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.

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Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

The official Amsterdam Pride parade was during the day on Saturday, but the celebrations kicked off the night before. Joris and I got cleaned up after the rugby workshop and then got back on our bikes and headed out to the city centre. We had a quick bite to eat along the way before arriving at what was called the Homomonument – a memorial in the centre of Amsterdam that commemorates the all the men and women who have been subject to persecution because of their homosexuality. The monument consists of three large pink triangles – the symbol Nazi’s gave to their homosexual prisoners – and are laid out in a way so that each triangle is the corner of an even bigger triangle that makes up the main plaza of the memorial. However, that evening it was as far from a solemn memorial – instead, had been utilised as a space of celebration. There was a stage set up nearby, with DJ’s filling the night with electric tunes and heavy beats, and there were party goers and revellers everywhere. I had been to enough European pride festivals by now to know what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. The street had been overrun by a party, with drinks being sold from vendors stationed nearby and people dancing away under the open air.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

One of the pink triangles was an elevated platform, so I climbed up onto that with Joris and looked out over the crowds. We were waiting to meet André and his friend, as well as some more of Joris’ friends who were coming out tonight. We weren’t staying at the Homomonument though, and when everyone finally arrived it was back on the bikes and off to Reguliersdwarsstraat, one of the main gay strips in the city. We secured our bikes before descending into the crowds on foot, and in what I had now gathered was the typical fashion of pride in most European cities, most of the bars had overflowed into the streets and the whole thing had just become one huge outdoor party. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of all the bars that we went into or what any of them were called – I just followed the group of Dutch men I was with and tried my best to keep up with them and their drinking, although I always remained fairly conscious of the fact that I did have to ride my bike home. We were briefly inside a place called Taboo, but we ended up getting our beers in plastic cups and returning to the street, since the insides of most places were just too cramped. Then we crossed the street to a bar named SoHo, where the style and design was obviously influenced by a typical English pubs. It was a huge three storey building, and I lost and found our party several times throughout our time there, as well as sneaking into the bathroom without paying the fee that seemed to be in force that evening.

The pub crawl down Reguliersdwarsstraat continued, and I chatted to a whole different bunch of guys, some of them Joris’ friends, or friends of those friends. Towards the end of the road, we were standing around outside finishing our beers when Joris asked André and I if there was anything else we wanted to see, or anywhere else we wanted to go that night. We weren’t planning on having a big night, since we did have the parade in the morning, but the night was still fairly young.
“I don’t know…” I replied, trying to think if there had been anything specific any of my friends had suggested that I see. “Is there anything else around that you think we should see? Something quintessentially Amsterdam?”
Looking back I can’t remember if it had been Joris’ idea, or whether André had asked him to show us, but the three of us parted with the rest of the group and got back on our bikes and rode a short way to another gay street that was… well, it was definitely a different vibe. Warmoesstraat is adjacent to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, and is well-known as the home of the leather fetish scene in the city. Long after my stint of working in a fetish store, I still found such things quite fascinating, so it’s no surprise we found ourselves in a bar called Dirty Dicks, one of the many cruise bars in the area.

It reminded me of some of the smaller bars I visited in Germany, with a main bar upstairs and then the dark rooms downstairs. Except this place somehow felt cleaner – I have no idea how I can use ‘clean’ to describe any of these places but just roll with it – than Tom’s in Berlin, and the dark rooms weren’t even really all that dark. André and I ventured down to have a look, and under the blue fluorescence you really didn’t need to have much of an imagination. Joris had a good chuckle at our expressions when we resurfaced into the main bar. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I was so shocked. I’d seen plenty of places that were equally as confronting – if not more – but I guess it was always still a bit of a slap in the face to round a corner and walk straight into such gratuitous orgies. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll finally get used to it… or maybe I won’t. I don’t know, but it was definitely all the sex and the sleaze that I had been expecting from Amsterdam. We had another beer at Dirty Dicks before calling it a night and heading back home. Tomorrow was going to be a long, gay day.

