Epilogue: Passion for People and Food for the Soul

I boarded my flight at Honolulu airport and settled down for the final leg of my around the world journey: the flight back to Sydney. The flight from Hawaii to Australia isn’t too bad, at least in terms of jet lag. I left Honolulu early on Friday morning, and arrived in Sydney late Saturday afternoon, but crossing the International Date Line hadn’t really affected my body clock too much. It was roughly a 10 hour flight, so it had just felt like a very long day on a plane.

When I stepped out into the arrivals hall at Sydney airport, I was greeted by… well, nobody. Dane, who I had last seen in Berlin, was supposed to be picking me up, but when I connected to the free airport wifi I discovered that he was on his way, but stuck in traffic. It was almost laughable, that I had had so many people around the world greeting me in so many foreign cities, yet when I actually came home there was nobody there. My parents were out of town and wouldn’t be back until the New Year, and in reality this post-Christmas period was pretty busy for most people, so I understood why no one could make it. I just wandered out into the warm Sydney evening, taking a big whiff of that big city Australian air. After gallivanting around the world, sleeping on floors and couches and spare beds for the better part of the year, with a new adventure around every corner, I was finally home.

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I still call Australia home.

***

It’s been two years since I arrived back in Sydney after that nine month tour of backpacking across the world. I’m a little appalled at myself that I fell so far behind in the blogging, and that it took me this long to finish writing about it, but I’m also pretty impressed with myself that I managed to stick it out and write it until the very end. A lot of people have asked me “How do you remember everything that happened?” My answer is that, aside from having a very good memory, I figured it was only the most memorable things that would make the best stories, and I wasn’t at an age where my memory is going to be regularly failing on me. “But even the conversations? Word for word?” Most people wouldn’t be able to recount a conversation verbatim the very next day after having it, let alone two years later, so I obviously took a few creative liberties in constructing some of the dialogue, although all of it was as accurate as possible.

After reflecting on all these stories and all these adventures that I had during my travels, I want to take a moment to reflect on the idea of travelling itself. I remember sitting down on the pier near Darling Harbour in Sydney with Rathana, in January before I departed on my trip, when he was making a short trip back from Bangkok.
“It might be tough at times, but it’s going to be amazing for you,” he’d said to me as we gazed out over the water. “You’ll learn so much about yourself. A trip like that… it’s gonna change you. And if it doesn’t, well… you’re doing it wrong!” he said with a laugh. As someone who had travelled the world over already as part of his job, I was inclined to take Rathana’s advice to heart. I would learn, I would grow, but I don’t think I was really prepared for how much travelling would actually change me.

***

I’d carried those words with me through most of my first few months, wondering if I was getting that life changing experience that this was all supposedly about. Fast forward to the last weekend of my first time in Berlin, were I was curled up in the outdoor garden at Berghain with Ralf, his arms wrapped around me in the cool evening air as we watched the stars twinkle above us.
“I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.” Ralf just ran his fingers through my hair and smiled.
“It will change you,” he said, as though it was a matter of fact. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He paused and reconsidered his words with a chuckle. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”

***

Many more months later, I would have a similar conversation with Vincenzo in New Orleans, sitting on the balcony of his French Quarter flat and basking in the muggy, humid air, with Princess scurrying around our heels, craving our attention.
“It’s true, travelling can be tough. You learn a lot about yourself and put up with a lot of stuff you never thought you ever could. But sometimes, after being away so long, going home can actually be the hardest part.” There was a solemnness in his voice, one that told me his advice was definitely coming from direct experience.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, you see it with Americans all the time, so I assume with Australians too… when people have travelled, they’ve seen the world. Experienced a different culture. Opened themselves up to what’s out there, even if it’s just a little bit. To go home to people stuck in their ways and their views, who’ve never left their hometown and probably never will… it can be isolating. The more you know, the more you challenge yourself, and the more you can doubt yourself. Those people who are stuck in their ways, they’ll be so sure of themselves… but that’s all they’ve ever known.”
I sat there and took it all in, soaking up the sage advice like a sponge. “I just want it all to mean something, you know?” Once again, I couldn’t shake the fear that I would return home from my life after nine months on the road to find that nothing had changed.
“Maybe you won’t notice it now, because every day you’re in a new situation, but when you go home… you’ll notice it. You’ll change. But what I’m saying is, it might be a little difficult to adjust. Not because you’re settling back into your old life, because- well, how could you? You won’t be the same person. You’ll be changed.”

At the time I had leered at Vincenzo skeptically, willing to believe that he believed what he was saying, but not quite sure if it would apply to me. Looking back, I wish I’d taken notes or recorded his words verbatim, because they had been gospel: a prophecy of what was to come.

