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.

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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.

Midnight Jazz and a Gentleman’s Kiss: my first taste of New Orleans

After heading down into the depths of the French Quarter and having dinner at a dive bar called Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, recommended to me by Brett earlier that afternoon. I finished my burger and my beer, but it was still pretty early in the evening so I headed back to the hotel to figure out what I would do that evening, and just take my time getting ready. It was starting to dawn on me that for the first time in a couple of months I was completely alone in a city where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t have a local friend to turn to for advice or ideas. There’s always TripAdvisor and other travel sites you can consult, but I was also interested in meeting more people. So of course, enter Grindr. Or Scruff. Or any one of the numerous gay dating apps that have been connecting the already geographically close gay men of the world for years. Many people consider them to be ‘hook up’ apps, and it’s true that there are a plethora of users who are interested in nothing more than a cheap trick, but over the course of my travels I had met a handful of really amazing and genuine guys via the technology, such as Allistair in Vietnam or Anthony in London, all of who I am still good friends with and am still in touch with. So once again I turned to the grids of headless torsos in search of a friend.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Sipping on the Jack Daniels I’d bought duty free in Brazil, I chatted to guys here and there, scoping the place for fun or interesting looking guys, but never really getting past a round of half-hearted introductions. That is, until I got a message from Vincenzo. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was more than “hi how r u?” or “looking?“, so he was already off to a flying start, and he appeared to be gorgeous. He offered a few compliments, I probably blushed to myself and awkwardly returned them. He told me he was currently at work, at one of the smaller hotels around the corner from my hotel, and I told him an abridged version of my story, how I was just in town and looking for some things to do, or someone to show me around. I also mentioned that I was only in my hotel for a few days, and then I would be looking for some other accommodation, probably a Couchsurfing host. That’s when Vincenzo informed me that he too was part of the Couchsurfing community, and he even sent me a link to his profile, and then suddenly everything changed. I guess I felt like I was able to trust him a little bit more once I knew he was an active member of Couchsurfing, and not just a pretty face I’d stumbled across on an app, and suddenly we were making plans for me to meet him at his work when his shift was over.

I was a little nervous when I set out around the corner to meet Vincenzo. He’d been a little bit flirty, but not at all sleazy, so it kind of felt like an impromptu date or something. When I entered the hotel he was sitting sitting behind the reception desk, looking even more handsome in person. It was a small business-type guesthouse, and since it was getting late he was the only one around. We reintroduced ourselves, this time in the physical world, and then I was introduced to Princess, Vincenzo’s adorable Rat Terrier dog who had been cautiously watching me from the safety of in between his ankles. She warmed up to me rather quickly though, and we were only there a few more minutes before it was time for Vincenzo to close up the reception for the night and head off.
“I’m happy to take you out to a few bars along Frenchman Street,” Vincenzo said as we headed out the door and down the street, in a New York accent that originated from the Bronx, with only a subtle hint of the Southern drawl of the local region. “But first I need to take this one home,” he said with a motion down to Princess, who was trotting along in front of us on her leash.
“Works for me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve got no other plans.”

***

Vincenzo lived in a small first-storey flat in one of the upper corners of the French Quarter, with a lush overgrowth of greenery in the front garden behind the metal gates, and a banana tree whose leaves canopied across the railings of his rustic, wooden porch. When you stood on the porch and looked out onto the road, it was easy to forget you were in the United States of America, and in all the travels I did through the country, the French Quarter – and even parts of wider New Orleans – had a particular charm about it that was undeniably unique. The flat was relatively small inside too, and Vincenzo apologised for the apparent untidiness.
“I have a friend staying with me here right now,” Vincenzo said as he nodded towards a fold-out bed that was set up in the corner of the kitchen, the only other room with space that wasn’t his bedroom or the bathroom. “Although she’s actually not here tonight, but she’ll be back for one more night tomorrow.” He’d been putting out some food for Princess, who was now happily munching away, but now he turned to face me directly. “So, I’m not sure how long you’re staying at the Royal, but if you do need a place…” he half shrugged as he motioned to the room around him. “Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, already quite sure I’d take him up on the offer. He had a carefree vibe about him which I felt was always good in a host, but his charisma also made him incredibly charming.

