All Over O’ahu

When I wasn’t lounging around on the beach (which I admittedly did a lot of during my time in Hawaii) or celebrating Christmas with Ashleigh and Nick, I made an effort to go out and see some of the local tourist attractions. However, given that my sisters boyfriend was in the navy, I felt as though one of the most important places to visit in my days of tourist sightseeing was Pearl Harbour. It was approximately a half hour drive from Waikiki, and while Nick did have a car, he used it to actually drive to work at Pearl Harbour. He was out underway on the submarine on the day that I had set aside to head out there to visit, but luckily there were plenty of bus services that stopped right outside the museum and visitor centre.

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Anchor sculpture in the courtyard at Pearl Harbour.

While Pearl Harbour is actually the military base for the US Navy in Hawaii, there is still a decent portion of the compound that is a museum dedicated to tourism and visitors. Upon entering you are given an audio guide to listen to as you walk through the museum exhibits and displays, and the cool, collected voice of Jamie Lee Curtis guides you through the compound and narrates some of the history of Pearl Harbour. I knew the basic facts about the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when Japan attacked the US and spurred their direct involvement into WWII, but it was always a fascinating yet harrowing learning experience to delve deeper into the history and the more personal accounts of the horrors that went down. Much like the Vietnam War Museum in Saigon, I couldn’t help but feel quite overwhelmed by some of the stuff I learned during the walkthrough, but I pushed on through the unpleasantness. It was a strange juxtaposition, to be taking in such sadness and long-standing national grief, all while being surrounded by an environment that is the peak definition of idyllic (in my opinion, at least).

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View of the Waterfront Memorial from the USS Bowfin.

As part of the tour, you were also given the opportunity to board and go inside one of the submarines that was docked in Pearl Harbour, the USS Bowfin, which was originally launched on the one year anniversary of the bombing and was nicknamed the “Pearl Harbour Avenger”. People with claustrophobia were warned against going inside, and once you were inside, the reason was obvious. Low ceilings and narrow walkways, exposed pipes and metal all around you… I could only imagine that the term ‘personal space’ would lose all meaning once one of these submarines was full with a crew of sailors and plunging deep into the ocean.

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Flag atop the moored USS Bowfin.

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Inside the submarine.

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All the inner workings of the submarine were on display for visitors to examine.

However, the biggest point of interest in any visit to Pearl Harbour was undoubtedly the USS Arizona Memorial. It feels somehow wrong to call it a tourist attraction or sight, but I guess for all intents and purposes, that’s what it had become. The memorial was built around the sunken hull of the USS Arizona, a boat that was destroyed during the bombing in 1941. The pristine white structure was designed in such a way that it floats above the wreckage of the hull without actually touching it, as though the architecture itself represents the respect that the morbid site deserves. It can only be reached by boat, which also accommodates for the limited space within the memorial and eliminates any potential for overcrowding. After waiting in line for the passenger boat that would ferry us across, my group of fellow tourists unloaded from the boat and solemnly marched into the beautiful white structure.

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USS Arizona Memorial

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A shrine at the far end of the memorial, with a list of all the names of all those killed on the USS Arizona.

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View of the memorials flag from the inside, through one of the windows in the roof.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique thing about the USS Arizona Memorial is what has been dubbed the “tears of the Arizona“. An oil slick that is the result of a leakage from the sunken battleship can be seen on the surface, a small yet perpetual phenomenon that struck me as a fitting aquatic equivalent to the eternal flames that burn at so many war memorial all over the world. I know that an oil slick is technically really bad for the environment, but it was on such a small scale compared to some of the worse disasters in history, and as the oil floated on the surface of the water and glistened into a rainbow mixture in the sunlight, it actually looked kind of beautiful. And I couldn’t help but appreciate that small piece of beauty that was born out of something so tragic and horrific as the events that transpired in Pearl Harbour all those years ago.

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One of the few parts of the wreckage of the USS Arizona that protrudes from the water, next to where the tears of the Arizona trickle to the surface.

***

Other than Pearl Harbour, I wasn’t sure what else there was to do in Hawaii or on O’ahu (the name of the island that Honolulu is on), other than spend a lot of time at the beach. And, well, I’m not going to lie – as much as I love travelling, seeing new places, meeting new people and experiencing new sensations, I had been doing it for a long while now. So on the days when the weather was good, I actually made going down to the beach and enjoying the sunshine my number one priority. I did walk around some of the shops and browse through some of the touristy trips that you could take to the other islands, but none of them were really day trips that you could do spontaneously, which is the way I had been doing pretty much everything lately. So I just cut my losses and happily camped out on the beach with a book most days.

