America Through my eyes -Catalina
Telugu Original : Dr K.Geeta
English Translation: Madhuri Palaji
Sometimes, unplanned trips can turn out to be very successful.. Our trip to the island of Catalina was just like that. Catalina is one of the eight most popular Channel Islands in Southern California. Unlike the rest, it is a well-developed and expensive island with good hospitality and accommodation facilities. The island is 22 miles long and 8 miles wide and belongs to Los Angeles County. It is 22 miles from Los Angeles.
Though this island has a history dating back to 7000 BC, it was William Wrigley Jr. who fell in love with it. He bought the island in 1919 and apparently, spent all his wealth in developing it.He immediately realized that he would need to develop the travel facilities, first in order to develop the island. So, he is said to have used large steamship ships that could carry 1500 people. The lovely mansion that he built for himself is one of the famous tourist attractions here. He attracted huge crowds by constructing the Giant Casino and conducting the Swimming Championships from Los Angeles to Catalina. He is said to be the father of the island in a way.?
Until the week before, we didn’t want to go anywhere for the Fourth of July. But then again, suddenly, we felt like going on a short trip. We made the necessary arrangements immediately. However, since the summer semester started for Komal, we left the home on Saturday morning with the two younger ones. I already mentioned that the island is in Los Angeles County, right? We read on the internet that we need to take a boat from the ferries at San Pedro, Long beach or Dana Point.
The nearest beach from our place is San Pedro. So, we decided to take the boat from there. We booked a hotel in Catalina for two days from Sunday. But, we booked the boat for 10.45 AM. We thought of wandering on the island until after noon and check into the hotel in the evening. But, San Pedro, is nowhere near us, it’s almost four hundred miles. So, we planned the entire Saturday for traveling. We decided to rest in another hotel on the coast for the night and start the next day morning. This time, I didn’t pack any food from home (never happened before), also, we didn’t rush. We leisurely started at ten in the morning.
We didn’t take too many breaks in the rest areas. It’s our little girl, Siri Vennela. In the USA, kids have to sit in their baby seats independently. If we take her out of her seat during the break once, she refuses to go back into that seat. She, also, absolutely enjoys sitting in the driver’s seat and playing with the steering wheel. Hence, we took only two breaks in the entire six-hour long journey. And during those breaks, we would take Siri for short walks and put her back in the baby seat (with great difficulty!)
She was very stubborn at the end, but my husband talked to her about our son and how we would have enjoyed if he was with us. Eventually, she gave in and slept for the rest of the drive. Long journeys could be extremely boring for kids. On the other hand, we easily travel very long distances since we both enjoy driving, watching the beautiful views and talking to each other.
Wood Land hills:
We thought of visiting Los Angeles downtown again, if we had time in the evening. But this time we booked our hotel in a place called WoodLand hills. Los Angeles downtown is a long way from there. We were already exhausted. We didn’t have the patience to drive any more, so we checked into the hotel. For the first time in America, we were on the 14th floor of that hotel. Hotels here usually do not have more than one or two floors. But I think this hotel had the permission for more floors because this area is sub-urban. The hotel did not have its own parking place, though, except for the county parking. If we want to park there it is $8 and for valet parking the price is $ 10. Valet parking seemed to be the best option though it was a little expensive. They will bring the car to you in just five minutes. It was almost time for dinner. We went to a nearby Indian Restaurant for the Saturday breakfast. They took the orders for the Americans first and took a lot of time to come to us to take our orders. We talked about the same in Telugu and felt a little impatient. The kids were very hungry by then. However, when we gave our orders, we smiled at the waiter and requested to bring the food sooner. We later found out that all those who waited at our tables were Telugu. I do not know if they heard us complaining but they brought our food very quickly. They also treated us with great courtesy and served us with two extra items and lassi on the house. Food was good enough. I had to leave the lassi since my tummy was already full. Our Siri is almost two, now. She is now learning to eat the food we adults eat. So, her food didn’t become any issue for us during this trip. It’s just that, she would bite our hand if we become too occupied in our conversations and miss feeding her on time.
