Tourist Times in Tinseltown

While a lot of my time in Los Angeles was spent hanging out with my new friends, there were a few times when I had to play the tourist card and actively make an attempt to see some of the typical or cliché LA sights. One afternoon when Jake was busy with work, I met up with a guy who I had chatted to on Couchsurfing just before my arrival in LA. This was before I had met Jake, who had assured me that he had no problems with me staying with him for the entire duration of my time in the city, but when I explained to David that I was no longer seeking a place to say, I told him that I was still keen to hang out and meet new people while seeing the city. And so that’s how David ended picking me up with his boyfriend Danny (who ended up knowing Jake because he played dodgeball – he knew everyone!), and we went for a drive from West Hollywood down to Santa Monica Pier.

Traffic was pretty terrible, and since most of the commuting I’d been doing around LA was between WeHo and the neighbouring suburbs, it was really my first experience of the notorious LA traffic. But we eventually made it to Santa Monica and found a park, and Danny and David took me to one of their favourite bars in the area that did cheap and strong margaritas. I had a couple before we wandered further down to the pier itself.

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Santa Monica Pier. 

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Route 66, one of the original roads of the US Highway System, starts in Chicago, Illinois and finishes here in Santa Monica. 

When I was told we were going to Santa Monica Pier, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. A rickety old wooden platform over the ocean with a couple of old dudes fishing on it, perhaps? I couldn’t have been more wrong: similar to Pier 39 in San Francisco, Santa Monica Pier was almost a small theme park in its own right, with carnival rides, shops, restaurants and food stands. It looked like a partial tourist trap, but it also looked like the place some of the bored teenagers on The OC used to hang out, like an outdoor mall with a Ferris wheel.

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Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

We wandered down to the edge of the pier, and while it was fun to check it out and take a few pictures, I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the rides or games or shops. If I’m totally honest, the thing that probably excited me the most about being at Santa Monica Pier was seeing the sunset over the ocean. As a dweller of the east coast in my own country, a sunset over the ocean was something that was actually impossible for me to witness, and I was never one to get up early enough to watch an ocean sunrise. I suppose Hollywood being on the west coast of the US has probably played a part in the way the idea of ocean sunsets have been romanticised into popular culture, but regardless, it was still nice to watch the big burning ball of gas sink below the watery horizon.

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Sunset over the Pacific Ocean. 

***

“Are you going to any TV show tapings? Be a part of a live studio audience?” A few people had asked me these questions in my first few days of being in LA.
“Um… I… I don’t… is that… is that something people do?” I hadn’t made that many plans at all, but going to watch a TV show being filmed hadn’t even popped up on  my radar. There weren’t any TV shows with live studio audiences that I could think of that I’d really want to watch, or at least not enough to pay for it. Maybe something like being in the audience for Ellen DeGeneres’ show, but even my experiences with The Katie Show in New York had showed me that those tapings were lengthy ordeals (although I won a computer for my efforts, so I’m not really complaining).

Enter Jake and his endless connections to people all over the city.
“Hey, Warren works at the CBS Studio Center! Perhaps I could see if he could get you into a studio audience?” So he made the call where Warren confirmed that he could, and I figured that I might as well go along and do something typically Hollywood, especially if it was free anyway. Jake drove me out to the studio and dropped me off, but not before running through the complex and helping me take a few photos of things that caught my eye. I couldn’t go past the memorial plaque of Will & Grace, and I also stopped for a picture on the outdoor set of New York City, a strip of street that was done up to look like the east coast city, which had provided the filming set for a number of shows that had been set in New York City, like Seinfeld.

 

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New York in Los Angeles. 

