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.

IMG_5051

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).

IMG_5055

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.

IMG_5056

Flag atop the moored USS Bowfin.

IMG_5062

Inside the submarine.

IMG_5064

IMG_5058

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.

IMG_5035

USS Arizona Memorial

IMG_5041

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

IMG_5043

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.

IMG_5039

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.

IMG_5091

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.

IMG_5096

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.

IMG_5097

***

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.

IMG_5080

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.

IMG_5026

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.

Advertisements

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

After yet another delay with the bus out of Flagstaff, we drove on through the afternoon and into the night. The desert landscape looked as empty as ever for most of the journey, but I could tell when the bus was drawing closer to Las Vegas by the signs and flashing lights that became ever more frequent on the side of the road. Eventually the sparse surroundings gave way to more buildings, and soon the roads were aglow as the streetlights began lighting up the night. I’d messaged ahead to let my host know I would be late, so he was waiting for me outside the bus depot when it finally pulled into Las Vegas.

The story of how I ended up where I ended up in Las Vegas is a typical example of the networking that happens and the connections you make when you’re backpacking. Back when I was travelling from Cambodia back to Thailand on the original bus ride from hell, I had been left waiting for a bus to take me from the Cambodian/Thai border back to Bangkok with a handful of other travellers. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the hot tropical morning sun, I had gotten chatting with a girl named Ashley. We bonded over the complete logistical nightmare we had found ourselves in, and began comparing our experiences as travellers in Cambodia. From her accent, I could clearly tell that Ashley was North American, but she was actually the first to ask whereabouts in the world I was from.
“You’re from Sydney? No way!” she’d said when I told her where I hailed from. “That’s where I’m heading after my travelling in Thailand.” I told her that I wouldn’t be back in Australia for many more months, since at that stage I was less than two months into my journey, but never-the-less we decided to exchange contact details so that we could keep in touch, and that I when she finally arrived in Sydney I might be able to help her out in some way.
“And how about you? You’re from the US, right?”
“Yep, I come from Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.
“Vegas? Like, you actually live there?” For all the crazy stories and parties I’d heard about happening in Las Vegas, I don’t think I could ever recall meeting someone who actually lived there. But it just so happened to be Ashley’s hometown, and she told me to let her know if I was ever heading that way – even if she wasn’t around, she said she’d be more than happy to hook me up with some of her friends back home. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what my plans for the USA were, but I told her that I’d be in touch if I ever found myself headed there.

***

Fast forward to roughly 7 months later and Ashley’s friend Ly was greeting my as I hopped off the bus in Las Vegas. It was a Friday night, so as we drove back to his place he told me that he had a bunch of people coming over later that night to celebrate a friends birthday, and that they would be heading out to the nearby Downtown area of Las Vegas. I was fairly ignorant to the geography of the city, and soon learned that the typical Vegas that you see on postcards and in movies is all located at “The Strip”. That’s also where most of the hotels are, and therefore where most of the tourists can be found. However, tonight I would be seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of the locals. When we arrived, Ly introduced me to his housemate Chris and their dogs Button and Roxie, and then showed me where I would be sleeping. It was a long room that had three double beds, but without any bed frames, so they had all been pushed together to form one kind of super bed.
“We have people crashing here pretty regularly, so we have a lot of room on stand-by”, Ly explained to me. As tempting as it was to just collapse in the the sea of blankets and pillows, I threw my stuff down by the edge of the super mattress and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. I knew if I laid down now I probably wouldn’t get back up, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep after Friday night.

After getting ready I headed out to the kitchen, where Ly made me a drink and introduced me to the people who had arrived so far. By morning I would have forgotten most of their faces and all of their names, but they were all friendly enough, and when Ly told them that I had ended up there through connections with Ashley, they all either rolled their eyes or sighed, exclaiming “Of course he knows Ashley!” Before turning to me and asking: “Where is she now?”
“Um, I think she’s in Sydney?”
“In Australia? Nice! Is that where you met here?”
“Ah, no. I actually met her in… Cambodia? Well, technically Thailand, I guess.”
“You were in Thailand? Wait, when was Ashley in Thailand?” Apparently, to this group of people, Ashley was what I had become to my own friends back home – that traveller who’s been gone so long that no one’s really sure where she even was anymore. I smiled and wondered what my friends would have been saying about me in a similar situation back home – although in reality it hadn’t been that long since I’d seen some of them in New York.

