Friends in High Places

For someone who had done as much traveling as I had done in the past 8 months, I had done remarkably little flying. I’d caught countless trains and plenty of buses, but planes had only really been my choice of transit when there was almost no other option, like getting to Italy from Spain without taking 3 days to do so, or crossing the Atlantic Ocean. But when I’d been planning my trip across the Southwest while still in Austin, Aaron had advised me that flying in and out of Las Vegas was usually pretty cheap, considering it was a hot spot destination for domestic tourism. At the time of booking the flight I wouldn’t quite know it, but I would be very relieved that I wasn’t getting another bus onwards from Las Vegas. There was another particular reason for choosing to fly instead of travelling via road, other than the cheaper cost of flights – my eventual flight out of the mainland US would be from Los Angeles, and geographically that was the most logical city to drive to from Las Vegas. But there was no way that my visit to California would be complete without a visit to San Francisco, so I decided that I would fly further north first, and then travel down the coast to LA at some point during my final weeks in the US.

Another reason that I preferred other methods of travel to flying was that they were usually more interesting than flying. While I’d enjoyed most of the overland travel I had done, with the ability to see different places and meeting interesting people, all of my experiences with flying had been either uneventful or just downright traumatic. And I know it’s somewhere between an obvious cliché and an offensive stereotype, but I have to say it – if you have a male flight attendant than there is probably like a 90% chance he is going to be gay. Fabricated statistics aside, this had been my experience, at least, on the handful of flights that I had been on, and so far it had not made my journeys anymore interesting. But my flight to San Francisco was different…

After watching the funky new safety procedure video that Virgin America had just released and staying in my assigned seat for take off, I noticed that there there was a row of three seats that were completely empty. When the seatbelt sign was finally turned off, I gathered my belongings, quickly smiled at the woman I was sitting next to so that I didn’t look totally rude, and shuffled across the aisle and down a row to set up camp in the empty seats. Sure, the flight couldn’t have been much longer than 45 minutes, but extra space was extra space and I’ll take small wins wherever I can find them.

There was also something else that I had noticed during the takeoff procedure, and that was the flight attendant. He was tall and cute, and every time he passed me down the aisle we ended up making eye contact and exchanging some kind of semi-awkward smile. It was totally flirty, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had similar experiences with other flight attendants before, so while it was a bit of harmless fun, I didn’t think too much of it. As entertaining as the thought of joining the ‘Mile High’ club was, I sat back to enjoy my short journey and let him get on with his job. Although given the nature of his job – serving passengers like myself – it wasn’t too long before we interacted again. Once we were in the air, the drinks trolley was whipped out and wheeled down the aisle, and of course when it got to me I was face to face with my flight attendant crush.

“Hey, how’s it going? Can I get you anything?” he said with a friendly smile.
“Hey… um, sorry, but do these drinks cost extra?” I was aware that when you were flying with the cheaper, discount airlines, you often had to pay for the little extras.
“It’s only the alcohol that costa extra,” he said, and then be smiled at me again. “But it’s okay, what would you like?” He flashed me a very subtle wink, and I could feel myself blushing.
“Oh, no, it’s okay, don’t worry. I’ll just have a Coke.”
“No really, it’s fine”, he said again, still smiling at me. “Coke? Coke and…?”
I have no idea why, but he had me fidgeting and blushing like a schoolgirl. “Um… bourbon?” I said coyly. He just kept grinning at me, and sneakily handed me one of the those tiny bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Thank you,” I said as I mixed the bourbon with the cola, and he assured me it was his pleasure, before continuing his way down the plane.

He visited me a few times again throughout the flight. The next time he returned with more bourbon – sneaking another 4 miniature bottle of Jack Daniels back and dropping them in the seat next to me – and the second time he had a handful of packets of salty snacks. I couldn’t believe it was happening – I mean, it’s not like we were shacking up in the toilets or anything, but to be honest free food and booze is an equally direct way to winning my heart. After all the other passengers had been served, he came down and sat in one of the  spare seats that I had scored for myself in the beginning of the flight.
“Hey,” he said as he slipped out of the aisle, and I had to do my best to keep the stupid, giddy grinning to a minimum. I felt like I was in some kind of cheesy romantic comedy – does this kind of thing even happen in real life?
“Hey! Thank you so much for the drinks and the food,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Ah, it’s not a problem. We have heaps back there, no one will ever know” he said with a smile and a wink. “I’m Andrew, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Andrew. I’m Robert.” We chatted for a little bit, just introducing ourselves some more and getting know each other. Andrew had only recently started working as a flight attendant and was currently living in Las Vegas. He was on this flight to San Francisco, but he would be travelling one step further to San Diego from there before his shift was done. I told him that it was my first time in San Francisco.

