Something In The Water

Our first night in St Petersburg was a Sunday night. However, given that the city’s birthday was technically on the Monday, we figured out that it was a kind of long weekend holiday, which meant that not as many people would have to work the next day, which meant that we finally might be able to have the night of partying that I’d had a hankering for since the moment we arrived in Moscow. After we’d arrived back from the Hermitage and taken our well needed showers, I did a little bit of research into the gay scene in St Petersburg. From what I could gather, there were two major nightclubs: Central Station and Blue Oyster. They were in close proximity with each other, and both of them were a reasonable walking distance from the hostel. I put the idea to Tim to see if he was keen, and he assured me he was on board. So after we’d had a few drinks with the whole group at one of the pubs in the street adjacent to our hostel, Tim and I set off for the gay bars, arms linked with a tipsy Kaylah who was to play our token fag hag for the evening.

***

I hadn’t been to a gay bar since I’d watched amateur drag queens over a margarita in a cocktail bar in Siem Reap, so I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the gay rights movement in Russia had taken multiple, crippling blows over the last year. I’m not even entirely sure if being gay is technically illegal or not, but there are now anti-propaganda laws that prohibit the promotion of a ‘homosexual lifestyle’, and there is supposedly a general hostility and climate of hate towards gay people. Tim had said that he’d heard it was a lot less conservative in the major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, so I wasn’t too scared. But at the same time, we were advised to keep our wits about us and try to not get into too much trouble.

We had been aiming to go to Central Station – apparently the bigger of the two clubs – but I’d only had one day to get to know the layout of the city, and I experienced a few navigational issues that took us a block or two too far in the wrong direction.
“Well,” I’d said as I studied the GPS map on my iPhone, “if we turn down here and double back then we should arrive at the other one, Blue Oyster.”
“Do you know which ones better?” asked Kaylah.
“Um… No, not really?” I’d focused on locations and dates and times in my research, but had only skimmed through a handful of reviews, none of which seemed to distinguish one club from the other.
“Well it’s only a quarter to eleven… Why don’t we just start off going to… ah, Blue Oyster?”
“Yeah, Blue Oyster is the one that’s closer,” I said, pulling out my phone again to consult the map.
“Yeah, I know. Its right here.” I looked up, and Tim was pointing to a small neon sign that read the name of the club, but would have been pretty easy to miss. Especially for someone who walks around with their eyes glued to their phone.

“Oh! Okay then, well… In we go, I guess?” We walked up to the security guard who was standing in front of the door, and made a motion that we were interested in going inside. The guard looked confused.
“Gay bar,” he said very shortly, almost under his breath. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Uh, sorry?”
“Gay bar. This is gay bar.” It was mine and Tim’s turn to exchange confused looks – I mean, I was wearing a pretty homoerotic Tom of Finland t-shirt. We weren’t exactly subtle, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Err, yeah? That’s the point?” I’d replied, not sure if he was taking the piss out of us – unlikely, from what I’d experienced with most Russians senses of humour – or if it was just a precautionary warning that he gave everyone. As he shrugged and stepped aside, I felt as though we were actually doing something slightly risky or dangerous. As far as I knew, it wasn’t unheard of for police to raid gay bars, but the risk added an element of thrill unlike any other gay bar I’d been too – and I’ve been to quite a few gay bars. We stepped through the small doorway and into the darkness within.

The bar wasn’t completely empty, but it was very far from full. There was a bar in front of us, and a dance floor dimly lit with hues of deep red stretched to our right, occupied by only a few people. I shrugged, and assured Kaylah that it would probably get busier as it got later. Exactly how much busier, none of us could say, but that was part of the beauty of exploring the unknown bars of a new city. We started at the bar, where there was a two-for-one special on all drinks before midnight. All drinks, including cocktails. Soon we were standing at a high table and I had two Long Island Ice Teas in front of me, and part of me already thought that even if nothing else happened that night, it would still be a success. The three of us stood around talking, or more accurately shouting, due to the loud music, but the scene around us inevitably led to some curious questions by Kaylah, and all of us talking about our views and experiences of homosexuality. I like to think that I’m a complex and interesting person, and that being gay is only a mere facet of my personality, but in a lot of ways I still feel like my sexuality is a quite a large and undeniable part of who I am. So it always feels great to talk about it with new friends, allowing me to share more about myself and the way I perceive myself. And of course, for better or for worse, alcohol always makes conversations a lot more heartfelt and meaningful, and the three of us had quite a deep and personal discussion.

While that was going on, the club had slowly started to fill up with people, mostly guys but with a few women here and there. It wasn’t packed, but the club itself wasn’t too big – half the dance floor was comprised of wide, podium-like steps that gave the illusion of more space with the different elevations, but it was tiny in comparison to the bars in Sydney or Bangkok. But I liked it – it was a little more personal, and there were also a few upper balcony levels, although they were always full with what seemed to be packs of regulars, smoking their cigarettes and gazing down on the crowd below. At some point after our deep conversations had reached a closure, there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The rather nondescript house music that had been pumping away was replaced with instantly recognisable pop hits – the kind the fills a gay dance floor in ten seconds flat. The Long Islands were kicking in, and before long we were bopping away on the dance floor with the locals as though they were our new best friends.

