Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

For a city that has a handful of extremely recognisable and world famous icons, I didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing in Rio de Janerio. James had mentioned the cable car ride to Sugarloaf Mountain, a pretty popular tourist attraction on the eastern edge of the city. Though, when I’d probed Tom about it later, he had shrugged, appearing pretty indifferent.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a great view,” he said. “It’s one of those things that everyone just does, know you? Almost without thinking about it. If you do go, just make sure it’s on a day when the weather is nice and clear.” I’d taken the advice into account, but there was no denying that on the bright and sunny days, the allure of the beach down the road was far more powerful than any urge to climb a mountain. The same could be said for Christ the Redeemer – the journey to actually get up the mountain to the base of the monument wasn’t a breezy walk in the park, and I can’t admit to having any strong spiritual calling from Jesus to go look at the huge idol up close. So I settled for the glimpses that Tom and I had had of the statue through the clouds on our hike a little closer to home, satisfied that I was probably experiencing a few more interesting things in Brazil than statues and landscapes.

But there was one other sight in particular that James had described that had piqued my interest much more than either of the mountains. “There’s the steps at Lapa,” he’d said as he rattled off a quick list of things that would be worth seeing, and perhaps it was the fact it was something I’d never actually heard of that made me research the steps and eventually want to go and see them. I jumped on Google and did a brief search of some of the other sights in the area – Lapa was a neighbourhood closer to the centre of Rio de Janeiro – and on one of the afternoons where Tom was at work, I set out via the bus and metro to explore a little bit more of the city.

***

I found Rio to be a curious city because it felt very decentralised. I’m much more familiar with the concept of a city centre, an obvious hub of activity that has a greater population density, is usually a little more expensive than the rest of the city, and has lots of things to see and do and entertain the tourists. But as soon as I stepped off the metro and emerged into the more central streets of Rio, I realised this wasn’t the case. The touristic focus of the city is by and large the coastal areas, and the regions that have the gorgeous beaches and natural beauty within the landscapes. That’s what people want to do and see when they come to Rio – I too had been primarily more interested in catching some rays and working on my tan than I ever had been about the sights I was about to visit.

Now, Rio is a pretty big city, so maybe there was a more accurate, central hub that I didn’t know about. To be fair, most of the city it actually based long the coast, around the mountains and the landscapes, and so the “centre” really just seemed to be the midpoint between the northern and southern parts of the coast. But the area I was in looked not far off being a ghost town. A lot of the buildings looked particularly old and run down, graffiti and litter were present – not overwhelmingly, but consistently – and I was very quickly introduced to another far less glamorous side of the city, which I had a feeling didn’t see half as many tourists as the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema. It told a different story, a toned down version of the rife poverty that existed in the favelas over the hill, the concentration of the Brazilian slums. It was actually quite confronting, and for the first time during my stay in Rio I actually felt the mild presence of danger and the need for a little more caution than usual – a fear that I had been secretly harbouring about the city yet had never before now been actualised. But I kept my wits about me and moved on, taking a few photographs of the significant buildings and trying me best to not look too much like an ignorant tourist. Firstly there was the Teatro Municipal, considered one of the most important and beautiful theatres in the whole of Brazil.

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

After that I made my way further west over to Lapa, where there were two more sights that I had read about. The first was the Arches of Lapa: the ancient Carioca Aqueduct. When I first read about them, I assumed I had just misheard James say ‘steps’, but they were actually something else entirely. I have to admit, I was expecting a little more than what I saw. To be fair, there was nothing misleading about the name – the were definitely arches. However, they’re been described as great architectural feat, a landmark of the city, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered the building looking particularly dirty on one end, as though it had suffered some major neglect. Although in the end it all ended up feeling rather fitting for the ghost town vibe I was starting to get from the area.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

But as I followed my directions down a few small side streets, levels of fear and uncertainty slightly but gradually rising, I turned a corner and instantly felt like I was in another city, with an entirely different mood and atmosphere. Escadaria Selarón – Selarón’s Staircase, or the Steps of Lapa – loomed ahead of me, an explosion of colour that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the otherwise dank and drab corner of the city.

