From Parks to Parties: Killing Time in Rio de Janeiro

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

***

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

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

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

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

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

***

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

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

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

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

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

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

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

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

Taking a break after the climb.

Taking a break after the climb.

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

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drunk and Drunker: Dublin Bars Continued

As I previously mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I always thought the drinking culture in Australia was a little excessive. That never stopped me from taking part in it, but that’s what made me notice it with a little more clarity when I finally left and went to places like Germany and Italy, where I found that I didn’t always need to get blind drunk to go out and have a good time. I remember it felt like somewhat of an epiphany. However, as soon as I arrived in Ireland, it seemed as though the tiny country’s mission was to reverse that notion and re-corrupt me with a level of drinking for which even I was quite unprepared. I’d given up counting the number of pints Matt had brought me that evening, and eventually we stumbled out of the George with me leaning into his side, almost unable to walk by myself. In any other situation, a guy buying someone that many drinks, to that point of intoxication where they were all but helpless, would have been considered a pretty shady or suspicious thing to do, and leaving with that guy is probably the last thing you should be doing. Yet Matt seemed quite genuinely surprised at how the booze had hit me, and in my drunken haze a remember thinking with crystal clarity that maybe I had finally found a country and a people that gave me a run for my money when it came to alcohol tolerance.

I knew my hostel wasn’t too far from where we were, but I had no idea exactly where, and was also aware I was unlikely to make it there by myself. But I’d always had a feeling Matt would take care of me – one way or another – and he insisted that he had a surprise for me. He seemed a bit frustrated, and I wasn’t sure why, but we hopped in a taxi which drove us for a short while – I have no idea in what direction – until Matt got a phone call, after which he asked the taxi to pull over. We got out, seemingly in the middle of no where, but Matt was still all smiles and carefree so I went along with it. We were waiting by a main road that was fairly quiet at that time of night, but there was one car I could see in the distance. As it approached it slowed down just enough for the driver to wind his window down and hurl some homophobic profanities at us. That riled me up, and in my drunken stupor I went to scream something back at him, but Matt caught my arm and calmed me down.
“No, don’t worry, he’s just joking. He’s my mate, the policeman from Panti Bar.” Sure enough, the car was turning around to come back towards us and pulled up beside us.
“What’re you two lads doing out here at this time o’ night?” He said with a mock stern look on his face.
“Ah, we’re just a little lost, officer,” Matt played along. “Would yer mind takin’ us home?” They said hello after that and had a bit of a laugh, and we climbed into the unmarked police car so that Matt’s friend – who’d probably best remain unnamed – could drive us home.

I’d never bothered to ask Matt where exactly he lived, and it wasn’t until we were whizzing through what felt like the countryside that I realised that he definitely didn’t live within central Dublin. I couldn’t say whether or not this was exactly far out, given that Dublin itself seemed like such a small city, but I guess I would find that out eventually. Matt, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, asked his friend if he could flick some of the switches on the dashboard. All of a sudden we were roaring down the road with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing through the night, and I couldn’t help but sit up like an excited child and stick my head out the window like some enthusiastic puppy. Part of me wondered how many boys they’d tried to impress with a stunt like this, but at that moment I didn’t really care. It was definitely a memorable experience for my first night in Dublin, and I wondered what my mother would say if she knew that I’d been escorted home in a police car that evening.

***

The next day was probably one of the laziest days I have ever had in my life. After passing out very heavily in Matt’s bed, we woke up at some point in the middle of the morning. We spent most of the day there, hanging out and messing around, watching videos on YouTube about anything and everything – mainly Matt giving me a comprehensive cultural education about Ireland – and we chatted and I told him all about my year so far and the travels I’d been on, where I’d been and where we were going. With the exception of skipping out to use the bathroom once or twice, I never actually left his bed. At some point close to noon he disappeared for a little while, so I just stayed put and had a nap, and he returned with a full plate of Irish breakfast – toast, eggs, sausages, bacon, tomato, and even black and white puddings. He didn’t tell me what those last ones were, but I’d had a pretty good idea of what they were when I started eating them. He was surprised I wasn’t more grossed out when he told me what their major ingredients, but then I reminded him about the time I ate fried tarantulas in Cambodia. “Fair point,” he had said.

