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.

Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

The train from Prague to Berlin was probably one of the worst trips in the whole of my travels through Europe. It sat idly at the station for over half an hour before it finally departed from Prague, and suffered major delays along the way. Parts of the air conditioning weren’t working, and the cabins inside the train were reaching ridiculous temperatures, with everyone on the train dripping in sweat before we were even halfway there. When the train attendants came down the aisle at one point handing out bottles of water to everyone, I knew that the problems were actually pretty serious, and I had no hope of getting to Berlin at my previously anticipated time. But as it is with such unavoidable nuisances, all I could do was sit there in the stinking hot train with a bunch of other travellers around me. Everyone was was so hot and bothered and looking rather fed up with the whole thing that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to strike up a conversation to pass the time. I listened to my music, read my book, and closed my eyes, dozing off and dreaming of my current destination.

The last time I was in Berlin I had stayed with my family friend Donatella and her assortment of wild and zany housemates – Lola’s words about never leaving the city were still nagging at the back of my mind as I found myself drawn back to it. But after meeting and staying with him for the last two nights of my previous stay, Ralf had said that I was welcome back to stay with him any time I was in Berlin. I don’t think he had anticipated my return being quite so soon, but he agreed to let me stay with him when I told him I would be coming back on my way west to Amsterdam. I’d really enjoyed the brief time I had spent with him last time, so I was pretty excited to seem him again. Of course, the train was running late, so some of the logistics in actually finding each other were a little difficult. Yet when I stepped off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof there was a slightly different feeling that I hadn’t felt in quiet some time, and that was the feeling of returning to a familiar city. Not since arriving back in Bangkok after the bus ride from Hell had I arrived in a city where I was able to say: Yes, I recognise this place. I know where I am and I know where I have to go. As much as I love the excitement that comes with discovering a brand new place and city, that kind of familiarity with a place is strangely comforting. When I finally met Ralf – and had changed out of my soiled travel clothes, showered and freshened up – we had dinner, and I told him all about the adventures I’d had throughout Europe since I had last seen him. He listened and smiled as I told him my stories, and I was glad I had come back to Berlin – that adorable smile was the cherry on top of all the things that I already loved so much about the city that had drawn me back here.

***

Ralf had to work during most of the week, so I had to find other things to do to amuse myself. I spent a lot of time just resting and hanging out, happy to have a place to myself while Ralf was out, but one of the major things to do in Berlin that I hadn’t gotten around to doing last time I was here was see the East Side Gallery, which is actually the painted and decorated remains of the Berlin Wall. I had only briefly seen it in the dark with Dane on our first attempt to get into Berghain, and I wanted to go back and really take it in. I have to say, I had seen to some pretty amazing art museums on my travels – famous notables include the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Louvre, and the Vatican Museum – but I have to say that out of all of them it was the East Side Gallery that captivated me the most. The artworks are such a diverse collection, from detailed masterpieces to simple murals that could have been done by children to sections that looked more like elaborate graffiti more than anything else. In fact, despite it obviously not being allowed, many sections of the wall had been vandalised, but in a way I feel like it was almost some kind of artistic extension. The wall is part of a long history for Berlin and Germany, but the periodic graffiti that marks it almost gives the face of the wall itself a traceable history, a reflection of ideas presented in both an official and unofficial capacity.

Whether it was the graffiti or the actual murals, the thing I loved about the East Side Gallery is that there is such a strong and powerful meaning behind each and every word and image. With the wall itself long being a symbol of division and oppression, that’s hardly surprising, but I often found my slow stroll coming to a gradual halt just so I could stand there and look both ways, up and down the wall, and just take it all in. I have no idea what it would have been like here during war time – I couldn’t even begin to imagine – but for me these paintings scratched the surface of the emotions and impacts of the wall that inspired them. It was art and history seamlessly combined into one, and it gave me shivers to behold, something I can’t say for any of the other artworks I’d come across.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

I got excited because I'd been to all of these places - well, almost everywhere.