There were also a few drag numbers – some hilariously performed in Russian, during which Tim, Kaylah and myself were the only ones not singing along – but the inspiration for most of the costumes and dance routines undeniably came from Lady Gaga. Almost every single one of her chart topping hits were played at some point during the night – Alejandro made two appearances, and there even a well-rehearsed drag performance to Telephone – and each and every time the crowd went wild. Having somewhat of an affinity myself with Mother Monster, I thought it was amazing. I have a crystal clear memory of ripping my t-shirt off to join a couple of other shirtless dancers on the podium steps, while Tim just sighed and rolled his eyes and Kaylah watched on in hysterics.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke, but I was still having such an awesome time, and there was even a handful of decent looking guys in the room. I was approached by a tall handsome guy named Nikolay, although I freaked out a little bit when he spoke to me and I discovered he had braces.
“Oh my God! Tim, all these Russian boys are so young!” I remember saying at one point as we passed each other in club.
“I know! How do you think I feel?” Tim was 26, and while most of the Russians looked like big, strong men, I couldn’t find a single one over the age of 22. It was kind of creepy how they obliterated my average accuracy when it came to age guessing. Nikolay turned out to be 19, I had found out when I’d decided to give him a second chance and have a chat with him. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together that evening, though we used our mouths for things other than talking. It turns out that braces, despite their visibility, can be surprisingly inconspicuous to the touch.

***

“Hey, where’s Tim?” I’d found found Kaylah by herself at one of the tables, after returning from a semi-scandalous rendezvous with Nikolay.
“There you are!” It wasn’t easy to lose someone in a club this small, but I must have managed somehow. “Tim is over there,” she said as she pointed across the dance floor, where Tim was locking lips with his own Russian boy.
“Ah, I see,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea. He just said to me, ‘I’m going to go make out with someone,” and he did it.” We both laughed, and I made a mental note to applaud Tim later.
“Well, I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is after 4.” I’d noticed the crowd on the dance floor starting to wear a little thin, and I myself was starting to get a little tired. We let Tim enjoy his spoils of war for a little longer, and I said one last goodbye to Nikolay before we stumbled out of the club.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed when we stepped outside. “It’s alright light!” It wasn’t exactly daylight, but the darkness of night had very much been replaced by twilight of dawn. In fact, it was so similar to the dusk from which we’d entered the Blue Oyster that it would have been easy to believe that the sun had never set at all while we had been inside the club.
“The White Nights, they’re called,” Tim had said as we’d staggered through the streets. We stopped on one of St Petersburg’s numerous bridges to take some photos of the picturesque scenery, and then headed home – swinging past a McDonalds that had closed only 15 minutes before we’d got there, much to the disappointment of Kaylah and Tim. Instead, we went to the 24 convenience store on our hostels street.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

“Don’t forget to get some water if you need some,” Tim had reminded us.
“Oh yeah, you can’t drink the tap water here!” said Kaylah. Earlier that day, Vladimir had told us that the pipes that carry the cities water supply were so old and contaminated that they contained traces of bacteria that make you quite sick, essentially rendering the tap water toxic. After having drinkable tap water for the first time in months in Moscow, it almost seemed like a cruel joke that we’d come even further west to find out it was once again undrinkable.
“Yep,” I said with a smile, as I picked up the biggest bottle I could find, chuckling to myself as I remembered the nights events. “There really is something in the water in St Petersburg.”

Rollin’ On A River

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought it was only appropriate that I explore a little more of Vietnam before heading off to the Cambodian border. After sussing out the logistics of my various options, I decided that heading south to the Mekong River delta would be the most interesting and diverse experience. The day trip involved a two hour bus ride out of the city, so I rose uncharacteristically early that morning and trudged onto the bus still half asleep, yet curious to see what the wider country of Vietnam would have in store for me.

***

The Mekong River is the largest river in Asia, starting in Tibet, and flowing through China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it divides into 9 tributaries that all flow out separately into the South China Sea. The south of Vietnam is known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ due to the established crops and farms throughout the region. The real tour started at a riverside town called My Tho, and from there we walked through the jungle on a small undergrowth trail until we reached the river.

From there we got into small wooden row boats that took us down a narrow river system that was surround by thick vegetation on each side. We weren’t too far from the main roads, but we were well and truly out of the city now, and floating down the river in the long rowboat really gave me an idea of Vietnamese culture that was probably a little more traditional then either of the living situations I had experienced so far. The short trip took us to a modest little business that turned out to be a factory for making coconut candy. We were able to taste some of the sweet substance right as it came out from melting and thickening over the fire – it tasted a bit like fudge – and were given the opportunity to buy some. That was the first inkling that I was on a tour that I’d heard been referred to as a “tourist trap”, where the initial cost of the tour is cheap, but all the extras come at an additional cost, and almost every stop along the way tries to sell you something.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

The smaller, secluded sections of the Mekong River.

