Clearing Customs and a Stateside Shaman

After a long flight and a short, restless sleep, my flight out of São Paulo touched down in Miami. Although it wouldn’t be my final destination for the day, it was my first stop on my return to the United States of America, which meant it was the place where I would have to clear customs before continuing on my way. Despite having done nothing wrong and having absolutely nothing to hide, going through customs, especially in the US, always made me feel a little uneasy, as though there could potentially be something wrong that I didn’t know about. It had been a bit nicer when I’d done the US pre-customs in the airport in Dublin, I’m not sure why, but this was the first time I would be clearing US customs in a US airport (coming back from Canada via train, customs had been a little stern but on the whole nothing to really worry about). Luckily it was pretty early in the morning when we landed in Miami – around 7am – so there wasn’t an awful lot of queuing or anything. Yet when I lugged my bag onto the X-ray machine, of course they decided it was worth pulling aside and taking a look at.

“Good morning, sir” the man said in a voice that was a little too chipper for that hour of the morning, for me. “This your bag here? You packed it yourself?”
“Yes, it’s my bag, and yes, I did.” I answered, half of me still asleep and half of me just a little on edge from being in customs.
“Do you have any liquids in this bag?”
“Ah, well, yeah… I mean, there’s a bottle of bourbon I bought from duty free stuffed in there somewhere.” It’d been a good price, and I knew it was completely within the regulations.
“What about down here?” he asked, looking back to the x-ray image before pointing to the bottom of my bag.
“Oh, there’s nothing in there except some shoes and my toiletries. So there’s a few creams and yeah, I guess liquids and stuff there too.”
“Would you mind if we take a look?”
I opened the bag to reveal some shoes, a belt, and my little black bag toiletries.
“Can we please take a look inside that bag?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, but he barely waited for a response before pulling open the zippers and poking his fingers around my toothpaste, my moisturisers, my sunscreen, my condoms… I mean, I didn’t have anything incriminating to hide, but it was a little uncomfortable to have him rifling through probably the most personal part of my luggage. The only thing worse would have been, I don’t know, going through my dirty underwear or something.

Eventually he was satisfied that I was nothing but an innocent traveller, so once again I was on my way. I had to catch a monorail within the airport just to get the terminal from where my next flight would be departing, and once I was there I grabbed some breakfast and readjusted to the pleasant realisation that I was in an English-speaking country again. The layover in Miami was less than two hours, but by the time I got out of customs there wasn’t even that much of a wait before I was boarding again and onto my next destination: a kooky and mysterious port in the south-west of the country.

When I’d been booking my flights back to the US from Brazil with my mother and travel agent over the phone, my mother had asked which city I wanted to fly back into.
“Just back to New York?”
“No!” I remember saying at once. I was suddenly taking two whole weeks out of my original plan and flying down to Brazil, so I needed to move further west if I was going to catch up and eventually be in California for my flight off the mainland. I also knew that I wanted to be back in the US by the 31st of October to make sure I was in the country for Halloween. As an Australian, I’d never really properly celebrated Halloween, at least not in the way the Americans do it, so I was determined to be there for it. When brainstorming cities and places of where to actually spend it though, most people had suggested the bigger coastal cities. I knew that I would have already left the east coast by then though, and with a few months left of travelling afterwards, it seemed too soon to be heading to the west coast for Halloween. When I scanned the map for more centrally located cities, I couldn’t believe that I had completely overlooked it until then. So when she asked me where I wanted to fly back to after two weeks in Brazial, arriving the day before Halloween, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
“New Orleans! I want to fly back to New Orleans!”

***

When I’d met up with my dad in New York, he’d surprised me with a birthday gift. Well, not so much as a gift as an offer. It was the night before the both of us were flying out of New York, so we were talking about future plans, and where I’d be going in Brazil, and then beyond that.
“And where are you staying when you come back to the states? You’re going to… New Orleans, I think your mother said?”
“Yep, New Orleans,” I confirmed. “I haven’t figured out where I’m staying there though, I usually sort all of that out a little closer to the day.”
“Well… if you’d like – just so that you have somewhere to go when you land – if you like, your mother and I would be happy to pay for a few nights in a hotel. Consider it a birthday present. Would you like that?”
After the continual months of Couchsurfing and crashing at hostels, I don’t think my father quite realised how much I would, in fact, like that. I thanked him with a big hug, and he told me to email my mother to sort out a booking.

