“Keep Austin Weird”: First Impressions in the Lone Star State

After bidding farewell to Vincenzo and New Orleans, I settled down on the bus for a full day of transit. I watched the sun slowly rise behind the clouds of the overcast morning, and after little more than an hour we pulled into Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana. It was only a brief stop to collect a few more passengers, and the rest of the morning was spent on the long interstate drive to Texas. My first bus trip ended in Houston, a city of which I had previously only seen the inside of the airport. In the two hours that I had between the arrival of my bus from New Orleans and the departure of my bus from Houston, I would have loved to explore whatever parts of the city I could, given that the Megabus terminal is nothing more than a sectioned off area in a carpark (out of all the bus services in the Southwest it’s definitely the cheapest, so I suppose you get what you pay for). But the combination of the early start that morning, travel fatigue, and having all my bags with nowhere to store them for safe keeping, I decided to just wait it out on the tarmac with everybody else and read my book. Eventually the bus came along that would take me to Austin, the state capital of Texas and my final destination for the day, but it looked like I would have to save Houston for another day.

It was early evening when we finally arrived in Austin. I’d been in touch with my planned Couchsurfing host, a guy named Aaron, and I had texted him a few times throughout the day. He had said he would try to meet me at the bus station when I arrived, but after waiting a few minutes and wandering around yet another car park terminal, it was clear that he wasn’t there yet. He hadn’t replied to my most recent texts or made an attempt to call me, it was starting to get a little cold, and I was hungry for some food that wasn’t the can of Pringles I’d bought at a pit stop during the bus ride, so I decided to wander off and see what I could find, hoping Aaron would realise he was late and call me when he couldn’t find me at the bus stop. Around the corner I found some fast food restaurant – I can’t recall the name of the chain, there are just too many to keep track of in the US – and got some dinner and plonked myself down in a booth and just waited.

Eventually I got a call from Aaron, who was quick to apologise profusely. It turns out he is a vet, and he was busy in surgery for most of the afternoon and so was obviously unable to answer my calls. I told him where I was, and so he gave me directions to his place from there, which required a relatively short bus ride to the eastern part of town. He met me at the bus stop, and we quickly got chatting as he lead the way through the streets to his house.
“So, I’m not sure what you’re in the mood for – I know you’ve had a long day of travelling – but I was thinking of going out to some of the gay bars, they’re usually pretty good on a Thursday.” My absence on Bourbon Street in New Orleans had meant my previous week had been quite relaxed, with very little partying at all, so I decided that I would definitely have the strength for it. Even after a long day of travelling, it would be a good excuse to get out and stretch my legs. So when we got to Aaron’s small and simple one bedroom apartment, I unpacked my things on the couch, had a shower and started to get ready – but not before I got acquainted with Sergio.

Sergio!

Sergio!

My adventures with Princess in New Orleans had ignited a love affair with small dogs, and Sergio was to continue carrying the flame, so it would seem. As we came through the front door he began bouncing up and down like a frog, excited to see Aaron – who would have been gone for all of 10 minute – and equally excited to investigate someone new.
“He was dying when he came to us,” Aaron said, explaining how Sergio had been abandoned when he came through his clinic. “But after I fixed him up… well, he still needs a bit of care… He’s a special one.” Cue Sergio bouncing around so manically he smacked his head on the coffee table, yet proceeded to continue like it had never happened. “So I brought him home with me.”
With eyes that seemed to big for his head and a head that seemed too big for his body, he was an odd-looking yet still adorable little creature, and I grew to love him during my week in Austin.

***

After meeting my new furry best friend and getting myself ready to go out, Aaron and I headed back to the bus stop and made our way across town to the Warehouse District, where there were some popular gay bars on 4th Street. Aaron recommended Oil Can Harry’s, and soon we were inside drinking our generously poured double whiskey and Cokes from a bartender who Aaron seemed to know pretty well, assumedly from regular patronage. We stepped out onto the back patio so that Aaron could have a cigarette, and we told stories about previous Couchsurfing experiences.
“Yeah, I’ve had a few strange people, but most of them were normal. My last guest was this Russian guy who wanted to go to all these live music shows, but he was kinda rude about a lot of things so he wasn’t much fun.” Aaron confessed to reading my profile and seeing that I’d mentioned that I do like a bit of partying, which was one of the reasons he’d sent the invitation when I posted an open request.
“Well, hey, at least you read my profile!” I’d put a lot of effort into writing it so that people were more likely to accept my request to stay with them, so clearly it was working.

