Life in La La Land

I was unsure as of what to expect from my time in LA. I had been there only once before, for a period of less than 24 hours for a long layover on the way to Central America, and I hadn’t been that impressed. The parts of town I went to – which I honestly didn’t even pay attention to at the time – were kind of gross and dirty, and it didn’t appear to be anything like the glamorous California that everyone sings about in pop songs. And while I knew I couldn’t let such a brief and incomplete experience of the city be an accurate first impression, I’d also heard reviews from other people that were less than positive: that getting around was difficult, traffic was terrible, all the attractions were overrated and that staying there was more like a challenge than a vacation. Despite all that, my mother had repeatedly told me that she thought I would like Los Angeles and that I would probably fit in pretty well there. Given that I’d had very mixed feelings about some of the people I had ran into and rubbed shoulders with in New York, and the fact that New Yorkers and Angelenos are often pitted against each other and are constantly comparing their cities, I figured if I didn’t fit so well on one coast, maybe I’d have more luck on the other.

***

Waking up the morning after my first night in LA was a little surreal, given the rather dramatic events of the night before. Upon checking my phone, I found a string of more abusive texts and Facebook messages from Nathan, which I simply deleted before blocking him.
“You don’t even have to worry about him anymore,” Jake assured me. “He’s been pissing so many people off lately, he doesn’t even have that many friends left in dodgeball. His behaviour last night might actually be enough of a reason to expel him from the league.” Which Jake, given that he ran the dodgeball league, could absolutely do. I started to feel slightly guilty, but Jake would have none of it, and assured me that if anything I was finally finishing the problem instead of creating one or starting any trouble. I just had to trust he knew more about what was going on in WeHo and let it be.

“So… what do you wanna do? What was your plan in Los Angeles?” Jake asked me, before turning away and talking to himself. “What can I show you? What’s something cool, something really LA that isn’t super touristy…” The beauty about Jake’s work was that he technically worked for himself, which meant he didn’t have a regular day time job that he had to be at, which meant he had plenty of free time to hang out and show me around, which he said he would be more than happy to do. I assured him that he didn’t have to do anything special or try and entertain me –  I was more than happy to just hang out and join him with whatever he did with his days. So we started out with just going for a walk through West Hollywood along Santa Monica Boulevard, where Jake showed me around and pointed out a bunch of the local spots for drinking, eating and going out. We also saw the colourful rainbow crossing, similar to the one that had been put up in Sydney for the Mardi Gras festival that year, although unlike the rainbow in Sydney, the one in WeHo was a permanent addition to the streets.

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The WeHo rainbow crossing

Jake also said he had some work-related emails to send and some business stuff to take care of, so we stopped at the Starbucks, ordered our drinks, and commandeered a table for ourselves and set up our a temporary workspace.
“There’s two questions you hear every traveller ask, no matter where you go,” Jake said with a laugh. “One: is there wifi? Two: is it free?” I laughed along, although he wasn’t wrong, so I made the most of the free connection and updated my blog and sent some emails while he attended to his work stuff. It was actually quite funny just how full the Starbucks was, and securing a table was a like navigating a small-scale property market. It was full of aspiring writers working on their manuscripts and screenplays, and while I kept laughing to myself and thinking about how it sounded like something straight out of Hollywood, I had to keep in mind that right now I literally was in Hollywood. It would appear that some of those stereotypes and clichés aren’t limited to the actual movies and television shows themselves, but extend to the wider suburbs in which they’re created.

I also noticed that Jake knew a lot of people. Like, a lot. I reckon he would have finished his work in about half the time it had taken him if he hadn’t had to stop periodically to say hello to every familiar face that approached him and wanted to briefly catch up.
“What can I say? I’m kind of a big deal,” Jake said with a playful smirk when I mentioned it to him, and while he said it in a way that was more humorous than serious, I was starting to get the idea that he was somewhat of a local celebrity around the area. But not in a way that everyone knows about you and gossips about you (although I’m sure everyone does that anyway), but in a way that everyone just seemed to like him, and he was genuinely friends with all of these people. It was at that moment that I realised as long as I stuck by Jake during my time LA, I’d always be in good hands and great company.

***

That afternoon, Jake and I started out my tour of LA by checking off some of the more obvious attractions.
“Oh, I know! I’ve got a friend who works for Universal Studios. I dunno, does that kind of thing interest you? She could get us in for free.” As a backpacker I had learned to appreciate literally anything that was free, so we drove up to Universal Studios to meet Jake’s friend Alicia.

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“Oh! Go to that side so I can get Australia in the picture!”

“Man, work had sucked today,” Alicia complained after coming down from her office to meet us and introducing herself to me. “It’s that time of year when half the office is away for the holidays. But there isn’t any less work so…” she waved the thought away, the conversational that would follow clearly already boring her. “Here, let’s get you in.” I just followed Jake and Alicia and did as I was told, and soon enough we were inside the paid section of the theme park, where most of the rides and popular attractions were. She caught up with Jake for a few minutes, but she hadn’t quite finished for the day so had to head back up to her office.
“But it was lovely to meet you, Robert. I’m sure I’ll see you around sometime, I’m overdue for a catch up with this guy anyway,” she said, motioning to Jake. “Always so busy with his dodgeball!” Turns out that Alicia was one of few people I would meet through Jake that weren’t somehow involved in the dodgeball league.

At Jake’s recommendation we went on The Simpsons ride, which was actually… I don’t want to say scary, but it definitely wasn’t a walk in the park. It was a 3D animation rollercoaster, so while physically you didn’t actually move that much or really go anywhere, the dizzying sensations played tricks on your mind to make you feel as though you really did enter their cartoon universe and experience a range of non-human sensations. After that we walked back through the Citywalk in Universal Studios, which had been decorated for the holiday season.

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***

While Jake did have a pretty flexible schedule, he wasn’t on holiday like I was, so he did still have to work sometimes. As well as running the WeHo dodgeball league, he was also a dancer and choreographer, and during the holidays he ran dance workshops and classes for kids. So while he had to do that, I took the opportunity to do some other more touristy things that I didn’t want to have to drag anyone else along to. While I don’t know if you can technically call it a tourist attraction, Runyon Canyon was yet another Los Angeles location that I had seen numerous times in various television shows. I was probably also pretty overdue for some kind (or any kind) of exercise, so one afternoon I got Jake to drop me off at the beginning of Runyon Canyon Park before he had to go to teach his dance class.

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Honestly, there were probably more locals there than tourists. It seemed like a pretty popular place to go exercising and jogging or walking dogs. I wouldn’t really consider it a “hike”, since there were pretty straightforward trails most of the way, but you cover a fair bit of ground on your way to the top, and there is a pretty decent view of the greater Los Angeles area from up there.

