California Dreaming: The Sights of San Francisco

Out of all the American cities that I was excited to visit during my travels, San Francisco was easily one of the top contenders. After the hundreds of times I’d seen the sweeping aerial views of the Golden Gate Bridge after the opening credits of almost every episode of Charmed, I was excited to see the city that I’d viewed so often through a TV screen. Or at least, I thought I was… however, a quick Google search upon my arrival revealed that the Charmed manor was actually located in LA, and that pretty much the entirety of the show, save those sweeping panoramas, was filmed in LA, despite being set in San Francisco. Yet San Francisco was the chosen setting because of the supposedly weird and quirky nature of the city, which allowed a sisterhood of urban witches to exist unnoticed, so in my mind the city was still a mysterious gem waiting to be discovered.

***

When I wasn’t getting drunk and passing out in the Castro or celebrating some wholesome American holidays, there was plenty of time to explore the many corners of San Francisco. Of course, after getting a bike from Rob on my first day in the city, I leapt at the first chance I had to cycle over to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Make sure you pick a day when there’s not too much fog,” Rob had reminded me when he’d taken me to pick the bike up. “Otherwise  you might not actually see that much of the bridge.” I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to tell whether or not there was fog on the bay, given that I couldn’t see it at all from my place in Noe Valley, but a bright and sunny day was the only cue that I needed to jump out of bed and set out on my way.

What I loved about San Francisco was how bike friendly it was, despite being a huge city with lots of traffic. When I punched in my destination into Google Maps, it showed me a route that I could travel that took me all the way to the northern edge of the city via bike lanes. And most of the cars seemed pretty accommodating to the cyclists too, unlike some of the aggressive behaviour from traffic that I’d witnessed in various places, particularly my home city of Sydney. However, the hills were my biggest downfall. I could power on up the longer, gradual inclines, but I have to admit there were a few monstrosities that were far too steep for me to pedal all the way up, and I had to dismount and walk the bike up those.

Once I hit the northern edge of the city, it was a long and mostly flat stretch of green ovals and parks until I finally reached the Golden Gate Bridge. It hadn’t seemed that far on the map, but it took me the better part of an hour to even get close.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

Once I finally approached the bridge, it took a little while to actually navigate the roads and pathways to make it up to the bridge itself. And then it was only when I got onto the bridge did it really strike me just how long it actually was. But there was no way that I was going to come this far and not ride across the bridge.

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Before crossing the bridge.

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The bridge and Rob’s old Burning Man bike. 

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Bridge selfie.

It wasn’t until I reached the other side of the bridge that I realised that there wasn’t actually much on the other side. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t in the centre of the city, so I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting. But it was, for all intents and purposes, a bridge that led to nowhere. I went to keep following the road that led off the bridge, but saw that it started off into what felt like the countryside, and while I’m sure there is something if you keep following the road, I was conscious of how far I had come, which was exactly how far I still had to go in order to get home. So instead I turned off and headed on a trail down the hill to the waters edge. There I discovered a few fisherman and a small information centre, with not much to offer except a shop where I purchased a bottle of water – I had underestimated the distance and therefore how much water I would actually need.

There wasn’t much else to see though, so I powered back up the hill and once again cross the Golden Gate Bridge back into San Francisco. Once I reached the other side, I decided to take a new route through some of the roads and pathways around the bridges edge, in an attempt to see some more sights. And that is how I found myself passing through the San Francisco National Cemetery. I slowed down a little as I passed the pristine, green grass with the rows of small white tombstones, and paused for a moment and spared a thought for the dead, before cycling on out back into the city and onwards towards home. Rob hadn’t been kidding when he said that a ride out to the bridge would take most of the day, and I promptly collapsed when I got home, and eventually ran myself another long, hot bath.

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San Francisco National Cemetery

***

For my next sightseeing outing, I decided to give my body a break from the cycling and test out the public transport system in San Francisco. On a few occasions when I hadn’t had the energy to walk to the hills to and from the Castro, it had been easy enough to jump  on a bus, but this time once I arrived at the Castro, I kept going and hopped on the metro system known as the BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transport. There are a number of BART stops in San Francisco itself, and the network crosses the bay to connect it with Oakland, Berkley, and a bunch of other cities on the east side of the bay. I jumped off just before the train crossed the bay, which placed me in the Financial District. I then walked up along the edge of the water until I reached Pier 39, which is without a doubt a huge tourist trap, but nonetheless I entered and walked along the wooden boardwalks, passing all the shops and restaurants and food stalls and screaming children. I paid no attention to any of that, but the only thing that really caught my attention was the sea lion colony that lived on a collection of wooden flotsams by the pier.

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View of the sea lions from the opposite pier.

I hadn’t even known about these sea lions, so at first I was rather shocked when I rounded the corner of the pier to see so many of them sprawled out across the wooden planks. Then I thought that I must have been extremely lucky to be here on a day when a huge group of them had seemingly randomly come so close to the shore and decided to hang out, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that the sea lions were as much locals as any of the humans living in San Francisco.

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A strange sculpture that I encountered along my walk. 

I spent a little while longer looking out over the bay. I had contemplated doing a tour out to Alcatraz, but they cost a little more than I was willing to spend on a day out, and none of them were leaving at any convenient times. So I just wandered around the area some more, and took my time watching the thick fog roll in across the water.

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After that I headed back inland, back down to the Financial District and then into Chinatown, where I wandered around a bit more and bought some street food for lunch as I went along. The only other really identifiable attraction that I came across was the Transamerica Pyramid, which had also appeared in many scenic segues during episodes of Charmed, so I was very glad to discover that it too was also actually located in San Francisco. Although much more appealing to gaze upon was what was next to the Transamerica Pyramid – the Transamerica Redwood Park. I knew that there were forests of redwood trees further up the coast of California, not too far away from San Francisco but most likely too far away from me to get there, short of hiring a car, which was practically impossible (or insanely expensive) for me given that I was under the age of 25. The trees in the Transamerica park weren’t nearly as tall as the wild redwoods, I suspect, but it looked like a nice little sanctuary in the heart of the Financial District.

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Transamerica Redwood Park

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The Transamerica Pyramid 

***

There was one attraction in San Francisco that I hadn’t actually heard of before my arrival, but as soon as I studied a map and spotted it, I knew that it would be the site of one of my full day outings. Golden Gate Park, located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, was San Fransisco’s version of Central Park, and while it wasn’t as big as some of the other huge parks that I’d visited in New York City and São Paulo, it was still of a significant size, rather narrow but extremely long, and with numerous different section inside, my visiting turned into a full day of adventure and exploration.

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Some of the features of Golden Gate Park include, but are not limited to, a golf course, an angling pool, a polo field, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, several playgrounds, a stadium, De Young Museum, numerous gardens and meadows, an archery range, and a bison paddock.

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One of the numerous water habitats throughout the park.

 

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The Rose Garden

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The Conservatory of Flowers (which had unfortunately closed for the day by the time I reached it)

 

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Sun dial that I found amongst one of the many open meadows.

I also made sure that I took my bike off some of the main roads, and rode through some of the more off-road terrain the park had to offer. I’m not sure if that was really allowed, but it was such a nice experience to turn off into the forest and delve into the depths where it felt like you could disappear and no one would ever find you.

