A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

Despite being less than an hours drive away from Austin, and the seventh most populated city in the US, I had never even heard of the city of San Antonio until Vincenzo had suggested it to me when I was planning my route across the South-West. “It’s pretty much as far as you can go before you hit… well… the nothing that is the rest of Texas,” he’d advised me, so I figured it would be a suitable pit stop before the Greyhound (or Hellhound, as I would soon start referring to them) bus trip across the desert. “It’s also quite a beautiful city, down along the river walk.”

When I hopped off the bus in the carpark that Megabus used as a terminal, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Hector. When I’d first contacted him he had admitted that he and his boyfriend Jay hadn’t hosted anyone through Couchsurfing before, but after such great first time experience with first time hosts like Tomas and Matej in Prague I didn’t even give it a second thought. Hector was incredibly friendly from the moment we met, and he even offered to take a few detours on the drive home so that he could drive me through the city centre and show me a few of the landmarks and features that we could come back and explore properly during my next few days in San Antonio. When we arrived home I was introduced to Jay and shown the spare room where I’d be sleeping.
“Yeah, so… this is actually where my daughter sleeps when she’s here,” Hector said when I commented on some of the toys that had been moved to the side of the room. At first I was a little surprised – Hector was a few more years old than me, and I guess I just never really expect gay people to have kids. But then some people do obviously have heterosexual relationships before realising they’re gay. “She won’t be around this weekend though, so make yourself at home. Also, I don’t know if you’re feeling up to it or if you’re too tired, but we’ve actually got some friends coming around and we’re gonna go out for some drinks a bit later. Obviously you’re welcome to join us too.” Considering it was still only Thursday, it was at that moment that I realised I had made another excellent choice of Couchsurfing hosts, and I wasn’t wrong – Hector and his friends knew how to have a good time.

I showered and freshened up – a necessity after any bus transit, no matter how big or small – and by the time I was ready Hector and Jay’s friends had arrived. There was a round of brief introductions as Nico, one of Hectors friends, offered me a beer.
“Have you ever had Dos Equis like this before?” he had asked me, to which I replied that I’d never tried Dos Equis at all, to which pretty much everyone in the room responded with mild horror. According to Hector and Nico it was a standard  and staple beer in the area. Nico had used a wedge of lime to wet the neck of the bottle and sprinkled it with what appeared to be chilli flakes or some kind of red powder, before putting the lime into the neck of the bottle, as is common with most Mexican beers. I think the idea is to treat the garnishing like the salt rim of a margarita, licking up a bit of the spicy flavour before washing it down with a swig of the beer. I can’t say I was such a fan of the dressings, but the beer itself was tasty. We hung out for a little while at Hector’s, all of his friends asking curious questions about my travels and my home country, before rallying up and heading out to show me some of the gay bars in San Antonio.

***

Like any blog post of this nature, the specifics are a little hazy, but Hector later helped me retrace most of the steps. The first stop of the evening was Hi-Tones, a dark little hipster bar where Hector insisted that I try their signature Pickle Shot. Though I assured him I absolutely hated pickles, my ‘try anything once’ attitude forced me sample it all the same. I refrained, however, from eating the tiny little pickle in the bottom of the shot glass – I guess I still know my limits. I also use the term ‘shot’ very loosely, because the size of some of their shots would qualify as small, strong mixed drinks back in Australia, although the reality is the only way I would ever be able to down something pickle flavoured would be in a single gulp, simply to get it over and done with. The other famous shot was a Chamoy Shot, a spicy concoction after which I definitely needed a few beers to cool off again. We spent a little time at Hi-Tones, enjoying their ridiculously cheap drinks and cool music, before making our way to a bar called Brass Monkey, which was a short walking distance from Hi-Tones, and was a gay-friendly bar that everyone assured me had the best music for dancing.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

But before we made it there, somehow Nico dragged Hector and I away from the rest of the group to make a quick stop at a place called Bootleggers (which I’ve been told has been closed and opened under a new name). Inside there was a long bar with a selection of what they told me was moonshine.
“Moonshine? Doesn’t that… ah… make you go blind?” I asked hesitantly. Hector and Nico laughed, assuring me that this variety of moonshine was actually made though completely legal processes and was not going to cause me any permanent damage. But damn, it was strong. If I hadn’t been drunk already, the moonshine was most likely the tipping of the scales, pushing me past the point of no return. We eventually made it to Brass Monkey and rejoined the others, where the drink special was 75c wells (thats ‘house spirits’ to Australians). As you can imagine, that didn’t end too well for me, despite how amazing the offer had seemed at the time. After dancing all night, the only thing I remember from the walk home, and the last thing I really remember at all, is collapsing on the grass outside Hector and Jay’s place and projectile vomiting all over the lawn. Luckily they thought it was absolutely hilarious and weren’t completely grossed out, and despite the incredibly potent moonshine I still maintain that the real culprit was the Pickle Shot.

As close as we'll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

As close as we’ll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

***

I was woken up the next morning when the sun came streaming through the curtains and onto my bed. I tired to roll over and escape it, but there isn’t much room in a single bed when you’re sharing it with another person… and then it took me a couple of seconds to realise… Wait, who am I sharing the bed with?!
The first thing I did was check to make sure I was still wearing clothes, which I was. The next thing I did was sit up and look at the person next to me. He opened his eyes too, and for a few seconds we just stared at each other. In that brief moment I had completely forgotten who he was, and it was only after the exchanging of confused stares for a few more seconds that I realised it was Nico.
“Ahh… what… what… um… Why are you in my bed?” The words were coming, but the state I was in was definitely deficient in eloquence.
“What… This is… This is my bed,” Nico said with a laugh and a smile. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling, as I usually have a pretty good memory even after I’ve been drinking. The memory loss, I believe, I can definitely attribute to the moonshine – so much for no permanent damage!
“Um… but… I’m staying… here… I think…?” I pointed to my bag and my clothes on the floor. We were definitely at Hectors house, and this was definitely the room he had showed me. “Isn’t this my room?”
“No, this is my room,” he said jokingly, “at least when I stay here.” I could tell he was just messing around now, but it didn’t really help explain anything.
“Oh… but… um… what… what the hell happened?” I asked, still completely baffled.
“I… I don’t know?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we couldn’t help but just laugh. “Wait, what’s the time? Hector has to work today.” Nico searched for his phone and checked the time, before laying back in the bed and calling out as loud as his croaky voice could manage.
“Hector! Good morning!”

