What Happens in Vegas…

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

***

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

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

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

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

sign

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

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

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

Entrance to Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

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

IMG_4686

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.

IMG_4692

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.

Advertisements

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.

A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

Despite being less than an hours drive away from Austin, and the seventh most populated city in the US, I had never even heard of the city of San Antonio until Vincenzo had suggested it to me when I was planning my route across the South-West. “It’s pretty much as far as you can go before you hit… well… the nothing that is the rest of Texas,” he’d advised me, so I figured it would be a suitable pit stop before the Greyhound (or Hellhound, as I would soon start referring to them) bus trip across the desert. “It’s also quite a beautiful city, down along the river walk.”

When I hopped off the bus in the carpark that Megabus used as a terminal, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Hector. When I’d first contacted him he had admitted that he and his boyfriend Jay hadn’t hosted anyone through Couchsurfing before, but after such great first time experience with first time hosts like Tomas and Matej in Prague I didn’t even give it a second thought. Hector was incredibly friendly from the moment we met, and he even offered to take a few detours on the drive home so that he could drive me through the city centre and show me a few of the landmarks and features that we could come back and explore properly during my next few days in San Antonio. When we arrived home I was introduced to Jay and shown the spare room where I’d be sleeping.
“Yeah, so… this is actually where my daughter sleeps when she’s here,” Hector said when I commented on some of the toys that had been moved to the side of the room. At first I was a little surprised – Hector was a few more years old than me, and I guess I just never really expect gay people to have kids. But then some people do obviously have heterosexual relationships before realising they’re gay. “She won’t be around this weekend though, so make yourself at home. Also, I don’t know if you’re feeling up to it or if you’re too tired, but we’ve actually got some friends coming around and we’re gonna go out for some drinks a bit later. Obviously you’re welcome to join us too.” Considering it was still only Thursday, it was at that moment that I realised I had made another excellent choice of Couchsurfing hosts, and I wasn’t wrong – Hector and his friends knew how to have a good time.

I showered and freshened up – a necessity after any bus transit, no matter how big or small – and by the time I was ready Hector and Jay’s friends had arrived. There was a round of brief introductions as Nico, one of Hectors friends, offered me a beer.
“Have you ever had Dos Equis like this before?” he had asked me, to which I replied that I’d never tried Dos Equis at all, to which pretty much everyone in the room responded with mild horror. According to Hector and Nico it was a standard  and staple beer in the area. Nico had used a wedge of lime to wet the neck of the bottle and sprinkled it with what appeared to be chilli flakes or some kind of red powder, before putting the lime into the neck of the bottle, as is common with most Mexican beers. I think the idea is to treat the garnishing like the salt rim of a margarita, licking up a bit of the spicy flavour before washing it down with a swig of the beer. I can’t say I was such a fan of the dressings, but the beer itself was tasty. We hung out for a little while at Hector’s, all of his friends asking curious questions about my travels and my home country, before rallying up and heading out to show me some of the gay bars in San Antonio.

***

Like any blog post of this nature, the specifics are a little hazy, but Hector later helped me retrace most of the steps. The first stop of the evening was Hi-Tones, a dark little hipster bar where Hector insisted that I try their signature Pickle Shot. Though I assured him I absolutely hated pickles, my ‘try anything once’ attitude forced me sample it all the same. I refrained, however, from eating the tiny little pickle in the bottom of the shot glass – I guess I still know my limits. I also use the term ‘shot’ very loosely, because the size of some of their shots would qualify as small, strong mixed drinks back in Australia, although the reality is the only way I would ever be able to down something pickle flavoured would be in a single gulp, simply to get it over and done with. The other famous shot was a Chamoy Shot, a spicy concoction after which I definitely needed a few beers to cool off again. We spent a little time at Hi-Tones, enjoying their ridiculously cheap drinks and cool music, before making our way to a bar called Brass Monkey, which was a short walking distance from Hi-Tones, and was a gay-friendly bar that everyone assured me had the best music for dancing.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

