And, we’re off!
(Photo courtesy of Rachel)
Hayden had recently bought Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist: The 500 Best Experiences on the Planet which then led to a Google spreadsheet documenting which ones we’ve hit up and which ones we’re going to experience later this year which then led to a sense of extreme purpose which then led to anxiety about not having enough time, then a panic attack and some serious breathing into a brown paper bag which then led to depression and junk food carnage which then led to weight gain and deeper depression and, finally, the loss of a will to live. Who knew a book can set off such a chain of events. By the way, only the book purchase and the resulting Google Sheet are true.
So, on that list was the Avebury Stone Circle, the largest stone circle in the world, older than Stonehenge, and the only one to have a pub within it. Triple-triple, double letter bonus score!
A lovely English day, complete with rain, snow and hail. It went something like this:
“Hey, snow!….wait, ow! OW! Um, OUCH.”
One of these things is not like the others.
Some weird rock growth, which I label “blue moss.” I like blue moss.
Also known as “The English Riviera.” I supppose having a bunch of rich folks dock their yachts here earns this place the “riviera” title.
Also on Lonely Planet’s Travelist – The Eden Project, with its biomes full of planty goodness, one tropical and the other Mediterranean. To environmental conservation, and beyond! (Also visit their dining area for some mean Cornish pasties. Who needs the sun when you’ve got these steaming pockets of sunshine. Well, maybe the plants do.)
So, I ended my international travels (of 2015) on a high note – New Zealand All Blacks vs. Tonga in the 2015 Rugby World Cup taking place in England, this particular game in Newcastle in St. James’ Park. I was late to the game (no pun intended) and purchased a ticket much later than Hayden and his friends did, so I ended up somewhere nearby only to have the seller cancel the purchase and StubHub then replace it with an even better seat. SCORE! (This time, pun is intended.) The guys, however, managed to get seats nearby a TV camera and they all got their 15 seconds of fame and TV screenshots posted onto Facebook by their friends. Rumor has it that I may have gotten tipsy enough to, well, tip over my aisle seat into the aisle and knock over my beer as I was trying to see the All Blacks score, then have Tonga fans help me back up. That rumor is, unfortunately, true.
I saw and filmed my very first live haka which sent chills down my spine. Not only did I get to see one but, two – one from the All Blacks and the other from the Tongans. That video now lies in a memory card inside an iPhone that has been dropped into the stadium toilet bowl. I ended up having the above photo to show because I had sent it in a group chat shortly before I developed lavatory butterfingers. The aforementioned iPhone has been lying in a bag full of rice and silica gel packets for about 5-6 months now. It is still very much dead.
Regarding the title of this entry, wouldn’t it be a great company name for intimates made with Scottish plaid? If someone steals this idea, I demand royalties.
Anyway, during one of my stays, I opted for a hostel, Code Hostel, to save some dough. But, since I arrived late (past reception hours), they gave me the security codes in advance. So, I quietly entered the room as I realized people were already asleep at 10pm, quickly grabbed my toiletries and went to the showers. It then dawned on me that with the reception closed, I had no way of renting a towel. Grunt.
I was standing by the showers, scratching my head, thinking that my only option would be to mummify myself with a roll of toilet paper. Then, my eyes laid upon the fully-stocked paper towel dispenser by the sinks. I could at least dry myself without tissue pieces falling apart and getting stuck on random parts of my body. Problem solved.
In the span of 2 days, I decided to go museum crazy but, what really drove me crazy were the names of the museums. After visiting the Scottish National Gallery, I flipped the page in my compact Lonely Planet book to see the Scottish National Portrait Gallery also listed. “Wait, isn’t that the museum I JUST went to?” And, after flipping back and forth between the 2 pages a few more times, I finally realized that this museum had the word “portrait” in it. Repeat process for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In New York, you have the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum et al. In Edinburgh, all the major museums are named with the country’s name in some form. I can only imagine what went on during the naming process for the Museum Naming Committee.
Person 1: “So, we have several days and a nice budget to come up with the names of the following museums. How about we name all of them Scottish National something and call it a day? And, then, let’s head to the pub for a pint.”
Everyone else: “Done.”
These museums are all free admission, except for special exhibitions, so I really shouldn’t be judging anything. In summary:
1. National Museum of Scotland – Fun mix of science, art and culture. Very kid-friendly.
2. Royal Scottish Academy – The art was way too modern, I left feeling confused about myself and life in general.
3. Scottish National Gallery – Nice variety of artwork.
4. Scottish National Portrait Gallery – Not really my cup of tea (pun alert) but, their “Lee Miller & Picasso” special exhibit was totally worth paying for admission.
5. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – Decent variety of artwork. I loved their “The Amazing World of M.C. Escher” exhibit.
General tip: If you actually want to enjoy your time in Edinburgh, don’t do what I did. Don’t overload yourself on museums. There comes a point where it just becomes forced and the state of your brain becomes worse than it was the night before your college finals.
