World Clock

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Away in the Highlands

And then it was the new year. A whole year had passed in what seemed a blink of an eye. Ten months of travels completed. Nearly half-way through... "How did that happen?"
Day one, January 1st, turned out to be not very indicative of what this following year will hopefully hold for me - I stayed inside rugged up on the couch all day and watched 3 movies and an entire season of the British comedy The In-Betweeners, stepping outside only once to get Indian food from down the road at 9pm. Lee had worked all day. She worked the following day as well whilst Susie, her friend Annie and I went ice skating in the Winter Wonderland. I hadn't been ice skating in years and years and I just did not want to stop. Annie, on the other hand, was not quite willing to let go of the wall. Once they managed to drag me off the ice, Susie took us to see one of her friends in Portobello, a seaside suburb of Edinburgh, and we had a bit of a stroll along the beach in the middle of the Scottish winter - I couldn't help thinking that there was something not right about that....
Lee and I decided to hire a car for 3 days to see some of the Scottish countryside. We left a little later on Sunday morning than we had planned and headed north towards a university city called St. Andrews, famous for its historic connections with the game of golf. The city is also famous for its enormous, all-but-collapsed church, and a virtually unrecognisable castle ruin. It was raining and we decided to push on, especially since we were in the approximate vicinity of the shortest day of the year and we suspected our sunlight wouldn't last for long. We were right. We still had a couple of hours left of driving to reach our destination and the huge lochs we were passing already had started to blend into the mountains and sky as one big dark, yet slightly phosphorus blue-hued blur, like some sort of luminescent deep-sea creature spotted at a distance of 10 metres.
Finally we arrived. Inveraray: the small loch-side town near the west coast where my cousin and his wife had spent the majority of their 2 years abroad. And what a lovely town it is, and very typical of the old towns we were to come across along our route. Every building square and whitewashed. It was now pitch-black outside and we decided to pop into the George (the pub where they worked) for some dinner. We got to meet Donald and a few of the rest of the gang and they were extremely friendly and hospitable. Donald even bought us a round of drinks for new years. Now, we had planned on spending as little as possible on this road trip so we had brought sleeping bags and a large duvet to rug up in the car, but they wouldn't have a bar of it. They instead insisted we could just stay in one of their lovely hotel rooms. Awesome! After an early rising and a long day of driving we were buggered and so hit the sack about 10:30pm, awakening early the next morning ready to do it all again.
We packed up our bags and stepped outside about 0730hr into the dark and into the minus 4 degree temperature. The road was sleeted, our car was iced up and the windscreen washers had frozen over. As dawn broke we stood in front of the majestic Inveraray Castle, which I could imagine having been taken directly out of a fairy tale, before taking a very mountainous scenic route up north. Keeping an eye on our in-car temperature gauge, we noticed the outside temperature fluctuating throughout the day between zero and minus 8.5 degrees. That fact was evident in the lakes, rivers and waterfalls that we came across - all frozen - including huge stalactitic ice formations sheeting the carved out rock to either side of the road. Along the way we also spotted some of Scotland's rugged up hairy cows ("herry-coos") going about their business amongst a multitude of lochs and bens (lakes and peaks).
As we approached the largest city of the north, Inverness, we drove along the shore of the UK's largest and most famous lake, Loch Ness. Did we see the great beast that I have dubbed "Nelly"? We thought so.. But then realised it was just a small cutout of a marine dinosaur stuck to the car window. It was very convincing though...... honestly... After a quick visit to Inverness we made our way up to the seaside town of Ullapool by nightfall, which is the closest to the North Pole we've ever been. Again, the architecture was in the typical Scottish style and the harbour was lovely. We ate some fish and chips in the car (it was way too cold to be standing outside) before bunking down early also in the car. I woke up about 4:30am due to discomfort and the cold, and before I knew it the sun was rising and it was time for breakfast and to start heading back south again.
We decided to take an even more scenic route through the central highlands (as if it wasn't scenic enough) on more local roads. This took us through the Cairngorms National Park and the Grampian Mountains, ski fields, icy pastures, the lovely but quiet town of Braemar and then onto the town of Scone and Perth city. We decided we had to stop in Perth (1) because I've never been to Perth in Australia, and (2) because it has some stunning architecture. Then it was back onto Edinburgh, and our short but remarkable tour had come to its conclusion, with about 30 miles to spare from our 750 mile limit.