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Although I have to admit, I probably got the biggest kick out of seeing the bison roaming around in the paddock, which really took me back to my Year 8 History classes and flashbacks to Dances With Wolves.

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The bison paddock. 

After making it through the entire length of Golden Gate Park, I emerged on the beach, and I rode down along the edge of the sand a little bit, and watched the flocks of seagulls flutter aimless along the mostly empty beach. I stared out over the Pacific Ocean for a little bit, and while I’d worked up a bit of a sweat with all the bike riding through the park, there was a cool wind whipping off the ocean that made the idea of swimming rather unpleasant. It was also blowing a lot of sand everywhere, which was also quite unpleasant, so eventually I found a beach house to take shelter in and have some lunch, after which I headed back to the park.

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Birds at the beach.

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Dutch windmill located in the western end of Golden Gate Park. 

***

My final bout of sightseeing took me into the city centre again, on a rather aimless afternoon stroll, if I’m perfectly honest. From the Castro I wandered further into the city and stumbled across the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, an elegant building that almost looked like a brilliant royal palace. Across from the City Hall lay the Civic Center Plaza, which had rows of trees that had all shed their leaves at the approach of winter, but the way they were planted in perfectly straight rows created a strange visual effect when you stood in the middle of them that reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

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San Francisco City Hall 

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Civic Center Plaza, complete with a Christmas tree. 

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The narrow tunnels created by the trees in the plaza. 

I wandered through the centre in the dying afternoon light, before heading back through the Castro and over the hills to get home.

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The gay streets of the Castro. 

***

I had been in San Francisco for almost two weeks, and I had loved every minute of it. While not as warm as I had expected California to be, I’d learnt a little about the phenomenon of the local climate, and the vibrant and colourful culture of the city had more than made up for it. I’d also met a bunch of awesome people, many of whom I’m still in touch with and will likely ensure that my first visit to San Francisco will not be my last. But alas, the countdown to the end of my seemingly endless worldwide journey had begun, and I still had the huge city of Los Angeles to explore before I jetted off from the mainland USA.

The morning of my departure, Todd and I both got up early: him getting ready for work, and me gathering up all my belongings and throwing them into my bag. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest BART station, which would take me across the bay and over into Oakland. It was from there that my Amtrak train would depart, and carry me down the Californian coast to LA. I said a heartfelt goodbye to Todd, who had done so much for me and without whom my stay in San Francisco would not have been the same, before jumping on the metro and heading across the bay to embark on one of the final legs of my worldwide tour.

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Making Friends in San Francisco

After bidding farewell to my new flight attendant friend, I was driven by a shuttle bus north from the airport and into the heart of San Francisco. While I had been in Vegas, I finally organised a Couchsurfing host for San Francisco, although things worked out quite differently from my previous experiences. After denied requests, even more ignored requests, and sifting through the offers from a remarkable amount of nudists living in San Francisco who also stated that guests must comply with the nudist lifestyle in their home (look, I’m open minded, but I’m just not quite ready for that), I finally found someone who was willing to host me. After reading my profile, Todd said that I sounded like an interesting person and he’d love to meet me and host me while I was in San Francisco. There was just one problem: he had travelled back to Florida to see his family for Thanksgiving. However, in another case of the kindness of strangers extending above and beyond anything that I could ever expect, Todd freely offered me use of his home from the moment I arrived in San Francisco, even though he wouldn’t be there for another week. When I arrived at his place, I was greeted by Todd’s neighbour Robert, who gave me a spare set of keys and let me into the apartment and showed me around. Todd had obviously informed him of my arrival, and he told me to let him know if I had any other questions or problems.

And then, for the first time in a long while, I had a place completely to myself again. Todd’s place was gorgeous, with two bedrooms, a nice open living room, and a huge bathroom. Seriously, the bath was basically a hot tub that I could completely stretch out and lie down in. So that’s exactly what I did – after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas and the consistent and tedious stints of transit, I enjoyed the private and personal space and pampered myself a little. It was the cleanest I’d felt in months, and I said a silent thank you to whatever mysterious forces in the universe that allowed me to end up in such an amazing situation.

***

While Todd’s extremely generous offer had given me a place to stay in San Francisco, it didn’t much help the fact that I didn’t actually know a single person in the city. Todd was going to be away for another week, and while I planned to be in San Francisco long enough to finally meet him when he got back, I wasn’t going to just sit around waiting for him. So of course, enter Grindr. Back in Austin, I had actually been chatting to a guy named Rob who lived in San Francisco, and although we never met up in Texas, he had told me let him know if I ever made it to his home city. So on my first evening, after my luxury bath in Todd’s huge bathroom, I sent Rob an email and arranged to meet up with him the following morning for brunch. It turned out that he was staying a short walk away from where I was staying in Noe Valley, so I walked to his place to meet him, and then we continued on from there to the Mission District.

One thing that I feel like I’d been warned about, yet never really paid attention to, was the amount of hills in San Fransisco. It’s actually ridiculous. When I’d first arrived, I surveyed the map and saw that Noe Valley was an extremely short walk from the Castro, the famous gay district of the city. However, I would quickly learn that I had to climb and descend three massive hills in order to get there, so what looked like a gentle stroll on a flat map actually became a semi-strenuous trek.
“It’s why my mother says everyone in San Francisco has such nice legs,” Rob told me as we mounted another hill on our way to the Mission District. “We’re always walking up and down all these hills, giving them a regular workout.”
When we hit the Mission District we had breakfast burritos at one of Rob’s favourite places, and chatted about travelling and San Francisco, and he gave me a few tips and suggestions about things to do and how to get around. Afterwards, he took me to Dolores Park, a popular hangout for… well, pretty much everyone in San Francisco. It was a huge park that spanned the length of several blocks, and due to the typical topography of the area it was a more of a huge green slope, with the hills rolling down the length of the park and naturally splitting it up into various sections.

“Up there is what some people call the Fruit Shelf,” Rob pointed out to the top of the park as we made our way through it. It was a section of the park that levelled out a bit and was relatively flat, before the ground fell away and resumed its regular sloping terrain. “It’s kind of a popular section of the park for the gays to hang out in.” We walked all the way up the park to the Fruit Shelf, and from that vantage point I had a pretty nice view of the city and the surrounding area.

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“Where’s the Golden Gate Bridge?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, it’s…” He looked around as if to get his bearings, and then pointed in what I assume now was a north-western direction. “It’s over that way. It’s not really near the centre of town or anything. You can ride your bike out there, but it’d take a couple of hours for a round trip.”
“Oh, right. I guess I just expected the famous landmark to be a little closer, you know?” After living in Sydney, where the Harbour Bridge is the focal attraction and situated smack bang in the middle of the cities harbour, I was a little taken aback to learn that San Francisco’s famous bridge was tucked away on the outskirts of the bay.

“Also, speaking of bikes, do you know where I could hire one?” I was surprised to learn that despite the hills, riding bikes was extremely popular in San Fransisco, and I was very keen to relive my Amsterdam days and get around via bicycle again.
“Oh, you don’t have one? I have an old one I could lend you.” Rob told me had an old bike that he had taken to the Burning Man festival the year before. It had been done up with flashy paint and glitter and tinsel for the event, and he had since gotten a newer and better bike, but he said I was welcome to borrow the old one for my time in the city. He was currently storing it in the basement of an investment property he had which wasn’t too far away, so we walked there and he got the bike out and gave me the keys to both the lock, and to the basement so that I could return it directly there whenever I was done with it. It was surprising how much trust some people will put in you after only knowing them for a few hours, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I had no intentions of abusing that trust. He had to head to work after that, and he said he was usually pretty busy, but if I had any other questions or needed advice about the city that I was welcome to drop him a line any time.

