Clearing Customs and a Stateside Shaman

After a long flight and a short, restless sleep, my flight out of São Paulo touched down in Miami. Although it wouldn’t be my final destination for the day, it was my first stop on my return to the United States of America, which meant it was the place where I would have to clear customs before continuing on my way. Despite having done nothing wrong and having absolutely nothing to hide, going through customs, especially in the US, always made me feel a little uneasy, as though there could potentially be something wrong that I didn’t know about. It had been a bit nicer when I’d done the US pre-customs in the airport in Dublin, I’m not sure why, but this was the first time I would be clearing US customs in a US airport (coming back from Canada via train, customs had been a little stern but on the whole nothing to really worry about). Luckily it was pretty early in the morning when we landed in Miami – around 7am – so there wasn’t an awful lot of queuing or anything. Yet when I lugged my bag onto the X-ray machine, of course they decided it was worth pulling aside and taking a look at.

“Good morning, sir” the man said in a voice that was a little too chipper for that hour of the morning, for me. “This your bag here? You packed it yourself?”
“Yes, it’s my bag, and yes, I did.” I answered, half of me still asleep and half of me just a little on edge from being in customs.
“Do you have any liquids in this bag?”
“Ah, well, yeah… I mean, there’s a bottle of bourbon I bought from duty free stuffed in there somewhere.” It’d been a good price, and I knew it was completely within the regulations.
“What about down here?” he asked, looking back to the x-ray image before pointing to the bottom of my bag.
“Oh, there’s nothing in there except some shoes and my toiletries. So there’s a few creams and yeah, I guess liquids and stuff there too.”
“Would you mind if we take a look?”
I opened the bag to reveal some shoes, a belt, and my little black bag toiletries.
“Can we please take a look inside that bag?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, but he barely waited for a response before pulling open the zippers and poking his fingers around my toothpaste, my moisturisers, my sunscreen, my condoms… I mean, I didn’t have anything incriminating to hide, but it was a little uncomfortable to have him rifling through probably the most personal part of my luggage. The only thing worse would have been, I don’t know, going through my dirty underwear or something.

Eventually he was satisfied that I was nothing but an innocent traveller, so once again I was on my way. I had to catch a monorail within the airport just to get the terminal from where my next flight would be departing, and once I was there I grabbed some breakfast and readjusted to the pleasant realisation that I was in an English-speaking country again. The layover in Miami was less than two hours, but by the time I got out of customs there wasn’t even that much of a wait before I was boarding again and onto my next destination: a kooky and mysterious port in the south-west of the country.

When I’d been booking my flights back to the US from Brazil with my mother and travel agent over the phone, my mother had asked which city I wanted to fly back into.
“Just back to New York?”
“No!” I remember saying at once. I was suddenly taking two whole weeks out of my original plan and flying down to Brazil, so I needed to move further west if I was going to catch up and eventually be in California for my flight off the mainland. I also knew that I wanted to be back in the US by the 31st of October to make sure I was in the country for Halloween. As an Australian, I’d never really properly celebrated Halloween, at least not in the way the Americans do it, so I was determined to be there for it. When brainstorming cities and places of where to actually spend it though, most people had suggested the bigger coastal cities. I knew that I would have already left the east coast by then though, and with a few months left of travelling afterwards, it seemed too soon to be heading to the west coast for Halloween. When I scanned the map for more centrally located cities, I couldn’t believe that I had completely overlooked it until then. So when she asked me where I wanted to fly back to after two weeks in Brazial, arriving the day before Halloween, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
“New Orleans! I want to fly back to New Orleans!”

***

When I’d met up with my dad in New York, he’d surprised me with a birthday gift. Well, not so much as a gift as an offer. It was the night before the both of us were flying out of New York, so we were talking about future plans, and where I’d be going in Brazil, and then beyond that.
“And where are you staying when you come back to the states? You’re going to… New Orleans, I think your mother said?”
“Yep, New Orleans,” I confirmed. “I haven’t figured out where I’m staying there though, I usually sort all of that out a little closer to the day.”
“Well… if you’d like – just so that you have somewhere to go when you land – if you like, your mother and I would be happy to pay for a few nights in a hotel. Consider it a birthday present. Would you like that?”
After the continual months of Couchsurfing and crashing at hostels, I don’t think my father quite realised how much I would, in fact, like that. I thanked him with a big hug, and he told me to email my mother to sort out a booking.