But before we made it there, somehow Nico dragged Hector and I away from the rest of the group to make a quick stop at a place called Bootleggers (which I’ve been told has been closed and opened under a new name). Inside there was a long bar with a selection of what they told me was moonshine.
“Moonshine? Doesn’t that… ah… make you go blind?” I asked hesitantly. Hector and Nico laughed, assuring me that this variety of moonshine was actually made though completely legal processes and was not going to cause me any permanent damage. But damn, it was strong. If I hadn’t been drunk already, the moonshine was most likely the tipping of the scales, pushing me past the point of no return. We eventually made it to Brass Monkey and rejoined the others, where the drink special was 75c wells (thats ‘house spirits’ to Australians). As you can imagine, that didn’t end too well for me, despite how amazing the offer had seemed at the time. After dancing all night, the only thing I remember from the walk home, and the last thing I really remember at all, is collapsing on the grass outside Hector and Jay’s place and projectile vomiting all over the lawn. Luckily they thought it was absolutely hilarious and weren’t completely grossed out, and despite the incredibly potent moonshine I still maintain that the real culprit was the Pickle Shot.

As close as we'll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

As close as we’ll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

***

I was woken up the next morning when the sun came streaming through the curtains and onto my bed. I tired to roll over and escape it, but there isn’t much room in a single bed when you’re sharing it with another person… and then it took me a couple of seconds to realise… Wait, who am I sharing the bed with?!
The first thing I did was check to make sure I was still wearing clothes, which I was. The next thing I did was sit up and look at the person next to me. He opened his eyes too, and for a few seconds we just stared at each other. In that brief moment I had completely forgotten who he was, and it was only after the exchanging of confused stares for a few more seconds that I realised it was Nico.
“Ahh… what… what… um… Why are you in my bed?” The words were coming, but the state I was in was definitely deficient in eloquence.
“What… This is… This is my bed,” Nico said with a laugh and a smile. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling, as I usually have a pretty good memory even after I’ve been drinking. The memory loss, I believe, I can definitely attribute to the moonshine – so much for no permanent damage!
“Um… but… I’m staying… here… I think…?” I pointed to my bag and my clothes on the floor. We were definitely at Hectors house, and this was definitely the room he had showed me. “Isn’t this my room?”
“No, this is my room,” he said jokingly, “at least when I stay here.” I could tell he was just messing around now, but it didn’t really help explain anything.
“Oh… but… um… what… what the hell happened?” I asked, still completely baffled.
“I… I don’t know?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we couldn’t help but just laugh. “Wait, what’s the time? Hector has to work today.” Nico searched for his phone and checked the time, before laying back in the bed and calling out as loud as his croaky voice could manage.
“Hector! Good morning!”

The bedroom door opened, and we were joined by an equally as confused Hector.
“Nico? What are you… doing here?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we all couldn’t help but laugh. Hector looked particular tired. “I am so hungover, and I’m already late for work. What are you doing today, Nico?”
“Well I’m going to show Robert around, of course!” he exclaimed, as though it was something that we’d been planning all morning. I just chuckled, shrugged, and decided that it was actually a pretty good idea. So Hector and Jay went off to work, I got up and showered, and then Nico and I headed off on two bikes we borrowed from Hector. It was definitely a rather surreal way to start the day, but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning as I followed Nico through the twists and turns, secret shortcuts through parks. The whole thing felt so ‘go with the flow’ and carefree, I felt like we were going to round a corner, join a gang of other cyclists and end up in a pop music video singing about the good life, or some other kind of carefree tune. But we kept cycling, just the two of us, and we made a quick stop at Nico’s bank before ending up at a Starbucks, where his friend Daniel was working. We got our coffees for free while Nico introduced me and proceeded to recount the crazy night and strange morning that we’d had so far while Daniel listened, thoroughly amused. He had been working all morning, but since it was closer to the afternoon by that point he was nearer to the end of his shift than the beginning of it, so he agreed to meet up with us later on in the day. After that I followed Nico to another place called One-O-Six, a dirty-little-whole in the wall cocktail bar, and we ate breakfast burritos from the BBQ shack next door and drank some drink that Nico ordered us that was way too strong to be drinking when the sun was still up. As hungover as I was, it still tasted quite nice, so I kept drinking it and didn’t ask questions. The bar actually had quite a few people there, and Nico seemed to know all of them, including the staff. I figured that these might be a handful of day drinking regulars, so I satisfied myself by believing I was definitely off the tourist track now and seeing San Antonio from the eyes of a real local.