To say that I spent most of the day in bed was actually an understatement. By the time we finally decided it was well and proper time to get up, the sun was already on its way down again – we had literally spent the whole day in bed. Part of me felt extremely guilty, like I had wasted the day, and I supposed I had from the perspective of a set itinerary. But as I so often reminded myself, I didn’t have a set itinerary, which allowed me to do crazy things like spend an entire day eating breakfast in bed with an Irishman who I had just met the night before and not worry about whether or not I was missing out on a day of sightseeing.    I had no idea where the hell I was though, so Matt said he would take me back to my hostel. It had gotten so late in the day that it was almost time to get ready to go out again for Saturday night, so after Matt had gotten ready I ventured out to see the rest of his house for the first time – other than the drunken stumble up the stairs in the dark.

“Just got to say goodbye to the Mammy first,” Matt said, using the typical Irish jargon for ‘mother’. And then I realised – oh my God – he lives with his mother! I suppose I should have realised that earlier given it was obviously a large family home. But still, I had never gone home with a guy who still lived with his family before – I mean, I’d never met the parents of any of my previous boyfriends, let alone a one night stand! I thought I would quietly wait in the hallway while Matt said goodbye – nope, he called me in to introduce me. She was so nice, and seemed completely unbothered by the fact a random Australian had spent the entire day in her sons bedroom, but nevertheless I was mortified, and died a little on the inside throughout the whole exchange. But apparently the mothers of Irish men play a significant role in their lives, and it seemed important to him that I met her before we headed off, so despite being severely embarrassed I sucked it up and paid my dues before we headed back into the city.

***

Honestly, I still can’t tell you where Matt lived, but it was at least a half hour ride on the local bus back into the centre of Dublin. In places like London, or even Sydney, that’s probably considered not too far away, but for Dublin it was like we were literally not even in the city anymore. I’m not even 100% sure we were. I was completely disoriented, but I stuck with Matt and eventually we alighted in the main street of Dublin, a short walk from where my hostel was. I went back to quickly get changed before we hit the town again for more drinks. Now, I have I have to be completely honest here – on my next two nights in Dublin, so much happened and I drank far too much, to the point where they have blurred together and I’m unable to fully distinguish between them. So here is a general overview:

In an attempt to show me more than just the gay scene, Matt took me to one of his favourite local pubs. From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that I was in the true definition of an Irish bar. Up in the back corner there was an old bearded man surrounded by a bunch of other patrons, and he was playing a guitar as the crowd chanted through some traditional folk songs. The ceilings were low, the room was narrow, the walls were polished timber and the whole place seemed to glow with warmth.
“Right, I don’t care what you say, but you have to at least try a Guinness,” Matt said as we walked up to the bar. Last night, I’d insisted that the last Irishman to attempt to convert me was unsuccessful, but Matt assured me that whatever Guinness I’d been drinking in Australia wasn’t the same as when it was fresh from the brewery in Dublin. We sat down at a table as I stared at the thick, black monstrosity of a drink.
“I just… I can’t get over the head,” I said, as I poked a finger into the thick foam that covered the stout. It was so thick that there was an imprint, a little dent in the creamy foam from where my finger had been. I proceeded to draw a little smiley face in my Guinness, having a little giggle to myself.
“Ah, yer edgit! Stop playing with your food!” Guinness was such a heavy drink that it was sometimes considered a meal in itself, and even my own father had once told me you could have two Guinness’ instead of dinner. So I tried to drink it, pursing my lips to try and drink through the foam. But I had to tilt the glass so much to even make it to the thick, dark liquid, that all I got was a nose covered in foam and just as much Guinness dripping around my mouth, out down my chin and onto the table, as I had going into my mouth. Matt found that rather hysterical, but to top it all off I didn’t even really like the taste either, so it made the whole ordeal a rather unpleasant and pointless exercise.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Other highlights of the weekend were finding myself in the most crowded midnight kebab shop I have ever seen in my life, meeting another one of Matt’s friends in another more alternative nightclub – down at Temple Bar, the main nightlife strip – that felt more like an old house that had been fitted out with a few bars, giving it a pretty chilled house party vibe, and ending up in the George again, lost in the dark hallways and dank, grungy bar rooms. One particular memory that stands out through the haze is being at the George, completely unaware of where Matt or any of his friends were, and being so drunk that I could hardly keep my eyes open. I sat down on a couch or a seat or something and… well I didn’t fall asleep, but I would definitely have been well on my way to passing out. I closed my eyes, and must have been slumped over or something, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken at the shoulder by someone. I opened my eyes to find a security guard staring back at me.
“You alright, mate?” He stood back as I pulled myself up to sit up straight.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m fine… I’m just… I’m waiting for my friend.” I had no idea if that was even true or not, but I wasn’t capable of saying much else at that point.
“Alright, well, don’t go falling asleep here,” he said to me, and carried on with his patrol of the venue. I was in shock. I was practically passing out in the club, and all I got was a smack on the wrist? Not even that – literally just a shake of the shoulder. I had been tossed out of a number of Sydney venues for much, much less. But as if right on cue, Matt came along to find me sitting there, and decided it was best we be on our way home.

