From Green to Goodbye Blues

So on my last evening in Dublin, with the sun making its ever so gradual descent over the city, I met Matt at my hostel and he helped me collect my things and check out. I still had one more night there, but after the dreadful sleep I’d had last night and the rude awakening from the trains that morning, I was more than happy to forfeit my bed and take Matt up on a better offer. We were going to catch a train a little way down south to where Matt’s Garda friend – the one who had driven us home with sirens blaring on my first night in Dublin – lived, and we were going to stay with him that night, and he had offered to drive me to the airport the following morning. Since I had arrived by boat, I wasn’t even 100% sure where Dublin airport was, but since Matt himself wasn’t in possession of a drivers licence, my only other option would have been catching a bus (or an expensive taxi, I suppose), so I took them up on the generous offer.

That last night was an emotional night. I had spent quite a lot of time with Matt over the last several days, and we’d gotten to know quite a lot about each other in our conversations, jokes, stories, and general cross-cultural and personal education about each others lives. We’d also grown remarkably close for two people who had just met – although I suppose that is often the case with such whirlwind romances where the expiry date has already been set before the affair has even begun. There was an element of déjà vu for me – during my travels I’d left behind a handful of short-term romances with some truly incredibly people, from London to Berlin and even Vietnam – but while I felt there had definitely been strong and real connections with all of those people, in the end our farewells had been a few blinked back tears and a resigned smile, accepting our meeting as a beautiful but brief moment in time. Matt was different, though, and I began to learn that for every charming and endearing typical Irish trait that was winning me over, there was, somehow, something about me that was doing the same to him twofold. And somehow, that made him even more special.

The three of us ordered pizza and drank a lot of wine, and there was a lot of laughing and joking about, having a lot of fun. But as the wine flowed freely, so did the feelings, and there suddenly came a point in the night where the very real fact that I was leaving tomorrow hit everyone, especially Matt, like a tonne of bricks. He’d hate me for saying so, but he cried that night.
“Ah, look what you’ve done to me,” he said with a laugh, trying to shake off the very obvious feelings that he was trying his best to suppress. “I don’t cry. I never cry!” But from the sound of his sniffles, and the wetness I could feel on his face as it was pressed against my own, I could tell he was definitely shedding a few tears. “Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I did… When me… when me dad passed away last year… not even then! I didn’t even cry then. But for some reason, I’ve known you all of five days, and look at me! Big, blubbering mess, I am!” Matt held me in his arms, and I held him back, at a loss of any words to actually say that could possibly mean more than what he had just told me.
And I cried too.

***

The following morning was a cloaked with a mood that was almost melancholy, as we stood around the kitchen sipping our cups of coffee and nursing our hangovers. The several bottles of wine had somewhat heightened our emotions the previous evening, and in the morning gloom the words we’d said felt like an elephant in the room. We stood there in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and was scared that almost anything I did say would trigger more of last nights sentiments, and Matt already looked a little worse for wear. So we all eventually piled into the car, and Matt’s friend drove us to the airport. We encountered a little bit of traffic and were running only fractionally late, but when I arrived I was ushered to the front of the check-in queue, while the other two waited behind the crowds. And that’s when the morning took a turn from depressing to stressing.

I thought I had planned the whole thing out pretty well, to be honest, but then I’m no travel agent. When checking in for an important international flight, there is nothing worse than hearing the phrase: “There seems to be a problem with your booking.”
My stomach dropped, but I instantly flipped back to being optimistic. There’s all kinds of tiny little glitches that can happen, they probably just need some extra information or something, I assured myself.
“Your ESTA visa waiver for the United States lets you remain in the country for a period of up to 90 days,” the woman behind the counter said to me. “But according to your itinerary here, you’re going to be there for a period longer than 90 days.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Oh! Yeah, that’s because I plan to go to Canada. I’m going to get the train up to Montreal for a week, then come back.”
“Oh… have you got the ticket for that?”
“Not yet,” I said, a little more uneasily this time. “I’m not sure exactly when I’ll go, so I couldn’t book the tickets. But I’m planning on going before the first 90 days.”
The expression on the her face was still rather unimpressed. “Give me one moment,” she said as she furrowed her brow, and moved away to make a phone call. There was a couple of other staff around us, as I’d been moved to the late check-in counter, and I could detect an annoying vibe of curiosity from them.

Suddenly, Matt appeared beside me. “Everything alright?”
“Ahh… I think… I’m not sure…” Then the woman behind the desk moved over to speak to me.
“I’ve just been informed that travelling to both Canada and Mexico does not reset the 90 day count from having entered the country. As a condition of entry you must have proof that you are going to leave the North American continent within 90 days.” My stomach dropped again, and this time I was out of reach of any optimism to cling to. This could not be happening.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have have that proof then I can’t let you through, otherwise you’re only going to get turned away from pre-clearance customs downstairs.” When flying to the US from Dublin with Aer Lingus, all passengers went through a security and customs clearance at the airport in Ireland, meaning they could land in the domestic terminal in the US and not have to worry about it over there. But wait: it gets better (well, worse).
“Unfortunately, since boarding is about to close, you’re not going to make it on this flight.” Well, she didn’t beat around the bush. The words came down on me like a tonne of bricks, and it was clear that I had screwed up. I stood there in shock, trying to hold my disappointment together and blinking back rising tears.
“However, we do have another flight leaving for New York this afternoon that is not full yet. If you can come back to me with tickets as proof of departure before 90 days, we may be able to get you on that flight. What would you like to do?”
“I… I… ah… I need to think about it for a couple of minutes,” I said, and she nodded as Matt steered me away from the desk.

