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.

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Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

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

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

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

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

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

***

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

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

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

***

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

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

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

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

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

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

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

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

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

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Good Morning Baltimore

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

***

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

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

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

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

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

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

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

Sports Bars and Gentlemen

On Friday afternoon, after a day at the museums at the National Mall, I headed back to Robert’s where I would meet him to get ready to head out for the evening. He listed a couple of different gay venues and bars where things would be happening, but we decided to grab some dinner first and just play it by ear. We caught a bus to the other side of town, where the street names were all letters – there wasn’t really a dedicated gay district, but there were a handful of places around U Street, a little further east from where Robert lived. We went to a place called Nellie’s Sports Bar, which was – lo and behold – another gay sports bar. I decided that sports bars are just an American thing in general, gay or straight, because they seemed to be more a commonplace venue than I had been expecting. The walls were lined with sporting memorabilia and jerseys and all kinds of all-American decorations, and the bar was actually more of a restaurant where the servers were all cute guys dressed up in sport themed uniforms. We ordered some beers and got some food, and afterwards Robert told me that there was an upstairs area with a balcony and outdoor dance floor, and asked if I wanted to check it out. Obviously I did, so after fixing up the bill and giving our server a nice tip, we headed upstairs.

If downstairs was the sports aspect of the bar, then upstairs was where the gay aspect was fully represented. It was a cool setup – you climbed a few flights of old style wooden staircases until you reached the entrance to a wooden patio that stretched out over the roof of the building. There were a couple of bars along the edges, with bartenders making every drink with such flair and skill that a simple bourbon and Coke came out looking like a cocktail, and in the main area of the deck was a dance floor that was covered by a light, canvas canopy. The edges of the balcony looked out into the street and over the city, and the vibe was almost like that of a house or garden party. We got a couple of drinks, and I ended up hitting the dance floor while Robert sat on the sidelines.
“I’m too old, and don’t really care for dancing anymore”, he said with a resigned smile. “But you go ahead.”

I flitted around the dance floor, dancing with people and having brief conversations here and there. One thing I liked from what I had experienced in America so far was that strangers can be incredibly friendly. People are more likely to approach you and strike up random friendly conversations, not just in bars but even in the street, waiting at a bus stop, on the subway – and while sometimes it can be a little creepy in some of those places, it’s usually really nice, and especially useful in bars when you’re by yourself. I didn’t exactly make any friends while I was wandering around, but at the same time I never felt like I was by myself. Even when I was waiting for my drink at the bar, I was grabbed by the shoulder by a guy standing next to me and pulled into a group of people. They were doing shots to celebrate something or someone, I don’t even know, but they’d ordered too many. The tall shooter glass was thrust into my hand and before I even had time to think about it we raised and clinked them with a booming “Cheers!” and I downed the shot with the rest of them. Somewhere, whoever taught me about stranger danger at school is slowly shaking their head and mumbling under their breath. I thanked the group, danced with them for a little while, then collected my drink from the bartender and moved on. Robert eventually let me know that he was heading home, but he gave me all the information I needed to get home safely, and then left me to the party.

I had a few conversations with guys here and there while I was on the dance floor.
“Are you going to Mix Tape?” one of them asked me. I’d heard a few people ask and mention this Mix Tape, which I assume was some kind of event or party, and from a the few people I spoke to I managed to discern that it was some kind of underground party where local DJs test and preview their mixes, and it was the place where most people began to head once Nellie’s finally had to close the balcony party due to obvious noise restrictions. It wasn’t too far from Nellie’s, apparently, so I thought I would check it out.