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

Honestly, I hadn’t done that much research into what the steps actually were, so I was completely blown away when I stumbled across them. The entire staircase had essentially been turned into an artwork, with barely a patch of free cement that wasn’t adorned by a tile or ceramic in some way. There were words in the steps, there were flags, there were pictures – it was such a complex and diverse range of colours and images, there was nothing you could do but slowly ascend the staircase while marvelling at the walls around you, taking care to not trip up them in the process. There was a substantially larger amount of tourists on the steps, too – it seems as though this is one of the few attractions that people venture out this way to actually visit. I took my time picking out some fellow tourists who seemed trustworthy enough, and asked them to take my picture on the steps.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

It was actually quite a long staircase, and as I climbed further I realised that the staircase was actually a street. There were houses along either side, front doors opening directly onto the staircase, and I few times I actually noticed Brazilian families coming and going from their homes. I wondered what it must be like to literally live on a tourist attraction – frustrating at times, but surely a beautiful backdrop to spend even the most relaxed and casual days of your life. When I reached the top, it was interesting to gaze back down the steps and realise how unremarkable they looked from above. Almost all of the tiled surfaces faced downwards, and you could only really be confronted with all the colours as you climbed the staircase. I sat there at the top of the steps, partly to sit and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the whole thing, and also partly because I had discovered an adorable little stray cat which I couldn’t stop photographing.

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

The steps were really interesting though, and something I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to go and see. Now, whenever I see a movie that’s set in Brazil and there is a visual of the steps at Lapa, no matter how brief or insignificant, I can’t help but shout out “Hey, I’ve been there!” to anyone who will listen. It wasn’t a hugely popular attraction, such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, and I think the fact that there were less people made it even more memorable, and something that I really will carry with me for the rest of my life.

***

That day was the only real sightseeing that I did while I was in Rio. After seven months on the road, it’s a little difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for that kind of thing all the time, but I felt satisfied with what I had managed to see. The rest of the sunny days I spent hanging out with Tom, going to the beach with him and James, and for the most part just relaxing and taking it easy. People sometimes underestimate how taxing on your mind and body travelling can be. Sure, it’s essentially an extended holiday, but you’re constantly moving your body around from one unfamiliar environment to the next, and all the new things you see and learn about and discover can build up to overwhelm your mind. Rio provided the perfect opportunity for me to just kick back, soak up the sun, sand and sea, and really not have a care in the world.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

And of course, the experience wouldn't be complete without a selfie.

And of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a selfie.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

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The Big Apple and Other Fruits: a taste of gay NYC

During my first week or so in New York, I didn’t really do something that I had done extensively while I was in all the other previous cities I’d recently visited, and that was explore the local gay scene. Which is a little surprising, given that a city as huge as New York is bound to have some incredible scenes to discover, but I suppose I was still slightly recovering from the hole that Dublin had corroded in my liver. I’d also been hanging out with Melissa, and while she is fabulously gay-friendly, she wasn’t exactly familiar with Manhattan’s gay nightlife scene, considering that her gay best friend lived in Brooklyn and wasn’t even above the legal drinking age anyway. However, when Mischa came down from Connecticut on the weekend that we ended up going to Six Flags, he had a couple of New Yorker friends who were going out for a few drinks and so we decided to join them.

We went over to Neil’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, which was the on the western side of midtown Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen was probably closest New York came to having a ‘gay district’, although from what I had heard and what I would eventually discover, the city was a lot like London or Berlin or Paris in that it had numerous clusters of gay venues and parties scattered all over the island, and there wasn’t really a ‘central’ district of Manhattan because the whole thing is a complete metropolis, north to south and east to west. Historically the locations of the more popular gay areas had shifted, and right now Hell’s Kitchen seemed to be the place to be. We stopped by Neil’s briefly, where I met Walter and Neil for the first time, before we headed out to a bar called Boxers. When we arrived I discovered that Boxers was a sports bar – that’s right, a gay sports bar. I don’t know if I was shocked, surprised, or just confused, but the concept of a gay sports bar just seemed so contradictory to me. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a huge sports fan of any kind, but I could never imagine a dedicated gay sports bar ever taking off in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. It was also possibly an American thing – come to think of it, ‘sports bars’ aren’t so much a thing in Australia at all, since people just go down to the local pub if they’re going to watch the football.

