By the way, did you know that unlike in East Asia, chopsticks are generally not used in Thailand, or in the rest of South-East Asia? Until I arrived here, I wasn't aware of this; but after having now spent a month in Thailand, and having barely used a pair of chopsticks, I'm pretty clear about it. Apparently, chopsticks are the traditional eating utensil only in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. In Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Nepal, chopsticks are used in a limited context, and even that is merely as a result of Chinese influence. In Thailand, a spoon and fork is the preferred utensil set when eating all kinds of foods; except in the case of noodles, when chopsticks may be used. So if you're chopstick-challenged (which, incidentally, I'm not), then don't worry: it's not a required skill when visiting Thailand.
During my far-and-wide travels the past year, I've been (like my ancestors long before me) "a stranger in a strange land", and I've been dwelling amongst all manner of strange and foreign people (many of whom were also far from home). It's no secret that I'm an Aussie; and naturally, "where you from?" is one of the first questions that gets asked and answered, when meeting new people while on the road. But until this trip, I never before realised just how strong and widely-known the stereotypical Aussie image is, or how much of a preconceived view this could implant in people, before they've even spoken two words to me. I've never really considered myself to be anything remotely close to the "quintessential Aussie bloke"; and having now been an ambassador of my country in the big wide world, I feel that I've done a dismal job of representing patriotically. Unfortunately, I've discovered a sad but undeniable truth about introductions: it's not who you are, it's what you are.
As anybody who's visited this country should be acutely aware of, Thailand is still a kingdom. A constitutional monarchy, to be precise: much like Great Britain's setup, where the king (or queen) is still technically the head of state, but where said king / queen actually retains very little power. In Thailand, however — unlike in most other surviving 12st-century monarchies — it's virtually impossible to not notice the fact that they have a king. They absolutely ADORE him! The king's photo is on every street corner, framed in gold and lit-up like a superstar. Speaking ill against the king is highly inadvisable: not only is it illegal; it also has about a 99% chance of pi$$ing off any local that you may encounter. All hail the king: he's pretty hot stuff around here.
Farang is Thai for "foreigner". And here in Thailand, all foreigners — no matter how vile or undeserving their behaviour may be — all of us are very welcome indeed. Having just arrived here this evening, I once again find myself a rich, Western foreigner travelling in the developing world. After Europe, that will take some getting used to. Whereas I was previously the "s$#% of kings", I'm suddenly now the "king of s$#%" again: and with this new situation comes the advantages of constant pampering, of being surrounded by all things cheap, and of a heady wonderland where anything and everything is possible, based on nothing more than a fat wallet and an on-the-spot whim. Gringo... farang... same diff, new lingo. It's unfair, it's exploitative, and it's artificial. But hey, it's nice to be special again — nice to be back "in the club".
Lovely, sunny England is where I began my sojourns in Europe; and so too is it where I'm concluding them. Sunny — yeah, right; as usual, it's cold and wet and miserable here! I'm not exactly ecstatic about being back in England: especially after Spain, with its pleasant weather, its exotic vibe, and its upbeat spirit. But sadly, I booked London as the departure point for my flight out of Europe (many moons ago); and so it's to London that I had to return. In retrospect, I should have tried to fly out from somewhere else — anywhere else — on the continent.
This evening, down in the basement bar of Cat's, I ended up sitting down and sharing a few beers with two Moroccan guys, who are immigrants living and working here in Madrid. I've observed (and even met) recent immigrants almost everywhere I've been in Europe: in particular, I've encountered numerous economically impoverished immigrants from North Africa, from the Middle East, and from Eastern Europe. Many, although not all of them, are here illegally. Tonight was the first time I've really sat down with some of the immigrants themselves, and had an in-depth chat about their situation. Few people around here are prepared to admit it, or to objectively discuss it: but this is an enormous issue for Europe, and in my opinion it's one that they're dealing with in an appalling manner at the moment.
Today is the first day of my life that I've ever been in Spain. But it sure doesn't feel that way. After 7 months in Latin America this year, the streets of Madrid seem refreshingly, wonderfully familiar to me. It's very similar to what I felt when I first reached England: England is in many ways so similar to Australia — my home — that it was hard to believe I'd never been there before. Likewise, Spain is in many ways so similar to South America — my second home — that arriving here was more of a nostalgic than a culture-shock sensation. Dios mio — ¡es muy bueno estar aquí!
There's one little eccentricity that I've not been able to help but notice, everywhere I've been so far in Germany. In Berlin and elsewhere, German people seem to have a uniquely large amount of patience and respect when crossing the road. The pedestrian traffic lights here in Germany enjoy taking their time: after the vehicle lights have completed their (also-slow) transition from yellow to red, the pedestrian lights take a further 4 or 5 seconds to register green. What with all this traffic-light sluggishness, you'd think that the poor pedestrians would tire of waiting for — well, for nothing — and would simply walk. But no: not Germans. Every single time, without exception, they wait the several seconds for the vehicle lights to turn red; and then they keep waiting another several seconds for the pedestrian lights to turn green; and only then do they cross the road. In Deutschland, ve vait until it is time to cross — ve must not break ze rules, ja!
At one of the villages that we stopped in, during this morning's hike through the Cañon del Colca, we found the famous "museum of local life", which is run by a charming and extravagently-dressed Quechuan lady called Victoria. Most people in the village only speak Quechua, but Victoria also speaks Spanish, in order to communicate with her gringo visitors. She gave us a cute and interesting tour of her little museum, which is just one room in her house, that she's filled with the little artefacts of daily life around here. She's one hell of an entrepeneur.
This morning, we finished our tour of the Salar de Uyuni and of south-west Bolivia. We stepped out of our dusty Land Cruiser 4WD, we transferred into a minibus, and we made our way to the Chilean frontier (having already technically left Bolivia two days ago). Our first of many introductions to the differences between these two countries, upon crossing the border: the first sealed, properly signposted road that we'd seen in a month! Chile really is a very, very different place to Bolivia. It's like stepping into another dimension.