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.

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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.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

Czech It Out

After saying goodbye to Itzel and alighting at Praha-hlavní nádraží, the main train station of Prague, I set out to navigate the public transport system of the capital of the Czech Republic. It was so close to 5 o’clock by the time I arrived in Prague that I didn’t even have to wait around at all – another perk of my detour was that I had done all my waiting either on the train, or in Bratislava. But first I did have to withdraw some crowns, the local currency, and then find somewhere to spend the large value notes in order to get change when I realised none of the metro ticket machines would accept them. There was also the strange requirement that I had to buy an extension for my luggage on top of my regular ticket, presumably because it would take up more room that could potentially fit another passenger. There was also a similar ticket for taking dogs on the metro, but in the end I had to forgo this extension and just buy a regular ticket simply because I didn’t have enough change to get the right one that I needed. “They rarely check for tickets on the metro in Prague,” Itzel had told me. “But they’re not really that expensive either, so you might as well buy it.” I did the best I could with what I had, and hoped that I could bluff my way out of any encountered trouble with excuses of being a tourist.

I followed the directions that my hosts had given me, though it was still very confusing. There were so many buses going on different routes and in different directions that all left from the same stop, and there was an uncomfortably lack of anyone who spoke English to help me out. But I persevered, and in the end I caught the right bus and followed the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS until I finally made it to my new home. Tomas and his boyfriend Matej’s house was right near the bus stop, and thankfully they were home by the time I finally arrived. Tomas had told me that I would be the first guest that the couple had hosted via Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if they were excited or nervous, but they warmly welcomed me into their home, a gorgeous little flat in a beautiful part of town. They had made me some dinner, too – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was a homemade meat dish with some vegetables and it was a traditional Czech recipe and it was absolutely delicious – just what I had needed after a long day of travelling. I also noticed the distinct use of dill in the cooking, and I smiled to myself and remembered my time in Russia, and in my head I could still hear Marti saying “Isn’t this dill-icious?” I guess that’s how I knew I was back in Eastern Europe. We sat around their kitchen for a little while, chatting and getting to know each other, and then Tomas asked if I felt like going out and seeing some of the city. After a day of doing nothing but watch the Eastern European countryside pass me by, I was keen to get out and about, so I showered and got changed and the three of us headed back into the city centre.

***

Tomas was probably one of the best hosts I could have asked for during my stay in Prague – he was incredibly knowledgeable of his city, and was always pointing out the smallest and most random things, yet had some interesting story or weird fact about each and every thing. Some things were history lessons, while others were more modern facts, or even urban street smart tips. “Don’t come here at night, it’s a little dangerous,” he had said as we passed a park area on the bus. “There are drugs. Drug dealing, things like that.” Then he shrugged his shoulders with a smile. “Unless you are looking for that kind of thing.” Our first stop that evening was down by the river, where there was some kind of small outdoor performance on, with a band playing live music and a temporary bar set up selling some local Czech beer. Tomas bought us a few beers and we listened to the music and talked more about Prague, and my previous and future travels. Most of my European hosts seemed a lot more interested about Australia though – I’d been gone for so long that even I started to forget that I was actually a foreigner from half a world away. Out on the water, the river was filled with paddle boats, some of them in the shape of swans, slowly gliding along in the warm afternoon sunlight. The further north I travelled, the longer the daylight hours were becoming, and I loved it.

From there we walked back along the river, Tomas pointing out different architectural features of different buildings until we finally wandered up to the Old Town historical centre. Where the riverside pop-up bar had been a more underground affair, I could tell that we had wandered into the prime tourist zone of Prague as soon as we arrive. It was a beautiful area though, with the main square surrounded by small Gothic churches and cathedrals. I say ‘small’ in comparison to some of the larger churches I’d seen in Madrid and Rome, but they did manage to tower above the cobblestone pavements of Staroměstské náměstí, letting the small city hold its own and even stand out as one of the more beautiful places I had visited so far. The other major feature of the Old Town Square was the Old Town Hall, or more specifically, the astronomical clock on the bell tower. “It’s very popular with tourists,” Matej said, indicating the throng of people that was amassing at the base of the tower.
“Yes, every hour there is this… show… display…” At first it just seemed like Tomas couldn’t find the right word in English to explain what he was trying to say, but later I would realise he was just uncomfortable at using any of those words to even try and explain what we were about to witness.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The bell tower performance isn’t technically a tourist trap in that it doesn’t really cost any money. Yet still, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off after watching it. It’s an extremely famous and popular sight to witness, and the flocks of people surrounding the bell tower had definitely peaked my curiosity. Matej and Tomas must have been rolling their eyes as I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the crowd, but they knew it was something I would have to witness and judge for myself. When the hour rolled around, the chimes began to echo through the square, and little wooden doors opened up from the clock, and out came a small procession of figurines, which Tomas would later inform me were supposed to be a parade of the apostles. Above them, a skeleton emerged to ring a small bell, which clanged out over the crowd. Flashed from hundreds of cameras went off, and I waited eagerly to see what else would happen… The apostles did their loop and went back inside, and the skeleton eventually finished ringing his bell and retired back into the clock. There was a small cheer from the crowd in front of me.

“That… wait, that was it? Everyone stood around waiting for that?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a cute display, and more than most clocks manage to do to entertain a crowd. But I just couldn’t believe that that was all it took to attract such an audience. Tomas and Matej both chuckled, having clearly anticipated my reaction. “It’s a tourist thing,” they both said. “You had to see it at least once.” As fate would have it, I ended up in the same part of town the following afternoon and purely by chance, I happened to be there on the hour. During the daylight hours it was easier to take some clearer photos, although I can’t say they’re that much more exciting than being there to witness the show first hand… which isn’t saying much.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

After that we wandered through some more of the town, exploring the old streets as I marvelled at the simple, intrinsic beauty of the place. Prague really did feel like a kingdom from a storybook, complete with a castle on the hill across the river, gazing down over the city. The three of us stopped by another one of the couples favourite bars on the way home, where we had a few more beers while Tomas told me more about Prague, while also interrogating me about my own journey and travels. They were both such sweet and lovely guys – I was starting to wonder when my luck at finding such nice hosts was going to run out. The two of them both had to work in the morning though, so we eventually stumbled back down the street to crash, and I would continue my exploring of the fairytale city on the morrow.

Down the Danube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

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

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

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