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Los Angeles as seen from the top of Runyon Canyon, stretching into the horizon. 

However, it was on my walk through Runyon Canyon Park that I discovered one of the biggest disappointments about LA: how far away the famous Hollywood Sign is. It’s definitely there, off in the distance, but you had to zoom your camera in to the point of pixilation in order to get a somewhat decent view of it in a photograph. I’m aware that this isn’t helped by the fact all my holiday snaps so far had been taken with an iPhone 4, so image quality wasn’t something I was too hung up on. Still, similar to my misconceptions of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I had just imagined the famous visual icons of the cities to be a little closer to the rest of the action.

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The Hollywood Sign, from a distance. 

After working up somewhat of a sweat in my afternoon hike, it was already time to meet Jake again after he finished his class. We decided to meet down on Hollywood Boulevard, which was only a short walk away from the entrance to Runyon Canyon Park, and from there we had a quick walk up the Hollywood Star Walk, and I pointed out the names of some of the celebrities that I liked, or recognised, and laughed at some of the stranger additions. Yet this was one sight that I had seen before during my time in LA, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not one to ever get star struck or fuss that much over celebrities.

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Stars on Hollywood Boulevard

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Marilyn Munroe’s handprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. 

“Hey, I’ve just gotta run back to the car and put some more change in the parking meter,” Jake said after our brief stroll up the strip. “It won’t take too long.”
“Actually,” I spoke up before he had a chance to go anywhere. “Um… can we, like… just go?” I’d seen all I really needed to see of the overrated tourist trap.
“Oh, thank God,” he replied, letting out a sigh of relief. “Yes, let’s get out of here.” As we headed back to the car, he explained his own thoughts of the whole place.
“Like, yeah, I get it. If it’s your first time here, it’s kinda cool, or if you want to see the star of your favourite celebrity, that’s kind of nice. Although trying to find them is always a great way to spend the afternoon,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t mind showing it to people on their first time, but I’m so glad you’re as over it as I am!”

***

There were plenty of other touristy things that I visited during my time in LA (which I will get to in the next post), but honestly I think the reason I had so much fun in the city was because of the people I was with. After the while debacle that was my first night in LA, gossip about the events had spread pretty quickly, but in a weird way that turned out pretty well for me. I had a few people approach me with condolences or apologies on behalf of the otherwise lovely bunch of dodgeball teams, and I ended up bonding and hanging out with a bunch of the guys and girls. I felt like I was officially one of the cool kids or something, although I’m pretty sure initially befriending Jake had probably improved that situation. I went along with him to the evenings when Jake had to run the dodgeball league, where teams dressed up in themes and often battled out the competition in ridiculous costumes, which usually had hilarious results, and afterwards we would inevitably end up in Gym Bar.

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File Under: Photos that seemed like a good idea at the time.

LA was also where I would experience my first bottomless mimosa brunch. Originally we had planned on doing such a brunch on my birthday in New York, but after the night Jesse and I had had, we weren’t really in any state to be drinking, or conscious, for the morning of my birthday. But luckily Warren, one of the guys from dodgeball and a good friend of Jake’s, was having his birthday celebrations on one of the weekends I was in town, and you best believe he was doing a bottomless brunch. I mean, there isn’t really much that I have to explain, right? We sat around all morning, talking and laughing and drank more mimosas and Bloody Mary’s than one should probably consume while the sun is still up. But hey, I was on holidays!

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Other nights out in West Hollywood saw me visiting a string of gay bars, including Revolver Video Bar, Trunks, Mother Lode, Eleven, and the Abbey. I don’t have too many strong recollections about them: Revolver Video Bar had a lot of go-go dancers, which we weren’t that into, so instead Jake and moved next door to the much more unassuming Trunks for another drink. Mother Lode seemed a little more down to earth, even if a little seedy, and the Abbey, despite being one of the more well known places (it was the only one I’d actually heard about before my arrival in LA), was a flashy, overpriced bar with terrible service. When Jake ordered our drinks, they poured them for us, took our money, and then seconds later took them back and poured them down the sink, informing us that the bar was closing. I know they have last call at 2AM in California, but surely a bartender should have more sense than to serve someone a drink when they physically would not have the time to consume it. Jake was livid, but being shouted at by patrons at any level of inebriation is something they are most likely very used to, so in the end we just had to give up and leave, but I promised to leave them a terrible Yelp review.

Another of Jake’s dodgeball friends had a birthday at Eleven, which was a nicer and slightly classier venue on Santa Monica Boulevard. I drank a lot, so I don’t really know when the private function room opened up to the public, but suddenly there was a drag queen on one of the clubs indoor balconies introducing Carmen Electra. Now, I know I said I didn’t get star struck or care much for celebrities, but I suppose I just got caught up in the excitement with the crowd and started cheering along. I didn’t even know what Carmen Electra was famous for (and… I still don’t?), but I still stuck my hand out to get her attention as she walked through the crowds on her way out, and she held it briefly, and smiled and waved. It wasn’t exactly the highlight or my night or anything, but it was something.

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Carmen Electra in Eleven. 

While I always enjoy checking out the gay bars and the gay scene of any city that I was in, Jake was adamant that that simply wasn’t enough.
“What’s something I can show you,” he said one Saturday evening, wracking his brain. “There’s gotta be something that’s very LA and awesome, without being too touristy or too trashy.” I guess it’s no big secret that the celebrity soaked reputation of Hollywood and Los Angeles leaves many visitors believing the city is somewhat of a cliché, but as someone who lived in LA and enjoyed doing so, I think Jake was determined to show me more of his city. Since I was someone who preferred to actually stay with locals and see the more local side of things, and get an appreciation of what it really feels like to live in a city, I think we were perfectly matched in that sense.

After doing some research and figuring out what was going on, Jake and I headed to Bootie LA, a party where these relatively well known DJs play their signature style of musical mash-ups. At the time I had no idea who these Bootie mash-up DJs were, and it wouldn’t be until much later, when I arrived home in Sydney, that I would discover their vast collection of amazing mash-ups, all available to download online. ‘Bootie LA’ was simply the name of the party when these DJs were in town, and given the time of the year, the evening was slightly Christmas themed, although there were a bunch of other crazy costumes from the dancers that evening.

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The eclectically costumed dancers at Bootie LA. 

