I did my third and fourth dives this morning, and they're the final dives that I need to do as part of my Open Water course. Today's drill was pretty similar to that of the diving yesterday morning: on the boat by 7:30am; one dive at The Twins, then over to White Rock; and completion of the remaining handful of PADI-required underwater exercises. My group had Ber as our instructor today, instead of Flav, and we descended a bit deeper than we've done previously: we made it to 18m, which is the maximum depth permitted for an Open Water certified diver.
The second day of our PADI Open Water course began quite similarly to the first day: with more theory, and more boring educational diving videos. We revised yesterday's material, and went over our "homework", before finishing off the 5-part video series. The theory is a total joke — the instructors don't take it seriously, the material is largely common-sense stuff, and it's all done simply "for the record" — but at least we're now through most of it. Then, in the afternoon, our practical tuition began: for the first time, we got fitted up with scuba gear, and we jumped in the swimming pool at Ban's for our introductory "simulation dive".
My Doi Inthanon trek was kicked off today, with a fun and unusual introductory activity: bamboo rafting on the river. The 15 of us (brought in 2 pickup trucks) arrived at the rafting camp, where the people in charge were preparing the rafts for our little journey. It was 3-4 people on each raft (plus a Thai captain). For my raft, it was myself and the Dutch couple. Each captain stood at the front of the vessel, and was armed with a bamboo shaft, for steering us down the river — since I was at the back of my raft, I too was given a stick of bamboo, although I didn't really know what to do with it (I had an obligatory paddle now and then). The rafting itself was good fun, but was totally easy-peasy: nothing like proper rafting; and puny little excuses for "rapids" was the worst we encountered along the river. Then again, I wouldn't particularly want anything more extreme than that, while balanced precariously on a few loosely-held-together sticks of bamboo.
I've been in Bangkok for one (jetlagged and sleepless) night; and if there's one thing I've already noticed to death, it's this: the air pollution here is horrendous. This is one seriously polluted city: you can see it, smell it and even taste it 24/7. Mexico City is peanuts compared to this place. Bangkok's sky is permanently marred by a greyish haze: this becomes particularly foul and unmissable around dusk, when the sky's colour turns a disturbingly nuclear-ish shade of purple against the hot Thai sunset. The constant heat in the city doesn't exactly help, either — what with the smog, the dryness and the sweltering temperatures, water and air-con is the only way to live around here.
Noto is a charming place — but the afternoon was still young, and the road goes ever on. So after my gelato break amidst the Baroque façades this arvo, I hit the pedals once more, and rode the short highway that leads from hilltop Noto to the sleepy beach resort town of Avola. My map indicated that proper campsites are in abundance, in Avola and its surrounding area — and when I reached the place, my expectations were lived up to. After a little bit of searching, I found a place that was both open for business (not something to be taken for granted in November), and reasonably appealing as a place to spend the night. And so it was that I wound up pitching my tent about 10 minutes north of Avola (as the bike rides), within the grounds of "Camping Sabbiadoro".
The morning's ride to Tindari was tough and wet; but in contrast, the rest of the day was easy-going and sunny. From Capo Tindari, I simply continued west for the entire day, along my good friend the SS113 coastal highway. I passed through Capo d'Orlando around midday, but I decided not to ride all the way up to the cape itself: my guidebook doesn't say anything exciting about it; and I've had enough hilly capes for one day. The Sicilian north coast around here continued to be endless, as well as endlessly lovely — it's still a bit over-developed in this area; although the concentration of towns and resorts got less dense as I continued west.
Beach coast around Capo d'Orlando.
I grabbed a delicious hot chocolate and a pastry near Capo d'Orlando; and in the town of Sant' Agata, last night's leftovers became today's lunch. After yesterday's excellent gelato experience in Milazzo, I was kinda holding out for another gelato, in whatever town I happened to pass through this afternoon. Well, that town happened to be the very sleepy village of Caronia: and disappointingly, there was no gelato available there! In fact, there was nothing open at all in Caronia — couldn't even find a packet of chips, a can of coke, nothing — which I felt was most unfortunate.
Sicily cycle map, day 2.
All up, my second day on the road in Sicily was largely calm, relaxed, and easy; albeit a bit uneventful. Anyway, the coast was certainly beautiful — plus, the easy roads made for excellent progress around the island.
Once I finished my three-legged train journey to the southern tip of Italy today, all that was left was to catch a ferry, across the small channel that separates Sicily from the mainland. The ferry goes from Villa San Giovanni — a small coastal village in Calabria — across to Messina, one of the larger cities of Sicily. I don't know why they've never built a bridge or a tunnel over to Sicily: but anyway, the ferry is quite cool; not only do pedestrians ride on it, not only do cars and trucks drive onto it, but they even take the trains straight across on it! As for me, it was just my crazy self and my crazy bike that made the journey.
Great news: as of this morning, the rain has stopped, and the sun is shining in Rio! And you know what that means: go to the beach, go straight to the beach — do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Fortunately, since my hostel is only a 5-minute walk from Copacabana (Rio's biggest and most famous beach), this was quite an easy task. Armed with little more than my towel, my boardies, and a large supply of sunscreen (although not large enough — never is, eh?), I spent the better part of today swimming at the beach, walking on the beach, and (more than anything else) just lying on the beach, basking in the ferocious Brazilian sun. This is more like it — this is what I came to Brazil for, in the first place.
When I got back to El Refugio this evening, after my afternoon bike ride, I met an Israeli guy called Erez, who's staying in my dorm at the hostel. Erez convinced me (without much difficulty) to come with him on a tour of the nearby hot springs this evening. So, after a bite of dinner, and after grabbing some swimmers and a towl, off we went. Perfect way to end the day, and perfect way to relax after a good 'ol bike ride. No better combination in all the world like steaming hot water, rich red wine, and drunk Brazilian girls.
Yesterday's Class III rafting on the Jatanyacu was a good warm-up, but today's Class IV rafting on the Jondachi was the real deal. Not quite as much pure, blood-pumping excitement and splashdowns; but lots of good technical challenges, lots of fun waves and turbulent spots, and lottts of breathtaking scenery. And all with the very friendly and experienced company, The River People. Rafting in Tena has definitely been worthwhile: possibly the best that I've done so far on my trip.