“Now, I do wanna change my shirt before we go. But first, how about a drink?”
“I’m Australian – I’m always down for a drink,” I joked with him as I sat down on the edge of the fold-out bed. The space was small, and there weren’t any tables or chairs, perhaps due to the fact the bed was there in the first place.
“Do you drink bourbon?”
“It’s my poison of choice.”
Vincenzo chuckled and looked at me with a friendly smirk. “Ice or no ice?”
“I’m fine without ice.” He poured two glasses of neat bourbon and brought them over to me, handing me one before taking a seat beside me on the edge of the bed.
“Cheers,” I said as I took the glass, and held it up to clink it with his before taking a sip.
“Cheers,” he said in return, and when we held our eye contact as we sipped our drinks, there was definitely some kind of connection. I stared into those beautiful blue eyes as they edged in closer, and Vincenzo leaned in to place a light, delicate kiss on my lips. I kissed him back with equal delicacy, although after a few moments he pulled back again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t normally… No, I never do this to Couchsurfers.” He seemed a little flustered, as though he was really conflicted with what he’d just done. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured or anything, just because you might need a place to stay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” I just sighed with a smile, and placed a hand on his leg so that he looked up and into my eyes again.
“Well, technically we didn’t meet on Couchsurfing anyway,” I said with a grin. “And besides, does it really look like I wanted you to stop?”
Evidently more relaxed, he let me lean into him this time, his big bright eyes closing in surrender to another delicate kiss.

***

Though I could have kissed his gorgeous face all night, Vincenzo had promised to show me around a little bit, and actually go out for a drink.
Not to Bourbon Street,” he said as he quickly changed his shirt, barely suppressing the shudder seemingly at the idea of it. “We can walk to Frenchman Street from here. It’s a lot less touristy, and there’s a lot of live music. You’re a musician too, right? I remember reading that somewhere.” It’s always refreshing when the people you meet online actually took the time to read your profile first.
“Yeah, I am. Acoustic guitar and a bit of ukulele.” Vincenzo himself was a singer and songwriter. “And live music sounds great!” We finished our bourbons sitting on Vincenzo’s porch, as Princess curiously examined the new stranger in her house, and then when we were ready we headed off into the night.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don't think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo's attention.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don’t think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo’s attention.

It was the end of October but the air was still quite warm, and it was only several minutes later that we turned onto Frenchman Street and I experienced my first taste of authentic New Orleans. There were plenty of people out and about, but the road wasn’t overcrowded and choked with tourists. There were people standing around on the street outside some of the bars, sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes, although upon entering the first establishment I realised that they were more than allowed to do that inside too – something I hadn’t seen since Berlin. I simply followed Vincenzo, so I can’t quite recall the name of the venues. I think we hopped between a few throughout the evening, but they all appeared to be relatively small, hole-in-the-wall type places, although they were obviously popular with the locals. Wooden architecture, dull but colourful lighting and grungy, dive bar atmospheres, these places had character, and it was all topped off with the live music. I can’t say that jazz is always my first choice in music, but it was the prevailing genre of New Orleans and boy, did they do it well! Vincenzo and I got our drinks and chatted in between listening to the music, and he explained a little bit more about the city and the street we were on.

“Frenchman Street has been a pretty important entertainment district, especially after Katrina,” he told me, in reference to the hurricane that had ravaged the city in 2005. “It’s definitely more of a local scene, though, for the arts and the music rather than the partying and the drinking.” He went on to tell me about Bourbon Street, arguably the most famous street of the city yet one that so many of the locals apparently loathe, disappointed that the tourist trap ultimately prevents visitors from seeing the rest of what the city has to offer, despite them still claiming to have had an “authentic New Orleans experience.” I’d had a few friends who had travelled through the city, and I had to admit that “when I was out on Bourbon Street” was probably the most common phrase in conversations about their visit. So I actually felt incredibly lucky that I’d chanced upon meeting with Vincenzo, someone who was obviously extremely passionate about his city, and who was able to show me a different side of things and lead me away from the brazen distractions. He’d lived there for a long time, knew of the pre-Katrina New Orleans, and had been there helping rebuild it ever since the storm hit, and just seeing the passion and enthusiasm when he talked about the city was inspiring. Those types of people make the best hosts for travellers, and it was during that evening that I knew I definitely wanted to stay with Vincenzo. The fact he was both totally gorgeous and a great kisser were just an added bonuses.

We stayed out late, and we drank a fair bit and maybe even danced a little, swinging to the beat of the devil’s music. Eventually we called it a night, and though it wasn’t on his way home, Vincenzo remained the perfect gentleman and walked me home to my hotel through the quiet, empty streets of the French Quarter.
“Well, New Orleans isn’t really that unsafe,” he confessed, “but it wouldn’t be right to let you walk home by yourself on your first night in a foreign city.” Ever charming as he was, I couldn’t help but blush and oblige, since his company was more than welcome. “And of course, any excuse to spend a bit of extra time with a beautiful man like yourself.”
All I could do was continue to wear my giddy smile, and in the argument for extra time together I invited him to stay the night. Although with no actual set departure date from New Orleans, I had a feeling Vincenzo and I were going to spend plenty of time together.

