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.

spa-overview spa-grandbath_4

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.

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Tucking In, Nights Out, Bottoms Up and Going Down: Eating and Drinking in Austin

Life threw something of a curveball at me during my first few days in Austin. I was only supposed to be staying with Aaron for 3 days, as he was actually flying to New Orleans on the Sunday to visit his father, which worked out perfectly because that happened to be the day I was supposed to meet Alyssa. Alyssa was a distant cousin, just a year older than me and related through some connection on my fathers side that my aunty has relayed to me a dozen times yet I can still never seem to remember. She lived in Oklahoma, and as we’d kept in touch as my time in the states grew nearer and nearer, we had made plans to meet up, although she had suggested meeting in Austin when I was there, rather than coming up out of my way to visit her in her own state. However, on Friday afternoon, as Aaron and I were nursing hangovers and eating food from one of the food trucks around the corner from his house, I got a message from Alyssa telling me her father had gone into hospital and that she wouldn’t be able to make it to Austin. Her family offered to pay for a bus ticket to Oklahoma or for accommodation in Austin without Alyssa, whichever I preferred. It was a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to meeting my long lost cousin for quite some time now, and it was awful news about her father (although in the end he was okay), but I knew a detour north rather than my planned journey west would be a time consuming endeavour that would throw off a lot of other plans.

When going over the dilemma with Aaron, he had an idea that seemed the most practical, although it was one I could never have asked for without him offering.
“Well, if need a place to stay after Sunday, I’m happy to let you stay here while I’m in New Orleans. Saves me having to leave Sergio in a kennel while I’m gone, too.” In the end, Aaron’s trip to New Orleans got cancelled, so I ended up staying with him the full week that I was in Austin. But the fact that that scenario even happened was yet another amazing example of the kind and generous things that people you hardly even know sometimes do for you. I know I gush about that kind of thing a lot, but honestly, it’s a pretty heart-warming experience that ultimately changes the way you see the world.

***

Since I’d won $150 in the strip-off in my first night in Austin, Aaron seemed determined to make the most of a Couchsurfer who liked to drink and party as much as I did. A couple of nights we split bottles of wine over take-away pizza and just chatted about our lives, sharing what turned out to be a lot of deep and personal stories and forming what turned into a pretty strong and natural friendship. Aaron also took me to a few of his other favourite watering holes around the city, drinking beers and whiskey, and meeting some of his friends to sample a seemingly endless array of alcoholic drinks that contained tomato juice.

An easy decision.

An easy decision.

This drink was a

This drink was a “margarita meets Bloody Mary” concoction that was… interesting. I don’t remember it’s name though, so you know it’s good!

I also got to sample some great food in Austin, mostly from the various food trucks that dominate the town. They’re all actual trucks, so technically they can move around, but I’m starting to doubt that most of them ever do, considering the great business they seemed to be doing when they were parked on random stretched of grasses in the middle of the suburbs. I had the most amazing pulled pork with a side of slaw, but unfortunately the only photo I thought to take was of the bee that dived into my Mexican Coke and almost tried to kill me.

:(

😦

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Though I have to admit, probably the favourite piece of food that I ate during my week in Austin – and it pains me to say it because I honestly though it would be disgusting, but it was actually amazing – was chocolate-covered bacon.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

I think the thing that was most noticeable was how much the local foods changed in between short geographic distances. The general cuisine was so different in Austin compared to the flavours of New Orleans, but I imagine that most people who had never been through the area would assume that “The South” is just a culturally homogenous space of land, or at least never expect it to be so diverse in that sense.

There was one meal I did have that was particularly memorable, but not because of the food. I had still been keeping in touch with all the friends I’d made along my journey, including Matt from Dublin, who I wish I could call a leprechaun but he’s just too damn tall. Anyway, upon hearing that I was in Austin, Matt asked me if I knew of a restaurant called Moonshine Grill, and if it was near to where I was staying. I asked Aaron, and he said it wasn’t far, just in closer to the centre of town. Matt then asked me what I was doing on Monday for lunch, and I said I didn’t have any plans, and he tells me I do now. On Monday lunchtime while Aaron was at work, I head over Moonshine Grill and make myself known to the hostess. They’ve been expecting me, and promptly take me to a reserved table, but there was no one else there. I sat down and shortly afterward a waitress came over with a cocktail. I must have looked pretty confused, because she smiled as she explained. “I believe your order has already been taken care of,” she said as she placed the drink in front of me, “but let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” I drank my cocktail and ate a delicious burger, and at the end of it all I found the bill had already been paid in advance, including tip.