There are several spots where you can get a panoramic view of the city – The Scott Monument, Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill. The Scott Monument and Calton Hill are nice but, Arthur’s Seat was the most rewarding experience because 1) A map doesn’t really help too much so, you use your logic to make your way up and find immense satisfaction in your navigation skills; 2) You get a view of green hills and the entire city after suffering a wee bit of exercise; and 3) It’s free.
Above is a partial view from The Scott Monument. It’s worth it in the sense that you get to see everything up close but, in addition to sharing a very tight space with other tourists, there are pillars and rails in the way of getting a decent panoramic photo. I considered holding out my iPhone out a little further but it’s pretty windy up there and I was sure that it would blow the phone out of my hands and potentially injure an innocent pedestrian below.
This is the view from Arthur’s Seat. You get the entire city in one shot AND there is plenty of space to sit, hang out and ponder. I relied on a tiny map in an abridged Lonely Planet book but, it only got me so far. There are no real signs pointing to Arthur’s Seat so, I looked up, pointed out where most people were standing and headed in that direction. I managed to find some steps once I ventured in further. Try to wear proper sneakers or hiking shoes. I wore my Toms canvas shoes and almost slipped to my death.
Above is a view of Edinburgh Castle from the Princes Street Gardens. I spent around 4 hours at the castle but, you could easily spend an entire day there if your brain can handle it. The National War Museum was my favorite part of the entire grounds since it highlighted a time when war was a legitimate concern for everyone. It’s sad to say but, I feel like too many people detach themselves from the wars occurring these days so long as someone else is fighting it. I partially attribute it to the fact that people are bombarded with so much news everyday that they’ve become desensitized. That, and the fact that people have become more concerned with themselves than the community as a whole.
(I also stayed for the One o’clock Gun, a canon that gets fired everyday, except Sunday, at (no way?!) 1pm. This was done back in the 1800s to help ships synchronize their maritime clocks needed for navigation. COOL.)
Afterwards, I strolled down the Royal Mile, past St. Giles’ Cathedral (pictured above, worth a visit) and through the Old Town until I reached the Holyrood Palace. Closed. For Royal Week (with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in residence). Boo.
So, in true tourist fashion, I squeezed my camera through the gates and took this photo.
If you have no time commitments and want to go for a nice leisurely stroll, I recommend the Water of Leith Walkway. The entire walk is apparently about 16+ km but, I started at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and stopped at the Stockbridge Market (open on Sundays) for 1-2 hours total. The walk goes through leafy parks and an awesome mix of architecture. Stop for a flat white at Steampunk Coffee if you’re able to make it to the Stockbridge Market. It’s run out of a really cool campervan.
I ended up doing The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour one night since it had really amazing reviews from Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. An excuse to drink and learn some history? Why not. What really ended up happening? I hung out with a bunch of loud Americans and struggled to decipher the tour guides’ heavy Scottish accent which only proved useless after the first 2 Guinnesses. It didn’t help that I “pre-gamed” at BrewDog with some delicious IPA’s (Punk IPA and IPA is Dead). The more tipsy I got, the more gibberish I heard. I essentially paid for a pub crawl. I guess it was fun.
At the last pub, I saw a tap for Guinness and another for Guinness Extra Cold.
Me: “So, is the “Extra Cold” a Scottish thing? I’ve never seen it before.”
Bartender: “No, it’s usually for the Americans. We like it warmer so that we could actually taste the beer.”
Oh yea? Well, I love the taste of Guinness and ordered an extra cold one. I really showed him.
I took a day trip to Glasgow (about 1.5 hr and £13.50 each way) and was met with heavy rain. Hours of it. So, with an extremely heavy heart, I did something I vowed never to do. I purchased a ticket and rode…A RED DOUBLE-DECKER BUS. FAINT. The rain was so heavy, it wasn’t even worth looking out the window at the sites. I ended up getting off at the Glasgow Science Center and watching Jurassic World. When the movie ended, so did the rain. Literally minutes before. SCORE!
Now, with the sun out, I put in my earphones and walked my heart out. It turned out to be a truly beautiful day. (Above: Clyde Arc)
I passed Glasgow University, skipped the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (heard it was just alright) and walked through the park instead, headed towards Clyde Arc and walked along the river towards People’s Palace where I ended up at West Brewery Bar & Restaurant (which Hayden had recommended to me – thanks!). A burger and a beer sure did nurse my double-decker damaged ego.
Finally, I walked back towards the train station and passed by the Glasgow Cathedral.