***

The next new friend that I met up with was someone else from Couchsurfing. While there are always a lot of hosts who are looking to take in travellers, there are also plenty of people on Couchsurfing who are not able to take in guests, but are still willing to meet up with other people and show them around their cities, or hang out, or have a meal, or anything at all, really. I’d found that finding a place to stay is usually the primary motivation for contacting people on Couchsurfing, but this time I actually found myself looking for people who were just willing to hang out. I messaged a guy named Kayvan, who had only had experience hosting a handful of people himself, and he agreed to meet up with my in the Castro later that night for dinner, since he would be flying back to Los Angeles the following day to be with his family on Thanksgiving. We met at a cute place called Harvey’s, named after the famous Harvey Milk, which was a mix between a café and a diner that sold food and cocktails. I think Kayvan was a little uneasy at first, but I must have made a good impression and not seemed like a loose screw, because eventually we were chatting away and exchanging stories. He was quite interested to know more about my Couchsurfing experiences, confessing he’d been a little reluctant to get into the whole thing because he wasn’t sure what type of travellers it might attract. I’d like to think I may have changed his mind when it came to that.

Afterwards we went around the corner to check out a few of the gay bars. Firstly we went to Toad Hall, which felt like it was half dive bar, half night club. People were sitting around drinking and catching up, and the vibe was pretty chill and relaxed , but there were playing pop music and the floor was pretty sticky, although I guess that’s just standard for gay bars in most places. The highlight was the outdoor patio, which helped bring around the relaxed drinking area vibe. We had a few more drinks out there, and as I started to get a little more tipsy, Kayvan suggested that we cross back over the road to go to Badlands. Badlands was your typical, slightly trashy gay bar where they that played all the pop hits, with TV screens showing the video clips and nice big dance floor for people to party on. It reminded me of G-A-Y Late in London, except it was still well before midnight when the club became full of people, which I had to admit I found rather shocking for a Tuesday. But I certainly wasn’t complaining, and we stayed there for a while and drank and danced.

 

However, before the night was over, there was one other place I wanted to check out. Earlier in the day Rob had told me about a gay party that only happened on Tuesday nights. It was called Truck, and is was a relatively underground phenomenon, given that you needed a password to get in. He had said that if I’d enjoyed the partying in Berlin, then I would definitely enjoy Truck. He didn’t really elaborate too much on that point, but there was definitely an understanding that the vibe would be a risqué, ‘anything goes’ attitude, similar to the one you might find in places such as Berghain. Anything local and underground was definitely something I wanted to check out, but when I mentioned it Kayvan he seemed slightly taken aback.
“You know about Truck?” He seemed shocked, but not horrified or repelled or in any way judgmental. I explained how I’d found out about it through Rob. “And you want to go? I mean, I can take you there, but… do you have the password?” I confirmed that Rob had also given me the password, so Kayvan just kind of shrugged his shoulders in a “Why the hell not?” kind of fashion, and we left Badlands.

It was a short drive and Kayvan assured me he hadn’t drank too much, so he drove us the short distance to the venue where Truck was held.
“I’ve only been a few times. It’s fine, it’s just… something you usually have to be in the mood for, I guess. I don’t mind though, if you wanna see it we can go.”
I got a little nervous as we approached the bouncers outside of what seemed like nothing, and I had a quick flashback to my first time at Berghain. But I had the password, and so Kayvan and I both went inside to find a long, dimly lit warehouse type building that was crammed with mostly half-naked men. The air was heavy with the smell of sweat and sex, but it was pretty much everything that Rob had alluded to so I wasn’t surprised at all. And I know I’d been telling myself that it was nice to unwind after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas, but hey, I was on holidays and there were some seriously good looking men in the club, so I went in and did a bit of mingling.

Eventually Kayvan actually ran into a friend of his. Well, an acquaintance, at least. They said hi, and I couldn’t tell if it was an awkward place for them to be running into each other, but Kayvan introduced me to Gary too, and we hung out for a bit. Gary was actually quite cute, and things started to get a little flirty between us (although that seems like a given when everybody is at least half naked), which Kayvan must have picked up on, because I think he took it as a chance to leave.
“Hey, so you look like you’re doing okay… Do you need me to hang around?” I remembered what he’d said about needing to be in the mood to enjoy Truck, so I thanked him for bringing me and told him that I would definitely be able to fend for myself if necessary. He had a plane to catch the next day, so we said our goodbyes there on the sweaty dance floor. Luckily I now had Gary to keep me company, so he hadn’t left me completely alone. Without going into any graphic details, we stayed at Truck until close, and were present for the awkward shift in atmosphere when the DJ gets cut off and the house lights all come on. Gary and I readied ourselves for the outside world, and then stumbled out of the warehouse and into the cool night. Since Kayvan had driven me to Truck, I had no idea where I really was, so I just ended up jumping in Gary’s Uber, where we asked the driver to trawl through the streets until we found a fast food place that was still open. And that’s how I ended up eating Subway in Gary’s apartment in the early hours of the morning.

***

Gary said he was “working from home” that day, so the two of us stayed in bed for most of the morning, sleeping in at first, and then slowly waking up and recounting the bizarre night and the series of events that had led us to the moment we were currently in. Until we heard a champagne cork pop out in the kitchen, which brought our conversation to a halt.
“Um… oh!” Gary exclaimed, after a brief moment of confusion. “That’s right, it’s my housemates birthday.” We stared at each other for a few second, unsure of what to do.
“Well… let’s go have some champagne then?” I said to him. He just laughed, so I freshened up and got dressed when then went out to meet his housemate.

“Happy birthday, Brandon” Gary said as we emerged from the room and into the kitchen, where Gary’s housemate and his boyfriend were pouring a few glasses of champagne.
“Thank you, darling,” Brandon said as he gave Gary a hug. “And what’s this? Looks like you’ve started the party already, Gary!”
“This is Robert. He’s a traveller from Australia. Robert, this is Brandon and his boyfriend Orlando.”
“Oh, Australia? How fabulous. Well, welcome to San Francisco!”
“Thank you, and happy birthday Brandon!” He was slightly older than Gary, who was already slightly older than myself, but he was already proving to be quite the character.
“Would you like a glass?” Orlando asked me, holding up the bottle. It was only just 11am, but…
“Well, what the hell, I’m on holidays, right? I’ve got no where else to be!”
And that’s how I ended up drinking until the early afternoon, chatting with Brandon and Orlando and playing with their dogs. Eventually Gary had to go out, to pick a few things up and get ready for the coming evening.

