What Happens in Vegas…

I’ve given a lot of thought as to how I was going to write about my experiences in Las Vegas. I don’t think that anyone is under the delusion that this blog has a PG rating when it comes to most of my experiences, but given that I haven’t written anonymously I have fallen considerably short of a “tell all” recount. At any rate, people expect more wild than usual adventures out of Vegas from anyone, but there is always the old saying “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. With that in mind, I have changed the names of everyone involved during this post (with the exception of people I’ve already named), partly for the sake of their anonymity and partly because I honestly don’t remember all of their names. I’ve also left a number of scenarios pretty vague and open-ended, and I will leave it up to the imagination of the reader as to what actually went down. You might assume the worst of me or think I am exaggerating, but I am not going to confirm nor deny. Okay, so with that disclaimer out of the way, here we go…

***

Waking up on Saturday morning was rough. There were two other girls sharing the big mega mattress, but I hardly noticed because they were a good couple of metres away from me. I heard them stir, stumble, and eventually leave the house at some stage in the morning, probably not that early, but still too early for someone who came home as late as I did. The bed was pretty comfortable, and after sleeping on couches and fold-out sofas at my past few stops, I made the most of it and slept-in. When I eventually did get up it was late in the morning, and I did a quick scan on the house to find it empty. I couldn’t remember if Ly had said he’d be home or not, but he’d offered me a place to stay, not to be my tour guide, so it didn’t matter too much, and he’d said I was free to come and go as I pleased.

During the bus ride from Flagstaff, which had free wifi that actually worked, I’d been browsing through Facebook and realised that an American guy named Steven, who I had met several years ago back in Sydney, was going to be in Las Vegas this weekend. We’d exchanged a few messages and decided that we should meet up at some point during the weekend, so after getting up and getting ready and realising that I had no real plans and nowhere to go, I sent Steven a message to see what he was up to. He was staying in the Hard Rock Hotel with his friend Darren, and said that they were going to be hanging out there drinking for most of the afternoon, and invited me to join them. After figuring out there was a nearby bus route that would take me almost directly to their hotel, I accepted his invitation, got myself together and was on my way.

Steven and Darren were staying in a pretty nice room in the Hard Rock Hotel. Big beds, huge bathroom, large plush sofas and walls that were just floor to ceiling windows. It was a pretty good view… at least, I guess it would have been if there had been anything to see. There were mountains in the distance, but Las Vegas itself is essentially built in the middle of a desert, and for the most part the city seemed incredibly flat. We weren’t too far from the strip, but the windows were all facing in the wrong direction, so I didn’t see much of it.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

Darren had brought a lot of vodka. Since it was after midday and we were in Vegas, I let him mix me a drink. Steven was a model and photographer, and he explained to me that him and Darren had driven over from California because a guy he knew that lived here had agreed to model for him. That, and who doesn’t love a weekend in Vegas? So we sat around drinking for a while and catching up, since it had been a few years since I’d actually met or seen Steven. He had only just turned 18 when we first me in Sydney, so he had been enjoying the ability to go out to bars and be of a legal drinking age, which he had yet to reach back in the US.

Eventually the model arrived. Initially I thought it would have been pretty interesting to watch a photoshoot, and I’d seen some stuff Steven had done and it had looked pretty neat. However, the model was 16. Which, in any other circumstance wouldn’t have seen that weird, but when he was doing a photoshoot in a hotel room with three gay men… Look, I’m not implying anything, but the situation was slightly suggestive. Especially when, after going to get some sushi from a restaurant across the road, Darren and I returned to the room to find that the photography had moved to the luxury hotel bathroom. Like, it wasn’t pornographic, technically, but damn, it was uncomfortable to watch a 16 year old guy posing so sexily and sometimes suggestively. Another drink was definitely in order. Eventually the shoot wrapped up and then the model left, only to be replaced by another guy who Darren had been talking to on Grindr, who came over and joined the party. Once upon a time I might have found that weird, but given the countless people that I’d met through the gay social networking apps and the countless, much weirder circumstances that I’d found myself in over the course of the last year, I just had to shrug and roll with it.

However, there was only a certain amount of hanging out and drinking in a hotel room I could do before I started to get a bit of cabin fever. And there was one detail that I couldn’t ignore anymore, since it was going to have a major impact on my plans for the night – while his model had only been 16, Steven himself was still only 20. That meant he couldn’t actually go out to any of the bars, clubs or casinos on the strip. And… well, I was on night number two of three, and I wanted to at least see the strip before I left, and not staying there meant I actually had to make a bit of an effort to do so. It was mid-evening by that point, and Darren appeared to be pretty wasted from a full day of drinking. Steven was getting on pretty well with the new Grindr guy, and I was starting to get a little stir crazy after being the room all day. Realising that I wasn’t going to be joined on over on Las Vegas Boulevard by anyone in my present company, I opened the gay apps and figured out who was nearby. Eventually I got chatting to a guy who was heading to a bar with his boyfriend to meet some friends for a drink. It wasn’t Las Vegas Boulevard, but it was a start. So I bid farewell to Steven and Darren (who was barely conscious by that stage) and set out to meet some new people.

The bar was about a 10 minute walk from the Hard Rock Hotel, and when I got there I quickly found Tony and his boyfriend Sam, as well as a few other friends they were drinking with. The bar was a bit of a dive bar, with pool tables and darts, and it was called The Garage due to the wheel rims and other automobile themed decorations that lined the walls, giving it the feel of an auto-body shop that had been decked out as a 24 hour gay bar. I got chatting with this new group of guys, and it was through this conversation that I learnt more about what it’s like to actually live in Las Vegas, how so many of the residents are performers, or work in some aspect of show business, and how they rarely spend their free time down on the strip. Tony was a writer for both stage and screen, while Sam was a stage performer. They were really lovely guys, and I briefly met a few of their friends as they came and went from the bar in the evening. Eventually, after doing my usual process of explaining my year of travelling and recounting where I’d been so far, I confessed to Tony and Sam that I hadn’t even been over to the strip yet, and that I was keen to check it out. They regretfully told me that they weren’t going to be heading out that way that evening, although Sam was actually going to be in a show tomorrow night, and after a some quick figuring out of a few details, they confirmed that they would be able to get me a free ticket to see the show the following evening.

Considering I had zero other plans, I accepted the offer. They even offered to drive me home that evening too, which was lucky since I had absolutely no idea how I would have gotten back from where I was without getting lost or spending more than I could afford on a cab. So Tony and Sam dropped me off back at Ly’s house, and we exchanged numbers and made plans to meet at the New York New York Hotel down on Las Vegas Boulevard the following evening. It had been an interesting day with some odd experiences and a few crazy characters, and even though I was still yet to make it to the strip, I was thoroughly exhausted. All was dark and quite when I arrived home, and I hadn’t heard from Ly all day, so I just snuck back into the room with the mega mattress and went straight to sleep.

***

I woke up late the following morning and I encountered Chris briefly on his way out, but there didn’t seem to be much going on at the house. Tony and Sam had told me that where I was staying was very close to Fremont St, so since I wasn’t meeting up with them until much later in the evening, I decided to make checking it out my mission for the day.

sign

Not every inch of Las Vegas is neon lights and flamingoes.

Not every inch of Las Vegas is neon lights and flamingoes.

To be honest, I had never even heard of Fremont St before, but they had assured me that it had a very similar vibe to Las Vegas Boulevard, except possibly less crowded. Despite it being nearly winter, the desert sun beat down on Las Vegas as I wandered the awkwardly looking suburban streets until I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with the adult playground that is Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

A semi-circular dome ran along the length of the street. Once underneath it, you could look up to see a psychedelic display of swirling colours in the LED lights. Even though it was in the middle of the day, it had the ability to turn the half-outdoor environment into that “city that never sleeps” casino vibe. There were carnival entertainers, food stalls and trucks, restaurants, bars, and of course the omnipresent casinos.

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One thing that I had heard about Las Vegas was that you get free drinks when you are gambling. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gambler myself, but that was one theory that I was determined to test. So of course, I did what any non-gambler on a tight budget who still wants to gamble would do: I found the slot machine with the smallest minimum betting amount and began whittling away at my change, very, very slowly. Eventually one of the servers came around and asked if she could get me anything. I ordered a bourbon and Coke, and patiently slotted my pennies into the machine until she came back with it. I think I probably ended up spending more on tipping the waitress than I did actually gambling, but needless to say it was cheaper than any other way of getting a drink in Vegas, short of someone turning around and shoving a free shot in your face. I didn’t keep gambling once I had the drink, instead opting to take it with me and wander around Fremont St some more. IMG_4688

It was a fun day, marvelling at the setting that seemed like such a leap from anything considered remotely close to normal. I guess that was the part of the appeal of Las Vegas, but in the end I realised why many people along the way had suggested that if I really had my heart set on going to Vegas, to not spend more than 2 or 3 nights there. Unless you were there with a big group of friends to go crazy with, or had a big enough budget to go and be a high roller at the casinos, there didn’t seem to be a great deal more for a tourist to do. My local hosts had all been pretty absent over the last few days, so I hadn’t really been relying on them for any tips or tricks. However, I still had one night left in the city, which was going to finally take me down to the strip, and my flight wasn’t until later the following afternoon. After browsing Fremont St I headed back to Ly’s to take an afternoon nap. I hadn’t known what to expect that evening, but I’m sure glad that I took that nap – little did I know how much I was going to need it.