***

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was meet Thijs, Joris’ boyfriend, who had just arrived home that morning. After a hearty breakfast cooked up by Joris, the two of them took André and I on our newly acquired bikes to the supermarket on our way to the parade – it was BYO where we were going to be, so we stocked up on our booze. André, having lived in Copenhagen for quite some time, was very used to the intense bike culture, but I was still getting used to the whole thing, almost losing sight of the others a couple of times. But eventually we made it into the centre of the city, where the streets were becoming crowded and swelling with people. The unique thing about pride in Amsterdam is that they really embrace one of their city’s – and indeed most of the country’s – most defining features: the canals. The parade floats literally float down the canals, boats that are decked out with rainbows and glitter and leather and flags and music and everything. The streets around the parade route – it travels across through the city via several of the larger main canals and the river Amstel – were particularly busy, with people staking out and securing their position so they could ensure they had a good view. However, we were going one step better. Joris and Thijs had a friend, Frans, who had a boat – well, more like a detached, floating jetty – at the edge of one of the main canals, and so was hosting a small parade viewing party. We were literally down on the waters edge watching the boats glide past.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

After missing most of the parades in Paris and Madrid, it was fun to actually be present and see the parade, especially from such a great vantage point. It was also a beautiful day – the sun was shining bright and there was barely a cloud in the sky. “Let’s hope this great weather continues,” Joris had said earlier in the morning, peering out the window of his apartment. “It’s rained on the day of the parade for the last few years now.” But today there wasn’t even the slightest threat of rain, and we danced and drank and cheered for the floats in the gorgeous sunshine. Some of the float designs were actually really remarkable. Due to having to pass under numerous bridges on the parade route, many of the boats had to be under a certain height to pass through. However, rather than having a bunch of relatively flat floats, many of them incorporated designs that allowed for things to be lifted and lowered, so that they could shrink down to go under the bridges before emerging on the other side. I guess it was a normal thing for most of the locals, but I was considerably impressed.

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

It wasn’t too long before we started getting quite intoxicated – the mix of being out in the sun and all the alcohol dehydrates you a little faster than normal, and eventually things started getting a little silly. I don’t know who did it first, but at some point during the afternoon someone jumped into the canal in a playful attempt at splashing one of the floats. Then someone else jumped in. Then someone from a float jumped in. I don’t know if it was peer pressure or the fact that it was actually getting pretty hot out, but the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty refreshing, so it wasn’t long before I had stripped down to my underwear and was jumping in after them. It became something of a playful water fight, pushing people in as soon as they just climbed out, and dragging other people in with them. It was a lot of fun, I must admit, though being drunk as I was it was also thoroughly exhausting. Towards the end of the parade, when the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, I was sitting on the edge of the jetty next to Thijs.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he said with a deep, exhausted sigh, referring to diving into the canals and the water fight we’d had with the floats. I just let out a chuckle.
“You can’t believe it? How come?”
“Well…” A slightly uneasy look spread across Thijs’ face. “It’s not… it’s not exactly the cleanest body of water.”
“Oh…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah. I mean, they do usually clean it before big events like this, but… They’ve pulled a lot of bikes out of these canals over the years. And far, far too much rubbish. Who knows what else is in there.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought, but I guess at the time I was too full of adrenaline and alcohol to let myself be too bothered by it.

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns...

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns…

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

When the parade came to an end but the sun was still up, the partying moved to the streets. Someone from somewhere had some kind of speaker system – I had lost my attention to detail at this point, okay? – and a huge bunch of people were all just dancing and raving in the streets. Some of them were my newly made friends from earlier in the day on Frans’ boat, while others were people who I was only meeting for the first time. It was all a little crazy. There was a car that tried to drive through the street we were on. It proceeded to get rocked side to side to the beat of the music on its way through, but the driver didn’t even seem to mind that much. It was just a crazy and fun afternoon where it seemed like every single person in the city was getting into the spirit and celebrating. We stayed there until dusk started to roll around, at which point Joris came and found me to let me know they were heading home. We still had another party to attend later that evening, and after the day we’d had I definitely needed a power nap.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

