“Reto, reto, reto!”

After the first few nights out on the town in São Paulo with Fausto and his friends, I guess you could say that I was feeling a little more confident about the way I could handle myself in the city. Despite that, I was still a little thrown when Fausto had asked whether I was going to head out on the Sunday evening, this time by myself.
“Are you gonna head out tonight?” he asked me in the early hours of the evening. “I have to go to work tomorrow so I can’t join you, but there are a few cool places that have things going on tonight.”
“Oh… I… I hadn’t thought about it.” Truth was, I was still a little terrified at the thought of going out on the streets at night by myself. Which, in retrospect, seems pretty ridiculous given the amount of foreign cities whose streets I had drunkenly traversed on this journey so far.
“Well, it’s up to you, but if you do wanna go out I could give you a few recommendations.” After mustering up some courage and confessing I might be interested to check something out, Fausto told me about a club called A Lôca. “It’s a little more grunge, with a slightly younger crowd – definitely your type of place, I think.” I checked it out on the map: it wasn’t too far away from where Fausto lived, though I would still have to get a cab, but it seemed straightforward enough that I would definitely be able to find my way home at the end of the night.
And that’s how I found myself showering and getting dressed up – but not too dressed up, as per Fausto’s recommendation – and hopping into a cab by myself to find my way to this mysterious A Lôca.

***

I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous about going out on my own. I had been practicing a little bit of Portuguese but there’s no way I could speak it on any practical level – with the essential exception of ordering a beer – and I was diving headfirst into the complete unknown, with absolutely no safety net in sight. But hey, no one bothers writing a blog about staying at home, right?

When I first stepped out of the taxi, I thought that I must have been in the wrong place. In the dim street lights it was hard to clearly make anything out, but there wasn’t anything that looked like the entrance to a club… and that’s when I noticed the cave. I’m not even  exaggerating, the entrance to A Lôca was a cave. Granted, I’m not sure if the rock walls were real or artificial, but I immediately understood what Fausto was talking about when he had described the club as underground grunge. The was some dim lighting around the entrance, where my ID was checked and I was handed a piece of cardboard. I studied it for a few seconds before realising that this piece of cardboard was the A Lôca version of the electronic tab cards I had used at Lions and Club Yacht. I folded it in half and tucked it into my front pocket, knowing very well it was just as important as any electronic tag in eventually getting myself out of this place.

A Lôca seemed to take the term ‘underground’ in a very literal sense – the hallways were fashioned into rough, earthy looking tunnels so that it actually felt like I was inside a underground mine or dungeon. It was like a maze, with openings to different rooms appearing out of no where, and twists and turns obstructing your view ahead. I happened across a bar, which I tentatively approached as I pulled out my piece of cardboard again. I must have looked like a foreigner, because immediately someone asked me where I was from. I looked up to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and he explained how the whole card system worked. The card was a checkerboard of different drink values and prices, and rather than electronically recording all your purchases, the bartenders simply checked off the equivalent value of whatever drink you ordered, and at the end of the night the cashiers at the exit would tally it up and charge you accordingly. Essentially just a more archaic version of the same system, although I was highly concerned at how much easier it could be to lose a simple slip of paper.

I got myself a beer – Skol being the local favourite in this bar – and continued through the maze. I followed the largest tunnel until I arrived at what was undoubtedly the main dance floor. I’d arrived relatively early, around midnight, so the dance floor was only slowly starting to fill up. The music was a diverse mix of pop hits, 90s classics and deep house, with a traditional Brazilian song here and there, but it made for an interesting sound. I just made my way to the floor and started dancing on my own, and I was approached by a handful of people and had short, fleeting conversations with many of them. I had some guys telling me to stay away from certain guys, which at first I thought seemed quite threatening, but the evil eye looks they were giving each other made it clear that there were just social circles at play, or potentially scorned ex-lovers – I guess gay drama knows no language barriers or culture shocks. I did my best to steer clear from anything like that, and just enjoy the music and the more light-hearted people within the crowd. I think I ended up dancing with some American tourists for a little while, who didn’t say much but were more than happy to bust a few moves with me.