Afterwards, I headed to the studio where I was going to sit in on the live studio audience of the Melissa & Joey show, a sitcom that I had never previously heard of. I was excited, however, when I realised that the Melissa from the show title was none other than Melissa Joan Heart, the one and only Sabrina, the teenage witch. I’d loved that show as a kid, and while Melissa was definitely not a teenager anymore (she’s a mother of two, actually), she was still a decent comedic actress. It was also kind of interesting to be a part of the audience while the show itself was being filmed. They did each scene at least twice, even if they nailed them, just to make sure they had enough good takes during editing and producing, which meant that the filming of a 20 minute episode turned into at least a couple of hours. It was a light-hearted sitcom though, and I enjoyed watching it – if you ever find yourself watching an episode where there’s a distinct snort of laughter coming from the studio audience, you’re welcome. Warren worked on the production side of things, so I didn’t see him again until the filming was over. He came and found me once everything had wrapped up, and while I didn’t get to meet any of the actors on the show, he was able to give me a an autographed photograph of the cast. Free experiences with free souvenirs – doesn’t get much better than that. When he finished work, Warren drove me to dodgeball, where I was reunited with Jake.

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***

My only other brush with anything related to TV was actually one of my biggest highlights in LA, at least as far as touristy sightseeing goes.
“Well, there is one thing that I’d really like to see,” I confessed to Jake one afternoon, when we were brainstorming about things to do. I explained to him how I was a huge fan of the TV show Charmed, and how I had been shocked to learn that the house itself was not located in San Francisco.
“Oh yeah! It’s here in LA, I think. There’s a bunch of streets over in Echo Park that are just filled with famous houses from movies and TV shows. We can totally take a drive out there.” So that’s what we did, and I finally got my photo with the Victorian style magical manor.

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The Halliwell Manor – easily one of the biggest highlights of my time in LA. 

 

***

Now, there’s probably one glaringly obvious tourist attraction in Los Angeles that I haven’t mentioned yet. But the truth is, I never really had any intention of going to Disneyland. As a child, I’d been to Disney World over in Florida, and it had been awesome, but I’d also been 9 years old. Not that I wouldn’t have had fun in Disneyland as an adult, but being on the backpacker budget that I was, it wasn’t a priority. I also learned just how enormous and spread out LA actually is when I tied to locate Anaheim on a map, and realised that it was at least an hours drive to get out there. Coupled with my lack of burning desire to go there, I had written it out of my plans. Until I remembered someone I knew who actually lived in Anaheim.

The Trans-Siberian Railway felt like almost a lifetime ago, but the friends I had made on that once-in-a-lifetime journey were still fresh in my memories and blog posts. During our emotional goodbyes in St Petersburg, I told Kaylah that I was definitely going to be in LA at the end of the year, since I already had my final flight booked out of LAX. So we made a promise that we would catch up when I was there, but it was only when I got to LA that I realised just how large the city actually was. West Hollywood and Anaheim felt like worlds away, and while I wanted to see Kaylah, I didn’t want to make her drive across the city on her day off, just to hang out in WeHo, where I’d been spending most of my time anyway. Though as fate would have it, when I mentioned it to him, Jake informed me that he actually had a reason to drive out to east LA.
“My dad actually lives out that way, and he’s got a whole bunch of furniture and other stuff that I need to pick up!” he told me. “So, if you wanna go meet her out that way, I could drive you somewhere and then go see my dad while you two hang out?” As things had seemed to be happening lately, everything turned out pretty perfectly.

We met up with Kaylah, and set a rough meeting time for later in the afternoon. I was so excited to see Kaylah again – she’d been one of my favourite people on the Trans-Siberian tour, and we’d always had ridiculous amounts of fun together. Kaylah was a correctional officer in a juvenile detention centre, and before we’d met up she told me that Knot’s Berry Farm, a rollercoaster theme park over near where she lived, was doing a free entry promotion for all law enforcement personal, a category in which she was included. Free entry was also extended to a second person, so we agreed that that would be a fun way to hang out and catch up, interspersed by some rollercoaster rides.