The bedroom door opened, and we were joined by an equally as confused Hector.
“Nico? What are you… doing here?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we all couldn’t help but laugh. Hector looked particular tired. “I am so hungover, and I’m already late for work. What are you doing today, Nico?”
“Well I’m going to show Robert around, of course!” he exclaimed, as though it was something that we’d been planning all morning. I just chuckled, shrugged, and decided that it was actually a pretty good idea. So Hector and Jay went off to work, I got up and showered, and then Nico and I headed off on two bikes we borrowed from Hector. It was definitely a rather surreal way to start the day, but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning as I followed Nico through the twists and turns, secret shortcuts through parks. The whole thing felt so ‘go with the flow’ and carefree, I felt like we were going to round a corner, join a gang of other cyclists and end up in a pop music video singing about the good life, or some other kind of carefree tune. But we kept cycling, just the two of us, and we made a quick stop at Nico’s bank before ending up at a Starbucks, where his friend Daniel was working. We got our coffees for free while Nico introduced me and proceeded to recount the crazy night and strange morning that we’d had so far while Daniel listened, thoroughly amused. He had been working all morning, but since it was closer to the afternoon by that point he was nearer to the end of his shift than the beginning of it, so he agreed to meet up with us later on in the day. After that I followed Nico to another place called One-O-Six, a dirty-little-whole in the wall cocktail bar, and we ate breakfast burritos from the BBQ shack next door and drank some drink that Nico ordered us that was way too strong to be drinking when the sun was still up. As hungover as I was, it still tasted quite nice, so I kept drinking it and didn’t ask questions. The bar actually had quite a few people there, and Nico seemed to know all of them, including the staff. I figured that these might be a handful of day drinking regulars, so I satisfied myself by believing I was definitely off the tourist track now and seeing San Antonio from the eyes of a real local.

***

After learning that Hector had left work early, we rode our bikes downtown to meet him for lunch by the River Walk. Aside from the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk is probably one of the city’s greatest treasures, with long walkways stretching down either side of the river that flows through the town, lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, and other tourist attractions. After attempting to eat at a place called Casa Río, where we gave up and left before we’d even ordered due to the terrible service, we settled for introducing me to Whataburger, yet another American fast food chain restaurant that I had never even heard of until that moment. It wasn’t anything life changing, but Hector’s hangover forced him to abandon half his burger and run to the bathrooms to be sick, so perhaps it was best that we’d stuck with something a little less classy. Daniel arrived soon after that, also on his bike, so we decided there would be time for me to explore the River Walk another time and instead jumped on the bikes and headed around the main strip of the River Walk and down to the Missions Hike and Bike Trail. The missions near San Antonio are a collection of preserved old Catholic churches, relics of the spread of Christianity along the Southwest in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but they were located in the national park just outside of the city, with a bike trail along the river that led all the way there. However, it was too late in the day to make it all the way out there without it getting dark, and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, so Hector promised to drive me out there over the weekend so I could visit them. Instead, we just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and the leisurely bike ride along the river, while the guys pointed out sights to me and just chatted about life in general.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

After turning around and heading back to down, we stopped by a place called CHRISpark, a beautiful little urban park that was created in memory of Chris, the son of local artist Linda Pace. The grounds of the garden were covered with beautiful foliage and plants, as well as a handful of artistic designs, which made sense given the creator of the space. We parked our bikes and wandered around, and Nico pointed out a few of his favourite flowers, before confessing that he was actually a wedding planner and that he knew many of them from creating flower arrangements and bouquets. In retrospect, I didn’t take nearly enough photos, but the park definitely has an atmosphere of gorgeous tranquility. We had a quick chat to the friendly groundskeeper, who took our picture for us, before continuing on our way. Daniel recommend that we stop at a speakeasy bar called 1919 – which I would have rode straight past if I hadn’t known it was there – where I was introduced to yet another local alcoholic delicacy, a Strawberry Habanero hot shot. The combination of spicy habanero chilli and sweet strawberry is an… interesting sensation, to say the least. I’d never been the biggest fan of spicy foods, but I think the boys in San Antonio had made it their mission to expose me to as many of these specialities and introduce me to spices that could not only be eaten, but also drunk. I have to say, I think it worked, because ever since I’ve been a little bit less afraid of trying spicy foods.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

On the way home we rode through downtown San Antonio in the cover of night, and stopped to observe some of the sights, including the Alamo Mission, the site of the famous siege in 1836; the Tower of the Americas, which at 750 feet (or almost 230 metres) was the tallest observation deck in the USA until 1996; and the Torch of Friendship, a monument that was a gift to San Antonio from the Mexican Government to symbolise the cooperation between the city and the country. We also stopped to take a few photos of ourselves, at the request of Nico’s artistic vision.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

After that Hector and I bid farewell to Daniel and Nico and rode our bikes back along the river, which ended up taking us pretty much all the way home. The were several light up art installations along the way, and Hector was full of information about the city and its rich local history. Not only had I lucked out with an awesome host to loved to party as much as I did, but Hector also very much loved San Antonio, and has such a passion for sharing that love and that knowledge, and those people always – without a doubt – make the best Couchsurfing hosts.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

***

Despite the crazy Thursday night and the ensuing hangovers, Hector and Jay weren’t about to let me sit at home on a Friday night. After freshening up and dinner we met with Nia, one of Hectors colleagues who I’d met briefly down by the River Walk during the day, and Nico. We ended up driving to the clubs that night, and the one that stands out the most is Saint. Usually the club has a drag show on Friday nights, but the night we turned up just so happened to be a launch party for Lady Gaga’s latest album, Artpop, which had just been released. As well as a bunch of crazy queens doing their best Gaga numbers, they were also giving away copies of the album. As it turns out, one of the queens was a friend of Hector and Jay, so I also ended up being the lucky winner of a CD giveaway and walking away from the club with Lady Gaga’s new album. Too bad I didn’t currently have a CD player, and had already purchased it on iTunes, but it made for a cool souvenir with a pretty cute memory attached.

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

We went to a few other bars that evening, including Pegasus, where somebody knew someone so we got free shots, and there was an outdoor patio area where people were rocking out to karaoke, and Heat, a fancier place that was more a nightclub, where we spent a little while dancing. We definitely didn’t have the stamina of the night before though, so we ended up just chilling out in the quiet areas, and I had a few good conversations with Nia, who was pretty excited that she could now claim she had an Australian friend. I still drank far too much under the encouragement of Hector, but I think I managed to keep it all down that night, and we all headed home relatively early – I had been going almost non-stop since arriving in San Antonio, but I still had a weekend of sightseeing ahead of me.

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Tucking In, Nights Out, Bottoms Up and Going Down: Eating and Drinking in Austin

Life threw something of a curveball at me during my first few days in Austin. I was only supposed to be staying with Aaron for 3 days, as he was actually flying to New Orleans on the Sunday to visit his father, which worked out perfectly because that happened to be the day I was supposed to meet Alyssa. Alyssa was a distant cousin, just a year older than me and related through some connection on my fathers side that my aunty has relayed to me a dozen times yet I can still never seem to remember. She lived in Oklahoma, and as we’d kept in touch as my time in the states grew nearer and nearer, we had made plans to meet up, although she had suggested meeting in Austin when I was there, rather than coming up out of my way to visit her in her own state. However, on Friday afternoon, as Aaron and I were nursing hangovers and eating food from one of the food trucks around the corner from his house, I got a message from Alyssa telling me her father had gone into hospital and that she wouldn’t be able to make it to Austin. Her family offered to pay for a bus ticket to Oklahoma or for accommodation in Austin without Alyssa, whichever I preferred. It was a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to meeting my long lost cousin for quite some time now, and it was awful news about her father (although in the end he was okay), but I knew a detour north rather than my planned journey west would be a time consuming endeavour that would throw off a lot of other plans.