“We’ll just have a quick lie down, to recharge and get some more energy,” Joris had said. Famous last words, if ever I’d heard them. Fast forward, and Joris was knocking on the door of the spare room André and I were sharing. I had laid down on my air mattress for what I thought was going to be a few seconds, but Joris was taking us up more than a few hours later.
“Looks like we were all a little more tired than we thought,” he’d said as we stirred from our slumber. “It’s almost midnight.”
“What?!” We’d had plans to head to the party at 10 o’clock, but that obviously wasn’t happening any more.
“Yeah,” Joris said. “We’ve ordered a couple of pizzas that should be here any minute, so we’ll down them and get going.” No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Ideally I would have liked to shower before heading out to a big pride party – especially after swimming in the Amsterdam canals – but due to our extended naps we just didn’t have the time. However, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue at the party we were going to. When I had been e-mailing Joris prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, he’d told André and I that the Lowlanders could get discounted tickets to the Bear Necessity party that was being held over the pride weekend. It’s wasn’t exactly my scene (for anyone not familiar with homosexual jargon, Google “gay bears” at your own risk/discretion – and use Safe Search), but I’m always open to trying new things, and the ticket was a considerably good price, so I agreed to join Joris and Thijs at the party, and so did André. We ate our pizzas and were off on our way again.

I was completely expecting to be the odd one out at a bear party – full of larger, older and hairier men – and I wasn’t wrong. André and I were in the minority of the smooth and hairless, but other than that it wasn’t too different from your standard gay party. The music was a little more electronic and house and a little less pop for my liking, but then it reminded me more of the trance-like beats I’d heard at places like Berghain, and I actually found that that was something I was getting more and more into. Some of the men were dressed up in their best leather outfits, and it was actually kind of interesting to see the kind of stuff that I had sold for so long at my previous job actually being put to use. Despite the kinky outfits some of them donned, most of them were incredibly nice, and I had a great time dancing with Joris and Thijs and the rest of them. One of the highlights was meeting last years Mr Bear Germany – I had no idea who he was, but I figured it would be something cool to tell my former colleagues about, so I stopped and made sure I got a photo. André left relatively early, somewhere between two and three in the morning, but Joris and Thijs and I stayed until the party wrapped up some time after five.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

As we stumbled outside, the sun was already on it’s way up. On top of being drunk, I was incredibly tired – at this stage, standing up was proving to be a challenge, let alone keeping my eyes open or riding my bike home. In the end Joris asked one of his friends who lived nearby if he could help us out. He hadn’t ridden a bike, so he took the handlebars of mine while I took the passenger seat – a flat wire grid on the back of the bike, to which one could strap a basket or some other cargo. I sat sidesaddle and wrapped my arms around their friends waist for support, and the four of us on the three bikes set out from the Red Light District and into the quieter streets of Amsterdam. It was so still and peaceful. I don’t remember my bike riders name, but I do remember leaning my head on his back, and just watching the dawn unfold around the beautiful city, so still and undisturbed. It was rather magical, the best antidote to the day and night of crazy partying, and the perfect end to Amsterdam pride.

Berghain

“Well, that sucks,” said Dane as we walked down the lose gravel path away from the warehouse, the techno beats throbbing through the walls and bleeding into the night air with a haunting muffled sound.
“Yeah,” I said with a dejected sigh. “I know how much you were looking forward to it too.”
We’d just been denied entry into Berghain, what had commonly been described to me by my friends as one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Germany, possibly the world. Donatella had assured me that it wasn’t really that hard to get into. “Dress down – they turn away people who are really dressed up, or big groups of really obvious tourists, or too many women. Any women in high heels, usually. Two gay guys though, you’ll be fine, you should definitely get in.” By definition it wasn’t a gay bar, but the techno and house music scene that thrived in Berghain usually attracted a lot of gay people.

As we walked from the bus stop, we were giddy with excitement. The night in east Berlin was eerily quite, and as we passed the remains of the Berlin Wall on our way to the club, we joined in with a somber moment of silence. The only sounds were our footsteps, but after a short while Dane whispered, “There… Can you hear it?” The pulsing of the beat was reverberating in the air around us, and I had never felt such a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. The doorman at Berghain was renowned for being incredibly intimidating – part of the reason why they barely ever gave you a reason for being denied entry. A simple “No, not tonight,” was enough to completely shut you down and send you away from the line with your tail between your legs.

Usually the line to get into Berghain on the weekends is massive. Wait times of up to 3 or 4 hours are not uncommon, which makes it even more of a kick in the guts for those who don’t get in. However, my insider knowledge from the local Berliners had informed us that Sunday nights were generally a better time to go – the crowds were better, less tourists, the lines were shorter, and the experience would be a little more… authentic, I suppose. So Dane and I arrived on a Sunday evening, at around half past midnight. We put on our game faces, marched up the path to the door to confront the bouncers.

