Monthly Archives: May 2009

Loch Ness

To start things off, there is no actual scientific evidence that the Loch Ness Monster exists.  Every single picture you’ve seen is thought to be a fake, sonar efforts don’t turn up much of anything, and incidentally there are monsters reported in other bodies of water around the world that have never showed up with a shred of evidence.  So why do the locals still talk to you about the Monster and their experiences and all the evidence they can’t release for one reason or another?  It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that it’s the only Loch tourists have ever heard of and hence one of the most visited places in Scotland right?  Nah.

To be fair, Loch Ness is a rather lovely body of water-

And deep.  230 meters deep at its deepest point to be precise, meaning it has more water in it than the rest of the lakes in the U.K. combined, because it happens to be along a fault line.  It’s also about 37km long, so why not check out the Loch Ness booze cruise in the evening?image156

A local brew available on the boat that had to be tried once I saw it.  Actually quite tasty!  I also was beside myself by discovering on the same day that there’s an ale in the U.K. called “Fursty Ferret” with pictures of ferrets all around the label.  Just brilliant.

Of course, lest we forget this is a Loch Ness booze cruise.  And how can we cruise around the lake drinking beer with questionable names if we aren’t equipped with sonar to make our intentions look legit and stuff?

The sonar readout- the above picture is actually just the GPS map.  You can see the loch drops off precipitously and if you look very closely in the black part you can see specks which I’m told are fish.  The boat crew also says that a few times a year they get a ping that’s the size of a fingernail, corresponding to an object several meters in size.  Conclude what you want but I never did get a good  explanation as to whether they get false positives with the sonar system.

But perhaps I was too much of a skeptic.  After all, look at this picture I snapped on the cruise-Ohmigawd, it’s proof of the monster!  I mean there is just no way that’s just a decal on the boat’s window lined up with the water!!!

Perhaps I’m coming across as a bit harsh here about the whole thing, as I did talk to a few kind souls who genuinely believe they saw the monster in the loch at some point. (“I saw a hump rising up from the water and disappear within a few seconds, so I don’t have a picture of it.  You think I’m full of shit don’t you?”) To be fair once your skepticism is established I highly recommend saying “stuff it” and going along with pretending there’s a monster down there.  Frankly it’s more fun that way, and what good is traveling if you don’t expose yourself to different viewpoints anyway?

The Highlands

Getting out to the Scottish highlands can be a little tricky when you’re a solo traveler trying to not spend a fortune, but the backpacker solution is to get a good deal for three days in the highlands with Haggis Adventures.  So a motley crew of us ended up going around in a bus like this-

Of  course, it almost didn’t happen.  I got the girl at the hostel desk to call the Haggis office for me and she told me the tour would start at 9:45am the next morning… at 8:42am I was in the perpetual argument of convincing myself to get out of my bed when another hostel worker stuck his head in to ask what was I doing, didn’t I realize my tour was going in two minutes?  What?!  That got me up, and within five minutes I was downstairs with my packed bags hailing a cab to speed me to the departure point, wondering why it normally takes me 20 minutes to pack if I could do it so quickly.  Shots of adrenaline will do that I suppose.

Anyway, I made it because it turns out Alan the driver is a saint and waited a few minutes extra for me.  I didn’t perk up until lunchtime when I got something in my stomach, but by then the scenery had picked up as well-

So it turns out the highlands are pretty.  Really pretty.  As in you will no longer wonder why the Scots settled the South Island of New Zealand because it looks just like it.  Granted, the South Island is a lot bigger so they probably still win overall, but it’s a close call.

One thing they don’t have in New Zealand though- castles!  Really, I think I said this before if we could get an artistically-placed castle or two in the American West it wouldn’t seriously deter from the scenery.  States could even charge permits and admission or whatever to help their budget crises.

Hanging out in said castle, whose name currently eludes me.  I’ve seen a few of these so I can’t say much except it was like any castle only more so, but the kitchen was exceptional.  This was because they tried to recreate what it must have been like back in the day with wax figurines and the like, which gave the whole thing a bit of a wonderfully disturbing feel.