***

Coming home was hard, and settling in was difficult. I met up with Georgia and Jesse again, and it was great to see all my old friends. We caught up for drinks and due to my lack of jet lag, we even hit the town and went out to Oxford St.
“What’s the best thing about being home?” everyone had asked me, and without hesitation I had told them how excited I was to sleep in my old bed again. So you can imagine the mixture of confusion, amusement and depression when I woke up the following morning on my couch, having passed out as soon as I’d arrived home. I was supposed to have changed, I’d thought to myself, beating myself up about how easily I had slipped into my old partying habits of yesteryear. But the changes presented themselves gradually. I had more to say in conversations, and I was able to better consider other peoples perspectives, and be more mindful of their cultures. But eventually even I got tired of hearing myself saying “Oh that reminds me of when I was in…” and casually dropping exotic place names in the middle of discussions, so I can imagine how over it the people around me must have been. It was like taking a fish from the ocean and placing it in the tiny fish bowl where it was born. It was satisfied, and it could live, but there was always a yearning for more once you knew there was more out there. It was the travel bug amplified tenfold, enraged by the fact it had been stuffed into a jar with only a few air holes to breathe. Yet the feeling would eventually pass, and you could wallow in the isolation, or you could use it as motivation to ready yourself for another trip.

So no-one was really that surprised when I announced that I was leaving again, heading back to Berlin on a working holiday visa after only four months in Sydney. Though in that time I had fed the travel bug and fuelled the wanderlust by paying it forward and hosting Couchsurfers in my own home. I hosted people from Russia, Sweden, France, Germany and Poland, and all of them brought with them the same passion for exploring the world that I had had in my own journey. For all the perceived isolation that you might experience when you return from travelling, it was always worth it for all the amazing people that you meet along the way.

***

When it really comes down to it, it is the people that you meet on your travels that make or break the journey, and I honestly couldn’t imagine my life being the same without the friends I had made along the way. I unfortunately fell out of touch with some of the people that I stayed with, but in the past two years I have managed to see many of them, even if it was for a brief beer as they passed through Sydney, and it always made me smile, reminding me that despite all the exploring we do, the world is a pretty small place after all.

I ended up seeing my New York sister Melissa much sooner than I had anticipated, after she flew back to Sydney to (unsuccessfully) patch things up with her long distance boyfriend. David, who I had briefly met in LA, ended up staying with me when he broke up with Danny and their holiday plans fell through, and he ended up spontaneously rebooking some flights to Sydney. Matt, the charming gentleman from Ireland, had also flown to Australia for a holiday, spending a few weeks here with me in Sydney. Then it was back to Berlin, where I stayed with Ralf for several weeks while I found my feet and searched for an apartment. Donatella was off galavanting somewhere else in Europe, and Nina and Simon had since moved to Brazil, but I had a blast living it up in the international hub of Europe, satisfying those cravings to meet new and exciting people. I’d caught up with Rathana there again, due to his constant travelling for work, and even travelled back to Amsterdam for my second pride parade on the canals in as many years, where Joris and Thjis graciously opened their home to me again, and I was welcomed back like an old friend amongst their friendship circle. I was also visited by Kathi, who flew up from Vienna with her new girlfriend for a week in Berlin, and I myself took a short holiday over to London where I caught up with John and Richard and reminisced about the time four of us had consumed 10 bottles of wine, and also took a day trip down to Brighton to catch up with Laura and laugh about our crazy adventures in Cambodia. After arriving home from my time in Berlin, Umer from Switzerland arrived just in time for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, bringing with him a bunch of amazing friends, with whom I had such a great time in my own city, as we all helped to make the world a smaller yet undeniably friendlier place.

Even more recently I caught up with Alyson, my other American friend from the Trans-Siberian Railway, who had quit her demanding job and packed up her life to go travelling, something I could not applaud her enough for doing, and I’ve caught up with Thjis for a beer when he was in town only a week or so ago. And in a few days I am heading back to the US to see Ashleigh and Nick (who is now my brother-in-law) in Hawaii, Jake and the whole WeHo crew in LA, Todd in San Francisco and Vincenzo in New Orleans.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this is that the people are what made my journey so unforgettable and amazing. Because even when you go home, and you’re living out your daily routine while the Great Wall of China or Christ the Redeemer are thousands of miles away, it’s the people that you are still able to maintain a connection with. Those new friendships that you forge and cherish, those are what really change you. As a sociology major, I’ve always maintained that people were my passion, and it’s especially true when it comes to travelling. You could stay in a fancy hotel and see all the popular tourist attractions and take some amazing photographs, but to me, that’s still not really travelling. For some people it’s enough, but for me, nothing will ever beat the experience of meeting the locals in any given city, and the lifelong friendships that you can forge with seemingly random people from every corner of the globe.