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The party was a lot of fun. It was a big open space, almost like a warehouse, but the feeling inside was a lot cleaner. I think it might have been a theatre venue of some sort that had been converted for a dance party. We ran into a few of Jake’s friends here and there – because this was LA, and apparently Jake knew almost everyone – and they were all really awesome, and the music was amazing. Mash-ups always keep you guessing: it’s a bit of a tease when you get excited when you hear the beat of a particular song, only to have another songs lyrics layered over the top of it, but it always still sounded amazing. It’s honestly a skill in itself.

Afterwards we drove home, Jake assuring me he hadn’t actually drank that much (I’d definitely drank too much, so I honestly hadn’t been paying attention), and stopped in at Taco Bell on the way home. I know In’n’Out is supposed to be the Holy Grail of fast-food when it comes to the west coast, but I have to admit that despite that (and despite all the warnings I received from friends telling me that Taco Bell will go straight through you), Taco Bell was a guilty pleasure that I couldn’t get enough of. I mean, they have tacos made from Doritos chips!

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Cheesy Doritos Taco Bell taco: my choice of of post-drinking fast food. 

***

The best thing about my time in LA really was just hanging out with Jake and his friends and living what felt like a relatively normal life, despite being in a town where everything was so seemingly influenced by Hollywood and had a tinge of surreality. Whether it was going around to a friends house to drink and play video games and gossip, or have a sit down dinner followed by a hilarious round of Cards Against Humanity, simply hanging out and spending time with cool people turned out to be a real highlight of the city for me.

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Breathtaking view of Los Angeles (obviously looked better experienced first hand) on one of our drives over to North Hollywood. 

And then of course, after the almost 9 months of consistent backpacking, sometimes all I wanted to do was chill out on the couch with Jake and Peter Parker and watch Adventure Time and South Park. After being on the road for so long, no matter how much adventure you crave and new experiences you still want to seek out, sometimes it’s the little, normal things, that you’ve gone seemingly forever without, which feel the most satisfying.

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The adorable Peter Parker (Jake is a huge comic book nerd) keeping my company on the couch. 

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The City of Angels (and Demons)

After taking a break from my overland travels to fly from Las Vegas to San Francisco, I decided I would take my final opportunity to get that authentic backpacker feeling of travelling along the ground and catch the train down from Oakland to Los Angeles. To further this rationale, I had been told that the coastal drive down that portion of the west coast was particularly beautiful, and that view was obviously something that I couldn’t see from a plane. After all the nightmare bus rides that I’d had coming over the Southwest, I thought I would enjoy the ease of a train journey, being able to set up your own personal space in your seat while still being able to get up and walk around, and watching the different local stations pass by and observing all the different people that hopped on and off along the way. You’d think I’d have had enough of trains, what with my tour around Europe plus the Trans-Siberian Railway, but after everything I’d done, I would still have to say that it remains my favourite form of travel. Not that I’d be game enough to do the Trans-Siberian again any time soon, but perhaps in future travels I’d look into other rail adventures and see where they could take me.

The train to Los Angeles was not a short journey, with a complete journey time of roughly 10 hours. Most people told me I was crazy for doing it, considering the flight between the two cities was approximately one hour, but I had maintained that I wanted to see the beautiful west coast scenery as the train neared Los Angeles. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I realise that I hadn’t factored time of day or hours of daylight into my plans when booking my train trip. So of course, but the time I reached the final stages of the journey, where all the beautiful scenery supposedly existed, the sun had already set and I couldn’t see a thing. There’s nothing you can do but laugh, really. Oh well, at least I’d had plenty of down time to read my book.

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The not so beautiful countryside between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

***

After a long and relatively uneventful day, my train finally arrived at the station in Downtown LA. I met up with Nathan*, Gary’s friend who I had met at Brandon’s birthday in San Francisco, who informed me that his dodgeball team was currently having post-match drinks at a gay sports bar call Gym Bar. I had to ask again to make sure I’d heard correctly – dodgeball? It turns out that the West Hollywood (or WeHo for short) Dodgeball League was a popular form of adult recreation that perfectly combined sport and athleticism with sociality and everybody’s other favourite form of adult recreation: drinking. I had no idea what to expect, but I hardly knew anybody in LA so I was down for pretty much anything. Nathan drove me back to his place where I quickly showered and we had a couple of drinks – I was assured we probably had some catching up to do, since the rest of the teams would have gone straight from dodgeball to the bar. Nathan lived in WeHo, which I would soon find out was the big gay district of this part of LA – the city itself was so immense that I couldn’t confidently say it was the only gay district in the entirety of Los Angeles, but from what I can gather it is definitely the most popular and well known.

After a couple of drinks, we left Nathan’s and headed down Santa Monica Boulevard until we reached Gym Bar. It wasn’t a huge bar, but it was packed out this evening. There was plenty of room in the outdoor seating and patio areas, a long bar along the edge of the room, and a few dart boards mounted along some of the walls. Throwing darts would have been a bit dangerous this evening though – Gym Bar was a dedicated sponsor of the WeHo Dodgeball League, and in turn the dodgeballers were dedicated patrons to Gym Bar, so they were all there tonight.
“Those are my team mates over there,” Nathan pointed to a corner of the bar. “Oh, and here, let me introduce you to Jake. He runs the dodgeball league.” We weaved our way through the crowd of people, Nathan saying hello to someone every so often. Eventually we got to the bar where a man about my heights with dark hair and a scruffy face was sitting on a bar stool, having what appeared to be five simultaneous conversations with all the people around him. Clearly he was the man of the moment.

“Jake, this is my friend Robert. He’s from Australia.” Jake turned towards us, slightly torn given that he was already talking to a bunch of other people, but he must have been told about the arrival of an Australian traveller earlier in the evening, because his face lit up with a big smile when he registered who I was.
“Hi! Welcome!” he said enthusiastically as I shook his hand.
“Jake is best friends with Ke$ha. He want to Miley Cyrus’ birthday party a few weeks ago.” Nathan dropped the facts seemingly out of no where, and instantly Jake became clearly uncomfortable at having been introduced in such a way. I certainly hadn’t been expecting it, either.
“Oh… really?” I mean, I knew celebrities were everywhere in LA Hollywood so I tried to play it cool, but Ke$ha was actually a favourite of mine.
“Um… well, yeah,” Jake said, almost sheepishly, as though he didn’t want to make a big deal about it, or speak quite as blatantly as Nathan had. He probably didn’t want to seem like he was showing off, but I was actually interested.
“That’s really cool! What was it like?” Jake seemed visibly more relaxed at my reaction. Nathan had moved off for a moment to talk to someone else, so he offered to show me a couple of pictures of the party.
“I mean, I don’t wanna seem like I was too cool for it or anything, but… it was her 21st birthday”, he said as he scrolled through some photos on his iPhone. “So it was pretty trashy. And then Miley sang, and she sang Timber… Ke$ha was a little embarrassed.”
“Oh, man! How awkward!” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, just a little. But it was still fun.”

