Having now finished my four-day diving course, today I said goodbye to Ban's, and to Sairee beach. I've moved down to Chalok, the second-largest beach on the island, where it's much quieter and more relaxed than Sairee, and where accommodation is much cheaper (I couldn't afford to stay at Ban's, without the complimentary room-for-four-nights deal that they gave us). I'm staying at Taraporn resort, where the bar-slash-restaurant looks out onto the gorgeous bay of Chalok Baan Kao, and where I have a cheap room that's right on the beach, as well as next to a mellow nighttime hippie bar. Now that I'm here, it's time to slow things down a bit, and to do nothing but sit on the beach and swallow a few good books.
Yesterday I was halfway there. Today I made it all the way — I've landed in paradise, on the scuba-mental island of Ko Tao. Only took two nights, two buses, and a 5-hour ferry: and let me tell you, it was worth it. My second night bus left Bangkok yesterday evening — after my little pre-bus adventure had concluded — and the ferry from Chumphon to Ko Tao departed at about 6am this morning. Now that I'm here, I've got a feeling that I won't be leaving for a while.
Today is the first day of my life that I've ever been in Spain. But it sure doesn't feel that way. After 7 months in Latin America this year, the streets of Madrid seem refreshingly, wonderfully familiar to me. It's very similar to what I felt when I first reached England: England is in many ways so similar to Australia — my home — that it was hard to believe I'd never been there before. Likewise, Spain is in many ways so similar to South America — my second home — that arriving here was more of a nostalgic than a culture-shock sensation. Dios mio — ¡es muy bueno estar aquí!
For the past two days or so, I've been without my beloved and well-worn fleece jumper. Purchased a long time ago — in a continent far away (Cusco, Peru, after my Kathmandu fleece became one of the first victims of this trip) — it may be cheap and falling apart (and grey and ugly), but it's kept me warm through a great many ordeals. The two of us have together endured hardships across the globe, and we now share a very special symbiotic bond (en Anglais: I've grown rather attached to it). After my very big night on Wednesday evening, I thought I'd lost it.
After having been here only one evening, it's already official: Berlin is the cheapest city I've visited in Europe. Food, in particular, is an absolute bargain: it's incredibly well-priced; the variety is mind-boggling (everything from currywurst to noodle stir-fry); and most of it is fresh and fast. And as for the price of Internet: nowhere else I've been in Europe comes close to the sensational €0.50/hr to be found around here! Accommodation, transport and sightseeing are pretty cheap here too. Drinking and partying are still reasonably expensive — but they, too, are good-value. I guess it's because Berlin is so close to eastern Europe, that it offers such good value. It ain't quite like being back in South America, but it's still a welcome drop.
In a continuing battle with the forces of incompetence, I finally received and managed to pick up my new ATM card today. at 10:30am, I went online from my hostel in Freiburg, checked DHL's tracking service, and saw that my package was in Zürich, and was "with courier vehicle" (i.e. actually in the van, about to be delivered to Mark and Susi's surgery). So I grabbed the tram to Freiburg train station, just managed to catch the 11am train back to Zürich; and by 1:45pm, I too had arrived back in Zürich, and had caught the tram over to the surgery. And what did I see, quite literally just as I walked in? I saw the DHL guy walking out of the building, having only just delivered the package — took him all day just to drop it off there; how bloody pathetic!
Exactly one month after arriving in Italy, today I said goodbye to this crazy but lovable country, and headed north to the colder, more efficient, not-quite-as-fun world of Central Europe. Once again, I had to battle with my dear friends at TrenI-frikking-talia in order to get anywhere — boy, will I be glad to see the back of them — but even in the face of a nationwide train strike today, I managed to cross the border, to cruise through the majestic snow-covered peaks and still lakes of the Swiss Alps, and to reach my uncle and aunt in Zürich by the afternoon. Italy, it's been a pazzo four-and-a-half weeks, but I'm afraid it's time to say "ciao baby".
After hanging out, meeting and greeting many of my fellow guests at Gulliver's House, this evening a few of us ventured into the city, for a bit of a night out. Pei, two of the Yanks and myself found a rather fancy trattoria restaurant at which to grab some dinner (the pasta was delicious, but small and quite expensive — this is why I generally avoid restaurants in Italy), as well as a nice jug of red house wine. As the night progressed, Pei retired back to the hostel, but myself and the two Yank boys met up with the remainder of the Yanks — the group of three girls — and together, we grabbed a few (massively overpriced but good) beers at a nearby Irish pub. I thoroughly enjoyed the night out. It gave me some much-needed socialising after my lonely ride through Sicily, plus it provided some (equally much-needed) relaxation after today's nightmare.
Taormina wasn't for me, so I came back down the hill, and hung out in Giardini Naxos. Upon my return to Giardini, I was relieved to find that it's a much more relaxed, much more reasonably-priced town than its neighbour up top. I called it an early half-day today, and the afternoon here in Giardini was very easy-going: I checked into a budget B&B (the cheapest one I've found so far); I enjoyed the day's hot choc break; I found some Internet, and went online for a few hours (after waiting for the Sicilian siesta to end — it finished "early" here, at 3pm); and I grabbed some tavola calda (sort-of "fast food") for dinner. Life's easy in Giardini — I don't wanna leave Sicily. Why can't I stay here forever?
Jochen, his wife and his 12-month-old baby girl are on vacation here in Sicily, and they're travelling round for a few weeks in their campervan home. I met them this evening at Sabbiadoro, where they were camped near my tent. The couple are mad about cycling: they've brought their racing bikes down in the campervan, and are getting in a few hours each day; in the past (i.e. pre-baby), they've done such ambitious cross-country cycle trips as the famous Carretera Austral (in southern Chile); and they currently own and operate a bike shop, in northern Italy where they live (they're both originally from Germany).