There were also a couple of drag performances that evening. The first one was… well, she was entertaining, I suppose. But not so much in a “Wow, what a show!” kind of way, but more in the ‘car crash in slow motion and so horrible to watch but I can’t look away’ kind of way. She was more like a court jester – something silly to warm the crowds up before the main event. I mean, it was really just her twerking in a bunch of various positions, and getting offended and slapping one of the boys whenever they tried to jump up on stage and cheekily join in, often accompanied with lewd gestures.

The warm-up act...

The warm-up act…

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

The main event, however, was something else entirely. It was a full-blown drag performance with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme set to Lady Gaga’s Applause, which had only been recently released at the time. As a big fan of the drag performers and shows in my own city, it was pretty satisfying to see another quality performance from another city around the world.

The better drag queen of the evening.

The better drag queen of the evening.

***

When I’d started to get a little tired of dancing, I made my way back through the twists and turns of the cavernous club to where the bar was located. I had another beer and then took my place against a wall, watching the people come and go, observing the different types of characters and just generally people watching. Occasionally there would be a little bit of eye contact, but usually nothing more than a fleeting glance. However, that all changed when I met Rodrigo. He was slightly shorter than me and had gorgeous tanned skin, and I noticed him stealing glance after glance at me between his conversation with his two female companions. It was obvious I was there by myself, and in no time at all the trio approached me and asked me where I was from. I guess it was also really obvious that I wasn’t a local, but in this case it had made it pretty easy for them to approach me and strike up a conversation, so I wasn’t complaining. Rodrigo introduced himself and his friends, Rita and Ducky.
“Why Ducky?” I’d asked, legitimately perplexed. I’d had to direct the question to the others because Ducky didn’t speak English.
“Because,” Rodrigo and Rita tried to explain between fits of giggles, “Well, don’t you think she looks a little… like a duck?” I didn’t know if there was something I wasn’t getting, but I just laughed along as they playfully teased their friend. She didn’t seem to find it quite as funny, but in the end I discovered she was the designated driver, so no one is ever really that impressed to be in that position.

My new amigos.

My new amigos.

I spoke to them for a while, and after a few more beers and a few more flashes of Rodrigo’s cheeky smile, the two of us were all over each other. I don’t know for exactly how long that lasted, but eventually Ducky was rambling about something in Portuguese, and Rita translated. “We’re going to go salsa dancing!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Yeah, do you want to come with us?” Rodrigo asked.
“Yes! Come, come!” Rita said with a smile. Between the kisses with Rodrigo I had been laughing and joking around with the three of them, and I was having far too much fun to just throw in the towel now. “Ducky is driving, but don’t worry she hasn’t been drinking.”
So I agreed, and after fishing our pieces of cardboard out of our pockets and paying for the beers, Rodrigo grabbed my hand and led me to where Ducky’s car was parked.

The two girls were in the front, and I climbed into the backseat with Rodrigo. More making out ensued, but it wasn’t until we were actually well underway and driving that I came up for air and actually paid attention to where we were, or more importantly…
“Wait… where are we going?” I said, the gravity of the situation mostly masked in my mind by the alcohol, adrenaline, and probably a few hormones.
“Salsa dancing!” Rita yelled, throwing her hands up in the air. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” From the looks of it we were on some kind of overpass or highway, so at that stage I didn’t really have much of a choice but to stay with them.
Ducky asked something in Portuguese, and the others began replying. Rita was being a little more helpful, but Rodrigo was just yelling out the word ‘reto’ (pronounced “heto” for native English speakers) over and over again. “Reto! Reto! Reto!”
“What’s she saying?” I asked Rodrigo, once he’d stopped shouting.
“She’s just asking which way to go,” he said with a cheeky smile.
“Oh… well, what’s ‘reto’?”
“It means forward. Straight head. Keep going.”
“Oh… I see.” I don’t know what came over me – well, beer and a sense of bravado, obviously – but at that moment I stood up in the back of the car, stuck my head and torso out through the open sunroof, and screamed at the top of my lungs: “RETO! RETO RETO!”

