Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

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Friends in High Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to SFO!

Welcome to SFO!

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

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

A Diamond in the Rough – discovering San Antonio, TX

Despite being less than an hours drive away from Austin, and the seventh most populated city in the US, I had never even heard of the city of San Antonio until Vincenzo had suggested it to me when I was planning my route across the South-West. “It’s pretty much as far as you can go before you hit… well… the nothing that is the rest of Texas,” he’d advised me, so I figured it would be a suitable pit stop before the Greyhound (or Hellhound, as I would soon start referring to them) bus trip across the desert. “It’s also quite a beautiful city, down along the river walk.”

When I hopped off the bus in the carpark that Megabus used as a terminal, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Hector. When I’d first contacted him he had admitted that he and his boyfriend Jay hadn’t hosted anyone through Couchsurfing before, but after such great first time experience with first time hosts like Tomas and Matej in Prague I didn’t even give it a second thought. Hector was incredibly friendly from the moment we met, and he even offered to take a few detours on the drive home so that he could drive me through the city centre and show me a few of the landmarks and features that we could come back and explore properly during my next few days in San Antonio. When we arrived home I was introduced to Jay and shown the spare room where I’d be sleeping.
“Yeah, so… this is actually where my daughter sleeps when she’s here,” Hector said when I commented on some of the toys that had been moved to the side of the room. At first I was a little surprised – Hector was a few more years old than me, and I guess I just never really expect gay people to have kids. But then some people do obviously have heterosexual relationships before realising they’re gay. “She won’t be around this weekend though, so make yourself at home. Also, I don’t know if you’re feeling up to it or if you’re too tired, but we’ve actually got some friends coming around and we’re gonna go out for some drinks a bit later. Obviously you’re welcome to join us too.” Considering it was still only Thursday, it was at that moment that I realised I had made another excellent choice of Couchsurfing hosts, and I wasn’t wrong – Hector and his friends knew how to have a good time.

I showered and freshened up – a necessity after any bus transit, no matter how big or small – and by the time I was ready Hector and Jay’s friends had arrived. There was a round of brief introductions as Nico, one of Hectors friends, offered me a beer.
“Have you ever had Dos Equis like this before?” he had asked me, to which I replied that I’d never tried Dos Equis at all, to which pretty much everyone in the room responded with mild horror. According to Hector and Nico it was a standard  and staple beer in the area. Nico had used a wedge of lime to wet the neck of the bottle and sprinkled it with what appeared to be chilli flakes or some kind of red powder, before putting the lime into the neck of the bottle, as is common with most Mexican beers. I think the idea is to treat the garnishing like the salt rim of a margarita, licking up a bit of the spicy flavour before washing it down with a swig of the beer. I can’t say I was such a fan of the dressings, but the beer itself was tasty. We hung out for a little while at Hector’s, all of his friends asking curious questions about my travels and my home country, before rallying up and heading out to show me some of the gay bars in San Antonio.

***

Like any blog post of this nature, the specifics are a little hazy, but Hector later helped me retrace most of the steps. The first stop of the evening was Hi-Tones, a dark little hipster bar where Hector insisted that I try their signature Pickle Shot. Though I assured him I absolutely hated pickles, my ‘try anything once’ attitude forced me sample it all the same. I refrained, however, from eating the tiny little pickle in the bottom of the shot glass – I guess I still know my limits. I also use the term ‘shot’ very loosely, because the size of some of their shots would qualify as small, strong mixed drinks back in Australia, although the reality is the only way I would ever be able to down something pickle flavoured would be in a single gulp, simply to get it over and done with. The other famous shot was a Chamoy Shot, a spicy concoction after which I definitely needed a few beers to cool off again. We spent a little time at Hi-Tones, enjoying their ridiculously cheap drinks and cool music, before making our way to a bar called Brass Monkey, which was a short walking distance from Hi-Tones, and was a gay-friendly bar that everyone assured me had the best music for dancing.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

The dark interior of Hi-Tones.