What followed was a lot of swearing to and at myself, and a racking of both my brain and my contact list for a solution. I called my mum back at home – luckily the time difference meant that it wasn’t the middle of the night – and I frantically explained the situation. Like any good mother, she remained calm in a crisis.
“Well, what do you want to do?” she simply said to me in a steady voice that was the absolute contrast of mine at that moment.
“Uh, well coming back earlier seems to be the most obvious thing?” Although I already had my flights booked from LA to Hawaii to Sydney, so that would involve rebooking two flights instead of one. My mother seemed to have similar train of thought.
“Well you’re over there, you might as well stay over there,” she said with a sigh. “Is there anywhere else you want to go? How about Costa Rica again?” she asked, referring to the trip I had made there a couple of years ago.
“Mum, I can’t afford another international flight!”
“Look, don’t worry about that. We can sort it out later.” I was incredibly lucky for such an amazing woman to have my back. “Is there anywhere else? Anyone in South America you know?” That last question triggered something in my mind.
“Brazil!”
“Brazil?” she replied, sounding a little confused. “Okay… that’s a big country. What city? Rio?”
“Um… I have no idea. Let me call you back.” And so using the airport wifi I logged onto Facebook to look up Fausto, who I had met in Barcelona. Turns out he lived in São Paulo, and so I called my mum back straight away, as she had since been liaising with my travel agent.

“Mum? São Paulo!” I said as soon as she answered. I quickly scanned my brain through all the rough, tentative plans I had for while I was on the east coast of the US, and I figured out a period of a couple of weeks were I could head to Brazil and then return to the US that would effectively navigate around the laws of the ESTA visa waiver.
“Okay, São Paulo.” I still had no idea if Fausto was even going to be in Brazil at the time, but it was the best shot I had. I made a mental note to send him a message ASAP. “And you want to fly back to New York?”
“No! New Orleans!” It was a spur of the moment decision, but in the end I had my reasons.
“New Orleans? Okay, well, let me see what we can do.” She hung up to call my travel agent, at which point I collapsed into Matt’s embrace. He had been sitting with me this whole time, trying to calm me down and keep me from hyperventilating. And I thought he was doing rather well, knowing how sad he must of felt over the fact that I was still, despite the complications, leaving.
“It’s almost like a sign,” he said with a smile. “Maybe you were just meant to stay in Ireland.” I laughed, and gave him another squeeze, though I could somehow sense that he was only half joking.

***

So my mother booked the flights for me, and my travel agent emailed the itinerary, but then I had to print it off. There was a police station on the airport grounds, so Matt’s friend was able to print it off for me there.
“So, how the hell did that happen? How did your travel agent not pick up on that?” he’d asked as we wandered back over to the terminal.
“I don’t know” I said with a shrug. “I guess I did have a lot going on in that itinerary.”
“Yeah. But still…” he said, a little disgruntled, probably just because he thought he’d be well on his way out of the airport by now. Matt, on the other hand, was making the most of every final moment we had together.

I went back over to the check-in desk with my documents, and they seemed almost as relieved as I was that I had figured something out.
“Where are you heading off to after the States, then?” one of the guys around the counter said with a smile.
“Brazil,” I said happily, feeling pretty sure that everything was going to be okay from here on out.
“Brazil! Nice! Well, that’s not too bad an outcome now, is it?” he said with a grin, and I couldn’t help but return it. He was right – in a bizarre twist of fate, my own mismanagement of my travels had forced me into a side trip to Brazil. When you put it like that, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The first woman who I had dealt with before seemed satisfied with the itinerary too, so my bag was checked-in, weighed and spirited away on the conveyor belt, and I was handed my boarding pass for the afternoon flight to New York. But as we walked away, I realised that that had all seemed a little too easy.
“So they’re just going to put me on another flight? Just like that? It wasn’t even their fault. I thought I’d have to pay something extra there too.” It seemed odd, but then Matt had a confession.

“Well… There’s usually a fee of €100 for changing a flight.”
“Oh really? Well, that would make sense. Why did they waive it?”
“Well, look… I told the guy at the desk there that I was gonna pay for any extra charges it might’ve been. But when he asked how much you’d spent on the new tickets, and I told him, I think he was a little sympathetic. He’d said you’d spent enough today, and he said they wouldn’t worry about charging you.” Matt was just constantly outdoing himself, and that Irish charm of his seemed to never cease in perform miracles. However, it wasn’t until much later in my trip, after both Matt and the Emerald Isle were far behind me, that I discovered it wasn’t just a €100 fee – it was €100 in addition to the difference of the cost of the ticket you originally bought, and the current price of the one you were switching to. And when I was switching from a ticket that I had booked months in advance (on a flight that had already left) to a ticket that was leaving that afternoon, that was a lot of money. I felt a wave of gratitude to the workers at Aer Lingus, who had taken pity on me and waived such a large fee, but also – and especially – to Matt, who had ridiculously volunteered to pay that sum had they not decided to waive it. And to even do so without telling me! He knew I would never have let him do that if I’d known, which I suppose is why he didn’t tell me, but it was further proof in my mind that the Irish were truly a different, yet beautiful kind of crazy.

