So, I spent a lot of time alone in Los Angeles, purely by virtue of the fact that I was there on a work trip and knew no one else going prior to the trip. Of course in my time there I made friends, both from Singaporean press and otherwise, but still a lot of my time was spent roaming the city by myself. This is not a complaint, of course, it seems over the years a lot of my travel has been solo, and I’ve always enjoyed time by myself. But the funny thing about traveling alone is that strange things are bound to happen, and often you open yourself up to the possibility of new interactions that might be deterred by the presence of company.
At the opening keynote of the Airbnb Open 2016 conference by Brian Chesky, he mentioned the Airbnb ethos being that the magic is not in the places you go – the magic is in the people, and always has been. This is true. I can attest to this. The things that struck me most in my travels, the moments I’ve looked back on and labelled significant in retrospect, have always been about interactions, whether good or bad. The first time a stranger defended me from a drunk man in public. The first time someone gave me a free coffee in New York cos I looked cold. The first time someone shouted at me in the UK for being chinese and because she thought “your food stinks”. The first time I was picked up (literally) and found myself on the other side of the road in Korea because someone was frustrated at how slowly I was walking and decided to just pick me up and deposit me to a side. The first time (in London) my Airbnb host tried to explain to me the mechanics of a tampon while tipsy. Getting cat called. Learning how to say no. Learning how to stand up for yourself in a strange land in a way that doesn’t get you killed. Learning how not to always be suspicious of every new person, and learning to accept kindness from strangers. These emotions I subconsciously link to different cities all over the world but I have come to realise that a place, for me, is and always has been the sum of it’s people and relationships.
That’s a big part of why I love staying in Airbnbs, I love couchsurfing, and I love talking to strangers on subways. It doesn’t always go according to plan of course. But sometimes that window of opportunity you open up for conversation turns into something beautiful you keep for years to come. Does this always have to happen in an Airbnb? Obviously not. But it is a platform, and on platforms the frequencies of certain things happening are increased.
Today’s story isnt about an Airbnb, although it happened while on an Airbnb press con trip. A couple of days after that beautifully succinct line from Chesky, i found myself at loose ends for a couple of hours. That happens, often, when you’re on agenda – theres very little scheduled free time, but sometimes you think you’ve got a full day of meetings then bam! Two hours with no specific itinerary.
So I thought to myself – what does one do when alone in LA? Do whatever your uber driver suggests, of course. Always ask a local for advice!
I hopped in an Uber and asked him to send me wherever he thought was best for a solo female traveller with two hours to kill.
“It’s 3pm. You gotta catch the sunset.”
And so the sunset it was.
He deposited me halfway up the hill and so I hiked the rest of the way. Hiking as a word used here in its loosest form. It was more of walking at an incline. As I walked, slightly grumpy that he refused to send me the full way, I caught sight of the Hollywood sign and all was right with the world because POP CULTURE!!!
So obviously I was walking by myself happily basking in the golden glow of sunset being rather smug by that point about the weather, and about how if I were in Singapore, I would be sweating buckets with my top sticking to my shoulder blades and my hair being disgusting because of the humidity. And despite my exhaustion (it had been work work work nonstop for the past few months) I found myself grinning because how can work look like this? Catching the sunset from one of the most iconic spots in LA during my break time? This is privilege, and I am blessed. And despite how tough the going gets, it is still privilege. It is a good existence. There is space and cause to be grateful, and grateful I must be.
I reached the top and believe me i gasped. The Griffith Observatory is one of the most iconic buildings in los angeles and say what you will about icons not living up to pictures in HD, but I’ve always been the kind of girl to be blown away by the likes of the eiffel tower and the empire state and now the griffith. I settled myself in a nice spot on the observatory deck and waited for the sun to dip into dusk. And that’s when the funny stories that had been waiting to happen, happened.
Beside me, I heard a mother and daughter talking. It became apparent to me that she was raising this kid on her own (or at least it seemed like it). Whether or not she was, motherhood is tough. But she was a total trouper, answering her kid’s million and one questions about why the sun moved this way, which neighbourhood fell under the sunset rays, where they lived (too far for this, baby) and whether they could see this everyday (no, baby, it’s too far). I must be honest, I don’t like children. But there was something about this mother-daughter pair that I couldnt help being drawn to. After awhile they started trying to take pictures of the sunset and selfies together, and I remember something my mother said to me once, long ago: i wish we took more pictures together growing up. And so I turned around and asked: can i help take a picture of you two?
My goodness i have never seen such an excited child.
I downloaded it off my camera and sent it to her (again, another advantage of a wifi-enabled camera haha) and the look on her face was all I needed to validate my being a creep about taking someone else’s picture.
