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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Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

IMG_4351

They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

New Orleans City Park

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

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

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

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

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

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

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

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

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

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

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

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.

Land of the Free: paying a visit to the lady of Liberty Island

My time in New York was a pretty healthy balance of tourist activities, slightly less touristic and more local activities, and things that were relatively mundane. Having just moved into Melissa’s apartment with her, we did things like grocery shopping and, once the girls who had previously lived there came to pick up their stuff, we even had to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy a couple of blow up mattresses. Melissa had her own bed that would be coming soon, plus a couch and a wardrobe and all those kinds of homely things, but there was a period between “out with the old” and “in with the new” that we found ourselves living in a pretty bare studio apartment. It was kinda fun, though – like a slumber party or something. I also had to take care of some administrative issues: getting into the country had been a large hurdle that I’d overcome, but while booking my flights to Brazil I realised that I was going to need a visa before I headed down south. As it happened, the Brazilian Consulate in New York was literally a few blocks away from Melissa’s new apartment, so after printing off and filling out all the forms I got up early one morning to stand in line and file my application. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to be without your passport in a foreign country, but there was no other way I was going to get the visa, so it had to be done. I had also got in touch with Fautso in São Paulo, who had agreed to let me stay with him, so that had all turned out pretty much perfectly.

***

The first really touristic thing I did, however, was visit the Statue of Liberty. As it would happen, a friend of mine named Lexi was actually in the city at the same time, visiting her family who lived out on Long Island. Melissa was mostly busy with school, and I would never want to be the person to drag her out to see all the sights that she’d probably seen at least a dozen times before, so it been perfect timing when Lexi had got in touch and asked if I wanted to see some of the sights with her. We’d agreed on the Statue of Liberty, although we were a little disappointed to find out that tours that take you right up to the crown of the statue were booked out up until November, but we were still able to book a regular visit to the island in a decent time frame. In retrospect, we were actually quite lucky – soon after my arrival in New York, the government shutdown happened, and all government run attractions and activities, such as the Statue of Liberty, were closed. If we had put off our visit by any more than a week, I probably would never have made it there, since the shutdown was in effect until the day after I left New York City for the final time.

So after meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library, on a slightly humid and muggy morning, Lexi and I set off down Manhattan and took the subway to Battery Park, from where the ferries to Liberty Island departed. All around the dock there were street workers dressed up as the statue, selling toys and other tourist trinkets, and posing for photos. When we finally boarded the ferry, Lexi and I found a good spot to sit to get some good photographs as we approached the island, and we sat around and chatted. We weren’t exactly close friends, but I’d been to my fair share of parties with her during my adolescence, so we had a small collection of hilarious mutual memories, and our conversations always proved amusing. As we crossed New York Harbour and approached the island, the passengers from the ferry began to stir, moving around to get the best lighting on their photos of Lady Liberty. I remember my first thought actually being, Wow… it’s not actually that big. As impressive and iconic as the structure appears visually, it is minuscule compared to all the skyscrapers that had surrounded me for the past few days in Manhattan. The sculpture itself stands 46 metres tall, but the pedestal on which it stands is almost the same height, making the entire structure 93 metres tall from torch tip to ground. Which is big, I guess, but I had been in Manhattan for a little while now.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

When we arrived, every passenger was given a free audio tour, and we learnt more about the structure as we made our way around the island. The Statue of Liberty is actually a representation of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. It’s a symbol of freedom that now sits in the harbour, supposedly welcoming immigrants arriving from abroad. For the temporary foreigners, though, it really just screams “Photo op!”
And we were no exception.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

And of course, a selfie.

And of course, a selfie.

After we’d finished being tourists outside, we headed inside… to be tourists again. We had tickets that allowed us to go up to the pedestal level, just below the feet of the statue. It was still almost 50 metres high, and since were in the middle of the harbour, it afforded us some nice views. Or would have, if the weather had been a little bit better. Gazing over the harbour from our vantage point, Manhattan appeared to be covered in a smoggy haze. It looked odd, and almost reminded me of the smog and air pollution in Beijing, but then I figured that that is probably pretty normal for such a massive city. It was a pretty overcast day, but I couldn’t put the poor of visibility down to simple fog or low clouds.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

We also wandered around the exhibitions, learning more about the history and soaking it all in. One thing that was particularly intense was the security measures that were in place inside the actual structure. Our bags were screened and X-rayed on the way in, and then we had to check them into lockers anyway before we were allowed to head up. At first thought I suppose it seems a little excessive, but I think the idea of freedom that the Statue of Liberty embodies is tied quite closely to the American military, who fight to protect that freedom, I guess. So with that in mind, the security procedures just some across as some ordinary military protocol.

