The guesthouse monopoly
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.
The old tour agency game
I'm relieved, and a little amused, to find that "the old tour agency game" that I played so many times back in South America, can be played here in Thailand as well. And the rules are virtually identical, too. Here in Chiang Mai, it's the usual setup: there are a hundred different agencies, all offering similar activities, and all quoting slightly different prices. But in the end, they all ring up exactly the same people who actually run the tours, and they all send you on exactly the same tour; and really, it's all exactly the same thing. So you may as well just visit 5 or 10 of them, pick the one that quotes the cheapest price, bargain them down further still, and go for it — because the price and the agency doesn't matter in the slightest, it's all the same tour. Thailand also operates by the standard "book when you get there" rule: it's cheaper to book things when you arrive in Chiang Mai, than to book them from Bangkok (same as booking in Cusco vs Lima), as more cities away only means more middlemen, each of whom will take a cut as they call the next friend down the chain. C'mon, Thailand: you think I started backpacking yesterday, or something? I know this game, you don't fool me!
Conrad the Sicilian
Conrad is — as far as I could tell — the owner of Agricasale, the campsite where I stayed tonight. Conrad's a very nice guy: not only does he speak good Spanish (he too has travelled extensively in Latin America) and some English / French (as well as Italian); not only did he insist I join him for dinner in the dining hall; but he also refused to charge me for my night's camping! Conrad greeted me when I arrived at the site this evening — stressed and worn out as I was, and in the pitch dark — and was happy to have me as the sole guest of the place for the evening.
A field near Corleone
After meeting the locals in Prizzi, I continued my tour of Sicily's mountainous Mafia heartland this afternoon, by riding through the town of Corleone. Despite the fact that the town's name is infamously recognised worldwide — thanks to the classic Mafia book and movie, The Godfather — there really ain't much to see here. Basically, I rode through Corleone, and now I can say that I've been to Corleone; that's about all, as it's a plain and unexciting (and somewhat run-down looking, in my opinion) highland town. From Corleone, I continued cycling for as long as I could this afternoon, until the day grew dark, and I found an empty field on the side of the road in which to camp it rough for the night once again.
The Prizzi gang
"The Prizzi gang" is the friendly, local folks whom I met today, upon collapsing into the hilltop town of Prizzi after a wind-buffeted morning's ride. There were the owners of the cafe on the main drag: English-speaking, they've returned to Sicily after living for many years in the USA (you know New Yaahk — Braahklyn?), and they're very hospitable to tourists. There was the gang of "local boys": none of them were at school (apparently it was a teacher's strike today — but I don't think they attend much anyway), so they were just hanging around the cafe. And there were the quintessential random old men, who were also hanging around the bar, and who insisted on helping me change my flat tyre (they're all experts on bike repairs, of course). Cool crowd, and as Sicilian as anything I could ever imagine.