A question that I usually get from my friends is, “Don’t you get lonely when you travel by yourself?” And, the answer is no and yes. No, because I think traveling by yourself helps you to love yourself more. Cheesy but, true. It forces you to open up to strangers and pay more attention to the surroundings. You realize that you’re more independent than you originally had thought. You can navigate cities and figure out maps. The day’s schedule is subject only to your opinion. But, most important of all, you learn to be alone with your thoughts. Scary? Oh, hell yea. But, completely necessary. You realize how much of what you think is complete bullshit and gradually learn to let go of it piece by piece (nice shit imagery there). On the other hand, you let your daydreams go wild which is great for someone who enjoys writing. If you can learn to be happy on your own, then the rest is golden. Alcohol also helps. I guess your biggest struggle then narrows down to eating on your own in a restaurant and resisting the urge to be glued to your phone. Alcohol also helps there. You just end up looking like this:
Travel tip: For the train tickets, I purchased the “Anytime Day Single” to be safe because I realized that not all trains going to Glasgow accept the same kind of ticket. It was only 1 pound more than the cheapest ticket. Also, I arrived in Glasgow Central station but, when I took a late night train back to Edinburgh Waverley, I realized at the last minute that most trains were departing from the Glasgow Queen St. station. I had to run to catch it or else I had to wait another hour. There is no train connecting the 2 stations.
A flight from Longyearbyen to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Oslo, Oslo to Edinburgh, a train ride to Inverness, jetpacking, broomsticking, paddleboarding and an eagle ride later…
I was waiting in the Inverness train station waiting area for my REI Adventures group. After hearing a bunch of American accents around me, I looked up to see 7 other people sporting REI t-shirts – one family of 5 and another family of 2. I thought to myself, “Great. I’m the lone cheese.” I was also the only one without a t-shirt since I began my travels before it arrived in the mail.
Enter: John, our tour guide and a local whose appearance reminded me of Rick Steves. At first, he seemed just like a typical nice guy but, as time went on, his calm delivery of sarcasm had us second-guessing whether or not he was being serious. He also made us laugh with his random life adages and, by the end of the trip, he had successfully incorporated “wee bit” into our vocabulary.
We then piled into a van and went about our merry way towards Ullapool, a fishing village on the shores of Loch Broom.
We stopped at a waterfall somewhere along the way and walked through this cool forest. I know they’re not bamboo trees but I feel like I should’ve been able to find some pandas somewhere up in here.
On arrival at our first B&B, Ladysmith House, I began to realize why this REI trip seemed a bit pricier than other tour companies. The accommodations were way better than I expected and all the meals were included in the cost. For half the trip, I ended up with my own room. This is so…illogical (Spock).
We had some time to wash up and rest and, upon hearing that tonight’s dinner would be BYOB, a bunch of us headed straight to the nearby supermarket to stock up on beer, wine and scotch. The plan afterwards was to do a quick hike up a hillside, then gorge on food and alcohol at dinnertime, except that John was running late due to an incident and we ended up waiting for him at a local pub. By the time he had picked us up for the hike, I had quite the buzz going. Not sure if this attracted more or less midges. Either way, for such a tiny insect, they are the biggest assholes. I fumigated myself with Smidge That Midge, an insect repellant with an oddly cute cartoon midge displayed on the can.
I stood here and marveled at nature’s beauty but, only for a few minutes. Midges are really no joke.
When we got here, we parked the van at an entrance that was gated to prevent the sheep from wandering off too far. But, further down along the gated boundary was a burrow underneath, with scraps of wool stuck on the fencing. It seems that a few lambies managed to escape. Lambshank Redemption? Anyone?
The next morning, we stopped in Knockan Crag, a line of cliffs where geologists discovered that older layers of rock were on top of younger layers, a phenomenon which was argued to be a false discovery. It was later discovered by Benjamin Peach and John Horne that the structure of these layers was made possible by tectonic movements which shifted the older layers to the top. It’s pretty crazy that these movements happened slowly over thousands or millions of years. It sounds like my movement from my bed to the couch on a hangover recovery day.
Afterwards, we began our 6-7 mile hike up Cùl Mòr, a mountain in Inverpolly. Throughout each hike, John would show us the map and compass to teach us some basic navigation skills, explaining what the contour lines indicated and the direction we should be going. Great stuff to know. Easy to forget. (Booo.)
As we were approaching the area in the photo above, John asked, “Are you guys okay with ‘rocky bits’?” I just said “yea” but, I had no idea what “rocky bits” really meant. And then, I saw this. The photo doesn’t quite capture the steepness of this rocky cliff. Only one of us had a fear of heights (not me, phew!).
We reached the top for a view of…nothing. The clouds had rolled in and formed a dense fog. Clouds are cool though, until they pee on you.
The landscape in the Scottish Highlands is so quaint. I remembered thinking, “Wow, these look like those paintings in the museum!” which I found ironic since it should be the other way around – the paintings should look like these landscapes.
After a brief stop at the Corrieshalloch Gorge, we headed towards Cove where we hiked an easy 1-2 hours to a cliff with a view of Loch Ewe. John decided to give us an easy day today since the next day would later prove to be hell…of an adventure.
I always had a concept of what the word “bog” was but, you never really know until you’ve hiked in Scotland. Its texture is that of an oversaturated sponge, a whole clusterfuck of them. Now that I think about it, it’s what I would imagine stomping on brains to feel like, with squishes so loud, you can almost picture the word “SQUISH!” coming out at each step in a Roy Lichtenstein manner. Eventually, I began to appreciate the bogs because it would help wipe off the mud from my hiking shoes.
