Underage Drinking: cheap wine and Lil Wayne

Since we were sharing her studio apartment, Melissa and I had obviously been spending a lot of time together, even if it was just hanging out at her place and just chatting about life or boys or whatever. I also had the pleasure of meeting a few of Melissa’s good friends while I was staying with her, including her gay best friend Stefon, who I had heard so much about, and who Melissa had basically described as her soulmate. He lived over in Brooklyn, and his personality was the perfect blend of inspired, creative depth and sassy street smarts. The first time we met, Melissa and I were heading out to grab dinner with him and Nirali, another close friend of theirs. It was always interesting to join new friend groups, and see how their dynamics shift and differ from country to country, and how different they are from my own friends. When it came to Melissa’s friends, and essentially all over the United States, I found a familiarity within the social circles that I hadn’t felt in a lot of other places. I guess the lack of culture clashes was partly the reason – I spoke the language, I understood all the references, and I didn’t feel like quite such a tourist as I made my way through this country.

But Melissa’s friends were just so… nice. Honestly, they were lovely. I know that sounds like a strange thing to zone in on, but most of my own social circles back home… well, we’re all friends, and we all like each other, but so many exchanges are laced with cutting sarcasm, playful yet offensive implicit insults, and jokes that are usually funny but often at someone else’s expense. Melissa, on the other hand, was just one of the kindest and most caring people I had ever met, and that was definitely reflected in the company that she kept. Melissa just had so much love for everyone in her life, and that really shone through when I met her friends. It was a really positive experience, full of positive energy, and I was so happy that she was opening up her home and her life to me while I was in the city.

After dinner we bid farewell to the lovely Nirali, who had to work early the following day, and Stefon, Melissa and myself made a detour to Trader Joe’s. They were both surprised that I had never heard of it, and after I’d discovered it I was a little surprised as well – from that day on it seemed like the chain was everywhere, not just in the streets I wandered thought but in movies and television shows too. It was just like any other supermarket, really, except this particular location we were in had a huge selection of very decently priced wine. Stefon said he’d recently been paid, so tonight the wine was on him. I think we clocked up about 10 bottles before we finally cooled off and decided we were officially well stocked, but when when it came time to actually buy the wine, Stefon handed some cash to Melissa and then quickly walked outside. I was confused, so I questioned Melissa about it as we waited in the humungous line.

“Why did he…?” I half said, half pointing to the door Stefon had just passed through, the implication of question evident.
“He’s only 19, remember?” she said, trying to keep her voice down.
“Yeah?” I had known Stefon was a couple of years younger than us. “But that… ohhhh!” The drinking in age in America was something that I hadn’t given much thought to, other than always telling myself I would never travel in the states until I was 21, for that exact reason. I’d almost forgotten that their drinking age was different to ours. So we bought the wine for ourselves and Stefon, but I didn’t even really think twice about doing it. For me it didn’t even seem like it was a bad or illegal thing – back home I was buying and drinking wine when I was 18, so purchasing it for a 19 year old who couldn’t buy it himself felt like a Robin Hood-style correction of justice, as though we were helping to right a crazy flaw in their system.

We stopped to get cupcakes before taking the subway back to Melissa’s, but I couldn’t help but pick Stefon’s brains about the whole drinking age thing.
“So, you can’t buy alcohol at all?” I mean, I know how drinking ages work, but I just couldn’t adjust to the fact the restriction was different here. But of course, Stefon had his ways.
“Well, sometimes you can get away with it. Like at dinner tonight.”
“Oh yeah!” Stefon had ordered an alcoholic drink at dinner, just like the rest of us. I guess that’s why I was so shocked by this realisation now – the fact he couldn’t buy the wine had felt unnatural.
“I just ordered last, and waited to see how the waitress reacted when you all ordered alcohol. She didn’t ask to see any of your IDs, so I figured I was pretty safe to order alcohol too.” And he had been right, since he’d fooled the waitress as well as myself.
“Wow… yeah, you’re totally right! That’s clever! I’m impressed!” Stefon just let out a smug little smile and shrugged his shoulders. The boy knew what he was doing.