We had another couple of hours before I had to begin boarding the afternoon flight, so Matt and his friend hung around with me and waited. The mood was calm and nonchalant on the surface, but I knew Matt was upset – despite all the drama of the morning, I was still leaving.
“Don’t think of it as goodbye,” I said to him, trying my best to not sound like a Hallmark card or a line from a cheesy romantic comedy. “It’s just a, ‘see ya later’, and I’ll see you further down the track. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to Australia?”
“I think I might just have to!” he said, and flashed me that cheeky grin I had grown to love for the final time.
And when the time came for me to board that plane, he hugged me one last time, so hard I thought that he might not even let me go. But he did, and I gave him one last gentle kiss on the lips before turning and heading towards the gate. I looked back a few times, tears in my eyes, and he was still standing there, watching, waving, all the way until I was out of sight.

I felt a little guilty. It was by far the most emotional goodbye I’d had on my journey so far, but I had so many adventures and exciting things waiting for me in New York and beyond. I was sad, but I was also very excited. Matt didn’t have that prospect of adventure to look forward to, and he was returning home to his life that was stained with a mark that I had so deeply, yet unintentionally, left. He was a mess that evening, and on many evenings to come – I know that because he told me so. But of Matt, I will say this: for better or for worse, he made me truly realise how some of the smallest things we do in our own lives can have some of the greatest impacts on other people and in theirs. It’s a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget, just like I’ll never, ever forget him.

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Drunk and Drunker: Dublin Bars Continued

As I previously mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I always thought the drinking culture in Australia was a little excessive. That never stopped me from taking part in it, but that’s what made me notice it with a little more clarity when I finally left and went to places like Germany and Italy, where I found that I didn’t always need to get blind drunk to go out and have a good time. I remember it felt like somewhat of an epiphany. However, as soon as I arrived in Ireland, it seemed as though the tiny country’s mission was to reverse that notion and re-corrupt me with a level of drinking for which even I was quite unprepared. I’d given up counting the number of pints Matt had brought me that evening, and eventually we stumbled out of the George with me leaning into his side, almost unable to walk by myself. In any other situation, a guy buying someone that many drinks, to that point of intoxication where they were all but helpless, would have been considered a pretty shady or suspicious thing to do, and leaving with that guy is probably the last thing you should be doing. Yet Matt seemed quite genuinely surprised at how the booze had hit me, and in my drunken haze a remember thinking with crystal clarity that maybe I had finally found a country and a people that gave me a run for my money when it came to alcohol tolerance.

I knew my hostel wasn’t too far from where we were, but I had no idea exactly where, and was also aware I was unlikely to make it there by myself. But I’d always had a feeling Matt would take care of me – one way or another – and he insisted that he had a surprise for me. He seemed a bit frustrated, and I wasn’t sure why, but we hopped in a taxi which drove us for a short while – I have no idea in what direction – until Matt got a phone call, after which he asked the taxi to pull over. We got out, seemingly in the middle of no where, but Matt was still all smiles and carefree so I went along with it. We were waiting by a main road that was fairly quiet at that time of night, but there was one car I could see in the distance. As it approached it slowed down just enough for the driver to wind his window down and hurl some homophobic profanities at us. That riled me up, and in my drunken stupor I went to scream something back at him, but Matt caught my arm and calmed me down.
“No, don’t worry, he’s just joking. He’s my mate, the policeman from Panti Bar.” Sure enough, the car was turning around to come back towards us and pulled up beside us.
“What’re you two lads doing out here at this time o’ night?” He said with a mock stern look on his face.
“Ah, we’re just a little lost, officer,” Matt played along. “Would yer mind takin’ us home?” They said hello after that and had a bit of a laugh, and we climbed into the unmarked police car so that Matt’s friend – who’d probably best remain unnamed – could drive us home.

I’d never bothered to ask Matt where exactly he lived, and it wasn’t until we were whizzing through what felt like the countryside that I realised that he definitely didn’t live within central Dublin. I couldn’t say whether or not this was exactly far out, given that Dublin itself seemed like such a small city, but I guess I would find that out eventually. Matt, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, asked his friend if he could flick some of the switches on the dashboard. All of a sudden we were roaring down the road with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing through the night, and I couldn’t help but sit up like an excited child and stick my head out the window like some enthusiastic puppy. Part of me wondered how many boys they’d tried to impress with a stunt like this, but at that moment I didn’t really care. It was definitely a memorable experience for my first night in Dublin, and I wondered what my mother would say if she knew that I’d been escorted home in a police car that evening.

***

The next day was probably one of the laziest days I have ever had in my life. After passing out very heavily in Matt’s bed, we woke up at some point in the middle of the morning. We spent most of the day there, hanging out and messing around, watching videos on YouTube about anything and everything – mainly Matt giving me a comprehensive cultural education about Ireland – and we chatted and I told him all about my year so far and the travels I’d been on, where I’d been and where we were going. With the exception of skipping out to use the bathroom once or twice, I never actually left his bed. At some point close to noon he disappeared for a little while, so I just stayed put and had a nap, and he returned with a full plate of Irish breakfast – toast, eggs, sausages, bacon, tomato, and even black and white puddings. He didn’t tell me what those last ones were, but I’d had a pretty good idea of what they were when I started eating them. He was surprised I wasn’t more grossed out when he told me what their major ingredients, but then I reminded him about the time I ate fried tarantulas in Cambodia. “Fair point,” he had said.

To say that I spent most of the day in bed was actually an understatement. By the time we finally decided it was well and proper time to get up, the sun was already on its way down again – we had literally spent the whole day in bed. Part of me felt extremely guilty, like I had wasted the day, and I supposed I had from the perspective of a set itinerary. But as I so often reminded myself, I didn’t have a set itinerary, which allowed me to do crazy things like spend an entire day eating breakfast in bed with an Irishman who I had just met the night before and not worry about whether or not I was missing out on a day of sightseeing.    I had no idea where the hell I was though, so Matt said he would take me back to my hostel. It had gotten so late in the day that it was almost time to get ready to go out again for Saturday night, so after Matt had gotten ready I ventured out to see the rest of his house for the first time – other than the drunken stumble up the stairs in the dark.