Me with Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the U.K., in the background.  The north face of Ben Nevis is considered to be one of the hardest climbs in Europe due to the swiftly changing weather and almost cliff-like steepness, and in fact this is what North Face climbing gear is named after!  The more you know…

Another interesting detail about the highlands is how, well, empty it is compared to most of Europe.  You travel through this huge amount of space without hardly seeing a soul- turns out the reason for this is a few centuries ago the English forcibly resettled all the Scots to the lowlands so next to no one lives there today.

An aside- it goes without saying that the Scots and English do not particularly like each other.  It seems like the Scots will leave the U.K. sooner instead of later (and if you had that much North Sea oil and whiskey to export I wouldn’t blame you), but I think that will be an interesting debate when it happens.  Not like the English can invade again, right?

The most interesting point I learned about the English-Scottish relationship though was how it turns out Scottish children don’t actually learn about Scottish history in school, the argument being that it would just incite greater hatred towards the English.  I couldn’t quite believe this and was a bit dumbfounded- by the same argument does this mean we shouldn’t teach American kids about slavery because it would inflame racial tensions?  Call me odd, but I’ve never been met with a thorny problem and thought “you know, being more ignorant would surely solve this issue!”

Anyway, some of the loveliest scenery in Scotland is found on the Isle of Skye, and after a mere day there I have to agree.  I mean, just look at it!  For those astute moviegoers out there they filmed Stardust on the Isle of Skye, though I’m certain they waited a long time before they got the good weather.

My favorite Isle of Sky tidbit is how you need to cross a bridge from the  mainland to get to it, and when said bridge was constructed it was so overbudget it had the highest toll in the world to cross it (6.50 pounds one way for a car!).  The farmers weren’t happy so they made an exception for vehicles carrying livestock, which prompted everyone residing on the island to borrow a farmer’s sheep whenever they wanted to go to work.  Needless to say, the toll was abolished rather soon after.

Kilt Rock, the stone in the middle so named because of the tartan-like pattern in the cliff.  Allegedly where a giant put his kilt when hiding from another giant or due to a special type of volcanic flow, whichever you prefer.

Speaking of kilts, ever wonder what traditional Scottish people dressed like? (Before, yes, the English banned the style.) We went to a little show where the skill was demonstrated on one guy and a girl, and my friend Conor and I stepped up to the task.  Should be noted that unlike private school the girls aren’t the ones to wear kilts, only the guys, as the girls just wear tunics.  And I’m wearing a red-haired wig because about 80% of the Scottish population was redheaded at the time.

Something else very Scottish- a hairy cow!   Pronounced ‘airy coo’ and properly known as Highland Cattle, they’re mainly around for tourism these days.   And also very cute in that shaggy sort of way.And as a final detail, you see bluebells everywhere in Scotland and they are absolutely lovely.  Countless fields laced with blue.

Of course there’s more to say about the highlands, including a monster who may or may not exist, but that will have to wait until later.  Cheers!

Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and is one of those places you fall in love with the second you arrive.  The stone buildings are beyond lovely, there are so many funky stores it can take an hour just to walk down a street, and odds are you can hear some bagpipes playing in the distance at any moment.  What’s not to like?

I went to Edinburgh twice, once when I flew in from Ireland and once again after heading up to the Scottish highlands and it turned out the European rugby championship was in town the next day.  It was an Irish team versus an English team and the Irish barely won, and how could I miss a fun bit of culture like that?

To start with, this is Edinburgh castle, perched intimidatingly on a hill and flying the U.K. flag higher than the Scottish one to great controversy (you learn pretty quick that anything dealing with the English is bound to be controversial around here).  It’s shockingly expensive to go in even when you remember everything in the U.K. is expensive, but it seemed a mild travesty to not go in so I said goodbye to my 12 pounds (US$19!) to enter the place.

To be fair, it is a rather nice castle and big enough inside that you can wander a few hours before you leave- they have a mess of cannons, the Scottish crown jewels, and all the other castle-y things one usually comes across.  My favorite was the prison- they redid the dungeons to look like they used to back in the day with a slight Disneyfication of wax models and spooky people talking in the background and such, which they did in perfectly entertaining proportions.

A Scottish guardsman at the castle.  You know how the English guards at castles wear red uniforms and ridiculous giant hats that make you conclude the queen’s primary defense is people will start laughing at the guards?  Well I wouldn’t mess with their Scottish counterparts- this guy is macho enough to wear a kilt, and stand rock-still when tourists pose for pictures beside him while still sending a “yeah, I could kill you in five seconds without my weapon!” look.  Definitely hardcore.