***

After learning that Hector had left work early, we rode our bikes downtown to meet him for lunch by the River Walk. Aside from the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk is probably one of the city’s greatest treasures, with long walkways stretching down either side of the river that flows through the town, lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, and other tourist attractions. After attempting to eat at a place called Casa Río, where we gave up and left before we’d even ordered due to the terrible service, we settled for introducing me to Whataburger, yet another American fast food chain restaurant that I had never even heard of until that moment. It wasn’t anything life changing, but Hector’s hangover forced him to abandon half his burger and run to the bathrooms to be sick, so perhaps it was best that we’d stuck with something a little less classy. Daniel arrived soon after that, also on his bike, so we decided there would be time for me to explore the River Walk another time and instead jumped on the bikes and headed around the main strip of the River Walk and down to the Missions Hike and Bike Trail. The missions near San Antonio are a collection of preserved old Catholic churches, relics of the spread of Christianity along the Southwest in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but they were located in the national park just outside of the city, with a bike trail along the river that led all the way there. However, it was too late in the day to make it all the way out there without it getting dark, and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, so Hector promised to drive me out there over the weekend so I could visit them. Instead, we just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and the leisurely bike ride along the river, while the guys pointed out sights to me and just chatted about life in general.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

After turning around and heading back to down, we stopped by a place called CHRISpark, a beautiful little urban park that was created in memory of Chris, the son of local artist Linda Pace. The grounds of the garden were covered with beautiful foliage and plants, as well as a handful of artistic designs, which made sense given the creator of the space. We parked our bikes and wandered around, and Nico pointed out a few of his favourite flowers, before confessing that he was actually a wedding planner and that he knew many of them from creating flower arrangements and bouquets. In retrospect, I didn’t take nearly enough photos, but the park definitely has an atmosphere of gorgeous tranquility. We had a quick chat to the friendly groundskeeper, who took our picture for us, before continuing on our way. Daniel recommend that we stop at a speakeasy bar called 1919 – which I would have rode straight past if I hadn’t known it was there – where I was introduced to yet another local alcoholic delicacy, a Strawberry Habanero hot shot. The combination of spicy habanero chilli and sweet strawberry is an… interesting sensation, to say the least. I’d never been the biggest fan of spicy foods, but I think the boys in San Antonio had made it their mission to expose me to as many of these specialities and introduce me to spices that could not only be eaten, but also drunk. I have to say, I think it worked, because ever since I’ve been a little bit less afraid of trying spicy foods.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

On the way home we rode through downtown San Antonio in the cover of night, and stopped to observe some of the sights, including the Alamo Mission, the site of the famous siege in 1836; the Tower of the Americas, which at 750 feet (or almost 230 metres) was the tallest observation deck in the USA until 1996; and the Torch of Friendship, a monument that was a gift to San Antonio from the Mexican Government to symbolise the cooperation between the city and the country. We also stopped to take a few photos of ourselves, at the request of Nico’s artistic vision.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

After that Hector and I bid farewell to Daniel and Nico and rode our bikes back along the river, which ended up taking us pretty much all the way home. The were several light up art installations along the way, and Hector was full of information about the city and its rich local history. Not only had I lucked out with an awesome host to loved to party as much as I did, but Hector also very much loved San Antonio, and has such a passion for sharing that love and that knowledge, and those people always – without a doubt – make the best Couchsurfing hosts.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

***

Despite the crazy Thursday night and the ensuing hangovers, Hector and Jay weren’t about to let me sit at home on a Friday night. After freshening up and dinner we met with Nia, one of Hectors colleagues who I’d met briefly down by the River Walk during the day, and Nico. We ended up driving to the clubs that night, and the one that stands out the most is Saint. Usually the club has a drag show on Friday nights, but the night we turned up just so happened to be a launch party for Lady Gaga’s latest album, Artpop, which had just been released. As well as a bunch of crazy queens doing their best Gaga numbers, they were also giving away copies of the album. As it turns out, one of the queens was a friend of Hector and Jay, so I also ended up being the lucky winner of a CD giveaway and walking away from the club with Lady Gaga’s new album. Too bad I didn’t currently have a CD player, and had already purchased it on iTunes, but it made for a cool souvenir with a pretty cute memory attached.