Jake and I chatted a little bit more, and we were getting on really well. He asked me more about Australia and my travels, I asked him more about LA. He even offered to show me around sometime, and I was conscious of the fact Nathan had only offered me a place to stay for a couple of days, when I had at least ten days to spend in LA, so it was probably time to start making friends. We exchanged phone numbers, and I guess that’s when things started to get a bit flirty. He was cute, and very friendly, so I was definitely interested in hanging out with him again. I kept moving around the bar though, with Nathan introducing me to a bunch of other people as the “Australian friend I met in San Francisco.” The dodgeball league itself wasn’t strictly gay, but given that Gym Bar was a gay sports bar, most of the crowd consisted of gay men and their female friends. There were quite a few outrageous and eccentric characters, singing and dancing and screaming their way around the place, but everyone was super friendly. Everyone also seemed to know each other, so even though I actually didn’t know anyone, it reminded me of the kind of local bars back home where I could rock up on virtually any night of the week and run into a friend. And even though I’d just met most of these people, they were so incredibly welcoming right off the bat that I almost felt at home within minutes of being there. Even if it was a sports bar.

***

I chatted to Jake quite a bit more throughout the evening, and he introduced me to some of his closest friends who were there that night. We were there pretty late for a Tuesday, but after many drinks, dances, laughs and conversations, eventually the bar was closing. Jake and I had been quite brazenly flirting throughout the end of the night, so as we all spilled out of the bar and prepared to go our separate ways, we agreed that we would meet again soon. Nathan had caught up to me by then, and the three of us started walking in the same general direction up Santa Monica Boulevard to get to our respective homes. And that’s where things started to get a little pear-shaped…

There are a few detailed that I omitted from my earlier posts about San Francisco because they would be better explained in the context of what happened in LA. I first met Nathan through Gary in San Francisco, when we were celebrating Brandon’s birthday. After dinner we had all gone out to a bar to have a few drinks, although Gary and I were pretty spent after having been out so late the night before at Truck. When we decided to call it a night, Nathan asked Gary if he could also crash at his place, and Gary agreed. Now, there had obviously been something going on between Gary and myself – he was a sweetheart and I had loved every minute of the short time we’d spent together – but when we got back to Gary’s, Nathan just kind of took it upon himself to… well, invite himself into whatever was going on between Gary and I. It was slightly awkward, and I wasn’t completely down for it, but Gary didn’t really make any discernible protest – or was too drunk to really realise what was going on – so rather than standing up for myself and hitting the streets to find my way to Noe Valley in the middle of the night, I just put up with it and stuck closer to Gary for the rest of the night, waiting it out until the morning. At the time it had just seemed like some poorly managed awkwardness on my part, which is what led me to foolishly accept Nathan’s offer to stay with him when I finally got to LA, thinking I would be better equipped to manage should anything similar occur when I was there.

Fast forward to Jake, Nathan and myself walking home from Gym Bar, with Jake and I preparing to say goodnight. Out of nowhere, Nathan suddenly says, “So I guess that means we’re having a threesome, then?”
I was shocked. Jake was even more shocked.
“Um… excuse me?”
In a matter of seconds, he went from being shocked to being furious. Suddenly the two of them were raising their voices, and then they were yelling at each other and shouting in the middle of the street. I don’t even remember what they were saying, but it quickly moved from the topic of a threesome to some much more personal comments. I’d later learn that despite all the friendly and welcoming vibes I’d experienced, there was some unresolved tensions between some of the members of the dodgeball league, with Nathan apparently being right in the middle of a lot of it. There was shouting, finger pointing, name calling, and it was all getting a bit too much for me, so I did want any sensible, alcohol-filled adult would do when presented with a situation in which they’d rather not be a part of – I ran away.

The situation had gone from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and while I would have liked nothing more than to run far away from it, I was conscious of the fact that all my stuff was still in Nathan’s apartment, and I didn’t have a key, so I didn’t make it very far. Eventually my phone rang, and it was Nathan. I was around the corner from his place, so I met him out the front of his building. Jake was no where to be seen, so I silently followed Nathan up to his apartment, my brain whirling at a million miles an hour.
“What are you going to do?” Nathan asked me bluntly once we were inside. It was pretty sure that the only way I could safely spend the night there was if I had sex with him. I didn’t want to have sex with him, and even if I did, safety still wasn’t guaranteed. I’d been in some pretty dubious situations during my travels, but this was one of the few times that I’d genuinely felt unsafe. I had no idea where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t stay there.
“I’m going to go,” I said, in as calm and collected a voice as I could muster.

What followed was an onslaught of some of the most disgusting and vile verbal abuse that I have ever had the misfortune of receiving. I don’t need to repeat the slut-shaming and traumatic insults in order to paint the picture of sheer humiliation I was feeling, but all I can say is that I was glad that I hadn’t really had a chance to unpack most of my things. I threw all my belongings into my backpack as quickly as I could, while Nathan stood over me spitting his venomous words. I was terrified the abuse might switch from verbal to physical, but luckily I had pulled everything together before he even had the chance, and I fled out the front door and never looked back, all while he hurled his final words down the hallway. I kept it together for as long as I could, but as soon as I reached street level, I let go and begin sobbing to myself. Streetlights lit up the sidewalk, and in their glow I pulled out my phone and dialled the only other number I had of anyone that lived in LA.

“Hello? Jake?” I took a few deep breaths so he would be able to understand me through the tears and the accent.
“Hello?” He was a little slow at first, and I wondered if he’d already been asleep, but he must have quickly realised who was calling. “Oh, yes! Robert! Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m… I’m on the street. I’m okay, but… but I had to get out of Nathan’s, I just-” I was overcome by the situation, breaking into tears again, and Jake attempted to soothe me through the phone.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry! Do you know where you are? Where are you going?”
“I… I don’t know. Jake… Jake can I please crash at yours? Just for tonight? I don’t… I don’t feel safe here.”
“Of course! I will text you my address, just get in a cab. I’ll meet you out the front.”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath, calmed by a feeling that everything was going to be okay now. “Thank you, Jake.”
“Don’t even mention it. See you soon.”

