travelog 103

Cactus & Succulent Convention in San Diego

It all started with the invitation to the convention of the American Cactus and Succulent Society which was to be held in April 2011 in San Diego, California. Airline tickets, accommodation and food was to be paid by the society, in return we were asked to give two presentations. It was impossible to turn down this offer and so we got started on the planning. Of course, San Diego alone was worth a visit, but what in the world were our friends Kristin & Blair doing, the former owners of the "crackhouse" of which we had written in detail in August of 2002. Finally we had a plan: Flight to San Luis Obispo, train ride to San Diego, and return flight to Mexico.

The journey to San Luis Obispo was extremely painful. From Guadalajara to Houston where we stood in line for two hours with immigration because five international flights had landed at the same time, but fortunately we had planned enough time for this. Then on to Los Angeles and some more waiting to finally board a small, loud machine to San Luis Obispo where we landed shortly before midnight. Our friends had left a car at the airport that we were now searching for in the pitch-dark night with our luggage in tow. A police officer in his patrol car was watching us but he seemed to think it normal that people were scouring every parking lot at the SLO airport in the middle of the night schlepping along their bags. When we finally made it to our friends’ new house in Santa Margarita, Blair was already expecting us with a cold beer and we soon fell into bed exhausted.

The next morning we first said hello to the offspring, Lily & Ewan. We knew the two from another visit but in the meantime Ewan had grown into a big boy and Lily had become a little princess with a golden curly head. Very kindly she had lent us her princess room where we slept like angels under a fairytale starry sky. The two children knew us too; we were famous as "The Swiss".

The house still looked a little unfinished, particularly the garden area. But at least our friends had managed to plant a few trees, bushes and a variety of native cold hardy plants. They had even started a nice plantation of fruit trees with their kids. Of course Martin saw at once that the irrigation system was missing in the entrance area of the house and that there was too much weed growing. Having left our own garden for a well-deserved vacation, we were back doing gardening work. Blair and Martin were slaving away an entire weekend putting in pipes while I was busy getting rid of the weeds. At the end we covered everything with chipped bark and were really proud of our work. Even the youngsters noticed that the garden slowly started to look like a real garden. In the evening we all sat in comfortable chairs in front of the main door, sipped on a glass of local wine, nibbled little bites of cheese and cold meat, and admired our work. First thing the next morning was checking on the garden. We had heard of the destructive gophers but Martin was convinced that the smell of the bark would keep the creatures away. To our horror we soon discovered the first hole. Coming back from the shopping tour we saw that our gopher had been very busy. He had worked his way into another garden bed and was busy digging another tunnel. As the creatures are almost blind, he did not at all mind us staring at him while he was digging. They're really cute but when they start to destroy your entire weekend's work, anger can build up pretty quickly. Martin grabbed a shovel and stood next to the tunnel opening. It didn't take long for the gopher to reappear in the opening. And it only took a sharp cut with the shovel to bump him off into gopher heaven. In the afternoon the vultures had already discovered and devoured him.

The days passed much too quickly. Sandy & Val, Blair's parents, invited us all to a Bluegrass concert in a nearby vineyard. Before the concert, people sat under the old olive trees between the vineyards and sipped on glasses of wine. The strangest noise during the concert came from the wine glasses, placed under the chairs, breaking when somebody moved his feet. Before our train ride south we spent a night at Sandy and Val's place in Avila Beach. Their small wooden house with a terrace and garden overlooks the port and you can see far out over the Pacific Ocean. Val's barbecued baby back ribs were a delight as always. Very early the next morning they took us to the train station and we said goodbye. We had unreserved coach seats which turned out to be the most comfortable ones on the entire train. A woman who had bought business class lost her way and ended up in our coach because she thought it was the business section. The seats were wide and very comfortable, adjustable as in an airplane and they even had a footrest. The windows were sparkling clean and huge, ideal for enjoying the view. The train left San Luis Obispo in the morning fog. Soon it reached the coast near Lompoc and the fog disappeared as if ordered. This stretch of the coast can only be seen from the train since there are no roads here and a large part of it is military zone. Before reaching Santa Barbara the fog caught up with us again but we knew this part of the coast from various trips in the Unimog. The train stopped for 20 minutes in Los Angeles, enough time to check out the huge station. Except for another military zone near San Diego the train was now going through extremely populated areas. Sometimes you could even see directly onto people's terraces or swimming pools from the moving train. We got out of the train in Oceanside, where Kelly Griffin, a fellow plant enthusiast, would pick us up.