***

After just hanging out at home for most of the afternoon, I got myself ready and got on my way to the strip. There was still no one around the house, but I figured out the bus system and found one that would take right into the heart of the action. It took about half an hour to get there, but it was quite an interesting journey, watching the diverse collection of characters all converge and make their way towards the bright lights of the Boulevard. When we finally made it to the heart of the strip, I got off the bus and went the rest of the way by foot. I’d allowed myself plenty of time before meeting Tony and Sam, so I strolled along with my eyes cast upwards, almost memorised by all the neon.

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Caesars Palace.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

Some things I recognised from movies like The Hangover, while others seemed a little less familiar, but it all felt a little surreal. To cross the road in some of the busier sections required you to go into the hotels and casinos and cross using tunnels and bridges that connected everything – a design that I assume was to keep people inside and encourage their gambling as much as it was to keep drunk revellers out of the traffic. I made my way south down the Boulevard, stopping at a fast food shack to grab some dinner and just sit down at take it all in. When it was time, I made my way over to the New York New York Hotel, where Sam would be performing. I met with Tony very briefly, but he said that he still had to go backstage and sort a few things out, so ventured out onto the floor of the casino while we was doing that. The casino down here in the heart of the city couldn’t have been more different than the one I had been to in Fremont St. Whereas that one had felt more like the low budget diner version of a casino, looking relatively cheap and cheesy, the New York New York Hotel was neat, tidy and immaculate, with rows of shiny machines humming away and singing their feature tunes. Most of them didn’t accept cash or change either – you had to go and commit to pre-purchasing the gambling chips to even use them, so I just entertained myself by wandering through the rows of machines, looking at all the different themed slots, and watching the occasional person who seemed to be on a roll.

Inside the New York New York Hotel and Casino.

Probably wasn’t even supposed to be taking photographs, come to think of it.

I eventually met up with Tony again, and we made our way to the theatre where the show was. There were lots of friendly smiles and waves thrown our way from the theatre staff and performers, so I got the feeling that Tony and Sam were very much a part of this family of performers. I was impressed to discovered the show was actually the Cirque du Soleil show called Zumanity, a show that had an Adults Only rating due to its provocative, sensual and sexual nature. It mixed burlesque, cabaret and acrobatics into an amazing performance. Tony and I sat up the very back (since we did get in for free) but I still had an excellent view of the stage, and the show was breathtaking. I would never have thought to come and see a show like this had I not met Tony and Sam, so I was once again pleased that I’d taken a chance and gone out to meet some new people, and found myself in this position.

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

The MC of the show was a fabulous, tongue in cheek drag queen, and it was hilarious to watch her interact with the audience and get them behaving badly, continuing with the seductive theme of the show. However, after the brilliant show was drawing to it’s final moments, I realised something. I leaned over and whispered into Tony’s ear.
“Tony… you said Sam was in the show, right?”
“Yeah, he is,” he whispered back with smile.
“Where is he? I haven’t seen him at all, throughout the whole night!”
“Oh? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I just realised, I never even asked what he did! He-”

And then it all clicked: he was the drag queen MC! I was kicking myself for not having realised it sooner, but the fact that I was completely drawn in by his character was testimony to how flawless she was. Tony was chuckling to himself, explaining that they had purposely not told me exactly what Sam did in the show, so that it would be more of a surprise when I realised. And it had worked – it was the cherry on top of an already captivated performance, and the whole thing completely blew me away.

***

After the show, Tony and I met up with Sam, now completely de-dragged, and they asked if I wanted to join them at another gay bar not too far from the strip, where there were usually a lot of drag queens for the Sunday night shows. Being the happy-go-lucky, ‘I literally have no other plans’ kind of person that I was these days, I said yes, and so we drove over to Club Unity. It was a huge open space with wooden floors and a huge dance floor – it kind of felt like a ranch or a cowboy bar or something, if it weren’t for all the drag queens strutting around. I got a drink with Tony and Sam, and they introduced me to their friend Adrian who they had randomly bumped into. Tony and Sam hung around for a little while, but Sam was feeling pretty tired from the show so they didn’t stick around too long. They offered to take me home if I wanted to, or if I wanted a ride somewhere else before they left. I definitely wasn’t ready to go home, so I thanked them but said that I would stick around here with Adrian and see where the night took me. I was leaving the following day, so I said my final goodbyes to them and thanked them for getting me into the show. It definitely turned out to be a highlight of my stay in Vegas.

I hung out with Adrian at Club Unity for a while, drinking and chatting and watching the drag shows. He was asking about what I had done while I was in Las Vegas, and when I told him that I hadn’t really been out much on the Boulevard, he offered to take me there.
“I mean, if you want to, that is. There’s a few places that would still be pretty busy.”
So back we drove back to the strip, and after finding a parking spot in one of the immense mazes that were the nearby parking complexes, we marched through the casinos with Adrian at the lead, until we were inside The Mirage Hotel. I am under the belief that this particular party has since closed, but at the time, Sunday nights at the Revolution Bar inside the Mirage was a pretty swish gay party. There was usually a cover charge to get in, but apparently we’d arrived late enough that it didn’t apply anymore – I don’t know how that works, since every other bar I’d heard of usually increased cover charges as the night went on, but I wasn’t complaining.

The bar itself was slick and dark inside, with neon blue trim lighting and white leather seating that ran around the edges. While I was getting a drink at the bar, I was approached by a guy standing nearby. He was around my height, darker skinned but blonde-haired. His name was Bruno, he was Brazilian, and he was very charming. He offered to buy me a drink, and I accepted and returned with him to where he and his people were sitting. Which was, of course, in the VIP area. There were a bunch of them, most of them Brazilian, and Bruno told me that they were all visiting from LA. Eventually Adrian caught up with me, looking slightly concerned with the company that I had found myself with. He’d met a friend inside Revolution and was thinking of leaving relatively soon, and he wanted to check if I was okay. I thanked him, but told him I would stay and hang out with the Brazilians for a while. They were the first non-locals that I’d met since I arrived in Las Vegas, and while everyone who I’d met so far had been lovely, they weren’t really in the mood to have a crazy Vegas bender that I’m sure lots more out-of-towners were seeking.

The night escalated pretty quickly from there. We got a few more drinks before some of Bruno’s friends decided that they wanted to go gambling. I think we might have ended up in a taxi… well, we would have had to, because eventually we ended up in the Hard Rock Hotel, where I spent most of the previous day, and was apparently also where Bruno and his friends were staying. We went to the casino to go gambling, and while doing the actual gambling isn’t really my thing, I was more than happy to be Bruno’s arm candy while he blew all his money, particularly because simply being with him meant I also got a generous supply of free drinks. Bruno wasn’t that much older than myself – in fact all of him friends were around our age – but they all seemed to have so much money. Bruno dropped several thousand dollars on the roulette table, and I could hardly believe my eyes as he was placing the chips all over the table willy nilly, or asking me what my lucky number was and betting over a thousand dollars on it. I mean, it would have been even more exciting if he was winning some of it back, but in the end he walked away very much in the red. But hey, it wasn’t my money, Bruno didn’t seem to mind, and we were both still drinking.

Eventually Bruno explained to me that him and his friends were all there on business. I found that… well, it didn’t make me uneasy, but it definitely made me curious as to what they actually did… but in a “I’m not sure I want to know”, ‘innocence is bliss’ kind of way. Whatever they were doing, it was lucrative for a bunch of young gay foreign men in their early twenties. Best case scenario (while still being realisitc), they were porn stars. Worst case scenario, they were part of some elaborate drug smuggling scheme, in which case I absolutely did not what to know a thing about it. There was plenty of evidence to strongly suggest both those options, but in the end I never actually had the guts to ask him and find out. All I know is that they had been expecting to have to work on Monday, but now they didn’t, and so I found myself in a Las Vegas hotel room party with a bunch of gorgeous Brazilian men. Things got crazy. Things got weird. Let’s just say it was an experience of many sensations, and let’s never speak of it again.

