Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Year at a Glance

A big and busy year to say the least.

We travelled through Munich in Germany and watched a lovely wedding in Austria. We played in the snow and explored the area in southern Austria. What a beautiful place.

We can back to England and found a house. We then threw ourselves into work, Drew into Managing a hotel and me into temping which was easy. By May we realised if we didn't make an effort it would all get away from us and we wouldn't have done anything. We headed up to Richmond in northern England for Helen's birthday. It was lovely to catch up with old friends again. At this point I started temping in a switchboard, which I found surprisingly fun.

For my birthday we headed to France to spend a week in the city of Love. We walked ourselves everywhere, spending my birthday at Disney Land Paris and then exploring the city. The Mona Lisa was actually pretty cool. I didn't actually think it was tiny. It was rather outshone by all the other wonderful pieces though. We got to see Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, it's defiantly the city of lights.

We then came back and threw ourselves back into saving. We found out our landlord had been dodgy. Turns out he wasn't the real landlord at all. After Drew did some fast talking we managed to stay in our place at a highly reduced rate. Thanks Drew. We went out to catch up with Alex and Kieran in the countryside outside London. You don't need to go far out to discover what the UK you dream about is like. We made sure we got out to explore London and got ourselves together for our adventure to Spain.

We headed to Spain with magical images in our heads. Sadly I don't think we gave it enough time at the start. Yes it was wildly built up and our adventure sans GPS trying to find our hotel in the middle of the night when we flew in may have swayed us. We did a big loop. If you look at a map we started at Malaga and went all the way down to Gibraltar. We then headed up via Seville to Cordoba. Cordoba has won my heart and my favourite place, it seamlessly blends new and startlingly old. We stayed in the cutest old Spanish hostel in a house. It was the Spain I had been looking for. We then headed in a circle back round to the coast to Alicante and then up via Valencia to Barcelona. Spain was a country of lovely tucked away cheap outside eating between beautiful old buildings. The wine was cheap and plentiful and the food was always lovely...mostly.

We made time to head up to the lake district to catch up with Juliet's for a long weekend. What a beautiful area. I wish we had more time and maybe fingers crossed we'll get back there before we go. We got to finally go horse riding here. It was a dream and the night life was fun too.

We started to look forward to Christmas and I entered a competition to win 6 months kickboxing for Drew and I. I WON!! Seriously, now I had to do kickboxing. Talk about new year resolution. It's been on it's Christmas break so we've only had one class. But after we get back from the snow we'll be back in it!! I plan to rock a bathing suit by summer...well not really if I'm in England it doesn't get that warm.

Our lead up to Christmas included Snow!!! Real snow, it's piles up and is beautiful and lovely when it falls. In the city it turns to slush though. It's not pretty when it turns brown and gets icy. We made the best of it though. We always dreamed of a white Christmas.

The snow melted before Christmas though. I made a huge meal for Drew and I and two of our Housemates. The others are from countries that celebrate on different days. The food was amazing and yes, goose fat potato's are the best!! We partied into the night with the neighbours down the street and then relaxed for the rest of our long weekend.

After a lazy week at work we got ourselves together and headed into the freezing city night with a small bottle of whiskey and a determination to see the fireworks in central London even if we headed out late. We made our way and after being turned back several times we found ourselves in the square between Westminster Abbey and Big Ben with Winston Churchill in front of us. The fireworks went off with a bang and we were surprised by how amazing it was, it felt like we were in the centre of the world.

We have an amazing year ahead of us and no real idea of what we might do. We have some ideas and we'll see how they go. First up we are heading off to ski if France for a week next week. Hopefully we'll keep you updated more often.

We've done lots more than is listed here of course. But these are some of the bigger events in our year to date. Thank you if you're still reading this. We don't get any comments so we are never really sure if anyone is.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties

There is definitely a shortlist of the favorite places we have stayed on our travels, Jenny's Place in Chiang Mai, The Champa Lao in VangVieng, The Golden Temple Villa in Siem Reap and of course the place it all began, the Lamphu Tree Hotel in Bangkok. Having a bungalow on the private Cat Ong Island in Ha Long Bay can't be forgotten nor can having our own pet cat for a night in the Skye Backpackers in Kyleakin.