That was the plan, at least. However, there was something – well, someone – else that had caught my eye. I had seen him almost immediately when I’d arrived on the patio with Robert, and we’d had brief, fleeting moments of eye contact while I had been making my way around the dance floor. It wasn’t like I was honing in on him or anything – I generally scan the crowds of any room I’m in, assessing the people and the situation – but I definitely caught him looking back at me a few times, with that lingering eye contact that was just a little too long to be considered a passing glance. Anyway, out of sheer dumb luck I was dancing my way around the dance floor and ended up face to face with him. Simply staring and relying on eye contact would now be a little awkward, so I finally plucked up the courage to say hello. We exchanged pleasantries and introductions – his name was Mike – but when I began saying sentences that contained more than a few words, his expression became a little puzzled.

“Do… do you have an accent?” I laughed and nodded, and filled him in on my story, where I was from and what I was doing here. He asked me about the guy that I came with, so I explained who Robert was and how I knew him, and where I was staying.
“So, I’ve heard about this Mix Tape thing that’s on tonight?” I said, trying to move past the same repetitive topic I had to begin with for literally everyone that I met.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“Yeah, ah, well… I know it’s on tonight. It’s a pretty cool dance party.”
“Where is it? Are you gonna go?”
“Me? Oh, nah. Not tonight. I’m just going to head home soon, I think.” He sounded almost a little bashful.
“Oh…” I don’t know if I sounded as disappointed as I was. “Well, I was thinking about it, but I’m still not sure what I’m doing.” Then were was a couple of seconds of awkward silence – except for the thumping music all around us, of course – before Mike spoke again.
“Well, you could come with me if you like?” It was very spontaneous, and a little crazy considering we’d been talking for all of five minutes, but I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh and smile. Mike smiled back.
“Okay.”

***

While I would have had to navigate my way back to Robert’s with the nighttime public transport, or fork out for a taxi, Mike lived about a 5 minute walk away from Nellie’s. We talked as we walked, and he seemed to be a really nice guy, and I found myself a little smitten. If you skim over the rather blunt invitation to join him back at his place – which still somehow came across as charming when he did it – Mike was actually the perfect gentleman. I spent the night there with him, and in the morning he even made scrambled eggs for breakfast. But I had to get back to Robert’s sooner rather than later – Robert was actually in the process selling his apartment and today was the open house, so if I didn’t make it back in time I would be doing the monument walk in my walk of shame clothes from the night before. Mike noticed that I was a little distracted as we finished up with breakfast, pouring over the map on my iPhone, and he asked me where I was going.
“Oh, that’s no problem, I can drive you,” he’s said when I’d told him where Robert lived. “Just let me quickly jump in the shower and we’ll get you home.” I couldn’t believe my luck – was there anything this dreamboat couldn’t do for me?

As I waited, I walked around Mike’s living room and looked at some of the decorations. There were a handful of nursing books on the coffee table – I would later learn that he had left his job in politics, which was what originally brought him to DC, for a career change and had gone back to studying to become a nurse. There was also a couple of photos of what looked like his family, including a couple of solo portrait photographs of a young kid who looked about six or seven years old. When Mike emerged from the bathroom, I asked him about it.
“So who’s the kid? Your nephew, or something?”
“Oh, ah… no,” said with a smile, but with a tone in his voice that suggested there was more to that story. “He’s actually my son.”

There was a moment of intense panic in my mind. “Oh my God, did I just sleep with a married man while his wife was out of town?!” It only lasted a second before I started to calm down again – it was totally possible that he was separated, or divorced, or whatever. Mike was as little older than me, so that wasn’t really out of the question. Then those brief seconds of speculation ended, and I actually asked him about it.
“Your… son? Are you… like…. married, or-”
“No, no, no, no, no! No, not married,” Mike said with a chuckle, and I could only assume that I wasn’t the first person to have ever drawn that conclusion, perhaps in a very similar circumstance. “I have two really good friends, they’re a lesbian couple, who wanted to have a baby, and they asked me to be the father. I said yes, and yeah… that’s him.”
It took everything I had to refrain from letting out a long “Aww!” but it was actually one of those super cute stories that I thought only ever happened in American romantic comedies. Mike told me some more about him as he drove me back to Robert’s.

