The City of Angels (and Demons)

After taking a break from my overland travels to fly from Las Vegas to San Francisco, I decided I would take my final opportunity to get that authentic backpacker feeling of travelling along the ground and catch the train down from Oakland to Los Angeles. To further this rationale, I had been told that the coastal drive down that portion of the west coast was particularly beautiful, and that view was obviously something that I couldn’t see from a plane. After all the nightmare bus rides that I’d had coming over the Southwest, I thought I would enjoy the ease of a train journey, being able to set up your own personal space in your seat while still being able to get up and walk around, and watching the different local stations pass by and observing all the different people that hopped on and off along the way. You’d think I’d have had enough of trains, what with my tour around Europe plus the Trans-Siberian Railway, but after everything I’d done, I would still have to say that it remains my favourite form of travel. Not that I’d be game enough to do the Trans-Siberian again any time soon, but perhaps in future travels I’d look into other rail adventures and see where they could take me.

The train to Los Angeles was not a short journey, with a complete journey time of roughly 10 hours. Most people told me I was crazy for doing it, considering the flight between the two cities was approximately one hour, but I had maintained that I wanted to see the beautiful west coast scenery as the train neared Los Angeles. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when I realise that I hadn’t factored time of day or hours of daylight into my plans when booking my train trip. So of course, but the time I reached the final stages of the journey, where all the beautiful scenery supposedly existed, the sun had already set and I couldn’t see a thing. There’s nothing you can do but laugh, really. Oh well, at least I’d had plenty of down time to read my book.

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The not so beautiful countryside between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

***

After a long and relatively uneventful day, my train finally arrived at the station in Downtown LA. I met up with Nathan*, Gary’s friend who I had met at Brandon’s birthday in San Francisco, who informed me that his dodgeball team was currently having post-match drinks at a gay sports bar call Gym Bar. I had to ask again to make sure I’d heard correctly – dodgeball? It turns out that the West Hollywood (or WeHo for short) Dodgeball League was a popular form of adult recreation that perfectly combined sport and athleticism with sociality and everybody’s other favourite form of adult recreation: drinking. I had no idea what to expect, but I hardly knew anybody in LA so I was down for pretty much anything. Nathan drove me back to his place where I quickly showered and we had a couple of drinks – I was assured we probably had some catching up to do, since the rest of the teams would have gone straight from dodgeball to the bar. Nathan lived in WeHo, which I would soon find out was the big gay district of this part of LA – the city itself was so immense that I couldn’t confidently say it was the only gay district in the entirety of Los Angeles, but from what I can gather it is definitely the most popular and well known.

After a couple of drinks, we left Nathan’s and headed down Santa Monica Boulevard until we reached Gym Bar. It wasn’t a huge bar, but it was packed out this evening. There was plenty of room in the outdoor seating and patio areas, a long bar along the edge of the room, and a few dart boards mounted along some of the walls. Throwing darts would have been a bit dangerous this evening though – Gym Bar was a dedicated sponsor of the WeHo Dodgeball League, and in turn the dodgeballers were dedicated patrons to Gym Bar, so they were all there tonight.
“Those are my team mates over there,” Nathan pointed to a corner of the bar. “Oh, and here, let me introduce you to Jake. He runs the dodgeball league.” We weaved our way through the crowd of people, Nathan saying hello to someone every so often. Eventually we got to the bar where a man about my heights with dark hair and a scruffy face was sitting on a bar stool, having what appeared to be five simultaneous conversations with all the people around him. Clearly he was the man of the moment.