Lee at the entrance to the church in St. Andrews

us @ the George with Donald

Inveraray castle

Inveraray town centre

and its loch, Loch Fyne

herry coos!

standing on an iced over river - the water was still flowing underneath

frozen waterfall


fancy a swim?

in Braemar

our car


Boxing-boxing day was Saskia's last in Edinburgh before heading back to London, so we did a bit of exploring. My first real day of exploring since I had arrived 5 days earlier. The weather was very kind and the sun was very bright, although not really warming in any way. The famous Royal Mile featured quite highly on our list.
Lee had a day off on the 29th and we spent a good few hours of it walking around the highest point in Edinburgh, Arthur's Seat and the Craigs (pronounced crags). Again the weather was very kind and we could see for miles. This particular hill, I found, was pretty deceptive somehow. From Lee's street, South Clerk St, it looks as if it's about 4km away and exceedingly tall - a mountain. But it's not. It's so close to the city, about a 15 minute walk and only takes about half and hour to walk up. Very misleading.
The 29th is also an important day for the Scots in Edinburgh (or the Scotch, if you're American). It is a day celebrating the nearing of Hogmanay and is kicked off with one of the coolest torch processions I've ever seen. Lee, Rory (Lee's Scottish fellow), Susie and I took our places among the thousands gathering in the cold along the Royal Mile at about 6pm. We collected our "torches" - essentially metre-long beeswax candles - and waited for the slow wave of lit candles to arrive from the front of the pack. It took about an hour. Once they were lit by the people in front of us we started our march, bagpipes playing as we walked, an electric feeling in the air. It was all very exciting and all very pretty, a sea of torches rolling through the old streets of this beautiful city. Small kids who probably shouldn't have been holding these lit candles were sword fighting each other. As were we. The alliance took a right turn onto Princes Street and started filing past the Wonderland, people on the ferris wheel taking photos of what I imagine would have been an amazing view of the rippling effect of the thousands of moving and flickering candles beneath them.
I say "alliance" as we were all focussed on one goal: reaching the top of Carlton Hill to set a Viking ship ablaze. It has been a tradition for many years around the north of Scotland, but was only revived in Edinburgh around a decade ago. The weather was still on our side and it was getting colder. People were rugged up as they held their torches high - some with a sense of pride, others with a sense of trying not to set the woman's hair on fire in front of them. The streets had been closed off for this event and oddly although there were thousands of people crowding them, the traffic lights as they ineffectually changed from green to red and back again somehow made the streets seemed barren. A man, crazy or just entertaining - can't quite decide which - lit green flares and waved them as he ran up and back along the top of a nearby wall.
Eventually the crowd became a mush of people and we slowly made our way up the narrow path to the top of Carlton Hill. By the time we had arrived the Viking ship was already well and truly on fire, quite spectacular really as the flames engulfed the huge silhouette of an emblem of a dragon. Some speccy fireworks erupted from the Acropolis to top off the already fantastic evening. So much fun!

