Life in La La Land

I was unsure as of what to expect from my time in LA. I had been there only once before, for a period of less than 24 hours for a long layover on the way to Central America, and I hadn’t been that impressed. The parts of town I went to – which I honestly didn’t even pay attention to at the time – were kind of gross and dirty, and it didn’t appear to be anything like the glamorous California that everyone sings about in pop songs. And while I knew I couldn’t let such a brief and incomplete experience of the city be an accurate first impression, I’d also heard reviews from other people that were less than positive: that getting around was difficult, traffic was terrible, all the attractions were overrated and that staying there was more like a challenge than a vacation. Despite all that, my mother had repeatedly told me that she thought I would like Los Angeles and that I would probably fit in pretty well there. Given that I’d had very mixed feelings about some of the people I had ran into and rubbed shoulders with in New York, and the fact that New Yorkers and Angelenos are often pitted against each other and are constantly comparing their cities, I figured if I didn’t fit so well on one coast, maybe I’d have more luck on the other.

***

Waking up the morning after my first night in LA was a little surreal, given the rather dramatic events of the night before. Upon checking my phone, I found a string of more abusive texts and Facebook messages from Nathan, which I simply deleted before blocking him.
“You don’t even have to worry about him anymore,” Jake assured me. “He’s been pissing so many people off lately, he doesn’t even have that many friends left in dodgeball. His behaviour last night might actually be enough of a reason to expel him from the league.” Which Jake, given that he ran the dodgeball league, could absolutely do. I started to feel slightly guilty, but Jake would have none of it, and assured me that if anything I was finally finishing the problem instead of creating one or starting any trouble. I just had to trust he knew more about what was going on in WeHo and let it be.

“So… what do you wanna do? What was your plan in Los Angeles?” Jake asked me, before turning away and talking to himself. “What can I show you? What’s something cool, something really LA that isn’t super touristy…” The beauty about Jake’s work was that he technically worked for himself, which meant he didn’t have a regular day time job that he had to be at, which meant he had plenty of free time to hang out and show me around, which he said he would be more than happy to do. I assured him that he didn’t have to do anything special or try and entertain me –  I was more than happy to just hang out and join him with whatever he did with his days. So we started out with just going for a walk through West Hollywood along Santa Monica Boulevard, where Jake showed me around and pointed out a bunch of the local spots for drinking, eating and going out. We also saw the colourful rainbow crossing, similar to the one that had been put up in Sydney for the Mardi Gras festival that year, although unlike the rainbow in Sydney, the one in WeHo was a permanent addition to the streets.

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The WeHo rainbow crossing

Jake also said he had some work-related emails to send and some business stuff to take care of, so we stopped at the Starbucks, ordered our drinks, and commandeered a table for ourselves and set up our a temporary workspace.
“There’s two questions you hear every traveller ask, no matter where you go,” Jake said with a laugh. “One: is there wifi? Two: is it free?” I laughed along, although he wasn’t wrong, so I made the most of the free connection and updated my blog and sent some emails while he attended to his work stuff. It was actually quite funny just how full the Starbucks was, and securing a table was a like navigating a small-scale property market. It was full of aspiring writers working on their manuscripts and screenplays, and while I kept laughing to myself and thinking about how it sounded like something straight out of Hollywood, I had to keep in mind that right now I literally was in Hollywood. It would appear that some of those stereotypes and clichés aren’t limited to the actual movies and television shows themselves, but extend to the wider suburbs in which they’re created.

I also noticed that Jake knew a lot of people. Like, a lot. I reckon he would have finished his work in about half the time it had taken him if he hadn’t had to stop periodically to say hello to every familiar face that approached him and wanted to briefly catch up.
“What can I say? I’m kind of a big deal,” Jake said with a playful smirk when I mentioned it to him, and while he said it in a way that was more humorous than serious, I was starting to get the idea that he was somewhat of a local celebrity around the area. But not in a way that everyone knows about you and gossips about you (although I’m sure everyone does that anyway), but in a way that everyone just seemed to like him, and he was genuinely friends with all of these people. It was at that moment that I realised as long as I stuck by Jake during my time LA, I’d always be in good hands and great company.

***

That afternoon, Jake and I started out my tour of LA by checking off some of the more obvious attractions.
“Oh, I know! I’ve got a friend who works for Universal Studios. I dunno, does that kind of thing interest you? She could get us in for free.” As a backpacker I had learned to appreciate literally anything that was free, so we drove up to Universal Studios to meet Jake’s friend Alicia.

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“Oh! Go to that side so I can get Australia in the picture!”

“Man, work had sucked today,” Alicia complained after coming down from her office to meet us and introducing herself to me. “It’s that time of year when half the office is away for the holidays. But there isn’t any less work so…” she waved the thought away, the conversational that would follow clearly already boring her. “Here, let’s get you in.” I just followed Jake and Alicia and did as I was told, and soon enough we were inside the paid section of the theme park, where most of the rides and popular attractions were. She caught up with Jake for a few minutes, but she hadn’t quite finished for the day so had to head back up to her office.
“But it was lovely to meet you, Robert. I’m sure I’ll see you around sometime, I’m overdue for a catch up with this guy anyway,” she said, motioning to Jake. “Always so busy with his dodgeball!” Turns out that Alicia was one of few people I would meet through Jake that weren’t somehow involved in the dodgeball league.

At Jake’s recommendation we went on The Simpsons ride, which was actually… I don’t want to say scary, but it definitely wasn’t a walk in the park. It was a 3D animation rollercoaster, so while physically you didn’t actually move that much or really go anywhere, the dizzying sensations played tricks on your mind to make you feel as though you really did enter their cartoon universe and experience a range of non-human sensations. After that we walked back through the Citywalk in Universal Studios, which had been decorated for the holiday season.

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***

While Jake did have a pretty flexible schedule, he wasn’t on holiday like I was, so he did still have to work sometimes. As well as running the WeHo dodgeball league, he was also a dancer and choreographer, and during the holidays he ran dance workshops and classes for kids. So while he had to do that, I took the opportunity to do some other more touristy things that I didn’t want to have to drag anyone else along to. While I don’t know if you can technically call it a tourist attraction, Runyon Canyon was yet another Los Angeles location that I had seen numerous times in various television shows. I was probably also pretty overdue for some kind (or any kind) of exercise, so one afternoon I got Jake to drop me off at the beginning of Runyon Canyon Park before he had to go to teach his dance class.

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Honestly, there were probably more locals there than tourists. It seemed like a pretty popular place to go exercising and jogging or walking dogs. I wouldn’t really consider it a “hike”, since there were pretty straightforward trails most of the way, but you cover a fair bit of ground on your way to the top, and there is a pretty decent view of the greater Los Angeles area from up there.

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Los Angeles as seen from the top of Runyon Canyon, stretching into the horizon. 

However, it was on my walk through Runyon Canyon Park that I discovered one of the biggest disappointments about LA: how far away the famous Hollywood Sign is. It’s definitely there, off in the distance, but you had to zoom your camera in to the point of pixilation in order to get a somewhat decent view of it in a photograph. I’m aware that this isn’t helped by the fact all my holiday snaps so far had been taken with an iPhone 4, so image quality wasn’t something I was too hung up on. Still, similar to my misconceptions of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I had just imagined the famous visual icons of the cities to be a little closer to the rest of the action.

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The Hollywood Sign, from a distance. 

