much online may tell you, Scientology is not the most dangerous and destructive aspect of the LA lifestyle. In the evening we go to a bar which is showing sport. As the commentators discuss the game a huge Volkswagen logo located right between them takes up roughly 80% of the screen.


Much more than Scientology or the dreamlife that LA sells us, the cult of the car is the city’s most pernicious export. One consequence of the failure of our species to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is that California is suffering from a massive and unprecedented (although not inexplicable) drought. There are notices of water restrictions everywhere. In Beverly Hills the locals have protested, however, explaining that they can’t reduce their water consumption because you know, they just need to consume that much water and anyway they’re rich so fuck off my lawn. You’d have to have the mentality of a cult member to think this kind of attitude has any kind of future.

Some people still see LA as representing the chance of stardom, despite all the cautionary tales told in movies and music from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to ‘Do you know the way to San José’. In a burger restaurant round the corner from where all the Hollywood Boulevard nonsense is, we meet a young Austrian who’s been here for three years doing an acting course. The fact that she prefers to speak in German with someone (me) who struggles to remember the word for burger suggests the course may not have been all she hoped for, although she puts a brave face on it (or at least I think she does, I can’t remember how you say ‘brave’). Subsequently I see several adverts for such courses; it seems that, like the UK wrt EFL, the US also has a burgeoning ripping-off-foreigners-in-return-for-fuck-all industry disguised as something to do with ‘education’. We also meet a more long-standing immigrant, a Russian taxi-driver who is inspired by our late-night request for somewhere to buy a couple of cans of beer to drive us halfway to Seattle and stock up himself “for the night!”. He buys 16 cans, at 2am.


LA has been called a commodity, a simulation, and a cultural desert, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find (pace Gertrude Stein on Oakland) that there is in fact a ‘there’ there. I can certainly see the appeal of living in LA, particularly up in the hills. Some parts of the city looks curiously like an area of my hometown, Sheffield. The ‘70s-built council housing in Gleadless Valley imitated Californian design to great effect. (If anyone thinks that this is nonsense please read this to verify). The wonderful place where my friends live, on the slopes of Mount Washington with a sweeping view across the train tracks towards downtown, puts me in mind of the 1970s, the LA of Tom Waits and Robert Altman’s version of ‘The Long Goodbye’, which are the sounds and images I most cherish from the city.

Nevertheless, the idealised LA way of life is one that doesn’t export well. Devoid of historical content and bereft of Los Angeles’ rich and complex set of visual associations, it produces bland suburbanisation, something far closer to what Baudrillard was talking about. In a word: Singaporisation. I find it hard to see the appeal of Dubai  to anyone who has an alternative****. Such places seem to me to be much better simulations of dystopia, rendered worlds with no civic or public life, no libraries or bookshops or public squares or walkable streets. A bland, privatised architects model, an outdoor shopping mall where the only game to play is pretend-you’re-a-millionaire. At least LA has a history: one of desert, drought, corruption, rats in palm trees, film noir and race wars. It is a gigantic incoherent confluence of human ambition, creativity and destruction. The brightness and the darkness. It’s thanks to the imaginations of filmmakers and writers that Los Angeles exists in a way that many cities that imitate its form don’t.


* The original version, not the remake by Tim Burton or whoever.

** Nobody from London will believe this possible.

*** This is what it says in this South Park episode, accompanied by the words ‘This is what Scientologists actually believe’. I sometimes think of writing something similar on this blog just in case people think I’m doing this for a laugh.

**** Not that Dubai is lacking in intrigue. I think you’d have to be very brave to live there and go looking for it. One of my friends in LA wrote this excellent novel about oil business shenanigans.