Matt eventually confessed his motives to me later. “Ah, you’re a very special lad, ya know?” he told me in a brief international phone call. “And despite all the nights we spent on the town drinking ourselves mad and stupid, I never got the chance to buy you dinner. Or lunch, or anything. I know it’s probably not the same when I’m not there, but I figure it’s the next best thing.” However unconventional it might have been, it was extremely sweet, and by now I was plenty used to eating in restaurants alone that it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. Although I assured him it would have been much better had he been there. Just another way that the amazing people you meet on your travels are able to surprise and inspire you.

***

There was a lot of eating and drinking going on during my time in Austin, but the Saturday night definitely takes the cake, for better or for worse. Actually, I honestly can’t remember if this all happened in one night, or if there were several more booze benders, but there were a handful of bars that provided somewhat memorable experiences.

The first venue we kicked the night off in was Barbarella, although I think on that particular evening it had joined forces with a neighbouring venue to throw a huge dance party, complete with an outdoor beer garden. Despite how cold it was, we spent a fair bit of time outside since Aaron was a smoker, and I chatted to a lot of people who seemed genuinely shocked to be meeting an Australian – though a handful of them attempted to impress me with their knowledge of the names of Sydney beaches (Cronulla’s reputation from the events in 2005 has travelled further than I’d like to believe). Barbarella also distinctly stands out in my mind because none of the toilet cubicles had doors. That was very weird, and not in an alternative or arty kind of way, but in a way that made me think they’d had one too many drug problems in the toilets so they’d solved the issue by just ripping the doors off. The music was good but the party wasn’t too lively so eventually Aaron and I headed back over to the warehouse district, 4th Street, and Oilcan Harry’s. We had more strong drinks from some bartender that Aaron knew, but after a while we moved nextdoor, to a nightclub named Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

The place was huge, with a long bar and a long dance floor that stretched down the entire length of the venue, and the floor had lights underneath it that gave the place a deep, colourful ambience. The place was packed too, so we jumped on the dance floor and mingled with the locals. I had half a conversation with a ridiculously good-looking cowboy – half, because I don’t think I could form words probably when I was staring into his dreamy eyes – and even ending up kissing a different boy on the dance floor. And Aaron and I continued to drink, and this is where things started to go wrong. Aaron had left his credit card at home, and at some point early on in the evening he’d run out of cash. Considering I’d just won $150 a few nights prior, I was happy to buy the drinks, and he offered to pay me back later. Now, I know that I can drink a lot and handle my alcohol pretty well, but I also know when I’ve had enough. And it got to the point in the night where I was fairly sure I had had enough. Aaron wanted another drink though. Okay, no worries, I could buy him another drink. But he wouldn’t let me not have another drink with him, so that’s how I came to be in possession of the final whiskey and Coke that would be my undoing.

We danced. We drank. We partied together. We partied with other people. I kissed that other boy. I was having a good time. Aaron decided he was going to go home, and said I was welcome to share a cab with him or stay with the boy. I decided to stay with the boy. Aaron left. I danced with the boy more. But I was very, very drunk. So I ended up losing the boy, and was dancing on my own.

The room started spinning, and I wasn’t feeling so well, so I made my way to the bathroom. At that point I really just needed to pee, but I was so unsteady on my feet that I took the opportunity to sit down as well, so I went into a cubicle – luckily these ones had doors. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. Before I even knew it was happening, and before I had a chance to turn around and lean over the toilet bowl, I threw up. Into my underwear – which were still around my ankles – and all over the exposed insides of my jeans. Needless to say, I was mortified, although probably not as much as I should have been because I was just so horribly wasted to comprehend the whole scenario properly. I attempted to wipe myself clean with toilet paper, but it was a futile task, and I still felt hideous. There was someone knocking on the door. A security guard, I think.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just… just give me a minute,” I call back, trying not to slur my words as I figure out what the hell I am going to do. The stalls starts rocking slightly, and I see a face peer over the edge of the cubicle beside me. Maybe they though I was overdoing on drugs or something. Had something like this already happened at Barbarella? Is that why their cubicles don’t have doors?
“What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just…can you just… give me a goddamn minute?!”

