All Over O’ahu

When I wasn’t lounging around on the beach (which I admittedly did a lot of during my time in Hawaii) or celebrating Christmas with Ashleigh and Nick, I made an effort to go out and see some of the local tourist attractions. However, given that my sisters boyfriend was in the navy, I felt as though one of the most important places to visit in my days of tourist sightseeing was Pearl Harbour. It was approximately a half hour drive from Waikiki, and while Nick did have a car, he used it to actually drive to work at Pearl Harbour. He was out underway on the submarine on the day that I had set aside to head out there to visit, but luckily there were plenty of bus services that stopped right outside the museum and visitor centre.

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Anchor sculpture in the courtyard at Pearl Harbour.

While Pearl Harbour is actually the military base for the US Navy in Hawaii, there is still a decent portion of the compound that is a museum dedicated to tourism and visitors. Upon entering you are given an audio guide to listen to as you walk through the museum exhibits and displays, and the cool, collected voice of Jamie Lee Curtis guides you through the compound and narrates some of the history of Pearl Harbour. I knew the basic facts about the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when Japan attacked the US and spurred their direct involvement into WWII, but it was always a fascinating yet harrowing learning experience to delve deeper into the history and the more personal accounts of the horrors that went down. Much like the Vietnam War Museum in Saigon, I couldn’t help but feel quite overwhelmed by some of the stuff I learned during the walkthrough, but I pushed on through the unpleasantness. It was a strange juxtaposition, to be taking in such sadness and long-standing national grief, all while being surrounded by an environment that is the peak definition of idyllic (in my opinion, at least).

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View of the Waterfront Memorial from the USS Bowfin.

As part of the tour, you were also given the opportunity to board and go inside one of the submarines that was docked in Pearl Harbour, the USS Bowfin, which was originally launched on the one year anniversary of the bombing and was nicknamed the “Pearl Harbour Avenger”. People with claustrophobia were warned against going inside, and once you were inside, the reason was obvious. Low ceilings and narrow walkways, exposed pipes and metal all around you… I could only imagine that the term ‘personal space’ would lose all meaning once one of these submarines was full with a crew of sailors and plunging deep into the ocean.

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Flag atop the moored USS Bowfin.

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Inside the submarine.

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All the inner workings of the submarine were on display for visitors to examine.

However, the biggest point of interest in any visit to Pearl Harbour was undoubtedly the USS Arizona Memorial. It feels somehow wrong to call it a tourist attraction or sight, but I guess for all intents and purposes, that’s what it had become. The memorial was built around the sunken hull of the USS Arizona, a boat that was destroyed during the bombing in 1941. The pristine white structure was designed in such a way that it floats above the wreckage of the hull without actually touching it, as though the architecture itself represents the respect that the morbid site deserves. It can only be reached by boat, which also accommodates for the limited space within the memorial and eliminates any potential for overcrowding. After waiting in line for the passenger boat that would ferry us across, my group of fellow tourists unloaded from the boat and solemnly marched into the beautiful white structure.

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USS Arizona Memorial

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A shrine at the far end of the memorial, with a list of all the names of all those killed on the USS Arizona.

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View of the memorials flag from the inside, through one of the windows in the roof.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique thing about the USS Arizona Memorial is what has been dubbed the “tears of the Arizona“. An oil slick that is the result of a leakage from the sunken battleship can be seen on the surface, a small yet perpetual phenomenon that struck me as a fitting aquatic equivalent to the eternal flames that burn at so many war memorial all over the world. I know that an oil slick is technically really bad for the environment, but it was on such a small scale compared to some of the worse disasters in history, and as the oil floated on the surface of the water and glistened into a rainbow mixture in the sunlight, it actually looked kind of beautiful. And I couldn’t help but appreciate that small piece of beauty that was born out of something so tragic and horrific as the events that transpired in Pearl Harbour all those years ago.

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One of the few parts of the wreckage of the USS Arizona that protrudes from the water, next to where the tears of the Arizona trickle to the surface.

***

Other than Pearl Harbour, I wasn’t sure what else there was to do in Hawaii or on O’ahu (the name of the island that Honolulu is on), other than spend a lot of time at the beach. And, well, I’m not going to lie – as much as I love travelling, seeing new places, meeting new people and experiencing new sensations, I had been doing it for a long while now. So on the days when the weather was good, I actually made going down to the beach and enjoying the sunshine my number one priority. I did walk around some of the shops and browse through some of the touristy trips that you could take to the other islands, but none of them were really day trips that you could do spontaneously, which is the way I had been doing pretty much everything lately. So I just cut my losses and happily camped out on the beach with a book most days.

There was one other place that Ashleigh really wanted to take me to, and that was the North Shore. As you can probably guess, it was the northern coast of the island, and one that was far less populated by your typical tourists and holidaying families. The beaches up there were well known by surfing communities though, and if you picked the right time of the year there was optimal swells that apparently made for terrific surfing – but I’m not going to pretend I actually know anything about surfing, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

On a day when Nick didn’t have to work, the three of us all piled into the car and took the drive up to the North Shore. I have to admit, everything about the island was beautiful. If it wasn’t the white sandy beaches and the blue ocean, it was the lush green fields and the mountains looming in the horizon, cloaked in thick, beautiful white clouds.

