Man on a Mission

The Alamo is potentially the most well-known tourist attraction in San Antonio due to its place in American history, but just outside of town there are a series of other old churches known as the San Antonio Missions. We had intended to ride our bikes out there on Friday afternoon, but after the Thursday night we’d had, Hector, Nico and I decided we were in no condition to make that journey. On Saturday both Hector and Jay didn’t have to work, so I spent the day hanging out with them. I joined them around town while they ran a few odd errands, but then it was off to see the Missions.

Although there was one stop on the way out there: an open air market, full of all kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and other things for sale, most of it second hand. We pottered around there for a little while, though I didn’t end up finding anything noteworthy or anything I wanted to buy. The highlight was probably the market’s sign:

Fabulous

Fabulous.

After that it was on to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There are four old missions that are found downstream along the San Antonio River, although the furthest one is where the visitors centre was located, so we headed down to the Mission Espada.

IMG_4484

Mission Espada.

Mission Espada.

We went into the visitors centre and gift shop and had quick look around. There was a small cinema that was showing some historical videos, but I have to admit that after the past few nights of partying that I’d had, staying awake in such a dark environment proved difficult, and Hector caught me dozing off a couple of times before we’d made it to the end of the presentation. After that we headed to the next closest church, Mission San José, which was larger slightly more impressive than Mission Espada.

IMG_4489

Mission San José.

Mission San José.

IMG_4495

The missions had all been Catholic outposts that aided the spread of Christianity across the Southwest during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but now they were mostly just historical buildings, heritage listed to as to keep them preserved in their current conditions. There was a room that had been redone as a church inside Mission San José though, but I much preferred just wandering through the open grounds and exploring the secret nooks and long abandoned rooms within the old building.

The modern side of the missions.

The modern side of the missions.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

It was great that I’d had Hector and Jay to take me out to the missions and show me around – my last minute planning and decisions to end up in San Antonio meant that I didn’t really know a great deal about it and hadn’t done much research, and while I’m sure if I’d ended up there without them, every man and his dog would have suggested I go and see them, having a personal guide to the city never hurts.

***

We made our way back into town later that afternoon, and after stopping for snow cones and Tex Mex (Mexican food with Texan influences – although to be honest it’s pretty much the same as what we’d call Mexican food in Australia, which did make me curious as to what real Mexcian food would actually be like), we picked up some supplies for the evening. Hector and Jay had been organising to throw a party at their house that night – I’m not sure if it was a special occasion or not, thrown in my honour, because from what I had seen so far they didn’t seem like the kind of guys that needed an excuse to throw a party.

They really went all out. Between food and drinks and their hilarious friends, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last night in the city. I spent the beginning of the even playing token Australian abroad, answering all the usual questions about my mysterious homeland, then pronouncing a bunch of different things, and including names, so they could hear my accent, as well as explaining the different terms we used for different things back home. It’s kind of weird the things you take for granted about the way you… simply exist, I guess? And you never realise it until you meet someone who’s never met anyone like you.

After eating and drinking came, inevitably, dancing. Apparently Jay used to do drag, so out came a wig and pair of heels too, although no one could really pull off a successful dance move in the heels (but that didn’t stop us from trying). There was lots of laughing and dancing, although one thing that happened that I found rather peculiar, upon later reflection, was the numerous times that I was referred to by some of the guys as “white boy”. I mean, it wasn’t really shocking – I am white, after all – and I wasn’t offended, because… well, I’m white? Most of the people at the party seemed to identify as Hispanic on some level, and I realised that I’d never found myself in a social situation or a group of friends where white or Caucasian wasn’t the most represented racial category. It didn’t bother me at all – it was just funny to be the token white boy for once, instead of the token gay guy.

Shots!

Shots!

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio - beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio – beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

A solid effort and a great night.

A solid effort and a great night.

***

Sunday was my last day in San Antonio, but my bus wasn’t due to leave until the evening, which gave Hector and Jay plenty of time to show me the Riverwalk, the remaining attraction of San Antonio that I had yet to see. Though not before bringing me a refreshing cocktail in the late hours of the morning, while I was printing my bus tickets off Hectors computer.
“Sunday Funday,” he said with a grin. It was savoury, but there was no pickle in it, so I drank it without issue.