There was an awkward moment of silence where nothing happened. Usually a bouncer automatically asks for your ID, but this tattooed, skin head, mountain of a man just sort of stared us down for a moment. After a few moments, Dane finally spoke up: “Can we go inside?” he asked rather casually, though I knew he was just as nervous as I was.
“Do you have stamps?” the bouncer asked.
“Ah… no.”
“If you don’t have a stamp you won’t be coming in.”
“Oh…” Dane paused for a moment. “Should we come back later, or…?”
“If you don’t have a stamp, you won’t be coming in.”
“Right… Okay, thanks.” There was nothing else we could do but turn around and walk away. Maybe it was just the cluelessness that radiated from us. Maybe it was because Dane’s accent was too obviously foreign. Maybe it was because my pupils were the size of dinner plates. Maybe it really was just because we had arrived too late, and they weren’t letting any more new people in. It was a disappointing start to the evening, but we took the night elsewhere in Berlin. And luckily for me, it wasn’t the end of my experiences with Berghain…

***

Flash forward to the following Saturday night, Micha’s birthday at Rauschgold, and I was talking to his friends about where I’d been in Berlin, and what I still had left to do. Berghain was constantly being brought up in that conversation – I recounted the story of Dane and I being refused entry, and the general consensus was that we had left it a bit too late for a Sunday night. “You can easily go earlier,” someone said to me. “It’s not like the partying stops during the day.” Back in Sydney, my friend Blythe had told me to go at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, as that was the only time I was guaranteed to get in. At the time I had laughed at the idea of going to a nightclub at that time – I mean, who actually arrives at that hour? But I was finally beginning to realise just how correct she had been. Some of the Micha’s friends said they might even be going to Berghain the following evening, so I exchanged phone numbers with them, glad that I would have someone to face the supremely intimidating bouncer with again.

After stumbling home at 4 in the morning and passing out on my bed, I woke up just before noon to a message saying that the others had decided to skip Berghain because the weather outside was so nice. It was a valid excuse, given that Europe had just come out of a five month winter and no one really knew how long this gorgeous warmer weather would last. But it meant I was left to consider the prospect of visiting Berghain on my own, yet as a solo traveller it was the kind of thing I had grown used to. In the end it became a decision of ‘now or never’. I had already stayed in Berlin an extra weekend for this – I couldn’t afford myself another one. So I jumped on the U-Bahn and found myself back in east Berlin at around 1:30pm, bright sunshine beating down on my back. When I got to Berghain, there was no line to speak of – just two burly looking bouncers by the door: the notorious one from last time, and another equally menacing looking man. I walked up to them and encountered the same awkward silence I had when I was with Dane, but after a couple of seconds the main bouncer spoke to me: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I understood the German, but I had to reply in English, effectively proving my answer as I said it. “No…” I prepared myself for the worst.
The bouncer looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I answered quickly. I was completely sober, but I wonder if they could tell that my whole body was practically quivering with nervousness.
“Do you have ID?” he eventually asked, and I quickly whipped out my drivers licence. The bouncer studied it for a moment, and then looked up at me, handed the licence back, and motioned for me to enter the club.

I was almost in shock. Suddenly there were more faces, people telling me to move here, pay here, get your stamp here. It was all a blur, but I did as I was told and tried to look not quite so clueless. I found myself in a cavernous, dimly lit room where a cloak room was available, and moved out through the following door. I was plunged into a room of darkness and was basically rendered blind since I had come from the bright sunlight outside, so consequently the first thing I did was trip over a milk crate. Yes, a milk crate. All I could see in the limited light was a huge table that covered in dozens of empty glass bottles, a fair few of which had fallen to the floor and smashed. It was hard to register that this was actually a club, when it really did feel like some dirty abandoned warehouse. I stood still for a moment, the reverse of a deer caught in the headlights, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The area I was in was sparsely populated with a few groups of people, so I ascended the stairs and began my exploration.