“Just got to say goodbye to the Mammy first,” Matt said, using the typical Irish jargon for ‘mother’. And then I realised – oh my God – he lives with his mother! I suppose I should have realised that earlier given it was obviously a large family home. But still, I had never gone home with a guy who still lived with his family before – I mean, I’d never met the parents of any of my previous boyfriends, let alone a one night stand! I thought I would quietly wait in the hallway while Matt said goodbye – nope, he called me in to introduce me. She was so nice, and seemed completely unbothered by the fact a random Australian had spent the entire day in her sons bedroom, but nevertheless I was mortified, and died a little on the inside throughout the whole exchange. But apparently the mothers of Irish men play a significant role in their lives, and it seemed important to him that I met her before we headed off, so despite being severely embarrassed I sucked it up and paid my dues before we headed back into the city.

***

Honestly, I still can’t tell you where Matt lived, but it was at least a half hour ride on the local bus back into the centre of Dublin. In places like London, or even Sydney, that’s probably considered not too far away, but for Dublin it was like we were literally not even in the city anymore. I’m not even 100% sure we were. I was completely disoriented, but I stuck with Matt and eventually we alighted in the main street of Dublin, a short walk from where my hostel was. I went back to quickly get changed before we hit the town again for more drinks. Now, I have I have to be completely honest here – on my next two nights in Dublin, so much happened and I drank far too much, to the point where they have blurred together and I’m unable to fully distinguish between them. So here is a general overview:

In an attempt to show me more than just the gay scene, Matt took me to one of his favourite local pubs. From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that I was in the true definition of an Irish bar. Up in the back corner there was an old bearded man surrounded by a bunch of other patrons, and he was playing a guitar as the crowd chanted through some traditional folk songs. The ceilings were low, the room was narrow, the walls were polished timber and the whole place seemed to glow with warmth.
“Right, I don’t care what you say, but you have to at least try a Guinness,” Matt said as we walked up to the bar. Last night, I’d insisted that the last Irishman to attempt to convert me was unsuccessful, but Matt assured me that whatever Guinness I’d been drinking in Australia wasn’t the same as when it was fresh from the brewery in Dublin. We sat down at a table as I stared at the thick, black monstrosity of a drink.
“I just… I can’t get over the head,” I said, as I poked a finger into the thick foam that covered the stout. It was so thick that there was an imprint, a little dent in the creamy foam from where my finger had been. I proceeded to draw a little smiley face in my Guinness, having a little giggle to myself.
“Ah, yer edgit! Stop playing with your food!” Guinness was such a heavy drink that it was sometimes considered a meal in itself, and even my own father had once told me you could have two Guinness’ instead of dinner. So I tried to drink it, pursing my lips to try and drink through the foam. But I had to tilt the glass so much to even make it to the thick, dark liquid, that all I got was a nose covered in foam and just as much Guinness dripping around my mouth, out down my chin and onto the table, as I had going into my mouth. Matt found that rather hysterical, but to top it all off I didn’t even really like the taste either, so it made the whole ordeal a rather unpleasant and pointless exercise.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Other highlights of the weekend were finding myself in the most crowded midnight kebab shop I have ever seen in my life, meeting another one of Matt’s friends in another more alternative nightclub – down at Temple Bar, the main nightlife strip – that felt more like an old house that had been fitted out with a few bars, giving it a pretty chilled house party vibe, and ending up in the George again, lost in the dark hallways and dank, grungy bar rooms. One particular memory that stands out through the haze is being at the George, completely unaware of where Matt or any of his friends were, and being so drunk that I could hardly keep my eyes open. I sat down on a couch or a seat or something and… well I didn’t fall asleep, but I would definitely have been well on my way to passing out. I closed my eyes, and must have been slumped over or something, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken at the shoulder by someone. I opened my eyes to find a security guard staring back at me.
“You alright, mate?” He stood back as I pulled myself up to sit up straight.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m fine… I’m just… I’m waiting for my friend.” I had no idea if that was even true or not, but I wasn’t capable of saying much else at that point.
“Alright, well, don’t go falling asleep here,” he said to me, and carried on with his patrol of the venue. I was in shock. I was practically passing out in the club, and all I got was a smack on the wrist? Not even that – literally just a shake of the shoulder. I had been tossed out of a number of Sydney venues for much, much less. But as if right on cue, Matt came along to find me sitting there, and decided it was best we be on our way home.

***

The weekend also introduced me to a few extremely Irish cultural customs. The first involved GAA, which is kind of like Irelands answer to AFL in Australia – or for readers of any other nationality…. ah, local football? I don’t know, I’m not great with sports. Matt had a ticket to the final on the Sunday afternoon, so we had to get out of bed a little earlier that day so that he could make it back into the city centre. It was a sold out ticketed event, so I couldn’t go to watch the game, but I did join Matt and another friend of his in a nearby pub afterwards for celebratory drinks, given that the Dublin team had had a victory over the visiting team from Kerry, a county to the far south west of Ireland. If I had thought Matt’s accent was difficult to understand, then the people from Kerry must certainly have been speaking another language. In all honestly, I thought that they were when I first overheard some of them speaking when I went to the bathroom.
“Do they speak a lot of Gaelic in Kerry?” I asked Matt upon my return. He had a good laugh at that.
“No more than anywhere else, really,” he said with a smile. “No, that’s just how they talk down there. It’s okay, even most people from the rest of Ireland have trouble understanding them.” So we sat there as the afternoon post-match crowd grew bigger and bigger, watching the rows of pints of Guinness as they settled on the bar in front of us, and listening to almost comical, undecipherable accents of the GAA enthusiasts.