“It’s a great city. I used to live there.”
“Yeah, I’m really excited to check it out.” We were both aware that we didn’t have a lot of time before Andrew would have to start getting ready for the plane to land. “So like… I don’t know, I feel like… do you wanna exchange numbers, or something?” It felt a little weird, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be seeing him again, but it felt like the normal thing to do in that kind of situation.
“Well, yeah. I actually…” he trailed off as he fished around in his pocket and pulled out a napkin, where he had already written his name, phone number and email address.
“Oh cool! Here, let me write down mine.” I scrawled my details out on a piece of paper to give to him.
“So are you meeting anyone when you land?” Andrew asked me.
“Actually… you know, I’m not. I don’t have anyone waiting for me.”
“I’ve got a little break before I need to head to the plane and get ready for the next flight. Send me a text once we’re on the ground, maybe I can meet you.”
“Sure thing,” I said, and then said goodbye as he hopped up to continue with his duties.

Welcome to SFO!

Welcome to SFO!

After disembarking and picking up my luggage, I met Andrew down in the arrivals terminal. We chatted some more, and when I explained my accomodation situation to him, he helped me find the shuttle bus service that could drive me to wherever I was going in the San Francisco area for only $20, and then sat and waited with me until the shuttle was full with passengers and ready to get moving.
“Well, it was lovely to meet you,” I said to him and he helped load my bags into the bus.
“Likewise. It’s too bad we didn’t have a little more time to hang out.”
“Yeah, oh well. But keep in touch. There’s always next time, and we both travel a lot – you never know where in the world we might end up,” I said with a final smile.
“True,” he said as he returned the grin, and gave me a final hug before sending me on my way.

We kept in touch, but despite him travelling to and from California pretty regularly with his work, I never ended up meeting Andrew again before leaving the US. But it was still a very memorable way to meet someone, and it’s those fun stories and quirky tales that you can look back on with fondness, knowing that you simply just opened yourself up to possibility and lived in the moment.

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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.

Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

The following day was the day that had specifically influenced my travel plans and my intention to be in New Orleans: Halloween. I was excited to be in the US for Halloween in general, because if Hollywood movies were anything to go by (and in this rare circumstance, they were) then Americans take the holiday very seriously, but it was particularly exciting to be in New Orleans due to the towns penchant for the quirky and mysterious. Everyone puts a lot of effort into their costumes and the dressing up side of things, but a lot of people also celebrate the day and the night in a more religious or spiritual sense. Basically, the lore dictates that Halloween – or All Hallows Eve – is a night where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is slightly weaker, allowing better communication with the supernatural forces from the other side, or something along that train of thought. I won’t pretend to be an expert on pagan religions or voodoo practices, but you get the idea. It’s a special day.

Vincenzo had to work for most of the day, but he told me that his neighbour was having a party that evening and that I was welcome to join him and his friend when they went. It wasn’t until I was actually invited to a Halloween party that I was struck with the horrific realisation that I didn’t have a costume, and if you didn’t have a costume at Halloween then you simply weren’t doing it right – or so those Hollywood movies had led me to believe. So while Vincenzo was at work that day, I made it my mission to find a costume. It was on short notice and would have to be on a short budget, but I figured if there was any city in the US that would have adequate appropriate costume supplies, it would be New Orleans. I walked down the streets of the French Quarter as the afternoon rolled around, ducking into all kinds of novelty stores and and bargain bins that sold mainly joke costumes, as well as one or two more legitimate places that sold magical trinkets of a more serious manner. In the end I settled for something pretty basic – a pair of black feather wings and a fancy-looking black eye mask. It was the kind of thing that, if you were going to some huge gay circuit party, you would wear with a pair of hot pants and nothing else, but since I was forgoing the Mean Girls rule (“Halloween is the one night of the year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”) I figured I could just throw on some black clothing and make some abstract horror idea out of it.