The alarm buzzed sharply at six o’clock in the morning. The Sun was rising in the east. From the fourteenth floor, the shopping complexes seemed like doll houses and the cars looked like toy cars in the parking place. The floor to ceiling windows surrounding us presented us with the incredible view of cloud-covered Wood Land Hills in front of us. I spent a long time enjoying the view. I turned into a bird, soared towards the sky, touched the mountain peaks, played with the sunrays and somersaulted in the wonderful morning. Just then, I noticed Satya standing behind me and mesmerized by the view. We immediately turned into a pair of birds enjoying the beautiful morning.
San Pedro to Catalina:
We arrived at the San Pedro Ship Terminal on time (it was not a small ferry). It is the largest terminal dedicated to Catalina in the largest shipyard. From the moment of stepping inside to the baggage restrictions, everything is the same as in flight. If we book tickets online in advance, we will get a seat as scheduled. But it is pretty expensive. The two way ticket costs $72 for adults and $57 for children. The ticket costs $5 for the kids under 2 years. We stood in line for almost an hour after taking the boarding passes. They will put our luggage and baby cart in a designated place on the boat. The boat had three floors apart from the bottom deck. We took our place on the first floor. It is completely closed with glass windows to protect us from cool air. We can go to the top deck whenever we want. There are about sixty to seventy seats on each floor.
However, unlike the flight, the seats and tables are facing each other, like in restaurants. This gave us enough space to move around freely. There were two small bars on two floors. Many were enjoying their drinks at the bars. The boat moved slowly until it left the shipyard and gained speed as soon as it entered the sea. Suddenly a wave hit the boat very hard. As usual, I was taken over by sea sickness. But the sea calmed after some time and in turn, I felt much better. We went to the top deck. The sky was dark with clouds, the wind was so strong that it swayed the people standing. But the wind was not very chilling. The water droplets were flying high. It was uncomfortable to stand for long holding the baby, so I remained seated. Satya and Varu went all the way to the top and spent a good amount of time there. I, too, went for some time later. We exchanged kids and went to the top deck one after the other. Varu made fun of me when she saw me coming back running within five minutes.
Suddenly the clouds cleared in the sky and a huge mountain range appeared out of nowhere standing tall in front of us. It was nothing like I imagined. I thought Catalina was a small island and I could scale the mountain easily. It is hard to believe that there is a vast sea beyond this incredible mountain range. We reached Catalina within an hour.
The coastal town we landed on is called Avalon. There is another place called two harbors, in a corner on the other side of the coast. It’s just a small village. The rest of the island is made up of rugged mountains and rocky shores. As soon as we stepped in Avalon, the weather felt like, we were in a completely different world. It was nice and warm. Our stay was about a five minutes walk from the terminal over the white sandy Walk Way. Oh… we felt very happy. We had to check-in in the evening. However, the hotel allowed us to leave our luggage with them. So, we handed it over to them and left from there.
We were very hungry by then. So, we went to a food stall on the beach and had my favorite bread bowl and Satya’s favorite shrimp. Our daughter, Varu, as usual, pinched her nose, sat away from us and ate her cheese sandwich. I assumed it might be cold out there and brought our coats along but it was very sunny and hot. Varu wanted to play in the white sand on the beach. The beautiful waves and the sand was so welcoming that even I wanted to play there.
We decided to go for a golf cart ride first. That island allows only golf carts instead of cars. Tourists can rent golf carts by paying $40 per hour and roam on the island. We rented a cart for an hour. It was fun to learn how to drive it and we learnt very quickly.
We are not allowed to stray from the road prescribed by them. That route takes us from town towards mountains. We drove on the road towards the Botanical garden then turned to the narrow hilly slopes bordered by tiny houses. We stopped in the turnings and took some pictures of the beach and moved forward. It is a lovely view to watch the blue waters of the sea crashing into the white sandy beach from the corners of the mountains. The beautiful rows of boats were swaying in the middle of the sea and motor boats were blazing through the waters like comets.