But before we made it there, somehow Nico dragged Hector and I away from the rest of the group to make a quick stop at a place called Bootleggers (which I’ve been told has been closed and opened under a new name). Inside there was a long bar with a selection of what they told me was moonshine.
“Moonshine? Doesn’t that… ah… make you go blind?” I asked hesitantly. Hector and Nico laughed, assuring me that this variety of moonshine was actually made though completely legal processes and was not going to cause me any permanent damage. But damn, it was strong. If I hadn’t been drunk already, the moonshine was most likely the tipping of the scales, pushing me past the point of no return. We eventually made it to Brass Monkey and rejoined the others, where the drink special was 75c wells (thats ‘house spirits’ to Australians). As you can imagine, that didn’t end too well for me, despite how amazing the offer had seemed at the time. After dancing all night, the only thing I remember from the walk home, and the last thing I really remember at all, is collapsing on the grass outside Hector and Jay’s place and projectile vomiting all over the lawn. Luckily they thought it was absolutely hilarious and weren’t completely grossed out, and despite the incredibly potent moonshine I still maintain that the real culprit was the Pickle Shot.

As close as we'll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

As close as we’ll ever come to knowing exactly what I was thinking.

***

I was woken up the next morning when the sun came streaming through the curtains and onto my bed. I tired to roll over and escape it, but there isn’t much room in a single bed when you’re sharing it with another person… and then it took me a couple of seconds to realise… Wait, who am I sharing the bed with?!
The first thing I did was check to make sure I was still wearing clothes, which I was. The next thing I did was sit up and look at the person next to me. He opened his eyes too, and for a few seconds we just stared at each other. In that brief moment I had completely forgotten who he was, and it was only after the exchanging of confused stares for a few more seconds that I realised it was Nico.
“Ahh… what… what… um… Why are you in my bed?” The words were coming, but the state I was in was definitely deficient in eloquence.
“What… This is… This is my bed,” Nico said with a laugh and a smile. Confusion doesn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling, as I usually have a pretty good memory even after I’ve been drinking. The memory loss, I believe, I can definitely attribute to the moonshine – so much for no permanent damage!
“Um… but… I’m staying… here… I think…?” I pointed to my bag and my clothes on the floor. We were definitely at Hectors house, and this was definitely the room he had showed me. “Isn’t this my room?”
“No, this is my room,” he said jokingly, “at least when I stay here.” I could tell he was just messing around now, but it didn’t really help explain anything.
“Oh… but… um… what… what the hell happened?” I asked, still completely baffled.
“I… I don’t know?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we couldn’t help but just laugh. “Wait, what’s the time? Hector has to work today.” Nico searched for his phone and checked the time, before laying back in the bed and calling out as loud as his croaky voice could manage.
“Hector! Good morning!”

The bedroom door opened, and we were joined by an equally as confused Hector.
“Nico? What are you… doing here?” Nico just shrugged his shoulders, and we all couldn’t help but laugh. Hector looked particular tired. “I am so hungover, and I’m already late for work. What are you doing today, Nico?”
“Well I’m going to show Robert around, of course!” he exclaimed, as though it was something that we’d been planning all morning. I just chuckled, shrugged, and decided that it was actually a pretty good idea. So Hector and Jay went off to work, I got up and showered, and then Nico and I headed off on two bikes we borrowed from Hector. It was definitely a rather surreal way to start the day, but the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning as I followed Nico through the twists and turns, secret shortcuts through parks. The whole thing felt so ‘go with the flow’ and carefree, I felt like we were going to round a corner, join a gang of other cyclists and end up in a pop music video singing about the good life, or some other kind of carefree tune. But we kept cycling, just the two of us, and we made a quick stop at Nico’s bank before ending up at a Starbucks, where his friend Daniel was working. We got our coffees for free while Nico introduced me and proceeded to recount the crazy night and strange morning that we’d had so far while Daniel listened, thoroughly amused. He had been working all morning, but since it was closer to the afternoon by that point he was nearer to the end of his shift than the beginning of it, so he agreed to meet up with us later on in the day. After that I followed Nico to another place called One-O-Six, a dirty-little-whole in the wall cocktail bar, and we ate breakfast burritos from the BBQ shack next door and drank some drink that Nico ordered us that was way too strong to be drinking when the sun was still up. As hungover as I was, it still tasted quite nice, so I kept drinking it and didn’t ask questions. The bar actually had quite a few people there, and Nico seemed to know all of them, including the staff. I figured that these might be a handful of day drinking regulars, so I satisfied myself by believing I was definitely off the tourist track now and seeing San Antonio from the eyes of a real local.