We sat here for lunch (a sandwich, granola bar, piece of fruit and usually a bag of chips and/or a chocolate bar), which was made daily by a local caterer or the B&B’s where we were staying.
Loch Ewe, which I think is an unfortunate sounding name for this view.
After lunch, we headed back to our van, with me and Kerry (one of the guys) leading the way. We thought we knew where we were going and were so overly confident to lead the pack. We spotted the pond pictured 3 photos above and began to hike towards there only to later realize that we were approaching a completely different pond. We looked back at the rest of the group who was then heading more to the left of us and we started heading the same way in slight shame. And, that is why we paid someone to be the guide.
Our new home base for the next 2 nights was Loch Maree Hotel, in a remote area with satellite wifi. Again, I lucked out with my own room. Score!
And, so beginneth the helleth of an adventureth. I specialize in Shakespearian language.
We parked our van in mud and began our hike up Beinn Eighe in relatively pleasant weather. But, then, it started to rain. And then, it really rained. Then it lightened up. Then it downpoured. Then it seemed like it stopped but, I realized that the previous heavy raindrops numbed my senses to the drizzle. Then, guess what?? It rained some more. A whole 8 hours. In the 9 hour total hike.
I wish I could convey the steepness and the harshness of the weather with this photo but, there were moments during the climb where the wind became so strong, I thought I would be blown off the ridge into oblivion. At this point, my waterproof gear stopped serving its purpose and my socks created its own boggy ecosystem inside my hiking shoes.
We began our descent with something called “scree running.” Since the ground is completely made of loose rocks, there is really no way to gingerly make your way down the mountain. So, basically, all you need to do is go ape shit running on your heels down the steep slope. The faster you go, the less tiring and the less chances for your feet to get buried, causing you to trip, slip and 2 smoking barrels. Ape noises: optional. Thighs of steel: no doubt.
We reached a loch within the valley with random plane debris lying around. In March 1951, a Lancaster had met with horrible weather conditions, causing it to crash into the summit. A rescue team, however, wasn’t able to reach the crash site until about 2-3 weeks later due to the harsh winter weather.
A lot of the wreckage was left as is.
Then, God saw that we were on lower, flatter grounds and nearing the end of our 9 hour hike, and thought, “Now’s a good time for some sun.” Gee, thanks.
For some reason, the hike back down seemed way longer than the way up. In an attempt to motivate us and to keep the group morale up, John would periodically say, “Just a wee bit more. A weeee bit.” At some point, one of us yelled out, “Just what does ‘wee bit’ really mean, huh?!?” And, in my head, I was thinking “Fucking ‘wee bit,’ fucking shit ‘wee bit.'” and almost had a reaction equivalent to the one towards Ross’ “PIVOT!”
We then found a massive slab of dry rock to take a break on. I wisely took that time to take off my shoes and wring the water out of my socks. The amount of water stored in there could’ve solved California’s drought problem.
This Highland cow clearly became annoyed that we prompted him to turn his head to check us out. It turned its head back the moment it knew we were about to capture a perfect photo, and I could’ve sworn it perked up its ass a little higher at us. I don’t blame him.
We hiked through more bogs to reach Fairy Lochs, a place where an American WWII bomber crashed on its way back home to the states back in 1945. The original flight plan involved a route that flew over Iceland but, a detour was taken over Scotland for unknown reasons.
The crash site is now classified as a war grave and the wreckage still remains in memoriam of the lives lost.
Our last stop of the day was the Eilean Donan Castle before heading to the Isle of Skye. Home for our last 3 nights: Sconser Lodge Hotel.
Isle of Skye
Ominous clouds? Rain? Yea, let’s take a hike up the Black Cuillin mountain range. For 5 hours.
Halfway up, the conditions worsened and John decided it wasn’t safe anymore to climb to the very top. A very wise decision. All I could picture at that point was the scene in Forrest Gump when he’s in Vietnam and describing all the different kinds of rain. And, then, I kept hearing “Lt. Dan, ice cream” and the whole menu of Bubba Gump shrimp in my head.
Don’t let this photo deceive you. The sun came out as we were heading down but, when we looked back up at the peak, it still looked treacherous and the rain was still pouring down.
Now with free time after the hike, we decided to make a pitstop at the Talisker distillery. It was a long wait until the next tour so John convinced them to give us free samples of their scotch before leaving. I imagined that a heavily Band-Aided person got too close to the crater of an active volcano (as if there are any nearby), ran to the distillery to call for help and had his melting smoked Band-Aids leak into the vats unbeknownst to the distillery workers. This concoction was then bottled and served in mini shotglasses to those of us skipping the distillery tour. Or, I could’ve just easily said that it tasted like smoked Band-Aids. We all split a Kit Kat bar to mask the aftertaste.
The rooms at the Neist Point Lighthouse, now under private ownership, can be rented out. If you look through the windows, however, they look abandoned and just damn creepy. You also need to bring your own food and supplies, although I’d imagine that after you realized you used the last square of toilet paper, the thought of walking a good 20-30 minutes up a steep hill just to get to your car will have you MacGyvering some nearby grass and leaves.
