Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

After yet another delay with the bus out of Flagstaff, we drove on through the afternoon and into the night. The desert landscape looked as empty as ever for most of the journey, but I could tell when the bus was drawing closer to Las Vegas by the signs and flashing lights that became ever more frequent on the side of the road. Eventually the sparse surroundings gave way to more buildings, and soon the roads were aglow as the streetlights began lighting up the night. I’d messaged ahead to let my host know I would be late, so he was waiting for me outside the bus depot when it finally pulled into Las Vegas.

The story of how I ended up where I ended up in Las Vegas is a typical example of the networking that happens and the connections you make when you’re backpacking. Back when I was travelling from Cambodia back to Thailand on the original bus ride from hell, I had been left waiting for a bus to take me from the Cambodian/Thai border back to Bangkok with a handful of other travellers. Sitting on white plastic chairs in the hot tropical morning sun, I had gotten chatting with a girl named Ashley. We bonded over the complete logistical nightmare we had found ourselves in, and began comparing our experiences as travellers in Cambodia. From her accent, I could clearly tell that Ashley was North American, but she was actually the first to ask whereabouts in the world I was from.
“You’re from Sydney? No way!” she’d said when I told her where I hailed from. “That’s where I’m heading after my travelling in Thailand.” I told her that I wouldn’t be back in Australia for many more months, since at that stage I was less than two months into my journey, but never-the-less we decided to exchange contact details so that we could keep in touch, and that I when she finally arrived in Sydney I might be able to help her out in some way.
“And how about you? You’re from the US, right?”
“Yep, I come from Las Vegas,” she said with a smile.
“Vegas? Like, you actually live there?” For all the crazy stories and parties I’d heard about happening in Las Vegas, I don’t think I could ever recall meeting someone who actually lived there. But it just so happened to be Ashley’s hometown, and she told me to let her know if I was ever heading that way – even if she wasn’t around, she said she’d be more than happy to hook me up with some of her friends back home. At that stage I had absolutely no idea what my plans for the USA were, but I told her that I’d be in touch if I ever found myself headed there.

***

Fast forward to roughly 7 months later and Ashley’s friend Ly was greeting my as I hopped off the bus in Las Vegas. It was a Friday night, so as we drove back to his place he told me that he had a bunch of people coming over later that night to celebrate a friends birthday, and that they would be heading out to the nearby Downtown area of Las Vegas. I was fairly ignorant to the geography of the city, and soon learned that the typical Vegas that you see on postcards and in movies is all located at “The Strip”. That’s also where most of the hotels are, and therefore where most of the tourists can be found. However, tonight I would be seeing Las Vegas through the eyes of the locals. When we arrived, Ly introduced me to his housemate Chris and their dogs Button and Roxie, and then showed me where I would be sleeping. It was a long room that had three double beds, but without any bed frames, so they had all been pushed together to form one kind of super bed.
“We have people crashing here pretty regularly, so we have a lot of room on stand-by”, Ly explained to me. As tempting as it was to just collapse in the the sea of blankets and pillows, I threw my stuff down by the edge of the super mattress and headed to the bathroom to freshen up. I knew if I laid down now I probably wouldn’t get back up, and there’d be plenty of time to sleep after Friday night.

After getting ready I headed out to the kitchen, where Ly made me a drink and introduced me to the people who had arrived so far. By morning I would have forgotten most of their faces and all of their names, but they were all friendly enough, and when Ly told them that I had ended up there through connections with Ashley, they all either rolled their eyes or sighed, exclaiming “Of course he knows Ashley!” Before turning to me and asking: “Where is she now?”
“Um, I think she’s in Sydney?”
“In Australia? Nice! Is that where you met here?”
“Ah, no. I actually met her in… Cambodia? Well, technically Thailand, I guess.”
“You were in Thailand? Wait, when was Ashley in Thailand?” Apparently, to this group of people, Ashley was what I had become to my own friends back home – that traveller who’s been gone so long that no one’s really sure where she even was anymore. I smiled and wondered what my friends would have been saying about me in a similar situation back home – although in reality it hadn’t been that long since I’d seen some of them in New York.

After a few strong cocktails and a round of “Happy Birthday” for the birthday girl, we piled into a couple of cars and drove the very short distance to the main bar area of Downtown Vegas. First we had a couple of drinks in a bar called Griffin, before moving next door to a place called Commonwealth. The bars were cool, but they seemed more like dive bars, and nothing about them screamed anything remotely lavish or extravagant, or anything I’d come to understand as being stereotypically Vegas. In fact, I couldn’t even see any gambling machines. I’d soon learn that many of the people who actually live in Las Vegas are performers who spend most of their working lives around the strip surrounded by that kind of environment. On their nights off, they just want to escape to a normal bar like everyone else. Not to say that the place wasn’t going off, because it was definitely packed out. I got separated from my gang as we crossed the dance floor to get to the other side of the club, and as I was scanning the room to see where they’d gone, the girl in front of me turned around and thrust a shot glass towards me.
“Here, we got an extra shot!” she yelled over the music. “It’s Fireball!” I’d been sampling Fireball whiskey all along my journey through the Southwest, and I’d become quite a fan, so I didn’t really give it a second thought before throwing the shot back and continuing my way across the dance floor – it was the first of many free drinks that I’d be scoring over my weekend in this city.

