Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

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From Parks to Parties: Killing Time in Rio de Janeiro

I have to admit, my stay in Rio de Janeiro was not quite like how I had originally imagined it. Around the world, the name brings to mind exotic images of the legendary Carnival, and belly dancers in the streets and lavish, feathered costumes and parties on the beach and… well, I guess I can’t really speak for the rest of the world, but it’s definitely considered a bit of party city. So I surprised myself at how little partying I actually did while I was in town. I spent a great deal of my time outside, either on the beach or taking walks through the neighbourhoods and some of the nearby greenery, or just hanging out with Tom.

***

On my first morning I was woken up by Tom getting ready and having breakfast in the kitchen – which was, for all intents and purposes, my bedroom. He was doing his best to be quiet, but I’m a pretty light sleeper, and he noticed me stirring.
“Sorry,” he said in a whisper as he shuffled between the tiny gap between my sofa bed and the kitchen counter. “If you want, you can go into my room and lie on my bed if you wanna sleep in some more, so I don’t disturb you.”
“Oh, nah it’s alright,” I said, “but thank you.”
“You’re welcome. How was the bed?” His face looked a little wary, as though he was afraid how I might answer.
“It was… okay,” I replied with a sheepish chuckle, and Tom started to laugh too.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit hard,” he said, with the slightest hint of regret in his tone of voice. “Sorry”.
“Really, it’s okay. It’s fine,” I said again, but I guess I must have made a grimacing face as I went to lie back down – the sofa bed was pretty uncomfortable to sleep on.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna go and sleep on my bed?” Tom said again with a knowing smile.
“Well…since you’re offering,” I said with a reluctant laugh, and gathered up the sheets from my bed to go and rest for a few more hours in Tom’s room. He had to head to work for the day, so he left me to sleep in and relax.

When I finally got up for the second time that morning, I decided one of the first things I wanted to see was the beach. Firstly I grabbed some breakfast at a café on the adjacent tourist street, full of bars and restaurants that catered for the English-speaking crowds, but as I went to head straight to the beach I found myself having second thoughts. I’d heard my fair share of horror stories about getting robbed or mugged on the beach in Rio, and while I’d had to make some pretty dodgy security arrangements for previous beach visits, it didn’t make sense to take my bag with my phone and wallet in it down to the beach when I was staying in Ipanema, such a short distance away. So I headed back to Tom’s apartment, lathered myself up with sunscreen, and headed off down to the beach. I didn’t even bother wearing a shirt – all I had was my towel, my thongs, and the swim shorts I was wearing, with the apartment key safely secured in one of the sealable pockets.

The day was overcast, but temperatures were still warm and humid. This meant it was still warm enough to go swimming, and there were significantly less crowds due to the fact nobody was sunbathing. It was actually perfect. The cloudy weather also made the beach beautiful in it’s own mysterious way, to the point where I actually returned to the apartment after my swim so that I could fetch my iPhone and take a picture. But it was so lovely to be in the ocean again – I hadn’t been swimming in the sea since my dip into the beach in Amsterdam, and as someone who grew up on a coastal city, I was realising for the first time how much I really did love the sun, the sand and the surf, and how much I missed it when it wasn’t in my life. So I didn’t do a great deal that day except for be unashamedly lazy, and indulge in the beach bum lifestyle while I had a chance.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

That evening Tom and I just hung out at home. We ended up bonding over a mutual understanding of certain pop culture references, and I introduced him to Ja’mie King: Private School Girl. He couldn’t get enough of it, and we pretty much exhausted the collection of clips that YouTube have of the hilariously offensive Australian character. Later we ended up watching an episode of American Horror Story: Coven on TV, since it was the only thing that was in English. The TV was in his bedroom, so we were lying on his bed watching it. Tom must have noticed me start to doze off at some point in the evening.
“Hey, if you want, you can sleep here tonight. I know the sofa bed is pretty uncomfortable.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I’d hate to feel like I was intruding on personal space, but Tom did have a double bed and the sofa bed was one of the hardest things I’d ever slept on.
“Yeah, it’s cool. Honestly, I don’t mind, I just thought it would be a bit creepy to offer on the very first night,” he said with a laugh. But we’d instantly taken to each other as friends, so when the time came to sleep we very comfortably crashed there together, and I ended up doing so for the rest of my stay in Rio.

***

The following afternoon, when Tom had some free time, we went for an easy hike up the mountain that was located in the park by the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The national park of the side of the hill was semi-dense rainforest, but once again the weather was humid and overcast, which made the day warm but not too blistering hot with intense sunshine. It was a pretty peaceful and pleasant walk through the natural surroundings, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the streets and the beach.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

And when we got to the top of the trail and stepped out onto the lookout, it was a pretty incredible view.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive houses on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive buildings on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

Taking a break after the climb.

Taking a break after the climb.

And when the clouds momentarily parted, Christ the Redeemer made himself visible from the taller, neighbouring mountain. Tom and I both quickly grabbed our cameras to snap some pictures before the clouds rolled over again to conceal the famous statute.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

On the walk back down we found ourselves locked in at the gates to the park, so we had to ask one of the groundskeepers to let us out via the service exit. We chatted as we walked back to Tom’s place, watching kids playing in the park and locals jog around the flat areas by the lagoon. We also stopped to sample something that Tom insisted was an important part of local Brazilian life. I don’t know if there was an actual Portuguese name for it, but essentially it was just a purple frozen smoothie, made from the pulp of the açaí berries, found on the palms of the same name which were native to Brazil. It didn’t have a very strong flavour, but it was common to throw in little extras or add-ins to make it more exciting. I got a small cup and mixed in muesli, while Tom had protein mixed into his larger one. I can’t say I was a huge fan, but it wasn’t too bad.