The Road to Rio

After about a week in São Paulo, it was time for me to move on. When I had first arrived in Brazil I had discussed with Fausto my options for visiting other cities, and whether there was an easy and affordable way to get to any of them. The city that was first and foremost in my mind was obviously Rio de Janeiro, and Fausto told me that it was only about six hours on a bus to get there. After some of the other long-haul journeys I’d taken, six hours on a bus seemed like nothing at all, so I went ahead and booked a ticket leaving São Paulo in about a weeks time. However, I also had to book my return ticket, since I already had my flight booked out of Brazil from São Paulo, something I’d had to do in a split second decision during my minor crisis at Dublin airport. After doing that, I spent my free time during the rest of the week looking for somewhere to stay while I would be in Rio. Fausto was looking up and recommending some pretty cool looking hostels – and most importantly, advising me on all the better areas of the city in which I should stay – but I directed more of my efforts into searching for Couchsurfing hosts and writing requests, and in the end it paid off: a friendly-looking American gay guy in his mid-20s who was currently living in Ipanema had agreed to host me.

Jump forward in time, after my nights of drinking and partying in São Paulo and waking up in the wrong city, and I was on my way to the bus station, using the public transportation of São Paulo for the first time. Fausto hadn’t spoken too highly of it, but there wasn’t anything wrong with it, really. I had to catch a bus and then two different metro lines before I got to the major bus terminal, and it took over an hour to eventually get there, but everything went smoothly and according to plan, and nobody tried to rob or pick pocket me in broad daylight, so I have no complaints. I actually overestimated how long it would take me to arrive, since I had also allowed enough time to pick up my tickets and make sure I knew where I was going within the terminal – a process which turned out to be remarkably simple – so I ended up having to sit around for a little while waiting for my departure time. Although, to be sure, that’s definitely a better feeling than sprinting through there terminal because you’re running late. Once we were on board and finally got moving, I chatted for a little bit to the guy who was sitting next to me, but eventually he moved away to where there were two empty seats, so I had a little more room for the rest of the journey. It was a beautiful day outside, and Brazil has some gorgeous countryside scenery, so I just relaxed and was able to quite comfortably enjoy the ride.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

I arrived around in the late afternoon, but before I went off into the city I decided to pick up my ticket for my bus ride home, so that I didn’t have to worry about it in the early morning when I was departing. I am so thankful that I decided to do that, because since both my journeys had been booked with two different bus services – yet I’d only received one printed confirmation when I booked them together – there was a huge misunderstanding within the entire system. I was sent from counter to counter of the different bus companies, trying to explain to people what I had done and what I was trying to do, with the fact only about half the people spoke any English proving to be a rather large hurdle. It took almost another hour of exasperatedly trying to make myself understood before they realised they were looking for my booking in the wrong place. After that, it was was simple as it had been at the station in São Paulo, but I secretly thanked myself for having the foresight of going through that whole ordeal earlier rather than when I actually had a bus to catch.

***

After all that had happened, I followed the directions my Couchsurfing host had given me to get from the bus terminal to his place. There was a bus route that would take me most of way, right down to the beach in Ipanema, one of the better known neighbourhoods in the south of Rio De Janerio. His directions were very good and I had no problems finding the place, but he’d told me to send him a text message when I arrived, rather than dialling any buzzer or number. I arrived to find a nice looking apartment building with the typical Brazilian level of security – this particular building had a tall black wrought iron fence – so I sent my new host a message and waited. The timing couldn’t have been better, actually, because he was just arriving home minutes after I had sent the message.

Tom was actually an American, originally from Baltimore, but he was living in Rio teaching English. He was a tall guy – something that made him stand out amongst the generally shorter Brazilian men – but he was super friendly from the moment I met him at the front gate.
“So, the reason you can’t dial my apartment,” Tom said as we went through the gate and around to the elevator, “is that it used to be the maids quarters to the apartment next door. So if you ring the bell, it just goes to their apartment.” I chuckled to myself, wondering how many awkward situations that might have caused for Tom in the past, but once I arrived he had a spare set of keys for me, so that wasn’t something I’d have to worry about while I was staying with him. “Though I gotta warn you, it’s obviously not the biggest place,” he said with a chuckle himself, but I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a pretty small space, but not too small – although ‘cozy’ isn’t exactly the best descriptor for somewhere in the humid tropics, that’s kind of how it felt. There was a main room that was essentially a living room, dining room and kitchen all in one, a small bathroom, and a separate bedroom. There was a sofa that folded out into a bed, although it took about half the room when it was open, so we left it shut for the time being. I settled in a little bit as Tom and I chatted and got to know each other. I told him about where I’d been so far, and he was pretty excited to learn that I’d visited his hometown of Baltimore. I think he was overcome with a wave of nostalgia when I pulled out the timetables of the MARC train that I had caught from DC to get there, which had been sitting in the bottom of my backpack since then. We were already getting on really well, and I was confident I’d already made another success story to add to my Couchsurfing experiences.

