Aloha! A Very Hawaiian Christmas

After a rather uneventful flight from LA, I landed in Honolulu and immediately knew I was in the tropics. California hadn’t exactly been cold, but the humidity in Hawaii was inescapable. It was the kind of weather that I loved though, so I couldn’t wait to get out and be amongst it. I made my way through the terminal, collected my baggage, and then looked around, wondering which exit I should take to get out onto the street. As I approached one of the glass automatic sliding doors, I saw a dark-haired woman passing by on the footpath, with an earnest, slightly concerned look on her face. I sped up my pace and ran out the door to catch up with her.

“Ashleigh!” My sister heard me call out and instantly turned around, her expression morphing into a relieved smile when she realised it was me.
“Thank God I found you,” she said with an exasperated sigh as she reached me and gave me a big hug. “I hate this airport, I had no idea where you were going to be coming out.”
“Don’t worry, I’m pretty used to these places by now,” I said with a cheeky smile.
“I bet you are! How was the flight? How are you? Wait, let’s get to the bus, you can tell me all about it on the way home.” We headed to the bus stop and jumped on board. The ride between the airport and the centre of Honolulu was the better part of an hour, so after not having seen my sister for about eight and a half months, we had plenty of time to catch up.

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Taking a selfie on the bus to send to Mum.

***

Ashleigh had moved to Hawaii in May, only a couple of months after I had left to begin my year of travelling. She was doing work experience in hospitality as part of a course that she had started back home. When I learned that she would be moving to Hawaii, I had decided to reschedule my existing flights so that I could stop over and visit her on my way back to Sydney. Well, it was actually my mother’s idea: it would be the first time that she wouldn’t have both of her children with her at Christmas, which was amplified by the fact she wouldn’t have either of her children with her, so it was some small solace that while we wouldn’t be with her, at least the two of us would be together, and we’d still be spending Christmas with family.

However, the day that I arrived happened to be perfect timing. Up until now, my sister had been living in a share house in the heart of Honolulu, but today she was moving to a furnished studio apartment, which she would share with her boyfriend on a part time basis, given that he worked and partly lived at the navy barracks where he worked in the US navy. He was going underway on a submarine for a few days, which was a pretty routine thing as part of his job, but it meant he wasn’t around to help with the move.
“So, you’re not going to have to share a house with anyone else when you’re here,” she said. “But, I’m going to need your help moving some of my stuff to the new place.” She didn’t have a lot of stuff, and the house wasn’t too far away, but she also didn’t have a car. So after we arrived at the house, we collected all her stuff up, threw out a bunch of things she didn’t want to take, and ended up calling two taxis and loading all her stuff into the cars to take it to the new apartment. It was less than a 5 minute drive, but carrying everything would have taken literally all day and involved multiple trips. Helping someone move house was probably the most randomly domestic thing I had done in a long time, but it wasn’t too long before we had unpacked everything and were setting up my sisters new apartment.

We spent the afternoon hanging out and setting up the new place, finding places for all her things and blowing up my air mattress, with me assuring her that the place would feel a lot bigger after I went home – after nine months of travelling, I’d definitely acquired more things that I had left with. In the evening she took me down to the Tony Roma’s Restaurant, where she worked as a hostess as one of her two jobs. Though on the way there, she got a strange message from her boyfriend.
“Wait… he’s supposed to be on a submarine? That must mean… that must mean he didn’t go! Maybe you’ll get to meet him tonight after all!”
And sure enough, much to my sisters excitement, he walked into the restaurant just after we’d sat down and ordered our first drinks.

“Robert, this is Nick. Nick, this is my brother Robert”, Ashleigh introduced us, rather unnecessarily, since each of us had already heard so much about each other through her. Though it was nice to finally meet him, and it didn’t take too long for us to warm up to each other and enjoy a decent steak together.

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Well, I ended up getting ribs, but you get the idea.