“Yeah, I’ve known him his whole life, but I was only ever really a family friend, you know? It was only recently when he got old enough to understand and ask questions that we explained to him that I was actually his father. But, you know, he still calls me Mike, and I don’t think I really need him to call me ‘Dad’, unless he wants to. His mothers are his parents, they’re the ones who raise him.” I thought it was beautiful, and the more I found out about Mike, the more I liked him, and the more I was thankful for my decision to go home with him instead of going to the Mix Tape party of whatever it was. Eventually we arrived at Robert’s street, and thanked Mike for a final time as I moved to get out of the car. My future plans were still up in the air – I hadn’t even booked a bus ticket back to New York yet – but we exchanged phone numbers and Facebook names just in case we had time to catch up again before I left DC.
“Well, let me know whenever you figure out what your plans are,” Mike said. “It would be great to see you again before you go.”
“Yeah,” I said with a coy smile, and I leaned back in to kiss him one last time. “Yeah, it would.”

Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

A Trip to the Mall: the museums of DC

The bus to Washington, DC probably wasn’t that long (I’ve definitely had worse experiences with buses), but considering the way I was feeling after the previous evening it felt like the journey was never going to end. Getting out of New York City alone took us almost an hour, due to the sudden torrential downpour that had created havoc in the traffic and sent most of Manhattan into gridlock. What was generally a four hour bus ride would end up taking almost six hours, not including our rest stop at the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware. I got off the bus and wandered around the small shopping centre that was there, partly because my hungover self was craving a chocolate chip muffin, but mostly just to be able to add another state to the list that I had technically visited.

There's probably more of Delaware to see, but we were only passing through.

“Hello, I’m in Delaware.”

After that it was back on the bus to plough through the dreary weather for another several hours before finally making it to Union Station in Washington, DC, where I would be meeting my Couchsurfing host for the next few days. His name was also Robert, and he was a server at one of the restaurants inside the station. I had messaged ahead to let him know how late my bus was running, but it turned out that he had been caught up at work anyway, and he didn’t end up finishing until shortly after I arrived in DC, so I guess the delay worked out for the best in the end – though not for my fragile condition. When he finally finished and we’d met and done our introductions, Robert led me towards the underground metro system that would take us back to his apartment across town. The DC metro has a tap-on/tap-off system which requires you to purchase a plastic card to top up with money. There was no paper ticket alternative for short term visitors, and the system had no way to return the card after your stay, like you can with the Oyster Cards in London. But the card itself was only $2, so at worst it was still a cheap souvenir.

Robert lived in Northwest Washington which was, with the exception of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, a mostly residential area. He explained a little bit about the layout of the city and where all the major attractions and fun things to do were, but when we got home that evening I was completely exhausted from the painful experience of travelling with a hangover. Robert’s apartment was beautifully decorated but also quite small – the Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day meant that the living room was also the bedroom – and I lasted as long as I could before eventually passing out on the couch, planning to properly starting my DC visit the following day.

***

 I’d arrived on a Thursday evening, and Robert had to work on Friday. He’d offered to take me on a tour of the famous monuments in the city when he had time on Saturday, but today I would have to entertain myself. Luckily for me, there were plenty of things to see and do in Washington DC, and even better is that a vast majority of them are free. Firstly, I went with Robert on the metro towards Union Square where his work was, then bid him farewell for the day and made my way over to Capitol Hill. It was a gloomy morning, but I still stopped to take a couple of photos and a cheeky selfie with the Capitol building.

Approaching the Capitol building.

Approaching the United States Capitol building.

Capitol selfie.

Capitol selfie.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

The US Flag atop the Library of Congress.