We drank more, chatted more, and ran into some people who Aaron knew, all of them very curious when they learnt I was from Australia. Aaron’s friend behind the bar made our drinks nice and strong, and eventually I was pretty tipsy. Okay, I was drunk, but I think I had to be for what happened next to happen at all. There was a resident drag queen who had been calling out between songs for participants to sign up for a “strip-off”: taking your clothes off (down to your underwear only – this isn’t Porn Idol) for the chance to win cash prizes. I can’t remember exactly the sequence of events in which everything happened, but it went something like this:

There were three people who had signed themselves up when the performing started, but they were calling for a total of five. The first few people did their performances – I swear two of them were the guys who had actually been dancing on the bar top at some point throughout the evening, so I hardly thought that was fair. But then they didn’t get much a reaction out of the crowd, probably because they’d seen it all before. In retrospect, part of me thinks they might have been entered by management on purpose in order to coax other participants out and join in. All throughout the evening Aaron had been half-jokingly suggesting that I enter the strip-off, and at this point of the evening when I was several drinks down, a gentle push was all it took for me to say “#YOLO” and stumble out onto the floor.
“Well hello! And what’s your name?” the drag queen asked me.
“Ah, my name’s Robert,” I said, slightly nervous and slightly slurring.
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here?”
“No, I’m from Australia.” Cue a monumental cheer from the crowd.
“Australia!? Can we hear some of that accent?” Not knowing what else to say, and knowing I didn’t have that strong an Aussie accent (well, to me, at least), I said the first and most unoriginal thing that came to my head.
“G’day mate, how ya goin’?” It was enough to please the crowds, and after that I was given my cue to start stripping when the music came on. Blurred Lines was the popularly controversial track at the time, and so I got into it with my awkward bopping up and down and hip shaking.

The crowds were cheering, though they must have been pretty forgiving, because I was a hot mess if you’d ever seen one. I discarded my jacket onto the floor behind me, not giving it much thought, then slowly peeling my t-shirt over my head, with a drunken, obviously failing attempt at being sexy. Then it came time for the jeans – skinny jeans – which are difficult to get off at the best of times. There’s no real flattering way to do it, yet I attempted to keep dancing as I did so, which meant when I got down to about my knees, I went ass over tits and landed on my back with my legs in the air. I don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing for the audience, but I’m very thankful I had decided to wear one of my best pairs of underwear that evening. And so eventually I did a little jig for the crowd, stripped completely down to my socks and underwear, before the DJ finally took mercy on my soul and cut the music. But I was definitely getting a reaction from the crowd as I scurried to collect my clothes and re-dress. When I went back to where Aaron was waiting for me, he was in hysterics so much that he could barely stand up.
“That. Was. Amazing!” he said with a laugh as he patted me on the back and thrust my drink back into my hand. “Best. Couchsurfer. Ever!”

And quickly it was time for the judging of the strip-off, which was done by the usual method of nightclub democracy – loudest cheer wins. There were cash prizes for the Top 3,  and honestly I would put it down to the fascination of my being Australian, because the crowd went wild for me, and I came first! The other two winners and myself followed the drag queen out to the back room, where the money was divided up and I was handed $150 in cold hard cash. Given the thriftiness of my travel budget, it definitely felt like Christmas had come early. It got even more surreal when, on my way back out to the bar, the manager of the venue approached me and asked point blank if I would be interested in working at Oil Can Harry’s as a bar top dancer on Tuesdays and Thursdays. After the performance I’d just given, I almost laughed right in his face, but instead declined his offer and said that I wouldn’t be around long enough to be able to take him up on the offer. He was visibly disappointed.