Berghain is huge. You’d kind of expect that from a warehouse, but I had definitely underestimated the size of the place. After going up the first flight of steps, I reached the main dance floor. It was packed with people, many of whom were decked out in outfits of leather, latex, rubber and denim, as well as being in various states of undress. There were more bare torsos than a Grindr grid, but thankfully all of them had heads. The spirit of kink was very much alive in Berghain, which was part of the reason I had so badly wanted to visit the club. I personally don’t have any affliction with the fetish scene, but working in the fetish store back home had left me feeling like I was still somewhat part of the scene via association. For the first time, I was seeing the leather vests and harnesses that I used to sell in their natural habitat, and I felt a strange sense of pride for these beautiful, perverted, kinky people. Yet I was still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, so instead of diving straight into the crowd I veered to the right and found a bar room that was sort of separated from the main dance floor. I got a beer and sat down on a bar stool, observing my surroundings as I chugged it down. Despite it being very early in the afternoon, I felt far too sober to be in this environment, because from what I was seeing it would have been totally legitimate to believe it was 2 in the morning, the time when most normal people are at nightclubs.

The bar room I was in was relatively empty though, and so I wandered up a nearby staircase… and found myself in a coffee and gelato bar. I know, I did a double take too. Everything else about the room fitted the style of the dank, grungy underground venue, but there in the midst of it all was a gelato cart, long halogen bulbs lighting up a variety of colourful flavours. I spent a few moments pacing around the small room, pinching myself and trying to convince myself that my beer hadn’t been spiked with LSD. I was finally convinced the scene was real, but decided I wasn’t in the mood for ice cream, so descended down the steps and back into the bar. I got another beer, and with it I walked out into the dance floor room and mingled my way through the people. Berghain has a sound system that is in the Top 10 in the world, and when you’re on that dance floor you can literally feel the music. Every beat in the bass line pulses through your flesh, coursing through your bones and blood. The feeling is ecstatic, and you can’t help but surrender your body to the music and become a slave to the rhythm. It was incredible, and while I’m normally not the biggest fan of electronic music, there was something about this place that made it seem like playing anything else would be just wrong. The vibe, the people, the music – everything just clicked. I now understood why they had such strict door policies – if this place became full of tourists, only wanting to see it for the sake of seeing it rather than being a part of the culture, than the whole thing would quickly be destroyed.

Because it really does feel like some kind of ecosystem, a separate world of its own that operates in its own way, on its own time, completely independent of the outside world. And despite the strict selection process it takes for some to get inside, once you’re inside there are basically no rules. The best way to describe what goes on inside Berghain, I believe, is that there’s no one who is going to say “No, stop, you’re not allowed to do that.” As long as you’re not hurting anybody or being violent, you can do pretty much anything you want – with the exception of taking photos, which is completely prohibited. But if you saw some of the stuff that goes on inside Berghain… well, it makes perfect sense.

I made my way up a staircase to another dance floor room, a second space I would later learn to be called Panorama Bar, technically a separate venue within the huge warehouse but often opened up to join with Berghain. There were windows up there, and every so often the automatic blinds would flash open in time with the music and bathe the party goers in the afternoon sunlight, the only hint that the world outside still existed. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Long Island Ice Tea – the beers weren’t kicking in fast enough. As the bartender mixed my cocktail, my gaze turned to the guy next to me, or more specifically, what he was drinking. He had been served a glass of hot water, and proceeded to take the tea bag he had been given and brew himself a cup of tea, right there at the bar. It was at that point that I told myself I really needed to stop being surprised by the things I saw here – I mean, I had stumbled upon a gelato cart! Yet unsurprising, brewing a cup of tea on the nightclubs bar wasn’t the last thing I saw that would surprise me…

As I sat at the bar, sipping my drink, I watched the crowd dancing. It was the weekend of pride, so it was quite obviously a very gay crowd, though I couldn’t say I had any other experience at Berghain to compare it with. But one person in particular caught my eye – a girl, as it would happen. She was wearing a short, black backless dress with an attached hood that was draped over her head like a shawl, though it did little to hide her long, golden curly locks, which cascaded out from the hood to frame her face. Her eyes were closed, and her face had an expression of pure fun and enjoyment as she danced to the beat. Add to all this the fact that she was surrounded by a ring of half naked gay men and I could have sworn I was looking at the doppelgänger of Georgia, my best friend and fag hag from back home in Sydney. I felt an instant gravitational pull towards this woman, so when I finished my cocktail I got up and finally moved onto the dance floor. I danced over to where Georgia’s look-alike was dancing – I didn’t really expect to talk to her or anything, but there was just something about her vibe that was creating a carefree atmosphere, where everyone just danced together with the music.