A round of Guinness' in their various stages of settling.

A round of Guinness’ in their various stages of settling.

But perhaps the most special of my authentic Irish experiences was that of a lock-in. Now, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me in the beginning – and I’ll be frank, I’m still not sure it does now – but from the way Matt talked about it I knew that it definitely meant something in the pub culture. Essentially, when it becomes the time that the bar is legally required to close, a lock-in happens when the owner of the bar allows drinkers to stay on the premises after they have closed up shop – it technically becomes private property from that point, existing as a loophole in licensing laws. I’m not sure of how the monetary exchange works, but technically no drinks can be “sold”. No more newcomers are allowed in, most people don’t leave, and patrons are allowed to smoke inside since we are all ‘locked in’. The bartenders join in the drinking, and it becomes a cozy little evening of tradition that wears on well into the night.
“You’re lucky to see this,” Matt had said to me once the lock-in started. “Definitely something most tourists aren’t allowed to hang about for.” It was quite funny to observe, and an interesting experience, but the pub was mainly occupied by middle-aged or older straight men. Matt, who outwardly appeared as straight as the rest of them, seemed right at home, but it wasn’t exactly my scene, and in the end being locked up in a room where everyone was free to smoke started to get to me a little bit. I can’t be 100% sure, as I was most certainly quite drunk as well, but we said goodbye, passed through the locked in doors and out into the night, in search of our next adventure – which was probably me passing out in the George. It was definitely another unique experience to add to the list though – I hadn’t experienced this much culture shock when I was in London though, and it was crazy to think that just across that narrow sea existed this place that sometimes, for better or worse, felt like a completely different world.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

After a day of extremely touristic activities at the Vatican, I was looking forward to doing something a little different on Saturday night. When I first arrived in Rome, Valerio had told me about something called the ‘Gay Village’, an annual event that was held in Rome. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after being to three different gay pride festivals during my time in Europe so far, I had to conclude that it was simply the season for pride all over the continent. “The gay scene isn’t as big here in Rome as it is in other cities or countries,” Valerio had informed me. “We’re so close to the Vatican, so there’s lot of influence from the Catholic church… It’s not repressed, exactly, but it’s just very… subdued.” Valerio went on to inform me that rather than having one weekend full of pride festivities and a parade, there was this event called the Gay Village which ran for weeks during the middle of summer. Valerio hadn’t been yet this year, so I told him I’d happily join him. He also had another Couchsurfer who arrived that Saturday evening, and American from New York named Steve. Steve himself wasn’t gay, but he had no plans and was keen to come along, so the three of us got into Valerio’s car and went off to investigate whatever Rome had thrown together as part of their pride celebrations.

After driving though dark roads in areas that seemed almost rural, we emerged at what appeared to be a festival ground. That’s what Gay Village seemed to be – a big festival village, with food stands, games and rides, performances, bars and a huge dance floor. We met up with a few of Valerio’s friends once we’d lined up to pay and gotten inside, and after a quick wander around to see some of the sideshow attractions, we inevitably ended up by the bar and on the dance floor. I was still fairly exhausted, so I only had a couple of drinks for fear of passing out right there if I overloaded myself with booze, and the group of us danced among the huge, seething, sweaty crowd. Oddly enough, the person who seemed to be having more fun than anyone was Steve – I’ve always found that straight people are usually rather impressed by the way the gays can throw a party. We danced and danced until the ice in our plastic drink cups had all but melted and keeping my eyes open became a little too much of a struggle. It was fairly late by then, and we’d seen the best of the performances, so we said goodbye to Valerio’s friends and headed back to the car to drive home.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

On the drive home, I questioned Valerio about something I’d noticed throughout the night. “So did you not drink tonight because you were driving, or do you just normally not drink anyway?” Not that long ago I wouldn’t have even thought to consider that second option, but meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely shone a light on that perspective for me.
“No, I don’t drink alcohol,” Valerio said rather simply. “I don’t really like the way it affects me – I don’t really like being drunk.” For a man of such small stature, I could only imagine that it wouldn’t take much to get him heavily intoxicated – something of a foreign concept for me. Now, I’m not a complete idiot – I know there are plenty of people in the world who don’t drink for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I guess that binge-drinking behaviour is mostly the kind of thing I’d been experiencing back home, but I was surprised that find that there were people who actually liked going out to nightclubs to dance and party while not even drinking the smallest amount of alcohol. It was a pleasant change, because for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I needed to drink as much as I could in order to catch up and keep up with the rate at which all my fellow companions were drinking. Being outside of it for the first time, it was made painfully clear just how problematic and potentially dangerous Australia’s drinking culture can sometimes be. Not that I’m condemning or praising any culture either way – it was just some food for thought on the quiet drive home.
“Well, either way, thanks for driving us tonight. That was definitely a side of Rome we wouldn’t have seen without you.”

