The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

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“We Are Not Afraid”: French Kissing and Parisian Pride

On my first night out in Paris, I learnt that I had arrived in the city on the weekend of their celebration of gay pride. From that moment on, my entire stay in the city became a balancing act between being a responsible tourist and a dedicated gay man. There was so much to see in this huge city, but there was no way I was going to miss out on all the partying either. While Paris had steadily been filling up with homosexuals over the past week, the main event of their pride season was the pride parade on Saturday afternoon. I had intended on going along to see it, but unfortunately visiting the Eiffel Tower took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I did, however, have plans to meet with a friend of a friend. Darrin, one of the San Franciscan guys who I had met in Bangkok, put me in touch with Greg, a friend of his who lived in Paris. Greg had plans to meet some of his friends in the city centre later in the afternoon, so we coordinated to meet at one of the metro stations and travel in together.

***

Greg was a nice guy, mild-mannered and very sweet, and I quickly caught him up on my situation, my travels, and how I’d come to meet his American friend in Bangkok despite being an Australian myself. It was actually quite funny how the web of connections and friends of friends kept expanding further and further the more I travelled. Eventually we emerged near the Bastille monument, where pride was definitely in the air. It was a similar feeling to Mardi Gras in Sydney, with people walking sound the streets in all kinds of crazy costumes, and copious amounts of glitter, sequins, feathers and body paint. The streets were lined with rubbish and parade debris, and there were DJs on a stage erected near the monument, where a huge outdoor dance party had started. “This is the ending point of the parade,” Greg said as he pointed towards the crowd of revellers, and then up one of the streets that led into the huge circle, where the tail end of the parade was trickling in to join the party. After seeing the hordes of people around me, I slightly regret not seeing more of the parade, because it would have been a fantastic show.

We moved to a nearby restaurant where Greg was meeting some friends who had been having a boozy lunch. Their table faced out onto the street where all the excitement was going on, so Greg and I each pulled up a chair and were offered a glass of wine from the bottles on the table. Then a waiter came by to clear some things off the table… and to my surprise, I recognised him.
“Xavier?”
He looked up at me, and I saw the recognition register in his eyes. He seemed just as shocked as I was, if not more. “Hey! Robert… Hi. Wow… what are you… what are doing here?” He sounded a little nervous, almost freaked out, and it wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that showing up at his work like that probably made me seem like a bit of a stalker. I had sent him a few text messages when I had gone out again by myself on Friday night, but he had told me he was resting because he had work the next day. “I work at a kind of fancy restaurant,” was all he had told me. “I have to wear a… suit, tie, tuxedo type thing.” Sure enough, there he was in is uniform, looking more like a posh butler than a waiter.
“I’m just… I’m just here with friend, and… his friends,” I said, motioning towards the group around the table that I had just met.
“Oh, okay… well, I better keep working.” The exchange was starting to attract a little attention, from both Greg and his friends, and Xavier’s co-workers.
“You’ve been in Paris for two days and you already know our waiter?” Greg said to me with a laugh after Xavier had left, and I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened on Thursday, as one of his friends poured me a glass of wine. He looked a little uneasy at the end of the story. After we’d finished our drinks, Greg informed me this was actually only a brief stop on the way to meet some other friends, so we bid them farewell, and I threw Xavier a small, unnoticed wave as we headed off into the crowd.

“It’s just funny, because…” Greg spoke up once we had started walking. “Because… well, not funny, actually. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty surer that that guy has a boyfriend.” With one revelation, everything about Xavier’s behaviour made sense. He’d keen very keen but still somewhat nervous when he’d first approached me at Spyce, and today he’d acted extremely on edge, as though he’d been sprung or caught out on something. I sighed, rolled my eyes and just nodded. Greg let out a gentle, sympathetic laugh.

***

Greg and I walked through the crowds and twisting streets until we finally made it back to what I had been calling the ‘gay quarter’, although there are supposedly several gay friendly areas in Paris. But this was the main one, and the one I had visited the past two nights, though it did look rather different in the daylight. The sun doesn’t set quite as late as it does in Scandinavia, but the afternoons are longer, and the dying afternoon sunshine bathed the small cobbled streets in glowing warmth. The French gays were out in full force in what appeared to be some kind of street party. There was a main intersection where a couple of bars had completely opened up onto the street, serving beer in plastic cups with which patrons could wander out onto the crowded streets to socialise, so the crowds flowed out of the main square and down and around all the adjoining and adjacent streets.