We had beautiful sunsets and thunderstorms from our bungalow balcony overlooking the sea at Coasters in Sihanoukville and we had a traditional home cooked meal when we spent a night in the tiny village of Ta Van with a family of the Green Zai cultural group in Sapa. We had almost the entire resort to ourselves when we stayed at the Hoang Anh Resort in Quy Nhon and of course we can't forget the fun and revelry of our first home in London, the Astor Hyde Park (even with its evil stairs of death).

The Castle Rock Hostel in Edinburgh is one such place that makes this list. We may have mentioned earlier that our Hostel was a funky place. The atmosphere was very chilled out, each dorm room had its own theme along with the communal areas, from the Internet room, called the "posh room" with a giant dark wood table, grand piano and open fire. Then there was the chill out room, complete with a functional record player and an eclectic collection of records. The biggest room didn't have a funny name, or maybe it did but I don't remember. It was just the common room, a giant table, a lot of couches, a pool table, a jukebox and of course all the tea and coffee we could drink.

We had settled back in easily after our three days in the Highlands, our dorm room hadn't changed and after spending the last three days traveling with our fellow inhabitants we had all developed a camaraderie among us. No one even seemed to mind when Prue sat bolt upright in the middle of the night and shouted "Sausages" before falling back asleep. We also had the largest room, which is why about 20 of our fellow tour companions ended up in a circle drinking on our floor on New Years Eve. But we'll come back to that.

The night before we headed in to town for a few drinks and dinner, we had just returned from the three day Bus trip and so we were all a little bit tired, but at the same time eager to continue with our new friendships. Edinburgh is absolutely packed at Hogmanay, so we had trouble finding a place to eat. Luckily our first choice was full as the second choice presented us with a special treat which probably saved us all third degree burns. But we'll come back to that too.

A few of us (not me), really wanted to have a crack at Haggis. After finding a pub with enough spare tables to seat about fifteen of us, we ordered a couple plates of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties. This came out presented as three piles of indiscernible goop. Mashed Potatoes, Mashed Parsnip and of course Haggis. After a few people had tried the Haggis and appeared to actually enjoy it I succumbed to Prue's coaxing and tried a small spoonful. To say Haggis is flavoursome would be an understatement, to say I didn't enjoy it would be a lie. I would like to categorise it into the special area with baked beans, bacon and eggs. That is to say, it is breakfast food.

Either way, it tasted quite good, mixed down with a Pint. Even better once one of the boys steered me away from Ale and into the direction of Tennents. I may have mentioned English beer is shit, thankfully I found Tennents, a beer that is at the very least drinkable.

We finished our meals and headed around to the bar for more drinks, that night in Edinburgh as part of the Hogmanay festival there was going to be a fire art installation in the street. we had seen the iron sculptures on our way down to the pub and it was our intention to wander back up there at 9pm for the lighting of the fires. The pub however had another plan for us.

The annoying thing about Scottish weather in winter is that for every five or six people, you will require one extra chair for every jacket. We had about four chairs for all of us, and it appeared that the girls had made a gentleman's agreement with a few locals that we would vacate the chairs as more of their party arrived. Looking over at the four locals on the table next to us, I noticed that they all seemed to be tuning up musical instruments. What happened next was truly amazing.

The four locals had finished tuning their instruments and one of them started playing a traditional folk tune, he was casually joined by the other three locals. Meanwhile one or two more locals shuffled through the doors carrying more instruments. The girls instinctively gave up their seats and we stood and watched as the new arrivals casually tuned their instruments and then just jumped straight into the tune adding extra layers of complexity.

Over the next hour or so, the entourage was joined by more locals who would each jump in and out of the songs as they felt fit. Some would even put down an instrument mid song just to take a sip of their pint, then pick it up and jump straight back into the tune. Eventually there were more than a dozen people playing all sorts of instruments (No Bad Pipes thankfully -Sorry Prue). The only coordination appeared to be that the person who initiated the song, would lead the tune. We were spellbound by the performance and cheered and danced for hours.