When going over the dilemma with Aaron, he had an idea that seemed the most practical, although it was one I could never have asked for without him offering.
“Well, if need a place to stay after Sunday, I’m happy to let you stay here while I’m in New Orleans. Saves me having to leave Sergio in a kennel while I’m gone, too.” In the end, Aaron’s trip to New Orleans got cancelled, so I ended up staying with him the full week that I was in Austin. But the fact that that scenario even happened was yet another amazing example of the kind and generous things that people you hardly even know sometimes do for you. I know I gush about that kind of thing a lot, but honestly, it’s a pretty heart-warming experience that ultimately changes the way you see the world.

***

Since I’d won $150 in the strip-off in my first night in Austin, Aaron seemed determined to make the most of a Couchsurfer who liked to drink and party as much as I did. A couple of nights we split bottles of wine over take-away pizza and just chatted about our lives, sharing what turned out to be a lot of deep and personal stories and forming what turned into a pretty strong and natural friendship. Aaron also took me to a few of his other favourite watering holes around the city, drinking beers and whiskey, and meeting some of his friends to sample a seemingly endless array of alcoholic drinks that contained tomato juice.

An easy decision.

An easy decision.

This drink was a

This drink was a “margarita meets Bloody Mary” concoction that was… interesting. I don’t remember it’s name though, so you know it’s good!

I also got to sample some great food in Austin, mostly from the various food trucks that dominate the town. They’re all actual trucks, so technically they can move around, but I’m starting to doubt that most of them ever do, considering the great business they seemed to be doing when they were parked on random stretched of grasses in the middle of the suburbs. I had the most amazing pulled pork with a side of slaw, but unfortunately the only photo I thought to take was of the bee that dived into my Mexican Coke and almost tried to kill me.

:(

😦

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Though I have to admit, probably the favourite piece of food that I ate during my week in Austin – and it pains me to say it because I honestly though it would be disgusting, but it was actually amazing – was chocolate-covered bacon.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

I think the thing that was most noticeable was how much the local foods changed in between short geographic distances. The general cuisine was so different in Austin compared to the flavours of New Orleans, but I imagine that most people who had never been through the area would assume that “The South” is just a culturally homogenous space of land, or at least never expect it to be so diverse in that sense.

There was one meal I did have that was particularly memorable, but not because of the food. I had still been keeping in touch with all the friends I’d made along my journey, including Matt from Dublin, who I wish I could call a leprechaun but he’s just too damn tall. Anyway, upon hearing that I was in Austin, Matt asked me if I knew of a restaurant called Moonshine Grill, and if it was near to where I was staying. I asked Aaron, and he said it wasn’t far, just in closer to the centre of town. Matt then asked me what I was doing on Monday for lunch, and I said I didn’t have any plans, and he tells me I do now. On Monday lunchtime while Aaron was at work, I head over Moonshine Grill and make myself known to the hostess. They’ve been expecting me, and promptly take me to a reserved table, but there was no one else there. I sat down and shortly afterward a waitress came over with a cocktail. I must have looked pretty confused, because she smiled as she explained. “I believe your order has already been taken care of,” she said as she placed the drink in front of me, “but let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” I drank my cocktail and ate a delicious burger, and at the end of it all I found the bill had already been paid in advance, including tip.

Matt eventually confessed his motives to me later. “Ah, you’re a very special lad, ya know?” he told me in a brief international phone call. “And despite all the nights we spent on the town drinking ourselves mad and stupid, I never got the chance to buy you dinner. Or lunch, or anything. I know it’s probably not the same when I’m not there, but I figure it’s the next best thing.” However unconventional it might have been, it was extremely sweet, and by now I was plenty used to eating in restaurants alone that it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. Although I assured him it would have been much better had he been there. Just another way that the amazing people you meet on your travels are able to surprise and inspire you.

***

There was a lot of eating and drinking going on during my time in Austin, but the Saturday night definitely takes the cake, for better or for worse. Actually, I honestly can’t remember if this all happened in one night, or if there were several more booze benders, but there were a handful of bars that provided somewhat memorable experiences.

The first venue we kicked the night off in was Barbarella, although I think on that particular evening it had joined forces with a neighbouring venue to throw a huge dance party, complete with an outdoor beer garden. Despite how cold it was, we spent a fair bit of time outside since Aaron was a smoker, and I chatted to a lot of people who seemed genuinely shocked to be meeting an Australian – though a handful of them attempted to impress me with their knowledge of the names of Sydney beaches (Cronulla’s reputation from the events in 2005 has travelled further than I’d like to believe). Barbarella also distinctly stands out in my mind because none of the toilet cubicles had doors. That was very weird, and not in an alternative or arty kind of way, but in a way that made me think they’d had one too many drug problems in the toilets so they’d solved the issue by just ripping the doors off. The music was good but the party wasn’t too lively so eventually Aaron and I headed back over to the warehouse district, 4th Street, and Oilcan Harry’s. We had more strong drinks from some bartender that Aaron knew, but after a while we moved nextdoor, to a nightclub named Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

The place was huge, with a long bar and a long dance floor that stretched down the entire length of the venue, and the floor had lights underneath it that gave the place a deep, colourful ambience. The place was packed too, so we jumped on the dance floor and mingled with the locals. I had half a conversation with a ridiculously good-looking cowboy – half, because I don’t think I could form words probably when I was staring into his dreamy eyes – and even ending up kissing a different boy on the dance floor. And Aaron and I continued to drink, and this is where things started to go wrong. Aaron had left his credit card at home, and at some point early on in the evening he’d run out of cash. Considering I’d just won $150 a few nights prior, I was happy to buy the drinks, and he offered to pay me back later. Now, I know that I can drink a lot and handle my alcohol pretty well, but I also know when I’ve had enough. And it got to the point in the night where I was fairly sure I had had enough. Aaron wanted another drink though. Okay, no worries, I could buy him another drink. But he wouldn’t let me not have another drink with him, so that’s how I came to be in possession of the final whiskey and Coke that would be my undoing.

We danced. We drank. We partied together. We partied with other people. I kissed that other boy. I was having a good time. Aaron decided he was going to go home, and said I was welcome to share a cab with him or stay with the boy. I decided to stay with the boy. Aaron left. I danced with the boy more. But I was very, very drunk. So I ended up losing the boy, and was dancing on my own.

