“Reto, reto, reto!”

After the first few nights out on the town in São Paulo with Fausto and his friends, I guess you could say that I was feeling a little more confident about the way I could handle myself in the city. Despite that, I was still a little thrown when Fausto had asked whether I was going to head out on the Sunday evening, this time by myself.
“Are you gonna head out tonight?” he asked me in the early hours of the evening. “I have to go to work tomorrow so I can’t join you, but there are a few cool places that have things going on tonight.”
“Oh… I… I hadn’t thought about it.” Truth was, I was still a little terrified at the thought of going out on the streets at night by myself. Which, in retrospect, seems pretty ridiculous given the amount of foreign cities whose streets I had drunkenly traversed on this journey so far.
“Well, it’s up to you, but if you do wanna go out I could give you a few recommendations.” After mustering up some courage and confessing I might be interested to check something out, Fausto told me about a club called A Lôca. “It’s a little more grunge, with a slightly younger crowd – definitely your type of place, I think.” I checked it out on the map: it wasn’t too far away from where Fausto lived, though I would still have to get a cab, but it seemed straightforward enough that I would definitely be able to find my way home at the end of the night.
And that’s how I found myself showering and getting dressed up – but not too dressed up, as per Fausto’s recommendation – and hopping into a cab by myself to find my way to this mysterious A Lôca.

***

I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous about going out on my own. I had been practicing a little bit of Portuguese but there’s no way I could speak it on any practical level – with the essential exception of ordering a beer – and I was diving headfirst into the complete unknown, with absolutely no safety net in sight. But hey, no one bothers writing a blog about staying at home, right?

When I first stepped out of the taxi, I thought that I must have been in the wrong place. In the dim street lights it was hard to clearly make anything out, but there wasn’t anything that looked like the entrance to a club… and that’s when I noticed the cave. I’m not even  exaggerating, the entrance to A Lôca was a cave. Granted, I’m not sure if the rock walls were real or artificial, but I immediately understood what Fausto was talking about when he had described the club as underground grunge. The was some dim lighting around the entrance, where my ID was checked and I was handed a piece of cardboard. I studied it for a few seconds before realising that this piece of cardboard was the A Lôca version of the electronic tab cards I had used at Lions and Club Yacht. I folded it in half and tucked it into my front pocket, knowing very well it was just as important as any electronic tag in eventually getting myself out of this place.

A Lôca seemed to take the term ‘underground’ in a very literal sense – the hallways were fashioned into rough, earthy looking tunnels so that it actually felt like I was inside a underground mine or dungeon. It was like a maze, with openings to different rooms appearing out of no where, and twists and turns obstructing your view ahead. I happened across a bar, which I tentatively approached as I pulled out my piece of cardboard again. I must have looked like a foreigner, because immediately someone asked me where I was from. I looked up to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and he explained how the whole card system worked. The card was a checkerboard of different drink values and prices, and rather than electronically recording all your purchases, the bartenders simply checked off the equivalent value of whatever drink you ordered, and at the end of the night the cashiers at the exit would tally it up and charge you accordingly. Essentially just a more archaic version of the same system, although I was highly concerned at how much easier it could be to lose a simple slip of paper.

I got myself a beer – Skol being the local favourite in this bar – and continued through the maze. I followed the largest tunnel until I arrived at what was undoubtedly the main dance floor. I’d arrived relatively early, around midnight, so the dance floor was only slowly starting to fill up. The music was a diverse mix of pop hits, 90s classics and deep house, with a traditional Brazilian song here and there, but it made for an interesting sound. I just made my way to the floor and started dancing on my own, and I was approached by a handful of people and had short, fleeting conversations with many of them. I had some guys telling me to stay away from certain guys, which at first I thought seemed quite threatening, but the evil eye looks they were giving each other made it clear that there were just social circles at play, or potentially scorned ex-lovers – I guess gay drama knows no language barriers or culture shocks. I did my best to steer clear from anything like that, and just enjoy the music and the more light-hearted people within the crowd. I think I ended up dancing with some American tourists for a little while, who didn’t say much but were more than happy to bust a few moves with me.

There were also a couple of drag performances that evening. The first one was… well, she was entertaining, I suppose. But not so much in a “Wow, what a show!” kind of way, but more in the ‘car crash in slow motion and so horrible to watch but I can’t look away’ kind of way. She was more like a court jester – something silly to warm the crowds up before the main event. I mean, it was really just her twerking in a bunch of various positions, and getting offended and slapping one of the boys whenever they tried to jump up on stage and cheekily join in, often accompanied with lewd gestures.