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The beach at the North Shore.

When we arrived at the North Shore, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Ashleigh told me that the weather can often be really different on opposite sides of the island, due to all the mountains in the centre of the island, and the different sea currents and tides coming at the shore in their different directions. Waikiki and been warm and sunny, yet up north the sunlight had flitted away behind the cloud cover, and it even started to sprinkle with rain. We’d brought our towels and swimwear, but after finding a park and stumbling down onto the beach, one look at the powerful swell and crashing waves assured us that there was no way we would be going into the water. I mean, I love a bit of rough surf every now and then, but this was something completely different. Watching those waves made me fairly confident that a broken bone would be the best case scenario.

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Still, we sat on the beach and watched the waves for a while, munching on the snacks we’d brought and just admiring the power of the sea. Afterwards we drove back to Waikiki a different way, one that took us closer to the mountains. Nick pointed out a few of his favourite ones to hike – having grown up in a small town in upstate New York, he was definitely a naturally outdoorsy type. He talked about them with such enthusiasm, and it was a shame that between the Christmas obligations and his work schedule, there hadn’t ever really been a convenient time to go up there with him. He and Ashleigh both seemed pretty happy together though. They hadn’t been together that long, but I probably would have put money on him still being around if there was ever a return trip to visit my sister in Hawaii, so I settled for putting those hikes in my future plans.

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***

There were a few culinary highlights in Honolulu, too. Ashleigh and Nick took me to their favourite sushi restaurant, a place in Waikiki called Doraku.
“Look, just- we’re ordering for you, okay? Trust me,” she had said as we’d walked in. I’m pretty open minded when it comes to food anyway (tarantulas, anyone?), so I rolled with it and let her order me a dragon roll, which was absolutely as amazing as they had assured me it would be, and we topped it all off with deep-fried brownie for dessert. On another night when Nick was at work, Ashleigh and I had drinks and dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, where we only ate half of our mains to safe room for dessert, because you best believe there is no way I am going to a place called the Cheesecake Factory and not eating cake. And it was, of course, absolutely worth it.

I also went out with Ashleigh and Nick once, to a club where they were regulars and where many of their friends congregated for nights out. The clubs was okay, but there were a few dramas with Ashleigh’s ID (she forgot it), and the music wasn’t really the kind of stuff I could listen to for too long before starting to get a little bored and/or over it (it was a kinda of EDM that I wasn’t really a fan of, though I can’t articulate the differences between them for the life of me). It was nice to see all the aspects of my sisters new life in Hawaii, but we called it a night not too shortly after that.

And of course, my exploration of a new city wouldn’t be complete without me checking out the gay scene. As fate would have it, one of the most popular gay bars in Honolulu was actually in my sisters old street, where I had helped her move from on my first day in Hawaii. Luckily, she hadn’t moved that far away, and on a couple of evenings where not much had been going on back at home, I had wandered down to Waikiki for a drink at  Bacchus. It was a tiny gay bar on the enclosed roof terrace, and you had to walk up a few flights of stairs to get there. I had been chatting to a guy from LA on one of the gay apps, who had escaped to Hawaii for Christmas, so we ended up meeting there and having a few two-for-one drinks and chatting a bit more. He told me how he wasn’t a huge fan of Christmas – something about a relatively dysfunctional family – and so some years he just escaped here for some alone time. I was actually quite surprised at how many people came to Hawaii for Christmas. I felt like I was an exception, because the only reason I was here was that I was actually visiting family, not escaping from them, yet there were lots of families who seemed to come here and spend the holiday period here in Waikiki. It seemed odd at first, but then I realised that having Christmas on the beach was a novelty for most Americans that, as an Australian, I just didn’t find that out of the ordinary.

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Rainbow after a sun shower in Waikiki. 

My sisters apartment had a decent view, but it wasn’t straddling Waikiki beach. I ended up crashing in my new friends hotel room that night, and in the morning got to wake up to the stunning views of the aqua blue water and the gentle sound of waves rolling into the shore. In that moment, I completely understood the desire to run away, forget the stress and craziness that comes with the holiday period, and put it all in the back of your mind while sipping a cocktail by the beach.

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View of Waikiki from my new friends hotel room the following morning. 

***

After a lovely 10 days of rest and relaxation, the moment that felt like it was never going to come had finally arrived: my final flight home. It was an early morning flight, and while I had tried to assure Ashleigh that she didn’t need to accompany me to the airport, she still awoke without complaint when my alarm went off. Nick had been at work overnight, so I had already said my final goodbyes to him, but together Ashleigh and I wandered through the deserted streets of Waikiki in the early morning and waited for the bus. We laughed and made jokes, and tried not to get too emotional. I knew she’d been working like a maniac at her two jobs to stay afloat, and life had thrown a few curveballs that are (speaking from experience myself) usually a little tougher when you don’t have the usual support network of your family. So I think being there was a much-needed dose of family love for her. For both of us, really, except I would be seeing much more of my family very soon.

