All Over O’ahu

When I wasn’t lounging around on the beach (which I admittedly did a lot of during my time in Hawaii) or celebrating Christmas with Ashleigh and Nick, I made an effort to go out and see some of the local tourist attractions. However, given that my sisters boyfriend was in the navy, I felt as though one of the most important places to visit in my days of tourist sightseeing was Pearl Harbour. It was approximately a half hour drive from Waikiki, and while Nick did have a car, he used it to actually drive to work at Pearl Harbour. He was out underway on the submarine on the day that I had set aside to head out there to visit, but luckily there were plenty of bus services that stopped right outside the museum and visitor centre.

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Anchor sculpture in the courtyard at Pearl Harbour.

While Pearl Harbour is actually the military base for the US Navy in Hawaii, there is still a decent portion of the compound that is a museum dedicated to tourism and visitors. Upon entering you are given an audio guide to listen to as you walk through the museum exhibits and displays, and the cool, collected voice of Jamie Lee Curtis guides you through the compound and narrates some of the history of Pearl Harbour. I knew the basic facts about the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when Japan attacked the US and spurred their direct involvement into WWII, but it was always a fascinating yet harrowing learning experience to delve deeper into the history and the more personal accounts of the horrors that went down. Much like the Vietnam War Museum in Saigon, I couldn’t help but feel quite overwhelmed by some of the stuff I learned during the walkthrough, but I pushed on through the unpleasantness. It was a strange juxtaposition, to be taking in such sadness and long-standing national grief, all while being surrounded by an environment that is the peak definition of idyllic (in my opinion, at least).

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View of the Waterfront Memorial from the USS Bowfin.

As part of the tour, you were also given the opportunity to board and go inside one of the submarines that was docked in Pearl Harbour, the USS Bowfin, which was originally launched on the one year anniversary of the bombing and was nicknamed the “Pearl Harbour Avenger”. People with claustrophobia were warned against going inside, and once you were inside, the reason was obvious. Low ceilings and narrow walkways, exposed pipes and metal all around you… I could only imagine that the term ‘personal space’ would lose all meaning once one of these submarines was full with a crew of sailors and plunging deep into the ocean.

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Flag atop the moored USS Bowfin.

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Inside the submarine.

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All the inner workings of the submarine were on display for visitors to examine.

However, the biggest point of interest in any visit to Pearl Harbour was undoubtedly the USS Arizona Memorial. It feels somehow wrong to call it a tourist attraction or sight, but I guess for all intents and purposes, that’s what it had become. The memorial was built around the sunken hull of the USS Arizona, a boat that was destroyed during the bombing in 1941. The pristine white structure was designed in such a way that it floats above the wreckage of the hull without actually touching it, as though the architecture itself represents the respect that the morbid site deserves. It can only be reached by boat, which also accommodates for the limited space within the memorial and eliminates any potential for overcrowding. After waiting in line for the passenger boat that would ferry us across, my group of fellow tourists unloaded from the boat and solemnly marched into the beautiful white structure.

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USS Arizona Memorial

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A shrine at the far end of the memorial, with a list of all the names of all those killed on the USS Arizona.

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View of the memorials flag from the inside, through one of the windows in the roof.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique thing about the USS Arizona Memorial is what has been dubbed the “tears of the Arizona“. An oil slick that is the result of a leakage from the sunken battleship can be seen on the surface, a small yet perpetual phenomenon that struck me as a fitting aquatic equivalent to the eternal flames that burn at so many war memorial all over the world. I know that an oil slick is technically really bad for the environment, but it was on such a small scale compared to some of the worse disasters in history, and as the oil floated on the surface of the water and glistened into a rainbow mixture in the sunlight, it actually looked kind of beautiful. And I couldn’t help but appreciate that small piece of beauty that was born out of something so tragic and horrific as the events that transpired in Pearl Harbour all those years ago.

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One of the few parts of the wreckage of the USS Arizona that protrudes from the water, next to where the tears of the Arizona trickle to the surface.