***

When I’d been in São Paulo, some of Fausto’s friends had told me that they were going to be going to Rio the same weekend that I was going be there, and invited me to come and join them at the parties that they were going to be attending. From the way they had described them, it sounded like they were going to be pretty over the top and lavish events, but I had told them I would have to wait and see what the situation was like with my Couchsurfing host in Rio. I can only imagine how rude it would look to turn up on someone’s doorstep, drop your bags off and then head off straight away to hang out with someone else. Though Tom turned out be a really cool guy, so when he told me that there was a friend of a friend of his in town who was also from Australia, and that he’d said we would be meeting up with him for a drink that evening, I decided to join them instead of chasing up Fausto’s friends. While they’d all been incredibly nice and welcoming during my time in São Paulo, I never felt like I’d totally fitted in with their kind of crowd. They were all a bit older, and all about finer and nicer things – half the time I felt like I didn’t currently possess any clothes that would meet the dress code to wherever they were going. Tom, on the other hand, was a totally chilled out guy who was living the casual, simplistic life of an ex-pat who lived a five minute walk away from a Brazilian beach, with zero hint of pretentiousness. There was definitely already a good connection between the two of us, so I stuck with him and headed out to meet this other Australian.

James and Tom had never met each other, but had been put touch by a mutual friend that Tom had met during his time previously visiting Australia. As a traveller it’s always nice to have a gay-friendly point of contact or someone you can meet up with when you arrive in a new place, especially in potentially dangerous places such as Brazil. We met James outside Tom’s building and had a quick greeting followed by a couple of awkward moments establishing how we all actually knew each other.
“So wait, you’re Australian?” James asked, pointing at me. “But how do you know each other?”
“Well… we don’t. I mean, we just met half an hour ago?” I said.
“But you’re staying with him?” James seemed a little puzzled, but when we explained the whole Couchsurfing thing it all made sense to him.

Tom lived in the heart of Ipanema – very close to the beach, and even closer to heap of different bars and restaurants down the main strip leading away from the beach. Tom chose a favourite bar of his and we sat down at a table and started off with some beers.
“I wanna try a Caipirinha,” James had said when it came time for the next round, and he proceeded to study the menu. “They’re supposed to be the speciality here in Brazil.” This was all news to me, so Tom and James explained: a Caipirinha is a cocktail made with muddled limes, ice, sugar and cachaça, a type of Brazilian rum made from sugar cane. However, in Brazil they don’t use limes, but a kind of green lemon called ‘limon subtil’ that is native to the region.
“Technically isn’t not a real Caipirinha unless it uses those Brazilian lemons,” Tom said, “but this places makes them with all different kinds of flavours.” We all decided to try different ones – however, I wasn’t much of a fan of the strawberry Caipirinha, and after tasting the ‘real’ Caipirinha Tom has ordered I wish I had chosen that rather than the pink, bastardised version.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

We sat in the bar chatting for at least a few hours. James was a really nice guy too. He’d been travelling around South America for a few months, and we both agreed it was kind of nice to talk to someone who actually perfectly understood all the weird slang words and ‘Australian-isms’ that we tend to use in everyday language without even realising it. We even confused Tom a few times, but we all got on really well. After a while we decided to leave and possibly head elsewhere. There was a gay night at q nightclub that James had heard about and wanted to check out, so Tom walked us there, but it looked a little dodgy and not that great. I was actually feeling pretty worn down from my bus trip, and no one was really in that much of a partying mood – I think it was a Tuesday, after all – so we ended up bidding James goodnight as he headed back to his hostel, and Tom and I went back to his place to crash and call it a night. It had been a quiet but really enjoyable evening, and all in all I was already pretty pleased with how my stay in Rio was turning out.

“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

After the weekend of depravity and sin, it was mostly back to the working week for Ralf, which gave me some time to sort out my next move in the bigger scheme of things on this world tour. While I was flying by the seat of the pants for the majority of the trip, there were times when I really had to sit down and look at a map and figure out at least the general direction of where I would be heading next. My romp through mainland Europe was almost at an end, so I had to start thinking beyond trains and onto planes and international airports. However, there was sufficient time to just hang out with Ralf, and some of the other friends I had made in Berlin.

***

One afternoon, Ralf took me to a park near his house that had a lookout with a view over the north-eastern side of Berlin. He pointed out certain structures and gave me interesting, little historical facts about the area. Afterwards we took a walk through some of the greenery, stopped for ice cream, and I just enjoyed not being on such a tight schedule of trains and sightseeing and searching for Couchsurfing hosts.