***

While I did spend most of my evenings just hanging out with Tom, but there was one night where we did do a bit of partying. I’d failed to get in touch with any of Fausto’s friends in regards to invitations or offers to join them at their parties, but I much preferred hanging out with Tom and James instead, so that’s what I did. On Saturday night James came over to Tom’s and the three of us drank vodka and laughed and caught up, and James gave me some advice and suggestions about things that I could see or do during my last few days in Rio de Janerio. There was also a lot of Ja’mie quotes being thrown back and forth, and for a minute I actually felt like I was back at home in Sydney, between the mindless banter and the crude jokes and figuring out if we had enough vodka left to make a decent roadie or if we should do a few shots before heading to the club.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what we decided about the roadie, but eventually we were in a taxi to a place called 00 (Zero Zero), supposedly a pretty popular gay bar in the area. When we got there we went through the whole process of getting IDs checked and registered and being assigned a tab card, but after going through the same drill so many times in São Paulo it felt basically normal. The club was an interesting space, with an indoor seating area, a huge outdoor patio, and a dance floor that kind of blended into both of them. Tom, James and I got our first beers and sat down outside, since the night air was nice and warm, and it was only a matter of time before we were approached by some of the local men. I have to admit, a large percentage of Brazilian men are absolutely gorgeous, but so many of them have this weird charm about them that would come across as super sleazy if it were anyone else. But somehow it just makes them seem cheeky and romantic. Or maybe it was just sleazy and I was blind to it, I honestly can’t say. I also discovered that a lot of Brazilian gay men were very flaky and unreliable, and despite strongly insisting that they would “be right back”, there was really only a 50% chance you would ever see his face again. So based on personal experience, I guess I now have a few trust issues with some of the locals (although, if we’re being honest, it seems more like typical gay bar behaviour than anything else).

It was a fun night, with the three of us continuously being separated and reunited throughout the course of the evening, each time a little bit more drunk and having some other bizarre social interaction to report. The music was a mix of pop and funky traditional music, and a few times I found myself being awkwardly dragged through a drunken two step tango by a sensual Brazilian gentleman, though for all the ballroom dancing classes I’d taken in high school I still struggled to keep up with his lead. The dance floor was fun and wild, though I had a fair share of unwanted attention while shaking my hips to Shakira and insisting that they didn’t lie. Though Tom was great for that – he was a well built guy and at least six feet tall, towering over literally everyone in the club, so I could always just fall back and swoop behind him for protection.

I don’t know what time it was when we eventually decided to call it a night, but we were all danced out and our skin had a light sheen of sweat. We checked ourselves out of the club and paid, then piled into a taxi and headed back to Ipanema. Once we were in the general vicinity of home, we got out and parted ways with James, who wandered off in the other direction to his hostel while Tom and I headed home. However, the amount of dancing that we’d been doing combined with the amount I had drank meant that I was totally unashamed in telling Tom how hungry I was and pleaded that we stopped somewhere to get greasy, post-drinking food. Of course, he agreed – I was his guest, after all –  and after we wandered through a few streets we found a place that was open 24 hours. The service was less than satisfactory at such early hours of the morning, but that didn’t matter once we’d been served our burgers, chicken legs, and our delicious plate of bacon and cheddar fries.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues. And it was so, so good.

After that we headed straight home, showered and crashed into bed. As beautiful as the beaches and the natural surroundings and the hiking had been, I couldn’t have let myself leave Rio without doing at least some partying. And even though it was the only night in Rio de Janeiro that I had spent partying, it was a damn good one.

New York Nights: reflections under the disco ball

I’d done my fair share of nightlife exploring when I was in New York City, although I think it’s safe to say I barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s just too big, and there’s too much going on, that I doubt you could see it all in a year, let alone a month. However, one thing I think that I can safely assert from my brief time there is that you really have to have a plan of attack, and know where the parties of the evening are and where you want to go. Despite having a huge amount of fun on my birthday – probably due to the company I was with than the places I went to – it’s hard to deny that the night was in a relatively high degree shambles due to a lack of planning. We just drank ourselves stupid and gallivanted around Hell’s Kitchen hoping for the best. But the following weekend I was celebrating Ralf’s birthday with him, and since he doesn’t drink, I too drank considerably less, and therefore my experiences of the nightlife were substantially different. Possibly due to the fact that I simply remember a lot more, but what’s a few shots between four hour memory blanks?

Being the Berliner that he is, Ralf was never in a rush to get to any of the parties on time. I had to negotiate a happy medium of not leaving too early, but not leaving so late that we were stuck in hour long queues around the block just to get inside. In the absence of alcohol I ended up drinking quite a bit of Red Bull to keep myself pumped up until it was finally time to get going. I’d done some event scouting through some of the promoters who I’d come across on my earlier nights out in New York, which is how Ralf and I eventually found ourselves at VIVA – supposedly the biggest Saturday night gay party in Manhattan. It was where Jesse and I considered going the previous week, but… well… that obviously didn’t happen. Anyway, VIVA was supposed to be incredible, multiple floors full of hot guys, strong drinks and good music. Ralf didn’t seem as keen on the idea of pop music, but I gave him a playful shove and told him to leave his Berlin attitude at the door. He agreed that as long he could dance, he would be happy.

