Friends in High Places

For someone who had done as much traveling as I had done in the past 8 months, I had done remarkably little flying. I’d caught countless trains and plenty of buses, but planes had only really been my choice of transit when there was almost no other option, like getting to Italy from Spain without taking 3 days to do so, or crossing the Atlantic Ocean. But when I’d been planning my trip across the Southwest while still in Austin, Aaron had advised me that flying in and out of Las Vegas was usually pretty cheap, considering it was a hot spot destination for domestic tourism. At the time of booking the flight I wouldn’t quite know it, but I would be very relieved that I wasn’t getting another bus onwards from Las Vegas. There was another particular reason for choosing to fly instead of travelling via road, other than the cheaper cost of flights – my eventual flight out of the mainland US would be from Los Angeles, and geographically that was the most logical city to drive to from Las Vegas. But there was no way that my visit to California would be complete without a visit to San Francisco, so I decided that I would fly further north first, and then travel down the coast to LA at some point during my final weeks in the US.

Another reason that I preferred other methods of travel to flying was that they were usually more interesting than flying. While I’d enjoyed most of the overland travel I had done, with the ability to see different places and meeting interesting people, all of my experiences with flying had been either uneventful or just downright traumatic. And I know it’s somewhere between an obvious cliché and an offensive stereotype, but I have to say it – if you have a male flight attendant than there is probably like a 90% chance he is going to be gay. Fabricated statistics aside, this had been my experience, at least, on the handful of flights that I had been on, and so far it had not made my journeys anymore interesting. But my flight to San Francisco was different…

After watching the funky new safety procedure video that Virgin America had just released and staying in my assigned seat for take off, I noticed that there there was a row of three seats that were completely empty. When the seatbelt sign was finally turned off, I gathered my belongings, quickly smiled at the woman I was sitting next to so that I didn’t look totally rude, and shuffled across the aisle and down a row to set up camp in the empty seats. Sure, the flight couldn’t have been much longer than 45 minutes, but extra space was extra space and I’ll take small wins wherever I can find them.

There was also something else that I had noticed during the takeoff procedure, and that was the flight attendant. He was tall and cute, and every time he passed me down the aisle we ended up making eye contact and exchanging some kind of semi-awkward smile. It was totally flirty, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had similar experiences with other flight attendants before, so while it was a bit of harmless fun, I didn’t think too much of it. As entertaining as the thought of joining the ‘Mile High’ club was, I sat back to enjoy my short journey and let him get on with his job. Although given the nature of his job – serving passengers like myself – it wasn’t too long before we interacted again. Once we were in the air, the drinks trolley was whipped out and wheeled down the aisle, and of course when it got to me I was face to face with my flight attendant crush.

“Hey, how’s it going? Can I get you anything?” he said with a friendly smile.
“Hey… um, sorry, but do these drinks cost extra?” I was aware that when you were flying with the cheaper, discount airlines, you often had to pay for the little extras.
“It’s only the alcohol that costa extra,” he said, and then be smiled at me again. “But it’s okay, what would you like?” He flashed me a very subtle wink, and I could feel myself blushing.
“Oh, no, it’s okay, don’t worry. I’ll just have a Coke.”
“No really, it’s fine”, he said again, still smiling at me. “Coke? Coke and…?”
I have no idea why, but he had me fidgeting and blushing like a schoolgirl. “Um… bourbon?” I said coyly. He just kept grinning at me, and sneakily handed me one of the those tiny bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Thank you,” I said as I mixed the bourbon with the cola, and he assured me it was his pleasure, before continuing his way down the plane.

He visited me a few times again throughout the flight. The next time he returned with more bourbon – sneaking another 4 miniature bottle of Jack Daniels back and dropping them in the seat next to me – and the second time he had a handful of packets of salty snacks. I couldn’t believe it was happening – I mean, it’s not like we were shacking up in the toilets or anything, but to be honest free food and booze is an equally direct way to winning my heart. After all the other passengers had been served, he came down and sat in one of the  spare seats that I had scored for myself in the beginning of the flight.
“Hey,” he said as he slipped out of the aisle, and I had to do my best to keep the stupid, giddy grinning to a minimum. I felt like I was in some kind of cheesy romantic comedy – does this kind of thing even happen in real life?
“Hey! Thank you so much for the drinks and the food,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Ah, it’s not a problem. We have heaps back there, no one will ever know” he said with a smile and a wink. “I’m Andrew, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Andrew. I’m Robert.” We chatted for a little bit, just introducing ourselves some more and getting know each other. Andrew had only recently started working as a flight attendant and was currently living in Las Vegas. He was on this flight to San Francisco, but he would be travelling one step further to San Diego from there before his shift was done. I told him that it was my first time in San Francisco.

“It’s a great city. I used to live there.”
“Yeah, I’m really excited to check it out.” We were both aware that we didn’t have a lot of time before Andrew would have to start getting ready for the plane to land. “So like… I don’t know, I feel like… do you wanna exchange numbers, or something?” It felt a little weird, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be seeing him again, but it felt like the normal thing to do in that kind of situation.
“Well, yeah. I actually…” he trailed off as he fished around in his pocket and pulled out a napkin, where he had already written his name, phone number and email address.
“Oh cool! Here, let me write down mine.” I scrawled my details out on a piece of paper to give to him.
“So are you meeting anyone when you land?” Andrew asked me.
“Actually… you know, I’m not. I don’t have anyone waiting for me.”
“I’ve got a little break before I need to head to the plane and get ready for the next flight. Send me a text once we’re on the ground, maybe I can meet you.”
“Sure thing,” I said, and then said goodbye as he hopped up to continue with his duties.

Welcome to SFO!

Welcome to SFO!

After disembarking and picking up my luggage, I met Andrew down in the arrivals terminal. We chatted some more, and when I explained my accomodation situation to him, he helped me find the shuttle bus service that could drive me to wherever I was going in the San Francisco area for only $20, and then sat and waited with me until the shuttle was full with passengers and ready to get moving.
“Well, it was lovely to meet you,” I said to him and he helped load my bags into the bus.
“Likewise. It’s too bad we didn’t have a little more time to hang out.”
“Yeah, oh well. But keep in touch. There’s always next time, and we both travel a lot – you never know where in the world we might end up,” I said with a final smile.
“True,” he said as he returned the grin, and gave me a final hug before sending me on my way.

We kept in touch, but despite him travelling to and from California pretty regularly with his work, I never ended up meeting Andrew again before leaving the US. But it was still a very memorable way to meet someone, and it’s those fun stories and quirky tales that you can look back on with fondness, knowing that you simply just opened yourself up to possibility and lived in the moment.

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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.