A sculpture at the lookout in  Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf's place.

A sculpture at the lookout in Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf’s place.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

Another afternoon I went on a trek down south in the city to visit Tempelhof Airport, not because I had a plane to catch, but because the airport had ceased operation in 2008 and been converted into a huge parklands area. Rivalling the Tiergarten in size, the park was full of people enjoying the afternoon sun – riding their bicycles, walking their dogs, playing sports and having picnics. I swear I saw a couple of shady looking guys hanging out in the trees, beckoning me over in what I can only assume was an attempt to sell me drugs, but they spoke in German so I just shook my head and kept on walking.

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

The park surrounding the transformed Tempelhof airport – the old airport itself is much more flat. 

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

After that I met up with Micha for a drink. The last time I had seen Micha was on his birthday, during my last weekend in Berlin, and I had been slumped over the bar at Rauschgold, struggling to stay awake. He’d said to drop him a line if I was ever back in Berlin, though like Ralf, I don’t think he was expecting me to be back quite so soon. Yet we did catch up for a drink, and I told him more about my travels throughout Europe, and it was a strange but nice feeling to actually have familiar faces to catch up with in a familiar city. Micha had work to do though, so it was only a quick afternoon drink before he had to head off again. Though on my way back to the U-Bahn station, who should I run into but Donatella and Eva, on their way out to get some dinner. I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that we were only a ten minute walk away from the apartment where I had been staying during my first time in Berlin, but randomly running into people you know on the street was definitely an experience that I had not had in a long time – the closest thing would have been bumping to Xavier at his work during Parisian Pride, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing. I had told Donatella I would be back in town, but I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the city in Ralf’s neighbourhood, so hadn’t gotten around to catching up with her again. We stopped and chatted for a little bit before saying farewells and parting ways, knowing that it would most certainly be a much longer time before I was ever back in this crazy city. But I skipped off down the street with a little spring in my step and a grin on my face. I felt like a bit of a local, or at least like I had left my mark in the city, by the fact that there were even familiar faces I could bump into on the street.

***

When I’d arrived at Ralf’s for this second visit to Berlin, I’d collapsed on the couch and tried to sort out my personal belongings a little bit, without taking over his living room entirely. When I pulled out my iPhone I almost went to ask for the wifi password, but then I remembered that I had been here before, and the bars of signal had already appeared at the top of the screen.
“I have this friend”, Ralf said to me when he noticed, “who has this favourite saying: home is where your phone recognises the wifi.” He smiled as he helped me unpack my things and sort out my dirty laundry. “So welcome home, or at least, home for now.” It was nice to have a familiar place to crash, and it did feel a little like home away from home. But it wasn’t just Ralf’s apartment – it was Berlin itself.

I remember talking about it with my sister via Skype, who had just relocated to Hawaii a month or so beforehand.
“I know what you mean,” she said when I told her of the unexplainable connection I felt with the place. “I never thought I would ever want to live in another city, let alone another county! But the first time I came here I just loved it – I hated having to leave, and I knew I had to come back.” I had been to quite a number of cities on my travels so far, but there was something that had drawn me back here, and I knew exactly what my sister was talking about.
“I just really feel like I could live here, you know? Like if someone told me ‘Your trip ends here, you have to stay’, I would be completely okay with that.” Of course, there were still so many destinations in my future that I was so excited to see, so that wasn’t entirely true – I’d be pretty upset if I was unable to do all the other things I’d been planning. But in terms of actually spending time in a city, getting amongst it and actually living there – Berlin had already truly won my heart.

Czech It Out

After saying goodbye to Itzel and alighting at Praha-hlavní nádraží, the main train station of Prague, I set out to navigate the public transport system of the capital of the Czech Republic. It was so close to 5 o’clock by the time I arrived in Prague that I didn’t even have to wait around at all – another perk of my detour was that I had done all my waiting either on the train, or in Bratislava. But first I did have to withdraw some crowns, the local currency, and then find somewhere to spend the large value notes in order to get change when I realised none of the metro ticket machines would accept them. There was also the strange requirement that I had to buy an extension for my luggage on top of my regular ticket, presumably because it would take up more room that could potentially fit another passenger. There was also a similar ticket for taking dogs on the metro, but in the end I had to forgo this extension and just buy a regular ticket simply because I didn’t have enough change to get the right one that I needed. “They rarely check for tickets on the metro in Prague,” Itzel had told me. “But they’re not really that expensive either, so you might as well buy it.” I did the best I could with what I had, and hoped that I could bluff my way out of any encountered trouble with excuses of being a tourist.