“Jake, this is my friend Robert. He’s from Australia.” Jake turned towards us, slightly torn given that he was already talking to a bunch of other people, but he must have been told about the arrival of an Australian traveller earlier in the evening, because his face lit up with a big smile when he registered who I was.
“Hi! Welcome!” he said enthusiastically as I shook his hand.
“Jake is best friends with Ke$ha. He want to Miley Cyrus’ birthday party a few weeks ago.” Nathan dropped the facts seemingly out of no where, and instantly Jake became clearly uncomfortable at having been introduced in such a way. I certainly hadn’t been expecting it, either.
“Oh… really?” I mean, I knew celebrities were everywhere in LA Hollywood so I tried to play it cool, but Ke$ha was actually a favourite of mine.
“Um… well, yeah,” Jake said, almost sheepishly, as though he didn’t want to make a big deal about it, or speak quite as blatantly as Nathan had. He probably didn’t want to seem like he was showing off, but I was actually interested.
“That’s really cool! What was it like?” Jake seemed visibly more relaxed at my reaction. Nathan had moved off for a moment to talk to someone else, so he offered to show me a couple of pictures of the party.
“I mean, I don’t wanna seem like I was too cool for it or anything, but… it was her 21st birthday”, he said as he scrolled through some photos on his iPhone. “So it was pretty trashy. And then Miley sang, and she sang Timber… Ke$ha was a little embarrassed.”
“Oh, man! How awkward!” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, just a little. But it was still fun.”

Jake and I chatted a little bit more, and we were getting on really well. He asked me more about Australia and my travels, I asked him more about LA. He even offered to show me around sometime, and I was conscious of the fact Nathan had only offered me a place to stay for a couple of days, when I had at least ten days to spend in LA, so it was probably time to start making friends. We exchanged phone numbers, and I guess that’s when things started to get a bit flirty. He was cute, and very friendly, so I was definitely interested in hanging out with him again. I kept moving around the bar though, with Nathan introducing me to a bunch of other people as the “Australian friend I met in San Francisco.” The dodgeball league itself wasn’t strictly gay, but given that Gym Bar was a gay sports bar, most of the crowd consisted of gay men and their female friends. There were quite a few outrageous and eccentric characters, singing and dancing and screaming their way around the place, but everyone was super friendly. Everyone also seemed to know each other, so even though I actually didn’t know anyone, it reminded me of the kind of local bars back home where I could rock up on virtually any night of the week and run into a friend. And even though I’d just met most of these people, they were so incredibly welcoming right off the bat that I almost felt at home within minutes of being there. Even if it was a sports bar.

***

I chatted to Jake quite a bit more throughout the evening, and he introduced me to some of his closest friends who were there that night. We were there pretty late for a Tuesday, but after many drinks, dances, laughs and conversations, eventually the bar was closing. Jake and I had been quite brazenly flirting throughout the end of the night, so as we all spilled out of the bar and prepared to go our separate ways, we agreed that we would meet again soon. Nathan had caught up to me by then, and the three of us started walking in the same general direction up Santa Monica Boulevard to get to our respective homes. And that’s where things started to get a little pear-shaped…

There are a few detailed that I omitted from my earlier posts about San Francisco because they would be better explained in the context of what happened in LA. I first met Nathan through Gary in San Francisco, when we were celebrating Brandon’s birthday. After dinner we had all gone out to a bar to have a few drinks, although Gary and I were pretty spent after having been out so late the night before at Truck. When we decided to call it a night, Nathan asked Gary if he could also crash at his place, and Gary agreed. Now, there had obviously been something going on between Gary and myself – he was a sweetheart and I had loved every minute of the short time we’d spent together – but when we got back to Gary’s, Nathan just kind of took it upon himself to… well, invite himself into whatever was going on between Gary and I. It was slightly awkward, and I wasn’t completely down for it, but Gary didn’t really make any discernible protest – or was too drunk to really realise what was going on – so rather than standing up for myself and hitting the streets to find my way to Noe Valley in the middle of the night, I just put up with it and stuck closer to Gary for the rest of the night, waiting it out until the morning. At the time it had just seemed like some poorly managed awkwardness on my part, which is what led me to foolishly accept Nathan’s offer to stay with him when I finally got to LA, thinking I would be better equipped to manage should anything similar occur when I was there.