While she was holding my attention captive, it seemed like I was attracting some for myself amongst a few of the shirtless men in her ranks. Eventually one of them coaxed me into joining them in their shirtlessness, and inevitably there were was some mild fondling and a few stolen kisses on the dance floor. The man in question was a tall, burly and bearded Italian, and on several occasions he even lifted me up above the crowd level while I was in his embrace. He probably told me his name – I don’t recall it anymore – but I remember asking him who the golden girl was. “Her? I don’t know, I’ve just been dancing here with her and these guys.” I just laughed, and felt a little better knowing that this circle of friends seemed to be no more than a collection of beautiful strangers. However, the Italian stallion made a move to leave. “I have to go to the bathroom to take some speed with my husband.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I actually wasn’t surprised about the drugs – crazy party scenes like this are known for having every drug under the sun. But open relationships, and marriages in places where they’re legal, seemed to be particularly common, especially in scenes like this where freedom and liberal sexuality was just a part of life. But when it slaps you in the face like that, a bolt from the blue, you can’t help but feel a little taken aback. I kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, but when he returned a while later he slid past me with a sulking expression on his face. When I finally got a word with him, he said glumly, “Yeah… My husband doesn’t really want me talking to you.” Across the room a spied a short, stern looking Brazilian man shooting me a look so cold it could have frozen Hell over twice. I had no time to deal with jealous husbands, so I left the stallion to the probable shit storm he had brought upon himself.

***

At some point in the afternoon, either during or after the scenario with the Italian and his husband, I had a nap. That’s right, a nap in a night club. I was still fairly hungover from the night before, so I was feeling a little tired. All the levels of the Berghain warehouse complex contain smaller rooms full of couches and seats and all kinds if holes in the wall where people can sit and chill out, relax, and yes, even go to sleep. Considering the possibly of having your possessions stolen while you sleep, it’s not exactly something I would recommend, but it wasn’t exactly something I consciously chose to do either. It sort of just happened. I know that having a nap is probably the least exciting thing that I did in Berghain, but I just wanted to point out again how very little anyone cares about what you actually do in the club. In any club back in Sydney, and most other places I’ve been to in the world, if you look like you’re falling asleep on a couch, security is going to come over and ask you to leave. But at Berghain? Nope, I casually woke up half an hour later to someone asking me if I was okay, curled up on a sofa. Feeling a little disorientated but somewhat refreshed, I stood up and made my way back to the dance floor. In retrospect, sleeping at Berghain is potentially very common – when the doors open on Thursday night the don’t close until Monday morning, and I’ve heard war stories of people who have gone in and come out at both of those times, living inside the club for the whole weekend. Granted, most of them are probably high on ecstasy, but I wouldn’t believe that I was the first person to ever take a short power nap within those walls.

At this point it was getting on into the late afternoon, or early evening. The dying light that seeped through the blinds in Panorama Bar was the only indication that the sun had begun to go down, but it made no difference inside – the partying carried on. I eventually found myself dancing near the girl with the golden curls – much like my friend Georgia, this woman seemed the create a gravitational pull that drew in all homosexuals. Once again she was surrounded by mostly half naked men, but from the other side of the circle, one of the few that was wearing a shirt caught my eye. I glanced his way a few more times, and eventually I caught him looking back. What followed was a ritual I’d been a part of numerous times in numerous nightclubs – the subtle but sure eye contact, the casual dancing to the music while slowly shifting your way through the crowd to position yourself just a little bit closer to them. Eventually we came face to face. He was a little shorter than guys I normally went for – a centimetre or two shorter than myself – but he had a defined muscular jaw with just a hint of stubble, and hair that was cropped short and styled slightly messy. But it was his eyes that got me – they were bright, icy blue, yet there was a fire behind them that lit them up and made it almost impossible to look away from them. It was an instant connection, and it was a short amount of time before shirts came off and lips collided.

