Aloha! A Very Hawaiian Christmas

After a rather uneventful flight from LA, I landed in Honolulu and immediately knew I was in the tropics. California hadn’t exactly been cold, but the humidity in Hawaii was inescapable. It was the kind of weather that I loved though, so I couldn’t wait to get out and be amongst it. I made my way through the terminal, collected my baggage, and then looked around, wondering which exit I should take to get out onto the street. As I approached one of the glass automatic sliding doors, I saw a dark-haired woman passing by on the footpath, with an earnest, slightly concerned look on her face. I sped up my pace and ran out the door to catch up with her.

“Ashleigh!” My sister heard me call out and instantly turned around, her expression morphing into a relieved smile when she realised it was me.
“Thank God I found you,” she said with an exasperated sigh as she reached me and gave me a big hug. “I hate this airport, I had no idea where you were going to be coming out.”
“Don’t worry, I’m pretty used to these places by now,” I said with a cheeky smile.
“I bet you are! How was the flight? How are you? Wait, let’s get to the bus, you can tell me all about it on the way home.” We headed to the bus stop and jumped on board. The ride between the airport and the centre of Honolulu was the better part of an hour, so after not having seen my sister for about eight and a half months, we had plenty of time to catch up.

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Taking a selfie on the bus to send to Mum.

***

Ashleigh had moved to Hawaii in May, only a couple of months after I had left to begin my year of travelling. She was doing work experience in hospitality as part of a course that she had started back home. When I learned that she would be moving to Hawaii, I had decided to reschedule my existing flights so that I could stop over and visit her on my way back to Sydney. Well, it was actually my mother’s idea: it would be the first time that she wouldn’t have both of her children with her at Christmas, which was amplified by the fact she wouldn’t have either of her children with her, so it was some small solace that while we wouldn’t be with her, at least the two of us would be together, and we’d still be spending Christmas with family.

However, the day that I arrived happened to be perfect timing. Up until now, my sister had been living in a share house in the heart of Honolulu, but today she was moving to a furnished studio apartment, which she would share with her boyfriend on a part time basis, given that he worked and partly lived at the navy barracks where he worked in the US navy. He was going underway on a submarine for a few days, which was a pretty routine thing as part of his job, but it meant he wasn’t around to help with the move.
“So, you’re not going to have to share a house with anyone else when you’re here,” she said. “But, I’m going to need your help moving some of my stuff to the new place.” She didn’t have a lot of stuff, and the house wasn’t too far away, but she also didn’t have a car. So after we arrived at the house, we collected all her stuff up, threw out a bunch of things she didn’t want to take, and ended up calling two taxis and loading all her stuff into the cars to take it to the new apartment. It was less than a 5 minute drive, but carrying everything would have taken literally all day and involved multiple trips. Helping someone move house was probably the most randomly domestic thing I had done in a long time, but it wasn’t too long before we had unpacked everything and were setting up my sisters new apartment.

We spent the afternoon hanging out and setting up the new place, finding places for all her things and blowing up my air mattress, with me assuring her that the place would feel a lot bigger after I went home – after nine months of travelling, I’d definitely acquired more things that I had left with. In the evening she took me down to the Tony Roma’s Restaurant, where she worked as a hostess as one of her two jobs. Though on the way there, she got a strange message from her boyfriend.
“Wait… he’s supposed to be on a submarine? That must mean… that must mean he didn’t go! Maybe you’ll get to meet him tonight after all!”
And sure enough, much to my sisters excitement, he walked into the restaurant just after we’d sat down and ordered our first drinks.

“Robert, this is Nick. Nick, this is my brother Robert”, Ashleigh introduced us, rather unnecessarily, since each of us had already heard so much about each other through her. Though it was nice to finally meet him, and it didn’t take too long for us to warm up to each other and enjoy a decent steak together.

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Well, I ended up getting ribs, but you get the idea.