***

I started this blog as a project to keep me busy, so that I didn’t feel like I would come home with nothing to show from a year of travelling around the world. I couldn’t have been more wrong in those fears and assumptions. Travelling has changed me so much as a person, and I am quite content with the person that I have become. I quickly fell behind in updating the blog, but I’d like to believe that that happened because I was so busy enjoying life, living in the moment, and experiencing every sensation in its fullest that I barely had time to write it down. When real life came back into the picture, I suddenly had a whole bunch of other priorities and projects to work on, but I refused to leave the story unfinished or untold.

Maybe when I am old and grey, and my memory does actually start to fail me, I will be able to revisit these pages and relive the journey, but that won’t be for a long time (I hope). So for now, I’d like to thank you, the readers of my blog, for taking this journey with me, and experiencing vicariously all the wonders in the world I was so fortunate enough to come across. Hopefully I have inspired some of you to plan and undergo your own journeys, because in my honest opinion, there is no better food for the soul than travel.

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Tourist Times in Tinseltown

While a lot of my time in Los Angeles was spent hanging out with my new friends, there were a few times when I had to play the tourist card and actively make an attempt to see some of the typical or cliché LA sights. One afternoon when Jake was busy with work, I met up with a guy who I had chatted to on Couchsurfing just before my arrival in LA. This was before I had met Jake, who had assured me that he had no problems with me staying with him for the entire duration of my time in the city, but when I explained to David that I was no longer seeking a place to say, I told him that I was still keen to hang out and meet new people while seeing the city. And so that’s how David ended picking me up with his boyfriend Danny (who ended up knowing Jake because he played dodgeball – he knew everyone!), and we went for a drive from West Hollywood down to Santa Monica Pier.

Traffic was pretty terrible, and since most of the commuting I’d been doing around LA was between WeHo and the neighbouring suburbs, it was really my first experience of the notorious LA traffic. But we eventually made it to Santa Monica and found a park, and Danny and David took me to one of their favourite bars in the area that did cheap and strong margaritas. I had a couple before we wandered further down to the pier itself.

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Santa Monica Pier. 

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Route 66, one of the original roads of the US Highway System, starts in Chicago, Illinois and finishes here in Santa Monica. 

When I was told we were going to Santa Monica Pier, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. A rickety old wooden platform over the ocean with a couple of old dudes fishing on it, perhaps? I couldn’t have been more wrong: similar to Pier 39 in San Francisco, Santa Monica Pier was almost a small theme park in its own right, with carnival rides, shops, restaurants and food stands. It looked like a partial tourist trap, but it also looked like the place some of the bored teenagers on The OC used to hang out, like an outdoor mall with a Ferris wheel.

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Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

We wandered down to the edge of the pier, and while it was fun to check it out and take a few pictures, I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the rides or games or shops. If I’m totally honest, the thing that probably excited me the most about being at Santa Monica Pier was seeing the sunset over the ocean. As a dweller of the east coast in my own country, a sunset over the ocean was something that was actually impossible for me to witness, and I was never one to get up early enough to watch an ocean sunrise. I suppose Hollywood being on the west coast of the US has probably played a part in the way the idea of ocean sunsets have been romanticised into popular culture, but regardless, it was still nice to watch the big burning ball of gas sink below the watery horizon.

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Sunset over the Pacific Ocean. 

***

“Are you going to any TV show tapings? Be a part of a live studio audience?” A few people had asked me these questions in my first few days of being in LA.
“Um… I… I don’t… is that… is that something people do?” I hadn’t made that many plans at all, but going to watch a TV show being filmed hadn’t even popped up on  my radar. There weren’t any TV shows with live studio audiences that I could think of that I’d really want to watch, or at least not enough to pay for it. Maybe something like being in the audience for Ellen DeGeneres’ show, but even my experiences with The Katie Show in New York had showed me that those tapings were lengthy ordeals (although I won a computer for my efforts, so I’m not really complaining).

Enter Jake and his endless connections to people all over the city.
“Hey, Warren works at the CBS Studio Center! Perhaps I could see if he could get you into a studio audience?” So he made the call where Warren confirmed that he could, and I figured that I might as well go along and do something typically Hollywood, especially if it was free anyway. Jake drove me out to the studio and dropped me off, but not before running through the complex and helping me take a few photos of things that caught my eye. I couldn’t go past the memorial plaque of Will & Grace, and I also stopped for a picture on the outdoor set of New York City, a strip of street that was done up to look like the east coast city, which had provided the filming set for a number of shows that had been set in New York City, like Seinfeld.

 

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New York in Los Angeles. 