If it was late enough in the morning to warrant drinking, then it was probably late enough for lunch, so the first port of call was Quarry Hofbrau, which despite the name, did not actually serve German food. However, they did make some delicious Tex Mex, but the real reason Hector wanted to bring me there was so that I could try their Dos-a-ritas. That is, a frozen margarita garnished with a full bottle of Dos Equis beer. There was a range of different flavours that could be topped off with different beers, but I’d a fan of the classic margarita and I’d been enjoying Dos Equis for most of the weekend, so I stuck to the original Dos-a-rita. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of it, but the frozen margarita keeps most of the beer still inside the bottle, which slowly drains out when you lift the bottle up. So you can let it all pour out at once, or keep topping up the glass with more beer as you keep drinking it. If it hadn’t only been midday, I probably would have ordered another!

Dos-a-ritas!

Dos-a-ritas!

However, after leaving Quarry Hofbrau, Hector and Jay did take me to something else – a drive-thru bar. I don’t mean like the bottle shops in Australia where you can drive through, throw a case of beer in the back of your car, pay and keep going – this place had a menu! They did cocktails! Of course, they’re not allowed to serve “open” alcohol to the cars, so each drink was just sealed in a plastic bag before handing it over. I was part impressed, part amazed, and part terrified as to how this was actually legal. But it was, so of course I ordered another cocktail to go.

***

After all that, we finally headed down to the Riverwalk. The whole concept is really interesting – given that it’s such a popular attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk is almost like a main city centre that is focused around the winding stretch of water. I know that cities build on or around water isn’t exactly unique – I’d been to a few examples myself – but it was still a cool vibe. There were shops and restaurants along the waters edge for miles in either direction. When you walked down any of the staircases that take you to the waters edge, it feels like you’re leaving the upper streets of the city behind and entering some secret, magical world, full of people yet free from traffic, except for the occasional tour guide boat chugging past, wide-eyed tourists taking in the scenery.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk

Boat tours went up and down the river.

Boat tours went up and down the river.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering down the Riverwalk, hanging out and chatting and remembering all the fun we’d had over the weekend. Hector kept asking if I wanted my picture taken with anything – after travelling by myself for so long, I sometimes forget that that’s what people did when they visited foreign cities. I had just resigned to mostly not appearing in my own photos (or taking selfies, of course), so once again it was nice to have someone to take the pictures for me.

IMG_4525

IMG_4522

Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

IMG_4520

After walking a decent length of the cool, shady Riverwalk, we went back to the actual city centre, where we had been on Friday night. I glimpsed the Alamo again, and Hector took me to see another popular attraction, the San Fernando Cathedral. The inside was beautiful when we had a quick peek inside, but given that it was Sunday afternoon and there was a service beginning, as tourists we weren’t allowed to hang around for long.

IMG_4516

San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the nation.

And then the sun was setting, all too soon, and it was time to head back and pick up my bags and make my way towards the bus station. Nico and Daniel met us there, and I said my heartfelt goodbyes to the guys who had welcomed me into their lives for the weekend, and truly made my San Antonio experience an amazing one.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better first Couchsurfer,” Hector said with a smile. “Although I wonder if we’re ever get anyone as awesome as you!” I was so glad to have had a positive experience too, both for me and them. Bad first experiences can really put people off for life, but a good one allows for them to keep a little hope if ever the future ones don’t turn out so well.

I loaded up on snacks, stored my bag in the luggage compartment, and made my way onto the bus. I had been catching the cheaper MegaBus buses up until now, which cut on costs by not actually having an official bus depot, but now I was kicking off on some long haul journeys that MegaBus didn’t cover, so I was boarding the first in a series of Greyhound buses that would be taking me across the Southwest. First up was the long drive across the vast empty expanse that was the rest of Texas. I waved to the guys one final time before the bus pulled out of the depot and chugged away into the night.

Advertisements

The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.

First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.