Jump forward two weeks and I was loading my bags into a hotel shuttle bus at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the sunshine beating down on me and the air thick and humid. There were a plethora of different accents around me, and as we drove into the centre of town our driver gave us a warm welcome and a little commentary on the passing scenery. Luckily, the Royal Hotel New Orleans was the first stop on the shuttle route, and that happened to be where I was staying. As the shuttle rounded the corners and puttered down the streets, I suppose the first thing I noticed about New Orleans was that it didn’t really look like an American city. In fact, parts of it seemed distinctly European. A little bit of later research would inform me that this is was because we were in the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood and, for many, the cultural capital and the obvious touristic focus of the city. There weren’t as many two storey houses and big green lawns as there were cute little layered terrace houses, wrought iron fences, and beautiful, historic architecture. My hotel was no exception, and as I was shown the way to my room I was led through a gorgeous courtyard that made me feel like I was staying in some kind of sanctuary villa.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a nap. There isn’t a lot of change in the time zones when flying from South America to North America, but it’s still a long flight, and I hadn’t had the best sleep during any of it. It also felt quite odd to be in a hotel for once, with my own room, a nice big bed and a private bathroom. There was no weird small talk between travellers like there is when you arrive at a hostel, and I didn’t have anyone to introduce themselves or offer to show me around, as is what usually happens when you first arrive with a Couchsurfing host. I obviously don’t mind doing any of that, but for once none of that was happening, so I took a few hours to rest, recuperate, and recover from the long haul travel.

While I hadn’t needed to find a Couchsurfing host to stay with when I first arrived, I was only staying in the hotel for a couple of nights, and I’d had a feeling I’d want to be in New Orleans for a little bit longer than that. So I had done a bit of browsing through potential hosts and gotten in touch with a few, asking if they’d be interested in meeting me when I arrived and potentially hosting me when my time in the hotel was over. And that’s how I came into contact with Brett. He was a self-described shaman, though given the mystical nature of the town and New Orleans being the home of voodoo within the US, that wasn’t at all surprising. I consider myself pretty open-minded and curious when it comes to spiritual or supernatural things, and where I come there isn’t anything quite like the presence that voodoo and magic have in New Orleans. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who goes to New Orleans and does nothing but party on Bourbon Street – without exception, every single profile on Couchsurfing had said that they were not interested in those kinds of people, who were clearly just looking for a free room on a boozy vacation. In my messages I’d described my situation to Brett, as well as hinting that I was curious about his shamanism, and so we’d arranged to meet that afternoon after I was feeling recovered from my flight.

Brett lived just north of the French Quarter, and an easy walking distance from my hotel, so in the afternoon I headed over to introduce myself. He was a nice guy, probably in his mid-40s with a grey head of hair. He wasn’t a native to New Orleans, but had been a resident for a long time and it was his home, so we chatted and he told me a bit more about the city, some of the local geography and history. He  also gave me a few tips of good places to eat and drink around the Quarter, as well as warning me to be keeps my wits about me when walking at night.
“It’s not that it’s unsafe, but… it’s not completely safe. It’s a strange town, things can happen, just be prepared for situations.”
And then we got talking about the shamanism. Out of respect for the practice, I’m going to try and explain it fully because I didn’t really understand it. The bottom line is that shamans work with spirits and by doing so, reach altered states of consciousness through transcendental energies, which may or may not allow them to achieve certain supernatural things. He offered a demonstration, and even now I’m not 100% sure what he was supposed to be demonstrating. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, or I was just too tired and jet lagged from the flights, but it didn’t really feel like any more than an intense guided meditation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can still feel deeply spiritual. But it wasn’t really a new sensation for me. It wasn’t exactly magical.

To be honest, I felt a little skeptical after the whole thing, and while Brett had been a nice guy, I didn’t feel like I needed to hang out with him anymore. It had been an interesting experience, at least, and I actually did feel a bit more relaxed after what had essentially been a meditation session. However, the night was young, and New Orleans still had many more surprises and adventures in store for me.

Humbug, Hamburg

The next destination on my European tour was the German city of Hamburg, a port town on the Elbe River that was known for, among other things, having particularly wild red light district that has even been compared to the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was actually heading towards the Dutch town of Groningen, where I would be meeting my old high school friend Gemma, but I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to party in Hamburg during the weekend that I passed through, and discover the reputation for myself. After having a quiet night in with Esben on my last night in Copenhagen, I was definitely ready to make up for it on the Saturday night.

