The San Xavier Mission – Tucson

Going through my old posts about my time in States, I realised I’d neglected to write about one of my favourite experiences – visiting the San Xavier Mission.

Located just 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, the mission is a world away from the colourful, student-filled streets of the city centre and campus surroundings. In fact, it was one of the only times I felt I experienced the ‘real Tucson’, and understood that it is actually a complex city rooted with many (seemingly forgotten) socioeconomic problems.

We took a bus from the main bus station, still in the downtown area, and traveled just 20 minutes or so to another bus terminal where we would need to change buses. Just this short drive made me aware of the college bubble I had been living in for the past few months. The roads were less looked after, many stores looked closed or failing, and the people had changed too; instead of being mainly white and college-aged, they looked older and of Mexican or Native American heritage.

Being at the bus stop definitely cemented this idea; me and my boyfriend were by far the ‘whitest’ people there, not just in terms of skin tone, but the way we dressed, acted, spoke…we felt uncomfortable and like outsiders. This was new to me. I had been living in Tucson for a little over three months and had begun to feel comfortable with my surroundings, the people there, and the way of life. Waiting just 30 minutes or so in that bus stop made me realise that I’d merely scratched the surface on some of the complex issues embedded in Tucson’s core.

Even when the bus came, we were shocked. It wasn’t a bus: it was mini-van, and many of the locals used this transport everyday, as a way of getting around the mission. They knew one another, and the driver. Again, our tourist status was exemplified. The drive round the mission was also eye-opening. Tucson itself has a relatively modern looking downtown area, complete with skyscrapers and a tram. This was the complete opposite. Roads were dirt-tracks, houses were shack-like, and it looked as though the government had simply given up trying to improve it.

The church itself is beautiful, filled with stunning figures of Christ, amazing architecture, and if you climb the neighboring hill as we did, some amazing views of the area surrounding Tucson. You feel like you have stepped out of the mainstream, white America, and into a rural Mexican village of sorts. What I liked in particular was the way in which the brilliant white of the church contrasted against the sky – which is always bright blue in Tucson – and the orange of the sand.

Whilst you definitely won’t get a days visit out of the church, the whole experience of being in the mission and getting to the mission, will stay with you. Especially, if like me, you had previously only experienced Tucson’s relatively college-focused centre.

To this day, I still don’t fully know how to talk about my snippet of ‘true Tucson’. When I tell Americans that I spent time living in Tucson, I am either told that the school is really party-focused (which it is!) or that the city is a dump outside the campus. It’s sad to think that what Tucson was originally noted for is slowly fading away, and becoming less favourable. Sadly, this kind of reaction to missions in America is not unique. They are often surrounded by negative stereotypes and a general fear by outsiders.

However, the only way to ‘conquer that fear’ and prove the stereotypes wrong, is to visit one, and spend some time around the people who reside there. San Xavier is a great starting point, and it did really help me to appreciate the diverse society I lived in. I hope in the future to explore more places like this, and to create a conversation where people really know and understand these kind of areas.

For more information about San Xavier Mission, click here.

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Holocaust Memorial Day: Why it’s Important to Keep on Remembering

Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Chosen specifically on the day that the death camp Auschwitz was liberated many years ago, the day is a time of remembrance for all genocides, throughout our recent history.

It is scary to think that the concept of a ‘holocaust’ or the act of genocide did not end with the liberation of Nazi-run death camps, and the consequent persecution of many of the perpetrators. A lot of intelligent, well-read people, still do not understand the horrors that later occurred in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia, for example.

Genocide has devastated millions of people throughout history, and continues to affect the lives of relatives and friends, of the loved ones they lost. We might pride ourselves as a society now capable of spotting the ‘warning signs’ of a genocidal regime. How can such acts go amiss and ignored, with things like social media and the news covering every corner of the globe? The sad thing is, it does.