I dragged myself down to Santa Monica Boulevard, and easily hailed a cab. Jake’s place was less than a five minute drive, and he was already outside waiting when we pulled up. The first thing he did was give me a big hug when I stepped out of the car, then leaned in to pay the driver. I tried to do it myself, but Jake insisted, and I was too emotionally exhausted to resist. So I gathered up my bags, with Jake’s help, and I followed him up the stairs of his building to his apartment. He briefed me on the way up.
“So, look, I’m not trying to pull anything on you like Nathan, but.. my friend Val is sleeping on my couch tonight, so I don’t know…”
“It’s okay, Jake,” I said, smiling for the first time as I wiped my wet cheeks. “You’re not a creep like Nathan, so it’s okay.”
He just chuckled as we crept through the front door of his apartment and into his bedroom. There, I had the completely unexpected delight of meeting Peter Parker.

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No matter what is happening, there is always time for a picture with a dog.

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Kisses with Peter Parker.

While playing with a puppy is certain to cure the worst of any bad moods, I was exhausted from all the drama, so eventually climbed into bed, where Jake and I had a few quiet, whispered words.
“I knew that I wanted to see you again,” he said, and through the darkness I could still feel his smile. “It really sucks that it had to happen under these circumstances, but I have to say that very I’m happy to have you here.”
“Silver linings,” I whispered back contently. “Sometimes crappy situations have the best endings.”
Jake was respectful of my space, as promised, but given that I actually liked him, I asked him to hold me, and eventually I passed out in his arms.

*Name has been changed.

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

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

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

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

Sergio!

Sergio!

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight Jazz and a Gentleman’s Kiss: my first taste of New Orleans

After heading down into the depths of the French Quarter and having dinner at a dive bar called Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, recommended to me by Brett earlier that afternoon. I finished my burger and my beer, but it was still pretty early in the evening so I headed back to the hotel to figure out what I would do that evening, and just take my time getting ready. It was starting to dawn on me that for the first time in a couple of months I was completely alone in a city where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t have a local friend to turn to for advice or ideas. There’s always TripAdvisor and other travel sites you can consult, but I was also interested in meeting more people. So of course, enter Grindr. Or Scruff. Or any one of the numerous gay dating apps that have been connecting the already geographically close gay men of the world for years. Many people consider them to be ‘hook up’ apps, and it’s true that there are a plethora of users who are interested in nothing more than a cheap trick, but over the course of my travels I had met a handful of really amazing and genuine guys via the technology, such as Allistair in Vietnam or Anthony in London, all of who I am still good friends with and am still in touch with. So once again I turned to the grids of headless torsos in search of a friend.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Sipping on the Jack Daniels I’d bought duty free in Brazil, I chatted to guys here and there, scoping the place for fun or interesting looking guys, but never really getting past a round of half-hearted introductions. That is, until I got a message from Vincenzo. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was more than “hi how r u?” or “looking?“, so he was already off to a flying start, and he appeared to be gorgeous. He offered a few compliments, I probably blushed to myself and awkwardly returned them. He told me he was currently at work, at one of the smaller hotels around the corner from my hotel, and I told him an abridged version of my story, how I was just in town and looking for some things to do, or someone to show me around. I also mentioned that I was only in my hotel for a few days, and then I would be looking for some other accommodation, probably a Couchsurfing host. That’s when Vincenzo informed me that he too was part of the Couchsurfing community, and he even sent me a link to his profile, and then suddenly everything changed. I guess I felt like I was able to trust him a little bit more once I knew he was an active member of Couchsurfing, and not just a pretty face I’d stumbled across on an app, and suddenly we were making plans for me to meet him at his work when his shift was over.

I was a little nervous when I set out around the corner to meet Vincenzo. He’d been a little bit flirty, but not at all sleazy, so it kind of felt like an impromptu date or something. When I entered the hotel he was sitting sitting behind the reception desk, looking even more handsome in person. It was a small business-type guesthouse, and since it was getting late he was the only one around. We reintroduced ourselves, this time in the physical world, and then I was introduced to Princess, Vincenzo’s adorable Rat Terrier dog who had been cautiously watching me from the safety of in between his ankles. She warmed up to me rather quickly though, and we were only there a few more minutes before it was time for Vincenzo to close up the reception for the night and head off.
“I’m happy to take you out to a few bars along Frenchman Street,” Vincenzo said as we headed out the door and down the street, in a New York accent that originated from the Bronx, with only a subtle hint of the Southern drawl of the local region. “But first I need to take this one home,” he said with a motion down to Princess, who was trotting along in front of us on her leash.
“Works for me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve got no other plans.”

***

Vincenzo lived in a small first-storey flat in one of the upper corners of the French Quarter, with a lush overgrowth of greenery in the front garden behind the metal gates, and a banana tree whose leaves canopied across the railings of his rustic, wooden porch. When you stood on the porch and looked out onto the road, it was easy to forget you were in the United States of America, and in all the travels I did through the country, the French Quarter – and even parts of wider New Orleans – had a particular charm about it that was undeniably unique. The flat was relatively small inside too, and Vincenzo apologised for the apparent untidiness.
“I have a friend staying with me here right now,” Vincenzo said as he nodded towards a fold-out bed that was set up in the corner of the kitchen, the only other room with space that wasn’t his bedroom or the bathroom. “Although she’s actually not here tonight, but she’ll be back for one more night tomorrow.” He’d been putting out some food for Princess, who was now happily munching away, but now he turned to face me directly. “So, I’m not sure how long you’re staying at the Royal, but if you do need a place…” he half shrugged as he motioned to the room around him. “Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, already quite sure I’d take him up on the offer. He had a carefree vibe about him which I felt was always good in a host, but his charisma also made him incredibly charming.

“Now, I do wanna change my shirt before we go. But first, how about a drink?”
“I’m Australian – I’m always down for a drink,” I joked with him as I sat down on the edge of the fold-out bed. The space was small, and there weren’t any tables or chairs, perhaps due to the fact the bed was there in the first place.
“Do you drink bourbon?”
“It’s my poison of choice.”
Vincenzo chuckled and looked at me with a friendly smirk. “Ice or no ice?”
“I’m fine without ice.” He poured two glasses of neat bourbon and brought them over to me, handing me one before taking a seat beside me on the edge of the bed.
“Cheers,” I said as I took the glass, and held it up to clink it with his before taking a sip.
“Cheers,” he said in return, and when we held our eye contact as we sipped our drinks, there was definitely some kind of connection. I stared into those beautiful blue eyes as they edged in closer, and Vincenzo leaned in to place a light, delicate kiss on my lips. I kissed him back with equal delicacy, although after a few moments he pulled back again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t normally… No, I never do this to Couchsurfers.” He seemed a little flustered, as though he was really conflicted with what he’d just done. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured or anything, just because you might need a place to stay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” I just sighed with a smile, and placed a hand on his leg so that he looked up and into my eyes again.
“Well, technically we didn’t meet on Couchsurfing anyway,” I said with a grin. “And besides, does it really look like I wanted you to stop?”
Evidently more relaxed, he let me lean into him this time, his big bright eyes closing in surrender to another delicate kiss.