I was pretty popular around the bar for the rest of the evening. A few more guys offered to buy me drinks, and one guy even offered me a shot, on the condition that I drank it out of his belly button. As gross as it was, I was definitely living out my “I’ll try anything once” life philosophy that evening, and I had passed up pretty much all dignity when I was writhing around on the dance floor with my pants around my ankles. So what the hell, I did the shot out of belly button and chased it with my double whiskey.

They say Texas is a largely conservative place, and that amongst all that Austin is a little safe haven of artists, musicians, creatives, and other more open-minded, liberal people. The motto of the city, which you can see scrawled across chalkboards outside of bars and restaurants and on t-shirts in souvenir shops, is “Keep Austin Weird”. I’m not sure if ‘drunk and crazy’ constitutes as weird there, but I like to think that I left a pretty good impression on the Warehouse District of Austin, as much as it made a pretty good first impression on me.

Advertisements

Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

IMG_4351

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

***

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

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“Reto, reto, reto!”

After the first few nights out on the town in São Paulo with Fausto and his friends, I guess you could say that I was feeling a little more confident about the way I could handle myself in the city. Despite that, I was still a little thrown when Fausto had asked whether I was going to head out on the Sunday evening, this time by myself.
“Are you gonna head out tonight?” he asked me in the early hours of the evening. “I have to go to work tomorrow so I can’t join you, but there are a few cool places that have things going on tonight.”
“Oh… I… I hadn’t thought about it.” Truth was, I was still a little terrified at the thought of going out on the streets at night by myself. Which, in retrospect, seems pretty ridiculous given the amount of foreign cities whose streets I had drunkenly traversed on this journey so far.
“Well, it’s up to you, but if you do wanna go out I could give you a few recommendations.” After mustering up some courage and confessing I might be interested to check something out, Fausto told me about a club called A Lôca. “It’s a little more grunge, with a slightly younger crowd – definitely your type of place, I think.” I checked it out on the map: it wasn’t too far away from where Fausto lived, though I would still have to get a cab, but it seemed straightforward enough that I would definitely be able to find my way home at the end of the night.
And that’s how I found myself showering and getting dressed up – but not too dressed up, as per Fausto’s recommendation – and hopping into a cab by myself to find my way to this mysterious A Lôca.

***

I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous about going out on my own. I had been practicing a little bit of Portuguese but there’s no way I could speak it on any practical level – with the essential exception of ordering a beer – and I was diving headfirst into the complete unknown, with absolutely no safety net in sight. But hey, no one bothers writing a blog about staying at home, right?

When I first stepped out of the taxi, I thought that I must have been in the wrong place. In the dim street lights it was hard to clearly make anything out, but there wasn’t anything that looked like the entrance to a club… and that’s when I noticed the cave. I’m not even  exaggerating, the entrance to A Lôca was a cave. Granted, I’m not sure if the rock walls were real or artificial, but I immediately understood what Fausto was talking about when he had described the club as underground grunge. The was some dim lighting around the entrance, where my ID was checked and I was handed a piece of cardboard. I studied it for a few seconds before realising that this piece of cardboard was the A Lôca version of the electronic tab cards I had used at Lions and Club Yacht. I folded it in half and tucked it into my front pocket, knowing very well it was just as important as any electronic tag in eventually getting myself out of this place.

A Lôca seemed to take the term ‘underground’ in a very literal sense – the hallways were fashioned into rough, earthy looking tunnels so that it actually felt like I was inside a underground mine or dungeon. It was like a maze, with openings to different rooms appearing out of no where, and twists and turns obstructing your view ahead. I happened across a bar, which I tentatively approached as I pulled out my piece of cardboard again. I must have looked like a foreigner, because immediately someone asked me where I was from. I looked up to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and he explained how the whole card system worked. The card was a checkerboard of different drink values and prices, and rather than electronically recording all your purchases, the bartenders simply checked off the equivalent value of whatever drink you ordered, and at the end of the night the cashiers at the exit would tally it up and charge you accordingly. Essentially just a more archaic version of the same system, although I was highly concerned at how much easier it could be to lose a simple slip of paper.