Fast forward to Jake, Nathan and myself walking home from Gym Bar, with Jake and I preparing to say goodnight. Out of nowhere, Nathan suddenly says, “So I guess that means we’re having a threesome, then?”
I was shocked. Jake was even more shocked.
“Um… excuse me?”
In a matter of seconds, he went from being shocked to being furious. Suddenly the two of them were raising their voices, and then they were yelling at each other and shouting in the middle of the street. I don’t even remember what they were saying, but it quickly moved from the topic of a threesome to some much more personal comments. I’d later learn that despite all the friendly and welcoming vibes I’d experienced, there was some unresolved tensions between some of the members of the dodgeball league, with Nathan apparently being right in the middle of a lot of it. There was shouting, finger pointing, name calling, and it was all getting a bit too much for me, so I did want any sensible, alcohol-filled adult would do when presented with a situation in which they’d rather not be a part of – I ran away.

The situation had gone from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and while I would have liked nothing more than to run far away from it, I was conscious of the fact that all my stuff was still in Nathan’s apartment, and I didn’t have a key, so I didn’t make it very far. Eventually my phone rang, and it was Nathan. I was around the corner from his place, so I met him out the front of his building. Jake was no where to be seen, so I silently followed Nathan up to his apartment, my brain whirling at a million miles an hour.
“What are you going to do?” Nathan asked me bluntly once we were inside. It was pretty sure that the only way I could safely spend the night there was if I had sex with him. I didn’t want to have sex with him, and even if I did, safety still wasn’t guaranteed. I’d been in some pretty dubious situations during my travels, but this was one of the few times that I’d genuinely felt unsafe. I had no idea where I was going to go, but I knew I couldn’t stay there.
“I’m going to go,” I said, in as calm and collected a voice as I could muster.

What followed was an onslaught of some of the most disgusting and vile verbal abuse that I have ever had the misfortune of receiving. I don’t need to repeat the slut-shaming and traumatic insults in order to paint the picture of sheer humiliation I was feeling, but all I can say is that I was glad that I hadn’t really had a chance to unpack most of my things. I threw all my belongings into my backpack as quickly as I could, while Nathan stood over me spitting his venomous words. I was terrified the abuse might switch from verbal to physical, but luckily I had pulled everything together before he even had the chance, and I fled out the front door and never looked back, all while he hurled his final words down the hallway. I kept it together for as long as I could, but as soon as I reached street level, I let go and begin sobbing to myself. Streetlights lit up the sidewalk, and in their glow I pulled out my phone and dialled the only other number I had of anyone that lived in LA.

“Hello? Jake?” I took a few deep breaths so he would be able to understand me through the tears and the accent.
“Hello?” He was a little slow at first, and I wondered if he’d already been asleep, but he must have quickly realised who was calling. “Oh, yes! Robert! Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m… I’m on the street. I’m okay, but… but I had to get out of Nathan’s, I just-” I was overcome by the situation, breaking into tears again, and Jake attempted to soothe me through the phone.
“Hey, hey, don’t cry! Do you know where you are? Where are you going?”
“I… I don’t know. Jake… Jake can I please crash at yours? Just for tonight? I don’t… I don’t feel safe here.”
“Of course! I will text you my address, just get in a cab. I’ll meet you out the front.”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath, calmed by a feeling that everything was going to be okay now. “Thank you, Jake.”
“Don’t even mention it. See you soon.”

I dragged myself down to Santa Monica Boulevard, and easily hailed a cab. Jake’s place was less than a five minute drive, and he was already outside waiting when we pulled up. The first thing he did was give me a big hug when I stepped out of the car, then leaned in to pay the driver. I tried to do it myself, but Jake insisted, and I was too emotionally exhausted to resist. So I gathered up my bags, with Jake’s help, and I followed him up the stairs of his building to his apartment. He briefed me on the way up.
“So, look, I’m not trying to pull anything on you like Nathan, but.. my friend Val is sleeping on my couch tonight, so I don’t know…”
“It’s okay, Jake,” I said, smiling for the first time as I wiped my wet cheeks. “You’re not a creep like Nathan, so it’s okay.”
He just chuckled as we crept through the front door of his apartment and into his bedroom. There, I had the completely unexpected delight of meeting Peter Parker.