I eventually caught up with Ly and the rest of the group, and I hung out with them for a while, although it wasn’t that easy to have a conversation with all the loud music. It was also the first straight club that I had been in for quite a while, which might sound kind of petty, but when you’ve been touring the world and mostly sampling the gay bars in the each city you visit, the general difference in atmosphere is startlingly obvious. When the girl whose birthday it was got up to go to the bathroom, I was left sitting with a group of boys who all started up a conversation about her.
“Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’s gonna hook up with anyone?” They were throwing around that sort of weirdly uncomfortable banter, which I wasn’t that interested in anyway, but between them I heard assertions of platonic friendship, as well as a few of the guys deciding who was in the best position to “take a shot” at getting with her. Then, in what played out in my mind as some kind of bad punchline, they turned to me.
“How about you, man? You think she’s hot?”
I literally choked on my drink, and awkwardly cleared my throat after regaining my breath. “Um… Ashley… Ashley didn’t mention to any of you that I was gay, did she?”
There was a split second of blank, awkward stares, followed by a round of embarrassed laughter and “Sorry, man!” before returning to the eventual topic of who was going to, at least in their minds, ‘get the girl’.

Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown Las Vegas.

***

I’m sure they were probably lovely guys and were possibly just joking around, not taking anything they were saying too seriously. I didn’t really feel like sticking around to find out though. I’d somehow lost Ly through all this, and between drinks at home, not really having eaten dinner, a few drinks in the club plus the surprise Fireball shot, I was actually quite drunk. And so I did what any drunk gay man who is having an average time in a straight bar would do – I found some wifi, did a quick Google search, and directed myself to the nearest gay bar. Which didn’t actually seem too far away… on Google Maps, at least. It was about a 15 minute walk, which isn’t that far, really, except that it was a lot colder outside than I had realised. And instead of walking along busy streets with other shops, bars and people, my directions took me down some pretty empty, suburban looking streets. But I’d come so far that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I might be lost and turn around, so on through the cold I trudged.

As it would happen, I wasn’t lost at all, and I found Snicks Place exactly where it was supposed to be. Except when I opened the doors, I was greeted by an empty room. I’m not even exaggerating. There wasn’t a single patron in this bar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I certainly wasn’t ready to face the cold again, so I wandered in to find the bar and order a drink. It turned out that there was one patron at Snicks Place – the bartender and his friend were having a casual chat across the bar, and they both looked genuinely surprised to see me when I approached them. They asked me how my night was going, so I relayed my entire afternoon, from arriving in Las Vegas to drinking with my straight friends of a friend of a friend to finally making my way here. I guess it’s not every night that a young drunk Australian walks into the oldest gay bar in Las Vegas, which happened to be almost deserted, because the two guys were very interested in hearing all about my life and my travels. At least, I assume they were. In all honesty, I was pretty intoxicated by that point. But they still poured me another drink, and showed me how to work some of the gambling machines. My only experience with gambling had been the electronic poker machines in the bars back in Sydney, but this bar had all kinds of random gambling games and machines that I had never even seen before. I’m not much of a gambler, but there wasn’t really much else to do in the bar, so I had a go at them while I chatted to the two guys.

Eventually I must have started to give away just how drunk I was, because the bartender asked whereabouts I was staying. I had written Ly’s address down in my phone, but he seemed shocked that I wasn’t staying in a hotel or the more usual tourist accommodation. Then I mentioned Ly by name, and the bartenders face lit up in recognition.
“You’re staying with Ly?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Yeah, we’re all locals around here. Why don’t I give him call, maybe he can come pick you up?”
I think I was falling asleep at the bar by the time Ly arrived. I was so embarrassed and apologised profusely for him having to come and get me, but he just laughed it off and said it was nothing. He was a decent guy, and he didn’t seem to mind. He drove me home and helped me into the room, where there were two girls who passed out on the mega mattress. I crawled into my edge of the bed and passed out, scolding myself for being such a fool for wandering off aimlessly into the night, but promising myself that I’d do better with exploring Las Vegas tomorrow.

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Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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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.

Bars, Boys and a Bakery: São Paulo Nightlife

One thing I would quickly discover about a lot of eating establishments in São Paulo, and eventually other cities in Brazil, was the use of a card with which you keep a tab on your purchases. With the exception of both fancier restaurants and the cheaper, over-the-counter fast food options, most places operated in a cafeteria style where your selections and choices were recorded to a certain number or card, and often the people serving you food were completely separate from the people who would collect your payment. It was an interesting way of doing things, and while it wasn’t exactly foreign to me, I’d never imagined to be such a widespread phenomenon in one specific area. It was a effective and quite streamlined way of doing things, but it wasn’t until I made my first few trips out to the nightclubs of São Paulo that I realised it was also partly a response to improve security in many places.

***

The evening during my week in São Paulo were spent relatively quietly, having dinner with Fausto or attending a few different events with him – a friend of his was opening a trendy boutique clothing store that was having a launch party with a free self-service cocktail mixing table – you know, as you do. But it was on the weekend, when Fausto didn’t have work commitments the following day, that he really showed me some of the gay bars that São Paulo had to offer. Each night we ended up visiting a few smaller cocktail bars where we would meet with some of his friends before heading to the nightclubs. Some of the places were a bit above my price range, but Fausto generously helped me out with the tabs from time to time – thanks to him, I was able to see a very different side of Brazil that I hadn’t really expected at all. In fact, the affluent and fancy establishments were the complete opposite of what I had been led to believe Brazil would feel like, so it just goes to show that the enormous city really is incredibly diverse.