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It wasn’t until we actually got there, though, that Kaylah admitted she wasn’t even a huge fan of rollercoasters. I started to feel bad, but she assured me that she still wanted me to go on them if I wanted to. It hadn’t been that long since I went on a bunch of rollercoasters at the Six Flags in New Jersey, but I do love them, so Kaylah took photos of me while I screamed my lungs out on the various rides. We also rode dodge ’em cars together, which was a bit of a throwback to the time Kaylah and I had rode quad bikes through the Siberian wilderness, and I had been sure that I was going to end up flipping ours and crushing us. Luckily there was slightly less chance of doing that in an LA theme park.

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After a few hours at Knot’s Berry Farm, we left to grab a bite to eat at the nearby TGI Fridays. We also ordered some ciders, and it was there that I experienced for the second time what had happened to me in that little bar in Flagstaff – the waitstaff would not accept my drivers licence as a valid form of ID, saying that it needed to be federally issued. Most Americans aren’t even aware of the fact Australia actually has states, so it is pretty infuriating that they can be such sticklers about little things like that. What’s worse is that I had been using my drivers licence in every other place in California, so I knew it wasn’t actually a legal thing like it had been in Arizona.
“Look, this is my ID, I’m clearly over 21!” I tried bargaining with him.
“I’ve never seen an Australian drivers licence before though,” the guy said with a laugh, clearly nervous but trying to deflect my clearly mounting irritation. “It could be a fake.” I put the licence in my mouth and bit down on it, tugging at the plastic.
“It’s very real! And what, you know exactly what an Australian passport looks like? Do you want me to Google a New South Wales drivers licence? It’s real!”
I even sent the dude back to check with his manager, who also regretfully informed me they were unable to serve me.
“Whatever,” I said and just rolled my eyes. I mean, I didn’t need to have a drink or anything, but it was more just the principle of being refused that annoyed me.

After all that, Kaylah and I wandered down to the nearby Disneyland. There was a whole street of shops and smaller things to look at before actually entering the gates into Disneyland proper, so we just walked down that, taking photos and dodging toddlers and families and mothers with prams as they made their way to the happiest place on Earth.

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Dragon and knight made entirely out of Lego.

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Lego Beauty and the Beast characters, made out of more Lego. Meta.

I mainly just had fun hanging out with Kaylah, telling her all about what I’d been up to since we’d parted ways in Russia, and reminiscing about all the fun we’d had all those months ago. Eventually it was time for Jake and I to head back to WeHo, so Kaylah and I drove to meet him and then said our goodbyes once again. Though the fact that it was our second goodbye, and that we’d met each other again on a completely opposite side of the world so many months later, proved that in a world as small as ours, for travellers like us, goodbyes were only ever temporary.

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Trans-Siberian Railway buddies united!

***

The day spent out in Anaheim with Kaylah was actually my last full day in LA, and that evening would be my last night before I flew out the following morning. Jake was feeling a little glum about it, considering how I’d been living with him for over a week now, and we’d been having so much fun. Yet even to the last moment, he was still thinking of cool and interesting things we could do in LA. “Something you wouldn’t know about if you weren’t from around here. I want you to leave saying just how awesome a time you had in LA.”

There’s a place up on the hills of Hollywood Heights called the Magic Castle. It’s the clubhouse of a private organisation that promotes and supports the art of magic and magicians. You have to either be a member or be signed in as a guest by a member, and of course Jake knew – through dodgeball – a member who was a magician. The dress code of the Magic Castle was formal evening wear, so I had to borrow a shirt and tie from Jake, and on my last night we made our way up to the Castle, where we were greeted by Jake’s friend Jeb. The castle itself is technically more of a Victorian mansion, and stepping inside felt like you were stepping back in time itself, with the polished wood furnishings, luxurious deep red carpets and dapper gentlemen and elegantly dressed woman gliding through the hallways. Jeb gave us a tour of many of the castles quirky and interesting rooms. I’m not supposed to give away too much, but there was a piano that plays by itself (or is played by  ghost, depending on who you ask), and can even take requests (I requested Pokerface).