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No matter what is happening, there is always time for a picture with a dog.

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Kisses with Peter Parker.

While playing with a puppy is certain to cure the worst of any bad moods, I was exhausted from all the drama, so eventually climbed into bed, where Jake and I had a few quiet, whispered words.
“I knew that I wanted to see you again,” he said, and through the darkness I could still feel his smile. “It really sucks that it had to happen under these circumstances, but I have to say that very I’m happy to have you here.”
“Silver linings,” I whispered back contently. “Sometimes crappy situations have the best endings.”
Jake was respectful of my space, as promised, but given that I actually liked him, I asked him to hold me, and eventually I passed out in his arms.

*Name has been changed.

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California Dreaming: The Sights of San Francisco

Out of all the American cities that I was excited to visit during my travels, San Francisco was easily one of the top contenders. After the hundreds of times I’d seen the sweeping aerial views of the Golden Gate Bridge after the opening credits of almost every episode of Charmed, I was excited to see the city that I’d viewed so often through a TV screen. Or at least, I thought I was… however, a quick Google search upon my arrival revealed that the Charmed manor was actually located in LA, and that pretty much the entirety of the show, save those sweeping panoramas, was filmed in LA, despite being set in San Francisco. Yet San Francisco was the chosen setting because of the supposedly weird and quirky nature of the city, which allowed a sisterhood of urban witches to exist unnoticed, so in my mind the city was still a mysterious gem waiting to be discovered.

***

When I wasn’t getting drunk and passing out in the Castro or celebrating some wholesome American holidays, there was plenty of time to explore the many corners of San Francisco. Of course, after getting a bike from Rob on my first day in the city, I leapt at the first chance I had to cycle over to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Make sure you pick a day when there’s not too much fog,” Rob had reminded me when he’d taken me to pick the bike up. “Otherwise  you might not actually see that much of the bridge.” I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to tell whether or not there was fog on the bay, given that I couldn’t see it at all from my place in Noe Valley, but a bright and sunny day was the only cue that I needed to jump out of bed and set out on my way.

What I loved about San Francisco was how bike friendly it was, despite being a huge city with lots of traffic. When I punched in my destination into Google Maps, it showed me a route that I could travel that took me all the way to the northern edge of the city via bike lanes. And most of the cars seemed pretty accommodating to the cyclists too, unlike some of the aggressive behaviour from traffic that I’d witnessed in various places, particularly my home city of Sydney. However, the hills were my biggest downfall. I could power on up the longer, gradual inclines, but I have to admit there were a few monstrosities that were far too steep for me to pedal all the way up, and I had to dismount and walk the bike up those.

Once I hit the northern edge of the city, it was a long and mostly flat stretch of green ovals and parks until I finally reached the Golden Gate Bridge. It hadn’t seemed that far on the map, but it took me the better part of an hour to even get close.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

Once I finally approached the bridge, it took a little while to actually navigate the roads and pathways to make it up to the bridge itself. And then it was only when I got onto the bridge did it really strike me just how long it actually was. But there was no way that I was going to come this far and not ride across the bridge.

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Before crossing the bridge.

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The bridge and Rob’s old Burning Man bike. 

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Bridge selfie.

It wasn’t until I reached the other side of the bridge that I realised that there wasn’t actually much on the other side. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t in the centre of the city, so I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting. But it was, for all intents and purposes, a bridge that led to nowhere. I went to keep following the road that led off the bridge, but saw that it started off into what felt like the countryside, and while I’m sure there is something if you keep following the road, I was conscious of how far I had come, which was exactly how far I still had to go in order to get home. So instead I turned off and headed on a trail down the hill to the waters edge. There I discovered a few fisherman and a small information centre, with not much to offer except a shop where I purchased a bottle of water – I had underestimated the distance and therefore how much water I would actually need.