Afterwards, I headed to the studio where I was going to sit in on the live studio audience of the Melissa & Joey show, a sitcom that I had never previously heard of. I was excited, however, when I realised that the Melissa from the show title was none other than Melissa Joan Heart, the one and only Sabrina, the teenage witch. I’d loved that show as a kid, and while Melissa was definitely not a teenager anymore (she’s a mother of two, actually), she was still a decent comedic actress. It was also kind of interesting to be a part of the audience while the show itself was being filmed. They did each scene at least twice, even if they nailed them, just to make sure they had enough good takes during editing and producing, which meant that the filming of a 20 minute episode turned into at least a couple of hours. It was a light-hearted sitcom though, and I enjoyed watching it – if you ever find yourself watching an episode where there’s a distinct snort of laughter coming from the studio audience, you’re welcome. Warren worked on the production side of things, so I didn’t see him again until the filming was over. He came and found me once everything had wrapped up, and while I didn’t get to meet any of the actors on the show, he was able to give me a an autographed photograph of the cast. Free experiences with free souvenirs – doesn’t get much better than that. When he finished work, Warren drove me to dodgeball, where I was reunited with Jake.

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***

My only other brush with anything related to TV was actually one of my biggest highlights in LA, at least as far as touristy sightseeing goes.
“Well, there is one thing that I’d really like to see,” I confessed to Jake one afternoon, when we were brainstorming about things to do. I explained to him how I was a huge fan of the TV show Charmed, and how I had been shocked to learn that the house itself was not located in San Francisco.
“Oh yeah! It’s here in LA, I think. There’s a bunch of streets over in Echo Park that are just filled with famous houses from movies and TV shows. We can totally take a drive out there.” So that’s what we did, and I finally got my photo with the Victorian style magical manor.

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The Halliwell Manor – easily one of the biggest highlights of my time in LA. 

 

***

Now, there’s probably one glaringly obvious tourist attraction in Los Angeles that I haven’t mentioned yet. But the truth is, I never really had any intention of going to Disneyland. As a child, I’d been to Disney World over in Florida, and it had been awesome, but I’d also been 9 years old. Not that I wouldn’t have had fun in Disneyland as an adult, but being on the backpacker budget that I was, it wasn’t a priority. I also learned just how enormous and spread out LA actually is when I tied to locate Anaheim on a map, and realised that it was at least an hours drive to get out there. Coupled with my lack of burning desire to go there, I had written it out of my plans. Until I remembered someone I knew who actually lived in Anaheim.

The Trans-Siberian Railway felt like almost a lifetime ago, but the friends I had made on that once-in-a-lifetime journey were still fresh in my memories and blog posts. During our emotional goodbyes in St Petersburg, I told Kaylah that I was definitely going to be in LA at the end of the year, since I already had my final flight booked out of LAX. So we made a promise that we would catch up when I was there, but it was only when I got to LA that I realised just how large the city actually was. West Hollywood and Anaheim felt like worlds away, and while I wanted to see Kaylah, I didn’t want to make her drive across the city on her day off, just to hang out in WeHo, where I’d been spending most of my time anyway. Though as fate would have it, when I mentioned it to him, Jake informed me that he actually had a reason to drive out to east LA.
“My dad actually lives out that way, and he’s got a whole bunch of furniture and other stuff that I need to pick up!” he told me. “So, if you wanna go meet her out that way, I could drive you somewhere and then go see my dad while you two hang out?” As things had seemed to be happening lately, everything turned out pretty perfectly.

We met up with Kaylah, and set a rough meeting time for later in the afternoon. I was so excited to see Kaylah again – she’d been one of my favourite people on the Trans-Siberian tour, and we’d always had ridiculous amounts of fun together. Kaylah was a correctional officer in a juvenile detention centre, and before we’d met up she told me that Knot’s Berry Farm, a rollercoaster theme park over near where she lived, was doing a free entry promotion for all law enforcement personal, a category in which she was included. Free entry was also extended to a second person, so we agreed that that would be a fun way to hang out and catch up, interspersed by some rollercoaster rides.

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It wasn’t until we actually got there, though, that Kaylah admitted she wasn’t even a huge fan of rollercoasters. I started to feel bad, but she assured me that she still wanted me to go on them if I wanted to. It hadn’t been that long since I went on a bunch of rollercoasters at the Six Flags in New Jersey, but I do love them, so Kaylah took photos of me while I screamed my lungs out on the various rides. We also rode dodge ’em cars together, which was a bit of a throwback to the time Kaylah and I had rode quad bikes through the Siberian wilderness, and I had been sure that I was going to end up flipping ours and crushing us. Luckily there was slightly less chance of doing that in an LA theme park.