***

The next day I slept in. I know, I know – there is so much to do in Rome, how could I possibly waste an entire morning just sleeping? But I was exhausted, and I had reached a low point in the cycle of motions you move through when travelling. Some days you’re so full of energy and feel like you can do anything and literally get out there to take on the world. Other days, things catch up to you a little bit, and you have to remember you’re only human. It was another new perspective I had to consider – on a two week holiday you can cram every day full of activities and sleep it off when you get home, if you so desire. When you’re on the road for nine months, you really do need to be a little more self-conscious and give your body time to relax and recover. It was something I’d neglected over the past few weeks, and I’d paid for it when it culminated in the form of a small breakdown.

Steve had gone off for a day full of sightseeing, but I awoke very late in the morning to hang out with Valerio for a while. The most peculiar and interesting thing about Valerio was his obsession with Madonna. His living room was crammed with memorabilia that spanned back through the years of her career, from CDs and DVDs to posters to books to official tour merchandise, much of which had been signed by the Queen of Pop herself. Normally I might have found such an affinity with one artist slightly creepy, but when Valerio got talking about Madonna, there was such passion and vindication in his voice that it was almost a little inspiring. The decades long career, the different themes and styles in her music, the shocking and controversial material in some of her discography, and the way she’d adapted to achieve longevity in her musical career – but the end of our discussion, Valerio had me wanting to go and purchase all the Madonna albums to discover it all for myself. There was definitely a look of disapproval when I mentioned that I only had two Madonna songs on my iPod – I decided it was best not to mention my Lady Gaga inspired tattoo. We had a good afternoon though, sitting in our pyjamas and drinking tea while he showed me some of his favourite scenes from her MDNA tour – which he assured me would never make it to Australia. “She’ll never go to Australia,” he said rather simply. “She always announces it, but she’ll always cancel. Her tour is too elaborate and expensive. The cost of getting it down there would be more than she could ever make back from an Australian tour.” At that moment, arguing about the worlds various pop divas when I was still in my pyjamas at noon, I felt more at home than I had in a long while.

***

However, I did have other plans for the afternoon. A couple of days ago I had received a message from my next arranged Couchsurfing host – a man by the name of Ike, who lived in Ancona, on the eastern coast of Italy. We had been exchanging messages to arrange my stay since I’d been in Madrid.
“Robert, how are you? Are you still in Rome? I’ve just had a Couchsurfer named Stefan stay with me. He’s a lovely guy, he’s gay too, and he’s heading to Rome now. I’m not sure if he knows anyone – if you have a chance you guys might like to catch up?”
It wasn’t really a lot to go on, so I can’t tell you exactly why I bothered following through – but I got in touch with Stefan, and after a few miscommunications we planned to meet on the Sunday afternoon near the Colosseum, one of the last sights I had left to visit.

From the moment our conversation began, neither of us were at a loss of words. Stefan was from Austria and was currently travelling through Europe as well. We talked about our travels, or lives back home, friends and studying and working. We seemed to have so much in common, and before long we found ourselves discussing things like our hopes and dreams for the future, the things that inspired us and the things that terrified us, things we were doing, and the things we really wanted to be doing. Stefan spoke several languages and had been working as a translator for some time – he’d been a conscientious objector to the compulsory military service in Austria and had instead spent the time working on peace efforts and treaties in Japan. “But I’m also an artist,” Stefan had confessed to me. “I do sculpting… for me, that’s my real passion.” I asked him why he didn’t do that – why he didn’t pursue the dream that meant so much to him. He struggled to answer.
“I feel a similar way, I guess, but about music,” I told him. “I write and play music, and God, there isn’t much else I love in the world more than that. But to actually pursue it further? To really do it? I guess… I’m a little scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“I guess… of failure. What if  you gave it all you had, 100% give it your all, but you’re still not good enough? It’s just a cut-throat world out there…”
“Well, I’m scared too. But not of failure.” We were sitting on a park bench, staring out over the broad Colosseum in front of us. “But of losing that dream. What if you do make it, but it’s not all you dreamed it to be? That dream keeps me alive some days. If I made it that far, only to learn I’ve been wrong along…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

It was a strangely profound moment to have with someone that I had just met, and a tragedy that we probably wouldn’t be meeting again for a long time. I’d wanted to stay and talk more – I felt like I could have talked to Stefan until the end of time itself and still not gotten bored. But my time in Rome was fast coming to an end, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t catch even just a glimpse of the Roman Forum and the inside of the Colosseum. We had already talked for much longer than I had anticipated, and I only had about an hour and a half to get down and see those final attractions before closing time. But the structures had stood there for thousands of years, so I could always return another time if necessary – the Forum wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And if I’d made such a point on seeing every last speck of historical tourism Rome had to offer, I would never have met up with and made a new friend in Stefan. It was a brief yet memorable moment, and I’m eternally grateful that it happened.

***

Fortune was favouring me that afternoon, because I somehow managed to breeze through the swift-moving line for the Colosseum and get in an out in what was probably a record speed. I didn’t climb to the upper tiers for the view down on the main arena, but standing at the bottom and looking up and the walls of relics towering over me was enough to give me a few shivers. The main stage was overrun and off limits to tourists, but I spared a moment for the countless men who would have died there centuries ago.

The Colosseum close up.

The Colosseum close up.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum was a little bit overwhelming. After finally finding the entrance, I entered the grounds and wandered through the ruins, using my Lonely Planet book to roughly guide me through the highlights – there was only an hour left until the Forum closed. I didn’t rush through it too quickly though, but instead appreciated the sights that I did get to see. In the end I think I saw a great deal of the ruins, but Valerio was mildly horrified that I hadn’t spent more than hour there. Still, it was a beautiful afternoon as I watched the dying light fall across the Forum, and the furthest part of the ruins up near Palatine Hill offered a pretty remarkable view of the area.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Ancient ruins.