After working up somewhat of a sweat in my afternoon hike, it was already time to meet Jake again after he finished his class. We decided to meet down on Hollywood Boulevard, which was only a short walk away from the entrance to Runyon Canyon Park, and from there we had a quick walk up the Hollywood Star Walk, and I pointed out the names of some of the celebrities that I liked, or recognised, and laughed at some of the stranger additions. Yet this was one sight that I had seen before during my time in LA, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not one to ever get star struck or fuss that much over celebrities.

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Stars on Hollywood Boulevard

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Marilyn Munroe’s handprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. 

“Hey, I’ve just gotta run back to the car and put some more change in the parking meter,” Jake said after our brief stroll up the strip. “It won’t take too long.”
“Actually,” I spoke up before he had a chance to go anywhere. “Um… can we, like… just go?” I’d seen all I really needed to see of the overrated tourist trap.
“Oh, thank God,” he replied, letting out a sigh of relief. “Yes, let’s get out of here.” As we headed back to the car, he explained his own thoughts of the whole place.
“Like, yeah, I get it. If it’s your first time here, it’s kinda cool, or if you want to see the star of your favourite celebrity, that’s kind of nice. Although trying to find them is always a great way to spend the afternoon,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t mind showing it to people on their first time, but I’m so glad you’re as over it as I am!”

***

There were plenty of other touristy things that I visited during my time in LA (which I will get to in the next post), but honestly I think the reason I had so much fun in the city was because of the people I was with. After the while debacle that was my first night in LA, gossip about the events had spread pretty quickly, but in a weird way that turned out pretty well for me. I had a few people approach me with condolences or apologies on behalf of the otherwise lovely bunch of dodgeball teams, and I ended up bonding and hanging out with a bunch of the guys and girls. I felt like I was officially one of the cool kids or something, although I’m pretty sure initially befriending Jake had probably improved that situation. I went along with him to the evenings when Jake had to run the dodgeball league, where teams dressed up in themes and often battled out the competition in ridiculous costumes, which usually had hilarious results, and afterwards we would inevitably end up in Gym Bar.

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File Under: Photos that seemed like a good idea at the time.

LA was also where I would experience my first bottomless mimosa brunch. Originally we had planned on doing such a brunch on my birthday in New York, but after the night Jesse and I had had, we weren’t really in any state to be drinking, or conscious, for the morning of my birthday. But luckily Warren, one of the guys from dodgeball and a good friend of Jake’s, was having his birthday celebrations on one of the weekends I was in town, and you best believe he was doing a bottomless brunch. I mean, there isn’t really much that I have to explain, right? We sat around all morning, talking and laughing and drank more mimosas and Bloody Mary’s than one should probably consume while the sun is still up. But hey, I was on holidays!

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Other nights out in West Hollywood saw me visiting a string of gay bars, including Revolver Video Bar, Trunks, Mother Lode, Eleven, and the Abbey. I don’t have too many strong recollections about them: Revolver Video Bar had a lot of go-go dancers, which we weren’t that into, so instead Jake and moved next door to the much more unassuming Trunks for another drink. Mother Lode seemed a little more down to earth, even if a little seedy, and the Abbey, despite being one of the more well known places (it was the only one I’d actually heard about before my arrival in LA), was a flashy, overpriced bar with terrible service. When Jake ordered our drinks, they poured them for us, took our money, and then seconds later took them back and poured them down the sink, informing us that the bar was closing. I know they have last call at 2AM in California, but surely a bartender should have more sense than to serve someone a drink when they physically would not have the time to consume it. Jake was livid, but being shouted at by patrons at any level of inebriation is something they are most likely very used to, so in the end we just had to give up and leave, but I promised to leave them a terrible Yelp review.

Another of Jake’s dodgeball friends had a birthday at Eleven, which was a nicer and slightly classier venue on Santa Monica Boulevard. I drank a lot, so I don’t really know when the private function room opened up to the public, but suddenly there was a drag queen on one of the clubs indoor balconies introducing Carmen Electra. Now, I know I said I didn’t get star struck or care much for celebrities, but I suppose I just got caught up in the excitement with the crowd and started cheering along. I didn’t even know what Carmen Electra was famous for (and… I still don’t?), but I still stuck my hand out to get her attention as she walked through the crowds on her way out, and she held it briefly, and smiled and waved. It wasn’t exactly the highlight or my night or anything, but it was something.

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Carmen Electra in Eleven. 

While I always enjoy checking out the gay bars and the gay scene of any city that I was in, Jake was adamant that that simply wasn’t enough.
“What’s something I can show you,” he said one Saturday evening, wracking his brain. “There’s gotta be something that’s very LA and awesome, without being too touristy or too trashy.” I guess it’s no big secret that the celebrity soaked reputation of Hollywood and Los Angeles leaves many visitors believing the city is somewhat of a cliché, but as someone who lived in LA and enjoyed doing so, I think Jake was determined to show me more of his city. Since I was someone who preferred to actually stay with locals and see the more local side of things, and get an appreciation of what it really feels like to live in a city, I think we were perfectly matched in that sense.

After doing some research and figuring out what was going on, Jake and I headed to Bootie LA, a party where these relatively well known DJs play their signature style of musical mash-ups. At the time I had no idea who these Bootie mash-up DJs were, and it wouldn’t be until much later, when I arrived home in Sydney, that I would discover their vast collection of amazing mash-ups, all available to download online. ‘Bootie LA’ was simply the name of the party when these DJs were in town, and given the time of the year, the evening was slightly Christmas themed, although there were a bunch of other crazy costumes from the dancers that evening.

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The eclectically costumed dancers at Bootie LA. 

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The party was a lot of fun. It was a big open space, almost like a warehouse, but the feeling inside was a lot cleaner. I think it might have been a theatre venue of some sort that had been converted for a dance party. We ran into a few of Jake’s friends here and there – because this was LA, and apparently Jake knew almost everyone – and they were all really awesome, and the music was amazing. Mash-ups always keep you guessing: it’s a bit of a tease when you get excited when you hear the beat of a particular song, only to have another songs lyrics layered over the top of it, but it always still sounded amazing. It’s honestly a skill in itself.

Afterwards we drove home, Jake assuring me he hadn’t actually drank that much (I’d definitely drank too much, so I honestly hadn’t been paying attention), and stopped in at Taco Bell on the way home. I know In’n’Out is supposed to be the Holy Grail of fast-food when it comes to the west coast, but I have to admit that despite that (and despite all the warnings I received from friends telling me that Taco Bell will go straight through you), Taco Bell was a guilty pleasure that I couldn’t get enough of. I mean, they have tacos made from Doritos chips!

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Cheesy Doritos Taco Bell taco: my choice of of post-drinking fast food. 

***

The best thing about my time in LA really was just hanging out with Jake and his friends and living what felt like a relatively normal life, despite being in a town where everything was so seemingly influenced by Hollywood and had a tinge of surreality. Whether it was going around to a friends house to drink and play video games and gossip, or have a sit down dinner followed by a hilarious round of Cards Against Humanity, simply hanging out and spending time with cool people turned out to be a real highlight of the city for me.

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Breathtaking view of Los Angeles (obviously looked better experienced first hand) on one of our drives over to North Hollywood. 