On the one hand, there is this great ocean and on the other hand, there is a huge mountain range. We are the creatures hoping to achieve anything in between. On our way, we saw people slipping on the zipline from one mountain to another hanging from a string. You can see a huge round rock on the shore of Casino which is one of the man-made wonders. Despite everything, there was a small issue in our cart journey. Satya while trying to stop our cart around a corner accidentally hit another cart from behind which was parked in front of us. But luckily, their cart moved towards the road and not the valley. No one was harmed. While coming down, we took a wrong route just before returning the cart. The guard came running and warned us. He was a good man, or else, we would’ve been fined.
An hour and a half later we paid $54 and returned the cart over to the shopkeepers and came out alive. Though we laughed about it later, such incidents can be scary when they happen.
The sun was setting already, So, we returned to the hotel to change. We crossed the small walkway and reached the beach to play. The waters were cold as usual. In spite of the cold water, the kids got into the water and started playing. I remembered my father when I saw Satya playing in the water holding the kids in each hand. My sister and I used to play merry-go-round hanging from my father’s arms. I relaxed sitting in the soft sand.
It was a full moon that day. The moonlight was shining bright onto the mountain range. Crowds of people were roaming at the bars along the shore enjoying the loud music. We went to a nearby Mexican restaurant and had a delicious meal. We sat near the fireplace on the shores and within the premises of the hotel. Varu wanted to have ice cream, so they walked towards the opposite side. Siri and I sat for a while watching the dark waves in the night lights. Siri watched the boats swaying on the waters and the increased level of sea water with great curiosity. We talked about some wonderful memories while watching the moonlight on the seawater. Siri listened to me and cooed like she understood everything.
Next day, we decided to see one Water Attraction and one Land Attraction. I woke up to the sound of the alarm and stood at the entrance of the hotel watching the sea. There were many towels and sheets spread across the park-like area on the beach. People love to spend their days lazing on the beach. The sea level has decreased again and started gushing towards the shore. I filled the blue of the sea into my eyes and returned happily. I woke up the kids, helped them freshen up and came to have breakfast in the hotel canteen by 9.30AM. This is the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed in. But the breakfast was not that great. Cold boiled eggs, regular fruit bowls and hardened bread. They served Starbucks coffee, though. I never drink coffee and tea in the mornings usually. However, I wanted to drink the hot, frothy Cappuccino there. We sat near the fireplace, ate our breakfast and came out.
We arrived at the water tours near the shore. It is an hour long semi submersible tour. Ticket for adults is $36 and for kids, it’s $27. There was also a glass bottom boat tour which was a little cheaper. But we thought the semi semi-submersible tour was much better and opted for it. If we take such tours through Santa Catalina Island Company tour, they offer 15% off on the other tours as well. We didn’t know that and we bought the tickets through another company, initially. I was not very excited about this tour to begin with. What can be so exciting about a semi-submersible tour? I thought there won’t be much to watch below ten to fifteen feet under-water. But soon, I realized that I was so wrong.
Within ten minutes, we entered a whole new fish world where hundreds of fish were swimming around. Strangely, fish that belonged to one type were going in one row and another type in a different row. They all were roaming in dedicated rows like they were marching. Sunrays were falling to the depths of about ten feet underwater. Water seemed dense from above but as we went deeper, the water was cleaner and transparent.
The submarine moved forward making water bubbles through the depths of the sea. It felt like we were inside an aquarium and not a sea. Suddenly, we encountered a wonderful scene. We saw some lovely trees and their leaves moving along with the sea waves. I thought, initially, that they must have floated into the sea from a different place. I asked the guide about it, and he said that the sea goes forty feet deep there and those trees grew from that depth. He mentioned that those trees grow specifically in that region. When we looked closer, we couldn’t make out where the trees started and where they ended. The leaves were glowing in golden yellow giving us the feeling of paradise. The leaves were about three to four feet long and one foot wide and they shone like stars with small droplets of water on them.