“We’re going out to dinner for my birthday, Robert, and you’re more than welcome to join us if you like,” Brandon said as Gary and I were heading out the door.
“Well… I don’t have any plans,” I said with a shrug. I turned to Gary. “Is that okay with you?”
“Ah, absolutely!” Gary said with a grin. “Also… I have to go home and visit my family for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and then I have to stay away for work so… I probably won’t have another chance to see you again.” Despite the overwhelmingly unromantic setting in which we had met, I was definitely starting to develop a bit of a crush on Gary. It was a shame that I wouldn’t get a chance to spend much more time with him, but it was more than enough motivation to join him and Brandon and Orlando, and presumably a handful of other people, for dinner that evening. We left the apartment complex, and Gary called an Uber to send me home so that I could change out of last nights clothes and freshen up a little bit.

In the evening I caught the bus back over to Gary and Brandon’s side of town and met them at their place, where pre-dinner cocktails were already well under way. I was introduced to a few of their good friends, and also a guy named Nathan*, who was a friend of Gary’s who happened to be in town, and was visiting from Los Angeles.
“Oh nice, I’m going to be in LA soon, in a little more than a week,” I told him, and we got chatting as he mixed me up a drink, and said that’d he’d have room for me to crash with him for a couple of nights when I arrived. I thanked him, slightly amazed at how things had been seemingly working out so well for me, and how easily I’d been able to meet a bunch of people and make friends over the last few days. It was only my third night in San Francisco, but with the delicious pizza, flowing wine, hilarious conversation and excellent company, I was already starting to feel rather at home.

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Brandon’s birthday dinner

 

 

*Name has been changed for reasons that will be expanded upon in further posts.

A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

Despite being less than an hours drive away from Austin, and the seventh most populated city in the US, I had never even heard of the city of San Antonio until Vincenzo had suggested it to me when I was planning my route across the South-West. “It’s pretty much as far as you can go before you hit… well… the nothing that is the rest of Texas,” he’d advised me, so I figured it would be a suitable pit stop before the Greyhound (or Hellhound, as I would soon start referring to them) bus trip across the desert. “It’s also quite a beautiful city, down along the river walk.”

When I hopped off the bus in the carpark that Megabus used as a terminal, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Hector. When I’d first contacted him he had admitted that he and his boyfriend Jay hadn’t hosted anyone through Couchsurfing before, but after such great first time experience with first time hosts like Tomas and Matej in Prague I didn’t even give it a second thought. Hector was incredibly friendly from the moment we met, and he even offered to take a few detours on the drive home so that he could drive me through the city centre and show me a few of the landmarks and features that we could come back and explore properly during my next few days in San Antonio. When we arrived home I was introduced to Jay and shown the spare room where I’d be sleeping.
“Yeah, so… this is actually where my daughter sleeps when she’s here,” Hector said when I commented on some of the toys that had been moved to the side of the room. At first I was a little surprised – Hector was a few more years old than me, and I guess I just never really expect gay people to have kids. But then some people do obviously have heterosexual relationships before realising they’re gay. “She won’t be around this weekend though, so make yourself at home. Also, I don’t know if you’re feeling up to it or if you’re too tired, but we’ve actually got some friends coming around and we’re gonna go out for some drinks a bit later. Obviously you’re welcome to join us too.” Considering it was still only Thursday, it was at that moment that I realised I had made another excellent choice of Couchsurfing hosts, and I wasn’t wrong – Hector and his friends knew how to have a good time.

I showered and freshened up – a necessity after any bus transit, no matter how big or small – and by the time I was ready Hector and Jay’s friends had arrived. There was a round of brief introductions as Nico, one of Hectors friends, offered me a beer.
“Have you ever had Dos Equis like this before?” he had asked me, to which I replied that I’d never tried Dos Equis at all, to which pretty much everyone in the room responded with mild horror. According to Hector and Nico it was a standard  and staple beer in the area. Nico had used a wedge of lime to wet the neck of the bottle and sprinkled it with what appeared to be chilli flakes or some kind of red powder, before putting the lime into the neck of the bottle, as is common with most Mexican beers. I think the idea is to treat the garnishing like the salt rim of a margarita, licking up a bit of the spicy flavour before washing it down with a swig of the beer. I can’t say I was such a fan of the dressings, but the beer itself was tasty. We hung out for a little while at Hector’s, all of his friends asking curious questions about my travels and my home country, before rallying up and heading out to show me some of the gay bars in San Antonio.

***

Like any blog post of this nature, the specifics are a little hazy, but Hector later helped me retrace most of the steps. The first stop of the evening was Hi-Tones, a dark little hipster bar where Hector insisted that I try their signature Pickle Shot. Though I assured him I absolutely hated pickles, my ‘try anything once’ attitude forced me sample it all the same. I refrained, however, from eating the tiny little pickle in the bottom of the shot glass – I guess I still know my limits. I also use the term ‘shot’ very loosely, because the size of some of their shots would qualify as small, strong mixed drinks back in Australia, although the reality is the only way I would ever be able to down something pickle flavoured would be in a single gulp, simply to get it over and done with. The other famous shot was a Chamoy Shot, a spicy concoction after which I definitely needed a few beers to cool off again. We spent a little time at Hi-Tones, enjoying their ridiculously cheap drinks and cool music, before making our way to a bar called Brass Monkey, which was a short walking distance from Hi-Tones, and was a gay-friendly bar that everyone assured me had the best music for dancing.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

But before we made it there, somehow Nico dragged Hector and I away from the rest of the group to make a quick stop at a place called Bootleggers (which I’ve been told has been closed and opened under a new name). Inside there was a long bar with a selection of what they told me was moonshine.
“Moonshine? Doesn’t that… ah… make you go blind?” I asked hesitantly. Hector and Nico laughed, assuring me that this variety of moonshine was actually made though completely legal processes and was not going to cause me any permanent damage. But damn, it was strong. If I hadn’t been drunk already, the moonshine was most likely the tipping of the scales, pushing me past the point of no return. We eventually made it to Brass Monkey and rejoined the others, where the drink special was 75c wells (thats ‘house spirits’ to Australians). As you can imagine, that didn’t end too well for me, despite how amazing the offer had seemed at the time. After dancing all night, the only thing I remember from the walk home, and the last thing I really remember at all, is collapsing on the grass outside Hector and Jay’s place and projectile vomiting all over the lawn. Luckily they thought it was absolutely hilarious and weren’t completely grossed out, and despite the incredibly potent moonshine I still maintain that the real culprit was the Pickle Shot.

As close as we'll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

As close as we’ll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

***

I was woken up the next morning when the sun came streaming through the curtains and onto my bed. I tired to roll over and escape it, but there isn’t much room in a single bed when you’re sharing it with another person… and then it took me a couple of seconds to realise… Wait, who am I sharing the bed with?!
The first thing I did was check to make sure I was still wearing clothes, which I was. The next thing I did was sit up and look at the person next to me. He opened his eyes too, and for a few seconds we just stared at each other. In that brief moment I had completely forgotten who he was, and it was only after the exchanging of confused stares for a few more seconds that I realised it was Nico.
“Ahh… what… what… um… Why are you in my bed?” The words were coming, but the state I was in was definitely deficient in eloquence.
“What… This is… This is my bed,” Nico said with a laugh and a smile. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling, as I usually have a pretty good memory even after I’ve been drinking. The memory loss, I believe, I can definitely attribute to the moonshine – so much for no permanent damage!
“Um… but… I’m staying… here… I think…?” I pointed to my bag and my clothes on the floor. We were definitely at Hectors house, and this was definitely the room he had showed me. “Isn’t this my room?”
“No, this is my room,” he said jokingly, “at least when I stay here.” I could tell he was just messing around now, but it didn’t really help explain anything.
“Oh… but… um… what… what the hell happened?” I asked, still completely baffled.
“I… I don’t know?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we couldn’t help but just laugh. “Wait, what’s the time? Hector has to work today.” Nico searched for his phone and checked the time, before laying back in the bed and calling out as loud as his croaky voice could manage.
“Hector! Good morning!”