Two days later and the night that everyone cannot wait for, but rarely seems to enjoy, New Years Eve, came to town. The Edinburgh street party is one of the most popular NYE parties in Europe. The streets are again blocked off, stages are set up for the bands (including Glasvegas and Groove Armada this year), the fireworks are ready and waiting somewhere in the Edinburgh castle, bringing your own drinks is allowed. What more could you want? Well, dancing of course! Susie managed to score us free tickets (as she works at the council) to check out and have a crack at some traditional Ceilidh ("kay-lee") dancing. Think a thousand people and the simplicity and repetitiveness of the "hokey-pokey" - or the "hokey-cokey" as they call it in the UK, weird people - but with cool Scottish music and lots of men in skirts. Classic! We manage to get ourselves in trouble for doing the conga line in the Spiegel tent as it "could have been" distracting to the chilled out band on the stage. We were having fun, that's all I can say. A Japanese girl even joined in. That's how crazy things got, man!
Finally it was time for the old fireworks, well, there was about an hour to go but we decided to try and find ourselves a spot with a good view of the castle. It paid off. Anticipation filled the air until the fast-growing sound of thousands of people counting down from 10 to 1 took over, then all that was left was excitement. I'd say they would have to be up there with some of the most awe-inspiring, emotion-stirring and best-executed fireworks ever - though I admit I have not spent a new years in Sydney yet. Even once the fireworks had finished and the reality of the new year set in, the street party still had an hour to go (they like closing up shop early over here). Susie's friend, Kate, and I decided to go find some music as we hadn't seen a single band that evening and we unintentionally stumbled across one of the most entertaining groups around. Moishe's Bagel are born and raised in Edinburgh and their music is described as a mix of folk, jazz and Balkan. We danced the night away. Check it out.


down the Royal Mile

part of the Edinburgh Castle

Winter Wonderland

Arthur's seat

lighting of the torches

all very exciting!

the sea of fire

that poor Viking ship!

Lee and I

Happy New Year!

Princes Street celebrations

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A very Edinburgh-y Christmas

As the train pushes on, the rolling green landscape, whilst remaining relatively modest, is brought to life by sheep, rivers, fields of peat, stone walls and old-style houses that make my 150-odd year old previous residence in Adelaide seem like it was built last year. We pass a coastal town and a mysterious, fog-enshrouded island off the coast comes into view. A short while later a second train change occurs in a city that I am quite familiar with, not in the literal sense, but in that a good friend of mine that I met in New Zealand lives here. I have to walk between stations here to catch the connecting train to the country's capital. I arrive early afternoon and Lee meets me at the train station.
I had landed ready for Christmas and the famous Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay, a well-known 2-to-3-day festival. There was a slight problem though. From the moment I stepped foot onto the bustling Princes St from the Waverley station, a sickness was a-brewin'. I met a few of Lee's housemates, including the crack-up Aussie Susan that evening. After only having slept for a couple of hours the night before I was quite tired and was starting to feel the effects of my ailment, so I hit the sack early. The next two days were a compete write-off - I slept for most of it, a feat which I don't recall ever having achieved before and don't intend repeating. It was, in part, a conscious decision to do this as I knew that Christmas and Hogmanay were coming up and I wanted to let myself recover as much as I could - not to mention the intentional avoidance of the punishing constant change in temperature between the toasty warm inside to literally below-freezing outside. I pretty much lost my voice, a real annoyance for someone who sings all the time (yes, in the shower, too.)
This Christmas was a time spent with orphans from all over the world.... Well, Australia, New Zealand and Spain... Close enough. Lee and Susie (a.k.a. Miss Clause) planned and executed a wonderful Christmas lunch of lamb, turkey and the "Two-hour Pavlova"! This was only after we had all exchanged gifts, both from each other and packages that had been sent over by our respective mums (thanks for the snakes, mum!), which sat under the classily-decorated tree in the lounge room that had since been transformed into my room after I couldn't bear the heat of Lee's little loft at night due to my increased core temperature. That evening we tried, unsuccessfully, to find any kind of pub or bar that had more than 10 people in it. Guess Christmas night is just not a night for going out in Edinburgh.... It was still a really enjoyable day.
Boxing Day was a day for relaxing. But moreso than that, it was a day for going on rides! Over the festive period, or as Bill Bailey prefers to call it, "the Primary Gifting Period and Auxilliary Generosity Zone," Edinburgh sets up a whole bunch of rides, stalls, authentic German markets and something they call the Winter Wonderland - including an open-air ice-skating rink - all set around and overshadowed by the looming Gothic, and somewhat rocket ship-like Scott Monument, dedicated to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Pretty cool! Literally...
In the afternoon we (Susie, myself, Lee and her kiwi mate, Saskia) decided it would be fitting to visit the cinemas to watch "Australia," the Baz Luhrmann film about my country - who would have thought? - in the early 1940's. A few hours later we emerged into the darkness, with the sun having already well-and-truly set, and ventured to the top of Carlton hill (one of the several hills that permeate the city centre) atop which stands Scotland's attempt at replicating Greece's Acropolis - they famously, and to many embarrassingly, ran out of money and it remains in its present state only half-finished. From here you can also get quite a good view over the city, its multitude of colourful lights from the Winter Wonderland and a secondary set of ostensibly more "big league" rides on the other side of the park, and of course the city's main centrepiece, the Edinburgh Castle lit up like a massive beacon on top of its stony hill.