After a few strong cocktails and a round of “Happy Birthday” for the birthday girl, we piled into a couple of cars and drove the very short distance to the main bar area of Downtown Vegas. First we had a couple of drinks in a bar called Griffin, before moving next door to a place called Commonwealth. The bars were cool, but they seemed more like dive bars, and nothing about them screamed anything remotely lavish or extravagant, or anything I’d come to understand as being stereotypically Vegas. In fact, I couldn’t even see any gambling machines. I’d soon learn that many of the people who actually live in Las Vegas are performers who spend most of their working lives around the strip surrounded by that kind of environment. On their nights off, they just want to escape to a normal bar like everyone else. Not to say that the place wasn’t going off, because it was definitely packed out. I got separated from my gang as we crossed the dance floor to get to the other side of the club, and as I was scanning the room to see where they’d gone, the girl in front of me turned around and thrust a shot glass towards me.
“Here, we got an extra shot!” she yelled over the music. “It’s Fireball!” I’d been sampling Fireball whiskey all along my journey through the Southwest, and I’d become quite a fan, so I didn’t really give it a second thought before throwing the shot back and continuing my way across the dance floor – it was the first of many free drinks that I’d be scoring over my weekend in this city.

I eventually caught up with Ly and the rest of the group, and I hung out with them for a while, although it wasn’t that easy to have a conversation with all the loud music. It was also the first straight club that I had been in for quite a while, which might sound kind of petty, but when you’ve been touring the world and mostly sampling the gay bars in the each city you visit, the general difference in atmosphere is startlingly obvious. When the girl whose birthday it was got up to go to the bathroom, I was left sitting with a group of boys who all started up a conversation about her.
“Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’s gonna hook up with anyone?” They were throwing around that sort of weirdly uncomfortable banter, which I wasn’t that interested in anyway, but between them I heard assertions of platonic friendship, as well as a few of the guys deciding who was in the best position to “take a shot” at getting with her. Then, in what played out in my mind as some kind of bad punchline, they turned to me.
“How about you, man? You think she’s hot?”
I literally choked on my drink, and awkwardly cleared my throat after regaining my breath. “Um… Ashley… Ashley didn’t mention to any of you that I was gay, did she?”
There was a split second of blank, awkward stares, followed by a round of embarrassed laughter and “Sorry, man!” before returning to the eventual topic of who was going to, at least in their minds, ‘get the girl’.

Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown Las Vegas.

***

I’m sure they were probably lovely guys and were possibly just joking around, not taking anything they were saying too seriously. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to find out though. I’d somehow lost Ly through all this, and between drinks at home, not really having eaten dinner, a few drinks in the club plus the surprise Fireball shot, I was actually quite drunk. And so I did what any drunk gay man who is having an average time in a straight bar would do – I found some wifi, did a quick Google search, and directed myself to the nearest gay bar. Which didn’t actually seem too far away… on Google Maps, at least. It was about a 15 minute walk, which isn’t that far, really, except that it was a lot colder outside than I had realised. And instead of walking along busy streets with other shops, bars and people, my directions took me down some pretty empty, suburban looking streets. But I’d come so far that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might be lost and turn around, so on through the cold I trudged.

As it would happen, I wasn’t lost at all, and I found Snicks Place exactly where it was supposed to be. Except when I opened the doors, I was greeted by an empty room. I’m not even exaggerating. There wasn’t a single patron in this bar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I certainly wasn’t ready to face the cold again, so I wandered in to find the bar and order a drink. It turned out that there was one patron at Snicks Place – the bartender and his friend were having a casual chat across the bar, and they both looked genuinely surprised to see me when I approached them. They asked me how my night was going, so I relayed my entire afternoon, from arriving in Las Vegas to drinking with my straight friends of a friend of a friend to finally making my way here. I guess it’s not every night that a young drunk Australian walks into the oldest gay bar in Las Vegas, which happened to be almost deserted, because the two guys were very interested in hearing all about my life and my travels. At least, I assume they were. In all honesty, I was pretty intoxicated by that point. But they still poured me another drink, and showed me how to work some of the gambling machines. My only experience with gambling had been the electronic poker machines in the bars back in Sydney, but this bar had all kinds of random gambling games and machines that I had never even seen before. I’m not much of a gambler, but there wasn’t really much else to do in the bar, so I had a go at them while I chatted to the two guys.