***

Other than Pearl Harbour, I wasn’t sure what else there was to do in Hawaii or on O’ahu (the name of the island that Honolulu is on), other than spend a lot of time at the beach. And, well, I’m not going to lie – as much as I love travelling, seeing new places, meeting new people and experiencing new sensations, I had been doing it for a long while now. So on the days when the weather was good, I actually made going down to the beach and enjoying the sunshine my number one priority. I did walk around some of the shops and browse through some of the touristy trips that you could take to the other islands, but none of them were really day trips that you could do spontaneously, which is the way I had been doing pretty much everything lately. So I just cut my losses and happily camped out on the beach with a book most days.

There was one other place that Ashleigh really wanted to take me to, and that was the North Shore. As you can probably guess, it was the northern coast of the island, and one that was far less populated by your typical tourists and holidaying families. The beaches up there were well known by surfing communities though, and if you picked the right time of the year there was optimal swells that apparently made for terrific surfing – but I’m not going to pretend I actually know anything about surfing, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

On a day when Nick didn’t have to work, the three of us all piled into the car and took the drive up to the North Shore. I have to admit, everything about the island was beautiful. If it wasn’t the white sandy beaches and the blue ocean, it was the lush green fields and the mountains looming in the horizon, cloaked in thick, beautiful white clouds.

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The beach at the North Shore.

When we arrived at the North Shore, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Ashleigh told me that the weather can often be really different on opposite sides of the island, due to all the mountains in the centre of the island, and the different sea currents and tides coming at the shore in their different directions. Waikiki and been warm and sunny, yet up north the sunlight had flitted away behind the cloud cover, and it even started to sprinkle with rain. We’d brought our towels and swimwear, but after finding a park and stumbling down onto the beach, one look at the powerful swell and crashing waves assured us that there was no way we would be going into the water. I mean, I love a bit of rough surf every now and then, but this was something completely different. Watching those waves made me fairly confident that a broken bone would be the best case scenario.

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Still, we sat on the beach and watched the waves for a while, munching on the snacks we’d brought and just admiring the power of the sea. Afterwards we drove back to Waikiki a different way, one that took us closer to the mountains. Nick pointed out a few of his favourite ones to hike – having grown up in a small town in upstate New York, he was definitely a naturally outdoorsy type. He talked about them with such enthusiasm, and it was a shame that between the Christmas obligations and his work schedule, there hadn’t ever really been a convenient time to go up there with him. He and Ashleigh both seemed pretty happy together though. They hadn’t been together that long, but I probably would have put money on him still being around if there was ever a return trip to visit my sister in Hawaii, so I settled for putting those hikes in my future plans.

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***

There were a few culinary highlights in Honolulu, too. Ashleigh and Nick took me to their favourite sushi restaurant, a place in Waikiki called Doraku.
“Look, just- we’re ordering for you, okay? Trust me,” she had said as we’d walked in. I’m pretty open minded when it comes to food anyway (tarantulas, anyone?), so I rolled with it and let her order me a dragon roll, which was absolutely as amazing as they had assured me it would be, and we topped it all off with deep-fried brownie for dessert. On another night when Nick was at work, Ashleigh and I had drinks and dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, where we only ate half of our mains to safe room for dessert, because you best believe there is no way I am going to a place called the Cheesecake Factory and not eating cake. And it was, of course, absolutely worth it.

I also went out with Ashleigh and Nick once, to a club where they were regulars and where many of their friends congregated for nights out. The clubs was okay, but there were a few dramas with Ashleigh’s ID (she forgot it), and the music wasn’t really the kind of stuff I could listen to for too long before starting to get a little bored and/or over it (it was a kinda of EDM that I wasn’t really a fan of, though I can’t articulate the differences between them for the life of me). It was nice to see all the aspects of my sisters new life in Hawaii, but we called it a night not too shortly after that.

