A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

Despite being less than an hours drive away from Austin, and the seventh most populated city in the US, I had never even heard of the city of San Antonio until Vincenzo had suggested it to me when I was planning my route across the South-West. “It’s pretty much as far as you can go before you hit… well… the nothing that is the rest of Texas,” he’d advised me, so I figured it would be a suitable pit stop before the Greyhound (or Hellhound, as I would soon start referring to them) bus trip across the desert. “It’s also quite a beautiful city, down along the river walk.”

When I hopped off the bus in the carpark that Megabus used as a terminal, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Hector. When I’d first contacted him he had admitted that he and his boyfriend Jay hadn’t hosted anyone through Couchsurfing before, but after such great first time experience with first time hosts like Tomas and Matej in Prague I didn’t even give it a second thought. Hector was incredibly friendly from the moment we met, and he even offered to take a few detours on the drive home so that he could drive me through the city centre and show me a few of the landmarks and features that we could come back and explore properly during my next few days in San Antonio. When we arrived home I was introduced to Jay and shown the spare room where I’d be sleeping.
“Yeah, so… this is actually where my daughter sleeps when she’s here,” Hector said when I commented on some of the toys that had been moved to the side of the room. At first I was a little surprised – Hector was a few more years old than me, and I guess I just never really expect gay people to have kids. But then some people do obviously have heterosexual relationships before realising they’re gay. “She won’t be around this weekend though, so make yourself at home. Also, I don’t know if you’re feeling up to it or if you’re too tired, but we’ve actually got some friends coming around and we’re gonna go out for some drinks a bit later. Obviously you’re welcome to join us too.” Considering it was still only Thursday, it was at that moment that I realised I had made another excellent choice of Couchsurfing hosts, and I wasn’t wrong – Hector and his friends knew how to have a good time.

I showered and freshened up – a necessity after any bus transit, no matter how big or small – and by the time I was ready Hector and Jay’s friends had arrived. There was a round of brief introductions as Nico, one of Hectors friends, offered me a beer.
“Have you ever had Dos Equis like this before?” he had asked me, to which I replied that I’d never tried Dos Equis at all, to which pretty much everyone in the room responded with mild horror. According to Hector and Nico it was a standard  and staple beer in the area. Nico had used a wedge of lime to wet the neck of the bottle and sprinkled it with what appeared to be chilli flakes or some kind of red powder, before putting the lime into the neck of the bottle, as is common with most Mexican beers. I think the idea is to treat the garnishing like the salt rim of a margarita, licking up a bit of the spicy flavour before washing it down with a swig of the beer. I can’t say I was such a fan of the dressings, but the beer itself was tasty. We hung out for a little while at Hector’s, all of his friends asking curious questions about my travels and my home country, before rallying up and heading out to show me some of the gay bars in San Antonio.

***

Like any blog post of this nature, the specifics are a little hazy, but Hector later helped me retrace most of the steps. The first stop of the evening was Hi-Tones, a dark little hipster bar where Hector insisted that I try their signature Pickle Shot. Though I assured him I absolutely hated pickles, my ‘try anything once’ attitude forced me sample it all the same. I refrained, however, from eating the tiny little pickle in the bottom of the shot glass – I guess I still know my limits. I also use the term ‘shot’ very loosely, because the size of some of their shots would qualify as small, strong mixed drinks back in Australia, although the reality is the only way I would ever be able to down something pickle flavoured would be in a single gulp, simply to get it over and done with. The other famous shot was a Chamoy Shot, a spicy concoction after which I definitely needed a few beers to cool off again. We spent a little time at Hi-Tones, enjoying their ridiculously cheap drinks and cool music, before making our way to a bar called Brass Monkey, which was a short walking distance from Hi-Tones, and was a gay-friendly bar that everyone assured me had the best music for dancing.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

But before we made it there, somehow Nico dragged Hector and I away from the rest of the group to make a quick stop at a place called Bootleggers (which I’ve been told has been closed and opened under a new name). Inside there was a long bar with a selection of what they told me was moonshine.
“Moonshine? Doesn’t that… ah… make you go blind?” I asked hesitantly. Hector and Nico laughed, assuring me that this variety of moonshine was actually made though completely legal processes and was not going to cause me any permanent damage. But damn, it was strong. If I hadn’t been drunk already, the moonshine was most likely the tipping of the scales, pushing me past the point of no return. We eventually made it to Brass Monkey and rejoined the others, where the drink special was 75c wells (thats ‘house spirits’ to Australians). As you can imagine, that didn’t end too well for me, despite how amazing the offer had seemed at the time. After dancing all night, the only thing I remember from the walk home, and the last thing I really remember at all, is collapsing on the grass outside Hector and Jay’s place and projectile vomiting all over the lawn. Luckily they thought it was absolutely hilarious and weren’t completely grossed out, and despite the incredibly potent moonshine I still maintain that the real culprit was the Pickle Shot.