Eventually I must have started to give away just how drunk I was, because the bartender asked whereabouts I was staying. I had written Ly’s address down in my phone, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t staying in a hotel or the more usual tourist accommodation. Then I mentioned Ly by name, and the bartenders face lit up in recognition.
“You’re staying with Ly?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Yeah, we’re all locals around here. Why don’t I give him call, maybe he can come pick you up?”
I think I was falling asleep at the bar by the time Ly arrived. I was so embarrassed and apologised profusely for him having to come and get me, but he just laughed it off and said it was nothing. He was a decent guy, and he didn’t seem to mind. He drove me home and helped me into the room, where there were two girls who passed out on the mega mattress. I crawled into my edge of the bed and passed out, scolding myself for being such a fool for wandering off aimlessly into the night, but promising myself that I’d do better with exploring Las Vegas tomorrow.

On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

IMG_4634

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

Man on a Mission

The Alamo is potentially the most well-known tourist attraction in San Antonio due to its place in American history, but just outside of town there are a series of other old churches known as the San Antonio Missions. We had intended to ride our bikes out there on Friday afternoon, but after the Thursday night we’d had, Hector, Nico and I decided we were in no condition to make that journey. On Saturday both Hector and Jay didn’t have to work, so I spent the day hanging out with them. I joined them around town while they ran a few odd errands, but then it was off to see the Missions.

Although there was one stop on the way out there: an open air market, full of all kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and other things for sale, most of it second hand. We pottered around there for a little while, though I didn’t end up finding anything noteworthy or anything I wanted to buy. The highlight was probably the market’s sign:

Fabulous

Fabulous.

After that it was on to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There are four old missions that are found downstream along the San Antonio River, although the furthest one is where the visitors centre was located, so we headed down to the Mission Espada.

IMG_4484

Mission Espada.

Mission Espada.

We went into the visitors centre and gift shop and had quick look around. There was a small cinema that was showing some historical videos, but I have to admit that after the past few nights of partying that I’d had, staying awake in such a dark environment proved difficult, and Hector caught me dozing off a couple of times before we’d made it to the end of the presentation. After that we headed to the next closest church, Mission San José, which was larger slightly more impressive than Mission Espada.

IMG_4489

Mission San José.

Mission San José.

IMG_4495

The missions had all been Catholic outposts that aided the spread of Christianity across the Southwest during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but now they were mostly just historical buildings, heritage listed to as to keep them preserved in their current conditions. There was a room that had been redone as a church inside Mission San José though, but I much preferred just wandering through the open grounds and exploring the secret nooks and long abandoned rooms within the old building.

The modern side of the missions.

The modern side of the missions.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

It was great that I’d had Hector and Jay to take me out to the missions and show me around – my last minute planning and decisions to end up in San Antonio meant that I didn’t really know a great deal about it and hadn’t done much research, and while I’m sure if I’d ended up there without them, every man and his dog would have suggested I go and see them, having a personal guide to the city never hurts.

***

We made our way back into town later that afternoon, and after stopping for snow cones and Tex Mex (Mexican food with Texan influences – although to be honest it’s pretty much the same as what we’d call Mexican food in Australia, which did make me curious as to what real Mexcian food would actually be like), we picked up some supplies for the evening. Hector and Jay had been organising to throw a party at their house that night – I’m not sure if it was a special occasion or not, thrown in my honour, because from what I had seen so far they didn’t seem like the kind of guys that needed an excuse to throw a party.

They really went all out. Between food and drinks and their hilarious friends, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last night in the city. I spent the beginning of the even playing token Australian abroad, answering all the usual questions about my mysterious homeland, then pronouncing a bunch of different things, and including names, so they could hear my accent, as well as explaining the different terms we used for different things back home. It’s kind of weird the things you take for granted about the way you… simply exist, I guess? And you never realise it until you meet someone who’s never met anyone like you.