There was one other place that Ashleigh really wanted to take me to, and that was the North Shore. As you can probably guess, it was the northern coast of the island, and one that was far less populated by your typical tourists and holidaying families. The beaches up there were well known by surfing communities though, and if you picked the right time of the year there was optimal swells that apparently made for terrific surfing – but I’m not going to pretend I actually know anything about surfing, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

On a day when Nick didn’t have to work, the three of us all piled into the car and took the drive up to the North Shore. I have to admit, everything about the island was beautiful. If it wasn’t the white sandy beaches and the blue ocean, it was the lush green fields and the mountains looming in the horizon, cloaked in thick, beautiful white clouds.

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The beach at the North Shore.

When we arrived at the North Shore, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Ashleigh told me that the weather can often be really different on opposite sides of the island, due to all the mountains in the centre of the island, and the different sea currents and tides coming at the shore in their different directions. Waikiki and been warm and sunny, yet up north the sunlight had flitted away behind the cloud cover, and it even started to sprinkle with rain. We’d brought our towels and swimwear, but after finding a park and stumbling down onto the beach, one look at the powerful swell and crashing waves assured us that there was no way we would be going into the water. I mean, I love a bit of rough surf every now and then, but this was something completely different. Watching those waves made me fairly confident that a broken bone would be the best case scenario.

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Still, we sat on the beach and watched the waves for a while, munching on the snacks we’d brought and just admiring the power of the sea. Afterwards we drove back to Waikiki a different way, one that took us closer to the mountains. Nick pointed out a few of his favourite ones to hike – having grown up in a small town in upstate New York, he was definitely a naturally outdoorsy type. He talked about them with such enthusiasm, and it was a shame that between the Christmas obligations and his work schedule, there hadn’t ever really been a convenient time to go up there with him. He and Ashleigh both seemed pretty happy together though. They hadn’t been together that long, but I probably would have put money on him still being around if there was ever a return trip to visit my sister in Hawaii, so I settled for putting those hikes in my future plans.

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***

There were a few culinary highlights in Honolulu, too. Ashleigh and Nick took me to their favourite sushi restaurant, a place in Waikiki called Doraku.
“Look, just- we’re ordering for you, okay? Trust me,” she had said as we’d walked in. I’m pretty open minded when it comes to food anyway (tarantulas, anyone?), so I rolled with it and let her order me a dragon roll, which was absolutely as amazing as they had assured me it would be, and we topped it all off with deep-fried brownie for dessert. On another night when Nick was at work, Ashleigh and I had drinks and dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, where we only ate half of our mains to safe room for dessert, because you best believe there is no way I am going to a place called the Cheesecake Factory and not eating cake. And it was, of course, absolutely worth it.

I also went out with Ashleigh and Nick once, to a club where they were regulars and where many of their friends congregated for nights out. The clubs was okay, but there were a few dramas with Ashleigh’s ID (she forgot it), and the music wasn’t really the kind of stuff I could listen to for too long before starting to get a little bored and/or over it (it was a kinda of EDM that I wasn’t really a fan of, though I can’t articulate the differences between them for the life of me). It was nice to see all the aspects of my sisters new life in Hawaii, but we called it a night not too shortly after that.

And of course, my exploration of a new city wouldn’t be complete without me checking out the gay scene. As fate would have it, one of the most popular gay bars in Honolulu was actually in my sisters old street, where I had helped her move from on my first day in Hawaii. Luckily, she hadn’t moved that far away, and on a couple of evenings where not much had been going on back at home, I had wandered down to Waikiki for a drink at  Bacchus. It was a tiny gay bar on the enclosed roof terrace, and you had to walk up a few flights of stairs to get there. I had been chatting to a guy from LA on one of the gay apps, who had escaped to Hawaii for Christmas, so we ended up meeting there and having a few two-for-one drinks and chatting a bit more. He told me how he wasn’t a huge fan of Christmas – something about a relatively dysfunctional family – and so some years he just escaped here for some alone time. I was actually quite surprised at how many people came to Hawaii for Christmas. I felt like I was an exception, because the only reason I was here was that I was actually visiting family, not escaping from them, yet there were lots of families who seemed to come here and spend the holiday period here in Waikiki. It seemed odd at first, but then I realised that having Christmas on the beach was a novelty for most Americans that, as an Australian, I just didn’t find that out of the ordinary.