***

After learning that Hector had left work early, we rode our bikes downtown to meet him for lunch by the River Walk. Aside from the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk is probably one of the city’s greatest treasures, with long walkways stretching down either side of the river that flows through the town, lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, and other tourist attractions. After attempting to eat at a place called Casa Río, where we gave up and left before we’d even ordered due to the terrible service, we settled for introducing me to Whataburger, yet another American fast food chain restaurant that I had never even heard of until that moment. It wasn’t anything life changing, but Hector’s hangover forced him to abandon half his burger and run to the bathrooms to be sick, so perhaps it was best that we’d stuck with something a little less classy. Daniel arrived soon after that, also on his bike, so we decided there would be time for me to explore the River Walk another time and instead jumped on the bikes and headed around the main strip of the River Walk and down to the Missions Hike and Bike Trail. The missions near San Antonio are a collection of preserved old Catholic churches, relics of the spread of Christianity along the Southwest in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, but they were located in the national park just outside of the city, with a bike trail along the river that led all the way there. However, it was too late in the day to make it all the way out there without it getting dark, and we didn’t have lights on our bikes, so Hector promised to drive me out there over the weekend so I could visit them. Instead, we just enjoyed the gorgeous weather and the leisurely bike ride along the river, while the guys pointed out sights to me and just chatted about life in general.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Hector and I in Whatabuger, before being sick.

Sights along the river.

Sights along the river.

River bank.

River bank.

river

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

Nico and I taking in the scenery.

After turning around and heading back to down, we stopped by a place called CHRISpark, a beautiful little urban park that was created in memory of Chris, the son of local artist Linda Pace. The grounds of the garden were covered with beautiful foliage and plants, as well as a handful of artistic designs, which made sense given the creator of the space. We parked our bikes and wandered around, and Nico pointed out a few of his favourite flowers, before confessing that he was actually a wedding planner and that he knew many of them from creating flower arrangements and bouquets. In retrospect, I didn’t take nearly enough photos, but the park definitely has an atmosphere of gorgeous tranquility. We had a quick chat to the friendly groundskeeper, who took our picture for us, before continuing on our way. Daniel recommend that we stop at a speakeasy bar called 1919 – which I would have rode straight past if I hadn’t known it was there – where I was introduced to yet another local alcoholic delicacy, a Strawberry Habanero hot shot. The combination of spicy habanero chilli and sweet strawberry is an… interesting sensation, to say the least. I’d never been the biggest fan of spicy foods, but I think the boys in San Antonio had made it their mission to expose me to as many of these specialities and introduce me to spices that could not only be eaten, but also drunk. I have to say, I think it worked, because ever since I’ve been a little bit less afraid of trying spicy foods.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

The trees on the ride back along the river were full of these white birds.

CHRISpark

CHRISpark

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Myself, Hector, Daniel and Nico at CHRISpark.

Inside the bar 1919.

Inside the bar 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

Nico and I in 1919.

On the way home we rode through downtown San Antonio in the cover of night, and stopped to observe some of the sights, including the Alamo Mission, the site of the famous siege in 1836; the Tower of the Americas, which at 750 feet (or almost 230 metres) was the tallest observation deck in the USA until 1996; and the Torch of Friendship, a monument that was a gift to San Antonio from the Mexican Government to symbolise the cooperation between the city and the country. We also stopped to take a few photos of ourselves, at the request of Nico’s artistic vision.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Tower of the Americas.

Tower of the Americas.

The Tower from below.

The Tower from below.

and the Tower from a distance.

and the Tower from a distance.

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

Bringing Nico's vision to life.

Bringing Nico’s vision to life.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

Lights draped over the trees in the centre of town, near the Alamo.

The Torch of Friendship

The Torch of Friendship

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

An artwork depicting San Antonio.