And for what it’s worth, it was pretty great party. As the evening continued on the place became packed, and under the giant disco balls and flashing lights writhed a sea of sweaty, shirtless homosexuals. Ralf and I started out dancing together, but during one of my excursions to the bar I lost him, and since we were both foreigners neither of our phones worked particularly well. I kept my eye out for him, but eventually resigned to the fact that I had lost him in the sea of hot and sticky flesh, so I continued dancing on my own.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

***

At some point in the evening I took a break from the dancing, and retreated to the upstairs level, with an open balcony that looked down over the dance floor below. I perched over the edge of the railing and peered down below, trying to see if I could spot Ralf among the crowd. There were just too many people though, and my efforts were futile. After a while of standing there, a man beside me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… I think I recognise your face. Did I see you here last week?”
I had barely paid any attention to the man standing there, so I turned to look at his face, which was completely unfamiliar.
“No… No, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Really? I could swear I saw you here last week?”
Internally I smirked at what was an obvious pick up line, but instead I just politely smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I wasn’t here last week.”
He laughed, almost a little embarrassed. “Okay, I lied. I’ve never seen you either. Though I’m glad I’ve seen you now…” It was also at that point, I think, that he noticed my accent. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. Sydney, Australia.”
“Ah, Australian. Nice.” He then turned to face the out towards the crowd. “So what do you think of the party? Having fun?”
I turned to look down at the dance floor, examining all the dancing bodes, still no sign of Ralf. “Yeah, it’s pretty a cool. Huge space.”
“Anything like this in Sydney?”
“Well…” I had to reflect back on Oxford Street, my nights at ARQ, and the countless nights I’d danced away there. “Sort of, but… not really. Not like this. This is different.”
He smiled to himself, then turned back to face me. “The go go dancers are about to start upstairs. Have you been up there?”
“There’s another level?” This place as bigger than I had realised. The man just chuckled at that.
“Would you like a drink?”

Dancing under disco balls.

Dancing under disco balls.

I’d given up on ever finding Ralf again this evening, so I decided to go with him and accept the offer. He was a bit older than me, and nothing that special to look at, but I was quite enjoying the banter we had going between us. On the way to the bar he said he had to make one more stop. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the DJ booth and sound control box while he was talking to a few people who looked like they were in control of whatever displays were going on out over the dance floor. It didn’t quite sink in at first, but in retrospect it should have been pretty obvious why this guy was asking probing questions about how much I liked the event – we was one of the major event coordinators and promoters. He gave me the grand tour of the whole venue, and we chatted to each other for a long time. He had a lot of questions, and myself and what I was doing, and he seemed to be impressed by whatever charisma I managed to exhibit.

“So, what brings you to New York, Robert?”
“I’m just travelling around. Backpacking. Only here for one more week.”
He seemed genuinely disappointed. “That’s a shame. You seem like a really cool guy. You know, if you were staying, I think there’d definitely be a place on my staff for you.”
I scoffed at that. “What, really? As a promoter? Why?”
“I think you’d be great. You seem interesting, but real. Not pretentious. We try to throw great parties, but the one thing we’re not is pretentious.” The conversation was partially lost in the music that throbbed in the air around us, but I found his assertions a little hard to swallow. All throughout my numerous nights out in New York, ‘pretentious’ was definitely a word that stuck out in my mind as a perfect adjective to describe what I’d seen, especially in the gay bars and parties. The way everyone in these clubs and parties seemed to carry themselves, the way they talked, the way they danced like they were God’s gift to gay men – there was just something about the nightlife I’d experienced that almost turned me off it completely. It was almost as though everyone was trying too hard to impress everyone else to even have any real fun. But perhaps that was just me overanalysing everything, because this guy seemed completely genuine when we assured me they were all about keeping it real.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a comparatively small city – not everyone in Sydney has moved from the suburbs in a dreamy pursuit of fame, fashion, riches and glory. At a previous night out with Jesse and Georgia, at an event that I guess had been organised by the guy I was now speaking to, I’d chatted with a guy who was attending.
“Yeah, I didn’t really nice Sydney. It was boring,” he told me when I mentioned where I was from.
“Oh, well… yeah I guess sometimes you just have to know where to go, right?” I maintained composure, but tried to come to the city’s defence. “Some places are better than other at certain times. I mean, I’ve had some average nights out here, just because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
“No,” he just replied, with a sour, bored look on his face. “It was just wasn’t very good.”
And that really annoyed me. Sure, Sydney is no New York, but it had been my home for the past 22 years and I’d had some amazing nights out on the town there, and had more fun than I could possibly quantify. And I certainly wasn’t going to let some perpetually pouting wannabe model who probably grew up in Nebraska tell me that my hometown was objectively boring based on his sole experiences. I think it was at that moment that I was well and truly over the attitude of arrogance that I was finding among so many people that I met in New York, particularly in these gay venues. There was so much inflated self-importance that you could have gathered the heads of everyone in the room and used them in place of helium balloons at a child’s birthday party.

But here, at VIVA, I found myself with a guy who seemed so genuine in his belief that there was nothing pretentious in the way they flaunted their parties, and that they were just there to have a good time, and not necessarily impress anyone. I guess it really is a subjective matter, and I won’t claim that all these parties or all these people are the same. This was just my experience. He was a nice enough guy all the same, and at the end of the night I even got a behind-the-scenes tour of the building before heading back to his place in Chelsea with him to crash. I slept there for most of the morning and afternoon, mostly because it was so unbelievably quiet compared to Melissa’s apartment in Midtown.

