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.

Advertisements

Good Morning Baltimore

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

***

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

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

A church on the streets of Baltimore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

The floating wetlands in Inner Harbour.

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

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

The complex of shops on Pier 4 in the harbour.

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

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

View from inside the fountain on the harbourside.

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

The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

The Churches of Old Town Zürich

When I wasn’t exploring the great outdoors with Robin in Zürich, I took time out of the busy, active lifestyle to do a little bit of sightseeing. The city centre of Zürich itself wasn’t exactly huge, or full of iconic landmarks, but simply wandering around the charming little streets and up the cobblestone footpaths was a pleasure in itself, appreciating the quaint and classical beauty that the city maintained.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi's Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi’s Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

The most notable sights worth seeing in Zürich were probably the small handful of churches located in the city centre. While I had sworn I was done with churches after my trek through the Vatican City in Rome, these Swiss churches couldn’t be more different from the St Peters Basilica in Italy. They were a fraction of the size, modestly squeezed in between all the surrounding buildings, though the classical design suggested that the holy buildings had been there much longer than their neighbouring structures. The first of the three main churches in Zürich that I passed is called Grossmünster, which translates into “great minister”. It is located along the banks of the River Limmat and served as a monastery church when it was first inaugurated some 800 years ago. The Romanesque architecture was impressive from the outside from where I admired it, but it was a beautiful day outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood for trailing through another church museum.

The grand Grossmünster.

The grand Grossmünster.

So on I moved across the Limmat, where the other two main churches were situated – next was St Peterskirche, or St Peters church. The structure itself was significantly smaller than Grossmünster, and it was in the midst of a sea of buildings to the point where I couldn’t actually find the building itself. However, the main feature of St Peterskirche rose above the sea of buildings so that it could be seen from a great distance – the clock tower. Again, I wasn’t particularly interesting in seeing the inside of yet another church, and the main feature was best viewed from a distance anyway. “The clock on that steeple is the largest clock face in Europe,” Umer had said to to me as we’d breezed through the city on my first afternoon in Zürich. It has a diameter of 8.7 metres, but I hadn’t previously managed to capture any photographs of the impressive clock, so I took a few snapshots before moving on to the third and final church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

Fraumünster was the only church in Zürich that I actually went inside, but in retrospect I’m glad that I had made the time to take a quick peek. The English translation is “women’s minister” and the church, which is built directly across the Limmat from Grossmünster, was built on the remains of a former abbey. From the outside, Fraumünster doesn’t seem particularly impressive. However, once you set foot inside the cool and quiet halls, you quickly realise that it’s the inside perspective and the view from within that truly matters in these sacred rooms. I’m talking, of course, about the stained glass windows. From the outside on a bright sunny day they look incredibly unremarkable: black holes leading into the depths of the church. But from the inside, that sun streaming in lights up the coloured panes of glass to produce something beautiful, mystical, and even a little breathtaking. I reiterate that I’m not exactly religious and have no affinity with the Christian faith, especially after the disillusionment that came with my visit to the Vatican, but something about being in Fraumünster recaptured my sense of mysticism.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Back in my days at university I took quite a variety of sociology courses, one of them being a class titled the Sociology of Religion. In the first lecture, our teacher read us a metaphor about religion being like a stained glass window. You can study a religion from the outside – the rituals, the doctrine, the history, the beliefs – but the real meaning of a religion requires an understanding that one can only get from being inside of the fold, and being a part of that religion. Perhaps thats why, whenever I step into any of these beautiful churches far and wide across this continent, I get that superstitious sense that I just can’t quite put my finger on. Until you’re ready to fully accept it and be a part of it, maybe you’ll never be able to truly understand what it means to be part of a religion. I doubt that I ever will fully know what that is like, but for the meantime I was definitely understanding the stained glass window metaphor first hand. I tried to take a couple of photos, but the quality of my camera did absolutely no justice to the images I was seeing in front of me. Not for the first time, I took it as a sign that some things we experience in this world as just so significant to ourselves as individuals, that attempting to share them with others would simply fail to have the same effect on them as it did on us. So I momentarily lost myself there, in the cold stone chambers of Fraumünster, before saying a silent prayer – to who, I’m still not sure – and exited back out into the sunshine.