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Rainbow after a sun shower in Waikiki. 

My sisters apartment had a decent view, but it wasn’t straddling Waikiki beach. I ended up crashing in my new friends hotel room that night, and in the morning got to wake up to the stunning views of the aqua blue water and the gentle sound of waves rolling into the shore. In that moment, I completely understood the desire to run away, forget the stress and craziness that comes with the holiday period, and put it all in the back of your mind while sipping a cocktail by the beach.

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View of Waikiki from my new friends hotel room the following morning. 

***

After a lovely 10 days of rest and relaxation, the moment that felt like it was never going to come had finally arrived: my final flight home. It was an early morning flight, and while I had tried to assure Ashleigh that she didn’t need to accompany me to the airport, she still awoke without complaint when my alarm went off. Nick had been at work overnight, so I had already said my final goodbyes to him, but together Ashleigh and I wandered through the deserted streets of Waikiki in the early morning and waited for the bus. We laughed and made jokes, and tried not to get too emotional. I knew she’d been working like a maniac at her two jobs to stay afloat, and life had thrown a few curveballs that are (speaking from experience myself) usually a little tougher when you don’t have the usual support network of your family. So I think being there was a much-needed dose of family love for her. For both of us, really, except I would be seeing much more of my family very soon.

So once we got to the airport, we got off the bus and Ashleigh walked with me over to the check-in desks.
“It was so lovely to have you here, little bro,” she said with a smile and pulled me in for one long, final hug. “I love you so much!”
“I love you too, Ash.”
“Well, I guess I’ll see you… well, I’ll see you when I see you! Have a good flight!”
I checked by bags in, and then waved goodbye as I entered the departures gate. It was hard to believe that with one final flight, this epic journey of mine was coming to an end.

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Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

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Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

River Deep, Mountain High: The Great Outdoors in Zürich

The following morning, I bid farewell to Umer as he set off on his own trip. Before he left, he gave me his dads monthly travel pass again. “My father said he won’t need this today, so you can borrow it for one more day while you’re staying here. It let’s you go a lot further around the city than one of the standard daily tickets, so perhaps you’d like to make use of that while you can.” It was the last of the numerous suggestions and tips that Umer had offered me, and I thanked him for his stellar advice as he headed off to the airport.

***

The first thing I did that morning was head back to the centre of town to the dock at Lake Zürich. The monthly pass that I was using today also covered use of the ferry, which made round trips around the lake to certain points much further down the shore. There were long trips that went to the other end, as well as shorter ones that did rotations to closer docks. Umer had said it was a nice relaxing way to spend the morning, and it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. I took one of the shorter trips, which still took the better part of an hour, and watched the shoreline glide past, admiring all the adorable traditional houses that were situated right by the water. One thing that I would continue to notice during my time in Zürich is that the Swiss love their outdoor activities. It has something to do with the seasons – during the winter there is very little daylight, and the cold doesn’t permit people to be outside for too long, so when summer rolls around and the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm, people seem to take full opportunity of as many daylight hours as possible.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

There were lots of pools and parks along the edge of the lake, and plenty of people were out sunbathing and swimming and kicking balls and all sorts of recreational activities. I sat in the sheltered shade of my seat in the ferry and just took it all in. I had just come from the small coastal town of Ancona, and I had been expecting to be returning to my tour of major cities when I arrived in Zürich, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a small village feeling very much entrenched into the essence of this place. Even in the major intersections where trams tracks overlapped and cars seemed to be turning in all sorts of random directions, there were no skyscrapers, no obvious central business district, and no particularly large or overwhelming buildings. The feeling was cute and quaint, and it suited the city perfectly.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

***

After my tour across the lake, I returned to the shore where I had plans to meeting some. Robin was to be my second Couchsurfing host in Zürich. Originally I had had three lined up: Umer had been the first and Robin the third, but my second host had to cancel at the last minute, which was why I was staying an extra night with Umer’s parents. Robin currently had a friend staying with him, which is why I could not come to stay with him any earlier, but when I told him Umer was going away he said he would be more than happy to meet up to see some more of Zürich with me. When I told him about the pass I was using for the day, he suggested we catch the train south west, just outside of Zürich to the mountain Uetliberg, which was another popular site for recreational activities in the city. Robin’s friend Tammy was busy filling out an application – the two of them were Chilean, with Robin living and studying here and Tammy visiting him, but also applying for courses so that she might be able to come back and live here too – so it was just the two of us as we hopped on the train and set off up the mountain.

