When you fly in to Los Angeles you kind of hope that's smoke from forest fires you can see. But it's not. It's smog. You can see the air here. And you can taste it. It's not pleasant.
In some months, you can feel it too – it wraps around you like a soggy blanket, and drags you down the further you walk.
It's easy to get over-whelmed in Americaland the first time you visit. Everything you take for granted is the same, but different.
The grass is different. The sidewalks are different. The sky is different – dozens of planes during the day; unfamiliar stars at night – or no stars at night in the big cities.
It's sad. There are kids living here who have never seen stars in the sky.
The cars are different and colourless. They come in a range of four colours – black, white, beige, and grey. Occasionally you spot one that tries to be red, without quite pulling it off. A nice surprise, though, is the cost of filling one up - $25 for a Toyota Corolla (about $35 NZ). Gas is cheap.
You wonder if the WOF rules are laxer here, or just ignored. Some of the cars on the road are only held together by their rust, and gaffer tape is used for everything from holding wing mirrors or bumpers on, to actually being used to replace a missing door.
Wandering around the Mount at home, the occasional sweet wrapper or cigarette packet makes one grumble, and you wonder how tourists can think New Zealand is so “clean and green”. It's by comparison.
Rubbish is everywhere on the streets of LA, ranging from over-flowing garbage strewn ten feet either side of the bin, to truck-sized piles dumped on empty lots. And mattresses. So many mattresses.
The food is different – especially at the supermarket, which are big. Really big.
Having 50 checkouts is not uncommon. The range is huge, but you know what? Most of it is junk. There's a supermarket with 65 checkouts, about the same number of aisles – including 12 made up of frozen TV dinners – and you can't buy an apple, an orange, or any fresh fruit or vegetables. At others, you can buy cactus to cook and eat.
Public transport is about as reliable as it is in Tauranga. Which is not a good thing. It takes a long time to get anywhere by bus in LA.
The 24kms from the Airbnb to Venice Beach? About an hour-and-a-half.
It's easy to get the wrong impression of LA, based on where you are staying. My Airbnb was lovely, but this suburb was where the garbage was over-flowing. It's dirty.
The bins are dirty. The streets are dirty. No berms – just concrete. Broken. The houses are dirty and tagging is rife. Many people don't pick up after their dogs, but on the plus side, they're all chihuahuas, so the piles aren't big.
Skip a few blocks away and you're driving through a lifestyle magazine.
Beautifully manicured lawns and sculpted mansions.
Los Angeles is a crazy juxtaposition of people and their situations.
One street is a gated-community with multi-million dollar mansions, and the next is stucco 1950s boarding hostels, another gated-street, then a community of homeless people living in tents – with the lower class on the pavement, the upper class further up the bank under the bridge.
The differences are overwhelming at times. And frustrating. If you're staying somewhere for a night and need a small bottle of milk for breakfast, the smallest available size would do a family of four for a week.
Need a doctor after a spider bite turned septic? $NZ220. Bought a SIM card because the unlimited data and calls to NZ for $US100 a month was a good deal? Yes – but not if you move more than 12 feet from a cell tower.
Coverage is useless.
Other differences are a joy. The customer service is next-level awesome.
Been in a queue for 30 seconds? The checkout-operator apologises profusely for the long wait. The waiter remembers what you ordered and fills your water glass without you asking.
The $10 meal is three times the size of the $30 meal you buy at home.
How about three pairs of optical glasses in designer frames, with polishing and buffing, and the clearest, thinnest lenses you've ever looked through? The same price as one pair at home in cheap frames, with no frills.
And an optician who knew what he was doing.
Expectations, however, can be different to reality. Hollywood? Dirty, over-crowded, and horribly kitsch.
It's an hour on a bus to Hollywood Boulevard, but I lasted seven minutes there. I saw a bus with the same route number heading the other way, and jumped on it.
A scriptwriter cousin with a black sense of humour enjoys sitting at a cafe overlooking the Walk of Fame, watching the faces of the tourists fall as they get off the buses.
Venice Beach? I expected it to be dirty, over-crowded, and horribly kitsch. It was clean, sparsely populated, and not quite as kitsch as expected.
Los Angeles. It takes over. This was supposed to be an article on travel tips – but this ugly/beautiful city is over-powering and worth the visit.
Just don't stay too long.