In the end, I realised there was nothing else I could do except pull on my vomit-streaked underwear, buckle my belt, and walk out of that club. Or you know, stumble, whatever. Despite not having a single friend there to help me through it, I think it was made better by the fact that I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and would never see any of these people again. In fact, no one I knew would ever have to know that this had ever happened, except for the fact I am all about frank honesty and am, for some reason, repeating it here right now. So I opened the cubicle door, and immediately the security guard ushered me out of the bathroom. For a brief moment I thought he was going to give me some water, or take care of me or something, but he merely ushered me to the front of the club, helped me out onto the street, and then left to go back inside without saying a single word to me. Luckily it was quite late and there weren’t too many people outside, so my temporary shame was limited. I feel awful for the taxi driver who took me home, although she was very light-hearted about it and said she didn’t mind, although I’m sure I smelt absolutely vile and she was probably gagging for half the trip.

Aaron was still awake when I got home. My cheap Primark shoes were covered in vomit, so I didn’t even bother salvaging them and instead threw them straight in the trash outside. Not a word was spoken when I walked into Aaron’s bedroom. We just had this sole moment of eye contact and understanding before I continued through into the bathroom and stepped into the shower fully clothed, and spent the next half hour cleaning myself, and getting as much of the stench of vomit out of my clothes as I could. And as embarrassing as the whole ordeal was, and as stupid and disgusting as I felt, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me on my travels, so I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there in the shower, scrubbing at the denim. And even as I write it now I can’t help but smirk a little, because as awful a memory as it is, it still makes for a thoroughly amusing story.

From Parks to Parties: Killing Time in Rio de Janeiro

I have to admit, my stay in Rio de Janeiro was not quite like how I had originally imagined it. Around the world, the name brings to mind exotic images of the legendary Carnival, and belly dancers in the streets and lavish, feathered costumes and parties on the beach and… well, I guess I can’t really speak for the rest of the world, but it’s definitely considered a bit of party city. So I surprised myself at how little partying I actually did while I was in town. I spent a great deal of my time outside, either on the beach or taking walks through the neighbourhoods and some of the nearby greenery, or just hanging out with Tom.

***

On my first morning I was woken up by Tom getting ready and having breakfast in the kitchen – which was, for all intents and purposes, my bedroom. He was doing his best to be quiet, but I’m a pretty light sleeper, and he noticed me stirring.
“Sorry,” he said in a whisper as he shuffled between the tiny gap between my sofa bed and the kitchen counter. “If you want, you can go into my room and lie on my bed if you wanna sleep in some more, so I don’t disturb you.”
“Oh, nah it’s alright,” I said, “but thank you.”
“You’re welcome. How was the bed?” His face looked a little wary, as though he was afraid how I might answer.
“It was… okay,” I replied with a sheepish chuckle, and Tom started to laugh too.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit hard,” he said, with the slightest hint of regret in his tone of voice. “Sorry”.
“Really, it’s okay. It’s fine,” I said again, but I guess I must have made a grimacing face as I went to lie back down – the sofa bed was pretty uncomfortable to sleep on.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna go and sleep on my bed?” Tom said again with a knowing smile.
“Well…since you’re offering,” I said with a reluctant laugh, and gathered up the sheets from my bed to go and rest for a few more hours in Tom’s room. He had to head to work for the day, so he left me to sleep in and relax.

When I finally got up for the second time that morning, I decided one of the first things I wanted to see was the beach. Firstly I grabbed some breakfast at a café on the adjacent tourist street, full of bars and restaurants that catered for the English-speaking crowds, but as I went to head straight to the beach I found myself having second thoughts. I’d heard my fair share of horror stories about getting robbed or mugged on the beach in Rio, and while I’d had to make some pretty dodgy security arrangements for previous beach visits, it didn’t make sense to take my bag with my phone and wallet in it down to the beach when I was staying in Ipanema, such a short distance away. So I headed back to Tom’s apartment, lathered myself up with sunscreen, and headed off down to the beach. I didn’t even bother wearing a shirt – all I had was my towel, my thongs, and the swim shorts I was wearing, with the apartment key safely secured in one of the sealable pockets.