Down inside the car, everybody fell about laughing, and the directions-turned-war cry became our temporary anthem, screaming the word over and over even as Ducky made the necessary turns to get to wherever it was we were going. Eventually we arrived at a bar – I have to admit, when I took a moment to take in my surrounds, it looked like we were just off a highway in the middle of no where – but unfortunately it looked like whatever salsa dancing that had been going on was starting to wrap up. It looked like the night was coming to an end. We all stopped to pee in the service station next door – me praying that my newfound friends actually were my friends, and weren’t going to drive off and leave me stranded. But they didn’t and suddenly, as I climbed back into the car, I was faced with the questions of: ‘What am I going to do now?’ and ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’

I tried to explain to Rodrigo where I lived, but instead he offered for me to come and crash with him and Ducky and Rita at Ducky’s place. “Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?”
“Well…” I was on holidays, after all. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Perfect,” he said with a gorgeous, playful smile. “Me neither.”
And that’s how I ended up with these three crazy, gorgeous Brazilians, singing and shouting all the way home – “Reto! Reto! Reto!” – and taking selfies in the elevator of a rather nice apartment complex. After getting some water into us and raiding Ducky’s fridge for snacks, the girls retired to Ducky’s room and Rodrigo and I attempted to sleep on the couch. There wasn’t really enough room for the two of us though, so Rodrigo suggested that we should sleep in the other bedroom.
“There’s another bedroom?” I said with a laugh. “Well, um… duh. Let’s go there, then.”

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

Things got a little weird when we opened the door to a full-blown child’s bedroom, complete with city map carpet for playing with toy cars and Disney’s Cars bedspread with matching curtains.
“Umm… ” I stared at Rodrigo, literally having no words to express my current feelings.
“This is her son’s room,” he said, stating the obvious but seemingly oblivious to how shocked I was.
“So… where is the kid?”
“With his father, of course!” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t have the energy to ask any more questions about the complexity of that situation, but I will say that sleeping in the same bed with a guy that you just met, in the bed of child that you’ve never met, leads to a mild crisis of ethics and morality the morning. It felt pretty wrong, but hey, what he never knows will never hurt him.

***

In the morning, both Ducky and Rita had to get up early to go to work, so when they did Rodrigo and I made the shortest walk of shame in history, from one bedroom to another. We spent the rest of the morning there, sleeping in and hanging out. Eventually I heard someone walking about the apartment outside the bedroom.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the maid,” Rodrigo said. This wasn’t uncommon in Brazil – Fausto also had a cleaning lady – but it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the continually mounting pile of weird upon which I was sitting. But there was nothing I could do except roll with it, and trust that Rodrigo would somehow manage to eventually get me home.

My phone had died during the night, but luckily Ducky had a charger at her house. When the screen finally flashed to life, I had a message from Fausto asking where I was.
“Hmm… that’s a good question… Rodrigo, um… were exactly are we?”
“Well… we’re not in São Paulo anymore,” he said.
I looked at him, an incredulous on my face. “Excuse me, what?”
“We’re not in São Paulo anymore. We’re in São Caetano do Sul.”
“And where the hell is that?!”
Rodrigo just smiled and laughed. “Well technically it’s the next city over from São Paulo.”
I relayed this answer to Fausto, he told me he had no idea where that was and he would ask one of his co-workers. Um, what?! I felt like I’d gone clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney and somehow managed to end my night in Parramatta, or gone partying in Manhattan and woken up in New Jersey. Except people still know where New Jersey is!
It turned out that São Caetano do Sul was still technically part of the metropolitan São Paulo region, in the same way that the international airport was, meaning that it wasn’t really far but… it definitely wasn’t close.
“How can I get home? Do you have a car?”
“No… Rita works in São Paulo, but… well, she’s already at work.” He grinned sheepishly, and I realised that short of pointing me in the right direction, Rodrigo was not going to be able to take me home.