So once we got to the airport, we got off the bus and Ashleigh walked with me over to the check-in desks.
“It was so lovely to have you here, little bro,” she said with a smile and pulled me in for one long, final hug. “I love you so much!”
“I love you too, Ash.”
“Well, I guess I’ll see you… well, I’ll see you when I see you! Have a good flight!”
I checked by bags in, and then waved goodbye as I entered the departures gate. It was hard to believe that with one final flight, this epic journey of mine was coming to an end.

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“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22”

As my Amtrak train chugged through upstate New York, I watched the scenery pass me by. Back where I grew up, changes between the seasons were relatively mild compared to some other parts of the world. The eastern coast of Australia is populated by a lot of evergreen trees that generally don’t lose their leaves during the winter, but the eastern coast of North America was a different story entirely. The autumn equinox had occurred while I’d been in Canada, and summer was officially over. As my New York City bound train travelled through the woods, I could see that the trees surrounding us had already taken on hues of red, yellow and orange, and the normally green scenery was combined with a wash of natural fiery tones. It was something that I had only seen happen very sparsely in my own country, so I soaked in the sight and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It certainly made for a pleasant visual accompaniment on my trek back to the smog of the Big Apple.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

Returning to Manhattan almost felt like coming home. After casually jumping on the S Train across town to Grand Central Station, receiving a friendly welcome from Brandon the doorman as I arrived at the apartment, and letting myself in to wait for Melissa to get home so I could tell her all about my trip, I realised just how much time I had spent here in the the last month. “Home is where the heart is”, as the old adage goes, and there in that moment I don’t think anything could have rang more true in my mind. After being on the road for so long you start to believe that you’ve lost all concept of home, but the reality is that if you have the right attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, anywhere can feel like home – no matter how brief or temporary a home it may be.

***

While I’d been keen to get back and see my New Yorker friends like Melissa and Stefon, there was also another reason why returning to the city this time had been such an incredibly exciting prospect. Georgia, one of my best and dearest friends from back home, had been doing her own tour across the USA for the past couple of months, and now she and her friend Eva had arrived in NYC, just days before my birthday. She’d kept warning me that she had a surprise for me, but that she couldn’t wait until my birthday and would have to give it to me as soon as she saw me. It was well into the evening when I arrived back in NYC, and Georgia had some final plans with the girls who she had been on the tour with, so we made plans to meet the next day at Grand Central Station.

I could barely contain my excitement as I almost ran the few blocks up Lexington Avenue, and it was almost surreal to see her big golden curls of hair and big smile waiting for me by one of the subway exits.
“Oh my God! How are you, baby?” Georgia said as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight for at least a solid minute. “It’s been so long!”
“I know! I’ve missed you!”
“Let’s never be apart for that long again, okay?”
“Deal.” And just like that, within moments, our casual banter had returned, almost as though we hadn’t been separated for the last six months. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship.
“So, tell me everything. What’s been going on? How was Canada? How was Stuart?” We set off walking down the street as Georgia bombarding me with questions.
“Canada was great! It was really nice to-”
I was cut off mid-sentence, startled as someone bumped into me from behind. New Yorkers can be very pushy when it comes to their pavement etiquette, and for a moment I thought I might have been in the wrong somehow. “Ah, I’m sorry I-”
“Hey, watch where you’re going next time, fool!” I might have been more offended if the words hadn’t come from a very familiar face.
“Oh… Oh my God. Oh my God!” The person who had bumped into me was my other best friend, Jesse, who was – to the best of my knowledge – still in Australia. “What are you doing here?!”
“Surprise!” Georgia said with a sheepish grin, and suddenly it all made sense.
“We’ve been planning this the moment Georgia booked her tickets,” Jesse said. “I called her up and told her, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you and Robert be in New York City without me, then you’ve got another thing coming!’ The three of us are in the greatest city in the world, your birthday is coming up, and this place isn’t gonna know what hit it!”

***

Apparently everyone had been in on the surprise – from Ellie in London to Stuart in Montreal, and even all of our mutual friends on Facebook – everyone had known about the surprise, and nobody had let the secret slip. Jesse had blocked me on Facebook under the guise that he was “taking a break” from social media, so I’d had no idea of his whereabouts.
The three of us had lunch together and caught up about everything we’d been doing in the past few months, sharing travel horror stories and laughing both at and with each other. Afterwards we decided to visit the Museum of Sex, and as we browsed the halls of artworks and exhibitions we made crass jokes and probably nearly got ourselves thrown out on a handful of separate occasions. But I’d been reunited with some of my most favourite people in the whole world, so right now where I was at was definitely starting to feel like home.

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

And the reason why we can't have nice things.