Creag an Fheilidh, or Kilt Rock since the patterns in the rock formations resemble the folds of a kilt. You can’t get anymore Scottish than that. Well, maybe a scotch waterfall…
Yet another cloudy day here in Scotland, and we hiked at Cuith-Raing (or Quiraing), a landslip on the northernmost summit of the Trotternish, to reach The Table, a plateau with views of the surrounding Cuillin range and beyond. One part was so steep, I felt like I was face-to-face with the ground above me and my calves were on serious FIYAH. I was taking a break to cool my calves on my way up when a dog zoomed past me with ease and his tongue dangling out in sheer happiness. I felt sheer envy.
There was a glimmer of hope of having some kind of view…
Oh, nope! Nevermind! Carry on.
We did, however, see this beauty later in the day at the Old Man of Storr. Who is this “old man” on this rocky hill of Storr?
It’s this rock. That’s his face. Either you need some magic mushrooms to make out the face or, you need to start applying some anti-aging serum NOW to avoid looking like this in the future.
With all the hiking behind us, we stopped in Portree to get our tourist on (aka buy souvenirs and milk the wifi (ha, pun) over a flat white in a cafe). As the largest town in Skye, Portree is really cute and quaint, and definitely deserves a meander around.
Team Bog: Edith and her son Kerry behind her (family #1); Ruth, Craig, Andy, Emily and Chris (family #2); me, as the Korean foreign exchange student; John, our guide.
I never really feel “old” but, when I found out that not only were these kids born in the 90s, they were nearly a decade younger than me. Say what now.
On our drive back to Inverness, we stopped by Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, both of which were underwhelming. Inverness, however, looked majestic in the sunlight.
Things to do in Inverness: St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, Victorian Market, River Ness walk
June 23 – 30, 2015: Scotland Highlands & Islands Hiking
Shetland Islands, Scotland
“Gooood morning everyone. It is now 6:30am. Breakfast will be served from 7 – 8am.”
In the beginning, the morning wake up intercom announcements were soothing with her nice calm voice. But, gradually, it began to make your eye twitch. Then, by the end, you almost couldn’t survive without it. I actually had the intention of recording it and making it my alarm ringtone, except that I had stayed up at the bar the night before and overslept. I had 3 weeks to record it and I saved it for the very last night. Of course.
So, for this day, we had a choice between the puffin bus which meant that we would spend the day puffin-watching or, Jarlshof, another Neolithic/Bronze Age/Iron Age archaeological site, with a brief 10 minute stop to see the puffins. A Scotsman and historian had told us the night before that due to the rising tides and the high possibility of erosion, the ruins should be a priority. And, so, we chose the puffin bus. We, as in Flo, Hayden and me. The Orkney ruins were enough.
Our bird-watching tour guide was of the overly enthusiastic kind who rolled her r’s with the gracefulness of a Spaniard. Or, just anyone who can roll their r’s (not me, sad face). Her common phrases of enthusiasm were “Yeeha!!” and “There you go!!” The excitement was admirable on one hand and so damn annoying on the other.
So, we docked in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, and headed for the bird cliffs and lighthouse in Scumburgh…Scumbag…ah, sorry, Sumburgh Head (a Miles reference). The cliffs were filled with several kinds of birds, mainly razorbills, fulmars and puffins. The overly enthusiastic tour guide shouted in a thick Scottish accent, “Yeeha!! Look! Fulmars! There you go! All here for your enjoyment!” If any of you see me in person, I will do an impression for you, complete with an atrocious Scottish accent. I promise that it will be bad.
Usually the puffins avoid the cliffs when it is too windy. Luckily they stuck around because the winds were so strong that my youthful hands quickly aged to granny status as my gloveless hands tried to take photos. It was fun watching the puffins trying to land in the fierce winds as they slammed into the cliff side. Hayden and I tried to get photos and video clips of the puffin taking off, except the one we chose to concentrate on decided to chill for awhile like a little bastard. When we turned to watch another puffin 10-15 minutes later, the little bastard took off! That motherpuffer.
“Puffins! Yeeha! There you go!!”
“Puffins tend to find one mate and stick with the same mate throughout its life. That is love!”
I think I scoffed a bit when I heard that bit. Perhaps I’ve been made a skeptic these past few years.
Apparently, the female fulmars just perch themselves on the cliff while the males flutter around them in an attempt to attract them. An elderly lady came up with a dainty courtship story that explained what was going on. Very “Aw, the male is trying to put a red rose corsage on her wrist.” Very Little House on the Prairie. Hayden and I, on the other hand, modernized it with a NYC twist.
Fluttering male fulmar: “Hey, look at meee! Look at mah moves!”
Female fulmar, just chillin’ on the cliff: “Damnnnnn son!”
Forget walks on the beach in moonlight. This is true romance. The male fulmar could’ve even been wearing some gold chains around its neck.
On the bus ride back to the port, we passed by fields of Shetland ponies with locks of hair fluttering sexily in the breeze. Mine just flew across my face, blinding my vision and getting stuck in my mouth.