It was a bit of a sticky situation, but I didn’t have anywhere to be so I didn’t let it stress me out too much. Assuring Fausto I’d be home as soon as I could, Rodrigo and I ventured out of the bedroom to find Ducky’s maid cooking lunch for us. I was about to politely decline and start my journey home, but as it turned out the maid had including my clothes in a load of laundry she was doing, so I was forced to stay and eat while waiting for my clothes to dry. The whole thing seemed a little surreal to be honest, but the food was delicious and it was actually nice to put on some clean clothes – that were actually own, too! – for the journey home to São Paulo. There was no reasonable or logical public transport options that were going to take me to where I needed to go, so once again it was up to the Brazilians best friend – a taxi – to get me home. Rodrigo helped me order one that could take me that distance, and helped explain to the driver where I needed to go when the taxi finally arrived. He flashed me one last cheeky smile as he bid me farewell, and with our parting words I promised to match the hospitality I had received should he, Rita or Ducky ever find themselves in Sydney. The taxi wasn’t even that expensive – though it took almost an hour to get home, it cost about a third of the price that a similar trip in Sydney would have cost.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

I didn’t get a chance to see Rodrigo again during my time in Brazil, but in the taxi ride home from São Caetano do Sul I did see a variety of different environments and neighbourhoods, all of which made for quite an interesting trip. And though I’m yet to meet them again, I would never have guessed that the night that I chose to venture out in São Paulo by myself would be the night that I found the most amazing friends, had the most wild and crazy fun, and created some of the best memories.

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen

After a day of extremely touristic activities at the Vatican, I was looking forward to doing something a little different on Saturday night. When I first arrived in Rome, Valerio had told me about something called the ‘Gay Village’, an annual event that was held in Rome. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after being to three different gay pride festivals during my time in Europe so far, I had to conclude that it was simply the season for pride all over the continent. “The gay scene isn’t as big here in Rome as it is in other cities or countries,” Valerio had informed me. “We’re so close to the Vatican, so there’s lot of influence from the Catholic church… It’s not repressed, exactly, but it’s just very… subdued.” Valerio went on to inform me that rather than having one weekend full of pride festivities and a parade, there was this event called the Gay Village which ran for weeks during the middle of summer. Valerio hadn’t been yet this year, so I told him I’d happily join him. He also had another Couchsurfer who arrived that Saturday evening, and American from New York named Steve. Steve himself wasn’t gay, but he had no plans and was keen to come along, so the three of us got into Valerio’s car and went off to investigate whatever Rome had thrown together as part of their pride celebrations.

After driving though dark roads in areas that seemed almost rural, we emerged at what appeared to be a festival ground. That’s what Gay Village seemed to be – a big festival village, with food stands, games and rides, performances, bars and a huge dance floor. We met up with a few of Valerio’s friends once we’d lined up to pay and gotten inside, and after a quick wander around to see some of the sideshow attractions, we inevitably ended up by the bar and on the dance floor. I was still fairly exhausted, so I only had a couple of drinks for fear of passing out right there if I overloaded myself with booze, and the group of us danced among the huge, seething, sweaty crowd. Oddly enough, the person who seemed to be having more fun than anyone was Steve – I’ve always found that straight people are usually rather impressed by the way the gays can throw a party. We danced and danced until the ice in our plastic drink cups had all but melted and keeping my eyes open became a little too much of a struggle. It was fairly late by then, and we’d seen the best of the performances, so we said goodbye to Valerio’s friends and headed back to the car to drive home.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