The warm-up act...

The warm-up act…

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

The main event, however, was something else entirely. It was a full-blown drag performance with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme set to Lady Gaga’s Applause, which had only been recently released at the time. As a big fan of the drag performers and shows in my own city, it was pretty satisfying to see another quality performance from another city around the world.

The better drag queen of the evening.

The better drag queen of the evening.

***

When I’d started to get a little tired of dancing, I made my way back through the twists and turns of the cavernous club to where the bar was located. I had another beer and then took my place against a wall, watching the people come and go, observing the different types of characters and just generally people watching. Occasionally there would be a little bit of eye contact, but usually nothing more than a fleeting glance. However, that all changed when I met Rodrigo. He was slightly shorter than me and had gorgeous tanned skin, and I noticed him stealing glance after glance at me between his conversation with his two female companions. It was obvious I was there by myself, and in no time at all the trio approached me and asked me where I was from. I guess it was also really obvious that I wasn’t a local, but in this case it had made it pretty easy for them to approach me and strike up a conversation, so I wasn’t complaining. Rodrigo introduced himself and his friends, Rita and Ducky.
“Why Ducky?” I’d asked, legitimately perplexed. I’d had to direct the question to the others because Ducky didn’t speak English.
“Because,” Rodrigo and Rita tried to explain between fits of giggles, “Well, don’t you think she looks a little… like a duck?” I didn’t know if there was something I wasn’t getting, but I just laughed along as they playfully teased their friend. She didn’t seem to find it quite as funny, but in the end I discovered she was the designated driver, so no one is ever really that impressed to be in that position.

My new amigos.

My new amigos.

I spoke to them for a while, and after a few more beers and a few more flashes of Rodrigo’s cheeky smile, the two of us were all over each other. I don’t know for exactly how long that lasted, but eventually Ducky was rambling about something in Portuguese, and Rita translated. “We’re going to go salsa dancing!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Yeah, do you want to come with us?” Rodrigo asked.
“Yes! Come, come!” Rita said with a smile. Between the kisses with Rodrigo I had been laughing and joking around with the three of them, and I was having far too much fun to just throw in the towel now. “Ducky is driving, but don’t worry she hasn’t been drinking.”
So I agreed, and after fishing our pieces of cardboard out of our pockets and paying for the beers, Rodrigo grabbed my hand and led me to where Ducky’s car was parked.

The two girls were in the front, and I climbed into the backseat with Rodrigo. More making out ensued, but it wasn’t until we were actually well underway and driving that I came up for air and actually paid attention to where we were, or more importantly…
“Wait… where are we going?” I said, the gravity of the situation mostly masked in my mind by the alcohol, adrenaline, and probably a few hormones.
“Salsa dancing!” Rita yelled, throwing her hands up in the air. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” From the looks of it we were on some kind of overpass or highway, so at that stage I didn’t really have much of a choice but to stay with them.
Ducky asked something in Portuguese, and the others began replying. Rita was being a little more helpful, but Rodrigo was just yelling out the word ‘reto’ (pronounced “heto” for native English speakers) over and over again. “Reto! Reto! Reto!”
“What’s she saying?” I asked Rodrigo, once he’d stopped shouting.
“She’s just asking which way to go,” he said with a cheeky smile.
“Oh… well, what’s ‘reto’?”
“It means forward. Straight head. Keep going.”
“Oh… I see.” I don’t know what came over me – well, beer and a sense of bravado, obviously – but at that moment I stood up in the back of the car, stuck my head and torso out through the open sunroof, and screamed at the top of my lungs: “RETO! RETO RETO!”

Down inside the car, everybody fell about laughing, and the directions-turned-war cry became our temporary anthem, screaming the word over and over even as Ducky made the necessary turns to get to wherever it was we were going. Eventually we arrived at a bar – I have to admit, when I took a moment to take in my surrounds, it looked like we were just off a highway in the middle of no where – but unfortunately it looked like whatever salsa dancing that had been going on was starting to wrap up. It looked like the night was coming to an end. We all stopped to pee in the service station next door – me praying that my newfound friends actually were my friends, and weren’t going to drive off and leave me stranded. But they didn’t and suddenly, as I climbed back into the car, I was faced with the questions of: ‘What am I going to do now?’ and ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’