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

We went to a few other bars that evening, including Pegasus, where somebody knew someone so we got free shots, and there was an outdoor patio area where people were rocking out to karaoke, and Heat, a fancier place that was more a nightclub, where we spent a little while dancing. We definitely didn’t have the stamina of the night before though, so we ended up just chilling out in the quiet areas, and I had a few good conversations with Nia, who was pretty excited that she could now claim she had an Australian friend. I still drank far too much under the encouragement of Hector, but I think I managed to keep it all down that night, and we all headed home relatively early – I had been going almost non-stop since arriving in San Antonio, but I still had a weekend of sightseeing ahead of me.

Tucking In, Nights Out, Bottoms Up and Going Down: Eating and Drinking in Austin

Life threw something of a curveball at me during my first few days in Austin. I was only supposed to be staying with Aaron for 3 days, as he was actually flying to New Orleans on the Sunday to visit his father, which worked out perfectly because that happened to be the day I was supposed to meet Alyssa. Alyssa was a distant cousin, just a year older than me and related through some connection on my fathers side that my aunty has relayed to me a dozen times yet I can still never seem to remember. She lived in Oklahoma, and as we’d kept in touch as my time in the states grew nearer and nearer, we had made plans to meet up, although she had suggested meeting in Austin when I was there, rather than coming up out of my way to visit her in her own state. However, on Friday afternoon, as Aaron and I were nursing hangovers and eating food from one of the food trucks around the corner from his house, I got a message from Alyssa telling me her father had gone into hospital and that she wouldn’t be able to make it to Austin. Her family offered to pay for a bus ticket to Oklahoma or for accommodation in Austin without Alyssa, whichever I preferred. It was a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to meeting my long lost cousin for quite some time now, and it was awful news about her father (although in the end he was okay), but I knew a detour north rather than my planned journey west would be a time consuming endeavour that would throw off a lot of other plans.

When going over the dilemma with Aaron, he had an idea that seemed the most practical, although it was one I could never have asked for without him offering.
“Well, if need a place to stay after Sunday, I’m happy to let you stay here while I’m in New Orleans. Saves me having to leave Sergio in a kennel while I’m gone, too.” In the end, Aaron’s trip to New Orleans got cancelled, so I ended up staying with him the full week that I was in Austin. But the fact that that scenario even happened was yet another amazing example of the kind and generous things that people you hardly even know sometimes do for you. I know I gush about that kind of thing a lot, but honestly, it’s a pretty heart-warming experience that ultimately changes the way you see the world.

***

Since I’d won $150 in the strip-off in my first night in Austin, Aaron seemed determined to make the most of a Couchsurfer who liked to drink and party as much as I did. A couple of nights we split bottles of wine over take-away pizza and just chatted about our lives, sharing what turned out to be a lot of deep and personal stories and forming what turned into a pretty strong and natural friendship. Aaron also took me to a few of his other favourite watering holes around the city, drinking beers and whiskey, and meeting some of his friends to sample a seemingly endless array of alcoholic drinks that contained tomato juice.

An easy decision.

An easy decision.

This drink was a

This drink was a “margarita meets Bloody Mary” concoction that was… interesting. I don’t remember it’s name though, so you know it’s good!

I also got to sample some great food in Austin, mostly from the various food trucks that dominate the town. They’re all actual trucks, so technically they can move around, but I’m starting to doubt that most of them ever do, considering the great business they seemed to be doing when they were parked on random stretched of grasses in the middle of the suburbs. I had the most amazing pulled pork with a side of slaw, but unfortunately the only photo I thought to take was of the bee that dived into my Mexican Coke and almost tried to kill me.

:(

😦

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Though I have to admit, probably the favourite piece of food that I ate during my week in Austin – and it pains me to say it because I honestly though it would be disgusting, but it was actually amazing – was chocolate-covered bacon.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

I think the thing that was most noticeable was how much the local foods changed in between short geographic distances. The general cuisine was so different in Austin compared to the flavours of New Orleans, but I imagine that most people who had never been through the area would assume that “The South” is just a culturally homogenous space of land, or at least never expect it to be so diverse in that sense.