On the drive home, I questioned Valerio about something I’d noticed throughout the night. “So did you not drink tonight because you were driving, or do you just normally not drink anyway?” Not that long ago I wouldn’t have even thought to consider that second option, but meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely shone a light on that perspective for me.
“No, I don’t drink alcohol,” Valerio said rather simply. “I don’t really like the way it affects me – I don’t really like being drunk.” For a man of such small stature, I could only imagine that it wouldn’t take much to get him heavily intoxicated – something of a foreign concept for me. Now, I’m not a complete idiot – I know there are plenty of people in the world who don’t drink for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I guess that binge-drinking behaviour is mostly the kind of thing I’d been experiencing back home, but I was surprised that find that there were people who actually liked going out to nightclubs to dance and party while not even drinking the smallest amount of alcohol. It was a pleasant change, because for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I needed to drink as much as I could in order to catch up and keep up with the rate at which all my fellow companions were drinking. Being outside of it for the first time, it was made painfully clear just how problematic and potentially dangerous Australia’s drinking culture can sometimes be. Not that I’m condemning or praising any culture either way – it was just some food for thought on the quiet drive home.
“Well, either way, thanks for driving us tonight. That was definitely a side of Rome we wouldn’t have seen without you.”

***

The next day I slept in. I know, I know – there is so much to do in Rome, how could I possibly waste an entire morning just sleeping? But I was exhausted, and I had reached a low point in the cycle of motions you move through when travelling. Some days you’re so full of energy and feel like you can do anything and literally get out there to take on the world. Other days, things catch up to you a little bit, and you have to remember you’re only human. It was another new perspective I had to consider – on a two week holiday you can cram every day full of activities and sleep it off when you get home, if you so desire. When you’re on the road for nine months, you really do need to be a little more self-conscious and give your body time to relax and recover. It was something I’d neglected over the past few weeks, and I’d paid for it when it culminated in the form of a small breakdown.

Steve had gone off for a day full of sightseeing, but I awoke very late in the morning to hang out with Valerio for a while. The most peculiar and interesting thing about Valerio was his obsession with Madonna. His living room was crammed with memorabilia that spanned back through the years of her career, from CDs and DVDs to posters to books to official tour merchandise, much of which had been signed by the Queen of Pop herself. Normally I might have found such an affinity with one artist slightly creepy, but when Valerio got talking about Madonna, there was such passion and vindication in his voice that it was almost a little inspiring. The decades long career, the different themes and styles in her music, the shocking and controversial material in some of her discography, and the way she’d adapted to achieve longevity in her musical career – but the end of our discussion, Valerio had me wanting to go and purchase all the Madonna albums to discover it all for myself. There was definitely a look of disapproval when I mentioned that I only had two Madonna songs on my iPod – I decided it was best not to mention my Lady Gaga inspired tattoo. We had a good afternoon though, sitting in our pyjamas and drinking tea while he showed me some of his favourite scenes from her MDNA tour – which he assured me would never make it to Australia. “She’ll never go to Australia,” he said rather simply. “She always announces it, but she’ll always cancel. Her tour is too elaborate and expensive. The cost of getting it down there would be more than she could ever make back from an Australian tour.” At that moment, arguing about the worlds various pop divas when I was still in my pyjamas at noon, I felt more at home than I had in a long while.

***

However, I did have other plans for the afternoon. A couple of days ago I had received a message from my next arranged Couchsurfing host – a man by the name of Ike, who lived in Ancona, on the eastern coast of Italy. We had been exchanging messages to arrange my stay since I’d been in Madrid.
“Robert, how are you? Are you still in Rome? I’ve just had a Couchsurfer named Stefan stay with me. He’s a lovely guy, he’s gay too, and he’s heading to Rome now. I’m not sure if he knows anyone – if you have a chance you guys might like to catch up?”
It wasn’t really a lot to go on, so I can’t tell you exactly why I bothered following through – but I got in touch with Stefan, and after a few miscommunications we planned to meet on the Sunday afternoon near the Colosseum, one of the last sights I had left to visit.