The first actual nightclub that I visited that weekend was Lions Night Club on the Friday night. There was a queue when we arrived, and upon entering the doors of the venue, every single patron had their ID’s checked and scanned, their details recorded, and their bags and pockets frisked before being assigned with a personal tab card. I was instructed that it was highly important I did not lose this card, because not having it with you when it came time to leave would have you in a world of pain. Once this rigorous security check had been completed, we headed upstairs to the main bar, where I was honestly shocked at how fancy it was. Luxurious looking furniture and seating lined the edge of the large room, a huge dance floor area, a long and extravagant bar located in the centre of everything, a spacious outdoor balcony overlooking the area below and amazing professional lighting and sound systems. I wasn’t surprised to later learn that the event was routinely compared to some of the posh gay bars in New York City – not that I’d gone to anything ridiculously fancy while I’d been in New York, but Lions definitely seemed to fit the bill.

One thing that I noticed while I was in Lions was the way that the tab card system fundamentally changed the way that people behave at the bar. There are the obvious advantages – no one uses cash, so you can’t have to wait for bartenders to count money or give back change, and no one is using credit cards so you don’t have to get stuck behind someone insisting that it must be the machines fault that their card has been declined. You order your drink, hand over your card, the purchase is added to the tab, and off you go. However, for someone like me, who was on a limited budget, it was unnerving because I wasn’t always sure how much the drinks I was purchasing actually cost. The last thing I wanted was to be caught short later with not enough cash to be able to settle the debt when it was time to leave.

The other thing the tab card system affected was the popular, well-established custom of buying someone a drink. Of course, it’s still more than possible to order someone a drink and put it on your card, but it just didn’t seem to be happening that much. Offering to buy someone a drink has long been a pretty standard ice-breaker, in my opinion, but the card system sort of undermined that: “Put it on my tab” doesn’t seem half as fancy or impressive when literally every single person in the bar has one too. I mean, I suppose it’s entirely possible that simply nobody wanted to buy me a drink. But even putting that aside, I just can’t describe the feeling, but it definitely felt different. Though there was the flip side of that very situation: a couple of times I just got handed my drink because someone in Fausto’s group of friends just ordered the drinks and put it onto one card. I suppose that’s a more social way of encouraging people to buy rounds of drinks – a tradition that’s apparently very Australian – although it’s just as easily a way to get roped into footing the bill for round of drinks which might cost a lot more than you could afford.

With Fausto and his friends at Lions Night Club.

With Fausto and his friends at Lions Night Club.

With all it’s pros and cons, this payment system in Brazilian clubs was perhaps one of the biggest culture shocks I experienced that weekend in São Paulo. I’ve been assured it’s not a particularly new phenomenon and that it exists in many places around the world, but this was my first ever encounter with it. I can’t say that I liked it, but there were other factors such as the language barrier with the bartenders that made the whole set up a lot more difficult for me to navigate. When we were getting ready to leave Lions, we had to line up to hand over our tabs and pay the difference, and of course I somehow managed to end up in the credit card only line. Fausto swooped into rescue me as the cashier was shouting in Portuguese while staring incredulously at my cash, but after he paid her and I paid him back, we had our tabs scanned one last time by the security staff. Only when a green light appeared, indicating we had settled our tabs and owed no more money, were we allowed to exit. Functions like this serve as a way for people to have a night out without having to carry any cash – which I supposed can be ideal for places were street crime  and mugging is relatively high – but it also made me cast my memory back to times when I’d felt terribly ill and had to make a quick getaway from a nightclub, and how that would have been completely impossible with this payment and security system. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening experience about the ways in which the nightlife in other cultures can operate.

***

On the Saturday night, we once again started the night with some drinks at a classy low key bar before heading to the nightclub, and I was also introduced to a handful more of Fausto’s friends, luckily most of whom could speak English. The nightclub we were heading to that evening was called Club Yacht. However, all the Brazilians were pronouncing “yacht” in Portuguese, so I really wasn’t expecting what I would totally have been expecting if I had actually known the name of the club prior to arriving there. Club Yacht had been recently renovated on the inside and was, as one would expect, nautical themed. The walls and bars were decorated with mirrors, shells, and trimmings that recalled visions of the lost city of Atlantis, and the whole scene was nicely underscored with blue neon lighting. There was a large dance floor and a well stocked bar, with bartenders dressed in sailor outfits. There was even a huge fish tank towards the back of the clubs near the bathroom. I have to admit, while some themed nightclubs can turn into a horrible and misguided shambles, I was actually pretty impressed with Club Yacht. Of course, there was still the same security procedures and bar tab setup as their had been in Lions, but by now I was getting the hang of that. It felt a little confronting to be subjected to such precautions, but in the end having them in place probably made the whole environment just that extra bit safer.

I preferred Club Yacht over Lions. Maybe it was the fun nautical décor, or that I liked the music a lot more, or that I ended up having a sneaky make-out session with one of Fausto’s friends behind the fish tank (somehow made even more physically charged by the fact he had a very limited English vocabulary), but I really had a good night on the crowded dance floor. We’d arrived at about 1:00 AM, having lost an hour to daylight savings, but we stayed well into the early hours of the morning. When it came time to leave, Fausto insisted that he show me a place that was something of an entity in the post-nightclub eating world of São Paulo: a place called Boston Bakery. A 24 hour eatery that is much more impressive than the simple name suggests, it was a hybrid café/restaurant that served such a staggering variety of foods that I was quite torn when it came to deciding what to eat. Some of Fausto’s friends opted for sweets or baked goods, such as those you would expect from a bakery, but my post-drinking stomach usually has a craving for a burger, and there was a selection that could be ordered off the menu.