***

After my church sightseeing and soulful contemplation, I lightened the mood of my day with a stroll through the sunshine by the lake. This was before the afternoon of slacklining with Robin, so I hadn’t been swimming in the lake or river at that point. I found a seat on a bench and read my book for most of the afternoon, but I did come across a huge diving platform from which people were jumping off, and plunging into the depths of the crystal clear water. I considered doing it myself, but at that stage I wasn’t exactly feeling 100% healthy – I was still feeling a little under the weather, and recovering from the effects of prolonged partying in Madrid during Pride. I knew I would  inevitably be getting wet when I went slacklining over the river, but I didn’t want to wait around in wet clothes for the rest of the afternoon, so instead I contented myself with watching others jump off the huge platform and into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

There is one thing that I found shocking about Switzerland, even though it wasn’t exactly unexpected, and that was the cost of living. I had been warned about it, but it still hit me like a slap in the face. I wasn’t even paying for my accommodation, but my time spent in Zürich was fairly limited simply due to the fact that I didn’t have the budget to do very much. Even eating was a ridiculously pricey affair. I went to get lunch from what seemed to be a relatively cheap sausage stand – they love their wurst in Switzerland – and ended up paying around 6 francs for a simple sausage and a small piece of bread. I felt like that would have almost bought me a meal in any other country, but from what I had seen of the rest of Zürich, I had basically stumbled across a bargain. I considered it a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t feeling too well during my time in Zürich, because it meant that I didn’t have the desire to go out and investigate many of the bars or nightclubs – something that I just didn’t have the funding to do there. Robin and I visited a bar or two and sampled some delicious Swiss beer, made in various microbreweries around the country, but for the most part Switzerland was a continuation of my much needed down time. My pride tour down western Europe had really gotten the better of me.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

***

Eventually necessity required me to move on from Zürich – there were a handful of other destinations I still had to hit before my Eurail pass expired, and I just couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland any longer. So on my final morning I packed up my bags, thanked Robin for his hospitality, for introducing me to the world of slacklining, and inspiring me to be that little bit more physically active in my life. Then it was onto the station for another train, another country, and another city on on my ‘greatest hits’ tour of Europe.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

After a decent nights sleep at Valerio’s house, I woke up feeling remarkably refreshed and ready to take on Rome. I had been told by almost everyone who had visited Rome that the city was enormous, and that if you didn’t have a plan of attack you could easily waste all your valuable sightseeing time trying to find your way around the maze of combined modern and ancient history. Lucky for me, I had met Selma in Barcelona, who had seemed more excited than I was at the fact that I was going to Rome. We had exchanged contact details, and at some point during my stay in Madrid she had sent me a huge message that had included a list of all the famous sights, monuments and neighbourhoods, as well as a detailed itinerary of how to make the most of all these things and visit as many as possible in the three days that I had to explore Rome. I felt a mix of overwhelming gratitude and guilt – I hoped she had already had this itinerary written down and had just forwarded it on to me, because what I got had been so much more than I had expected when I’d asked for “a few tips”. Nevertheless, she had saved me a great deal of planning when it came to all that touristic stuff that I’d never really been any good at.

As convenient as getting to Valerio’s house from the airport had been, getting from Valerio’s house to central Rome was somewhat more of a challenge. I had to get a bus to the closest metro station, and then from there catch the metro into the heart of the city. The whole trip should have only taken me half an hour if the public transport ran on time, but I was about to learn very quickly that literally nothing in Italy runs on time. So it took a little longer. Given the size of the city, I was also surprised that Rome only had two metro lines that ran diagonally across the city and intersected only once or twice in the middle. Cities like Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and even Barcelona all had upwards of around fifteen metro lines, so it was puzzling as to why Rome was so far behind. Valerio would later tell me that the city was working on a third line. It’s completion was scheduled for approximately somewhere in the next several years – Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess?