Ancient ruins.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Monument inside the Forum.

Monument inside the Forum.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Tempio di Saturno - the Temple of Saturn.

Tempio di Saturno – the Temple of Saturn.

More ruins in the Forum.

More ruins in the Forum.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

Afterwards I met Valerio back near the Colosseum, and we wandered through the streets as dusk sank over the city. Valerio told me that there are over 900 churches in the city of Rome, and he himself had managed to visit a few hundred of them during his time living there. We walked past the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, and ended up back in central Rome. The area looked quite different at night, as we wandered past the Pantheon, through Piazza Navona, and ended up near Trevi Fountain, where we were due to meet up with Steve.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi - Fountain of the Four Rivers -  at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers – at night.

“Did you throw a coin into the fountain?” Valerio asked me as we watched the hordes of tourists struggle to get their picture taken with the fountain in the background.
“Nah, it was too crowded when I was here,” I replied pretty casually. But Valerio turned to me with a look of horror.
“What?! No, you must throw a coin into the fountain, or you will never again return to Rome!” That was one superstition that I hadn’t heard of, and I just laughed. But Valerio seemed insistent, so I went down the fountain to appease him, tossing 20 euro cents over my shoulder, and getting another picture with the fountain, remarkably without anyone else in the crowd creeping into the shot. Later, I would read in my guide book that an average of €3000 is thrown into Trevi Fountain everyday – I guess that’s one superstition that a lot of people take pretty seriously.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

We finally caught up with Steve, and we went for a wander to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, which were even more crowded than the afternoon I had first visited them. The whole city seemed to have a different vibe at night, and the three of us sat at the top of the steps and just looked out over the crowd of people, enjoying the warm, humid air. That was my last night in Rome, and I have to say it was a rather enjoyable one. I’d made some new good friends, and after the few days of sightseeing, it had been great to just wander around with someone as chilled out and relaxed as Valerio and, if you will, do as Romans do.

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom...

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom…

... and from the top.

… and from the top.

***

The next morning Valerio dropped me off at the metro station so that I could make it to my train out of Rome in time. He bid me goodbye and wished me good luck on my travels. I thanked him for his hospitality and his generosity, and with a wink I reminded him that I threw that coin into Trevi Fountain, “So I’m sure I’ll be back to visit you again.”

The Fast and the Fearful: Tearing it up the in Siberian Spring

The morning after our first night at Lake Baikal was the morning that Kaylah and I were scheduled to go quad-bike riding. The rest of the group had decided to give it a miss, but the two of us approached it with an easy “I’m in if you are” attitude and ended up convincing each other that we should give it go, much like the way we both decided to climb the Great Wall back in China. I really liked that about Kaylah – she was always making the most of out everything, which motivated me to do same and take every opportunity head on, rather than just passively experiencing the journey. So despite having somewhat of a hangover – vodka is not my drink of choice, and I find the bouncing back a little more difficult – we geared up and headed off down the hill with Kostya to go trekking through the Siberian forests on quad-bikes.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

Crisp, clear morning view of the mountains on the other side of the lake.

***

Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Oh my God, Robert! You fell off a motorbike in the busy streets of Cambodia! When are you going to learn your lesson!? But quad-bikes are a little easier to keep upright – so I kept telling myself – and I would have a guide this time, who would drive ahead of us so that we didn’t take any wrong turns, or attempt to drive down any dangerous paths. To save on the cost, Kaylah and I decided to share the quad-bike, with one of us driving for the first half of the trail and switching positions halfway through. We suited up, put our helmets on, and mounted the bike. I let Kaylah take the first turn of driving, so that I might be able to do some observation and hopefully pick up some driving techniques so as to not kill us both.

“This, accelerate,” the guide had said as he pointed to a small button on the right handle bar. “This, break. Follow me. About 10 metres between us.” The English was broken, but the meanings were clear. Yet as the guide took off down the trail and into the trees of the Siberian forest, Kaylah wasted no time getting started and speeding off after him. I’d started out leaning forward with my arms wrapped around her, like I did with all the motorbike taxis in South-East Asia. I very quickly slid back to assume the brace position, clinging to the small handrail that looped behind my seat. Kaylah has a pretty loud and feisty nature, so I guess I should have expected her to be a bit of speed demon. Though it wasn’t just the speed that slightly terrified me. As we raced through the forest, we occasionally had to slow down and stop to watch the guide manoeuvre through some tricky parts of the trail, so that we could follow exactly in his tracks and avoid any accidents. It was hair-raising business, though – the quad-bike jolted forward on some pretty sheer angles, and there were a few moments when I was sure that the bike was going to tip over. I clung on for dear life as Kaylah powered forward through the steep mounds of mud, seemingly unfazed.

Also – though I know my depth perception isn’t perfect – I spent basically the entire ride thinking to myself, She is not at least 10 metres away from the back of that bike. She’s two, maybe three, at the most‘. After about half an hour, we reached a small rest point in the middle of the forest. After we dismounted, the guide turned to Kaylah and gave her a big thumbs up. “Very good driver!” he said with a grin. “I smoke, then go back,” he said as he held up a cigarette, then wandered off a short way into the woods.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

The Siberian forest through which we rode our quad-bikes.