After that Hector and I bid farewell to Daniel and Nico and rode our bikes back along the river, which ended up taking us pretty much all the way home. The were several light up art installations along the way, and Hector was full of information about the city and its rich local history. Not only had I lucked out with an awesome host to loved to party as much as I did, but Hector also very much loved San Antonio, and has such a passion for sharing that love and that knowledge, and those people always – without a doubt – make the best Couchsurfing hosts.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

Illuminated fish hanging from one of the bridges Hector and I passed under on our ride home up the river.

***

Despite the crazy Thursday night and the ensuing hangovers, Hector and Jay weren’t about to let me sit at home on a Friday night. After freshening up and dinner we met with Nia, one of Hectors colleagues who I’d met briefly down by the River Walk during the day, and Nico. We ended up driving to the clubs that night, and the one that stands out the most is Saint. Usually the club has a drag show on Friday nights, but the night we turned up just so happened to be a launch party for Lady Gaga’s latest album, Artpop, which had just been released. As well as a bunch of crazy queens doing their best Gaga numbers, they were also giving away copies of the album. As it turns out, one of the queens was a friend of Hector and Jay, so I also ended up being the lucky winner of a CD giveaway and walking away from the club with Lady Gaga’s new album. Too bad I didn’t currently have a CD player, and had already purchased it on iTunes, but it made for a cool souvenir with a pretty cute memory attached.

The Saint.

Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

One of the drag queens performing at Saint.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

The queen performing on stage; me with my new CD.

We went to a few other bars that evening, including Pegasus, where somebody knew someone so we got free shots, and there was an outdoor patio area where people were rocking out to karaoke, and Heat, a fancier place that was more a nightclub, where we spent a little while dancing. We definitely didn’t have the stamina of the night before though, so we ended up just chilling out in the quiet areas, and I had a few good conversations with Nia, who was pretty excited that she could now claim she had an Australian friend. I still drank far too much under the encouragement of Hector, but I think I managed to keep it all down that night, and we all headed home relatively early – I had been going almost non-stop since arriving in San Antonio, but I still had a weekend of sightseeing ahead of me.

Tucking In, Nights Out, Bottoms Up and Going Down: Eating and Drinking in Austin

Life threw something of a curveball at me during my first few days in Austin. I was only supposed to be staying with Aaron for 3 days, as he was actually flying to New Orleans on the Sunday to visit his father, which worked out perfectly because that happened to be the day I was supposed to meet Alyssa. Alyssa was a distant cousin, just a year older than me and related through some connection on my fathers side that my aunty has relayed to me a dozen times yet I can still never seem to remember. She lived in Oklahoma, and as we’d kept in touch as my time in the states grew nearer and nearer, we had made plans to meet up, although she had suggested meeting in Austin when I was there, rather than coming up out of my way to visit her in her own state. However, on Friday afternoon, as Aaron and I were nursing hangovers and eating food from one of the food trucks around the corner from his house, I got a message from Alyssa telling me her father had gone into hospital and that she wouldn’t be able to make it to Austin. Her family offered to pay for a bus ticket to Oklahoma or for accommodation in Austin without Alyssa, whichever I preferred. It was a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to meeting my long lost cousin for quite some time now, and it was awful news about her father (although in the end he was okay), but I knew a detour north rather than my planned journey west would be a time consuming endeavour that would throw off a lot of other plans.

When going over the dilemma with Aaron, he had an idea that seemed the most practical, although it was one I could never have asked for without him offering.
“Well, if need a place to stay after Sunday, I’m happy to let you stay here while I’m in New Orleans. Saves me having to leave Sergio in a kennel while I’m gone, too.” In the end, Aaron’s trip to New Orleans got cancelled, so I ended up staying with him the full week that I was in Austin. But the fact that that scenario even happened was yet another amazing example of the kind and generous things that people you hardly even know sometimes do for you. I know I gush about that kind of thing a lot, but honestly, it’s a pretty heart-warming experience that ultimately changes the way you see the world.