And of course, my exploration of a new city wouldn’t be complete without me checking out the gay scene. As fate would have it, one of the most popular gay bars in Honolulu was actually in my sisters old street, where I had helped her move from on my first day in Hawaii. Luckily, she hadn’t moved that far away, and on a couple of evenings where not much had been going on back at home, I had wandered down to Waikiki for a drink at  Bacchus. It was a tiny gay bar on the enclosed roof terrace, and you had to walk up a few flights of stairs to get there. I had been chatting to a guy from LA on one of the gay apps, who had escaped to Hawaii for Christmas, so we ended up meeting there and having a few two-for-one drinks and chatting a bit more. He told me how he wasn’t a huge fan of Christmas – something about a relatively dysfunctional family – and so some years he just escaped here for some alone time. I was actually quite surprised at how many people came to Hawaii for Christmas. I felt like I was an exception, because the only reason I was here was that I was actually visiting family, not escaping from them, yet there were lots of families who seemed to come here and spend the holiday period here in Waikiki. It seemed odd at first, but then I realised that having Christmas on the beach was a novelty for most Americans that, as an Australian, I just didn’t find that out of the ordinary.

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Rainbow after a sun shower in Waikiki. 

My sisters apartment had a decent view, but it wasn’t straddling Waikiki beach. I ended up crashing in my new friends hotel room that night, and in the morning got to wake up to the stunning views of the aqua blue water and the gentle sound of waves rolling into the shore. In that moment, I completely understood the desire to run away, forget the stress and craziness that comes with the holiday period, and put it all in the back of your mind while sipping a cocktail by the beach.

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View of Waikiki from my new friends hotel room the following morning. 

***

After a lovely 10 days of rest and relaxation, the moment that felt like it was never going to come had finally arrived: my final flight home. It was an early morning flight, and while I had tried to assure Ashleigh that she didn’t need to accompany me to the airport, she still awoke without complaint when my alarm went off. Nick had been at work overnight, so I had already said my final goodbyes to him, but together Ashleigh and I wandered through the deserted streets of Waikiki in the early morning and waited for the bus. We laughed and made jokes, and tried not to get too emotional. I knew she’d been working like a maniac at her two jobs to stay afloat, and life had thrown a few curveballs that are (speaking from experience myself) usually a little tougher when you don’t have the usual support network of your family. So I think being there was a much-needed dose of family love for her. For both of us, really, except I would be seeing much more of my family very soon.

So once we got to the airport, we got off the bus and Ashleigh walked with me over to the check-in desks.
“It was so lovely to have you here, little bro,” she said with a smile and pulled me in for one long, final hug. “I love you so much!”
“I love you too, Ash.”
“Well, I guess I’ll see you… well, I’ll see you when I see you! Have a good flight!”
I checked by bags in, and then waved goodbye as I entered the departures gate. It was hard to believe that with one final flight, this epic journey of mine was coming to an end.

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Life in La La Land

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

***

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

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

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The WeHo rainbow crossing

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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***

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

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

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

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

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The Hollywood Sign, from a distance. 

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

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Stars on Hollywood Boulevard

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Marilyn Munroe’s handprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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Carmen Electra in Eleven. 

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

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

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The eclectically costumed dancers at Bootie LA. 

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The City of Angels (and Demons)

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kisses with Peter Parker.

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

*Name has been changed.

Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

What Happens in Vegas…

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

***

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

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

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

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Entrance to Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

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

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

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

***

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

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Caesars Palace.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

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

Inside the New York New York Hotel and Casino.

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

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

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

After yet another delay with the bus out of Flagstaff, we drove on through the afternoon and into the night. The desert landscape looked as empty as ever for most of the journey, but I could tell when the bus was drawing closer to Las Vegas by the signs and flashing lights that became ever more frequent on the side of the road. Eventually the sparse surroundings gave way to more buildings, and soon the roads were aglow as the streetlights began lighting up the night. I’d messaged ahead to let my host know I would be late, so he was waiting for me outside the bus depot when it finally pulled into Las Vegas.