Apparently Boston Bakery can be completely packed out during the day, especially for things like weekend brunches, but at a modest 5:00 in the morning there weren’t too many other diners to share the place with. Again, we were issued with numbered tokens when we entered the building, and rather than waiting for the waiter to bring over a bill at the end of the meal, we simply had to flash our tokens and pay for whatever we had ordered on that number. After that we walked home through the cool dawn air and spent the majority of Sunday sleeping.

***

I was lucky to have had Fausto to guide me through the nightlife of São Paulo. The combination of being a thrifty traveller and having lived a stones throw away from the gay nightlife in Sydney meant that I still had a bit of an aversion to getting taxi’s if I could help it. But if there was one piece of advice that I would give to absolutely any traveller in São Paulo, it’s that taxi’s are definitely your best friend. Especially at night. Usually I’m pretty adventurous, although I think if I’d been left to my own devices and tried to navigate my way around the concrete jungle at nighttime via public transport, I feel I would have been telling a very different story in this blog – if indeed I’d even made it out alive to tell the tale. But as luck would have it, I was blessed with some friends who were more than happy to take me out and show me a local perspective of São Paulo nightlife.

The Big Apple and Other Fruits: a taste of gay NYC

During my first week or so in New York, I didn’t really do something that I had done extensively while I was in all the other previous cities I’d recently visited, and that was explore the local gay scene. Which is a little surprising, given that a city as huge as New York is bound to have some incredible scenes to discover, but I suppose I was still slightly recovering from the hole that Dublin had corroded in my liver. I’d also been hanging out with Melissa, and while she is fabulously gay-friendly, she wasn’t exactly familiar with Manhattan’s gay nightlife scene, considering that her gay best friend lived in Brooklyn and wasn’t even above the legal drinking age anyway. However, when Mischa came down from Connecticut on the weekend that we ended up going to Six Flags, he had a couple of New Yorker friends who were going out for a few drinks and so we decided to join them.

We went over to Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the on the western side of midtown Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen was probably closest New York came to having a ‘gay district’, although from what I had heard and what I would eventually discover, the city was a lot like London or Berlin or Paris in that it had numerous clusters of gay venues and parties scattered all over the island, and there wasn’t really a ‘central’ district of Manhattan because the whole thing is a complete metropolis, north to south and east to west. Historically the locations of the more popular gay areas had shifted, and right now Hell’s Kitchen seemed to be the place to be. We stopped by Neil’s briefly, where I met Walter and Neil for the first time, before we headed out to a bar called Boxers. When we arrived I discovered that Boxers was a sports bar – that’s right, a gay sports bar. I don’t know if I was shocked, surprised, or just confused, but the concept of a gay sports bar just seemed so contradictory to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a huge sports fan of any kind, but I could never imagine a dedicated gay sports bar ever taking off in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. It was also possibly an American thing – come to think of it, ‘sports bars’ aren’t so much a thing in Australia at all, since people just go down to the local pub if they’re going to watch the football.

The juxtaposition of the hyper-masculine, all American jock themes with the obvious gay pride rainbows actually worked pretty well. All around the bar there were various sports games being shown on television screens, but less than half of the people in the bar were actually paying them any real attention. We got some drinks and stood around for a little while, but the bar wasn’t exactly going off. We had plans to go to a nightclub later – some place where Neil’s friend was working as a promoter, which meant we could get in for free – but it was still incredibly early, so at Neil’s suggestion, we swung past a corner store on the way back to his apartment and all pitched in for a case of beer. Neil’s apartment was new – so new that were were surrounded by half unpacked boxes, and were sitting on his bed because it was either that or the floor – but we made ourselves comfy and sat around drinking our beers and chatting and laughing. It was during this period of a couple of hours that Neil convinced us to join them at Six Flags the following day, a decision that would feel like a huge mistake when the alarm went off at 7am the following morning. It wasn’t like I had any other plans though, so we agreed to come along.

Eventually we left – heavily intoxicated by that stage – for XL, the club where Neil’s friend was working. We skipped the line and didn’t have to pay entry, and his friend even showered us with a handful of drink tickets. XL was located nearby in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s since closed and reopened under a new name) and was a huge club – when the smoke machines came on it was almost impossible to see the other side of the dance floor. I honestly can’t remember much else about my time spent there, thanks to the several shots that Neil ordered us immediately upon arrival and the fact that I probably drank way too much beer beforehand anyway. We attempted to drink more, mostly likely attempted to dance for a bit, and when I used the bathrooms I was intensely fascinated by another concept that was incredibly foreign to me as an Australian: bathroom attendants. These people stand around the sinks in the bathroom and offer you all kinds of things, from soap to hand towels to spritzes of cologne, in return for an appropriate tip. I find the whole thing rather awkward, because instead of requesting their service they just jump in and try to wait on your every whim or need, when honestly I would rather dry my own hands on my jeans. You feel like a bit of a jerk having to actively avoid them or ask them to leave you alone, since they’re just doing their job and trying to make as much as they can out of whatever tips they can gather, but I still find it all rather uncomfortable. Although being drunk probably helps.

