Buena Park, California – America’s Benoni?

Day three of “A South African in California”

After exiting the Days Inn via a Mexican laundromat adventure in Santa Ana, I booked a hotel online and drove there. When I say I drove, I mean, I nearly died on the roads. I decided that despite being poisoned and exhausted, I needed to vasbyt and head out on the highway, looking for adventure. California makes Joburg look like a village. Six lanes, packed with cars all moving at 80 miles (about 110kmph) with about a length between them. Here, traffic doesn’t mean “slow down”. Luckily, pure blinding terror never stopped me, although I could tell from the frantic hooting of other drivers that at any minute, the cops might.

The woman in front of me drove an SUV with a "Proud Marine Mom" Bumper sticker.

Let’s just say that by the time I arrived at my Howard Johnson in Orange, I was sweaty, palpitating, and very relieved to stop driving. But relief was not to be. At the counter, the mild-mannered Jay informed me that they’d been fully booked since that morning, and had not received my booking. Of course, I didn’t write down the reference number. No idea what happened there. I burst into tears… well not loudly, you know, in that pathetic way where your eyes just start leaking and you are so humiliated you can’t look anyone in the eye. I only found out later, on Google, that one of the side effects of bed bug poisoning can be extreme exhaustion and emotional instability. Who knew.

I will forever be grateful to Jay, who then calmly called bookings on my behalf, and checked out the situation. I retreated to the water cooler and a box of tissues in a futile attempt to get myself together. When he called me, a sweet woman was on the phone. She did what the best customer care people do: sympathised. I really never care how badly things have been screwed up IF someone starts out by admitting that my situation sucks. Over the phone, she organised me one night in a place called Buena Park, about 11 miles away, and booked me into the Orange branch til this Friday. I wish I knew her name.

Established as an instahood, originally as part of a railway development, Buena Park soon fell victim to big oil and car company pressure. Now you need a car to get a take away.

So I proceeded to my one night in a new neighbourhood: Buena Park. I don’t know where it is, actually, although I did find it on my GPS and on wikipedia.

As soon as I arrived, I understood why Americans so love Die Antwoord. Buena Park is just like Parow, or maybe Benoni actually – flat, pedestrian-unfriendly, suburban, low-ceilinged – but with some redeeming touches that seem glam to me still, like awesome classic cars. The other plus side is that the lower real estate prices mean it’s an ethnically diverse place, with some cool food to offset the fast food glut, although you can also get your teriyaki “ranch style”.

If any South African were asked to guess what this picture was of, they'd probably say "The Liesbeek - but not in a good area." Outside the local Target, where I went to buy cortisone cream and some other essentials, young drug addicts begged for spare change for "food".

After three days here, I feel McDonalds has taken the blame for an entire industry’s crimes against animals, health and culinary taste. There are many places as bad for the planet as McDs. Deep-fried burger patties? You gat it! Cheese chips? You gat it. Corn dogs? Just looking at the picture made me gag. One place advertises that they have “the biggest weiners” or something. I don’t even wanna go there.

In Buena park, the temple for a guru on the main street of the city. I didn't go in, and now regret that. Next door was a cool looking curry place which also sold spice. It was closed at night however.

I felt obliged to, you know, DO something. A whole new neighbourhood and it was only 9pm. So I put on my shoes and a shirt that hid my unsightly neck and arms (and pants, obviously) and went walking. Driving at night seems just way too daunting and I was dangerously tired. I walked about a mile in one direction and found nothing but a steak house. Then strode a mile in another, and came across the Japanese restaurant I’d scoped out earlier. But when I walked in, everyone there completely ignored me.

I stopped by during the day to ask for booking. The waiter looked at me suspiciously. "Table for one?" he repeated, as if I had calmly suggested I take a dump on the carpet. I resolved to come back later, which didn't really work out.

The food looked amazing – people sat around tables with cooked food on dome-shaped metal things in the centre of the tables, laughing and drinking Asahi.

Very Little Japan, Buena Park, California, USA, DAY.

I have rarely felt so strange, in any country, as I did there that day. Perhaps it compares to this one time, when I returned to London on Christmas day, having forgotten it was christmas and – still thinking I was in Europe – tried to hitch from the bus station to Brixton on the wrong side of the road (at some point, the cops picked me up and mercifully drove me home). This time, I was the only person walking alone down the six-lane boulevard dotted with drive-thrus, at 9pm on a Saturday. It was so surreal, so utterly dislocated, that my explorer spirit failed me, and I ducked into the first place I could find. Thank god, though their specialty was broiled burgers, they also had ok “wet” burritos. I ordered one from the woman behind the till, who was refreshingly incompetent, and though it tasted bland as hell, it was a bit better dipped in the chilli sauce it came with. I fell asleep watching Cheaters or something very similar. Not sure; never made it to the AHA moment in the show.

The next morning I cut my losses and stayed in my motel room with the curtains closed until check out time.

4 Responses to “Buena Park, California – America’s Benoni?”

  1. Nadia Says:

    I like the way you can turn all the yucky parts of your trip into an adventure. Driving in America is no mean feat – that’s a notch on anyone’s belt. I totally understand how intimidating those 6 lanes can be – and just trying to keep your car on the right side of the lane is a mission! Good luck with it all 🙂

  2. jeanbarker Says:

    Thanks Nadia… yep, I find that all the mental effort is worth it, but exhausting. So tired by 9pm that I don’t recognise my old night-owl self.

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