Despite the many wonderful people I met in Haiti, the passionate development workers of the Communitaire, the committed local project leaders, and let’s not forget all 32 incredible children of the SMDT orphanage, I’m quite happy when my time in Haiti comes to an end.
Although I enjoyed my work there, it’s not a very easy place to operate in. Every day I had to make the decision between being uncomfortably hot or eaten alive by mosquitos. I would always choose the latter, and curse myself later in the evening as I tossed and turned in my bed, the dozen or so new bites swollen and ablaze around my ankles. Semone, one of my new friends from the Communitaire, observed that the climate in Haiti just doesn’t seem to agree with me.
And the climate wasn’t our only restriction. Feeling limited by our lack of language skills and not wanting to put our personal safety at risk, our excursions outside of the security of the Communitaire were infrequent, and those that there were needed laborious organisation. Basically, I was looking forward to being in a country where I felt a little more comfortable.
Elliott leaves a few days before me – for New York, for Mallorca, and ultimately to start his new university year back in Oxford. He takes the rather brave decision to ride a moto to the airport and I watch anxiously as he climbs on the back of the motorbike, balancing his heavy rucksack behind him, and speeds away over the stony road. I don’t know what to do with myself for a full half an hour and walk around rather helplessly in my newfound independence.
I’ve taken the decision to stay elsewhere for the last three nights of my time here. It’s a more expensive hotel with a pool, my own room and, crucially, air conditioning. Samuel at the Communitaire offers to drive me and I worry that I’ve been the victim of some sort of scam for a full half an hour before we find the place at the end of a broken-up road.
But it turns out to be a very peaceful and rather beautiful place to stay. I spend the days in its cloistered solitude and under its powerful fans, swimming in the pool, enjoying my complimentary meals and meeting the various interesting characters that pass through the hotel.
As much as I miss having Elliott around, the reality of travelling alone is exhilarating. I can be entirely selfish and uncompromising. Meeting new people becomes easier and more frequent. And under this new autocracy I can focus entirely on creative writing, an occupation I’ve had little time for so far on this trip.
I still can’t help feeling some small relief as the plane takes off from Port-Au-Prince’s rather traumatic airport, in what is becoming a very familiar sensation. It’s time for another diversion, even more unexplainable than Miami. Forced by the lower prices to stop over in the US on the way to Haiti, the situation is no different on the way back. So before returning to Latin America, I’m spending two whole indulgent weeks in California, split unevenly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those who know me well will probably guess which city I’m favouring with more of my time.
This anomaly in my itinerary is made even more irrational by my choice of flights, which somehow land me in Fort Lauderdale airport for a nine hour stop over before I touch down in LA. I spend the day getting to know the terminal: its food outlets, its comfiest seats, my fellow travellers. I also spend about three hours on Skype catching up with various people and generally irritating those sitting around me.
When I’ve exhausted all possible entertainment at the airport, alienated my Skype contacts, spent a great deal of money and walked from end to end three times, it’s finally time to board the flight to LAX. That terrible Rachel Stevens song irresistibly comes to mind as I read it on my boarding card.
True to my recently acquired habit of talking to any and all strangers in my vicinity, I sit beside a stand-up comic on the plane and we talk for the journey about comedy, about writing, about creativity. He invites me to a show he’s doing the next night. He also provides my favourite quote of my time in the US by asking earnestly, “Are you into juicing?”
To put this in context, I’m asking about the highlights of LA and what I should see in my short two days there. He talks at some length about the ‘juicing scene’ in the city – i.e. smoothie bars – and the question comes up. I answer that I don’t really think it’s something to get too excited about.
For all my reservations about Los Angeles and the many assertions from others that I’ll hate the place, I can’t help but be awed as I look out the window of the plane at the sprawling mass of lights beneath me. Or as I leave my Air Bnb flat the following morning to see the Hollywood sign peeping out at me from among the hills.
With only 36 hours to spend in the city, I set out early and head for the boulevard. This is a little underwhelming, the stars on the pavement neglected and grubby, the many and pungent homeless people lingering nearby further eroding their glamour. But it’s fun nonetheless to find and photograph my favourites in the worlds of music and film, the collection of which says a lot about my cultural tastes.
I make the somewhat unwise decision after this to hike through overpowering heat, comparable although not quite as crippling as Haiti’s, to Griffith Park in the north of the city. Walking up a steep sandy track, dripping with sweat under the powerful afternoon sun, I plan many times to turn back. But the hill ahead and my new penchant for spontaneity tempts me irresistibly on. I’m thankful as I stare out from the top of the hill near the observatory to see LA laid out in a glittering haze beneath me.
But as I turn back after taking in this view for some long minutes, I feel the disconcerting tingling in my arms and legs I’ve come to associate with over-exertion and the onset of illness. I walk quickly back to the flat.
I find it blissfully empty, and soon forget any physical concerns by losing myself in the great luxury of being alone, cooking for myself and watching a film from the deep cushions of a sofa. This may not sound like much, but as fellow backpackers will know, these small home comforts and moments of solitude are difficult to find when you’re on the road. I spend a few contented hours watching Muriel’s Wedding, which I’ve never seen before, and immediately adore.
That evening is the comedy show, which I enjoy immensely, and note with great interest how different it is to stand-up in the UK. Firstly, the comedians are given much shorter sets, about five minutes each. Secondly, a lot more stereotyping seems to be allowed, particularly racial stereotyping – which simply wouldn’t be acceptable back home and I’m mildly offended by.
Feeling as if I’ve seen only a fraction of the city, not even yet making it out of Hollywood, the next morning I pack to leave for my day-long bus to San Francisco. On the walk to the station, and with some time to kill, I feel some curiosity about this juicing business and spend $8 on a peanut butter smoothie. I was right. It’s not something to get too excited about.