During my first year of university, I took a class called ‘The Holocaust in History’. While most of the module was focused on the Nazi persecution of European Jews, and other alleged ‘undesirables’, the last class focused on the question ‘is the Holocaust unique?’ Of course, every death is unique. Every life touches different people in a different way, and their death cannot be compared in this respect. However, we then preceded to look at more recent genocides, those that Western society has either ignored, or not given much attention to. This idea of pigeon-holing a group of people, and preying upon them from a position of power, is not new. When things get tough, society needs a scapegoat.

This brings me to my main point, and title: why it’s important to keep on remembering. Genocide is current: it is now, and it has not been eradicated. I’m sure we’re all aware of the Trump/Hitler comparisons that have been dominating the media since his arrival into the mainstream. In just a week of being in office, and in control of one of the most powerful nations on the planet, the bills, policies, and even just verbal statements he has made are ludicrously scary. Hitler didn’t marginalise the Jews overnight; it took years of propaganda and conditioning his people to make them feel like it was a valid thing to do, to place them in ghettos, and then later work and death camps. Already Trump is calling for immigrants to be ‘registered’ separately if that have committed a crime, saying that millions voted illegally, and has guaranteed his promise of a wall along the Mexican border. Sound familiar?

Today, perhaps more than ever, it is especially important to take this time to remember the victims of the Holocaust. Whilst it may be uncomfortable and upsetting, it is essential to realise that this is unfortunately something that humanity as a whole is capable of, not just one person acting alone.

For more information visit hmd.org.uk

 

Cultural Traditions with a Twist

Living in Tucson has definitely opened my eyes to a few new traditions that I hadn’t experienced before. Most of us in England are already familiar with the typical American holidays – 4th of July, Thanksgiving. And we can all name some of the standard American societal behaviour – football games, burger bars, smores, hanging a flag in every classroom… However, as most of you may know, Tucson has a large Mexican population. Being only an hour away from the Mexican border, it has become one of the famous border cities where their community is thriving.

Consequently, many of the Mexican cultural traditions and holidays have also been carried across the border. Over the many years they have adapted into something unique, in which they are neither traditionally Mexican nor fully integrated into American culture. Instead, we are presented with a wonderful hybrid of what happens when two alternate societies come together.

Last weekend, I managed to witness two perfect examples of this ‘culture clashing’. Friday night, I was exposed to the odd and intriguing art of ‘Lucha Libre’, in other words, Mexican wrestling. You may have seen images of the brightly coloured masks around the internet – the sport has definitely gained popularity in recent years. Whilst I may not have fully been sold on it as a leisure activity (it is definitely more of a ‘guys’ thing), it was interesting to watch and highly entertaining. Rather than focus on the fights, it is more about the ‘show’ – the introducing of the competitors; the bad-mouthing of each-other; the staged flips; the extravagant costumes. Everything is an act, intended to shock and amuse the audience…and shocked and amused I certainly was.

A couple of days later was Tucson’s biggest festival – ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead). Again, images of the colourful skull have circulated around American and European culture, but many people do not know of its origins in the festival. The festival is intended to celebrate the dead ancestors of Mexican families, and all those who wish to join in. In fact, many of the groups walking in the parade were American, showing the adaptation and diversity of what was once a traditional Mexican festivity. On the final night there is an All Souls Procession, which I had the pleasure of attending. People gathered, dressed up in traditional costume, carrying photos of their deceased loved ones (pets included), and walked in a truly spectacular parade. At the end, a concert-type thing takes place, in which a huge urn filled with messages for the deceased is burnt. The whole thing was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In actual fact, the Tucson parade is the biggest in the U.S.A. and bigger than most in Mexico…although this is most likely because nowhere else besides Tucson celebrates it to such extremity.

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The blend of cultures in Tucson is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get over. I think it probably mostly stems from having such a lack of Mexican presence in the U.K. –a lot of my classmates can speak Spanish, and have knowledge of Mexican-American culture. It’s sad to admit that most of what I understood about Mexican immigrants came from movies and stereotypes! Thankfully, I am lucky to have spent four months in a city that has not only taught me about the standard American culture, but a little about the Mexican-American way of life too.

