Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Pit stop

So here I am. Landed in Madrid for a pit stop, or, as it were, a stop in the pit. Hopefully not grounded for too long.

I´ll keep my engines running, hoping the runway will be clear soon.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

A taste of Thailand (II)

Thailand is hot, wet and spicy, and it's not just the weather and the food. Sexual tourism is huge in Thailand, and Bangkok is very justly famous for that. Heaps of old, fat and predominantly failed white men with heavy pockets snake their way to the City of Angels*, with the smell of cheap easy juicy exotic sex dragging them by their noses. And they find what they come looking for, judging by the couples I see on the street.

Massage parlours are pretty much everywhere: Thai massage, oil massage, and maybe something else, which goes unwritten but understood. At first I though it was easy to differentiate the places that offered just-massage from massage-with-happy-ending, but I've heard first-person accounts of the contrary. Even in just-massage places, where girls are not lined outside in revealing outfits and call you out, chances are sex is still an optional extra. Quoting Matt, prostitution in Asia has a full range of shades of gray.

The practical totality of the Thais I've met were disarmingly nice and polite, all smiles and bows. Smile, nod, prayer, bow, in the traditional Thai way. You might find the very occasional asshole, but it's the exception to the rule. But the one rule without exception, the one thing no Thai will ever fail to do, whatever the circumstances, is trying to rip you off. With a big smile and a nod, of course. Every single one I've had any commercial exchange with has tried to rip me off, even when I had already booked for a fixed price, even when the price was clearly tagged. The street vendors, the taxi drivers, at the hotel, the tour operators, practically everyone. Even the immigration official at the Airport wanted a 100 Baht "tip" because I didn't fill out my departure card and he did it for me. You are in their eyes, as I say, an ATM on legs.

It goes much farther than this. In Thailand, most prices are "flexible", that is, they're a rip-off and you're not expected to be so stupid as to accept them, so every purchase implies some haggling. In my personal experience, it's easy and fast to get a third off any quoted price, even if it's clearly tagged in big bold numbers. This still leaves the seller quite happy, so my guess is that real prices should be less than half the first one they give you. The only exceptions I know of are public buses and "serious" shops, supermarkets and 7-elevens. You're not expected to bargain for food either, but I can testify it's feasible and easy. At first it's heaps of fun, trying to outsmart the locals (which you very seldom achieve, believe me) and getting a real bargain, but, as Makura already reported, you do get fed up eventually, and at some point wish for fixed and reasonable prices.

And this brings me to the shops. The green-and-orange seven of 7-eleven is even more ubiquitous here than the Coca-Cola billboards. Every corner and intersection has at least one 7-eleven, open 24h, providing emergency food, soft drinks and beers at convenient convenience prices. I am absolutely thrilled by this. Here is a place where you can live and be active 24 hours a day! Wooo-hooo! There are even night markets, with some stalls open 24h (the owners take turns to sleep right there).

I absolutely adore the markets. They're so full of exotic colours and smells, of life, activity and excitement. They're so authentic and defining, so big and busy, and of course so cheap. I can spend as many dehydrating hours browsing through the stalls as the owners will have them open. The ubiquitous legions of guys calling you out can get annoying at times, though.

[indian accent:] "Hello my frien, com see my shup", "How are you ser, nice to meet you" (while he´s in your way and his hand is fishing out for yours), and of course "Hey where you go?", "Where you from?", "Taxi, tuk-tuk, chip-chip! Twenty Baht!". I´ve tried several tactics but soon discovered that the best way to deal with it is to completely ignore them. At first I pretended I didn´t see or hear them, but at the end I really didn´t hear them anymore. I´ve filtered them out. Now they´re just background noise, a constant buzz you get when you walk certain streets.

I've already pointed this out before, but my reporting wouldn't be complete without making it explicit: Thailand is cheap as shit. A daily budget of 20-25€ (including all local expenses and all regional travel) makes you the king here: restaurants, hotels, taxis, flights, and quite a few whims fit in there. You can go much cheaper than that: on a budget and with time to spare, 10€ per day should do the trick.

I ended my sneak-peek at Thailand with a visit to Phuket and Phi Phi. I loved the fine beaches and the warm sea, the views and the atmosphere. I don´t usually favour lazying on the beach, but here I indulged and enjoyed it very much. These were very touristy areas (Phi Phi horribly so), full of chunks of white wobbly Western walking ATMs, so prices are enormous by Thai standards (still "flexible" though). Even so, they´re less than a third what you would expect on a beach on, say, the Spanish coast.

