This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

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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.

Across the Atlantic: Arriving in Manhattan

Having a seat on that afternoon flight to New York was a feeling of sweet relief that went unrivalled for a quite some time – the emotional toll on everyone involved during my last morning in Dublin plus all the unexpected problems with the flights and visas had made for a very stressful series of events. Even if it was amongst a group of rowdy and restless Italian teenage boys who were acting like they’d never been on a plane before (they definitely weren’t locals of Ireland so I highly doubt that was the case), a seat was a seat. In a way the long overseas flight between continents was kind of cathartic – travelling by train in Europe had always left things open to possibility and potential, and plans could change at the drop of the hat, but the long haul flight across the Atlantic meant that there was no going back. As difficult as it may have been, I had felt the feelings that I needed to feel, but then I packed them up and moved along. It was almost like leaving home again – there were definitely things I would miss, but the excitement of what to come was just too overpowering.

Since I had gone through the pre-customs clearance at Dublin airport, I didn’t have to deal with any of that when I got to New York. We landed at Terminal 5 of JFK, a domestic terminal, and after collecting my bag from the baggage carousel I walked out of the terminal and… that was it. It was so easy. Too easy, I would have thought, but seeing how quickly I was out of there, I guess the whole pre-customs clearance thing in another country makes a whole lot of sense. I navigated my way to the subway system, purchased the swipe ticket that would be my access to said system for the next six weeks, and started the long train ride from the airport to Manhattan. Thank God for express trains, that’s all I can say (even then it took over an hour).

***

And so I found myself in the main chamber of Grand Central Station, staring up at the ceiling and all around me at the great, cavernous hall. It was almost like having déjà vu – I knew I’d never been to New York City before, but I had seen this very scene countless times in movies and television shows, and the familiarity was somehow there. Just being there made me feeling I was in a movie myself – hearing American accents alone was enough of a novelty. But thankfully I wasn’t sleeping in Grand Central Station – I was waiting on a message from a friend, and as soon as I got it I navigated my way out of the station to the street.

Enter Melissa – co-star in this part of my journey and subsequently in many blogs that will follow. Melissa and I had met in Sydney when she had been there on an exchange semester. She was in the same philosophy class in which I had met Stefan (the three of us had been study buddies before our final exam), and from the moment she had struck up a conversation asking me about some of my tattoos – and showing off some of her own – I instantly knew that we would be good friends. We didn’t get to hang out too much off campus or outside of classes, but we had kept in touch when she went home, and when I had told Melissa about my plans to travel the world she had insisted that I come and visit her should I ever find myself heading to New York. Of course, New York being… well, New York, I had hardly needed a reason to include it on my travel itinerary, but the fact that I did have a reason made it all the more exciting. I scanned the opposite side of the street 42nd Street until I saw her jumping up and down and waving, and as soon as the traffic lights changed I rushed over to greet her.

“Robert! How are you? Oh my God, it’s been so long I’ve seen you!” Melissa is without a doubt one of the happiest and most loving people that I know. It had been over a year since we’d seen each other, or even really spoken in depth about our lives, yet meeting her there that night felt as natural as meeting an old friend I had known for years.
“I’m good! I’m great! Exhausted, but still great,” I said with a smile as I leant down to hug her – Melissa was a short woman. “I’m so sorry I’m late, the airport in Dublin was a bit of a disaster – I have so much to tell you!”
“Excellent, I can’t wait!” she replied with a smile. “You’re so lucky, though – I know I’ve been saying you could stay with me this whole time, but I’ve been in the process of moving at the moment… I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be in this apartment by now or not, but I moved in today – literally just got the keys.”
“Today?”
“Yeah, today! I was scared for a minute that we’d have to stay out with my mom in Jersey.” The impact of that statement was lost on me at this point in time, since I really had no idea how far away New Jersey was.

“But you’ve got it now, right?” I’m all about spur of the moment plans, but I’d had my fair share of them this morning in Dublin, and the time differences between here and there had made it a very long day. I just needed to lie down.
“Yep, it’s only a couple of blocks away. Follow me!”

