This Desert Life

I’m sitting in a park in Sierra Madre. There’s a fountain to my left and a slight breeze carrying the scent of hot buttered popcorn. Old time music is playing from a pavilion just down a ways. It’s someone’s birthday. Someone elderly as most of the folks in attendance are either using canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. There also look to be a large number of grandchildren running and screaming. There seems to be a ball involved somehow, but I can’t quite make out the game.

Sierra Madre is an anomaly in Los Angeles. Technically, it’s a suburb of the city, but looking around, it looks and feels like someone just picked up a small town from the middle of the country and plopped it down in Southern California. It’s always been like that for as long as I remember. It’s a quiet, unassuming kind of place, hidden away just east of Pasadena, tucked into the foothills. My junior high school was there, so I got to know it a little that way. Plus, it’s so close to where my parents live.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Los Angeles, since I’ve arrived back in the city. I don’t think I realized just how much the air and feel of the place is dominated by the fact that it’s situated in a desert. I first noticed on the flight in. Everything looked so dry. Maybe it was the contrast to Cambodia in the midst of its rainy season that did it, but the city’s desert-ness really struck home then. And the realization continued to be reinforced as the days have passed. There’s something in the air that speaks to me of the desert. The kind of heat, the smell of the wind. Something like that, but those are more like code words. The reality is somehow more indefinable.

The other thing I’ve noticed since being back is just how diverse the population is here. Of course, I noticed the same in London, but there it was easy to notice as it was a new place. Los Angeles was too familiar, when something is that “known” you stop seeing it. I wonder if that means it’s not really known in the first place? In any case, I just came from the Santa Anita Mall, a shopping center that’s been in Pasadena since I was a child. My goal was just to wander around and maybe see a film at the cinema there. It turns out that there was an Asian/Chinese-American bazaar going on. That’s when the diversity of the city really struck home. So many kinds of people, from so many places, and only a few attending the bazaar. I don’t know if I’m expressing this well, but it was the idea that there were people speaking Spanish and Chinese and Arabic, and they would’ve been there with or without the bazaar. It was just daily life, and daily life means a variety of faces and complexions.

When I was in London, I attended an exhibit at the Tate Modern on cities. It was fascinating, and both London and Los Angeles were featured (along with Mexico City, Mumbai, and others). One thing I clearly remember being surprised by was the fact that Los Angeles was more ethnically diverse than London. I guess that’s what happens when you stop seeing. Of course, the composition of that diversity is very different. In London, you have a broader range of representation, I think, while Los Angeles is clearly dominated by Mexico/Central and South America and the Pacific Rim countries.

It’s really hard in some parts of Los Angeles to be a “traveler”. The landmarks and people are just so familiar that my eyes want to slide past them. If anything, though, I think this experience makes me want to resist that urge. To let my eyes and myself linger so that the story I’m telling myself – “This is familiar. I know this. There’s nothing interesting or exotic here.” – that those stories have a chance to quiet. And it maybe that I don’t see anything, that there are no epiphanies, but whether there are or not, at least I’d be seeing something (hopefully) real. That way, even though I might be in a desert, life itself will be rich.


~ by Samer on September 17, 2007.

3 Responses to “This Desert Life”

  1. P.S. It turns out that Sierra Madre has wi-fi. I’m connecting to the internet right from the park. This small town in a big city is apparently not afraid of the future.

  2. P.P.S. And yes, I did see a film, The Bourne Identity, which I enjoyed. It was well done, better than first or second films, which is rare for Hollywood. I espcially liked the way the film built tension by focusing on the CIA command center as their agents chase/hunt Bourne. If you like action films, I recommend it. It helps if you’ve seen the first two films, but it’s not required. It’s surprisinly well self-contained.

  3. Wonderful entry, my friend. Wonderful! 😛

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