California Girls.

We touched down in L.A.X. around 9am. People had warned us that the airport was a bit of a ballache, and they weren’t far wrong; after queuing to be heavily and awkwardly grilled at immigration, we had to wait some time for our luggage so it was around 11am before we even left the building. Despite the airport’s downsides, the first thing I noticed in America was how friendly everyone was. After four months of people being mostly unnecessarily rude, it was such a small but important pleasure. People said please, people said thank you, and they actually greeted us with a smile! I know the English are considered too polite, but it made me realise you should never underestimate the importance of good manners.

We caught the shuttle bus to Sixt Car Rental, where we had pre-arranged for a car so we could drive to San Diego. We had daydreamed about driving down the west coast in an open top vintage Mustang but our budget and age limited us to a car group of either a Mini, a Beetle or a Nissan Sentra. We pinned our hopes on one of the two former and more Instagram-worthy cars, but of course it’s all a con to rope you in and get your hopes up. Indeed – exactly as expected – the Minis and Beetles (if they even existed), were all gone so we took the keys to a shiny new Nissan. Although that probably worked out for the best; it was a dream to drive and there was far greater boot space for our overfilled rucksacks and the shopping we were inevitably going to do.

Speaking of which… braver than me, Andrea drove us out of L.A. and to our first stop: Carlsbad Outlet Shopping Centre. After the drive-thru Starbucks for a coffee hit and some wifi, of course! I’ve never been a huge one for retail therapy or spending my money on clothes, but this was seriously exciting. We perused all the familiar brands and got particularly overly excited in the Nike store. I even managed to replace my tried and tested free run trainers that are now discontinued in the UK! The shop assistant was horrified to see the state of the pair I’ve brought travelling with me, and I can’t exactly blame her. They’ve seen a lot and it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far. Having not spotted any road side diners on our journey (is that just a cinematic stereotype?) but wanting the All American Diner experience, we stopped by a Ruby’s Diner for burgers and bottomless fries (hell yes America), all served with a beaming smile of course. Adamant to kick my nerves of driving on the wrong side of the road, I decided to drive the last leg of our journey down to San Diego. Not sure why I was nervous, I settled into it in seconds and forgot how much I loved driving!

Our primary reason for heading to San Diego was to stay with Andrea’s family friend named Lisa. She is so lovely, inspirational and great fun to be around and we were so lucky to spend a few days getting to know her and being thoroughly spoilt. Her beautiful house on the lake in San Marcos was also such a treat! After a string of hostels and then 4 days sleeping on the floor in Guadalajara, I cannot explain to you how excited I was to see and sleep in a real bed. A real bed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it made us feel home sick, but it was a reminder of how comfortable and functional life is at home. We could so easily have stayed there longer, and in hindsight I probably would have skipped the four days in Guadalajara  and spent it getting to know California a bit more. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at least I have even more reason to return! I’ve always dreamt of doing a 3 – 4 month American road trip, and now it’s definitely cemented in my mental bucket list.

A very welcomed lie in was followed by a fully functioning warm shower (again, you don’t understand what this meant to me), which was then followed by scrambled eggs and fruit. It was the first time I’d had mushrooms and raspberries in four months and it was just as exciting as everything else. We hopped in Lisa’s Lexus and headed towards downtown San Diego. Our first stop was over the bridge at Coronado City. It’s a super cute quaint seaside neighbourhood with wide streets and nautical looking houses, each with an American flag and rocking chair on the front porch. Lisa treated us all to a drink – myself a to-die-for dirty chai latte – whilst we wandered around the ferry port, pretending not to notice the group of Royal Marines further up the path. I had never quite realised how long and southernly California was; from the connecting bridge you can actually see Mexico, as well as a good view of San Diego on the other side.

Leon, Lisa’s boyfriend, is a Lawyer so we popped by his office: a beautiful 19th century property that he and his partner had recently restored. We admired his accolades, and pictures of his daughter and son in the classic high school American football gear – proof that some American stereotypes are true. He had the idea of going to Cucina Urbana in Little Italy for lunch which turned out to be great idea. I had rich and creamy polenta with a chicken casserole which on a post-Mexico dodgy stomach perhaps wasn’t such a great idea. After lunch Leon headed back to work and Lisa drove us to Dog Beach. It’s the first lead free beach in California and the pavement is lined with tiles of dog related quotes and sweet messages from people to their pets in canine heaven. I’m generally more of a cat person, but it was hard not to smile watching the ecstatic dogs bounding about the beach. It’s definitely the setting for a love story or two. We drove onto South Beach where we walked along the pier and down the main street to window shop (pfft, yeah…) in a couple of Lisa’s daughter’s favourite shops. Stuck in a momentary Californian bubble, I came away with a denim shirt dress and a wide brimmed floppy hat that are both totally impractical as a backpacker. Still, no regrets; they’re gonna look great when I’m a normal looking person again. Deciding coffee was bad for my increasingly unsettled bowels, I tried my first ever green tea latte. I’m still undecided on that. We drove onto La Jolla Cove where there’s a lot of dispute between the wealthy local residents. The man-made beach intended for children has attracted a number of sea lions and to put it frankly, they absolutely stink. It’s not that often that you can stand a foot away from a sleeping sea lion though. Leon had kindly given us a gift voucher to spend at The Taco Stand down the road on Pearl Street so we headed there for dinner. If you read Mexico Part 1 and Mexico Part 2 blogs then you’ll know I was a little disappointed in the food whilst we were there. Hate to admit it, but this place was way more up my street! They do really good burritos, true Mexican style tacos, crispy chips and the added bonus that I got to try Mexican horchata which I’d been looking for in Mexico! Like a cold chai latte, it was heaven for me. The last stop on our fun-filled sight seeing tour was an international supermarket where Lisa treated us to an array of foods we had been missing including marmite, kettle chips and a lot of chocolate. It’s fair to say the chocolate bars didn’t last the night.