After that I made my way around the building and down to the National Mall, a promenade situated to the east of Capitol Hill and flanked by a handful of different museums that are all run by the Smithsonian Institution, a government ministered body that organises a range of museums, research centres, and even the zoo here in DC, as well as having affiliates in a number of other states. Because all the museums in the city are essentially provided by the government, they are all completely free to enter. During my time in Europe I had begun to suffer from a term I coined ‘museum fatigue’, but the last museum I had visited had been in London and I decided that perhaps it was time to put on the tourist cap for a little while, visit some free museums and soak up some of the knowledge. First stop was the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which was known to have some impressive exhibits. It was the main rooms that held all the visually impressive displays of early aircrafts, more modern jets and planes, satellites, rockets and a host of other spacecraft, while the rest of the museum had more details about the science and history of aviation and space travel. The museum is also home to a huge IMAX theatre, and I bought a ticket to watch a short documentary called Hubble 3D, in which I learnt a great deal about America’s history of space exploration while being soothed by the sweet voice of the narration provided by Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

The Capitol building as seen from the side the National Mall.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Space shuttle in the Air and Space Museum.

Satellite.

Satellite.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

The halls of the museum were full of air and spacecraft dangling from the ceiling.

After the Air and Space Museum, I headed over to the other major museum that lines the National Mall: The National Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Some of my biggest passions or interests as a kid were dinosaurs and animals, especially marine animals and sea life, so natural history museums are always a bit of fun for me. There were multiple levels with halls full of animal displays, as well as some interactive exhibits about evolution and the history of the human race. And of course, there were the dinosaur displays, and I tested my own remaining knowledge from the countless hours I spent learning about dinosaurs as a child. There was even a section in the dinosaur wing with researchers and scientists working on uncovering and treating fossils. The walls were made of glass so you could see them in action, and television screens showed the samples they were working on under their powerful electron microscopes. In the insect wing, I also arrived in time for a demonstration with a couple of spiders, including a tarantula. When they volunteer running the show asked I was afraid of them at all, I had to resist the urge to tell him that I’d eaten them for dinner in Cambodia.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Elephant in the main lobby of the Natural History Museum.

Dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

One of the scientists working on uncovering a fossil.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

Tarantulas in the show among the spider exhibits.

I spent several hours at the Natural History Museum, until my feet and back began to ache from all the walking around. I left the National Mall after that, and wandered around central DC for a little while, just exploring some of the streets and getting a feel for the city. It had a very American vibe, but it was still nothing like New York – the streets were exceptionally clean, and it reminded me of Canberra, my own country’s capital city, although DC seemed to have a little bit more excitement going on than Canberra did – which, let’s face it, isn’t too difficult to do.

***

I made a few other visits to the National Mall during my time in DC. On one afternoon I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with Robert, mainly because he’d recommended the restaurant there. It was a cafeteria style eatery that served different kinds of traditional foods from all over the Americas: North, Central and South. However, that day there were also some events on to celebrate the beginning of a Latin American awareness festival, or at least a culturally educational event of some description. Whatever it was, it became dinner and a show.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional native North American culture.

Show and dance featuring featuring some traditional Latin American culture.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The main Smithsonian Institution building on the National Mall.

The other place that I almost visited was the National Gallery of Art, but I was there on a day when the weather was warming up, so instead of going inside I wandered around the grounds of the gallery, which was displaying a range of contemporary sculptures and artworks.

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Sculptures outside the National Gallery of Art. This one is a 3D optical illusion brought to life

Metal Tree.

Metal Tree.

Pyramid sculpture.

Pyramid sculpture.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very 'Alice in Wonderland' vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of 'The Thinker'. A curious work of art.

This one was my favourite. The rabbit gave off a very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe for me, but his pose almost seems to be mimicking that of ‘The Thinker’. A curious work of art.

There are a large number of other museums around DC, but unfortunately I only visited the main ones located around the National Mall. Some of the other ones are less famous and not as well advertised, but I have to admit that while I do find them interesting and love to take a break from the relaxing kind of holiday to actually learn something, there’s still a limit to the amount of museums I can take. So after a full day of touring the museums on Friday, a headed back to Robert’s in the afternoon for a nap to rejuvenate myself for the night out we had planned.

First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.