As close as we'll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

As close as we’ll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

***

I was woken up the next morning when the sun came streaming through the curtains and onto my bed. I tired to roll over and escape it, but there isn’t much room in a single bed when you’re sharing it with another person… and then it took me a couple of seconds to realise… Wait, who am I sharing the bed with?!
The first thing I did was check to make sure I was still wearing clothes, which I was. The next thing I did was sit up and look at the person next to me. He opened his eyes too, and for a few seconds we just stared at each other. In that brief moment I had completely forgotten who he was, and it was only after the exchanging of confused stares for a few more seconds that I realised it was Nico.
“Ahh… what… what… um… Why are you in my bed?” The words were coming, but the state I was in was definitely deficient in eloquence.
“What… This is… This is my bed,” Nico said with a laugh and a smile. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling, as I usually have a pretty good memory even after I’ve been drinking. The memory loss, I believe, I can definitely attribute to the moonshine – so much for no permanent damage!
“Um… but… I’m staying… here… I think…?” I pointed to my bag and my clothes on the floor. We were definitely at Hectors house, and this was definitely the room he had showed me. “Isn’t this my room?”
“No, this is my room,” he said jokingly, “at least when I stay here.” I could tell he was just messing around now, but it didn’t really help explain anything.
“Oh… but… um… what… what the hell happened?” I asked, still completely baffled.
“I… I don’t know?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we couldn’t help but just laugh. “Wait, what’s the time? Hector has to work today.” Nico searched for his phone and checked the time, before laying back in the bed and calling out as loud as his croaky voice could manage.
“Hector! Good morning!”

The bedroom door opened, and we were joined by an equally as confused Hector.
“Nico? What are you… doing here?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we all couldn’t help but laugh. Hector looked particular tired. “I am so hungover, and I’m already late for work. What are you doing today, Nico?”
“Well I’m going to show Robert around, of course!” he exclaimed, as though it was something that we’d been planning all morning. I just chuckled, shrugged, and decided that it was actually a pretty good idea. So Hector and Jay went off to work, I got up and showered, and then Nico and I headed off on two bikes we borrowed from Hector. It was definitely a rather surreal way to start the day, but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning as I followed Nico through the twists and turns, secret shortcuts through parks. The whole thing felt so ‘go with the flow’ and carefree, I felt like we were going to round a corner, join a gang of other cyclists and end up in a pop music video singing about the good life, or some other kind of carefree tune. But we kept cycling, just the two of us, and we made a quick stop at Nico’s bank before ending up at a Starbucks, where his friend Daniel was working. We got our coffees for free while Nico introduced me and proceeded to recount the crazy night and strange morning that we’d had so far while Daniel listened, thoroughly amused. He had been working all morning, but since it was closer to the afternoon by that point he was nearer to the end of his shift than the beginning of it, so he agreed to meet up with us later on in the day. After that I followed Nico to another place called One-O-Six, a dirty-little-whole in the wall cocktail bar, and we ate breakfast burritos from the BBQ shack next door and drank some drink that Nico ordered us that was way too strong to be drinking when the sun was still up. As hungover as I was, it still tasted quite nice, so I kept drinking it and didn’t ask questions. The bar actually had quite a few people there, and Nico seemed to know all of them, including the staff. I figured that these might be a handful of day drinking regulars, so I satisfied myself by believing I was definitely off the tourist track now and seeing San Antonio from the eyes of a real local.

***

After learning that Hector had left work early, we rode our bikes downtown to meet him for lunch by the River Walk. Aside from the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk is probably one of the city’s greatest treasures, with long walkways stretching down either side of the river that flows through the town, lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, and other tourist attractions. After attempting to eat at a place called Casa Río, where we gave up and left before we’d even ordered due to the terrible service, we settled for introducing me to Whataburger, yet another American fast food chain restaurant that I had never even heard of until that moment. It wasn’t anything life changing, but Hector’s hangover forced him to abandon half his burger and run to the bathrooms to be sick, so perhaps it was best that we’d stuck with something a little less classy. Daniel arrived soon after that, also on his bike, so we decided there would be time for me to explore the River Walk another time and instead jumped on the bikes and headed around the main strip of the River Walk and down to the Missions Hike and Bike Trail. The missions near San Antonio are a collection of preserved old Catholic churches, relics of the spread of Christianity along the Southwest in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but they were located in the national park just outside of the city, with a bike trail along the river that led all the way there. However, it was too late in the day to make it all the way out there without it getting dark, and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, so Hector promised to drive me out there over the weekend so I could visit them. Instead, we just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and the leisurely bike ride along the river, while the guys pointed out sights to me and just chatted about life in general.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