There was one meal I did have that was particularly memorable, but not because of the food. I had still been keeping in touch with all the friends I’d made along my journey, including Matt from Dublin, who I wish I could call a leprechaun but he’s just too damn tall. Anyway, upon hearing that I was in Austin, Matt asked me if I knew of a restaurant called Moonshine Grill, and if it was near to where I was staying. I asked Aaron, and he said it wasn’t far, just in closer to the centre of town. Matt then asked me what I was doing on Monday for lunch, and I said I didn’t have any plans, and he tells me I do now. On Monday lunchtime while Aaron was at work, I head over Moonshine Grill and make myself known to the hostess. They’ve been expecting me, and promptly take me to a reserved table, but there was no one else there. I sat down and shortly afterward a waitress came over with a cocktail. I must have looked pretty confused, because she smiled as she explained. “I believe your order has already been taken care of,” she said as she placed the drink in front of me, “but let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” I drank my cocktail and ate a delicious burger, and at the end of it all I found the bill had already been paid in advance, including tip.

Matt eventually confessed his motives to me later. “Ah, you’re a very special lad, ya know?” he told me in a brief international phone call. “And despite all the nights we spent on the town drinking ourselves mad and stupid, I never got the chance to buy you dinner. Or lunch, or anything. I know it’s probably not the same when I’m not there, but I figure it’s the next best thing.” However unconventional it might have been, it was extremely sweet, and by now I was plenty used to eating in restaurants alone that it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. Although I assured him it would have been much better had he been there. Just another way that the amazing people you meet on your travels are able to surprise and inspire you.

***

There was a lot of eating and drinking going on during my time in Austin, but the Saturday night definitely takes the cake, for better or for worse. Actually, I honestly can’t remember if this all happened in one night, or if there were several more booze benders, but there were a handful of bars that provided somewhat memorable experiences.

The first venue we kicked the night off in was Barbarella, although I think on that particular evening it had joined forces with a neighbouring venue to throw a huge dance party, complete with an outdoor beer garden. Despite how cold it was, we spent a fair bit of time outside since Aaron was a smoker, and I chatted to a lot of people who seemed genuinely shocked to be meeting an Australian – though a handful of them attempted to impress me with their knowledge of the names of Sydney beaches (Cronulla’s reputation from the events in 2005 has travelled further than I’d like to believe). Barbarella also distinctly stands out in my mind because none of the toilet cubicles had doors. That was very weird, and not in an alternative or arty kind of way, but in a way that made me think they’d had one too many drug problems in the toilets so they’d solved the issue by just ripping the doors off. The music was good but the party wasn’t too lively so eventually Aaron and I headed back over to the warehouse district, 4th Street, and Oilcan Harry’s. We had more strong drinks from some bartender that Aaron knew, but after a while we moved nextdoor, to a nightclub named Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

The place was huge, with a long bar and a long dance floor that stretched down the entire length of the venue, and the floor had lights underneath it that gave the place a deep, colourful ambience. The place was packed too, so we jumped on the dance floor and mingled with the locals. I had half a conversation with a ridiculously good-looking cowboy – half, because I don’t think I could form words probably when I was staring into his dreamy eyes – and even ending up kissing a different boy on the dance floor. And Aaron and I continued to drink, and this is where things started to go wrong. Aaron had left his credit card at home, and at some point early on in the evening he’d run out of cash. Considering I’d just won $150 a few nights prior, I was happy to buy the drinks, and he offered to pay me back later. Now, I know that I can drink a lot and handle my alcohol pretty well, but I also know when I’ve had enough. And it got to the point in the night where I was fairly sure I had had enough. Aaron wanted another drink though. Okay, no worries, I could buy him another drink. But he wouldn’t let me not have another drink with him, so that’s how I came to be in possession of the final whiskey and Coke that would be my undoing.

We danced. We drank. We partied together. We partied with other people. I kissed that other boy. I was having a good time. Aaron decided he was going to go home, and said I was welcome to share a cab with him or stay with the boy. I decided to stay with the boy. Aaron left. I danced with the boy more. But I was very, very drunk. So I ended up losing the boy, and was dancing on my own.

