I just received the shocking news this afternoon, about what happened to Dave. It happened on the 23rd, but it's taken some time for the news to spread, and finally to reach me. I don't want to say too much about it here, except that Dave was one of my best friends, and that like so many others I will miss him dearly. I wish I could make it to his funeral, which will be on Fri 1 Feb, but at that time I'll still be here in Thailand. I have no doubt, at least, that there will be no shortage of Dave's other numerous friends, family and colleagues in attendance, all to pay their respects. My deepest condolences to Ruth, Leslie and Debbie — Dave's mother, father and sister — as well as to Jo and Rountree, who were closer to Dave and who knew him better than most, and for whom I know the pain will be particularly strong. Sydney, AUJS, high school reunions, skiing, chess, Frisbee, action novels, playing Nintendo, talking loud, and losing count of girlfriends — these things simply won't be the same without you, mate.
Here in Thailand, hostels have never really taken off as the budget accommodation option of choice. That's because the country is chock-full of guesthouses — small, often family-run places with private rooms and a bit more charm — and these guesthouses are already such incredibly good value, that other budget places simply have no chance of competing against them. I have no problem with guesthouses: a private room (often a private bathroom as well) is nicer than a dorm; and there are plenty of other places to meet fellow travellers, apart from in a dorm room — on tours, on buses and in bars being a few examples. However, what I do have a problem with, is the insidious way in which guesthouses around here have expanded to offer bookings for such extra services as tours, buses and further accommodation. And, more to the point, I have a problem with the way in which they take advantage of their position as "the place where you sleep", to establish a monopoly over any and every service that a tourist could possibly want.
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.
When I arrived back in Messina today, the main order of business was to try and sell my bike. I'm not planning to do any more cycling in Italy (or anywhere else in Europe), so I don't need it any more. Unfortunately, I didn't have any success in flogging the daym thing off to anyone. I spent about an hour cruising around the streets of downtown Messina, looking for bike shops that might be interested in purchasing it. I only found one place that was a dedicated bike shop: they flatly declined interest in the bike, saying that they only sold new bikes, and that none of their customers would be interested in my third-hand (at least) piece-of-junk. The only other place I found was a hardware store, but they also sold a few bikes: they too had no interest in buying. Doesn't anyone want a nice, cheap Roman bike here in Sicily?
So I'm sitting in a cafe in the middle of Ortygia — having just finished my little tour of the island — polishing off my hot choc and croissant, and having a pleasant chat with the locals. I get up from my table, dust off a few breadcrumbs, wave goodbye to my fellow patrons, and jump on my bike. The plan is to head straight out of Syracuse — having seen the city centre and its sights — and to make my way west into the Monti Iblei, for an afternoon of uphill riding, and an evening of rough mountain camping. Possibly to see the Syracuse archaeological park, and famous Greek theatre, along the way. But all those plans suddenly disappear out the window — and the day's cycling comes to an abrupt and premature end — when I start pedalling, and I realise that something is really, seriously wrong with my bike. Something far worse than the usual problems of squeaky brakes, unresponsive gears, or even flat tyres. I have a snapped axle.
Although I haven't always been a good boy on my trip, so far I've managed to avoid any trouble with the law. I've been a victim of crime before, and I've gone to the police before; but today it was the police that came to me. After I accidentally found myself on the A29 autostrada (freeway) this morning — headed west from Mazara to Campobello — I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself getting pulled over by Sicily's Polizia Stradale ("Highway Police"). As I (pretty much) knew, it's illegal to cycle on an autostrada — and once you get on them, it's impossible to turn around, and impossible to get off until the next exit.
I woke up in my little field near Lercara this morning, only to discover that my bicycle's back tyre was completely flat. Eek! No idea how this happened: but since the tyre was fine all day yesterday, I can only assume that it got punctured by some sharp plant or rock, as I was wheeling it through the field yesterday evening. Worse still: when I attempted to change the tyre before setting off, I realised that I was unable to do so — despite having a pump and a spare inner tube, I had no tyre levers, and no spanner that was the correct size for undoing the back bolts (and yes, unfortunately the back tyre is bolts, not quick-release). Talk about a horrible start to the day — flat tyre in the hills of Mafialand, and no means of fixing it. What was I to do?
For today's Boston regional outing, my dad and I went and visited Salem — possibly the biggest tourist spot in Massachusetts (apart from Boston itself). And why? Because of the witches, of course! As all history buffs should know, The Crucible (which I studied in high school). These days, tourists flock to Salem for the trial re-enactments, for museums portraying the tragedy of bygone years, and for Halloween celebrations that are unrivalled by any other town in America.
It's been seven years since I was last in New York City. During my previous visit, in September 2000, I went up the famous twin towers of the World Trade Center, and I admired the then-fabulous view from the 110th floor. Today, for visitors to New York — courtesy of a small but extremely cruel and misguided group of radical individuals — that is no longer possible. Instead, thousands of visitors every year make the "pilgrimage" to what is now known internationally as Ground Zero. Today, I became one of these pilgrims, as I returned to this most confronting and tragic of sites. And like everyone else, I went there to mourn, to show support, and to pray; but mainly, just to see what the world's most famous hole in the ground actually looks like, and what they're doing with it.
When I went exploring in Quito yesterday, I also did some shopping around for Cotopaxi mountain-climbing tours. One of the tour agencies in town, Gulliver, told me that they had one person looking for a partner, to do the climb on Monday and Tuesday. I told them that they could put me down as confirmed for going on the climb as well. However, when I got back to Quito from Pululahua this afternoon, and phoned them up to confirm for tomorrow, they told me that they now had 4 people for the climb, and that I couldn't come any more! Gulliver's have ditched me: not the nicest thing a tour agency can do to its customers.