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Weekends in Arizona: The Kartchner Caverns & Tombstone

The more time I spend here, the more I’m learning about the diversity of Arizona and just how much there is to do here. As I’m only here for a semester, I’m trying to fit as much of this fascinating state in as I can, so I can be sure that I truly experienced the real Arizona.

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Last weekend I got a taste of two of the many faces of Arizona. Tombstone portrays perfectly what life was like in the Wild West, being one of the best preserved western towns in the nation. On the other side, we had the Kartchner Caverns, displaying just a snippet of Arizona’s natural beauty with its famous limestone caves. Both these destinations are also just a little outside from Tucson, in the southeast of the state. We hired a car for relatively cheap (only $14 each) and headed out last Saturday, to see what all of the fuss was about.

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First stop was the Kartchner Caverns. In order preserve its natural beauty, visitors are restricted from bringing anything into the caves. This unfortunately means no pictures (!), but does also mean that you’ll have to visit in order to gain even a glimpse of this fascinating area. The caves were made a national park in the 90’s, and before that were kept relatively secret, being known only to a select few. Thankfully, nearly everyone can now enjoy the caves, and they still remain unspoiled. The delicate limestone formations are the reason behind these strict regulations. Although these can be a slight nuisance, it does mean that you can fully appreciate your surroundings without distractions, such as taking photos or using your phone. The caves are also eerily quiet and dimly lit, again for protection. However, this adds to the ambience of the place, and makes you feel almost as if YOU are the first discovers. We were all amazed at the power dripping water can have. It was this simple, natural act of water seeping through the hills and dripping, that over time formed some spectacular formations. The main attraction, Kubla Kahn, stands taller than a 5-storey building! When the water drips it leaves sediments that gradually build and form natural works of art. You still notice the moisture even today, it being a living cave. The rocks are shiny and slippery, and the air has a humidity that you’ll fail to find anywhere else in this arid region. To enter the caves, you have to go on one of their tours. These are relatively inexpensive at $23, and last for around an hour. You also get a lot of information from the park ranger giving the tour – definitely worth the price!

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Next, we drove the 30 minutes (ish) to Tombstone. Some of you may have already heard of Tombstone; it is one of the more famous Wild West towns in North America, and is the site of many iconic gun-fights. In order to preserve this rich culture, most of major buildings are listed, meaning that few alterations can be made. This is perfect for visitors like us, as it means we get a glimpse into what life back then looked like. Most of the inhabitants/workers also play on their Western heritage too, donning cowboy attire and thick accents. Every effort is gone to, in order to transport you back to the Wild West of Tombstone. We spent a few hours wondering around admiring the architecture, stopped off for lunch at the famous Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (another listed building), and then paid $6 for a fake gun-fight, which also told of the history of Tombstone. Whilst some may argue that the town accommodates too much for its tourists, exaggerating certain aspects of the old lifestyle for example, I would respond that it is all just a bit of fun not to be taken too seriously. Yes, it is clear that some parts of the town and people have been fabricated for tourist amusement. However, this does not take away from the uniqueness of Tombstone, which you unfortunately cannot find in many places in the U.S. today. The town is relaxed, homely, and welcoming, and definitely makes for an enjoyable day out.

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On our way out of Tombstone and back towards Tucson, we stopped at the famous Boot-Hill Graveyard. It is a graveyard for people that mainly died in the late 1800’s in Tombstone. Because of the time period, many of the graves had engravings which we wouldn’t see today. For example, a lot were unnamed. Others had details of the horrific ways they died, such as lynching, suicide, or murder. The graves that stood out for me, were the ones reading ‘one Chinese’ or ‘two Chinese’. We definitely wouldn’t get that kind of disrespectful labelling in a modern day graveyard!

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My visit to two of Arizona’s most popular sites, definitely gave me a glimpse into how diverse the state can be. Arizona is typically known for its desert region, and of course the Grand Canyon. However, I am learning that there is so much more to it than that. The natural wonders show the further beauty of the area, whilst the diverse towns display a piece of history vital to the identity not only of Arizona, but the whole of U.S.A. I can’t wait to further explore the state, and find out what else it has to offer me!