“But what is it? What’s your costume?” Vincenzo asked me as he was attaching his very realistic looking vampire fangs to his top canine teeth. I had spent the remainder or the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, watching candlelit processions making their way through the street, with drums and chanting and brass bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually I met Vincenzo at his house when he finished work, where he and his friend Faith were readying themselves for the party we were set to attend.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. “Angel of Death?” Vincenzo turned to look at me a little closer this time, examining the outfit as I tied up the ribbons of the mask behind my head.
“Angel of Death…” he said slowly, with an air of contemplation. “I like it.” He smiled, flashing me his fangs. Both him and Faith were dressed as vampires, and when they were ready we made our way to the party next-door.

The neighbours house was a similar style to Vincenzo’s flat, except considerably bigger. It was set on the street corner and had a huge balcony that snaked around the buildings exterior and offered a great view of the streets below. Vincenzo pointed out a tree that was covered in colourful strings of beads, necklaces that had been flung into the branches and gathered like tiny shiny fruits. “Mardi Gras beads. I’m pretty sure I threw some of them there myself,” he said with what was almost a hint of pride.
“Wait… didn’t you say… I thought Mardi Gras was in February?”
“Uh-huh.”
“And… they’re still there?” I mean, it was October. Surely someone would have taken the beads down by now.
“Mardi Gras is a huge part of the culture of New Orleans. They’re just a little reminder of that – I guess no one ever feels the need to rush over and take them all down.” I liked the idea of that, thinking back to parades and events in Sydney that were inevitably followed by a huge and meticulous government clean up that usually removed all and any traces of there even being an event there in the first place. New Orleans not only took pride in it’s cultural events, but wore the aftermath and remnants of them like a badge or medal for the remainder of the year.

I was introduced to Vincenzo’s neighbour, a classic Southern belle who could have stepped out of A Streetcar Named Desire, and I mingled with the guests as we ate and drank. The party was only more a social call, however, and after a few hours of drinking and mingling, Vincenzo, Faith and I headed out and off to Frenchman Street, where there was a lot more partying going on. It was more of a street party though, and the three of us slowly wandered down the street through the crowds, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at some of the impressive costumes that would have taken quite a while to put together. The streets were crowded and full of drunken Halloween revellers, but the overall mood wasn’t overly outrageous or obnoxious – I was told that that kind of atmosphere was reserved for Bourbon Street, and that Frenchman Street was more popular among the locals to who had a little more respect for the local area. We didn’t do much partying ourselves, but instead continued our wandering through the streets and back into the heart of French Quarter. There weren’t many trick-or-treating children at that hour, but the rest of the city was out in full force to celebrate the holiday in more adult ways.

We stopped at Cafe Du Monde, the most iconic coffeehouse in New Orleans, where both Vincenzo and Faith insisted that I had to try a café au lait and some beignets. Café au lait is just coffee with milk, except the milk added is hot or scalded rather than simply cold, and the New Orleanian variety has chicory added to it to give it a bitter taste. Beignets are deep-fried pastries served with powdered sugar, a sweet touch to offset the bitterness of the café au lait. I was assured that it would be most improper to leave New Orleans without sampling these treats, so what better time to do so than on my authentic New Orleans Halloween evening? Faith admitted that she was beginning to get tired, so after we finished at Cafe Du Monde we flagged a petty-cab down for her and sent her off home. Vincenzo and I continued on our walking tour of the city, and we eventually agreed to show me some of the gay bars of New Orleans. The majority of the gay bars were on a square of blocks that had become fittingly known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, so we began our walk along that route, stopping into each of them for a short time. I’ve heard some crazy things about partying in New Orleans, so I can’t imagine my experience is an accurate representation of the scene, but a lot of the bars were well decorated but very sparsely populated. Maybe we were just there before most of the other partiers, who were still out on the streets, or maybe there were other specific Halloween parties or events that were drawing most of the crowds, but somehow the subdued moods of the patrons didn’t really seem to match the party environments the venues were trying to create, so we didn’t end up staying anywhere for too long. Vincenzo ran into a few people he knew at a couple of the places, but other than that our tour of the Fruit Loop was interesting, but not all that exciting.