The juxtaposition of the hyper-masculine, all American jock themes with the obvious gay pride rainbows actually worked pretty well. All around the bar there were various sports games being shown on television screens, but less than half of the people in the bar were actually paying them any real attention. We got some drinks and stood around for a little while, but the bar wasn’t exactly going off. We had plans to go to a nightclub later – some place where Neil’s friend was working as a promoter, which meant we could get in for free – but it was still incredibly early, so at Neil’s suggestion, we swung past a corner store on the way back to his apartment and all pitched in for a case of beer. Neil’s apartment was new – so new that were were surrounded by half unpacked boxes, and were sitting on his bed because it was either that or the floor – but we made ourselves comfy and sat around drinking our beers and chatting and laughing. It was during this period of a couple of hours that Neil convinced us to join them at Six Flags the following day, a decision that would feel like a huge mistake when the alarm went off at 7am the following morning. It wasn’t like I had any other plans though, so we agreed to come along.

Eventually we left – heavily intoxicated by that stage – for XL, the club where Neil’s friend was working. We skipped the line and didn’t have to pay entry, and his friend even showered us with a handful of drink tickets. XL was located nearby in Hell’s Kitchen (it’s since closed and reopened under a new name) and was a huge club – when the smoke machines came on it was almost impossible to see the other side of the dance floor. I honestly can’t remember much else about my time spent there, thanks to the several shots that Neil ordered us immediately upon arrival and the fact that I probably drank way too much beer beforehand anyway. We attempted to drink more, mostly likely attempted to dance for a bit, and when I used the bathrooms I was intensely fascinated by another concept that was incredibly foreign to me as an Australian: bathroom attendants. These people stand around the sinks in the bathroom and offer you all kinds of things, from soap to hand towels to spritzes of cologne, in return for an appropriate tip. I find the whole thing rather awkward, because instead of requesting their service they just jump in and try to wait on your every whim or need, when honestly I would rather dry my own hands on my jeans. You feel like a bit of a jerk having to actively avoid them or ask them to leave you alone, since they’re just doing their job and trying to make as much as they can out of whatever tips they can gather, but I still find it all rather uncomfortable. Although being drunk probably helps.

I couldn’t tell you how long we stayed at XL, but knowing that we had to get up early for Out in the Park at Six Flags, I’m assuming we left at a relatively reasonable hour. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and the next thing I know I woke up nursing a headache, spooning Mischa, and cursing that damned alarm clock.

***

My second night out on the gay scene was a little more memorable… well, that probably isn’t the right word since I definitely don’t remember all of it. But it was definitely a lot more eventful. I had met Scott a few years ago when he had been holidaying in Sydney. He was a big partier, and we’d gotten on pretty well, so we’d kept in touch. He had been my only gay contact who actually lived in New York, so one evening when Melissa had other plans after class, I got in touch with Scott and asked about the best places to go. It was a Wednesday night, so naturally he was going out himself, and we met for a quick sushi dinner after he had finished work before heading back to his apartment – also in Hell’s Kitchen – so he could get ready. He went to offer me a drink while I waited, although the only alcohol he had was this strange Czech liquor (which I had actually tasted with Ike in Ancona) or absinthe. I guess it was at that early point in the evening that I should have known the end of this night wasn’t going to be pretty. I opted for the absinthe on the rocks. I don’t know, #yolo or whatever.

We went to a nearby theatre where a new weekly event was starting – So You Think You Can Drag? It’s exactly what you think it is – a whole line up of drag queens performing on stage in front of an audience, with a panel of judges making comments and scores and eventually choosing a winner. Now, I’ve been all over the world and seen a fair few drag queens, most notably in Cambodia, Russia and Germany, but so far I had yet to see any drag shows that came close to the quality of the queens that I’ve seen back home in Sydney. New York changed all that. I guess you really need to have something special to stand out in a place like this, and these queens were trying their hardest. I’ve always appreciated my favourite drag queens back in Sydney, so I really enjoyed watching all the acts. Add to the fact that the first hour of the event had an open vodka bar, and I knew that if I lived in NYC I would most definitely become a regular here. Like Scott obviously was. The hostess of the evening, Paige Turner, is one of New York’s more successful drag queens, and is on a first name basis with Scott – a relationship which I am sure developed purely because he never missed one of her shows.

Scott and Paige Turner - apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

Scott and Paige Turner – apparently I was a bit of a hit that night myself.

New York drag queens giving it all they've got.

New York drag queens giving it all they’ve got.