I followed the directions that my hosts had given me, though it was still very confusing. There were so many buses going on different routes and in different directions that all left from the same stop, and there was an uncomfortably lack of anyone who spoke English to help me out. But I persevered, and in the end I caught the right bus and followed the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS until I finally made it to my new home. Tomas and his boyfriend Matej’s house was right near the bus stop, and thankfully they were home by the time I finally arrived. Tomas had told me that I would be the first guest that the couple had hosted via Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if they were excited or nervous, but they warmly welcomed me into their home, a gorgeous little flat in a beautiful part of town. They had made me some dinner, too – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was a homemade meat dish with some vegetables and it was a traditional Czech recipe and it was absolutely delicious – just what I had needed after a long day of travelling. I also noticed the distinct use of dill in the cooking, and I smiled to myself and remembered my time in Russia, and in my head I could still hear Marti saying “Isn’t this dill-icious?” I guess that’s how I knew I was back in Eastern Europe. We sat around their kitchen for a little while, chatting and getting to know each other, and then Tomas asked if I felt like going out and seeing some of the city. After a day of doing nothing but watch the Eastern European countryside pass me by, I was keen to get out and about, so I showered and got changed and the three of us headed back into the city centre.

***

Tomas was probably one of the best hosts I could have asked for during my stay in Prague – he was incredibly knowledgeable of his city, and was always pointing out the smallest and most random things, yet had some interesting story or weird fact about each and every thing. Some things were history lessons, while others were more modern facts, or even urban street smart tips. “Don’t come here at night, it’s a little dangerous,” he had said as we passed a park area on the bus. “There are drugs. Drug dealing, things like that.” Then he shrugged his shoulders with a smile. “Unless you are looking for that kind of thing.” Our first stop that evening was down by the river, where there was some kind of small outdoor performance on, with a band playing live music and a temporary bar set up selling some local Czech beer. Tomas bought us a few beers and we listened to the music and talked more about Prague, and my previous and future travels. Most of my European hosts seemed a lot more interested about Australia though – I’d been gone for so long that even I started to forget that I was actually a foreigner from half a world away. Out on the water, the river was filled with paddle boats, some of them in the shape of swans, slowly gliding along in the warm afternoon sunlight. The further north I travelled, the longer the daylight hours were becoming, and I loved it.

From there we walked back along the river, Tomas pointing out different architectural features of different buildings until we finally wandered up to the Old Town historical centre. Where the riverside pop-up bar had been a more underground affair, I could tell that we had wandered into the prime tourist zone of Prague as soon as we arrive. It was a beautiful area though, with the main square surrounded by small Gothic churches and cathedrals. I say ‘small’ in comparison to some of the larger churches I’d seen in Madrid and Rome, but they did manage to tower above the cobblestone pavements of Staroměstské náměstí, letting the small city hold its own and even stand out as one of the more beautiful places I had visited so far. The other major feature of the Old Town Square was the Old Town Hall, or more specifically, the astronomical clock on the bell tower. “It’s very popular with tourists,” Matej said, indicating the throng of people that was amassing at the base of the tower.
“Yes, every hour there is this… show… display…” At first it just seemed like Tomas couldn’t find the right word in English to explain what he was trying to say, but later I would realise he was just uncomfortable at using any of those words to even try and explain what we were about to witness.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The bell tower performance isn’t technically a tourist trap in that it doesn’t really cost any money. Yet still, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off after watching it. It’s an extremely famous and popular sight to witness, and the flocks of people surrounding the bell tower had definitely peaked my curiosity. Matej and Tomas must have been rolling their eyes as I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the crowd, but they knew it was something I would have to witness and judge for myself. When the hour rolled around, the chimes began to echo through the square, and little wooden doors opened up from the clock, and out came a small procession of figurines, which Tomas would later inform me were supposed to be a parade of the apostles. Above them, a skeleton emerged to ring a small bell, which clanged out over the crowd. Flashed from hundreds of cameras went off, and I waited eagerly to see what else would happen… The apostles did their loop and went back inside, and the skeleton eventually finished ringing his bell and retired back into the clock. There was a small cheer from the crowd in front of me.