The day was overcast, but temperatures were still warm and humid. This meant it was still warm enough to go swimming, and there were significantly less crowds due to the fact nobody was sunbathing. It was actually perfect. The cloudy weather also made the beach beautiful in it’s own mysterious way, to the point where I actually returned to the apartment after my swim so that I could fetch my iPhone and take a picture. But it was so lovely to be in the ocean again – I hadn’t been swimming in the sea since my dip into the beach in Amsterdam, and as someone who grew up on a coastal city, I was realising for the first time how much I really did love the sun, the sand and the surf, and how much I missed it when it wasn’t in my life. So I didn’t do a great deal that day except for be unashamedly lazy, and indulge in the beach bum lifestyle while I had a chance.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

That evening Tom and I just hung out at home. We ended up bonding over a mutual understanding of certain pop culture references, and I introduced him to Ja’mie King: Private School Girl. He couldn’t get enough of it, and we pretty much exhausted the collection of clips that YouTube have of the hilariously offensive Australian character. Later we ended up watching an episode of American Horror Story: Coven on TV, since it was the only thing that was in English. The TV was in his bedroom, so we were lying on his bed watching it. Tom must have noticed me start to doze off at some point in the evening.
“Hey, if you want, you can sleep here tonight. I know the sofa bed is pretty uncomfortable.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I’d hate to feel like I was intruding on personal space, but Tom did have a double bed and the sofa bed was one of the hardest things I’d ever slept on.
“Yeah, it’s cool. Honestly, I don’t mind, I just thought it would be a bit creepy to offer on the very first night,” he said with a laugh. But we’d instantly taken to each other as friends, so when the time came to sleep we very comfortably crashed there together, and I ended up doing so for the rest of my stay in Rio.

***

The following afternoon, when Tom had some free time, we went for an easy hike up the mountain that was located in the park by the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The national park of the side of the hill was semi-dense rainforest, but once again the weather was humid and overcast, which made the day warm but not too blistering hot with intense sunshine. It was a pretty peaceful and pleasant walk through the natural surroundings, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the streets and the beach.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

And when we got to the top of the trail and stepped out onto the lookout, it was a pretty incredible view.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive houses on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive buildings on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

Taking a break after the climb.

Taking a break after the climb.

And when the clouds momentarily parted, Christ the Redeemer made himself visible from the taller, neighbouring mountain. Tom and I both quickly grabbed our cameras to snap some pictures before the clouds rolled over again to conceal the famous statute.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

On the walk back down we found ourselves locked in at the gates to the park, so we had to ask one of the groundskeepers to let us out via the service exit. We chatted as we walked back to Tom’s place, watching kids playing in the park and locals jog around the flat areas by the lagoon. We also stopped to sample something that Tom insisted was an important part of local Brazilian life. I don’t know if there was an actual Portuguese name for it, but essentially it was just a purple frozen smoothie, made from the pulp of the açaí berries, found on the palms of the same name which were native to Brazil. It didn’t have a very strong flavour, but it was common to throw in little extras or add-ins to make it more exciting. I got a small cup and mixed in muesli, while Tom had protein mixed into his larger one. I can’t say I was a huge fan, but it wasn’t too bad.