***

Between the two jobs she was working at two different restaurants, Ashleigh was actually pretty busy most of the time. Nick’s work was a lot more sporadic, since the free time he had when he was home was contrasted by the 24 hour shifts of duty he had at the navy base. He would be around for a few days though, so we had the chance to hang out and get to know each other. During one of my first days, when Ashleigh wasn’t at work, the three of us set out to buy supplies for Christmas. This would also be Nick’s first Christmas away from his family back in upstate New York, and his mother had been worrying about it even more than ours, so we’d promised that we would go out and decorate the small apartment as best we could. First it was off to Walmart to buy Christmas lights and some small decorations, and then we headed out to get a tree.

“We’ve gotta have a real tree, though,” Nick had insisted. I’d thought it must have been a tradition for his family, to always have a real tree (I’d already explained to Todd back in San Francisco why they’re a lot less common back in Australia), but I soon learned that it was the opposite – despite living in a place where he probably could have chopped down a tree from the forest just beyond his backyard, Nick’s family had never had a real Christmas tree. That he was in Hawaii and very much in control of this years festivities meant that he could finally realise his dream of having a real fur tree as his Christmas tree this year.

Except… when we showed up at the yard where the tree were being sold, the three of us probably wore the most disappointed expressions on the whole island. It’s safe to say that traditional Christmas trees do not thrive in the tropical climates of Hawaii – either these pathetic excuses for Christmas trees had very much struggled to grow in such an environment, or they were runts that had been rejected and shipped over from the mainland, a journey which undoubtedly did them no favours. I had to believe they were imported into Hawaii, if nothing else for the exorbitant cost that we were expected to pay for them. For a tree that barely stood taller than my sister, and was definitely shorter than Nick, we had to make the executive decision that it was not worth it. We headed home, slightly disheartened, with nothing but a roll of Christmas lights and a few dashed dreams.

In the evening, Ashleigh had to work, so while she was there Nick took me down to the Hilton Hotel resort. Every Friday evening there was a firework show in the garden areas that were open to the general public, so we wandered down there to kill some time after grabbing dinner.

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The silhouettes of palm trees as the fireworks explode behind them. 

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Afterwards we headed home, and the two of us brainstormed a little more about how we could make the apartment feel a little bit more like Christmas, even though we didn’t have a tree. Ashleigh had seemed a little dejected by our inability to secure one, given that the tree is a general staple of the holiday. So we pulled out the Christmas lights, and a box of decorations that Nick’s mother had sent over from the mainland. We unrolled the lights and tried to discern the best way to place them around the room, when suddenly I had a flashback to an image that I had seen on Facebook about a month ago. I pitched the idea to Nick, and he instantly loved it, so we set to work setting up the lights so that we could be finished before Ashleigh got home.

When Ashleigh finally arrived home from a long evening shift, Nick stopped her at the door and told her to cover her eyes.
“We’ve got a surprise for you,” he said. “No peeking.”
He guided her across the room (all three paces – it was a studio, remember), and then I hit the lights on the wall to turn them off before flicking on the Christmas lights.
“And… open.”

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Our DIY makeshift Christmas tree.

And she was able to behold the roll of lights that we had strung up against the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree, with some of the lighter decorations hanging from the wires, and topped of off with a pre-fixed ribbon bow at the very top, in place of an angel or star. Sure, it wasn’t a masterpiece, and it probably didn’t look as good or as colourful as either Nick or I had imagined it might. But as the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts, and Ashleigh was thrilled.
“Oh my God,” she said, half rolling he eyes but still clearly pleased with our efforts. “You guys… We finally have a tree!” It had been a long and exhausting evening at the restaurant, so she hadn’t been in such an excellent mood when she arrived home, but coming back to a little bit of dysfunctional Christmas magic had definitely put a smile on her face. “Thank you, both of you,” she said as she gave each of us a hug and a kiss. “I can’t wait to spend this Christmas with my two boys!”