I woke up at some point the next day in Bruno’s bed. There were several other people passed out around the room, on the beds, floor and furniture. I remarkably still had all my belongings, but when I stirred and tried to leave, I felt Bruno attempting to pull me back.
“No, stay,” he mumbled from his place in the bed.
“But I have a flight to catch this afternoon.”
“Oh, we’ll take you to the airport.”
“But I have to go back and get my bags.”
“Oh… where are you staying?” He was still half asleep at that stage, probably saying anything he had to in order to made me stay. But I wanted to get back to Ly’s with plenty of time to get ready and still make it to the airport. After all the nightmares I’d had with the Hellhound buses, the relatively stable procedures of an airport would be a welcome change. Luckily I knew exactly where I was, having been at the Hard Rock Hotel with Steven for most of my Saturday, so when I eventually made my out of the remnants of the hotel party room, getting a bus back to Ly’s was relatively straightforward. Dressed quite obviously in last nights clothes, the hot desert sun beating down on me made it quite possibly one of the worst walks of shame I’ve ever done, but given that this was Las Vegas, hardly anyone batted an eyelid.

***

As had been standard throughout the weekend, nobody was home when it came time for me to leave, so I just had to write Ly and Chris a thank you note thanking them for putting me up over the weekend. After quickly showering and changing and packing all my stuff up, I was ready to call a taxi, but unfortunately this was easier said than done. I Googled and called a number, but when I went ahead and gave them my address and phone number, they informed me that I needed a local US number in order to book the cab. They wouldn’t accept my travel SIM card number, no matter how hard to negotiated. I was panicking by this stage, knowing that I was still a fair way away from McCarran International Airport. In the end I just had to wing it, and I strapped up all my bags and took to the streets to try and hail a cab. I wasn’t exactly close to any of the busier parts of the city, and all the cabs that I did see were already occupied. I ended up going into the first motel that I saw, the kind where people rent rooms by the hour, and asked the guy at the desk if he could call a taxi for me. Eventually one showed up, and he turned out to be a super friendly and chatty guy who got me to the airport in record time. With plenty of time to spare, I checked my luggage and collapsed down on one of the terminal couches and waited for my flight. The past few days had been a drunken and sleep-deprived blur, but I boarded that plane feeling pretty satisfied with how everything had turned out, yet absolutely no desire to return any time soon.

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22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

Berghain

“Well, that sucks,” said Dane as we walked down the lose gravel path away from the warehouse, the techno beats throbbing through the walls and bleeding into the night air with a haunting muffled sound.
“Yeah,” I said with a dejected sigh. “I know how much you were looking forward to it too.”
We’d just been denied entry into Berghain, what had commonly been described to me by my friends as one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Germany, possibly the world. Donatella had assured me that it wasn’t really that hard to get into. “Dress down – they turn away people who are really dressed up, or big groups of really obvious tourists, or too many women. Any women in high heels, usually. Two gay guys though, you’ll be fine, you should definitely get in.” By definition it wasn’t a gay bar, but the techno and house music scene that thrived in Berghain usually attracted a lot of gay people.

As we walked from the bus stop, we were giddy with excitement. The night in east Berlin was eerily quite, and as we passed the remains of the Berlin Wall on our way to the club, we joined in with a somber moment of silence. The only sounds were our footsteps, but after a short while Dane whispered, “There… Can you hear it?” The pulsing of the beat was reverberating in the air around us, and I had never felt such a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. The doorman at Berghain was renowned for being incredibly intimidating – part of the reason why they barely ever gave you a reason for being denied entry. A simple “No, not tonight,” was enough to completely shut you down and send you away from the line with your tail between your legs.

Usually the line to get into Berghain on the weekends is massive. Wait times of up to 3 or 4 hours are not uncommon, which makes it even more of a kick in the guts for those who don’t get in. However, my insider knowledge from the local Berliners had informed us that Sunday nights were generally a better time to go – the crowds were better, less tourists, the lines were shorter, and the experience would be a little more… authentic, I suppose. So Dane and I arrived on a Sunday evening, at around half past midnight. We put on our game faces, marched up the path to the door to confront the bouncers.

There was an awkward moment of silence where nothing happened. Usually a bouncer automatically asks for your ID, but this tattooed, skin head, mountain of a man just sort of stared us down for a moment. After a few moments, Dane finally spoke up: “Can we go inside?” he asked rather casually, though I knew he was just as nervous as I was.
“Do you have stamps?” the bouncer asked.
“Ah… no.”
“If you don’t have a stamp you won’t be coming in.”
“Oh…” Dane paused for a moment. “Should we come back later, or…?”
“If you don’t have a stamp, you won’t be coming in.”
“Right… Okay, thanks.” There was nothing else we could do but turn around and walk away. Maybe it was just the cluelessness that radiated from us. Maybe it was because Dane’s accent was too obviously foreign. Maybe it was because my pupils were the size of dinner plates. Maybe it really was just because we had arrived too late, and they weren’t letting any more new people in. It was a disappointing start to the evening, but we took the night elsewhere in Berlin. And luckily for me, it wasn’t the end of my experiences with Berghain…

***

Flash forward to the following Saturday night, Micha’s birthday at Rauschgold, and I was talking to his friends about where I’d been in Berlin, and what I still had left to do. Berghain was constantly being brought up in that conversation – I recounted the story of Dane and I being refused entry, and the general consensus was that we had left it a bit too late for a Sunday night. “You can easily go earlier,” someone said to me. “It’s not like the partying stops during the day.” Back in Sydney, my friend Blythe had told me to go at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, as that was the only time I was guaranteed to get in. At the time I had laughed at the idea of going to a nightclub at that time – I mean, who actually arrives at that hour? But I was finally beginning to realise just how correct she had been. Some of the Micha’s friends said they might even be going to Berghain the following evening, so I exchanged phone numbers with them, glad that I would have someone to face the supremely intimidating bouncer with again.

After stumbling home at 4 in the morning and passing out on my bed, I woke up just before noon to a message saying that the others had decided to skip Berghain because the weather outside was so nice. It was a valid excuse, given that Europe had just come out of a five month winter and no one really knew how long this gorgeous warmer weather would last. But it meant I was left to consider the prospect of visiting Berghain on my own, yet as a solo traveller it was the kind of thing I had grown used to. In the end it became a decision of ‘now or never’. I had already stayed in Berlin an extra weekend for this – I couldn’t afford myself another one. So I jumped on the U-Bahn and found myself back in east Berlin at around 1:30pm, bright sunshine beating down on my back. When I got to Berghain, there was no line to speak of – just two burly looking bouncers by the door: the notorious one from last time, and another equally menacing looking man. I walked up to them and encountered the same awkward silence I had when I was with Dane, but after a couple of seconds the main bouncer spoke to me: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I understood the German, but I had to reply in English, effectively proving my answer as I said it. “No…” I prepared myself for the worst.
The bouncer looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I answered quickly. I was completely sober, but I wonder if they could tell that my whole body was practically quivering with nervousness.
“Do you have ID?” he eventually asked, and I quickly whipped out my drivers licence. The bouncer studied it for a moment, and then looked up at me, handed the licence back, and motioned for me to enter the club.

I was almost in shock. Suddenly there were more faces, people telling me to move here, pay here, get your stamp here. It was all a blur, but I did as I was told and tried to look not quite so clueless. I found myself in a cavernous, dimly lit room where a cloak room was available, and moved out through the following door. I was plunged into a room of darkness and was basically rendered blind since I had come from the bright sunlight outside, so consequently the first thing I did was trip over a milk crate. Yes, a milk crate. All I could see in the limited light was a huge table that covered in dozens of empty glass bottles, a fair few of which had fallen to the floor and smashed. It was hard to register that this was actually a club, when it really did feel like some dirty abandoned warehouse. I stood still for a moment, the reverse of a deer caught in the headlights, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The area I was in was sparsely populated with a few groups of people, so I ascended the stairs and began my exploration.

Berghain is huge. You’d kind of expect that from a warehouse, but I had definitely underestimated the size of the place. After going up the first flight of steps, I reached the main dance floor. It was packed with people, many of whom were decked out in outfits of leather, latex, rubber and denim, as well as being in various states of undress. There were more bare torsos than a Grindr grid, but thankfully all of them had heads. The spirit of kink was very much alive in Berghain, which was part of the reason I had so badly wanted to visit the club. I personally don’t have any affliction with the fetish scene, but working in the fetish store back home had left me feeling like I was still somewhat part of the scene via association. For the first time, I was seeing the leather vests and harnesses that I used to sell in their natural habitat, and I felt a strange sense of pride for these beautiful, perverted, kinky people. Yet I was still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, so instead of diving straight into the crowd I veered to the right and found a bar room that was sort of separated from the main dance floor. I got a beer and sat down on a bar stool, observing my surroundings as I chugged it down. Despite it being very early in the afternoon, I felt far too sober to be in this environment, because from what I was seeing it would have been totally legitimate to believe it was 2 in the morning, the time when most normal people are at nightclubs.