The room started spinning, and I wasn’t feeling so well, so I made my way to the bathroom. At that point I really just needed to pee, but I was so unsteady on my feet that I took the opportunity to sit down as well, so I went into a cubicle – luckily these ones had doors. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. Before I even knew it was happening, and before I had a chance to turn around and lean over the toilet bowl, I threw up. Into my underwear – which were still around my ankles – and all over the exposed insides of my jeans. Needless to say, I was mortified, although probably not as much as I should have been because I was just so horribly wasted to comprehend the whole scenario properly. I attempted to wipe myself clean with toilet paper, but it was a futile task, and I still felt hideous. There was someone knocking on the door. A security guard, I think.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just… just give me a minute,” I call back, trying not to slur my words as I figure out what the hell I am going to do. The stalls starts rocking slightly, and I see a face peer over the edge of the cubicle beside me. Maybe they though I was overdoing on drugs or something. Had something like this already happened at Barbarella? Is that why their cubicles don’t have doors?
“What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just…can you just… give me a goddamn minute?!”

In the end, I realised there was nothing else I could do except pull on my vomit-streaked underwear, buckle my belt, and walk out of that club. Or you know, stumble, whatever. Despite not having a single friend there to help me through it, I think it was made better by the fact that I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and would never see any of these people again. In fact, no one I knew would ever have to know that this had ever happened, except for the fact I am all about frank honesty and am, for some reason, repeating it here right now. So I opened the cubicle door, and immediately the security guard ushered me out of the bathroom. For a brief moment I thought he was going to give me some water, or take care of me or something, but he merely ushered me to the front of the club, helped me out onto the street, and then left to go back inside without saying a single word to me. Luckily it was quite late and there weren’t too many people outside, so my temporary shame was limited. I feel awful for the taxi driver who took me home, although she was very light-hearted about it and said she didn’t mind, although I’m sure I smelt absolutely vile and she was probably gagging for half the trip.

Aaron was still awake when I got home. My cheap Primark shoes were covered in vomit, so I didn’t even bother salvaging them and instead threw them straight in the trash outside. Not a word was spoken when I walked into Aaron’s bedroom. We just had this sole moment of eye contact and understanding before I continued through into the bathroom and stepped into the shower fully clothed, and spent the next half hour cleaning myself, and getting as much of the stench of vomit out of my clothes as I could. And as embarrassing as the whole ordeal was, and as stupid and disgusting as I felt, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me on my travels, so I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there in the shower, scrubbing at the denim. And even as I write it now I can’t help but smirk a little, because as awful a memory as it is, it still makes for a thoroughly amusing story.

“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.

Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

The following day was the day that had specifically influenced my travel plans and my intention to be in New Orleans: Halloween. I was excited to be in the US for Halloween in general, because if Hollywood movies were anything to go by (and in this rare circumstance, they were) then Americans take the holiday very seriously, but it was particularly exciting to be in New Orleans due to the towns penchant for the quirky and mysterious. Everyone puts a lot of effort into their costumes and the dressing up side of things, but a lot of people also celebrate the day and the night in a more religious or spiritual sense. Basically, the lore dictates that Halloween – or All Hallows Eve – is a night where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is slightly weaker, allowing better communication with the supernatural forces from the other side, or something along that train of thought. I won’t pretend to be an expert on pagan religions or voodoo practices, but you get the idea. It’s a special day.

Vincenzo had to work for most of the day, but he told me that his neighbour was having a party that evening and that I was welcome to join him and his friend when they went. It wasn’t until I was actually invited to a Halloween party that I was struck with the horrific realisation that I didn’t have a costume, and if you didn’t have a costume at Halloween then you simply weren’t doing it right – or so those Hollywood movies had led me to believe. So while Vincenzo was at work that day, I made it my mission to find a costume. It was on short notice and would have to be on a short budget, but I figured if there was any city in the US that would have adequate appropriate costume supplies, it would be New Orleans. I walked down the streets of the French Quarter as the afternoon rolled around, ducking into all kinds of novelty stores and and bargain bins that sold mainly joke costumes, as well as one or two more legitimate places that sold magical trinkets of a more serious manner. In the end I settled for something pretty basic – a pair of black feather wings and a fancy-looking black eye mask. It was the kind of thing that, if you were going to some huge gay circuit party, you would wear with a pair of hot pants and nothing else, but since I was forgoing the Mean Girls rule (“Halloween is the one night of the year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”) I figured I could just throw on some black clothing and make some abstract horror idea out of it.