After eating and drinking came, inevitably, dancing. Apparently Jay used to do drag, so out came a wig and pair of heels too, although no one could really pull off a successful dance move in the heels (but that didn’t stop us from trying). There was lots of laughing and dancing, although one thing that happened that I found rather peculiar, upon later reflection, was the numerous times that I was referred to by some of the guys as “white boy”. I mean, it wasn’t really shocking – I am white, after all – and I wasn’t offended, because… well, I’m white? Most of the people at the party seemed to identify as Hispanic on some level, and I realised that I’d never found myself in a social situation or a group of friends where white or Caucasian wasn’t the most represented racial category. It didn’t bother me at all – it was just funny to be the token white boy for once, instead of the token gay guy.

Shots!

Shots!

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio - beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio – beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

A solid effort and a great night.

A solid effort and a great night.

***

Sunday was my last day in San Antonio, but my bus wasn’t due to leave until the evening, which gave Hector and Jay plenty of time to show me the Riverwalk, the remaining attraction of San Antonio that I had yet to see. Though not before bringing me a refreshing cocktail in the late hours of the morning, while I was printing my bus tickets off Hectors computer.
“Sunday Funday,” he said with a grin. It was savoury, but there was no pickle in it, so I drank it without issue.

If it was late enough in the morning to warrant drinking, then it was probably late enough for lunch, so the first port of call was Quarry Hofbrau, which despite the name, did not actually serve German food. However, they did make some delicious Tex Mex, but the real reason Hector wanted to bring me there was so that I could try their Dos-a-ritas. That is, a frozen margarita garnished with a full bottle of Dos Equis beer. There was a range of different flavours that could be topped off with different beers, but I’d a fan of the classic margarita and I’d been enjoying Dos Equis for most of the weekend, so I stuck to the original Dos-a-rita. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of it, but the frozen margarita keeps most of the beer still inside the bottle, which slowly drains out when you lift the bottle up. So you can let it all pour out at once, or keep topping up the glass with more beer as you keep drinking it. If it hadn’t only been midday, I probably would have ordered another!

Dos-a-ritas!

Dos-a-ritas!

However, after leaving Quarry Hofbrau, Hector and Jay did take me to something else – a drive-thru bar. I don’t mean like the bottle shops in Australia where you can drive through, throw a case of beer in the back of your car, pay and keep going – this place had a menu! They did cocktails! Of course, they’re not allowed to serve “open” alcohol to the cars, so each drink was just sealed in a plastic bag before handing it over. I was part impressed, part amazed, and part terrified as to how this was actually legal. But it was, so of course I ordered another cocktail to go.

***

After all that, we finally headed down to the Riverwalk. The whole concept is really interesting – given that it’s such a popular attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk is almost like a main city centre that is focused around the winding stretch of water. I know that cities build on or around water isn’t exactly unique – I’d been to a few examples myself – but it was still a cool vibe. There were shops and restaurants along the waters edge for miles in either direction. When you walked down any of the staircases that take you to the waters edge, it feels like you’re leaving the upper streets of the city behind and entering some secret, magical world, full of people yet free from traffic, except for the occasional tour guide boat chugging past, wide-eyed tourists taking in the scenery.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk

Boat tours went up and down the river.

Boat tours went up and down the river.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering down the Riverwalk, hanging out and chatting and remembering all the fun we’d had over the weekend. Hector kept asking if I wanted my picture taken with anything – after travelling by myself for so long, I sometimes forget that that’s what people did when they visited foreign cities. I had just resigned to mostly not appearing in my own photos (or taking selfies, of course), so once again it was nice to have someone to take the pictures for me.

IMG_4525

IMG_4522

Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

IMG_4520

After walking a decent length of the cool, shady Riverwalk, we went back to the actual city centre, where we had been on Friday night. I glimpsed the Alamo again, and Hector took me to see another popular attraction, the San Fernando Cathedral. The inside was beautiful when we had a quick peek inside, but given that it was Sunday afternoon and there was a service beginning, as tourists we weren’t allowed to hang around for long.

IMG_4516

San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the nation.

And then the sun was setting, all too soon, and it was time to head back and pick up my bags and make my way towards the bus station. Nico and Daniel met us there, and I said my heartfelt goodbyes to the guys who had welcomed me into their lives for the weekend, and truly made my San Antonio experience an amazing one.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better first Couchsurfer,” Hector said with a smile. “Although I wonder if we’re ever get anyone as awesome as you!” I was so glad to have had a positive experience too, both for me and them. Bad first experiences can really put people off for life, but a good one allows for them to keep a little hope if ever the future ones don’t turn out so well.