***

Though I could have kissed his gorgeous face all night, Vincenzo had promised to show me around a little bit, and actually go out for a drink.
Not to Bourbon Street,” he said as he quickly changed his shirt, barely suppressing the shudder seemingly at the idea of it. “We can walk to Frenchman Street from here. It’s a lot less touristy, and there’s a lot of live music. You’re a musician too, right? I remember reading that somewhere.” It’s always refreshing when the people you meet online actually took the time to read your profile first.
“Yeah, I am. Acoustic guitar and a bit of ukulele.” Vincenzo himself was a singer and songwriter. “And live music sounds great!” We finished our bourbons sitting on Vincenzo’s porch, as Princess curiously examined the new stranger in her house, and then when we were ready we headed off into the night.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don't think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo's attention.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don’t think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo’s attention.

It was the end of October but the air was still quite warm, and it was only several minutes later that we turned onto Frenchman Street and I experienced my first taste of authentic New Orleans. There were plenty of people out and about, but the road wasn’t overcrowded and choked with tourists. There were people standing around on the street outside some of the bars, sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes, although upon entering the first establishment I realised that they were more than allowed to do that inside too – something I hadn’t seen since Berlin. I simply followed Vincenzo, so I can’t quite recall the name of the venues. I think we hopped between a few throughout the evening, but they all appeared to be relatively small, hole-in-the-wall type places, although they were obviously popular with the locals. Wooden architecture, dull but colourful lighting and grungy, dive bar atmospheres, these places had character, and it was all topped off with the live music. I can’t say that jazz is always my first choice in music, but it was the prevailing genre of New Orleans and boy, did they do it well! Vincenzo and I got our drinks and chatted in between listening to the music, and he explained a little bit more about the city and the street we were on.

“Frenchman Street has been a pretty important entertainment district, especially after Katrina,” he told me, in reference to the hurricane that had ravaged the city in 2005. “It’s definitely more of a local scene, though, for the arts and the music rather than the partying and the drinking.” He went on to tell me about Bourbon Street, arguably the most famous street of the city yet one that so many of the locals apparently loathe, disappointed that the tourist trap ultimately prevents visitors from seeing the rest of what the city has to offer, despite them still claiming to have had an “authentic New Orleans experience.” I’d had a few friends who had travelled through the city, and I had to admit that “when I was out on Bourbon Street” was probably the most common phrase in conversations about their visit. So I actually felt incredibly lucky that I’d chanced upon meeting with Vincenzo, someone who was obviously extremely passionate about his city, and who was able to show me a different side of things and lead me away from the brazen distractions. He’d lived there for a long time, knew of the pre-Katrina New Orleans, and had been there helping rebuild it ever since the storm hit, and just seeing the passion and enthusiasm when he talked about the city was inspiring. Those types of people make the best hosts for travellers, and it was during that evening that I knew I definitely wanted to stay with Vincenzo. The fact he was both totally gorgeous and a great kisser were just an added bonuses.

We stayed out late, and we drank a fair bit and maybe even danced a little, swinging to the beat of the devil’s music. Eventually we called it a night, and though it wasn’t on his way home, Vincenzo remained the perfect gentleman and walked me home to my hotel through the quiet, empty streets of the French Quarter.
“Well, New Orleans isn’t really that unsafe,” he confessed, “but it wouldn’t be right to let you walk home by yourself on your first night in a foreign city.” Ever charming as he was, I couldn’t help but blush and oblige, since his company was more than welcome. “And of course, any excuse to spend a bit of extra time with a beautiful man like yourself.”
All I could do was continue to wear my giddy smile, and in the argument for extra time together I invited him to stay the night. Although with no actual set departure date from New Orleans, I had a feeling Vincenzo and I were going to spend plenty of time together.

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.

Sunshine Slums and a Private Paradise

After an eventful few days in Phnom Penh, I decided that I was in need of another trip to the beach. Krabi had been the perfect detox from the big city lights of Bangkok, and while Phnom Penh was no comparative concrete jungle, it had dealt me my fair share of hard knocks and cuts and bruises, and I felt it was time to move on. Some of my fellow travellers in Saigon had suggested Kampot as a fun town to visit, while a number of other people had also suggested Sihanoukville. Both were towns down on the coast of Cambodia, both seemed an equal distance from Phnom Penh, and both had been given pretty good reviews by my peers. I was having a tough time choosing where to go – I knew my time was limited, and I wanted to see one town thoroughly rather than skimming through two. In the end, while I was sitting on the couch in the hostel common room mulling over my disaster date with Sana, my mind was made up by two other travellers who had stumbled into the hostel and placed themselves next to me. I said hello, and we had a brief discussion in which they told me they were travelling to Sihanoukville the next day. “You should totally come!” the female of the pair urged me, “but I’m getting the 6am bus, I have no idea why I did that, but he’s going on the 1pm one,” she said as she pointed to her male companion. “It’ll be awesome!” And just like that, fate had stumbled into my life to point me towards me next adventure.

However, I didn’t leave the next day. I went out and rented a motorbike, fell off that motorbike, met Laura, and ended up staying for a couple more nights. And while I never met up with that duo in Sihanoukville, after agreeing to follow them there I couldn’t shake this feeling that it should definitely be my next destination. So on the Friday morning after my week in Phnom Penh, I boarded a mini bus and hit the road for the sunny shores of Sihanoukville to unwind on its sandy white beaches.

***

When I arrived in the centre of the town, I asked a tuk tuk to take me to a cheap hostel, anywhere with dorm rooms. Such a request can be quite the gamble – my hostel in Phnom Penh was reasonable for a budget price and the dorms were actually quite comfortable. The hostel I ended up in here in Sihanoukville was a third of the price, and that measly $2.50 per night placed me in the “VIP” dorm. Seven bunk beds with yoga mats for mattresses, the air conditioning was limited to late at night and the early hours of the morning, the toilet cistern leaked a consistent and steady flow onto the floor, and there was sand everywhere. But in my optimism, I wrote all that off as a relaxed, ‘beachy’ feel. I stuffed my things into the tiny locker, pulled on my board shorts and headed down to the beach.

