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 second day of our Doi Inthanon trek was easy-going — much like yesterday — but it did involve a fair bit more walking. From last night's campsite, we embarked on a big romp through the jungle, with a fair bit of uphill along the way. Our ascent came to a close in the afternoon, when we reached the famous Karen hill-tribe village that became our abode for this evening.
Lovely, sunny England is where I began my sojourns in Europe; and so too is it where I'm concluding them. Sunny — yeah, right; as usual, it's cold and wet and miserable here! I'm not exactly ecstatic about being back in England: especially after Spain, with its pleasant weather, its exotic vibe, and its upbeat spirit. But sadly, I booked London as the departure point for my flight out of Europe (many moons ago); and so it's to London that I had to return. In retrospect, I should have tried to fly out from somewhere else — anywhere else — on the continent.
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.
The colour-coding of ski trails, according to level of difficulty, is generally sensible and familiar. "Green" for beginner runs, "blue" for intermediate runs, and "black" for advanced runs (with some variations — e.g, the addition of "yellow" for super-easy runs, and of "double black" for expert / semi-suicidal runs). An international standard — or so I thought. But not here in Kitzbühel. Apparently, the Austrian way is to mark the trails "blue" for beginner runs, "red" for intermediate runs, and (thankfully still) "black" for advanced runs. Extremely confusing, and contrary to what I've now become intimately familiar with, over my several years of Aussie skiing. Argh!
I'm officially labelling today "the day that I just missed everything". First there was the train from Dresden that I missed by 2 minutes. Then, this evening, I wandered down to Munich's Christmas market, to grab a bratwurst for dinner — arriving in the square at 7:30pm — only to find all the stalls shutting in my face as I got there! Apparently, the market closes at 7:30pm sharp on Sunday evenings. Next, I went for the next-best (and next-cheapest) option, and found a kebab shop at which to grab some tucker. Too late: they'd already stopped serving for the evening; luckily I found another one around the corner, that obliged me with a meaty plate of doner and salad. Finally, I jumped online at a nearby café; and they decided to close ½ an hour earlier than advertised ("family crisis" with the owners), and to kick me out prematurely. It definitely hasn't been my lucky day!
I've been "doing the hostel thing" for almost 10 months now: and for the most part, I've really enjoyed it. Most of my hostelling experience has been in the areas I've travelled the longest this year: that is, Mexico and South America. Down there, hostels are super-cheap, super-friendly, and super-casual. Wherever you go in Latin America, you'll always find somewhere that has a free bed (and it's usually somewhere good): this means that you can rock up in a new town, wander into one of the local hostels, and stay there until you decide to move on. You have total flexibility as to where you want to go, and how long you want to stay there. That's backpacking, the way it should be. I can count on one hand the number of times I had to book a hostel in Latin America, or the number of times I was turned away due to lack of space there. But here in Europe, it's a different story: around here, true blue backpacking simply ain't possible anymore.
I've heard of express international deliveries taking time, but this is getting beyond a joke. Seeing that I had nothing else to do today — apart from having to urgently leave Zürich (to see my friend Gerhard in Freiburg tonight) — today I spent most of the day sitting around in Mark and Susi's office, waiting for my bloody ATM card to arrive. I always thought that DHL were reasonably competent; but apparently, that is not the case. After calling and making repeated enquiries, it seems that the package arrived in Basel last night; that they had it in Zürich by this morning; that they then sent it back to Basel later in the morning; and that it didn't get back to Zürich (for a second time) until this afternoon. I finally gave up waiting for it, and grabbed the train up to Freiburg: but I'm going to have to come back for it tomorrow (which will be a right pain in the a$$); and I'm extremely frustrated that it's taking this long for the frikking thing to get here.
Very early this morning, my amazing three-week detour down to Sicily was concluded by a devastating and highly expensive little episode. On the night train from Messina back to Rome last night, I was the victim of some serious theft — by far the worst theft I've suffered anywhere this year. I didn't anticipate it at all; I observed nothing of the incident itself; and I had precious little help or support in the aftermath of it. Lovely welcome back to the tourist trail and to civilisation, eh? I can at least say that it could have been worse; although sadly, not much worse. They took a hell of a lot.
After I left Ragusa this morning, my lovely sunny day turned stormy. Really, seriously stormy. It turned so bad, in fact, that I can say without a doubt that this was the worst day of my trip in Sicily so far — weather-wise or anything-else-wise. The road between the two Baroque, south-eastern Sicilian towns of Ragusa and Modica is not very long — a mere 10km's at most — but it may as well have been 1,000 this morning. When I began tackling the road at around 10:15am, the sky was partly cloudy, but didn't seem to be all that ominous. Boy, was that a wrong forecast — ten minutes out of Ragusa, not only was it suddenly freezing cold and pouring with rain; it was also intermittently hailing! If it weren't for the miracle of two Sicilian angels rescuing me from my plight, I may well have soaked, frozen and sorrowed myself to death on this road; fortunately, an unexpected act of kindness prevented at least that.