I tried to explain to Rodrigo where I lived, but instead he offered for me to come and crash with him and Ducky and Rita at Ducky’s place. “Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?”
“Well…” I was on holidays, after all. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Perfect,” he said with a gorgeous, playful smile. “Me neither.”
And that’s how I ended up with these three crazy, gorgeous Brazilians, singing and shouting all the way home – “Reto! Reto! Reto!” – and taking selfies in the elevator of a rather nice apartment complex. After getting some water into us and raiding Ducky’s fridge for snacks, the girls retired to Ducky’s room and Rodrigo and I attempted to sleep on the couch. There wasn’t really enough room for the two of us though, so Rodrigo suggested that we should sleep in the other bedroom.
“There’s another bedroom?” I said with a laugh. “Well, um… duh. Let’s go there, then.”

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

Things got a little weird when we opened the door to a full-blown child’s bedroom, complete with city map carpet for playing with toy cars and Disney’s Cars bedspread with matching curtains.
“Umm… ” I stared at Rodrigo, literally having no words to express my current feelings.
“This is her son’s room,” he said, stating the obvious but seemingly oblivious to how shocked I was.
“So… where is the kid?”
“With his father, of course!” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t have the energy to ask any more questions about the complexity of that situation, but I will say that sleeping in the same bed with a guy that you just met, in the bed of child that you’ve never met, leads to a mild crisis of ethics and morality the morning. It felt pretty wrong, but hey, what he never knows will never hurt him.

***

In the morning, both Ducky and Rita had to get up early to go to work, so when they did Rodrigo and I made the shortest walk of shame in history, from one bedroom to another. We spent the rest of the morning there, sleeping in and hanging out. Eventually I heard someone walking about the apartment outside the bedroom.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the maid,” Rodrigo said. This wasn’t uncommon in Brazil – Fausto also had a cleaning lady – but it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the continually mounting pile of weird upon which I was sitting. But there was nothing I could do except roll with it, and trust that Rodrigo would somehow manage to eventually get me home.

My phone had died during the night, but luckily Ducky had a charger at her house. When the screen finally flashed to life, I had a message from Fausto asking where I was.
“Hmm… that’s a good question… Rodrigo, um… were exactly are we?”
“Well… we’re not in São Paulo anymore,” he said.
I looked at him, an incredulous on my face. “Excuse me, what?”
“We’re not in São Paulo anymore. We’re in São Caetano do Sul.”
“And where the hell is that?!”
Rodrigo just smiled and laughed. “Well technically it’s the next city over from São Paulo.”
I relayed this answer to Fausto, he told me he had no idea where that was and he would ask one of his co-workers. Um, what?! I felt like I’d gone clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney and somehow managed to end my night in Parramatta, or gone partying in Manhattan and woken up in New Jersey. Except people still know where New Jersey is!
It turned out that São Caetano do Sul was still technically part of the metropolitan São Paulo region, in the same way that the international airport was, meaning that it wasn’t really far but… it definitely wasn’t close.
“How can I get home? Do you have a car?”
“No… Rita works in São Paulo, but… well, she’s already at work.” He grinned sheepishly, and I realised that short of pointing me in the right direction, Rodrigo was not going to be able to take me home.

It was a bit of a sticky situation, but I didn’t have anywhere to be so I didn’t let it stress me out too much. Assuring Fausto I’d be home as soon as I could, Rodrigo and I ventured out of the bedroom to find Ducky’s maid cooking lunch for us. I was about to politely decline and start my journey home, but as it turned out the maid had including my clothes in a load of laundry she was doing, so I was forced to stay and eat while waiting for my clothes to dry. The whole thing seemed a little surreal to be honest, but the food was delicious and it was actually nice to put on some clean clothes – that were actually own, too! – for the journey home to São Paulo. There was no reasonable or logical public transport options that were going to take me to where I needed to go, so once again it was up to the Brazilians best friend – a taxi – to get me home. Rodrigo helped me order one that could take me that distance, and helped explain to the driver where I needed to go when the taxi finally arrived. He flashed me one last cheeky smile as he bid me farewell, and with our parting words I promised to match the hospitality I had received should he, Rita or Ducky ever find themselves in Sydney. The taxi wasn’t even that expensive – though it took almost an hour to get home, it cost about a third of the price that a similar trip in Sydney would have cost.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

I didn’t get a chance to see Rodrigo again during my time in Brazil, but in the taxi ride home from São Caetano do Sul I did see a variety of different environments and neighbourhoods, all of which made for quite an interesting trip. And though I’m yet to meet them again, I would never have guessed that the night that I chose to venture out in São Paulo by myself would be the night that I found the most amazing friends, had the most wild and crazy fun, and created some of the best memories.