The bedroom door opened, and we were joined by an equally as confused Hector.
“Nico? What are you… doing here?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we all couldn’t help but laugh. Hector looked particular tired. “I am so hungover, and I’m already late for work. What are you doing today, Nico?”
“Well I’m going to show Robert around, of course!” he exclaimed, as though it was something that we’d been planning all morning. I just chuckled, shrugged, and decided that it was actually a pretty good idea. So Hector and Jay went off to work, I got up and showered, and then Nico and I headed off on two bikes we borrowed from Hector. It was definitely a rather surreal way to start the day, but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning as I followed Nico through the twists and turns, secret shortcuts through parks. The whole thing felt so ‘go with the flow’ and carefree, I felt like we were going to round a corner, join a gang of other cyclists and end up in a pop music video singing about the good life, or some other kind of carefree tune. But we kept cycling, just the two of us, and we made a quick stop at Nico’s bank before ending up at a Starbucks, where his friend Daniel was working. We got our coffees for free while Nico introduced me and proceeded to recount the crazy night and strange morning that we’d had so far while Daniel listened, thoroughly amused. He had been working all morning, but since it was closer to the afternoon by that point he was nearer to the end of his shift than the beginning of it, so he agreed to meet up with us later on in the day. After that I followed Nico to another place called One-O-Six, a dirty-little-whole in the wall cocktail bar, and we ate breakfast burritos from the BBQ shack next door and drank some drink that Nico ordered us that was way too strong to be drinking when the sun was still up. As hungover as I was, it still tasted quite nice, so I kept drinking it and didn’t ask questions. The bar actually had quite a few people there, and Nico seemed to know all of them, including the staff. I figured that these might be a handful of day drinking regulars, so I satisfied myself by believing I was definitely off the tourist track now and seeing San Antonio from the eyes of a real local.

***

After learning that Hector had left work early, we rode our bikes downtown to meet him for lunch by the River Walk. Aside from the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk is probably one of the city’s greatest treasures, with long walkways stretching down either side of the river that flows through the town, lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, and other tourist attractions. After attempting to eat at a place called Casa Río, where we gave up and left before we’d even ordered due to the terrible service, we settled for introducing me to Whataburger, yet another American fast food chain restaurant that I had never even heard of until that moment. It wasn’t anything life changing, but Hector’s hangover forced him to abandon half his burger and run to the bathrooms to be sick, so perhaps it was best that we’d stuck with something a little less classy. Daniel arrived soon after that, also on his bike, so we decided there would be time for me to explore the River Walk another time and instead jumped on the bikes and headed around the main strip of the River Walk and down to the Missions Hike and Bike Trail. The missions near San Antonio are a collection of preserved old Catholic churches, relics of the spread of Christianity along the Southwest in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but they were located in the national park just outside of the city, with a bike trail along the river that led all the way there. However, it was too late in the day to make it all the way out there without it getting dark, and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, so Hector promised to drive me out there over the weekend so I could visit them. Instead, we just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and the leisurely bike ride along the river, while the guys pointed out sights to me and just chatted about life in general.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

After turning around and heading back to down, we stopped by a place called CHRISpark, a beautiful little urban park that was created in memory of Chris, the son of local artist Linda Pace. The grounds of the garden were covered with beautiful foliage and plants, as well as a handful of artistic designs, which made sense given the creator of the space. We parked our bikes and wandered around, and Nico pointed out a few of his favourite flowers, before confessing that he was actually a wedding planner and that he knew many of them from creating flower arrangements and bouquets. In retrospect, I didn’t take nearly enough photos, but the park definitely has an atmosphere of gorgeous tranquility. We had a quick chat to the friendly groundskeeper, who took our picture for us, before continuing on our way. Daniel recommend that we stop at a speakeasy bar called 1919 – which I would have rode straight past if I hadn’t known it was there – where I was introduced to yet another local alcoholic delicacy, a Strawberry Habanero hot shot. The combination of spicy habanero chilli and sweet strawberry is an… interesting sensation, to say the least. I’d never been the biggest fan of spicy foods, but I think the boys in San Antonio had made it their mission to expose me to as many of these specialities and introduce me to spices that could not only be eaten, but also drunk. I have to say, I think it worked, because ever since I’ve been a little bit less afraid of trying spicy foods.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

On the way home we rode through downtown San Antonio in the cover of night, and stopped to observe some of the sights, including the Alamo Mission, the site of the famous siege in 1836; the Tower of the Americas, which at 750 feet (or almost 230 metres) was the tallest observation deck in the USA until 1996; and the Torch of Friendship, a monument that was a gift to San Antonio from the Mexican Government to symbolise the cooperation between the city and the country. We also stopped to take a few photos of ourselves, at the request of Nico’s artistic vision.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

After that Hector and I bid farewell to Daniel and Nico and rode our bikes back along the river, which ended up taking us pretty much all the way home. The were several light up art installations along the way, and Hector was full of information about the city and its rich local history. Not only had I lucked out with an awesome host to loved to party as much as I did, but Hector also very much loved San Antonio, and has such a passion for sharing that love and that knowledge, and those people always – without a doubt – make the best Couchsurfing hosts.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

***

Despite the crazy Thursday night and the ensuing hangovers, Hector and Jay weren’t about to let me sit at home on a Friday night. After freshening up and dinner we met with Nia, one of Hectors colleagues who I’d met briefly down by the River Walk during the day, and Nico. We ended up driving to the clubs that night, and the one that stands out the most is Saint. Usually the club has a drag show on Friday nights, but the night we turned up just so happened to be a launch party for Lady Gaga’s latest album, Artpop, which had just been released. As well as a bunch of crazy queens doing their best Gaga numbers, they were also giving away copies of the album. As it turns out, one of the queens was a friend of Hector and Jay, so I also ended up being the lucky winner of a CD giveaway and walking away from the club with Lady Gaga’s new album. Too bad I didn’t currently have a CD player, and had already purchased it on iTunes, but it made for a cool souvenir with a pretty cute memory attached.

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

We went to a few other bars that evening, including Pegasus, where somebody knew someone so we got free shots, and there was an outdoor patio area where people were rocking out to karaoke, and Heat, a fancier place that was more a nightclub, where we spent a little while dancing. We definitely didn’t have the stamina of the night before though, so we ended up just chilling out in the quiet areas, and I had a few good conversations with Nia, who was pretty excited that she could now claim she had an Australian friend. I still drank far too much under the encouragement of Hector, but I think I managed to keep it all down that night, and we all headed home relatively early – I had been going almost non-stop since arriving in San Antonio, but I still had a weekend of sightseeing ahead of me.