***

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The following evening I headed out again with Ralf, this time settling for some of the regular bars rather than any big parties that were going on for the Labor Day long weekend. The guy I’d met last night offered to get me on a list to whatever party he was throwing that night, but I politely declined, mostly knowing I wanted to spend more time with Ralf, but also because I don’t think I could take another event like that. I met Ralf, and he told me how he had ended up at some after party the previous evening. We ended up going to Industry, where I had been at some point on the night of my birthday. I have to admit that as impressive at the big parties and been, I much preferred dancing to trashy 90s pop – cue eye roll from Ralf – in a regular gay bar, there the resident drag queen started a conga line and interrupted the regular DJ program to host yet another twerking contest, a fad that was taking the world by storm at the time. But it got me thinking that maybe the party promoters weren’t pretentious. Maybe it was just me, and that simply wasn’t my scene. Maybe I was just a simple boy from a relatively modest city who likes a simple bar and the simple pleasures of dancing with a friend without feeling like I’m competing to be the hottest piece of meat on the dance floor. Maybe I’m just not ready for the likes of New York City. But if that’s what I was missing out on, then I guess I’m okay with that.

Strippers and Drag Queens and Bears, Oh My!

One thing that I knew about Montreal, from my friends who had both visited and lived in the city, was that it was very gay. Even though everyone had told me about this ‘Gay Village’, I don’t think I was entirely prepared for it. I’ve seen the gay districts from Sydney to Madrid to London to New York, but I have to say that Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main street that runs through the area, was one of the gayest I have ever set foot in. Apparently during the summer months the entire section of the road becomes closed off to traffic, and the shops and cafés all spill out onto the street, and the swarms of people enjoying the summer really do turn the street into a camp little village in the middle of the city. Unfortunately I’d arrived at the beginning of autumn, so the cars were back on the roads, but that didn’t stop the vibe of the place from being incredibly gay, whether we were walking down the street during the day and checking out all the kinky shops and gay-friendly eating establishments, or out on the town after the sun had gone down, checking out the myriad of gay bars and clubs that Montreal had to offer.

***

During the week that I was in town, Stuart and I had several nights out in the village. On Wednesday evening we went to a bar called Cabaret Mado, the stomping ground of Mado, a drag queen who was apparently somewhat of a celebrity within the Montreal scene. There were a couple of amazing looking drag queens in the show, but there were also a disappointingly large amount of rather mediocre queens, and some who just looked downright awful. I had seen some extraordinary drag queens in New York City, and after some of my travels I like to think that the queens I know back in Sydney set the bar pretty high in terms of standards and expectations, but still so many of these Montrealian queens just didn’t cut it, in my opinion. There were a couple of humorous acts though, and the ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously almost always got the most favourable reaction, so I guess it goes both ways. There were also moments of audience participation – these were the times Wrecking Ball and the rise of the wild child Miley Cyrus, and she was bringing twerking to the attention of mainstream pop music. Stuart urged me to enter the twerking competition, and even one of the drag queens tried to coax me up on stage, but I told Stuart I was going to need a lot more alcohol before I was about bust out of my jeans and shake my butt on stage – not to mention the fact that I didn’t think I could twerk if my life depended on it.

However, it’s probably worth noting that a very large part of the show was in French – some of the songs the drag queens mimed to were in English, but other than a few sentences here and there, I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in the dialogue and the obvious slapstick humour that was going on between the queens. Which I didn’t mind so much – I never have and never will expect to get special treatment for not knowing a native language – except that the lines that they did say in English, directed at a fellow Anglophone towards the front of the stage, seemed really rude and condescending (and Montreal technically is a bilingual city). I know throwing shade is typical conduct for many drag queens, but in this case it just seemed so unnecessary. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it was the beginning of something that I came to notice more and more during my time in Montreal – most of the Francophones in the city were really arrogant when it came to their language. In fact, all the warnings that I’d been given about Parisian people being extremely rude could easily be applied to almost all the native French-speakers that I met in Montreal – and of course, all the people I had encountered in Paris had been nothing but lovely. I understand the French-speaking Canadians are striving to preserve the language within the region, but I don’t think it gives them the right to be such jerks about it.

Regardless of how nice the drag queens were – or weren’t – Stuart and I stayed and watched most of the show. While we were there in Cabaret Mado, we also ran into some people that Stuart knew from back in Calgary. As it turns out, one of them was the owner of the only gay bar in Calgary, Stuart’s hometown, and him and his small group were also enjoying a week away in Montreal. We ended up sticking with them most of the night, and after the drag show had finally finished (I have to admit, even when they were performing songs in English, it lost it’s entertainment value pretty quickly), we followed the guys next door to see a different kind of show. With the exception of some of the kinkier places I visited in Berlin and I guess that one dodgy time in Thailand, I’d never actually been to a male strip club – come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conventional strip club for either gender, so I guess it was a first for me when Stuart’s friends took us to the nearby Stock Bar. The interior of Stock Bar looked like a typical gentlemen’s lounge, with a bar to one side and a floor full of polished wooden tables and chairs situated in front of a stage that was edged with red velvet curtains. At the end of the catwalk that protruded from the stage and into the audience was a pole. We bought some drinks and sat down, and it wasn’t long before there were guys emerging from behind the curtains to come up to the pole and show off their… um, “muscles”.

The guys all had great bodies, and a fair few of them were pretty cute, but… most of them were pretty boring to watch. I was excited at first, thinking that they were going to strip down to their underwear, get up on the pole and do some impressive moves. Some of the guys did a little trick here and there, holding on and spinning around before pulling down their jeans, but most of them did these weird movements that I guess was supposed to be sexy dancing while trying to maintain some level of macho masculinity. They hardly touched the pole, and if they did it was just to lean back on something in an attempt to look… sexy, I guess? The result was truly laughable. It wasn’t masculine, and it wasn’t sexy. It was just awkward to watch, and I shovelled my face full with the free popcorn from the bar in order to stop myself from giggling. Some guys kept a little mystery, their tight underwear still clinging to them as they strutted back behind the curtains, but plenty of them left nothing to the imagination, and full frontal nudity was rife. Our newfound companions kept nagging me, asking which ones I liked, saying they would pay one of them to give me a private dance. I couldn’t take any of them seriously, though – when I couldn’t decide they ended up dragging us to the other strip bar, Campus, but at that stage of the night there was hardly anyone there, and nobody was performing.