And then of course, after the almost 9 months of consistent backpacking, sometimes all I wanted to do was chill out on the couch with Jake and Peter Parker and watch Adventure Time and South Park. After being on the road for so long, no matter how much adventure you crave and new experiences you still want to seek out, sometimes it’s the little, normal things, that you’ve gone seemingly forever without, which feel the most satisfying.

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The adorable Peter Parker (Jake is a huge comic book nerd) keeping my company on the couch. 

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Making Friends in San Francisco

After bidding farewell to my new flight attendant friend, I was driven by a shuttle bus north from the airport and into the heart of San Francisco. While I had been in Vegas, I finally organised a Couchsurfing host for San Francisco, although things worked out quite differently from my previous experiences. After denied requests, even more ignored requests, and sifting through the offers from a remarkable amount of nudists living in San Francisco who also stated that guests must comply with the nudist lifestyle in their home (look, I’m open minded, but I’m just not quite ready for that), I finally found someone who was willing to host me. After reading my profile, Todd said that I sounded like an interesting person and he’d love to meet me and host me while I was in San Francisco. There was just one problem: he had travelled back to Florida to see his family for Thanksgiving. However, in another case of the kindness of strangers extending above and beyond anything that I could ever expect, Todd freely offered me use of his home from the moment I arrived in San Francisco, even though he wouldn’t be there for another week. When I arrived at his place, I was greeted by Todd’s neighbour Robert, who gave me a spare set of keys and let me into the apartment and showed me around. Todd had obviously informed him of my arrival, and he told me to let him know if I had any other questions or problems.

And then, for the first time in a long while, I had a place completely to myself again. Todd’s place was gorgeous, with two bedrooms, a nice open living room, and a huge bathroom. Seriously, the bath was basically a hot tub that I could completely stretch out and lie down in. So that’s exactly what I did – after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas and the consistent and tedious stints of transit, I enjoyed the private and personal space and pampered myself a little. It was the cleanest I’d felt in months, and I said a silent thank you to whatever mysterious forces in the universe that allowed me to end up in such an amazing situation.

***

While Todd’s extremely generous offer had given me a place to stay in San Francisco, it didn’t much help the fact that I didn’t actually know a single person in the city. Todd was going to be away for another week, and while I planned to be in San Francisco long enough to finally meet him when he got back, I wasn’t going to just sit around waiting for him. So of course, enter Grindr. Back in Austin, I had actually been chatting to a guy named Rob who lived in San Francisco, and although we never met up in Texas, he had told me let him know if I ever made it to his home city. So on my first evening, after my luxury bath in Todd’s huge bathroom, I sent Rob an email and arranged to meet up with him the following morning for brunch. It turned out that he was staying a short walk away from where I was staying in Noe Valley, so I walked to his place to meet him, and then we continued on from there to the Mission District.

One thing that I feel like I’d been warned about, yet never really paid attention to, was the amount of hills in San Fransisco. It’s actually ridiculous. When I’d first arrived, I surveyed the map and saw that Noe Valley was an extremely short walk from the Castro, the famous gay district of the city. However, I would quickly learn that I had to climb and descend three massive hills in order to get there, so what looked like a gentle stroll on a flat map actually became a semi-strenuous trek.
“It’s why my mother says everyone in San Francisco has such nice legs,” Rob told me as we mounted another hill on our way to the Mission District. “We’re always walking up and down all these hills, giving them a regular workout.”
When we hit the Mission District we had breakfast burritos at one of Rob’s favourite places, and chatted about travelling and San Francisco, and he gave me a few tips and suggestions about things to do and how to get around. Afterwards, he took me to Dolores Park, a popular hangout for… well, pretty much everyone in San Francisco. It was a huge park that spanned the length of several blocks, and due to the typical topography of the area it was a more of a huge green slope, with the hills rolling down the length of the park and naturally splitting it up into various sections.

“Up there is what some people call the Fruit Shelf,” Rob pointed out to the top of the park as we made our way through it. It was a section of the park that levelled out a bit and was relatively flat, before the ground fell away and resumed its regular sloping terrain. “It’s kind of a popular section of the park for the gays to hang out in.” We walked all the way up the park to the Fruit Shelf, and from that vantage point I had a pretty nice view of the city and the surrounding area.

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“Where’s the Golden Gate Bridge?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, it’s…” He looked around as if to get his bearings, and then pointed in what I assume now was a north-western direction. “It’s over that way. It’s not really near the centre of town or anything. You can ride your bike out there, but it’d take a couple of hours for a round trip.”
“Oh, right. I guess I just expected the famous landmark to be a little closer, you know?” After living in Sydney, where the Harbour Bridge is the focal attraction and situated smack bang in the middle of the cities harbour, I was a little taken aback to learn that San Francisco’s famous bridge was tucked away on the outskirts of the bay.

“Also, speaking of bikes, do you know where I could hire one?” I was surprised to learn that despite the hills, riding bikes was extremely popular in San Fransisco, and I was very keen to relive my Amsterdam days and get around via bicycle again.
“Oh, you don’t have one? I have an old one I could lend you.” Rob told me had an old bike that he had taken to the Burning Man festival the year before. It had been done up with flashy paint and glitter and tinsel for the event, and he had since gotten a newer and better bike, but he said I was welcome to borrow the old one for my time in the city. He was currently storing it in the basement of an investment property he had which wasn’t too far away, so we walked there and he got the bike out and gave me the keys to both the lock, and to the basement so that I could return it directly there whenever I was done with it. It was surprising how much trust some people will put in you after only knowing them for a few hours, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I had no intentions of abusing that trust. He had to head to work after that, and he said he was usually pretty busy, but if I had any other questions or needed advice about the city that I was welcome to drop him a line any time.

***

The next new friend that I met up with was someone else from Couchsurfing. While there are always a lot of hosts who are looking to take in travellers, there are also plenty of people on Couchsurfing who are not able to take in guests, but are still willing to meet up with other people and show them around their cities, or hang out, or have a meal, or anything at all, really. I’d found that finding a place to stay is usually the primary motivation for contacting people on Couchsurfing, but this time I actually found myself looking for people who were just willing to hang out. I messaged a guy named Kayvan, who had only had experience hosting a handful of people himself, and he agreed to meet up with my in the Castro later that night for dinner, since he would be flying back to Los Angeles the following day to be with his family on Thanksgiving. We met at a cute place called Harvey’s, named after the famous Harvey Milk, which was a mix between a café and a diner that sold food and cocktails. I think Kayvan was a little uneasy at first, but I must have made a good impression and not seemed like a loose screw, because eventually we were chatting away and exchanging stories. He was quite interested to know more about my Couchsurfing experiences, confessing he’d been a little reluctant to get into the whole thing because he wasn’t sure what type of travellers it might attract. I’d like to think I may have changed his mind when it came to that.

Afterwards we went around the corner to check out a few of the gay bars. Firstly we went to Toad Hall, which felt like it was half dive bar, half night club. People were sitting around drinking and catching up, and the vibe was pretty chill and relaxed , but there were playing pop music and the floor was pretty sticky, although I guess that’s just standard for gay bars in most places. The highlight was the outdoor patio, which helped bring around the relaxed drinking area vibe. We had a few more drinks out there, and as I started to get a little more tipsy, Kayvan suggested that we cross back over the road to go to Badlands. Badlands was your typical, slightly trashy gay bar where they that played all the pop hits, with TV screens showing the video clips and nice big dance floor for people to party on. It reminded me of G-A-Y Late in London, except it was still well before midnight when the club became full of people, which I had to admit I found rather shocking for a Tuesday. But I certainly wasn’t complaining, and we stayed there for a while and drank and danced.