I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed at XL, but knowing that we had to get up early for Out in the Park at Six Flags, I’m assuming we left at a relatively reasonable hour. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and the next thing I know I woke up nursing a headache, spooning Mischa, and cursing that damned alarm clock.

***

My second night out on the gay scene was a little more memorable… well, that probably isn’t the right word since I definitely don’t remember all of it. But it was definitely a lot more eventful. I had met Scott a few years ago when he had been holidaying in Sydney. He was a big partier, and we’d gotten on pretty well, so we’d kept in touch. He had been my only gay contact who actually lived in New York, so one evening when Melissa had other plans after class, I got in touch with Scott and asked about the best places to go. It was a Wednesday night, so naturally he was going out himself, and we met for a quick sushi dinner after he had finished work before heading back to his apartment – also in Hell’s Kitchen – so he could get ready. He went to offer me a drink while I waited, although the only alcohol he had was this strange Czech liquor (which I had actually tasted with Ike in Ancona) or absinthe. I guess it was at that early point in the evening that I should have known the end of this night wasn’t going to be pretty. I opted for the absinthe on the rocks. I don’t know, #yolo or whatever.

We went to a nearby theatre where a new weekly event was starting – So You Think You Can Drag? It’s exactly what you think it is – a whole line up of drag queens performing on stage in front of an audience, with a panel of judges making comments and scores and eventually choosing a winner. Now, I’ve been all over the world and seen a fair few drag queens, most notably in Cambodia, Russia and Germany, but so far I had yet to see any drag shows that came close to the quality of the queens that I’ve seen back home in Sydney. New York changed all that. I guess you really need to have something special to stand out in a place like this, and these queens were trying their hardest. I’ve always appreciated my favourite drag queens back in Sydney, so I really enjoyed watching all the acts. Add to the fact that the first hour of the event had an open vodka bar, and I knew that if I lived in NYC I would most definitely become a regular here. Like Scott obviously was. The hostess of the evening, Paige Turner, is one of New York’s more successful drag queens, and is on a first name basis with Scott – a relationship which I am sure developed purely because he never missed one of her shows.

Scott and Paige Turner - apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

Scott and Paige Turner – apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

New York drag queens giving it all they've got.

New York drag queens giving it all they’ve got.

Scott introduced me to a bunch of people as we mingled before the drag performances. It was here that I would learn that aspects of nightlife in New York are very different to Sydney – different from most places in the world that I’ve been to, now that I think about it. It’s not so much about certain venues or bars as it is about different events run by certain nightlife companies, which are held over a variety of venues on a weekly basis. Of course, there are dedicated gay bars too, but it’s very much a matter of knowing where to go on what night, depending on what you’re looking for or what you want to do. I think you could probably live there for years and still never figure it out, so I’m not going to pretend I am an expert or anything – this is purely just my understanding and perceptions based on my experience. When I was waiting in line with Scott, I was introduced to a guy named Bobby – he worked for BoiParty.com, the company that was running So You Think You Can Drag? – who was going down the line and signing up anyone who wasn’t part of the mailing list. Maybe it was something else, since it seemed like I had to give my details to even get in, but I didn’t mind, since I had no idea about what was going on in New York and would appreciate some email notifications about upcoming parties. I got chatting to Bobby for a little bit too, and he told me to add him on Facebook. He would end up being my go-to guy when it came to all things nightlife-related in New York.

After the shows had ended – the winner of tonight was a musical theatre queen named Sutton Lee Seymour – I headed back to Scott’s with a bunch of other people for a… ‘between events’ party? Post/pre drinks party? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I discovered just now non G-rated Scott’s life is. More absinthe was involved. The next thing I know I am at a bar called the Ritz, a place Scott was always raving about, which was the official, or maybe unofficial, after party for the previous drag event. The venue was pretty small and intimate, but the drinks were cheap and it was packed with guys and queens from earlier in the night. We danced, we sang, we made it rain dollar bills during the impromptu performances. Tipping drag queens was another thing that slightly shocked me, but I was coming to realise that the service industry workers who primarily relied on tips didn’t just finish in restaurants and bars and hospitality. It was something I would get used to during my months in the states, but right now it all seemed kind of awkward. At least, it did for me – the workers on the other end had no hesitation in taking my money.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

It doesn’t happen often, but that night I blacked out. When I woke up, I was lying on Scott’s bed, fully clothed except for my shoes, which I appeared to have kicked off and were sitting on the floor by the bed. There was another guy lying next to me, still asleep and also fully clothed. I had no idea who he was. Scott was sitting on the end of the bed, and seemed to be in the middle of a very serious conversation with what appeared to be a drag queen who had only gotten halfway out of her drag outfit from the pervious evening. When I stirred and tried to sit up, Scott broke away from the conversation and turned around.
“Okay, twinks, it’s 9am. I have to teach in four hours so I need my bed back.” I stared at him, comprehending but being beyond speech in my current state. “You can sleep on the couch.”
It was nine on the morning?! I should have just gone home but I wasn’t ready to face the day. Scott woke up the other guy on the bed, who I later learned was named Mat, and shooed us both out of his room, along with the drag queen. She left, but Mat and I collapsed on the couch. I had absolutely no recollection of ever meeting him, or why we we’d ended up on a bed together, even though we were fully clothed. We spooned on the couch so we would both fit, and I managed to get a couple of more hours sleep. However, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable, because I had somewhere to be.

