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Happily Lost on Land, Searching for the Sea

One in an occasional series.

July 12, 2001|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can somebody, anybody, tell the Long Beach mayor or the Convention and Visitors Bureau or whoever is in charge of signage to mark the Long Beach Arena to make it clear that Ice Dogs and not sea lions are housed inside?

Por favor , pleads Dolores Castro, 81, whose double knee surgery has not precluded her from catching a bus in downtown Los Angeles, a train to Long Beach and walking--what seems like a marathon in 90-degree weather--so she can show off the Aquarium of the Pacific to her visiting relatives from El Salvador.

"We got off the train on 1st Street and we walked toward Ocean and we saw the round building with the fish on it, so we walked straight to it. But there were no fish in it," says Castro with her signature mischievous laugh. "How could that be? Where is the aquarium?"

Despite the Wyland sea life mural painted on it, this round building is the Long Beach Arena, home of the minor league hockey team the Ice Dogs and an occasional Disney on Ice performance. Castro walks by it, flanked by grandniece Helen Chacon, and her 12-year-old daughter, Grethel, who are both carrying bags from their morning of shopping along downtown's Los Angeles Street, an area Castro insists is called "The Beverly Hills of the Poor" by locals.

Where is the aquarium? Donde esta? Not here. This is the Convention Center. Castro stops to ask a parking attendant, but he is Korean and the combination of accents is not helping anybody. "Where did you leave your car?" is all the women can make out.

"Here's my car," Castro says, pointing to her feet and cracking up. Keep walking, says Grethel.

Now they're ambling in circles around a large, fenced parking lot. They figure this is a shortcut. They're wrong. Back to the Convention Center they go. Castro is running out of steam. Grethel is hungry. A shuttle bus is in the distance. Chacon runs toward it, "Please, where is the aquarium?" The driver points toward the ocean; there it sits, several blocks away.

"Could you take us?" Chacon almost begs. Hop on.

Gracias a Dios. Thank God.

It is now 4 p.m., an hour since the train dropped them off in downtown Long Beach, and two hours before the aquarium closes. No matter. "We're here, let's enjoy it," Castro says and smiles.

Finally, they're inside. First stop, lunch. "If we don't eat, my daughter will not let us enjoy anything," says Chacon, a widow who lost her job in El Salvador last year and is considering making the San Joaquin Valley, where her father lives, her permanent home.

This is only Day 2 of their weeklong trip, a present to Grethel for her excellent grades. Yesterday, they were at Universal CityWalk, eating pizza, buying caricature portraits and shimmery makeup, and watching the Jamaica Week performers. This is the third time Grethel and her mother have visited Castro in L.A., and today Castro wants her girls to partake in the Pacific's underwater world.

A lunch of sandwiches, chips, fruit and chocolate bars is downed mission continues. It's time to cruise the rocky reef exhibits. The turtle eggs beget nostalgia. "In my country, you boil them, add a little salt, lemon and hot sauce and inside it goes," says Chacon. "It's delicious."

"And with some beer, they go great," chuckles Castro, who recalls when she ate 12 in a row and wound up with a stomachache.

Grethel ventures outside, where the sea lions are clapping and carrying on. ( romancing each other, says Castro.) Several young children are on the other side of the tank touching the stingrays.

"I want to!" says Castro, with the glee of a toddler. Once, twice, she tries, but the rays don't swim close enough. She climbs on a step to get closer, but only winds up drenched. "Let's go inside."

A giant spider crab sitting near the glass of a tank is moving its mouth. Grethel had no idea that crabs could be this large. Castro taps the glass: "He's telling me to get closer, to touch him. Oh, my God, he's got so many eyes, and a big tongue. He's talking to me! Ay!"

Chacon, a home health-care worker, shakes her head. "This is the way she is all the time. Those knee surgeries left her in better shape than the Bionic Woman."

Castro emigrated from El Salvador in 1963, three days before President Kennedy was killed. She remembers downtown storefronts draped in black, and the weeping of thousands around her. She has survived earthquakes, raised a son and fallen in love with the state that has now been home for half her life. This afternoon, it is marine life that she adores, but Castro is one of those people who just loves being alive.

"Isn't this beautiful?" she says, looking at the sea horses and the green coral. "Life under the sea must be so beautiful and so incredible. How wonderful it would be to dive and look at it. How special for those who can do it."

The man on the speaker announces that the aquarium is closing. Castro is not disappointed. For 90 minutes, her "girls" have been surrounded by beauty, and the elderly woman is satisfied. She has big plans for the rest of the week: Universal Studios, Disney's California Adventure, Santa Monica, Malibu, San Pedro, Griffith Park, Chinatown and Olvera Street. All by train, by bus or on foot. Grethel is excited. She loves La-La Land.

Right now, Castro's knees are sore and she is short of breath. But the Castro tour continues. "Let's go to the Queen Mary. It's probably closed but you can stand in front of it and take a picture. It's so pretty. We won't get lost. There's a nice big sign on the ship."

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