Later that night, the ship entered Norwegian waters and for awhile, we were surrounded by oil rigs. I’m talking 360 degrees of oil rigs. A bit cool and eerie at the same time. I suggested a game of punch oil rig (as in, punch buggy) but, people just courtesy-laughed and went about their night.
On the first morning on the ship, both Rachel and I woke up seasick. I had to portion out my morning routine in phases so that I could have breaks in between to stabilize myself. Sitting on the top deck while eating a piece of toast and staring at the horizon helped immensely. It was almost like the hangover after your 21st birthday. Well, maybe not as bad. Luckily, this was the only morning I felt this way. After that, my sea legs were so strong that once on land, I felt like I was swaying on concrete.
And, with that, I shall introduce the 25-35 age bracket crew or, as Paul (the resident photographer) would say, the “crazy kids.” It was Rachel (one of my roommates) from Canada, Hayden from New Zealand, Miles from the states, California to be exact, and yours truly. At first, it was just Rachel, Hayden and me. Due to an incident at passport control, Miles ended up missing the ship and had to fly to our next destination to catch up with us.
Miles: “I need to get to the Shetland Islands.”
Local: “The what?”
Miles: “Shetland Islands.”
Local: “Ohh, you mean the Shetland Islands, not Shetland.”
Miles: “That’s what I said…?”
That reminded me of when I tried to order a croissant in a Parisian bakery one time and, after trying to pronounce “croissant” several times, I just pointed to the damn thing only to have the lady say “Ohhh, croissant.” If you know me, you know the exact facial expression that I had on.
So, after the seasickness subsided, there was a presentation that first morning where the crew was introduced – marine biologists, naturalists (not naturists, as was quickly emphasized), zodiac technicians, firearm specialists (in case of polar bear attacks), a photographer, doctor, historian and geologist. In a nutshell, an awesome group of people who really know their shit.
Doctor: “If there are any doctors or nurses on board, please come say hi to me. I’d love to meet you and may need your help in case of an emergency… even if you are a pathologist.”
Orkney Islands, Scotland
In Kirkwall, the capital located in the Mainland island of the archipelago, is the St. Magnus Cathedral, built in the 12th century to honor…St. Magnus. (No way, I wouldn’t have guessed.) It was built using red sandstone and additions were made subsequently throughout the years.
Across the street is the Bishop’s Palace or, what’s left of it. On its lawn was the biggest dog I’ve ever seen with legs so long, it could’ve been hired as a fashion week runway model. No doubt.
Around the Skaill House, the grass looked incredibly soft and I was compelled to pet it, nuzzle it and take a nap upon it. It was actually a sturdy grass with a side swept softness…like the gelled hair of a NYC metrosexual.
Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement which was discovered by accident about 150 years ago. What’s left of the stone-built houses is shown above and the use of each house and all the remaining tools is really anybody’s guess. To some, this may be fascinating, especially given its UNESCO status. To me, honestly…it was a bunch of stones. There’s no point in lying.
The Ring of Brodgar, a ceremonial ring of monolith stones, older than Stonehenge and possibly thought to be religious in nature. I think a quote from a later presentation on the ship describes it best – “Whenever an archaeologist doesn’t know what an artifact is for, they just call it ‘ceremonial.'” I mean, what if it wasn’t ceremonial at all and was actually a test of manhood where the men of the local villages competed for the one virgin bride by carrying stones from a faraway quarry to this very spot? Hey, you never know.
On the way back to the ship, we passed by the Standing Stones of Stenness, a smaller ring of monolith stones. Perhaps a test run prior to the actual manhood test.
Overall, it felt great being on land with fresh air, warm sunshine and picturesque landscapes. But, as we were pulling away from the docks…we bid it farewell with “Goodbye Orkneys! Islands that I’ll probably never come back to see!”
Um, so, where do I start? I left my job again, have been on a ship for 3 weeks with very minimal wifi access and was diligent with writing trip notes for less than 1. We’ve been in 24/7 daylight for so long that I don’t remember if we even had the night sky at the very beginning of this trip. The entire 3 weeks could just have been 2 very, very long days. I’ve spoken to enough Canadian, English, Aussie and just…older people that I’ve begun to use words like “quite” and add “yea?” to the end of sentences without even realizing. “That fjord was quite lovely, yea?”
After arriving in Edinburgh, I took the tram into the city center (GBP 5, one way), dropped off my bags at the meeting point and went sightseeing. When I returned to catch the shuttle to the ship, I walked into a sea (pun!) of silvery gray hair and shiny heads. Three to four coach buses full of them. I thought to myself, “Did I accidentally sign up for a geriatric convention?” Luckily, I knew one person in the crowd – Flo, who I had met in a previous G Adventures trip. I booked this trip forgetting that Flo had mentioned awhile back that she was going. It was nice to see a familiar face.
