Tuesday, 18 December 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 110: Monterey Bay- Sea Lions, Feeding Frenzy, and Municipal Beach

As the United Kingdom adds another log to another fire, and supplements the warmth with the softening words of a Nat King Cole classic, I imagine the country is united in frantic activities of the pre-Christmas build up, from locating the lost ends of sellotape rolls and scurrying up ladders to repair faulty bulbs on their house illuminations. Mothers are busying themselves with re-drafting the 'Chistmas Dinner' cooking schedule, fathers are unsealing that 'special occasion' bottle of red, and the children are inconspicously relieving the tree of the chocolates and rummaging through their presents, squeezing and shaking them to guess what they might have got. Across the nation, families are gearing up to yet another 25th December. I know this, because if there's one thing I love about Christmas, it's ironically the week leading up to it. In our family, we have a set routine; a series of traditions like shopping for movie snacks, watching Christmas Lights and going for a wintry walk across the frost-bitten fields.

I awoke this morning with very little, if any, of that in prospect, but if there's anywhere in the world that I would wish to break those traditions, it's here in California. Emerging to a refreshing maritime breeze, and a sun soaked street here in the west of the city, I decided to spend the day exploring the gem that is Monterey's stunning hard rock coastline and harbour. It's a ravishing arrangement of weather-beaten rocks, supporting a most splendid selection of aquatic life.

I was aware of Monterey's vibrant array of organisms, but I got a plesant shock when along my coastline amble this morning, I happened among a whole colony of Sea Lions. I'm always fond of the becalm lifestyle of the Sea Lion; it lays there, without taxes to pay, and bills to settle, and it is free from the multitude of other life pressures. If it wants a swim, it doesn't need to pass a Health and Safety check, or sufficiently dress in 'test-approved' swim suits. Their lifeguard is their family, and when they've had a paddle, they don't need to worry about re-positioning hair styles and re-applying creams. What a wonderful life!

This atmosphere of placidity abruptly ceased, with a sudden series of crashes; foam was whipped up in mass production and a spritz of spray spurted from the boulders. One mighty swash after swash; it was a volcanic eruption of water, that left you wondering whether you would be swept from terra firma and carried out with the rest of the froth. I decided to play around a bit, and try to acheive a photo of me and one of these spray ejections. After about 20 takes, I finally got a half-decent one.

From the success of a great photo, to the breaking of a promise. After submitting my commitment to not adding to my already excessive reading material, I was browsing the John Steinbeck collection in a local gift shop this morning, and came across a great book called Travels with Charley: in Search of America. Here, Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, trek across America. Well, with my zeal for this kind of writing, the guilty purchase was made. I can imagine my Mum, shaking her head as she usually does on such occasions, insisting: "He's never gonna read that! It's just gonna sit on the shelf gathering dust!" On my walk towards the harbour, I eventually met up with the gentleman who once travelled with Charley; a statue of Steinbeck was displayed appropiately under his country's flag. I don't know whether it's me, but his expression here seems to suggest that, whilst he is happy to see I've purchased one of his books, he can't believe I went against my word!

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." That's how Steinbeck described it, and as I walked in his footsteps this overcast morning, a lot of these observations rang true. Cannery Row is enriched in a thriving fishing industry, and this isn't a new thing. What Steinbeck relegated to a "stink" was probably the frantic filleting, and the "grating noise" no doubt were the metallic sounds made from the canning factories. As I made my way towards a break in the since renovated "nostalgic" factories, there was a "quality of light" refracting off the bay, to such an extent that some, like Steinbeck, could get very poetic about it indeed. But as I lent against the supporting balcony, I remembered my history. The Great Depression affected these corners as much as it did anywhere else; employment was a valuable passing of the time. The opportunity to earn a little day by day, through the long and weary work of fishing and canning, this for those in extreme poverty would seem, as Steinbeck so rightfully includes, a "dream".

From Cannery Row, I proceeded further along, and with the sudden urge of something moist and flavoursome, I entered a small Bed and Breakfast, not too dissimilar than the ones in what I embrace as my most favourite town in the UK: West Bay in sunny Dorset. Much to my alarm, there were no flavoursome bottled drinks on offer, so only half the deal was struck with an overpriced bottle of spring water. $3.00 seemed just as unwelcoming as the stern lady who so unenthusiastically operated the transaction, as if I was just a speck of dust on a prized chandelier that she desperately wanted to clean off. I left pondering just how one could live happily with that kind of attitude in a location which positively oozes cheerfullness; an atmosphere which is commonly seldom seen apart from in a candy shop or a theme park.