Understanding America and its European Roots

Before coming to America, I had never seen so many people so keen to show off their European heritage. Sure, people from Europe are happy about where they come from, in a general sense, but I’ve never heard it said with such pride. This is also despite the fact that a lot of American who state this, have never been to Europe themselves.

Here, being ‘European’ seems to mean something very different, and people are quick to tell you where their ancestors come from. Their grandparents nationality becomes their own, even though they are American citizens, have been raised in America, and sometimes have never visited their ‘home’ country. Being from Europe, this is baffling for me, as I’m sure it is for many other Europeans alike. For example, my grandparents are Spanish and I have a Spanish name, but I do not identify as Spanish…why would I? I cannot speak the language, have never lived there, and know only a limited view of the culture. Yet, if I were American, would be I saying something different?

After living here a couple of months, and being used to hearing the ‘Oh you’re from England? My uncle once visited London’ comments, I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of an average American, and understand their strong grip on European culture.

We all know that the America we see today is a ‘young’ nation, compared to the long stretching history of other places around the world. It made me wonder how I would feel if all my relatives, and all my friends relative were from other countries, and you knew you were still at the beginning of a race of ‘pure’ Americans, whatever that may mean.

Having discussed this with my European friends here in the States, it seems I am not the only one to have noticed the American’s fondness for a European connection. I have many people in my classes that label themselves as German or Polish, when they are clearly not, at least not in the way that I would recognise anyway. This concept of being patriotic and proud to be an American, whilst also boasting of being Polish, European descent is very confusing to an outsider like myself. Whilst I do not know many Polish people, I am sure that if I were to place a person from Poland next to an American saying they is ‘Polish’, the differences in culture would be vast and they’d actually have little in common. The person from Poland may also be offended that a technical American is claiming to be Polish.

Again, however, I do not know how it feels to live in country where so much of the history originates outside of the nation. And I know enough to understand that whilst someone may be an American citizen, this does not mean that they disregard their French or Italian or German ancestry. Perhaps, in a way, most Europeans ‘have it easier’. Most of us are clear in our lineage, and the place we call ‘home’ has always been home for most of our family line. The fact that I have Spanish grandparents is somewhat a rarity in England – in the town where I grew up in, most of the third generations were born there too. However, this is not the case for a lot of Americans. You get a ‘melting pot’ of many different cultures in a lot of big cities, combining their traditions to get the diverse American identity.

In response to those American’s who I meet who tell me that they ‘once visited Manchester’ (which, in case you didn’t know, is many many miles me…in fact I’ve never been) when I reveal my British accent, I’ve come to learn that this is mostly to do with the size of our country. In comparison to the U.S.A., the U.K. is tiny – to an outsider everything must look so close together and in that case why hasn’t everyone visited Buckingham Palace or Stonehenge? Reverse the roles, and we’d probably get a strange look if we told a new Californian acquaintance that we went to New York last year on a city break. Anyone that knows the cities will know that they differ dramatically, so the statement would be somewhat irrelevant.

The European connection is just another one of the many things I am learning about American culture. Being an American Studies student, I would have thought I would have heard something about their views on this before, instead of just about how patriotic the country is. However, I suppose a European professor cannot teach a class of Europeans how Americans feel about their roots here. They have never stood in their shoes and felt what means to be part of a ‘new’ nation and its pioneering attitude, even today. We all need something ‘familiar’ to hold on to, and for many Americans, that ‘familiar’ is also ours – Europe.

In and Around Tucson: Hiking Mt Lemmon

I may be in the middle of the desert, but Tucson is actually surrounded by the Catalina mountain range, home to Mt Lemmon. Mt Lemmon is the most famous peak in the Tucson area, and is somewhere that travel websites all over the internet say you must venture up before you leave the city.