“That… wait, that was it? Everyone stood around waiting for that?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a cute display, and more than most clocks manage to do to entertain a crowd. But I just couldn’t believe that that was all it took to attract such an audience. Tomas and Matej both chuckled, having clearly anticipated my reaction. “It’s a tourist thing,” they both said. “You had to see it at least once.” As fate would have it, I ended up in the same part of town the following afternoon and purely by chance, I happened to be there on the hour. During the daylight hours it was easier to take some clearer photos, although I can’t say they’re that much more exciting than being there to witness the show first hand… which isn’t saying much.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

After that we wandered through some more of the town, exploring the old streets as I marvelled at the simple, intrinsic beauty of the place. Prague really did feel like a kingdom from a storybook, complete with a castle on the hill across the river, gazing down over the city. The three of us stopped by another one of the couples favourite bars on the way home, where we had a few more beers while Tomas told me more about Prague, while also interrogating me about my own journey and travels. They were both such sweet and lovely guys – I was starting to wonder when my luck at finding such nice hosts was going to run out. The two of them both had to work in the morning though, so we eventually stumbled back down the street to crash, and I would continue my exploring of the fairytale city on the morrow.

Recovery: From the city to the sea

I watched the Italian countryside whizz past me as the train carried me away from Rome. Eventually the train tracks became parallel with the seaside, and I gazed out into the distance over the Mediterranean. In one short trip I was going from coast to coast in Italy, from the capital city of Rome to the tiny port town of Ancona. “Ancona?” Valerio had asked me with a very confused expression, when I had informed him of my next destination. “Nobody… I mean nobody, goes to Ancona. Pass through maybe, but… well, there’s nothing there!” Ancona was a regular port for ferries that routinly carried passengers from the east coast of Italy to Croatia and Greece. It hadn’t exactly been on my high priority list of places to see, but while I had been searching desperately for a place to stay in Rome via Couchsurfing, I had received a message from Ike.

The interesting thing about Couchsurfing is that you can send requests to potential hosts, but you can also publicly post your travel itinerary so that hosts in areas where you are planning to travel are able to find you and invite you to stay with them. The majority of people who I have spoken to about this assured me that that was way too creepy for them, and that they wouldn’t just accept offers from random people they didn’t know, but my journey so far had showed me that taking a chance on the generosity of strangers can sometimes have the most rewarding results. I had been looking for other places to stay in while travelling Italy, but so far all my other searches had been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Ike had sent me a message saying he had noticed I was travelling through Europe, and that if I ever made it to Ancona he would be happy to host me. We had stayed in correspondence during my frantic search for hosts in Rome and my breakdown in Madrid, and from what I could gather he seemed to be a nice and rather genuine guy. So when I arrived in Rome and had to make plans for my next upcoming destination, I agreed to visit Ike in his sunny little corner of Italy. Four days later, and I was stepping off the train into the blistering afternoon sun, where he was waiting to pick me up.

Ike was a fun and outgoing guy with a cheeky sense of humour, and just like when I had met Stefan – who had also stayed with Ike – we got on well straight away. I knew I had made the right decision in coming here – better to spend a couple of days in a town you’d never heard of with a fun stranger than wander around a well known city by yourself. I’d done plenty of that in Rome, so during my time in Ancona I was determined to do absolutely no sightseeing. I needed a break from all that. When we got back to his place, Ike showed me a map of the area and a bunch of information pamphlets about things to see and do. “There’s a short historical walk through the main centre,” he said, pointing at the map to a spot in the centre of town – Ike lived a little further up one of the many rolling hills that surrounded the port, about a 10 minute drive from the train station. “Stefan was very into that kind of thing, but I’m not sure what you want to do while you’re here.” I told Ike that I would be happy to find a spot on the beach and just chill out, so he gave me a few options for the nearby beaches that I could try, most of which were pretty easily accessible by bus. “I’d love to come with you if I had the time, but unfortunately I’ve got to work.” Ike even had to go back to work that afternoon, so he left me at his place to do some laundry and get some rest. When he got home, Ike cooked dinner and we had a night of great conversation over a bottle of wine. We talked about travelling, our Couchsurfing experiences, and he even taught me a couple of phrases in Italian. It was a fun and carefree evening, and I was already very pleased with my decision to stop by Ancona and take some time out in this Italian hideaway.

***

The next day Ike had to go to work again, so after a bit of a sleep in and a lazy morning, I caught a bus down the hill to the city centre and then transferred to another bus that would take me to the nearby beach of Portonovo. The bus was crowded with lots children and teenagers, and it was only then that I realised it was the height of summer and that school was probably out, and everyone in town would be heading for the beach. It also took a little longer to get there than I had anticipated – I was on the bus for over half an hour, going up and down the twisting and winding hills of the outskirts of Ancona before we finally arrived at Portonovo. I wandered through some of the shrubbery around the bus stop and down through a small woodland area before emerging onto the beach. The area had a handful of restaurants and other overpriced-looking places where you could hire beach chairs, but I bypassed all that and went straight to the waters edge.