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After a few hours at Knot’s Berry Farm, we left to grab a bite to eat at the nearby TGI Fridays. We also ordered some ciders, and it was there that I experienced for the second time what had happened to me in that little bar in Flagstaff – the waitstaff would not accept my drivers licence as a valid form of ID, saying that it needed to be federally issued. Most Americans aren’t even aware of the fact Australia actually has states, so it is pretty infuriating that they can be such sticklers about little things like that. What’s worse is that I had been using my drivers licence in every other place in California, so I knew it wasn’t actually a legal thing like it had been in Arizona.
“Look, this is my ID, I’m clearly over 21!” I tried bargaining with him.
“I’ve never seen an Australian drivers licence before though,” the guy said with a laugh, clearly nervous but trying to deflect my clearly mounting irritation. “It could be a fake.” I put the licence in my mouth and bit down on it, tugging at the plastic.
“It’s very real! And what, you know exactly what an Australian passport looks like? Do you want me to Google a New South Wales drivers licence? It’s real!”
I even sent the dude back to check with his manager, who also regretfully informed me they were unable to serve me.
“Whatever,” I said and just rolled my eyes. I mean, I didn’t need to have a drink or anything, but it was more just the principle of being refused that annoyed me.

After all that, Kaylah and I wandered down to the nearby Disneyland. There was a whole street of shops and smaller things to look at before actually entering the gates into Disneyland proper, so we just walked down that, taking photos and dodging toddlers and families and mothers with prams as they made their way to the happiest place on Earth.

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Dragon and knight made entirely out of Lego.

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Lego Beauty and the Beast characters, made out of more Lego. Meta.

I mainly just had fun hanging out with Kaylah, telling her all about what I’d been up to since we’d parted ways in Russia, and reminiscing about all the fun we’d had all those months ago. Eventually it was time for Jake and I to head back to WeHo, so Kaylah and I drove to meet him and then said our goodbyes once again. Though the fact that it was our second goodbye, and that we’d met each other again on a completely opposite side of the world so many months later, proved that in a world as small as ours, for travellers like us, goodbyes were only ever temporary.

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Trans-Siberian Railway buddies united!

***

The day spent out in Anaheim with Kaylah was actually my last full day in LA, and that evening would be my last night before I flew out the following morning. Jake was feeling a little glum about it, considering how I’d been living with him for over a week now, and we’d been having so much fun. Yet even to the last moment, he was still thinking of cool and interesting things we could do in LA. “Something you wouldn’t know about if you weren’t from around here. I want you to leave saying just how awesome a time you had in LA.”

There’s a place up on the hills of Hollywood Heights called the Magic Castle. It’s the clubhouse of a private organisation that promotes and supports the art of magic and magicians. You have to either be a member or be signed in as a guest by a member, and of course Jake knew – through dodgeball – a member who was a magician. The dress code of the Magic Castle was formal evening wear, so I had to borrow a shirt and tie from Jake, and on my last night we made our way up to the Castle, where we were greeted by Jake’s friend Jeb. The castle itself is technically more of a Victorian mansion, and stepping inside felt like you were stepping back in time itself, with the polished wood furnishings, luxurious deep red carpets and dapper gentlemen and elegantly dressed woman gliding through the hallways. Jeb gave us a tour of many of the castles quirky and interesting rooms. I’m not supposed to give away too much, but there was a piano that plays by itself (or is played by  ghost, depending on who you ask), and can even take requests (I requested Pokerface).

There was also a table in a more open area where magicians could set up and perform card tricks and other small magical shows. Jake and I sat around the table while Jeb performed one, and I wish there was more I could say to explain what he did but then if I knew I would probably be a magician… and then I definitely wouldn’t tell you. There were also a few other shows that you could attend while visiting the Magic Castle, and Jake and I got almost front row seats to a show with a mentalist. Now, I have to admit this show actually scared me a little bit. I don’t want to give away too much, but the general idea was that he could supposedly see our thoughts or read our minds. It seemed like more of a psychic than anything to do with performance magic or magicians, but I was curious. He asked for three volunteers: someone who was good with drawing, someone who was good with numbers, and someone who was good with words. I enthusiastically volunteered to the be wordsmith. After watching the mentalist successfully sketch a drawing that the first woman had secretly drawn, without ever seeing it, and know the number that another woman was thinking of, which she had picked from the top of her head and hadn’t told him, it was my turn. Out in the front of the theatre room with him, he asked me to imagine I was in a library. I was to go over to one of the shelves and pull out a book. I had a bit of a brain freeze, and for a few seconds the only book that came to mind was the Bible. But then, for some reason, I’m not sure why, The Jungle Book came to mind, and so my word that the mentalist would have to correctly identify was ‘jungle’.