***

Christmas Day itself was actually a pretty easy-going day. We woke up in the morning and Nick cooked us bacon and eggs for breakfast, and then we took turns Skyping our families back home. First we called ahead to Nick’s family, who were a few hours ahead of us and were already finishing up their Christmas lunch, and then over to Australia where it was already Boxing Day, and my mother and aunty were already onto the champagne. There wasn’t much in the way of gift exchanges though, given that it was just the three of us. Ashleigh had bought me a cute pair of underwear, and I gave her the necklace and earrings that I had picked up on the Grand Canyon Tour in Arizona. Other than that, it was just Ashleigh and Nick exchanging a handful of gifts. Not that I’m complaining – it was just an extremely different experience from the past Christmases of large family gatherings where exchanging gifts took up a significant portion of the morning.

By the early afternoon, it was time for Ashleigh to head into work. Nick was pretty happy to spend the afternoon relaxing at home, but there’s not much privacy or personal space in a studio, so I ended up grabbing my towel and heading to the beach. Ashleigh and Nick’s new place was only a 10 minute walk from Waikiki Beach, probably the most famous and popular beach in the whole of Hawaii. The shore was lined with hotels, so the beach was always packed, but there was plenty of sand and places to stretch out in the sun, so I found a relatively quiet section and settled down with my book and spent the rest of the day without a care in the world.

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Waikiki Beach.

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Obligatory beach selfie. 

I stayed there literally all day, to the point where I was able to watch a beautiful ocean sunset. Despite being surrounded by a small horde of people, being there by myself helped make it feel like my own personal slice of paradise.

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Christmas sunset at Waikiki.

After the sun went down, I headed back home, and eventually Ashleigh returned from work with three juicy steaks from Tony Roma’s, which she had picked up at the end of her shift. She brought a few servings of our favourite sides too, and so together we sat around in Ashleigh and Nick’s new home and celebrated a successful end to our experimental yet still thoroughly enjoyable Christmas.

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Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

One Friend, Two Friends: Old Friend, New Friends

When Kathi and I returned from our excursion on the river, we parted ways for our separate plans that afternoon. She had a date, and I actually had another friend who lived in Vienna whose birthday, as it happened, was that very day. It’s not everyday that you accidentally arrive in your friends city on the other side of the world on their birthday weekend, so we had made plans to catch up for a drink to celebrate both his birthday and my being in Austria.

I’d originally contacted Stephen asking if I might be able to crash with him when I was in Vienna, but unfortunately he didn’t have any room for me in the place that he lived in with his girlfriend. Luckily things had worked out through Couchsurfing in the end, and I just met up with him on the afternoon of his birthday instead. I had met Stephen when I was studying at university – he was on an exchange semester at The University of Sydney, and we sat next to each other in one of our philosophy tutorials. Now, almost exactly a year later, we were sitting at a beach-themed bar on the side of the Danube in the middle of the city, catching up and reminiscing and soaking up the sun. I say afternoon, but it was actually closer to 7pm – what I would have typically called “evening”. But this was European summer, and if we measured parts of the day by how much daylight the had, “afternoon” wouldn’t end until approximately 10:30pm. I ordered another Radler and sat down to tell Stephen more about my travels, and what I was planning to do next, both short-term and long-term. “You could always get a working visa and come back to Europe to teach English,” he had suggested. “I know of a lot of places that are always looking for native English speakers to help adult students perfect the language, especially places in Austria and Germany.” Scenarios flashed through my mind of living in Berlin, teaching English to the locals during the week, and spending my weekends on the dance floor or in a dark corner at Berghain. I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my life, but at that stage I was thinking as little as possible about my life after my year of travelling. I’d been on the road for months now, and I wasn’t even halfway through my journey.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Stephen and I.

Stephen and I.