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O Canada: Day Trip to the Capital

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

Ottawa Station

Ottawa Station.

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

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Senate chambers.

The Senate chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The Commons chambers.

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

Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stuart admiring Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

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

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

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

The Centennial Flame.

The Centennial Flame.

A "pro-life" sign.

A “pro-life” sign.

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

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

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

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

***

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

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

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

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

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

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

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

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

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

 ***

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

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

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

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

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

3… 2… 1…

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

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

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

Land of the Free: paying a visit to the lady of Liberty Island

My time in New York was a pretty healthy balance of tourist activities, slightly less touristic and more local activities, and things that were relatively mundane. Having just moved into Melissa’s apartment with her, we did things like grocery shopping and, once the girls who had previously lived there came to pick up their stuff, we even had to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy a couple of blow up mattresses. Melissa had her own bed that would be coming soon, plus a couch and a wardrobe and all those kinds of homely things, but there was a period between “out with the old” and “in with the new” that we found ourselves living in a pretty bare studio apartment. It was kinda fun, though – like a slumber party or something. I also had to take care of some administrative issues: getting into the country had been a large hurdle that I’d overcome, but while booking my flights to Brazil I realised that I was going to need a visa before I headed down south. As it happened, the Brazilian Consulate in New York was literally a few blocks away from Melissa’s new apartment, so after printing off and filling out all the forms I got up early one morning to stand in line and file my application. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to be without your passport in a foreign country, but there was no other way I was going to get the visa, so it had to be done. I had also got in touch with Fautso in São Paulo, who had agreed to let me stay with him, so that had all turned out pretty much perfectly.

***

The first really touristic thing I did, however, was visit the Statue of Liberty. As it would happen, a friend of mine named Lexi was actually in the city at the same time, visiting her family who lived out on Long Island. Melissa was mostly busy with school, and I would never want to be the person to drag her out to see all the sights that she’d probably seen at least a dozen times before, so it been perfect timing when Lexi had got in touch and asked if I wanted to see some of the sights with her. We’d agreed on the Statue of Liberty, although we were a little disappointed to find out that tours that take you right up to the crown of the statue were booked out up until November, but we were still able to book a regular visit to the island in a decent time frame. In retrospect, we were actually quite lucky – soon after my arrival in New York, the government shutdown happened, and all government run attractions and activities, such as the Statue of Liberty, were closed. If we had put off our visit by any more than a week, I probably would never have made it there, since the shutdown was in effect until the day after I left New York City for the final time.

So after meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library, on a slightly humid and muggy morning, Lexi and I set off down Manhattan and took the subway to Battery Park, from where the ferries to Liberty Island departed. All around the dock there were street workers dressed up as the statue, selling toys and other tourist trinkets, and posing for photos. When we finally boarded the ferry, Lexi and I found a good spot to sit to get some good photographs as we approached the island, and we sat around and chatted. We weren’t exactly close friends, but I’d been to my fair share of parties with her during my adolescence, so we had a small collection of hilarious mutual memories, and our conversations always proved amusing. As we crossed New York Harbour and approached the island, the passengers from the ferry began to stir, moving around to get the best lighting on their photos of Lady Liberty. I remember my first thought actually being, Wow… it’s not actually that big. As impressive and iconic as the structure appears visually, it is minuscule compared to all the skyscrapers that had surrounded me for the past few days in Manhattan. The sculpture itself stands 46 metres tall, but the pedestal on which it stands is almost the same height, making the entire structure 93 metres tall from torch tip to ground. Which is big, I guess, but I had been in Manhattan for a little while now.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

When we arrived, every passenger was given a free audio tour, and we learnt more about the structure as we made our way around the island. The Statue of Liberty is actually a representation of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. It’s a symbol of freedom that now sits in the harbour, supposedly welcoming immigrants arriving from abroad. For the temporary foreigners, though, it really just screams “Photo op!”
And we were no exception.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

And of course, a selfie.

And of course, a selfie.