 

However, before the night was over, there was one other place I wanted to check out. Earlier in the day Rob had told me about a gay party that only happened on Tuesday nights. It was called Truck, and is was a relatively underground phenomenon, given that you needed a password to get in. He had said that if I’d enjoyed the partying in Berlin, then I would definitely enjoy Truck. He didn’t really elaborate too much on that point, but there was definitely an understanding that the vibe would be a risqué, ‘anything goes’ attitude, similar to the one you might find in places such as Berghain. Anything local and underground was definitely something I wanted to check out, but when I mentioned it Kayvan he seemed slightly taken aback.
“You know about Truck?” He seemed shocked, but not horrified or repelled or in any way judgmental. I explained how I’d found out about it through Rob. “And you want to go? I mean, I can take you there, but… do you have the password?” I confirmed that Rob had also given me the password, so Kayvan just kind of shrugged his shoulders in a “Why the hell not?” kind of fashion, and we left Badlands.

It was a short drive and Kayvan assured me he hadn’t drank too much, so he drove us the short distance to the venue where Truck was held.
“I’ve only been a few times. It’s fine, it’s just… something you usually have to be in the mood for, I guess. I don’t mind though, if you wanna see it we can go.”
I got a little nervous as we approached the bouncers outside of what seemed like nothing, and I had a quick flashback to my first time at Berghain. But I had the password, and so Kayvan and I both went inside to find a long, dimly lit warehouse type building that was crammed with mostly half-naked men. The air was heavy with the smell of sweat and sex, but it was pretty much everything that Rob had alluded to so I wasn’t surprised at all. And I know I’d been telling myself that it was nice to unwind after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas, but hey, I was on holidays and there were some seriously good looking men in the club, so I went in and did a bit of mingling.

Eventually Kayvan actually ran into a friend of his. Well, an acquaintance, at least. They said hi, and I couldn’t tell if it was an awkward place for them to be running into each other, but Kayvan introduced me to Gary too, and we hung out for a bit. Gary was actually quite cute, and things started to get a little flirty between us (although that seems like a given when everybody is at least half naked), which Kayvan must have picked up on, because I think he took it as a chance to leave.
“Hey, so you look like you’re doing okay… Do you need me to hang around?” I remembered what he’d said about needing to be in the mood to enjoy Truck, so I thanked him for bringing me and told him that I would definitely be able to fend for myself if necessary. He had a plane to catch the next day, so we said our goodbyes there on the sweaty dance floor. Luckily I now had Gary to keep me company, so he hadn’t left me completely alone. Without going into any graphic details, we stayed at Truck until close, and were present for the awkward shift in atmosphere when the DJ gets cut off and the house lights all come on. Gary and I readied ourselves for the outside world, and then stumbled out of the warehouse and into the cool night. Since Kayvan had driven me to Truck, I had no idea where I really was, so I just ended up jumping in Gary’s Uber, where we asked the driver to trawl through the streets until we found a fast food place that was still open. And that’s how I ended up eating Subway in Gary’s apartment in the early hours of the morning.

***

Gary said he was “working from home” that day, so the two of us stayed in bed for most of the morning, sleeping in at first, and then slowly waking up and recounting the bizarre night and the series of events that had led us to the moment we were currently in. Until we heard a champagne cork pop out in the kitchen, which brought our conversation to a halt.
“Um… oh!” Gary exclaimed, after a brief moment of confusion. “That’s right, it’s my housemates birthday.” We stared at each other for a few second, unsure of what to do.
“Well… let’s go have some champagne then?” I said to him. He just laughed, so I freshened up and got dressed when then went out to meet his housemate.

“Happy birthday, Brandon” Gary said as we emerged from the room and into the kitchen, where Gary’s housemate and his boyfriend were pouring a few glasses of champagne.
“Thank you, darling,” Brandon said as he gave Gary a hug. “And what’s this? Looks like you’ve started the party already, Gary!”
“This is Robert. He’s a traveller from Australia. Robert, this is Brandon and his boyfriend Orlando.”
“Oh, Australia? How fabulous. Well, welcome to San Francisco!”
“Thank you, and happy birthday Brandon!” He was slightly older than Gary, who was already slightly older than myself, but he was already proving to be quite the character.
“Would you like a glass?” Orlando asked me, holding up the bottle. It was only just 11am, but…
“Well, what the hell, I’m on holidays, right? I’ve got no where else to be!”
And that’s how I ended up drinking until the early afternoon, chatting with Brandon and Orlando and playing with their dogs. Eventually Gary had to go out, to pick a few things up and get ready for the coming evening.

“We’re going out to dinner for my birthday, Robert, and you’re more than welcome to join us if you like,” Brandon said as Gary and I were heading out the door.
“Well… I don’t have any plans,” I said with a shrug. I turned to Gary. “Is that okay with you?”
“Ah, absolutely!” Gary said with a grin. “Also… I have to go home and visit my family for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and then I have to stay away for work so… I probably won’t have another chance to see you again.” Despite the overwhelmingly unromantic setting in which we had met, I was definitely starting to develop a bit of a crush on Gary. It was a shame that I wouldn’t get a chance to spend much more time with him, but it was more than enough motivation to join him and Brandon and Orlando, and presumably a handful of other people, for dinner that evening. We left the apartment complex, and Gary called an Uber to send me home so that I could change out of last nights clothes and freshen up a little bit.

In the evening I caught the bus back over to Gary and Brandon’s side of town and met them at their place, where pre-dinner cocktails were already well under way. I was introduced to a few of their good friends, and also a guy named Nathan*, who was a friend of Gary’s who happened to be in town, and was visiting from Los Angeles.
“Oh nice, I’m going to be in LA soon, in a little more than a week,” I told him, and we got chatting as he mixed me up a drink, and said that’d he’d have room for me to crash with him for a couple of nights when I arrived. I thanked him, slightly amazed at how things had been seemingly working out so well for me, and how easily I’d been able to meet a bunch of people and make friends over the last few days. It was only my third night in San Francisco, but with the delicious pizza, flowing wine, hilarious conversation and excellent company, I was already starting to feel rather at home.

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Brandon’s birthday dinner

 

 

*Name has been changed for reasons that will be expanded upon in further posts.

The Land of Enchantment

After disembarking from the Rail Runner in Santa Fe, I was greeted by a noticeable climate change as the cool evening air rushed at me from the darkness. A lot of people back home were surprised to hear the New Mexico was a little on the chilly side, given its reputation for being a stinking hot desert. But it was November, which meant that winter was coming, and evenings in the desert are cold enough as it is. It wasn’t necessarily cold though – just fresh and crisp. I made my way into the parking lot where I was set to meet my next Couchsurfing host.

Like a lot of my previous hosts, Bradley was new to the Couchsurfing game. The dynamic between us seemed reversed to what one would normally expected – despite myself being the one turning up and crashing at a strangers home, I found myself feeling rather relaxed, with Bradley almost seeming a little intimidated by me. He was a bit older than me – mid to late thirties – and very warm and welcoming, but at first I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure if what he was doing was “correct”, whereas I had become something of a seasoned Surfer by now. I guess I’d learnt along the way that there was no right or wrong way to be a Couchsurfer, but I also had absolutely no pre-planned schedule for my arrival in Santa Fe, so I was happy to go with the flow and tag along with whatever he was doing. We swung by a grocery store, where he picked up from dinner ingredients and beers, and he headed back to his place. After briefly recounting my painful previous 24 hours, I assured him I had absolutely no qualms with him cooking some dinner and getting to know each other over a few beers at home.