The bar room I was in was relatively empty though, and so I wandered up a nearby staircase… and found myself in a coffee and gelato bar. I know, I did a double take too. Everything else about the room fitted the style of the dank, grungy underground venue, but there in the midst of it all was a gelato cart, long halogen bulbs lighting up a variety of colourful flavours. I spent a few moments pacing around the small room, pinching myself and trying to convince myself that my beer hadn’t been spiked with LSD. I was finally convinced the scene was real, but decided I wasn’t in the mood for ice cream, so descended down the steps and back into the bar. I got another beer, and with it I walked out into the dance floor room and mingled my way through the people. Berghain has a sound system that is in the Top 10 in the world, and when you’re on that dance floor you can literally feel the music. Every beat in the bass line pulses through your flesh, coursing through your bones and blood. The feeling is ecstatic, and you can’t help but surrender your body to the music and become a slave to the rhythm. It was incredible, and while I’m normally not the biggest fan of electronic music, there was something about this place that made it seem like playing anything else would be just wrong. The vibe, the people, the music – everything just clicked. I now understood why they had such strict door policies – if this place became full of tourists, only wanting to see it for the sake of seeing it rather than being a part of the culture, than the whole thing would quickly be destroyed.

Because it really does feel like some kind of ecosystem, a separate world of its own that operates in its own way, on its own time, completely independent of the outside world. And despite the strict selection process it takes for some to get inside, once you’re inside there are basically no rules. The best way to describe what goes on inside Berghain, I believe, is that there’s no one who is going to say “No, stop, you’re not allowed to do that.” As long as you’re not hurting anybody or being violent, you can do pretty much anything you want – with the exception of taking photos, which is completely prohibited. But if you saw some of the stuff that goes on inside Berghain… well, it makes perfect sense.

I made my way up a staircase to another dance floor room, a second space I would later learn to be called Panorama Bar, technically a separate venue within the huge warehouse but often opened up to join with Berghain. There were windows up there, and every so often the automatic blinds would flash open in time with the music and bathe the party goers in the afternoon sunlight, the only hint that the world outside still existed. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Long Island Ice Tea – the beers weren’t kicking in fast enough. As the bartender mixed my cocktail, my gaze turned to the guy next to me, or more specifically, what he was drinking. He had been served a glass of hot water, and proceeded to take the tea bag he had been given and brew himself a cup of tea, right there at the bar. It was at that point that I told myself I really needed to stop being surprised by the things I saw here – I mean, I had stumbled upon a gelato cart! Yet unsurprising, brewing a cup of tea on the nightclubs bar wasn’t the last thing I saw that would surprise me…

As I sat at the bar, sipping my drink, I watched the crowd dancing. It was the weekend of pride, so it was quite obviously a very gay crowd, though I couldn’t say I had any other experience at Berghain to compare it with. But one person in particular caught my eye – a girl, as it would happen. She was wearing a short, black backless dress with an attached hood that was draped over her head like a shawl, though it did little to hide her long, golden curly locks, which cascaded out from the hood to frame her face. Her eyes were closed, and her face had an expression of pure fun and enjoyment as she danced to the beat. Add to all this the fact that she was surrounded by a ring of half naked gay men and I could have sworn I was looking at the doppelgänger of Georgia, my best friend and fag hag from back home in Sydney. I felt an instant gravitational pull towards this woman, so when I finished my cocktail I got up and finally moved onto the dance floor. I danced over to where Georgia’s look-alike was dancing – I didn’t really expect to talk to her or anything, but there was just something about her vibe that was creating a carefree atmosphere, where everyone just danced together with the music.

While she was holding my attention captive, it seemed like I was attracting some for myself amongst a few of the shirtless men in her ranks. Eventually one of them coaxed me into joining them in their shirtlessness, and inevitably there were was some mild fondling and a few stolen kisses on the dance floor. The man in question was a tall, burly and bearded Italian, and on several occasions he even lifted me up above the crowd level while I was in his embrace. He probably told me his name – I don’t recall it anymore – but I remember asking him who the golden girl was. “Her? I don’t know, I’ve just been dancing here with her and these guys.” I just laughed, and felt a little better knowing that this circle of friends seemed to be no more than a collection of beautiful strangers. However, the Italian stallion made a move to leave. “I have to go to the bathroom to take some speed with my husband.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I actually wasn’t surprised about the drugs – crazy party scenes like this are known for having every drug under the sun. But open relationships, and marriages in places where they’re legal, seemed to be particularly common, especially in scenes like this where freedom and liberal sexuality was just a part of life. But when it slaps you in the face like that, a bolt from the blue, you can’t help but feel a little taken aback. I kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, but when he returned a while later he slid past me with a sulking expression on his face. When I finally got a word with him, he said glumly, “Yeah… My husband doesn’t really want me talking to you.” Across the room a spied a short, stern looking Brazilian man shooting me a look so cold it could have frozen Hell over twice. I had no time to deal with jealous husbands, so I left the stallion to the probable shit storm he had brought upon himself.

***

At some point in the afternoon, either during or after the scenario with the Italian and his husband, I had a nap. That’s right, a nap in a night club. I was still fairly hungover from the night before, so I was feeling a little tired. All the levels of the Berghain warehouse complex contain smaller rooms full of couches and seats and all kinds if holes in the wall where people can sit and chill out, relax, and yes, even go to sleep. Considering the possibly of having your possessions stolen while you sleep, it’s not exactly something I would recommend, but it wasn’t exactly something I consciously chose to do either. It sort of just happened. I know that having a nap is probably the least exciting thing that I did in Berghain, but I just wanted to point out again how very little anyone cares about what you actually do in the club. In any club back in Sydney, and most other places I’ve been to in the world, if you look like you’re falling asleep on a couch, security is going to come over and ask you to leave. But at Berghain? Nope, I casually woke up half an hour later to someone asking me if I was okay, curled up on a sofa. Feeling a little disorientated but somewhat refreshed, I stood up and made my way back to the dance floor. In retrospect, sleeping at Berghain is potentially very common – when the doors open on Thursday night the don’t close until Monday morning, and I’ve heard war stories of people who have gone in and come out at both of those times, living inside the club for the whole weekend. Granted, most of them are probably high on ecstasy, but I wouldn’t believe that I was the first person to ever take a short power nap within those walls.

At this point it was getting on into the late afternoon, or early evening. The dying light that seeped through the blinds in Panorama Bar was the only indication that the sun had begun to go down, but it made no difference inside – the partying carried on. I eventually found myself dancing near the girl with the golden curls – much like my friend Georgia, this woman seemed the create a gravitational pull that drew in all homosexuals. Once again she was surrounded by mostly half naked men, but from the other side of the circle, one of the few that was wearing a shirt caught my eye. I glanced his way a few more times, and eventually I caught him looking back. What followed was a ritual I’d been a part of numerous times in numerous nightclubs – the subtle but sure eye contact, the casual dancing to the music while slowly shifting your way through the crowd to position yourself just a little bit closer to them. Eventually we came face to face. He was a little shorter than guys I normally went for – a centimetre or two shorter than myself – but he had a defined muscular jaw with just a hint of stubble, and hair that was cropped short and styled slightly messy. But it was his eyes that got me – they were bright, icy blue, yet there was a fire behind them that lit them up and made it almost impossible to look away from them. It was an instant connection, and it was a short amount of time before shirts came off and lips collided.

We danced for a while, then moved from Panorama Bar to the main Berghain room and danced some more, our bodies being audio-assaulted by the beat. Then this beautiful stranger, leaning into my ear to be heard over the music, asked if I wanted to go down further still to the ground floor. Keeping in mind that that level is where the majority of the clubs hidden dark rooms are tucked away in miscellaneous corners, I enthusiastically agreed. As we descended beyond the levels of the dance floors, and bass lines that coursed through your body, we were finally able to exchange words without needing to shout at each other, and after our first verbal introductions I learnt that his name was Ralf. What happened next, however, didn’t involve a great deal of talking. I have to admit though, that after my experiences in the dark rooms at Toms, I decided that I’d much rather put a face to a name, and then see the face of that lover when… well, I’m sure I don’t need to paint that picture for you. So we took a seat on one of the lower level couches, in an area that was far less populated, but by no means secluded or discreet. On paper it seems like a rather seedy thing to do, yet I was overcome with a ‘when in Rome’ attitude around the fact I was at Berghain – also, Ralf may just have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, so self-control was limited. It was pure, unbridled passion – never mind that by the end we had attracted a small audience. Afterwards, as Ralf drew in for one final kiss, with me flat on my back and him straddled over me, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered in my ear with a playful grin that showed off his perfect smile: “Well look at that – he’s a romantic, too.”

