Life in La La Land

I was unsure as of what to expect from my time in LA. I had been there only once before, for a period of less than 24 hours for a long layover on the way to Central America, and I hadn’t been that impressed. The parts of town I went to – which I honestly didn’t even pay attention to at the time – were kind of gross and dirty, and it didn’t appear to be anything like the glamorous California that everyone sings about in pop songs. And while I knew I couldn’t let such a brief and incomplete experience of the city be an accurate first impression, I’d also heard reviews from other people that were less than positive: that getting around was difficult, traffic was terrible, all the attractions were overrated and that staying there was more like a challenge than a vacation. Despite all that, my mother had repeatedly told me that she thought I would like Los Angeles and that I would probably fit in pretty well there. Given that I’d had very mixed feelings about some of the people I had ran into and rubbed shoulders with in New York, and the fact that New Yorkers and Angelenos are often pitted against each other and are constantly comparing their cities, I figured if I didn’t fit so well on one coast, maybe I’d have more luck on the other.

***

Waking up the morning after my first night in LA was a little surreal, given the rather dramatic events of the night before. Upon checking my phone, I found a string of more abusive texts and Facebook messages from Nathan, which I simply deleted before blocking him.
“You don’t even have to worry about him anymore,” Jake assured me. “He’s been pissing so many people off lately, he doesn’t even have that many friends left in dodgeball. His behaviour last night might actually be enough of a reason to expel him from the league.” Which Jake, given that he ran the dodgeball league, could absolutely do. I started to feel slightly guilty, but Jake would have none of it, and assured me that if anything I was finally finishing the problem instead of creating one or starting any trouble. I just had to trust he knew more about what was going on in WeHo and let it be.

“So… what do you wanna do? What was your plan in Los Angeles?” Jake asked me, before turning away and talking to himself. “What can I show you? What’s something cool, something really LA that isn’t super touristy…” The beauty about Jake’s work was that he technically worked for himself, which meant he didn’t have a regular day time job that he had to be at, which meant he had plenty of free time to hang out and show me around, which he said he would be more than happy to do. I assured him that he didn’t have to do anything special or try and entertain me –  I was more than happy to just hang out and join him with whatever he did with his days. So we started out with just going for a walk through West Hollywood along Santa Monica Boulevard, where Jake showed me around and pointed out a bunch of the local spots for drinking, eating and going out. We also saw the colourful rainbow crossing, similar to the one that had been put up in Sydney for the Mardi Gras festival that year, although unlike the rainbow in Sydney, the one in WeHo was a permanent addition to the streets.

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The WeHo rainbow crossing

Jake also said he had some work-related emails to send and some business stuff to take care of, so we stopped at the Starbucks, ordered our drinks, and commandeered a table for ourselves and set up our a temporary workspace.
“There’s two questions you hear every traveller ask, no matter where you go,” Jake said with a laugh. “One: is there wifi? Two: is it free?” I laughed along, although he wasn’t wrong, so I made the most of the free connection and updated my blog and sent some emails while he attended to his work stuff. It was actually quite funny just how full the Starbucks was, and securing a table was a like navigating a small-scale property market. It was full of aspiring writers working on their manuscripts and screenplays, and while I kept laughing to myself and thinking about how it sounded like something straight out of Hollywood, I had to keep in mind that right now I literally was in Hollywood. It would appear that some of those stereotypes and clichés aren’t limited to the actual movies and television shows themselves, but extend to the wider suburbs in which they’re created.

I also noticed that Jake knew a lot of people. Like, a lot. I reckon he would have finished his work in about half the time it had taken him if he hadn’t had to stop periodically to say hello to every familiar face that approached him and wanted to briefly catch up.
“What can I say? I’m kind of a big deal,” Jake said with a playful smirk when I mentioned it to him, and while he said it in a way that was more humorous than serious, I was starting to get the idea that he was somewhat of a local celebrity around the area. But not in a way that everyone knows about you and gossips about you (although I’m sure everyone does that anyway), but in a way that everyone just seemed to like him, and he was genuinely friends with all of these people. It was at that moment that I realised as long as I stuck by Jake during my time LA, I’d always be in good hands and great company.

***

That afternoon, Jake and I started out my tour of LA by checking off some of the more obvious attractions.
“Oh, I know! I’ve got a friend who works for Universal Studios. I dunno, does that kind of thing interest you? She could get us in for free.” As a backpacker I had learned to appreciate literally anything that was free, so we drove up to Universal Studios to meet Jake’s friend Alicia.

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“Oh! Go to that side so I can get Australia in the picture!”

“Man, work had sucked today,” Alicia complained after coming down from her office to meet us and introducing herself to me. “It’s that time of year when half the office is away for the holidays. But there isn’t any less work so…” she waved the thought away, the conversational that would follow clearly already boring her. “Here, let’s get you in.” I just followed Jake and Alicia and did as I was told, and soon enough we were inside the paid section of the theme park, where most of the rides and popular attractions were. She caught up with Jake for a few minutes, but she hadn’t quite finished for the day so had to head back up to her office.
“But it was lovely to meet you, Robert. I’m sure I’ll see you around sometime, I’m overdue for a catch up with this guy anyway,” she said, motioning to Jake. “Always so busy with his dodgeball!” Turns out that Alicia was one of few people I would meet through Jake that weren’t somehow involved in the dodgeball league.

At Jake’s recommendation we went on The Simpsons ride, which was actually… I don’t want to say scary, but it definitely wasn’t a walk in the park. It was a 3D animation rollercoaster, so while physically you didn’t actually move that much or really go anywhere, the dizzying sensations played tricks on your mind to make you feel as though you really did enter their cartoon universe and experience a range of non-human sensations. After that we walked back through the Citywalk in Universal Studios, which had been decorated for the holiday season.

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***

While Jake did have a pretty flexible schedule, he wasn’t on holiday like I was, so he did still have to work sometimes. As well as running the WeHo dodgeball league, he was also a dancer and choreographer, and during the holidays he ran dance workshops and classes for kids. So while he had to do that, I took the opportunity to do some other more touristy things that I didn’t want to have to drag anyone else along to. While I don’t know if you can technically call it a tourist attraction, Runyon Canyon was yet another Los Angeles location that I had seen numerous times in various television shows. I was probably also pretty overdue for some kind (or any kind) of exercise, so one afternoon I got Jake to drop me off at the beginning of Runyon Canyon Park before he had to go to teach his dance class.

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Honestly, there were probably more locals there than tourists. It seemed like a pretty popular place to go exercising and jogging or walking dogs. I wouldn’t really consider it a “hike”, since there were pretty straightforward trails most of the way, but you cover a fair bit of ground on your way to the top, and there is a pretty decent view of the greater Los Angeles area from up there.

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Los Angeles as seen from the top of Runyon Canyon, stretching into the horizon. 

However, it was on my walk through Runyon Canyon Park that I discovered one of the biggest disappointments about LA: how far away the famous Hollywood Sign is. It’s definitely there, off in the distance, but you had to zoom your camera in to the point of pixilation in order to get a somewhat decent view of it in a photograph. I’m aware that this isn’t helped by the fact all my holiday snaps so far had been taken with an iPhone 4, so image quality wasn’t something I was too hung up on. Still, similar to my misconceptions of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I had just imagined the famous visual icons of the cities to be a little closer to the rest of the action.

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The Hollywood Sign, from a distance. 

After working up somewhat of a sweat in my afternoon hike, it was already time to meet Jake again after he finished his class. We decided to meet down on Hollywood Boulevard, which was only a short walk away from the entrance to Runyon Canyon Park, and from there we had a quick walk up the Hollywood Star Walk, and I pointed out the names of some of the celebrities that I liked, or recognised, and laughed at some of the stranger additions. Yet this was one sight that I had seen before during my time in LA, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not one to ever get star struck or fuss that much over celebrities.

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Stars on Hollywood Boulevard

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Marilyn Munroe’s handprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. 

“Hey, I’ve just gotta run back to the car and put some more change in the parking meter,” Jake said after our brief stroll up the strip. “It won’t take too long.”
“Actually,” I spoke up before he had a chance to go anywhere. “Um… can we, like… just go?” I’d seen all I really needed to see of the overrated tourist trap.
“Oh, thank God,” he replied, letting out a sigh of relief. “Yes, let’s get out of here.” As we headed back to the car, he explained his own thoughts of the whole place.
“Like, yeah, I get it. If it’s your first time here, it’s kinda cool, or if you want to see the star of your favourite celebrity, that’s kind of nice. Although trying to find them is always a great way to spend the afternoon,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t mind showing it to people on their first time, but I’m so glad you’re as over it as I am!”

***

There were plenty of other touristy things that I visited during my time in LA (which I will get to in the next post), but honestly I think the reason I had so much fun in the city was because of the people I was with. After the while debacle that was my first night in LA, gossip about the events had spread pretty quickly, but in a weird way that turned out pretty well for me. I had a few people approach me with condolences or apologies on behalf of the otherwise lovely bunch of dodgeball teams, and I ended up bonding and hanging out with a bunch of the guys and girls. I felt like I was officially one of the cool kids or something, although I’m pretty sure initially befriending Jake had probably improved that situation. I went along with him to the evenings when Jake had to run the dodgeball league, where teams dressed up in themes and often battled out the competition in ridiculous costumes, which usually had hilarious results, and afterwards we would inevitably end up in Gym Bar.

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File Under: Photos that seemed like a good idea at the time.

LA was also where I would experience my first bottomless mimosa brunch. Originally we had planned on doing such a brunch on my birthday in New York, but after the night Jesse and I had had, we weren’t really in any state to be drinking, or conscious, for the morning of my birthday. But luckily Warren, one of the guys from dodgeball and a good friend of Jake’s, was having his birthday celebrations on one of the weekends I was in town, and you best believe he was doing a bottomless brunch. I mean, there isn’t really much that I have to explain, right? We sat around all morning, talking and laughing and drank more mimosas and Bloody Mary’s than one should probably consume while the sun is still up. But hey, I was on holidays!

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Other nights out in West Hollywood saw me visiting a string of gay bars, including Revolver Video Bar, Trunks, Mother Lode, Eleven, and the Abbey. I don’t have too many strong recollections about them: Revolver Video Bar had a lot of go-go dancers, which we weren’t that into, so instead Jake and moved next door to the much more unassuming Trunks for another drink. Mother Lode seemed a little more down to earth, even if a little seedy, and the Abbey, despite being one of the more well known places (it was the only one I’d actually heard about before my arrival in LA), was a flashy, overpriced bar with terrible service. When Jake ordered our drinks, they poured them for us, took our money, and then seconds later took them back and poured them down the sink, informing us that the bar was closing. I know they have last call at 2AM in California, but surely a bartender should have more sense than to serve someone a drink when they physically would not have the time to consume it. Jake was livid, but being shouted at by patrons at any level of inebriation is something they are most likely very used to, so in the end we just had to give up and leave, but I promised to leave them a terrible Yelp review.

Another of Jake’s dodgeball friends had a birthday at Eleven, which was a nicer and slightly classier venue on Santa Monica Boulevard. I drank a lot, so I don’t really know when the private function room opened up to the public, but suddenly there was a drag queen on one of the clubs indoor balconies introducing Carmen Electra. Now, I know I said I didn’t get star struck or care much for celebrities, but I suppose I just got caught up in the excitement with the crowd and started cheering along. I didn’t even know what Carmen Electra was famous for (and… I still don’t?), but I still stuck my hand out to get her attention as she walked through the crowds on her way out, and she held it briefly, and smiled and waved. It wasn’t exactly the highlight or my night or anything, but it was something.

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Carmen Electra in Eleven. 

While I always enjoy checking out the gay bars and the gay scene of any city that I was in, Jake was adamant that that simply wasn’t enough.
“What’s something I can show you,” he said one Saturday evening, wracking his brain. “There’s gotta be something that’s very LA and awesome, without being too touristy or too trashy.” I guess it’s no big secret that the celebrity soaked reputation of Hollywood and Los Angeles leaves many visitors believing the city is somewhat of a cliché, but as someone who lived in LA and enjoyed doing so, I think Jake was determined to show me more of his city. Since I was someone who preferred to actually stay with locals and see the more local side of things, and get an appreciation of what it really feels like to live in a city, I think we were perfectly matched in that sense.

After doing some research and figuring out what was going on, Jake and I headed to Bootie LA, a party where these relatively well known DJs play their signature style of musical mash-ups. At the time I had no idea who these Bootie mash-up DJs were, and it wouldn’t be until much later, when I arrived home in Sydney, that I would discover their vast collection of amazing mash-ups, all available to download online. ‘Bootie LA’ was simply the name of the party when these DJs were in town, and given the time of the year, the evening was slightly Christmas themed, although there were a bunch of other crazy costumes from the dancers that evening.

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The eclectically costumed dancers at Bootie LA. 

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The party was a lot of fun. It was a big open space, almost like a warehouse, but the feeling inside was a lot cleaner. I think it might have been a theatre venue of some sort that had been converted for a dance party. We ran into a few of Jake’s friends here and there – because this was LA, and apparently Jake knew almost everyone – and they were all really awesome, and the music was amazing. Mash-ups always keep you guessing: it’s a bit of a tease when you get excited when you hear the beat of a particular song, only to have another songs lyrics layered over the top of it, but it always still sounded amazing. It’s honestly a skill in itself.

Afterwards we drove home, Jake assuring me he hadn’t actually drank that much (I’d definitely drank too much, so I honestly hadn’t been paying attention), and stopped in at Taco Bell on the way home. I know In’n’Out is supposed to be the Holy Grail of fast-food when it comes to the west coast, but I have to admit that despite that (and despite all the warnings I received from friends telling me that Taco Bell will go straight through you), Taco Bell was a guilty pleasure that I couldn’t get enough of. I mean, they have tacos made from Doritos chips!

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Cheesy Doritos Taco Bell taco: my choice of of post-drinking fast food. 

***

The best thing about my time in LA really was just hanging out with Jake and his friends and living what felt like a relatively normal life, despite being in a town where everything was so seemingly influenced by Hollywood and had a tinge of surreality. Whether it was going around to a friends house to drink and play video games and gossip, or have a sit down dinner followed by a hilarious round of Cards Against Humanity, simply hanging out and spending time with cool people turned out to be a real highlight of the city for me.

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Breathtaking view of Los Angeles (obviously looked better experienced first hand) on one of our drives over to North Hollywood. 

And then of course, after the almost 9 months of consistent backpacking, sometimes all I wanted to do was chill out on the couch with Jake and Peter Parker and watch Adventure Time and South Park. After being on the road for so long, no matter how much adventure you crave and new experiences you still want to seek out, sometimes it’s the little, normal things, that you’ve gone seemingly forever without, which feel the most satisfying.

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The adorable Peter Parker (Jake is a huge comic book nerd) keeping my company on the couch. 

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Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

What Happens in Vegas…

I’ve given a lot of thought as to how I was going to write about my experiences in Las Vegas. I don’t think that anyone is under the delusion that this blog has a PG rating when it comes to most of my experiences, but given that I haven’t written anonymously I have fallen considerably short of a “tell all” recount. At any rate, people expect more wild than usual adventures out of Vegas from anyone, but there is always the old saying “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. With that in mind, I have changed the names of everyone involved during this post (with the exception of people I’ve already named), partly for the sake of their anonymity and partly because I honestly don’t remember all of their names. I’ve also left a number of scenarios pretty vague and open-ended, and I will leave it up to the imagination of the reader as to what actually went down. You might assume the worst of me or think I am exaggerating, but I am not going to confirm nor deny. Okay, so with that disclaimer out of the way, here we go…

***

Waking up on Saturday morning was rough. There were two other girls sharing the big mega mattress, but I hardly noticed because they were a good couple of metres away from me. I heard them stir, stumble, and eventually leave the house at some stage in the morning, probably not that early, but still too early for someone who came home as late as I did. The bed was pretty comfortable, and after sleeping on couches and fold-out sofas at my past few stops, I made the most of it and slept-in. When I eventually did get up it was late in the morning, and I did a quick scan on the house to find it empty. I couldn’t remember if Ly had said he’d be home or not, but he’d offered me a place to stay, not to be my tour guide, so it didn’t matter too much, and he’d said I was free to come and go as I pleased.

During the bus ride from Flagstaff, which had free wifi that actually worked, I’d been browsing through Facebook and realised that an American guy named Steven, who I had met several years ago back in Sydney, was going to be in Las Vegas this weekend. We’d exchanged a few messages and decided that we should meet up at some point during the weekend, so after getting up and getting ready and realising that I had no real plans and nowhere to go, I sent Steven a message to see what he was up to. He was staying in the Hard Rock Hotel with his friend Darren, and said that they were going to be hanging out there drinking for most of the afternoon, and invited me to join them. After figuring out there was a nearby bus route that would take me almost directly to their hotel, I accepted his invitation, got myself together and was on my way.

Steven and Darren were staying in a pretty nice room in the Hard Rock Hotel. Big beds, huge bathroom, large plush sofas and walls that were just floor to ceiling windows. It was a pretty good view… at least, I guess it would have been if there had been anything to see. There were mountains in the distance, but Las Vegas itself is essentially built in the middle of a desert, and for the most part the city seemed incredibly flat. We weren’t too far from the strip, but the windows were all facing in the wrong direction, so I didn’t see much of it.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

View from the Hard Rock Hotel.

Darren had brought a lot of vodka. Since it was after midday and we were in Vegas, I let him mix me a drink. Steven was a model and photographer, and he explained to me that him and Darren had driven over from California because a guy he knew that lived here had agreed to model for him. That, and who doesn’t love a weekend in Vegas? So we sat around drinking for a while and catching up, since it had been a few years since I’d actually met or seen Steven. He had only just turned 18 when we first me in Sydney, so he had been enjoying the ability to go out to bars and be of a legal drinking age, which he had yet to reach back in the US.

Eventually the model arrived. Initially I thought it would have been pretty interesting to watch a photoshoot, and I’d seen some stuff Steven had done and it had looked pretty neat. However, the model was 16. Which, in any other circumstance wouldn’t have seen that weird, but when he was doing a photoshoot in a hotel room with three gay men… Look, I’m not implying anything, but the situation was slightly suggestive. Especially when, after going to get some sushi from a restaurant across the road, Darren and I returned to the room to find that the photography had moved to the luxury hotel bathroom. Like, it wasn’t pornographic, technically, but damn, it was uncomfortable to watch a 16 year old guy posing so sexily and sometimes suggestively. Another drink was definitely in order. Eventually the shoot wrapped up and then the model left, only to be replaced by another guy who Darren had been talking to on Grindr, who came over and joined the party. Once upon a time I might have found that weird, but given the countless people that I’d met through the gay social networking apps and the countless, much weirder circumstances that I’d found myself in over the course of the last year, I just had to shrug and roll with it.

However, there was only a certain amount of hanging out and drinking in a hotel room I could do before I started to get a bit of cabin fever. And there was one detail that I couldn’t ignore anymore, since it was going to have a major impact on my plans for the night – while his model had only been 16, Steven himself was still only 20. That meant he couldn’t actually go out to any of the bars, clubs or casinos on the strip. And… well, I was on night number two of three, and I wanted to at least see the strip before I left, and not staying there meant I actually had to make a bit of an effort to do so. It was mid-evening by that point, and Darren appeared to be pretty wasted from a full day of drinking. Steven was getting on pretty well with the new Grindr guy, and I was starting to get a little stir crazy after being the room all day. Realising that I wasn’t going to be joined on over on Las Vegas Boulevard by anyone in my present company, I opened the gay apps and figured out who was nearby. Eventually I got chatting to a guy who was heading to a bar with his boyfriend to meet some friends for a drink. It wasn’t Las Vegas Boulevard, but it was a start. So I bid farewell to Steven and Darren (who was barely conscious by that stage) and set out to meet some new people.

The bar was about a 10 minute walk from the Hard Rock Hotel, and when I got there I quickly found Tony and his boyfriend Sam, as well as a few other friends they were drinking with. The bar was a bit of a dive bar, with pool tables and darts, and it was called The Garage due to the wheel rims and other automobile themed decorations that lined the walls, giving it the feel of an auto-body shop that had been decked out as a 24 hour gay bar. I got chatting with this new group of guys, and it was through this conversation that I learnt more about what it’s like to actually live in Las Vegas, how so many of the residents are performers, or work in some aspect of show business, and how they rarely spend their free time down on the strip. Tony was a writer for both stage and screen, while Sam was a stage performer. They were really lovely guys, and I briefly met a few of their friends as they came and went from the bar in the evening. Eventually, after doing my usual process of explaining my year of travelling and recounting where I’d been so far, I confessed to Tony and Sam that I hadn’t even been over to the strip yet, and that I was keen to check it out. They regretfully told me that they weren’t going to be heading out that way that evening, although Sam was actually going to be in a show tomorrow night, and after a some quick figuring out of a few details, they confirmed that they would be able to get me a free ticket to see the show the following evening.

Considering I had zero other plans, I accepted the offer. They even offered to drive me home that evening too, which was lucky since I had absolutely no idea how I would have gotten back from where I was without getting lost or spending more than I could afford on a cab. So Tony and Sam dropped me off back at Ly’s house, and we exchanged numbers and made plans to meet at the New York New York Hotel down on Las Vegas Boulevard the following evening. It had been an interesting day with some odd experiences and a few crazy characters, and even though I was still yet to make it to the strip, I was thoroughly exhausted. All was dark and quite when I arrived home, and I hadn’t heard from Ly all day, so I just snuck back into the room with the mega mattress and went straight to sleep.

***

I woke up late the following morning and I encountered Chris briefly on his way out, but there didn’t seem to be much going on at the house. Tony and Sam had told me that where I was staying was very close to Fremont St, so since I wasn’t meeting up with them until much later in the evening, I decided to make checking it out my mission for the day.

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Not every inch of Las Vegas is neon lights and flamingoes.

Not every inch of Las Vegas is neon lights and flamingoes.

To be honest, I had never even heard of Fremont St before, but they had assured me that it had a very similar vibe to Las Vegas Boulevard, except possibly less crowded. Despite it being nearly winter, the desert sun beat down on Las Vegas as I wandered the awkwardly looking suburban streets until I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with the adult playground that is Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

Entrance to Fremont St.

A semi-circular dome ran along the length of the street. Once underneath it, you could look up to see a psychedelic display of swirling colours in the LED lights. Even though it was in the middle of the day, it had the ability to turn the half-outdoor environment into that “city that never sleeps” casino vibe. There were carnival entertainers, food stalls and trucks, restaurants, bars, and of course the omnipresent casinos.

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One thing that I had heard about Las Vegas was that you get free drinks when you are gambling. As I’ve said before, I’m not much of a gambler myself, but that was one theory that I was determined to test. So of course, I did what any non-gambler on a tight budget who still wants to gamble would do: I found the slot machine with the smallest minimum betting amount and began whittling away at my change, very, very slowly. Eventually one of the servers came around and asked if she could get me anything. I ordered a bourbon and Coke, and patiently slotted my pennies into the machine until she came back with it. I think I probably ended up spending more on tipping the waitress than I did actually gambling, but needless to say it was cheaper than any other way of getting a drink in Vegas, short of someone turning around and shoving a free shot in your face. I didn’t keep gambling once I had the drink, instead opting to take it with me and wander around Fremont St some more. IMG_4688

It was a fun day, marvelling at the setting that seemed like such a leap from anything considered remotely close to normal. I guess that was the part of the appeal of Las Vegas, but in the end I realised why many people along the way had suggested that if I really had my heart set on going to Vegas, to not spend more than 2 or 3 nights there. Unless you were there with a big group of friends to go crazy with, or had a big enough budget to go and be a high roller at the casinos, there didn’t seem to be a great deal more for a tourist to do. My local hosts had all been pretty absent over the last few days, so I hadn’t really been relying on them for any tips or tricks. However, I still had one night left in the city, which was going to finally take me down to the strip, and my flight wasn’t until later the following afternoon. After browsing Fremont St I headed back to Ly’s to take an afternoon nap. I hadn’t known what to expect that evening, but I’m sure glad that I took that nap – little did I know how much I was going to need it.

***

After just hanging out at home for most of the afternoon, I got myself ready and got on my way to the strip. There was still no one around the house, but I figured out the bus system and found one that would take right into the heart of the action. It took about half an hour to get there, but it was quite an interesting journey, watching the diverse collection of characters all converge and make their way towards the bright lights of the Boulevard. When we finally made it to the heart of the strip, I got off the bus and went the rest of the way by foot. I’d allowed myself plenty of time before meeting Tony and Sam, so I strolled along with my eyes cast upwards, almost memorised by all the neon.

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Caesars Palace.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

The famous Bellagio Hotel.

Some things I recognised from movies like The Hangover, while others seemed a little less familiar, but it all felt a little surreal. To cross the road in some of the busier sections required you to go into the hotels and casinos and cross using tunnels and bridges that connected everything – a design that I assume was to keep people inside and encourage their gambling as much as it was to keep drunk revellers out of the traffic. I made my way south down the Boulevard, stopping at a fast food shack to grab some dinner and just sit down at take it all in. When it was time, I made my way over to the New York New York Hotel, where Sam would be performing. I met with Tony very briefly, but he said that he still had to go backstage and sort a few things out, so ventured out onto the floor of the casino while we was doing that. The casino down here in the heart of the city couldn’t have been more different than the one I had been to in Fremont St. Whereas that one had felt more like the low budget diner version of a casino, looking relatively cheap and cheesy, the New York New York Hotel was neat, tidy and immaculate, with rows of shiny machines humming away and singing their feature tunes. Most of them didn’t accept cash or change either – you had to go and commit to pre-purchasing the gambling chips to even use them, so I just entertained myself by wandering through the rows of machines, looking at all the different themed slots, and watching the occasional person who seemed to be on a roll.

Inside the New York New York Hotel and Casino.

Probably wasn’t even supposed to be taking photographs, come to think of it.

I eventually met up with Tony again, and we made our way to the theatre where the show was. There were lots of friendly smiles and waves thrown our way from the theatre staff and performers, so I got the feeling that Tony and Sam were very much a part of this family of performers. I was impressed to discovered the show was actually the Cirque du Soleil show called Zumanity, a show that had an Adults Only rating due to its provocative, sensual and sexual nature. It mixed burlesque, cabaret and acrobatics into an amazing performance. Tony and I sat up the very back (since we did get in for free) but I still had an excellent view of the stage, and the show was breathtaking. I would never have thought to come and see a show like this had I not met Tony and Sam, so I was once again pleased that I’d taken a chance and gone out to meet some new people, and found myself in this position.

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

The pre-show Zumanity stage.

The MC of the show was a fabulous, tongue in cheek drag queen, and it was hilarious to watch her interact with the audience and get them behaving badly, continuing with the seductive theme of the show. However, after the brilliant show was drawing to it’s final moments, I realised something. I leaned over and whispered into Tony’s ear.
“Tony… you said Sam was in the show, right?”
“Yeah, he is,” he whispered back with smile.
“Where is he? I haven’t seen him at all, throughout the whole night!”
“Oh? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I just realised, I never even asked what he did! He-”

And then it all clicked: he was the drag queen MC! I was kicking myself for not having realised it sooner, but the fact that I was completely drawn in by his character was testimony to how flawless she was. Tony was chuckling to himself, explaining that they had purposely not told me exactly what Sam did in the show, so that it would be more of a surprise when I realised. And it had worked – it was the cherry on top of an already captivated performance, and the whole thing completely blew me away.

***

After the show, Tony and I met up with Sam, now completely de-dragged, and they asked if I wanted to join them at another gay bar not too far from the strip, where there were usually a lot of drag queens for the Sunday night shows. Being the happy-go-lucky, ‘I literally have no other plans’ kind of person that I was these days, I said yes, and so we drove over to Club Unity. It was a huge open space with wooden floors and a huge dance floor – it kind of felt like a ranch or a cowboy bar or something, if it weren’t for all the drag queens strutting around. I got a drink with Tony and Sam, and they introduced me to their friend Adrian who they had randomly bumped into. Tony and Sam hung around for a little while, but Sam was feeling pretty tired from the show so they didn’t stick around too long. They offered to take me home if I wanted to, or if I wanted a ride somewhere else before they left. I definitely wasn’t ready to go home, so I thanked them but said that I would stick around here with Adrian and see where the night took me. I was leaving the following day, so I said my final goodbyes to them and thanked them for getting me into the show. It definitely turned out to be a highlight of my stay in Vegas.

I hung out with Adrian at Club Unity for a while, drinking and chatting and watching the drag shows. He was asking about what I had done while I was in Las Vegas, and when I told him that I hadn’t really been out much on the Boulevard, he offered to take me there.
“I mean, if you want to, that is. There’s a few places that would still be pretty busy.”
So back we drove back to the strip, and after finding a parking spot in one of the immense mazes that were the nearby parking complexes, we marched through the casinos with Adrian at the lead, until we were inside The Mirage Hotel. I am under the belief that this particular party has since closed, but at the time, Sunday nights at the Revolution Bar inside the Mirage was a pretty swish gay party. There was usually a cover charge to get in, but apparently we’d arrived late enough that it didn’t apply anymore – I don’t know how that works, since every other bar I’d heard of usually increased cover charges as the night went on, but I wasn’t complaining.

The bar itself was slick and dark inside, with neon blue trim lighting and white leather seating that ran around the edges. While I was getting a drink at the bar, I was approached by a guy standing nearby. He was around my height, darker skinned but blonde-haired. His name was Bruno, he was Brazilian, and he was very charming. He offered to buy me a drink, and I accepted and returned with him to where he and his people were sitting. Which was, of course, in the VIP area. There were a bunch of them, most of them Brazilian, and Bruno told me that they were all visiting from LA. Eventually Adrian caught up with me, looking slightly concerned with the company that I had found myself with. He’d met a friend inside Revolution and was thinking of leaving relatively soon, and he wanted to check if I was okay. I thanked him, but told him I would stay and hang out with the Brazilians for a while. They were the first non-locals that I’d met since I arrived in Las Vegas, and while everyone who I’d met so far had been lovely, they weren’t really in the mood to have a crazy Vegas bender that I’m sure lots more out-of-towners were seeking.

The night escalated pretty quickly from there. We got a few more drinks before some of Bruno’s friends decided that they wanted to go gambling. I think we might have ended up in a taxi… well, we would have had to, because eventually we ended up in the Hard Rock Hotel, where I spent most of the previous day, and was apparently also where Bruno and his friends were staying. We went to the casino to go gambling, and while doing the actual gambling isn’t really my thing, I was more than happy to be Bruno’s arm candy while he blew all his money, particularly because simply being with him meant I also got a generous supply of free drinks. Bruno wasn’t that much older than myself – in fact all of him friends were around our age – but they all seemed to have so much money. Bruno dropped several thousand dollars on the roulette table, and I could hardly believe my eyes as he was placing the chips all over the table willy nilly, or asking me what my lucky number was and betting over a thousand dollars on it. I mean, it would have been even more exciting if he was winning some of it back, but in the end he walked away very much in the red. But hey, it wasn’t my money, Bruno didn’t seem to mind, and we were both still drinking.

Eventually Bruno explained to me that him and his friends were all there on business. I found that… well, it didn’t make me uneasy, but it definitely made me curious as to what they actually did… but in a “I’m not sure I want to know”, ‘innocence is bliss’ kind of way. Whatever they were doing, it was lucrative for a bunch of young gay foreign men in their early twenties. Best case scenario (while still being realisitc), they were porn stars. Worst case scenario, they were part of some elaborate drug smuggling scheme, in which case I absolutely did not what to know a thing about it. There was plenty of evidence to strongly suggest both those options, but in the end I never actually had the guts to ask him and find out. All I know is that they had been expecting to have to work on Monday, but now they didn’t, and so I found myself in a Las Vegas hotel room party with a bunch of gorgeous Brazilian men. Things got crazy. Things got weird. Let’s just say it was an experience of many sensations, and let’s never speak of it again.

I woke up at some point the next day in Bruno’s bed. There were several other people passed out around the room, on the beds, floor and furniture. I remarkably still had all my belongings, but when I stirred and tried to leave, I felt Bruno attempting to pull me back.
“No, stay,” he mumbled from his place in the bed.
“But I have a flight to catch this afternoon.”
“Oh, we’ll take you to the airport.”
“But I have to go back and get my bags.”
“Oh… where are you staying?” He was still half asleep at that stage, probably saying anything he had to in order to made me stay. But I wanted to get back to Ly’s with plenty of time to get ready and still make it to the airport. After all the nightmares I’d had with the Hellhound buses, the relatively stable procedures of an airport would be a welcome change. Luckily I knew exactly where I was, having been at the Hard Rock Hotel with Steven for most of my Saturday, so when I eventually made my out of the remnants of the hotel party room, getting a bus back to Ly’s was relatively straightforward. Dressed quite obviously in last nights clothes, the hot desert sun beating down on me made it quite possibly one of the worst walks of shame I’ve ever done, but given that this was Las Vegas, hardly anyone batted an eyelid.

***

As had been standard throughout the weekend, nobody was home when it came time for me to leave, so I just had to write Ly and Chris a thank you note thanking them for putting me up over the weekend. After quickly showering and changing and packing all my stuff up, I was ready to call a taxi, but unfortunately this was easier said than done. I Googled and called a number, but when I went ahead and gave them my address and phone number, they informed me that I needed a local US number in order to book the cab. They wouldn’t accept my travel SIM card number, no matter how hard to negotiated. I was panicking by this stage, knowing that I was still a fair way away from McCarran International Airport. In the end I just had to wing it, and I strapped up all my bags and took to the streets to try and hail a cab. I wasn’t exactly close to any of the busier parts of the city, and all the cabs that I did see were already occupied. I ended up going into the first motel that I saw, the kind where people rent rooms by the hour, and asked the guy at the desk if he could call a taxi for me. Eventually one showed up, and he turned out to be a super friendly and chatty guy who got me to the airport in record time. With plenty of time to spare, I checked my luggage and collapsed down on one of the terminal couches and waited for my flight. The past few days had been a drunken and sleep-deprived blur, but I boarded that plane feeling pretty satisfied with how everything had turned out, yet absolutely no desire to return any time soon.

The Land of Enchantment

After disembarking from the Rail Runner in Santa Fe, I was greeted by a noticeable climate change as the cool evening air rushed at me from the darkness. A lot of people back home were surprised to hear the New Mexico was a little on the chilly side, given its reputation for being a stinking hot desert. But it was November, which meant that winter was coming, and evenings in the desert are cold enough as it is. It wasn’t necessarily cold though – just fresh and crisp. I made my way into the parking lot where I was set to meet my next Couchsurfing host.

Like a lot of my previous hosts, Bradley was new to the Couchsurfing game. The dynamic between us seemed reversed to what one would normally expected – despite myself being the one turning up and crashing at a strangers home, I found myself feeling rather relaxed, with Bradley almost seeming a little intimidated by me. He was a bit older than me – mid to late thirties – and very warm and welcoming, but at first I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was “correct”, whereas I had become something of a seasoned Surfer by now. I guess I’d learnt along the way that there was no right or wrong way to be a Couchsurfer, but I also had absolutely no pre-planned schedule for my arrival in Santa Fe, so I was happy to go with the flow and tag along with whatever he was doing. We swung by a grocery store, where he picked up from dinner ingredients and beers, and he headed back to his place. After briefly recounting my painful previous 24 hours, I assured him I had absolutely no qualms with him cooking some dinner and getting to know each other over a few beers at home.

I guess I should use the word “home” loosely, though. Bradley explained to me that he had just moved to Santa Fe pretty recently, and he was working with a physical therapy company. The building had been transformed into a very professional looking practice, but there were also living quarters in the back of the building, and that was where Bradley was currently living. It then made a little more sense as to why he might have seemed uneasy – he admitted that he wasn’t totally sure if he was allowed to have guests, but he’d accepted my Couchsurfing request because he’d wanted to help me out. But there was an extremely comfortable looking couch for me to crash on, and with the only condition being I’d have to make myself scarce during business hours of the day, as long as he was okay with it, then so was I.

I’ve always thought that there’s something therapeutic about talking to strangers, and opening up to someone and being able to tell them whatever you’re feeling without having them judge you or make references to anything else prior in your life. I’d loved Couchsurfing so much because actually being pushed into proximity with these strangers (albeit relatively screened through profile reading) forced you to open up in these new, fresh kind of ways. In the case of Bradley, I feel like he enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. He had moved there after the ending of a long-term relationship, for a clean slate and a fresh start, only to learn that some other completely independent forces had brought his ex-boyfriend to Santa Fe as well. And Santa Fe isn’t exactly a large city. It doesn’t even feel like a small city – more of a large town, really. I got the feeling he didn’t really have anyone around here who he could talk to, but I was more than happy to lend my ears. He had some other frustrations that were bothering him, and I also got to unload some of the feelings or frustrations that you sometimes just don’t have the time to pay attention to when you’re always on the road. After my partying antics in the last two cities, it was definitely a welcome change of pace for the evening.

***

The following morning, Bradley informed me that he had most of the day off, and that he only had a few clients in the late afternoon and evening, giving him plenty of time to show me around. Our first mission was breakfast burritos: apparently they were popular all over the Southwest, but were particularly amazing in Santa Fe. We wandered through a few places around town before we found one that Bradley deemed worthy, but I gotta say, it was worth the wait. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes a breakfast burrito so different from other kinds of burrito… except that, you’re having a burrito for breakfast? And like… as if that isn’t amazing?! 

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

After breakfast we headed to downtown Santa Fe, where we did a brief walking tour around some of the more popular buildings and attractions. Santa Fe translates into Spanish as “holy faith”, so it’s unsurprising that in the centre of town one of the most prominent buildings was a church, Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

There were a lot of beautiful things in and around the church, but my favourite was the bronze statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American saint who was one of the first to convert and become a part of the Roman Catholic church.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

There was also the Palace of the Governors, a national historical landmark and the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Once the home of the seat of government for the state of New Mexico, it is now a history museum, although it was more of an interest to us on the outside, where many pedlars and street vendors had laid out their goods and wares for sale.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

We also wandered around a few more streets, looking in a few shops, and Bradley even pointed out some of the cities gay bars, which he admitted to not frequenting too often on account of there being a severe lack of variety and diversity in the patrons. I’d sometimes had similar thoughts about the bars that I frequented back home in Sydney, a city of 4 million people, so I couldn’t even begin to image what it would be like here. We continued along, mostly admiring the architecture of the city. One of my favourite buildings was the New Mexico Museum of Art, which looked like a piece of art itself, in my opinion.

New Mexico Museum of Art

New Mexico Museum of Art

As beautiful as the museum itself was, Bradley assured me that Santa Fe was an artists haven, and that there were plenty of other smaller, private galleries with unique artworks that we could check out. At least, that had been our intended next stop, until we walked in a particular direction that gave me a better view of mountain overlooking Santa Fe, and I saw what was on top of it.
“Oh my God, there’s snow up there!” I knew it had been cold, but cold enough for snow? I was shocked.
“Yeah, it can get cold enough for it up there,” Bradley said, and paused for a moment before adding, “Do you wanna take a drive up there, check it out?” I hadn’t been to the snow, or even seen snow, since I was about 16 on school camp, so I agreed it might be fun to go have a look.

***

The snow was clean and firm, perfect for making snowballs, of which Bradley and I tossed a few. I mainly just loved putting my bare hands into the cold, fresh ice and bouncing around leaving my footprints as I went.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

The forest floor was covered in a blanket of white.

Snowball!

Snowball!

Bradley and I just wandered through the snow field, mucking around and chatting. With our lives and experiences being so vastly different, we didn’t really seem to have that much in common, but he was just a nice and genuine guy, which made for good conversations and sharing of stories and experiences.

Some of the slopes were actually being used for skiing.

Me, not skiing.

And then there was me, not skiing.

Other than playing in the snow, the trip up the mountain provided a pretty breathtaking view on the clear morning.

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Dispelling the myth that the Southwest is a flat expanse of nothing.

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A beautiful view… There’s also a shot of the scenery in the background 😉

***

After our trip to the snow, we came back down to Santa Fe and made our way to some of the galleries that Bradley had mentioned earlier. He had said that the city was a hot spot for artists, but I hadn’t really grasped just how much of a stake the art community had in Santa Fe. There were whole streets literally lined with galleries, and some of the art was absolutely exquisite. We spent the rest of the day there, slowly trawling through all the amazing art galleries and marvelling at their creations. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of most of them – after all, they weren’t world famous paintings by any measure so it was important to protect their intellectual property. There were some with such fine details that would have taken hours. Bradley and I would stand at a single painting and just point out all the intricacies, unpacking the entire image before moving on.

However, I will always have a soft spot for sculptures, and the courtyards among the galleries were home to some equally beautiful 3D art.

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Even without art, the areas surrounding the galleries looked like mysterious, picture perfect scenery.

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Many of the outdoor sculptures were also wind chimes or windmills of some sort, which danced and twirled in the light breeze.

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This harp sculpture actually created some gentle, ethereal music as the wind blew through it.

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I eventually grew tired of even some of the most famous art galleries that I had been to throughout Europe, but in all honesty, I could have spent an entire day wandering between all those galleries. In fact, we spent a better part of the afternoon there, before it eventually grew time for Bradley to head back home. Or, I guess to work, technically.

***

There was one particular thing that I’d thought about checking out while I was in Santa Fe. At the suggestion of Rob, my Couchsurfing host back in DC, there was a luxury spa located just ten minutes outside of downtown Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. After the excessive partying and the long transit that preceded my stay in Santa Fe, a relaxing afternoon in a spa sounded absolutely perfect. Bradley offered to drive me up there before he had to work (luckily, because I hadn’t seen one cab in the city so far, let alone a bus), but there was no mobile reception up on the hill, so we just had to arrange a pick up time for whenever he would be finished work. That left me with at least a few hours at the spa, which would probably be the perfect amount of time.

I wasn’t trying to break my budget, and while the spa offered all sorts of massages, skin therapy treatments and private hot tubs, I just opted for a general entry to the communal areas. The unique thing about Ten Thousand Waves was that given its place on the mountainside in the relative wilderness, most of it was open air and outside. While the spa I’d visited in Zürich with Umer had had an open rooftop where you could view the city from the spa, the one here in Santa Fe was surrounded my trees and nature, a private slice of forest sanctuary. I had my phone in my locker the entire time so I didn’t take any photos, but I’ve lifted some images from the website to show how beautiful the spa is.

spa-overview spa-grandbath_4

There were cold plunge pools next to the hot tubs, so you could immerse yourself in cold water before returning to the warmth of the spa, and wet and dry saunas, of which I am a huge fan. Highlights also included the futuristic toilets that cleaned up after you, washing with water jets and drying with warm air so you literally did not have to lift a finger.

***

After I finished up, I headed on outside and waited for Bradley to pick me up. There had been some hold up, and he was almost an hour late, which was a little annoying since he had no way of letting me know in advance, but completely beyond his control. He still felt bad, so he ended up buying me dinner on the way home, in a cosy little restaurant that served some good traditional local food, which was similar to Tex Mex but with slightly different styles, spices and flavours. We headed home after that – I would have to be getting up very early the following morning to get the first Rail Runner back to Albuquerque to get my next bus heading west.

“Do you have enough warm clothes?” Bradley asked me as I was packing up most of my stuff. “It’s gonna be pretty cold over in Flagstaff this time of year.”
“Umm… I have jeans?” I said. Truthfully, this was the coldest it had ever been during my travels, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned.
“Do you have any thermals?”
“I’ve got a thermal top.”
“What about thermal underwear.”
“Ahh… no. Am I going to need it?”
“You know, you might not, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.” He went into his room and fished around in his cupboard for a few moments, and then returned with two black items of clothing: a long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and a pair of long thermal underwear. “You can borrow these if you like. They’re pretty old, but they might fit you, and I won’t be needing them any time soon.”
“Oh wow, thank you! But… I’m not gonna be headed back this way… How will I get them back to you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can easily get some more whenever I need to. We can’t have you Australians freezing your asses off down in the Grand Canyon, though!” Receiving hand-me-down thermals might not have seemed like a big deal to Bradley, but as someone who had received so much assistance from people who were essentially strangers during this journey of mine, it meant a lot to me. It was another favour that would assist me yet give him nothing in return, and something that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to directly repay him for. He must have known that though, and he didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him profusely, but he insisted it was nothing, and we finished the night with some more good conversation and finishing the rest of the beers.

***

It was still dark when I got up that morning. Once again, Bradley was an absolute saint and offered to drive me to the Rail Runner station at such an ungodly hour. He had intended to drive me to the first main station where I had disembarked less than 48 hours ago, but we ended up cutting it so fine that he headed directly to the next station. Traffic was so light that we ended with plenty of time to spare, so we got to share some heartfelt goodbyes before I left. We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but I’d really grown to like Bradley in the short time that we’d had. More than being a friend, he’d actually come across as more of a father figure over the past two days. He’d fed me, even clothed me, given me a place to sleep, looked after me and showed me around, and had numerous meaningful conversations about things as personal as our lives to things as simple as the beauty in all the art we had viewed together. I didn’t see myself ending up in Santa Fe again anywhere in the foreseeable future, but I was glad I had made the final leg of the transit from hell to get there to see it, and to have once again had another great Couchsurfing experience. I gave Bradley one final hug as the  Rail Runner approached, and he flashed his lights from his car in the darkness as the train pulled out into the dawn, taking me back to Albuquerque.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Man on a Mission

The Alamo is potentially the most well-known tourist attraction in San Antonio due to its place in American history, but just outside of town there are a series of other old churches known as the San Antonio Missions. We had intended to ride our bikes out there on Friday afternoon, but after the Thursday night we’d had, Hector, Nico and I decided we were in no condition to make that journey. On Saturday both Hector and Jay didn’t have to work, so I spent the day hanging out with them. I joined them around town while they ran a few odd errands, but then it was off to see the Missions.

Although there was one stop on the way out there: an open air market, full of all kinds of trinkets, gadgets, and other things for sale, most of it second hand. We pottered around there for a little while, though I didn’t end up finding anything noteworthy or anything I wanted to buy. The highlight was probably the market’s sign:

Fabulous

Fabulous.

After that it was on to the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. There are four old missions that are found downstream along the San Antonio River, although the furthest one is where the visitors centre was located, so we headed down to the Mission Espada.

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Mission Espada.

Mission Espada.

We went into the visitors centre and gift shop and had quick look around. There was a small cinema that was showing some historical videos, but I have to admit that after the past few nights of partying that I’d had, staying awake in such a dark environment proved difficult, and Hector caught me dozing off a couple of times before we’d made it to the end of the presentation. After that we headed to the next closest church, Mission San José, which was larger slightly more impressive than Mission Espada.

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Mission San José.

Mission San José.

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The missions had all been Catholic outposts that aided the spread of Christianity across the Southwest during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but now they were mostly just historical buildings, heritage listed to as to keep them preserved in their current conditions. There was a room that had been redone as a church inside Mission San José though, but I much preferred just wandering through the open grounds and exploring the secret nooks and long abandoned rooms within the old building.

The modern side of the missions.

The modern side of the missions.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

In the grounds of Mission San José.

It was great that I’d had Hector and Jay to take me out to the missions and show me around – my last minute planning and decisions to end up in San Antonio meant that I didn’t really know a great deal about it and hadn’t done much research, and while I’m sure if I’d ended up there without them, every man and his dog would have suggested I go and see them, having a personal guide to the city never hurts.

***

We made our way back into town later that afternoon, and after stopping for snow cones and Tex Mex (Mexican food with Texan influences – although to be honest it’s pretty much the same as what we’d call Mexican food in Australia, which did make me curious as to what real Mexcian food would actually be like), we picked up some supplies for the evening. Hector and Jay had been organising to throw a party at their house that night – I’m not sure if it was a special occasion or not, thrown in my honour, because from what I had seen so far they didn’t seem like the kind of guys that needed an excuse to throw a party.

They really went all out. Between food and drinks and their hilarious friends, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last night in the city. I spent the beginning of the even playing token Australian abroad, answering all the usual questions about my mysterious homeland, then pronouncing a bunch of different things, and including names, so they could hear my accent, as well as explaining the different terms we used for different things back home. It’s kind of weird the things you take for granted about the way you… simply exist, I guess? And you never realise it until you meet someone who’s never met anyone like you.

After eating and drinking came, inevitably, dancing. Apparently Jay used to do drag, so out came a wig and pair of heels too, although no one could really pull off a successful dance move in the heels (but that didn’t stop us from trying). There was lots of laughing and dancing, although one thing that happened that I found rather peculiar, upon later reflection, was the numerous times that I was referred to by some of the guys as “white boy”. I mean, it wasn’t really shocking – I am white, after all – and I wasn’t offended, because… well, I’m white? Most of the people at the party seemed to identify as Hispanic on some level, and I realised that I’d never found myself in a social situation or a group of friends where white or Caucasian wasn’t the most represented racial category. It didn’t bother me at all – it was just funny to be the token white boy for once, instead of the token gay guy.

Shots!

Shots!

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio - beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

One photo that pretty much sums up my weekend in San Antonio – beer, pickles, and the chilli flakes that Nico used to spice up the Dos Equis on my first night.

A solid effort and a great night.

A solid effort and a great night.

***

Sunday was my last day in San Antonio, but my bus wasn’t due to leave until the evening, which gave Hector and Jay plenty of time to show me the Riverwalk, the remaining attraction of San Antonio that I had yet to see. Though not before bringing me a refreshing cocktail in the late hours of the morning, while I was printing my bus tickets off Hectors computer.
“Sunday Funday,” he said with a grin. It was savoury, but there was no pickle in it, so I drank it without issue.

If it was late enough in the morning to warrant drinking, then it was probably late enough for lunch, so the first port of call was Quarry Hofbrau, which despite the name, did not actually serve German food. However, they did make some delicious Tex Mex, but the real reason Hector wanted to bring me there was so that I could try their Dos-a-ritas. That is, a frozen margarita garnished with a full bottle of Dos Equis beer. There was a range of different flavours that could be topped off with different beers, but I’d a fan of the classic margarita and I’d been enjoying Dos Equis for most of the weekend, so I stuck to the original Dos-a-rita. Don’t ask me to explain the physics of it, but the frozen margarita keeps most of the beer still inside the bottle, which slowly drains out when you lift the bottle up. So you can let it all pour out at once, or keep topping up the glass with more beer as you keep drinking it. If it hadn’t only been midday, I probably would have ordered another!

Dos-a-ritas!

Dos-a-ritas!

However, after leaving Quarry Hofbrau, Hector and Jay did take me to something else – a drive-thru bar. I don’t mean like the bottle shops in Australia where you can drive through, throw a case of beer in the back of your car, pay and keep going – this place had a menu! They did cocktails! Of course, they’re not allowed to serve “open” alcohol to the cars, so each drink was just sealed in a plastic bag before handing it over. I was part impressed, part amazed, and part terrified as to how this was actually legal. But it was, so of course I ordered another cocktail to go.

***

After all that, we finally headed down to the Riverwalk. The whole concept is really interesting – given that it’s such a popular attraction, the San Antonio Riverwalk is almost like a main city centre that is focused around the winding stretch of water. I know that cities build on or around water isn’t exactly unique – I’d been to a few examples myself – but it was still a cool vibe. There were shops and restaurants along the waters edge for miles in either direction. When you walked down any of the staircases that take you to the waters edge, it feels like you’re leaving the upper streets of the city behind and entering some secret, magical world, full of people yet free from traffic, except for the occasional tour guide boat chugging past, wide-eyed tourists taking in the scenery.

The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk

Boat tours went up and down the river.

Boat tours went up and down the river.

We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering down the Riverwalk, hanging out and chatting and remembering all the fun we’d had over the weekend. Hector kept asking if I wanted my picture taken with anything – after travelling by myself for so long, I sometimes forget that that’s what people did when they visited foreign cities. I had just resigned to mostly not appearing in my own photos (or taking selfies, of course), so once again it was nice to have someone to take the pictures for me.

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Outdoor amphitheatre along the edge of the river.

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After walking a decent length of the cool, shady Riverwalk, we went back to the actual city centre, where we had been on Friday night. I glimpsed the Alamo again, and Hector took me to see another popular attraction, the San Fernando Cathedral. The inside was beautiful when we had a quick peek inside, but given that it was Sunday afternoon and there was a service beginning, as tourists we weren’t allowed to hang around for long.

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San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the nation.

And then the sun was setting, all too soon, and it was time to head back and pick up my bags and make my way towards the bus station. Nico and Daniel met us there, and I said my heartfelt goodbyes to the guys who had welcomed me into their lives for the weekend, and truly made my San Antonio experience an amazing one.
“I don’t think we could have asked for a better first Couchsurfer,” Hector said with a smile. “Although I wonder if we’re ever get anyone as awesome as you!” I was so glad to have had a positive experience too, both for me and them. Bad first experiences can really put people off for life, but a good one allows for them to keep a little hope if ever the future ones don’t turn out so well.

I loaded up on snacks, stored my bag in the luggage compartment, and made my way onto the bus. I had been catching the cheaper MegaBus buses up until now, which cut on costs by not actually having an official bus depot, but now I was kicking off on some long haul journeys that MegaBus didn’t cover, so I was boarding the first in a series of Greyhound buses that would be taking me across the Southwest. First up was the long drive across the vast empty expanse that was the rest of Texas. I waved to the guys one final time before the bus pulled out of the depot and chugged away into the night.

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.

Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

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Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.