Lee and Saskia making some fruit salad for Christmas day! mmmm

Miss Clause (a.k.a. Susie) doing the cleaning

wise words..

spinning around - the ferris wheel, Princes St

the Christmas markets

Scotland's embarrassment - I think it's pretty cool personally

the Scott Monument amongst modernity

Friday, 9 January 2009

Béal Feirste

As I mentioned before, laziness caused my leaving of Dublin to be postponed until early afternoon on the Saturday and thus I didn't arrive into Belfast until about 5pm. My CSer Dave met me at the bus station and took me back to his place where I met his housemate Shorty, and my couch. Pretty much from there we got ourselves some dinner from the local chippy and then got onto the drinks. That was one of the latest nights I'd had in a while, out until 7am at a groovy 3-floor club and then a house party. Phew. An eclectic group of friends made for a wonderfully vibrant night and one of their mates' "stories" of his first sexual experiences kept everyone entertained for what felt like hours, somehow.
Well, as we all know, a night late to bed usually results in a morning late to arise. Midday was my time for waking and this meant that, due to the current time of the year, I had only about 4 hours or so left of daylight. I had no specific plans for what I wanted to see and so just wandered about the pretty city centre, with it's own small version of the London Eye (as evidently can be found in a lot of UK cities), until the sun did set. In that time I managed to unknowingly fund a faction of immigrants that have been illegally obtaining and selling Ireland's equivalent of the homeless magazine, The Big Issue. It was a good read, though.
I got to chatting a fair bit with Shorty about the difference in viewpoints between the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic on the occupation by Britain. "Ireland" is divided into 32 counties, 26 in the Republic and 6 in Northern Ireland. I managed to get a fairly good idea from my time in the south that the general consensus is that they want unification - for Britain to retreat and return power of those 6 counties back to the Republic. I also got the feeling that there is still quite a deep seeded feeling of resentment towards the English in particular. On the other side of the border I understand there is a fair amount of the same sentiments, although obviously they're more diluted due to the fact that the majority of residents here are in fact UK citizens. The problems that have long plagued the north have all but subsided - the IRA are virtually unseen in these parts and the religious division between Catholics and Protestants is dwindling due largely to a decline in church attendance - though there are still some residual fears about walking through certain areas of Belfast as a Catholic, for instance.
One other thing that I noticed? The people of Ireland have a real problem with littering. So much so that the governments of both countries have had to spend a huge amount of money on advertising campaigns telling people not to throw their rubbish on the ground. Odd.
That little problem aside, I enjoyed my very short time in the country's capital, and the whole of Ireland for that matter. I plan to return at some point with a car (most likely rented) to explore the counties freely and on my own terms because I didn't really see all that much of Ireland during my 2 months there: Glendalough, Dublin and Galway in the Republic and only Belfast in the north - so much more to see.
In the morning I jumped into a taxi at 6am heading for the ferry port. My ferry back to Britain left at 7:30am on the 22nd of December and this time it was heading north-east, towards Scotland.


Dave, Shorty and I - Merry Cut-Mas...?