***

I ended up spending the rest of the night with Ralf. We went back upstairs and had a drink – I had another beer while got some water – and sat down in one of the non-dancing rooms and had a bit of a conversation and got to know each other. Ralf, who was German, confessed that he’d been surprised to learn that I myself wasn’t German, and I laughed and told him he wasn’t the first person to think that. Ralf himself was Swiss-German, yet had spent half his adult life in Sweden. After chatting for a while longer, we decided to go and dance some more, and who should we run into again but that mystery golden haired girl. “That girl! Who is she?” I asked Ralf. “You were dancing with her when I saw you.”
“Her?” Ralf replied. “I don’t actually know her. I lost the friends who I came here with… But we were joking, saying she was like the queen of the gays.” That she is, I thought to myself, but as he said it Ralf chuckled and flashed a smile that inevitably led us to another trip to the ground floor, for reasons which need no further elaboration. Returning to the upstairs bar for a drink, this time I decided it was my turn to rehydrate a little. Ralf got a water for me, and a Coke for himself. I must have mentioned something about not eating since that morning, because a tinge of concern crept into Ralf’s expression. “Are you hungry? There’s a garden restaurant downstairs. It’s getting late but it might still be open, they usually have some cakes and things.”
“Hold on… There’s a garden in this club?”
“Well, it’s outside, but it’s still part of the club.” He smiled, stood up and took my hand, leading me towards the stairs. “Come, I’ll show you.”

And so that’s how I found myself in the garden outside Berghain, my head nestled into Ralf’s lap, staring into the starry night sky that had replaced the bright blue sky from when I had entered the warehouse. There hadn’t been any food left, so I just got another beer and we took a seat on the long, wooden tiered benches in the garden beside the club. We continued to talk there, going deeper and deeper into the details of our lives. However, there was one particular topic that would leave a profound impact on me that evening.
“So… you don’t drink, do you?” It was a suspicion that came from the combination of not seeing him order an alcoholic beverage, and seeming… well, not so drunk.
“No… No, I don’t,” he said simply.
“Like… ever? Did you ever drink?”
He laughed at that. “No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic,” he joked. I smiled, and just laughed with him. I know it sounds stupid, but it was probably one of the most shocking things that had happened throughout the entire evening.
“But… you don’t mind other people drinking?” I said cautiously, glancing down at the beer bottle clutched in my fingers. A lot of the non-drinkers I knew were quite anti-alcohol in general principle, so I was having trouble reconciling this characteristic within Ralf.
“Well look where we are – obviously not!” he chuckled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s just, this is the last place I expected to find a sober person!”

The conversation continued on the topic of drinking and alcohol, and it got me onto talking about the drinking culture in Australia.
“I used to shake it off, say it wasn’t that bad. But now… I don’t know, back home I could never go into a club without being at least mildly shit-faced, mostly because I know if I was sober I wouldn’t be able to stand half the people there… because almost all of them are just so shit-faced!” It’s a kind of cyclical trend that can sometimes be hard to pinpoint until you actually remove yourself from the equation and see it objectively. “Here in Germany, and even in Berghain… I mean, there are people off their faces, but everyone still seems in control, you know? We have so many problems in Australia because they get so drunk and lose control. There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.”
Ralf nodded in agreement. “Right, and it was the same in Sweden. Alcohol is so expensive that they drink at home first, and half the time they get so drunk they never even make it to the club. But I think in Germany, if someone was to get that drunk… It’s almost considered rude, or annoying. You know, to be so drunk that you can’t look after yourself. Most people don’t want you around if you’re like that, so if you get that drunk you usually just go home.”
“Yeah, I guess so…” I thought back to many of my nights of drunken debauchery back home, and the amount of times I’d seen friends so wasted that they literally needed help just standing up. “I guess it’s this idea that we can’t have fun unless we’re drunk, and point of the night is to get as drunk as possible.” I redirected my abstract stargazing to look at Ralf in those beautiful blue eyes. “But I guess that’s not always the case here.”
“No,” he smiled down at me. “No, it’s not.” It only occurred to me that while I had had a few beers and a cocktail at Berghain, it had been over the course of many hours, and I myself wasn’t that drunk. Yet I was managing to have an amazing time, even up on the dance floor, moving to the music in the crowds of sweaty people and losing myself to the rhythm and the beat. And I suppose it was rather ironic that here, in a wild club that is known for being full of patrons that are high on one kind of drug or another, I was having the epiphany that you didn’t need to drink alcohol or get absolutely wasted in order to have a good time.

Suddenly a slight wind kicked up, but it was enough to send a chill through my body. I was only wearing a singlet and shorts, so even the warmth of Ralf’s body wasn’t enough to get me by, so we picked ourselves up and moved back inside. On our way back in, I saw two guys standing in front of the extremely intimidating bouncer.
“You’re not coming in tonight,” he said in that firm, authoritative voice of his.
“Ah, okay, so… How do we get inside?” one of them mumbled, a thin brave façade over what was obviously a nervous wreck of a boy.
“Did you not hear what he just said?” piped up the second bouncer. “You’re not getting in!”
Even though I’d been in a similar position the previous week, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself a little, knowing that I’d finally, after the long anticipation, made it inside Berghain.

***

Back inside the club, Ralf and I retreated to the top floors of the complex. We danced some more, but our relaxing time out in the garden had really slowed the pace down a little bit. We moved to one of the smaller adjoining rooms, where lots of people were chilling out and hanging around, and found some space on one of the couches. We made out for a little while, but then ended up lying down and cuddling for a little while, and I eventually drifted off into a light sleep. I think Ralf might have dozed off as well, because we were both startled awake be a commotion coming from above us. I looked up to see a man snorting a line of cocaine from the back of the couch that we had been lying on. He took his time to make sure he got every last morsel, before casually walking away. I looked at Ralf, bewildered. Going to the toilets to take your drugs was one thing, but this guy had very publicly consumed his cocaine for the rest of the club to see. Ralf just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to Berghain.”

We laid back down for a while, but eventually I checked the time. “Wow, its nearly one in the morning. I’ve been here for nearly 12 hours!”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Ralf asked me. I had mentioned that this was the last item on my Berlin bucket list, and that I had told myself I should leave the following day.
“Well, there was a train I was planning to catch”, I said to him. “But I don’t actually have anything booked.” Ralf just smiled, and I already knew that I wouldn’t be leaving Berlin tomorrow. “So I suppose I don’t have to leave.” Once again, Lola’s prediction was echoing in the back of my mind. Darling, you’re never going to leave…
“I would ask you to sleep over tonight, but I rode my bike here,” Ralf said. “But if you did stay, maybe you could come over tomorrow night? I’ll make you some food – you haven’t eaten all day, your mother must be worried about you if you’re not eating right!”

I just smiled and nodded. “That sounds lovely.” At that point we decided to call it a night before we actually did have a sleepover in Berghain. We exchanged numbers and said goodbyes, and Ralf set off on his bicycle as I climbed into a taxi. Despite being petrified about going alone to face the big scary doorman and get inside this legendary club, my first Berghain experience actually turned out to be fun, diverse, enlightening, and in general just simply amazing. I had already fallen in love with the city of Berlin, but my time at Berghain was the cherry on top that would earn Berlin the title of my favourite city for a long time to come.

Weird, Wonderful, Wasted: Exploring Berlin’s Gay Bars

“Robert, do you know what kind of car this is?” Dane said to me, his voice almost quivering with subtle excitement.
“Um… a really fancy one?” I was slightly off my face by that point in the evening, and hadn’t exactly retained my attention to detail.
“It’s a Mercedes,” Dane said as he stoked the impeccable leather seats. He had always had a thing for cars, so after a disappointing rejection from Berghain this seemed to be lifting his spirits. “There are so many taxis around here like this. How awesome is this?!” That’s right, the Mercedes we were in was a taxi, taking us away from the depths of east Berlin on a Sunday night. We had attempted to get into the notorious Berghain, but had been turned away on the grounds that we were too late, and the only people allowed back in were those who had stamps from previous admission.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

Pre-'not getting into Berghain' selfies with Dane.

Pre-‘not getting into Berghain’ selfies with Dane.

So now we were heading back to Motzstraße, the heart of the gay district where Dane was staying. It was the Sunday evening of my first weekend in Berlin, and after my failure of a Saturday night, we had decided we would have one last night on the town before Dane left Berlin. “Let’s just go back to Schöneburg and check out Toms,” Dane had said. “It’s this bar that’s kind of infamous for its dark rooms. Could be kind of interesting to check out, right?” Back in Australia most licensed venues are not allowed to be sex-on-premises venues (SOPV), so there was something of a novelty behind a bar that had rooms that were dedicated solely to meeting and having sexual relations with other patrons. When we finally arrived, we sat down in the upstairs bar area and got some beers. The atmosphere literally oozed of sex, but in a dirty, filthy way, rather then anything refined or classically ‘sexy’ – I suppose that’s a matter of perspective though, but this was far from a cabaret speakeasy or a ‘gentlemen’s club’. There were numerous television screens mounted on the walls – all of them were playing hardcore gay porn. Dane and I both giggled to ourselves at the surreality of it all, and we made eyes with guys as they passed by, though just as frequently dodged glances from those who weren’t our types. While I wouldn’t have minded going to a bar with more of a dance floor, or a setting that better enabled conversation, there was clearly only a few reasons most people came to Toms: cruising, picking up, and hooking up.