I’m one of the last people in the world that anyone would consider a prude, but I decided that sitting in a dark room watching people dance in the hopes of earning your money, in addition to your attention, was just not something that I was interested in. They weren’t even very good dancers, and seeing how underused that pole was, and all that missed potential, was actually partially what inspired me to take up pole dancing lessons when I arrived back home in Sydney. Stuart and I walked home together that night, and stopped at McDonalds on the way, an ending that was weirdly anti-climatic – yet somehow still preferred – after an evening of drag queens and strippers.

***

However, by the time the weekend rolled around we were ready to go a little harder and party a little bit more. Stuart and I stayed in two different hostels while we were in Montreal, so on Friday afternoon we checked out of the first one and walked a short way across town to the second one we had made reservations for, which happened to be conveniently located a lot closer to the Gay Village – a perfect way to kick off the weekend. We started off our Friday night at Sky Bar, where we had actually had our afternoon beers earlier in the week, as they had $2.50 drink specials. We met up with a couple of Stuarts friends who were living in Montreal, but unfortunately they were just passing through or too busy to stay for long, or had to be up early in the morning so couldn’t stay too long. A lot of the weekend was a carousel of faces and names of Stuart’s various acquaintances who were all lovely but none of whom I really got to well enough for them to leave any kind of impression. That’s a pretty lame way of confessing that I don’t remember any of their names, but hey, there was a lot of alcohol involved so it’s not really that surprising. There was also a sizeable dance floor on the upper levels of Sky Bar, so after his friends had departed Stuart and I left the chilled out ground floor for the upper floors where the party antics had kicked in.

It was dark and smokey, with fog machines and laser lights and the electro-pop thumping in the atmosphere of the room. After we had been moving around for a while, a young, shirtless, skinny blonde guy pulled me up onto the podium where he was dancing and urged me to stay and join him. I won’t try and transcribe what was ultimately a lot of drunken conversational dribble, but he eventually coaxed me into joining him in his shirtless-ness. He didn’t seem to be hitting on me at all though, but rather just wanted someone to dance with. Eventually he pointed across the room towards the bar, where a significantly older gentleman was standing with a couple of guys who were younger than himself but obviously older than my skinny blonde dancing partner.
“That’s my boyfriend over there,” he shouted as he leaned into me, so he could be heard above the music. “Let’s go say hi!” He pulled me down off the podium to follow him, and I managed to grab hold of Stuart, who had stuck relatively close to the podium where I was, and dragged him over with me. I didn’t like where the foreseeable future of this situation was going, and I was definitely not going into it alone. Of course, the boyfriend was very wealthy and very generous. He bought everyone shots and drinks, including Stuart and myself, and I guess we hung around them for as long as we had to before we could leave without seeming too rude. It was so bizarre, though – in fact, I probably wouldn’t have believed it had happened if I didn’t have a hotel address and a bunch of phone numbers saved into the notes on my iPhone, which I rediscovered in the morning. They had invited us to join them at a party the following evening, but Stuart and I were both pretty skeptical. I wasn’t particularly keen to be offered up as bait for the sugar daddy, so we took our leave as soon as physically possible. And no, we didn’t attend the party the following night.

We did, however, have another destination that Friday night – just down the road from Sky Bar was a nightclub called Apollon. It had always been our original intention to end up there, so after we had slipped away from the sugar daddy, his mates and his boy toy, we headed down the street. It was a huge place with both upstairs and downstairs rooms, playing various styles of pop and house music respectively. I guess by this stage we were drunk enough to not be too fussed about the music – at least, I knew that I was ready to dance. We chatted with some bartenders, got some drinks, and hit the dance floor. Downstairs next to the pool tables I also discovered a machine that dispensed free – yes, free! – popcorn, and in my intoxication it was exactly what I wanted and needed. We danced the rest of the night away, but one other crazy thing that happened was that we met someone that we knew from Sydney. I’d only bumped into Sam a handful of times on the gay scene back home, but when you unexpectedly run into someone you know on the other side of the world, it’s always kind of a big deal.
“I knew you were travelling – I mean, it’s impossible to not know by now – but I didn’t realise you were coming to Canada! What are the odds, hey?” Sam was visiting Montreal with his Canadian boyfriend, and we had brief introductions and catch ups before returning to the dance floor. It was a fun night, but also a messy one. Drinks were bought. Boys were kissed. Names were uttered but soon forgotten, and Stuart and I did not walk home together that night. In fact, by the time I was heading back to the hostel it was broad daylight, an obvious walk of shame through the village from wherever the taxi had taken us last night. I frantically tried to memorise directions and street names from Google Maps as my iPhone battery teetered on the edge of depletion, but at least I had learnt an important cultural lesson about French-Canada: not all of the Francophones were that bad.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