And the reason why we can’t have nice things.

Over the next few days, it was the little things that made the time around my birthday so special. Whether it was stumbling across a little street market with Jesse and Georgia, where we bought a variety of fresh mini donuts and sat and ate them in the sunshine at Madison Square Park; or when Jesse and I bought $15 tickets to an Iggy Azalea gig at a gay bar on a Friday night; or when we trudged around Midtown for over an hour looking for a place that would cut our hair for $20 instead of $100; or when all three of us visited a phoney psychic just off Times Square, who told us we were all troubled people with shady pasts and dark futures, so we retreated back to Georgia and Eva’s Air BnB apartment with margarita mix to watch The Little Mermaid and feel sorry for ourselves – there are a whole heap of fun and slightly bizarre memories that made it a special week for me.

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again...

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again…

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event...

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event…

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

When it came to the actual weekend of my birthday, I had a few more intercity and international surprises. Mischa was making a second trip down from Baltimore to join the birthday celebrations, and I even received a little surprise from Ireland. Well, in the end I knew to expect something, since Matthew had asked for my address in New York several times over the past two weeks, obviously anxious as to whether whatever he had ordered would arrive. In the end a package arrived that was addressed to both Melissa and myself, so I know that had to be it. True to his national pride, he’d had a bottle of Coole Swan delivered to me.
“It’s like Baileys, but better,” he’d told when I finally wrote to him saying I’d received it. “Gotta have a little bit of something Irish on your birthday, no?” I could almost hear his accent in my head as I read the words, and imagined that cheeky, playful grin of his.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

The actual day of my 22nd birthday fell on a Sunday, so we decided that we’d go out on the Saturday night for the big celebration. Melissa had offered to have all our friends from far and wide over at her apartment, so that evening Georgia, Eva, Jesse, Mischa, Stefon, Nirali and Melanie, another friend of Melissa’s, all came over to join in the festivities. Melissa and Nirali cooked an amazing dinner, and we all caught up over food and drinks. I was surrounded by so many beautiful people, friends both old and new, and it really was a fantastic evening.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

The meal was delicious, and in true Australian fashion the drinks were flowing freely. Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t over 21, so he wasn’t able to join us when we eventually headed out, and a few other people didn’t end up making it to the clubs. We had vague plans, but I’d be lying if I said there was an overall aim to the night. I was in bar called Therapy with Melissa and Nirali, dropping my phone all over the floor and dancing like a hot mess for over half an hour before they managed to tell me that the rest of our friends still weren’t here yet. Jesse, Georgia and Eva had someone gotten lost, and we ended up meeting them in another place just across the road called Industry. From that point on, my memory of where I was, who I was with and what I was drinking became a pretty intense blur. All I know is that I was definitely having fun.

The one vivid memory I have is stumbling out of somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with Jesse, jumping into a cab and screaming at the driver to drive. I don’t know where we told him to go, and I don’t even remember where he ended up taking us. But as we sped down a road through the West Village, we hung our heads out of the taxi windows and howled to the moon like wolves, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the taxi driver had stopped and told us to get out, and I know it’s a hideous cliché, but in that moment I felt absolutely, 100% alive. Young, dumb, drunk and free of cares, at least I was never going to look back on my life and regret that I had wasted my youth.

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

I woke up at noon, curled up on the couch with Jesse at Georgia’s apartment. We’d gotten home just after dawn, apparently. Everyone was feeling a little tender as we attempted to sing happy birthday over a very hungover afternoon brunch, but I didn’t mind – the night had been worth it. For a night that I will probably never 100% clearly recollect, it was certainly a special and memorable birthday that I will never, ever forget.

This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

Land of the Free: paying a visit to the lady of Liberty Island

My time in New York was a pretty healthy balance of tourist activities, slightly less touristic and more local activities, and things that were relatively mundane. Having just moved into Melissa’s apartment with her, we did things like grocery shopping and, once the girls who had previously lived there came to pick up their stuff, we even had to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy a couple of blow up mattresses. Melissa had her own bed that would be coming soon, plus a couch and a wardrobe and all those kinds of homely things, but there was a period between “out with the old” and “in with the new” that we found ourselves living in a pretty bare studio apartment. It was kinda fun, though – like a slumber party or something. I also had to take care of some administrative issues: getting into the country had been a large hurdle that I’d overcome, but while booking my flights to Brazil I realised that I was going to need a visa before I headed down south. As it happened, the Brazilian Consulate in New York was literally a few blocks away from Melissa’s new apartment, so after printing off and filling out all the forms I got up early one morning to stand in line and file my application. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to be without your passport in a foreign country, but there was no other way I was going to get the visa, so it had to be done. I had also got in touch with Fautso in São Paulo, who had agreed to let me stay with him, so that had all turned out pretty much perfectly.