Bathroom Breakdown

The hostel that I stayed in during my time in Madrid would end up being the last one I stayed in for quite a while, but it was also one of the most fun and sociable hostels that I stayed in during my entire journey. The open layout and the party atmosphere meant that it was incredibly easy to strike up a conversation with whoever happened to walk into your dorm room. After my night out at Studio 54, I stumbled into the hostel with just enough time for a quick power nap before my check-out time. However, it was Monday morning, and the flight to Rome I had booked while I was in Barcelona didn’t fly out until Wednesday evening. I had two more nights left in Madrid, and since I hadn’t found anyone who had been able to put me up for those final nights, I had to try and book into the hostel again.

“We do have some room,” the guy working at reception said to me, “but…” There’s always a ‘but’. “You’re going to have to switch rooms. The bed you’re in now has been assigned to someone else.” I have no idea how their booking system works, or why they put particular people where, because I ended up moving from a full four bed dorm to an empty one, but I was way too tired and hungover to care. It actually worked out perfectly – I just dragged everything down the hall, down one flight of stairs, and into my new empty room, where I spent most of the day having a prolonged and much needed siesta. Later that evening, I was graced with the presence of some new roommates. Rachel was a girl around my age from Missouri, and she collapsed onto one of the bunks in an exhausted heap as soon as she arrived. She’d been travelling with her brothers and cousin, and now Rachel and her cousin Talon were in Madrid after being at the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona. We got chatting straight away, as she unpacked the mess that was her backpack and began sorting out all her things. I have to say, despite the reputation that American travellers have as the typical “stupid American tourists”, they were ultimately some of the nicest and friendliest people that I met during my time in hostels. Rachel and her traveling family crew had been all over Europe via train as well, so we shared stories and experiences and before long it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. She was exhausted at that point, but we made plans to meet up later for a drink at the hostel bar.

***

I headed out to have some tapas for dinner, and drink a small bottle of wine that was served not with a wine glass, but a large shooter glass… okay then. Very confused, I took my shots of red wine while I contemplated what my next move was going to be. I had my flights to Rome booked for the following evening, but absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got there. During my down time over the last few days, I have been frantically searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Rome. It was high season in Europe at that moment, and I had made the horrifying discovery that almost all of the hostels and accommodation within my price range were completely booked out. It was exactly like my arrival on that Friday night in Hamburg, except this time I had sufficient time to search for alternatives on Couchsurfing. I wrote over a dozen long, personalised requests to hosts from all over Rome, but I only ever received replies from about a quarter of the people I contacted, and none of them were able to host me while I was in town. It seemed a little strange, given the size of the city, and by Tuesday evening I was stifling the rising panic inside myself.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

After a few deep breaths and a final shot of shiraz, I headed back to the hostel to meet Rachel and Talon for a beer. I found them on the rooftop with a pitcher of beer, and the warm evening air was giving way to a cool change that blew through the balcony. They were sitting with a pair of brothers, also around our age and also American, and the five of us sat around chatting, only moving to take cover under the large cloth shade umbrellas when a brief but heavy downpour of summer rain bucketed down on us. After a couple of pitchers of beer, Talon decided that he wanted churros, the traditional Spanish doughnuts, and so we headed out into the streets, the smell of rain on the hot asphalt filling the air. We got a dozen churros and a bottle of chocolate dipping sauce to go, and walked on up to Puerta del Sol, where we saw crowds of locals and tourists alike, hanging out in the square doing tricks on their skateboards, or playing instruments and busking for money. We sat by the edge of the fountain and watched the world go by. It was there, relaxing in the plaza with my new friends, that I didn’t feel so bad about the way I’d spent my time in Madrid. I had done minimal sightseeing – there hadn’t been any major sight or particular attraction that I had wanted to see, and I had passed up every opportunity to visit museums. But I had been partying like crazy – for me, Madrid was a city that you do, not a city that you see. I had spent almost my whole time in the streets amongst the people and the nightlife, and as I reflected on my stay in Madrid, I was incredibly satisfied with the experience I had had, and my time spent in the city. I’d made friends, both locals and other travellers, and I had done things that no admission price could have bought me.