After we’d finished being tourists outside, we headed inside… to be tourists again. We had tickets that allowed us to go up to the pedestal level, just below the feet of the statue. It was still almost 50 metres high, and since were in the middle of the harbour, it afforded us some nice views. Or would have, if the weather had been a little bit better. Gazing over the harbour from our vantage point, Manhattan appeared to be covered in a smoggy haze. It looked odd, and almost reminded me of the smog and air pollution in Beijing, but then I figured that that is probably pretty normal for such a massive city. It was a pretty overcast day, but I couldn’t put the poor of visibility down to simple fog or low clouds.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

We also wandered around the exhibitions, learning more about the history and soaking it all in. One thing that was particularly intense was the security measures that were in place inside the actual structure. Our bags were screened and X-rayed on the way in, and then we had to check them into lockers anyway before we were allowed to head up. At first thought I suppose it seems a little excessive, but I think the idea of freedom that the Statue of Liberty embodies is tied quite closely to the American military, who fight to protect that freedom, I guess. So with that in mind, the security procedures just some across as some ordinary military protocol.

***

After eventually getting the ferry back to Manhattan, Lexi and I were wandering through Downtown Manhattan and looking for a place to eat lunch when we strolled quite close to the Freedom Tower, the new building that stood near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre buildings had stood prior to September 11th, 2001. It was only at that point, passing the site of such recent historical significance, did I realise that the date that day was September 10th. I had hoped that I might have gotten a glimpse of the memorial site that afternoon, but the entire place was on lockdown as they were preparing for the anniversary memorial service that would take place the following day.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

I’d thought about going down to the memorial the next day – the fact that I happened to be in New York City on the twelve year anniversary of that tragic event felt like a sign at first. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that maybe it wasn’t really my place to attend such an event. The last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a ceremony by attending it for such novel, touristic purposes. Not that I would have ever treated it that way, to be sure, but at the same time I felt that it would be a moment that was for Americans, and I should leave it to them.
“It’s a pretty significant day for New Yorkers,” Melissa had told me when we discussed the topic later. “I mean, for all Americans, but particularly in the psyche of New Yorkers, and people from around here, ya know? Almost everyone knows someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was affected by what happened.” Upon reflection, even as a nine-year-old, I remember exactly what I was doing when I learned the news about the 9/11 attacks, and I was on the other side of the world, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the tragedy first hand.

So all in all it was a day full of American patriotism and reflecting on symbols of their national pride, and knowing when and when not to be a tourist. I’m not sure what I did on September 11th – possibly went to the movies? – but it was something low key and local, while I left the real locals to their memorial and their prayers.

 

Swiss Secrets

After a long day of trains and transfers, from Ancona to Bologna, then Bologna to Milan and from Milan to Zürich, I finally arrived in one of the biggest cities in Switzerland, which in reality felt more like a large town than a small city. It was an exhausting day though – one of the most tiresome things about travelling is actually being in transit, and I was usually pretty shocked at how tired I would feel after simply sitting down on a train all day, although by now I was starting to get used to it with all the trains I had been catching around Europe. When I finally stepped off the train at Zürich, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Umer. Much like Ike had sent me the invitation to visit Ancona, Umer had seen my profile among the people who had listed that they were travelling in Europe, and had messaged me offering a place to stay with him should I ever find myself in his city. Such offers ended up shaping my trip quite a bit, since I had no set or definite plans myself, and I had had no success in finding hosts in any other Italian cities I might have been interested in seeing. I was also acutely aware of the approaching expiry date of my Eurail pass, so I had to make sure I had completed my circuit around Europe before that time arrived.

From the moment we met, Umer displayed a bright and bubbly personality. He helped me find an ATM to withdraw some money, since Switzerland doesn’t use euros like most of its neighbouring countries, but instead has held onto its original currency, the Swiss franc. As we made our way out of the train station, Umer reached into his satchel bag and brought out a bottle of light brown liquid. “Now, you have to try this. This is Rivella. It’s a Swiss soft drink, made right here in Switzerland, and it’s pretty popular. It’s one thing that you just have to try.” It looked like the colour of ginger beer, but it was made from milk whey, but I couldn’t really tell you exactly what it tasted like. It was fizzy, but it wasn’t entirely sweet either, and had a odd aftertaste. I could only manage half the bottle before I handed it back to Umer, but I still hadn’t made up my mind as to whether or not I actually liked Rivella.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