***

Melissa’s new apartment was on East 39th Street, pretty much right in the middle of Manhattan. At this stage I still had no sense of where that was, or how big Manhattan was, or how big New York City as a whole was, but the geography of the city is actually both simple and fascinating – anyone who’s seen a road map of Sydney might understand – and something that I would come to master by the end of my stay. But for now, we were home.
Melissa introduced me to the doorman on duty as we passed into the lobby, stressing to him that I was just a friend who was staying with her for a little while. Brandon introduced himself, a muscular man with tattoo sleeves extending from his wrists up his arms and underneath the shirt he was wearing, and I almost squealed with excitement when he spoke with his Queens accent – it was just like the movies!
“The place is a studio, and I told them there’s only one person moving in,” she explained once the sliding doors had closed. “So it just looks a little odd that there’s another person coming in with all these bags.” She just giggled, confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. When we went through the apartment door, we walked through a small kitchenette and a bathroom before walking into the main room. It was a sizeable studio, and would have been very spacious… except that there was a lot of junk all over the place: stacked boxes, stacked tables, half assembled furniture.
“So, the reason I ended up getting the sub-lease for this place was because I agreed that the girls who were here before didn’t have to move their stuff out right away. They can’t get it out for a few days, so for now… well, it’s here for now.” There were a few things that were Melissa’s, but a lot of her stuff was back at her mom’s house in New Jersey, which she would bring over once the previous owners stuff was gone.
“I don’t mind,” I said as I plopped my bags down to soak it all in. “It’s kinda cozy.” I turned around to smile at her and found she was back in the small kitchen.
“Aww, yeah! It will be cozy! I’m so excited you’re here! Are you hungry?” There was leftovers of a thick, New York style pizza Melissa’s mother had bought earlier in the day, so  we heated it up and I tucked into a piece of that. There was also red wine, so Melissa got out some glasses.

“To your new place,” I toasted, raising my glass once Melissa had poured. “And to living in New York City, baby!”
“I’ll drink to that!” she said with a grin, and she raised her glass to clink with mine. We pulled down one of the mattress that had been standing against one of the walls, and we sat on the floor with our wine and pizza and caught up and gossiped like school girls.
I also decided it was best to have a shower after the long flight, which led to the minor problem of us not being able to turn off the bath taps when we were done. Unsure what to do, Melissa ended up calling Brandon to see if he could help us. The bad news: the hardware in one of the taps had come loose, and we would have to wait until the next day for the building manager to come and repair it properly. The good news: Brandon was able to force the tap closed and stop the water flow, but it took him several minutes to achieve, and Melissa and I enjoyed the fabulous view of his butt in his tailored work pants while he was doing so. I considered it our housewarming gift.

It’s hard to believe that all this was the same day that I had had my airport emergency back in Dublin. My situation had changed so much that it was bare recognisable – I almost had to pinch myself. But such is the life of a traveller, and I didn’t dwell on it too much – eventually jet lag lulled me to sleep, and in the morning I had a brand new city to explore.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.

The Good Ol’ Days

After my stressful afternoon in Hamburg, and then having to catch another three trains because there was not a single hostel bed left in the city, the feeling of relief when I stepped off the train at Groningen station was almost overwhelming. It was after 11:30pm and Groningen was the final destination on the train line, but as my few fellow passengers spilled out onto the train platform, I saw a familiar face through the sparse crowd. I dropped my bags to the ground so I could give Gemma a huge hug when I finally reached her halfway up the concourse. Gemma and I went to high school together, and she had been my best friend for years, but now she lived and studied over here in the Netherlands. She’s still quite easily one of the best friends I’ve ever had though, and after the afternoon I’d had there was nothing quite so comforting as collapsing into the arms of an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years, and discovering the embrace was just as familiar as though I’d seen her yesterday.

After the emotional greeting at the station, Gemma and I caught the bus back to her house. The main feature of Groningen is the university there, and so the city has become somewhat well known for its large population of students. Gemma’s share house can usually accommodate four people, but at that time there were only two people living there. Still, I couldn’t exactly take up an extra room without paying rent, so I would be sleeping on the couch in Gemma’s room, which was actually the spacious attic of the house. She’d added her homely touches to it, with magazine covers, letters from our friends and other decorations covering the walls, and furnished in a way that reminded me of her room back home. It’s such a strange sensation, to have such a familiar feeling in an undeniably new place.
“I hope you still like Coke Zero and Doritos,” Gemma said as she followed me up the extremely steep staircase to her room, as I tried not to overbalance with my huge bag and fall back down. Gemma had run out to do a bit of last minute shopping when I’d told her I was coming a day early, and she’d even remembered all my favourite snacks from the countless movie nights and sleepovers we’d had when we were teenagers. We sat up for a few more hours, watching Geordie Shore on TV, eating and drinking and catching up, telling Gemma all about my journey so far, and her telling me all about Groningen, what to do and what to expect, but also just hanging out, shooting the shit and talking about pointless stuff to make each other laugh. It’s a testimony to our friendship to go so long without seeing each other and still be as comfortable as though not a day had passed since we’d last been together. Sitting there on the couch with her, I think I was actually glad that things hadn’t worked out in Hamburg – right there, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday night.