I got myself a beer – Skol being the local favourite in this bar – and continued through the maze. I followed the largest tunnel until I arrived at what was undoubtedly the main dance floor. I’d arrived relatively early, around midnight, so the dance floor was only slowly starting to fill up. The music was a diverse mix of pop hits, 90s classics and deep house, with a traditional Brazilian song here and there, but it made for an interesting sound. I just made my way to the floor and started dancing on my own, and I was approached by a handful of people and had short, fleeting conversations with many of them. I had some guys telling me to stay away from certain guys, which at first I thought seemed quite threatening, but the evil eye looks they were giving each other made it clear that there were just social circles at play, or potentially scorned ex-lovers – I guess gay drama knows no language barriers or culture shocks. I did my best to steer clear from anything like that, and just enjoy the music and the more light-hearted people within the crowd. I think I ended up dancing with some American tourists for a little while, who didn’t say much but were more than happy to bust a few moves with me.

There were also a couple of drag performances that evening. The first one was… well, she was entertaining, I suppose. But not so much in a “Wow, what a show!” kind of way, but more in the ‘car crash in slow motion and so horrible to watch but I can’t look away’ kind of way. She was more like a court jester – something silly to warm the crowds up before the main event. I mean, it was really just her twerking in a bunch of various positions, and getting offended and slapping one of the boys whenever they tried to jump up on stage and cheekily join in, often accompanied with lewd gestures.

The warm-up act...

The warm-up act…

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

The main event, however, was something else entirely. It was a full-blown drag performance with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme set to Lady Gaga’s Applause, which had only been recently released at the time. As a big fan of the drag performers and shows in my own city, it was pretty satisfying to see another quality performance from another city around the world.

The better drag queen of the evening.

The better drag queen of the evening.

***

When I’d started to get a little tired of dancing, I made my way back through the twists and turns of the cavernous club to where the bar was located. I had another beer and then took my place against a wall, watching the people come and go, observing the different types of characters and just generally people watching. Occasionally there would be a little bit of eye contact, but usually nothing more than a fleeting glance. However, that all changed when I met Rodrigo. He was slightly shorter than me and had gorgeous tanned skin, and I noticed him stealing glance after glance at me between his conversation with his two female companions. It was obvious I was there by myself, and in no time at all the trio approached me and asked me where I was from. I guess it was also really obvious that I wasn’t a local, but in this case it had made it pretty easy for them to approach me and strike up a conversation, so I wasn’t complaining. Rodrigo introduced himself and his friends, Rita and Ducky.
“Why Ducky?” I’d asked, legitimately perplexed. I’d had to direct the question to the others because Ducky didn’t speak English.
“Because,” Rodrigo and Rita tried to explain between fits of giggles, “Well, don’t you think she looks a little… like a duck?” I didn’t know if there was something I wasn’t getting, but I just laughed along as they playfully teased their friend. She didn’t seem to find it quite as funny, but in the end I discovered she was the designated driver, so no one is ever really that impressed to be in that position.

My new amigos.

My new amigos.

I spoke to them for a while, and after a few more beers and a few more flashes of Rodrigo’s cheeky smile, the two of us were all over each other. I don’t know for exactly how long that lasted, but eventually Ducky was rambling about something in Portuguese, and Rita translated. “We’re going to go salsa dancing!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Yeah, do you want to come with us?” Rodrigo asked.
“Yes! Come, come!” Rita said with a smile. Between the kisses with Rodrigo I had been laughing and joking around with the three of them, and I was having far too much fun to just throw in the towel now. “Ducky is driving, but don’t worry she hasn’t been drinking.”
So I agreed, and after fishing our pieces of cardboard out of our pockets and paying for the beers, Rodrigo grabbed my hand and led me to where Ducky’s car was parked.

