The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

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Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

After the weekend of depravity and sin, it was mostly back to the working week for Ralf, which gave me some time to sort out my next move in the bigger scheme of things on this world tour. While I was flying by the seat of the pants for the majority of the trip, there were times when I really had to sit down and look at a map and figure out at least the general direction of where I would be heading next. My romp through mainland Europe was almost at an end, so I had to start thinking beyond trains and onto planes and international airports. However, there was sufficient time to just hang out with Ralf, and some of the other friends I had made in Berlin.

***

One afternoon, Ralf took me to a park near his house that had a lookout with a view over the north-eastern side of Berlin. He pointed out certain structures and gave me interesting, little historical facts about the area. Afterwards we took a walk through some of the greenery, stopped for ice cream, and I just enjoyed not being on such a tight schedule of trains and sightseeing and searching for Couchsurfing hosts.

A sculpture at the lookout in  Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf's place.

A sculpture at the lookout in Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf’s place.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

Another afternoon I went on a trek down south in the city to visit Tempelhof Airport, not because I had a plane to catch, but because the airport had ceased operation in 2008 and been converted into a huge parklands area. Rivalling the Tiergarten in size, the park was full of people enjoying the afternoon sun – riding their bicycles, walking their dogs, playing sports and having picnics. I swear I saw a couple of shady looking guys hanging out in the trees, beckoning me over in what I can only assume was an attempt to sell me drugs, but they spoke in German so I just shook my head and kept on walking.

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

The park surrounding the transformed Tempelhof airport – the old airport itself is much more flat. 

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

After that I met up with Micha for a drink. The last time I had seen Micha was on his birthday, during my last weekend in Berlin, and I had been slumped over the bar at Rauschgold, struggling to stay awake. He’d said to drop him a line if I was ever back in Berlin, though like Ralf, I don’t think he was expecting me to be back quite so soon. Yet we did catch up for a drink, and I told him more about my travels throughout Europe, and it was a strange but nice feeling to actually have familiar faces to catch up with in a familiar city. Micha had work to do though, so it was only a quick afternoon drink before he had to head off again. Though on my way back to the U-Bahn station, who should I run into but Donatella and Eva, on their way out to get some dinner. I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that we were only a ten minute walk away from the apartment where I had been staying during my first time in Berlin, but randomly running into people you know on the street was definitely an experience that I had not had in a long time – the closest thing would have been bumping to Xavier at his work during Parisian Pride, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing. I had told Donatella I would be back in town, but I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the city in Ralf’s neighbourhood, so hadn’t gotten around to catching up with her again. We stopped and chatted for a little bit before saying farewells and parting ways, knowing that it would most certainly be a much longer time before I was ever back in this crazy city. But I skipped off down the street with a little spring in my step and a grin on my face. I felt like a bit of a local, or at least like I had left my mark in the city, by the fact that there were even familiar faces I could bump into on the street.

***

When I’d arrived at Ralf’s for this second visit to Berlin, I’d collapsed on the couch and tried to sort out my personal belongings a little bit, without taking over his living room entirely. When I pulled out my iPhone I almost went to ask for the wifi password, but then I remembered that I had been here before, and the bars of signal had already appeared at the top of the screen.
“I have this friend”, Ralf said to me when he noticed, “who has this favourite saying: home is where your phone recognises the wifi.” He smiled as he helped me unpack my things and sort out my dirty laundry. “So welcome home, or at least, home for now.” It was nice to have a familiar place to crash, and it did feel a little like home away from home. But it wasn’t just Ralf’s apartment – it was Berlin itself.

I remember talking about it with my sister via Skype, who had just relocated to Hawaii a month or so beforehand.
“I know what you mean,” she said when I told her of the unexplainable connection I felt with the place. “I never thought I would ever want to live in another city, let alone another county! But the first time I came here I just loved it – I hated having to leave, and I knew I had to come back.” I had been to quite a number of cities on my travels so far, but there was something that had drawn me back here, and I knew exactly what my sister was talking about.
“I just really feel like I could live here, you know? Like if someone told me ‘Your trip ends here, you have to stay’, I would be completely okay with that.” Of course, there were still so many destinations in my future that I was so excited to see, so that wasn’t entirely true – I’d be pretty upset if I was unable to do all the other things I’d been planning. But in terms of actually spending time in a city, getting amongst it and actually living there – Berlin had already truly won my heart.

The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.