I loaded up on snacks, stored my bag in the luggage compartment, and made my way onto the bus. I had been catching the cheaper MegaBus buses up until now, which cut on costs by not actually having an official bus depot, but now I was kicking off on some long haul journeys that MegaBus didn’t cover, so I was boarding the first in a series of Greyhound buses that would be taking me across the Southwest. First up was the long drive across the vast empty expanse that was the rest of Texas. I waved to the guys one final time before the bus pulled out of the depot and chugged away into the night.

State Capital Sendoff

Austin is the state capital of Texas, which meant that – with the exception of my bus passing through Baton Rouge – it was the only state capital that I had visited so far, since Washington D.C. isn’t technically a state. Which meant that it was my second opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of these babies.

Texas State Capitol Building

Texas State Capitol Building

Even though I’m sure popular opinion would rate the live music, bar scene and creative culture as one of the major attractions of the city, I made sure that I spared a bit of time to check out the more historical and traditional attractions in Austin. While I didn’t bring myself to actually go into the museum, I did spend an afternoon wandering up the main street and onto the lawns of the Capitol building, admiring the beautiful scene and examining some of the statues.

The scene of at the Texas state Capitol building.

The scene of at the Texas state Capitol building.

As I read the inscriptions around the statues, I began to fill in some of the gaping holes that existed in my knowledge of American history. I mean, I don’t want to sound too ignorant, but all that I really knew about modern American history was what I had picked up from TV shows, movies, or other pop culture references. As an Australian, all I could really tell you is that slavery was common in the South and that there was a Civil War. So that day I learnt about the Confederate, and just exactly what the Civil War was all about, as I circled the memorial that listed the Confederate states and the casualties of war. I won’t go into it too much because hey, this isn’t a history blog, but it was quite a sombre afternoon of learning, consideration and reflection, which I guess served as a nice contrast to the rest of my time in Austin.

Memorial Statue

Memorial Statue by the Capitol building.

Later during the week I walked through the same part of town during the evening, to meet Aaron and some of his friends for drinks, and the whole scene had a difference aesthetic. The building looked a little whiter, and a lot more majestic as it was lit up and set against the dark evening sky.

Capitol by night.

Capitol by night.

Lone Star State.

Lone Star State.

***

I did wander the streets of Austin a few more times throughout my stay, popping into souvenir shops and examining all sorts of wares with “Keep Austin Weird” sprawled all over them. But the cancellation of Alyssa’s trip to Austin and the fact that Aaron had to work meant that I had a lot of time to myself, and I actually had a lot of planning to do. It was already November, which meant I only had 6 weeks to cross the south-west states to California to catch the flight out of Los Angeles that I already had booked. There were quite a few things I wanted to see along the way, which required a lot of planning, booking of bus tickets, and searching for and messaging Couchsurfing hosts. It was also around this time that the U.S. was experiencing what was dubbed the ‘cold snap’ at the time.
Oh, it actually looks nice and sunny outside today! I remember thinking to myself, only to step outside without checking the actual temperature to discover it was a nippy 4 degrees! Needless to say, I ducked back inside to change into jeans and a sweater before I’d set two feet out the front door.

And eventually the time came for me to leave my wonderful host Aaron and the super cute Sergio for my next travel destination. It was a Thursday night – a full after I had first taken my clothes off for money at Oilcan Harry’s – when I climbed aboard another Megabus service that would be taking me to San Antonio. It was an enjoyable and – despite the near alcohol poisoning – memorable week, and I’d like to think I played my part in keeping Austin sufficiently weird.

Sergio, Aaron and I.

Sergio, Aaron and I.