***

While I did spend most of my evenings just hanging out with Tom, but there was one night where we did do a bit of partying. I’d failed to get in touch with any of Fausto’s friends in regards to invitations or offers to join them at their parties, but I much preferred hanging out with Tom and James instead, so that’s what I did. On Saturday night James came over to Tom’s and the three of us drank vodka and laughed and caught up, and James gave me some advice and suggestions about things that I could see or do during my last few days in Rio de Janerio. There was also a lot of Ja’mie quotes being thrown back and forth, and for a minute I actually felt like I was back at home in Sydney, between the mindless banter and the crude jokes and figuring out if we had enough vodka left to make a decent roadie or if we should do a few shots before heading to the club.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what we decided about the roadie, but eventually we were in a taxi to a place called 00 (Zero Zero), supposedly a pretty popular gay bar in the area. When we got there we went through the whole process of getting IDs checked and registered and being assigned a tab card, but after going through the same drill so many times in São Paulo it felt basically normal. The club was an interesting space, with an indoor seating area, a huge outdoor patio, and a dance floor that kind of blended into both of them. Tom, James and I got our first beers and sat down outside, since the night air was nice and warm, and it was only a matter of time before we were approached by some of the local men. I have to admit, a large percentage of Brazilian men are absolutely gorgeous, but so many of them have this weird charm about them that would come across as super sleazy if it were anyone else. But somehow it just makes them seem cheeky and romantic. Or maybe it was just sleazy and I was blind to it, I honestly can’t say. I also discovered that a lot of Brazilian gay men were very flaky and unreliable, and despite strongly insisting that they would “be right back”, there was really only a 50% chance you would ever see his face again. So based on personal experience, I guess I now have a few trust issues with some of the locals (although, if we’re being honest, it seems more like typical gay bar behaviour than anything else).

It was a fun night, with the three of us continuously being separated and reunited throughout the course of the evening, each time a little bit more drunk and having some other bizarre social interaction to report. The music was a mix of pop and funky traditional music, and a few times I found myself being awkwardly dragged through a drunken two step tango by a sensual Brazilian gentleman, though for all the ballroom dancing classes I’d taken in high school I still struggled to keep up with his lead. The dance floor was fun and wild, though I had a fair share of unwanted attention while shaking my hips to Shakira and insisting that they didn’t lie. Though Tom was great for that – he was a well built guy and at least six feet tall, towering over literally everyone in the club, so I could always just fall back and swoop behind him for protection.

I don’t know what time it was when we eventually decided to call it a night, but we were all danced out and our skin had a light sheen of sweat. We checked ourselves out of the club and paid, then piled into a taxi and headed back to Ipanema. Once we were in the general vicinity of home, we got out and parted ways with James, who wandered off in the other direction to his hostel while Tom and I headed home. However, the amount of dancing that we’d been doing combined with the amount I had drank meant that I was totally unashamed in telling Tom how hungry I was and pleaded that we stopped somewhere to get greasy, post-drinking food. Of course, he agreed – I was his guest, after all –  and after we wandered through a few streets we found a place that was open 24 hours. The service was less than satisfactory at such early hours of the morning, but that didn’t matter once we’d been served our burgers, chicken legs, and our delicious plate of bacon and cheddar fries.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues. And it was so, so good.

After that we headed straight home, showered and crashed into bed. As beautiful as the beaches and the natural surroundings and the hiking had been, I couldn’t have let myself leave Rio without doing at least some partying. And even though it was the only night in Rio de Janeiro that I had spent partying, it was a damn good one.

Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

O Canada: Day Trip to the Capital

Canada is a huge country: as one of the top 5 largest nations in the world, there is obviously a lot of it to see, with plenty of different cities worth visiting. However, the fact that is it so big also makes it a little more difficult to see all those cities, and the time frame I had just didn’t allowed me to see as much of the beautiful country as I would have liked. However, at Stuart’s recommendation, we were able to visit another city that was relatively close to Montreal: the capital city of Ottawa. It was roughly a two hour train trip, so on our final day in Montreal we got up bright and early to head to the train station and catch the first train that would take us west, out of the French-speaking province of Quebec and into Ontario, home of the country’s capital city.

Ottawa Station

Ottawa Station.

It was mid-morning by the time we arrived, so as we got off the train we found a bus that took us downtown, where our first stop of the morning (well, first stop after a second breakfast at Tim Hortons, and a quick getaway after spotting a Grindr stalker who had seemed a little too keen to meet both Stuart and myself) was to be Parliament Hill, or colloquially known as ‘The Hill’. We joined one of the free tours that were offered, and were guided around the Centre Block as all the features of the buildings and its architecture were pointed out to us. Since Parliament wasn’t in session we were able to glimpse into the empty Senate and Commons chambers, and I was surprised to find them strikingly similar to the rooms I had seen in Parliament House during my Year 5 excursion to Canberra. Of course it shouldn’t come as a surprise – Canada is part of the Commonwealth, after all, and politically we share a lot more with them than I think I’d ever realised. I guess the fact that Canada is in North America made me assume that it would be much more similar to the United States. I also now fully appreciate the resentment each nationality feels when you confuse one of them of being from the other: the cultural differences are significant.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Senate chambers.