***

Between the two jobs she was working at two different restaurants, Ashleigh was actually pretty busy most of the time. Nick’s work was a lot more sporadic, since the free time he had when he was home was contrasted by the 24 hour shifts of duty he had at the navy base. He would be around for a few days though, so we had the chance to hang out and get to know each other. During one of my first days, when Ashleigh wasn’t at work, the three of us set out to buy supplies for Christmas. This would also be Nick’s first Christmas away from his family back in upstate New York, and his mother had been worrying about it even more than ours, so we’d promised that we would go out and decorate the small apartment as best we could. First it was off to Walmart to buy Christmas lights and some small decorations, and then we headed out to get a tree.

“We’ve gotta have a real tree, though,” Nick had insisted. I’d thought it must have been a tradition for his family, to always have a real tree (I’d already explained to Todd back in San Francisco why they’re a lot less common back in Australia), but I soon learned that it was the opposite – despite living in a place where he probably could have chopped down a tree from the forest just beyond his backyard, Nick’s family had never had a real Christmas tree. That he was in Hawaii and very much in control of this years festivities meant that he could finally realise his dream of having a real fur tree as his Christmas tree this year.

Except… when we showed up at the yard where the tree were being sold, the three of us probably wore the most disappointed expressions on the whole island. It’s safe to say that traditional Christmas trees do not thrive in the tropical climates of Hawaii – either these pathetic excuses for Christmas trees had very much struggled to grow in such an environment, or they were runts that had been rejected and shipped over from the mainland, a journey which undoubtedly did them no favours. I had to believe they were imported into Hawaii, if nothing else for the exorbitant cost that we were expected to pay for them. For a tree that barely stood taller than my sister, and was definitely shorter than Nick, we had to make the executive decision that it was not worth it. We headed home, slightly disheartened, with nothing but a roll of Christmas lights and a few dashed dreams.

In the evening, Ashleigh had to work, so while she was there Nick took me down to the Hilton Hotel resort. Every Friday evening there was a firework show in the garden areas that were open to the general public, so we wandered down there to kill some time after grabbing dinner.

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The silhouettes of palm trees as the fireworks explode behind them. 

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Afterwards we headed home, and the two of us brainstormed a little more about how we could make the apartment feel a little bit more like Christmas, even though we didn’t have a tree. Ashleigh had seemed a little dejected by our inability to secure one, given that the tree is a general staple of the holiday. So we pulled out the Christmas lights, and a box of decorations that Nick’s mother had sent over from the mainland. We unrolled the lights and tried to discern the best way to place them around the room, when suddenly I had a flashback to an image that I had seen on Facebook about a month ago. I pitched the idea to Nick, and he instantly loved it, so we set to work setting up the lights so that we could be finished before Ashleigh got home.

When Ashleigh finally arrived home from a long evening shift, Nick stopped her at the door and told her to cover her eyes.
“We’ve got a surprise for you,” he said. “No peeking.”
He guided her across the room (all three paces – it was a studio, remember), and then I hit the lights on the wall to turn them off before flicking on the Christmas lights.
“And… open.”

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Our DIY makeshift Christmas tree.

And she was able to behold the roll of lights that we had strung up against the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree, with some of the lighter decorations hanging from the wires, and topped of off with a pre-fixed ribbon bow at the very top, in place of an angel or star. Sure, it wasn’t a masterpiece, and it probably didn’t look as good or as colourful as either Nick or I had imagined it might. But as the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts, and Ashleigh was thrilled.
“Oh my God,” she said, half rolling he eyes but still clearly pleased with our efforts. “You guys… We finally have a tree!” It had been a long and exhausting evening at the restaurant, so she hadn’t been in such an excellent mood when she arrived home, but coming back to a little bit of dysfunctional Christmas magic had definitely put a smile on her face. “Thank you, both of you,” she said as she gave each of us a hug and a kiss. “I can’t wait to spend this Christmas with my two boys!”