Scott introduced me to a bunch of people as we mingled before the drag performances. It was here that I would learn that aspects of nightlife in New York are very different to Sydney – different from most places in the world that I’ve been to, now that I think about it. It’s not so much about certain venues or bars as it is about different events run by certain nightlife companies, which are held over a variety of venues on a weekly basis. Of course, there are dedicated gay bars too, but it’s very much a matter of knowing where to go on what night, depending on what you’re looking for or what you want to do. I think you could probably live there for years and still never figure it out, so I’m not going to pretend I am an expert or anything – this is purely just my understanding and perceptions based on my experience. When I was waiting in line with Scott, I was introduced to a guy named Bobby – he worked for BoiParty.com, the company that was running So You Think You Can Drag? – who was going down the line and signing up anyone who wasn’t part of the mailing list. Maybe it was something else, since it seemed like I had to give my details to even get in, but I didn’t mind, since I had no idea about what was going on in New York and would appreciate some email notifications about upcoming parties. I got chatting to Bobby for a little bit too, and he told me to add him on Facebook. He would end up being my go-to guy when it came to all things nightlife-related in New York.

After the shows had ended – the winner of tonight was a musical theatre queen named Sutton Lee Seymour – I headed back to Scott’s with a bunch of other people for a… ‘between events’ party? Post/pre drinks party? I don’t know exactly what it was, but I discovered just now non G-rated Scott’s life is. More absinthe was involved. The next thing I know I am at a bar called the Ritz, a place Scott was always raving about, which was the official, or maybe unofficial, after party for the previous drag event. The venue was pretty small and intimate, but the drinks were cheap and it was packed with guys and queens from earlier in the night. We danced, we sang, we made it rain dollar bills during the impromptu performances. Tipping drag queens was another thing that slightly shocked me, but I was coming to realise that the service industry workers who primarily relied on tips didn’t just finish in restaurants and bars and hospitality. It was something I would get used to during my months in the states, but right now it all seemed kind of awkward. At least, it did for me – the workers on the other end had no hesitation in taking my money.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

Snapshot from one of my future nights out in New York City.

It doesn’t happen often, but that night I blacked out. When I woke up, I was lying on Scott’s bed, fully clothed except for my shoes, which I appeared to have kicked off and were sitting on the floor by the bed. There was another guy lying next to me, still asleep and also fully clothed. I had no idea who he was. Scott was sitting on the end of the bed, and seemed to be in the middle of a very serious conversation with what appeared to be a drag queen who had only gotten halfway out of her drag outfit from the pervious evening. When I stirred and tried to sit up, Scott broke away from the conversation and turned around.
“Okay, twinks, it’s 9am. I have to teach in four hours so I need my bed back.” I stared at him, comprehending but being beyond speech in my current state. “You can sleep on the couch.”
It was nine on the morning?! I should have just gone home but I wasn’t ready to face the day. Scott woke up the other guy on the bed, who I later learned was named Mat, and shooed us both out of his room, along with the drag queen. She left, but Mat and I collapsed on the couch. I had absolutely no recollection of ever meeting him, or why we we’d ended up on a bed together, even though we were fully clothed. We spooned on the couch so we would both fit, and I managed to get a couple of more hours sleep. However, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable, because I had somewhere to be.

Melissa had some family coming to stay with her that weekend, which meant I had to make myself scarce for a little while. So I had planned a trip out of the city to Washington, DC. Well, I had a cheap bus ticket and a Couchsurfing host lined up at the other end, which is about as much planning as I ever do. The bus was leaving in the early afternoon, but I had, in all my infinite wisdom, still decided to have an absolute bender of an evening the night before. Eventually I dragged myself out of Scott’s apartment and into the to bright sunshine that was Hell’s Kitchen by day, and ran back across town – with a quick pit stop at McDonalds – to pack my bag and head of the bus station. Melissa wasn’t around, but by this point of my stay I finally had my own key, which she had said I could hang onto until I was leaving New York for the final time. I thought I’d left myself enough time to get the bus stop via the subway, but by the time I got home, showered, threw all my stuff into my bad and got back to the station, I realised that I really hadn’t. I hailed a cab. We got halfway across town – the bus was leaving from a corner near Penn Station – when it started to rain. Traffic came to standstill. I ended up throwing some cash at the driver and running through the torrential downpour that seemingly came out of no where. Gasping and panting, I made it to the bus just in time to have my baggage stowed away underneath. Climbing aboard the bus, I made a promise to myself I would never be hungover on a day of travel again – it wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and of course, it wouldn’t be the last.