***

Since I’d won $150 in the strip-off in my first night in Austin, Aaron seemed determined to make the most of a Couchsurfer who liked to drink and party as much as I did. A couple of nights we split bottles of wine over take-away pizza and just chatted about our lives, sharing what turned out to be a lot of deep and personal stories and forming what turned into a pretty strong and natural friendship. Aaron also took me to a few of his other favourite watering holes around the city, drinking beers and whiskey, and meeting some of his friends to sample a seemingly endless array of alcoholic drinks that contained tomato juice.

An easy decision.

An easy decision.

This drink was a

This drink was a “margarita meets Bloody Mary” concoction that was… interesting. I don’t remember it’s name though, so you know it’s good!

I also got to sample some great food in Austin, mostly from the various food trucks that dominate the town. They’re all actual trucks, so technically they can move around, but I’m starting to doubt that most of them ever do, considering the great business they seemed to be doing when they were parked on random stretched of grasses in the middle of the suburbs. I had the most amazing pulled pork with a side of slaw, but unfortunately the only photo I thought to take was of the bee that dived into my Mexican Coke and almost tried to kill me.

:(

😦

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Though I have to admit, probably the favourite piece of food that I ate during my week in Austin – and it pains me to say it because I honestly though it would be disgusting, but it was actually amazing – was chocolate-covered bacon.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

I think the thing that was most noticeable was how much the local foods changed in between short geographic distances. The general cuisine was so different in Austin compared to the flavours of New Orleans, but I imagine that most people who had never been through the area would assume that “The South” is just a culturally homogenous space of land, or at least never expect it to be so diverse in that sense.

There was one meal I did have that was particularly memorable, but not because of the food. I had still been keeping in touch with all the friends I’d made along my journey, including Matt from Dublin, who I wish I could call a leprechaun but he’s just too damn tall. Anyway, upon hearing that I was in Austin, Matt asked me if I knew of a restaurant called Moonshine Grill, and if it was near to where I was staying. I asked Aaron, and he said it wasn’t far, just in closer to the centre of town. Matt then asked me what I was doing on Monday for lunch, and I said I didn’t have any plans, and he tells me I do now. On Monday lunchtime while Aaron was at work, I head over Moonshine Grill and make myself known to the hostess. They’ve been expecting me, and promptly take me to a reserved table, but there was no one else there. I sat down and shortly afterward a waitress came over with a cocktail. I must have looked pretty confused, because she smiled as she explained. “I believe your order has already been taken care of,” she said as she placed the drink in front of me, “but let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” I drank my cocktail and ate a delicious burger, and at the end of it all I found the bill had already been paid in advance, including tip.

Matt eventually confessed his motives to me later. “Ah, you’re a very special lad, ya know?” he told me in a brief international phone call. “And despite all the nights we spent on the town drinking ourselves mad and stupid, I never got the chance to buy you dinner. Or lunch, or anything. I know it’s probably not the same when I’m not there, but I figure it’s the next best thing.” However unconventional it might have been, it was extremely sweet, and by now I was plenty used to eating in restaurants alone that it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. Although I assured him it would have been much better had he been there. Just another way that the amazing people you meet on your travels are able to surprise and inspire you.

***

There was a lot of eating and drinking going on during my time in Austin, but the Saturday night definitely takes the cake, for better or for worse. Actually, I honestly can’t remember if this all happened in one night, or if there were several more booze benders, but there were a handful of bars that provided somewhat memorable experiences.

The first venue we kicked the night off in was Barbarella, although I think on that particular evening it had joined forces with a neighbouring venue to throw a huge dance party, complete with an outdoor beer garden. Despite how cold it was, we spent a fair bit of time outside since Aaron was a smoker, and I chatted to a lot of people who seemed genuinely shocked to be meeting an Australian – though a handful of them attempted to impress me with their knowledge of the names of Sydney beaches (Cronulla’s reputation from the events in 2005 has travelled further than I’d like to believe). Barbarella also distinctly stands out in my mind because none of the toilet cubicles had doors. That was very weird, and not in an alternative or arty kind of way, but in a way that made me think they’d had one too many drug problems in the toilets so they’d solved the issue by just ripping the doors off. The music was good but the party wasn’t too lively so eventually Aaron and I headed back over to the warehouse district, 4th Street, and Oilcan Harry’s. We had more strong drinks from some bartender that Aaron knew, but after a while we moved nextdoor, to a nightclub named Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