“Are you allowed to drink on the streets in Paris?” I asked Greg as we twisted and squeezed our way through the crowd.
“Well… not exactly,” he called back to me. “But pride is just a once a year event, so they’re a little more relaxed about it on this night.” Much like pride in Berlin, it was a super relaxed affair, with no fences, restrictions or red tape, except there was a little less debauchery from the Parisians, which was supplemented with a simple, joyful elegance. Somewhere in an apartment above, an electric bubble-blowing machine whirred away, and the scene was sprinkled with a stream of bubbles that refracted in the sunset and caused a rainbow sheen to hang above the partygoers. I think I stopped at one point – nearly getting left behind as Greg pressed on – and just stared up at my enchanting surroundings. The romantic Paris I had been dreaming of was finally starting to show it’s face.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

First things first, Greg and I grabbed some beers, and then moved through the crowds as he looked for his friends. Now, I have to admit, I’d heard some mixed reviews about the French, and the unfriendly attitude towards foreigners that was somewhat resounding in their stereotype. Just the night before, when I had gone back to Raidd for a couple of drinks, I had overheard a conversation where one guy complained about “f**king tourists,” loudly enough, and in English, for me to assume that he’d probably wanted someone – specifically tourists – to hear him. If you’re going to complain about tourists, in a city that has more annual visitors than nearly any other city, in peak tourist season and in pride, in a gay bar that is well known for being popular with tourists… well, to be frank, that guy was an arrogant moron. So I was a little nervous going in to meet Greg’s friends, but I rationalised that to be friends with someone as nice as Greg, they would have to be pretty nice themselves.

And I was right. I was introduced to a bunch of guys, many whose names I didn’t remember, but they were all incredibly friendly towards me, and the ones with better English skills asked me various questions about my travels and held some pleasant and interesting conversations. My theory, based on the experiences of others and my own, is that French guys can simply be a little closed off to talking to people outside their immediate social groups, if those people haven’t been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Had Greg not been with me, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have talked to and socialised with half as many guys as I did that evening, but as it was I met quite a few nice and interesting people. One of them was Pierre-Jacques, or PJ for short, who told me about some of the queer activism he’d been involved with in France.

“This year is a very special pride for us,” PJ told me amidst the celebrations, “because it’s the first pride since gay marriage has been legalised. So there’s a real milestone for us to celebrate.” The topic of marriage equality in Australia came up quite often, and it was almost embarrassing to have to confess that we were still lagging behind on the issue.
“It wasn’t easy for France, either,” PJ assured me. “People think of us as very… free love, and revolutionary, but there are still lots of conservatives who think marriage should still be between man and woman.” The other people I spoke to the most that evening were Tony, PJ’s boyfriend, who is originally from Belgium, and Tony’s best friend Nasser, a Frenchman from Nice. Tony told me a little bit about the social politics between Belgium and France, and PJ pointed out the differences in their accents – Belgians spoke French with a rougher, less elegant style, a result of their proximity to countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Nasser was quite charming but aggressively flirtatious – Tony even pulled me aside at one point and told me to let him know if it was a little too much. I just laughed and told him that I could handle myself – Nasser was quite charming, and I didn’t mind the attention. It wasn’t too long before he was stealing a few kisses from me, but I figured there was no better time than Parisian pride to let a French man have his way with you.

As the afternoon turned into night the partying got a little heavier inside the clubs, though outside on the streets the scene was still much more conversational, though the standards to which the conversation dropped was directly proportional to the amount of beer consumed, and there was frequent cheekiness thrown in here and there by Nasser. The question of where in Paris I was staying came up while I was talking to PJ and Tony, and I told them I was staying out in the 20th District for one more night, and that I still had no idea where I was staying on my final night.
“Oh, really? Well, we have Nasser sleeping in our spare room tonight, but if you need a place to stay tomorrow you are more than welcome to stay with us. As long as you don’t mind dogs?” I assured him dogs were fine, thanked him for the generous offer, and said I would let him know. PJ must have said something to Greg after that, though.
“You should have said you needed somewhere to say,” Greg said as he was getting ready to leave the party. “I have room in my place, if you want you can bring your stuff over to mine tomorrow. Any friend of Darrin’s is a friend of mine,” he said with a friendly smile. It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders to hear that, as the problem of accommodation on my last night had always been nagging in the back of mind, and I was glad to find that all the negative stereotypes about the French people were being proved 100% wrong to me. I said goodbye to Greg and told him I would see him soon.