“You were so not 10 metres away from him,” I said to Kaylah as we sat down on a small wooden bench that had been fashioned out of some logs.
“I know, I know,” she said with a laugh.
“I was so scared! There were a couple of times were I definitely thought we were going to tip over! But you were so close to him!” I was being completely genuine, but Kaylah has an infectious laugh that I can’t help but get carried away by, and so I giggled along with her.
“Ah well – I can’t help it! I’m Asian, we tailgate!” Now that made me laugh. Though she’d spent most of her life in America, Kaylah has Vietnamese heritage, but I loved that she still could find the bit of humour in what some people would have just deemed a rude or racist joke. We had pretty similar senses of humour too, which was probably why she was one of the people I’d been spending the most time with on the tour so far.

Then came the punchline of this whole scenario – it was time for me to drive. Once upon a time I would have considered myself a pretty good driver. I passed most of my RTA tests the first time around, including the one where you’re behind the wheel of a car. I can drive a manual car. I’ve never been in any major accidents. But my time living out of the suburbs has seemingly diminished these superior driving skills somewhat, as I stopped even owning a car. I became the public transport enthusiast that I am today, and while I still know how to drive a car, I guess the motor skills that are required to operate other motor vehicles just gave up on me. Cambodia was a great example of that, but the ride in as Kaylah’s passenger had already ensured that I didn’t have the same invincibility complex when I got behind the controls of the quad-bike.

Here comes trouble - me just before I took off on the bike.

Here comes trouble – me just before I took off on the bike.

That was basically just a long winded way of saying that I bogged the quad-bike in the mud within the first 30 seconds of me driving, and had to have the guide come back and switch the bike into 4WD mode so that it could get enough power to pull itself out. He stood in front of the bike, pulling on the bumper bar while I accelerated, and I was terrified that when it did eventually come free I would surely run him over. The bike didn’t go anywhere at any great speed though, and the guide just chuckled to himself as he walked back to his bike. Kaylah and I were also in hysterics – you can’t really do anything but laugh at yourself in that kind of situation, can you? – but I was almost tempted to surrender the driving back over to her right there.

But I didn’t. Just like I’d gotten back up on that motorbike in Phnom Penh, terrified it would still be the last thing I ever did, I revved the engine to the quad bike and took off after the guide. Unlike Kaylah, I was very meticulous about keeping the 10 metres between the guide and myself, though in the end he probably ended up slowing down so I was close enough to see his demonstrations of crossing the tricky bits. The scenery was quite repetitive, so I honestly couldn’t tell, but I feel as though we might have come back a different way. There was nothing anywhere near as steep or tricky on the way back as some of the obstacles Kaylah had had to ride over. For that, I was infinitely grateful. We arrived back in one piece, though I was dripping with sweat under the protective suit from all the strength and concentration it had taken me to not ride the quad-bike off the trail. You’d think that remembering to steer is the most basic rule that is impossible to screw up – but I’m just that talented, I guess.

***

Yesterday, we’d decided as a group that we wanted to take a boat out onto Lake Baikal. We’d been inspired by the beautiful weather we’d had on the first afternoon, but we were disappointed to learn that the overcast weather on the following day had made the lake waters quite choppy and rough. Kostya assured us that it would be windy and unpleasant, and so the excursion was cancelled. There was nothing else major that had been planned for that day, so in the end I was even more chuffed with my decision to do quad-bike riding, despite the mild terror it had incurred. So for me, the rest of the day just turned into a relaxing afternoon – a short walk down by the lake, watching funny YouTube videos with Kaylah and Kostya, and visiting the sauna again – though I missed out on getting another birch leaf massage. I’ve always been of the opinion that long periods of travel require those kinds of days, where they only agenda is to have no set agenda. There wasn’t exactly an endless supply of things to see or do at Lake Baikal anyway, so I think most of us were more than happy to just chill out and wander around the small town. We had another vodka filled evening that night, though no one stayed up quite as late as the previous night.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

On the shores of Lake Baikal, with the sun sinking behind the horizon.

***

The following morning we visited an open air museum on our way back to Irkutsk. It was interesting to see some of the old traditional buildings, and we had a bit of fun playing on the big wooden swings and stilts, but for me the whole day felt like a drawn-out, ominous lead up to the main event of our whole tour – the four days of transit along the Trans-Siberian railway. We stopped at a supermarket just outside of Irkutsk to buy supplies, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of dread. I had enough trouble buying groceries for one that wouldn’t go off in my fridge within a week – how was I going to plan and buy all the food I would need for the next four days? Technically, you coud buy food along the way, but we were told it would be far more expensive at the station platforms or on the train. I wandered around the supermarket, umm-ing and ahh-ing for a long time, making careful decisions, though the only one I was 100% sure about was the bottle of vodka – and even then I wondered if it woud be enough. Eventually Kostya found me and told me were about to leave, so I rushed through the check-out and back to the bus.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Kaylah and I playing on the huge wooden swings in the open air museum.

Travellers.

Travellers.

After that we had a couple of hours to kill before the train, so we wandered around the main streets of Irkutsk. We had a look inside one of the Russian Orthodox Churches, and then wandered down to the river. The fence along the edge of the river embankment was absolutely covered in padlocks. “It’s like the padlock bridge in Paris,” said Jenna, one of the Australian girls. They were all engraved or painted with names and dates, and pictures of doves and ribbons and other celebratory symbols. I hadn’t been to Paris, but a made a mental note to enquire about a padlock bridge when I got there. I think the idea is to lock it in the very public place and then throw the key into the river, so that their symbolic love can never be removed – but if someone had actually been explaining that, I mustn’t have been paying attention. I was probably still too busy worrying about whether or not I had enough food.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.

Padlocks on the riverside railing in Irkutsk.

Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.