There wasn’t much else to see though, so I powered back up the hill and once again cross the Golden Gate Bridge back into San Francisco. Once I reached the other side, I decided to take a new route through some of the roads and pathways around the bridges edge, in an attempt to see some more sights. And that is how I found myself passing through the San Francisco National Cemetery. I slowed down a little as I passed the pristine, green grass with the rows of small white tombstones, and paused for a moment and spared a thought for the dead, before cycling on out back into the city and onwards towards home. Rob hadn’t been kidding when he said that a ride out to the bridge would take most of the day, and I promptly collapsed when I got home, and eventually ran myself another long, hot bath.

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San Francisco National Cemetery

***

For my next sightseeing outing, I decided to give my body a break from the cycling and test out the public transport system in San Francisco. On a few occasions when I hadn’t had the energy to walk to the hills to and from the Castro, it had been easy enough to jump  on a bus, but this time once I arrived at the Castro, I kept going and hopped on the metro system known as the BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transport. There are a number of BART stops in San Francisco itself, and the network crosses the bay to connect it with Oakland, Berkley, and a bunch of other cities on the east side of the bay. I jumped off just before the train crossed the bay, which placed me in the Financial District. I then walked up along the edge of the water until I reached Pier 39, which is without a doubt a huge tourist trap, but nonetheless I entered and walked along the wooden boardwalks, passing all the shops and restaurants and food stalls and screaming children. I paid no attention to any of that, but the only thing that really caught my attention was the sea lion colony that lived on a collection of wooden flotsams by the pier.

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View of the sea lions from the opposite pier.

I hadn’t even known about these sea lions, so at first I was rather shocked when I rounded the corner of the pier to see so many of them sprawled out across the wooden planks. Then I thought that I must have been extremely lucky to be here on a day when a huge group of them had seemingly randomly come so close to the shore and decided to hang out, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that the sea lions were as much locals as any of the humans living in San Francisco.

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A strange sculpture that I encountered along my walk. 

I spent a little while longer looking out over the bay. I had contemplated doing a tour out to Alcatraz, but they cost a little more than I was willing to spend on a day out, and none of them were leaving at any convenient times. So I just wandered around the area some more, and took my time watching the thick fog roll in across the water.

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After that I headed back inland, back down to the Financial District and then into Chinatown, where I wandered around a bit more and bought some street food for lunch as I went along. The only other really identifiable attraction that I came across was the Transamerica Pyramid, which had also appeared in many scenic segues during episodes of Charmed, so I was very glad to discover that it too was also actually located in San Francisco. Although much more appealing to gaze upon was what was next to the Transamerica Pyramid – the Transamerica Redwood Park. I knew that there were forests of redwood trees further up the coast of California, not too far away from San Francisco but most likely too far away from me to get there, short of hiring a car, which was practically impossible (or insanely expensive) for me given that I was under the age of 25. The trees in the Transamerica park weren’t nearly as tall as the wild redwoods, I suspect, but it looked like a nice little sanctuary in the heart of the Financial District.

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Transamerica Redwood Park

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The Transamerica Pyramid 

***

There was one attraction in San Francisco that I hadn’t actually heard of before my arrival, but as soon as I studied a map and spotted it, I knew that it would be the site of one of my full day outings. Golden Gate Park, located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, was San Fransisco’s version of Central Park, and while it wasn’t as big as some of the other huge parks that I’d visited in New York City and São Paulo, it was still of a significant size, rather narrow but extremely long, and with numerous different section inside, my visiting turned into a full day of adventure and exploration.

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Some of the features of Golden Gate Park include, but are not limited to, a golf course, an angling pool, a polo field, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, several playgrounds, a stadium, De Young Museum, numerous gardens and meadows, an archery range, and a bison paddock.

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One of the numerous water habitats throughout the park.

 

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The Rose Garden

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The Conservatory of Flowers (which had unfortunately closed for the day by the time I reached it)

 

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Sun dial that I found amongst one of the many open meadows.

I also made sure that I took my bike off some of the main roads, and rode through some of the more off-road terrain the park had to offer. I’m not sure if that was really allowed, but it was such a nice experience to turn off into the forest and delve into the depths where it felt like you could disappear and no one would ever find you.