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

***

The majority of my time in Groningen was spent in a similar fashion: hanging out with Gemma, cooking tacos and pasta and all our favourite foods, watching movies and chatting and just enjoying being in the same city for the first time in almost a year. We also played a lot with Gemma’s cat Ananas (which means ‘pineapple’ in Dutch, and actually a lot of other languages too), who was a little bit crazy but incredibly cute. It was the beginning of Summer in Europe so Gemma didn’t have any classes – just one exam on the Tuesday morning – and the only times we couldn’t hang out was when she was working. However, my string of good luck with the weather suffered a lapse when I was in Groningen. It had been all smiles and sunshine in Copenhagen, but there was only one particularly sunny day out of the five full days I spent in Groningen. This worked in our favour, though – Gemma works as a waitress on the outside terrace of a bar in the city centre of Groningen, but if the weather isn’t very nice then people tend to not sit on the terrace, in which case her shift is sometimes cancelled. While that is probably really annoying somedays, it was great for this week because it meant we got to spend more time together.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Ananas by the window.

Ananas by the window.

I’d arrived late on a Saturday night, and would be returning to Germany for the following weekend, but Gemma had assured me that being a student town, some of the best nights to go out in Groningen were week nights. A lot of people travelled back to their hometowns and families on the weekends, and there was generally more people around during the week – though she did warn me it might not be too busy since it was currently exam time for most people. If they were anything like the students I knew in Sydney, though, there would still be plenty of people out and about. So it was a Wednesday evening when Gemma, her boyfriend Atze – whom I’d also become good friends with – and myself set out for some of the nightclubs in Groningen. First and foremost, drink prices were substantially lower than they were in Scandinavia, so the night was already set to be either much cheaper or a lot trashier. Our first stop was a pretty popular bar and club called Ocean41, which is actually the establishment that Gemma works at during the day. When we arrived we discovered that Atze was friends with one of the bartenders, and therefore we enjoyed half a dozen cocktails at an extremely competitive price. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the nightclub itself, though. I’m generally not really a fan of straight clubs at all – too many wasted white girls who step on your feet with their heels, and guys who either can’t dance or just wait around the dance floor staring down everyone else.

“Be careful of guys who look really young,” Gemma leaned over and said into my ear as I was scanning the room. “You can get into some clubs when you’re sixteen here, so some of them don’t look young, they are young.” I laughed, feeling confident that I wasn’t going to find anyone in the club of any age group that swung my way. After a while we took off to another bar called Chupitos, where the specialty was all kinds of fancy and gourmet mixed shots. “You have to try the marshmallow one,” Gemma had insisted, “and the one ‘Harry Potter’!” The marshmallow one was a sweet shot that you downed after you’d eaten your toasted marshmallow – yep, they actually lit a small section of the bar on fire so you can cook the marshmallow so it’s nice and gooey. The Harry Potter one was similarly spectacular – they lit the bar on fire around the full shot glasses, which had slices of orange on them, and then sprinkled the fire with cinnamon so that it flared and sparkled. It was really cool to watch, and after you downed the warm shot you sucked on the slice of orange – almost like a tequila shot with a deeper, sweeter twist. I got to pick the third shot the three of us would have – the menu board only had names, not ingredients, and I randomly selected one called the Flaming Asshole. It was a colourful layered shot that was also lit on fire, and then drunk through a straw while it was still on fire. My lack of knowledge of physics left me terrified that I would be sucking up a mouthful of fire, but it actually had a really nice taste, and Atze, Gemma and I left the bar a little more drunk and feeling pretty satisfied.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

