Thailand's No. 1 catch-phrase sums up the country perfectly. Same same... but different. To be honest, I thought (for some strange reason) that I already knew pretty much what to expect before I arrived, and that Thailand would hold no great surprises for me. Boy, was I wrong! Thailand is in many ways the "same same" as what I imagine other parts of Asia are like (not that I know — I haven't been anywhere else in Asia): it has similar cuisine; similar government and economic problems; similar mass-produced goods and shopping opportunities (thanks to similar illegal sweatshops); similar amusing (but still impressive) command of the English language; and a similar attitude towards Westerners (i.e. "we think you're weird, but you and your money are welcome nonetheless"). And yet, in so many other ways, it's completely unique from all of its neighbours, and its status as the world's top tourist destination is more than deserved. Thailand has been the perfect end to an incredible and epic trip — I'm very glad I stopped by; and I don't regret shirking on the rest of Asia, because doing otherwise would only have robbed me of precious Thai time.
My departure from London marks the end of my time here in Europe. It's been short, compared to my long stint in Latin America that was the "big boy" of this world trip. And it's been wildly different: modern, sophisticated, cultured, and pricey. But no world trip would truly be complete without a visit to Europe. It's the quintessential backpacker's destination. What's more, it's still wildly popular with tourists from all corners of the world, and in every level of the glamour spectrum from backpacker to millionaire. I've mainly confined myself to Western (and Southern) Europe; but even in that relatively small geographical area, there's an awful lot for me to wrap up. So here goes.
They called me weird, they called me twisted, they called me crazy. But I did it. Twenty days. Almost three weeks. On the bike every day. Up mountains, in fields, through storms, against winds, and all alone. All the way around the island of Sicily, plus plenty more in between. The Great Sicilian Ride has been an utterly unique and inredible experience: it was the perfect thing for me to do on this trip, and it was the perfect time to do it. It's an experience that I'll treasure for the rest of my life, and that I wouldn't trade for anything else in the world. It's certainly had its ups and downs, and its trials and tribulations. There are certainly things about it that I could have done better, or planned better; and obstacles that I could have confronted better. But that's all part of the learning experience. Hopefully this will be my first great cycling trip, but not my last — and everything I've learnt here in Sicily will come in handy for Great Rides of the Future.
I've been thinking for some time about how I should wrap up my entire, colossally incredible six months here in South America. And I've decided that a conventional wrapup is simply out of the question. Too much to say. Too much already said. And really, no regular little reflective summary could ever do this experience justice. So instead of attempting such a futile endeavour, I have instead embarked upon another, less crazy, more fun little challenge: I have composed a "checklist" of my time down here! The checklist "ticks off" the things that every South American backpacker should do during their time down here, and that I can honestly say I've done. Plus, I've added a section down the bottom, for a few more that I haven't done, and that I should have done — or that it's perhaps good that I didn't do. Read, laugh, and enjoy. Por favor. And if you want to check off a few more South American experiences of your own, feel free to add them as comments.
Brazil is South America's biggest country — geographically, economically, and population-wise — as well as its most unique (culturally, demographically, and language-wise). And yet, I've barely spent 10 days here! Considering that I've seen such a tiny portion of the place, and that I haven't even learned the language, I feel totally inadequate to write a wrapup of my time here. But nevertheless, I'll do my best. Brazil has been a roller-coaster of a final stop in South America: hot, exotic, dangerous, sensual, and friendly — to say the least. I wish I'd at least been exposed to the music here a bit more (let alone everything else): but oh well, I guess I'll be back here one day; and when I return, there'll be pleeenty more to see.
It's a whole different ball game from virtually everywhere else on this continent, is Argentina. So European in many ways, so Latin in others. Such proud, life-loving, first-world people — and such a pitifully crap economy and government. So many luxuries that the rest of the continent can only dream of, and at prices that Westerners can only drool at. Where else can you find a steak bigger than some African countries, juicier than a fresh tropical mango, and ready-to-eat at a time when most of the world is asleep? Or a bottle of red wine tastier than champagne, and as cheap as a chocolate bar back home? Or an endless supply of really beautiful people, able to dance like nothing you've ever seen, and frequenting night venues where "night" means "late night early morning"? I really do love this country. Even the Spanish here, incomprehensible as it is, still sounds beautiful. My only regret, really, is that I have to leave.
My second visit to Chile on this trip has come to an end: and like my first visit, to northern Chile back in July, it was really short (barely a week). Unlike the barren and slightly Peru-ish Chile of the north, however, this time I saw the real heartland of Chile: the capital, Santiago; and the country's beloved Lake District. Chile's a beautiful country, and once again I've had a great time here: but really, as far as I'm concerned, a week is more than enough. Even for the all-important central regions. Chile has simply become too Western for my liking: it's missing those hard-to-pinpoint but all-important things that make its neighbours so definitively South American.
There have been some amazing times, and there have been some downright awful times. But all up — as with everywhere I've been on my trip — I have no regrets about visiting Ecuador. So, what can I say about Ecuador: it's a little place with a lot of variety. :P Despite its size, I've only seen a small part of Ecuador, and plenty of it is just begging to be visited on a future trip. The adventure, the partying, the scenery: all are really great in this country. And it's made a fabulous end to my time in the Central Andean region of South America, which is the only part of the continent that I've seen so far, and which in my opinion couldn't possibly be matched by the rest of the continent, for being the "authentic South American experience".
So this was Peru, take two. For take one, I got stuck in Cusco for 8 weeks, and I didn't end up seeing very much else (not that I regret that — Cusco rocked). This time, I traversed the entire length of the country — from Tacna and the Chilean border, in the south, to Tumbes and the Ecuadorian border, in the north — and I saw plenty of that which lies in between. It's been a hectic four weeks, heading north through the place. It's been filled mainly with adventure and with expeditions, but also with sun and with relaxation. I'll have seen more of Peru than of any other country in this whole trip (I ain't spending 3 months in any other single country): and yet, even after all that, I've only just begun to discover what my new second home has to offer.
My 5-day hike through the Cordillera Blanca — Peru's highest and most spectacular mountain range, north of Huaraz — has been a tonne of fun, and a unique experience. It's the first hike that I've done (on this trip) purely for the natural scenery, rather than for the ruins, or for the animals. And it's the first hike that I've done solo, without a group or a guide, and without anyone to help me along the way. In my opinion, you can't say that you've backpacked through South America, until you've done something like this, and lived to tell the tale.