Last Call: London Leftovers

I spent so long in London that it was rather tricky to catalogue the events chronologically – there were days when I did absolutely nothing, and lounged around with a hangover watching TV in Giles’ living room, and there were some days were I just had short, simple excursions to certain minor attractions. I didn’t feel all of them warranted their own blog posts, so here are the some of the minor sub-plots that occurred as part of my overall London adventure:

***

After Richard had dropped me home from our trip to Cambridge, he said he’d be in touch if he and his friends would be doing anything fun over the next few weeks. I eventually got a rather hilarious message from him with an offer that I couldn’t refuse just because I found it so bizarre. Apparently Richard is a huge One Direction fan, and him and some of his friends were meeting in Leicester Square that evening, outside the cinema where the famous boy band were set to appear for the premiere of their documentary film. I have quite a few girlfriends back home who are quite literally obsessed with One Direction, and so in my head I said I’d do it for them. At the very least I would be ending up in the heart of Soho, and I didn’t have any other plans for the evening anyway, so I jumped on the tube and went in to meet them.

The scene was insane. Teenage girls were everywhere, screaming their lungs out every time one of the boys so much looked at the camera with an attempt at a smouldering look, which was then projected onto the huge screens around the place. Personally I think they just looked like douche bags, but whatever, I was more amused at the hysteria emanating from the crowds… and from Richard and Tim, another guy who was also friends with Giles and John. It was the three of us and their female friend Hannah, and we stood around trying to get a glimpse of the famous quintet. However, there had been many security measures put in place – rightly so, given the delirium the boys inspired – including a huge blackout fence that greatly restricted the number of people who were allowed to be inside the main area where the boys and the other attending celebrities were. We did our best to catch a glimpse of any of them in the flesh, but in the end we had to concede defeat to the hordes of teenage girls who had literally been lining up for days to come even remotely close to the teen heartthrobs.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a "1D" sign with our arms.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a “1D” sign with our arms.

We retired to a pub for dinner and beers, and afterwards we bid farewell to Hannah we eventually moved on to G-A-Y. It was early enough to go to the main bar on Old Compton Street, meaning I’d been inside two of the three G-A-Y venues located in London. The music was the same trashy pop and the drinks were so ridiculously cheap that I was genuinely shocked. Tim was a teacher, but he had just taken a new job which meant he wasn’t working at the moment, so he was keen to keep on partying. Richard had to work in the morning – he’d already “worked from home” once due to a night of drinking with me, so he kept his word and got the tube home once he’d had enough drinks. I had no excuse, though – not that I wanted one – so Tim and I continued to party all the way to G-A-Y Late, and were embarrassingly still there at 3am when the lights came on and they made us all get out. Despite the presence of One Direction, and not being able to find an open McDonalds at 3am on a Wednesday morning, it had turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

***

As far as daytime excursions went, I had been told by many people back home that I had to visit Camden for the weekend markets. From what I could gather it was an alternative area of the city, the equivalent to Sydney’s Inner West, where artists and musicians and other crazy creatives could congregate. To get to Camden from Hackney was rather simple – just follow the canal west from Victoria Park and sooner or later you’ll hit it – so I decided to borrow Giles’ bike for the excursion and ride along the water. It took a little while, but probably less than it would have if I had walked to Mile End to catch the tube all the way there. I timed my visit to make sure I went on a weekend, when the market was in full swing, and I could tell I was getting close when the distinct scent of marijuana wafted in on the breeze. Knowing I wasn’t in Amsterdam any more, I made very sure to steer clear of that. But near the main bridge in Camden that crossed the canal there were flocks of people spread out on the grass, the paths – anywhere where there was room – and were simply just chilling out. I found somewhere to lock my bike up and began wandering the streets. Everywhere you turned there were shops, stalls, markets, food stands, and the limits of what you could find were seemingly endless.

Camden.

Camden.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Despite all that, I didn’t really want or need anything, so I never ended up buying anything. Except, of course, when I came across a world food market. There were so many options from a range of different cuisines from all around the world that I ended up having several lunches just because I was unable to choose just one. Afterwards, I rode home with a detour to Kings Cross train station, to visit Platform 9 3/4 and have my photo taken with the trolley. There was actually a bit of a line to get it done, but it was totally worth it, especially when they gave your a house scarf of your choice to wear in your photo. Harry Potter fans die hard.

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

I also spent one Sunday morning wandering over to the Columbia Road Flower Markets, located not too far from where I was staying in Hackney. It was a single narrow road that was completely transformed into a giant floristry market, and while I had absolutely no need to buy plants or flowers of any kind, it was rather nice to walk down the road and take in all the beautiful colours and smells.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

***

I also had more dinner outings, with friends both new and old. I made it out to Greenwich again, to visit the observatory and to have dinner with John, where I could see the beautiful sunset over the London skyline, and see the lights of the business district in Canary Wharf glitter in the distance as darkness settled over the city. However, on the evening of the afternoon I had spent with Ellie at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, I had dinner with Angus and Margaret, a pair of old family friends whom I had met almost 15 years ago when I had visited Scotland with my family. It felt a little strange at first, although I expect it would have been a bigger change for them to see how I had eventually grown up. We had a lovely meal and some nice wine, and while it was nice to see them, dinner was only the beginning of the evening for me. After bidding them farewell, I decided I would hang around Soho some more and check out some other bars. I found myself at a place called Ku Klub, quietly people-watching and sipping on some cheap drinks, before I was approached by an English guy who was from out of town, in London for a night out. He was with a group of friends, so I ended up tagging along with them to a place called Candy Bar. I would later find out that it was actually a lesbian bar which the “Ku Bar Boys” took over every Tuesday evening. Once again, I was astounded at just how many bars and venues there actually were in London, even just around the Soho area.

Sunset over the city as seen from John's flat.

Sunset over the city as seen from John’s flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John's flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John’s flat.

Honestly, that part of the night was a blur. I met some other people at Candy Bar, and the guys and girls who I had originally tagged along with from Ku Klub were starting to creep me out a little bit, so I ended up leaving with some other people and ending up at… G-A-Y Late? I don’t even know how that happened. Where did the time go? Was it midnight already? Maybe I went to G-A-Y first, I can’t even be sure. Oh, it was tragic. I met a guy named Tim who said he lived around the corner, so we went back to his apartment to drink more and do some shots. He wanted to show me his new sound system, so he started playing some party music. His boyfriend, who had apparently been sleeping next-door, wasn’t too impressed by that. After sitting there silently in the middle one extremely awkward and passive aggressive argument, I grabbed my coat and bailed back to G-A-Y Late. More drinking and dancing ensued. I ended up chatting to a young guy named Jonny, and we hit it off straight away. He was a little little younger than me, and seemed quite shy, buy super nice. He was there with a girlfriend of his, a boisterous little lesbian named Anna, and she was very protective of him, but we got chatting and in the end she warmed up to me and even tried to set the two of us up.