***

The following day, I had the opportunity to do something that was – in my opinion, at least – very American: be an audience member of a television talk show. I know things like that happen all over the world, but the states have all the big stars and major shows that are known all over the world. While we were at dinner, Melissa had received a message from her friend Justin asking if she wanted to come to the taping of an episode of The Katie Show tomorrow, and if she knew anyone else who might want to go – he had a handful of spare tickets that he had won or been given, I’m not sure exactly.
“The Katie Show?” Melissa had said with a chuckle. “Who or what is ‘Katie’?”
“Oh my God – The Katie Show? As in, Katie Couric?” That earned me blank stares from Nirali, Stefon and Melissa. “She’s… like… I don’t know exactly but I know she works in TV.”
“That’s hilarious,” Melissa said with a laugh. “The only non-American out of us is the only one who has even heard of her!”
“Okay, well… the only reason I know her is because she guest starred as herself in the episode of Will & Grace were Grace and Leo get married in the park. She was doing the news report on the mass wedding in Central Park.” That sparked another round of laughter, and Melissa asked Justin a few more questions about the taping. Apparently the major guest of the show was going to be Lil Wayne, and while I’m not the biggest hip hop fan, I had nothing else to do the next day, and Melissa and Stefon didn’t have classes, so we thought it would be something interesting to do.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

The set of the show before filming started - for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The set of the show before filming started – for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The taping itself was actually pretty fun. They had crowd warming exercises, and weird things like dancing competitions which actually turned out to be pretty hilarious. They had a variety of guests, from a tragedy survivor to a struggling family to famous journalist Barbra Walters, who was actually Katie’s personal friend. The interview with Lil Wayne was actually particularly engaging – I ended up learning quite a lot about him and leaving the studio with a newfound respect for the man, or at least for his current public persona. But that’s not all away I walked away with – there was a surprise gift for every single audience member. At the beginning of the show we had to fill out some forms and give our addresses so that whatever the prizes were could be mailed to us. When I asked the woman handing out the forms about international addresses, she gave me a dismayed look.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Unfortunately for tax reasons we can only give away prizes to US citizens.” She made a mark on the corner of my form in red pen before continuing on. Undeterred, I got another form and just filled it out again, but instead I wrote down Melissa’s address. It didn’t really matter in the end, since you had to go online to register to have the free gift delivered, and you had to enter an address again anyway.

But what we actually got was pretty awesome. At the very end of the show, Katie came out and stood next to a table with a large cover over it.
“Now I’m sure you’re all wondering what you’re all going to be going home with today,” Katie said, and it was true. We were all brimming with anticipation. So when she removed the cover to reveal a computer, a HP ENVY Rove All-In-One PC, the crowd went absolutely crazy. We all started screaming. Melissa looked stunned. Stefon looked like he was about to cry tears of happiness. Even I felt a little giddy. I mean, it was just a computer, but the fact they were giving it to us for literally doing nothing except sitting and watching the show inspired a sense of delirious happiness. Sure, Oprah wasn’t giving us cars, but it was still pretty damn cool.

When the computers finally arrived at Melissa’s house, I struggled to decide what to do with it. I would be meeting my dad in New York towards the end of my stay here, and was thinking if it was small enough I could send it home with him. The boxes were huge though, and so heavy, which also ruled out posting it home unless I wanted to pay probably more than what the computer itself was worth in postage fees. In the end, Melissa and I came up with the best solution. Melissa’s mom had been wanting a new computer, and had offered to buy my prize from me. At first I refused to sell it, since it had literally cost me nothing to obtain, but she wouldn’t let me give it to her for free. I was travelling, she had insisted, so I could always do with the extra cash. She was right, of course, so in the end that was what we did. The money was of much more practical use than a computer ever would have been, but I still like to remember myself as one of those fanatics that went ballistic about winning a prize as a television talk show audience member.

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The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.