It was when Vincenzo was escorting me back to my hotel that I talked more about my impressions of Halloween, and what I had been expecting compared to what we had actually seen. “I dunno… I mean, I’ve got out partying and drinking in literally every other city I have been to,” I said with a little chuckle. “But I knew New Orleans was supposed to be this hotbed of… well, things that were different. Mysterious, a little magical, I don’t know.”
“Well, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in New Orleans, you’re certainly not limited to Halloween,” Vincenzo said with a knowing smile. “Tomorrow is All Saints Day, which is a pretty important date on the voodoo calendar. I know of a few things that might be happening – if you like, I can see if I can take you to one?” The idea of being at a real life voodoo ceremony was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but I was instantly intrigued. It was my last night in the hotel, so after assuring him I was very interesting in seeing more of the mystical side of New Orleans, I gave Vincenzo a goodnight kiss and told him I would see him again at his place the following morning after check out.

***

The first thing I discovered the following morning was that Vincenzo was not a morning person. I had to call him a few times while I was standing down at the outside gate, and when he finally stirred from within and got up to let me in, he assured me he’d need at least another hour and a strong coffee before he was ready to face the world. So while he slowly morphed into a functioning human being, Faith took me out for a little stroll and some breakfast at her favourite nearby bakery, where we sipped on café au laits and she told me more about both New Orleans and Vincenzo.
“Vince has always loved this city.” Apparently she was also the only one who could getting away with calling him ‘Vince’. “I mean, we both have, ever since we first visited it when we were just teenagers.” They’d both grown up in New York – her just upstate and him in the Bronx – but had shared a passion for Anne Rice novels and all her vampire stories that call New Orleans home. “But Vince really loved it, enough to move here.” She went on to tell me more about some of his Couchsurfing experiences, and how he’d shown dozens of people around New Orleans during his time there. When we finished up at the bakery we went for a walk through the streets of the French Quarter, which looked surprisingly different in the bright daylight, although they were still full of gutter punks and street musicians and buskers. You would never need headphones or an iPod if you were walking around there – almost everywhere you go there’s a musician playing some decent tunes.

When we finally arrived home it was almost afternoon, but Vincenzo was not longer near comatose, so the three of us took a trip out to New Orleans City Park. There was quite a few art installations around the parks, and Vincenzo and I sat along the banks of one of the swamps while Faith wandered off into the greenery.

New Orleans City Park

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

After the relaxing afternoon, it finally came time to attend the All Saints Day ceremony in the evening. There was a rather large turn out, and it made me realise that once you know where to look, there is a strong voodoo presence in the city because of these close communities of people who practice it. Out of respect for the worshippers and the practice of voodoo itself, I’m not going to go into the details of the ceremony – partly because I don’t want to wrongly explain any of the various rituals, but also because there’s a certain value in the mystery, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that. I was, however, allowed to take a few photos of the shrines and alters that were set up before the ceremony took place.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The last part of the ceremony was something remarkable that I think is worth noting. The final ritual simply involved a slow procession through the streets from the meeting place to the nearby cemetery, a moving candlelight vigil with the intention of paying respects and leaving offerings for the spirits of the dead at the cemetery gates. It was only a short walk, but at one point of the journey someone quietly pointed out that we were being followed at a distance by the police. I was under the impression that the police might have been a little suspicious about what we were doing, and might have ordered us to move along. However, someone went to consort with them and came back to report that they were simply there to keep an eye on things, and be on the lookout for any hecklers that might have otherwise given us grief.
“Only in New Orleans,” I heard Vincenzo whisper with a relieved sigh, as people placed their offerings and candles on and around the gates. I think that was the most remarkable thing of all – that the voodoo procession had an unrequested police escort. The culture surround the practice was so strong here that even the law enforcement recognised and respected it.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

The whole ceremony lasted well into the night, and was followed by a feast of sorts – essentially a backyard barbecue for everyone to socialise and debrief. It was very late by the time Vincenzo and I left – Faith had already retired much earlier in the evening, having to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get to the airport and fly home. The night air was cooling off as we sat down by the side of the road and waited for our taxi, and I noticed Vincenzo shiver a little.
“Guess this is cold for New Orleans, hey?” I said with a chuckle as I put an arm around him. He laughed, but didn’t protest as he snuggled into the half-hug. “Well, thanks for another magical evening – in a much more literal sense, this time,” I said, placing a gentle kiss on the side of his head, and shooting him a wink that he probably never saw in the darkness.