***

After an attempt to not make Saturday a complete write-off, Stuart and I were pretty exhausted come Saturday evening. But it was the only weekend that we had in Montreal, so there was no way we were going to not go out, so we had a quick afternoon power nap before getting ready to head out again. Stuart was trying his best to get to me see every single gay bar in Montreal, or at least in the Gay Village, and in the end I think he was pretty successful. At the beginning of the evening I was sitting on my bed in our hostel, waiting for Stuart to get ready. I was sitting with my legs crossed, and at one point when Stuart turned to say something to me, I saw a shocked expression wash over his face.
“What?” I asked, puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure you want to wear those jeans?”
I looked down into my lap, and sighed. “Oh… well…” I had been aware of a tiny hole in the crutch of my jeans, and I was slightly aware that it had been continually expanding with everyday use – I only had 2 pairs of jeans with me, and as the weather had started to get colder I was usually always wearing at least one of them. The position I was sitting in stretched the hole in such a way that you could see an excessive amount of my inner upper thigh and the underwear around it. “Goddamn it!”
“They have needles and thread downstairs,” Stuart informed me. “If you know how to sew you could try and patch it up yourself.”
I considered it for a moment. I’d learnt how to sew, back in high school textiles classes, and before that as a Boy Scout, and while I didn’t remember anything too specific, I figured it couldn’t be too hard. I so slipped into my other jeans and headed down to the hostel common room where I found a wall of communal needles and thread that could be used for clothing repairs.
I obviously didn’t do a very good job, because I earned a few sniggers from Stuart when I returned.
“Just… why did you use white thread?” he asked me through his laughter. They were black jeans, and I guess I hadn’t really considered the fact that a white repair seam was going to stick out like a sore thumb. In the end I had also just thrown in random stitches across the whole thing in the hopes it would hold as long as possible. I’d successfully closed the hole though, and that was all I needed from them for tonight.

My... ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

My… ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

We headed over to Rue Sainte-Catherine for dinner, and afterwards our first stop was a bar called L’Aigle Noir (French for ‘Black Eagle’). We had plans to crash a university party that we’d heard about a little later in the evening, but it was still relatively early, so we went on over to L’Aigle Noir for a beer, and to continue our quest on visiting as many of Montreal’s gay establishments as we could. What Stuart either failed to tell me, or I’d failed to hear when he did, was that it was actually a leather bar. Not strictly leather in that there was a dress code you had to abide by, but a large majority of the patrons were kitted up in their full leather gear: boots, jeans, shirts, hats, jackets – the works. Having worked in a leather and fetish store back in Australia, it wasn’t a sight that particularly surprised me, although the atmosphere in a bar is very different to that of a retail store. Stuart and I got some beers and sat by ourselves and one of the high tables with bar stools, taking in the scenery. There was definitely a lot of cruising going on, with guys coming up rather close to one another to check them out. Stuart and I weren’t exceptions to this, but part of me wondered whether they were actually checking us out, or just looking at us with annoyance or disdain, since we clearly weren’t regulars, or obvious members of the scene in any way. It felt like the equivalent to a bridal party or hens night crashing a gay bar, where every gay man in the bar rolls his eyes, tired of having their regular venue treated like a zoo for straight people.

There were also television screens all over the bar showing hardcore porn scenes, many of which were pretty kinky.
“I bet you wish you hadn’t sewn up that hole in your jeans now,” Stuart said with a chuckle when he noticed me watching.
“Hey! I’m just trying to not make too much awkward eye contact with all the bears in here,” I shot back at him. When I’d seen cruising bars like this in Berlin, with porn screens and dark rooms and all those dirty delights, I thought it had been something almost unique – a liberal Berliner, or even European, attitude towards sex. However, the more places that I visited during my travels, the more I thought that it just seemed like Australia was the odd one out, the place where venues like this either didn’t exist, or were so far underground and secretive, as opposed to being a busy and bustling bar on a main nightlife street. While I doubt I would be a regular customer to a bar like this if it ever did exist in Sydney, I knew plenty of people who would, and it made me sad to think that my hometown and city paled into a publicly prudish place compared to the rest of the world.
I won’t lie, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself, making eyes with some of the scruffy, leather clad gentlemen. In the end it was Stuart who was urging that we should leave – as though I was the one who had dragged him there in the first place – so we finished our beers and departed for our next destination.

In a weird twist of fate, L’Aigle Noir was probably the place I enjoyed the most that evening. Stuart and I walked all the way down to the other end of the village to where some Halloween themed university party was being held. It was no more than a year since either of us had graduated, so we didn’t think we would look that out of place. And we weren’t, really… but the party still sucked. We didn’t know anyone, but the whole thing was very cliquey – groups of friends hanging out, people trying to be cooler than each other and acting really exclusive. We tried to mingle, but in the end it was just really boring, so we bailed and headed back to the heart of the village, where there was one more venue that we were yet to visit. The nightclub Unity was a few doors down from Cabaret Mado, and it was packed that evening. It wasn’t anything too special, just your average gay bar with strong drinks and a nice mash-up of pop and house music, but the night before was starting to catch up with us, and neither Stuart or I were in the mood to party too hard. I don’t even remember how long we stayed there before we decided to call it quits, but it can’t have been too late because we ended up stopping off at one last place on the way home.

“Do you wanna go back to Stock Bar?” Stuart put the idea forward, saying that he hadn’t really enjoyed it as much with his club owner friends from Calgary around us the whole time, jeering us on and just emanating sleaze. While I’d found the whole concept of the male strippers a little laughable, I conceded that it might be a different experience this time, so we left Unity and walked to the other end of the block were Stock Bar was located. It was a little busier on a Saturday night than it had been during the week, and there were a lot more dancers. Stuart and I took a seat right near the front, because hell, why not? If the strippers weren’t going to be shy, why should we? There were actually some very good looking guys that evening, and I found myself blushing as a few of them made prolonged eye contact with me during their performances. They were all obviously very fit, but there was one guy in particular who actually had a few skills and tricks that he did on the pole, which is what impressed me more than anything. After their performances, some of the guys would come down into the crowd to help take drinks to some of the tables, and to chat to some of the guys. I don’t know, maybe Stuart and I were a bit younger than some of the regular customers, because they all seemed to be drawn to us.