The room started spinning, and I wasn’t feeling so well, so I made my way to the bathroom. At that point I really just needed to pee, but I was so unsteady on my feet that I took the opportunity to sit down as well, so I went into a cubicle – luckily these ones had doors. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. Before I even knew it was happening, and before I had a chance to turn around and lean over the toilet bowl, I threw up. Into my underwear – which were still around my ankles – and all over the exposed insides of my jeans. Needless to say, I was mortified, although probably not as much as I should have been because I was just so horribly wasted to comprehend the whole scenario properly. I attempted to wipe myself clean with toilet paper, but it was a futile task, and I still felt hideous. There was someone knocking on the door. A security guard, I think.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just… just give me a minute,” I call back, trying not to slur my words as I figure out what the hell I am going to do. The stalls starts rocking slightly, and I see a face peer over the edge of the cubicle beside me. Maybe they though I was overdoing on drugs or something. Had something like this already happened at Barbarella? Is that why their cubicles don’t have doors?
“What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just…can you just… give me a goddamn minute?!”

In the end, I realised there was nothing else I could do except pull on my vomit-streaked underwear, buckle my belt, and walk out of that club. Or you know, stumble, whatever. Despite not having a single friend there to help me through it, I think it was made better by the fact that I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and would never see any of these people again. In fact, no one I knew would ever have to know that this had ever happened, except for the fact I am all about frank honesty and am, for some reason, repeating it here right now. So I opened the cubicle door, and immediately the security guard ushered me out of the bathroom. For a brief moment I thought he was going to give me some water, or take care of me or something, but he merely ushered me to the front of the club, helped me out onto the street, and then left to go back inside without saying a single word to me. Luckily it was quite late and there weren’t too many people outside, so my temporary shame was limited. I feel awful for the taxi driver who took me home, although she was very light-hearted about it and said she didn’t mind, although I’m sure I smelt absolutely vile and she was probably gagging for half the trip.

Aaron was still awake when I got home. My cheap Primark shoes were covered in vomit, so I didn’t even bother salvaging them and instead threw them straight in the trash outside. Not a word was spoken when I walked into Aaron’s bedroom. We just had this sole moment of eye contact and understanding before I continued through into the bathroom and stepped into the shower fully clothed, and spent the next half hour cleaning myself, and getting as much of the stench of vomit out of my clothes as I could. And as embarrassing as the whole ordeal was, and as stupid and disgusting as I felt, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me on my travels, so I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there in the shower, scrubbing at the denim. And even as I write it now I can’t help but smirk a little, because as awful a memory as it is, it still makes for a thoroughly amusing story.

Bathroom Breakdown

The hostel that I stayed in during my time in Madrid would end up being the last one I stayed in for quite a while, but it was also one of the most fun and sociable hostels that I stayed in during my entire journey. The open layout and the party atmosphere meant that it was incredibly easy to strike up a conversation with whoever happened to walk into your dorm room. After my night out at Studio 54, I stumbled into the hostel with just enough time for a quick power nap before my check-out time. However, it was Monday morning, and the flight to Rome I had booked while I was in Barcelona didn’t fly out until Wednesday evening. I had two more nights left in Madrid, and since I hadn’t found anyone who had been able to put me up for those final nights, I had to try and book into the hostel again.

“We do have some room,” the guy working at reception said to me, “but…” There’s always a ‘but’. “You’re going to have to switch rooms. The bed you’re in now has been assigned to someone else.” I have no idea how their booking system works, or why they put particular people where, because I ended up moving from a full four bed dorm to an empty one, but I was way too tired and hungover to care. It actually worked out perfectly – I just dragged everything down the hall, down one flight of stairs, and into my new empty room, where I spent most of the day having a prolonged and much needed siesta. Later that evening, I was graced with the presence of some new roommates. Rachel was a girl around my age from Missouri, and she collapsed onto one of the bunks in an exhausted heap as soon as she arrived. She’d been travelling with her brothers and cousin, and now Rachel and her cousin Talon were in Madrid after being at the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona. We got chatting straight away, as she unpacked the mess that was her backpack and began sorting out all her things. I have to say, despite the reputation that American travellers have as the typical “stupid American tourists”, they were ultimately some of the nicest and friendliest people that I met during my time in hostels. Rachel and her traveling family crew had been all over Europe via train as well, so we shared stories and experiences and before long it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. She was exhausted at that point, but we made plans to meet up later for a drink at the hostel bar.

***

I headed out to have some tapas for dinner, and drink a small bottle of wine that was served not with a wine glass, but a large shooter glass… okay then. Very confused, I took my shots of red wine while I contemplated what my next move was going to be. I had my flights to Rome booked for the following evening, but absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got there. During my down time over the last few days, I have been frantically searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Rome. It was high season in Europe at that moment, and I had made the horrifying discovery that almost all of the hostels and accommodation within my price range were completely booked out. It was exactly like my arrival on that Friday night in Hamburg, except this time I had sufficient time to search for alternatives on Couchsurfing. I wrote over a dozen long, personalised requests to hosts from all over Rome, but I only ever received replies from about a quarter of the people I contacted, and none of them were able to host me while I was in town. It seemed a little strange, given the size of the city, and by Tuesday evening I was stifling the rising panic inside myself.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

After a few deep breaths and a final shot of shiraz, I headed back to the hostel to meet Rachel and Talon for a beer. I found them on the rooftop with a pitcher of beer, and the warm evening air was giving way to a cool change that blew through the balcony. They were sitting with a pair of brothers, also around our age and also American, and the five of us sat around chatting, only moving to take cover under the large cloth shade umbrellas when a brief but heavy downpour of summer rain bucketed down on us. After a couple of pitchers of beer, Talon decided that he wanted churros, the traditional Spanish doughnuts, and so we headed out into the streets, the smell of rain on the hot asphalt filling the air. We got a dozen churros and a bottle of chocolate dipping sauce to go, and walked on up to Puerta del Sol, where we saw crowds of locals and tourists alike, hanging out in the square doing tricks on their skateboards, or playing instruments and busking for money. We sat by the edge of the fountain and watched the world go by. It was there, relaxing in the plaza with my new friends, that I didn’t feel so bad about the way I’d spent my time in Madrid. I had done minimal sightseeing – there hadn’t been any major sight or particular attraction that I had wanted to see, and I had passed up every opportunity to visit museums. But I had been partying like crazy – for me, Madrid was a city that you do, not a city that you see. I had spent almost my whole time in the streets amongst the people and the nightlife, and as I reflected on my stay in Madrid, I was incredibly satisfied with the experience I had had, and my time spent in the city. I’d made friends, both locals and other travellers, and I had done things that no admission price could have bought me.

***

I had fun in Madrid, but my time spent there also took its toll on me. In my attempt to make up for the failed nights out in Barcelona, I had managed to go out drinking and partying every night for over a week straight. That, combined with the unanticipated lack of Couchsurfing hosts and the spending on accommodation in the last few cities, threw my budget a little out of whack, but the biggest blow the week of partying in Spain had dealt me was to my health. A week of excessive alcohol consumption, lack of sleep and very little nutritious food left me feeling like something of a train wreck come Wednesday morning. It was a combination of a summer cold and mild malnutrition, coupled with the stress and anxiety that it was now less than 24 hours until I was due to land in Rome and I had absolutely no idea where I would be going after that. I had secured a single night in hostel in town, which was a long way from the airport I would be arriving in at approximately 11pm. I had to check out of my hostel room in Madrid at 10am when my body was telling me “Lie the Hell down, you exhausted idiot!”, so there I found myself, sitting alone on a sofa in the common room of the hostel, searching desperately through Couchsurfing profiles, scared and alone.