By the way, did I even mention which trip I was going on? It was basically a cruise starting in Edinburgh, stopping in the Orkney and Shetland Islands as well as in fjords up the coast of Norway and finally ending in Longyearbyen, a town in the island of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago situated in the Arctic. The ship had about 130 passengers, 4 of which were in the 25-35 age bracket, me inclusive. At first, it was a bit disappointing. But, in retrospect, I’m glad it ended up this way. In a ship full of millennials, maybe the 4 of us wouldn’t have gotten together or even have said hi to each other. That would’ve been the real travesty. The chemistry among the 4 of us was instant and I attribute it to our inner (or even outer) nerdiness. Hellz yea.
I’ve never been on a cruise before. They just don’t really appeal to me. But, I knew the MS Expedition was a relatively small ship and there really isn’t another way to visit the fjords. I have to say, the ship is pretty badass. I booked the quad (cheapest room) and coming with very little expectations, I thought it was decently spacious. Beds were warm and cozy and basic toiletries were provided. The lounge, library and dining room were all awesome. There was even a gym (albeit with very basic machines) and a Polar Bear Bar. The ship, overall, was really well designed, including a mud room to hang our wet clothes following zodiac rides and even laundry. They distributed free bottles of red wine for those who were repeat customers. I poured one glass for Flo and finished the rest of the bottle myself the next night or so. It says a lot when your friend with 2 friends named Christine dubs you “Wine Christine” and the other “Dr. Christine.” I guess I haven’t gone far in life after all.
At the mandatory safety training, we put on our life jackets and made our way towards the lifeboats. During the Q&A portion, some of the questions asked made me wonder if people expected us to go all Titanic or Captain Phillips. “How long will the food and water last in there?” “Will someone remember to bring our passports?” Annoyed, I commented “Perhaps we should just get dog tags.” Luckily, the assistant captain responded with humor. “Believe me, I ate one of those cookies before and I couldn’t eat for the next 2 days.” Well, that’s how I feel now after all the daily 3 course and buffet meals. I am what I photograph. A whale and a walrus.
May 29 – June 12, 2015: Norwegian Fjords
June 12 – June 19, 2015: Realm of the Polar Bear
Now that I’m back, I feel a greater anxiety to head back to Europe. Sure, we’ve encountered more than a fair share of racist mofos but, where in this world do you not pass by an ignorant bastard one time or another? Other than Antarctica that is…
But let’s focus on the juicy details of our 3 week suitcasing trip to Europe. Remember during spring break two years ago when I literally just packed everything into ONE regular-sized North Face schoolbag for a two-week backpacking trip? I wish I had done that again. Lugging around a suitcase, no matter how small, is the biggest pain in the ass. And I have quite a big one (ass, not suitcase) so you can imagine just how annoying a suitcase must be to create such an impressionable pain.
To start off, I will now type out a brief list of the most frequently used vocab on this trip:
2. shit (as in gotta take one)
Four girls, embracing the beauty of the extensive English vocabulary. Use all four words in one sentence and, voila! You’re on your way to great verbal etiquette.
We took a one day breather before heading off to Bordeaux.
View of Buckingham Palace from St. James’s Park
We walked around Bloomsbury, around Russell Square and Gower street where I used to live. As we hesitated outside of 6 Bedford Square (the NYU in London building), we wondered, Hmmm…can we use the computers?? We managed to get Christina (the only one of the three of us who hadn’t studied abroad) to go inside and ask the guard if we can. Jenn and I just nervously laughed at each other outside the entrance in anticipation…and guess what? The guard kinda remembered us, even after 2 years. Then again, I bet all Asians look the same but, whatever the circumstance, we were able to go inside. What luck! We save 2 pounds worth of internet time. Score! (Hey, that’s equivalent to $4 or 6 Onken mousse).
We went to bed at like 8pm, so that we could wake up at 2am, catch the 3am Thameslink to London Luton airport, to catch a 6am flight to Paris CDG…then take a metro ride to the Paris Montparnasse station to catch a 3 hour train ride to Bordeaux. This all looked much simpler during the planning phase.
Before boarding the Thameslink, we bumped into a bunch of black guys who work at the Kings Cross station, graveyard shift. They ni hao’ed their asses off, which pissed us off a great deal. I yelled out JAMBO! (the exclamation for the clicking noise in African tribal language) but, I was already down a flight of stairs when I yelled it out and didn’t think they heard it. Next time, I gotta do some quicker responses.
Bordeaux, France (which Jenn pronounced as “boudoir”)
I’ll readily admit that we came here thinking it was wine country, only to realize that we had to venture outside of the city to get into that grapey territory. Did we feel dumb? No better way to put it than…yes. We hit up a wine shop instead and pretended we were getting our desired wine experience even though this was easily something we could do in any city, in any country.
An intense water fountain sculpture in Place des Quinconces, one of the largest city squares in Europe.
Soo green and beautiful. I wish my dad could’ve been there. He loves gardening, while my mom loves sitting on the couch, watching sports and drinking beer. There’s no question as to who the man of my family is: my 5′ tall mom.
I wish my pictures at least remotely resembled Monet’s paintings. But alas, my point-and-shoot capabilities and 3.2 megapixels can only do so much good.
