It was about 4pm this afternoon, and I was trying to get back to Khao San Road, after my shopping spree in Pantip Plaza and nearby Pratunam Market. I managed to get a metered cab in the morning — and this was good, since as far as taxis in Bangkok go, meter is cheaper. For getting back, however, it seemed that competition was a bit more fierce: the majority of taxis around Pantip were full; and of those that were empty and that I did manage to hail, they all refused to use their meter, and instead quoted me their outrageous farang special flat fees, which I rejected. In the end, I was forced (reluctantly) to take a tuk-tuk. And when the driver said: "velly cheap, but make some stops on the way", I knew that what I'd managed to heretofore avoid in Bangkok was now inevitable — I was going to take the famous "Bangkok Scenic Route".
After a brief interlude in Krabi, this morning I continued on to what will be my final "real destination" here in Thailand, and for my entire trip: the legendary beach of Ton Sai. I've heard a lot about Ton Sai — particularly from my friends back in Pai — and I think it's going to be a great place to wrap things up, and to have some fun and relaxation.
There are some things that are expendable while travelling, and others that are essential. And a passport is about as essential as things get: which is why having been robbed of my passport over the weekend, I had to visit the Aussie Embassy today, and apply for a new emergency passport. A few hours and €90 later, and what do you know: my passport is ready, new as can be, and (for the short 6 months that it's valid) as good as the real thing. It was a hassle and a ripoff: but what can I do? I can't leave the country without a passport; I can't even go elsewhere within the EU (although in reality, there's no border control here in Europe). I'll try to be more careful with this one, than I was with the last one.
When I began my ride today, the destination that I had in mind was the famous town of Taormina. Not a terribly ambitious destination — by 11am I was in Giardini Naxos, and Taormina is at the top of a big hill that overlooks Giardini — but then again, I was feeling pretty relaxed today; and I haven't got much further to ride anyway, until I once again reach Messina. So from Giardini, I slogged up the winding mountain road that takes you up to Taormina; and once I'd conquered this steep but not-overly-long road, I went to see what all the fuss is about, and why Taormina is considered one of the top tourist hotspots in Sicily. Well, Taormina is a gorgeous town: squashed into a tiny hilltop plateau, it's all narrow cobbled streets and fresh mountain air; the architecture is gorgeous, and can be seen in the many churches, palaces and terraced houses in town; and the views of the beaches and bays of Giardini on one side, and of Mazzarò on the other side, are quite breathtaking. However, the place is riddled with tourists — you can't even sneeze without being offered a souvenir handkerchief — and it's also ridiculously expensive. This dangerous combination made Taormina decidedly unappealing to me, particularly as a place to spend the night.
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.
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".
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.
This afternoon I finished my two-day sojourn in the mountains of northern Sicily, by completing my descent through Le Madonie, and ending up in the coastal town of Cefalù. Cefalù is the most well-known and the most popular tourist spot on the Sicilian north coast, and I reached it at the bright-n-early time of 3pm. It's a gorgeous place — unlike the rest of the north coast, it's not just "another tacky generic beach resort", it's a quaint town with a very historic centre — but unfortunately, the weather there this afternoon was terrible. The mountains may have been sunny today; but the coast is stormy as can be, as well as decidedly chilly. Despite this, it was well worth spending the evening here, and soaking up the atmospheric ambiance without too many other tourists around.
One of the really fun things about travelling in dodgy, economically-mismanaged Latin America is the value for money. Although the mathematics are slightly different wherever you go — in Peru, you divide the local price by 3 to get the dollar price; in Mexico, you divide by 10; and in inflation-scarred Chile, you divide by 500 — in every country, the local currencies are weak, and there's always division involved. Suddenly, now that I'm in Europe, it's reverse mathematics — all the local currencies here (with "all" being the Euro, almost everwhere) are stronger than the dollar; and instead of dividing local prices, I'm multiplying them! Eek!
It's been a nice day-and-a-half in New York — but the time has come to head up to Boston, and to see my family there. This afternoon, I hopped on the train with Amtrak, and did the 4-hour journey the scenic way. Unfortunately, the train ended up leaving NY's Penn Station about 40 minutes late, and it was an hour late by the time it reached Boston. Plus, it was absolutely packed — all of this because of it being Columbus Day long weekend, I assume. Bit of a pain for my uncle, who was waiting around when he came to pick me up from the station. Also a slight ripoff — apparently, the Amtrak tickets are much cheaper if you book them a few weeks in advance — I bought my ticket yesterday, and it cost me a whopping US$111! In retrospect, perhaps I should have just gotten the bus with Greyhound. Anyway, it was a good ride, and I got there in the end.