Melissa had some family coming to stay with her that weekend, which meant I had to make myself scarce for a little while. So I had planned a trip out of the city to Washington, DC. Well, I had a cheap bus ticket and a Couchsurfing host lined up at the other end, which is about as much planning as I ever do. The bus was leaving in the early afternoon, but I had, in all my infinite wisdom, still decided to have an absolute bender of an evening the night before. Eventually I dragged myself out of Scott’s apartment and into the to bright sunshine that was Hell’s Kitchen by day, and ran back across town – with a quick pit stop at McDonalds – to pack my bag and head of the bus station. Melissa wasn’t around, but by this point of my stay I finally had my own key, which she had said I could hang onto until I was leaving New York for the final time. I thought I’d left myself enough time to get the bus stop via the subway, but by the time I got home, showered, threw all my stuff into my bad and got back to the station, I realised that I really hadn’t. I hailed a cab. We got halfway across town – the bus was leaving from a corner near Penn Station – when it started to rain. Traffic came to standstill. I ended up throwing some cash at the driver and running through the torrential downpour that seemingly came out of no where. Gasping and panting, I made it to the bus just in time to have my baggage stowed away underneath. Climbing aboard the bus, I made a promise to myself I would never be hungover on a day of travel again – it wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last.

Brits Gone Bonkers: Notting Hill Carnival

During my time in London I’d made some new friends, like Guy and Yitav, or John and Richard, and I’d caught up with people who I had met previous one my journey, such as Tim and Giles. One afternoon I even took the tube out to Euston Train Station to catch up with Laura, who I had befriended in my hostel in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She didn’t live in London, but she was passing through on the way to a friends birthday somewhere further north, so I’d gone over to have a coffee and a gossip while she waited for her connecting train. It had been months since we’d seen each other, so we filled each other in on all our travels since we’d parted ways back in Cambodia. I’d met of a lot of other travellers during my time in South-East Asia, but Laura was really the only one who I had actually gotten along with extremely well, and with whom I’d actively stayed in touch. It was a completely different environment from the last time we’d been together, but it was so lovely to see another familiar face after so long on the road, even if I had met that face while on the road in the first place!

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

But I was also set to meet up with another friend from back home in Australia. My friend Ellie was moving to Scotland for six months to study abroad, but before that she had also been travelling through Europe. London was one of the last stops before she ended up in Glasgow to settle down, and as fate would have it we were both in town at the same time. So we headed into Soho one evening for dinner and ciders, catching up and sharing stories and talking about all our friends back home, and what had been going on back there since we’d both been away. As much fun as meeting new people can be, there’s nothing quite like the ease that comes with sitting down with an old friend and talking about anything, everything, or nothing at all. Ellie also had some other friends who were travelling through London at the moment too, so after our pub meals and a couple more ciders we headed out into the night to meet them.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

To cut a long story short, Ellie’s Canadian friend dragged us back and forth across the city for the entire night, always seeming to have a rough plan but never knowing exactly where we were going. We waited in line for some club for close to an hour before being informed it was full, or they weren’t letting anyone else in, or whatever, I’m not even sure. Her friend then tried to drag us into some dirty, hole-in-the-wall nightclub with a £10 entry fee. I’m not a fan of cover charges at the the best of times, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay one for a straight club that looked like it might cave in on me the moment I stepped in. It was still relatively early, but we’d actually managed to end up in East London, so I figured I would call it quits and just head home and save myself for tomorrow, when we had plans to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. There’d been a lot of talk about the carnival, which was supposed to be an event that stretches over the course of three days, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever was going to be happening. Ellie seemed pretty exhausted too, so we threw in the towel and made a McDonalds pit stop before calling it a night.

***

The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival, something I had heard people talking about over the last few days but hadn’t ever previously heard anything about. I hopped on the tube and headed west, where I would meeting Ellie and another friend of hers, a fellow Australian named Sophie who was living in London. When I surfaced from the tube, I found the streets absolutely packed with people. A quick trip to a corner store found the mobs clearing out the stocks of beer and cider on the shelves, so I figured there was going to be some serious shenanigans going on in the street. I bought myself some cans of beer and headed back into the street to find Sophie and Ellie and the swarms of people.  When we finally found each other, it was really just a matter of following the crowds and roaming the streets. If there was any kind of method to the madness, it did not make itself apparent to me.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

There were food stalls all about the place, with all kinds of mouth-watering smells filling the air. Later I would learn that most of the Notting Hill Carnival is led by the West Indian community of London, so the Caribbean vibe made itself known among all the food and the drinking and partying. We also stumbled across what appeared to the be the beginning of a parade, with floats and dancers and music all marching down the street, with the crowds being parted and controlled by police. I’m still not sure whether or not drinking on the streets is actually legal or not in London, but at least for this event I think most of the police had all but given up trying to enforce the ban if it was illegal. We walked alongside the parade sipping on our beers and ciders and no one bothered to trouble us, despite finding ourselves in very close proximity with the police.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

Floats in the parade.

Floats in the parade.

A float resembling the British police officers.

A float resembling the British police officers.