Midnight Jazz and a Gentleman’s Kiss: my first taste of New Orleans

After heading down into the depths of the French Quarter and having dinner at a dive bar called Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, recommended to me by Brett earlier that afternoon. I finished my burger and my beer, but it was still pretty early in the evening so I headed back to the hotel to figure out what I would do that evening, and just take my time getting ready. It was starting to dawn on me that for the first time in a couple of months I was completely alone in a city where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t have a local friend to turn to for advice or ideas. There’s always TripAdvisor and other travel sites you can consult, but I was also interested in meeting more people. So of course, enter Grindr. Or Scruff. Or any one of the numerous gay dating apps that have been connecting the already geographically close gay men of the world for years. Many people consider them to be ‘hook up’ apps, and it’s true that there are a plethora of users who are interested in nothing more than a cheap trick, but over the course of my travels I had met a handful of really amazing and genuine guys via the technology, such as Allistair in Vietnam or Anthony in London, all of who I am still good friends with and am still in touch with. So once again I turned to the grids of headless torsos in search of a friend.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Sipping on the Jack Daniels I’d bought duty free in Brazil, I chatted to guys here and there, scoping the place for fun or interesting looking guys, but never really getting past a round of half-hearted introductions. That is, until I got a message from Vincenzo. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was more than “hi how r u?” or “looking?“, so he was already off to a flying start, and he appeared to be gorgeous. He offered a few compliments, I probably blushed to myself and awkwardly returned them. He told me he was currently at work, at one of the smaller hotels around the corner from my hotel, and I told him an abridged version of my story, how I was just in town and looking for some things to do, or someone to show me around. I also mentioned that I was only in my hotel for a few days, and then I would be looking for some other accommodation, probably a Couchsurfing host. That’s when Vincenzo informed me that he too was part of the Couchsurfing community, and he even sent me a link to his profile, and then suddenly everything changed. I guess I felt like I was able to trust him a little bit more once I knew he was an active member of Couchsurfing, and not just a pretty face I’d stumbled across on an app, and suddenly we were making plans for me to meet him at his work when his shift was over.

I was a little nervous when I set out around the corner to meet Vincenzo. He’d been a little bit flirty, but not at all sleazy, so it kind of felt like an impromptu date or something. When I entered the hotel he was sitting sitting behind the reception desk, looking even more handsome in person. It was a small business-type guesthouse, and since it was getting late he was the only one around. We reintroduced ourselves, this time in the physical world, and then I was introduced to Princess, Vincenzo’s adorable Rat Terrier dog who had been cautiously watching me from the safety of in between his ankles. She warmed up to me rather quickly though, and we were only there a few more minutes before it was time for Vincenzo to close up the reception for the night and head off.
“I’m happy to take you out to a few bars along Frenchman Street,” Vincenzo said as we headed out the door and down the street, in a New York accent that originated from the Bronx, with only a subtle hint of the Southern drawl of the local region. “But first I need to take this one home,” he said with a motion down to Princess, who was trotting along in front of us on her leash.
“Works for me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve got no other plans.”

***

Vincenzo lived in a small first-storey flat in one of the upper corners of the French Quarter, with a lush overgrowth of greenery in the front garden behind the metal gates, and a banana tree whose leaves canopied across the railings of his rustic, wooden porch. When you stood on the porch and looked out onto the road, it was easy to forget you were in the United States of America, and in all the travels I did through the country, the French Quarter – and even parts of wider New Orleans – had a particular charm about it that was undeniably unique. The flat was relatively small inside too, and Vincenzo apologised for the apparent untidiness.
“I have a friend staying with me here right now,” Vincenzo said as he nodded towards a fold-out bed that was set up in the corner of the kitchen, the only other room with space that wasn’t his bedroom or the bathroom. “Although she’s actually not here tonight, but she’ll be back for one more night tomorrow.” He’d been putting out some food for Princess, who was now happily munching away, but now he turned to face me directly. “So, I’m not sure how long you’re staying at the Royal, but if you do need a place…” he half shrugged as he motioned to the room around him. “Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, already quite sure I’d take him up on the offer. He had a carefree vibe about him which I felt was always good in a host, but his charisma also made him incredibly charming.