Last weekend, thanks to a trip organised by my university, I made the 6 mile trek up the ‘Butterfly Trail’ of Mt Lemmon. Now, I know what you’re thinking – ‘hiking up a mountain…in the Tucson heat??’ Yes, it was very very sweaty. And hot. And tiring. And did I mention sweaty? Still, we soldiered on and completed the trail, which rose up roughly 1000 feet in elevation as well as being considerably lengthy.

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It took around 6 hours to hike the route – we started around 10am and finished at 4pm, give or take 30 minutes. More experienced and determined hikers could probably have completed it in much less time, but for us, there was no rush. Especially on the last part of the ascent, we stopped every few minutes to just take in the views around us. Most of the day we had our heads glued to the ground, watching for any uneven ground that could sway our footing. However, the nearer we got to the top the more beautiful it became. Thanks to the recent monsoon month, the mountain slopes were painted green and smelt fresh. It was a magnificent contrast to the orange desert bellow, and one I’d never thought I’d see in Tucson. Around us were plants are all different colours and varieties, which made for a more interesting hike. We even found some wild raspberries – although they were much smaller than our beloved British ones.

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Whilst the trip may have left me scratched, bruised, sunburnt and achy for the next few days, I can’t say that I regret taking the plunge and doing something I wouldn’t usually do. The views were spectacular and it was nice to spend some time away from the dryness of Tucson. Besides, popping on your iPod and trekking through the mountains really isn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday.

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Stargazing in Los Angeles – A Californian Labor Day Weekend

Another pro of living in Arizona? We share a border with California, which means long weekends in L.A.! This Labor Day Weekend, me and my girlfriends did exactly that. We packed our bags, booked our hotel and hopped aboard the Greyhound bus, ready for our 10 hour journey to the City of Angels.

First up, the Greyhound. For some reason, the coach company has become one of the icons of American culture. When I told my friends back home I was catching the Greyhound to California they responded with ‘Oh cool! I’ve always wanted to get a Greyhound!’ Now I only have one response: why? Whilst it may be significantly cheaper than flying (our round trip was $120, about £78), the experience is just that…an experience. We left Tucson at 11pm Friday, in order to cheat our way out of a hotel night and arrive fresh Saturday morning. However in hindsight maybe the extra hotel night wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. American’s reading this are probably laughing at my naivety in thinking that the bus would be ‘fine’ and ‘a right laugh’. To sum it up (and prevent myself from ranting on the American system of queuing i.e. they don’t) the Greyhound is unreliable, uncomfortable and most definitely not ‘a laugh’. Fly, hitchhike, take a private jet if you have to. OK…maybe not that far.

As you can imagine, we were pretty exhausted after a sleepless night and 10 hours of travelling. Only one thing appeals to four girls, tired and in need of a tan – the beach. So off we went to Santa Monica pier. Santa Monica kind of reminds me of an English costal town…a really good one. It has the pier, the rides, even the nifty little stores selling shells and keyrings. However, you can’t beat a Californian white sand beach. It was there that we slept for a few hours, burning and crisping under the hot sun. Did we get bad sunburn? Yes. Was it worth it? Now, I can say yes…if you asked ‘tomato-faced’ me the day after, probably not.

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Santa Monica is also a great place to start off your shopping adventures in L.A. The pier offers souvenir items that are essential for any tourist – key-rings, t-shirts, novelty mugs, you know the sort. However if you head down to the pedestrianised 2nd street, you’ll find high-street shops as well as an array of affordable restaurants. We spent the remainder of our day prowling the shops and spending money we didn’t have in Victoria’s Secret (7 undies for $27…come on who can resist?!). To top it all off, we dined out on my favourite cuisine, and one that you don’t actually see a lot of here in Tucson – Italian! It was nice to get away from the fries and Mexican food and just sink my teeth into a cheesy slice of pizza.