We visited a couple more bars, the next one being a place called Shooters. “I got refused entry to this place once, I was so drunk,” Gemma laughed as she narrated her personal history of the bars and streets as we hopped our way along. The air in Shooters was heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and it was completely packed, so we didn’t stay for too long. We then visited another bar called Het Feest, which had the interesting feature of a rotating bar. I imagined that such a device would get extremely confusing the more intoxicated one became in a crowded bar, but fortunately the crowd was pretty thin that evening. We put it down partly to the exam excuse, and partly because it was also raining that night. After Gemma and Atze had shown me the bars, we headed back to the first night club to collect our jackets and head home. “But first you have to get something from the wall! You’re hungry, right?” Gemma knew me too well. I’m not sure if its a thing throughout the Netherlands or just in Groningen, but in the centre of town there is a fast food shop that makes croquettes, sausages, burgers and other greasy post-drinking snacks. However, instead of over the counter service, there is a wall that acts as a sort of vending machine. There’s rows of tiny compartments, most of them filled with some kind of snack, and all you have to do is put in a few euros and you can open it to get the food. I helped myself to a few croquettes while Atze lined up to get some chips – which we ate with mayonnaise, in true Dutch fashion – and then we walked home through the rain. It had been a fun and fairly inexpensive night, and it had been nice to see the kind of things my best friend had been getting up to on the other side of the world.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

***

The rest of my time in Groningen was a little slice of normality in the life of travel and organised chaos I had been living. Gemma and I went to the movies and saw The Hangover: Part 3, went shopping for some cheap clothes for me at H&M, and I also got a much needed haircut. On our way back from the movies we walked down one of the few red light streets that existed in the small city. “I guess it’s a Dutch thing, but it’s not like in Amsterdam. A lot of these girls are just normal girls, probably some foreign girls, and even students.” Gemma pointed to one of the windows, where a girl dressed in her sexy outfit was sitting with a laptop, tapping away at the keys. “She’s probably studying or doing her university homework, or something.” It was an interesting thought, I suppose. The whole thing didn’t seem that sexy to me, and not because the windows were just full of women. “Wait until you see Amsterdam,” Gemma said. “The girls there are… it’s all just really different.” I wasn’t due to hit Amsterdam for nearly two months, so for now I would have to take her word for it.

After my desperately needed haircut.

After my desperately needed haircut.

On my last night in Groningen, I crawled into Gemma’s bed with her, and we stayed up late talking about our lives – hopes, fears, dreams, secrets: all those things we still talk about, but never feel the same way over WhatsApp as they do in a face to face conversation. Gemma knew me so well, knowing exactly what to say to calm any nerves or fears I might have about travelling and my uncertain future, and it made me realise just how much I had missed her while she’d been away, and probably how much more I was going to miss her now that I was leaving again. It was a little sad that night, but when we had our emotional goodbye in the morning it was actually a really positive moment. It was a little uplifting and affirming, knowing that we were still the best of friends after all this time, and that even though we weren’t sure when we’d be seeing each other next, that we could still be just as close next time our paths crossed, wherever in the world that might be.

“Bangkok’s got him now”

Sitting on the Skytrain from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the heart of Bangkok, I peered out the windows at the vaguely familiar landscape. I had spent a couple of days here in my brief South-East Asian stint a little over a year ago, and the expansive field and countryside, littered with small, modest dwellings and the occasional billboard, hadn’t changed too dramatically. I suppose there are a few more modern developments and built-up environments closer to the railway line, and that these elements of the landscape would dwindle the further you went into the countryside – but I won’t pretend I know a great deal about the geography, or even the culture, of Thailand. All I know is that the views frommy seat on the train were as paradoxical as some of the scenic juxtapositions of Singapore, but to an even further, exaggerated extent. It makes for an interesting observation, but from my vantage point it all seemed rather other-worldly in a textbook kind of fashion. But it wouldn’t be that way for long…

***

I was staying with my friend Rathana, another person whom I knew from Sydney but had since moved to live abroad. However, his work frequently takes him to all kinds of places across the globe, and as fate would have it he was to be in San Francisco when I touched down in Bangkok, though he’d generously offered for me to stay in his place without him until his return. I used my basic directional knowledge from last time I’d been in Bangkok to make the short walk from the BTS (another name of for the Skytrain – an above ground railway system just as efficient as Singapore’s MRT) station to his condo, where I met one of his co-workers to collect his keys. After spending the afternoon resting and enjoying having a private space to myself, I began to feel hungry, so I decided to take a wander through the streets of Bangkok and see what I could discover.

