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.
We completed the theory component of our Open Water course this afternoon, with a final class (held by Lucy, another one of the instructors) teaching us about the use of dive tables. When you go diving, your body absorbs a higher-than-usual amount of nitrogen (depending on depth and time); and dive tables are used to calculate how much nitrogen you've absorbed (approximately), and to help you keep within safe nitrogen level limits. Lots of theory about such things as: pressure groups; nitrogen quantity; minimum surface intervals; and total bottom times. Once the class was done, we'd been taught all the required theory for the course, and so we were ready to undertake the final exam.
Bangkok would have to be the absolute least suitable place in the world to go running. Unfortunately, however, that's exactly what I was compelled to do this evening — when I was being led on foot to my next tourist bus, and I suddenly realised that I'd left my small bag on the side of the street near Khao San Road, I had no choice but to sprint back for it. The city's searing heat — and, far more pertinent, its horrendous air pollution — left my lungs feeling somewhere in between a wheezing petrol pump and a burning car tyre. And that was after a mere five minutes.
I've never had any burning desire to jump on a motorbike. I've always thought of motorbike riding as a dangerous, punked-up, reckless activity — not really my cuppa tea. And if I ever was to ride a motorbike, I sure as hell never imagined that I'd do it for the first time here in Thailand — surely, the craziest place on Earth in which to try it without prior experience! But motorbike riding is a very popular pastime in Thailand — not to mention the cheapest and quickest way to get around — and so, due to peer pressure from my friends Marie and Claire, today I threw all my fear and common-sense to the wind, and gave it a try. It was a terrifying and nerve-racking adventure, but there's no denying that it was absolutely wicked good fun.
For the past two days or so, I've been without my beloved and well-worn fleece jumper. Purchased a long time ago — in a continent far away (Cusco, Peru, after my Kathmandu fleece became one of the first victims of this trip) — it may be cheap and falling apart (and grey and ugly), but it's kept me warm through a great many ordeals. The two of us have together endured hardships across the globe, and we now share a very special symbiotic bond (en Anglais: I've grown rather attached to it). After my very big night on Wednesday evening, I thought I'd lost it.
Here's a good little souvenir for all your confused American friends. Around here, they also prefer a good schnitzel to shrimp on the barbie.
When I returned to my old Rome hostel this afternoon — Gulliver's House — I hadn't yet checked in. And it seemed unlikely that I ever would. After my time down in Sicily, I haven't just grown careless about guarding my personal possessions: I've also come to be slack about making advance reservations. I have no booking; and Gulliver's (along with every other decent hostel in Rome) is completely full for the next two nights. Eek! Had I not stayed at the place before — and had I not happened to run into some very nice and sympathetic staff, who are working there at the moment — I doubt that they would have even tried to accommodate me. But I had been there before, and I'd just been robbed, and I was desperate: so they worked something out for me.
From last night's camp at the site of Sabbiadoro, this morning I embarked on the short but pleasant ride north to the city of Syracuse. For part of the way, I took the minor road that stays right on the seashore, and that goes through the scenic area near the resort village of Fontane Bianche; then I cut back to the main SS115 highway, and stopped off at the town of Cassibile. Now, yesterday morning — while passing through the town of Pachino near the southern tip of Sicily — I stocked up on my milk supplies. Sadly, I wasn't able to find any bottles of milk in this small town, so I had to buy a 1L cardboard carton instead. Usually, I only ever buy milk in plastic bottles, with good watertight screw-on lids, so that I can safely shove it in my saddlebag, and use it for several days. However, today I had no bottle — only my cardboard carton, which I'd opened for this morning's breakfast, and of which I'd only used about half of the milk inside. And thus was born the incident with the leaky milk.
Following the debacle of getting back to civilisation, this morning's ride continued to challenge me in more ways than one. From the back roads of the Piazza Armerina farming area, I rode south-east to the town or Mirabella, and from there continued on to the town of Caltagirone. The weather was a devil: windy with an icy bite, and light rain that came down regularly if intermittently. Plus, I was the victim of bad signage both in Mirabella, and upon reaching Caltagirone. The signs in Mirabella weren't too bad — it's only a small town, and the road onwards to Caltagirone is one of only a handful in the area — but in Caltagirone itself, I got seriously lost. So all up, not the most pleasant start to the day. But not all was doom and gloom: I at least made it to Caltagirone in time for a great hot choc and pastry; and I was able to take refuge in the coffee bar there for about ½ an hour, while I waited out a heavy downpour of rain.
By and large, this afternoon's cycling was some of the easiest and the most enjoyable I've done so far in Sicily. From the ruins of Selinunte, I continued east along the coastal highway, passing by lazy seaside farmlands, and with Menfi being the only sizeable town along the way. Then, just as I'd finished passing through the town of Sciacca, something very dramatic and very alarming happened. To my utter surprise, I suddenly found that I'd ridden straight into a patch of wet, liquid cement in the middle of the road, and that my bike wheels (and half my boots) were mired in the stuff. Aaaaagggghhh... YUCK!