He asked a handful of questions, all which had seemingly nothing at all to do with The Jungle Book or the word ‘jungle’. I was so confused. Yet when he claimed that he had it, sure enough he scribbled on a big sheet of paper and produced the word ‘jungle’ in big, black block letters. I was actually stunned. I’m not exactly a skeptic when it comes to psychics or magic, but this seemed way above the pay grade of a normal magician. I was dying to know how he knew, short of believing he was actually a psychic, but of course a good magician never revealed his secrets, and I left the Magic Castle with a burning curiosity, as well as a reluctant resignation to the fact that I would probably never find out how he’d gotten inside my head.

“So. Last night in LA. Anything else you really wanna do?” Jake said to me as we climbed into the car after the show was over. We locked eyes for a moment.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I said with I grin.
“I don’t know… I might be…?”
“Taco Bell?”
“Let’s do it!”

***

And so after having such an amazing time in LA, having more fun than I ever thought I would and meeting such a cool bunch of people, it was time for me to get travelling again. It was something that you think I would be used to by now, and while I can admit that it does get a littler easier, it’s never exactly easy. I’d travelled all around the world, and fallen in love with a handful of places, and LA was definitely high on the list of places that had actually started to feel like home. Combined with the fact that endless travel had eventually started to wear me down, I was almost reluctant to leave.

“You’re gonna have such a great time in Hawaii,” Jake said to me as he drove me through the mid-morning traffic to the airport. “I mean, I’m gonna miss you like Hell, but I’m also excited for you,” he said with a smile. I was pretty quiet. I guess saying too much during goodbyes always made them a little harder. Eventually we arrived at the airport, and Jake hopped out to help me get my bag out of the car. Then we had our final hugs and kisses, and I told him that I would definitely be back one day. How could I not? Jake had done so much for me during my stay in LA, literally driving me across the city to see things and meet people, introducing me to all of his friends, rescuing me from creepy guys and giving me a place to stay for the entire time too. He’d gone so out of his way to make sure I’d done and seen things that would make me remember my time in LA as something amazing, but in reality it had just been him being himself that had made it so awesome, and that was the reason I knew I’d one day come back.

He was parked in the cab drop-off point though, so we couldn’t draw the farewell out too long. So we said our goodbyes, I waved as he took off down the road and out of sight, and then I headed to the terminal to catch the flight to my final destination.

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As weird as it sounds, even the LAX sign was a sight that I had seen in TV shows and was therefore somewhat exciting. 

Making Friends in San Francisco

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Brandon’s birthday dinner

 

 

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

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:

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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.

The Land of Enchantment

After disembarking from the Rail Runner in Santa Fe, I was greeted by a noticeable climate change as the cool evening air rushed at me from the darkness. A lot of people back home were surprised to hear the New Mexico was a little on the chilly side, given its reputation for being a stinking hot desert. But it was November, which meant that winter was coming, and evenings in the desert are cold enough as it is. It wasn’t necessarily cold though – just fresh and crisp. I made my way into the parking lot where I was set to meet my next Couchsurfing host.

Like a lot of my previous hosts, Bradley was new to the Couchsurfing game. The dynamic between us seemed reversed to what one would normally expected – despite myself being the one turning up and crashing at a strangers home, I found myself feeling rather relaxed, with Bradley almost seeming a little intimidated by me. He was a bit older than me – mid to late thirties – and very warm and welcoming, but at first I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was “correct”, whereas I had become something of a seasoned Surfer by now. I guess I’d learnt along the way that there was no right or wrong way to be a Couchsurfer, but I also had absolutely no pre-planned schedule for my arrival in Santa Fe, so I was happy to go with the flow and tag along with whatever he was doing. We swung by a grocery store, where he picked up from dinner ingredients and beers, and he headed back to his place. After briefly recounting my painful previous 24 hours, I assured him I had absolutely no qualms with him cooking some dinner and getting to know each other over a few beers at home.

I guess I should use the word “home” loosely, though. Bradley explained to me that he had just moved to Santa Fe pretty recently, and he was working with a physical therapy company. The building had been transformed into a very professional looking practice, but there were also living quarters in the back of the building, and that was where Bradley was currently living. It then made a little more sense as to why he might have seemed uneasy – he admitted that he wasn’t totally sure if he was allowed to have guests, but he’d accepted my Couchsurfing request because he’d wanted to help me out. But there was an extremely comfortable looking couch for me to crash on, and with the only condition being I’d have to make myself scarce during business hours of the day, as long as he was okay with it, then so was I.

