Tourist Times in Tinseltown

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

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

IMG_4930

Santa Monica Pier. 

IMG_4934

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

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

IMG_4931

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

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

IMG_4937

IMG_4938

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean. 

***

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

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

 

IMG_4951

IMG_4956

New York in Los Angeles. 

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

IMG_4947

***

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

IMG_4943

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

 

***

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

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

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

IMG_4979

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

IMG_4980

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

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

IMG_4970

IMG_4972

Dragon and knight made entirely out of Lego.

IMG_4973

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

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

1506878_10152112432087082_1116220687_n

Trans-Siberian Railway buddies united!

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

1476322_10151876152413014_1919865759_n

IMG_4987

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

Advertisements

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.

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.