Within half an hour I was back in the condo, feeling more than a little shellshocked. I’m not sure what I was expecting – I was well aware that I was in a foreign country, with its own language, rules, customs and culture, but I think it was more of an overestimation of my own ability to adjust and adapt. You can read all the books and reviews in the world, and somehow I don’t think anything can totally prepare you for the real thing. I set out into the streets, taking note of my surrounds yet heading in no particular direction, making turns here or there, wherever there seemed to be something interesting happening. I found myself in what I later discovered was the tiny and localised Muslim district of Bangkok. Street vendors lined the narrow road, young children played in the streets naked, stray cats prowled the gutters and whole families were lounging around in what seemed to be one room houses, surrounded by fans and in various stages of undress, in order to combat the sweltering heat and humidity. Motorbikes weaved between the people, and even cars nudged their way through the street like they were just oversized pedestrians. Determined to not look like the nervous tourist which I so obviously was, I trudged through up the street keeping mainly to myself, occasionally stopping to contemplate some of the street food carts, but moving on when my presence was either ignored, or met with a bored indifference. Of course, I don’t blame them for probably resenting my gawking – I was the one who had wandered off the main concourses into the tiny street which had little to no obvious tourist attractions. Yet in the end the whole thing became so overwhelming that I navigated my way through an alley or two until I reached the main roads, grabbed a handful of snacks the convenience store and dragged my shaken self back home. Maybe it was the fact I had set out into Bangkok by myself for the first time in the cover of night, or maybe it was just because I’d really had no idea what I was doing – I resolved that from now on I would always have a plan of attack.

***

The next day I tried to wind it back and ease myself into the culture shock a little more gently, spending the day revisiting some of the areas I’d been to before. I had lunch in the predominantly English-speaking area of Ari, and then headed to Siam to wander through some of the biggest malls in Asia. I’d noticed my throat becoming quite sore since the morning I left Singapore, so I found a pharmacy with an English-speaking doctor, who gave me a simple three day course of antibiotics. After that, I decided to lay low the rest of the day in an attempt to recover. Another of Rathana’s friends was to be staying at his place for a few days while he was away, so I ventured down to the BTS station to collect her and introduce her to Bangkok as best I could. She was in town for a conference over the weekend, so I would end up seeing very little of her during our shared time in the condo.

The next day I was feeling a bit better, so I set myself some challenges for the day, to help me get used to traveling solo around Bangkok. After doing a bit of research, I picked one restaurant for lunch and a nearby tourist attraction, studied the maps, and head off into the city. I never found the restaurant, and trudged around the streets in the hot sun for close to 40 minutes, getting lost and confused by the mostly non-English street signs, before I eventually stumbled upon a very Western looking burger joint. At that point I was willing to trade a cultural experience for a bit of cool air-conditioning, so I stopped and ate. From there it was on to the Queen Saowaphat Memorial Institute and Snake Farm. A couple of years ago, I developed a pretty intense snake phobia through a bizarre incident that is a whole other story of its own, and have been working ever since to try and overcome my fear. The snake farm is affiliated with the Red Cross Institute in Bangkok, where a lot of research into toxicology and the creation of snake bite anti-venom takes place, but it also offered snake handling shows in the afternoon, so I’d chosen the attraction in the hopes that maybe I could overcome some fears and gain some confidence I had lost after my first shaky night in Bangkok.

The words “snake farm” bring to mind images of pits full of writhing snakes, bred en masse and used like cattle. It would have been a disturbing sight, not to mention a likely case of animal cruelty, so it was a little reliving to see that the farm was actually just a small serpentine zoo. I found a lot of the cobras intriguing, and realised I would never be able to tell I had encountered one in the wild until if was spreading out those iconic hood scales and hissing and/or spitting venom at me – though in reality I doubt I’d ever let a wild snake of any kind get quite so close. However, it wasn’t until the handling show that I came face to face with my scaly demons. I’d turned up slightly late, distracted by the exhibitions, and so missed a seat in the amphitheatre and had to watch from down the sides at the bottom, which happened to be right next to the demonstration area…

Cobra in the exhibition area.

Cobra in the exhibition area.