***

The journey itself to Hamburg was a little strange. I took a seat on the train and put my headphones in, listening to my music as I watched the countryside roll by. After a few hours, there were announcements throughout the train, either in Danish or German, and a lot of confused looking tourists. I paused my music to listen in on some conversations – there was a lot of talk about a ferry, and having to get off the train. Eventually there was an English announcement, asking passengers to disembark from the train because we weren’t allowed to travel in the cargo hold… wait, wait? That definitely hadn’t been in the guidebook. It all became clear pretty quickly though – rather than a bridge or tunnel, the train was transported from Denmark to Germany via ferry, along with a bunch of private cars and other passengers. I have to admit, it was a little nice to break up the journey with a 45 minute ferry ride – a smaller adventure within a journey within a bigger journey. I followed the crowds and listened to the announcements, and it all went up without a hitch. Soon enough we were back on the tracks and on our way to Hamburg.

***

I arrived in Hamburg in the afternoon, and immediately set out on the U-Bahn (German underground metro system) towards some of the hostels I had looked up in advance, which were within a reasonable walking distance to Reeperbahn, the street in Hamburg that was famous for being the hub of all things sexual and kinky. I should probably take a moment to explain why I have such a fascination with places of such a nature: my old work – the one that sold Tom of Finland t-shirts – was a fetish store. In my year of working there I learnt and saw a lot of strange and crazy things, and discovered that the world and community of sexual fetish is a broad, complicated and intriguing thing. I had learnt so much about that world in a theoretical sense, since I needed to know how to explain products to customers, but so far I was yet to see what any of it looked like when put into practice. In a trip that was all about discovering new things, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek into the world that I supposedly knew so much about.

However, when I arrived at the hostel, I was a little taken aback when I was told they were completely full.
“Sorry – you can use the Internet on the computer there if you need to look for somewhere else.” The receptionist sounded sympathetic, but there was nothing else she could do. I dumped my bags onto the floor and logged onto the computer, cursing myself for not bothering to book ahead. It had never been a problem in South-East Asia – it hadn’t really occurred to me that walking into a hostel and asking for a bed on the spot might not be so simple in Europe. But hey, no big deal, right? There’s plenty of other hostels around, surely there’ll be room in one of them?

Wrong. I trawled all the search websites, and every single one told me that there was no accommodation that fit my criteria – that being “one bed in budget accommodation” and “tonight”. First I started searching for areas around Reeperbahn, but even searches for hostels in the city at large proved unsuccessful. I jumped onto Couchsurfing and found the group for “Emergency Couch Requests in Hamburg” and sent out a few messages, but I didn’t know how long I could wait for a reply. Things were looking pretty desperate. I logged onto Facebook and sent a message to Gemma in Groningen, who also joined me in the online accommodation search, but to no avail. The only available places we could find were well out of my price range.
“Maybe I could just hire a locker at the station and leave my stuff there while I party all night?” At the rate this was going, even if I did find a place to stay, I wouldn’t be staying there so much as I would be dumping my bags and going out to enjoy the nightlife.
“That could be cool! You’ve done crazier things,” was Gemma’s reply, and I was already thinking how maybe that would make an interesting blog post. Though I was already a sweaty mess from walking around with my bags in the afternoon sun, and quite frankly the stress of not already having a place to stay was making me kind of exhausted. In my mind I weighed everything up, including the fact that I hadn’t even been feeling so well the night before, and suddenly this night out in Hamburg sounded like a huge effort that might not be worth the way I would feel when it was all over. I consulted the Eurail App for some train times before messaging Gemma.
“You know what? Screw it. Is it okay if I arrive a day early?”

***

And so I found myself back on a train, heading to Bremen, where I could changeover at Leer, which would then take me the rest of the way to Groningen. I had an hour to get from the hostel back to the station via the U-Bahn, but because of the way my Eurail pass worked, I was able to take as many trains as I wanted on my recorded travel days. So essentially it didn’t cost me any extra to jump on a few regional trains, even if it did mean arriving in Groningen at 11:30pm. It was a stressful and exhausting afternoon that eventually worked out well in the end – I would miss out on having a wild night in Hamburg, but I was definitely excited to be on my way to see Gemma. Though above all, it was a lesson in planning. For so long I’d had the spontaneous and unplanned approach to my travels, making things up as I went along and choosing destinations on the day before I decided to travel, sometimes even on the day of travel itself. Tourism in South-East Asia and tourism in Europe were producing a vast number of differences with every passing day – the price was the most obvious, but this was the beginning of my learning the importance of booking ahead, even for the most budget accommodation, or risk being left out in the streets. In retrospect it seems so obvious – who in their right mind would travel to a foreign city where they knew absolutely no one with no place to stay? But I had managed to scrape through in Stockholm, so I thought I might have similar luck in Hamburg. Instead, I learnt this lesson the hard way.

The night out in Hamburg was the price I had to pay, in this scenario. However, I would be passing back through Germany on my way to Berlin – who knows, maybe an overnight stopover in Hamburg wasn’t completely off the table yet?