Eventually Stephen had to go, so I wished him a happy birthday one last time as we bid each other farewell. I hadn’t drank too much, and I ended up just heading back to Kathi’s, but that night was still rather significant. After all the travelling I’d done in the past few months, that conversation with Stephen had planted a seed in my mind, an idea in my head – the idea of living abroad. Every following city that I visited, and every time I cast my memory back to the places I’d visited, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked the city or not, but rather, ‘Could I live in this city?’

***

The following day was my final one in Vienna, and since Kathi had to work for most of the day I figured it would be the best opportunity to do my loop around the tourist ring and see some of attractions Vienna had to offer. The inner city, or Innere Stadt, of Vienna is a designated Unesco World Heritage site, and the architecture easily takes you back to centuries past. I wandered the streets and got a little bit lost, just soaking up in the atmosphere as I strolled past the coffeehouses and other eateries and watched the flocks of other tourists come and go.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

A lot of the major sights are situated along a tram line that does a consistent ring around the city centre, but after I finally made my way out from getting lost in the Old Town streets, I decided that it was such a nice and beautiful sunny day that I would walk around the ring, instead of staying cooped up on the public transport. Some of the highlights of the sightseeing in Vienna were Stephansdom, or St. Stephens Cathedral, a 12th Century Gothic church that towered above the streets, and the impressive neo-Greek architecture of the Austrian Parliament Building, complete with a gold trimmed fountain depicting the goddess Athena, with the four figures around the base of the fountain representing the four most important rivers in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

I didn’t take too many photos, but then I didn’t know too much about all the different sights in Vienna. It was kind of better that way, I think. There was no pressure to see all the important things, like their had been to visit the greatest hits of Rome. I was able to just meander around, stopping when I saw something I thought was interesting, taking the odd picture here and there, strolling through the greenery in the various city parks and just enjoying the relaxing atmosphere the city had to offer. I laid down in grass and had a snooze, had a slice of cake at a coffeehouse – it was all just so chilled out that it didn’t even feel like sightseeing. It just felt like living.

***

In the late afternoon I met up with Kathi and one of her housemates who had returned the previous evening, Anna-Greta. Kathi had suggested meeting at Naschmarkt, a popular market that had all kinds of amazing foods and fresh fruit and produce, as well as flea market stalls that were selling all kinds of things. Unfortunately I didn’t have much need for all that food, since I’d be jumping on another train to a new city the following day, but it was interesting to check out. Kathi and Anna-Greta bought a few things, and then we sat down to have some food at one of the restaurants that was set up along the market. We ate Thai food – something I hadn’t seen since Thailand – and I told them how popular it was in Australia, and we discussed other cultural differences between Austria and Australia. My favourite moment, however, was when it took us at least a few minutes to translate the word “bruise” from German to English. I thought something was seriously strange when they were telling me how they sometimes got “blue stains” on their skin – it still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

After we’d finished eating, the three of us just hung out at home for the rest of the evening. Anna-Greta had been partying all weekend at a big festival, and all three of us had to get up relatively early the next day, so we didn’t feel like heading out anywhere. Kathi and I pulled out our ukuleles and Anna-Greta grabbed her guitar, and I gave them a couple of lessons and taught them some chords to be able to play a few new songs. I introduced Kathi to Paramore, whose most recent album has a couple of ukulele tracks that I had learnt how to play. She loved the music, and was pretty stoked when I taught her how to play ‘Interlude: Moving On’, and we also learnt how to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a challenge that Kathi’s other housemate had set for her. Then we just sat around chatting, and the girls told me about parties that they throw, and the music that they play and all the fun that they have, and it made me a little sad to be leaving the next day. “You’ll just have to come back next time we have a party,” Kathi said with a grin. “And at the end of the night we can run around being crazy while we play the ‘Spanish Flea’.” We all laughed, and I smiled to myself, sincerely hoping that one day that would actually happen. I’d made some great friends during my travels so far, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that some of those people such as Kathi – despite the distance – would remain my friends for life.