I guess I should use the word “home” loosely, though. Bradley explained to me that he had just moved to Santa Fe pretty recently, and he was working with a physical therapy company. The building had been transformed into a very professional looking practice, but there were also living quarters in the back of the building, and that was where Bradley was currently living. It then made a little more sense as to why he might have seemed uneasy – he admitted that he wasn’t totally sure if he was allowed to have guests, but he’d accepted my Couchsurfing request because he’d wanted to help me out. But there was an extremely comfortable looking couch for me to crash on, and with the only condition being I’d have to make myself scarce during business hours of the day, as long as he was okay with it, then so was I.

I’ve always thought that there’s something therapeutic about talking to strangers, and opening up to someone and being able to tell them whatever you’re feeling without having them judge you or make references to anything else prior in your life. I’d loved Couchsurfing so much because actually being pushed into proximity with these strangers (albeit relatively screened through profile reading) forced you to open up in these new, fresh kind of ways. In the case of Bradley, I feel like he enjoyed the experience just as much as I did. He had moved there after the ending of a long-term relationship, for a clean slate and a fresh start, only to learn that some other completely independent forces had brought his ex-boyfriend to Santa Fe as well. And Santa Fe isn’t exactly a large city. It doesn’t even feel like a small city – more of a large town, really. I got the feeling he didn’t really have anyone around here who he could talk to, but I was more than happy to lend my ears. He had some other frustrations that were bothering him, and I also got to unload some of the feelings or frustrations that you sometimes just don’t have the time to pay attention to when you’re always on the road. After my partying antics in the last two cities, it was definitely a welcome change of pace for the evening.

***

The following morning, Bradley informed me that he had most of the day off, and that he only had a few clients in the late afternoon and evening, giving him plenty of time to show me around. Our first mission was breakfast burritos: apparently they were popular all over the Southwest, but were particularly amazing in Santa Fe. We wandered through a few places around town before we found one that Bradley deemed worthy, but I gotta say, it was worth the wait. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes a breakfast burrito so different from other kinds of burrito… except that, you’re having a burrito for breakfast? And like… as if that isn’t amazing?! 

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

Water tower by the Santa Fe Railyard, near where we got our burritos.

After breakfast we headed to downtown Santa Fe, where we did a brief walking tour around some of the more popular buildings and attractions. Santa Fe translates into Spanish as “holy faith”, so it’s unsurprising that in the centre of town one of the most prominent buildings was a church, Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

There were a lot of beautiful things in and around the church, but my favourite was the bronze statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American saint who was one of the first to convert and become a part of the Roman Catholic church.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

There was also the Palace of the Governors, a national historical landmark and the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Once the home of the seat of government for the state of New Mexico, it is now a history museum, although it was more of an interest to us on the outside, where many pedlars and street vendors had laid out their goods and wares for sale.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

The street markets outside the Palace of the Governors.

We also wandered around a few more streets, looking in a few shops, and Bradley even pointed out some of the cities gay bars, which he admitted to not frequenting too often on account of there being a severe lack of variety and diversity in the patrons. I’d sometimes had similar thoughts about the bars that I frequented back home in Sydney, a city of 4 million people, so I couldn’t even begin to image what it would be like here. We continued along, mostly admiring the architecture of the city. One of my favourite buildings was the New Mexico Museum of Art, which looked like a piece of art itself, in my opinion.

New Mexico Museum of Art

New Mexico Museum of Art

As beautiful as the museum itself was, Bradley assured me that Santa Fe was an artists haven, and that there were plenty of other smaller, private galleries with unique artworks that we could check out. At least, that had been our intended next stop, until we walked in a particular direction that gave me a better view of mountain overlooking Santa Fe, and I saw what was on top of it.
“Oh my God, there’s snow up there!” I knew it had been cold, but cold enough for snow? I was shocked.
“Yeah, it can get cold enough for it up there,” Bradley said, and paused for a moment before adding, “Do you wanna take a drive up there, check it out?” I hadn’t been to the snow, or even seen snow, since I was about 16 on school camp, so I agreed it might be fun to go have a look.

***

The snow was clean and firm, perfect for making snowballs, of which Bradley and I tossed a few. I mainly just loved putting my bare hands into the cold, fresh ice and bouncing around leaving my footprints as I went.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

Beginnings of snow on the drive up.

The forest floor was covered in a blanket of white.

Snowball!

Snowball!

Bradley and I just wandered through the snow field, mucking around and chatting. With our lives and experiences being so vastly different, we didn’t really seem to have that much in common, but he was just a nice and genuine guy, which made for good conversations and sharing of stories and experiences.

Some of the slopes were actually being used for skiing.

Me, not skiing.

And then there was me, not skiing.

Other than playing in the snow, the trip up the mountain provided a pretty breathtaking view on the clear morning.

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Dispelling the myth that the Southwest is a flat expanse of nothing.

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A beautiful view… There’s also a shot of the scenery in the background 😉

***

After our trip to the snow, we came back down to Santa Fe and made our way to some of the galleries that Bradley had mentioned earlier. He had said that the city was a hot spot for artists, but I hadn’t really grasped just how much of a stake the art community had in Santa Fe. There were whole streets literally lined with galleries, and some of the art was absolutely exquisite. We spent the rest of the day there, slowly trawling through all the amazing art galleries and marvelling at their creations. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of most of them – after all, they weren’t world famous paintings by any measure so it was important to protect their intellectual property. There were some with such fine details that would have taken hours. Bradley and I would stand at a single painting and just point out all the intricacies, unpacking the entire image before moving on.

However, I will always have a soft spot for sculptures, and the courtyards among the galleries were home to some equally beautiful 3D art.

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Even without art, the areas surrounding the galleries looked like mysterious, picture perfect scenery.

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Many of the outdoor sculptures were also wind chimes or windmills of some sort, which danced and twirled in the light breeze.

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This harp sculpture actually created some gentle, ethereal music as the wind blew through it.

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I eventually grew tired of even some of the most famous art galleries that I had been to throughout Europe, but in all honesty, I could have spent an entire day wandering between all those galleries. In fact, we spent a better part of the afternoon there, before it eventually grew time for Bradley to head back home. Or, I guess to work, technically.

***

There was one particular thing that I’d thought about checking out while I was in Santa Fe. At the suggestion of Rob, my Couchsurfing host back in DC, there was a luxury spa located just ten minutes outside of downtown Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. After the excessive partying and the long transit that preceded my stay in Santa Fe, a relaxing afternoon in a spa sounded absolutely perfect. Bradley offered to drive me up there before he had to work (luckily, because I hadn’t seen one cab in the city so far, let alone a bus), but there was no mobile reception up on the hill, so we just had to arrange a pick up time for whenever he would be finished work. That left me with at least a few hours at the spa, which would probably be the perfect amount of time.