The next morning we drove to restaurant row in San Marcos to tick off another item from our American Bucket List: pancakes. IHOP was the obvious choice and it wasn’t long before we were stuffed full of stodge. I also continued my American latte tour with a reeses latte, which sadly wasn’t as good as it sounds. Ashamedly we spent the majority of that afternoon wandering around Walmart to stock up on essentials before we headed to Asia. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to locate things like moisturisers without whitening or that are suitable for sensitive skin, so we jumped at the chance to buy brands we knew and trusted. Very bulky and weighing 1/2+ a kilo each, I was only able to bring a couple of my prescribed eczema creams out with me. Maintaining good skin and treating it when it gets bad can be really difficult – especially when away – so a lot of South America was spent stressing and trial and testing creams which were almost always exorbitant. So big shout out to my dad for sending me a package to America of creams and glasses to replace the ones swallowed by the sea in Máncora! Oh and for putting 200g of legitimate Dairy Milk in there too. You’re a star.

We managed to squeeze in an afternoon trip to see the new Jungle Book in 3D. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a tap dispensing melted butter for the butter flavoured popcorn… needless to say we gave it a try and super sized everything. In the evening we went for a drink followed by Mac ‘n’ Cheese at Sublime Ale House with Leon and his son Ian. The Mac ‘n’ cheese was amazing, but the truffle and garlic chips were even better. They had about 10 different types of aioli – pure heaven for a garlic fiend like me. We really enjoyed Ian’s company and upon learning he worked at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, literally jumped at the offer of free tickets to the zoo the next day. He was otherwise engaged from 1pm, but we had to drive back to L.A. and drop the car off by 8pm so that worked just fine for us. We did manage to see almost everything in the morning but I would definitely recommend taking the whole day if you can. It was undoubtedly the best zoo I’ve ever visited and so it’s no wonder that it’s world famous. Again, we loved Ian’s company and his fun facts about the zoo and it’s resident animals. We really were incredible lucky to find ourselves with such a great contact!

So enthralled by the animals we ended up leaving San Diego a little later than planned, and were almost immediately hit by horrendous Sunday traffic. With the sun shining and The O.C. theme tune on the aux, we decided to drive in on the 101. Maybe not the best idea. The standstill traffic eating into our sightseeing time, we agreed that each stop had to be a ‘jump out, take a photo and jump straight back in’ kinda jobby. First stop was the Hollywood sign, and then we drove onto Hollywood Boulevard to see the stars. Unfortunately parking up anywhere remotely close was clearly not gonna happen so we just drove down it instead. We had a slightly scary moment of a homeless man sticking his head through my window before also terrorising Amy in the back seat. A little shaken up, we drove to the much calmer Beverly Hills, driving down the famous palm tree lined roads and Rodeo Drive. We very briefly stopped at Venice beach, but the sun was setting and time really was against us at the point so we had a quick look and headed back to the car. Sadly for us, Muscle beach was also deserted at this time.

Despite our incredibly rushed tour, we managed to drop the car off in time. We then had to wait about 40 minutes for the shuttle to arrive and take us to the airport. That’s definitely a major downside of Sixt – we noticed both ways that they had considerably less shuttle vans (other companies like Hertz run them every 5 minutes, if not more), which is not ideal service when you have a flight to catch. A fight even broke out on our minibus as everyone’s stress levels were so heightened! By the time we arrived at the airport we only had 30 minutes before our baggage drop closed, and we were greeted by a stupidly long queue. Panicking, we asked many Philippine Airlines assistants, who assured us we would be just fine. Luckily, by the time we reached the front we still had 15 minutes left. Panic set back in when the lady on baggage told us we we wouldn’t be able to board our flight unless we had proof of onward travel. Be wary of this: just like our situation in Panama, it is often the case that this isn’t enforced by the country, but the [often budget] airline. They’re hoping you end up booking an onward flight with them; our lady was very quick to offer us a 300 USD flight to Hong Kong. Hell no! We triple checked with the lady that we had time to book a something on our phones, and quickly booked a flight to Singapore for a week later. If you find yourself in the same situation, consider renting a flight from a site like flyonward for 24 hours as it may work out cheaper if you don’t know where you want to go and when. Meanwhile, the same lady came over and told us we could no longer get on our flight. We were told she had ‘lost track of time and check-in was closed’, that they had ‘overbooked our flight so there were no seats left’, and we would ‘have to buy a brand new ticket for another day’. If the panic hadn’t set in before, it fully had now. This was a flight we had booked with STA Travel more than 6 months before, and we had a connecting flight the other end. How could they do this? A mixture of shocked, angry and desperate, we begged them not to leave us stranded on the wrong side of the world. In the end the manager came over and agreed to let us on the flight, escorting us through to security. As in turned out, we picked up at least 5 other people along the way in the same situation, and were told that over 30 passengers were missing from the flight. So much for overbooked and no seats left… We were all escorted through the airport, feeling half like criminals and half like VIP. We were saddened to pass what looked like the best airport we’d been to yet. Serves us right for being late I suppose! We finally let ourselves relax once sitting in our seats, only to sit there for another 2 hours as a passenger was taken ill and they had to locate her baggage. Perhaps she was also nearly subjected to a panic attack. It was certainly one of the most stressful experiences of our trip. Never again!

Love, Lottie xx

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