We danced for a while, then moved from Panorama Bar to the main Berghain room and danced some more, our bodies being audio-assaulted by the beat. Then this beautiful stranger, leaning into my ear to be heard over the music, asked if I wanted to go down further still to the ground floor. Keeping in mind that that level is where the majority of the clubs hidden dark rooms are tucked away in miscellaneous corners, I enthusiastically agreed. As we descended beyond the levels of the dance floors, and bass lines that coursed through your body, we were finally able to exchange words without needing to shout at each other, and after our first verbal introductions I learnt that his name was Ralf. What happened next, however, didn’t involve a great deal of talking. I have to admit though, that after my experiences in the dark rooms at Toms, I decided that I’d much rather put a face to a name, and then see the face of that lover when… well, I’m sure I don’t need to paint that picture for you. So we took a seat on one of the lower level couches, in an area that was far less populated, but by no means secluded or discreet. On paper it seems like a rather seedy thing to do, yet I was overcome with a ‘when in Rome’ attitude around the fact I was at Berghain – also, Ralf may just have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, so self-control was limited. It was pure, unbridled passion – never mind that by the end we had attracted a small audience. Afterwards, as Ralf drew in for one final kiss, with me flat on my back and him straddled over me, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered in my ear with a playful grin that showed off his perfect smile: “Well look at that – he’s a romantic, too.”

***

I ended up spending the rest of the night with Ralf. We went back upstairs and had a drink – I had another beer while got some water – and sat down in one of the non-dancing rooms and had a bit of a conversation and got to know each other. Ralf, who was German, confessed that he’d been surprised to learn that I myself wasn’t German, and I laughed and told him he wasn’t the first person to think that. Ralf himself was Swiss-German, yet had spent half his adult life in Sweden. After chatting for a while longer, we decided to go and dance some more, and who should we run into again but that mystery golden haired girl. “That girl! Who is she?” I asked Ralf. “You were dancing with her when I saw you.”
“Her?” Ralf replied. “I don’t actually know her. I lost the friends who I came here with… But we were joking, saying she was like the queen of the gays.” That she is, I thought to myself, but as he said it Ralf chuckled and flashed a smile that inevitably led us to another trip to the ground floor, for reasons which need no further elaboration. Returning to the upstairs bar for a drink, this time I decided it was my turn to rehydrate a little. Ralf got a water for me, and a Coke for himself. I must have mentioned something about not eating since that morning, because a tinge of concern crept into Ralf’s expression. “Are you hungry? There’s a garden restaurant downstairs. It’s getting late but it might still be open, they usually have some cakes and things.”
“Hold on… There’s a garden in this club?”
“Well, it’s outside, but it’s still part of the club.” He smiled, stood up and took my hand, leading me towards the stairs. “Come, I’ll show you.”

And so that’s how I found myself in the garden outside Berghain, my head nestled into Ralf’s lap, staring into the starry night sky that had replaced the bright blue sky from when I had entered the warehouse. There hadn’t been any food left, so I just got another beer and we took a seat on the long, wooden tiered benches in the garden beside the club. We continued to talk there, going deeper and deeper into the details of our lives. However, there was one particular topic that would leave a profound impact on me that evening.
“So… you don’t drink, do you?” It was a suspicion that came from the combination of not seeing him order an alcoholic beverage, and seeming… well, not so drunk.
“No… No, I don’t,” he said simply.
“Like… ever? Did you ever drink?”
He laughed at that. “No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic,” he joked. I smiled, and just laughed with him. I know it sounds stupid, but it was probably one of the most shocking things that had happened throughout the entire evening.
“But… you don’t mind other people drinking?” I said cautiously, glancing down at the beer bottle clutched in my fingers. A lot of the non-drinkers I knew were quite anti-alcohol in general principle, so I was having trouble reconciling this characteristic within Ralf.
“Well look where we are – obviously not!” he chuckled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s just, this is the last place I expected to find a sober person!”