I wasn’t trying to break my budget, and while the spa offered all sorts of massages, skin therapy treatments and private hot tubs, I just opted for a general entry to the communal areas. The unique thing about Ten Thousand Waves was that given its place on the mountainside in the relative wilderness, most of it was open air and outside. While the spa I’d visited in Zürich with Umer had had an open rooftop where you could view the city from the spa, the one here in Santa Fe was surrounded my trees and nature, a private slice of forest sanctuary. I had my phone in my locker the entire time so I didn’t take any photos, but I’ve lifted some images from the website to show how beautiful the spa is.

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There were cold plunge pools next to the hot tubs, so you could immerse yourself in cold water before returning to the warmth of the spa, and wet and dry saunas, of which I am a huge fan. Highlights also included the futuristic toilets that cleaned up after you, washing with water jets and drying with warm air so you literally did not have to lift a finger.

***

After I finished up, I headed on outside and waited for Bradley to pick me up. There had been some hold up, and he was almost an hour late, which was a little annoying since he had no way of letting me know in advance, but completely beyond his control. He still felt bad, so he ended up buying me dinner on the way home, in a cosy little restaurant that served some good traditional local food, which was similar to Tex Mex but with slightly different styles, spices and flavours. We headed home after that – I would have to be getting up very early the following morning to get the first Rail Runner back to Albuquerque to get my next bus heading west.

“Do you have enough warm clothes?” Bradley asked me as I was packing up most of my stuff. “It’s gonna be pretty cold over in Flagstaff this time of year.”
“Umm… I have jeans?” I said. Truthfully, this was the coldest it had ever been during my travels, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned.
“Do you have any thermals?”
“I’ve got a thermal top.”
“What about thermal underwear.”
“Ahh… no. Am I going to need it?”
“You know, you might not, but I wouldn’t want to risk it.” He went into his room and fished around in his cupboard for a few moments, and then returned with two black items of clothing: a long-sleeved thermal t-shirt, and a pair of long thermal underwear. “You can borrow these if you like. They’re pretty old, but they might fit you, and I won’t be needing them any time soon.”
“Oh wow, thank you! But… I’m not gonna be headed back this way… How will I get them back to you?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I can easily get some more whenever I need to. We can’t have you Australians freezing your asses off down in the Grand Canyon, though!” Receiving hand-me-down thermals might not have seemed like a big deal to Bradley, but as someone who had received so much assistance from people who were essentially strangers during this journey of mine, it meant a lot to me. It was another favour that would assist me yet give him nothing in return, and something that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to directly repay him for. He must have known that though, and he didn’t seem to mind. I thanked him profusely, but he insisted it was nothing, and we finished the night with some more good conversation and finishing the rest of the beers.

***

It was still dark when I got up that morning. Once again, Bradley was an absolute saint and offered to drive me to the Rail Runner station at such an ungodly hour. He had intended to drive me to the first main station where I had disembarked less than 48 hours ago, but we ended up cutting it so fine that he headed directly to the next station. Traffic was so light that we ended with plenty of time to spare, so we got to share some heartfelt goodbyes before I left. We hadn’t spent a lot of time together, but I’d really grown to like Bradley in the short time that we’d had. More than being a friend, he’d actually come across as more of a father figure over the past two days. He’d fed me, even clothed me, given me a place to sleep, looked after me and showed me around, and had numerous meaningful conversations about things as personal as our lives to things as simple as the beauty in all the art we had viewed together. I didn’t see myself ending up in Santa Fe again anywhere in the foreseeable future, but I was glad I had made the final leg of the transit from hell to get there to see it, and to have once again had another great Couchsurfing experience. I gave Bradley one final hug as the  Rail Runner approached, and he flashed his lights from his car in the darkness as the train pulled out into the dawn, taking me back to Albuquerque.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sunrise over Santa Fe as the Rail Runner took me away.

Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

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

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

***

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

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

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

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

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

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

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

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

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

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

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

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

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

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

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

***

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

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

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

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

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

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

From Parks to Parties: Killing Time in Rio de Janeiro

I have to admit, my stay in Rio de Janeiro was not quite like how I had originally imagined it. Around the world, the name brings to mind exotic images of the legendary Carnival, and belly dancers in the streets and lavish, feathered costumes and parties on the beach and… well, I guess I can’t really speak for the rest of the world, but it’s definitely considered a bit of party city. So I surprised myself at how little partying I actually did while I was in town. I spent a great deal of my time outside, either on the beach or taking walks through the neighbourhoods and some of the nearby greenery, or just hanging out with Tom.

***

On my first morning I was woken up by Tom getting ready and having breakfast in the kitchen – which was, for all intents and purposes, my bedroom. He was doing his best to be quiet, but I’m a pretty light sleeper, and he noticed me stirring.
“Sorry,” he said in a whisper as he shuffled between the tiny gap between my sofa bed and the kitchen counter. “If you want, you can go into my room and lie on my bed if you wanna sleep in some more, so I don’t disturb you.”
“Oh, nah it’s alright,” I said, “but thank you.”
“You’re welcome. How was the bed?” His face looked a little wary, as though he was afraid how I might answer.
“It was… okay,” I replied with a sheepish chuckle, and Tom started to laugh too.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit hard,” he said, with the slightest hint of regret in his tone of voice. “Sorry”.
“Really, it’s okay. It’s fine,” I said again, but I guess I must have made a grimacing face as I went to lie back down – the sofa bed was pretty uncomfortable to sleep on.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna go and sleep on my bed?” Tom said again with a knowing smile.
“Well…since you’re offering,” I said with a reluctant laugh, and gathered up the sheets from my bed to go and rest for a few more hours in Tom’s room. He had to head to work for the day, so he left me to sleep in and relax.

When I finally got up for the second time that morning, I decided one of the first things I wanted to see was the beach. Firstly I grabbed some breakfast at a café on the adjacent tourist street, full of bars and restaurants that catered for the English-speaking crowds, but as I went to head straight to the beach I found myself having second thoughts. I’d heard my fair share of horror stories about getting robbed or mugged on the beach in Rio, and while I’d had to make some pretty dodgy security arrangements for previous beach visits, it didn’t make sense to take my bag with my phone and wallet in it down to the beach when I was staying in Ipanema, such a short distance away. So I headed back to Tom’s apartment, lathered myself up with sunscreen, and headed off down to the beach. I didn’t even bother wearing a shirt – all I had was my towel, my thongs, and the swim shorts I was wearing, with the apartment key safely secured in one of the sealable pockets.

The day was overcast, but temperatures were still warm and humid. This meant it was still warm enough to go swimming, and there were significantly less crowds due to the fact nobody was sunbathing. It was actually perfect. The cloudy weather also made the beach beautiful in it’s own mysterious way, to the point where I actually returned to the apartment after my swim so that I could fetch my iPhone and take a picture. But it was so lovely to be in the ocean again – I hadn’t been swimming in the sea since my dip into the beach in Amsterdam, and as someone who grew up on a coastal city, I was realising for the first time how much I really did love the sun, the sand and the surf, and how much I missed it when it wasn’t in my life. So I didn’t do a great deal that day except for be unashamedly lazy, and indulge in the beach bum lifestyle while I had a chance.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

Clouds rolling in over Ipanema.