Unlike Krabi, the beach was only a 5 minute walk from the centre of town, so I literally set out with nothing but my towel, my thongs, and my locker key secured in the pocket of my board shorts. The water was nice – not shallow or warm like the Thai beaches I’d visited. I dived into waves, washing away the afternoon sweat sheen, and wincing as the salt water washed over my wounded knee. It was definitely refreshing, but as I paddled around in the water, my eyes travelled up and down the beach, observing the scene. The long strip of sand was lined with reclining chairs, umbrellas, bars, and inevitably, the local people pedalling their wares and trinkets. The beach itself had become a strip catering for all kinds of tourist needs, and while that does sound like some sort of paradise setting, it was a little intimidating. I didn’t feel as though I could just go and sit on the beach and relax without someone trying to sell me a drink or a foot rub.

***

The hostel was the same. I sat down by the pool with a 75c beer and my iPad, to write some emails home to my family, and suddenly I had one of the Cambodian girls working at the hostel crawling all over me, trying to get my attention, complaining suggestively about how she wished someone would buy her a beer, and asking me question after question after question. I know it’s a petty thing to complain about, but I just wanted to relax. I would soon learn that I had definitely come to the wrong hostel for relaxing – Utopia was the party joint for Sihanoukville backpackers, and later that evening I would find myself surrounded by blasting music and drinking games. Which normally I would be thrilled about, but I had been slowly sinking beers all afternoon and then found myself at Happy Herb Pizzas for dinner, so by the time the party was getting started all I wanted to do was sit in the dorm and strum my ukulele while sucking on the lollipop I had brought from the corner store – don’t ask me why.

But nobody likes a party pooper, and it was a Friday night, so I threw on a singlet and headed to the bar area. I didn’t bother having a shower – I was running low on clean underwear, and I figured I might as well embrace the beach bum lifestyle that was definitely the status quo here. I chatted to a bunch of people throughout the night, rolling through the same introductions again and again and making polite small talk, but either my head was really somewhere else by that stage, or everyone I spoke to was just really boring. Probably both. I went to bed when I’d drunk so much beer that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I awoke the following morning with a seedy hangover and a feeling that the night I’d had hadn’t really been worth it. Disheartened, I crawled out of my bottom bunk, still in my board shorts from the day before, and went to grab some breakfast before hitting the beach for another swim.

That afternoon, as I wandered the main streets of Sihanoukville sporting nothing but my bright pink board shorts and a groggy hangover, I came across a couple of diving shops. Remembering how much I had enjoyed rediscovering SCUBA diving back in Krabi, I went into each of them and made a few enquiries. There are a few islands about two hours from mainland Cambodia that are home to dozens of beautiful diving sites, and all the places offered day tours out to the islands, as well as overnight packages where you stayed on the island overnight. Reflecting on my night at Utopia, that was definitely something that interested me.

***

When I first arrived at the Sihanoukville hostel, there had been a guy sitting on his bed using a laptop. He’d worked away as I’d unpacked some of my things, but after a while he’d slapped the lid shut, let out a noise that was a cross between a groan and a yawn, and said in a thick American accent, “Oh my god, it is so hot in here!” I think he’d just been in general, to no one in particular, but as the only other person in the room I felt almost obliged to reply. I just chuckled and smirked to myself, as I did when most people complained about the heat – we’re in South East Asia, duh! – and then said “Yeah, it is… How long have you been staying here?”

The American jumped down from his top bunk and shoved his laptop into his locker. “Too long man, too long. Five days now, I think.” He pushed his locker shut and turned to face me. “It’s just so chilled and relaxed, you know? It just sucks you in!” Then he turned back to his bed. “Aww man, and now there’s sand all over my bed!” He brushed the sheet with his hands a few times, before shrugging and walking out of the room, without speaking another word. Maybe he had been high during our encounter, or maybe I just really am too highly strung, but the mood in this hostel had descended beneath ‘chilled and relaxed’ and reached ‘filthy and decrepit’. I made a mental note to get out of that place within a few days, lest I become a zoned out zombie patting the grains of sand on my own bed sheet.

***

So I knew right away that I wanted to stay on the island, Koh Rong Samleon, and I wanted to stay there as soon as possible. I shopped around for prices and packages, booked with the one I liked best, and was told to meet at the dive shop at 7:15 the following morning. I had a quiet dinner and went to bed early. However, being a Saturday night, Utopia had other plans. The music was pumping until about 1:00AM, and after that people were stumbling in at all hours of the morning, to the point where three girls staggered into the dorm just as I was getting up and ready to check out. I met one of the staff members from the dive shop and 3 of the other customer divers like myself, and we were put into a tuk tuk and whisked away to the dock.

It was too early for me to really engage in any kind of conversation, but I listened to the exchanges between my companions. The dive shop employee was a British man named Andrew, and he was telling the others about the socio-economic situation in Sihanoukville. “You’ll see it once we get out of the main tourist street, just wait. I mean, these guys have nothing. And anything they do have, they only have because of the tourists. It’s a vicious little cycle, but you know… It’s not all paradise down here.” As the tuk tuk carried us further from the centre of town, his words echoed loud and clear in the streets around us. You didn’t have to go far to escape the idyllic façade of a tropical paradise and discover that poverty is just as rife here as it is in Phnom Penh, and I can only assume everywhere else in Cambodia. I felt a little guilty, being one of the tourists that fuel these poverty traps, but Andrew had assured us that Koh Rong Samleon would be nothing like mainland Sihanoukville. “You won’t see any motorbikes or tuk tuks, and no one is going to try and sell you anything.” I was tired and groggy from my interrupted night of sleep, but that assertion made me feel extremely confident that I had made the right decision for myself.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

View from the dock at Koh Rong Samelon.

Just over two hours later, the boat pulled up to the dock on Koh Rong Samleon. We unloaded our stuff, and then before long we were ready to head out again to go diving. The other three customers were doing their dives to complete their PADI Open Water Diver Certificate, so their schedule was going to be a little different. Since I was already a certified diver, all I had to do was gear up and take the plunge off the boat. I would be accompanied by my dive master, a lovely little English woman named Justine, and Kyle, a young Kiwi guy who was in the process of training to become a dive master himself. They were both lovely, and I had a lot of fun diving with them. The water at these Cambodian dive sights was pretty similar to the water at Ao Nang when I stayed at Krabi – perfect temperature, quite good visibility and lots of marine life. We saw a couple of stingrays on the first dive, but for the most part we just saw a huge variety of fish. During the second dive I found myself swimming alongside schools of fish that swam close enough together to form a huge silver wall, shining and glittering in the sunlight. Being under the sea really allows you to appreciate its immensity – you literally just feel like a drop in the ocean, a minuscule spot on the surface of this vast, blue planet. I didn’t see anything particularly amazing or breath taking, but there’s something about SCUBA diving and being under the sea that really taps into philosophical side and sense of wonder.