When I finally reached central Rome, my first stop was Piazza del Popolo, a large public square with a huge obelisk towering over the tourists crossing the plaza. From there I following Selma’s directions and climbed the stairs up to Pincio Hill. The top of the hill was a beautiful and quite peaceful garden, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the lower streets of Rome that I had been in so far. It was also a spot that afforded excellent panoramic views of Rome, so I stopped to take a couple of photos before wandering through the greenery. I followed the edge of Pincio Hill until I rather unwittingly walked down the next attraction, Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom and arrived at Piazza di Spagna, thought to be the most famous square in Rome, that I turned around and took in my surroundings. The square is a common rest stop for tourists wandering the city, so it was quite crowded, and at the top of the steps sat the French church Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

At the foot of the Spanish Steps I came across my first Roman fountain, the Barcaccia, sculpted in 1627 in the style of a sinking boat. Valerio had told me that the water in all of the fountains around Rome was safe to drink. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I would soon learn that similar fountains were scattered all around the city, and thirsty tourists and locals alike could be seen stealing a sip from the flowing water, or filling up their water bottles. The water all comes from clean underground springs and is completely safe to drink as it pours out of the fountain. It was a cute little feature of the city, and particularly convenient given how hot it was that day, and all the walking I still had left to do. From Piazza di Spagna I walked down Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping strip of Rome that was lined with expensive designer and luxury brands. It was an amusing juxtaposition, to see such expensive and modern designer brands in the shop fronts that were situated in some of the oldest streets in the world. Though the entire city of Rome was full of such contrasts – modern stores that were built a few months ago stood side by side in the street with structures that had been standing in place for over 3000 years. For someone who comes from a country as young as Australia, it was a strange concept to fathom.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

At the end of that street came the Trevi Fountain, one of the more well-known and more highly anticipated sights of Rome. The crowds around the fountain were unbelievable – it was almost impossible to get a photo without someone else being the photo. I actually saw a couple of fights break out between groups who were trying to take photos while other groups were getting in the way. It was actually quite frightening, and at that point I decided I wasn’t going to stay in any areas heavily populated by tourists for any longer than necessary. It was at that point that I broke away from Selma’s itinerary, although not entirely intentionally. I thought I was following her directions to another plaza, but after a while I emerged into a clearing to behold the Pantheon, another instantly recognisable sight. The 2000-year-old temple is now a church, and one of the best preserved monuments in Rome. It was beautiful, both inside and out, and the dome in the roof that is considered to be the ancient Romans greatest architectural achievement allowed a cylinder of sunlight to pour in from the sky. It was a little eerie, but also gave a rather holy feel to the aesthetic of the huge old room. I wandered around the inner chambers and admired some of the artworks and decorations before taking leave back out into the midday sun.

Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

A few short streets later and I found myself at Piazza Navona, a long plaza that is home to several fountains, the most famous of which is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers. The plaza was full on tourists, but it also seemed to be a popular place for buskers, street performers, artists drawing both realistic sketches and caricatures, and peddlers selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. It reminded me a lot of some of the heavily touristic areas in Paris, and I stayed for long enough to observe some of the interesting things going on, and take a few photos of course, before heading off and moving on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

There were a few other things on Selma’s itinerary for the first day, but they were more missable things such as places to eat or where to get some good gelato. I would have followed through and investigated, but by that point I was completely exhausted. My body still hadn’t fully recovered from the breakdown in Madrid, so I ended up grabbing some quick take away food before heading back to Valerio’s to rest and recover for the remainder of the afternoon. I know, it seems sacrilegious in a city and country known for some amazing cuisine, but the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at an overpriced tourist restaurant by myself. However, I did swing by the Termini train station on my way home, so that I could book my tickets out of Rome for a few days time. On my way there I passed a building which I later learned to be Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Alter of the Fatherland, the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, which had also been on Selma’s itinerary. It’s a controversial monument that was built in honour of the first king of unified Italy, and also holds the home of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the accompanying eternal flame.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

After waiting an hour to be served and book my train tickets (again, this is Italy, so no surprise there), I took the metro and the bus back home to Valerio’s. Considering I was far from my peak physical condition, I felt I had done a decent job of sightseeing for the day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in one either, so I had a quiet and early night, making sure I got plenty of sleep to continue the exploring tomorrow.

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.