“Now, I do wanna change my shirt before we go. But first, how about a drink?”
“I’m Australian – I’m always down for a drink,” I joked with him as I sat down on the edge of the fold-out bed. The space was small, and there weren’t any tables or chairs, perhaps due to the fact the bed was there in the first place.
“Do you drink bourbon?”
“It’s my poison of choice.”
Vincenzo chuckled and looked at me with a friendly smirk. “Ice or no ice?”
“I’m fine without ice.” He poured two glasses of neat bourbon and brought them over to me, handing me one before taking a seat beside me on the edge of the bed.
“Cheers,” I said as I took the glass, and held it up to clink it with his before taking a sip.
“Cheers,” he said in return, and when we held our eye contact as we sipped our drinks, there was definitely some kind of connection. I stared into those beautiful blue eyes as they edged in closer, and Vincenzo leaned in to place a light, delicate kiss on my lips. I kissed him back with equal delicacy, although after a few moments he pulled back again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t normally… No, I never do this to Couchsurfers.” He seemed a little flustered, as though he was really conflicted with what he’d just done. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured or anything, just because you might need a place to stay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” I just sighed with a smile, and placed a hand on his leg so that he looked up and into my eyes again.
“Well, technically we didn’t meet on Couchsurfing anyway,” I said with a grin. “And besides, does it really look like I wanted you to stop?”
Evidently more relaxed, he let me lean into him this time, his big bright eyes closing in surrender to another delicate kiss.

***

Though I could have kissed his gorgeous face all night, Vincenzo had promised to show me around a little bit, and actually go out for a drink.
Not to Bourbon Street,” he said as he quickly changed his shirt, barely suppressing the shudder seemingly at the idea of it. “We can walk to Frenchman Street from here. It’s a lot less touristy, and there’s a lot of live music. You’re a musician too, right? I remember reading that somewhere.” It’s always refreshing when the people you meet online actually took the time to read your profile first.
“Yeah, I am. Acoustic guitar and a bit of ukulele.” Vincenzo himself was a singer and songwriter. “And live music sounds great!” We finished our bourbons sitting on Vincenzo’s porch, as Princess curiously examined the new stranger in her house, and then when we were ready we headed off into the night.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don't think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo's attention.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don’t think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo’s attention.

It was the end of October but the air was still quite warm, and it was only several minutes later that we turned onto Frenchman Street and I experienced my first taste of authentic New Orleans. There were plenty of people out and about, but the road wasn’t overcrowded and choked with tourists. There were people standing around on the street outside some of the bars, sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes, although upon entering the first establishment I realised that they were more than allowed to do that inside too – something I hadn’t seen since Berlin. I simply followed Vincenzo, so I can’t quite recall the name of the venues. I think we hopped between a few throughout the evening, but they all appeared to be relatively small, hole-in-the-wall type places, although they were obviously popular with the locals. Wooden architecture, dull but colourful lighting and grungy, dive bar atmospheres, these places had character, and it was all topped off with the live music. I can’t say that jazz is always my first choice in music, but it was the prevailing genre of New Orleans and boy, did they do it well! Vincenzo and I got our drinks and chatted in between listening to the music, and he explained a little bit more about the city and the street we were on.

“Frenchman Street has been a pretty important entertainment district, especially after Katrina,” he told me, in reference to the hurricane that had ravaged the city in 2005. “It’s definitely more of a local scene, though, for the arts and the music rather than the partying and the drinking.” He went on to tell me about Bourbon Street, arguably the most famous street of the city yet one that so many of the locals apparently loathe, disappointed that the tourist trap ultimately prevents visitors from seeing the rest of what the city has to offer, despite them still claiming to have had an “authentic New Orleans experience.” I’d had a few friends who had travelled through the city, and I had to admit that “when I was out on Bourbon Street” was probably the most common phrase in conversations about their visit. So I actually felt incredibly lucky that I’d chanced upon meeting with Vincenzo, someone who was obviously extremely passionate about his city, and who was able to show me a different side of things and lead me away from the brazen distractions. He’d lived there for a long time, knew of the pre-Katrina New Orleans, and had been there helping rebuild it ever since the storm hit, and just seeing the passion and enthusiasm when he talked about the city was inspiring. Those types of people make the best hosts for travellers, and it was during that evening that I knew I definitely wanted to stay with Vincenzo. The fact he was both totally gorgeous and a great kisser were just an added bonuses.

We stayed out late, and we drank a fair bit and maybe even danced a little, swinging to the beat of the devil’s music. Eventually we called it a night, and though it wasn’t on his way home, Vincenzo remained the perfect gentleman and walked me home to my hotel through the quiet, empty streets of the French Quarter.
“Well, New Orleans isn’t really that unsafe,” he confessed, “but it wouldn’t be right to let you walk home by yourself on your first night in a foreign city.” Ever charming as he was, I couldn’t help but blush and oblige, since his company was more than welcome. “And of course, any excuse to spend a bit of extra time with a beautiful man like yourself.”
All I could do was continue to wear my giddy smile, and in the argument for extra time together I invited him to stay the night. Although with no actual set departure date from New Orleans, I had a feeling Vincenzo and I were going to spend plenty of time together.