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Although I have to admit, I probably got the biggest kick out of seeing the bison roaming around in the paddock, which really took me back to my Year 8 History classes and flashbacks to Dances With Wolves.

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The bison paddock. 

After making it through the entire length of Golden Gate Park, I emerged on the beach, and I rode down along the edge of the sand a little bit, and watched the flocks of seagulls flutter aimless along the mostly empty beach. I stared out over the Pacific Ocean for a little bit, and while I’d worked up a bit of a sweat with all the bike riding through the park, there was a cool wind whipping off the ocean that made the idea of swimming rather unpleasant. It was also blowing a lot of sand everywhere, which was also quite unpleasant, so eventually I found a beach house to take shelter in and have some lunch, after which I headed back to the park.

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Birds at the beach.

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Dutch windmill located in the western end of Golden Gate Park. 

***

My final bout of sightseeing took me into the city centre again, on a rather aimless afternoon stroll, if I’m perfectly honest. From the Castro I wandered further into the city and stumbled across the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, an elegant building that almost looked like a brilliant royal palace. Across from the City Hall lay the Civic Center Plaza, which had rows of trees that had all shed their leaves at the approach of winter, but the way they were planted in perfectly straight rows created a strange visual effect when you stood in the middle of them that reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

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San Francisco City Hall 

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Civic Center Plaza, complete with a Christmas tree. 

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The narrow tunnels created by the trees in the plaza. 

I wandered through the centre in the dying afternoon light, before heading back through the Castro and over the hills to get home.

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The gay streets of the Castro. 

***

I had been in San Francisco for almost two weeks, and I had loved every minute of it. While not as warm as I had expected California to be, I’d learnt a little about the phenomenon of the local climate, and the vibrant and colourful culture of the city had more than made up for it. I’d also met a bunch of awesome people, many of whom I’m still in touch with and will likely ensure that my first visit to San Francisco will not be my last. But alas, the countdown to the end of my seemingly endless worldwide journey had begun, and I still had the huge city of Los Angeles to explore before I jetted off from the mainland USA.

The morning of my departure, Todd and I both got up early: him getting ready for work, and me gathering up all my belongings and throwing them into my bag. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest BART station, which would take me across the bay and over into Oakland. It was from there that my Amtrak train would depart, and carry me down the Californian coast to LA. I said a heartfelt goodbye to Todd, who had done so much for me and without whom my stay in San Francisco would not have been the same, before jumping on the metro and heading across the bay to embark on one of the final legs of my worldwide tour.

22 Hour Transit

Travelling is a lot of fun. New countries, new cities, new people, new experiences – if you’ve made it this far reading about my travels and adventures, you’ll know just how amazing it all can be. However, there’s something to be said about the difference between being in these awesome, exotic places, and actually getting there. I know, “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” is a real phrase that people use all the time, and for the most part I completely agree. Given that my year of travelling was a consistent pilgrimage from place to place, never spending longer than two weeks in any one place, and that my eventual ‘destination’ would be right back where I started, on a macro level it really was all about the journey. But on a smaller, more specific level, the journey between place to place isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. Some times they can be great, like the short cruises I used to hop across bodies of water in Europe, and the more peaceful train rides where you can sit back and soak up the Swiss countryside. Some train journeys, like the Trans-Siberian Railway, are challenging yet somehow intrinsically rewarding, while other rail and bus journeys are just downright awful, and make you wish you were still curled up in the last most comfortable place you slept, wherever that happened to be. Even flying can be stressful, what with the airports and baggage limits and occasionally missing your flight. I’d won some, but I’d definitely lost some too. However, if I had to pick a winner (read: loser), it would undoubtedly be the 22 hours transit between San Antonio and Santa Fe.