“But what is it? What’s your costume?” Vincenzo asked me as he was attaching his very realistic looking vampire fangs to his top canine teeth. I had spent the remainder or the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, watching candlelit processions making their way through the street, with drums and chanting and brass bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually I met Vincenzo at his house when he finished work, where he and his friend Faith were readying themselves for the party we were set to attend.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. “Angel of Death?” Vincenzo turned to look at me a little closer this time, examining the outfit as I tied up the ribbons of the mask behind my head.
“Angel of Death…” he said slowly, with an air of contemplation. “I like it.” He smiled, flashing me his fangs. Both him and Faith were dressed as vampires, and when they were ready we made our way to the party next-door.

The neighbours house was a similar style to Vincenzo’s flat, except considerably bigger. It was set on the street corner and had a huge balcony that snaked around the buildings exterior and offered a great view of the streets below. Vincenzo pointed out a tree that was covered in colourful strings of beads, necklaces that had been flung into the branches and gathered like tiny shiny fruits. “Mardi Gras beads. I’m pretty sure I threw some of them there myself,” he said with what was almost a hint of pride.
“Wait… didn’t you say… I thought Mardi Gras was in February?”
“Uh-huh.”
“And… they’re still there?” I mean, it was October. Surely someone would have taken the beads down by now.
“Mardi Gras is a huge part of the culture of New Orleans. They’re just a little reminder of that – I guess no one ever feels the need to rush over and take them all down.” I liked the idea of that, thinking back to parades and events in Sydney that were inevitably followed by a huge and meticulous government clean up that usually removed all and any traces of there even being an event there in the first place. New Orleans not only took pride in it’s cultural events, but wore the aftermath and remnants of them like a badge or medal for the remainder of the year.

I was introduced to Vincenzo’s neighbour, a classic Southern belle who could have stepped out of A Streetcar Named Desire, and I mingled with the guests as we ate and drank. The party was only more a social call, however, and after a few hours of drinking and mingling, Vincenzo, Faith and I headed out and off to Frenchman Street, where there was a lot more partying going on. It was more of a street party though, and the three of us slowly wandered down the street through the crowds, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at some of the impressive costumes that would have taken quite a while to put together. The streets were crowded and full of drunken Halloween revellers, but the overall mood wasn’t overly outrageous or obnoxious – I was told that that kind of atmosphere was reserved for Bourbon Street, and that Frenchman Street was more popular among the locals to who had a little more respect for the local area. We didn’t do much partying ourselves, but instead continued our wandering through the streets and back into the heart of French Quarter. There weren’t many trick-or-treating children at that hour, but the rest of the city was out in full force to celebrate the holiday in more adult ways.

We stopped at Cafe Du Monde, the most iconic coffeehouse in New Orleans, where both Vincenzo and Faith insisted that I had to try a café au lait and some beignets. Café au lait is just coffee with milk, except the milk added is hot or scalded rather than simply cold, and the New Orleanian variety has chicory added to it to give it a bitter taste. Beignets are deep-fried pastries served with powdered sugar, a sweet touch to offset the bitterness of the café au lait. I was assured that it would be most improper to leave New Orleans without sampling these treats, so what better time to do so than on my authentic New Orleans Halloween evening? Faith admitted that she was beginning to get tired, so after we finished at Cafe Du Monde we flagged a petty-cab down for her and sent her off home. Vincenzo and I continued on our walking tour of the city, and we eventually agreed to show me some of the gay bars of New Orleans. The majority of the gay bars were on a square of blocks that had become fittingly known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, so we began our walk along that route, stopping into each of them for a short time. I’ve heard some crazy things about partying in New Orleans, so I can’t imagine my experience is an accurate representation of the scene, but a lot of the bars were well decorated but very sparsely populated. Maybe we were just there before most of the other partiers, who were still out on the streets, or maybe there were other specific Halloween parties or events that were drawing most of the crowds, but somehow the subdued moods of the patrons didn’t really seem to match the party environments the venues were trying to create, so we didn’t end up staying anywhere for too long. Vincenzo ran into a few people he knew at a couple of the places, but other than that our tour of the Fruit Loop was interesting, but not all that exciting.