Something In The Water

Our first night in St Petersburg was a Sunday night. However, given that the city’s birthday was technically on the Monday, we figured out that it was a kind of long weekend holiday, which meant that not as many people would have to work the next day, which meant that we finally might be able to have the night of partying that I’d had a hankering for since the moment we arrived in Moscow. After we’d arrived back from the Hermitage and taken our well needed showers, I did a little bit of research into the gay scene in St Petersburg. From what I could gather, there were two major nightclubs: Central Station and Blue Oyster. They were in close proximity with each other, and both of them were a reasonable walking distance from the hostel. I put the idea to Tim to see if he was keen, and he assured me he was on board. So after we’d had a few drinks with the whole group at one of the pubs in the street adjacent to our hostel, Tim and I set off for the gay bars, arms linked with a tipsy Kaylah who was to play our token fag hag for the evening.

***

I hadn’t been to a gay bar since I’d watched amateur drag queens over a margarita in a cocktail bar in Siem Reap, so I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the gay rights movement in Russia had taken multiple, crippling blows over the last year. I’m not even entirely sure if being gay is technically illegal or not, but there are now anti-propaganda laws that prohibit the promotion of a ‘homosexual lifestyle’, and there is supposedly a general hostility and climate of hate towards gay people. Tim had said that he’d heard it was a lot less conservative in the major cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, so I wasn’t too scared. But at the same time, we were advised to keep our wits about us and try to not get into too much trouble.

We had been aiming to go to Central Station – apparently the bigger of the two clubs – but I’d only had one day to get to know the layout of the city, and I experienced a few navigational issues that took us a block or two too far in the wrong direction.
“Well,” I’d said as I studied the GPS map on my iPhone, “if we turn down here and double back then we should arrive at the other one, Blue Oyster.”
“Do you know which ones better?” asked Kaylah.
“Um… No, not really?” I’d focused on locations and dates and times in my research, but had only skimmed through a handful of reviews, none of which seemed to distinguish one club from the other.
“Well it’s only a quarter to eleven… Why don’t we just start off going to… ah, Blue Oyster?”
“Yeah, Blue Oyster is the one that’s closer,” I said, pulling out my phone again to consult the map.
“Yeah, I know. Its right here.” I looked up, and Tim was pointing to a small neon sign that read the name of the club, but would have been pretty easy to miss. Especially for someone who walks around with their eyes glued to their phone.

“Oh! Okay then, well… In we go, I guess?” We walked up to the security guard who was standing in front of the door, and made a motion that we were interested in going inside. The guard looked confused.
“Gay bar,” he said very shortly, almost under his breath. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly.
“Uh, sorry?”
“Gay bar. This is gay bar.” It was mine and Tim’s turn to exchange confused looks – I mean, I was wearing a pretty homoerotic Tom of Finland t-shirt. We weren’t exactly subtle, by any stretch of the imagination.
“Err, yeah? That’s the point?” I’d replied, not sure if he was taking the piss out of us – unlikely, from what I’d experienced with most Russians senses of humour – or if it was just a precautionary warning that he gave everyone. As he shrugged and stepped aside, I felt as though we were actually doing something slightly risky or dangerous. As far as I knew, it wasn’t unheard of for police to raid gay bars, but the risk added an element of thrill unlike any other gay bar I’d been too – and I’ve been to quite a few gay bars. We stepped through the small doorway and into the darkness within.

The bar wasn’t completely empty, but it was very far from full. There was a bar in front of us, and a dance floor dimly lit with hues of deep red stretched to our right, occupied by only a few people. I shrugged, and assured Kaylah that it would probably get busier as it got later. Exactly how much busier, none of us could say, but that was part of the beauty of exploring the unknown bars of a new city. We started at the bar, where there was a two-for-one special on all drinks before midnight. All drinks, including cocktails. Soon we were standing at a high table and I had two Long Island Ice Teas in front of me, and part of me already thought that even if nothing else happened that night, it would still be a success. The three of us stood around talking, or more accurately shouting, due to the loud music, but the scene around us inevitably led to some curious questions by Kaylah, and all of us talking about our views and experiences of homosexuality. I like to think that I’m a complex and interesting person, and that being gay is only a mere facet of my personality, but in a lot of ways I still feel like my sexuality is a quite a large and undeniable part of who I am. So it always feels great to talk about it with new friends, allowing me to share more about myself and the way I perceive myself. And of course, for better or for worse, alcohol always makes conversations a lot more heartfelt and meaningful, and the three of us had quite a deep and personal discussion.