***

Christmas Day itself was actually a pretty easy-going day. We woke up in the morning and Nick cooked us bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then we took turns Skyping our families back home. First we called ahead to Nick’s family, who were a few hours ahead of us and were already finishing up their Christmas lunch, and then over to Australia where it was already Boxing Day, and my mother and aunty were already onto the champagne. There wasn’t much in the way of gift exchanges though, given that it was just the three of us. Ashleigh had bought me a cute pair of underwear, and I gave her the necklace and earrings that I had picked up on the Grand Canyon Tour in Arizona. Other than that, it was just Ashleigh and Nick exchanging a handful of gifts. Not that I’m complaining – it was just an extremely different experience from the past Christmases of large family gatherings where exchanging gifts took up a significant portion of the morning.

By the early afternoon, it was time for Ashleigh to head into work. Nick was pretty happy to spend the afternoon relaxing at home, but there’s not much privacy or personal space in a studio, so I ended up grabbing my towel and heading to the beach. Ashleigh and Nick’s new place was only a 10 minute walk from Waikiki Beach, probably the most famous and popular beach in the whole of Hawaii. The shore was lined with hotels, so the beach was always packed, but there was plenty of sand and places to stretch out in the sun, so I found a relatively quiet section and settled down with my book and spent the rest of the day without a care in the world.

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Waikiki Beach.

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Obligatory beach selfie. 

I stayed there literally all day, to the point where I was able to watch a beautiful ocean sunset. Despite being surrounded by a small horde of people, being there by myself helped make it feel like my own personal slice of paradise.

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Christmas sunset at Waikiki.

After the sun went down, I headed back home, and eventually Ashleigh returned from work with three juicy steaks from Tony Roma’s, which she had picked up at the end of her shift. She brought a few servings of our favourite sides too, and so together we sat around in Ashleigh and Nick’s new home and celebrated a successful end to our experimental yet still thoroughly enjoyable Christmas.

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Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

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

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

***

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

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

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

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

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

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

***

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

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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

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

***

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

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

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

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

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Happy New Year! Songkran Water Festival

The end of my time in Thailand was rapidly approaching. It had only been three weeks since I first departed from Sydney, yet already I had experienced so much, seen some incredible things, and met some amazing new people. Yet there was one final event I was to attend in my final weekend in Bangkok – the Theravada Buddhist New Year festival celebrations, better known by its traditional name, Songkran.

Songkran is celebrated throughout South East Asia in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It’s traditional origins as a water festival come from a practice where the younger generation pours water on the hands and feet of the older generations, symbolic of a recognition of the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, and as a sign of respect. While I’m sure these traditional values are still upheld, the modern translation of Songkran is a huge water fight, where major roads in the city are closed off and people flood into the streets with hoses, buckets, water pistols and super soakers, and anybody on the streets becomes fair game for a hearty drenching. All throughout my time in Bangkok, people would repeatedly ask me, “Wait, when are you leaving? Are you gonna be here for Songkran?” Truth be told, the timing was a complete coincidence, but my flight out of Thailand was to be on the Monday after this wet and wild long weekend. As the weeks passed by I saw many of the corner shops stocking up and selling small waterproof pouches for money and valuables, and water guns of virtually every shape and size, and I began to think I was underestimating the significance of this festival.

“The whole city basically turns into a mosh pit”, Brendon had told me. “The Saturday afternoon of Songkran, this road will just be completely full of people. You’ll barely be able to move.” We were in a taxi going down Silom Road, and I peered out the window. The traffic was a blurry rush of taxis and tuk-tuks, cars and buses, the blaring of horns all around us. This was a major road in this area of Bangkok, and it was then that it really hit me that Songkran meant business.