After we had concluded business at the candy factory, our tour guide fetched a hessian bag, reached inside and produced a snake from within the depths of the sack, immediately offering it to individuals in the group to pose with it and take photos. Luckily I had faced and conquered my fear of snakes back in Bangkok, otherwise my reaction to the surprise might have been extremely embarrassing. On the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the reptile – or to be more accurate, to get the reptile around my shoulders. I thought back to the fearless little ten-year-old boy I had been when I visited the Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in Queensland, itching to get my photo taken with the huge python, and realised that I’d come full circle again. I didn’t even flinch as the tour guide draped the snake over my shoulders and looped it around my neck.

Getting friendly with the locals.

Getting friendly with the locals.

After the reptilian meet-and-greet, we jumped on another larger boat and headed down and across the river to another town named Ben Tre. We had lunch at an elephant fish ear farm – large flat fish that resemble their namesake. However, that particular delicacy was another tourist trap that wasn’t included in the price of the tour, though I’m not a huge fan of fish and was able to settle with tour included beef and rice dish. I sat at a table with two couples – a pair of British 27-year-olds taking their annual holiday, and another retired British couple who now lived on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They were all very nice and interesting to talk to, although I’d been hoping I might meet some more people like myself, solo travellers or backpackers. Groups and couples tend to already have their itineraries firmly set out, so I just had to enjoy their company for the day before writing them off as what Tyler Durden would call “single serving friends”.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

Photo on the larger boat, taken by my new temporary friends.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

View of the wider part of the river from our larger boat.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

Pool of elephant ear fish at the farm.

The last stop of the tour was the centre of the town, where there was a temple complex with several pagodas and statues of Buddha. I hadn’t gotten around to visiting a similar site in Saigon, so I was glad to be able to make up for it here instead, though the more I saw of South East Asia, the more similarities I began to see in all these temples and monuments. Which doesn’t make them any less holy or worthy of reverence – it just means you can’t spend quite as long marvelling in awe at them when you saw that temples bigger cousin in a different city. Overall, my day tour on the Mekong River was pretty average. I guess being a day tour it was obviously going to feel a little rushed, but there was nothing particularly amazing or breathtaking about it. Although it was nice to get out of the city and see some more the of the country of Vietnam, no matter how briefly.

Happy Buddha!

Happy Buddha!

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

One of the more solemn shrines at the temple.

***

That trip happened during the middle of my week in Vietnam. To stick to my river theme and spare you from any more river references in my blog titles, I’m going to throw chronology to the wind even further and tell the short story of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City…

After a slow day of recovery from my last night in Saigon, I hopped on an overnight bus towards the riverside town of Chau Doc. Not wanting to travel all the way to Cambodia via bus, I had decided to split the trip up by traveling to a border town on the Mekong River, staying there for a night or two, and then catching a boat up the river to Phnom Penh. It wasn’t as cheap as a bus, but I figured it would be a great way to see some more of the countryside, as well as being one of those rare opportunities to listen to Lonely Island’s I’m On A Boat and giggle smugly to yourself at the accuracy of the content.

Though for all the research I had put into transportation, I hadn’t bothered to investigate too much into the town of Chau Doc itself. Crawling off the bus at 5:30am, I was unimpressed (mainly with myself) to find myself alone in a tiny riverside town, where hardly anyone spoke English, at a time where hardly anything was open. “Cheap hostel,” I managed to convey to a motorbike taxi, and we roamed the streets for about 20 minutes, moving from closed hotel to closed hotel. Eventually I gave up and repeated “boat” while pointing at an address in the Lonely Planet guide, and my taxi driver seemed to figure out what I wanted. I found myself sitting at a dock on the river, half asleep while I waited for the world itself to wake.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

The town of Chau Doc in the grey light of dawn.

Despite the dull light of the dawn, my short ride around the city had proved to be very illuminating. There didn’t appear to be any major tourist attractions here, and the level of English speaking locals seemed to be at a concerning low. I could see things going very wrong very quickly in a place like this, and after the bus ride I had just had, it was something I did not want to deal with. In a split second decision I changed my mind, and my stopover in Chau Doc went from a couple of days to a couple of hours, in a couple of seconds.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Setting out as the sun rises.

Luckily there was room on that mornings boat, so after only a couple of hours of being in Chau Doc, I was speeding up the Mekong River to the Cambodian border. My companions for this voyage turned about to be a bunch of Americans from Philadelphia who were doing a tour through South East Asia as part of a masters program. They were all extremely friendly, and they took me under their wing when we went through the border crossing process, which I was thankful for, since this was the first overland border crossing I’d ever done. It’s a feeling of sheer terror handing your passport over and one check point and then not getting it back until the next one. Once we got back on the boat from the Vietnamese exit point, the rest of the Americans had their passports returned, but mine didn’t come back. I knew it must have been because I still had to get my visa, while the others had obtained theirs in advance, but all the same, it’s still an uneasy feeling.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

The boat provided some scenic views of rural Cambodia I might not have otherwise seen.

But it all went up without a hitch, and I spent rest of the 6 hour boat ride to Phnom Penh chatting to my new American friends, admiring the rural scenery and nodding in and out of consciousness – to say the least, it had been a very long morning.