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

So you can imagine my horror when the first thing they do is dump a King Cobra on the ground, no more than 4 or 5 metres from where I was standing. The snake itself would have been more than half that distance had it been fully extended, but instead it writhed around and coiled itself, its hood scales fully spread and hissing angrily at the handlers around it. After the initial shock, and realising there were quite a few people between the cobra and myself, I managed to calm down and watch the show without being too anxious or nervous at all – quite a feat for someone who had to watch scenes in the last Harry Potter film between slits in my fingers to avoid seeing Voldemort’s giant pet snake. Come the end of the show, they called for a volunteer, and I was standing too close to the demonstration area to not get selected. I’d seen shows like this before, and I knew what was coming – but as per the challenge to myself, I didn’t resist, and allowed for the huge python to be draped across my shoulders. It was such a thrill, and I was surprised to find that I wasn’t really scared at all – phobia smashed! I even held it long enough to ask to get my picture taken, in case nobody back home would believe actually me.

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

***

As I left the snake farm, I was accosted by a tuk tuk driver who asked if I needed a ride. I knew the way back to the station, yet I let myself be dragged into a conversation. “For just 20 baht, my friend, I will take to back to the Sala Daeng BTS station. But please, can we make one other stop along the way?” I told him that I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, and as he explained I realised that he was trying to get me to visit a shop, presumably that of a friend, or an employer of sorts. Assuring me I only needed to have a look and not necessarily buy anything, I threw caution to the wind and gave in to what might actually be my first authentic Bangkok experience. The store turned out to be a tailor, and I soon realised it wasn’t quite so easy to browse a store that doesn’t actually have a great deal of products already made. I was quite insistent to my salesman that I didn’t need a suit, but in the end I caved, I ended up walking out of the store having been measured up and paid for two tailor made shirts. They were supposed to be delivered to Rathana’s condo the next evening, but are yet to arrive, and now I’m starting to feel I may have been swindled by an elaborate scam. Though I’ll hold my breath just a little longer, in case there was a legitimate delay.

The tuk tuk driver was delighted I’d made a purchase, and I think that was a sign to him that maybe he could pump even more upselling into me. As we continued on our way, he turned and called back to me, over the drone of the traffic, “Lady? You want a lady? Ping pong show, yes?” I politely declined, though I ended up browsing through a jewellery store before I firmly insisted that I needed to go back to the station. He was a very cheery man, though. “I like you, you’re a cool guy,” he repeated several times. He asked me if I was going out partying that night, and when I alluded to it being a possibility, he wanted to get my phone number. Given the tricky nature of my travel SIM card, I managed to squeeze my way out of that one, but in retrospect it seems he had made a pretty big squeeze out of me, in one way or another.

***

After finally returning home and showering, I was off again to catch up with a friend. Brendon was the older brother of one of my best friends from high school, and had spent the better part of the last 3 or 4 years living and studying throughout Asia. He’d gotten in touch when he realised we would both be in Bangkok at the same time, and invited me to dinner with his group friends from his time at university here. Having spent most of the past three days on my own, I jumped at the chance to hang out with some locals and people who actually knew the city. We had dinner at a nice restaurant where I was introduced to the group, but it was what happened after dinner that was the real Bangkok experience. Rich, one of the girls, was going out to help celebrate her brothers birthday, and she urged Brendon and I to join them. Brendon was only in town for two nights and wanted to make the most of it, and I literally had no where else to go, so we jumped in a cab and I let them lead the way.

Our destination was Khao San, the backpacker district of Bangkok. Part of me wishes I’d paid more attention when watching The Beach, the begin of which is famously set in this busy party street. As we made our way through the crowds, I could see that this was definitely the tourist experience of Bangkok that serves as a unanimous reference point among travellers. The wide street was lined with bars, hotels, nightclubs and tattoo parlours, and dozens of pop-up shops filled the street, selling food, drinks and a huge range of souvenirs. It felt like a combination of Kings Cross/Surfers Paradise with Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, with the addition of small children also running through the crowds peddling their wares. After my encounters with over friendly sales people earlier that day, I was quick to shoo away the small children before they had the opportunity to tempt me. We finally found the birthday boy sitting at a table outside this bar:

That's one way to get a target market?

That’s one way to get a target market?

I chuckled to myself at the name, another of the novelty clues highlighting that we were definitely not in any regular Australian party strip. We sat down and ordered drinks – table service in clubs is another thing that I wasn’t used to, although I’m now under the impression it’s pretty common in most places in Thailand, or at least Bangkok. As we sipped on our Singapore Sling cocktail buckets (the only drink worth getting here, Rich assured us), various other street sellers would approach us from the busy road and insistently push their products upon us. Among some of my favourites were the material wrist bands that contained all kinds of messaged woven into them, from sweet to naughty to just plain strange, and what appeared to be char-grilled scorpion skewers. I didn’t buy anything though – the wrist bands because I couldn’t decide on one hilarious slogan without wanting to choose them all, and the scorpions because… Well, nothing about them looked appetising in the slightest. I usually say I’ll try anything once, but after watching a British backpacker dry wretch and nearly vomit everywhere after eating her scorpion, I decided it was an experience I could live without.