I’m not really proud of what happened next, but I’m going to tell you, because it was actually somewhat of a milestone in my journey. I had a bit of a breakdown. I went into the  bathrooms, locked myself in a cubicle, sat down, and cried. Not just cried – I sobbed, balling my eyes out into my palms and wiping my nose on my sleeve, to little avail given that I was already pretty physically sick on top of being an emotional mess. And I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was that cracked me – sure, there had been a couple of disappointments and a few close calls and rather scary or stressful incidents, but for the most part my journey had been an incredible experience that was overwhelmingly positive and fun. I suppose I could put it down to the deterioration of my current personal situation – if something in the outside world of my surroundings goes wrong, it’s not difficult to come up with a plan or solution or something else to fix it. But as soon as my body began to be the thing that was going wrong… Sometimes we’re not as tough as we think.

I also felt a bit lonely, which seems a little paradoxical. Physically, there were always people around, and aside from sleeping I very rarely had time to myself – and in the hostel environment, sometimes not even then. But it was the familiarity of close friends that I was starting to miss. Meeting new people every day was an amazing experience, and it’s always fun to get to know people and start fresh with that kind of thing, but there are days when things begin to catch up to you, and all you want is that friend who knows exactly what you’re thinking without you having to say it, knows exactly what’s wrong without having to ask it, and knows how to make you feel better by seemingly doing nothing at all. Ever since leaving Ralf behind in Berlin, this trip had been a crazy whirlwind of faces coming and going – and I guess somehow it all became a little too much. I wouldn’t exactly  say I was homesick – Hell, I knew I was doing a lot more fun and exciting things here than I thought I was ever going to do back home – but I was definitely tired, and in dire need of some of the more homely comforts that are hard to come by while on the road.

Sometimes I think everyone just needs a good cry. Whether the matter is trivial or life-altering, sometimes things just upset us, and the straw that breaks the camels back is enough to burst open the waterworks too. People might think it’s a sign of weakness, but afterwards you sometimes feel significantly better. I sat there for a little while after the heart of the breakdown, sniffling and wiping the tears from my cheeks, but in the end I got to the realisation that no one was going to come looking for me. No one was going to notice I was missing from the common room and ask if I was okay. I’d seen no sign of Rachel or Talon that morning, but to be honest I was glad that they didn’t see me post-cubicle breakdown: it wasn’t a pretty sight. I was on my own. But now, as the emotional storm was clearing, being alone wasn’t such a scary thing. It was a challenge. I’d been accosted by a shady monk in Thailand, I had survived motorcycle accidents in Cambodia, I’d had money scammed right out from under my nose in China, and I survived as an openly homosexual man in Russia without getting arrested, or worse. I’d made it through a lot worse: was I going to let a mere week of partying be my undoing? Not a chance in Hell!

With new resolve to take better care of my body and an optimism that I would overcome whatever obstacles my travels had in store for me, I emerged from that cubicle a better man. I could have easily left out this chapter of my journey when telling this story, but I think it’s important for anyone who is thinking of travelling, to let them know it’s not always a walk in the park. It’s not always a holiday or a vacation. Sometimes things go bad and it really sucks and at that very moment you really wish you weren’t there, that you were back home, or some place else a little more comfortable. And that’s okay. Because thats why we – or why I, at least – choose to travel this way. It pushes you to your very limits and faces you with challenges where you really have no choice but to overcome them. My little emotional breakdown was a milestone in that it taught me the true value of character building that comes with extensive travelling. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Glow Sticks and Green Lights: Parisian Nightlife

For my first night in Paris I headed towards Rambuteau, one of the gay quarters in central Paris, to meet one of my friends from Australia. I had known my friend Arie had been travelling through Europe with another friend of his on a Contiki tour, but the tour had finished and they were doing a bit of travelling on their own before heading home. Back in Berlin, when I had been deliberating over where to head next, I had sent Arie a message to learn his plans and discovered he would still be in Paris for a few more days. Arie and his friend Daniel would be leaving on Friday, but the earliest I would be able to arrive was Thursday. Even so, we had decided we couldn’t miss the chance to spend even one night partying in Paris, so we’d arranged to meet up in city centre once I had sorted things out at my hostel.

“Oh my God! Robert, we’re in Paris together!” Arie had exclaimed when I finally caught up with them. It was still a strange sensation to meet people who were so familiar in places that were so foreign. We exchanged stories about our travels: Arie and Daniel shared their crazy adventures in Amsterdam, while I recounted my trek across the Trans-Siberian, and the exploits of Berlin that were still fresh in my mind. After my day of travelling and stressful afternoon at the station, I had been keen to head straight into a bar and grab a beer. However, Arie and Daniel both had plastic bottles of lemonade mixed with vodka, so we had to take a seat in the gutter around the corner of the first club while Daniel finished his ambitiously strong beverage. It was a throwback to the kind of drinking we had done in Australia, and after meeting and talking to Ralf in Berlin I was seeing it from a different perspective, through a whole new set of eyes. It was still relatively early in the night, and even when they offered me some of their pre-drinks, I declined. I found myself in a frame of mind where I wanted to go out, explore, mingle, maybe have a few beers – not get supremely drunk and wasted, make a fool of myself, or do something I might regret later. A lot of people who know me will probably be reading this thinking I’ve been hypnotised or brainwashed or something, but the truth of the matter was that I’d realised I wanted to make some changes in my life – there was no harm in trying out a few of them now.

When we finally entered our first place, a venue called Sly Bar, I was rudely reminded as to why we would usually drink so heavily before we went out. There are ways to cut costs when it comes to getting hammered, but simply drinking socially can rack up a bill, especially in Paris. I took small mouthfuls of my €7 beer in an attempt to make it last, watching as Daniel ran around the bar collecting different coloured glow sticks from the traffic light party that seemed to be happening – “I wonder what the blue ones mean…?” The bar itself was quite a small, dark space, trimmed with lots of neon lighting and, despite lacking a dance floor, loud pop music that required you to lean in close to the person next to you just to be heard. Smoking is quite prevalent in France though, so a good portion of the patrons were congregated in the courtyard out front to smoke their cigarettes. I continued catching up with Arie, and in general just enjoying the company of somebody familiar. It was the perfect comforting antidote to the post-Berlin blues that I’d had trouble trying to shake.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Rather than getting another drink at Sly Bar, we decided to move on to see if any of the other places were cheaper. To cut a long story short, they weren’t – Paris was an all around expensive city and the sooner I came to terms with that and just accepted it, the happier I would be. The next venue was called Spyce, and it was the first time we encountered a trend that turned out to be common in the Parisian nightclubs. There is a first initial door which you enter, and then you have to wait in a small chamber until the outside door closes. Only then will a second door open and allow you to enter the main nightclub. I’m not sure if this is designed to keep the cold out of the club during winter months, or if it’s to restrict the amount of noise that seeps out of the nightclub and into the street with every opening door. Spyce itself was even smaller than Sly Bar, but it was completely enclosed, the loud club music bouncing off the walls and turning the place into an intense, compact discotheque. We bought another round of expensive beers and took a seat at one of the tables.