There was also a table in a more open area where magicians could set up and perform card tricks and other small magical shows. Jake and I sat around the table while Jeb performed one, and I wish there was more I could say to explain what he did but then if I knew I would probably be a magician… and then I definitely wouldn’t tell you. There were also a few other shows that you could attend while visiting the Magic Castle, and Jake and I got almost front row seats to a show with a mentalist. Now, I have to admit this show actually scared me a little bit. I don’t want to give away too much, but the general idea was that he could supposedly see our thoughts or read our minds. It seemed like more of a psychic than anything to do with performance magic or magicians, but I was curious. He asked for three volunteers: someone who was good with drawing, someone who was good with numbers, and someone who was good with words. I enthusiastically volunteered to the be wordsmith. After watching the mentalist successfully sketch a drawing that the first woman had secretly drawn, without ever seeing it, and know the number that another woman was thinking of, which she had picked from the top of her head and hadn’t told him, it was my turn. Out in the front of the theatre room with him, he asked me to imagine I was in a library. I was to go over to one of the shelves and pull out a book. I had a bit of a brain freeze, and for a few seconds the only book that came to mind was the Bible. But then, for some reason, I’m not sure why, The Jungle Book came to mind, and so my word that the mentalist would have to correctly identify was ‘jungle’.

He asked a handful of questions, all which had seemingly nothing at all to do with The Jungle Book or the word ‘jungle’. I was so confused. Yet when he claimed that he had it, sure enough he scribbled on a big sheet of paper and produced the word ‘jungle’ in big, black block letters. I was actually stunned. I’m not exactly a skeptic when it comes to psychics or magic, but this seemed way above the pay grade of a normal magician. I was dying to know how he knew, short of believing he was actually a psychic, but of course a good magician never revealed his secrets, and I left the Magic Castle with a burning curiosity, as well as a reluctant resignation to the fact that I would probably never find out how he’d gotten inside my head.

“So. Last night in LA. Anything else you really wanna do?” Jake said to me as we climbed into the car after the show was over. We locked eyes for a moment.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I said with I grin.
“I don’t know… I might be…?”
“Taco Bell?”
“Let’s do it!”

***

And so after having such an amazing time in LA, having more fun than I ever thought I would and meeting such a cool bunch of people, it was time for me to get travelling again. It was something that you think I would be used to by now, and while I can admit that it does get a littler easier, it’s never exactly easy. I’d travelled all around the world, and fallen in love with a handful of places, and LA was definitely high on the list of places that had actually started to feel like home. Combined with the fact that endless travel had eventually started to wear me down, I was almost reluctant to leave.

“You’re gonna have such a great time in Hawaii,” Jake said to me as he drove me through the mid-morning traffic to the airport. “I mean, I’m gonna miss you like Hell, but I’m also excited for you,” he said with a smile. I was pretty quiet. I guess saying too much during goodbyes always made them a little harder. Eventually we arrived at the airport, and Jake hopped out to help me get my bag out of the car. Then we had our final hugs and kisses, and I told him that I would definitely be back one day. How could I not? Jake had done so much for me during my stay in LA, literally driving me across the city to see things and meet people, introducing me to all of his friends, rescuing me from creepy guys and giving me a place to stay for the entire time too. He’d gone so out of his way to make sure I’d done and seen things that would make me remember my time in LA as something amazing, but in reality it had just been him being himself that had made it so awesome, and that was the reason I knew I’d one day come back.

He was parked in the cab drop-off point though, so we couldn’t draw the farewell out too long. So we said our goodbyes, I waved as he took off down the road and out of sight, and then I headed to the terminal to catch the flight to my final destination.

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As weird as it sounds, even the LAX sign was a sight that I had seen in TV shows and was therefore somewhat exciting. 