Charming.

Charming.

Less charming.

Less charming.

Singapore Slings - where else but Thailand?

Singapore Slings – where else but Thailand?

When we’d decided we’d drank enough, we retreated to the neighbouring nightclub, partly because we wanted to dance and mostly because we knew the place was air conditioned. We danced for a while before we decided to leave and head to another district. After getting some Pad Thai from a street vendor, who cooked the whole meal in under two minutes right before our very eyes, we were in a taxi bound for Silom Soi 4. It was the gay district, Brendon explained to me, which was why Rich found herself there so often. “I just feel so much safer there”, she said with a laugh, while Brendon made a remark about feeling quite the opposite. I was unsurprised that I’d managed to find a fag hag on my first night in Bangkok, and I was pretty excited to check out what kind of gay scene existed here. Unfortunately it was a Thursday night and already well past 1am. We all ordered one more drink each, but by then we were all starting to feel pretty tired. I said my goodbyes to Brendon, and exchanged numbers with Rich in case I should need any more help navigating the party scene of Bangkok, then we all found cabs and made our separate ways home.

The bustling district of Khao San.

The bustling district of Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

It had taken a few days, but I felt like I was starting to get the hang of Bangkok. There were the obvious language barriers in some places, which I was expecting, but you’re usually never too far from someone who can speak English, or provide a basic translation. The night out with Brendon and his friends had been a nice change from trying to discover and navigate the city on my own, and I began to think that while free accommodation with friends was definitely a bonus, I hadn’t anticipated it to be quite so lonely without Rathana actually being here. I figured it would be easier to make friends when I’m staying in hostels, surrounded by other backpackers, than it was when I was tucked away in my own private apartment. I’d spoken to a few friends back home during my brief periods of feeling a bit lonely, and they all assured me that it would get easier, and I had to remind myself that I’d really only been out of Sydney for a week. That was nothing in the grand scheme of my planned world tour, though sometimes it already felt like I’d been gone for such a long time. I knew all that would change with time though, and so I just took it in my stride as one of the many more personal challenges I’d face this year.

Though the weekend has only just begun, so for now, Bangkok is still calling…

Prologue

Six months ago, I started planning a trip. At first it was just a few plane trips to visit a couple of international friends, but when it came to the question of when I would be able to make these journeys, I came to the startling realisation that I had absolutely no concrete or definite plans for my future. I was about the conclude my sixteenth year of education, on the cusp of finishing my three year undergraduate degree at university, and somewhere in the back of my mind, it became very clear to me that I was ready to shelve the textbooks for a while and get out there and join the real world.

Yet the idea of getting a full time job was particularly daunting, considering I lacked even the slightest sliver of a career path. And that’s when it hit me: I shouldn’t try to fit these travels around my year – I should make them my year. I’ve had far too many of my older friends lament to me about how they wished they traveled more when they were younger and had the time, how their biggest regret was not doing an exchange semester while in university. I did not want to be another brick in that wall. With my studying behind me and an open-ended future, it didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that I did – I was going to see the world.

Now, on the morning of my departure from Sydney, it all seems a little surreal. After reiterating my travel itinerary about a hundred times as I’ve said goodbye to all my friends and family, my future plans have rushed up to meet me as the present. This 9 month journey will take me further from home than I’ve ever been, completely removed from anything familiar, and this morning I’m filled with equal parts of excitement and nervousness. But heading off into the unknown is all part of the adventure – to see what I’ve not seen before, to go where I have never been, and to create my own story from the various journeys along the way.

Which brings me to this – my travel blog. I’ve been a writer for a long time now, in both a personal and semi-professional capacity. If there was a specific point to this whole trip, I suppose it would be to learn a little more about myself, and discover enough to maybe one day open up a clearer path to my future. Writing is one of the few things I do know, and so I hope to combine my known with the unknown in order to make sense of the vast and ever changing world around me.

And hopefully, I will be able to include my readers in my discovery of the world around me. So I look forward to my next experience on this journey, so that I may live it, write it, and share it back into the world.

Bon voyage!