There was a decent crowd, but it wasn’t packed and there wasn’t too much dancing going on. As I scanned the crowd, I made eye contact with a handsome looking gentleman, who smiled at me when he noticed I was looking. I returned the smile, but then turned back to Arie and Daniel. We hadn’t been there for too long, but eventually the gentleman approached us and introduced himself. His name was Xavier, and I introduced myself and Arie and Daniel. Arie and I chatted to him for a couple of minutes, while Daniel wandered off into the crowd to do his own thing, as he so often seemed to do.
“What is this?” Xavier said as he reached down and grabbed my wrist. Back at Sly Bar I had picked up a green flow stick and attached it around my wrist.
“Oh, these? We got them from Sly Bar.” I motioned over to Arie, who had taken half a dozen glow sticks and was busy constructing bracelets and necklaces out of them. “I think there’s a traffic light party or something going on.”
“A traffic light party?” Xavier seemed intrigued.
“Yeah. Green means I’m single,” I said with a grin.
Xavier returned the smile. “Are you guys going to Raidd?” I knew that one as the bar that Arie and Daniel had said we should visit later – they had been in Paris for several days already, and had been to a few of the hot spots.
“Yeah, I think we are. I just have to finish my beer first,” I said, pointing to the table and picking up my almost full glass.
“Oh, okay,” Xavier said. “Well I’m heading over there now, some of my friends want to get there already. But if you are coming, hopefully I’ll see you there?”
“Yeah, hopefully,” I said with another smile. He smiled back, and there was a knowing in his expression as he read between the lines. He leaned in towards me, placed a hand on the side of my face, and placed a gentle kiss of my lips. A touch so delicate seemed out of place in a club like Spyce, and it was almost ridiculous how quickly things had progressed from the initial glance across the room. After a few moments, Xavier pulled away, smiled again, and slipped away to the exit.
“Woo hoo! Go Robert!” Arie laughed from behind me, patting me on the back. “I guess some things never change.”
“Oh, shut up, you,” I laughed along with him, though I made a point of us finishing our beers rather quickly and ushering us on to the next bar.

***

After passing through the double door entrance to Raidd, I could see why the other two had insisted that we visited this club this evening. The bar was huge, with a vast dance floor that was flanked by several fully stocked bars and covered in good-looking men. Something curious I had noticed in all the bars was that a lot of people were drinking wine. Australians love their wine as much as the next nationality, but you would be hard pressed to find people waltzing around the night club with a glass of chardonnay. It seemed common practice here in Paris though, and the only thing that stopped me from ordering any was the fear of having it poured only to be told it was more expensive than the beer!

But that wasn’t the most noticeable thing about Raidd – that title would definitely have to go to the shower in the wall. In the centre of the feature wall of the club was a glass box. It didn’t seem like much… that is, until an underwear model stepped into the booth, sans underwear, and turned on the shower and began to clean his body in an extremely seductive manner. He was a picture of physical perfection, his masculine body so chiselled it could have been a sculpture taken straight from a Parisian art gallery, and he was completely naked, shaking his fully semi-erect penis around and pressing his impeccable buttocks up against the glass. To say the shower show was steamy would be literal, but also a huge understatement. Men were crowded around the glass panel, groping hopelessly at the Adonis within, but he just smiled, continued to hose himself down, and teased his audience as he continued to play with himself. It was an impressive show, though I’d be lying if I said I was shocked – Berlin had tested and broken my limits when it came to being shocked at anything I saw in European gay bars. Yet this was still different: where Berlin had been filthy and grungy, a dirty kind of sex appeal, Paris was putting on a performance that was equally explicit but in a much more refined manner. The show was clean and immaculate – I mean, he was in a shower – and despite baring all to world, no one was allowed to touch him. In a lot of ways it was the opposite to the shocking things I saw in Berlin, but it still managed to be equally sexual. The best part about the whole thing was that while some guys ogled and groped at the shower window, there were plenty who were sitting around casually chatting and sipping their wine, as though there was really nothing that different or special about someone taking a shower in a panel of their clubs wall. Though I guess, for the locals, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.

It wasn’t too long until I ran into Xavier, though. He wasn’t a Frenchman as I had first suspected, but Portuguese, though he had been living in Paris for a few years. That didn’t make him any less sexy though, and there was a good portion of the evening where we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Though between the fierce make out sessions, I managed to talk to Xavier’s friends and some other people about the club.
“Are you guys here for Pride?” one of Xavier’s friends had asked Arie and I.
“Pride? No, my friend Daniel and I are leaving tomorrow,” Arie said, motioning across the club to where Daniel was making friends and mischief. Our questioner turned to me.
“Me? Oh, no I’m just here for the weekend.”
“Pride is this weekend.”
“Oh…” Suddenly it seemed as though my decision to come to Paris had been guided by some kind of higher power, and hasn’t been so random after all. “Well then, I guess I’m here for pride!”

We continued to dance the night away, but at one point I found myself outside with Xavier while he was having a cigarette. I stood close by him in the crisp night air as he took a puff.
“You know, I usually have a blanket rule about not hooking up with smokers,” I said, leaning away from his exhalation.
Xavier just chuckled. “What made you change your mind?”
“Well, I didn’t realise at first,” I said, “But I told myself I’d have to be a little lenient when I was in Paris. I’ve never met a Frenchman who didn’t smoke.”
“But I’m Portuguese,” he reminded me with a cheeky smile.
“You live in Paris though,” I said, laughing as I gave him a gentle shove. “Close enough.” He chuckled to himself again, and pulled me back in to plant a kiss on the side of my face.
“I’m gonna have to go soon. I have work tomorrow and my friend is picking me up.”

We said our goodbyes, but we exchanged phone numbers, and Xavier told me he wanted to see me again. I assured him I would be around for a few more days, and his leaving me was actually perfectly timed. As soon as he left, Arie stumbled out of Raidd with Daniel and another guy named Omar, who was visiting Paris from Israel. Daniel wanted food, and I decided to end my night on a high, so we left the club in search of a greasy, post-drinking feed.