After turning around and heading back to down, we stopped by a place called CHRISpark, a beautiful little urban park that was created in memory of Chris, the son of local artist Linda Pace. The grounds of the garden were covered with beautiful foliage and plants, as well as a handful of artistic designs, which made sense given the creator of the space. We parked our bikes and wandered around, and Nico pointed out a few of his favourite flowers, before confessing that he was actually a wedding planner and that he knew many of them from creating flower arrangements and bouquets. In retrospect, I didn’t take nearly enough photos, but the park definitely has an atmosphere of gorgeous tranquility. We had a quick chat to the friendly groundskeeper, who took our picture for us, before continuing on our way. Daniel recommend that we stop at a speakeasy bar called 1919 – which I would have rode straight past if I hadn’t known it was there – where I was introduced to yet another local alcoholic delicacy, a Strawberry Habanero hot shot. The combination of spicy habanero chilli and sweet strawberry is an… interesting sensation, to say the least. I’d never been the biggest fan of spicy foods, but I think the boys in San Antonio had made it their mission to expose me to as many of these specialities and introduce me to spices that could not only be eaten, but also drunk. I have to say, I think it worked, because ever since I’ve been a little bit less afraid of trying spicy foods.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

On the way home we rode through downtown San Antonio in the cover of night, and stopped to observe some of the sights, including the Alamo Mission, the site of the famous siege in 1836; the Tower of the Americas, which at 750 feet (or almost 230 metres) was the tallest observation deck in the USA until 1996; and the Torch of Friendship, a monument that was a gift to San Antonio from the Mexican Government to symbolise the cooperation between the city and the country. We also stopped to take a few photos of ourselves, at the request of Nico’s artistic vision.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

After that Hector and I bid farewell to Daniel and Nico and rode our bikes back along the river, which ended up taking us pretty much all the way home. The were several light up art installations along the way, and Hector was full of information about the city and its rich local history. Not only had I lucked out with an awesome host to loved to party as much as I did, but Hector also very much loved San Antonio, and has such a passion for sharing that love and that knowledge, and those people always – without a doubt – make the best Couchsurfing hosts.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

***

Despite the crazy Thursday night and the ensuing hangovers, Hector and Jay weren’t about to let me sit at home on a Friday night. After freshening up and dinner we met with Nia, one of Hectors colleagues who I’d met briefly down by the River Walk during the day, and Nico. We ended up driving to the clubs that night, and the one that stands out the most is Saint. Usually the club has a drag show on Friday nights, but the night we turned up just so happened to be a launch party for Lady Gaga’s latest album, Artpop, which had just been released. As well as a bunch of crazy queens doing their best Gaga numbers, they were also giving away copies of the album. As it turns out, one of the queens was a friend of Hector and Jay, so I also ended up being the lucky winner of a CD giveaway and walking away from the club with Lady Gaga’s new album. Too bad I didn’t currently have a CD player, and had already purchased it on iTunes, but it made for a cool souvenir with a pretty cute memory attached.

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

We went to a few other bars that evening, including Pegasus, where somebody knew someone so we got free shots, and there was an outdoor patio area where people were rocking out to karaoke, and Heat, a fancier place that was more a nightclub, where we spent a little while dancing. We definitely didn’t have the stamina of the night before though, so we ended up just chilling out in the quiet areas, and I had a few good conversations with Nia, who was pretty excited that she could now claim she had an Australian friend. I still drank far too much under the encouragement of Hector, but I think I managed to keep it all down that night, and we all headed home relatively early – I had been going almost non-stop since arriving in San Antonio, but I still had a weekend of sightseeing ahead of me.

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Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

The following day was the day that had specifically influenced my travel plans and my intention to be in New Orleans: Halloween. I was excited to be in the US for Halloween in general, because if Hollywood movies were anything to go by (and in this rare circumstance, they were) then Americans take the holiday very seriously, but it was particularly exciting to be in New Orleans due to the towns penchant for the quirky and mysterious. Everyone puts a lot of effort into their costumes and the dressing up side of things, but a lot of people also celebrate the day and the night in a more religious or spiritual sense. Basically, the lore dictates that Halloween – or All Hallows Eve – is a night where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is slightly weaker, allowing better communication with the supernatural forces from the other side, or something along that train of thought. I won’t pretend to be an expert on pagan religions or voodoo practices, but you get the idea. It’s a special day.