The two girls were in the front, and I climbed into the backseat with Rodrigo. More making out ensued, but it wasn’t until we were actually well underway and driving that I came up for air and actually paid attention to where we were, or more importantly…
“Wait… where are we going?” I said, the gravity of the situation mostly masked in my mind by the alcohol, adrenaline, and probably a few hormones.
“Salsa dancing!” Rita yelled, throwing her hands up in the air. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” From the looks of it we were on some kind of overpass or highway, so at that stage I didn’t really have much of a choice but to stay with them.
Ducky asked something in Portuguese, and the others began replying. Rita was being a little more helpful, but Rodrigo was just yelling out the word ‘reto’ (pronounced “heto” for native English speakers) over and over again. “Reto! Reto! Reto!”
“What’s she saying?” I asked Rodrigo, once he’d stopped shouting.
“She’s just asking which way to go,” he said with a cheeky smile.
“Oh… well, what’s ‘reto’?”
“It means forward. Straight head. Keep going.”
“Oh… I see.” I don’t know what came over me – well, beer and a sense of bravado, obviously – but at that moment I stood up in the back of the car, stuck my head and torso out through the open sunroof, and screamed at the top of my lungs: “RETO! RETO RETO!”

Down inside the car, everybody fell about laughing, and the directions-turned-war cry became our temporary anthem, screaming the word over and over even as Ducky made the necessary turns to get to wherever it was we were going. Eventually we arrived at a bar – I have to admit, when I took a moment to take in my surrounds, it looked like we were just off a highway in the middle of no where – but unfortunately it looked like whatever salsa dancing that had been going on was starting to wrap up. It looked like the night was coming to an end. We all stopped to pee in the service station next door – me praying that my newfound friends actually were my friends, and weren’t going to drive off and leave me stranded. But they didn’t and suddenly, as I climbed back into the car, I was faced with the questions of: ‘What am I going to do now?’ and ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’

I tried to explain to Rodrigo where I lived, but instead he offered for me to come and crash with him and Ducky and Rita at Ducky’s place. “Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?”
“Well…” I was on holidays, after all. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Perfect,” he said with a gorgeous, playful smile. “Me neither.”
And that’s how I ended up with these three crazy, gorgeous Brazilians, singing and shouting all the way home – “Reto! Reto! Reto!” – and taking selfies in the elevator of a rather nice apartment complex. After getting some water into us and raiding Ducky’s fridge for snacks, the girls retired to Ducky’s room and Rodrigo and I attempted to sleep on the couch. There wasn’t really enough room for the two of us though, so Rodrigo suggested that we should sleep in the other bedroom.
“There’s another bedroom?” I said with a laugh. “Well, um… duh. Let’s go there, then.”

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

Things got a little weird when we opened the door to a full-blown child’s bedroom, complete with city map carpet for playing with toy cars and Disney’s Cars bedspread with matching curtains.
“Umm… ” I stared at Rodrigo, literally having no words to express my current feelings.
“This is her son’s room,” he said, stating the obvious but seemingly oblivious to how shocked I was.
“So… where is the kid?”
“With his father, of course!” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t have the energy to ask any more questions about the complexity of that situation, but I will say that sleeping in the same bed with a guy that you just met, in the bed of child that you’ve never met, leads to a mild crisis of ethics and morality the morning. It felt pretty wrong, but hey, what he never knows will never hurt him.

***

In the morning, both Ducky and Rita had to get up early to go to work, so when they did Rodrigo and I made the shortest walk of shame in history, from one bedroom to another. We spent the rest of the morning there, sleeping in and hanging out. Eventually I heard someone walking about the apartment outside the bedroom.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the maid,” Rodrigo said. This wasn’t uncommon in Brazil – Fausto also had a cleaning lady – but it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the continually mounting pile of weird upon which I was sitting. But there was nothing I could do except roll with it, and trust that Rodrigo would somehow manage to eventually get me home.

My phone had died during the night, but luckily Ducky had a charger at her house. When the screen finally flashed to life, I had a message from Fausto asking where I was.
“Hmm… that’s a good question… Rodrigo, um… were exactly are we?”
“Well… we’re not in São Paulo anymore,” he said.
I looked at him, an incredulous on my face. “Excuse me, what?”
“We’re not in São Paulo anymore. We’re in São Caetano do Sul.”
“And where the hell is that?!”
Rodrigo just smiled and laughed. “Well technically it’s the next city over from São Paulo.”
I relayed this answer to Fausto, he told me he had no idea where that was and he would ask one of his co-workers. Um, what?! I felt like I’d gone clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney and somehow managed to end my night in Parramatta, or gone partying in Manhattan and woken up in New Jersey. Except people still know where New Jersey is!
It turned out that São Caetano do Sul was still technically part of the metropolitan São Paulo region, in the same way that the international airport was, meaning that it wasn’t really far but… it definitely wasn’t close.
“How can I get home? Do you have a car?”
“No… Rita works in São Paulo, but… well, she’s already at work.” He grinned sheepishly, and I realised that short of pointing me in the right direction, Rodrigo was not going to be able to take me home.