***

Arie and Daniel got kebabs. I realised that I’d only had about two or three beers the whole evening, and so consequentially wasn’t that drunk, which meant I wasn’t exactly hungry either. I just stole a couple of chips here and there from Daniel’s meal while the four of us chatted.
“I’m sorry, but what’s going on with this“, Omar said as he pointed at my outfit like a real-life male Karen Walker. “You’ve got the nice blazer, the mustard chinos, and then…” he trailed off as all four of our gazes fell to my shoes. “You’re wearing, like, sneakers! That does not look right at all!”
“Hey! Why don’t you try travelling halfway across the world living out of a backpack? Stylish shoes were one of the first luxury items to go.” To be honest, I was actually surprised at myself at how comfortable I was at caring so little about things that would have mortified me back home – I had to assure Omar that I would never have normally worn this outfit.
“Well luckily you’re in Paris now,” he said with a smile. “Perfect place to get some new ones.” I just laughed and nodded – I didn’t have the energy to explain backpacking or budgeting to someone who had moments ago confessed to spending 100% of all his pay cheques on clothing. He was a nice enough guy, but I sensed some core ideological differences between the Israeli fashionista and myself.

It was starting to get late, so eventually I decided to call it a night. It was sad to say goodbye to Arie after only seeing him for a short time, but it had been so nice to see another familiar face and to hang out with a good friend. As we parted ways and took our different routes home, I tried to figure out the best way for me to get back to the hostel. It was well into the early hours of the morning, and it wasn’t even a weekend, so the metro had closed, and all the bus routes looked far too complicated for me to navigate. Though I did have my map with me, and the inner boy scout kicked in and decided that it wouldn’t be that hard to navigate my own way home – I was still staunchly opposed to wasting money on taxis. However, one thing I didn’t take into account was the scale of the map. “It won’t take me too long… 20 minutes, half an hour at best.” Half an hour in, and I was barely halfway there. “I’ve come this far already though”, I said to myself, out loud, needing the physical motivation once it had reached 4 in the morning. “No point in getting a taxi now.” Of course, that was the point where it began to lightly rain. I think I half ran, half power walked the rest of the way back to the hostel, cold and wet as I was. It had taken me well over and hour, and I was completely exhausted, though even after I’d snuck into the dorm and curled up in bed, sleep did not come. I felt horrible. I’d only had a few beers though, not enough to make me feel this sick. I laid in bed, hoping it might be a stomach ache that would just pass. But the pain grew worse to the point where it was physically crippling, then I remembered eating a few on Daniels chips, and the sauce that they had been smothered in…

My night had been going so well right up until I’d left the club. If someone had told me that in another hour I’d be ending my night with my head in the hostel toilet bowl, being sick from both ends until the break of dawn, I would never have believed them. So I guess if I learnt anything on my first night in Paris, it’s that it was a city full of surprises – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.

Snoozers and Losers: A Rant on Snoring

At this point in my journey, I feel it’s appropriate to take a break from the linear narrative and focus on some of the smaller details. Actually, one detail in particular – something that not even the thickest of guide books can adequately prepare you for, yet something that almost every traveller will encounter at some point in their journey. This detail is the dreaded and infamous act of snoring.

I have a long and troubled history with this bizarre bodily function, with the cruel twist being that I don’t snore, and never have. I’ve shared rooms and beds with enough people to know this. I’ve also shared beds with boyfriends who have snored. I don’t mean heavy breathing, or that kind of muffled wheezing that people make when they have a blocked nose. Real snoring is loud and consistent, and doesn’t just show up some nights and disappear on others. For me it can be a deal breaker in relationships – how am I supposed to sleep with you if I’m unlikely to ever have a good nights sleep again? To be sure, there are varying degrees of severity. Sometimes it’s a solution as simple as a pair of ear plugs. Other times its a little more dire and requires moving to another room – generally not an option in the middle of the night when you’re in a hostel. But there are some people who snore so badly that no amount of soft foam wedged into your ears is going to help, and in some cases even a dividing wall can’t cut out the vibrations rattling from their distorted windpipes.

***

During my time in South-East Asia, I miraculously avoided this problem. Either I was extremely lucky that I never shared a dorm room with someone who snored, or I drank so many 50c beers every single night that I passed out too hard to notice – which is the only real foolproof way I’ve discovered to overcome a snoring roommate. Though that was all about to change once I reached China and began the Trans-Siberian tour. In Beijing I’d had the luck of being placed in my own room, so I’d asked Tim what the situation had been like with the rest of the group. “I’m in a room with Don,” he’d told me. “Which is fine, except he snores pretty bad.”
“Really? Ah man, that really sucks.”
“Yeah. Like, last night I’d already gone to bed, and he came back late from some sightseeing or something… When he went to bed, his snoring actually woke me up.” There’s a common tactic of trying to fall asleep before the snorer in order to not be kept awake – the fact that Don’s snoring was loud enough to rouse people from their own slumber filled me with grave concern.

The following nights had been on the train to Ulaanbaatar, and the night in the hotel in which I’d shared a room with Tim. He’d also shared a cabin with Don on the train, so I quickly suggested that we should share one of the double rooms, and I’m sure Tim was grateful for a solid nights rest. It wasn’t until the ger camp when I became due to experience it for myself, when the three guys who weren’t one half of a couple were all put into one ger together – that’s Don, Tim and myself. And boy, Tim had not been exaggerating – Don snored. It was almost funny, like some kind of awful joke, but that sentiment faded extremely quickly when I realised we were actually supposed to sleep with the racket going on in the next bed. Luckily I had been prescribed some sleeping pills before I left Sydney, for a blocked ear that may have caused discomfort during my flights. Yet even washed down with vodka and wine on the night we had a party in the gers, sleep still didn’t come so easily.

***

It was a similar story at Lake Baikal as well. I would never have expected my best nights sleep to be had on the Trans-Siberian trains, while having to drink and medicate myself to sleep at each of our stops. Tim had been sharing a room with him ever since the ger camp, including all of the trains – I felt so bad for him, though not bad enough to offer to trade places, since I’d had my own share of restless nights with Don’s snoring. When we got to Moscow, however, there was a rush and a scurry as our group was divided into two rooms – a larger dorm for nine of our people, and a smaller room for the other four. I’d secured a bed in the larger room, but when I looked back out into the lobby I saw Tim standing amongst the chaos, a lost, slightly dejected look on his face. And I instantly knew why – the larger room was full, and Don had claimed a bed in the other one.

So I stepped out and offered Tim my bed. He seemed genuinely shocked, but I didn’t have to offer twice. He was extremely grateful as he moved his stuff in, while I dropped my bag off into the smaller room. After four nights on from Irkutsk to Moscow, I was concerned Tim might not make it through the next day without a decent night of sleep. If you can cast your thoughts back to my blogs about Moscow, you’ll remember I lamented about having a terrible nights sleep. This is the reason why. Between the room that became ridiculously humid during the nights and the snoring that rattled the bunk beneath me, I think I managed maybe a couple of hours sleep each night, at the very most.