I got excited because I’d been to all of these places – well, almost everywhere.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

That’s not to say that all those artworks in the previous galleries didn’t have any meaning – there was plenty of beautiful and moving pieces in all of them. But there’s just something kind of sterile about the museum environment, where things are locked away behind glass cabinets, or sectioned off with velvet ropes. There’s a division between the viewer and the art, and it’s kept pristine and preserved in its slice of history. The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall had none of that – it was real, it was there in front of you. You could feel it with your hands, and it had moved forward and changed, developing its own history, for better or for worse. It’s not your conventional art gallery, but then I suppose I don’t really like conventional art galleries all that much. There were plenty of other ones I could have visited while I was in Berlin, but I had found such a sense of fulfilment after seeing the East Side Gallery that I really didn’t see the need.

***

It felt great to be back in Berlin, but there’s a danger in getting too familiar and thinking that you really know the city when you still have so much to learn. Previously in Berlin, I had only bought tickets for the U-Bahn about 50% of the time, rationalising it with the fact that you don’t need them to actually enter the trains or platforms, and I had never seen anyone ever checking for them. I had bought them the couple of times I’d travelled places with Ralf, because I wouldn’t be able to play ‘dumb tourist’ if I was hanging out with a local. But for the times I was out on my own, I took a chance and skipped the ticket machine on my way into the subway.

Never really expecting to have it happen, you can imagine my surprise when someone did come around inspecting tickets – of course, on my journey back from the East Side Gallery when I was not in possession of a ticket. I fumbled wildly through my backpack, triple checking my wallet for a ticket that I knew wasn’t there, trying to convince the plain clothed inspector that I had bought one, and I must have lost it somehow. He wasn’t buying any of it. “For not having a valid ticket you will have to purchase an increased fare ticket,” he explained to me, which essentially is a glossed over way of saying you’re going to get a fine. “It’s going to be €40. You can pay for it now, or you have two weeks to pay for it at one of our offices.” I stopped and thought for a second.
“I’ll pay for it later, thanks.” I was only going to be in Berlin for another 4 days, so I figured if I skipped town there was little they could do about it. The guy had already taken my Australian drivers licence to record my name and address, and he told me it would be in the system for two years. He gave me a pice of paper with the payment details and was on his way again. I hadn’t given them my passport, which I feared might have caused migration problems, but he did have my address in Australia. “I’m not going to pay it though. There’s no need, right?” I had said in a discussion with Ralf. “It’s not like they’re going to send me a fine to the other side of the world.”

Fast forward a few months to me sitting on the couch, finally in the United States, with my new friend Mike in Washington, DC. As we were drinking red wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix, my phone vibrated. It was an email from my mother with the subject line: “The Germans are after you!”
Yo Bob, got a bunch of what appear to be angry German letters from your letterbox today. Something about not having a ticket. Care to explain?
Well I’ll be damned – I certainly got a schooling in German efficiency. They sold the debt on to debt collectors who had also sent me letters. I have to admire their tenacity, as I had never really expected them to send a single letter, let alone a few. In hindsight, it was a reckless disregard for another countries rules and I do feel a little bad about the whole thing now – though not bad enough to pay the fine, which to this day I still haven’t done. But I did learn a lesson from the whole ordeal – from that day on, no matter what country I was in, I made sure I always bought tickets for the public transport. 

Losing My Religion

Day Two of Selma’s itinerary started off with another sight that was deemed one of Rome’s “must see” attractions: The Vatican City. The further along I got on this itinerary, the more I realised that there are just so many things to see in Rome, and that I would have probably wasted a whole heap of time had I not had the good fortune of Selma’s advice. Still, the Vatican was something I was almost in two minds about. “The Vatican? Won’t you, like, burst into flames or something when you step inside?”, my best friend Jesse had said during a Skype conversation while I was getting ready to head out. I just laughed and shrugged. I hadn’t let my homosexuality or my distaste for organised religion stop me from entering any of the other churches throughout Europe so far, so why should I treat the Vatican any differently. By that reasoning St Peter’s Basilica was – to me, at least – just another church.

