After a difficult and lonely afternoon of separation — hell, it must have been almost 5 hours — this evening, we the Open Water crew had a grand and long-awaited reunion. It's been a while, but it was good to see everyone again :P. To celebrate, we drank the legendary farang beverage of southern Thailand: the bucket. Buckets come in two sizes: huge, and f$#%ing huge. Their contents generally consist of whisky, Red Bull and Coke; but they also come in numerous other, more exotic varieties (and, should you drink them on Ko Pha-Ngan of a full moon, less legal varieties :P). Tonight was my first bucket-drinking experience: and please G-d, may it be my biggest. Because if it gets any worse than it got tonight, then I'll be dead.
Thailand is infamous for being a steaming hotspot of all things sex-related. Sex abuse, sex entertainment, sex tourism — you name it, sexy, and they've got it. One of the particularly less appealing of these things is the popularity of sex changes in Thailand. So common are the transsexuals — who started out as men, and who have consumed masses of artificial hormones (and some of whom have also undergone surgery) to become women, and who end up something in between — that here in Thailand, they have a special name. They're called "ladyboys". And they're bad news. Most of them are fairly obvious to look at: i.e. their sexual appearance is totally... well, f$#%ed. But quite a few of them have taken it so far, that you can't tell them apart from real women.
Americans don't have Boxing Day: WTF? According to our American friend Margaret, there's nothing at all special about the 26th of December, if you're residing in the USA. It's simply "the day after Christmas". I always assumed that it was more-or-less a worldwide thing, celebrated by most Christian countries. Or by most protestant countries; or at least by most English-speaking countries. But no: apparently, Boxing Day is only recognised and celebrated in England, and in a few countries in the British Commonwealth — Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, to be precise. Just goes to show: you learn something every day. Especially when you travel.
Along with his Bulgarian wife, Dave is the crazy owner and manager of Snowbunnys. He's been living in Kitzbühel and running the place for several years now. Dave has possibly the driest and the most sardonic sense of humour I've ever encountered: so much so, that even calling it a "sense of humour" at all is quite a sketchy issue. Dave's managed to get on the wrong side of virtually everyone else in town; and it usually doesn't take him too long to do the same with his guests, either. Nevertheless, there are those who claim that "you just have to get to know him" — I didn't achieve this during my week at his hostel; and I'm guessing that even had I stayed a year, I'd still be struggling to work him out.
Last night was a big night — but it wasn't until this morning that I realised just how big. As far as I can remember, all that happened was that Stef and I returned home at around 3am, that I crashed straight into bed (I remember tucking in), and that the adventures ended then and there. My memory is that I slept solidly for the rest of the night, and that I woke up at around 11am, groggy yet otherwise fine. But apparently, there was an additional epilogue to the annals of the night, and one of which I have no memory whatsoever. It seems that for the second time on this trip (and in my life), alcohol has left a gaping gap in my memory. I experienced a Belgian beer blackout.
Europe is famous for being a small place with an awful lot of languages. Going through three or more language regions in one day is perfectly possible: and in the past few weeks, by hopping around on the trains, I've done just that. It was pretty intense in Switzerland, what with its German dominance, its smaller pockets of French and Italian, and its general nation-wide efforts at English. It was a little less full-on in Germany, where German is spoken by everyone around the country, and where almost everyone can also speak reasonable English. But upon arriving here in Belgium, it dawned on me just what a ridiculously over-linguified continent this is. And I'd say that as Europe goes, Belgium is about the most extreme example of language craziness to be found: the nation split virtually in half with the Flemish (i.e. Dutch) and French divide; smaller pockets of German in the east; and the whole place also being highly fluent in English. What with the plethora of languages to be learned, it's amazing they have time to do anything else at all around here.
Deep in the mountains of south-eastern Sicily, there is a place of ancient and foreboding mystery. The place is called Pantálica: a giant necropolis consisting of thousands of tombs, in the form of body-sized holes cut into the sides of sheer cliffs and precipitous rocky overhangs; and constructed around 2,500 years ago by a civilisation that we know almost nothing about, and that has long since vanished from the face of the Earth. Pantálica would have to be one of the most bizarre, the most isolated, and the most disturbing places that I've visited on my world trip so far. Most fittingly, the necropolis can only be reached by one long and winding road, that stretches tenuously to the site and back again — the only way in, and also the only way out. This afternoon, I headed east from the village of Ferla, and boldly embarked upon this road. It was a strange and lonely journey: but I lived to tell the tale.
While I was in the quirky village of Erice today, I stopped in one of the mountaintop cafes there, for a quick slurp of some much-needed hot liquid. The place I entered was serving something called "spicy coffee": a shot of espresso, infused with what I think was a bit of chili. Very bizarre drink — but it actually didn't taste too bad. I never expected to find coffee beans and chili peppers floating round inside a cup hand-in-hand; but then again, in Mexico they live on strong chili and strong coffee, so why not combine the two simultaneously?
This afternoon I continued riding south, from Caccamo, into the hilly region that is the traditional Mafia heartland of Sicily. One town in particular — a place called Roccapalumba — gave me very bad vibes when I rode through it. Normally, the locals here in Sicily are quite friendly: but not around here. Everyone in Roccapalumba was giving me harsh, unfriendly, suspicious stares as I whizzed through their town; made me feel very creepy indeed. Lots of funny old men with dirty faces and beady eyes; young dudes on motorbikes with big tattoos on their shoulders; and signs for strange nearby attractions, such as "planetarium observatory". Glad I'm not spending the night here; I only wish it weren't so late in the day, as I'm inevitably not going to make it too far for my evening's rough camping.
We've been seeing a lot of signs around Newton Center lately, telling us to "vote for Geoff Epstein". Well, this afternoon we finally met the mysterious Geoff himself. In a ridiculous turn of coincidence, Geoff Epstein is an Aussie ex-pat, who's been married and living here in Boston for over 30 years. The signs are up all over town, because he's running in the elections for something to do with the local council. Geoff seems like a friendly guy, although we're not sure whether or not we're related to him.