It was a bit of a sticky situation, but I didn’t have anywhere to be so I didn’t let it stress me out too much. Assuring Fausto I’d be home as soon as I could, Rodrigo and I ventured out of the bedroom to find Ducky’s maid cooking lunch for us. I was about to politely decline and start my journey home, but as it turned out the maid had including my clothes in a load of laundry she was doing, so I was forced to stay and eat while waiting for my clothes to dry. The whole thing seemed a little surreal to be honest, but the food was delicious and it was actually nice to put on some clean clothes – that were actually own, too! – for the journey home to São Paulo. There was no reasonable or logical public transport options that were going to take me to where I needed to go, so once again it was up to the Brazilians best friend – a taxi – to get me home. Rodrigo helped me order one that could take me that distance, and helped explain to the driver where I needed to go when the taxi finally arrived. He flashed me one last cheeky smile as he bid me farewell, and with our parting words I promised to match the hospitality I had received should he, Rita or Ducky ever find themselves in Sydney. The taxi wasn’t even that expensive – though it took almost an hour to get home, it cost about a third of the price that a similar trip in Sydney would have cost.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

I didn’t get a chance to see Rodrigo again during my time in Brazil, but in the taxi ride home from São Caetano do Sul I did see a variety of different environments and neighbourhoods, all of which made for quite an interesting trip. And though I’m yet to meet them again, I would never have guessed that the night that I chose to venture out in São Paulo by myself would be the night that I found the most amazing friends, had the most wild and crazy fun, and created some of the best memories.

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.

Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Dead and Unburied: Museums in London

After a couple of nights and days spent with locals, and keeping the touristic activities to a minimum, I thought it best to start seeing at least some of the real touristic attractions London had to offer. I was going to be around for a couple of weeks, so I definitely had the time, and London really did have a lot to offer in the way of sights and attractions. It had been a while since I had been to any museums – I’d almost been avoiding them ever since my visit to the Vatican – but from what I had gathered there were definitely a few in London that were definitely worth taking a look. Many of them were also free, which was almost always a big deciding factor as to whether I would bother visiting something that I was only half sure I might really enjoy. But growing up I had always been a massive dinosaur nerd, so there was no way that I could pass up the opportunity to see the Natural History Museum and its collection of fossilised skeletons. What I had failed to anticipate, however, was that such attractions are also really popular among children, and what I had failed to learn before I arrived at the museum was that it was currently school holidays. Yes, the line to get into the museum that morning was probably twice as long as the diplodocus skeleton that I knew was waiting for me inside the main hall of the Natural History Museum, just out of sight. It snaked around the various courtyards and around the edge of the outside park like a fat snake that had eaten a bunch of screaming, squirming and misbehaving children. And there I was, stuck in the middle of it.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Thankfully I had my book to keep me entertained, because the wait was easily over an hour, possibly getting very close to two. I stopped looking at my watch after a while because it was simply too frustrating. Even my training as a sociologist and my love for participant observation and people watching failed to ease the painful wait – there’s only so many dumb things children say or do, or family arguments you can eavesdrop in before it all just becomes a monotonous blur. Several times I considered bailing and coming back when the line was shorter, but then I had no idea if the line would ever be shorter, and I’d come this far already that I was determined to hang in there. It felt like a bit of a surreal dream when I finally reached the front of the line, but when I did there was a quick security search before I was ushered in through the front doors and into the main hall of the museum.

