Derek Ray 5:51 p.m., May 19
A Night on The Boulevard.
Nothing compares to sharing new and exciting experiences with other people, whether strangers, acquaintances, friends, or loved ones. This past Friday, I had one of those experiences, a spontaneous adventure full of cultural exploration, artistic expression, and Stevie Wonder-coated, goo-ridden feelings that many of us know as happiness, transcending the monotony of one's usual day-to-day itinerary. My vibrant friend, Beryl, also known as Miss Boulevard, for she works for the El Cajon Boulevard Improvement Association, getting her daily satisfaction from beautifying the community through urban planning and revitalization, took me along the Boulevard stretch for an evening of fun. After all, El Cajon Boulevard is the home to many historic businesses, restaurants, groceries, transportation lines, families and traverses six different neighborhoods in San Diego- North Park, Normal Heights, University Heights, City Heights, Talmadge, and Kensington. Little did I know, a new adventure lay ahead. . .
Our first stop? Cali Baguette Express, a popular, family-owned Vietnamese sandwich shop and grocery in City Heights, the only Vietnamese drive-thru in San Diego. At the door, we were kindly welcomed by Thien, a young gentleman, apparently one of the owners' sons of the fabulous restaurant. Immediately upon looking at the menu, I began to salivate- Cajun shrimp, grilled beef, and rotisserie chicken sandwiches all for under five dollars. Fortunately, considering my vast ability to overeat, the shop was closed; instead, we happened to be there for the after-hours party consisting of Vietnamese drinking and snacking. I always wanted to know someone who worked at a grocery or restaurant, so I could dance up and down the aisles with no one around! Thien concocted several blended boba beverages- the Asian soft and slimy tapioca balls found at the bottom of the flavored drink- incorporating the pungent flavors of watermelon, honeydew, and mango among the other options of jackfruit, durian, and taro root (mixed with spirits). We even tried a new type of boba called "popping" boba where the fruit juice, mango, in this case, exploded into your mouth upon each bite.
Sitting at one of the booths in Cali Baguette Express with a group of artists, travellers, and people who enrich their lives through the subtle beauty of life and the community surrounding them, I found myself living purely in the moment- laughing wholeheartedly (which reminds me, I need to form a laughing club!) and learning about the Asian culture with which I have been so unacquainted. Thien couldn't have been more hospitable and welcoming, offering free samples of tasty treats in the shop, our treat of choice being the ever-so salty and stringy cuttlefish, a mollusk popular in East Asia with the chewy texture and nearly spicy aftertaste that leaves you wanting more. I also enjoyed hearing stories about my two new friends', Jennie and Michelle's, travels through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Korea.
Our next stop after Cali was directly across the street- an unlabelled building that supposedly hosted karaoke nights, but not just any kind of karaoke- Cambodian karaoke! I was ready for my next adventure in the city. First, a policeman carded us at the door without a smile (foreshadowing? I hope not), as we absorbed all the live sounds of a Cambodian band (karaoke was not on the menu for the evening, we discovered). We walked past the men and women dancing in a large circle, utilizing their hips, hands, and feet. There was definitely a technique to the movement, yet it was very free-flowing. We all immediately started perspiring as if we were in another humid-filled country. All we needed were some luke warm beers, spicy food, and some dancing with the locals to embrace the mood and culture. So that's what we got. We drank, we ate some more, and we got on the dance floor for some improvised movements. I jumped at the chance to participate in the traditional circle dance; the men were very respectful as they showed me the simple technique (moving your hands and hips)... I felt hot and high, so much smiling and laughter, a real bonding moment with strangers and friends.
For our last adventure of the evening, we stopped at the reknowned Beauty Bar for some last minute, intense grooving. The DJ, Corey, was awesome (We're already Facebook friends!), and we took up the entire dance floor. It's so much fun to have all that space to practice moves you wouldn't even know you had up your sleeves, ones that you are normally too embarrassed to try when there is a crowd. We connected with a couple of cool hipsters in that sacred space, sweating it up for the final hurrah. From complete strangers to intimate jive partners, we were in sync.
After such an evening, I came home to my apartment feeling satisfied and fulfilled, having lived in the moment with others. What was the last thing the young, naive traveller, Christopher McCandless, said before he died? Ah, yes: "Happiness is only real when shared."