Speaking of kilts, I am going to be terrible and just post my opinion on this that I already said on Facebook-

Dear Scottish souvenir stores- please stop stocking my high school uniform.  Sincerely, recovering private school student.

Bonus for Ellisians, our plaid is in this picture for you to find!  Though those more expert than me say the exact plaid doesn’t mean anything because synthetic dyes are “only” one or two centuries old.

Speaking of things that annoyed me in Edinburgh, here is the view looking up from the lovely lobby of the hostel I stayed at, which was a converted barracks.  See where the steps end on the top floor?  Yeah, that’s where I lived.  And you’re not allowed to put a lift in the old buildings because they’re protected.  Needless to say, this hostel was one of about five or six places thus far on my trip where I felt obliged to use the backpack straps on my bag instead of the wheels.

On the other hand, I am fairly certain that this pig is one of my favorite things in Edinburgh (that and his other bretheren I consumed at this place).  It’s a hole in the wall type establishment called Oink where their only product is making cheap sandwiches out of a roasted pig.  They have one pig a day and work until they sell out, typically just after lunch.  And my God, it was delicious.  I became as obsessed with the pig place as much as one can be over the course of only a few days.

What you get at the pig place for 3.50 pounds.  You choose from either sage and onion or haggis, though I went for the former instead of the latter.  Not that there’s anything wrong with haggis- I tried it a few times while in Scotland and have no opinion on the taste one way or another frankly.

Anyway, now that I’m done ranting about the deliciousness of the pig roast let us move on to some more Interesting and Important Places, shall we?  This is a view of the Scottish Royal Museum, with Dolly the  Sheep in front and one of James Watt’s first steam engines in the back.  The Scots are one of those people who have done a disproportionate number of contributions to science and culture considering their size, and like such nations they are always proud to remind you of this fact.  In fact, Scotland is the first place after Hungary where you can mention something random and people are quick to tell you “did you know the Scottish invented/discovered/created that?!”  It got a bit much when they proudly told me Pontius Pilate was born in Scotland and hence they’re responsible for killing Jesus though.

A word on the Scottish Royal Museum before I forget- I’ve seen enough national museums by this point that don’t strike you as particularly impressive, but the Scottish version is not one of them.  Not only is everything expertly done and crammed with enough steam engines and prehistoric relics to satisfy anyone, there are even people going around in period costume telling you about how back in their day if you misbehaved your ear would be nailed to the church door or whatever (you will inevitably conclude from this place that Scotland was a pretty rough and dreary place to live for most of its history actually). The nicest thing about the museum though?  I remembered that the physicist James Maxwell is Scottish and asked a curator if they had anything from him- said curator was sorry to report that particular part of the museum was closed for renovations, but snuck me in so I could see the Maxwell case.  How kind is that?

The curator also mentioned offhand that there is a Maxwell statue erected in Edinburgh for the man, so I obviously needed to do a quick pilgrimage the next day to see it.  For any interested physicists the statue is located in George Street in the newer part of Edinburgh with traffic going by it on both sides, but these are the things we put up with to have pictures with our idols…

And for non-physicists who are wondering who on Earth James Maxwell is that I harassed a curator and went out of my way to find his statue, Maxwell is the guy who figured out that electricity and magnetism are related and the equations for them- equations so important that it’s from this Einstein figured out his theories of relativity actually!  So if you’re thinking of the most important physicists of all time first would be Newton, second would be Einstein, and third would be Maxwell.  The fact that I have taken two years of courses studying his equations and have a third coming up didn’t hurt my interest in the guy either.