The place was huge, with a long bar and a long dance floor that stretched down the entire length of the venue, and the floor had lights underneath it that gave the place a deep, colourful ambience. The place was packed too, so we jumped on the dance floor and mingled with the locals. I had half a conversation with a ridiculously good-looking cowboy – half, because I don’t think I could form words probably when I was staring into his dreamy eyes – and even ending up kissing a different boy on the dance floor. And Aaron and I continued to drink, and this is where things started to go wrong. Aaron had left his credit card at home, and at some point early on in the evening he’d run out of cash. Considering I’d just won $150 a few nights prior, I was happy to buy the drinks, and he offered to pay me back later. Now, I know that I can drink a lot and handle my alcohol pretty well, but I also know when I’ve had enough. And it got to the point in the night where I was fairly sure I had had enough. Aaron wanted another drink though. Okay, no worries, I could buy him another drink. But he wouldn’t let me not have another drink with him, so that’s how I came to be in possession of the final whiskey and Coke that would be my undoing.

We danced. We drank. We partied together. We partied with other people. I kissed that other boy. I was having a good time. Aaron decided he was going to go home, and said I was welcome to share a cab with him or stay with the boy. I decided to stay with the boy. Aaron left. I danced with the boy more. But I was very, very drunk. So I ended up losing the boy, and was dancing on my own.

The room started spinning, and I wasn’t feeling so well, so I made my way to the bathroom. At that point I really just needed to pee, but I was so unsteady on my feet that I took the opportunity to sit down as well, so I went into a cubicle – luckily these ones had doors. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. Before I even knew it was happening, and before I had a chance to turn around and lean over the toilet bowl, I threw up. Into my underwear – which were still around my ankles – and all over the exposed insides of my jeans. Needless to say, I was mortified, although probably not as much as I should have been because I was just so horribly wasted to comprehend the whole scenario properly. I attempted to wipe myself clean with toilet paper, but it was a futile task, and I still felt hideous. There was someone knocking on the door. A security guard, I think.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just… just give me a minute,” I call back, trying not to slur my words as I figure out what the hell I am going to do. The stalls starts rocking slightly, and I see a face peer over the edge of the cubicle beside me. Maybe they though I was overdoing on drugs or something. Had something like this already happened at Barbarella? Is that why their cubicles don’t have doors?
“What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just…can you just… give me a goddamn minute?!”

In the end, I realised there was nothing else I could do except pull on my vomit-streaked underwear, buckle my belt, and walk out of that club. Or you know, stumble, whatever. Despite not having a single friend there to help me through it, I think it was made better by the fact that I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and would never see any of these people again. In fact, no one I knew would ever have to know that this had ever happened, except for the fact I am all about frank honesty and am, for some reason, repeating it here right now. So I opened the cubicle door, and immediately the security guard ushered me out of the bathroom. For a brief moment I thought he was going to give me some water, or take care of me or something, but he merely ushered me to the front of the club, helped me out onto the street, and then left to go back inside without saying a single word to me. Luckily it was quite late and there weren’t too many people outside, so my temporary shame was limited. I feel awful for the taxi driver who took me home, although she was very light-hearted about it and said she didn’t mind, although I’m sure I smelt absolutely vile and she was probably gagging for half the trip.

Aaron was still awake when I got home. My cheap Primark shoes were covered in vomit, so I didn’t even bother salvaging them and instead threw them straight in the trash outside. Not a word was spoken when I walked into Aaron’s bedroom. We just had this sole moment of eye contact and understanding before I continued through into the bathroom and stepped into the shower fully clothed, and spent the next half hour cleaning myself, and getting as much of the stench of vomit out of my clothes as I could. And as embarrassing as the whole ordeal was, and as stupid and disgusting as I felt, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me on my travels, so I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there in the shower, scrubbing at the denim. And even as I write it now I can’t help but smirk a little, because as awful a memory as it is, it still makes for a thoroughly amusing story.

Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

IMG_4351

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

***

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

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

New Orleans City Park

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

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

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

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

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

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

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

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

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

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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