***

The weekend also introduced me to a few extremely Irish cultural customs. The first involved GAA, which is kind of like Irelands answer to AFL in Australia – or for readers of any other nationality…. ah, local football? I don’t know, I’m not great with sports. Matt had a ticket to the final on the Sunday afternoon, so we had to get out of bed a little earlier that day so that he could make it back into the city centre. It was a sold out ticketed event, so I couldn’t go to watch the game, but I did join Matt and another friend of his in a nearby pub afterwards for celebratory drinks, given that the Dublin team had had a victory over the visiting team from Kerry, a county to the far south west of Ireland. If I had thought Matt’s accent was difficult to understand, then the people from Kerry must certainly have been speaking another language. In all honestly, I thought that they were when I first overheard some of them speaking when I went to the bathroom.
“Do they speak a lot of Gaelic in Kerry?” I asked Matt upon my return. He had a good laugh at that.
“No more than anywhere else, really,” he said with a smile. “No, that’s just how they talk down there. It’s okay, even most people from the rest of Ireland have trouble understanding them.” So we sat there as the afternoon post-match crowd grew bigger and bigger, watching the rows of pints of Guinness as they settled on the bar in front of us, and listening to almost comical, undecipherable accents of the GAA enthusiasts.

A round of Guinness' in their various stages of settling.

A round of Guinness’ in their various stages of settling.

But perhaps the most special of my authentic Irish experiences was that of a lock-in. Now, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me in the beginning – and I’ll be frank, I’m still not sure it does now – but from the way Matt talked about it I knew that it definitely meant something in the pub culture. Essentially, when it becomes the time that the bar is legally required to close, a lock-in happens when the owner of the bar allows drinkers to stay on the premises after they have closed up shop – it technically becomes private property from that point, existing as a loophole in licensing laws. I’m not sure of how the monetary exchange works, but technically no drinks can be “sold”. No more newcomers are allowed in, most people don’t leave, and patrons are allowed to smoke inside since we are all ‘locked in’. The bartenders join in the drinking, and it becomes a cozy little evening of tradition that wears on well into the night.
“You’re lucky to see this,” Matt had said to me once the lock-in started. “Definitely something most tourists aren’t allowed to hang about for.” It was quite funny to observe, and an interesting experience, but the pub was mainly occupied by middle-aged or older straight men. Matt, who outwardly appeared as straight as the rest of them, seemed right at home, but it wasn’t exactly my scene, and in the end being locked up in a room where everyone was free to smoke started to get to me a little bit. I can’t be 100% sure, as I was most certainly quite drunk as well, but we said goodbye, passed through the locked in doors and out into the night, in search of our next adventure – which was probably me passing out in the George. It was definitely another unique experience to add to the list though – I hadn’t experienced this much culture shock when I was in London though, and it was crazy to think that just across that narrow sea existed this place that sometimes, for better or worse, felt like a completely different world.

Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

Happy New Year! Songkran Water Festival

The end of my time in Thailand was rapidly approaching. It had only been three weeks since I first departed from Sydney, yet already I had experienced so much, seen some incredible things, and met some amazing new people. Yet there was one final event I was to attend in my final weekend in Bangkok – the Theravada Buddhist New Year festival celebrations, better known by its traditional name, Songkran.

Songkran is celebrated throughout South East Asia in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It’s traditional origins as a water festival come from a practice where the younger generation pours water on the hands and feet of the older generations, symbolic of a recognition of the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, and as a sign of respect. While I’m sure these traditional values are still upheld, the modern translation of Songkran is a huge water fight, where major roads in the city are closed off and people flood into the streets with hoses, buckets, water pistols and super soakers, and anybody on the streets becomes fair game for a hearty drenching. All throughout my time in Bangkok, people would repeatedly ask me, “Wait, when are you leaving? Are you gonna be here for Songkran?” Truth be told, the timing was a complete coincidence, but my flight out of Thailand was to be on the Monday after this wet and wild long weekend. As the weeks passed by I saw many of the corner shops stocking up and selling small waterproof pouches for money and valuables, and water guns of virtually every shape and size, and I began to think I was underestimating the significance of this festival.

