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".
The New Year has well and truly arrived, and it's now time to say goodbye to Madrid. Today I took a big but worthwhile splurge, and travelled on the special high-speed Alvia train service from Madrid to Barcelona. The trains are extremely popular, here in Spain: I purchased my Alvia ticket three days ago (as soon as I arrived in Madrid); and even then, they were already sold out of economy-class tickets, and I had to settle for business-class instead. Additionally, I've now used up my Eurail pass — and it didn't cover Spain anyway — so I had to pay for the ticket outright, and at full cost. But still, I enjoyed a fast, pleasant, and bloody luxurious ride today.
After six weeks of backpacking around Europe, this afternoon I arrived in the lovely Swiss city of Zürich (on the Cisalpino express train), to have a small "holiday from the holiday", and to spend some time with my family here. I got a lovely warm welcome: I stepped off the train, and there was my uncle Mark, standing right there on the platform, and wearing an unmissable Akubra hat so I could spot him! Mark drove me over to his plush dental practice, where he showed me around the establishment; then we were joined by Susi, and the three of us returned to their apartment, for a delicious home-cooked welcome dinner, and a long (and long-overdue) catch-up chat. Looks like I'm going to get very spoilt here, and that I'm going to have a fun and relaxing time in Zürich as well.
Seeing that I've done a record three nights straight of rough camping — and that I'm in a big city with plenty of eating and accommodation options — the time has come for a night of splurging. After a thorough exploration of the Valle dei Templi this afternoon, I rode into the city of Agrigento, and found myself a nice budget hotel in which to spend the night. I was looking for a B&B — it seems that around here, hotels and B&Bs are virtually the same price-wise, and have the same offerings, except that one includes a meal and one doesn't — but the hotel was the best I could find. Also, Agrigento is a nice enough place, but it seems that the ruins in the valley are the main attraction — the city itself is nothing special, and doesn't warrant more than a night's stay.
Once I reached central Palermo this morning, my main task was to find somewhere reasonably cheap — and reasonably comfortable — to clean myself up after roughing it in the highlands, and to relax for the night. I ended up riding pseudo-randomly around the historic tourist centre, and looking for what I hoped would be such a place. And boy, did I score a lucky find! I stumbled across a B&B, where they were asking a price way above what I was prepared to pay, and way above the price of my other accommodation so far in Sicily. That was to be expected, I guess: Palermo's a big city, and things are bound to cost more in a big city. However, when I pressed them for a cheaper option, they offered me a spare apartment around the corner for the night — not sure what the deal was with this place, if it belonged to a friend who was away for the weekend, or if it was a vacant holiday apartment, or whatever. But I didn't care: not only did they give me this gorgeous apartment for the night; they gave it to me for a very reasonable price, and they threw in breakfast at the B&B to boot! So as far as a night in Palermo went, I didn't do too badly at all.
After a long but pleasant day's riding, this evening I rolled into the lovely coastal town of Sant' Stéfano di Camastra. Call me a lightweight, call me what you will: but there seemed to be no camping options whatsoever around here, and (after roughing it last night) a B&B simply looked too tempting to resist — so I splurged out, and stayed in a B&B in town. And I can't say I regretted it at all: the cost was hardly much more than that of a hostel in Rome (after all, this is rural Sicily, and this is seriously off-season); and the hot shower, comfy bed, and delicious breakfast certainly did me good. What's more, the owner was very nice (although communication was a struggle — ye 'ol language barrier again), and her daughter was quite good-looking.
I haven't bought any novels for a long time: so far on my trip, I've been subsisting on whatever paperbacks I can scrounge up at hostel book exchanges. This is all well and good, but the quality at those exchanges is generally somewhat lacking. I walked past a second-hand fair in Bristol this afternoon, and I couldn't resist buying a few quality novels. Grabbed myself "The Big Mango", by Norman Kelley; and "Blast from the Past", by Ben Elton. Seeing as I won't be in England again for a while, I managed to justify this little luxury to myself.
Seeing that my last big bus ride here in Argentina was so nice, I decided that I couldn't help myself: for last night's ride from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazú, I went super-cama with Via Bariloche once again. I tell you, they really know how to live here in Argentina: these buses are absolute, first-class luxury! As with the last trip, last night was about as pleasant as 16 hours on a bus could possibly be: more hot roast dinner; more medialunas for breakfast; and more wine and champagne to boot. And all on those excellent, well-paved Argentinean roads. It's almost unbelievable that Argentina and Bolivia are right next to each other, because the standard of transport in these two countries is about as different as you can get.
If you're going to travel by bus in Argentina, and you're going to travel long distances (and in Argentina, all distances are long distances), then do it in style. Last night, I took the super-cama (lit: "super-bed") express bus, with Via Bariloche, from Bariloche to Buenos Aires. And by G-d, it was by far the nicest and most luxurious bus ride I've ever had in my life. A seat that reclines back 180°, and that totally pwns most hostel beds. Movies on flat-screen suspended plasma-screen TVs. Roast beef and custard for dinner. Red wine and champagne served in-trip. Hot medialunas (croissants, lit: "half-moons") for breakfast. Pillows, blankets, you name it. This bus trip may have been a bit pricey, but it was still nothing compared to a (very small and crappy economy-class) plane ticket. Furthermore, a trip like this is more than just a means of transportation — it's an attraction of Argentina in and of itself.
The trip from Lima to Ayacucho — 9 hours overnight — was my first-ever luxury long-distance bus journey. Much nicer than the comfortable, but not lavish, 1st class buses in Mexico. I went with Cruz Del Sur, one of Peru's top bus companies. Seats that reach back all the way. Large, padded footrests. Tea / coffee and sandwiches served in-trip. And a few movies along the way. Not quite up there with what I've heard about the super-luxurious coaches in Argentina, but impressive nonetheless.