Now that I’m done with my geek moment, I should make a note that one of the reasons it was a touch difficult to find Maxwell’s statue is there are so many erected in memorial to famous Scotsmen in Edinburgh (I say Scotsmen because I never saw a woman statue).  Some you can’t help but stop and pose with, such as the Hume one above, but some they could tone down on.  Like Sir Walter Scott.  He has several as well as a several-story memorial.  Now I realize the Scots are proud of him, but have any of you actually read Sir Walter Scott?  The man is boring- so boring that most English classes these days won’t touch his works knowing everyone will just reach for the Cliffs Notes- which I realize upsets the four Ivanhoe fans out there but it’s my blog!  And I needed to somehow explain why I never took a picture of any of the Sir Walter Scott memorials in Edinburgh.  The End.*

*I realize you’re not supposed to end things with “The End” but this is a blog, not high literature.  If it was high literature you would now be asked to critique what the pig roast sandwich symbolizes in my journey and what the theme of my James Maxwell search was, and I would mark you off for writing “she’s a nerd” because that’s not a complete sentence.

Summary of Ireland

Ireland is an interesting place because everyone thinks they know everything about it before even visiting.  It’s got to be the best-marketed country in the world- they even got all these people who aren’t even Irish to celebrate their holiday!- so it’s neat to show up and realize the actual place doesn’t follow your preconceived notions.  Which in hindsight you should have realized would happen but we all get caught off our guard on occasion.

Highlights-

- The pub life.  I list this first because back at home whenever I went to an Irish pub I’d find myself saying “you know, I really want to visit Ireland” and I am proud to report the stories live up to the expectations!  The Irish are remarkably friendly, and great musicians are a dime a dozen (they don’t play Irish trad normally though- it would be the same as us listening to She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes or other folk songs in the bar).  I’ve always been a traitor to my generation in that I like to hear myself think when going out or at least having good music instead of base  pounding my head, so Ireland was great for this.

- Dublin was a bit meh, just another big city, but i met cool people there and got new pages for my passport.  I am including the above so you guys can see why I needed one- pretty much the whole old part looks like this by now!

- My favorite place in Ireland, though, has got to be Galway.  Seriously, go to Galway as you won’t regret it.

- Killarney I will write off as a necessary evil to go see the spectacular Ring of Kerry.  There’s nothing really wrong with Killarney, it’s just an incredibly touristy place that pales in comparison to the other fun towns Ireland has to offer.

- Learning Irish fiddling from Theresa and exploring the dime-a-dozen ruins in Loughmore.

- Another thing I liked after so many months on the road is how this was the first place I’d been where they spoke English!  I never realized just what a great asset it is to assume everyone can understand you until I came to Ireland and realized just how great I’d gotten at pantomiming these past few months.

Lowlights-

- This is the problem with Ireland- eventually you will come across a point in this nation where it is pouring rain and you just arrived in a strange place.  There’s a hostel, where’s the hostel?  The rain makes things seem longer than they are so maybe that guy you asked directions was just trying to mess with you.  Eventually you will come across the hostel but not before you are completely soaked despite umbrella and rainjacket, which sucks when you’re me and only have one pair of close-toed shoes.

To be fair about the Irish weather it’s not like you haven’t received enough warning about what you’re getting into (that’s one preconception that will remain firm!), and traveling to the U.K. afterwards will seem positively sunny in comparison.  Plus the Irish have long ago realized that all you want to do on a rainy day is disappear with a coffee or pint at a nice pub, and have accomodated accordingly.

- On the other side of the spectrum, I got sunburnt while reading in the park  in Limerick one afternoon.  I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, though to explain there was a lovely five day stretch of perfect weather I will not complain about otherwise.

- The fact that my camera finally broke and I needed to shell out lots of Euro to get the replacement.  RIP camera…

- As a final note this is one thing I will never, ever get used to in Ireland- the pubs close early!  Really early, as in 11:30 on weeknights and an hour later  on weekends (clubs are until 2 and 3, respectively, but I’m not a fan of getting kicked out of the comfy pub!).  They have this curfew by law.  The only other country I have been to where there was a national law dictating a curfew was Laos, and I find it odd that Ireland is in the same boat as a communist country on this.

Anyway, that is Ireland.  What a great little place!  I think it gets the distinction of being the second country I’ve visited on this trip that I wouldn’t mind setting down in for a little while, so I hope to be back someday.

Killarney

I came to Killarney because even those from Ireland tell you it’s the place to go for pretty scenery.  I soon discovered that while it might be pretty it’s also one  of the most touristed places I’ve been to, which is saying something by this point.   Not to say it was all bad- I went to the movies for the first time in four months!- but not the lovely place to disappear to like Galway.

