I’m finally having a Southern California experience. The idea was to wander all the way to the water, to the Ocean, for a spiritual Pacific sunsets. The ones where pinks and blues stain the coarse sand grains as waves crash over igneous rock formations.
I realize in the middle of writing that sentence how far in the past my imagination was. My venture began for nostalgia, remembering a Big Sur sunset, one from more than two years prior.
My instincts don’t lead me to far though, about five blocks from the hotel. I zigzag along the streets looking for Old Town San Diego, guessing its location by the directions of well dressed Californians. Women wear long flowing dresses with round-brimmed straw hats and sunglasses, and men sport short sleeved button ups and loafers or sandals. The energy that flows through their small groups is magnetic like the start of every great Friday night. It allures me to follow.
It’s Friday anyway and though most all of my teammates are back in the hotel playing games, swimming, or sleeping, I thought it best to get out and away for awhile. I invited Sal along, but she was enjoying the pool to much to venture with me.
I knew I was getting close when I noticed locals with handmade ‘$5 parking’ signs on the street pointing in their driveways. It only took a couple more blocks North before the street I’d been flanking ended into Old San Diego square.
The beginnings of it underwhelmed me, a candy shop and a cafe and a couple others selling taffy and popcorn. There was more sidewalk space between them than I’d seen in a historic area ever. The sidewalk was concrete and for pedestrians only, but wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic.
Then as I noticed a man ‘cawwing’ back to his running partner, I realized that I’d stumbled right into the grassy knoll of a historic square, just the way I’d known them. A grand old tree leaned towards me at the corner and up into the air more than two hundred feet, extending its canopy out over a wooden picnic bench where no one sat. I told myself I’d go back and sit with the tree sice it’d spoken to me so clearly, but for now, it beckoned me forward.
I continued along slowly, trying not to lose the tree, but not ready to stop quite yet, while making mental snapshots of beige stucco buildings with low awnings and ceramic red roofs. Looking up at their roofs, I notice the hills of houses around Old Town and their contrast of scenery, lush green palm trees and assorted hues of cacti.
The square ended so I made a right, noticing a man snap a photo of an overgrown bonsai underneath which his friend sat posing. I overheard them compliment the beauty of the bonsai tree.
I strolled past a Mexicali restaurant smelling heavily of hot peppers and spice that lacked a single open patio table. I gazed in as a pair of patio patrons cheersed one another and took a sip from their oversized margarita glasses. I caught glimpses of others grabbing bites of fajitas between the tortilla that lined their fingers. Then the real attraction.
Casa de Reyes. Fiesta de Reyes. Tienda de Reyes. I entered another era beneath a log decorated archway announcing its contents. Immediately I noticed a stage at the center of the block where people were beginning to fill in the split log benches. Half a wall and low height garden alternately divided the center section of music and food from the perimeter shops. It was impossible to see the world beyond this, the authentic Old Town square. Shielded by pepper trees and wooden awnings, the stucco buildings only broke to the street where I’d just entered and then barely at the corners. Even the hills and houses that had hung above it disappeared. Stone walkways gave way to brick ones and then back again. Lush palms and cacti stood testament that anything could grow here.
I walked slowly still, peeking into the shops on the north walk, hearing more Spanish than English, loving the rich colors of blankets, pottery, and hand painted tile for sale. I found my way around the square and up to a blue Southwest patterned rocking bench, taking a seat to write, just as the band started playing.
Now couples poured in alongside families. Most of the seating inside the courtyard was already taken, but none of them were deterred. The garden surrounded them carefully like a barrier from the wanderers. These people knew what they wanted.
A few times, families arranged themselves in front of me for a photo op. My bench was just barely offset from the grand archway of Old Town, but even now that I’ve lost my seat, I’ve found another nook for tourists photographing. There are no places hidden from the eye of a tourist here, not even a place to sit and write.
Where I sit now, two vases painted vibrant colors sit on a stone ledge, leaves and latice lay below them. Wrought iron handrails adorns tiles stairs that lead up to some private place with a little awning for peeking down at the stage. It’s perfect for a full body photo, for the young and old alike to remember, at least a part of their stroll around the square.
A few minutes ago my pen ran out of ink. This is how I lost my rocking bench, the first place to write, but the man at the tile shop was kind enough to give me another. It was the second time tonight he was kind without uttering a word. It seemed he chose only to communicate in head nods, even when I tried a little Spanish with him.
The band really got me going for a little while too, first with a transitions perfectly executed from “Oye Como Va” to “Black Magic Woman.” I fell in love with them on my way back from the tile store though, singing in Spanish again to a bachata beat, while the women spun beneath their partners lead hands. Others moved without rhythm. Others still kept along, awkwardly with their hips, but keeping their feet moving patterned with the salsa.
Here is culture. I am surrounded by it, and though I am different here, I am surrounded by something that intrigues me. I can’t say it’s not American, but it isn’t strictly something else either. It’s a split, it’s a meld, it’s Californian.