Groups of fish danced among those leaves. My heart was filled with joy and turned into a mermaid for some time. An hour passed away very quickly. I forgot about the kids and the submarine I was sitting in for a while. I dove into the beauty of the sea, entered the tree life, delicately touched the fish and bathed in the sun rays passing through the water diagonally. When we were about to reach the shore, the tour company guide told us to go to the top of the submarine and enjoy the view from there. I didn’t want to leave at all, so I came out last. From the top, the sea seemed very calm. You won’t even know that there is an entirely different and beautiful world under those depths.
Everything was expensive:
By the time we came out, it was past noon. We were not hungry since we had a late breakfast. Still, we stopped at a fast food center and ate strawberry funnel cake and some snack. Siri and I sat under a tree while Satya and Varu went to bring us the food. A man sitting near us was laughing looking at a couple on the beach. He offered me some dry fruit mix. He said that he has been living there for the past seven years. He mentioned that he does some painting jobs and that the lives of common people is very difficult in that place. “Everything is so expensive”. He said that even food was expensive there. I asked him how they would go to the mainland with the expensive boat fare. His partner joined our conversation. He said that they have a season ticket once a year with some concession. Even that is expensive. They appeared to be very poor. They exchanged greetings with Satya and left from there.
They were absolutely right. Except for Avalon, nothing on this island seemed to be habitable. All the houses surrounding Avalon belong to the people who are surviving because of this tourism industry. Tourists spend large sums of money in tourist places like these and hence the business people charge very high and make profits. That, in turn, becomes a nightmare to the locals. There were times when there was shortage of water on the island and the whole island became almost empty. Another time, a fire accident destroyed the whole city.
In the afternoon, we bought tickets to visit the airport on the top of the island inside. That was the only place we could visit in the limited time we had. Even that took about two and half hours.
We went on a Casino tour from there. It was a 144 feet tall spherical building. It had a big theater and another huge ball room on top of that. This was the biggest ball room I’ve ever visited. Casino means entertainment in Italian. That meaning suits right here. It’s not a place of gambling. The basement had a Casino museum, too. We bought tickets for a two hours tour. The fare for a half-an-hour tour is $5. They take us from the hall into the theater and show us some short trailers and historical videos about Casinos. The guide explained about the beautiful paintings hanging on the walls and the ceiling made of golden stars.
We reached the fourth floor and the ballroom in the large circular ballroom left us amazed. That wooden room holds many events in it’s large area. We could see the sea on three sides of the verandah. The view of the sea from that height was amazing. Anyone who visits that place would definitely love that building.
By the time we returned from the hotel, we had some more time. So, we got into a bus that was ready to leave. I handed over the tickets to the bus lady, she tore them and gave me the rest. The bus started fifteen minutes earlier. The bus took us to all the places that we visited the day before. We came back to the bus stop within an hour. I asked her why the tour ended so quickly and why we didn’t get to visit the airport. She, then, asked, “Which tour do you belong to?” She said that this bus just gives the city tour. That was a wrong tour. She asked us to sort it out with the person sitting at the ticket counter and then, left.
When we asked the person at the counter, he said that the bus we were supposed to get into already left and that there is no other tour bus for the rest of the day. When we asked for our ticket refund, he said he could reimburse a small amount. I started arguing. I asked him to either get us another tour bus or a complete refund. He talked to his manager on the phone and finally gave us a full refund. Though we got our money back, our time was wasted. We saw that there were some jeep tours and taxi tours and went there. But it was almost dark by then and all the tours were closed. Our return boat was scheduled at 10.45AM next day. Immediately, we called the boat company and rescheduled our ticket to 6.45 PM. They charged us extra $5 for each ticket and rescheduled. Now, we needed a hotel for another day. Our hotel management said that the hotel is fully booked for July fourth and that they can’t extend our stay. We requested them to secure our luggage until evening and booked online about sixty to seventy miles away from the terminal on our way home.