We hopped onto one of the numerous trams that made up Zürich’s impressive public transport system. The system is comprised of trains, overground trams, buses, electric buses, a cable car and regular ferries across Lake Zürich, and the system was so comprehensive that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother driving anywhere in the city, when public transport could literally take you everywhere. As we travelled through the city centre, Umer pointed out various attractions that I should come back and visit and photograph later, when I wasn’t carrying my large bag. Umer wouldn’t be able to return with me, though. The following morning Umer had to fly out of Switzerland for a work trip. However, he’d agreed to let me stay at his place for one more night without him, since he lived with his parents who would be home for that time. I had had another host lined up for that next night, but they had cancelled on me last minute. Umer also gave me a very serious warning about tickets on public transport. “If you don’t have a valid ticket, its an on-the-spot 100 franc fine. If you don’t have it on you, police accompany you to an ATM so you can get it, and if  you can’t pay it then they put you in gaol.” He told me a couple of horror stories about previous Couchsurfers of his who had been hit with the whopping fine, and even though I had been happy to risk it several times while travelling on the U-Bahn in Berlin, I decided the risk probably wasn’t worth 100 francs, and definitely not worth spending time in a Swiss gaol. Luckily, Umer had brought along his dad’s monthly public transport pass for me to use, so I didn’t have to buy a ticket that afternoon.

The Swiss flag (although this one isn't in the traditional square shape).

The Swiss flag (although this one isn’t in the traditional square shape).

***

Umer was a fantastic guide, even from the confines of the train, teaching me random bits and pieces about the history of Switzerland, and other interesting facts. After I confessed to him that I originally thought that Zürich was the capital of Switzerland, not Bern, he told me that the city only serves as the capital for international purposes, and that most of the regions within the country are pretty autonomous. “Switzerland really is all about being neutral,” he elaborated. “None of the other cities really have sovereignty over any other – it’s all quite self-sufficient. It’s also one of the few countries that has a square shaped flag, and not a rectangle. The equal sides represent equality in all parts, and that idea of remaining neutral.” Who knew there could be so much history behind a flag? We also got off and had a wander through the downtown area, and passed the Limmat River, which flows out of Lake Zürich. “The water quality in the river is so high that it’s practically drinking quality. It’s mostly freshly melted ice from out of the Alps, so it’s so clean,” Umer said as we strolled by the water that was a bright shade of blue. “We don’t really have beaches around here, but in the summer time you can always find people swimming in the river and hanging out by the bars along the waters edge.” I made a note of it, since my good luck streak with the European summer weather was forecast to continue.

But our stops along the way were all really brief. “I’ll let you take your time with the sightseeing when you come back tomorrow,” Umer said. “For now, I want to show you one of my favourite things in Zürich that you probably wouldn’t see as an ordinary backpacker.” And so we eventually arrived that Thermalbad & Spa Zürich, a thermal bath and spa house whose design still held remnants of the ancient Irish-Roman bathhouse that had once stood in its place. “I love coming here”, Umer told me. “Just wait until you get inside.” We paid, entered, and got changed into our swimwear before entering the complex. The whole place felt like a Buddhist temple in that it was extremely calm and relaxing, but when you looked up the roof was old and arching domes made of ancient bricks and stones. We relaxed in the warm bubbling water, which was apparently drawn straight from natural springs that existed under Zürich, and was full of revitalising and rejuvenating minerals. It was actually the perfect relaxing experience after the long, exhausting day of train travel. There was also a mediation pool, where you could lie face up in a shallow body of water, and when you put your ears in the water you could hear soft, tranquil music playing. The whole place had quite a mystical feel about it.

However, the best was yet to come, Umer assured me. Once we were done on the lower levels, we got into a lift that took us up to the top floor. We stepped out of the lift and straight down into a staircase that led into the bubbling water, and rounded a corner and passed through a plastic curtain… which led us out onto a rooftop spa, with panoramic views of the city. The sun was slowing setting, hanging between the mountains, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. “You should see it in the winter when its snowing, it’s pretty amazing,” Umer said, and I could only imagine that the juxtaposition of temperatures would be rather incredible. So we sat up there on the rooftop spa as twilight sank over Zürich, sharing Couchsurfing stories and telling him all about my travels, much like I would have done with any new host, but in a quite a unique setting. Umer was right – it was a pretty special place, and once again I was grateful that Couchsurfing had been able to introduce me to some experiences that I would had never have had without it. Afterwards we headed back to Umer’s house, where his mother made us some dinner and then I promptly crashed, feeling incredibly relaxed after my time in the spa that had felt like something out of a dream.

I wasn't able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet - but I couldn't not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered.

I wasn’t able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet – but I couldn’t not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered. Image courtesy of: http://www.somestepsaway.com