Despite the police presence though, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the carnival was somewhat out of control. It almost felt like the borough had been overrun and turned into an affluent shanty town. The streets were covered in rubbish to the point where little mounds had become acceptable dumping grounds, and you had to watch where you were walking so that you didn’t trip land face first in a mini rubbish tip. Many of the shops in the surrounding area had boarded up their windows and seemingly bunkered down and wait for the whole thing to blow over. It seems staying open for business would not have been worth the risk of the out of control herds of people flooding into their shops, and the wooden planks over all their windows showed that some weary people might still bear some unsavoury memories of the London riots of 2011. I will admit, there were times when I felt a little uneasy, but for the most part all the probable and possible damage was just the dirty streets left in the wake of the mostly heavily inebriated crowds. There were even brave citizens of the area who had opened up their homes to the party-goers so that they may use their toilets for a fee. There was so many people flooding the streets though, and such a lack of public toilets to cope with those kinds of masses, that I’m sure it would have been a profitable endeavour no matter how many revellers passed through their door, inevitably breaking or destroying something along the way. Ellie and Sophie had to stop to visit one of these private bathrooms turned public restrooms, and judging by the time I was waiting for them outside, business was definitely booming inside.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

Equality.

Equality.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Street art.

Street art.

There were some terrifying moments, however, when the push and shove of the crowds became not such a friendly experience. Streets occasionally turned into mosh pits, with people getting packed in from all sides to the point where you could barely breath properly, let alone move. Ellie, Sophie and I all clung to each others hands like our lives depended on it, for fear of being separated in what was starting to become a swarming, seething mass of people. There were even some men getting particularly violent, and at times I definitely felt extremely unsafe. It was a strange juxtaposition, given that on the other side of the street, there were floats full of joyful dancers and Jamaican and Latin music being pumped over the crowd. Despite the terror, you just had to laugh and hold on for dear life. We wandered all over the place, ducking down smaller side streets every now and then to avoid those huge, crushing mobs of people, and we danced along the sidewalks to the completely uninhibited culture that had exploded throughout Notting Hill.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

In the end we were tipsy, sweaty, exhausted and possibly even a little bit traumatised, but it had been such a crazy experience that I ultimately have to say was a lot of fun. Again, as I had after events like Songkran in Bangkok and the various pride celebrations I’d been in throughout Europe, I found myself reflecting on festival and carnival events back in Australia. I’d come to the conclusion that Australian organisations seem to really love their red tap and restrictions, because I honestly couldn’t see anything like the Notting Hill Carnival ever happening in my hometown without twice the regulations and thrice the police presence. I’ve reason to believe that the English even rival Australians in their boisterousness when it comes to drinking, yet they still manage to participate in a large scale party spanning several suburbs with minimal regulations without anybody dying – at least, that I am aware of. Granted, I did fear for my life for a few seconds, so perhaps the Brits aren’t quite as sensible as the Parisians or Berliners when it comes to crowd antics, but they managed to avoid sparking any major riots. I bid farewell to Sophie and Ellie, making plans to meet up with Ellie very soon, and crawled back home via the Underground, satisfied with another weekend of crazy antics.

East London is a Vampire

I’d seen the museums of London, and I’d taken day trips to old historic towns, but there was only so much I could see of a city before, like a moth to the flame, I was drawn out of my comfy apartment to venture into the gay nightlife. For me, the most notable thing about the scene in London was that there really wasn’t just one scene. Back in Sydney the gay bars are mostly concentrated around Oxford St, with a smattering of more alternative venues in Newtown and the Inner West. Going out, both at home and in many of the other cities I’d been to, was simply a matter of asking “Where is the gay district?” and heading there. I would soon learn that London, given the vastness of the city, had several gay districts, and the question became one of ‘which’ rather than ‘where’. I’d spoken to a few people and picked up some maps around Soho in order to navigate my way through the sprawling districts – other than the central hub of Soho, there were clusters of gay bars in Vauxhall, Clapham, Camden and Shoreditch. Vauxhall was the next biggest scene after Soho, and the rest were smaller pockets of gay venues around London, which I can only assume came into existence and developed due to the sheer size of London, and that people didn’t want to travel all the way into Soho every time they went out for a drink. While I was quite keen to eventually check out the nightlife in Soho, I’d been told that some of the nightlife around Shoreditch, a district in the Borough of Hackney, was a younger crowd and more alternative, and something that I would probably enjoy. It was conveniently close to where I was staying in Hackney, and so one Thursday evening I set out to a nightclub called East Bloc.

***

It was my first night out by myself in London, and if was definitely a matter of trial and error. I had talked to a few people about the nightclub culture around London, and it wasn’t too different from what I was used to back home. Normally we have a lot of drinks beforehand, either at someones house or at a bar where the drinks are moderately priced. So I honestly can’t tell you what possessed me to catch a bus to Old Street Station and rock up to the nightclub by myself at about 11 o’clock. The bouncers kept a straight face as they checked my ID and waved me on through (it was free entry at East Bloc that night), but they surely would have been laughing on the inside. I made my way down the entrance steps into the club to find… nothing. Well, not nothing, but definitely no one. Apart from a couple of staff behind the bar, the place was literally empty. I did a quick loop of the place to see if there was something I was missing, but nope, it was just a tiny venue of which I was the first patron of the evening. There were £2.50 house spirit and £2 shots all night, and for a moment I contemplated just staying there and having a drink and waiting, or getting wasted on cheap shots until everyone else finally arrived. But I had no idea how long it would be before the club became full, and I had come out by myself with the goal of meeting some new people and socialising, so in the end I took my leave from the club to find the other gay-friendly East London watering holes.

