On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

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The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

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Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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

***

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

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

O Canada: Day Trip to the Capital

Canada is a huge country: as one of the top 5 largest nations in the world, there is obviously a lot of it to see, with plenty of different cities worth visiting. However, the fact that is it so big also makes it a little more difficult to see all those cities, and the time frame I had just didn’t allowed me to see as much of the beautiful country as I would have liked. However, at Stuart’s recommendation, we were able to visit another city that was relatively close to Montreal: the capital city of Ottawa. It was roughly a two hour train trip, so on our final day in Montreal we got up bright and early to head to the train station and catch the first train that would take us west, out of the French-speaking province of Quebec and into Ontario, home of the country’s capital city.

Ottawa Station

Ottawa Station.

It was mid-morning by the time we arrived, so as we got off the train we found a bus that took us downtown, where our first stop of the morning (well, first stop after a second breakfast at Tim Hortons, and a quick getaway after spotting a Grindr stalker who had seemed a little too keen to meet both Stuart and myself) was to be Parliament Hill, or colloquially known as ‘The Hill’. We joined one of the free tours that were offered, and were guided around the Centre Block as all the features of the buildings and its architecture were pointed out to us. Since Parliament wasn’t in session we were able to glimpse into the empty Senate and Commons chambers, and I was surprised to find them strikingly similar to the rooms I had seen in Parliament House during my Year 5 excursion to Canberra. Of course it shouldn’t come as a surprise – Canada is part of the Commonwealth, after all, and politically we share a lot more with them than I think I’d ever realised. I guess the fact that Canada is in North America made me assume that it would be much more similar to the United States. I also now fully appreciate the resentment each nationality feels when you confuse one of them of being from the other: the cultural differences are significant.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Senate chambers.

The Senate chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The architecture of the building is actually quite beautiful, with a theme of Gothic revival spreading through most of the corridors and larger halls, as well as the exterior. We also viewed a number of other chambers, offices, and libraries, most of which we weren’t allowed to photograph, although the tour ended with a trip up to the top of the Peace Tower. Officially known as the Tower of Victory and Peace, the tower is located in the Centre Block of The Hill and is almost 100 metres tall. It’s something of an icon in Canada, so much that it is even depicted on their $20 bill, and the viewing room at the top of the tower offers sweeping panoramic views of downtown Ottawa.

Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stuart admiring Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

On the way out we stopped to take a look at the Centennial Flame, a flame that burns on The Hill to commemorate Canada’s 100th anniversary as a Confederation. We also discovered Parliament Hill is also a place where crazy right wing nut-jobs like to protest with their ridiculous signs. Of course, we just couldn’t help ourselves but take a few mockery snaps before heading off to check out the rest of the city.

The Centennial Flame.

The Centennial Flame.

A "pro-life" sign.

A “pro-life” sign.

The word... I don't think it means what you think it means...

That word… I don’t think it means what you think it means…

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

***

Ottawa reminded me a lot of other capital cities in the Western world, like Canberra and Washington DC. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, but everything still seems very nice and neat and orderly. It was a clean city, but there didn’t appear to be too much going on, at least not when we were there. I guess that’s what happens in larger nations – when you put all the official business and formality and politics in one place, the excitement and the culture seems to disperse and settle elsewhere. We made a quick trip to visit Stuart’s elderly uncle, where they introduced me to the vile drink known as “Clamato” that is somehow wildly popular in Canada. Admittedly, it’s usually used as a mixer with alcohol, but still, I honestly struggle to fathom the idea that anyone would actively enjoy drinking a cold beverage with a flavour combination of tomatoes and clams. After that visit we wandered through downtown and had some lunch, checking out a few local stores here and there and just being wandering tourists in general.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

"Get a photo with the bear!" Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

“Get a photo with the bear!” Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

We also took some time to visit the memorials located in the centre of town, including the rather iconic-looking Ottawa War Memorial, and the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Solider. They’re similar to the statures and memorials of a similar nature that I had seen all around the world, but they never become any less sombre or melancholy. We pottered around the monuments for a little while before moving on to the rest of the city.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