Arc de Triomphe
We finally met up with Liz at Gare du Nord.
Guys, remember during the spring break trip two years ago…when we were too cheap to pay 3-5 euros for bedsheets at that dirty Paris hostel? And we wondered why we were too cheap and stingy to even protect ourselves from diseased mattresses?
Well, I realized just how badly stingy we were deep inside…when Jenn came up with the bright idea of squeezing through the metro turnstiles just so we could save money and avoid buying subway tickets. Then one night, we were caught…and fined 25 euros. The fine was originally 35 euros…until Jenn got angry enough for the ticket people to lower it to 25 euros.
I was impressed with Jenn…until I remembered that time in Barcelona when we were incorrectly charged at that Indian-owned paella place. We tried to argue the price of that pitcher of coke down to its true price (from like 9 euros to 4 euros)…and Jenn said to the manager, “Can you just lower it to 8 euros?” We were like “NOO JENN!! The waiter told us 4 euros before!” But I digress…a little too much.
We grew a little bored at the Louvre. So here we are, being replicas of a replica.
Passing Notre Dame on a river boat cruise
Stupid Raileurope put us down as “males” on our overnight train tickets from Paris to Milan. Luckily, Jenn, Liz and I were put into the same sleeper car. On the other hand, Christina was put into a sleeper car with 2 bulky men with smell and sound issues (snoring, not farting). As the bottom bunk, I shared my bed with Christina…only to wake up blanket-less while Christina was burrito wrapped in warmth.
The duomo in its scaffolding glory
Florence (or, Firenze)
Our favorite city. Chianti wine is soo good.
At one of the restaurants, an Indian waiter failed to woo Liz, who told him her name was Veronica.
Indian waiter: “Any desserts Veronica? Would you like some chocolate…like me?”
I forgot his exact wording…but it’s all the same in its ridiculousness.
Pisa (seventh stop…and also eighth stop)
Let’s not discuss why I wrote “and also eighth stop.” All you need to know is that I never want to see Pisa EVER AGAIN!
I tried to be angularly artistic and it came out mediocre. Boohoo.
We arrived at the Firenze Campo di Marte station about 2 hours prior to departing to Vienna. Then as it neared 1 hour prior to departure, something inside my mind brought up the idea of looking at my train ticket again…and when I did, I was in for a shocker. I was supposed to be leaving from the Santa Maria Novella train station instead (not the Campo station). Stupid Raileurope screwed up my ticket again. The rest of the girls were leaving from Campo. Luckily, I was able to buy another ticket for the train I was SUPPOSED to take.
In addition to that, Raileurope gave me a seat instead of a sleeper car (this was another overnight train)…and so, I had to sleep overnight in a seat. You can imagine the number of yoga positions I had to sleep in. Good thing I’m pretty flexible.
On a separate train ride from Vienna to Salzburg, fate had it that we meet Constantine. Hahaha. He was an Austrian from the suburbs, twice our height with chubby hands. Kinda cute, with very little hair on his arms and legs…though he claimed to have a lot more somewhere else. Puaha. After some small talk, he just had to ask us…
“So, do American girls shave their legs? Because my girlfriend doesn’t, and she gave me the excuse that because American girls didn’t shave she didn’t have to.”
Of course, we immediately debunked that monstrous claim. And I had my smooth legs to prove it, haha. We asked him if the hairy legs bothered him…and he replied “only when we, uh….”
You get the picture.
We got so tired of people saying ni hao and konichiwa, that we started snapping back…even to teenage kids.
Teenage boy: “Ni hao ma”
Me: “Oh! you speak Chinese? Because I don’t!”
Teenage boy: “Don’t? (in a confused tone)”
Christina: “Do you speak English?”
Teenage boy: “Yes (with some sort of pride)”
Christina: “Yea, with an ACCENT!”
Then, all four of us: “GUTEN TAG GUTEN TAG GUTEN TAG!!!!!”
Obnoxious. And not very clever or witty either. But it was fun nonetheless.
The Hungarians are the nicest people ever. Even when we stopped for the briefest moment on the sidewalk to look at the map, someone would come up to us to see if we needed help.
We booked an apartment for two nights, and the owners were two Hungarian business partners who seemed like the most mismatched pair. I describe them as Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. One man was shorter and normal-looking…he seemed to have the most sense. The other man was taller and looked like someone who could easily have been a character in one of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories…except, he had this odd jolliness about him. He kept mumbling stuff like some sputtering motor.
Anyway, Budapest is really two areas (Buda and Pest) separated by the Danube River and connected by bridges. Buda is the greener side, and Pest is more city-like.
On Margaret Island, we took a bike ride in the form of a car. We role-played – Christina and Liz as dad and mom, and me and Jenn as obedient children.
London, UK (first and last stop)
London Eye, Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster
We accidentally ran into the rehearsal parade for the Queen’s birthday. If you look closely at the middle of the picture, you’ll see a splatter of horse shit…and the band proceeding to march into it. Squish.