Anyway, when it comes to pretty scenery the popular thing to do is the Ring of Kerry, for which I got terrible weather but it’s not like the dazzling sunshine before was normal for this country.  Me on the bus-

And the person who stole my camera to take the picture, Gisela, a German working the year in Ireland-

In the spirit of Germans everywhere who can’t seem to survive if they’re not hiking or battling elements, she was forever walking about in gale-force winds with stinging rain with me wondering why we couldn’t go find a cafe to curl up in or something.
Anyway, the scenery!  Now it is an absolutely gorgeous route even in the rain, which is saying something.  Part of the ring is national park but the far majority is farmland, mainly horses and sheep that routinely escape their paddocks and cause traffic jams from all the tourists taking pictures of sheep on the road.  Yay!

Looks straight out of a fairy tale, doesn’t it?  If they put Cinderella’s castle up on the peak here it wouldn’t look out of place.

There’s an awful lot of ocean views on the route too, but this is the most spectacular lookout.  Interestingly this point is only a few kilometers from where the first trans-Atlantic cable came ashore from Newfoundland, 4200 miles away, which is significant because it marks the closest Ive gotten to back home since beginning this trip!  And the closest I will for some time actually…
A few brightly painted houses- it’s a rather normal thing in Ireland to paint your house a bright color different to that of your neighbor, probably because if they didn’t do it the world would look beyond dreary.  Kind of hard to think of the gray clouds when you have a pink house in your view.

In short, Kerry is lovely though I’m sure better weather would have been a nice thing.  And I’m stopping here because my laptop battery is about to die.  Cheers!

Gone Fiddling

image40

When I make a list of things I miss most at home, once I get through the obvious friends and family, delving into a particularly good science problem and the like, I list my violin pretty quickly. I miss it. You will never find anything half as fun, beautiful, and sexy as a violin, except for maybe those lucky enough to play them!image39

This is Theresa. She runs a program called Fiddler’s Retreat from her home in a tiny village, Loughmore, where you can go a few days to learn how to play Irish fiddle and go out for a few trad sessions with the Irish musicians at night. Cost a fair bit, but one must always remember the importance of when to shell out money for a good experience. Like remember that trip around the world I did? Yeah, that totally sucked.

Anyway, Theresa is a lovely soul who taught me five Irish fiddling songs over the course of two mornings- three polkas, a jig, and a reel. The reel was my enemy, as it turns out they are very difficult. And I will never cease my amazement for the talent of the average Irish musician- yes I realize if I went every week to play them I would be good too, but how many places in the world do you know where you can go into a pub and have ten people show up who come and play along? Not outside Ireland I think.

The only problem with learning to Irish fiddle, of course, is it’s more about sound rather than images so this is going to be very sparse on the actual fiddling part (I have videos, but issues uploading them). So I will delegate all that to my secret project that starts with the letter “b” and instead talk about an afternoon walk I had around Theresa’s village-Clearly Loughmore is a happening place in the afternoons when the Irish music isn’t playing. But it turns out they have a few random ruins to check out-

Ooooh, an abandoned 12th century castle!

Ooooh, an old abbey from the same era! The interesting thing about Ireland is how you see random ruins like this everywhere- old forgotten castles just begging to be explored to the point where no one cares about them because they’re so numerous it would take a lifetime to visit them all. I had to settle with this set of ruins (there was a fairy fort, aka grassy oval overgrowing an old Celtic fort, but they’re not very photogenic). But not without company…

Oh, hi guys! I’m just taking a shortcut across your field, you don’t mind right?

Ummm, okay. It turns out these cows were conditioned to associate “person” with “food” so they politely followed me around the field until I ducked under a wire fence. Fascinating as it is to have a cow cult of your own, I have to admit it’s a little intimidating to have a silent herd of cattle following you around even if you know they’re not exactly vicious because they’re bigger than you. Like what if they picked up a copy of The Birds and wanted to do a cow version starting right now?

As for the castle itself, here is the inside. Having just read enough Ken Follet to depress anyone (I read 1,200 pages in 4 days- I wasn’t over the English in bookstores yet) going around a period castle at my leisure was pretty neat. There were carved fireplaces still in place and you could see the old sticks used to insulate the walls where the lime had chipped away and such.