Phi Phi is where they filmed the beach from The Beach. Luckily Koh Phi Phi Leh (the South, smaller island) is a National Park, so it´s not rotten with hotels, resorts and shops like Koh Phi Phi Don (the North one) is. The bay was, though, at the time I visited, full of one-day-tour boats, and the beach was so crowded you couldn´t see the sand. Phuket, on the other hand, has much more to it than sights and beaches; the towns are vibrant and quite exciting by themselves. Architecture, culture, history, life and nightlife, all around. Not Bangkok, something different, but equally thrilling.

This is getting to an end, so I wish to declare myself before it´s too late:

I'm in sincere, heartfelt, desperate love with Asia. I want to see it all, spend more time here, and Thailand is first on the list. But now I have little choice but to go.

Hopefully an Eastward wind will bring me here again soon, with pockets full and time aplenty. See you soon, Siam.

* The shorthand name of Bangkok in Thai reads "Krungthep", meaning City of Angels.

A taste of Thailand (I)

In Bangkok there are no streets; there are only markets. The street is not a place you just pass through on your way to somewhere else, the street is where you live: where you buy and sell, where you eat and drink, where you meet people, where you spend your days munching the polluted air in the humid heat.

Bangkok is an amazing, mind-blowing mixture, shaken not stirred, of the old with the new, of traditional generic Asia and global modern Brandland. Rickshaws still squeak and asthmatic tuk-tuks still cough beside brand new shining luxury cars on multi-level motorways. At the base of huge glittering skyscrapers topped by logos of Gucci and Prada, old wrinkled women with conic straw hats keep hawking goods to and fro in the dreamy tropical mist. At the market, among the fog of vapours and the smell of meat sizzling over shining embers, throngs move through the stalls, pushing wheelbarrows, chatting, talking on last-gen mobile phones or struggling to chopstick into their mouths some red-hot spicy combination of meat and rice.

Mostly everywhere you go will be thronged, except for the very modern and horribly trendy malls for hardcore fashionistas, where all big international fashion brands flash big billboards. The throngs are, against all expectation, quite ok. It's easy (though slow) to move with them and through them, and people are generally very mindful of letting you through, not bumping into you and not stepping on your foot. They also seem to purposefully make more space for me, as I am, by their standards, big and bulky. Now that's a good joke. I've been a dwarf all my life, but now I'm in the land of the gnomes.

Amazed as I was at the beginning at the way circulation is carried out here (amazed that it worked at all and accidents were not happening constantly), now I find it thrilling and very inspiring. All this time I've spent in places where they not only drive on the wrong side of the road but also walk on it, I've been having those embarassing face-to-face encounters. You know, when you pass someone on the sidewalk and you lean right and he leans to his left, so you both stop face-to-face with a screech and do a silly dance for a while. That hasn't happened to me in Thailand once. People don't walk on the left or on the right, they just walk and avoid each other without bothering to stop to think about it. I think it's something to do with Personal Distance: that thing we have and they don't. We're used to avoid invading someone else's PD and to enforce our own, except when we're in a crowded public transport and we feel uncomfortable about it. Brushing against each other doesn't seem to bother anyone here. With so little space and so many people in it, I guess optimization is essential.

They do the same while driving. Throngs of motorcycles pack the street using all available space. Overtakings are usually carried out within 10cm of an accident. Though you're supposed to drive on the left, it's quite common to have motorcycles driving on the right, avoiding the cars that come head first, if that suits their destination better or their lane is full. All other traffic rules are flexible as well. Traffic lights are only green and red. Green light means "go on, avoiding the guys who jump their red light", and red means yellow. U-turns are feasible anywhere, anytime, whenever suits you better or makes you happier. The other vehicles will just avoid you or very patiently stop and wait. Pedestrian crossings are few and just for show. In practice, when you want to cross the road, you just do, blending in very naturally with the incoming traffic (and inwardly hoping Ganesh liked your last floral offer).

You can't walk 50m without seeing a very decorated shrine to one god or another. You'll find a god in every golden cloister, as the song would have it. A god with spillover in the arms department, if I'm any judge. Buddhism here is huge. There are big wats* all over and orange-clad monks are a common sight on the streets.

But even bigger than Buddhism is The King. I already knew this from my stopover here three months ago, but it keeps surprising me. It's just too much. I've seen his face so much already that I feel I know him personally.