 ***

There are a handful of museums and other things of that nature in Ottawa, but neither Stuart nor I were really in the mood for visiting any of them. We’d had a pretty big week of partying and other activities in Montreal, so we were more than happy to just stroll the pristine streets and enjoy the pleasant weather. Winter was coming for North America, so it was important to make the most of the remaining warmer months. I also enjoyed being back in an English-speaking province again – the people were exponentially nicer when they weren’t so fiercely trying to defend an entire language and culture. We simply ended our afternoon lying out on the grass, and watching the clouds roll in at the end of the day. Stuart took a couple of snapshots of the Ottawa Notre Dame Basilica, but my “museum fatigue” was already starting to kick in when it came to all these churches. I was far more interested in the fact that all the squirrels in Ottawa were black, or even in literally showering myself with the national Canadian icon: leaves. Revisiting my childhood in the piles of red, orange and yellow leaves, I rediscovered you didn’t need to see all of the city’s hot attractions in order for a day trip to be considered successful. As long as you enjoyed yourself, and stopped to enjoy the little things in life, it was always worth it.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

Don't ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

Don’t ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

3... 2... 1...

3… 2… 1…

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures in life that are the most enjoyable.

As the evening rolled around, we jumped on a bus and headed back to the station to catch our train back to Montreal. My train was heading back to New York the following day, so Stuart and I spent our last evening just chilling out and reflecting on all the fun we’d had in the previous week. I’d had an amazing time discovering the city, and I reflected on just how lucky I was that no matter where I found myself in the world, I was never too far away from a friendly face.

Strippers and Drag Queens and Bears, Oh My!

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

***

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

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

My… ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Good Morning Baltimore

So while I didn’t end up going back to New York via Philadelphia, I did jump at the opportunity to visit another city along the eastern coast of the United States. That was one thing that I loved about the US – in most places you can just jump on a train or drive a short distance and suddenly you’re in a whole new city, or even a brand new state. In Australia there aren’t a huge amount of cities or towns that are really worth visiting, for purposes of tourism at least, and the ones that are worthwhile going to are separated by miles and miles of desert and bushland or the vast, bleak expanses of suburbia. Thought I’ve heard of American and Canadian tourists visiting Australia because of that exact reason – to see the expanses nothingness – so I guess it’s only fair that I was fascinated by the exact opposite. Mike had gotten up early to head to university, but on this particular day I managed to pull myself out of bed at a reasonable hour, get ready and head down to Union Station, where my bus from New York had dropped me off and where my bus back to New York would eventually leave from. Today, however, was all about the spirit of the day trip. I was heading to a city that I had often heard about, in song (thanks to Hairspray) or otherwise, and where one of my favourite bands (All Time Low also created For Baltimore) hailed from, but somewhere I had never actually visited: Baltimore.

***

There is a service called the MARC train that connects Baltimore to a number of different places, one of them being Washington DC. The journey only takes approximately an hour, and the train is actually used by a lot of commuters who make the trip on a regular or even daily basis for work. As a result there is a high concentration of trains in the mornings and evenings, around peak hour when the regular commuters need to travel. I obviously wasn’t awake for the morning peak hour, so I planned to catch one of the less frequent late morning trains, and arrived in Baltimore when the sun was high in the sky. When I made it outside of the station, I found my bearings and headed towards the harbour, the focal point of the city of Baltimore. The surrounding city itself wasn’t anything too spectacular or different – just a regular American city with houses, apartments, churches and shops. But after about 20 minutes of walking – the further south I got and the closer I got to the harbour – the city seemed to swell up around me and the air of suburbia gave way to what felt like a city centre. Out of the high rises came a business and tourism centre, and after passing through a couple of streets that were like huge concrete hallways, I stumbled on a gorgeous view of the waters of Baltimore’s Inner Harbour.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

Inner Harbour - the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

Inner Harbour – the USS Constellation and the World Trade Center Institute.

The first thing that comes into view when you step into the the sunshine at Inner Harbour is the USS Constellation, probably the most impressive looking of the handful of historical ships that are scattered around the harbour in Baltimore. I walked past it, but instead of going on board for a tour of the ship I kept walking towards the Baltimore World Trade Center. It was the tallest building around the harbour, and it also claims the title of the tallest regular pentagonal building in the world. At the top there is a viewing platform called ‘The Top of the World’, so I purchased a ticket and went on up.