Refreshed, nonetheless, with '100% Mountain Spring Water', my next port of call was Fisherman's Wharf. Naturally, it's smaller than San Francisco's, but where it lacks in size, it upholds an incredible number of interesting restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops. I find it deeply satisfying to see such a place that some architects would bleed to see high rising blocks of seaside apartments in, uphold its original structure. To my surprise, the Wharf has apparently seen many changes, though I'm sure those have only embellished what is, on the whole, a monument to the fishermen who braved the wind and sea. I passed a number of little privately maintained businesses; all trying to get me to have a "free sample" which of course, is not free at all, for as you chew on this crumb elaborately placed upon a cocktail stick, you end up getting entwined in conversation with the server, to an extent where you feel guilty to walk away without purchasing a larger quantity of your sampled product. I know this, because I've been there, and bought the T-shirt (after nibbling on a washing instructions label) and so I make an effort to place myself into a little bubble and simply ignore the beckoning calls. Around the wharf, fishermen were unloading their morning catch, attracting the attention of Grey Heron.

Thus it was that I watched a free feeding demonstration, and a wild one, though I'm getting close to defining understatement with that. Fast, frenzied, fierce, but fulfilling to watch, I overlooked as a fisherman would gut a fish, throw the non-essential segments into the harbour, starting a watery war between both Grey Heron and eventually two Sea-Lions.

The important thing to note about enjoying something, is knowing when to tear yourself away. I could have idled the hours away with these invigorating scenes, but I tore myself away and decided it was time for my own lunch. I thought twice about purchasing a Smoked Salmon Sandwich; honestly though I've missed Salmon, and because so much of my enjoyment today originated from the water, I decided $6.00 a small price to pay. Exclude the over-eagerly use of the mayo bottle, and I think it could have scored top marks.

Every now and again, I chance myself upon real treats, and the next little establishment was one of them. I just didn't expect it, and to be honest, it shouldn't fit into Monterey well at all. But it's name, logo and it's description of what a 'Pastie' was enough to make a small exception.

Before me was a long, almost indefinate stretch of beach, which looked just as inviting as the Smoked Salmon Sandwich and it didn't come with Mayonaise, which was a welcoming change. I imprinted the almost undisturbed plane of sand with a boot pattern I'm very aware I've left in so many corners of this country on this trip. The immediate beach was unpopulated; an open tent with no-one inside it and a couple of fishermen as an exception. And then I realised why.

With almost as much immediacy as the shutter speed on my Lumix, I found myself progressively sinking deeper into the sand, and it wasn't long before I looked up and saw I was actually being cut off by a menacing ripple of bubbles, that with no hesitation, were edging towards my desperate position. What's more is that this seemed to be happening on both sides, and so I was effectively trapped. And by mere water, I felt extremely powerless. The only choice was to sprint as quickly as possible across to drier conditions, some 50m off, attempting to avoid sinking into the porridge of thick watery sand, which is the equivalent of asking a heavy weight boxer to pass over a pond and not make a single ripple. I made it, with difficulty, but spent a good ten minutes on some wooden steps cleaning my boots up with tissue I had luckily pocketed.

And as if nature was testing my patience, I had removed the last coagulated lump of sand from the sole, when an abrupt change in weather occured, and I was now being pelleted by fierce water droplets. Foolishly, I hadn't brought by rain jacket with me, and so scurried up the bank to a small assembly of bushy trees, and found some shelter. After another ten minutes there, I realised that this wasn't going to stop for a considerable period of time; it was a choice of standing under a tree for hours or going back to the hostel. Both scenarios weren't encouraging, but the prospect of a hot chocolate and a cushioned seat seemed attractive enough to draw me from shelter into the precipitative torment. Needless to say, I reached the hostel with an entirely different mood than what I had when I had left it. The gentleman in my dorm looked at me and commented on my saturated state, as if he hadn't witnessed the weather before. "I've just been for a paddle in the harbour," I joked. "I kept my jumper on because it was cold."

And you know what? I think he actually took me seriously.

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