***

The days activities consisted on the morning dive and the afternoon dive. After that, I was left to my own devices to explore the island. My basic accommodation was covered by the diving company – a basic dorm room in a shack over the water, suspended on stilts and connected to the dock – so I didn’t have anything else to plan or worry about. I set off into the village with nothing but the clothes on my back, just like a had in Sihanoukville, but I quickly learnt that Andrew had been right – this island was completely remote. Some of the children would scream, smile and wave at you as you passed by, but other than that you could walk down the street completely undisturbed. The main street was simply a strip of sand that was lined by the tiny local huts on either side. I wandered through the town, returning smiles and waves, and continued on past the village and through the rainforest along the coast. I’d been told by Justine that there was a nice long beach, aptly named Longbeach, were you could relax on the sand and go for a swim, and due to the tiny island population it was rarely very busy.

As I stepped out onto the sand and let the water wash over my feet, I instantly knew that I had found the perfect beach that I had been looking for all this time. It was a sheltered bay, so there were no rough waves, and the water was a clear cool blue, not shallow and warm the beaches at Krabi. The white sand was completely deserted – not a soul in sight. I strode out into the water, and kept walking until the water was up to my neck. I spun around, drinking in the sights of the ocean, the shoreline, the mountain on the smaller neighbouring island – to me, this was paradise. I could have stayed there for hours, just floating around in the water, no belongings on the beach to worry about or other swimmers to distract or disturb me. It was pure bliss.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

The perfection that was Longbeach, Koh Rong Samleon.

Though I had another destination for the end of the afternoon. Kyle had told me about another beautiful spot on Koh Rong Samleon called Sunset Rocks. Basically, the western side of the island was a rocky shoreline from which you had a completely unobstructed view of the sunset over the ocean. As the end afternoon drew nearer, I made my way back through the main street to the other side of the island, acquiring some companions in the form of two of the local street dogs. There, I perched myself on a large flat rock, and waited. Growing up on the east coast of Australia, I’d always found sunsets over the ocean to be particularly exciting. I saw a few while I had been in Costa Rica a few years ago, but the novelty has yet to wear off. I sat there with my canine companions and watched the sun bleed into the ocean, the sky turning a beautiful shade of orange.

View from Sunset Rocks.

View from Sunset Rocks.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

One of my two canine companions for the sunset.

***

My night on Koh Rong Samleon was a peculiar experience. After dinner I spent the evening sitting on the pier with one of the dive master interns, and Australian guy named Dean, watching lightning flashing across the bay. There was no thunder to be heard, nor any specks of rain to be felt – just a cool ocean breeze with the lightning lighting up the sky. When I leaned back, I also noticed something that I hadn’t seen in a while – the stars. Moving between city to city, with the traffic and the smog and the light pollution, I couldn’t actually remember a night during my time in South East Asia where I could clearly see the night sky. It was an unfamiliar sky, and even though I was in the Northern Hemisphere, I couldn’t help but try to find the Southern Cross in every cluster of stars. I sat there for a while, just watching the sky in all it’s natural wonder, content with my decision to leave behind the so called Utopia.

I began to yawn, feeling tired after my long day, but just as I was thinking about heading to bed, Justine invited me to come down into the village with her, Andrew, Dean, and the rest of the other divers for a few beers. Figuring I was only going to be there for one night, I decided to check out whatever nightlife this tiny remote island had to offer. The local bar felt more like a large room on the back on someone’s house. The bartender was a chatty Cambodian woman, despite her very limited English, and she knew most of the divers who lived and worked on the island. She smiled and waltzed around the table, laughing and smiling saying, “You drink beer, you no pay. You play pool, you no pay.” It seemed bizarre to me, considering we were her only customers, but I took her up on it and had myself a beer, and challenged Dean to a round of pool. Later, our hostess began pouring shots of the local liquor. “You drink whiskey, you no pay.” I could only stomach one shot before my eyes began to droop and close involuntarily. I cursed myself for being so tired, because usually I would not be one to so quickly pass up a free drink, let alone free shots. I thanked the woman for her hospitality, bid the rest of the group goodnight, and headed back to the pier and crashed in an exhausted heap under my mosquito net.

***

And was jerked awake in the morning by the sound of the world coming to an end. Or so I thought – the storm I had watched from afar last night had finally reached the island, and the thunder sounded as though the sky was being savagely ripped in two, shaking the earth while the rain bucketed down and flew through the open windows. I jumped up to close the shutters, then laid in my bed and listened to the storm rage around us. It passed soon enough, and while the others got up to continue the dives for their Open Water Diver course, while I spent the rest of the day wandering around the island, relaxing on the dock, and swimming over at Longbeach. It was incredibly peaceful, and exactly what I needed – except for a brief run-in with an anemone. When you’re SCUBA diving, you can see all the creatures around you, so you know not to touch anything that looks potentially dangerous or unfriendly. However, as I put my foot down onto what I thought was a sandy ocean floor, I felt a texture that was very unusual and unfamiliar. I pulled my foot back in shock, and a few seconds later was met with an intense stinging on the top of my foot. I splashed my way back to the shore and sat on the sand – there were a few red marks where the stinging sensation still remained, but it didn’t seem too serious. I went back to the pier to check with Justine, who said there are a couple of different types of plants that could have delivered that kind of sting, though I still thought it was a little bizarre that the stinging was on the top of my foot, and not on the underside that had initially stepped on whatever underwear creature I had stumbled across. We poured some vinegar on the marks, which relieved the pain a little, but Justine assured me it was nothing to be concerned about.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

The dock as seen from the shores of Longbeach.

***

As the end of the afternoon rolled around, it was time to say goodbye to Koh Rong Samleon and head back to Sihanoukville. I had booked an overnight bus from there to Siem Reap, and rest of my Cambodian adventure awaited. As I sailed back to the mainland, I realised that my time on the coast hadn’t been anything like I was expecting. Instead of being completely relaxed, I’d found myself in a grungy den of a party hostel, and instead of feeling refreshed I had spent four days in one pair of shorts, having not had a proper shower and only brushing my teeth once. However, I felt as though I had overcome another challenge by taking on my anal retentiveness when it comes to personal hygiene. It’s not something I’d like to make a habit out of, but I now know that should I find myself in such compromising situations again, I can survive without having any kind of breakdown.

I’d also done some awesome SCUBA diving and seen a handful of sights that few people will ever see in their lifetimes. So when I made it back to the mainland and boarded my night bus to Siem Reap, I felt content in having explored another unique corner of the planet on my round the world adventure.