Some of the Gang

I want that wok!

the city centre, very festive

Dublin.. again

When we returned to Dublin, I was hit with a very different feeling to when I first arrived in Ireland. During the roughly 2 months interval between visits, the city has turned itself into a jovial hub of activity. The Christmas decorations went up all over, especially around the shopping areas and Temple Bar, and a number of charity workers were now dressed in Santa hats and singing carols on the streets. Markets line Henry street and the number of people cramming this particular section has increased several-fold, almost as if the idea of the recession that's become very prominent in the minds of so many Irish has been dispelled for this festive season. The city, like most places throughout the world during this time of year, has put on a much happier face.
Nic, the cousin of my ex, had moved to Dublin about a month ago and he was happy to let us crash on his floor for the night. Literally a floor - no blankets, no sleeping bags, no heating, and a bloody big gap in the window made for a few interesting nights. It was Christina's last night with me before meeting up with her sister and Nic had invited us out for some drinks, but we were both feeling a little too tired for that much excitement so decided to have a quiet one and instead continue our week-long discussion/debate on all things spiritual.
The following afternoon my newly-found travel buddy left me to meet her sister in a city hotel and I went out to see Nic at his work, the Purty Kitchen, where I managed to make a man cry by mentioning the Omagh bombings, the devastating act performed by militant faction the Real IRA on the small unsuspecting Northern Ireland town in 1998 - it turned out that his family was from Omagh. I felt terrible, even though he was very drunk and despite his friend trying to convince me that he just cries at anything. Later on Nic introduced me to a bunch of his workmates and we shared a few pints and a few dance steps in a neat little red-lit club in the Temple Bar area.
Nic had a day off work and we decided to make a day of it by taking the DART to the hill-encircled beachside town of Bray, about 45 minutes south of Dublin. Unfortunately we didn't end up leaving the city until around 3pm due to the previous night's events and it wasn't long before we were watching the sunset from Bray's beach.
That evening I met up with Naomi, who I went to uni with in Adelaide but never particularly got to know, and her husband Phil - they had moved to Dublin last year as Naomi is now doing a PhD in Cryptology there, a topic quite close to my own heart. We were put in contact by a mutual friend and it turned out that we had a great night reminiscing about all sorts of childhood memories from favourite Aussie chocolates to Peter Coombe. It was also the last night I was to spend at Nic's place, although I was promoted from floor to couch which proved to be a very welcome change. I had planned on leaving the next day for Belfast but for some reason changed my mind and instead moved temporarily in with Naomi and Phil at their apartment in the Dublin University.
I realised that although I had spent the equivalent of about 5 full days in this city, I hadn't actually spent much time exploring it. This was what I got upto over the next couple of days fresh off a new couch. The University is situated about a 1 hour walk north from the city centre and I made this walk each day. A noteworthy relic in the centre is the bullet holes in the columns of the landmark post office and statues along O'Connell Street that serve as a reminder of the troubles during the 1916 Easter Rising against the British. The Trinity College holds some lovely buildings but its main attraction is undoubtedly the Book of Kells - a famously elaborate manuscript from around AD 800. At this time of year, also, there are the Christmas markets in the docklands which I briefly visited.
For my final night in Dublin, a Friday night, I went with the guys and a couple of Naomi's workmates out to a lovely pub - which they consider to be one of the best in Dublin - and again the Guinness was flowing. Funny thing is that I never particularly took to it back in Oz, but now that I'm over here Guinness is slowly becoming my favourite beer. That evening I met some interesting Anarchists and we ate expensive cheese pizza.
My intention was to leave relatively early the next morning to give me 2 full days in Belfast before the ferry across to Scotland, but my laziness and the fact that I was particularly enjoying Phil and Naomi's company meant that it wasn't until after midday that I finally walked out their door and I ended up on the 2pm bus out of Dublin.


a Christmas tree using something like 100,000 lights..

not too sure what's going on there - Nic and I in Bray

my bed for a couple of nights...

Henry street

this is where the sun sits around midday

bullet holes in an angel

in the Trinity College

on Temple Bar

Naomi, Phil and their mate out on the piss