There were also the names of pretty much every kid in Loughmore carved into the walls. According to Theresa no one’s allowed to play in the castle as a child but that’s everyone’s playground anyway.The neatest thing about the castle, though, is the fact that there’s a spiral staircase that still goes all the way up to the upper floors. It’s probably beyond dangerous and such, but here’s the view from the fourth-floor-turned-roof! Yay!

And in that odd way, this is my description of what the average little place in Ireland is like. If you’re driving around and come across one of these, I highly recommend wandering around to see what gems you might find. Particularly if you can top it all off with a bit of Irish fiddle.

The Burren

I am going to warn you right now that this post is not going to have a huge plethora of pictures because this was the trip where my camera decided it had led a nice, healthy life of two years seeing more sights and suffering more abuse than most people do in a lifetime, and died. (The people at the camera store in Galway suggested a grain of sand got into it awhile back and finally got dislodged, which is possible considering how loose the casing had gotten.) So RIP camera, may your new younger brother survive 18 new countries and 25 more states.  And so may I, come to think of it…
image504

To begin with here is a picture of what most of The Burren looks like- limestone.  Lots and lots of limestone.  When you go close to the ocean then yes, you get fertile fields for pasture thanks to the backbreaking labor of farmers in years past, but go up to the top and it looks desolate in a lovely kind of way.

Interestingly enough it is said that during the time of the Celts this would have been pine forest- in subsequent years however the trees were unfortunately chopped down and the topsoil eroded away.  Certainly a very different picture.image502

Go around the Burren long enough and you start noticing these things- a Celtic tomb!image503

Another view of the same tomb.  This one happens to be the oldest in the Burren, dated to  approximately 3500 B.C., or a thousand years before the pyramids.  Which naturally led to me wondering just what we’ve erected that will still be  standing in 5,000 years…

One interesting factoid is that some of the people buried here were buried over 2,000 years after the tomb was built.  Leading to another interesting point- wouldn’t it be an interesting thing to see someone buried in a 2,000 year old tomb?  Mainly because I can’t think of any of that age, let alone ones where they still bury people?  It’s funny how details like  this leave me happily wondering for hours.
image509

What most people come to see in The Burren- the Cliffs of Moher!  To quote my sister, it sounds like something straight out of Lord of the Rings and frankly they’d fit right into the scenery, as these things rise up about 200 meters from the Atlantic in an incredibly dramatic fashion.

By the way, my camera was dead by this point so this and the following picture were actually taken with a Hong Kong student’s camera, who understood why I wanted to temporarily borrow his camera with my memory card.  Someone later pointed out to me it would be an interesting trip in itself to go out with a memory card alone and borrow other people’s cameras along the way, but I don’t think I would recommend it.  Frankly there is no universal standard for memory card size so you’d often be out of luck even if you met friendly people, and odds are anyone over the age of 30 won’t understand your request and/or get suspicious.  So it goes.
image508

My second Cliffs of Moher picture, which I am primarily using to show how windy it was as evidenced by the disarray of my hair.  It was  windy like I’d hardly experienced before, as the wind here has been happily going for several thousand miles without running into anything before it comes to the Cliffs.  It switches around quickly too, so that I’m told a few tourists die every year by falling off the Cliffs and, I presume, stupidly standing closer than the indicated signs.

I admit I discovered a fun game while at the Cliffs (behind the walled portion of course) called “jump into the air and marvel at how far the wind carries you before you land.”  You’d think this wouldn’t be particularly exciting, but somehow it is when the minimum distance you’re carried is a foot.  Needless to say I got a few odd looks and interesting comments from passing Hungarians I returned with a “koszi!”  Good thing I left my sense of dignity at home, I’d never have fun with it around.image507

This pub is in the village of Lisdoonarva where I spent the night at a great hostel- I didn’t realize it until I arrived but the town hosts the Matchmaker Festival, Europe’s biggest singles event, where people arrive from all over in hopes of finding The One.  No idea what the success rate is of that, but there you go.

So those are where the pictures end, and my memory goes on.  There are lots of beautiful walks around Lisdoonarva and the hostel had a great lounge where we curled up beside the fireplace  for the night, but after the night I returned to Galway an hour away.  If you come to Ireland though I highly recommend seeking out a little village or two to stay in hardly mentioned by anyone to see what it’s like.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.