Clearing Customs and a Stateside Shaman

After a long flight and a short, restless sleep, my flight out of São Paulo touched down in Miami. Although it wouldn’t be my final destination for the day, it was my first stop on my return to the United States of America, which meant it was the place where I would have to clear customs before continuing on my way. Despite having done nothing wrong and having absolutely nothing to hide, going through customs, especially in the US, always made me feel a little uneasy, as though there could potentially be something wrong that I didn’t know about. It had been a bit nicer when I’d done the US pre-customs in the airport in Dublin, I’m not sure why, but this was the first time I would be clearing US customs in a US airport (coming back from Canada via train, customs had been a little stern but on the whole nothing to really worry about). Luckily it was pretty early in the morning when we landed in Miami – around 7am – so there wasn’t an awful lot of queuing or anything. Yet when I lugged my bag onto the X-ray machine, of course they decided it was worth pulling aside and taking a look at.

“Good morning, sir” the man said in a voice that was a little too chipper for that hour of the morning, for me. “This your bag here? You packed it yourself?”
“Yes, it’s my bag, and yes, I did.” I answered, half of me still asleep and half of me just a little on edge from being in customs.
“Do you have any liquids in this bag?”
“Ah, well, yeah… I mean, there’s a bottle of bourbon I bought from duty free stuffed in there somewhere.” It’d been a good price, and I knew it was completely within the regulations.
“What about down here?” he asked, looking back to the x-ray image before pointing to the bottom of my bag.
“Oh, there’s nothing in there except some shoes and my toiletries. So there’s a few creams and yeah, I guess liquids and stuff there too.”
“Would you mind if we take a look?”
I opened the bag to reveal some shoes, a belt, and my little black bag toiletries.
“Can we please take a look inside that bag?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, but he barely waited for a response before pulling open the zippers and poking his fingers around my toothpaste, my moisturisers, my sunscreen, my condoms… I mean, I didn’t have anything incriminating to hide, but it was a little uncomfortable to have him rifling through probably the most personal part of my luggage. The only thing worse would have been, I don’t know, going through my dirty underwear or something.

Eventually he was satisfied that I was nothing but an innocent traveller, so once again I was on my way. I had to catch a monorail within the airport just to get the terminal from where my next flight would be departing, and once I was there I grabbed some breakfast and readjusted to the pleasant realisation that I was in an English-speaking country again. The layover in Miami was less than two hours, but by the time I got out of customs there wasn’t even that much of a wait before I was boarding again and onto my next destination: a kooky and mysterious port in the south-west of the country.

When I’d been booking my flights back to the US from Brazil with my mother and travel agent over the phone, my mother had asked which city I wanted to fly back into.
“Just back to New York?”
“No!” I remember saying at once. I was suddenly taking two whole weeks out of my original plan and flying down to Brazil, so I needed to move further west if I was going to catch up and eventually be in California for my flight off the mainland. I also knew that I wanted to be back in the US by the 31st of October to make sure I was in the country for Halloween. As an Australian, I’d never really properly celebrated Halloween, at least not in the way the Americans do it, so I was determined to be there for it. When brainstorming cities and places of where to actually spend it though, most people had suggested the bigger coastal cities. I knew that I would have already left the east coast by then though, and with a few months left of travelling afterwards, it seemed too soon to be heading to the west coast for Halloween. When I scanned the map for more centrally located cities, I couldn’t believe that I had completely overlooked it until then. So when she asked me where I wanted to fly back to after two weeks in Brazial, arriving the day before Halloween, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
“New Orleans! I want to fly back to New Orleans!”

***

When I’d met up with my dad in New York, he’d surprised me with a birthday gift. Well, not so much as a gift as an offer. It was the night before the both of us were flying out of New York, so we were talking about future plans, and where I’d be going in Brazil, and then beyond that.
“And where are you staying when you come back to the states? You’re going to… New Orleans, I think your mother said?”
“Yep, New Orleans,” I confirmed. “I haven’t figured out where I’m staying there though, I usually sort all of that out a little closer to the day.”
“Well… if you’d like – just so that you have somewhere to go when you land – if you like, your mother and I would be happy to pay for a few nights in a hotel. Consider it a birthday present. Would you like that?”
After the continual months of Couchsurfing and crashing at hostels, I don’t think my father quite realised how much I would, in fact, like that. I thanked him with a big hug, and he told me to email my mother to sort out a booking.