Come St Petersburg, I was once again in a dorm with Don. Now it may be a little more clear as to why I did my best to keep with the Russians when it came to our evenings of drinking – a solid sleep with a resulting hangover, in my experience, is infinitely better than a frustrated and sleepless night of tossing and turning. But on my last evening in St Petersburg, I had decided it would be better to have a decent nights sleep and a clear head in the morning, to make sure I didn’t miss my train to Finland. I went to bed at a decent hour – unfortunately, Don had beaten me there. He was in one of the bunks underneath me, and I swear sometimes I felt the vibrations through the bed frame. That’s how bad it was. It was a noise that almost didn’t sound like snoring – every so often it mutated to a strangled gurgling that actually made me feel a little bit sick. I never thought I’d ever use the word ‘disgusting’ to describe the sound of a snore, but it honestly made me feel ill. I laid in my bed, desperate to fall asleep, but it was literally impossible with such a commotion going on below me. Sometimes it would stop, and the partial relief came with the simultaneous concern that maybe he’d actually stopped breathing. But it wasn’t long before there was a huge, sucking snort and the horrendous snoring would continue. Some people get woken up by their own snoring, and then they roll over or move into a position with better airflow into their nose or oesophagus or whatever – not Don, he just powered on through. I wondered if there was actually anyone else asleep in the dorm. No one seemed to be tossing and turning as furiously as I was – maybe they were all drunk and passed out.

I managed to doze off a few times, into a very light sleep, but I was always wrenched back into the unfortunate reality of Don and his snoring. It was a shame, because Don was a nice enough guy, but I think I really came to resent him by the end of the trip, purely because he had, however unintentionally, robbed me of far too many nights of sleep while he had been happily snoring away in his own slumber.

***

It happened again in Stockholm. There was someone – and I never figured out who it was – who snored and made the most vile gargling noises that a decent sleep was next to impossible. I didn’t have much energy to do a lot of sightseeing when I was in Stockholm, and it was partly, if not mostly, the fault of whoever kept me awake with that racket they called breathing. And I don’t think it’s something mild that people should just deal with – I honestly think that that persons snoring was a serious negative impact on my time in Stockholm, because the lack of sleep just really threw me out for the entire day.

I’m not the first person to suggest that people who snore shouldn’t be allowed to sleep in dorms, or they should be allocated special ‘snoring rooms’. Even though I say I develop strong negative feelings towards snorers, there’s nothing personal in the request. But I think for a snorer to sleep in a shared dorm is incredibly unfair on everyone else. It’s almost selfish – you get to enjoy a nice long sleep while simultaneously robbing everyone else around you of the same luxury. Why should you get to sleep when you’re the reason the rest of us suffer from lack of sleep the following day? There’s no way you can come so far in life without having to share a room with someone – someone is bound to have told you about it, especially if your snoring is that bad. In that case, I really think you should either search for a medical solution to what is actually a very real problem, or do not stay in dorms where you’re going to be a serious nuisance to others. I don’t mean to sound like a bitch, but it’s the honest truth, and I dare you to find me a traveller who hasn’t had similar thoughts about a snorer they’ve encountered in a dorm on their travels.

And it may sound harsh, or like an overreaction, but unless you were there and experienced the Hell that I slept through, or rather didn’t sleep through, then maybe you’ll just never understand.

Bird Flu and Beer – Chicken in China

While my days in China were spent doing typical tourist activities, at night Snow took us out to eat at some authentic Chinese restaurants. Most of the waiters at the places we went to had fairly limited English, so we had to rely on Snow to do all the ordering. We ended up getting a range of dishes and splitting between the group – it was amazing how much food you can order for a group of thirteen and still only end up paying approximately $7 each. Needless to say, nobody went hungry, and I feel I can safely say that some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, I had in China.

One thing that made me uneasy at first, however, was that Snow ordered a chicken dish. Alarm bells went off in my head immediately – all throughout my travels in South East Asia I had been following the news and tracking the progression of the new strain of bird flu. At the time I arrived in China, I knew there had been the most cases in the city of Shanghai, and even a few confirmed reports in Taiwan. Some people had suggested I not go to China – others, including my mother, had just strictly warned me to stay away from live poultry and to not eat any chicken. At this point in my trip, I can safely say that I am yet to handle any living poultry. As for eating chicken… well, to be honest, I completely forgot. The alarm bells didn’t go off until after we’d finished our meal, at which point I had eaten a substantial amount of chicken.

But so had everyone else in the group, and no one seemed to give the danger of bird flu the slightest thought, and if they had then they certainly hadn’t mentioned it. Snow hadn’t seemed too concerned, so I took that as a good sign – I figured the local people tend to know more about what’s going on in their areas then CNN, although with China you never really do know…

Tim, one of the Australian guys, had been travelling throughout China for the last three weeks on a different tour before joining our group. He was telling us a few stories about his travels and some of the places he had been, and at one point mentioned something about Shanghai. Alarm bells did instantly go off this time, and when he finished his stories, I leaned over to have a one on one conversation with him.

“Did you say you were in Shanghai?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yeah, probably about a week or so ago.”
“For how long?” I continued to quiz him, with the nonchalant façade probably failing miserably.
“Just three nights,” Tim replied, quite matter-of-factly. I thought maybe the direction I was going might have been apparent, but he didn’t appear to have any idea where I was taking the interrogation. I leaned over further and spoke a little quieter, suddenly feeling a little silly about my paranoia.
“What about bird flu?” I asked in a low, hushed voice.
“Bird flu?” Tim repeated. “What about it?”
“Wasn’t it a problem? Like, weren’t you kinda scared going through Shanghai?”
He looked genuinely surprised, or at the very least confused. “Umm… No, not really. I mean, it might be around, but… no, I wasn’t worried. It’s mostly fine, really.” His tone carried the nonchalance I’d tried to attain in my original question, and I very much believed what he was saying.

So between Tim having survived a visit to Shanghai and our entire group eating chicken seemingly without a second thougth, I decided that perhaps bird flu wasn’t as much of a serious concern in Beijing as my loved ones would have me believe. I know most of them will be reading this either sighing, face palming, or rolling their eyes, but in my opinion it just really shows how a little bit of media hysteria can go a long way, and terrify the on-lookers more than the people actually living the experience.

***

The other part of Chinese night life I experienced was the Hou Hai Bar Street, where a bunch of different small bars lined a riverside street. I visited the street after dinner on our last night in Beijing with Tim and Alyson, the other American in our group. As we strolled down the street trying to decide on a place to have a drink, Tim made a comment on how unlike the rest of China this street was, or more precisely, how much American influence there was. Almost every bar had live music and karaoke, with many of them butchering Western music with their limited English vocabularies. Most bars had people outside trying to beckon you into their venue, but we kept walking until we found a place that lacked the hecklers. We ended up taking a seat at a Jamaican bar, sitting outside so that we could hear each other talking over the live music inside, and sampled some of the local draught beer. It was nice to get to know some more members of our travel group, though we didn’t end up staying out too late, as we had to get up early to get the train to Mongolia the next morning. But it was nice to catch a glimpse into the Chinese nightlife.

Beijing's riverside bar street.

Beijing’s riverside bar street.