Most often it's just a giant billboard of the king saluting and wearing the trademark Thai impassive face, and the queen smiling a lot and being very nice about something. But sometimes you find pearls like: the King impassively examining construction plans (tovarisch King and the working class), the King impassively playing the saxophone (!!!) or (my favourite) the King impassively trying to figure out how the hell a digital SLR camera works. Keep in mind that these are all huge billboards, sometimes covering whole buildings 30 stories high. The photos are always professional and somehow artistic, apparently trying to emphasize the impassivity of his face, the size of his glasses, or how high he can raise his hand while (impassively) saluting. Long live the Impassive King!
The funniest thing is that people seem to genuinely worship the guy. Even if you could avoid the street propaganda, the guy's face is still on clocks, calendars, and of course, on every respectable desk. Tic-tic, ils sont fous, ces thailandais.

* wat = Buddhist monastery

Monday, 18 February 2008

I have decided

I am not going back.


I am not going back to bloody Madrid, and much less to the scumpit satellite settlement that's coated so many years of my short life with its sticky stinking mud of stale insipid mediocrity.

Life is too short to waste it watching your days spilling away into a reeking sinkhole. I am never, ever going back to that.

That said, I'm stopping there for a while. But I'm not going back. I'm going forward, this is just a stopover. A 6-month stopover, possibly. I need to refuel my pockets and maybe get some academic stuff done.

At some point, when my planets are in the right order, I will fly away, wherever the winds will land me.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Thailand Hopping

Flight from Singapore to Bangkok: 19 €
Taxi from the Airport (rip-off!): 2.20 €
Two-room flat with private bathroom: 5.55 €
One meal: 0.60 €
One beer at convenience store: 0.55 €

Spending One Night in Bangkok: priceless

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Road trippin'

Just as I saw Tasmania, I've seen New Zealand from behind the wheel. But I have not seen the same. I expected to. I was wrong.

I expected Kiwiland to be a "bigger, better, uncut" version of Tassie, with LOTR seasoning. I expected more nature, higher mountains, bigger lakes, wider rivers, higher waterfalls, greener landscapes, denser, thicker, lusher forests.

I kept comparing what I saw with what I was expecting to see, and everything kept looking so wrong and out of place. I finally had to surrender and accept the overwhelming visual evidence: Kiwiland is different.

Southland is mountainous, but mostly barren and dressed in yellow, ochre and khaki. Fiordland (the southwesternmost chunk) is the only part where mountain meets forest, and meets my expectations of "more". That is not to say Southland is not beautiful as well. When a new dawn dips the mountaintops in molten gold and soft waves wash the shores of a lake of pure aquamarine, no comparison can be had.

Northland is really beautiful in itself and closer to what I expected. And still, everything feels so... European-ish. Most forests I've been through, on both islands, were pine trees, and blackberries were easy to find. Roads are, just as in Tasmania, lined with roadkill, but it's still such a European sort. Rabbits, possums and the occasional bird or cat. No wallabies, no wombats, no pademelons in NZ. No marsupials at all, originally, until the introduction of the possum.

Most of the land I passed through was Cattle Country. On the golden hills, from behind fences on both sides of the road, paranoid sheep spring away and cows look at you with chewy apathy. Most of the northern part of Northland is Volcanic Country, which means that everywhere you go it smells like badly rotten eggs. There are a thousand "Volcanic Wonderland" parks along the road, where you can amble through the sulphuric fumes and take your pictures with the mud pools.

When you spend so long "on the road", you can't fail to have an opinion on the quality of the roads you travel. Kiwi roads are also narrow and frequently winding, with no sealed shoulders and less overtaking lanes than necessary. The speed limit is officially topped at an annoying 100km/h, but fortunately there are no speed cameras anywhere, so doing 140 is pretty common, when the slow trucks and sharp curves allow it.

The best thing about driving in Kiwi is that camping is such a big thing here. There are many free campgrounds in the most touristed areas, and on most stretches of main roads, "picnic" areas where you can stop to rest or to pass the night are plentiful, often every 10km or so. Sleeping in my car was so easy here.

This has been my longest road trip so far, incorporating the most nights in a row sleeping in a car. It was a good drive. But a long one as well. I've had enough for now. I'm tired.

The Other Side

I started my pilgrimage in Christchurch, after randomly bumping into Mark (mate from Fraser Island) and picking up my ridiculously cheap relo car to Auckland (5 kiwibucks a day!). I started the engine much later than planned, which meant flooring the gas all the way to Picton to get in time for the ferry to the North island. I did get there in time, after lots of speeding and crazy overtakings on winding coastal roads, but for the record the ABS kicked in just two times and I only bumped the car once (and, ahem, later sort of repaired it).

I enjoyed the ferry, probably the most scenic ferry crossing ever, just as they advertise. Really windy though. Too short anyway, I felt sorry when we arrived. As a sidenote, on the boat I met one of the guys who worked animating Gollum in the LOTR trilogy, a really cool geek I'll have to look up in the credits one day.