From the moment our conversation began, neither of us were at a loss of words. Stefan was from Austria and was currently travelling through Europe as well. We talked about our travels, or lives back home, friends and studying and working. We seemed to have so much in common, and before long we found ourselves discussing things like our hopes and dreams for the future, the things that inspired us and the things that terrified us, things we were doing, and the things we really wanted to be doing. Stefan spoke several languages and had been working as a translator for some time – he’d been a conscientious objector to the compulsory military service in Austria and had instead spent the time working on peace efforts and treaties in Japan. “But I’m also an artist,” Stefan had confessed to me. “I do sculpting… for me, that’s my real passion.” I asked him why he didn’t do that – why he didn’t pursue the dream that meant so much to him. He struggled to answer.
“I feel a similar way, I guess, but about music,” I told him. “I write and play music, and God, there isn’t much else I love in the world more than that. But to actually pursue it further? To really do it? I guess… I’m a little scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“I guess… of failure. What if  you gave it all you had, 100% give it your all, but you’re still not good enough? It’s just a cut-throat world out there…”
“Well, I’m scared too. But not of failure.” We were sitting on a park bench, staring out over the broad Colosseum in front of us. “But of losing that dream. What if you do make it, but it’s not all you dreamed it to be? That dream keeps me alive some days. If I made it that far, only to learn I’ve been wrong along…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

It was a strangely profound moment to have with someone that I had just met, and a tragedy that we probably wouldn’t be meeting again for a long time. I’d wanted to stay and talk more – I felt like I could have talked to Stefan until the end of time itself and still not gotten bored. But my time in Rome was fast coming to an end, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t catch even just a glimpse of the Roman Forum and the inside of the Colosseum. We had already talked for much longer than I had anticipated, and I only had about an hour and a half to get down and see those final attractions before closing time. But the structures had stood there for thousands of years, so I could always return another time if necessary – the Forum wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And if I’d made such a point on seeing every last speck of historical tourism Rome had to offer, I would never have met up with and made a new friend in Stefan. It was a brief yet memorable moment, and I’m eternally grateful that it happened.

***

Fortune was favouring me that afternoon, because I somehow managed to breeze through the swift-moving line for the Colosseum and get in an out in what was probably a record speed. I didn’t climb to the upper tiers for the view down on the main arena, but standing at the bottom and looking up and the walls of relics towering over me was enough to give me a few shivers. The main stage was overrun and off limits to tourists, but I spared a moment for the countless men who would have died there centuries ago.

The Colosseum close up.

The Colosseum close up.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum was a little bit overwhelming. After finally finding the entrance, I entered the grounds and wandered through the ruins, using my Lonely Planet book to roughly guide me through the highlights – there was only an hour left until the Forum closed. I didn’t rush through it too quickly though, but instead appreciated the sights that I did get to see. In the end I think I saw a great deal of the ruins, but Valerio was mildly horrified that I hadn’t spent more than hour there. Still, it was a beautiful afternoon as I watched the dying light fall across the Forum, and the furthest part of the ruins up near Palatine Hill offered a pretty remarkable view of the area.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Ancient ruins.

Ancient ruins.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Monument inside the Forum.

Monument inside the Forum.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Tempio di Saturno - the Temple of Saturn.

Tempio di Saturno – the Temple of Saturn.

More ruins in the Forum.

More ruins in the Forum.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

Afterwards I met Valerio back near the Colosseum, and we wandered through the streets as dusk sank over the city. Valerio told me that there are over 900 churches in the city of Rome, and he himself had managed to visit a few hundred of them during his time living there. We walked past the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, and ended up back in central Rome. The area looked quite different at night, as we wandered past the Pantheon, through Piazza Navona, and ended up near Trevi Fountain, where we were due to meet up with Steve.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi - Fountain of the Four Rivers -  at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers – at night.

“Did you throw a coin into the fountain?” Valerio asked me as we watched the hordes of tourists struggle to get their picture taken with the fountain in the background.
“Nah, it was too crowded when I was here,” I replied pretty casually. But Valerio turned to me with a look of horror.
“What?! No, you must throw a coin into the fountain, or you will never again return to Rome!” That was one superstition that I hadn’t heard of, and I just laughed. But Valerio seemed insistent, so I went down the fountain to appease him, tossing 20 euro cents over my shoulder, and getting another picture with the fountain, remarkably without anyone else in the crowd creeping into the shot. Later, I would read in my guide book that an average of €3000 is thrown into Trevi Fountain everyday – I guess that’s one superstition that a lot of people take pretty seriously.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

We finally caught up with Steve, and we went for a wander to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, which were even more crowded than the afternoon I had first visited them. The whole city seemed to have a different vibe at night, and the three of us sat at the top of the steps and just looked out over the crowd of people, enjoying the warm, humid air. That was my last night in Rome, and I have to say it was a rather enjoyable one. I’d made some new good friends, and after the few days of sightseeing, it had been great to just wander around with someone as chilled out and relaxed as Valerio and, if you will, do as Romans do.