Vincenzo had to work for most of the day, but he told me that his neighbour was having a party that evening and that I was welcome to join him and his friend when they went. It wasn’t until I was actually invited to a Halloween party that I was struck with the horrific realisation that I didn’t have a costume, and if you didn’t have a costume at Halloween then you simply weren’t doing it right – or so those Hollywood movies had led me to believe. So while Vincenzo was at work that day, I made it my mission to find a costume. It was on short notice and would have to be on a short budget, but I figured if there was any city in the US that would have adequate appropriate costume supplies, it would be New Orleans. I walked down the streets of the French Quarter as the afternoon rolled around, ducking into all kinds of novelty stores and and bargain bins that sold mainly joke costumes, as well as one or two more legitimate places that sold magical trinkets of a more serious manner. In the end I settled for something pretty basic – a pair of black feather wings and a fancy-looking black eye mask. It was the kind of thing that, if you were going to some huge gay circuit party, you would wear with a pair of hot pants and nothing else, but since I was forgoing the Mean Girls rule (“Halloween is the one night of the year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”) I figured I could just throw on some black clothing and make some abstract horror idea out of it.

“But what is it? What’s your costume?” Vincenzo asked me as he was attaching his very realistic looking vampire fangs to his top canine teeth. I had spent the remainder or the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, watching candlelit processions making their way through the street, with drums and chanting and brass bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually I met Vincenzo at his house when he finished work, where he and his friend Faith were readying themselves for the party we were set to attend.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. “Angel of Death?” Vincenzo turned to look at me a little closer this time, examining the outfit as I tied up the ribbons of the mask behind my head.
“Angel of Death…” he said slowly, with an air of contemplation. “I like it.” He smiled, flashing me his fangs. Both him and Faith were dressed as vampires, and when they were ready we made our way to the party next-door.

The neighbours house was a similar style to Vincenzo’s flat, except considerably bigger. It was set on the street corner and had a huge balcony that snaked around the buildings exterior and offered a great view of the streets below. Vincenzo pointed out a tree that was covered in colourful strings of beads, necklaces that had been flung into the branches and gathered like tiny shiny fruits. “Mardi Gras beads. I’m pretty sure I threw some of them there myself,” he said with what was almost a hint of pride.
“Wait… didn’t you say… I thought Mardi Gras was in February?”
“Uh-huh.”
“And… they’re still there?” I mean, it was October. Surely someone would have taken the beads down by now.
“Mardi Gras is a huge part of the culture of New Orleans. They’re just a little reminder of that – I guess no one ever feels the need to rush over and take them all down.” I liked the idea of that, thinking back to parades and events in Sydney that were inevitably followed by a huge and meticulous government clean up that usually removed all and any traces of there even being an event there in the first place. New Orleans not only took pride in it’s cultural events, but wore the aftermath and remnants of them like a badge or medal for the remainder of the year.

I was introduced to Vincenzo’s neighbour, a classic Southern belle who could have stepped out of A Streetcar Named Desire, and I mingled with the guests as we ate and drank. The party was only more a social call, however, and after a few hours of drinking and mingling, Vincenzo, Faith and I headed out and off to Frenchman Street, where there was a lot more partying going on. It was more of a street party though, and the three of us slowly wandered down the street through the crowds, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at some of the impressive costumes that would have taken quite a while to put together. The streets were crowded and full of drunken Halloween revellers, but the overall mood wasn’t overly outrageous or obnoxious – I was told that that kind of atmosphere was reserved for Bourbon Street, and that Frenchman Street was more popular among the locals to who had a little more respect for the local area. We didn’t do much partying ourselves, but instead continued our wandering through the streets and back into the heart of French Quarter. There weren’t many trick-or-treating children at that hour, but the rest of the city was out in full force to celebrate the holiday in more adult ways.