Fortunately our distraction in the pub caused us to forget about the fire installation. We ended up staying in the pub until it became apparent that we were going to have to move on to a bar that stayed open to the wee hours. I woke the next morning (read: early afternoon) somewhat hungover, but nether less ready to face an even bigger night ahead, New Years Eve 2009-10. We had come to Edinburgh for the Hogamany festival.

The impromptu band at the pub the night before had caused us to miss the lighting of the fire installation. When we remembered later we were disappointed. The next day when we found out what happened, we were relieved. Prue's Dad had said it even made the news in Australia. The severe winds that night wreaked havoc and mayhem in the streets as the wind threw embers all over the crowds, several people were treated for burns and the whole street was evacuated.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sir Lumix the Resilient

After a few drinks in the local pub, we spent the evening in Oban drinking in the hostel where we tried to turn Trivial Pursuit into a drinking game. As it was a 90's themed English version, not many of us knew or remembered the answers, so our thirsty attention turned to the pool and poker tables.

The first stop of the morning brought with it a back-handed treat as the bus pulled up at an old Castle set on top of a hill. Carnasserie Castle sat above us on the hill looking down at us with its non-descript but slightly disapproving stone cold eyes. From the carpark a small road led up to the top of the hill where the castle perched itself in the kind of way that a castle does, menacingly. I decided to call her Cassie.

The back-handed treat came as the first person stepped off the bus and went arse over tit on the ice covered road. The bastard castle didn't want to make it easy for us to breach its walls and we all shuffled very slowly to the top of the hill randomly chuckling as one person would start to slip and then take another person down with them as they reached out to grab a supporting hand.

A few bruised arses later we reached the end of the path and trudged through the snow to the interior of the castle. Cassie Castle was in pretty good nick despite its age, a renovators dream I suppose you could say. But Cassie had another evil trick up her sleeve. An icy path might be comical slippery fun, but when you mix a stone spiral staircase and ice, you get a lethal death trap.

It was exactly this point that we were glad we opted for the shock proof and waterproof Lumix camera. Prue lost her footing and slipped down the stairwell painting her legs and bottom with bruises with every stone step she hit. So too the camera bounced and fell like a slinky, hitting every step along the way only to come out the other side defiant at Cassie's wrath and with no more than a tiny scar. A proud war wound to show its grand-kids.

Prue on the other hand was mortally wounded in the assault on Cassie. She died a few hours later in the arms of a Prince and was buried in a hero's ceremony on a mound overlooking the castle. Cassie was disassembled stone by stone and rebuilt with soft rubber block. Ok, so it didn't quite happen like that but it sounds better than saying that Prue hurt her bum.

Had I known of the lethal brutality of Cassie Castle's icy steps of doom (not unlike the Astor Hostel's Death stairs of doom, a little colder though) I probably wouldn't have climbed all the way onto the top of the Castle. But I did, and of course I claimed Cassie in the name of the little known Clan Elmer. Instantly I was besieged by a volley of snowballs, but a comrade in arms aided me with the return fire until a garrison could be sent to the second watch tower... And yeah, I do love Castles....

Coming down from Cassie the Castle was for some as difficult as climbing the path up to her. But with the adrenaline of war and a fond nostalgic love of the movie 'Cool Runnings' I threw myself busward and horizontal on the world's roughest and coldest slip and slide. I didn't work that well, and I still ended up as wet and cold as the people who tried to descend the normal human leg walking way.

Our next stop along the journey back to Edinburgh was a grassy field home to the Kilmartin standing stones. Scotland is littered with Standing Stones and ancient Druids can face fines of up to £75.00 if they are caught. I don't know if anyone really has a confirmed reason for why the standing stones are placed where they are or how they are, sure there are lots of theories, navigation, worship, football goals.. etc.