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On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

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The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

Underage Drinking: cheap wine and Lil Wayne

Since we were sharing her studio apartment, Melissa and I had obviously been spending a lot of time together, even if it was just hanging out at her place and just chatting about life or boys or whatever. I also had the pleasure of meeting a few of Melissa’s good friends while I was staying with her, including her gay best friend Stefon, who I had heard so much about, and who Melissa had basically described as her soulmate. He lived over in Brooklyn, and his personality was the perfect blend of inspired, creative depth and sassy street smarts. The first time we met, Melissa and I were heading out to grab dinner with him and Nirali, another close friend of theirs. It was always interesting to join new friend groups, and see how their dynamics shift and differ from country to country, and how different they are from my own friends. When it came to Melissa’s friends, and essentially all over the United States, I found a familiarity within the social circles that I hadn’t felt in a lot of other places. I guess the lack of culture clashes was partly the reason – I spoke the language, I understood all the references, and I didn’t feel like quite such a tourist as I made my way through this country.

But Melissa’s friends were just so… nice. Honestly, they were lovely. I know that sounds like a strange thing to zone in on, but most of my own social circles back home… well, we’re all friends, and we all like each other, but so many exchanges are laced with cutting sarcasm, playful yet offensive implicit insults, and jokes that are usually funny but often at someone else’s expense. Melissa, on the other hand, was just one of the kindest and most caring people I had ever met, and that was definitely reflected in the company that she kept. Melissa just had so much love for everyone in her life, and that really shone through when I met her friends. It was a really positive experience, full of positive energy, and I was so happy that she was opening up her home and her life to me while I was in the city.

After dinner we bid farewell to the lovely Nirali, who had to work early the following day, and Stefon, Melissa and myself made a detour to Trader Joe’s. They were both surprised that I had never heard of it, and after I’d discovered it I was a little surprised as well – from that day on it seemed like the chain was everywhere, not just in the streets I wandered thought but in movies and television shows too. It was just like any other supermarket, really, except this particular location we were in had a huge selection of very decently priced wine. Stefon said he’d recently been paid, so tonight the wine was on him. I think we clocked up about 10 bottles before we finally cooled off and decided we were officially well stocked, but when when it came time to actually buy the wine, Stefon handed some cash to Melissa and then quickly walked outside. I was confused, so I questioned Melissa about it as we waited in the humungous line.

“Why did he…?” I half said, half pointing to the door Stefon had just passed through, the implication of question evident.
“He’s only 19, remember?” she said, trying to keep her voice down.
“Yeah?” I had known Stefon was a couple of years younger than us. “But that… ohhhh!” The drinking in age in America was something that I hadn’t given much thought to, other than always telling myself I would never travel in the states until I was 21, for that exact reason. I’d almost forgotten that their drinking age was different to ours. So we bought the wine for ourselves and Stefon, but I didn’t even really think twice about doing it. For me it didn’t even seem like it was a bad or illegal thing – back home I was buying and drinking wine when I was 18, so purchasing it for a 19 year old who couldn’t buy it himself felt like a Robin Hood-style correction of justice, as though we were helping to right a crazy flaw in their system.

We stopped to get cupcakes before taking the subway back to Melissa’s, but I couldn’t help but pick Stefon’s brains about the whole drinking age thing.
“So, you can’t buy alcohol at all?” I mean, I know how drinking ages work, but I just couldn’t adjust to the fact the restriction was different here. But of course, Stefon had his ways.
“Well, sometimes you can get away with it. Like at dinner tonight.”
“Oh yeah!” Stefon had ordered an alcoholic drink at dinner, just like the rest of us. I guess that’s why I was so shocked by this realisation now – the fact he couldn’t buy the wine had felt unnatural.
“I just ordered last, and waited to see how the waitress reacted when you all ordered alcohol. She didn’t ask to see any of your IDs, so I figured I was pretty safe to order alcohol too.” And he had been right, since he’d fooled the waitress as well as myself.
“Wow… yeah, you’re totally right! That’s clever! I’m impressed!” Stefon just let out a smug little smile and shrugged his shoulders. The boy knew what he was doing.

