I found a little semi-street-vendor restaurant for lunch today, in downtown Chiang Mai, where they serve a delicious 20B Pad Thai. When I sat down and tucked in, a local kid sat down at the table next to me. He indicated that he was hungry and that he hadn't had lunch, and he asked me for 20B. I sympathised with the poor kid being hungry; but I know the rule: "if someone says they're hungry, don't give 'em money — give 'em food." So instead of giving him the 20B, I gave it to the restaurant lady, and asked her to cook up another Pad Thai for the kid. He didn't seem very happy about this — clearly he wasn't hungry, and he wanted the money for something else — but stuff that, if he wants lunch then a plate of noodles couldn't do him any harm.
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".
One of the people staying at Bob's (apart from José) who wasn't completely stoned, was a friendly backpacker dude from Croatia. A bunch of us were sitting and having a few drinks in the dungeon this evening; and gradually, we all decided to call it a night and to head up to bed. The Croatian guy and myself ended up being the last people left downstairs. I asked him when he was heading upstairs, and he said: "I'm staying here until they close the lounge (which is at 3am) — after that I'll find somewhere else to sleep for the night". After a bit more questioning, it seemed that what he meant was that he was actually completely broke, and that he was waiting to go to the Croatian embassy tomorrow and to beg for money (to get a flight home); and that he couldn't even afford another night here at Bob's.
I had lunch (the usual last-night's pasta leftovers) in a sunny little plaza in the town of Paceco today, just south of the city of Trapani. I had the plaza all to myself — except, that is, for a funny-looking old geyser who was occupying the bench adjacent to mine. He sure looked like a poor homeless bum: he hadn't showered since before John Lennon died; he had a beard that seemed larger and less threatened than the Amazon jungle; and he was accompanied by the obligatory garbage bags full of god-knows-what. But when I offered him an apple, he declined, indicating that he'd already had lunch for the day. Maybe he wasn't a bum after all?
So here I am in New York City, in the beating heart of the USA. And what do I hear in my first hour outside today, walking down the streets of Manhattan? Do I hear "let's go for coffee", "put it in the trunk", or "you want that to go"? Not a chance! Every 5 seconds, it's "qué cabrón es mi primo", "hasta once y media", and "estamos tardes, vamos". What's going on — have I left Latin America, or what?! I could barely put one foot in front of the other, in this city, without hearing people talking Spanish, seeing shop signs in Spanish, and even giving passers-by directions in Spanish! Seriously: "¿donde están los gringos?" (lit: "where are all the gringos?"). Apparently, Spanish is just as useful back here in the USA, as it is down south of the border — in some neighbourhoods, perhaps even more useful than English.
While I was waiting to catch a combi back from the ruins of Sipán this evening, I had a nice long chat with one of the locals, who comes there each day to sell his artesanias (lit: "handicrafts", i.e. souvenir shmontses). My friend explained to me how Sipán is a very remote and impoverished area, and how the discovery of the gold-filled Moche tomb in 1987 did little to change this in the long-term. He described how impossible it is for the locals around here to travel, or to have any real hope of getting out and doing something different with their lives, due to their very modest finances. And he also said something that really made me stop and think: "you tourists that come here are our biggest opportunity, and our only hope".
After more than three months, I've now completed a massive circuit of Andean South America, covering southern Peru, western Bolivia, and northern Chile. As of today, the loop is complete, and I'm back to square one: Lima. This was my first stop in South America, back on Apr 1st; and Chris and I have finally managed to drag ourselves away from the paradise resort of Huacachina, and to get on up here. So far, Lima's looking OK. I think I'm going to have more fun here this time, than I did on my last visit.
Chocco is a small and impoverished town, that lies about 20 mins out of Cusco (by taxi). This afternoon, my friend Wil invited me to come with him and a group of his friends from Hampy, to go to Chocco for an informal tour of the town, of the kids there, and of the volunteer work that's being done there to help them. It ended up being a fun, social, and intriguing afternoon. It also resulted in me (most likely) becoming a part of the volunteer effort that is Hampy, for at least some of the time that I have left here in Cusco.
There are many strange and intriguing stray people wandering around Cusco. But there are even more stray dogs. Here in Cusco, and in many other cities in Peru (and in Mexico), the "perros callejeros" (lit: "street dogs") are everywhere. It's not something that you see in Western cities, where we have dog-tag laws, council patrols, and "the pounds" (i.e. lost dog homes). But in Latin American cities, you can barely walk one block without passing a canine vagabond or two.
This afternoon, Juan Carlos took a gang of us Amigos students on what he calls a "real city tour" of Cusco. The sites on the tour are all various places where the poorer, less advantaged people of Cusco live, work, and study. Definitely not your average city tour. And after completing it, it became inescapably obvious to me that the tourist-infested city centre — the only area I really knew, up until now — is definitely not the real Cusco.