When discussing how I was going to get from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Vincenzo had given me tips and suggestions about places to stay, and I’d spoken to a few other people along the way as well, but there was one step of the process that I was unanimously assured was going to be… not so much difficult, but definitely not much fun: getting across Texas. As far as states go in the US, Texas is huge, and west of San Antonio there isn’t exactly a great deal of… well, anything. I was looking at the map for small places that I might be able to stop at along the way, and while driving a car might have provided the possibility to do so, in the end I was assured that it was better to just bite the bullet and drive on through the night across the desert. So that’s exactly what I did: since it was going to take at least 9 hours to drive from San Antonio to El Paso, I decided to book the night bus so as to not waste a day in transit. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong…

***

I climbed on the bus at San Antonio and picked a seat. Close to the back, window seat, and thankfully nobody sat next to me. It wasn’t until we were well on the road, and the city lights had given way to the vast darkness that the arid landscape had become, that I tried to recline my seat only to make a horrific discovery: I’d sat on the very last seat before the wall that partitioned off the toilet at the back of the bus, and therefore my seat only reclined a fraction of the way that the rest of the seats in the bus did. The bus wasn’t full, but there was no more spare seats that didn’t already have somebody sitting next to them, and I was not about to be that guy that blatantly violates the unspoken code of respecting personal space. And so begun my long, relatively sleepless night, twisting and turning, lying across the two seats, sometimes with my back propped up against the window, other times with my legs dangling out into the aisle, although that meant having people bump into them and stumble over them anytime someone needed to use the bathroom. I think it has to be said, that saving a day by doing a long haul transit at night only really counts if you’re somehow able to have a decent sleep on said long haul transit and avoid being a complete mental zombie for the entire following day that you were “saving”.

After intermittent bouts of uncomfortable sleep and a brief pit stop at a gas station, we finally arrived at the bus depot in El Paso at about 5am. I don’t know if there’s much to do in El Paso in general, but I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much of anything to do in El Paso at 5am on a Monday morning. Sitting there in the breaking dawn at the bus depot, I recalled a conversation I’d previously had with Vincenzo:
“I’ve got a 5 hour stop in El Paso before the bus to Albuquerque. Do you reckon I could go down and cross the border into Mexico? Get another stamp on my passport? Cross another country off the list?”
“Absolutely not,” had been his response, without missing a beat, before educating me on just how bad the drug wars could get along the Texas/Mexico border. “I’d like to see you again one day, preferably not decapitated.”
At the time it felt like an exaggeration, but I promised that I wouldn’t try, knowing that he definitely knew better than me. Now, sitting in the bus terminal after a long sleepless night, wandering around the border towns of Mexico was absolutely not at the top of my list of priorities. But that did leave me with the reality of a 5 hour wait before my next bus was due to depart. Luckily the bus depot was actually relatively modern: there was a cafeteria where I had some breakfast, and free wifi, so I ended up having a group Skype chat with some of my friends back home – the one good thing about the ungodly hour in Texas was that it was the perfect time for my friends in Sydney.

By the time 10am rolled around, I had reached that euphoric feeling of over tiredness that you get when you stay up all night at a sleep over: that feeling when you’re not asleep, but you’re not really awake either. It had been 5 hours of boredom at El Paso, and I had to admit I felt a little bit crazy for actually looking forward to the thought of being on another bus for 4 and a half hours. The one plus side about this trip, in addition to being half as long as the journey between San Antonio and El Paso, is that the sun had finally risen, allowing me to actually see the expanses of nothing that we were driving though.

The Great Big Nothing

The Great Big Nothing

This bus trip also had another milestone – border patrol. Not long into the journey the bus crossed the border between Texas and New Mexico. I was a little surprised at first: it wasn’t like travelling to and from Canada when I’d actually been in another country, and I had never encountered these kinds of checks between any of the states on the east coast or between Louisiana and Texas. In the end I put it down to the potential for drug smuggling, given that this bus had literally just come from a gateway to that world. Of course, I got all the usual remarks from the guy who checked my passport:
“Long way from home?”
“Yep.” You’ll have to forgive me for not feeling chatty.
“Where are you heading?”
“Santa Fe.”
“What for?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Travelling?” It doesn’t exactly plead my case, but a flip through the pages of my passport and seeing all the stamps and visas usually speaks for itself.
“Wow, you really have been travelling,” he eventually said, handing back the passport and letting me get back to staring at the desert.