I’ve always thought that there’s something therapeutic about talking to strangers, and opening up to someone and being able to tell them whatever you’re feeling without having them judge you or make references to anything else prior in your life. I’d loved Couchsurfing so much because actually being pushed into proximity with these strangers (albeit relatively screened through profile reading) forced you to open up in these new, fresh kind of ways. In the case of Bradley, I feel like he enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. He had moved there after the ending of a long-term relationship, for a clean slate and a fresh start, only to learn that some other completely independent forces had brought his ex-boyfriend to Santa Fe as well. And Santa Fe isn’t exactly a large city. It doesn’t even feel like a small city – more of a large town, really. I got the feeling he didn’t really have anyone around here who he could talk to, but I was more than happy to lend my ears. He had some other frustrations that were bothering him, and I also got to unload some of the feelings or frustrations that you sometimes just don’t have the time to pay attention to when you’re always on the road. After my partying antics in the last two cities, it was definitely a welcome change of pace for the evening.

***

The following morning, Bradley informed me that he had most of the day off, and that he only had a few clients in the late afternoon and evening, giving him plenty of time to show me around. Our first mission was breakfast burritos: apparently they were popular all over the Southwest, but were particularly amazing in Santa Fe. We wandered through a few places around town before we found one that Bradley deemed worthy, but I gotta say, it was worth the wait. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes a breakfast burrito so different from other kinds of burrito… except that, you’re having a burrito for breakfast? And like… as if that isn’t amazing?! 

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

After breakfast we headed to downtown Santa Fe, where we did a brief walking tour around some of the more popular buildings and attractions. Santa Fe translates into Spanish as “holy faith”, so it’s unsurprising that in the centre of town one of the most prominent buildings was a church, Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

There were a lot of beautiful things in and around the church, but my favourite was the bronze statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American saint who was one of the first to convert and become a part of the Roman Catholic church.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

There was also the Palace of the Governors, a national historical landmark and the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Once the home of the seat of government for the state of New Mexico, it is now a history museum, although it was more of an interest to us on the outside, where many pedlars and street vendors had laid out their goods and wares for sale.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

We also wandered around a few more streets, looking in a few shops, and Bradley even pointed out some of the cities gay bars, which he admitted to not frequenting too often on account of there being a severe lack of variety and diversity in the patrons. I’d sometimes had similar thoughts about the bars that I frequented back home in Sydney, a city of 4 million people, so I couldn’t even begin to image what it would be like here. We continued along, mostly admiring the architecture of the city. One of my favourite buildings was the New Mexico Museum of Art, which looked like a piece of art itself, in my opinion.

New Mexico Museum of Art

New Mexico Museum of Art

As beautiful as the museum itself was, Bradley assured me that Santa Fe was an artists haven, and that there were plenty of other smaller, private galleries with unique artworks that we could check out. At least, that had been our intended next stop, until we walked in a particular direction that gave me a better view of mountain overlooking Santa Fe, and I saw what was on top of it.
“Oh my God, there’s snow up there!” I knew it had been cold, but cold enough for snow? I was shocked.
“Yeah, it can get cold enough for it up there,” Bradley said, and paused for a moment before adding, “Do you wanna take a drive up there, check it out?” I hadn’t been to the snow, or even seen snow, since I was about 16 on school camp, so I agreed it might be fun to go have a look.

***

The snow was clean and firm, perfect for making snowballs, of which Bradley and I tossed a few. I mainly just loved putting my bare hands into the cold, fresh ice and bouncing around leaving my footprints as I went.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

The forest floor was covered in a blanket of white.

Snowball!

Snowball!

Bradley and I just wandered through the snow field, mucking around and chatting. With our lives and experiences being so vastly different, we didn’t really seem to have that much in common, but he was just a nice and genuine guy, which made for good conversations and sharing of stories and experiences.

Some of the slopes were actually being used for skiing.

Me, not skiing.

And then there was me, not skiing.

Other than playing in the snow, the trip up the mountain provided a pretty breathtaking view on the clear morning.

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Dispelling the myth that the Southwest is a flat expanse of nothing.

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A beautiful view… There’s also a shot of the scenery in the background 😉

***

After our trip to the snow, we came back down to Santa Fe and made our way to some of the galleries that Bradley had mentioned earlier. He had said that the city was a hot spot for artists, but I hadn’t really grasped just how much of a stake the art community had in Santa Fe. There were whole streets literally lined with galleries, and some of the art was absolutely exquisite. We spent the rest of the day there, slowly trawling through all the amazing art galleries and marvelling at their creations. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of most of them – after all, they weren’t world famous paintings by any measure so it was important to protect their intellectual property. There were some with such fine details that would have taken hours. Bradley and I would stand at a single painting and just point out all the intricacies, unpacking the entire image before moving on.

However, I will always have a soft spot for sculptures, and the courtyards among the galleries were home to some equally beautiful 3D art.

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Even without art, the areas surrounding the galleries looked like mysterious, picture perfect scenery.

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Many of the outdoor sculptures were also wind chimes or windmills of some sort, which danced and twirled in the light breeze.

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This harp sculpture actually created some gentle, ethereal music as the wind blew through it.

