When we arrived at the Karen village today, *Cluck* announced to us excitedly: "tonight BBQ pig for dinner." Most of us accepted the news eagerly — almost everyone loves a good plate of roast pork — and even though I wasn't planning to eat any of it (I've had enough traife lately, thanks), I had no problem with them cooking up some pig on the campfire. But little did we realise just what was involved in "having BBQ pig" — had we comprehended the fact that out here in the jungle, you have to slaughter and butcher a pig before you eat it, perhaps we would have thought differently.
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Our first chance to all get to know each other, during the Doi Inthanon trek, presented itself today at lunch. There are 15 of us in all, and Europe definitely dominates: two Swedes, two Dutch, two Germans (two guys), four Danish (two couples), two English, two Canadians, and myself. We enjoyed a quick lunch in "*Cluck*'s village" — *Cluck* claims to live in the village's largest house — and we explored the houses and farmyards a bit. When someone asked *Cluck* if he had a baby in his stomach (due to his constantly baring the formidable chubby spot and patting it), he said: "yes, baby ladyboy" :P. From the village, we spent most of the afternoon hiking, until we reached our gorgeous camp by the falls.
I lost many valuable items when I got robbed on the train last week. One item that I particularly missed was my Wenger Swiss Army knife, which uncle Mark brought me as a present, on his last visit to Sydney 7 years ago. When Mark heard about the loss of the knife, he insisted on remedying the situation, and on doing what all good Swiss uncles with Aussie nephews do: he bought me yet another army knife. This time, a Victorinox, and one of the fancier and more full-featured models. Hopefully I'll get many years of good use out of this baby, just as I did out of the previous one.
It was a grinding afternoon's ride, as I continued north and ascended higher up the eastern slopes of Mt. Etna. However, fortunately it wasn't an overly late one today. At around 4:15pm, I was just approaching the town of Milo — which is in the heart of the forested wilderness area around here — when I came across the campsite "Mareneve" (lit: "Sea and Snow"). My map had a single official campsite marked in the vicinity of Milo; so I assumed that this was it, and I stopped in to check it out. As with the place near Avola three nights back, I was most relieved to find that this place was actually open for business. As confucius says: "man who camp rough sleep with the cows, but man who camp legally sleep with the stars." So, since I had the opportunity, tonight I slept with the stars.
Soon after my first ever view of Mt. Etna this afternoon, I turned off the road that follows the northern ridge of the Monti Iblei to Sortino, and took a lesser road that winds north out of the mountains, towards the tiny foothill village of Pedagaggi. At this point, it was getting rather dark, and it was well within my standard rough-campsite lookout period of 4:30-5pm daily. I was fortunate enough to find a suitable spot almost immediately after taking the Pedagaggi turnoff: a little farm just next to the road, which had a packed-dirt driveway leading down to the house (with the gate wide open); and a grassy area to the right of the driveway, which was shielded from view of the house by a little hill, and which was also reasonably hidden from the main road. I was also doubly lucky, because — although I didn't know it at the time — there was nothing nearly as good further down the road, when I continued the ride the next morning.
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".
While cruising down the SS514 this afternoon, I followed what has come to be my standard rule of rough camping these days: from about 4:30pm onwards, keep a sharp eye out for possible camping spots; and stop at the first decent one that I see. Actually, I saw an abundance of good spots at around 4pm, back when I was whizzing through the flat orchard fields a bit further north. But at that time, it was too early to call it a day; and by 4:30pm, I was struggling through a somewhat more rugged hilly section, and the number of appealing spots of private property nearby wasn't all that high. Anyway, before I got completely desperate, I managed to find a little spot in someone's farm on the upper side of the highway. It was someone's private garden, really: as it was on a hillside, it was kind of terraced, and I camped a few terraces down from the house itself (which was adequately out-of-sight, to my good fortune); I prefer fields whenever possible, but this was all I could scrounge up. Anyway, it did me for the night, and I snuck in and out unnoticed; and it actually turned out to be fairly quiet and comfy.
The mosaics at Villa Romana were the highlight of today's voyaging — and I'm very glad that I managed to fit them in this afternoon. However, by the time I was done with exploring the Roman mansion, and was back on my bike, it was the very late hour of 4:40pm; and the cold, dark onset of night was approaching rapidly. As I rode on towards the town of Piazza Armerina, I sought reassurance from a little brown ferret, who was promoting a nearby campground called "Agricasale" (so-called because it was an "Agriturismo" or "farm holiday" facility, and because of Villa Romana's full name being "Villa Imperiale del Casale"). The Agricasale ferret smiled at me from bright yellow signs (placed everywhere along the road); and under him was painted the instruction: "Follow me!" Pity that the little bugger never cared to mention just how much more following I needed to do, before I found the place.
Not long after the cement incident this afternoon, the day started growing late, and I started looking for tonight's illegal camping field. The coastal road east of Sciacca is a prime area for the prospective squatter: lovely farms and villages, all easily accessible from the main highway, and all offering divine sea views and sea breezes. I turned onto a side road a few minutes out of Sciacca, where I decided to go with a large grove of trees (there seemed to be grapes growing on the trees — but they were trees, not vines), shared by several nearby houses and overlooking the sea. Great site, and a pleasant night to follow a slightly crazy day.
By the time I made it to the resort-ified coast south of Marsala this afternoon, it was getting late, and daylight was in scarce supply. This would have worried me, except that the weather was fine and warm; and the low west-coast horizon of the sea kept things light-ish for longer than usual. I found plenty of signs directing me to a proper campsite in the area: but these signs turned out to be incredibly inaccurate and confusing; and by the time I finally found the campsite (after riding around lost for ages), it was thoroughly shut down for the season anyway. What is it with Sicily in November, and shut campsites? Apparently, there are so few of them, that it's barely worth bothering to even try camping legally around here (and if you're not in a campsite, it's not legal). So I found an empty field a few streets away, and pitched ye 'ol tent there instead.