Where I was greeted by another line. I nearly screamed, until I realised it was just a line to get into one of the attraction rooms. Of course, it was the main dinosaur room, but I decided I would come back to tackle that one later – I’d had quite enough of lining up for the time being. So I wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at exhibits and learning about all sorts of natural phenomena. I surprised myself with realising how much I actually already knew about a lot of stuff… then was probably less surprised when I remember that a lot of the stuff in the museum was aimed for children. There were halls and halls of taxidermy animals – or authentic looking replicas, I’m not 100% sure – which were also interesting to look through, as well as a bunch of fossilised of creatures which I guess weren’t cool enough, or born in the wrong era or whatever, to be included into the real dinosaur exhibit. Though considering there was no line to see these ones, I wasn’t complaining.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

The museum has extensive collections of birds, reptiles and insects, as well as scores of invertebrates, but it was the rooms dedicated to the mammals that definitely had the most to offer. They had models of species great and small from all over the continents of the world, as well as the worlds oceans. Suspended from the ceiling was basically every type of whale or marine mammal under the sun, hanging motionless in the cavernous walls of the museum.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

Narwhale!

Narwhale!

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

But after I’d exhausted just about every other possibility, it was time to head to the dinosaurs. The line to get into the exhibit room was shorter than it had been earlier in the morning, but there was still a line. The room itself was littered with information and interactive activities and games, which I took way too much pride in beating all the little children at, but there was still a long line that passed over the whole exhibit on a suspended bridge. It seems you couldn’t get down to the rest of the exhibit until you’d lined up to see a special surprise of some sort. The line was long but it shuffled along at a moderate pace. As I waited, I passed by a vast collection of fossilised skeletons, and I stopped to take photos of my favourite ones and the best ones, reliving my nerdy childhood and my love for Jurassic Park.

Stegosaurus.

Stegosaurus.

Triceratops.

Triceratops.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

Finally I was at the front of the line, and I got to see what we had all been waiting for. Around the corner in a dimly lit room, we discovered a tyrannosaurus rex. Not a fossilised, inanimate skeleton, but a fully fleshed and very active dinosaur. Well, it wasn’t flesh, but it was a very lifelike robotic model, sniffing and stomping and moving about, opening its jaws to let out screams. It was pretty cool, but I found myself thinking that overall it was rather gimmicky. As I child I probably would have loved it, and I suppose it is there to either frighten or impress the younger children, but I realised that I’d been more interested in looking at the actual fossilised bones of real dinosaurs. It was also at that point that I realised I had never stopped being a dinosaur nerd.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, life-like replica that we waited for so long to see.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, lifelike replica that we waited for so long to see.

After that I was beginning to feel a little bit of museum fatigue, so I headed outside to leave. To my horror, there was absolutely no line and there were people walking in and out freely. I made a point to remember that for my next museum visit, mornings probably weren’t the best time to visit, and from the Natural History Museum I strolled through the overcast streets of London all the way to Hyde Park, where I wandered through the paths and over to the nearby Wellington Arch for a photograph.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

***

Following the idea that mornings weren’t the best time to visit museums if you wanted to avoid lines, I decided to make my way to the British Museum, another free museum that had a range of artefacts from all over the world, most notably the Rosetta Stone. I wandered throughout the museum, twisting and turning through the confusing maze of a floor plan, with no real direction or intense burning desire to see anything. It was an overcast afternoon that was threatening to rain, so it was really the perfect time to be inside in a museum. However, I suppose the reason that a lot of people choose to visit museums in the morning is that by the afternoon, many of us lack the concentration or patience to wander around looking at ancient relics for too long a period of time. I’m not exempt from this, and I probably spent a significantly shorter amount of time in the British Museum (although morning or afternoon – rain, hail or shine – I’m never one for spending hours upon hours at these kinds of places anyway). Still, I did enjoy my time there looking at the relics, from the beautiful to the interesting to the rather macabre.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Sea shell tea set.

Sea shell tea set.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

The British Museum was the final stop of my day of museums. There’s only so much of that stuff I can take in a day, and considering all these places also involved a significant amount of travel between each one, I’d grown rather exhausted. I’d known that there was a lot to see and do in London, but it turns out that that was jut because London happened to be such a big place. I often misjudged what I thought to be walking distances and found myself on significantly hefty treks across the city. I’d get the hang of it eventually, but for now for the museums I was over and out.