“The whole city basically turns into a mosh pit”, Brendon had told me. “The Saturday afternoon of Songkran, this road will just be completely full of people. You’ll barely be able to move.” We were in a taxi going down Silom Road, and I peered out the window. The traffic was a blurry rush of taxis and tuk-tuks, cars and buses, the blaring of horns all around us. This was a major road in this area of Bangkok, and it was then that it really hit me that Songkran meant business.

***

As fate would have it, Silom Road was to be the destination of my very first Songkran. Nervous, excited, and not knowing what to expect, I set out with Rathana and his friends and caught the BTS to Sala Daeng. When we exited the platform and descended the steps down to Silom, I realised that Brendon’s description had not been an exaggeration in the slightest.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

The road was packed. In place of the regular traffic was a steady flow of humans, almost like herds of cattle, being pushed along the street by the momentum of the crowd. Every man, woman and child was armed with a water pistol of some description. As we merged into the congregation, I could already feel the splashes of water coming from basically every direction. It was basically a free for all – I shot a random passerby with my super soaker, and he immediately whirled around and returned fire. But it was the normal thing to do – people were expecting to get wet, so no one seemed to get upset or annoyed. I’d been a little terrified at the though of entering such a massive crowd in a relatively unfamiliar city, but the whole vibe of the festival was one of complete, unabashed fun, indulging in the simple pleasures of a mass water fight in the streets. Even when I was copping a water pistol to the face, nothing could wipe the enormous, goofy grin off my face.

Except for maybe the flour. The were lots of people running around with buckets of (what I hope was) flour mixed with water, painting the faces of passers by with their hands. While I’m not afraid of getting a little dirty, some of the attackers weren’t as gentle with their application of the white paste, and a couple of times I got a stinging eyeful of floury finger. After that, I viciously defended my face, giving anyone who approached me with a bucket of flour a heaving dousing to the face from my super soaker.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

The streets were wild. At various points there were what appeared to be fire trucks, or at least huge tanks of water with huge hoses attached. They rained down on the streets, and everyone cheered and screamed as we all got absolutely drenched. On the sides of the streets, people were selling more water guns, bottles of water for refills, beer and food, but their were joining in with the drenching just as much as the rest of the soggy mass of people.

We moved up and down through the packed street a couple of times before taking a turn down Silom Soi 4 – because obviously the gays really know how to throw a party. As we walked down the narrow street, people in the bars on either side assaulted us with an onslaught on water. We ran through, screaming and laughing, attempting to squirt them back. We ran into more of Rathana’s friends, and soon we were part of the mobs of people squirting water at the passers by, and engaging in water warfare with the groups on the other side of the street. While the only water refills available out on Silom Road came from bottles that we had to buy, the bars at Soi 4 had big buckets for us to refill our water guns, so the water fights continued long into the afternoon.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

At one point there was a lull in the madness, and a parade emerged from the throng of people. Boys, and a few girls, in matching outfits and shiny black thigh-high high heeled boots marched down the strip, and they were showered with lots of cheering and even more water.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

But after the procession passed, it was back to the water fight. As the sun begin to go down, some of us decided to leave Silom, go get dry and celebrate with dinner somewhere else. We ran back through the torrential rains that were the water guns of Soi 4 and back out onto the main road. If I’d thought that the streets were packed when I first arrived in the early afternoon, I really got the shock of my life on our return trip back to the BTS station. Earlier, we’d been able to move with relative ease in the mass of people, as long as we followed the flow of the crowd. However, now the flow of people had practically come to a standstill. Moving in either direction was difficult, and numerous times we found ourselves trapped, surrounded by either people who were going the wrong way, or walls, carts, and other stationary obstacles. There was a mild hysteria brewing in some of the crowd, as we were forced to move in the wrong directions, or simply stand still in a crush of people while waiting for the chance to move at all.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

Deaths at these kind of festivals aren’t unheard of – tourists that got trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other travelling horror stories. Luckily we all made it out alive, only slightly traumatised, and I commented to my companions that despite being an absolute logistical nightmare, the vibe and mood within the crowd of people never strayed from that of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. Had a similar thing happened at an Australian event, I have no doubt there would have been aggressive vibes, pushing and shoving, and inevitably break outs of violence and fights. So despite being packed into such a throng of people, and there not being any security guards or crowd control to speak of, I never at any point really felt unsafe.

***

Songkran traditionally lasts the whole weekend, but I needed to spend the Sunday getting my things together and finalising plans for my next destination. But I was also exhausted from the celebrating that I did do – the water festival was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s always pretty amazing to see how another culture reinterprets historical events in their own fun modern ways. I had so much fun in my first Songkran, and somehow I have a feeling it’s not going to be my last.