It was when Vincenzo was escorting me back to my hotel that I talked more about my impressions of Halloween, and what I had been expecting compared to what we had actually seen. “I dunno… I mean, I’ve got out partying and drinking in literally every other city I have been to,” I said with a little chuckle. “But I knew New Orleans was supposed to be this hotbed of… well, things that were different. Mysterious, a little magical, I don’t know.”
“Well, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in New Orleans, you’re certainly not limited to Halloween,” Vincenzo said with a knowing smile. “Tomorrow is All Saints Day, which is a pretty important date on the voodoo calendar. I know of a few things that might be happening – if you like, I can see if I can take you to one?” The idea of being at a real life voodoo ceremony was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but I was instantly intrigued. It was my last night in the hotel, so after assuring him I was very interesting in seeing more of the mystical side of New Orleans, I gave Vincenzo a goodnight kiss and told him I would see him again at his place the following morning after check out.

***

The first thing I discovered the following morning was that Vincenzo was not a morning person. I had to call him a few times while I was standing down at the outside gate, and when he finally stirred from within and got up to let me in, he assured me he’d need at least another hour and a strong coffee before he was ready to face the world. So while he slowly morphed into a functioning human being, Faith took me out for a little stroll and some breakfast at her favourite nearby bakery, where we sipped on café au laits and she told me more about both New Orleans and Vincenzo.
“Vince has always loved this city.” Apparently she was also the only one who could getting away with calling him ‘Vince’. “I mean, we both have, ever since we first visited it when we were just teenagers.” They’d both grown up in New York – her just upstate and him in the Bronx – but had shared a passion for Anne Rice novels and all her vampire stories that call New Orleans home. “But Vince really loved it, enough to move here.” She went on to tell me more about some of his Couchsurfing experiences, and how he’d shown dozens of people around New Orleans during his time there. When we finished up at the bakery we went for a walk through the streets of the French Quarter, which looked surprisingly different in the bright daylight, although they were still full of gutter punks and street musicians and buskers. You would never need headphones or an iPod if you were walking around there – almost everywhere you go there’s a musician playing some decent tunes.

When we finally arrived home it was almost afternoon, but Vincenzo was not longer near comatose, so the three of us took a trip out to New Orleans City Park. There was quite a few art installations around the parks, and Vincenzo and I sat along the banks of one of the swamps while Faith wandered off into the greenery.

New Orleans City Park

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

After the relaxing afternoon, it finally came time to attend the All Saints Day ceremony in the evening. There was a rather large turn out, and it made me realise that once you know where to look, there is a strong voodoo presence in the city because of these close communities of people who practice it. Out of respect for the worshippers and the practice of voodoo itself, I’m not going to go into the details of the ceremony – partly because I don’t want to wrongly explain any of the various rituals, but also because there’s a certain value in the mystery, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that. I was, however, allowed to take a few photos of the shrines and alters that were set up before the ceremony took place.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The last part of the ceremony was something remarkable that I think is worth noting. The final ritual simply involved a slow procession through the streets from the meeting place to the nearby cemetery, a moving candlelight vigil with the intention of paying respects and leaving offerings for the spirits of the dead at the cemetery gates. It was only a short walk, but at one point of the journey someone quietly pointed out that we were being followed at a distance by the police. I was under the impression that the police might have been a little suspicious about what we were doing, and might have ordered us to move along. However, someone went to consort with them and came back to report that they were simply there to keep an eye on things, and be on the lookout for any hecklers that might have otherwise given us grief.
“Only in New Orleans,” I heard Vincenzo whisper with a relieved sigh, as people placed their offerings and candles on and around the gates. I think that was the most remarkable thing of all – that the voodoo procession had an unrequested police escort. The culture surround the practice was so strong here that even the law enforcement recognised and respected it.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

The whole ceremony lasted well into the night, and was followed by a feast of sorts – essentially a backyard barbecue for everyone to socialise and debrief. It was very late by the time Vincenzo and I left – Faith had already retired much earlier in the evening, having to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get to the airport and fly home. The night air was cooling off as we sat down by the side of the road and waited for our taxi, and I noticed Vincenzo shiver a little.
“Guess this is cold for New Orleans, hey?” I said with a chuckle as I put an arm around him. He laughed, but didn’t protest as he snuggled into the half-hug. “Well, thanks for another magical evening – in a much more literal sense, this time,” I said, placing a gentle kiss on the side of his head, and shooting him a wink that he probably never saw in the darkness.