“Keep Austin Weird”: First Impressions in the Lone Star State

After bidding farewell to Vincenzo and New Orleans, I settled down on the bus for a full day of transit. I watched the sun slowly rise behind the clouds of the overcast morning, and after little more than an hour we pulled into Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana. It was only a brief stop to collect a few more passengers, and the rest of the morning was spent on the long interstate drive to Texas. My first bus trip ended in Houston, a city of which I had previously only seen the inside of the airport. In the two hours that I had between the arrival of my bus from New Orleans and the departure of my bus from Houston, I would have loved to explore whatever parts of the city I could, given that the Megabus terminal is nothing more than a sectioned off area in a carpark (out of all the bus services in the Southwest it’s definitely the cheapest, so I suppose you get what you pay for). But the combination of the early start that morning, travel fatigue, and having all my bags with nowhere to store them for safe keeping, I decided to just wait it out on the tarmac with everybody else and read my book. Eventually the bus came along that would take me to Austin, the state capital of Texas and my final destination for the day, but it looked like I would have to save Houston for another day.

It was early evening when we finally arrived in Austin. I’d been in touch with my planned Couchsurfing host, a guy named Aaron, and I had texted him a few times throughout the day. He had said he would try to meet me at the bus station when I arrived, but after waiting a few minutes and wandering around yet another car park terminal, it was clear that he wasn’t there yet. He hadn’t replied to my most recent texts or made an attempt to call me, it was starting to get a little cold, and I was hungry for some food that wasn’t the can of Pringles I’d bought at a pit stop during the bus ride, so I decided to wander off and see what I could find, hoping Aaron would realise he was late and call me when he couldn’t find me at the bus stop. Around the corner I found some fast food restaurant – I can’t recall the name of the chain, there are just too many to keep track of in the US – and got some dinner and plonked myself down in a booth and just waited.

Eventually I got a call from Aaron, who was quick to apologise profusely. It turns out he is a vet, and he was busy in surgery for most of the afternoon and so was obviously unable to answer my calls. I told him where I was, and so he gave me directions to his place from there, which required a relatively short bus ride to the eastern part of town. He met me at the bus stop, and we quickly got chatting as he lead the way through the streets to his house.
“So, I’m not sure what you’re in the mood for – I know you’ve had a long day of travelling – but I was thinking of going out to some of the gay bars, they’re usually pretty good on a Thursday.” My absence on Bourbon Street in New Orleans had meant my previous week had been quite relaxed, with very little partying at all, so I decided that I would definitely have the strength for it. Even after a long day of travelling, it would be a good excuse to get out and stretch my legs. So when we got to Aaron’s small and simple one bedroom apartment, I unpacked my things on the couch, had a shower and started to get ready – but not before I got acquainted with Sergio.

Sergio!

Sergio!

My adventures with Princess in New Orleans had ignited a love affair with small dogs, and Sergio was to continue carrying the flame, so it would seem. As we came through the front door he began bouncing up and down like a frog, excited to see Aaron – who would have been gone for all of 10 minute – and equally excited to investigate someone new.
“He was dying when he came to us,” Aaron said, explaining how Sergio had been abandoned when he came through his clinic. “But after I fixed him up… well, he still needs a bit of care… He’s a special one.” Cue Sergio bouncing around so manically he smacked his head on the coffee table, yet proceeded to continue like it had never happened. “So I brought him home with me.”
With eyes that seemed to big for his head and a head that seemed too big for his body, he was an odd-looking yet still adorable little creature, and I grew to love him during my week in Austin.

***

After meeting my new furry best friend and getting myself ready to go out, Aaron and I headed back to the bus stop and made our way across town to the Warehouse District, where there were some popular gay bars on 4th Street. Aaron recommended Oil Can Harry’s, and soon we were inside drinking our generously poured double whiskey and Cokes from a bartender who Aaron seemed to know pretty well, assumedly from regular patronage. We stepped out onto the back patio so that Aaron could have a cigarette, and we told stories about previous Couchsurfing experiences.
“Yeah, I’ve had a few strange people, but most of them were normal. My last guest was this Russian guy who wanted to go to all these live music shows, but he was kinda rude about a lot of things so he wasn’t much fun.” Aaron confessed to reading my profile and seeing that I’d mentioned that I do like a bit of partying, which was one of the reasons he’d sent the invitation when I posted an open request.
“Well, hey, at least you read my profile!” I’d put a lot of effort into writing it so that people were more likely to accept my request to stay with them, so clearly it was working.