I stopped in Wellington as I arrived for a few hours to get supplies, fuel and information. I pinpointed the Other Side on Google Maps, noted down the exact GPS coordinates and familiarised with the map of the area. Later walked through the backpacker district in W and fell in love with the atmosphere. Gotta come back someday, I thought as I zoomed out of town.

I didn't want to spend the night anywhere fancy, just somewhere in Nowhereland, but ended up in this uber-cool place with palm trees and free showers, which enabled me to start the following day clean, happy and ready to rumble.

The GPS I rented for an extra $5 a day proved to be essential for negotiating the labyrinth of secondary roads dotted with nothing but farms. The drive was quite long, and I looked at the Distance To Destination on the GPS every 5km. I felt the wonderful thrill of anticipation.

Finally made it to the point where the roads became too secondary for Navman to bother having them mapped. There I discovered that Google Maps was wrong: there was nothing at all where a gravel road was supposed to be. So I stalked the area for a while and found a no doubt somehow private dirt track that went up a hill. I hesitated not and slowly drove up it. From up the hill I could make out approximately where the point I was looking for was, some 2km away. I surveyed the area and it quickly became evident that I wouldn't be getting much closer. Not on unmapped dirt tracks, being, as it was, 7pm, with the clouds rolling in and the rain getting stronger.

So, This Was It. The endpoint of my pilgrimage. My destination. The End.

I Made It. This was There, or rather, Here. The Other Side of the World. The Antipode. Almost as far away as the surface of the Earth would ever allow me to get from where I've been living for the last 17 years. The place where I would pop my head out after digging over 12700km in a straight line and brushing off the lava.

I sat and mused for a while, taking in the view and the bellows from the cows in the valley, while thinking I Made It, I Am Here... and now what?

At this point a big herd of sheep avalanched into the scene, closely followed by 3 dogs and a shepherd riding an offroad quad bike.

He stopped and we chatted for a while. Where are you from, he asked at one point.

I grinned a big grin, swung my arm in a big arc, solemnly thrust my finger downwards, and said "there". I was so happy.

I explained my mission to him. He listened politely, with the expression of someone who, while not having a clue, is observing a particularly abstract piece of modern art involving colorful vaginas.

His house was a few hundred metres away. So we're neighbours of a sort, I said. Yeah, the farthest sort there is, he said. Good point. He was, though, happy to learn that Madrid, Spain lays exactly on the other side of this hilly, sheepy planet.

I was extatic to learn that on this side of the world, my neighbour shepherd herds his sheep every day through a valley flooded by mist among golden hilltops.


It was during the Aussie leg of my journey when I learned that New Zealanders are more commonly known as "kiwis". The explanation for this, however, has remained elusive until now.
I have at last found out why. In much the same way that the kangaroo is the symbol of Australia, the symbol of New Zealand is the Kiwi: a flightless nocturnal bird that looks like... well, like a kiwi would look if it had two stubby legs and a long thin beak. In order to differenciate national symbol and food, the fruit is called, in an explosion of creativity, a "kiwifruit".

As for the symbolism of the national symbol, you could argue for the nocturnality of the New Zealanders, but the one thing they're not is flightless. The kiwiest thing there is is to throw yourself off any number of heights, using any number of sophisticated devices for keeping you alive after the fall. Any mountain, bridge or tower you see, chances are you can jump off it for a reasonable sum. Jump down caves, into the rivers, or from any number of planes, over mountains, lakes and cities.

As for the bird itself, for all you see statues and pictures of it, it's practically impossible to see it in the wild and very difficult even in captivity. You can, however, be lucky and spot it on a road sign:

Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Queenstown is, to all effects, a tourist resort. It's widely known as the place to go for all your physical, adrenaline-rush activities on the South island. Bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, hanggliding, parasailing, white water rafting, jetboating, jetski, abseiling, and of course ski and snowboarding in winter are all just a few hundred kiwibucks away.

Swimming against the current as usual, I came here to rest. And I managed to, again against the strong current that wanted to drag me out for drinks.

I loved Queenstown. Wonderful place, lovely scenery, great atmosphere, vibrant nightlife, and very well situated. Who wouldn't?

From the range of outdoors activities available, I only did the bungy jumping (the highest jump in the southern hemisphere, blablabla, and certainly the most expensive), the louge* and hiked up the mountain. I had a brief night out and loved it, spent the remainder of my 5 days stay just chilling out. Ooohh... I needed that.

I was sad to leave, and promised myself: I'll be back .