As I chatted with Robin, he confirmed what I had observed from the boat – that everyone in Zürich was slightly obsessed with physical activities and outdoor recreation. The bike on the train up the mountain had quite a few people with mountain bikes, which they would ride down steepest parts of the mountain, following the popular trails before turning around and riding back up again. The public transport passes in Zürich ran on 24 hour period, so you could ride as many times as you liked as long as you were in a zone that was covered by your ticket. Robin had to buy an extension on his regular ticket, and off we went along the train towards the mountain. We got chatting along the way up – Robin was a sweet, short and soft-spoken guy who spoke with a pretty heavy accent. He was currently living in Zürich doing research and writing a Masters thesis, about a particular niche in microbiology that I would struggle to reiterate in any further detail, but it was definitely quite interesting.

When we reached the Uetliberg station – it was only about a 20 minute trip – we headed along the short hiking trail that led to a lookout. On the way we saw dozens more people out and about, who were doing a whole manner of exercising such as running, jogging, riding bicycles, and even taking part in what seemed to be some kind of boot camp drill work out. Robin and I casually trekked our way up the hill and dozens of people passed us by – we had all afternoon while Tammy filled in her application, so there was no rush. We eventually reached the lookout at the top peak of Uetliberg and gazed out over the impressive view. There was a metal tower that looked something like a huge lightning rod that we were able to climb, so Robin and I marched up the stairs to the viewing platform at the top. From there you could see the around the whole mountain, the horizons lined with even higher mountains that were cloaked in clouds and a pale pink afternoon sunlight. Up there the air was so fresh, and I breathed in a lungful as I soaked in all my surroundings. Robin pointed out a few of the natural features of the area, and we chatted about each of our home countries, our travelling experiences, and our impressions of Zürich. The nice thing about Couchsurfing is that no matter who you end up meeting or staying with, there’s always at least one thing you usually have in common – a passion for travelling. It’s the reason most people get involved – to be able to go travelling themselves – and in turn allows other people to go travelling and see the world. The more experience I had with the website and organisation, the more amazed and impressed I was at such a simple idea that very could very literally change lives.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

After soaking in the sights from the top of Uetliberg, Robin and I headed back to Zürich to meet up with Tammy, and once we did we headed to the west of the city, where Robin told us there was an outdoor concert happening. He didn’t have too many details, but he thought it might be something cool to check out, so we jumped on a bus across the city. When we arrived, we found what seemed like a huge picnic in a park, with people spread out across the relatively small stretch of grass. In the corner, a large folk band was playing all kinds of music, and there was a crowd who had gathered around them to watch. We bought some snacks from a nearby store and laid out on the grass, listening to the music from across the park and just hanging out, enjoying the cool, pleasant evening air. It was actually getting quite late, but twilight was still lingering over the city, and there didn’t appear to be any signs that the party would be dissipating any time soon. I had to get home though – I hadn’t told Umer’s parents what time I was expecting to be home, so I didn’t want to keep them waiting too late into the evening. I bid farewell to Robin and Tammy for the evening, making plans to see them again when I arrived at Robin’s place the next morning to stay with him for my last two nights in Zürich.

***

The following morning I left Umer’s parents place and made my way to Robin’s. He would be working during most of the day, so that’s when I would do my typical and touristic sightseeing, but in the afternoons when he was free Robin introduced me to some of the activities he did during his spare time and, like any typical resident of Zürich, those were outdoor activities. Enter slacklining: a sport that holds a lot of similarities to tightrope walking – you are required to balance on, and walk across, a piece of nylon or polyester webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points. However, the main difference is that while a tightrope is rigid and taut, a slackline gets its name in having a considerable amount of slack – it is stretchy and bouncy, almost like a long and narrow trampoline. The more extreme variations of slacklining involve doing it unsupported in crazy places such as between skyscrapers or mountain peaks, but Robin was taking me to learn in a much safer but still rather exciting place: over the River Limmat.

We got to one of the bridges that crossed the river, down near the riverside bars where everyone had congregated on the warm, sunny afternoon. We weren’t the only ones setting up a slackline over the river – there were two other guys setting up a much longer one than Robin’s, from the bridge to the rivers edge. “That guy is very, very good. He does it professionally,” Robin said as we set up our slackline. There were a couple of guys walking along the other slackline, but one of them was obviously extremely experienced. He would stop in the middle of the line and do all sorts of acrobatic tricks, bouncing on the line and landing on one foot, or even on his hands, pushing himself back up to keep bouncing and even walking across the line. It was seriously impressive. Robin had only been getting into slacklining recently, he assured me, so he wasn’t that good. I assured him he would be better than me, but nevertheless I was still keen to give it a go.