That evening Tom and I just hung out at home. We ended up bonding over a mutual understanding of certain pop culture references, and I introduced him to Ja’mie King: Private School Girl. He couldn’t get enough of it, and we pretty much exhausted the collection of clips that YouTube have of the hilariously offensive Australian character. Later we ended up watching an episode of American Horror Story: Coven on TV, since it was the only thing that was in English. The TV was in his bedroom, so we were lying on his bed watching it. Tom must have noticed me start to doze off at some point in the evening.
“Hey, if you want, you can sleep here tonight. I know the sofa bed is pretty uncomfortable.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I’d hate to feel like I was intruding on personal space, but Tom did have a double bed and the sofa bed was one of the hardest things I’d ever slept on.
“Yeah, it’s cool. Honestly, I don’t mind, I just thought it would be a bit creepy to offer on the very first night,” he said with a laugh. But we’d instantly taken to each other as friends, so when the time came to sleep we very comfortably crashed there together, and I ended up doing so for the rest of my stay in Rio.

***

The following afternoon, when Tom had some free time, we went for an easy hike up the mountain that was located in the park by the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The national park of the side of the hill was semi-dense rainforest, but once again the weather was humid and overcast, which made the day warm but not too blistering hot with intense sunshine. It was a pretty peaceful and pleasant walk through the natural surroundings, getting away from the hustle and bustle of the streets and the beach.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

Entrance to the national park we went walking through.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

The park was a pristine section of rainforest tucked away behind some of the more expensive houses in Rio.

And when we got to the top of the trail and stepped out onto the lookout, it was a pretty incredible view.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

Afternoon sun glowing behind the clouds over the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive houses on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

The ritzy, more expensive buildings on the northern side of park, east of the lagoon.

Taking a break after the climb.

Taking a break after the climb.

And when the clouds momentarily parted, Christ the Redeemer made himself visible from the taller, neighbouring mountain. Tom and I both quickly grabbed our cameras to snap some pictures before the clouds rolled over again to conceal the famous statute.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

Christ the Redeemer on his lonely peak.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

A close up of Christ the Redeemer, just visible through the cloud cover.

On the walk back down we found ourselves locked in at the gates to the park, so we had to ask one of the groundskeepers to let us out via the service exit. We chatted as we walked back to Tom’s place, watching kids playing in the park and locals jog around the flat areas by the lagoon. We also stopped to sample something that Tom insisted was an important part of local Brazilian life. I don’t know if there was an actual Portuguese name for it, but essentially it was just a purple frozen smoothie, made from the pulp of the açaí berries, found on the palms of the same name which were native to Brazil. It didn’t have a very strong flavour, but it was common to throw in little extras or add-ins to make it more exciting. I got a small cup and mixed in muesli, while Tom had protein mixed into his larger one. I can’t say I was a huge fan, but it wasn’t too bad.

***

While I did spend most of my evenings just hanging out with Tom, but there was one night where we did do a bit of partying. I’d failed to get in touch with any of Fausto’s friends in regards to invitations or offers to join them at their parties, but I much preferred hanging out with Tom and James instead, so that’s what I did. On Saturday night James came over to Tom’s and the three of us drank vodka and laughed and caught up, and James gave me some advice and suggestions about things that I could see or do during my last few days in Rio de Janerio. There was also a lot of Ja’mie quotes being thrown back and forth, and for a minute I actually felt like I was back at home in Sydney, between the mindless banter and the crude jokes and figuring out if we had enough vodka left to make a decent roadie or if we should do a few shots before heading to the club.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what we decided about the roadie, but eventually we were in a taxi to a place called 00 (Zero Zero), supposedly a pretty popular gay bar in the area. When we got there we went through the whole process of getting IDs checked and registered and being assigned a tab card, but after going through the same drill so many times in São Paulo it felt basically normal. The club was an interesting space, with an indoor seating area, a huge outdoor patio, and a dance floor that kind of blended into both of them. Tom, James and I got our first beers and sat down outside, since the night air was nice and warm, and it was only a matter of time before we were approached by some of the local men. I have to admit, a large percentage of Brazilian men are absolutely gorgeous, but so many of them have this weird charm about them that would come across as super sleazy if it were anyone else. But somehow it just makes them seem cheeky and romantic. Or maybe it was just sleazy and I was blind to it, I honestly can’t say. I also discovered that a lot of Brazilian gay men were very flaky and unreliable, and despite strongly insisting that they would “be right back”, there was really only a 50% chance you would ever see his face again. So based on personal experience, I guess I now have a few trust issues with some of the locals (although, if we’re being honest, it seems more like typical gay bar behaviour than anything else).

It was a fun night, with the three of us continuously being separated and reunited throughout the course of the evening, each time a little bit more drunk and having some other bizarre social interaction to report. The music was a mix of pop and funky traditional music, and a few times I found myself being awkwardly dragged through a drunken two step tango by a sensual Brazilian gentleman, though for all the ballroom dancing classes I’d taken in high school I still struggled to keep up with his lead. The dance floor was fun and wild, though I had a fair share of unwanted attention while shaking my hips to Shakira and insisting that they didn’t lie. Though Tom was great for that – he was a well built guy and at least six feet tall, towering over literally everyone in the club, so I could always just fall back and swoop behind him for protection.

I don’t know what time it was when we eventually decided to call it a night, but we were all danced out and our skin had a light sheen of sweat. We checked ourselves out of the club and paid, then piled into a taxi and headed back to Ipanema. Once we were in the general vicinity of home, we got out and parted ways with James, who wandered off in the other direction to his hostel while Tom and I headed home. However, the amount of dancing that we’d been doing combined with the amount I had drank meant that I was totally unashamed in telling Tom how hungry I was and pleaded that we stopped somewhere to get greasy, post-drinking food. Of course, he agreed – I was his guest, after all –  and after we wandered through a few streets we found a place that was open 24 hours. The service was less than satisfactory at such early hours of the morning, but that didn’t matter once we’d been served our burgers, chicken legs, and our delicious plate of bacon and cheddar fries.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues.

And so my world tour of sampling drunken fast food continues. And it was so, so good.

After that we headed straight home, showered and crashed into bed. As beautiful as the beaches and the natural surroundings and the hiking had been, I couldn’t have let myself leave Rio without doing at least some partying. And even though it was the only night in Rio de Janeiro that I had spent partying, it was a damn good one.

The Road to Rio

After about a week in São Paulo, it was time for me to move on. When I had first arrived in Brazil I had discussed with Fausto my options for visiting other cities, and whether there was an easy and affordable way to get to any of them. The city that was first and foremost in my mind was obviously Rio de Janeiro, and Fausto told me that it was only about six hours on a bus to get there. After some of the other long-haul journeys I’d taken, six hours on a bus seemed like nothing at all, so I went ahead and booked a ticket leaving São Paulo in about a weeks time. However, I also had to book my return ticket, since I already had my flight booked out of Brazil from São Paulo, something I’d had to do in a split second decision during my minor crisis at Dublin airport. After doing that, I spent my free time during the rest of the week looking for somewhere to stay while I would be in Rio. Fausto was looking up and recommending some pretty cool looking hostels – and most importantly, advising me on all the better areas of the city in which I should stay – but I directed more of my efforts into searching for Couchsurfing hosts and writing requests, and in the end it paid off: a friendly-looking American gay guy in his mid-20s who was currently living in Ipanema had agreed to host me.