***

The first really touristic thing I did, however, was visit the Statue of Liberty. As it would happen, a friend of mine named Lexi was actually in the city at the same time, visiting her family who lived out on Long Island. Melissa was mostly busy with school, and I would never want to be the person to drag her out to see all the sights that she’d probably seen at least a dozen times before, so it been perfect timing when Lexi had got in touch and asked if I wanted to see some of the sights with her. We’d agreed on the Statue of Liberty, although we were a little disappointed to find out that tours that take you right up to the crown of the statue were booked out up until November, but we were still able to book a regular visit to the island in a decent time frame. In retrospect, we were actually quite lucky – soon after my arrival in New York, the government shutdown happened, and all government run attractions and activities, such as the Statue of Liberty, were closed. If we had put off our visit by any more than a week, I probably would never have made it there, since the shutdown was in effect until the day after I left New York City for the final time.

So after meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library, on a slightly humid and muggy morning, Lexi and I set off down Manhattan and took the subway to Battery Park, from where the ferries to Liberty Island departed. All around the dock there were street workers dressed up as the statue, selling toys and other tourist trinkets, and posing for photos. When we finally boarded the ferry, Lexi and I found a good spot to sit to get some good photographs as we approached the island, and we sat around and chatted. We weren’t exactly close friends, but I’d been to my fair share of parties with her during my adolescence, so we had a small collection of hilarious mutual memories, and our conversations always proved amusing. As we crossed New York Harbour and approached the island, the passengers from the ferry began to stir, moving around to get the best lighting on their photos of Lady Liberty. I remember my first thought actually being, Wow… it’s not actually that big. As impressive and iconic as the structure appears visually, it is minuscule compared to all the skyscrapers that had surrounded me for the past few days in Manhattan. The sculpture itself stands 46 metres tall, but the pedestal on which it stands is almost the same height, making the entire structure 93 metres tall from torch tip to ground. Which is big, I guess, but I had been in Manhattan for a little while now.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

When we arrived, every passenger was given a free audio tour, and we learnt more about the structure as we made our way around the island. The Statue of Liberty is actually a representation of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. It’s a symbol of freedom that now sits in the harbour, supposedly welcoming immigrants arriving from abroad. For the temporary foreigners, though, it really just screams “Photo op!”
And we were no exception.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

And of course, a selfie.

And of course, a selfie.

After we’d finished being tourists outside, we headed inside… to be tourists again. We had tickets that allowed us to go up to the pedestal level, just below the feet of the statue. It was still almost 50 metres high, and since were in the middle of the harbour, it afforded us some nice views. Or would have, if the weather had been a little bit better. Gazing over the harbour from our vantage point, Manhattan appeared to be covered in a smoggy haze. It looked odd, and almost reminded me of the smog and air pollution in Beijing, but then I figured that that is probably pretty normal for such a massive city. It was a pretty overcast day, but I couldn’t put the poor of visibility down to simple fog or low clouds.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

We also wandered around the exhibitions, learning more about the history and soaking it all in. One thing that was particularly intense was the security measures that were in place inside the actual structure. Our bags were screened and X-rayed on the way in, and then we had to check them into lockers anyway before we were allowed to head up. At first thought I suppose it seems a little excessive, but I think the idea of freedom that the Statue of Liberty embodies is tied quite closely to the American military, who fight to protect that freedom, I guess. So with that in mind, the security procedures just some across as some ordinary military protocol.

***

After eventually getting the ferry back to Manhattan, Lexi and I were wandering through Downtown Manhattan and looking for a place to eat lunch when we strolled quite close to the Freedom Tower, the new building that stood near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre buildings had stood prior to September 11th, 2001. It was only at that point, passing the site of such recent historical significance, did I realise that the date that day was September 10th. I had hoped that I might have gotten a glimpse of the memorial site that afternoon, but the entire place was on lockdown as they were preparing for the anniversary memorial service that would take place the following day.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

I’d thought about going down to the memorial the next day – the fact that I happened to be in New York City on the twelve year anniversary of that tragic event felt like a sign at first. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that maybe it wasn’t really my place to attend such an event. The last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a ceremony by attending it for such novel, touristic purposes. Not that I would have ever treated it that way, to be sure, but at the same time I felt that it would be a moment that was for Americans, and I should leave it to them.
“It’s a pretty significant day for New Yorkers,” Melissa had told me when we discussed the topic later. “I mean, for all Americans, but particularly in the psyche of New Yorkers, and people from around here, ya know? Almost everyone knows someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was affected by what happened.” Upon reflection, even as a nine-year-old, I remember exactly what I was doing when I learned the news about the 9/11 attacks, and I was on the other side of the world, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the tragedy first hand.

So all in all it was a day full of American patriotism and reflecting on symbols of their national pride, and knowing when and when not to be a tourist. I’m not sure what I did on September 11th – possibly went to the movies? – but it was something low key and local, while I left the real locals to their memorial and their prayers.