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I eventually grew tired of even some of the most famous art galleries that I had been to throughout Europe, but in all honesty, I could have spent an entire day wandering between all those galleries. In fact, we spent a better part of the afternoon there, before it eventually grew time for Bradley to head back home. Or, I guess to work, technically.

***

There was one particular thing that I’d thought about checking out while I was in Santa Fe. At the suggestion of Rob, my Couchsurfing host back in DC, there was a luxury spa located just ten minutes outside of downtown Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. After the excessive partying and the long transit that preceded my stay in Santa Fe, a relaxing afternoon in a spa sounded absolutely perfect. Bradley offered to drive me up there before he had to work (luckily, because I hadn’t seen one cab in the city so far, let alone a bus), but there was no mobile reception up on the hill, so we just had to arrange a pick up time for whenever he would be finished work. That left me with at least a few hours at the spa, which would probably be the perfect amount of time.

I wasn’t trying to break my budget, and while the spa offered all sorts of massages, skin therapy treatments and private hot tubs, I just opted for a general entry to the communal areas. The unique thing about Ten Thousand Waves was that given its place on the mountainside in the relative wilderness, most of it was open air and outside. While the spa I’d visited in Zürich with Umer had had an open rooftop where you could view the city from the spa, the one here in Santa Fe was surrounded my trees and nature, a private slice of forest sanctuary. I had my phone in my locker the entire time so I didn’t take any photos, but I’ve lifted some images from the website to show how beautiful the spa is.

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There were cold plunge pools next to the hot tubs, so you could immerse yourself in cold water before returning to the warmth of the spa, and wet and dry saunas, of which I am a huge fan. Highlights also included the futuristic toilets that cleaned up after you, washing with water jets and drying with warm air so you literally did not have to lift a finger.

***

After I finished up, I headed on outside and waited for Bradley to pick me up. There had been some hold up, and he was almost an hour late, which was a little annoying since he had no way of letting me know in advance, but completely beyond his control. He still felt bad, so he ended up buying me dinner on the way home, in a cosy little restaurant that served some good traditional local food, which was similar to Tex Mex but with slightly different styles, spices and flavours. We headed home after that – I would have to be getting up very early the following morning to get the first Rail Runner back to Albuquerque to get my next bus heading west.

“Do you have enough warm clothes?” Bradley asked me as I was packing up most of my stuff. “It’s gonna be pretty cold over in Flagstaff this time of year.”
“Umm… I have jeans?” I said. Truthfully, this was the coldest it had ever been during my travels, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned.
“Do you have any thermals?”
“I’ve got a thermal top.”
“What about thermal underwear.”
“Ahh… no. Am I going to need it?”
“You know, you might not, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.” He went into his room and fished around in his cupboard for a few moments, and then returned with two black items of clothing: a long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and a pair of long thermal underwear. “You can borrow these if you like. They’re pretty old, but they might fit you, and I won’t be needing them any time soon.”
“Oh wow, thank you! But… I’m not gonna be headed back this way… How will I get them back to you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can easily get some more whenever I need to. We can’t have you Australians freezing your asses off down in the Grand Canyon, though!” Receiving hand-me-down thermals might not have seemed like a big deal to Bradley, but as someone who had received so much assistance from people who were essentially strangers during this journey of mine, it meant a lot to me. It was another favour that would assist me yet give him nothing in return, and something that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to directly repay him for. He must have known that though, and he didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him profusely, but he insisted it was nothing, and we finished the night with some more good conversation and finishing the rest of the beers.

***

It was still dark when I got up that morning. Once again, Bradley was an absolute saint and offered to drive me to the Rail Runner station at such an ungodly hour. He had intended to drive me to the first main station where I had disembarked less than 48 hours ago, but we ended up cutting it so fine that he headed directly to the next station. Traffic was so light that we ended with plenty of time to spare, so we got to share some heartfelt goodbyes before I left. We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but I’d really grown to like Bradley in the short time that we’d had. More than being a friend, he’d actually come across as more of a father figure over the past two days. He’d fed me, even clothed me, given me a place to sleep, looked after me and showed me around, and had numerous meaningful conversations about things as personal as our lives to things as simple as the beauty in all the art we had viewed together. I didn’t see myself ending up in Santa Fe again anywhere in the foreseeable future, but I was glad I had made the final leg of the transit from hell to get there to see it, and to have once again had another great Couchsurfing experience. I gave Bradley one final hug as the  Rail Runner approached, and he flashed his lights from his car in the darkness as the train pulled out into the dawn, taking me back to Albuquerque.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

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.

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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.

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Mission San José.

Mission San José.

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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.

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Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

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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.

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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.

A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

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

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

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

***

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

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

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

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

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

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

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

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

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

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

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

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

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

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

***

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

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

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

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

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