***

The following day, I had the opportunity to do something that was – in my opinion, at least – very American: be an audience member of a television talk show. I know things like that happen all over the world, but the states have all the big stars and major shows that are known all over the world. While we were at dinner, Melissa had received a message from her friend Justin asking if she wanted to come to the taping of an episode of The Katie Show tomorrow, and if she knew anyone else who might want to go – he had a handful of spare tickets that he had won or been given, I’m not sure exactly.
“The Katie Show?” Melissa had said with a chuckle. “Who or what is ‘Katie’?”
“Oh my God – The Katie Show? As in, Katie Couric?” That earned me blank stares from Nirali, Stefon and Melissa. “She’s… like… I don’t know exactly but I know she works in TV.”
“That’s hilarious,” Melissa said with a laugh. “The only non-American out of us is the only one who has even heard of her!”
“Okay, well… the only reason I know her is because she guest starred as herself in the episode of Will & Grace were Grace and Leo get married in the park. She was doing the news report on the mass wedding in Central Park.” That sparked another round of laughter, and Melissa asked Justin a few more questions about the taping. Apparently the major guest of the show was going to be Lil Wayne, and while I’m not the biggest hip hop fan, I had nothing else to do the next day, and Melissa and Stefon didn’t have classes, so we thought it would be something interesting to do.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

The set of the show before filming started - for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The set of the show before filming started – for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The taping itself was actually pretty fun. They had crowd warming exercises, and weird things like dancing competitions which actually turned out to be pretty hilarious. They had a variety of guests, from a tragedy survivor to a struggling family to famous journalist Barbra Walters, who was actually Katie’s personal friend. The interview with Lil Wayne was actually particularly engaging – I ended up learning quite a lot about him and leaving the studio with a newfound respect for the man, or at least for his current public persona. But that’s not all away I walked away with – there was a surprise gift for every single audience member. At the beginning of the show we had to fill out some forms and give our addresses so that whatever the prizes were could be mailed to us. When I asked the woman handing out the forms about international addresses, she gave me a dismayed look.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Unfortunately for tax reasons we can only give away prizes to US citizens.” She made a mark on the corner of my form in red pen before continuing on. Undeterred, I got another form and just filled it out again, but instead I wrote down Melissa’s address. It didn’t really matter in the end, since you had to go online to register to have the free gift delivered, and you had to enter an address again anyway.

But what we actually got was pretty awesome. At the very end of the show, Katie came out and stood next to a table with a large cover over it.
“Now I’m sure you’re all wondering what you’re all going to be going home with today,” Katie said, and it was true. We were all brimming with anticipation. So when she removed the cover to reveal a computer, a HP ENVY Rove All-In-One PC, the crowd went absolutely crazy. We all started screaming. Melissa looked stunned. Stefon looked like he was about to cry tears of happiness. Even I felt a little giddy. I mean, it was just a computer, but the fact they were giving it to us for literally doing nothing except sitting and watching the show inspired a sense of delirious happiness. Sure, Oprah wasn’t giving us cars, but it was still pretty damn cool.

When the computers finally arrived at Melissa’s house, I struggled to decide what to do with it. I would be meeting my dad in New York towards the end of my stay here, and was thinking if it was small enough I could send it home with him. The boxes were huge though, and so heavy, which also ruled out posting it home unless I wanted to pay probably more than what the computer itself was worth in postage fees. In the end, Melissa and I came up with the best solution. Melissa’s mom had been wanting a new computer, and had offered to buy my prize from me. At first I refused to sell it, since it had literally cost me nothing to obtain, but she wouldn’t let me give it to her for free. I was travelling, she had insisted, so I could always do with the extra cash. She was right, of course, so in the end that was what we did. The money was of much more practical use than a computer ever would have been, but I still like to remember myself as one of those fanatics that went ballistic about winning a prize as a television talk show audience member.