Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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

***

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

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.