We stopped at Cafe Du Monde, the most iconic coffeehouse in New Orleans, where both Vincenzo and Faith insisted that I had to try a café au lait and some beignets. Café au lait is just coffee with milk, except the milk added is hot or scalded rather than simply cold, and the New Orleanian variety has chicory added to it to give it a bitter taste. Beignets are deep-fried pastries served with powdered sugar, a sweet touch to offset the bitterness of the café au lait. I was assured that it would be most improper to leave New Orleans without sampling these treats, so what better time to do so than on my authentic New Orleans Halloween evening? Faith admitted that she was beginning to get tired, so after we finished at Cafe Du Monde we flagged a petty-cab down for her and sent her off home. Vincenzo and I continued on our walking tour of the city, and we eventually agreed to show me some of the gay bars of New Orleans. The majority of the gay bars were on a square of blocks that had become fittingly known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, so we began our walk along that route, stopping into each of them for a short time. I’ve heard some crazy things about partying in New Orleans, so I can’t imagine my experience is an accurate representation of the scene, but a lot of the bars were well decorated but very sparsely populated. Maybe we were just there before most of the other partiers, who were still out on the streets, or maybe there were other specific Halloween parties or events that were drawing most of the crowds, but somehow the subdued moods of the patrons didn’t really seem to match the party environments the venues were trying to create, so we didn’t end up staying anywhere for too long. Vincenzo ran into a few people he knew at a couple of the places, but other than that our tour of the Fruit Loop was interesting, but not all that exciting.

It was when Vincenzo was escorting me back to my hotel that I talked more about my impressions of Halloween, and what I had been expecting compared to what we had actually seen. “I dunno… I mean, I’ve got out partying and drinking in literally every other city I have been to,” I said with a little chuckle. “But I knew New Orleans was supposed to be this hotbed of… well, things that were different. Mysterious, a little magical, I don’t know.”
“Well, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in New Orleans, you’re certainly not limited to Halloween,” Vincenzo said with a knowing smile. “Tomorrow is All Saints Day, which is a pretty important date on the voodoo calendar. I know of a few things that might be happening – if you like, I can see if I can take you to one?” The idea of being at a real life voodoo ceremony was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but I was instantly intrigued. It was my last night in the hotel, so after assuring him I was very interesting in seeing more of the mystical side of New Orleans, I gave Vincenzo a goodnight kiss and told him I would see him again at his place the following morning after check out.

***

The first thing I discovered the following morning was that Vincenzo was not a morning person. I had to call him a few times while I was standing down at the outside gate, and when he finally stirred from within and got up to let me in, he assured me he’d need at least another hour and a strong coffee before he was ready to face the world. So while he slowly morphed into a functioning human being, Faith took me out for a little stroll and some breakfast at her favourite nearby bakery, where we sipped on café au laits and she told me more about both New Orleans and Vincenzo.
“Vince has always loved this city.” Apparently she was also the only one who could getting away with calling him ‘Vince’. “I mean, we both have, ever since we first visited it when we were just teenagers.” They’d both grown up in New York – her just upstate and him in the Bronx – but had shared a passion for Anne Rice novels and all her vampire stories that call New Orleans home. “But Vince really loved it, enough to move here.” She went on to tell me more about some of his Couchsurfing experiences, and how he’d shown dozens of people around New Orleans during his time there. When we finished up at the bakery we went for a walk through the streets of the French Quarter, which looked surprisingly different in the bright daylight, although they were still full of gutter punks and street musicians and buskers. You would never need headphones or an iPod if you were walking around there – almost everywhere you go there’s a musician playing some decent tunes.

When we finally arrived home it was almost afternoon, but Vincenzo was not longer near comatose, so the three of us took a trip out to New Orleans City Park. There was quite a few art installations around the parks, and Vincenzo and I sat along the banks of one of the swamps while Faith wandered off into the greenery.

New Orleans City Park

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

After the relaxing afternoon, it finally came time to attend the All Saints Day ceremony in the evening. There was a rather large turn out, and it made me realise that once you know where to look, there is a strong voodoo presence in the city because of these close communities of people who practice it. Out of respect for the worshippers and the practice of voodoo itself, I’m not going to go into the details of the ceremony – partly because I don’t want to wrongly explain any of the various rituals, but also because there’s a certain value in the mystery, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that. I was, however, allowed to take a few photos of the shrines and alters that were set up before the ceremony took place.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The last part of the ceremony was something remarkable that I think is worth noting. The final ritual simply involved a slow procession through the streets from the meeting place to the nearby cemetery, a moving candlelight vigil with the intention of paying respects and leaving offerings for the spirits of the dead at the cemetery gates. It was only a short walk, but at one point of the journey someone quietly pointed out that we were being followed at a distance by the police. I was under the impression that the police might have been a little suspicious about what we were doing, and might have ordered us to move along. However, someone went to consort with them and came back to report that they were simply there to keep an eye on things, and be on the lookout for any hecklers that might have otherwise given us grief.
“Only in New Orleans,” I heard Vincenzo whisper with a relieved sigh, as people placed their offerings and candles on and around the gates. I think that was the most remarkable thing of all – that the voodoo procession had an unrequested police escort. The culture surround the practice was so strong here that even the law enforcement recognised and respected it.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

The whole ceremony lasted well into the night, and was followed by a feast of sorts – essentially a backyard barbecue for everyone to socialise and debrief. It was very late by the time Vincenzo and I left – Faith had already retired much earlier in the evening, having to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get to the airport and fly home. The night air was cooling off as we sat down by the side of the road and waited for our taxi, and I noticed Vincenzo shiver a little.
“Guess this is cold for New Orleans, hey?” I said with a chuckle as I put an arm around him. He laughed, but didn’t protest as he snuggled into the half-hug. “Well, thanks for another magical evening – in a much more literal sense, this time,” I said, placing a gentle kiss on the side of his head, and shooting him a wink that he probably never saw in the darkness.

Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.

The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Last Call: London Leftovers

I spent so long in London that it was rather tricky to catalogue the events chronologically – there were days when I did absolutely nothing, and lounged around with a hangover watching TV in Giles’ living room, and there were some days were I just had short, simple excursions to certain minor attractions. I didn’t feel all of them warranted their own blog posts, so here are the some of the minor sub-plots that occurred as part of my overall London adventure:

***

After Richard had dropped me home from our trip to Cambridge, he said he’d be in touch if he and his friends would be doing anything fun over the next few weeks. I eventually got a rather hilarious message from him with an offer that I couldn’t refuse just because I found it so bizarre. Apparently Richard is a huge One Direction fan, and him and some of his friends were meeting in Leicester Square that evening, outside the cinema where the famous boy band were set to appear for the premiere of their documentary film. I have quite a few girlfriends back home who are quite literally obsessed with One Direction, and so in my head I said I’d do it for them. At the very least I would be ending up in the heart of Soho, and I didn’t have any other plans for the evening anyway, so I jumped on the tube and went in to meet them.

The scene was insane. Teenage girls were everywhere, screaming their lungs out every time one of the boys so much looked at the camera with an attempt at a smouldering look, which was then projected onto the huge screens around the place. Personally I think they just looked like douche bags, but whatever, I was more amused at the hysteria emanating from the crowds… and from Richard and Tim, another guy who was also friends with Giles and John. It was the three of us and their female friend Hannah, and we stood around trying to get a glimpse of the famous quintet. However, there had been many security measures put in place – rightly so, given the delirium the boys inspired – including a huge blackout fence that greatly restricted the number of people who were allowed to be inside the main area where the boys and the other attending celebrities were. We did our best to catch a glimpse of any of them in the flesh, but in the end we had to concede defeat to the hordes of teenage girls who had literally been lining up for days to come even remotely close to the teen heartthrobs.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a "1D" sign with our arms.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a “1D” sign with our arms.

We retired to a pub for dinner and beers, and afterwards we bid farewell to Hannah we eventually moved on to G-A-Y. It was early enough to go to the main bar on Old Compton Street, meaning I’d been inside two of the three G-A-Y venues located in London. The music was the same trashy pop and the drinks were so ridiculously cheap that I was genuinely shocked. Tim was a teacher, but he had just taken a new job which meant he wasn’t working at the moment, so he was keen to keep on partying. Richard had to work in the morning – he’d already “worked from home” once due to a night of drinking with me, so he kept his word and got the tube home once he’d had enough drinks. I had no excuse, though – not that I wanted one – so Tim and I continued to party all the way to G-A-Y Late, and were embarrassingly still there at 3am when the lights came on and they made us all get out. Despite the presence of One Direction, and not being able to find an open McDonalds at 3am on a Wednesday morning, it had turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

***

As far as daytime excursions went, I had been told by many people back home that I had to visit Camden for the weekend markets. From what I could gather it was an alternative area of the city, the equivalent to Sydney’s Inner West, where artists and musicians and other crazy creatives could congregate. To get to Camden from Hackney was rather simple – just follow the canal west from Victoria Park and sooner or later you’ll hit it – so I decided to borrow Giles’ bike for the excursion and ride along the water. It took a little while, but probably less than it would have if I had walked to Mile End to catch the tube all the way there. I timed my visit to make sure I went on a weekend, when the market was in full swing, and I could tell I was getting close when the distinct scent of marijuana wafted in on the breeze. Knowing I wasn’t in Amsterdam any more, I made very sure to steer clear of that. But near the main bridge in Camden that crossed the canal there were flocks of people spread out on the grass, the paths – anywhere where there was room – and were simply just chilling out. I found somewhere to lock my bike up and began wandering the streets. Everywhere you turned there were shops, stalls, markets, food stands, and the limits of what you could find were seemingly endless.

Camden.