The story of how I ended up where I ended up in Las Vegas is a typical example of the networking that happens and the connections you make when you’re backpacking. Back when I was travelling from Cambodia back to Thailand on the original bus ride from hell, I had been left waiting for a bus to take me from the Cambodian/Thai border back to Bangkok with a handful of other travellers. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the hot tropical morning sun, I had gotten chatting with a girl named Ashley. We bonded over the complete logistical nightmare we had found ourselves in, and began comparing our experiences as travellers in Cambodia. From her accent, I could clearly tell that Ashley was North American, but she was actually the first to ask whereabouts in the world I was from.
“You’re from Sydney? No way!” she’d said when I told her where I hailed from. “That’s where I’m heading after my travelling in Thailand.” I told her that I wouldn’t be back in Australia for many more months, since at that stage I was less than two months into my journey, but never-the-less we decided to exchange contact details so that we could keep in touch, and that I when she finally arrived in Sydney I might be able to help her out in some way.
“And how about you? You’re from the US, right?”
“Yep, I come from Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.
“Vegas? Like, you actually live there?” For all the crazy stories and parties I’d heard about happening in Las Vegas, I don’t think I could ever recall meeting someone who actually lived there. But it just so happened to be Ashley’s hometown, and she told me to let her know if I was ever heading that way – even if she wasn’t around, she said she’d be more than happy to hook me up with some of her friends back home. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what my plans for the USA were, but I told her that I’d be in touch if I ever found myself headed there.

***

Fast forward to roughly 7 months later and Ashley’s friend Ly was greeting my as I hopped off the bus in Las Vegas. It was a Friday night, so as we drove back to his place he told me that he had a bunch of people coming over later that night to celebrate a friends birthday, and that they would be heading out to the nearby Downtown area of Las Vegas. I was fairly ignorant to the geography of the city, and soon learned that the typical Vegas that you see on postcards and in movies is all located at “The Strip”. That’s also where most of the hotels are, and therefore where most of the tourists can be found. However, tonight I would be seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of the locals. When we arrived, Ly introduced me to his housemate Chris and their dogs Button and Roxie, and then showed me where I would be sleeping. It was a long room that had three double beds, but without any bed frames, so they had all been pushed together to form one kind of super bed.
“We have people crashing here pretty regularly, so we have a lot of room on stand-by”, Ly explained to me. As tempting as it was to just collapse in the the sea of blankets and pillows, I threw my stuff down by the edge of the super mattress and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. I knew if I laid down now I probably wouldn’t get back up, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep after Friday night.

After getting ready I headed out to the kitchen, where Ly made me a drink and introduced me to the people who had arrived so far. By morning I would have forgotten most of their faces and all of their names, but they were all friendly enough, and when Ly told them that I had ended up there through connections with Ashley, they all either rolled their eyes or sighed, exclaiming “Of course he knows Ashley!” Before turning to me and asking: “Where is she now?”
“Um, I think she’s in Sydney?”
“In Australia? Nice! Is that where you met here?”
“Ah, no. I actually met her in… Cambodia? Well, technically Thailand, I guess.”
“You were in Thailand? Wait, when was Ashley in Thailand?” Apparently, to this group of people, Ashley was what I had become to my own friends back home – that traveller who’s been gone so long that no one’s really sure where she even was anymore. I smiled and wondered what my friends would have been saying about me in a similar situation back home – although in reality it hadn’t been that long since I’d seen some of them in New York.

After a few strong cocktails and a round of “Happy Birthday” for the birthday girl, we piled into a couple of cars and drove the very short distance to the main bar area of Downtown Vegas. First we had a couple of drinks in a bar called Griffin, before moving next door to a place called Commonwealth. The bars were cool, but they seemed more like dive bars, and nothing about them screamed anything remotely lavish or extravagant, or anything I’d come to understand as being stereotypically Vegas. In fact, I couldn’t even see any gambling machines. I’d soon learn that many of the people who actually live in Las Vegas are performers who spend most of their working lives around the strip surrounded by that kind of environment. On their nights off, they just want to escape to a normal bar like everyone else. Not to say that the place wasn’t going off, because it was definitely packed out. I got separated from my gang as we crossed the dance floor to get to the other side of the club, and as I was scanning the room to see where they’d gone, the girl in front of me turned around and thrust a shot glass towards me.
“Here, we got an extra shot!” she yelled over the music. “It’s Fireball!” I’d been sampling Fireball whiskey all along my journey through the Southwest, and I’d become quite a fan, so I didn’t really give it a second thought before throwing the shot back and continuing my way across the dance floor – it was the first of many free drinks that I’d be scoring over my weekend in this city.