The conversation continued on the topic of drinking and alcohol, and it got me onto talking about the drinking culture in Australia.
“I used to shake it off, say it wasn’t that bad. But now… I don’t know, back home I could never go into a club without being at least mildly shit-faced, mostly because I know if I was sober I wouldn’t be able to stand half the people there… because almost all of them are just so shit-faced!” It’s a kind of cyclical trend that can sometimes be hard to pinpoint until you actually remove yourself from the equation and see it objectively. “Here in Germany, and even in Berghain… I mean, there are people off their faces, but everyone still seems in control, you know? We have so many problems in Australia because they get so drunk and lose control. There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.”
Ralf nodded in agreement. “Right, and it was the same in Sweden. Alcohol is so expensive that they drink at home first, and half the time they get so drunk they never even make it to the club. But I think in Germany, if someone was to get that drunk… It’s almost considered rude, or annoying. You know, to be so drunk that you can’t look after yourself. Most people don’t want you around if you’re like that, so if you get that drunk you usually just go home.”
“Yeah, I guess so…” I thought back to many of my nights of drunken debauchery back home, and the amount of times I’d seen friends so wasted that they literally needed help just standing up. “I guess it’s this idea that we can’t have fun unless we’re drunk, and point of the night is to get as drunk as possible.” I redirected my abstract stargazing to look at Ralf in those beautiful blue eyes. “But I guess that’s not always the case here.”
“No,” he smiled down at me. “No, it’s not.” It only occurred to me that while I had had a few beers and a cocktail at Berghain, it had been over the course of many hours, and I myself wasn’t that drunk. Yet I was managing to have an amazing time, even up on the dance floor, moving to the music in the crowds of sweaty people and losing myself to the rhythm and the beat. And I suppose it was rather ironic that here, in a wild club that is known for being full of patrons that are high on one kind of drug or another, I was having the epiphany that you didn’t need to drink alcohol or get absolutely wasted in order to have a good time.

Suddenly a slight wind kicked up, but it was enough to send a chill through my body. I was only wearing a singlet and shorts, so even the warmth of Ralf’s body wasn’t enough to get me by, so we picked ourselves up and moved back inside. On our way back in, I saw two guys standing in front of the extremely intimidating bouncer.
“You’re not coming in tonight,” he said in that firm, authoritative voice of his.
“Ah, okay, so… How do we get inside?” one of them mumbled, a thin brave façade over what was obviously a nervous wreck of a boy.
“Did you not hear what he just said?” piped up the second bouncer. “You’re not getting in!”
Even though I’d been in a similar position the previous week, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself a little, knowing that I’d finally, after the long anticipation, made it inside Berghain.

***

Back inside the club, Ralf and I retreated to the top floors of the complex. We danced some more, but our relaxing time out in the garden had really slowed the pace down a little bit. We moved to one of the smaller adjoining rooms, where lots of people were chilling out and hanging around, and found some space on one of the couches. We made out for a little while, but then ended up lying down and cuddling for a little while, and I eventually drifted off into a light sleep. I think Ralf might have dozed off as well, because we were both startled awake be a commotion coming from above us. I looked up to see a man snorting a line of cocaine from the back of the couch that we had been lying on. He took his time to make sure he got every last morsel, before casually walking away. I looked at Ralf, bewildered. Going to the toilets to take your drugs was one thing, but this guy had very publicly consumed his cocaine for the rest of the club to see. Ralf just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to Berghain.”

We laid back down for a while, but eventually I checked the time. “Wow, its nearly one in the morning. I’ve been here for nearly 12 hours!”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Ralf asked me. I had mentioned that this was the last item on my Berlin bucket list, and that I had told myself I should leave the following day.
“Well, there was a train I was planning to catch”, I said to him. “But I don’t actually have anything booked.” Ralf just smiled, and I already knew that I wouldn’t be leaving Berlin tomorrow. “So I suppose I don’t have to leave.” Once again, Lola’s prediction was echoing in the back of my mind. Darling, you’re never going to leave…
“I would ask you to sleep over tonight, but I rode my bike here,” Ralf said. “But if you did stay, maybe you could come over tomorrow night? I’ll make you some food – you haven’t eaten all day, your mother must be worried about you if you’re not eating right!”

I just smiled and nodded. “That sounds lovely.” At that point we decided to call it a night before we actually did have a sleepover in Berghain. We exchanged numbers and said goodbyes, and Ralf set off on his bicycle as I climbed into a taxi. Despite being petrified about going alone to face the big scary doorman and get inside this legendary club, my first Berghain experience actually turned out to be fun, diverse, enlightening, and in general just simply amazing. I had already fallen in love with the city of Berlin, but my time at Berghain was the cherry on top that would earn Berlin the title of my favourite city for a long time to come.