The Senate chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The architecture of the building is actually quite beautiful, with a theme of Gothic revival spreading through most of the corridors and larger halls, as well as the exterior. We also viewed a number of other chambers, offices, and libraries, most of which we weren’t allowed to photograph, although the tour ended with a trip up to the top of the Peace Tower. Officially known as the Tower of Victory and Peace, the tower is located in the Centre Block of The Hill and is almost 100 metres tall. It’s something of an icon in Canada, so much that it is even depicted on their $20 bill, and the viewing room at the top of the tower offers sweeping panoramic views of downtown Ottawa.

Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stuart admiring Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

On the way out we stopped to take a look at the Centennial Flame, a flame that burns on The Hill to commemorate Canada’s 100th anniversary as a Confederation. We also discovered Parliament Hill is also a place where crazy right wing nut-jobs like to protest with their ridiculous signs. Of course, we just couldn’t help ourselves but take a few mockery snaps before heading off to check out the rest of the city.

The Centennial Flame.

The Centennial Flame.

A "pro-life" sign.

A “pro-life” sign.

The word... I don't think it means what you think it means...

That word… I don’t think it means what you think it means…

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

***

Ottawa reminded me a lot of other capital cities in the Western world, like Canberra and Washington DC. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, but everything still seems very nice and neat and orderly. It was a clean city, but there didn’t appear to be too much going on, at least not when we were there. I guess that’s what happens in larger nations – when you put all the official business and formality and politics in one place, the excitement and the culture seems to disperse and settle elsewhere. We made a quick trip to visit Stuart’s elderly uncle, where they introduced me to the vile drink known as “Clamato” that is somehow wildly popular in Canada. Admittedly, it’s usually used as a mixer with alcohol, but still, I honestly struggle to fathom the idea that anyone would actively enjoy drinking a cold beverage with a flavour combination of tomatoes and clams. After that visit we wandered through downtown and had some lunch, checking out a few local stores here and there and just being wandering tourists in general.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

"Get a photo with the bear!" Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

“Get a photo with the bear!” Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

We also took some time to visit the memorials located in the centre of town, including the rather iconic-looking Ottawa War Memorial, and the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Solider. They’re similar to the statures and memorials of a similar nature that I had seen all around the world, but they never become any less sombre or melancholy. We pottered around the monuments for a little while before moving on to the rest of the city.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

 ***

There are a handful of museums and other things of that nature in Ottawa, but neither Stuart nor I were really in the mood for visiting any of them. We’d had a pretty big week of partying and other activities in Montreal, so we were more than happy to just stroll the pristine streets and enjoy the pleasant weather. Winter was coming for North America, so it was important to make the most of the remaining warmer months. I also enjoyed being back in an English-speaking province again – the people were exponentially nicer when they weren’t so fiercely trying to defend an entire language and culture. We simply ended our afternoon lying out on the grass, and watching the clouds roll in at the end of the day. Stuart took a couple of snapshots of the Ottawa Notre Dame Basilica, but my “museum fatigue” was already starting to kick in when it came to all these churches. I was far more interested in the fact that all the squirrels in Ottawa were black, or even in literally showering myself with the national Canadian icon: leaves. Revisiting my childhood in the piles of red, orange and yellow leaves, I rediscovered you didn’t need to see all of the city’s hot attractions in order for a day trip to be considered successful. As long as you enjoyed yourself, and stopped to enjoy the little things in life, it was always worth it.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

Don't ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

Don’t ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

3... 2... 1...

3… 2… 1…

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures in life that are the most enjoyable.

As the evening rolled around, we jumped on a bus and headed back to the station to catch our train back to Montreal. My train was heading back to New York the following day, so Stuart and I spent our last evening just chilling out and reflecting on all the fun we’d had in the previous week. I’d had an amazing time discovering the city, and I reflected on just how lucky I was that no matter where I found myself in the world, I was never too far away from a friendly face.

Underage Drinking: cheap wine and Lil Wayne

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.