I wasn’t under the delusion that all of these dancers were gay – as it turned out, none of them were – and I know they were just doing their job. Still, I’m not ashamed to say I flirted with them a little.
“Are you guys from around here?” one of the cuter ones – and the one who had some pole skills – said as he sat down next to us. I told him Stuart was from the other side of Canada, and I was from Australia.
“Wow! Australia? That’s so far away!” He leaned forward and put his hand on my leg as he said it, and I couldn’t help but smile. He was super attractive, but I found the whole thing so ridiculously corny that it was all I could do to not burst out into giggles. But I held my poker face as he not so subtly got a little more hands on, and in the end he leaned over and asked me: “So, are you interested in having a private show?”
“Ahh… thank you, but no, not really my thing.” I don’t know if he was disappointed or not, but he took the rejection gracefully. “However,” I said before he could move on, “my friend Stuart here is definitely interested.” We’d both been ogling him, and Stuart had said he’d love to get a private show with him, so before I knew it the two of them were whisked away to the back rooms. I don’t know exactly what happened back there, but I just chuckled to myself while I waited and made more coy eye contact with the remaining strippers.

***

We made our way back to the hostel after it was all over, and so concluded our experiences with the Montreal nightlife for the weekend. It had certainly been a wide and varied experience, and we had seen the gay scene from one end of the spectrum to the other, visiting almost every bar in the Gay Village. I guess I liked the fact that, like Sydney, most of the gay attractions and venues were all located in a big flaming homosexual district, which made getting around and seeing them all much easier. I would love to return to Montreal in the summer one day and experience the village in all its livelihood, but I can still say that I ended this visit feeling particularly satisfied with my experience.

Roller Coaster: a trip to New Jersey and back

As well as getting to know my new American friends, being in New York also gave me the chance to catch up with some other dearly beloved old friends. Mischa was another American whom I had befriended during his exchange semester at university in Sydney. His speciality was mathematics, but the flexibility of his units whilst on exchange meant that he was able to take some subjects that weren’t usually offered in his discipline, and so we met in the tutorial for one of my Gender Studies units. He was also gay, and we hit it off right away and ended up hanging out quite a lot, and he became part of my regular circle of friends in Sydney. He was originally from Baltimore, but was now living in Connecticut, so as soon as he had a free weekend he jumped on a train down to New York to meet up with me. He is the sweetest little guy, and I was so happy I got to catch up with him – he met Melissa in Sydney too, so he stayed with us in the studio apartment that weekend, despite it still being full of the previous owners’ things.

Mischa and I went out for some drinks with some of his friends who live in New York (an evening which I’ll detail more in a later blog), the result of which we woke up at 7am on Saturday morning to drag ourselves to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mischa’s friend Walter was going to the Six Flags in New Jersey for an event called ‘Out In The Park’: basically the theme park chain hosts an event where queers take over for the day and night. Walter was going with his friend Neil – who we met on Friday night – along with Neil’s friends Gabriel and Tim. Neil had convinced us to come along, so even though I was pretty hungover that morning, Mischa and I bid farewell to Melissa, still half asleep as we crept out the door, and headed across town to catch the bus that would be taking us to the neighbouring state. We greeted Walter and Neil, who looked equally as hungover, we were introduced to Tim and Gabriel – who turned out to be a couple – and there was a frantic rush to get our tickets, make our way through the terminal and get onto the bus or we would be waiting another hour for the next direct one. Slowly, we began to perk up, and after emerging from the first tunnels I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, from the second state I had been to since arriving in the USA on this trip.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

It was a bus ride that shouldn’t have taken any more than two hours on a good day. Unfortunately for us, today was not a good day. There was traffic – my God, there was traffic. The bus came to a standstill at one point for almost 45 minutes. I’m not sure what was happening, because there didn’t appear to be any accidents or roadworks or anything… the cars just seemed to be going nowhere fast. “Oh my God! What is taking so long?” Neil said, peering down the aisle to catch a glimpse of the road out of the buses windscreen. “I have to pee so badly!” We’d consumed a lot of Gatorade and Red Bull to combat the early morning hangovers. We passed the time by chatting, getting to know my new friends, and taking the odd selfie here and there.

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

***

When we eventually arrived at Six Flags it was well after midday. One of the first things we did when we arrived, after buying our tickets and getting given our ‘Out In The Park’ event wristbands, was locate the nearest refreshment venue and order some food and some beers. I’m not really a fan of American beers, I discovered, but I drank them anyway because there really wasn’t much other option that day. We didn’t overdo it though, because we had a day of roller coasters and rides ahead of us. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m a screamer. Whether it’s scary movies, theme park rides, or just loud noises when I’m sitting in traffic, I am easily startled and I vocalise it loudly. Even for a theme park, where basically everyone screams to some extent, I think I earned myself a handful of strange looks from fellow riders. There were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a bunch of other comic book superhero themed rides, there were rickety old wooden ones (at least, they seemed rickety – I really hope they were actually stable), there were sleek futuristic ones and there were the slower, more sensible rides for when your head, or your stomach, needed a break. I went on everything – as much as I scream, I love the rides themselves, and am never put off by any amount of twists or turns or loops. The slower ones, however, were good because they gave you a chance to use your phone mid-ride. One ride that was designed like a parachute descent allowed a brief moment of standstill in which I was able to take a few ariel shots of the surrounding park.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

As the day grew later, we started to see more and more people with the same wristbands as us, meaning they were also here for Out In The Park. The event ran past the usual closing time of the park and well into the evening, which meant that for a couple of the rides we decided to forego the wait in the long lines and return later, when all of the regular visitors of the park were required to go home. The plan worked, and we managed to ride pretty much every major roller coaster, but if we hadn’t had the extended event passes I doubt we would have been able to see it all in time. When day well and truly became night, the park became a party in a huge outdoor area, almost like a mini-festival. There were crowds of people dancing to the music that was being pumped from the temporarily set up stages, and while the whole thing looked like it would have been a lot of fun, we were all just so exhausted from the day we’d just spent walking around in the hot sun and riding all the roller coasters. Neil was attempting to keep the spirit up, and most of us were still drinking our beers, but… in the end we decided it to call it a day. We still had a long way to go to get back to New York, and Tim even had to work the next day.