We drank more, chatted more, and ran into some people who Aaron knew, all of them very curious when they learnt I was from Australia. Aaron’s friend behind the bar made our drinks nice and strong, and eventually I was pretty tipsy. Okay, I was drunk, but I think I had to be for what happened next to happen at all. There was a resident drag queen who had been calling out between songs for participants to sign up for a “strip-off”: taking your clothes off (down to your underwear only – this isn’t Porn Idol) for the chance to win cash prizes. I can’t remember exactly the sequence of events in which everything happened, but it went something like this:

There were three people who had signed themselves up when the performing started, but they were calling for a total of five. The first few people did their performances – I swear two of them were the guys who had actually been dancing on the bar top at some point throughout the evening, so I hardly thought that was fair. But then they didn’t get much a reaction out of the crowd, probably because they’d seen it all before. In retrospect, part of me thinks they might have been entered by management on purpose in order to coax other participants out and join in. All throughout the evening Aaron had been half-jokingly suggesting that I enter the strip-off, and at this point of the evening when I was several drinks down, a gentle push was all it took for me to say “#YOLO” and stumble out onto the floor.
“Well hello! And what’s your name?” the drag queen asked me.
“Ah, my name’s Robert,” I said, slightly nervous and slightly slurring.
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here?”
“No, I’m from Australia.” Cue a monumental cheer from the crowd.
“Australia!? Can we hear some of that accent?” Not knowing what else to say, and knowing I didn’t have that strong an Aussie accent (well, to me, at least), I said the first and most unoriginal thing that came to my head.
“G’day mate, how ya goin’?” It was enough to please the crowds, and after that I was given my cue to start stripping when the music came on. Blurred Lines was the popularly controversial track at the time, and so I got into it with my awkward bopping up and down and hip shaking.

The crowds were cheering, though they must have been pretty forgiving, because I was a hot mess if you’d ever seen one. I discarded my jacket onto the floor behind me, not giving it much thought, then slowly peeling my t-shirt over my head, with a drunken, obviously failing attempt at being sexy. Then it came time for the jeans – skinny jeans – which are difficult to get off at the best of times. There’s no real flattering way to do it, yet I attempted to keep dancing as I did so, which meant when I got down to about my knees, I went ass over tits and landed on my back with my legs in the air. I don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing for the audience, but I’m very thankful I had decided to wear one of my best pairs of underwear that evening. And so eventually I did a little jig for the crowd, stripped completely down to my socks and underwear, before the DJ finally took mercy on my soul and cut the music. But I was definitely getting a reaction from the crowd as I scurried to collect my clothes and re-dress. When I went back to where Aaron was waiting for me, he was in hysterics so much that he could barely stand up.
“That. Was. Amazing!” he said with a laugh as he patted me on the back and thrust my drink back into my hand. “Best. Couchsurfer. Ever!”

And quickly it was time for the judging of the strip-off, which was done by the usual method of nightclub democracy – loudest cheer wins. There were cash prizes for the Top 3,  and honestly I would put it down to the fascination of my being Australian, because the crowd went wild for me, and I came first! The other two winners and myself followed the drag queen out to the back room, where the money was divided up and I was handed $150 in cold hard cash. Given the thriftiness of my travel budget, it definitely felt like Christmas had come early. It got even more surreal when, on my way back out to the bar, the manager of the venue approached me and asked point blank if I would be interested in working at Oil Can Harry’s as a bar top dancer on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After the performance I’d just given, I almost laughed right in his face, but instead declined his offer and said that I wouldn’t be around long enough to be able to take him up on the offer. He was visibly disappointed.

I was pretty popular around the bar for the rest of the evening. A few more guys offered to buy me drinks, and one guy even offered me a shot, on the condition that I drank it out of his belly button. As gross as it was, I was definitely living out my “I’ll try anything once” life philosophy that evening, and I had passed up pretty much all dignity when I was writhing around on the dance floor with my pants around my ankles. So what the hell, I did the shot out of belly button and chased it with my double whiskey.

They say Texas is a largely conservative place, and that amongst all that Austin is a little safe haven of artists, musicians, creatives, and other more open-minded, liberal people. The motto of the city, which you can see scrawled across chalkboards outside of bars and restaurants and on t-shirts in souvenir shops, is “Keep Austin Weird”. I’m not sure if ‘drunk and crazy’ constitutes as weird there, but I like to think that I left a pretty good impression on the Warehouse District of Austin, as much as it made a pretty good first impression on me.