After downing a little more liquid courage, I turned to Dane. “Are you gonna go downstairs?” The entrance down into the darkroom looked like a looming cave in the corner of the bar.
“Only if you come with me,” he said.
“What, for moral support? Need someone to hold your hand?” I teased, but in all honesty I was just as curious to check out what really happened down there. I mean, I’ve seen the entire series of Queer As Folk, so I had a pretty good idea, but it’s still something that you really just have to see for yourself. Dane and I are pretty good friends, and weren’t too shy when it came to being naked in front of each other, so we turned out to be pretty good partners in crime when it came to exploring the dark rooms. We descended into the depths with a pact to look out for one another, and each managed to do our own thing while we were down there without ever really straying too far from each others sides. Dane was newly single, and I was… well, I don’t really have a reason, but it’s safe to say we were both a little adventurous when we were down there. But it was fun, albeit a little seedy, and an undeniably interesting experience which served as my introduction to Berlin gay bars.

***

Later on during the week, after Dane had moved on to the next destination in his trip, I decided I wanted to check out some more of the gay nightlife. I was given some advice about where to go by Donatella and Lola and some of the other housemates, but I didn’t have anyone to go with. It was a Thursday night, and I was planning to head to Schöneburg on the Friday night for the opening party of the Christopher Street Day pride weekend, so I wasn’t sure if I should head to the same place or try and find something in a different area. After striking up a few conversations with some guys on one of the various gay chat applications on my phone, I finally found someone who wasn’t looking for casual sex and was also planning to go out for some drinks later. His name was Micha, and it turned out he would be meeting a friend at a bar called Rauschgold, which happened to be less than a ten minute walk away from Donatella’s apartment. He said I was welcome to join them, so I got myself ready and headed out into was what becoming a stormy and rainy evening.

As I scurried inside out of the pouring rain, I was hit with a sensation that I can only describe as the love child of nostalgia and déjà vu. There’s something about visiting that kind of gay bar that can make you feel like you’re right at home, no matter what part of the world you’re in – if that’s the kind of bar you choose to frequent in your hometown, I suppose. It was essentially Kreuzburg’s version of Stonewall in Sydney – rainbow flags and a whole host of other sparkly decorations adorned the walls, the sound system was playing a combination of the latest pop hits and classic gay anthems, and there seemed to be at least one drag queen present at any given moment. Though when I arrived it wasn’t too busy, and I was able to spot Micha fairly easily. He was with a female friend of his, so I introduced myself to them both and sat with them over a couple of beers, but after a while Micha’s friend had to leave to get home to her teenage son.
“No, let’s not stay here,” Micha said when I went to order another beer. “It’s not going to get much better than this. Do you want to see some other better bars around here?” I was delighted that he had offered – locals always know the best places to go – so I took him up on the offer and we jumped in a cab to our next destination.

***

We found ourselves at a bar called Möbel Olfe. “It means furniture shop, in English,” Micha explained to me, “which is what it used to be before it became a bar.” Thursday was ‘gay night’, so other than it being crammed full with men and not a woman in sight, there was nothing overtly gay or camp about the place. There were bits of bare wall behind a broken façade and the drinks list was written on the tiled parts of the wall in a way that would be easily mistaken for graffiti at a passing glance. Then there were high stools and tables made of wood, and a slick wooden bar that was receiving a lot of attention. Throw in a crowd that was rather impeccably dressed, yet packed together like tinned sardines, and the unescapable veil of cigarette smoke that hung above us and the whole scene really just seemed like a mess of contradictions that actually came together to create a really cool bar. “This is a particularly trendy place, I guess.” Micha said as he returned to our table from the bar with our drinks. The room was packed – he literally had to squeeze his way through the tightly pressed crowd to get back to me, and even as we sat there, it was inevitable that we would be bumped and jostled by the stream of people navigating their way through the bar around us.

“Where else have you been in Berlin so far?” Micha asked me. I told him that I’d visited Toms last weekend, and the expression that came over his face informed me that the place indeed had a reputation – one that it had no doubt lived up to.
“I guess it’s an okay bar, if that’s your sort of thing,” he finally said.
“It was more just the novelty of the whole dark room thing,” I said with a shrug. “It’s not exactly the place you can go to have a conversation though.”
Micha let out a small laugh, and slowly shook his head, almost knowingly. “No… No, it’s definitely not.” He motioned around the bar we were in now. “This is a pretty typically Berlin place, though. Sometimes it can be full of… well, they’re called Nylons.”
“Nylons?”
“Yes. It stands for ‘New Yorkers and Londoners’. They’re people who come to Berlin for… Well, they’re people who are like…” Micha cleared his throat, and when he spoke again it was an airy, mocking voice that was quite clearly taking the piss. “I’m over here for six months, working on a project,” with an emphasised snooty tone on the final word. I let out a little giggle, but he continued to explain. “You know, so many people who come over from cities like London or New York, self-described creative types who think its so trendy and artistic to live in Berlin while working… on a project.” I laughed again, but Micha just shrugged his shoulders. “Ah, it’s not that bad. It’s just a more… shallow idea of what Berlin’s all about.” I’d spoken to a couple of locals now, about the kind of people who live here and the kind of people it attracts, so I guess I got where he was coming from. It made me want to avoid being a typical tourist more than ever, though I was glad my own city wasn’t included in the acronym. Though at this point I was yet to meet them, I would remember that conversation the following evening when I met Giles and the other London boys, and have a little chuckle to myself.

***

After a couple of drinks at Möbel Olfe, Micha and I headed out into the rain and around the corner to a third and final bar for the evening, a place called Roses. “It’s a very camp place”, he forewarned me as we approached the entrance. “The walls are… well, they’re… you’ll see.” As we stepped into the bar, I felt like I had been thrown into a funky Austin Powers movie with a gay twist. I understood what Micha had meant about the walls – they looked like an extension of the carpet, covered in long, thick pink fur. I had to resist the urge to stroke it, as though it was the matted mane of some visibly homosexual cat. But the rest of the club was just as eccentric – fairy lights, homoerotic art, quirky and chic furniture. The lights were dim and the room was almost hazy, yet the smell in the air suggested there wasn’t just tobacco being consumed in or around this venue. We sat down after getting our drinks, and I took a sip of mine. I instantly recoiled, making a face as I placed the drink on the table. “Oh my God… That drink is so strong!” That was a big call coming from someone like me, but it honestly felt like I was drinking 2 parts bourbon, 1 part Coke.
“Yeah,” Micha said as he took a careful sip from his own drink. “I’ve sometimes wondered whether they intentionally spike drinks in this place to make people party harder. I’ve have some crazy night after ending up at Roses.” A comforting thought.
“Well, at the very least they’ve spiked it with extra alcohol,” I said as I took another sip.

I wish I could add further details to some more of the conversations I had at Roses, because my vague and blurry memory tells they were quite humorous. I think I met another Australian, a girl who was with a gay friend of hers. Their personalities were somewhere between hipsters and divas, and I think I successfully managed to offend one or both of them by probably being a little too honest about what I thought of them. Then Micha and I also chatted to a Swedish girl who was barely 18-years-old and a complete drunken mess. It was her first time travelling and she just seemed so happy and excited about every single thing that was happening. Which would have been sweet, if it weren’t for the fact she could hardly stand up without resting the majority of her weight on us. Which meant she wasn’t going anywhere, and we were stuck with her emphatic, high-pitched, excited and incessant babbling. Micha left me at one point for a cigarette, and eventually the girl’s 19-year-old boyfriend came to help her, but it very much appeared to be the blind leading the blind as they stumbled out of the bar. When I made a trip to the bathrooms, I was stopped by an American guy. “Hey!” he called into my ear over the music, “I remember you from that other place!”
I stopped to enquire further – I won’t lie, I got a tiny little kick out of already being recognised. “Which one?”
“The… The furniture place,” he said through some mild drunken slurring.
“Möbel Olfe?! Yeah, I was just there with my friend!” I replied, probably also slurring my words due to our obscenely strong drinks.
“Do you know where we can get some…” The guy began to asked me, completely out of the blue. I stared at him expectantly, while he stared at me blankly. He was obviously about as wasted as I felt, probably more. “Do you know where we can get some stronger stuff?”
“The drinks here are so strong!” I exclaimed for the second time tonight.
“No, I mean like-”
Oh!” And right there, I momentarily felt like I was back at ARQ in Sydney, being hunted down by people who just assumed I was the type of guy who would be selling GHB. “Sorry, can’t help you buddy,” I said as I slipped away and continued on to the bathroom.

***

When we left Roses, feeling extremely more wasted than when we had arrived, Micha said he was ready to call it a night.
“Me too,” I agreed. “But first: I need food!” Micha just laughed, ushered us into a taxi, and directed us back towards Rauschgold – conveniently in the direction of where we both lived. Except we got out a little earlier at a place called Curry 36 – and so began what will probably be my life long addiction to currywurst. One of the few original recipes the province of Berlin has to offer to German cuisine, it is now definitely one of my favourites. It’s just a standard sausage cooked in curry spices, but served with ketchup, mayonnaise and a side of chips, it was exactly the kind of food I needed after a night of drinking. Dangerously, it was located just around the corner and down the road from Donatella’s apartment – this would definitely not be the only time I ate currywurst while I was in Berlin.