***

I had fun in Madrid, but my time spent there also took its toll on me. In my attempt to make up for the failed nights out in Barcelona, I had managed to go out drinking and partying every night for over a week straight. That, combined with the unanticipated lack of Couchsurfing hosts and the spending on accommodation in the last few cities, threw my budget a little out of whack, but the biggest blow the week of partying in Spain had dealt me was to my health. A week of excessive alcohol consumption, lack of sleep and very little nutritious food left me feeling like something of a train wreck come Wednesday morning. It was a combination of a summer cold and mild malnutrition, coupled with the stress and anxiety that it was now less than 24 hours until I was due to land in Rome and I had absolutely no idea where I would be going after that. I had secured a single night in hostel in town, which was a long way from the airport I would be arriving in at approximately 11pm. I had to check out of my hostel room in Madrid at 10am when my body was telling me “Lie the Hell down, you exhausted idiot!”, so there I found myself, sitting alone on a sofa in the common room of the hostel, searching desperately through Couchsurfing profiles, scared and alone.

I’m not really proud of what happened next, but I’m going to tell you, because it was actually somewhat of a milestone in my journey. I had a bit of a breakdown. I went into the  bathrooms, locked myself in a cubicle, sat down, and cried. Not just cried – I sobbed, balling my eyes out into my palms and wiping my nose on my sleeve, to little avail given that I was already pretty physically sick on top of being an emotional mess. And I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was that cracked me – sure, there had been a couple of disappointments and a few close calls and rather scary or stressful incidents, but for the most part my journey had been an incredible experience that was overwhelmingly positive and fun. I suppose I could put it down to the deterioration of my current personal situation – if something in the outside world of my surroundings goes wrong, it’s not difficult to come up with a plan or solution or something else to fix it. But as soon as my body began to be the thing that was going wrong… Sometimes we’re not as tough as we think.

I also felt a bit lonely, which seems a little paradoxical. Physically, there were always people around, and aside from sleeping I very rarely had time to myself – and in the hostel environment, sometimes not even then. But it was the familiarity of close friends that I was starting to miss. Meeting new people every day was an amazing experience, and it’s always fun to get to know people and start fresh with that kind of thing, but there are days when things begin to catch up to you, and all you want is that friend who knows exactly what you’re thinking without you having to say it, knows exactly what’s wrong without having to ask it, and knows how to make you feel better by seemingly doing nothing at all. Ever since leaving Ralf behind in Berlin, this trip had been a crazy whirlwind of faces coming and going – and I guess somehow it all became a little too much. I wouldn’t exactly  say I was homesick – Hell, I knew I was doing a lot more fun and exciting things here than I thought I was ever going to do back home – but I was definitely tired, and in dire need of some of the more homely comforts that are hard to come by while on the road.

Sometimes I think everyone just needs a good cry. Whether the matter is trivial or life-altering, sometimes things just upset us, and the straw that breaks the camels back is enough to burst open the waterworks too. People might think it’s a sign of weakness, but afterwards you sometimes feel significantly better. I sat there for a little while after the heart of the breakdown, sniffling and wiping the tears from my cheeks, but in the end I got to the realisation that no one was going to come looking for me. No one was going to notice I was missing from the common room and ask if I was okay. I’d seen no sign of Rachel or Talon that morning, but to be honest I was glad that they didn’t see me post-cubicle breakdown: it wasn’t a pretty sight. I was on my own. But now, as the emotional storm was clearing, being alone wasn’t such a scary thing. It was a challenge. I’d been accosted by a shady monk in Thailand, I had survived motorcycle accidents in Cambodia, I’d had money scammed right out from under my nose in China, and I survived as an openly homosexual man in Russia without getting arrested, or worse. I’d made it through a lot worse: was I going to let a mere week of partying be my undoing? Not a chance in Hell!

With new resolve to take better care of my body and an optimism that I would overcome whatever obstacles my travels had in store for me, I emerged from that cubicle a better man. I could have easily left out this chapter of my journey when telling this story, but I think it’s important for anyone who is thinking of travelling, to let them know it’s not always a walk in the park. It’s not always a holiday or a vacation. Sometimes things go bad and it really sucks and at that very moment you really wish you weren’t there, that you were back home, or some place else a little more comfortable. And that’s okay. Because thats why we – or why I, at least – choose to travel this way. It pushes you to your very limits and faces you with challenges where you really have no choice but to overcome them. My little emotional breakdown was a milestone in that it taught me the true value of character building that comes with extensive travelling. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.