* louge: It consists in rolling down a winding circuit on a small bike-kart. Funnier than you would imagine!


Just as Australia was sinking under the horizon behind me and the stars were starting to pierce the night sky, my spirits took a dive down into the deep dark pit of utmost misery. I was a wreck. I felt what I never expected to.

I was homesick.

I was stunned. I couldn't explain it, it made no sense. Why would I miss a place I don't even call home, a place I've only been wanting to get as far away as possible of for as long as I can remember.

I skimmed Christchurch quickly on the surface. It's not a bad place at all, but I was tired beyond description, dazed and confused, jetlagged and on a tight schedule.

But most importantly, I was bonjovied out of the city. Bloody Bon Jovi was in town, so every single hostel was tightly packed. Not a single bed available. I had no time to recover and no choice but to move on. Was lucky to get a relo* to Queenstown, which secured me transport and accommodation for the next days. Slept the first decent night's sleep in a long, long, long time, ironically, in a car. And a bad one for sleeping in, come that.

But I got half my mind back and managed to understand my unexplainable homesickness. For the past 16 days I had not had many a chance of sleeping more than 6 hours in a row, and that was in cars, overnight buses, a boat and 4 different hostels. I had been diving, snorkelling, hiking, walking, climbing, drinking heavily, surfing and kayaking, and repeatedly stressed out of my mind.

I was knuckered. Dead tired. I got to the point where I could no longer understand: why am I doing this to myself?

It's no great mystery then that my subconscious conjured up images of home, a place where you always have a bed on which to rest as much as you need, where you don't have to worry and plan constantly, where a day spent on not doing anything much doesn't feel like a day lost. And sure, a place where the comfort and protection of your family is close at hand.

I understood what I needed, so I made up my mind, lowered gear, revved up the engine, veered and swished over the winding roads all the way home.

For a few days, my home was Queenstown, New Zealand.

*relo=relocation deal. When a car rental company needs to move a car to another depot, they rent it at a much lower rate, usually ridiculously cheap. Not in this particular case though.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


I jumped the Nevis. Here's the proof:

Fraser Island

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Ah, so beautiful it hurts. So beautiful it makes me sad.

You want to see all of it, but you don't have the time, so you have to choose. You're surrounded by such beauty you can't capture it in a photo. It's something you can't really share, no matter how nice your pics may turn out. You need to go there to know.

I went to Fraser in the standard backpacker way: squeezed into a 4WD Toyota with 9 other people, in a "self-drive safari" as they call it. Ten people + all guys + 3 days + lots of beers = great fun. It was a super cool group with really great guys, if I may say so myself, and a great dynamic overall.

We were lucky to have "Mamma" Tom with us to take care of the cooking and change our nappies. We had great food: sandy macaroni, sandy tuna, sandy-flavoured potatoes and even sandy salad. Yummy and crunchy. Let's not forget that Fraser is "the biggest sand island in the world". Just sand. Sand is everywhere, and eventually gets into everything.

The car we got was possibly older than myself, a rusty piece of sssscrap that was falling to pieces. Just as Bluey* ("hey goyz,goyz") was telling us not to mind the rust, the disfunctionality of a safety belt, the handbrake not working and the fuel gauge being whimsy, the rear view mirror cartoonishly fell off. Kudos to the guy for continuing his speech as if it was the most common thing, not even a muscle twitching on his face.

Nevertheless, the drive was good. And bumpy, thus loads of fun. We got sort of stranded in the morning of the last day, because of an unusually high tide (on Fraser, the beach is the highway. And the landing strip), but we made it to Indian Head, and it was oh so much worth it. All of Fraser was: the lakes, the rainforests, the dunes, the other lakes, the cliffs and the sea, the birds, the sunrises, the whole of it. I could go on about it for a long while, but this post is getting too long already. Just check the pics.

As a side note, you're not likely to find a toilet on Fraser. So, we had to carry our own with us.This is my artistic impression of it:

*Bluey = Aussie-speak for "redhead". In this particular case, the nickname of the complete asshole we had to deal with.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Get your motor running

I'm about to set out on yet another road trip, now through the North island of New Zealand.

I still carry many stories in my sack. I can feel their weight, I can see them piling up, impatient to be written. I still have to tell you about surfing and kayaking, Fraser Island and New Zealand, Queenstown and bungy jumping. And many other things, too.

But for now, I cannot. With a bit of luck, in a few days, so please hold on through yet another commercial break. Now, it is the time to accomplish my mission, to finish my quest. I'm going to try and get as far away from Ascobendas-Safghanistan as the Earth will allow me.

Onwards, to the Antipode.