I thought that the adventure in this trip was all over, Red Rover, and that on this final day of my year overseas, the time for surprises was long behind. Well, I thought wrong. Although I was originally meant to fly my final leg home (Bangkok to Sydney) with Qantas — as I have a Qantas / BA round-the-world ticket — I ended up conceding to a ticket with the budget carrier Jetstar. This was because, when I finalised my ticket bookings back in October, they were already sold out of seats on Qantas flights. Anyway, when I rocked up at Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Int'l Airport last night, the check-in staff informed me that I was flying via Melbourne. WTF?!
I have no complaints about my time here at the Cat's hostel in Madrid. It's been a great experience: that is, except for one very unpleasant incident this evening. It was New Year's Eve, and we were all down in the Cat's bar, having a few beverages as you do (but not that many). An American girl sitting upstairs asked me to heat up a donut that she'd bought: she said that we weren't supposed to go behind the bar and use the microwave; but I was in a jolly festive mood, so I said: "here, give me the donut, and I'll heat it up behind the bar — it's not like anyone's going to care." Boy, was I wrong — clearly, the hostel staff had no interest whatsoever in joining in on the New Year's spirit. In almost a year of travelling, I've managed to never once pi$$ off a hostel's management: and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that heating up a donut without permission would get me in more hostel-bound trouble than almost anything else on this trip.
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.
For my first day here in Berlin, my mate John and I embarked upon an epic exploratory tour of the city. We began in the city's east, and gradually worked our way west, towards the old wall. Berlin is a fascinating city to walk around in — especially if you're aware of the troubled history behind its sparkling new façades.
This morning I explored the streets of Amsterdam, by going for a very long walk. 'Twas a bit chilly, but the sun was shining and the atmosphere was pleasant. Amsterdam's a great city to walk around: great to cycle around as well, but I'll have to do that another time. I spent several hours admiring the lazy canals that ring around the city centre, the quintessential squashed-in terrace houses, and the plethora of bicycles that are both chained-up in, and being ridden on, every street in town. It's quite a sleepy place of a weekday morning: unlike what you'd expect from a northern European city, many of the shops in Amsterdam don't open until 11am or midday; and many people are clearly still recovering from a big night out.
Seeing that the weekend was over, and that Mark and Susi were back to work as usual, today it was up to me to keep myself occupied in Zürich. I didn't particularly have any sights left to see in the city: however, since my new ATM card is being sent here by courier (after I lost it), and since it hasn't yet arrived, I basically have to stay here and wait for it. So today, I decided to explore the city on my own a little bit. Sadly, my effort to go and visit both the Science Museum and the Kunsthaus (art gallery) were thwarted (not open on Monday — apparently, this is common for museums in Europe); however, I did find a nice coffee shop in the technical university, with nice cheap hot choc (and a heated interior, away from the bitter Zürich cold) inside. Plus, I saw a bit more of the city than I'd bargained on encountering.
On the train to Zürich today, it wasn't until I was less than an hour from my destination (and hence well inside the German part of Switzerland), that I noticed that the overwhelming majority of my fellow passengers were speaking in German. And it was only then that a scary realisation dawned on me, and hit me rather unexpectedly: this is my first time in the German-speaking world! And guess what: my German absolutely sucks! The last time I studied German, it was nearly 10 years ago, and I was too busy throwing paper aeroplanes around the room to have paid attention to the teacher. So apart from counting to 100 and saying a few basic words, I basically can't speak a word of the language. This is the first time on this trip (and in my life), that I've been in a country where I can't even begin to guess what people are saying around me, in the official language of their land. And it's really quite scary. Ach shizer!
When I started this Great Sicilian Ride of mine, I wasn't expecting much of the roads. I know that Europe in general is known for its great roads: but southern Italy is reputed to have much worse infrastructure than other areas further north; and Sicily is a far south as you can go. Well, to my pleasant surprise, the infrastructure has so far easily exceeded my modest expectations: Sicilian roads rock! Even in the remote mountain areas, the roads are smoothly sealed; they're seldom too steep; they're often banked; and they're generally very well signposted. All I can say is: well done, guys; how do you do it, and how can we make Aussie roads this good? And if this is an example of poorer European roads, then what the hell kind of seventh-heaven roads can I find further north?!
Rio de Janeiro. City of surf, sand, and sensuality. The sun always shines in Rio, right? Right?! This evening, when my bus pulled into the city of Rio, I arrived to find that it was pouring with rain. What's going on — how can there be bad weather in Rio?! The world's gone mad, I say. Anyway, everyone's saying it'll clear up soon — and it better. "When my baby, when my baby spits on me it rains in Rio, de Janeiro, and the thunder bellows..." :P.
After almost 7 months of travelling in Latin America, my Spanish has gotten pretty good. It's been a long time since I stepped off the plane in Mexico City (seems like a lifetime ago!), and I found myself all alone in a foreign country, and unable to speak or to understand a word of what anyone said. Ever since, I've been getting more and more comfortable with Spanish, and the language barrier has become so small as to be easily stepped over. But today, for my first day in Brazil, I received a rude shock: I'm back to square one! "Eu não falo o português" (lit: "I don't speak Portuguese"), and it's a problem. Despite what people have told me, Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish (although reading it is easy enough), and talking to Brazilians in Spanish has very limited results.