We exited out into the car park, and here is where the night started to get interesting… or frustrating, is probably a better adjective. As we were leaving, we had asked one of the women who worked at Six Flags where exactly to go to catch our bus, and what time it was coming. Seemed simple enough, so we exited and made our way to the stop. The parking space was comparatively empty to what it had been during the day, and there were a lot of buses at the far end. We inspected them, but they all appeared to be waiting for tour groups or something, or were otherwise pre-booked. So we waited where our bus was supposed to pick us up… and we waited… and we waited. Night had completely sunk in now, and while the September afternoon had been bright and sunny and warm, there was a chill in the evening that was inescapable, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to bring a jacket of any kind. As I was shivering there in my t-shirt and hugging Mischa for warmth, a guy approached our group and told us that there were no more buses coming to this stop.
“Over there is where the buses leave from this time of night,” he pointed past a fence to where there appeared to be some kind of security compound and back entrance. “You’ll be waiting until the morning, at least, if you stay here waiting for a bus. Trust me, I do this all the time.”
“We’re trying to get back to New York, though,” Gabriel told him. “This is where we were told to wait.
The man thought for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know about New York, but either way, there ain’t gonna be any buses coming through here. Over there you can get a bus to Freehold, probably back to New York from there.” We all looked at each other, not really sure of what to do. In the end we went with the stranger over to the security entrance, hoping that we might be able to speak to someone else who knew exactly what was going on.

I sat down in the gutter with Mischa, while some of the others went to talk to a security guard. The optimistic stranger who had started speaking to us before went down and sat on the bus stop seat. Then it started to lightly rain. I shivered some more.
“Oh my God, Robert, you’re freezing,” Gabriel said as he pulled off his hoodie and threw it over my shoulders. In a brief moment of pride I wanted to reject the offer, but I really was that cold, so I just pulled the hood close around my neck and thanked him.
“It’s okay, you were making me colder just by looking at your shiver. I’ll just steal Tim’s if I get cold,” he said with a laugh.
At that moment, Tim came over to us, accompanied by two girls who apparently worked at the park, who must also be trying to get home. “The security guard said there’s no more buses coming,” he said grimly.
“Well that’s just great,” Gabriel said. “Where are we supposed to get a cab out here? We aren’t even close to anything.”
Six Flags was located a fair distance from even the closest small town in New Jersey – too much of a distance to walk, and it wasn’t an area favoured by taxis. I had no knowledge of the area and know real way of finding anything out, so I felt pretty helpless. All I could do was just stick around and hope the others could negotiate some kind of solution. Gabriel went out to speak to some of the workers nearby, but came back shaking his head.

“I asked if there were was any kind of car service around here. He looked at me strangely and said “What, like a mechanic?” God, it’s like they don’t even speak English in New Jersey!” Despite the bleak situation, I had to laugh. In pretty much every TV show or film set in New York City, they talk about New Jersey like its the end of the Earth, or going there is like crossing over into Mordor or something. I used to laugh when the main character of Coyote Ugly “moves away” from New Jersey to New York: what is that, like, 40 minutes away? But sitting there holding my knees in the chilly air wondering how the hell we were going to get back to New York, I felt like maybe some of those shows weren’t exaggerating as much as I would have guessed.

***

We tried telling the optimistic stranger that there were no more buses coming, but he remained, characteristically, optimistic about the next buses imminent arrival. In the end one of the security guards somehow managed to get a hold of a contact who had cars that were willing to pick us up and drive us back to Freehold. There were six people in our party, plus the two workers and the optimist, who we basically had to drag into the car because we didn’t want him sitting there all night, but I think we all somehow managed to fit into the two cars. One of them might have been an SUV, I don’t remember. I don’t even know if they were legitimate cabs, but we weren’t exactly in a position to be fussy. I was freezing cold and exhausted – I wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating a North American autumn again. The cars arrived at Freehold just in time for us to see the bus heading to New York to pull into the parking lot. We ran to the bus like our lives depended on it. It was pretty much empty, and it was taking the long route since it was the only service running at this time of the early morning, but the last stop was Port Authority Bus Terminal. We all found our own spaces among the seats, curled up, and slept as best we could, which was hardly at all.

It was almost a shock when we stepped out of the bus terminal and there were still people walking around everywhere at four in the morning, and lights were flashing all the way along Times Square. Of course, this is New York City on a Saturday night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s just that the contrast between there and the parking lot in New Jersey could not have been any more different. At this point in my stay, Melissa hadn’t even managed to have a spare set of keys cut, and since we wasn’t replying to my messages I assumed she wouldn’t be awake to let Mischa and I in when we got home. We had to catch a taxi with Tim and Gabriel to the upper west side of Manhattan, where they generously agreed to let us crash for the remainder of the early morning.

All in all it had been a fun day. I had met some nice, funny and interesting people, and the debacle that had been the end of the night had been an entertaining story to tell Melissa when we had rocked up back in midtown the following afternoon. I just swore to myself that any future journeys into New Jersey were going to require a lot more planning.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.