Jump forward two weeks and I was loading my bags into a hotel shuttle bus at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the sunshine beating down on me and the air thick and humid. There were a plethora of different accents around me, and as we drove into the centre of town our driver gave us a warm welcome and a little commentary on the passing scenery. Luckily, the Royal Hotel New Orleans was the first stop on the shuttle route, and that happened to be where I was staying. As the shuttle rounded the corners and puttered down the streets, I suppose the first thing I noticed about New Orleans was that it didn’t really look like an American city. In fact, parts of it seemed distinctly European. A little bit of later research would inform me that this is was because we were in the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood and, for many, the cultural capital and the obvious touristic focus of the city. There weren’t as many two storey houses and big green lawns as there were cute little layered terrace houses, wrought iron fences, and beautiful, historic architecture. My hotel was no exception, and as I was shown the way to my room I was led through a gorgeous courtyard that made me feel like I was staying in some kind of sanctuary villa.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a nap. There isn’t a lot of change in the time zones when flying from South America to North America, but it’s still a long flight, and I hadn’t had the best sleep during any of it. It also felt quite odd to be in a hotel for once, with my own room, a nice big bed and a private bathroom. There was no weird small talk between travellers like there is when you arrive at a hostel, and I didn’t have anyone to introduce themselves or offer to show me around, as is what usually happens when you first arrive with a Couchsurfing host. I obviously don’t mind doing any of that, but for once none of that was happening, so I took a few hours to rest, recuperate, and recover from the long haul travel.

While I hadn’t needed to find a Couchsurfing host to stay with when I first arrived, I was only staying in the hotel for a couple of nights, and I’d had a feeling I’d want to be in New Orleans for a little bit longer than that. So I had done a bit of browsing through potential hosts and gotten in touch with a few, asking if they’d be interested in meeting me when I arrived and potentially hosting me when my time in the hotel was over. And that’s how I came into contact with Brett. He was a self-described shaman, though given the mystical nature of the town and New Orleans being the home of voodoo within the US, that wasn’t at all surprising. I consider myself pretty open-minded and curious when it comes to spiritual or supernatural things, and where I come there isn’t anything quite like the presence that voodoo and magic have in New Orleans. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who goes to New Orleans and does nothing but party on Bourbon Street – without exception, every single profile on Couchsurfing had said that they were not interested in those kinds of people, who were clearly just looking for a free room on a boozy vacation. In my messages I’d described my situation to Brett, as well as hinting that I was curious about his shamanism, and so we’d arranged to meet that afternoon after I was feeling recovered from my flight.

Brett lived just north of the French Quarter, and an easy walking distance from my hotel, so in the afternoon I headed over to introduce myself. He was a nice guy, probably in his mid-40s with a grey head of hair. He wasn’t a native to New Orleans, but had been a resident for a long time and it was his home, so we chatted and he told me a bit more about the city, some of the local geography and history. He  also gave me a few tips of good places to eat and drink around the Quarter, as well as warning me to be keeps my wits about me when walking at night.
“It’s not that it’s unsafe, but… it’s not completely safe. It’s a strange town, things can happen, just be prepared for situations.”
And then we got talking about the shamanism. Out of respect for the practice, I’m going to try and explain it fully because I didn’t really understand it. The bottom line is that shamans work with spirits and by doing so, reach altered states of consciousness through transcendental energies, which may or may not allow them to achieve certain supernatural things. He offered a demonstration, and even now I’m not 100% sure what he was supposed to be demonstrating. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, or I was just too tired and jet lagged from the flights, but it didn’t really feel like any more than an intense guided meditation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can still feel deeply spiritual. But it wasn’t really a new sensation for me. It wasn’t exactly magical.

To be honest, I felt a little skeptical after the whole thing, and while Brett had been a nice guy, I didn’t feel like I needed to hang out with him anymore. It had been an interesting experience, at least, and I actually did feel a bit more relaxed after what had essentially been a meditation session. However, the night was young, and New Orleans still had many more surprises and adventures in store for me.

Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

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

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

***

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

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

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

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

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

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

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

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

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

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

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

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

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

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

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

***

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

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

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

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

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

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