And it worked. Boys will be boys on the dance floor, but come 3am we were all booted out to the streets again. Anna had already disappeared at that point, so I stuck with Jonny as we wandered through the streets, jumping fences to pee in the bushes of Soho Square, and just galavanting around like the young and drunk fools we were. Instead of heading back to Hackney, he insisted that I stayed with him, which is how I came to find myself wandering through some unknown park further south at 4am with a pretty young man who was all but a stranger to me. I ended up accompanying him home – something I may not have done if I had bothered to figure out where exactly where that was. We walking from tube station to tube station to train station and then I think eventually ended up in a taxi. I was literally falling asleep on Jonny’s shoulder at that point so I just had to roll with it and hope he knew where he was going. It was a very “Where the hell am I?” moment when we woke up at 2 o’clock the next afternoon and he told me were in Uxbridge. I looked it up on a map.
Uxbridge? We’re not even in London anymore!” It was like going out in the centre of Sydney and waking up just past Parramatta, or going out in Manhattan and waking up in New Jersey. He offered me a sheepish grin, and all I could do was laugh. “Okay then, well… this has been fun, how the hell do I get home?”
It was a train ride followed by a long way on the tube, but I finally made it home at the delightful time of 5pm. Even for me, that’s some kind of record.

***

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more markets, on one of my final days in London, Tim – Richard’s friend with the One Direction obsession – took me to the Borough Markets just south of London Bridge.
“The goal here is,” he informed me as we walked into the crowds that were milling around the stalls, “To eat lunch for free. If you go to claim enough free samples, you can basically get a free meal for nothing!” It was quite hilarious watching him chat to the stall owners, as we sampled a variety of cheeses, breads, cookies, cakes, and a host of other treats, and then telling them, “Yes, we might be back later. Just going to keep having a look around for now.”
While we did eat our weight in free samples, we ended up buying some gourmet burgers for lunch anyway, and then abandoned the markets for a walk down along the River Thames. We went into the Tate Modern, since it had been closed when I’d last walked past it with Anthony, but the exhibit Tim had wanted to show me was closed, or otherwise unavailable.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

In an attempt to try and show me something new in my final days in London, Tim and I took a train north, and from there we walked through the streets of Camden until we reached Primrose Hill.
“It’s one of the best views in London, of London, people say,” Tim told me as we marched up the gentle slope. All around us, couples and groups were lying about and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun, dogs running around between them and children frolicking about playing games. It was such a pleasant scene, and Tim and I took a seat for a little while and chatted as we watched the afternoon fade into evening. Tim had plans to see the One Direction film that evening, so we said goodbye at the Camden tube station, where he was heading off to Soho, and I hired a bike from one of the numerous bike rental stations and followed it back along the canal again until I finally reached Hackney.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

***

Giles had actually arrived home during my final days in London, so for my last night out I met with him, John and Richard in Soho for some drinks. After getting the tube back into the city I met them at a pub for a few drinks before Giles wanted to take me to a club called Manbar, a place that was particularly popular with gay men of the older and hairier variety. Despite that, it still played all your typically gay pop-trash, and the drinks were once again extraordinarily cheap. If there was one thing I could confirm about London, it is that the price of drinks in most of the gay bars blew Sydney out of the water for any kind of value for money. We had a few drinks at Manbar before bidding farewell to John, who unfortunately had to work the morning. But as the night carried on, Richard and Giles decided that it was only fitting that they took me to the third and final G-A-Y venue that I was yet to have visited: G-A-Y Heaven.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London's iconic red telephone booths.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London’s iconic red telephone booths.

“Heaven is a little more special,” Giles explained to me as we walked there. It was down near Charing Cross, not in quite the same area as the rest of the Soho bars. “It’s massive, and it’s the place where all the famous pop stars do their surprise gigs or shows in London.” G-A-Y Heaven has hosted shows by Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Spice Girls, Katy Perry, One Direction, Amy Winehouse and scores of other artists. When we arrived we walked up to the door and straight on in – most of the people seemed to know Giles by name and there was definitely no wait for us. And so once we were inside I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had read about in all of the guides and social magazines but had never had the… er, pleasure, of seeing first hand: Porn Idol.

Yep, it’s basically a spin-off of the Idol singing competition franchise, except instead of showing off their voices, they are showing off their bodies. And their junk. There were about 10 contestants that night, and when they’re given a song they’re required to strip down to the music. They must get completely naked and full-frontal, with the music not coming to a halt until the crowd as actually had a decent glimpse of his manhood. Yep, they were literally getting naked on a stage in front of hundreds of people. There was no actual sex going on, as the ‘Porn’ in the title might suggest, but in true Idol tradition there was a panel of bitchy judges who were present to make all kinds of horrible and degrading comments to about 90% of the contestants – the exception was the two gorgeous Brazilian men who seemed to be competing that night. Everyone seemed to take it on board as a bit of laugh though (or they were just too drunk to care about anything), even as the judges doled out their harsh critiques and scores.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

“You should get up there! They’d love you!” Giles jeered, and I could tell he was only half joking. However, I’d seen pictures of this event from the previous weeks, and knew full well that many of the people who got up on stage ended up having their photos in the local gay papers, completely uncensored, and I just didn’t think I was ready for that kind of risk. Or commitment, I guess. So we laughed and we cheered and we ogled until the show was over, and we continued to drink and dance as I explored the cavernous rooms of Heaven. The place was huge, but because it was only a Thursday night it was half as empty as I presume it would be on a weekend. But it was a fun way to end the night, and a great way to finish off my entire London experience. I chatted to a guy from Essex who was sad to hear that I was leaving for Ireland in the morning. He settled with a cheeky pash before I found Giles and we headed back home to his place.

I think it was just after 4am by the time we got home and I finally collapsed on the couch. I had about 2 hours of sleep before I had to get up and make my way to Euston train station, but it was worth it. My time in London had been a wild roller coaster ride through a huge and diverse city. I’d met new friends, caught up with old ones, had lovely nights in and obscene nights out, I’d traversed the city limits and had done everything I’d set out to do and more. Even though there are numerous gaps in my memory, my time spent in London is a time that will not soon be forgotten.

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

As much as I had wished Lola’s prediction was true, there eventually came a time, again, when I had to leave Berlin. However, this time the departure would end on a much lighter and livelier note, despite having to get up before 6am. Last time Ralf had seen me off at the U-Bahn station on his way to work, and I’d waved goodbye as I descended down the steps onto the platform. This time, Ralf would be coming with me to Amsterdam. Throughout most of my travels around Europe, I had always been planning to finish up in Amsterdam on the coming weekend because – you guessed it – that’s when they were celebrating pride. I had already planned ahead with my Couchsurfing hosts a couple of months in advance, but as it happened Ralf was also travelling over to the Netherlands to visit a friend, and join in with the pride festivities. While we both had our own plans for while we were in Amsterdam, Ralf had suggested that we catch the train there together, to provide each other with some company on the 8 hour journey. With the exception of Itzel on my way to Prague, most of my train trips had been moments of solitude, so I gratefully accepted the change of pace.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

During the journey Ralf told me a little bit about Amsterdam and their pride celebrations. When I was in Groningen, Gemma had also told me a little about what she had heard of Amsterdam pride, so unlike my experiences in Madrid and Paris – which had been completely unexpected – pride in Amsterdam was something that had been highly anticipated for quite some time now. Towards the end of the journey, I saw rows of rainbow flags strung up across the city, waving gently in the wind, and suddenly my heart swelled with excitement. Pride or not, Amsterdam was one of those cities with a worldwide reputation for a lot of different things, and I was excited to get amongst it and experience it all for myself. When we disembarked and stepped out into the bright sunshine – something that was apparently quite uncommon in this city – it was time for Ralf and I to part ways. He was going to meet his friend, and I would be meeting Michael – an Australian friend of mine who was also travelling in Europe – and crashing with him in his hotel for the night. We bid each other a quick farewell, assuming we would probably run into each other at some point in the weekend.