 

The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Walking in Sunshine: Summer on the streets of Madrid

While pride continued to be a defining feature of my time on Madrid – day and night, you couldn’t walk up or down the street without being cruised several dozen times by some sensationally attractive men – I did manage to play the tourist card while I was in the Spanish capital and visit a few of the landmarks that the city has to offer. I didn’t do a great deal on my first morning other than potter around a few plazas and lazily practice my dreadful Spanish while ordering a light breakfast. After that, it was all systems go for the afternoon of drinking at the hostels pre-pride party.

However, on Sunday afternoon I took a break from walking on the wild side to discover some of the more tranquil corners of the city, in particular Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge public gardens that stretched out next to the botanical gardens and the train station. I stopped by a corner store and gathered a few bits and pieces for a small picnic, then headed over to the park. It was a fierce summer day, and I periodically had to step out of the sunshine and into the shade of the trees. I eventually took a seat at a park bench to sit and eat my lunch and attempt to read my book, but I must admit that for the whole time I was in Parque del Buen Retiro, I was extremely distracted by the amount of people I saw exercising – mostly because they were all ridiculously attractive and obviously very fit, both men and women. It was such a hot day that even the idea of going for a light jog brought a slight tear to my eye, and I had a sneaking suspicion that – given the attractiveness quota that was being met this afternoon – that a good deal of these people chose to exercise at this time of day purely to show off the bangin’ bodies that they were rocking. In all fairness, I would probably do the same if had that body, and I certainly wasn’t complaining about the view.

There were a lot of people who weren’t exercising though. They were generally older and not as attractive, and more often than not they were staring at me, rather than vice versa. I wouldn’t know it until later when I was casually scrolling through an online guide to gay Madrid, but the area of the park where I had chosen to eat my lunch also happened to be a popular cruising area. Whoops!

After lunch I wandered further into the park to see some of the more official attractions, starting with La Rosaleda, or the Rose Garden, at the southern end of the park. I strolled along the loose pebble paths and passed under wire archways that were overgrown with vines, the whole way admiring the vast collection of roses. When I reached the edge of La Rosaleda I encountered a rather more sinister landmark – the statue of El Ángel Caído, which in English means the Fallen Angel, the title bestowed to Lucifer of Christian mythology after he was cast out of Heaven. It’s one of the few statues in the world that is dedicated to the devil himself, and it rather eerily sits at 666 metres above sea level. I stood next to that fountain for quite a while, actually, contemplating the story of Lucifer. He butted horns with his dad and broke a couple of rules that were set for him, and suddenly he’s kicked out of home to be forever hated to anyone who would hear the story the way his dad tells it. The story obviously has a little more meat to it, and Lucifer probably didn’t have to continue on as the Prince of Darkness, but I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for the devil. Take away the fire and brimstone and Christian heresy, and his story actually seems rather human in nature. I mean, who hasn’t had one or two heated arguments with their parents?

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

After I was done feeling sorry for the devil, I ventured further into the park. I followed a bunch of winding and twisting pathways, not really sure where I was going to end up, but eventually I stumbled upon the structure Palacio de Cristal, which appeared to be a palace made of glass – or, if you will, crystal – that was set on the edge of a small lake. The palace was completely empty on the inside, but was currently the home of a rather abstract art exhibition, so I stepped inside for a quick peek. The place was essentially a greenhouse without plants though, so it was far too hot to stay inside for longer than a few minutes. The final major attraction I visited, and arguably the focal point of El Retiro, was the Monument to Alfonso XII, a huge structure complete with about half a dozen marble lions around the base. I didn’t go all the way up to the monument – it’s set on the edge of a huge artificial lake, or estanque, and I had ended up on the other side and was far too exhausted from the afternoon sun to walk the whole way around it. Instead, I admired it from afar as I watched other tourists take paddle boats out across the lake, considered them mad for intentionally depriving themselves of shade for so long. On the western side of the lake where I was situated, I happened upon a pair of buskers, a cellist and a harpist, who were playing the most beautiful and enchanting music. I lay down in the shade on a nearby lawn and listened to them play recognisable classics such as Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed the sweet, relaxing music. After the nights of partying I’d previously had, I could have very easily fallen into a deep sleep there in the park. However, I decided that that wasn’t the safest thing to do, so I headed back to the hostel for a siesta before heading out for my last night of pride partying.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

***

On my final full day in Madrid I decided that it was probably about time to hang up my dancing shoes and actually see some of the true culture and history within the Spanish capital. It was another bright, blisteringly hot day, so I got up and ready in time to join the free walking tour that was run by the hostel. I was still thoroughly exhausted from the weekend, and I knew that I didn’t see the city as some part of guided tour, I wouldn’t have the motivation or the energy to trek through the scorching heat by myself. I’d also done minimal research on what sites there actually were to see in the centre of Madrid, so I figured that for once, a group tour was probably the best option.