The view from 'The Top of the World' in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

The view from ‘The Top of the World’ in the Baltimore World Trade Center.

From the top you could see out into the horizon and the harbour that stretches out into the wider bay, and all of the surrounding city. There was also a lot of exhibits and notices about the history of the city, so I spent a little bit of time wandering around and reading. I also learnt a little more about the initiative in the city, in the harbour just south of the World Trade Center, to create or ‘build’ a wetlands using a collection of environmentally friendly floating frames. The grass growing in the frames is expected to help gradually clean the the waters of the harbour, and the underside of the wetlands will eventually develop into a habitat for small marine creatures such as crabs, eels, fish, worms and barnacles. Even trash from the harbour, such as plastic bottles, will be embedded into the structure to help it retain buoyancy, and the whole thing seemed like a cool little project that was creating a thriving ecosystem that would even help keep the wider environment clean.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

I returned to the ground level to see the floating wetlands close up, and then continue my walking tour around the harbour. It was already well into the afternoon, so I stopped for some lunch. After deliberating for far too long about where I was going to eat I finally chose a place at random, but making sure that they offered some kind of seafood, as I had read that it was somewhat of a specialty here in Baltimore. Unfortunately, I’m not the biggest fan of seafood, particularly fish, but instead I opted for a Baltimore classic: crab cakes. They were the only other kind of seafood that was within my budget, but I have to admit they were absolutely delicious. Since I was eating solo, all throughout the meal my server would occasionally swing by and chat with me, and ended up asking where I was from and what I was doing in Baltimore. In the end, when he was fixing up my bill, he tried to offer me some tips or advice for anything to see while I was in town.
“There’s the aquarium just over on the other side there,” he said, pointing to a near edge of the harbour.
“Tell him to go to Fayette Street, man,” one of the other guys working there called out to him. “There’s nothing else worth doing here during the day.” He chuckled to himself, as did my server, but he looked a little too embarrassed to elaborate on what his co-worker had been talking about.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

I walked over to the aquarium and had a look around on the inside. It seemed pretty cool, but it was such a beautiful day that I didn’t really feel like going inside – I’d spent quite a lot of time in the museums back in DC – and watching a huge group of school children marching into the aquarium was definitely enough to put me off following them in. So I walked along the walkways between the harbours piers, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the breeze blowing in from the bay, and the gentle sounds of lapping water all around the harbour. After a few absent-minded turns I found myself heading back into the city, away from the harbour, and another random turn had found me on, lo and behold, Fayette Street. I could now see why the guys from the restaurant had sniggered a little at the recommendation – it appeared to be Baltimore’s answer to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, despite it being in the middle of the day. Yet there were no illuminated windows or coffeeshops like there are in the eccentric Dutch capital, just a few oddly located sex shops and a bunch of men trying to coax me down into their strip clubs where they claimed there were plenty of hot naked girls for me to see. It was my turn to chuckle to myself as I walked on past the clubs, ignoring their catcalls, though I was actually quite amused at one of the remarks made by one of the men as I walked past his club without a single hesitation in my step: “What is that in your ear, anyway? A goddam pencil?” It was a reference to my earring, a fake stretcher fashioned into a large blue spike. I probably laughed out loud, but I didn’t stop or look back.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering around the centre of Baltimore, browsing through shops and exploring the nooks and crannies of the area. The theme of the city seemed to largely revolve around water, with the seafood and the boats and the fountains that you could walk under when they were built into the designs of some of the mall complexes. It was pretty interesting, though from what I had heard, and now seen, the city is definitely a location that thrives more during the evening that the daylight hours. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find a place to stay in Baltimore, even for just a night, so as the sun began to sink towards the horizon I made my way to one of the MARC stations – luckily at this time there was one going back to DC from the station much closer to Inner Harbour – and boarded the train back to Washington to spend another night relaxing with Mike. My visit to Baltimore wasn’t wild or exciting, but it was still a pleasant excursion for the day, and it checked off another city and another state in my list of places that I had visited on my journey.

Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.