***

Michael had had a big night of partying the previous night, so we ended up just having dinner out and hanging out at the hotel, catching up and relaxing. He was catching a train to Berlin the following day, and I was more than happy to take it easy in anticipation for the coming weekend. As much as I love meeting foreigners and new local people, it’s always nice to sit down and have a chat with a familiar Australian and not having to worry about running to cultural barriers of any kind. It was a fleeting encounter though, and the next morning we parted ways – him to the train station and myself onto the next friend I was catching up with. Asja was was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend Gemma’s older brother Brendon, who I’d met up with in Thailand. The connection really isn’t as complicated as it sounds when you try to say it out loud, and I had met Asja a few years ago when she was living in Australia. Originally from Germany, she was now living and studying in Amsterdam, so at Gemma’s suggestion I had gotten in touch with her and arranged to meet up. After arriving via foot at her small flat – located above the shop she was working in – I was dripping with sweat, so I was delighted to learn that she was planning on taking me to the beach.

“It’s such a beautiful day! You don’t get many sunny days like this in Amsterdam, so you have to make the most of it!” We were going to be joined by a couple of Turkish guys Asja had made friends with earlier in the week, and so I left my luggage in Asja’s room and we set off to the train station. The city limits of Amsterdam itself are so small that the beach Zandvoort aan Zee, Asja had explained, is technically outside of Amsterdamn, but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. However, as Asja had said before, you need to make the most of days like today, and so the train was absolutely packed with beach goers. We squeezed like in like sardines for the relatively short train ride, but it wasn’t that much better when we finally arrived at the beach. The shoreline stretched on in both directions for what seemed like miles, and every inch of it was covered in people. We made our way down to the sand and eventually found a space to claim as our own. We laid out on our towels and began to soak up some sun.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

“This sunshine is so amazing! It almost feels like I’m back in Australia,” Asja said with a grin.
“Well, I guess I just brought the weather with me,” I responded. “But at least this sunshine isn’t going to kill you.” I had been using sunscreen here and there, but I was amazed at how impossible it seemed to be to get sunburnt around most of Europe. No wonder so many Europeans came to Australia and got burnt to a crisp – the strength of the UV in our sunlight really just seems to be in a whole new ballpark. A few more of Asja’s Dutch friends joined us for a little while on the beach – I briefly met so many people during such a short period of time that I had no hope of keeping track of all their names – but I chatted to a few of them between dips into the cool water. It was lovely and refreshing, but if someone had told me the first thing I would do on my first full day in Amsterdam was go to the beach, I’m not quite sure I would have believed them. Yet it was a much needed escape from the heat wave that was currently moving across Europe, and it was great seeing Asja and catching up with her. Eventually we packed ourselves up and headed back to Amsterdam – Asja had plans to meet another friend, and it was time for me to go and meet my Couchsurfing hosts.

***

Asja’s place was relatively near to the centre of town, and just a short tram ride later I had arrived at my new hosts place. Asja had been right in saying that Amsterdam was a relatively small city – in comparison to sprawling cities like Sydney, nothing was actually that far from anything else. When I arrived I was greeted by Joris, who loomed over me in height – the Dutch are typically one of the tallest races in the world – and had a short buzzed haircut and a warm, friendly face. His two beautiful Russian Blue cats, named Stoli and Bolli, also made a point of introducing themselves as they came up to inspect the new visitor.
“So my boyfriend Thijs is away on a work trip, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ve actually got another Couchsurfer staying with us this weekend too, and I’m pretty sure I just accidentally gave him the wrong directions,” Joris said with a sheepish grin. “So we may have to go pick him up from another tram stop.” So I’d barely been in the house 10 minutes before we were off to pick up André, who was originally Portuguese but now lived in Copenhagen. When we arrived back at Joris’ place he offered us a beer each, so we cracked them open and had a brief chat as we got to know each other. But it wasn’t too long before it was time to move again.

“So, I have to go and help run this rugby workshop.” Joris was a member of the Amsterdam Lowlanders, the city’s gay rugby team. As part of the pride celebrations, the team was organising a workshop for anyone who was interested in getting involved, or even just learning a thing or two about the game. André was meeting up with another friend of his that evening, but I had no other plans, so despite having somewhat of an intense fear of team sports, I decided to go along with Joris and check it out. But instead of driving, we would be getting into the local culture and riding our bikes there. Joris was planning on borrowing a couple of bikes from a friend for André and I for the weekend, but for now I would be borrowing Thijs’ bike. I found it remarkable just how popular cycling was in the city, and in the Netherlands in general.
“Why, don’t people ride bikes in Sydney?” Joris had asked me when I’d seemed rather incredulous.
“Well, they do… But you have to be, like, really serious about it. It’s mainly an exercise thing. You need to be motivated, since most drivers just hate cyclists.”
I think that surprised Joris a little. “It’s nothing like that here. Everyone rides bikes. It’s just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing too extreme about it.” Indeed, it would appear that bikes too precedence over cars in most of the city. Amsterdam was similar to Copenhagen in that it seemed as though bikes really did have right of way in almost any circumstance. They had their own lanes and their own traffic lights, and if there wasn’t a cyclist whizzing by you at any given moment, you could be sure there would be at least half a dozen locked up no more than a few metres away from wherever you were standing. I think I remember Gemma telling me that there were actually more bikes than people in the Netherlands, a statistic that was extremely believable when seeing cities like Amsterdam.

Still, the cycling culture was a little intense to the point of being terrifying, as I’m not the strongest cycler. I did my best to stay as close behind Joris as possible so that I didn’t get cut off or intercepted, and have to manage the intersections on my own. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the park, where a fairly large crowd had assembled for the rugby workshop. I was an obvious beginner, but after getting over the initial nerves I found that for the most part I could adequately pass and catch the ball – well, maybe not according to the more experienced players, but I don’t think they minded too much since it was a workshop for beginners. After the passing practice came something even more terrifying – learning how to tackle. Team sports? I can deal with that. But contact sports? Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I’d done a couple of crazy things that should probably have killed me over the last few months, but this one was still by far the scariest for me.

Or at least, it was at first. But as the experienced players explained it to us, it became a lot more simple to understand. In fact, the whole logical behind tackling, and being tackled, was to not be afraid of falling. If you’re going down, be aware of how you’re falling and just go down. It’s when you try to resist it or when you’re afraid of falling that your body reacts in a host of weird and potentially painful ways when you inevitably do eat the dirt. I have to admit that by the end of it I was actually quite enjoying myself, getting down and dirty with a bunch of sweaty guys – hey, maybe Amsterdam wasn’t quite so different to the initial expectations? At the very least, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn’t completely devoid of any masculinity in a traditional sense, or that I wasn’t a complete gay stereotype. I was also once again I was reminded, like I had been with Robin in Zürich, that I really needed to get some more hobbies when I got home. After all, I did know I few team members of the Sydney Convicts… well, we’ll see how I go.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

After the rugby workshop, we got back on our bikes and headed back home to get cleaned up. It was the Friday night of Amsterdam Pride weekend, and the adrenaline I’d been pumping during all that rugby had made me more keen than ever to get out and experience the city’s nightlife.

Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.