Jump forward two weeks and I was loading my bags into a hotel shuttle bus at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the sunshine beating down on me and the air thick and humid. There were a plethora of different accents around me, and as we drove into the centre of town our driver gave us a warm welcome and a little commentary on the passing scenery. Luckily, the Royal Hotel New Orleans was the first stop on the shuttle route, and that happened to be where I was staying. As the shuttle rounded the corners and puttered down the streets, I suppose the first thing I noticed about New Orleans was that it didn’t really look like an American city. In fact, parts of it seemed distinctly European. A little bit of later research would inform me that this is was because we were in the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood and, for many, the cultural capital and the obvious touristic focus of the city. There weren’t as many two storey houses and big green lawns as there were cute little layered terrace houses, wrought iron fences, and beautiful, historic architecture. My hotel was no exception, and as I was shown the way to my room I was led through a gorgeous courtyard that made me feel like I was staying in some kind of sanctuary villa.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a nap. There isn’t a lot of change in the time zones when flying from South America to North America, but it’s still a long flight, and I hadn’t had the best sleep during any of it. It also felt quite odd to be in a hotel for once, with my own room, a nice big bed and a private bathroom. There was no weird small talk between travellers like there is when you arrive at a hostel, and I didn’t have anyone to introduce themselves or offer to show me around, as is what usually happens when you first arrive with a Couchsurfing host. I obviously don’t mind doing any of that, but for once none of that was happening, so I took a few hours to rest, recuperate, and recover from the long haul travel.

While I hadn’t needed to find a Couchsurfing host to stay with when I first arrived, I was only staying in the hotel for a couple of nights, and I’d had a feeling I’d want to be in New Orleans for a little bit longer than that. So I had done a bit of browsing through potential hosts and gotten in touch with a few, asking if they’d be interested in meeting me when I arrived and potentially hosting me when my time in the hotel was over. And that’s how I came into contact with Brett. He was a self-described shaman, though given the mystical nature of the town and New Orleans being the home of voodoo within the US, that wasn’t at all surprising. I consider myself pretty open-minded and curious when it comes to spiritual or supernatural things, and where I come there isn’t anything quite like the presence that voodoo and magic have in New Orleans. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who goes to New Orleans and does nothing but party on Bourbon Street – without exception, every single profile on Couchsurfing had said that they were not interested in those kinds of people, who were clearly just looking for a free room on a boozy vacation. In my messages I’d described my situation to Brett, as well as hinting that I was curious about his shamanism, and so we’d arranged to meet that afternoon after I was feeling recovered from my flight.

Brett lived just north of the French Quarter, and an easy walking distance from my hotel, so in the afternoon I headed over to introduce myself. He was a nice guy, probably in his mid-40s with a grey head of hair. He wasn’t a native to New Orleans, but had been a resident for a long time and it was his home, so we chatted and he told me a bit more about the city, some of the local geography and history. He  also gave me a few tips of good places to eat and drink around the Quarter, as well as warning me to be keeps my wits about me when walking at night.
“It’s not that it’s unsafe, but… it’s not completely safe. It’s a strange town, things can happen, just be prepared for situations.”
And then we got talking about the shamanism. Out of respect for the practice, I’m going to try and explain it fully because I didn’t really understand it. The bottom line is that shamans work with spirits and by doing so, reach altered states of consciousness through transcendental energies, which may or may not allow them to achieve certain supernatural things. He offered a demonstration, and even now I’m not 100% sure what he was supposed to be demonstrating. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, or I was just too tired and jet lagged from the flights, but it didn’t really feel like any more than an intense guided meditation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can still feel deeply spiritual. But it wasn’t really a new sensation for me. It wasn’t exactly magical.

To be honest, I felt a little skeptical after the whole thing, and while Brett had been a nice guy, I didn’t feel like I needed to hang out with him anymore. It had been an interesting experience, at least, and I actually did feel a bit more relaxed after what had essentially been a meditation session. However, the night was young, and New Orleans still had many more surprises and adventures in store for me.

Advertisements

Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.