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom...

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom…

... and from the top.

… and from the top.

***

The next morning Valerio dropped me off at the metro station so that I could make it to my train out of Rome in time. He bid me goodbye and wished me good luck on my travels. I thanked him for his hospitality and his generosity, and with a wink I reminded him that I threw that coin into Trevi Fountain, “So I’m sure I’ll be back to visit you again.”

Hello Moscow: Seeing Red Square

The shower at the hostel in Moscow was amazing. It didn’t even have a shower head – there was just hot water pouring out of a pipe. But it was hot water and it was washing my body and oh my God it was amazing. It was that kind of dirty where you can physically feel it washing away, but as soon as you’re clean and dry, you just want to have another shower just to make sure you’re completely clean. Or perhaps that was just me rediscovering the meticulousness of my personal hygiene. It also felt good to be on solid ground. There were places to go, things to see, drinkable tap water, and did I mention showers? It was also a change to be in a big city like Moscow. After we’d freshened up, I headed into the streets with Tim, Tracy and Jenna to find some breakfast. It was a drizzly overcast morning, but I soaked in the surroundings of the concrete jungle. As much as I loved the great outdoors and the rural getaway that had been Mongolia and Siberia, I have to confess that I’m still a big city boy at heart. Places like Bangkok and Saigon had found ways to win me over, with the busy streets and the nightlife and the diversity of people, and even the sleek and somewhat sterile Singapore was nice when it wasn’t charging an arm and a leg for a few beers. Beijing might be the only exception, with its pollution just being too intense – though I also harbour a few bitter memories – but generally I love exploring new cities. With a population of around 10 million, Moscow was big, and I was definitely excited to see what it had in store for us.

City centre of Moscow.

City centre of Moscow.

***

After breakfast we returned to the hostel to meet our guide. Maria was an attractive woman, tall and thin with long blonde hair and sharp, defined features – almost every stereotype I had expected from a Russian woman. We did a round of introductions, then wasted no time in setting out into the city to see some of the major attractions. Along the way, I was advised by the rest of the group that there were three must see attractions in Moscow – Red Square, the Kremlin, and the State Armoury. It was lucky that we had three full days in Moscow, because due to a serious lack of planning it took that many days for me to see them all. To get from the hostel to the city was only a few stops on the Moscow Metro, but even that proved to be a little bit of a thrill. And that’s not because of my weird obsession with efficient subway systems, although the Moscow Metro is insanely efficient – one time we missed a train, and there was literally another one coming out of the tunnel just as we lost sight of the one we missed. It was actually a thirty second wait for the next train – needless to say, I was impressed. But all the excitement happened before we’d even reached the platform. For the metro, all you have to do is buy a standard ticket that lets you travel anywhere within the system. All you have to do is swipe the card and walk in. Now, at the train stations back home there are barriers that open to let you through when you swipe your ticket. To be fair, some of the stations at Moscow have this too. However, the station we were at didn’t seem to have barriers, just metal gates which you walk through after swiping your ticket. I swiped mine, saw a little green arrow, and proceeded through, then turned around to wait for Kaylah. She swiped her ticket, went to walk through and then suddenly BAM! These old, rickety metal arms came flying out of the gates to crash together directly in front of Kaylah. I don’t deal well with sudden shocks and jolts like that, so I’m pretty sure I let out a scream. Kaylah herself was standing there, dumbfounded. “Oh my God,” I said as I ran back towards the barrier. “Oh my God! Are you alright?” We looked down at the metal arms clamped together in front of her waist. “Jesus, a second later and you wouldn’t ever be having children!” She was startled but otherwise fine, and laughed it off in her typical style. “It’s all good, it’s all good.” One of the station attendants came over to help us. Turns out Kaylah’s ticket just hadn’t swiped properly, and so hadn’t allowed her to go through, but her movement forward had set off he barriers to rather aggressively stop her from proceeding. Which makes perfect sense, but still, it was as freaky as Hell to watch, and for the rest of my time in Moscow I tentatively slipped through the gates at the metro, so as not to awake those angry metal arms.