When the party was really wrapping up though, Nasser became a lot more concerned with where I was going that evening.
“How are you going to get all the way out there?” he exclaimed when I told him where my hostel was. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was assuming I would just get a bus as close as I could and walk the rest of the way, like I had the night before. Nasser was having none of it.
“I’ll ask PJ and Tony, maybe if you want you can come with us? They live quite close to here.” Though I was highly aware that Nasser probably just wanted more alone time with me, I couldn’t say no when the other option was a trek back to the 20th District. PJ had already offered to have me the following night, so he said as long as I didn’t mind sleeping on the couch, or sharing the bed with Nasser, I was welcome to join them. So off the four of us went on a stroll through the tiny streets of classical Paris, dim golden street lights lighting the way.

***

We walked down the streets as two pairs holding hands, the crowds around us dissipating as people took turns down other streets to their respective homes. Before long the four of us were all but alone, and as we walked past a small park Nasser called out to PJ and Tony. “Wait! Show Robert the advertisements!”
There was a chain link fence around the park – strung up along the fences were signs and placards depicting same sex couples. “These are real actors and celebrities,” PJ explained to me. “Some of them are gay, but many of them are straight. This was part of a campaign to promote that being gay is a normal thing, and that it’s okay to be gay.” He pointed to some of the pictures of the men, who were smiling, holding hands, even kissing. “These guys are all straight,” PJ continued, “but they did this to show their support to gay marriage. Many of them are quite famous in France. Some even more so…” He pointed to a picture of two women wrapped up in a loving embrace, facing towards the camera.
“She is from… how is it called in English?” Nasser paused for a moment to think. “Desperate Housewives?”
Sure enough, one of the women in the picture was Eva Longoria, making a very sultry looking lesbian. Yet there was something more peculiar about all these pictures.

“They’ve all… All the pictures have been cut in half?” I turned to PJ.
“Yes,” he said, lamentation in his voice. “As I said earlier, we still have many homophobes and conservative people in France. When this campaign went up, it was soon vandalised by these people.” Tony put an arm around PJ’s shoulder to comfort him.
“But then… These other ones…” I was only able to form half sentences as I gazed at the scene around us. Beside each of the vandalised signs, a replica had been placed, with the exact same pictures and the exact same slogans. None of the secondary signs had been touched. The imagery was somehow more powerful than just having the original pictures alone. And so PJ explained:

“When the signs were vandalised, at first people just wanted to take them down, and replace them with the new ones. But then we decided that… No, that would be them winning, that would be giving in. So we left the destroyed signs up, and just put the new ones beside them. It’s a way of saying that, yes, we know they are out there. But we are not going to let them tell us what we can or cannot do. We are proud to be gay, but we are not going to pretend they’re not out there. It’s a way of saying that we… that we…”
“That we’re not afraid,” I finished for him, and the scene around us descended into a solemn silence.
“Yes. We are not afraid,” PJ echoed, breaking the moments silence. He started to move along the street again with Tony, and Nasser and I quickly followed suit, his arms wrapped around me to shelter me from the chill that was settling into the air. We didn’t talk much more about what we had just seen, but I think it was a message that rang loud and clear in us all.

Even in countries where marriage equality has been achieved, there is still significant amounts of discrimination. People often say, “What exactly do you need to be proud of?”, or claim that equality has all but been reached, and there’s nothing left to fight for. But there in the streets of Paris, I was reminded that the fight is never really over. There’s always going to be people out there that hate us, and pretending otherwise will never help anyone. Being proud is about being gay, and not being afraid to admit it. I loved the decision to leave the vandalised posters up on display, because it sent a message to the homophobes, a message with a meaning as clear as that initial act of vandalism – we are gay, we are proud, and we are not afraid.