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Thankfully, our hotel beds were a lot better than the coach seats of the Greyhound, and we slept like logs our first night in L.A. The hotel (Hotel Solaire) was located in the lesser known ‘Korea Town’, that we later found out was also home to many USC students. This meant that the area was relatively safe to walk around at night, even if a little sketchy. Having spent so much time in London, you would have thought I would be use to sight of homelessness on the streets. However, it is on a whole different scale in Los Angeles. Whilst the city may boast of great new beginnings and attract many migrants a year, the effects of this is short-lived. People literally had their entire life in boxes and shopping carts. Not far from where we were staying, a row of tents lined the pavement resembling a small community. You had to remind yourself that you were still in the developed country of America and not a war-torn village…

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Scenes like this were less common as you got more towards the centre of the city though, where we spent the majority of our second day. First up was MOCA, or the Museum of Contemporary Art. For anyone that knows me, you know that this definitely wasn’t my choice of destination. Whilst I can respect that modern and contemporary art is considered good, I am still unsure as to why. I am the type of person that needs every piece explained to them – why have they chosen just paint a blue circle in the middle of a white canvas? However, MOCA is home to some of the most popular pieces of contemporary art in the world (Warhol, Lichtenstein), and I can say that most of it was at least interesting. It got me asking those important ‘why’ questions, which I suppose is the kind of the stimulation the artist wishes to provoke.

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Next up was the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels (COLA), and Grand Central Market nearby. The Cathedral was actually the first ‘modern’ Cathedral I had visited. Living in Europe, we’re used to the old designs of religious places – gargoyles, extravagant ceiling artwork, and intricate carvings. This one featured a lot of clean lines and an overall simplistic appearance. I am still undecided as to how I felt about it. It was interesting to see a different place of worship but it just felt too ‘new’ to be a cathedral (only opened in 2002) – however maybe that was me not being used such architecture. One thing I was immediately taken with was Grand Central Market. Located just across from Angels Landing (the shortest railway in the U.S.) and opened in 1917, this indoor market has all types of food on offer. You can do your grocery shopping or simply grab a bite to eat – we did the latter. Out of the selection of Mexican, Italian, and American food I went to a Mexican cevicheria, La Tostaderia, and got fish ceviche. Popular in the coastal regions of Latin America and apparently originating from Peru, the dish is typically raw fish flavoured with lemon and chilli peppers, served with side dishes of your choice. Mine was served with plenty of cilantro, avocado, red onions and tomatoes. Although I’m not the biggest fan of cilantro (and there was a lot of it) I managed to eat around half the dish and appreciate the fresh flavours the dish boasted. Besides, I washed away the cilantro taste with a refreshing juice from Press Brothers Juicery, again available in the market.

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Hollywood Blvd was our fourth destination of the day, something that you have to do on any visit to L.A. I had visited the Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre a couple times before, but there is always something new to discover along the strip. We actually ended up going to the largest candy store in the U.S.A, where they sold European chocolate! However it was for a price…I paid $4.99 for a bar of Milka. Still, it was nice to see some Dairy Milk on the shelf; I’ve spent my time here living off Reese’s and Raisinets to satisfy my sweet cravings.

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The highlight of the trip though has to be our visit to Griffith Observatory. Located on Mount Hollywood, it’s not exactly easy to reach. We tried an Uber, but ended up trekking the remainder of the route up there. It was tiring, especially the final part going up the sandy hill to the observatory, but it was most definitely worth it. The summit offers spectacular views of the whole of the city in all its glory. It’s times like this that you appreciate the lack of skyscrapers in L.A., as the sprawl laid out before you is truly magnificent. We watched the sun set and stayed to look through ‘the most viewed telescope in the world’, set that night to be pointing at Saturn. It was a wonderful night and the perfect way to end our busy weekend in the city.

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After travelling another 10 uncomfortable hours, we finally reached our ‘home’ in Tucson. We were exhausted but satisfied with the eventful weekend we’d just accomplished. Los Angeles is one of those cities that keeps on giving. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, you will always find something new and discover a different location. I definitely plan to visit again – next up on my list the Getty Villa, somewhere that we planned to go to but never got round too. Two days in the city just simply isn’t enough!