I’m going to print this, she told me, so she has something to remember this moment by when she gets older. Even if she doesn’t actually remember it. And i thought to myself, these are the moments of little delights that make travel special. I have gotten so much from travel. But instead of waiting for someone to talk to me and give me a memory to hold on to, why not do something for a stranger? Take turns. Be that person that someone else will remember years from now, thinking there was that once a stranger in xxx country did this thing for me.. people are nice. Why the hell not?
I dont think I’m being annoying about this, by the way. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that she genuinely liked and appreciated the pictures. And I felt (no other way to put this) happy too, to have done that for her.
And there I was, being cheesy and happy and having a moment by myself, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” this girl said, “I saw what you just did. Could you take a picture of us too?”
It was a tall, pretty girl with her tall, pretty boyfriend.
“We’re trying to get something instagrammable,” she explained, and he chipped in: “can you suggest a few poses for us?”
I mean, that was kind of hilarious. I shrugged. Why the hell not?
(Later, she joked: we should pay you! But she did not.)
And then somehow that turned into me standing there taking pictures of a bunch of other people.. for an hour. Someone asked me if I was the designated photographer for the observatory and if I needed to be tipped (no, and no). Nobody actually offered to tip me. A bunch of people felt the need to explain to me how they got there, and what they were doing. There were a surprising number of people who came to Griffith on a regular basis, locals. Equally surprising were the number of people who confessed that they were on (tinder) dates, because the need to photograph-document the first blind date is interesting to me. What if the date doesn’t go well? What if it never pans out? What if one party ghosts the other after this sunset? Such a poignant moment to choose to document, a moment of potential and hope and possibly loss. First dates, ha.
My favourite photos from the day:
I wonder what their stories are.
After the sun started visibly moving across the sky (there’s always this beautiful period of generic sunset, and then suddenly a very small amount of time where the sun seems to hurry up and set incredibly quickly), everyone kept quiet and turned towards the horizon. And down it went. Camera shutters clicked. Time lapses were taken. Someone tapped me on the shoulder again – just a random dude, holding a sketch pad.
“See that?” he said, pointing to a little lookout below us. “That’s where Joseph Gordon Levitt sits in 500 days of Summer to sketch the city.”
That’s the only thing he said to me. After that he turned away and stared at the sun again, as if he hadn’t said a word to me. He wasn’t looking for conversation. I don’t know. He had something to say and he had said it, and the moment passed. Something about solo travel invites this, I’ve learnt. People dont tap you on the shoulder and drop sentences on you when you travel in groups, that’s for sure. I laughed inwardly.
And then the sun set, just like that. The deck erupted in cheers and applause. Strangers grinned at one another. I thought about how people find kinship and solidarity in moments of shared appreciation. And how the feeling is so easily let go after the moment has passed.
Afterwards, I spotted one of the journalists from Singapore who’d been in the observatory for the star show (and missed the sunset!) skyping her daughter the city view. I took a picture of it from afar and sent it to her later, and i think possibly that is when we became proper friends.
After that, it was time to leave.
Another funny thing about Griffith is, beautiful as it is, there is no cellular signal up there and traffic up and down the mountain is awful. And so after uber proved impossible, we hitchhiked down by ambushing a Chinese couple who looked ultra worried about being spoken to by strangers until we started speaking in Mandarin. And then it was all, hey bruh! help a sister out!
They dropped us halfway down the mountain (again!!!) where there was an internet signal finally, and where we could call an uber. We were near this place called The Greek Theatre and it was bustlin.
“Come in,” said the woman by the door. “Here’s a raffle ticket.”
“We dont have event tickets,” we said.
“It’s free. And if you go in and turn to the right, you can get free hot chocolate and cookies.”
What in the world.
What sort of surreal alternate life did I land myself in? I found myself thinking. I am not the sort to hitchhike because people who hitchhike get chopped up into pieces and sold off as chunks of meat. I know this because I watch movies. But desperate times call for desperate measures and instead of being killed I found myself being ushered into some sort of community party with a Santa Claus in a corner granting kids their wishes, a little string orchestra, and free cookies and hot drinks?!
As we waited for our uber sipping on free hot coffee, i found myself thinking of Brian Chesky’s words again. The magic is in the people. It’s not a revolutionary truth, it’s something we’ve known innately all along, but had never defined so succinctly. There’s something to building an entire empire (lets face it, that’s what airbnb is) on this line of thought. He’s on to something. There are worse things to be founded on.
And that is, I suppose, my not so short segue into my LA Diaries series. An amazing four days in the city of angels. More to come, of course, and though this is not strictly an airbnb story, it sure shares the same sentiment.
Till then x