The rest of the bus trip went by uneventfully, and finally the bus pulled into the depot at Albuquerque, a place which, until very recently, I had thought to be a fictional city invented by the creators of The Simpsons in the episode where the city buys the Springfield Isotopes baseball team. Yet here I was, standing in a very real city, although for all the sleep deprivation I might very well have been hallucinating. At any rate, Albuquerque was not my final destination of the day – my transit from Hell had one final leg, not on a Greyhound bus this time, but the Rail Runner, a train that connects Albuquerque with the New Mexico state capital, Santa Fe. It was painted to resemble a roadrunner, the bird species that is native to the area, and provides a relatively fast journey, as speed is also something characteristic of the roadrunner. However, unlike the Greyhound buses, the Rail Runner is more of a transport for commuters, with people people working in one of the two cities that it joins, and living in the other. This meant that the timetable was not evenly spread out throughout the day, but with many of the services being centred around the peak hour times in the morning and the evening. Therefore, despite arriving at around 2:30pm, remarkably in sync with the bus schedule, the next Rail Runner to Santa Fe didn’t leave until about 4:30pm. In my mind I had thought “Great, that gives me a few hours to have a wander around and check out Albuquerque!”, a consolation for being forbidden to explore across the border during my stop at El Paso. Of course, upon arrival, with my big bag and depleted energy levels, that was absolutely not going to happen. I found a cafe in the bus depot, conveniently located next to the Rail Runner station, got some food, accessed the wifi, and waited.

The Rail Runner itself was remarkably modern, like any of the inner city metro trains that I had encountered throughout my travels – in some cases, even better. It whizzed through the desert, and since it was the peak hour service heading to Santa Fe, it was pretty crowded. I ended up chatting to an older couple who were sitting next to me, after they curiously commented on my backpack and began asking questions. I was tired, but they were actually quite sweet, so I ended up chatting to them for quite a while. It takes about an hour and half to get to Santa Fe from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner, and apart from my conversation with the elderly couple, only one other interesting thing happened. I’d like to think that I wasn’t talking too loudly, but there wasn’t a lot else going on during the journey, so I guess it wouldn’t have been too difficult for the people around us to overhear the stories I was telling my temporary companions. As we approached Santa Fe, there were a few stops on the outer city limits before stopping at the main depot in the town centre. I was heading to the very last stop, but as the Rail Runner pulled into one of the stops before the final destination, a girl who had been sitting across the train from us got up to get off. However, before stepping off, she approached me with a nervous smile and handed me a little slip of paper, on which she had written her name and phone number. She was probably around my age, with long brown hair and pale blue eyes, although they were downcast for most of our brief interaction, when she mumbled a few words from behind her smile.
“Let me know if you need someone to show you around town,” she said, and I didn’t have much of a chance to say anything other thank “thank you” before she hopped off the train and the doors slid closed. The elder couple sitting next to me didn’t say anything, but they were silently smiling at me as I felt my cheeks begin to blush. I put the number in my backpack, although I never ended up calling her. I wouldn’t be in Santa Fe for very long anyway, plus I had absolutely no idea what her intentions were, and I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Still, I had to admire the courage it took to do something like that.

Eventually the final stop came. It was about 6pm, so after a solid 22 hours of riding on buses and trains, and waiting in depots and stations, I had finally reached Santa Fe. At the time I had absolutely hated the journey, understandably, but in retrospect it’s those journeys that you actually look back on with some fond memories, because that’s exactly what they are: memorable. There’s almost always a silver lining to all the seemingly crappy experiences that you go through as a backpacker, even if it’s just another story to tell the grandchildren.

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

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

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

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

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

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

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

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

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

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

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

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

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

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

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

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

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

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

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

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

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

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

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

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.

Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

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.

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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.