The Vatican is located slightly north-west of central Rome, and Valerio’s place was in the south-east, so it took even longer to get there than it had taken to get into the centre yesterday. Selma’s instructions had advised I wake up early to visit the Vatican, presumably to avoid the queues, but unless it is absolutely essential, I have discovered I am just not a morning person. Especially not for the Pope. So the sun was high and bright as I stepped out of the metro system and into the streets, where I immediately could find my way to the Vatican by simply following the flocks of people. There were lots of people holding signs advertising guided tours, hollering at passers-by with things like “You going to the museum? Vatican Museum is not this way, you want want guided tour, aye?” Every now and then I would see people stop and talk to them, and I wondered if any of them realised how ripped off they were probably going to get. “Long lines for the museum, but not with guided tour!” Maybe I was wrong though – I never bothered to investigate them further. I dodged the assumed tourists traps as I blended into the throng of the crowd.

The centre of the Vatican City.

The centre of the Vatican City.

There were lines to get into the main church – there was absolutely no way around that. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so there wasn’t really any reason not to go in, once you realised the lines moved at quite a constant and steady pace. I couldn’t have been in line for more than 20 minutes before I was through the security check and on my way in. Some of the other tourists around me, however, were not so lucky. Like many holy sights that I had visited in places like Bangkok and Angkor Wat, respectful attire was compulsory for entry into the largest Catholic church in the world, and I had done my research. As I approached the front of the line, I pulled out the pair of jeans that I had stuffed into my backpack and pulled them on over my short, immodest shorts. I’d been sure to wear a t-shirt with decent length sleeves, so once I had covered up I was given the green light by security. The women behind me in their sandals, summer dresses and light gauze shawls weren’t so lucky.

The first thing I noticed when I was finally within the compound was, lo and behold, another line. It was a line to climb the steps to the basilica’s atrium, a dome that supposedly offered views of the Vatican and the surrounding area. I stood in line for a short while before I realised a sign that read “Exact fare only” (it cost €5 to walk the stairs or €7 to take the lift). I checked my wallet – all I had was a €50 note. I deliberated in the line for a little while, but in the end I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the wait to be turned down for not having the correct change, and even if that didn’t matter, I wasn’t sure the view itself would be worth even more waiting. So instead I slipped out of the line and entered into the main chamber of the church.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter's Basilica.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter’s Basilica.

One of the many statues inside St Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it's name.

One of the many statues inside St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it’s name.

I have to admit that my musings in the morning before my arrival at the Vatican had been a little bit off – I had seen a lot of churches so far, but this place was impressive. I wandered around the hollow space aimlessly for some time, just staring at the walls and the ceilings and the masterpiece artworks that adorned them. It was almost similar to the interior of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with gold plating and lavish trimmings, but as I admired all the beauty, I couldn’t help but think that it was all so over the top, and question whether or not it was necessary for a church to be so intricately decorated. Although these places were built in a completely different time period, almost a completely different world, and I suppose institutions such as the Catholic church would have had enough power that they could have commissioned anything to happen, not just a masterpiece by Michelangelo. Which isn’t really any more of a comforting thought. I had been able to admire almost all the other churches I’d visited during my travels simply as holy places of worship, where people found solace in their faith, even if I did not. But there was something else, something more than the interior design within St Peter’s Basilica that made me a little uncomfortable, somehow reminding me of all the things that I really did have against religious institutions such as this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but all my previous attempts at finding some kind of enlightenment came to naught as of that day, and I fell back into a phase of religious disillusion.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