***

As fate would have it, Silom Road was to be the destination of my very first Songkran. Nervous, excited, and not knowing what to expect, I set out with Rathana and his friends and caught the BTS to Sala Daeng. When we exited the platform and descended the steps down to Silom, I realised that Brendon’s description had not been an exaggeration in the slightest.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

The road was packed. In place of the regular traffic was a steady flow of humans, almost like herds of cattle, being pushed along the street by the momentum of the crowd. Every man, woman and child was armed with a water pistol of some description. As we merged into the congregation, I could already feel the splashes of water coming from basically every direction. It was basically a free for all – I shot a random passerby with my super soaker, and he immediately whirled around and returned fire. But it was the normal thing to do – people were expecting to get wet, so no one seemed to get upset or annoyed. I’d been a little terrified at the though of entering such a massive crowd in a relatively unfamiliar city, but the whole vibe of the festival was one of complete, unabashed fun, indulging in the simple pleasures of a mass water fight in the streets. Even when I was copping a water pistol to the face, nothing could wipe the enormous, goofy grin off my face.

Except for maybe the flour. The were lots of people running around with buckets of (what I hope was) flour mixed with water, painting the faces of passers by with their hands. While I’m not afraid of getting a little dirty, some of the attackers weren’t as gentle with their application of the white paste, and a couple of times I got a stinging eyeful of floury finger. After that, I viciously defended my face, giving anyone who approached me with a bucket of flour a heaving dousing to the face from my super soaker.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

The streets were wild. At various points there were what appeared to be fire trucks, or at least huge tanks of water with huge hoses attached. They rained down on the streets, and everyone cheered and screamed as we all got absolutely drenched. On the sides of the streets, people were selling more water guns, bottles of water for refills, beer and food, but their were joining in with the drenching just as much as the rest of the soggy mass of people.

We moved up and down through the packed street a couple of times before taking a turn down Silom Soi 4 – because obviously the gays really know how to throw a party. As we walked down the narrow street, people in the bars on either side assaulted us with an onslaught on water. We ran through, screaming and laughing, attempting to squirt them back. We ran into more of Rathana’s friends, and soon we were part of the mobs of people squirting water at the passers by, and engaging in water warfare with the groups on the other side of the street. While the only water refills available out on Silom Road came from bottles that we had to buy, the bars at Soi 4 had big buckets for us to refill our water guns, so the water fights continued long into the afternoon.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

At one point there was a lull in the madness, and a parade emerged from the throng of people. Boys, and a few girls, in matching outfits and shiny black thigh-high high heeled boots marched down the strip, and they were showered with lots of cheering and even more water.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

But after the procession passed, it was back to the water fight. As the sun begin to go down, some of us decided to leave Silom, go get dry and celebrate with dinner somewhere else. We ran back through the torrential rains that were the water guns of Soi 4 and back out onto the main road. If I’d thought that the streets were packed when I first arrived in the early afternoon, I really got the shock of my life on our return trip back to the BTS station. Earlier, we’d been able to move with relative ease in the mass of people, as long as we followed the flow of the crowd. However, now the flow of people had practically come to a standstill. Moving in either direction was difficult, and numerous times we found ourselves trapped, surrounded by either people who were going the wrong way, or walls, carts, and other stationary obstacles. There was a mild hysteria brewing in some of the crowd, as we were forced to move in the wrong directions, or simply stand still in a crush of people while waiting for the chance to move at all.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

Deaths at these kind of festivals aren’t unheard of – tourists that got trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other travelling horror stories. Luckily we all made it out alive, only slightly traumatised, and I commented to my companions that despite being an absolute logistical nightmare, the vibe and mood within the crowd of people never strayed from that of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. Had a similar thing happened at an Australian event, I have no doubt there would have been aggressive vibes, pushing and shoving, and inevitably break outs of violence and fights. So despite being packed into such a throng of people, and there not being any security guards or crowd control to speak of, I never at any point really felt unsafe.

***

Songkran traditionally lasts the whole weekend, but I needed to spend the Sunday getting my things together and finalising plans for my next destination. But I was also exhausted from the celebrating that I did do – the water festival was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s always pretty amazing to see how another culture reinterprets historical events in their own fun modern ways. I had so much fun in my first Songkran, and somehow I have a feeling it’s not going to be my last.