***

After eventually getting the ferry back to Manhattan, Lexi and I were wandering through Downtown Manhattan and looking for a place to eat lunch when we strolled quite close to the Freedom Tower, the new building that stood near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre buildings had stood prior to September 11th, 2001. It was only at that point, passing the site of such recent historical significance, did I realise that the date that day was September 10th. I had hoped that I might have gotten a glimpse of the memorial site that afternoon, but the entire place was on lockdown as they were preparing for the anniversary memorial service that would take place the following day.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

I’d thought about going down to the memorial the next day – the fact that I happened to be in New York City on the twelve year anniversary of that tragic event felt like a sign at first. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that maybe it wasn’t really my place to attend such an event. The last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a ceremony by attending it for such novel, touristic purposes. Not that I would have ever treated it that way, to be sure, but at the same time I felt that it would be a moment that was for Americans, and I should leave it to them.
“It’s a pretty significant day for New Yorkers,” Melissa had told me when we discussed the topic later. “I mean, for all Americans, but particularly in the psyche of New Yorkers, and people from around here, ya know? Almost everyone knows someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was affected by what happened.” Upon reflection, even as a nine-year-old, I remember exactly what I was doing when I learned the news about the 9/11 attacks, and I was on the other side of the world, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the tragedy first hand.

So all in all it was a day full of American patriotism and reflecting on symbols of their national pride, and knowing when and when not to be a tourist. I’m not sure what I did on September 11th – possibly went to the movies? – but it was something low key and local, while I left the real locals to their memorial and their prayers.

 

Bridget Jones and British Boroughs

On my first day in London I spent a bit of time with Giles as he showed me around central London, pointing out all the different bars in Soho and all the shops and eateries I should try, and helping me familiarise myself with some of the major landmarks, stations, and even the lingo – I was only given one chance to mispronounce to awkwardly Leicester Square. Giles said most people mispronounce it – it’s pronounced ‘Lester’, as thought the ‘ic’ isn’t even there – and I momentarily wondered what the hell went wrong with the English language for that to have ever happened. After being all over Europe, England was the last place I had expected to have problems pronouncing words or place names.

That evening, Giles and I went to see a performance of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Giles was a big lover of musicals and theatre, and he had gotten complimentary tickets from a friend of his who worked there. I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off – they were very good tickets, centred and very close to the front, on a sold out night. The show was fantastic and the cast were amazing – however, there was another learning curve that I would experience that evening, in a theatre that was very much exposed to the elements. Despite it being a relatively warm and sunny day in London, as soon as the sun went down it got cold. Or at least, cold for an Australian. I hadn’t really anticipated that when I’d set out from Hackney during the middle of the day, but right now I was seriously regretting my choice of shirt and shorts. I had to borrow Giles’ big warm coat to drape over myself for most of the second half of the performance. Granted, he didn’t even need it – I guess being a local he was acclimatised to the conditions. It was something I made sure to take note of during my time in London, though – despite it still being their summer, it was the tail end of the season, and it wasn’t going to feel anything like the summer I was used to back home.

After the show we had a quick drink in Soho, but Giles had to get home to pack. Yes, Giles had to pack – he was off to America for two weeks. When I had figured out when I was going to be travelling to London, I’d dropped Giles a line to ask him if he’d be free to catch up at all while I was there.
“When exactly are you going to be in London?” he asked me. I told him when I was flying in, and approximately how long I thought I might want to stay – in my true fashion, I hadn’t really planned that far ahead.
“Oh that’s a shame, I’m only going to be there for one day before I’m going to America,” he’d said. But what he’d said next seemed almost too good to be true. “Have you found a place to stay in London yet?” Of course, I hadn’t.
“No, not yet…” I replied, thinking he might have a couple of hostel recommendations.
“Do you want to housesit my apartment and stay in my room while I’m away?” He didn’t ask for any rent – just that I minded and looked after the place for him. His housemate would be going away for at least a week during that period too, and I guess he may have felt better knowing there was someone around the place and keeping it safe. And of course, I was facing the opportunity of two rent-free weeks in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world, apparently. I didn’t have to consider it for more than a second before accepting Giles’ extremely generous offer. I guess I had proved myself to be trustworthy enough on the few occasions we had met, and I was yet again blown away by the kindness that people who I barely knew would show towards a weary world traveller.

***

And so Giles set off for his American holiday and left me to my own devices when it came to discovering London. I briefly met his housemate, a Canadian guy called Blake, but he was only around for a day or two as well before he set off on a trip to Serbia. We was only supposed to be gone for a week, but in all my time in London he never actually returned home  – I guess Serbia must have been pretty amazing – and I literally had the place to myself the entire time I was there, save a few days at the beginning and end. As someone who had been sleeping in hostels, spare rooms, and sharing both beds and apartments with some of my hosts, it was actually a pretty incredible situation. For the first time since perhaps Helsinki, and I had an entire apartment to myself. As excited as I was to actually get out and see the city, there was something about that circumstance that I just had indulge in. On a Sunday evening, I was flicking through the internet on my iPad to see if there were any parties or anything cool that I could make a trip into town to visit. Then I turned on the TV – basically just for the hell of it because, hey, I had a TV for the first time in months! – and saw that Bridget Jones’ Diary I was about to start. I considered it for a second: I was going to be in London for quite some time, and who knows when I may have the luxury of having a place to myself again? So the only trip I made that evening was around the corner to the fish and chip shop – a great British tradition – and returned home to sprawl out on the couch to watch one of my favourite British rom coms. In the end it did actually feel like I was experiencing a bit of British culture, with all from the comforts of my British living room. I regret nothing.