Personal reflection aside, the basilica is still rather wondrous to behold. A highlight is the statue of St Peter, whose toes on this right foot have been worn down to a smooth nub after centuries of pilgrims touching and kissing his foot while they pray to the saint. As I was taking a photo of the main alter in the church, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see a couple, a man a woman, extending their camera out to me and pointing at the alter. Figuring that they wanted me to take a picture for them, but also guessing that they didn’t speak English or Italian, I just smiled and nodded. I took the camera and snapped a few shots before handing it back to them, and then motioning for them to take a few for me in return. “спасибо,” (or phonetically ‘spasiba’) the man mumbled to me in a deep voice as we parted ways. I got momentarily excited, and went to say “You’re welcome”, until I realised that ‘thank you’ was pretty much the extent of all the Russian that I knew. After I had finished looking around and taking a few pictures, I exited St Peter’s Basilica through the underground crypts, where former Popes are laid to rest. It was a solemn route in which photography was not allowed, so after I left I snapped a few last pictures out the front in St Peter’s Square.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter's left foot still have distinguishable toes.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter’s left foot still have distinguishable toes.

Outside St Peter's Basilica.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Outside the church in St Peter's Square.

Outside the church in St Peter’s Square.

***

The next stop of the day was the other major feature of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums. Now I’m not a huge art buff, but I’m no snub either, so I wanted to take my time and at least see some of the highlights – according to Lonely Planet you would need a couple of hours for that alone. I followed the crowds exiting the basilica and found my way to the museums. I instantly knew that I had made the right decision in forgoing the expensive tourist trap guided tours of the Vatican Museums – what appeared to be a long waiting line to get in was actually just a steady stream of people moving into the building. I never actually stood still once while I was ‘waiting’, and I was in and away in no time.

The collection of artworks in the Vatican is quite remarkable though. Every room is crammed with as many works of art as possible, from the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant to the most amazing of masterpieces. There were sculptures, statues, paintings, portraits, walls and ceilings decorated with the most extravagance: it just went on and on. I won’t even attempt to describe or explain everything I saw, but I did take a few photos of some of my favourite pieces.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The famous statue titled "Laocoön and His Sons", which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

The famous statue titled “Laocoön and His Sons”, which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

The Belvedere Torso.

The Belvedere Torso.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they're not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they’re not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

I followed the signs and directions for the most brief tour of the museums, which as expected still took a couple of hours. But no matter how you go about it, the final stop on any tour of the Vatican Museums inevitably has to be the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are forbidden in the main chamber, and rightly so. I’ve previously expressed similar sentiments that being unable to take a photo of a place, such as inside the temples of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, make the place a little more special and sacred, and you really have to be there to see it. Of course, you can see the highlights of the chapel with a quick Google search, but there is so much more to the room than Genesis. The chapel itself would have been quite a chilling and moving sight to behold, if it weren’t for the fact that the rule of silence was so heavily policed. Don’t get me wrong, I think that requiring to be silent in places like the Sistine Chapel is totally acceptable – it’s still a holy place and I’m sure there’d be dozens of Catholics around the place casting prayers up to Heaven as they gaze around in awe. But the effect of that silence, and indeed the point of requiring it, seems a little defeated by the “ATTENTION! SILENCE PLEASE! NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” boomed out over a very loud speaker system in 6 different languages every thirty seconds. It’s a little hard to be impressed while standing in the midst of a famous work of art when you feel like you’re being ordered around like a herd of cattle.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

Although, it’s disappointing to admit that more than half the tourists in the room were behaving like cattle. I left the museum after that, and the Vatican as a whole, feeling not exactly underwhelmed by what I had experienced, and not necessarily disappointed. I just felt a little confused. Like, was there something I wasn’t getting? I appreciated these places as world renowned and works of art, but I just felt like I was missing something that made it all really seem that worth it. Maybe it was the disillusionment I felt in St Peter’s Basilica, or maybe I was just suffering from museum fatigue, or was just tired of an itinerary that was starting to feel like a season of  “Europe’s Next Top Cathedral”. I was glad that I had seen what I had seen, but I decided after my visit to the Vatican that I was going to terminate the rigid itinerary that Selma had provided me with. There were still a couple of major sights I legitimately wanted to see, but I think my trip to the Vatican marked the day that I had officially grown tired of museums, churches, and every other typical tourist attraction.

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.