Since our plans changed, we got the opportunity to spend more time on the island. We went to watch the children’s movie “Brave” in the cinema hall in that Casino.It was the first time for Siri in a movie theater. She was good for some time but started crying when all the lights went off in the movie hall. I carried her outside and stood at the entrance for a while. Later, she stopped crying and started looking at the screen. I sat in the corner seat first, but eventually moved towards our row. She remained silent for the rest of the movie and clapped with her tiny hands when the movie ended.
We walked on the walkway beside the shore and reached our hotel in ten minutes.
We decided not to waste time like the previous day. So, we made a list of things to do in the morning. The first one in the list was a visit to the museum in the Casino. Moreover, the tickets were complimentary with the Casino tour. We vacated the hotel room and reached the Casino by 9AM. We wandered around the Casino about five to six times. We reached the verandah with the beautifully painted falls. Museum was in the basement. But, it was closed. We asked the people at the theater and they said they don’t know about the museum timings. We wandered about for a while and the museum was opened just about then. It was a very small museum with about four rooms.
We arrived at the tour bus ticket counter by 10AM and bought the tickets for the first tour scheduled at 11.45AM. This was more expensive. It cost $77 per person. This is called Inland tour which shows the integral parts of the island. It takes about three-and-half hours to return. In the meantime, we bought tickets to play Mini Golf which was located adjacent to the bus station since my husband wanted to play Mini Golf. But Siri didn’t let us play at all. Varu and Satya played Golf and lost track of time. We bought some snacks and got into the bus before five minutes of the schedule. The bus left the city behind and took hair-pin bends towards the top of the mountains. We got the opportunity to visit the other side of the island today. It was a desert-like island with stones and shrubs everywhere. We spotted a few bisons there. We also noticed some small projects conserving eagles and foxes. We reached the other side of the island after half-an-hour.
We could see Little harbors beach nearby and Two harbors beach at a distance from the top of the mountain. Blue waves were crashing into the white sandy beach at Little harbors. When we walked to the edge of the mountain, we saw waves crashing the stones two hundred feet below restlessly. The island was surrounded by the limitless sky above and vast sea below. It was a thrilling experience. I wondered how deep these huge statues of stones ran into the sea below.
After crossing the dusty roads, the bus traveled tirelessly and finally reached the Catalina Airport, popularly known as the Airport in the sky. It got its name for being at the high altitude.
It is a small airport where chartered flights can land. We had a half-an-hour break during which we ate our snacks and clicked some pictures. The return journey was not long. May be because we were descending.
It was 4.30PM when we returned. We all were famished, so, we ordered a take out and ate hungrily sitting at the beach. We went for a little shopping later. Wherever we go, we bring a souvenir printed on a penny with us as a memoir. If we put half-a-dollar along with a penny into the machine, it prints an image of that place in an oval shape and sends it out. But there were no penny souvenir machines anywhere. So, we spent almost $100 buying a souvenir for each person.
While we were coming back, our boat moved forward cutting through the water and Catalina gave us a beautiful farewell in the orange setting light with the cloud-crowned mountain peaks. I felt sea-sickness on the return journey, too. I also missed the island so much. Maybe that is the reason why William Wrigley must have bought the island (After all, he was very rich). As soon as we could see the mainland, “Finally, after three days,” said Varu, happily as if she was lost in the sea all this time. When we reached home by the evening next day, “Home, sweet home! I’m glad we are home,” she said with immense happiness. But I, on the other hand, longed to visit Catalina Island some time soon.
Photos & Telugu Original:
Madhuri Palaji is a writer and book reviewer from India. Her book “Poems of The Clipped Nightingale” is available on Kindle. She writes book reviews for various publishing houses like Penguin Random House, Meerkat Press, Hot Tree Publishings, Bethany Publishers, etc. She is one of the top 50 book reviewers in India. Her reviews are available at http://www.theclippednightingale.com/