The van rolled to a stop at the side of the street. Mike, the driver and tour guide, got out and walked to my side.
“Come on, man,” he said to me as I complied, confused. Sensing my puzzlement he then added as we began to walk: “you want another drink, don’t you?” I certainly did. The 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor I’d previously purchased had long since finished and I was craving another. Despite its 7.5% ABV it was unexpectedly easy to drink and the added buzz increased my enjoyment of the West Coast rap which vibrated around the vehicle.
But this was a starkly different experience to the purchasing of the first bottle an hour earlier. On that occasion the whole tour group was allowed out to stretch their legs and have a wander around a liquor store and the corner outside. On this occasion it was just myself permitted to leave the van. And instead of letting me find the drink myself, Mike marched briskly to the back of the shop, picked up the bottle, handed it to me and led us directly to the counter for purchase.
The reason for the haste soon dawned on me, as I was reminded of something Mike had said earlier. In pop-culture the reputation of South Central Los Angeles permeates throughout its massive expanse, but it isn’t that simple. Like everywhere, some areas are better than others. When I bought the first bottle of Olde English we were in Crenshaw. This was Compton. This was the ghetto. It was no longer safe for a naive, pasty-faced guy from Scotland to have a daunder.
Later that day I told friends about my adventures and they were in shock. Having grown up in San Fernando Valley, they were at odds to understand why anyone would want to take a tour bus into South Central, let alone Compton, but I was in my element.
At a cost of $75, I was shown noted movie locations, the childhood homes of several hip-hop legends and some of the more infamous historical spots (including the site of Biggie Smalls’ murder), all while the soundtrack of my teenage years blasted out of the speakers.
It wasn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, though, as Mike relayed a stream of information on the local areas and the everyday way of life. For instance, I was dumbfounded to learn that, of the two high schools in Compton, one was painted blue while the other was splashed with red, the colours of notorious and constantly feuding gangs the Crips and the Bloods, respectively. In each area we passed through it was a different sect of those two in control of the turf, like the Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips, the Bounty Hunter Watts Bloods or the Denver Lane Gangster Bloods etc etc.
After the three hours were finished and we were returned to the pick-up spot in Hollywood, I took an Uber out to meet my girlfriend at the SUR Restaurant and Lounge – the bar at the centre of reality TV show Vanderpump Rules. From there, her cousin gave us a tour of Beverly Hills before we spent the evening drinking cocktails in Venice.
The ability to take in such varying cultural experiences certainly isn’t exclusive to this small part of the world, but there’s something so quintessentially LA about it. The area holds such rich history in white, black and Mexican culture, while there also exists a heavy Asian presence, and there isn’t really anything you can’t do.
You can go surfing, go hiking, ride on a rollercoaster, visit film and TV sets, see comedy, see theatre, go to sporting events, eat glorious food of any cuisine imaginable and party until the small hours.
It’s probably because Los Angeles is mind-bendingly massive. There are relatively few skyscrapers, and they’re almost exclusively located downtown, meaning the landscape just sprawls on for miles. Even walking up to the Griffith Observatory, 1,134 feet above sea level, it’s only possible to see about a third of the place. That’s because it’s typically Los Angeles County we think of when we hear the world Los Angeles. It’s a collection of cities that bleed into one another. Compton, for instance, is assumed to be a neighbourhood for those who only really know the place through music lyrics. In actuality, it is one of the oldest cities in California, housing close to 100,000 residents with its own mayor and council.
A common mistake a lot of people make when visiting LA from the UK is choosing to stay in Hollywood. Despite the glamour of its name, many find the area to be grimy, overcrowded and lacking in much distinction other than the star signs underneath your feet. Instead I would recommend staying in Santa Monica or, if you’re more on a budget, Venice. Each will give you easy access to the beach, which brought about the euphoric bliss of gliding along the cycle path with the sun beating down as I listened to It Was A Good Day by Ice Cube, a track recorded less than 20 miles from where I was. It was a bona fide “ah, this is the life” kind of moment.
Bikes are a good idea for getting around the local neighbourhoods, unless you want to spend a lot of time walking or a lot of money on Rides or Ubers. Buses in LA are about as common as the rain, so if you want to easily get from one side of the city to the other without the constant need for hired drivers, renting your own car is the only other option. Everybody drives, which is why it’s covered in a persistent layer of smog.
This is one of the few downsides to a truly incredible place. Even with 11 days to explore it still wasn’t enough to discover all that Los Angeles has to offer, which is why I’ll definitely make a return at some point in the near future.
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