Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Welcome to the Hotel California

This week I found myself in a lovely place. Such a lovely place. The physics gravy train was making a whistle stop in Santa Barbara, so Busytot and I hitched a ride on the caboose. Woo woo! It being birthday week and all, and with autumn already well settled in back East, a furtive week of extra summer was too alluring to pass up. We dug out the T-shirts and sandals and hopped on a plane to Arnie-land.

What a curious place – talk about through the looking-glass. I’ve been through Los Angeles several times en route to New Zealand, but never further afield on this coast. As we exited the forcefield of greater LA and hit the coast road, the glittering Pacific to our left, the hills to the right, all I could think was: it’s so empty. And oddly, so Australian: scrubby foliage, dry hills, and a palette of eucalyptus colours, blue-grey, khaki, olive, dust.

Santa Barbara is indisputably a lovely place. Steep hills behind a vast beach with sand like brown sugar: imagine the Rimutakas with Mission Bay at their feet, and a climate like the far north in February. No wonder everyone wants to live here: it’s spectacular. But it took exactly a day to detect the darker sides of paradise. There was the first evening, when we ventured down to the beach (Goleta Beach, west of the town) and discovered a couple of bulldozers busily bulldozing the sand that was being pumped noisily up onto the beach from a barge just offshore. Shock horror! The beach isn’t real! Then we had to find a supermarket that wasn’t being picketed – grocery workers all over California are out on strike this week, over a proposed new employment contract that would diminish their health insurance and make it easier to hire cheap labour.

In a town where one-bedroom apartments can cost a thousand dollars a month, and tiny two bedroom cottages sell for well over half a million (my Mission Bay analogy was more apt than I realized), you have to support the workers who are clinging to what minimal benefits they currently have. When Busytot and I ventured out to a playground the next morning in search of kids to play with and grown-ups to talk to, we found ourselves hanging out with some accidental casualties of the crappy economy: a young mother and daughter who are currently living in a homeless shelter, while she tries to gather enough money to catch the bus back to where her mother and her younger child live.

They introduced us to two nice fellows, one young, one in his fifties, who are living in the park while looking for work (in this climate, you can live in the park year round). The young guy had just found a job at the local hospital, and his relief was palpable. It would be patronizing to deploy terms like “good honest people” but that’s what they were: good honest people with rotten luck, and in the case of the child, dreadfully rotten teeth. Which is exactly why supermarket checkers, for example, need decent health insurance. I slipped some dosh into her stroller and honked extra hard at the picketers all week.

After a week, most of the culture shock has subsided. I stopped distrusting the spookily perfect weather and got used to romping in the hotel pool with the increasingly aquatic Busytot (I keep expecting to find a blowhole somewhere under his mop of blond hair). He learned some good new words: palm tree, hummingbird, jacuzzi, bougainvillea, jasmine. We explored the local attractions, starting with the zoo, where much to a certain two year old's delight the elephants had been temporarily replaced by diggers and bulldozers (only the best zoos have construction equipment in captivity, don't you know).

We also checked out the Old Mission, which is a very haphazardly curated place for all its historical importance. Out front are the remains of a laundry where, we are told, the local Chumash took to washing linen for the early fathers. Very kind of them. A wall panel inside the Mission offers a potted history of the place that ends with this ominous non sequitur: “Secularization of the Mission took place in 1834. The remaining Chumash have been integrated into the American way of life.”

Then Busytot and I managed to get ourselves kicked out of the Art Gallery downtown, because he was appreciating the art slightly too vocally. He can't help it if one particularly well-formed statue reminded him of his father. I tended to agree, especially since the handsome marble man in question had a small plump marble boy on his lap. How can you shush a child for enthusing "Datsa Daddy and me!"? Visiting galleries with kids can be a dicey proposition, but in this case it was just that Busytot knows what he likes and isn't afraid to say so. He also admired a voluptuous nude, but wondered aloud where her baby was -- it was true, she did have the exhausted, depleted look of one who had just survived a marathon nursing session.

One afternoon we drove inland. We passed through Buelltown -- “Home of Split Pea Soup” in case you were wondering -- and past fields of pumpkins, a corn maze, alpacas, and Ostrich Land (where a sign advertised Big Eggs). We zipped through Solvang – an ersatz Danish town complete with windmills and a replica of the Little Mermaid, it reminded me of similarly “authentic” towns in Japan – and ended up in Los Olivos, a tiny dusty little frontier place turned spa retreat, full of art galleries, and with a stretch limo parked outside the one fancy restaurant. It was very Central Otago: say, Naseby in ten years.

Meanwhile, the conference chugged along. The university (UCSB) is literally on the beach, and all week long, the physicists talked physics with the sound of the ocean in their ears and the smell of the sea in their nostrils. (Physicists are famous for their otherworldly powers of concentration). At lunchtime, the hardier specimens would head out for a swim, ducking across the bike path that winds around the periphery of campus. You have to watch out for the many undergrads weaving along on their bikes one-handed, a surfboard under their other arm. In fact, all over campus, everyone was on wheels of one sort or another: blades, boards, bikes, shoes with wheels on. Seems that at UCSB, not skateboarding is a crime. The multitude of wheelchair ramps suddenly appeared in a completely different light.

Speaking of which, among the physicists was Stephen Hawking (it was that kind of physics), and I spent about five shameless seconds wondering if I could snap a picture of Busytot with the legendary cosmologist in the background. But he was eating dinner, and Busytot was fizzing and popping and generally spinning out on account of having missed his nap, so it wouldn’t have been kind to either of them.

Actually, napping was a hit-or-miss proposition this week, as was bedtime. Accustomed to sleeping within the confines of his cot, the little lad was not impressed by either the small rickety crib or the rollaway “big boy bed” the motel supplied, so by default he slept in the kingsize bed. Every evening, he would settle down, close his eyes, and then commence rolling around like a bowling ball in an attempt to find a corner. He covered every inch of the bed, and occasionally slid down onto the floor and wiggled his way around the room. Poor thing; he was like a fish liberated from a fishbowl and spooked by the absence of walls.

Even if none of us slept very well, we got to mellow out in the sun while Busytot worked out his wiggles on one of the best playgrounds I’ve ever seen. In Alameda Park, in downtown Santa Barbara on the corner of Solas and Micheltorena streets, in the shade of a massive Moreton Bay fig tree, is a huge castle-like adventure playground called Kids’ World. It was designed by legendary playground architect Bob Leathers, an Ithaca-based chap who must have one of the happiest jobs in the world. He comes to town, consults with the kids to see what they want, explains the building constraints so they can rule various thrilling features in and out (five different slides, certainly; treehouse, very possible; working submarine, slightly tricky), and then comes up with a collaborative plan that the community builds with donated material and labour. The result, in this case, is very very cool indeed, and we spent many hours discovering every little corner.

And today – as I type in fact – Busytot is exactly two years old. A little party awaits him after we return to New York tomorrow, but for today we will celebrate by hopping in the car and heading back to LA, where his daddy has found a cheapish hotel with the best feature of all: a pool that will permit one last use of the magical froggy water-wings before we head east to winterland and turn the clocks back for the season.