Almost as soon as the tour had begun, I remembered why I despised such touristic activities. There was an overwhelming amount of Australians in the group, with perhaps a small smattering of a couple of Americans and one of two people from elsewhere in Europe. Now, I don’t want to sound like I hate Australians, because I don’t, but Jesus Christ – there were so many bogans! I’ve often stated that I didn’t come halfway across the world to simply hang out with more Australians, as was the case in the first nightclub I visited in Barcelona, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to interact with them at all. After all, all my friends back home are Australian. But most of the people in the group were people who I could never see myself being friends with. There were a few strained attempts at conversation with a girl who was so okka that she might as well have been plucked from the middle of the Australian outback and placed straight into the walking tour. She seemed like a nice girl, but eventually the stifled conversation died and we walked along in a far less uncomfortable silence. The rest of the tour was in seemingly impenetrable groups of rowdy Australian men, though I really had no interest in engaging with them anyway. I walked along just listening to the guide and trying not to faint in the heat.

The first destination on the walking tour was Plaza Mayor, the main public square of Madrid. Plaza Mayor was an important site for many key spectacles throughout the history of Spain, including the beatification of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Madrid, in 1619, bullfights which garnered 50,000 spectators that continued until 1878, and the interrogation and condemnation of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1790, and ever since it has been a focal point of city life in Madrid, supporting many markets and festivals. The statue in the centre of the plaza is Felipe III, the man who ordered the plazas construction, and is used as a common meeting point for residents. Around the base of the statue, I noticed padlocks engraved with lovers names attached to loops in the iron frame, much like the bridges I’d been in Irkutsk and Helsinki. I guess there weren’t any bridges in Madrid that were as important, or provided as much of a spectacle, as Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The next interesting stop along the tour was Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, a quaint little restaurant that holds the Guinness World Record for the Oldest Restaurant in the World. It has been in operation since 1725, and is famous for its suckling pig and roast lamb that is cooked in wood-fire ovens. Of course, it was early in the day and the restaurant wasn’t yet open for business, but as part of the tour we were able to go inside and have a look around, including the wine cellar downstairs. Some of the bottles were so dusty that I felt like they’d also been here since 1725, and were now probably nothing more than bottles of vinegar. We took a few photos of the charming little venue and continued on our way.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín - the oldest restaurant in the world.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín – the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Other sites we visited were the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace that was rebuilt in 1755 after the previous palace burnt down. Visitors are welcome, but not without a fee, and since this was a free walking tour most of us were happy to simply marvel at the architecture from the outside. Beside the palace, in Plaza de Oriente, is the famous monument of Philip IV on horseback. Nearby was Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, the Catholic cathedral that was built after the capital of Spain moved from Toledo to Madrid. This stop provided us with some shelter from the midday sun, and I paced the halls of yet another elegant and lavishly decorated European church.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

The trip took us on a loop around the centre of Madrid, and after blindly following the tour guide through the streets I realised that the final stop on our trip, the famous Puerta del Sol, was actually one of the plazas I had been partying in a couple of nights ago for pride. It looked so different in the daylight – it was still extremely busy and bustling, but the crowd appeared sparse compared to the tin of sardines the plaza had been on the weekend. After the tour concluded, the group dispersed among the crowd and we all made our own way, whether it was back to the hostel to commence siesta, or to one of the many eateries that lined the edges of the plaza and the surrounding streets. For all the negative feelings I harboured toward mass group tours and anything overly touristic, I have to say that on this day I was very glad they had existed. After Madrid pride I don’t think I had the mental capacity or brain functioning to navigate the city’s main sights by myself, and it truly is a vibrant and beautiful place that I would have been very sad to not fully experience.

Reflections on the Trans-Siberian Railway

The end was drawing near for the the Vodkatrain tour, and our time as a group was almost over. So I have to admit, I felt a little bad about not getting out of bed the following morning to join the others on the boat tour through the canals and rivers of St Petersburg, but I was far too tired from our night out at Blue Oyster. Though the price of the tour sort of deterred me a little bit as well – it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but I was aware of the money I’d spent last night. Moving into Europe, I had to face the reality that things weren’t going to be as cheap as they had been in previous places. I wasn’t to fussed either way about the boat tour, and I still managed to see a lot of the city by foot. It was a moment of realisation for me, I suppose, that I wouldn’t be able to do everything, so I had to prioritise and do the things I really wanted to do. I had an epic night out at the Blue Oyster, so I stand by my choice.

I had a slow and steady rise late in the morning, and met Kaylah at Nevsky Prospekt at around lunchtime to go and visit the Peter and Paul Cathedral. We didn’t bother looking in any of the museums – neither of us were entirely in the mood – so we just took some pictures of the buildings and sat down in the sun, admiring the architecture while recapping the frivolous events of the previous evening. “It wasn’t my first time at a gay bar,” Kaylah would later tell me, “but it was definitely the most fun I’ve had in one.” It wasn’t the famed party haven of Moscow, a scene I’m still yet to experience, but St Petersburg definitely had our seal of approval.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the main fortress.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, view from the outside moat.