***

This photo was taken the next day on a short trip back to Red Square - showing off my shiny red gum boots in front of the State History Museum

This photo was taken the next day on a short trip back to Red Square – showing off my shiny red gum boots in front of the State History Museum

The first attraction we visited was Red Square, which in itself was more of a collection of sights. We took photos in front of the State History Museum, and then visited the Lenin Mausoleum. I know what a mausoleum is, but what we found inside still took me by surprise – a glass coffin with the preserved body of the Soviet leader lying there for the world to see, looking rather peaceful. Kaylah and I had been walking along with linked arms to stay a little warmer in the cold, overcast weather, but I felt her grip tighten tenfold around my arm when we walked into the room and saw the body lying there. It was a chilling experience, but we slowly and respectfully shuffled around the room and out the other side. From there it was onto St Basil’s Cathedral, a place that I’ll confess I didn’t know by name, but instantly recognised from photographs. The colourful tops on the towers were a typically Russian style of architecture, and I thought it made the building a little more fun and interesting than some of the other ones – though I’m not sure if anyone ever built a cathedral with ‘fun’ being the primary objective. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful building, both exterior and interior. Inside and upstairs, there was a male a capella vocal quartet singing what sounded like Russian church hymns. Their voices were beautiful, and their musical singing added a whole new level of awe to the atmosphere inside the cathedral. Even though any spiritual or religious convictions I might harbour lie far from Christianity or Russian Orthodoxy, it was simply enchanting to explore the stone walls and corridors while they echoed with the rich tenor and rumbling baritone voices. I took a few photos, but as I lined up my camera, before I’d taken a single picture, I knew that no image would ever capture this experience in a way that would do it justice.

St Basil's Cathedral.

St Basil’s Cathedral.

Inside the chambers of St. Basil's.

Inside the chambers of St. Basil’s.

***

After we’d finished in Red Square and had some lunch, Maria took us down to buy tickets for the Kremlin. The deal with both the Kremlin and the State Armoury is that they only allow a certain amount of people inside, during scheduled periods of visiting, to prevent the places from growing too crowded at any one time. This happens every day. Except on Thursdays, when the Kremlin is closed. It was a Thursday. Yep. That was a little awkward for Maria. “I guess we will have to come back tomorrow… What else would you like to do?” Tim and Alyson wanted to go shopping, so we left them to their own devices, while – short of our own ideas of what to see in the city – Maria took us to a part of the city where we could ride up the Moscow River and see some of the cities major and minor attractions from the water. Even though the weather was a little cold, it was an easy way to spend the afternoon. So easy, in fact, that I may have been guilty of taking a few power naps between photographs. We’d been up since 4am, after all.

Statue of Peter the Great on Moscow River.

Statue of Peter the Great on Moscow River.

Moscow cityscape as seen from the river.

Moscow cityscape as seen from the river.

The Kremlin from afar.

The Kremlin from afar.

That night we took it pretty easy. I had dinner at a small little pizza place around the corner with Tim, Tracy, Alyson and Jenna. The food was nice, but the one thing that struck me was that all over the restaurant, people were lighting up cigarettes and puffing away like chimneys. I have so many friends back home who smoke that the smell of second hand smoke doesn’t really bother me too much, but I think it was just more the fact they were allowed to smoke inside that surprised me. Although I really shouldn’t have been surprised – I’d been warned by almost everybody that smoking inside clubs was a really common thing all over Europe. I hadn’t expected that rule to apply to restaurants, but there you go. Rather than complain, I just tried to accept it and get used to it – if it really is as common as everyone says, then I was going to be seeing a lot more of it in the next few months.

Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.