While that was going on, the club had slowly started to fill up with people, mostly guys but with a few women here and there. It wasn’t packed, but the club itself wasn’t too big – half the dance floor was comprised of wide, podium-like steps that gave the illusion of more space with the different elevations, but it was tiny in comparison to the bars in Sydney or Bangkok. But I liked it – it was a little more personal, and there were also a few upper balcony levels, although they were always full with what seemed to be packs of regulars, smoking their cigarettes and gazing down on the crowd below. At some point after our deep conversations had reached a closure, there was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The rather nondescript house music that had been pumping away was replaced with instantly recognisable pop hits – the kind the fills a gay dance floor in ten seconds flat. The Long Islands were kicking in, and before long we were bopping away on the dance floor with the locals as though they were our new best friends.

There were also a few drag numbers – some hilariously performed in Russian, during which Tim, Kaylah and myself were the only ones not singing along – but the inspiration for most of the costumes and dance routines undeniably came from Lady Gaga. Almost every single one of her chart topping hits were played at some point during the night – Alejandro made two appearances, and there even a well-rehearsed drag performance to Telephone – and each and every time the crowd went wild. Having somewhat of an affinity myself with Mother Monster, I thought it was amazing. I have a crystal clear memory of ripping my t-shirt off to join a couple of other shirtless dancers on the podium steps, while Tim just sighed and rolled his eyes and Kaylah watched on in hysterics.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The Lady Gaga inspired drag number.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke, but I was still having such an awesome time, and there was even a handful of decent looking guys in the room. I was approached by a tall handsome guy named Nikolay, although I freaked out a little bit when he spoke to me and I discovered he had braces.
“Oh my God! Tim, all these Russian boys are so young!” I remember saying at one point as we passed each other in club.
“I know! How do you think I feel?” Tim was 26, and while most of the Russians looked like big, strong men, I couldn’t find a single one over the age of 22. It was kind of creepy how they obliterated my average accuracy when it came to age guessing. Nikolay turned out to be 19, I had found out when I’d decided to give him a second chance and have a chat with him. We ended up spending quite a bit of time together that evening, though we used our mouths for things other than talking. It turns out that braces, despite their visibility, can be surprisingly inconspicuous to the touch.

***

“Hey, where’s Tim?” I’d found found Kaylah by herself at one of the tables, after returning from a semi-scandalous rendezvous with Nikolay.
“There you are!” It wasn’t easy to lose someone in a club this small, but I must have managed somehow. “Tim is over there,” she said as she pointed across the dance floor, where Tim was locking lips with his own Russian boy.
“Ah, I see,” I said with a grin. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea. He just said to me, ‘I’m going to go make out with someone,” and he did it.” We both laughed, and I made a mental note to applaud Tim later.
“Well, I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is after 4.” I’d noticed the crowd on the dance floor starting to wear a little thin, and I myself was starting to get a little tired. We let Tim enjoy his spoils of war for a little longer, and I said one last goodbye to Nikolay before we stumbled out of the club.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed when we stepped outside. “It’s alright light!” It wasn’t exactly daylight, but the darkness of night had very much been replaced by twilight of dawn. In fact, it was so similar to the dusk from which we’d entered the Blue Oyster that it would have been easy to believe that the sun had never set at all while we had been inside the club.
“The White Nights, they’re called,” Tim had said as we’d staggered through the streets. We stopped on one of St Petersburg’s numerous bridges to take some photos of the picturesque scenery, and then headed home – swinging past a McDonalds that had closed only 15 minutes before we’d got there, much to the disappointment of Kaylah and Tim. Instead, we went to the 24 convenience store on our hostels street.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

Dawn rising over St Petersburg.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

The St Petersburg canals in the twilight as we made our way home from the Blue Oyster.

“Don’t forget to get some water if you need some,” Tim had reminded us.
“Oh yeah, you can’t drink the tap water here!” said Kaylah. Earlier that day, Vladimir had told us that the pipes that carry the cities water supply were so old and contaminated that they contained traces of bacteria that make you quite sick, essentially rendering the tap water toxic. After having drinkable tap water for the first time in months in Moscow, it almost seemed like a cruel joke that we’d come even further west to find out it was once again undrinkable.
“Yep,” I said with a smile, as I picked up the biggest bottle I could find, chuckling to myself as I remembered the nights events. “There really is something in the water in St Petersburg.”