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

After trying to call Eva – who had our shared key – to no avail, I eventually had to crash on the couch at Micha’s place. We walked back to his apartment as the 4:30am sun was rising, drunk and tired and ready to sleep. I was really happy that I’d decided to go and meet Micha – he was a nice and friendly guy who had voluntarily taken the time to show me the nightlife in his city. As it happened, it was actually his birthday that coming Saturday, and he said I was more than welcome to join him and his friends for the open bar tab he had planned at Rauschgold. Never one to shy away from free alcohol, I wandered on down after the Christopher Street Day parade on Saturday and got to know some of Micha’s friends. They were all lovely, but when they asked me where I’d been in Berlin so far and I mentioned going to the party at Goya on Friday, they all wore the same slightly pained expression.
“Why do you all make that face when I say that!” I exclaimed in my raised octave voice that creeps in after a few too many strong vodkas.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” they would say. “It’s just very touristy. Have you been to Berghain yet? Now that’s a real Berlin experience.”
“Well, I am a tourist – cut me just a little slack!” I laughed. The talk of Berghain continued to intrigue me though. Micha had shown me a bunch of other clubs, but the elusive warehouse party had thus far evaded me. With intentions to leave after this weekend, I was running out of time, but it was one of the few places that I knew I had to visit…

Welcome to the Jungle: Beginning Berlin

After another full day of travelling from Groningen, with brief changeovers in Leer and Hannover, I finally arrived in Berlin. It wasn’t without a delay of over an hour – central and eastern Germany had recently experienced a bit of flooding, which had caused lots of problems for the trains – but not even that could quell my excitement. “Spend at least a week in Berlin”, my friend Dane had told me on one of my last nights in Sydney. “We had a very tight schedule when we went. We were only there for a few days, and it was definitely not enough.” He’d let out a sigh and stared past me reminiscently, eyes glazed over with memories. “You’re gonna have such an amazing time. And the men! They’re going to eat you up, Robert.” Dane was just one of many of my friends who had expressed such sentiments about Berlin, so I was brimming with anticipation as I stepped onto the platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

I was picked up at the main station by Donatella, an old family friend from Australia who, apart from a brief reunion in Sydney back in January, I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. We’d got on rather well at our most recent meeting though, and I was excited to meet up with her again here in Berlin, where she now lived. “You should stay with Donatella when you’re in Berlin,” her father had told me last year when I was telling him of my travel plans. “She’s queen of the clubs over there, she’ll look out for you and make sure you see everything you want to see.” I’d taken it easy during my week in Groningen, partly in anticipation of a crazy weekend with Donatella. And I was in no way disappointed – though I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for what Berlin was about to throw at me…

***

I threw my bags into the car as I greeted Donatella, and was briefly introduced to her friend and housemate Simon, who was driving, and then headed back to the apartment. It was an old style building with large towering walls, and huge rooms that seemed too big for their inhabitants, given that half the rooms only seemed half full with furnishings. “I think there’s like… five people who live here? Maybe six? I don’t know, anyway, here’s your bed.” Donatella had warned me that I wouldn’t have a room to myself – which, after all the hostels and train cabins, I assured her was no problem – so I was introduced to Eva, a Kiwi girl who had been living in Melbourne for a few years and had now just relocated to Berlin, who I was sharing a room with. “Everyone else will be back later after work, except some of the boys who are away for the weekend.” Donatella was a little quirky but very laid back – I’d only been in the city for a matter of hours but I could tell why she enjoyed living in Berlin.

Before I’d arrived in Berlin, Donatella had also issued me a slight warning. “Just so you know… Things can sometimes get a little crazy around here. Like, not all the time and not that often, but there’s always the all-nights and crazy benders where people are up for three days straight. But only ever on weekends – everyone still has jobs, so you know… It’s slightly normal.” Bring it on, was all I had to say. I was no stranger to partying, and if even Donatella was telling me that it was crazy, I could be sure it was a force to be reckoned with.

After settling in and having something to eat, I was introduced to more people as they arrived at the house. Firstly there was Ruth. “Ruth is an original Berliner – born and raised,” Donatella had informed me. “You don’t find too many of them still living here anymore.” Berlin was a city with a very cosmopolitan vibe, thanks to the artists and creative types that came from all over the country, as well as all over the globe, to be a part of what was becoming one of the big places to be within Europe. Ruth worked as a burlesque dancer – of course she did, this was Berlin – and it was during my conversation with her that I discovered why I’d had such trouble trying to find a place to stay in Hamburg the previous weekend. “Yeah, there was a big biker convention. All the leather men were there, Reeperbahn would have been very busy,” she had said. “It’s a shame you didn’t get to see Hamburg, it’s a really fun city,” though after that she shrugged her shoulders. “But hey, you’re in Berlin now,” Ruth said with a smile. It was that very logic that had drawn me straight here rather than attempting another stopover in Hamburg – I’d heard the stories and I just couldn’t wait any longer to discover them for myself.

The last person I met at the apartment that evening was actually an ex-housemate, a woman named Lola. She was also a burlesque dancer – never mind that she was older than my mother though, because she looked amazing! She arrived looking like a pin up girl who had just stepped out of a sailors shoulder tattoo, complete with her waist cinched into a corset. “You said you worked in a fetish store, right?” Donatella asked me. “Lola will be able to tell you all the places like that around here.” And she was delighted to – she rattled off the named of retailers, bars and saunas faster than I could have ever hoped to remember them after a few vodka tonics, though in retrospect I think I checked most of the boxes she listed during my time in Berlin.

Eva had already headed out to meet some other friends, and Donatella had taken leave of our company for a short while – to study, or nap, or something, I’m not sure – so I was left to converse with these three crazy Berlin personalities I had just met. “So where else have you been? What are your travel plans?” Simon asked me as he ashed a cigarette into the tray on the table. I retraced my travel steps, right back to Singapore, and then outlined the rest of my intended itinerary – the plan was to continue further into Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. “Yes, you have to go to Budapest!” Simon had exclaimed. “I’ve got a friend who lives there. She is crazy, I swear will get you wasted every night! But definitely let me know when you’re going so I can set you up.” I was excited to already be making connections.
“And how long are you staying in Berlin?” Ruth had asked, almost ominously. He question hung in the air while I had to consider my answer – after all, Dane had told me at least a week.
“Well… I’m not sure yet. I don’t have any set plans, so it’s flexible… I’m thinking at least a week.”
All three of them shared a rather knowing laugh, and Lola reached over to put a hand on my knee and looked at me with a grin. “Oh darling, that’s what they all say. You’re never going to leave.”

***

When it came to the weekend, there really had been no exaggeration – it was wild. At close to midnight I headed out with Simon and Donatella to a bar and club called Prince Charles. Donatella knew someone, so we didn’t wait in line. Once we were in, the night progressed into a blur of drinks and people and music and making friends in bathrooms, the memory of which only exists through photographs. Eventually the sun began to rise as I sat around the courtyard telling straight men how attractive I thought they were – and then getting overly excited at the simple fact that they didn’t care, and were completely indifferent to my homosexuality. “That’s so Berlin!” I remember telling one of them. “If I was pulling this shit in Sydney I’d probably be dying in a gutter somewhere.”

Making friends.

Making friends.

Eventually Donatella rounded me up and we headed home – with at least 6 other people from the club who I’m not sure anyone had even known before that night. I’d heard of the after party culture in New York, but I figured that anything was possible in Berlin. Because of the early sunrise, it was actually quite bright and well into the morning by the time we fell out of the taxis outside Donatella’s building. I might have had a few more drinks, I don’t remember. The only clear recollection I have is sitting on the floor of the bathroom with some guy I’d never met, trying to have some deep conversation while he asked me to explain all of my tattoos. At that moment, whatever buzz I was feeling died. I looked around the bathroom with… well, not sober eyes. But you know what I mean. “Ugh,” I groaned as I pulled myself off the floor. “Sorry dude, but I didn’t even know you. And I live here, so I’m going to bed.” I stumbled out of the bathroom, into mine and Eva’s room – she was no where to be seen – and crashed on my mattress on the floor.

I woke up at noon. My new friend from the bathroom was lying comfortably on the kitchen floor. Half the people who’d come back from the club with us were gone. They’d been replaced by people who I didn’t recognise, who seemed to be only meeting the permanent occupants of the house for the first time too. I have no idea where they came from, but I just rolled with it. There was a boy and girl, around my age, and I spoke to them for a while.
“You mean you’re not drunk anymore?” the guy had said when I’d recounted my night to him. “How the hell are you still dealing with us right now.” I honestly wasn’t sure if I was dealing with them, but for someone who’d been awake for 36 hours this guy was actually able to hold together a coherent conversation.
“How do you do it?” I’d asked.
“Do what?”
“These benders! People stay awake for, what, three days straight?”
“Oh,” he laughed. “Drugs.” I guess it was obvious, but I hadn’t expected him to put it so simply. We spoke a lot more though, and while I can’t recall his name or anything else about him, he seemed like an alright guy. Like Ruth, he was a born and raised Berliner – it was like discovering an endangered species.