Camden.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Despite all that, I didn’t really want or need anything, so I never ended up buying anything. Except, of course, when I came across a world food market. There were so many options from a range of different cuisines from all around the world that I ended up having several lunches just because I was unable to choose just one. Afterwards, I rode home with a detour to Kings Cross train station, to visit Platform 9 3/4 and have my photo taken with the trolley. There was actually a bit of a line to get it done, but it was totally worth it, especially when they gave your a house scarf of your choice to wear in your photo. Harry Potter fans die hard.

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

I also spent one Sunday morning wandering over to the Columbia Road Flower Markets, located not too far from where I was staying in Hackney. It was a single narrow road that was completely transformed into a giant floristry market, and while I had absolutely no need to buy plants or flowers of any kind, it was rather nice to walk down the road and take in all the beautiful colours and smells.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

***

I also had more dinner outings, with friends both new and old. I made it out to Greenwich again, to visit the observatory and to have dinner with John, where I could see the beautiful sunset over the London skyline, and see the lights of the business district in Canary Wharf glitter in the distance as darkness settled over the city. However, on the evening of the afternoon I had spent with Ellie at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, I had dinner with Angus and Margaret, a pair of old family friends whom I had met almost 15 years ago when I had visited Scotland with my family. It felt a little strange at first, although I expect it would have been a bigger change for them to see how I had eventually grown up. We had a lovely meal and some nice wine, and while it was nice to see them, dinner was only the beginning of the evening for me. After bidding them farewell, I decided I would hang around Soho some more and check out some other bars. I found myself at a place called Ku Klub, quietly people-watching and sipping on some cheap drinks, before I was approached by an English guy who was from out of town, in London for a night out. He was with a group of friends, so I ended up tagging along with them to a place called Candy Bar. I would later find out that it was actually a lesbian bar which the “Ku Bar Boys” took over every Tuesday evening. Once again, I was astounded at just how many bars and venues there actually were in London, even just around the Soho area.

Sunset over the city as seen from John's flat.

Sunset over the city as seen from John’s flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John's flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John’s flat.

Honestly, that part of the night was a blur. I met some other people at Candy Bar, and the guys and girls who I had originally tagged along with from Ku Klub were starting to creep me out a little bit, so I ended up leaving with some other people and ending up at… G-A-Y Late? I don’t even know how that happened. Where did the time go? Was it midnight already? Maybe I went to G-A-Y first, I can’t even be sure. Oh, it was tragic. I met a guy named Tim who said he lived around the corner, so we went back to his apartment to drink more and do some shots. He wanted to show me his new sound system, so he started playing some party music. His boyfriend, who had apparently been sleeping next-door, wasn’t too impressed by that. After sitting there silently in the middle one extremely awkward and passive aggressive argument, I grabbed my coat and bailed back to G-A-Y Late. More drinking and dancing ensued. I ended up chatting to a young guy named Jonny, and we hit it off straight away. He was a little little younger than me, and seemed quite shy, buy super nice. He was there with a girlfriend of his, a boisterous little lesbian named Anna, and she was very protective of him, but we got chatting and in the end she warmed up to me and even tried to set the two of us up.

And it worked. Boys will be boys on the dance floor, but come 3am we were all booted out to the streets again. Anna had already disappeared at that point, so I stuck with Jonny as we wandered through the streets, jumping fences to pee in the bushes of Soho Square, and just galavanting around like the young and drunk fools we were. Instead of heading back to Hackney, he insisted that I stayed with him, which is how I came to find myself wandering through some unknown park further south at 4am with a pretty young man who was all but a stranger to me. I ended up accompanying him home – something I may not have done if I had bothered to figure out where exactly where that was. We walking from tube station to tube station to train station and then I think eventually ended up in a taxi. I was literally falling asleep on Jonny’s shoulder at that point so I just had to roll with it and hope he knew where he was going. It was a very “Where the hell am I?” moment when we woke up at 2 o’clock the next afternoon and he told me were in Uxbridge. I looked it up on a map.
Uxbridge? We’re not even in London anymore!” It was like going out in the centre of Sydney and waking up just past Parramatta, or going out in Manhattan and waking up in New Jersey. He offered me a sheepish grin, and all I could do was laugh. “Okay then, well… this has been fun, how the hell do I get home?”
It was a train ride followed by a long way on the tube, but I finally made it home at the delightful time of 5pm. Even for me, that’s some kind of record.

***

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more markets, on one of my final days in London, Tim – Richard’s friend with the One Direction obsession – took me to the Borough Markets just south of London Bridge.
“The goal here is,” he informed me as we walked into the crowds that were milling around the stalls, “To eat lunch for free. If you go to claim enough free samples, you can basically get a free meal for nothing!” It was quite hilarious watching him chat to the stall owners, as we sampled a variety of cheeses, breads, cookies, cakes, and a host of other treats, and then telling them, “Yes, we might be back later. Just going to keep having a look around for now.”
While we did eat our weight in free samples, we ended up buying some gourmet burgers for lunch anyway, and then abandoned the markets for a walk down along the River Thames. We went into the Tate Modern, since it had been closed when I’d last walked past it with Anthony, but the exhibit Tim had wanted to show me was closed, or otherwise unavailable.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

In an attempt to try and show me something new in my final days in London, Tim and I took a train north, and from there we walked through the streets of Camden until we reached Primrose Hill.
“It’s one of the best views in London, of London, people say,” Tim told me as we marched up the gentle slope. All around us, couples and groups were lying about and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun, dogs running around between them and children frolicking about playing games. It was such a pleasant scene, and Tim and I took a seat for a little while and chatted as we watched the afternoon fade into evening. Tim had plans to see the One Direction film that evening, so we said goodbye at the Camden tube station, where he was heading off to Soho, and I hired a bike from one of the numerous bike rental stations and followed it back along the canal again until I finally reached Hackney.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

***

Giles had actually arrived home during my final days in London, so for my last night out I met with him, John and Richard in Soho for some drinks. After getting the tube back into the city I met them at a pub for a few drinks before Giles wanted to take me to a club called Manbar, a place that was particularly popular with gay men of the older and hairier variety. Despite that, it still played all your typically gay pop-trash, and the drinks were once again extraordinarily cheap. If there was one thing I could confirm about London, it is that the price of drinks in most of the gay bars blew Sydney out of the water for any kind of value for money. We had a few drinks at Manbar before bidding farewell to John, who unfortunately had to work the morning. But as the night carried on, Richard and Giles decided that it was only fitting that they took me to the third and final G-A-Y venue that I was yet to have visited: G-A-Y Heaven.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London's iconic red telephone booths.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London’s iconic red telephone booths.

“Heaven is a little more special,” Giles explained to me as we walked there. It was down near Charing Cross, not in quite the same area as the rest of the Soho bars. “It’s massive, and it’s the place where all the famous pop stars do their surprise gigs or shows in London.” G-A-Y Heaven has hosted shows by Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Spice Girls, Katy Perry, One Direction, Amy Winehouse and scores of other artists. When we arrived we walked up to the door and straight on in – most of the people seemed to know Giles by name and there was definitely no wait for us. And so once we were inside I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had read about in all of the guides and social magazines but had never had the… er, pleasure, of seeing first hand: Porn Idol.

Yep, it’s basically a spin-off of the Idol singing competition franchise, except instead of showing off their voices, they are showing off their bodies. And their junk. There were about 10 contestants that night, and when they’re given a song they’re required to strip down to the music. They must get completely naked and full-frontal, with the music not coming to a halt until the crowd as actually had a decent glimpse of his manhood. Yep, they were literally getting naked on a stage in front of hundreds of people. There was no actual sex going on, as the ‘Porn’ in the title might suggest, but in true Idol tradition there was a panel of bitchy judges who were present to make all kinds of horrible and degrading comments to about 90% of the contestants – the exception was the two gorgeous Brazilian men who seemed to be competing that night. Everyone seemed to take it on board as a bit of laugh though (or they were just too drunk to care about anything), even as the judges doled out their harsh critiques and scores.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

“You should get up there! They’d love you!” Giles jeered, and I could tell he was only half joking. However, I’d seen pictures of this event from the previous weeks, and knew full well that many of the people who got up on stage ended up having their photos in the local gay papers, completely uncensored, and I just didn’t think I was ready for that kind of risk. Or commitment, I guess. So we laughed and we cheered and we ogled until the show was over, and we continued to drink and dance as I explored the cavernous rooms of Heaven. The place was huge, but because it was only a Thursday night it was half as empty as I presume it would be on a weekend. But it was a fun way to end the night, and a great way to finish off my entire London experience. I chatted to a guy from Essex who was sad to hear that I was leaving for Ireland in the morning. He settled with a cheeky pash before I found Giles and we headed back home to his place.

I think it was just after 4am by the time we got home and I finally collapsed on the couch. I had about 2 hours of sleep before I had to get up and make my way to Euston train station, but it was worth it. My time in London had been a wild roller coaster ride through a huge and diverse city. I’d met new friends, caught up with old ones, had lovely nights in and obscene nights out, I’d traversed the city limits and had done everything I’d set out to do and more. Even though there are numerous gaps in my memory, my time spent in London is a time that will not soon be forgotten.