There, I faced a problem that I hadn’t really faced since I’d been in Thailand – I was alone on a beach with a backpack containing valuables such as my phone and wallet, and I had no way of properly securing them. Even if I was to put a lock on my bag, there was nothing stoping someone from simply running away with it. The beach was fairly crowded, but not so much that I wouldn’t be able to see my things if I left them in plain sight from the water, and it was too hot to not go swimming. In the end I just had to take a chance and leave my backpack while I went into the water. I never swam too far from where I’d left it, but I was a little more relaxed than I had been on the beach at Ao Nang. And it was worth it – with the hot sun beating down on the crowds of beach goers, the cool blue water felt absolutely amazing to dive into. When I’d had enough of that, I crawled back onto the beach, lathered myself in sunscreen, and laid down to soak up some rays. I think it was something I’d first noticed lying in the park in Christiana during my time in Copenhagen, but the sun in Europe just doesn’t seem to be as strong as it does down in Australia. Obviously Italy has a lot stronger sunshine than Denmark – Ike told me he regularly uses 50+ SPF sunscreen – but compared to the sun in Australia it felt like a casual warm day. I was very conscious of my sunscreen use though, which allowed me to relax enough to actually doze off into a state of semi-sleep more than a couple of times. It was the perfect temperature, and I stayed there on the beach for as long as I dared before I thought there really was a chance of me getting significantly burnt.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

I took one final dip in the ocean before heading back to the bus stop, and indulging in some amazing Italian gelato while I waited for the bus. When the bus finally arrived, slowly making its way down the hill from the highway, I hopped on board, thinking it would take me back to the centre of Ancona. I was surprised to find that its final stop was simply at the top of the hill. “Last stop – everyone off,” the bus driver called out to me. It was definitely up there in my travel nightmare scenarios – being forced off the bus but having absolutely no idea where I was or how I was going to get back. However, when I hopped off the bus I was momentarily distracted by the field of sunflowers that spread out in front of me in the paddock beside the road. I took the opportunity to take a few photos, and just sit back and marvel at the Italian countryside and the picture perfect landscape I had laid my eyes on.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

But then it was back to panicking. Another bus with the right number came along, so I hopped on. It took me… back down to the beach. What the Hell was going on? I decided to swallow my pride, realising I needed help, and approached the bus driver, crossing my fingers and praying he spoke some English. I explained where I wanted to go, and he knew enough to understand and give me a reply: “Ahh – next bus!” I sighed, knowing it was about as much help as I was going to get, and stepped off the bus. It wasn’t too long before the next bus came trundling down the hill, and when it finally did I was relieved to feel it make the turn onto the main road that led back to Ancona. I had given up trying to understand how public transport timetables – or indeed, any kind of timed service – operated in Italy. I’m not one for generalising stereotypes, but I can honestly say that chronic lateness was something that I experienced in pretty much all public services in Italy. Countries like Italy and Spain are currently suffering from unbelievably high levels of youth unemployment, but I can’t help but wonder if the people who were actually employed were doing any more work than the people who weren’t.

***

That evening was my second and final night staying in Ancona, so when Ike got back from work we decided to go for a little drive to see some of the other parts around the area that I hadn’t been able to see by myself. We headed south down the coast, admiring the countryside in the dying daylight. At the small town of Sirolo, we stopped the car and got out to watch the sunset behind one of the cliffs. It was nice to be outside of the huge cities for a change, and to experience some very natural beauty such as this. I took a few photos before we continued on to the next small town of Numana. There we got out and walked around the town. It was a little more tourist-orientated than the centre port of Ancona had been, and the streets were quite well preserved in an older, historical style, with uneven tiling and cobblestones lining the streets. We walked down to the docks and looked out over the water as twilight settled in. It wasn’t quite as prominent as the white nights in St Petersburg, but even in southern Europe it still took a very long time for nighttime to actually become dark – often there was still a lot of natural light and visibility as late as 10pm. It was a strange phenomenon that I was only now getting used to.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

After wandering through the old, steep streets, we headed back to the car and went home. I didn’t ask, but in a small town like Ancona I assumed that there wasn’t much of a nightlife scene, gay or otherwise. Even if there was, I don’t think I would have bothered going. My time in Ancona had been all about relaxing and taking the down time that I had been unable to take in the past couple of weeks. I helped Ike make some dinner and we had some more wine before retiring to bed. He was leaving for a work trip the following day, and I had several trains to catch. But I’d had a fun and memorable few days with Ike in Ancona. He’d told me that it was often just a passing through town for so many people, and that people rarely discovered the little gems of beauty it contained. At that moment, I was eternally grateful that I’d decided to travel the way I was travelling: solo, using Couchsurfing, and meeting all kinds of interesting locals along the way. It assured me that not only was I having an amazing once in a lifetime trip, but that I was seeing parts of the world that many other travels might breeze over without a second glance.