We stood at the train station with our bits and pieces of luggage a little lost. The other passengers disappeared quickly or were talking on a cell phone, and for one time we could have had good use for one too! Two police officers patrolled the train station and even checked out the Burger King for suspicious elements. Something was wrong with our dialing Kelly's cell phone number but finally we had an operator on the line who asked Martin for a credit card number. Of course he got annoyed because we had already fed the machine with many coins and did not want to pay double. At the other end of the operator was Kelly, but we did not know that. We gave up and hopped on a smaller train to Carlsbad from where we planned to take a bus in case we could not reach Kelly. There were more police at the train station and at the bus station we saw many strange characters we would not really want to meet in the darkness of night. This time we reached Kelly and soon he picked us up at the bus station. The operator from earlier had asked him too for a credit card number and when Kelly inquired about how much they would charge him for the call, the guy said insolently about $23, and after that more dollars per minute. What impertinence! We would have declined with thanks too!

Kelly and his wife Denise had moved into their house in Carlsbad just recently. Behind the house they had planted the entire slope with succulent plants, a spectacular sight from the large bedroom and living room windows. Hundreds of more plants stood around in pots and bowls. Andrew Hankey from South Africa arrived the next day. The next one to arrive was Brian Kemble from San Francisco but then the convention started and we were all lodged in the Marriott Hotel Mission Valley.

On the first day we saw many well-known faces and got to know more plant people. During the convention one could continually see and hear different presentations from specialists from all over the world. If you wanted to stretch your legs a little, you could stroll around the hotel terraces which were planted with cacti and other succulents for this special occasion. The plant vendors were housed in a pavilion and of course there was also a book vendor present. At night we either met at the hotel bar or privately in one of the rooms. Particularly popular was Roberta and Jim Hanna's room that Roberta transformed into a bar where she served margaritas, beer, wine and other drinks and accompanying nuts, chips and other nibblings. With one of Roberta's margaritas which she carried downstairs in a paper bag you could survive even the longest afternoon. Originally we had planned to stroll along the Pacific and explore Old Town, but somehow or other we never had time for sightseeing. At least we managed to visit Torrey Pines State Park with a few San Diego dwellers one afternoon to search successfully for Dudleya blochmaniae ssp brevifolia. The plants are only visible during their growing season. They are extremely small and grow on a ground that is covered with colorful small pebbles to which they have adapted perfectly well. Another entire day was dedicated to an excursion. Our group was led by the knowledgeable Kelly Griffin who showed us many interesting Dudleyas. The absolute highlight of the trip was the visit to a locality of the rare Dudleya stolonifera. One entire rock was overgrown with the plants on its shady side. A spectacular sight! Close to San Diego one can see Dudleyas and other surviving native flora many times under freeway bridges for example. There, the plants try to maintain themselves against the introduced African Mesembs and Aeoniums. The convention was officially closed with a banquet where many people appeared in gala dress.

We spent another few days with Allen Repashy, a guy who specializes in exotic geckos but was infected by the succulent fever too. Together with his girlfriend Karen and his huge Great Dane he lives in a big house on a hill in Bonsall north of San Diego. On the hills around his place there are only McMansions to be seen, over dimensioned super-houses of the super-rich that are mostly completely lacking any architectural style. Allen's view is spectacular and in his garden with the many agaves and other succulent plants one can wander around forever and see new things. We visited other plant enthusiasts, including the lush tropical garden of a palm enthusiast and the private paradise of a cycad collector.

As always, our three week vacation was over way too fast. From the comfortable Mediterranean climate of San Diego we returned to the heat of central Mexico. Our Swiss-Mexican friends Jean-Marc and Lupita had put up balloons on their terrace for Martin's birthday. For breakfast they served homemade Tamales and Atole and we all sang "Las Mañanitas", the Spanish version of "Happy Birthday".

Juni-Juli 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen