The Road to Rio

After about a week in São Paulo, it was time for me to move on. When I had first arrived in Brazil I had discussed with Fausto my options for visiting other cities, and whether there was an easy and affordable way to get to any of them. The city that was first and foremost in my mind was obviously Rio de Janeiro, and Fausto told me that it was only about six hours on a bus to get there. After some of the other long-haul journeys I’d taken, six hours on a bus seemed like nothing at all, so I went ahead and booked a ticket leaving São Paulo in about a weeks time. However, I also had to book my return ticket, since I already had my flight booked out of Brazil from São Paulo, something I’d had to do in a split second decision during my minor crisis at Dublin airport. After doing that, I spent my free time during the rest of the week looking for somewhere to stay while I would be in Rio. Fausto was looking up and recommending some pretty cool looking hostels – and most importantly, advising me on all the better areas of the city in which I should stay – but I directed more of my efforts into searching for Couchsurfing hosts and writing requests, and in the end it paid off: a friendly-looking American gay guy in his mid-20s who was currently living in Ipanema had agreed to host me.

Jump forward in time, after my nights of drinking and partying in São Paulo and waking up in the wrong city, and I was on my way to the bus station, using the public transportation of São Paulo for the first time. Fausto hadn’t spoken too highly of it, but there wasn’t anything wrong with it, really. I had to catch a bus and then two different metro lines before I got to the major bus terminal, and it took over an hour to eventually get there, but everything went smoothly and according to plan, and nobody tried to rob or pick pocket me in broad daylight, so I have no complaints. I actually overestimated how long it would take me to arrive, since I had also allowed enough time to pick up my tickets and make sure I knew where I was going within the terminal – a process which turned out to be remarkably simple – so I ended up having to sit around for a little while waiting for my departure time. Although, to be sure, that’s definitely a better feeling than sprinting through there terminal because you’re running late. Once we were on board and finally got moving, I chatted for a little bit to the guy who was sitting next to me, but eventually he moved away to where there were two empty seats, so I had a little more room for the rest of the journey. It was a beautiful day outside, and Brazil has some gorgeous countryside scenery, so I just relaxed and was able to quite comfortably enjoy the ride.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

I arrived around in the late afternoon, but before I went off into the city I decided to pick up my ticket for my bus ride home, so that I didn’t have to worry about it in the early morning when I was departing. I am so thankful that I decided to do that, because since both my journeys had been booked with two different bus services – yet I’d only received one printed confirmation when I booked them together – there was a huge misunderstanding within the entire system. I was sent from counter to counter of the different bus companies, trying to explain to people what I had done and what I was trying to do, with the fact only about half the people spoke any English proving to be a rather large hurdle. It took almost another hour of exasperatedly trying to make myself understood before they realised they were looking for my booking in the wrong place. After that, it was was simple as it had been at the station in São Paulo, but I secretly thanked myself for having the foresight of going through that whole ordeal earlier rather than when I actually had a bus to catch.

***

After all that had happened, I followed the directions my Couchsurfing host had given me to get from the bus terminal to his place. There was a bus route that would take me most of way, right down to the beach in Ipanema, one of the better known neighbourhoods in the south of Rio De Janerio. His directions were very good and I had no problems finding the place, but he’d told me to send him a text message when I arrived, rather than dialling any buzzer or number. I arrived to find a nice looking apartment building with the typical Brazilian level of security – this particular building had a tall black wrought iron fence – so I sent my new host a message and waited. The timing couldn’t have been better, actually, because he was just arriving home minutes after I had sent the message.

Tom was actually an American, originally from Baltimore, but he was living in Rio teaching English. He was a tall guy – something that made him stand out amongst the generally shorter Brazilian men – but he was super friendly from the moment I met him at the front gate.
“So, the reason you can’t dial my apartment,” Tom said as we went through the gate and around to the elevator, “is that it used to be the maids quarters to the apartment next door. So if you ring the bell, it just goes to their apartment.” I chuckled to myself, wondering how many awkward situations that might have caused for Tom in the past, but once I arrived he had a spare set of keys for me, so that wasn’t something I’d have to worry about while I was staying with him. “Though I gotta warn you, it’s obviously not the biggest place,” he said with a chuckle himself, but I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a pretty small space, but not too small – although ‘cozy’ isn’t exactly the best descriptor for somewhere in the humid tropics, that’s kind of how it felt. There was a main room that was essentially a living room, dining room and kitchen all in one, a small bathroom, and a separate bedroom. There was a sofa that folded out into a bed, although it took about half the room when it was open, so we left it shut for the time being. I settled in a little bit as Tom and I chatted and got to know each other. I told him about where I’d been so far, and he was pretty excited to learn that I’d visited his hometown of Baltimore. I think he was overcome with a wave of nostalgia when I pulled out the timetables of the MARC train that I had caught from DC to get there, which had been sitting in the bottom of my backpack since then. We were already getting on really well, and I was confident I’d already made another success story to add to my Couchsurfing experiences.

***

When I’d been in São Paulo, some of Fausto’s friends had told me that they were going to be going to Rio the same weekend that I was going be there, and invited me to come and join them at the parties that they were going to be attending. From the way they had described them, it sounded like they were going to be pretty over the top and lavish events, but I had told them I would have to wait and see what the situation was like with my Couchsurfing host in Rio. I can only imagine how rude it would look to turn up on someone’s doorstep, drop your bags off and then head off straight away to hang out with someone else. Though Tom turned out be a really cool guy, so when he told me that there was a friend of a friend of his in town who was also from Australia, and that he’d said we would be meeting up with him for a drink that evening, I decided to join them instead of chasing up Fausto’s friends. While they’d all been incredibly nice and welcoming during my time in São Paulo, I never felt like I’d totally fitted in with their kind of crowd. They were all a bit older, and all about finer and nicer things – half the time I felt like I didn’t currently possess any clothes that would meet the dress code to wherever they were going. Tom, on the other hand, was a totally chilled out guy who was living the casual, simplistic life of an ex-pat who lived a five minute walk away from a Brazilian beach, with zero hint of pretentiousness. There was definitely already a good connection between the two of us, so I stuck with him and headed out to meet this other Australian.

James and Tom had never met each other, but had been put touch by a mutual friend that Tom had met during his time previously visiting Australia. As a traveller it’s always nice to have a gay-friendly point of contact or someone you can meet up with when you arrive in a new place, especially in potentially dangerous places such as Brazil. We met James outside Tom’s building and had a quick greeting followed by a couple of awkward moments establishing how we all actually knew each other.
“So wait, you’re Australian?” James asked, pointing at me. “But how do you know each other?”
“Well… we don’t. I mean, we just met half an hour ago?” I said.
“But you’re staying with him?” James seemed a little puzzled, but when we explained the whole Couchsurfing thing it all made sense to him.

Tom lived in the heart of Ipanema – very close to the beach, and even closer to heap of different bars and restaurants down the main strip leading away from the beach. Tom chose a favourite bar of his and we sat down at a table and started off with some beers.
“I wanna try a Caipirinha,” James had said when it came time for the next round, and he proceeded to study the menu. “They’re supposed to be the speciality here in Brazil.” This was all news to me, so Tom and James explained: a Caipirinha is a cocktail made with muddled limes, ice, sugar and cachaça, a type of Brazilian rum made from sugar cane. However, in Brazil they don’t use limes, but a kind of green lemon called ‘limon subtil’ that is native to the region.
“Technically isn’t not a real Caipirinha unless it uses those Brazilian lemons,” Tom said, “but this places makes them with all different kinds of flavours.” We all decided to try different ones – however, I wasn’t much of a fan of the strawberry Caipirinha, and after tasting the ‘real’ Caipirinha Tom has ordered I wish I had chosen that rather than the pink, bastardised version.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

We sat in the bar chatting for at least a few hours. James was a really nice guy too. He’d been travelling around South America for a few months, and we both agreed it was kind of nice to talk to someone who actually perfectly understood all the weird slang words and ‘Australian-isms’ that we tend to use in everyday language without even realising it. We even confused Tom a few times, but we all got on really well. After a while we decided to leave and possibly head elsewhere. There was a gay night at q nightclub that James had heard about and wanted to check out, so Tom walked us there, but it looked a little dodgy and not that great. I was actually feeling pretty worn down from my bus trip, and no one was really in that much of a partying mood – I think it was a Tuesday, after all – so we ended up bidding James goodnight as he headed back to his hostel, and Tom and I went back to his place to crash and call it a night. It had been a quiet but really enjoyable evening, and all in all I was already pretty pleased with how my stay in Rio was turning out.

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Bars, Boys and a Bakery: São Paulo Nightlife

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

***

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

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

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

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

With Fausto and his friends at Lions Night Club.

With Fausto and his friends at Lions Night Club.

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

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

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

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

***

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

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

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

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

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

***

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

Street art.

Street art.

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

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

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

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

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

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

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

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

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

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

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

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

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

Sports Bars and Gentlemen

On Friday afternoon, after a day at the museums at the National Mall, I headed back to Robert’s where I would meet him to get ready to head out for the evening. He listed a couple of different gay venues and bars where things would be happening, but we decided to grab some dinner first and just play it by ear. We caught a bus to the other side of town, where the street names were all letters – there wasn’t really a dedicated gay district, but there were a handful of places around U Street, a little further east from where Robert lived. We went to a place called Nellie’s Sports Bar, which was – lo and behold – another gay sports bar. I decided that sports bars are just an American thing in general, gay or straight, because they seemed to be more a commonplace venue than I had been expecting. The walls were lined with sporting memorabilia and jerseys and all kinds of all-American decorations, and the bar was actually more of a restaurant where the servers were all cute guys dressed up in sport themed uniforms. We ordered some beers and got some food, and afterwards Robert told me that there was an upstairs area with a balcony and outdoor dance floor, and asked if I wanted to check it out. Obviously I did, so after fixing up the bill and giving our server a nice tip, we headed upstairs.

If downstairs was the sports aspect of the bar, then upstairs was where the gay aspect was fully represented. It was a cool setup – you climbed a few flights of old style wooden staircases until you reached the entrance to a wooden patio that stretched out over the roof of the building. There were a couple of bars along the edges, with bartenders making every drink with such flair and skill that a simple bourbon and Coke came out looking like a cocktail, and in the main area of the deck was a dance floor that was covered by a light, canvas canopy. The edges of the balcony looked out into the street and over the city, and the vibe was almost like that of a house or garden party. We got a couple of drinks, and I ended up hitting the dance floor while Robert sat on the sidelines.
“I’m too old, and don’t really care for dancing anymore”, he said with a resigned smile. “But you go ahead.”

I flitted around the dance floor, dancing with people and having brief conversations here and there. One thing I liked from what I had experienced in America so far was that strangers can be incredibly friendly. People are more likely to approach you and strike up random friendly conversations, not just in bars but even in the street, waiting at a bus stop, on the subway – and while sometimes it can be a little creepy in some of those places, it’s usually really nice, and especially useful in bars when you’re by yourself. I didn’t exactly make any friends while I was wandering around, but at the same time I never felt like I was by myself. Even when I was waiting for my drink at the bar, I was grabbed by the shoulder by a guy standing next to me and pulled into a group of people. They were doing shots to celebrate something or someone, I don’t even know, but they’d ordered too many. The tall shooter glass was thrust into my hand and before I even had time to think about it we raised and clinked them with a booming “Cheers!” and I downed the shot with the rest of them. Somewhere, whoever taught me about stranger danger at school is slowly shaking their head and mumbling under their breath. I thanked the group, danced with them for a little while, then collected my drink from the bartender and moved on. Robert eventually let me know that he was heading home, but he gave me all the information I needed to get home safely, and then left me to the party.

I had a few conversations with guys here and there while I was on the dance floor.
“Are you going to Mix Tape?” one of them asked me. I’d heard a few people ask and mention this Mix Tape, which I assume was some kind of event or party, and from a the few people I spoke to I managed to discern that it was some kind of underground party where local DJs test and preview their mixes, and it was the place where most people began to head once Nellie’s finally had to close the balcony party due to obvious noise restrictions. It wasn’t too far from Nellie’s, apparently, so I thought I would check it out.

That was the plan, at least. However, there was something – well, someone – else that had caught my eye. I had seen him almost immediately when I’d arrived on the patio with Robert, and we’d had brief, fleeting moments of eye contact while I had been making my way around the dance floor. It wasn’t like I was honing in on him or anything – I generally scan the crowds of any room I’m in, assessing the people and the situation – but I definitely caught him looking back at me a few times, with that lingering eye contact that was just a little too long to be considered a passing glance. Anyway, out of sheer dumb luck I was dancing my way around the dance floor and ended up face to face with him. Simply staring and relying on eye contact would now be a little awkward, so I finally plucked up the courage to say hello. We exchanged pleasantries and introductions – his name was Mike – but when I began saying sentences that contained more than a few words, his expression became a little puzzled.

“Do… do you have an accent?” I laughed and nodded, and filled him in on my story, where I was from and what I was doing here. He asked me about the guy that I came with, so I explained who Robert was and how I knew him, and where I was staying.
“So, I’ve heard about this Mix Tape thing that’s on tonight?” I said, trying to move past the same repetitive topic I had to begin with for literally everyone that I met.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“Yeah, ah, well… I know it’s on tonight. It’s a pretty cool dance party.”
“Where is it? Are you gonna go?”
“Me? Oh, nah. Not tonight. I’m just going to head home soon, I think.” He sounded almost a little bashful.
“Oh…” I don’t know if I sounded as disappointed as I was. “Well, I was thinking about it, but I’m still not sure what I’m doing.” Then were was a couple of seconds of awkward silence – except for the thumping music all around us, of course – before Mike spoke again.
“Well, you could come with me if you like?” It was very spontaneous, and a little crazy considering we’d been talking for all of five minutes, but I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh and smile. Mike smiled back.
“Okay.”

***

While I would have had to navigate my way back to Robert’s with the nighttime public transport, or fork out for a taxi, Mike lived about a 5 minute walk away from Nellie’s. We talked as we walked, and he seemed to be a really nice guy, and I found myself a little smitten. If you skim over the rather blunt invitation to join him back at his place – which still somehow came across as charming when he did it – Mike was actually the perfect gentleman. I spent the night there with him, and in the morning he even made scrambled eggs for breakfast. But I had to get back to Robert’s sooner rather than later – Robert was actually in the process selling his apartment and today was the open house, so if I didn’t make it back in time I would be doing the monument walk in my walk of shame clothes from the night before. Mike noticed that I was a little distracted as we finished up with breakfast, pouring over the map on my iPhone, and he asked me where I was going.
“Oh, that’s no problem, I can drive you,” he’s said when I’d told him where Robert lived. “Just let me quickly jump in the shower and we’ll get you home.” I couldn’t believe my luck – was there anything this dreamboat couldn’t do for me?

As I waited, I walked around Mike’s living room and looked at some of the decorations. There were a handful of nursing books on the coffee table – I would later learn that he had left his job in politics, which was what originally brought him to DC, for a career change and had gone back to studying to become a nurse. There was also a couple of photos of what looked like his family, including a couple of solo portrait photographs of a young kid who looked about six or seven years old. When Mike emerged from the bathroom, I asked him about it.
“So who’s the kid? Your nephew, or something?”
“Oh, ah… no,” said with a smile, but with a tone in his voice that suggested there was more to that story. “He’s actually my son.”

There was a moment of intense panic in my mind. “Oh my God, did I just sleep with a married man while his wife was out of town?!” It only lasted a second before I started to calm down again – it was totally possible that he was separated, or divorced, or whatever. Mike was as little older than me, so that wasn’t really out of the question. Then those brief seconds of speculation ended, and I actually asked him about it.
“Your… son? Are you… like…. married, or-”
“No, no, no, no, no! No, not married,” Mike said with a chuckle, and I could only assume that I wasn’t the first person to have ever drawn that conclusion, perhaps in a very similar circumstance. “I have two really good friends, they’re a lesbian couple, who wanted to have a baby, and they asked me to be the father. I said yes, and yeah… that’s him.”
It took everything I had to refrain from letting out a long “Aww!” but it was actually one of those super cute stories that I thought only ever happened in American romantic comedies. Mike told me some more about him as he drove me back to Robert’s.

“Yeah, I’ve known him his whole life, but I was only ever really a family friend, you know? It was only recently when he got old enough to understand and ask questions that we explained to him that I was actually his father. But, you know, he still calls me Mike, and I don’t think I really need him to call me ‘Dad’, unless he wants to. His mothers are his parents, they’re the ones who raise him.” I thought it was beautiful, and the more I found out about Mike, the more I liked him, and the more I was thankful for my decision to go home with him instead of going to the Mix Tape party of whatever it was. Eventually we arrived at Robert’s street, and thanked Mike for a final time as I moved to get out of the car. My future plans were still up in the air – I hadn’t even booked a bus ticket back to New York yet – but we exchanged phone numbers and Facebook names just in case we had time to catch up again before I left DC.
“Well, let me know whenever you figure out what your plans are,” Mike said. “It would be great to see you again before you go.”
“Yeah,” I said with a coy smile, and I leaned back in to kiss him one last time. “Yeah, it would.”

A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.

Roller Coaster: a trip to New Jersey and back

As well as getting to know my new American friends, being in New York also gave me the chance to catch up with some other dearly beloved old friends. Mischa was another American whom I had befriended during his exchange semester at university in Sydney. His speciality was mathematics, but the flexibility of his units whilst on exchange meant that he was able to take some subjects that weren’t usually offered in his discipline, and so we met in the tutorial for one of my Gender Studies units. He was also gay, and we hit it off right away and ended up hanging out quite a lot, and he became part of my regular circle of friends in Sydney. He was originally from Baltimore, but was now living in Connecticut, so as soon as he had a free weekend he jumped on a train down to New York to meet up with me. He is the sweetest little guy, and I was so happy I got to catch up with him – he met Melissa in Sydney too, so he stayed with us in the studio apartment that weekend, despite it still being full of the previous owners’ things.

Mischa and I went out for some drinks with some of his friends who live in New York (an evening which I’ll detail more in a later blog), the result of which we woke up at 7am on Saturday morning to drag ourselves to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mischa’s friend Walter was going to the Six Flags in New Jersey for an event called ‘Out In The Park’: basically the theme park chain hosts an event where queers take over for the day and night. Walter was going with his friend Neil – who we met on Friday night – along with Neil’s friends Gabriel and Tim. Neil had convinced us to come along, so even though I was pretty hungover that morning, Mischa and I bid farewell to Melissa, still half asleep as we crept out the door, and headed across town to catch the bus that would be taking us to the neighbouring state. We greeted Walter and Neil, who looked equally as hungover, we were introduced to Tim and Gabriel – who turned out to be a couple – and there was a frantic rush to get our tickets, make our way through the terminal and get onto the bus or we would be waiting another hour for the next direct one. Slowly, we began to perk up, and after emerging from the first tunnels I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, from the second state I had been to since arriving in the USA on this trip.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

It was a bus ride that shouldn’t have taken any more than two hours on a good day. Unfortunately for us, today was not a good day. There was traffic – my God, there was traffic. The bus came to a standstill at one point for almost 45 minutes. I’m not sure what was happening, because there didn’t appear to be any accidents or roadworks or anything… the cars just seemed to be going nowhere fast. “Oh my God! What is taking so long?” Neil said, peering down the aisle to catch a glimpse of the road out of the buses windscreen. “I have to pee so badly!” We’d consumed a lot of Gatorade and Red Bull to combat the early morning hangovers. We passed the time by chatting, getting to know my new friends, and taking the odd selfie here and there.

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

***

When we eventually arrived at Six Flags it was well after midday. One of the first things we did when we arrived, after buying our tickets and getting given our ‘Out In The Park’ event wristbands, was locate the nearest refreshment venue and order some food and some beers. I’m not really a fan of American beers, I discovered, but I drank them anyway because there really wasn’t much other option that day. We didn’t overdo it though, because we had a day of roller coasters and rides ahead of us. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m a screamer. Whether it’s scary movies, theme park rides, or just loud noises when I’m sitting in traffic, I am easily startled and I vocalise it loudly. Even for a theme park, where basically everyone screams to some extent, I think I earned myself a handful of strange looks from fellow riders. There were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a bunch of other comic book superhero themed rides, there were rickety old wooden ones (at least, they seemed rickety – I really hope they were actually stable), there were sleek futuristic ones and there were the slower, more sensible rides for when your head, or your stomach, needed a break. I went on everything – as much as I scream, I love the rides themselves, and am never put off by any amount of twists or turns or loops. The slower ones, however, were good because they gave you a chance to use your phone mid-ride. One ride that was designed like a parachute descent allowed a brief moment of standstill in which I was able to take a few ariel shots of the surrounding park.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

As the day grew later, we started to see more and more people with the same wristbands as us, meaning they were also here for Out In The Park. The event ran past the usual closing time of the park and well into the evening, which meant that for a couple of the rides we decided to forego the wait in the long lines and return later, when all of the regular visitors of the park were required to go home. The plan worked, and we managed to ride pretty much every major roller coaster, but if we hadn’t had the extended event passes I doubt we would have been able to see it all in time. When day well and truly became night, the park became a party in a huge outdoor area, almost like a mini-festival. There were crowds of people dancing to the music that was being pumped from the temporarily set up stages, and while the whole thing looked like it would have been a lot of fun, we were all just so exhausted from the day we’d just spent walking around in the hot sun and riding all the roller coasters. Neil was attempting to keep the spirit up, and most of us were still drinking our beers, but… in the end we decided it to call it a day. We still had a long way to go to get back to New York, and Tim even had to work the next day.

We exited out into the car park, and here is where the night started to get interesting… or frustrating, is probably a better adjective. As we were leaving, we had asked one of the women who worked at Six Flags where exactly to go to catch our bus, and what time it was coming. Seemed simple enough, so we exited and made our way to the stop. The parking space was comparatively empty to what it had been during the day, and there were a lot of buses at the far end. We inspected them, but they all appeared to be waiting for tour groups or something, or were otherwise pre-booked. So we waited where our bus was supposed to pick us up… and we waited… and we waited. Night had completely sunk in now, and while the September afternoon had been bright and sunny and warm, there was a chill in the evening that was inescapable, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to bring a jacket of any kind. As I was shivering there in my t-shirt and hugging Mischa for warmth, a guy approached our group and told us that there were no more buses coming to this stop.
“Over there is where the buses leave from this time of night,” he pointed past a fence to where there appeared to be some kind of security compound and back entrance. “You’ll be waiting until the morning, at least, if you stay here waiting for a bus. Trust me, I do this all the time.”
“We’re trying to get back to New York, though,” Gabriel told him. “This is where we were told to wait.
The man thought for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know about New York, but either way, there ain’t gonna be any buses coming through here. Over there you can get a bus to Freehold, probably back to New York from there.” We all looked at each other, not really sure of what to do. In the end we went with the stranger over to the security entrance, hoping that we might be able to speak to someone else who knew exactly what was going on.

I sat down in the gutter with Mischa, while some of the others went to talk to a security guard. The optimistic stranger who had started speaking to us before went down and sat on the bus stop seat. Then it started to lightly rain. I shivered some more.
“Oh my God, Robert, you’re freezing,” Gabriel said as he pulled off his hoodie and threw it over my shoulders. In a brief moment of pride I wanted to reject the offer, but I really was that cold, so I just pulled the hood close around my neck and thanked him.
“It’s okay, you were making me colder just by looking at your shiver. I’ll just steal Tim’s if I get cold,” he said with a laugh.
At that moment, Tim came over to us, accompanied by two girls who apparently worked at the park, who must also be trying to get home. “The security guard said there’s no more buses coming,” he said grimly.
“Well that’s just great,” Gabriel said. “Where are we supposed to get a cab out here? We aren’t even close to anything.”
Six Flags was located a fair distance from even the closest small town in New Jersey – too much of a distance to walk, and it wasn’t an area favoured by taxis. I had no knowledge of the area and know real way of finding anything out, so I felt pretty helpless. All I could do was just stick around and hope the others could negotiate some kind of solution. Gabriel went out to speak to some of the workers nearby, but came back shaking his head.

“I asked if there were was any kind of car service around here. He looked at me strangely and said “What, like a mechanic?” God, it’s like they don’t even speak English in New Jersey!” Despite the bleak situation, I had to laugh. In pretty much every TV show or film set in New York City, they talk about New Jersey like its the end of the Earth, or going there is like crossing over into Mordor or something. I used to laugh when the main character of Coyote Ugly “moves away” from New Jersey to New York: what is that, like, 40 minutes away? But sitting there holding my knees in the chilly air wondering how the hell we were going to get back to New York, I felt like maybe some of those shows weren’t exaggerating as much as I would have guessed.

***

We tried telling the optimistic stranger that there were no more buses coming, but he remained, characteristically, optimistic about the next buses imminent arrival. In the end one of the security guards somehow managed to get a hold of a contact who had cars that were willing to pick us up and drive us back to Freehold. There were six people in our party, plus the two workers and the optimist, who we basically had to drag into the car because we didn’t want him sitting there all night, but I think we all somehow managed to fit into the two cars. One of them might have been an SUV, I don’t remember. I don’t even know if they were legitimate cabs, but we weren’t exactly in a position to be fussy. I was freezing cold and exhausted – I wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating a North American autumn again. The cars arrived at Freehold just in time for us to see the bus heading to New York to pull into the parking lot. We ran to the bus like our lives depended on it. It was pretty much empty, and it was taking the long route since it was the only service running at this time of the early morning, but the last stop was Port Authority Bus Terminal. We all found our own spaces among the seats, curled up, and slept as best we could, which was hardly at all.

It was almost a shock when we stepped out of the bus terminal and there were still people walking around everywhere at four in the morning, and lights were flashing all the way along Times Square. Of course, this is New York City on a Saturday night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s just that the contrast between there and the parking lot in New Jersey could not have been any more different. At this point in my stay, Melissa hadn’t even managed to have a spare set of keys cut, and since we wasn’t replying to my messages I assumed she wouldn’t be awake to let Mischa and I in when we got home. We had to catch a taxi with Tim and Gabriel to the upper west side of Manhattan, where they generously agreed to let us crash for the remainder of the early morning.

All in all it had been a fun day. I had met some nice, funny and interesting people, and the debacle that had been the end of the night had been an entertaining story to tell Melissa when we had rocked up back in midtown the following afternoon. I just swore to myself that any future journeys into New Jersey were going to require a lot more planning.

First bite of the Big Apple

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

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

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

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