We’d walked across the bridges to get to the cathedral, but we took the subway back, so I could practice catching the metro when I would have to do it by myself in a few days to get to the major train station. The peculiar thing about the stations is that they are so far underground due to all the water and rivers in St Petersburg that they need to burrow under. They’re about two, maybe three, times longer than the “long” escalators in the stations back in Sydney, and since the trains are so fast and efficient I made a joke about half the journey time just being the trip down from the street to the platform. Afterwards, we spent a little while just wandering around the streets, browsing along Nevsky Prospekt, and just getting lost amongst the beautiful city. Literally.
“Err… Kaylah, where are we?” Both of us had grown extremely weary, and had decided to head back to the hostel to nap before dinner.
“Umm, we’re… we’re… umm.”
“Yeah, none of this looks familiar.” We looked up Nevsky Prospekt, and back down the way we came, but for all the times we’d traversed it in the last two days, it was still such a foreign world. It was interesting that I’d come so far to Europe, yet English was so much more scarce then pretty much the entirely of South East Asia, which is a reflection of just how prevalent tourism is down there, and now… not prevalent it is in Russia. That’s not to say there were no tourists – the Hermitage was full of guided tours – but Russia as an economy doesn’t seem to be so dependant on holidaymakers, otherwise the visa application process might not be such a gigantic hassle. Anyway, eventually we just backtracked to discover that we had both blindly walked past the street we were meant to turn off – probably in indication of just how badly we needed that nap.

That evening was the last time we would spend together as a group. We had one last final dinner together, and then afterwards we went to a nearby bar for a last round of drinks. We shared our high points and low points of the trip, reflecting on memories and laughing at all the running jokes that had kept us amused for the whole trip. It was crazy to think that we’d only been together for three weeks, yet we’d grown so close and come so far that it felt liken it had been a lot longer. I found myself feeling a little sad that we were all going our separate ways now – I’d grown used to having travel companions, and the sense of security that a familiar group can bring. In the morning everyone took their leave at various times – Dan and Claire being the first at 5am – and I said a few emotional goodbyes to the people I’d grown quite close with. The numbers dwindled, until finally I was on my own again, and the next part of my journey was about to begin.

***

The time I spent travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway with Vodkatrain was nothing short of incredible, because it was more than just a holiday – it was an experience. As I’ve said before, it was particularly challenging at times, to the point where when I’ve told people about it, they’re not so sold on the fact that I even enjoyed the trip. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I honestly think the challenging experiences are often the best. I complained about how the train didn’t have any showers, but in the end it’s really a learning curve about some of the luxuries we take for granted, and I proved to myself that I’m not such a princess when it comes to personal hygiene after all – or at the very least, I can cope when my hot showers are taken away from me. But the challenges weren’t just in the train ride – I was so sure I was going to tip over that quad-bike at Lake Baikal, but in the end I feel accomplished in being able to say I’m slowly regaining my confidence behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

Then there were the real highlights. I’ll never forget the breathtaking views of the Mongolian wilderness, or the beauty of a fresh, crisp morning at Lake Baikal. All the challenges aside, it was really something to travel overland across such a huge distance and observe the changes in scenery, climate and culture. It was a long way, but the fact that we did it reminds me that it really is a small world after all.

Though the thing that I reflect on most about this part of my journey is my companions. I set out travelling by myself because in previous travels, I’d found some clashes in the way people like to organise their holidays. I’m pretty laid back, and usually not the kind of person who is out the door at nine in the morning to cram as much sightseeing into a day as possible. I enjoyed the leisurely pace through which I traversed South East Asia, and though I wasn’t really concerned as to what my fellow travellers would be like this time, I was just curious to see the types of people who would choose to do this kind of trip, and how they would plan their days.

Everyone on the tour was quite a seasoned traveller. I was glad that I at least had the six weeks of South East Asia under my belt by the time I arrived, but after discovering that I was the ‘baby’ – the youngest – in the group, I didn’t feel quite so bad, and I took it as an opportunity to talk to all these people and learn more about travelling. Rach and Marti were great for that. They’d been travelling the world together for almost 5 years, and Marti always had some tips or advice or recommendations, whether it was where to go or where to stay, what to do and things to be wary of. Kaylah and Alyson had been on a trip to Nepal and Tibet the previous year, so they opened my eyes to some destinations I wouldn’t have ever really considered before now, and Tracy knew a lot from her working as a tour guide in both South America and the Middle East. Most of the group probably thought I was really shy – which I suppose I can be when I first meet people – but most of the time I was just too busy listening.

Because whether it was travel, politics, or the difference in our respective countries health care systems, I found myself surrounded by a passionate group of intelligent individuals, with the perfect combinations in sense of humour, food for thought, and thirst for adventure. I could trek it through those seven time zones again and again, drowning in the Beijing smog, marvelling at the Mongolian wilderness, getting lost on the Russian metro lines and even getting cabin fever in the middle of Siberia, but I think I was incredibly lucky to meet the people that I did, because I feel like they all played a major part in making the trip what it was. I know some of them will be reading this, so thanks for being so amazing guys! Hopefully some of you will feature in some future posts on this blog.