Once I first stepped onto the line, I realised how sensitive and reactive the slackline was to my body. It wasn’t too windy that afternoon, but as soon as I stepped out onto the line it violently shook from side to side, like a leaf in a hurricane. Robin held my hand to steady me as I took my first step, but he couldn’t take me the whole way. I tried my best to stay balanced, but as soon as I took my first step on my own, I came tumbling down to land in the river. I plunged into the cool and deep blue water, and when I finally resurfaced I realised that I had already floated a couple of metres downstream. The river was flowing exceptionally fast, to the point where if I tried to swim upstream, it was the equivalent to running on a treadmill – going nowhere fast. I quickly swam back to the edge of the river to rejoin the others on the bridge. Robin was definitely a lot better than myself at the slackline – for the first time ever he managed to cross the whole way across the slackline without falling off. That only happened once though – most of the times we both always ended up plunging into the river. I quickly learnt that you can’t be afraid of falling, and when you do fall you have to let it happen and not fight it. The one time I panicked and tried to stay on the line, I fell so awkwardly that I landed on my back in the water, and the impact left a huge red mark on my back that attracted quite a lot of comments from passers by.

Slow and steady across the slackline...

Slow and steady across the slackline…

... keeping his balance...

… keeping his balance…

... and he made it!

… and he made it!

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

The first, and only, step...

The first, and only, step…

... and down I go.

… and down I go.

Splash!

Splash!

That wasn’t the only reason strangers talked to us, though. The shared love of outdoor activities seems to seamlessly bring all surrounding people from all walks of life together, and make new friends out of complete strangers. Robin and I had plenty of people come up to us and ask us questions about slacklining – most of which I couldn’t answer, though – and asking if they could have a turn. The area was already pretty social with the bars lining the river, as well as a bunch of other cool things – there was a restaurant that also doubled as a DIY garage where people could come and use tools to fix and customise their bikes – so the slacklines on the bridge were just another added element to that friendly social vibe that seemed to be almost everywhere in Zürich. It made for a fun and interesting social experience – all the activities that were happening around the city made me realise something about my life back home: I didn’t have very many hobbies. The closest thing I had to a hobby was playing guitar and writing music – other than that, I just spent a lot of time drinking with my friends and going clubbing. It was a refreshing change, and I think that afternoon was when I made a pledge to myself that when I got home, I was going to find fun new things to do with my time other than drink myself stupid.

It was also an exhausting afternoon though, so afterwards Robin and I headed home for a relatively early night. We sat up for a while just chatting in his room though – there’s just something unnatural about going to bed before the sun does.

***

The following evening we set out after Robin finished work to meet some people in a nearby park. “I haven’t met these people, but there’s a group on Couchsurfing that organises hikes and other outdoor trips and stuff,” Robin told me as we made our way there. “We’re planning something for this weekend, so we’re meeting up to go over the details.” It made me realise that Couchsurfing wasn’t just a place to stay – it was a global, online community. When we arrived at the park, it was a similar sight to my first night in the park with Robin and Tammy, except instead of lazily enjoying the outdoors, everyone was extremely active. There were games of volleyball and soccer, people doing yoga and other aerobic activities, people throwing balls and frisbees, and Robin even brought along his slackline again, and set it up between two trees. It was quite remarkable to see so many people outside until the very limits of daylight. “It really is the summer drawing everyone out,” Robin later said. “The winter was horrible this year – it lasted five months and it was terribly cold, so everyone is very excited now that the warmer weather has finally arrived.” It was a familiar story that I had been hearing for the last month from all over Europe, from Finland and Sweden to Germany and even France. Not so much in Spain and Italy, but I had started heading north again, away from the Mediterranean.

It made me realise just how lucky we are with the weather in Australia, especially the temperate climate in Sydney. It’s never exceptionally cold, and only very occasionally does it get extremely hot. We get a healthy balance of rain and sunshine and we never have days with extreme excess, or lack, of sunlight. Watching these people flock outside to enjoy the weather made me realise just how little I appreciate the weather here, and so in Zürich I made a pact to myself to not only get a few more hobbies when I got home, but also to get out and enjoy the outdoors a little more too.

Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.