Jump forward in time, after my nights of drinking and partying in São Paulo and waking up in the wrong city, and I was on my way to the bus station, using the public transportation of São Paulo for the first time. Fausto hadn’t spoken too highly of it, but there wasn’t anything wrong with it, really. I had to catch a bus and then two different metro lines before I got to the major bus terminal, and it took over an hour to eventually get there, but everything went smoothly and according to plan, and nobody tried to rob or pick pocket me in broad daylight, so I have no complaints. I actually overestimated how long it would take me to arrive, since I had also allowed enough time to pick up my tickets and make sure I knew where I was going within the terminal – a process which turned out to be remarkably simple – so I ended up having to sit around for a little while waiting for my departure time. Although, to be sure, that’s definitely a better feeling than sprinting through there terminal because you’re running late. Once we were on board and finally got moving, I chatted for a little bit to the guy who was sitting next to me, but eventually he moved away to where there were two empty seats, so I had a little more room for the rest of the journey. It was a beautiful day outside, and Brazil has some gorgeous countryside scenery, so I just relaxed and was able to quite comfortably enjoy the ride.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

Just a taste of much of the interesting and contrasting architecture I saw along the way.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

The mountains got a lot greener the closer I got to Rio.

I arrived around in the late afternoon, but before I went off into the city I decided to pick up my ticket for my bus ride home, so that I didn’t have to worry about it in the early morning when I was departing. I am so thankful that I decided to do that, because since both my journeys had been booked with two different bus services – yet I’d only received one printed confirmation when I booked them together – there was a huge misunderstanding within the entire system. I was sent from counter to counter of the different bus companies, trying to explain to people what I had done and what I was trying to do, with the fact only about half the people spoke any English proving to be a rather large hurdle. It took almost another hour of exasperatedly trying to make myself understood before they realised they were looking for my booking in the wrong place. After that, it was was simple as it had been at the station in São Paulo, but I secretly thanked myself for having the foresight of going through that whole ordeal earlier rather than when I actually had a bus to catch.

***

After all that had happened, I followed the directions my Couchsurfing host had given me to get from the bus terminal to his place. There was a bus route that would take me most of way, right down to the beach in Ipanema, one of the better known neighbourhoods in the south of Rio De Janerio. His directions were very good and I had no problems finding the place, but he’d told me to send him a text message when I arrived, rather than dialling any buzzer or number. I arrived to find a nice looking apartment building with the typical Brazilian level of security – this particular building had a tall black wrought iron fence – so I sent my new host a message and waited. The timing couldn’t have been better, actually, because he was just arriving home minutes after I had sent the message.

Tom was actually an American, originally from Baltimore, but he was living in Rio teaching English. He was a tall guy – something that made him stand out amongst the generally shorter Brazilian men – but he was super friendly from the moment I met him at the front gate.
“So, the reason you can’t dial my apartment,” Tom said as we went through the gate and around to the elevator, “is that it used to be the maids quarters to the apartment next door. So if you ring the bell, it just goes to their apartment.” I chuckled to myself, wondering how many awkward situations that might have caused for Tom in the past, but once I arrived he had a spare set of keys for me, so that wasn’t something I’d have to worry about while I was staying with him. “Though I gotta warn you, it’s obviously not the biggest place,” he said with a chuckle himself, but I assured him it wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a pretty small space, but not too small – although ‘cozy’ isn’t exactly the best descriptor for somewhere in the humid tropics, that’s kind of how it felt. There was a main room that was essentially a living room, dining room and kitchen all in one, a small bathroom, and a separate bedroom. There was a sofa that folded out into a bed, although it took about half the room when it was open, so we left it shut for the time being. I settled in a little bit as Tom and I chatted and got to know each other. I told him about where I’d been so far, and he was pretty excited to learn that I’d visited his hometown of Baltimore. I think he was overcome with a wave of nostalgia when I pulled out the timetables of the MARC train that I had caught from DC to get there, which had been sitting in the bottom of my backpack since then. We were already getting on really well, and I was confident I’d already made another success story to add to my Couchsurfing experiences.

***

When I’d been in São Paulo, some of Fausto’s friends had told me that they were going to be going to Rio the same weekend that I was going be there, and invited me to come and join them at the parties that they were going to be attending. From the way they had described them, it sounded like they were going to be pretty over the top and lavish events, but I had told them I would have to wait and see what the situation was like with my Couchsurfing host in Rio. I can only imagine how rude it would look to turn up on someone’s doorstep, drop your bags off and then head off straight away to hang out with someone else. Though Tom turned out be a really cool guy, so when he told me that there was a friend of a friend of his in town who was also from Australia, and that he’d said we would be meeting up with him for a drink that evening, I decided to join them instead of chasing up Fausto’s friends. While they’d all been incredibly nice and welcoming during my time in São Paulo, I never felt like I’d totally fitted in with their kind of crowd. They were all a bit older, and all about finer and nicer things – half the time I felt like I didn’t currently possess any clothes that would meet the dress code to wherever they were going. Tom, on the other hand, was a totally chilled out guy who was living the casual, simplistic life of an ex-pat who lived a five minute walk away from a Brazilian beach, with zero hint of pretentiousness. There was definitely already a good connection between the two of us, so I stuck with him and headed out to meet this other Australian.

James and Tom had never met each other, but had been put touch by a mutual friend that Tom had met during his time previously visiting Australia. As a traveller it’s always nice to have a gay-friendly point of contact or someone you can meet up with when you arrive in a new place, especially in potentially dangerous places such as Brazil. We met James outside Tom’s building and had a quick greeting followed by a couple of awkward moments establishing how we all actually knew each other.
“So wait, you’re Australian?” James asked, pointing at me. “But how do you know each other?”
“Well… we don’t. I mean, we just met half an hour ago?” I said.
“But you’re staying with him?” James seemed a little puzzled, but when we explained the whole Couchsurfing thing it all made sense to him.

Tom lived in the heart of Ipanema – very close to the beach, and even closer to heap of different bars and restaurants down the main strip leading away from the beach. Tom chose a favourite bar of his and we sat down at a table and started off with some beers.
“I wanna try a Caipirinha,” James had said when it came time for the next round, and he proceeded to study the menu. “They’re supposed to be the speciality here in Brazil.” This was all news to me, so Tom and James explained: a Caipirinha is a cocktail made with muddled limes, ice, sugar and cachaça, a type of Brazilian rum made from sugar cane. However, in Brazil they don’t use limes, but a kind of green lemon called ‘limon subtil’ that is native to the region.
“Technically isn’t not a real Caipirinha unless it uses those Brazilian lemons,” Tom said, “but this places makes them with all different kinds of flavours.” We all decided to try different ones – however, I wasn’t much of a fan of the strawberry Caipirinha, and after tasting the ‘real’ Caipirinha Tom has ordered I wish I had chosen that rather than the pink, bastardised version.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

Myself, Tom and James with our beers at the start of the night.

We sat in the bar chatting for at least a few hours. James was a really nice guy too. He’d been travelling around South America for a few months, and we both agreed it was kind of nice to talk to someone who actually perfectly understood all the weird slang words and ‘Australian-isms’ that we tend to use in everyday language without even realising it. We even confused Tom a few times, but we all got on really well. After a while we decided to leave and possibly head elsewhere. There was a gay night at q nightclub that James had heard about and wanted to check out, so Tom walked us there, but it looked a little dodgy and not that great. I was actually feeling pretty worn down from my bus trip, and no one was really in that much of a partying mood – I think it was a Tuesday, after all – so we ended up bidding James goodnight as he headed back to his hostel, and Tom and I went back to his place to crash and call it a night. It had been a quiet but really enjoyable evening, and all in all I was already pretty pleased with how my stay in Rio was turning out.

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.