It was then that I discovered something else rather different about London nightlife. Venues very distinctly fall into the categories of ‘bars’ and ‘clubs’, and almost without exception, the bars close at midnight. Clubs stay open a lot longer, and are the places where everyone usually heads to after they’ve been kicked out of the bars at closing time. This explained why East Bloc had resembled a ghost town when I had arrived just after 11 o’clock, only half an hour after the venue had actually opened. What’s worse is that I had known all this previously, and yet had still made a beeline for the club. So now I found myself heading back up Old Street towards Hackney Road, where there were two gay pubs that I had seen on my map: George and Dragon, and The Joiners Arms. Unfortunately, by the time I reached either of the pubs, it was closer to midnight than it was to eleven, and there was a steady stream of people who were being escorted out of the pubs and moved along down the street. No one was going inside the bars, and it was with grim resignation that I realised I had completely messed up the planning of my Shoreditch trip – I had arrived just too early for the nightclub, but far too late to do any drinking in the bars. As I result, I stood there, stone cold sober on a damp, chilly London street, with no real idea of what to do next.

That was when I remembered yet another cultural difference in London, but this time it was one that worked in my favour. In Australia, all our alcohol is sold from dedicated liquor stores, or bottle shops as we call them. In London you can easily pick up a few cans of beer from a corner store or a supermarket, so that was exactly what I did. Alcohol sales cease at midnight, so I ran to the closest convenience store and bought myself two pints of Heineken in cans. It wasn’t exactly classy, but hell, I was a backpacker. I had worn my tired, dirty outfits in the nightclubs of Paris, so I definitely wasn’t above sitting in a gutter in East London and downing a litre of beer before heading back to the nightclub I had originally been at and praying that a few more people had arrived since I had last been there.

And thankfully, there was. It wasn’t exactly packed, but there was definitely a sizeable crowd milling around the bar section, although the dance floor remained rather sparse. I people watched for a little bit, scanning the room. A pair of British guys began chatting to me,  and started asking a bunch of questions when they realised I was a foreigner, but they were quite drunk already – they had been at George and Dragon earlier – and their wavering attention led them elsewhere. I also got a free drink from one of the bartenders. After I ordered my drink, he went off to go and make it, but when he returned and I tried to pay, he just shook his head and waved away my change. I was slightly confused – I hadn’t even been flirting or talking to him, and I thought that there had potentially been a mix up between the staff. But I just couldn’t find anyone to take my money, so in the end I just accepted the stroke of fortune, tossed a few coins in the tip jar and continued on my way. I chatted here and there, talking to some people, avoiding others, and after enough £2 shots I finally hit the dance floor. The event, called Boy Trouble, described the music as “non-stop double-drop pop, Italo, house and anything else that tickles your pickle”, which was an ultimately unhelpful description but it turned out to be a pretty fun soundtrack for the evening. There were some new songs, some classics, some that I didn’t recognise and some to which I had secret choreography planned in the back of my head. Throughout the night I had been making eyes with a guy, and we ended up bumping hips and lips on the dance floor. We encountered some difficulties when we tried to speak to each other, partially because of the loud music, but partially because of our accents. It turns out his name was Yitav, and he was not English as I would have assumed, but on holidays in London visiting from Israel. I can only assume my Australian accent was just as shocking for him when he first heard it. He was there was a friend though, and I started to feel bad, like we might be making a bit of a third wheel out of him, so I got him to come and dance with us, and we played wingman until he finally ended up hooking up with a man of his own. We stayed for a little bit longer, but eventually Yitav and I slipped out of the club and into a minicab.

***

I spent the night at the apartment that Yitav and his friend Guy were renting through AirBnB, a trendy little two bedroom near Chancery Lane. In the morning we awoke to discover that Guy had brought his own lover home, a guy named Tristan who was originally from New York but now lived in Berlin, though he was spending some time abroad (from being abroad?) in London. After awkward introductions between trips to the bathroom, the four of us headed out into a gloomy London day to have a late breakfast. Guy and Yitav told me more about where they lived in Tel Aviv and about life in Israel, and we asked Tristan about living in Berlin.
“Do you go to that club… that… Berg… Berg-” Guy began to ask.
“Berghain? No, I’m not a tourist!” Tristan said it in an almost playful way, though his tone made me believe he wasn’t really joking. I bit my tongue and just laughed along. I had loved my time in Berghain. Whatever, I played the tourist card. You can’t avoid it forever.

It was a really fun morning though. Guy and Yitav were travelling through London and Amsterdam, a tour that they had planned so as to see a couple of gigs of their favourite DJs. They were in holiday mode too, so we were all pretty chilled out, and Tristan had this sassy, camp energy about him that was almost infectious, and you couldn’t help but laugh and smile when you were in his company. I headed back home after our late breakfast, but I ended up catching up with Yitav, Guy and Tristan again during some of my final days in London, having a few cocktails on a Sunday night which turned into drinking all night in their apartment. Yitav told me I was welcome to come visit him in Tel Aviv if I ever made it to Israel in my travels, and while my route for this world trip would ultimately be taking me in the wrong direction, I’m not one to cross off a travel destination before I’ve been there, so I guess Israel is a new addition to the wish list. I would never have expected that to happen after a night out in Shoreditch, but there you go. The vast array of people that I met and befriended on my travels only continued to amaze me, and I look forward to the day in the future where I will eventually get to meet them all again.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.