“Berlin needs more people like you, man. Your travels, man, you’ve seen the world! You know what it’s about, what makes Berlin such a great and crazy place. Right now it’s filling up with too many just… Germans!” I laughed at that. “No, but seriously. You should stay in Berlin! It’s an international city, full of people like you from all over the world! Berlin needs you.” At the time, his words seemed like cute drunken ramblings, but by the end of my time in Berlin they would feel like a foreshadowing, the beginnings of a very persuasive argument this city was going to lay on me.

Danish Delights

The day I left Stockholm was actually something of a milestone in my journey – it was the day I activated my Eurail Pass, and began my tour of mainland Europe via train. The type of pass I’d gotten was a Flexi Global Pass, which meant that I had unlimited travel on the European train systems for 15 non-consecutive days within a two month period. It had seemed like the best option for me, given that my own plans were virtually non-existent, and I had plenty of room to be flexible. Though something else exciting also happened that morning – I received my first successful reply to a Couch Request on Couchsurfing! On the website, you can either post public messages or requests to which individual users may reply to, or you can browse through hosts and send them more personalised requests to stay with them. As I checked my emails before checking out of the hostel, a weight was lifted off my shoulders when a guy named Esben had agreed to host me during my time in Copenhagen. I set out to the train station to leave Stockholm with much higher spirits than when I had arrived – I had a place to stay and, most importantly, someone to hang out with upon my arrival. My time in Stockholm had taught me that having company or going solo can make a huge difference in the way you experience a city.

***

Unfortunately, those high spirits were somewhat deflated by the time I reached Copenhagen. After sitting around on a train that had been motionless for almost two hours, listening to numerous non-English announcements, a Swedish woman finally explained to me that there had been a fire on the tracks ahead of us, and that we had been unable to proceed due to a back up of other trains. It was certainly a bizarre, unexpected circumstance, and I’ll never know for sure if it was a train that was on fire, or just the area around the tracks, or something else entirely. All I knew is that I would be late for meeting Esben at the train station in Copenhagen, and he had to work until midnight in the evening. So instead of meeting him beforehand, when I finally got to Copenhagen I lugged my bags into an all you can eat pizza and salad bar and virtually ate my weight in lettuce – it had been a while seen I’d seen fresh vegetables. After overstaying my welcome, I returned to the station and set up camp on the floor, and waited for Esben to arrive.

I was approached by various people, including numerous beggars and a vulgar group of young men, one of whom – when I failed to understand what he said in Danish – told me to perform fellatio on him (using much more vulgar terminology, of course). But then the group just laughed and wandered away, leaving me by myself to sit and wait. I was so relieved when Esben finally arrived – the city hadn’t been making a very good impression so far, but right from the start I could tell Esben was a good guy. He was a gentle giant – tall and broad, but mild-mannered and soft spoken. He showed me which bus to get on, and asked the driver to tell me which stop I had to get off at – Esben had his bike with him, so he told me he’d meet me at the bus stop. By the time we got home and set up the air mattress in the small living room it was nearly one in the morning, but Esben was extraordinarily patient, and only headed to bed himself when I assured him I settled and comfortable.

***

The following day, Esben said he would be able to show me around in the afternoon, but had a few errands to run during the morning. He was, however, able to lend me his spare bicycle. At first I was a little wary – firstly because the last time I rode a two wheeled vehicle had been a disaster, and even managing the quad bikes in Siberia had been a bit of a fluke, and secondly, I knew that cycling was a serious thing around these parts. Counties like Denmark and the Netherlands are interesting when it comes to their topography because they are exceptionally flat. As a result, riding bicycles becomes a highly favoured mode of transport, because its so easy to get around – there’s no steep hills to work you into a sweat on your way to wherever you’re going, and the bike lane systems are so integrated that its actually easier than driving a car. Seriously, the bike lines even have their own miniature traffic lights! It’s a nice change from the usually arrogant and sometimes aggressive cyclists of Sydney, who usually obey neither road rules or pedestrian etiquette. Helmets are also optional in Denmark – I know there’s obvious dangers in that, but it gives the city a totally picturesque and carefree feeling, with hipster girls in their flowing summer dresses and unbridled hair catching the breeze as they cycle through the wide, open streets.

While Esben ran his errands, I busied myself by cycling to the National Museum, and only getting lost once. There was a huge collection of ethnographic displays and exhibits from ancient cultures from all around the world, and the fascinated sociologist in me was able to spend a couple of hours there trawling through the artefacts. The fact they had free WiFi probably helped as well, the Viking and medieval rooms with displays full of weapons, armour, goblets and tapestries even satisfied the Game of Thrones nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Ancient skull - the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

Ancient skull – the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

***

After the museum I met up with Esben again, and we rode our bikes through the city, passing a lot of old and beautiful buildings mixed in with the modern. With a major street named after Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen appropriately has a fairytale feeling surrounding it. We stopped a 17th century church called Vor Freslers Kirke, an elegant looking building with a bell tower that loomed over the city, and was finished with a narrow, spiralling point at the top. Esben and I went inside and climbed to the top – from the final steps, at a height of 95 metres, you could pretty much see the entire city. The land itself was so flat that a tower didn’t need to be much higher than that to get the sweeping panoramas. Esben pointed out some major landmarks and buildings around Copenhagen, allowing me to better familiarise myself with the city and get my bearings for when it came time to do some exploring without his guidance.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

Copenhagen horizon - view from the tower.

Copenhagen horizon – view from the tower.

We pressed on via bicycle to an area that I had been very excited to visit ever since Susanna had told me about it back in Helsinki – the commune at Freetown of Christiania. “They’re a commune that have managed to stay pretty independent from the rest if the laws in Denmark. It’s legal to smoke pot, and everyone there’s a little bit of a hippie – it’s just a really cool and chilled out place.” It sounded fascinating from the first time I heard about it, and when I met Esben he told me that he actually worked in a store in Christiania, so he’d be able to give me a tour of the area. And it was really cool – it definitely felt like I’d walked into a completely different city, which I guess I technically had.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben's shop.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben’s shop.

The local brew in Christiania.

The local brew in Christiania.

There were shops, stalls, cafes and restaurants littered throughout the area. There were mainly unsealed roads and paths through the gardens and greenery that were almost always filled with pedestrians and cyclists – in retrospect, I don’t think I saw a single car in the main centre of the village, if at all in the whole commune. Maybe they’re not even allowed there? I’m not sure. It almost felt like a big festival, the kind that turns into a small village for the duration of the event, except this was a small, permanent village. A highlight was probably walking through the Green Light District. There were only three rules in the Green Light District: no running (it can cause panic and alarm people), no photos, and have fun. The ‘no photos’ rule is obviously the most applicable, because any outsider would see what was inside the district and automatically feel compelled to capture such a foreign world on camera. Esben also told me that while the sale of these drugs goes on quite openly, it’s still technically illegal. I’m not sure if the law just turns a blind eye, or if there really is something infringing their jurisdiction, but within the community it all seemed pretty normal. Christiania displayed a lot of it own laws, including no fighting or physical and no ‘hard drugs’, so I suppose they can’t be accused of actively promoting a hugely rampant drug culture, I don’t even know if I should be saying so much about it on a public platform – I feel like it might be in violation of some kind of code of secrecy, something the mainstream world isn’t supposed to know about without experiencing for themselves. But lets just say that before browsing the stalls and shops that were set up throughout the Green Light District, I’d had no idea that hash and marijuana came in such a wide variety of types, styles, flavours, and any other kind of property. Weed isn’t really my drug of choice – not saying that I have a drug of choice at all – so I was merely an observer as I passed through the Green Light District.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

The rest of Christiania was a little less busy and a lot more mellow. There was an American folk band playing out the front the shop where Esben worked, and we sat and listened to them for a while as we drank a few of the local beers. Afterwards we rode our bikes through the rest of Christiania, which was mainly parks and other areas of greenery. The vibe was so relaxed and chilled out – I could imagine being a regular visitor if I was ever a resident of Copenhagen, purely just to enjoy such an open-minded and chilled out little corner of the world. The following afternoon I even returned by myself, while Esben was at work, to grab a beer and lie on the grass under the warm afternoon sun. At six in the evening the sun was still strong, but the European sun in general doesn’t seem as dangerous as the Australian sun – perhaps it has something to do with their lack of a hole in the ozone layer. I laid in the afternoon sunshine for so long that I think I actually fell asleep for a little while, yet when I woke up all I had was a few tan lines on my feet from slip on shoes. Scandinavia was once again surprising me with a climate that actually allowed for sunbathing.