It was the first time that I would curl up in front of the TV in London – it’s arguably one of the most local things you could do – but wouldn’t be the last. However, there were other nights when I didn’t feel like trekking it on the tube all the way to the city, but I didn’t feel like just staying at home either. Giles had told me he would put me in touch with some of this friends so that I wasn’t so alone to begin with, and I had gotten in touch with some of them to arrange meetings. However, on this particular evening I turned to one of the numerous gay social smartphone applications. While these apps are mostly used to arrange a far less innocent type of rendezvous, as a traveller they’re actually quite useful in their originally marketed purpose which is to “meet other guys”, which is how I found myself walking through the neighbouring district of Bethnal Green to a nearby pub to meet Dean. His background was a mix of French and Greek, and had been living in London for about a year for his work. We met in a traditional looking English pub, but the inside was a different story. It was full of teenagers getting absolutely wasted, spilling their drinks all over the antique, rustic furniture they were lounging on while some house music blared from somewhere on the floors above. It wasn’t really the thing either of us were in the mood for, so we downed our drinks relatively quickly – though assuring I didn’t spill a drop – and hastily took our leave.

I hadn’t really been looking for a wild night out anyway, so Dean and I took to the streets and just talked. The good thing was that at this stage of my trip, I was never short of any weird stories or crazy adventures to share, so I always had something to talk about. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing in particular, and Dean asked me about London and what things I had seen.
“Ahh, I don’t know, I haven’t done much yet,” I said to him, scanning through a mental checklist of things I wanted to see and finding it almost completely blank. “I’m just making the most of my unique living situation and enjoying a place to myself.”
“Fair enough,” Dean chuckled. “Well, there’s this place I can show you that had a really nice view. It’s a bar in the City.”

I was about to getting a rough schooling in the local geography of London. It turns out that the City of London is just one specific and rather small section of the wider region of London (although City of London is actually part of the Greater London borough – I know, it’s confusing), which is made up of a collection of other boroughs and cities, such as the Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster – which is the relatively larger borough home to Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Soho. The City of London was a little more than a square mile where much of the financial district of London is located. The more Dean tried to explain, the more confused I became, and it took actually getting home and looking at a detailed map – and even a little bit of Googling place names – before I even began to slightly understand it. I’m not going to go much more into it – mostly because I don’t think I would be entirely correct – but we ended up walking a fair way to get to a place called SUSHISAMBA. It’s not a Japanese restaurant, and it isn’t a Brazilian nightclub – perhaps it’s a fusion of the two different cuisines, but all I know is that it was super fancy and pretty expensive. I didn’t think I was going to get in – it was smart casual dress code, and I was wearing the only warm jacket I currently owned which was an unremarkable looking black hoodie. But I wasn’t stopped when we tried to enter, and so Dean and went up the elevator to get to the bar on the 38th floor.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The elevator was glass, and gave you a somehow nauseating view of the wider city as it shot upwards with impressive speeds. Once inside, I had a glass of wine and Dean had a beer – I didn’t dare order anything more in such a pricey establishment.
“I wouldn’t come here for the drinks,” Dean said, “But for the view… it’s pretty amazing.”
And it was. Certain parts of the bar were restricted and reserved, so I couldn’t get as close to the windows as I would have liked, but from the bar you could see in all directions, and even though it was dark, you could still get an impressive sense of how immense the city was. Or should I say, City of London? Greater London? It was all a bit too confusing for me, but I told myself I’d have a couple of weeks to get used to it (note at time of writing: that obviously never happened).

On the way home, Dean pointed out to me several dragon statues. “Those dragons mark the boundary of the City of London,” he said to me. The City of London’s Coat of Arms features two dragons supporting the City’s Crest, and there are two original dragon statues which were made in 1849 that stand roughly 6 feet tall. There was also a collection of smaller, half-size replicas, and they are all located at the main entrances into the City. We passed one of the replicas near Aldgate High Street on our way home, and Dean continued to tell me more of the history of the City, although by this point in the night it was so late I was only half listening.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

We walked as far as we could until we had to go our separate ways. It was a strange evening – Dean seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but we didn’t get along that famously or anything, and there was no real connection. I never ended up seeing him again, yet I still remember the evening we spent together pretty clearly, and the minor history and geography lessons he attempted to teach me. I’d done a bit of crazy partying while I was in Amsterdam, so I guess taking the time out for myself and taking cute midnight strolls in the city was just the kind of change of pace I’d needed.

“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.