I eventually caught up with Ly and the rest of the group, and I hung out with them for a while, although it wasn’t that easy to have a conversation with all the loud music. It was also the first straight club that I had been in for quite a while, which might sound kind of petty, but when you’ve been touring the world and mostly sampling the gay bars in the each city you visit, the general difference in atmosphere is startlingly obvious. When the girl whose birthday it was got up to go to the bathroom, I was left sitting with a group of boys who all started up a conversation about her.
“Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’s gonna hook up with anyone?” They were throwing around that sort of weirdly uncomfortable banter, which I wasn’t that interested in anyway, but between them I heard assertions of platonic friendship, as well as a few of the guys deciding who was in the best position to “take a shot” at getting with her. Then, in what played out in my mind as some kind of bad punchline, they turned to me.
“How about you, man? You think she’s hot?”
I literally choked on my drink, and awkwardly cleared my throat after regaining my breath. “Um… Ashley… Ashley didn’t mention to any of you that I was gay, did she?”
There was a split second of blank, awkward stares, followed by a round of embarrassed laughter and “Sorry, man!” before returning to the eventual topic of who was going to, at least in their minds, ‘get the girl’.

Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown Las Vegas.

***

I’m sure they were probably lovely guys and were possibly just joking around, not taking anything they were saying too seriously. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to find out though. I’d somehow lost Ly through all this, and between drinks at home, not really having eaten dinner, a few drinks in the club plus the surprise Fireball shot, I was actually quite drunk. And so I did what any drunk gay man who is having an average time in a straight bar would do – I found some wifi, did a quick Google search, and directed myself to the nearest gay bar. Which didn’t actually seem too far away… on Google Maps, at least. It was about a 15 minute walk, which isn’t that far, really, except that it was a lot colder outside than I had realised. And instead of walking along busy streets with other shops, bars and people, my directions took me down some pretty empty, suburban looking streets. But I’d come so far that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might be lost and turn around, so on through the cold I trudged.

As it would happen, I wasn’t lost at all, and I found Snicks Place exactly where it was supposed to be. Except when I opened the doors, I was greeted by an empty room. I’m not even exaggerating. There wasn’t a single patron in this bar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I certainly wasn’t ready to face the cold again, so I wandered in to find the bar and order a drink. It turned out that there was one patron at Snicks Place – the bartender and his friend were having a casual chat across the bar, and they both looked genuinely surprised to see me when I approached them. They asked me how my night was going, so I relayed my entire afternoon, from arriving in Las Vegas to drinking with my straight friends of a friend of a friend to finally making my way here. I guess it’s not every night that a young drunk Australian walks into the oldest gay bar in Las Vegas, which happened to be almost deserted, because the two guys were very interested in hearing all about my life and my travels. At least, I assume they were. In all honesty, I was pretty intoxicated by that point. But they still poured me another drink, and showed me how to work some of the gambling machines. My only experience with gambling had been the electronic poker machines in the bars back in Sydney, but this bar had all kinds of random gambling games and machines that I had never even seen before. I’m not much of a gambler, but there wasn’t really much else to do in the bar, so I had a go at them while I chatted to the two guys.

Eventually I must have started to give away just how drunk I was, because the bartender asked whereabouts I was staying. I had written Ly’s address down in my phone, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t staying in a hotel or the more usual tourist accommodation. Then I mentioned Ly by name, and the bartenders face lit up in recognition.
“You’re staying with Ly?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Yeah, we’re all locals around here. Why don’t I give him call, maybe he can come pick you up?”
I think I was falling asleep at the bar by the time Ly arrived. I was so embarrassed and apologised profusely for him having to come and get me, but he just laughed it off and said it was nothing. He was a decent guy, and he didn’t seem to mind. He drove me home and helped me into the room, where there were two girls who passed out on the mega mattress. I crawled into my edge of the bed and passed out, scolding myself for being such a fool for wandering off aimlessly into the night, but promising myself that I’d do better with exploring Las Vegas tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

Sergio!

Sergio!

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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