But when faced with a giant ancient rock sticking out of the ground in the middle of a field, you couldn't help but feel a sense of importance and power. Yes modern technology is much better than the perplexing crap they did back then, but giant stones that seem to serve no purpose are pretty cool and kinda makes you feel like sacrificing a virgin or drinking goats blood or at the very least dressing up in a cloak and singing the chanting bits from Enigma.

Nearby were two more ancient sites, one a circle of stones with a small square pit in the middle and the other was a man made cave that looked like a small hill with two holes in it. Naturally Prudence Gael, avid adventurer and archaeologist was able to lend her expertise and once checked for booby traps we explored the nearby sites that were either used for burials or possibly a bus shelter.

Our next stop was Inveraray which has a really cool looking Castle. Unfortunately we didn't get to see this castle but we did get to have lunch. With only 30mins allowed for our lunch stop and everyone going to the same cafe, this became a little complex. Most of the good stuff was sold out before half the bus was fed, leaving a few late arrivals the option of pea soup or beans.

After Inverararararary we wound our way back through the hills and found our self at a small carpark nestled in a glen between more picturesque snow covered highland hills. The name of our stop was the "Rest and be Thankful" we were thankful for a short break, but we did not rest as the snow on the ground was Grade A+ snowball quality, and an epic snowball fight ensued.

As we headed east toward Edinburgh we found ourselves coasting along the banks of Loch Lomond. Prue couldn't help but find herself bursting into song with Neil, the only two occupants of the bus who knew the words to the archaic number one hit of 1841 - The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond. The Loch was beautiful, the song was as sad and depressing as an Emo kid's thoughts, funny how styles go around in circles.

The road along Loch Lomond was obviously the low road and not the high road, otherwise we would have drowned. Instead of this we found ourselves with a few minutes to spare to explore a very cute and obnoxiously quaint town called Luss. The weather was becoming very cold and bitter and we braved the elements to reach the banks of the Loch to find a few Ducks bobbing up and down on the waves, laughing at us in their thick duck down jackets.

I almost found myself stranded in Luss, as I found that Scotland has a strange law that won't let you buy cigarettes on a credit card and the ATM in the local general store wouldn't talk politely to my Australian debit card. To this day I'm not sure if Prue bothered to mention that I hadn't returned to the bus, but I found myself running across the carpark and jumping through the buses closing doors like an action hero.

As our bus continued East toward Edinburgh we found our self at our last scenic stop, the town of Stirling. Stirling has another awesome looking castle, but again we didn't get to see this, we did get something better. A modern castle (well if you call 140 years old modern). Ok, so it wasn't so much a castle as it was a tower that looked castle like, and granted it was really just a tourist attraction. But it was also the William Wallace monument, "cool" we all thought in unison.

I think we would have enjoyed the William Wallace monument a little better if we hadn't actually gone in, firstly we got hit with a pretty steep entry fee, but this was almost saved as they had free public toilets. Then after a climb to the top of the hill we found that the bitter ice cold winds we met at Luss were a lot more bitter and ice cold higher up. I should probably add that visiting a museum with someone that studied museums at university can also impact on the experience.

I was a bit dissapointed by the monument. Prue however, was mortified. "How would disabled people climb the stairs?" she asked as we climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the first of four levels. "How would big fat Americans pass each other on the stairwell?" she asked as we squished ourselves against the wall to allow people to decend the stairs past us. "Holy crap look at that" I said as I pointed to a large glass case holding what is alleged to be the actual sword of William Wallace.

The sword itself was probably the only part of the monument worth seeing. Firstly it was bloody huge, and if it actually is his sword (yes there is sceptisism) then it meant he would have to have been over six and a half feet tall. Much, much taller than Mel Gibson. But the really cool thing was that the leather hilt was said to be made of the skin of English soldier. That is some cold blooded gangsta shit right there.

We boarded the Macbackpackers bus for the last time after making good use of a rare free public toilet in Scotland and headed homeward. Neil broke out a few more good stories for us, but there was a hint of a somber tone in his voice, so we listened to him telling a ghost story and recounting the tales of his lost loves as though it were his dying breaths.

As we hit suburban Edinburgh we all knew that we were on the home stretch, shortly we unloaded again at the Castle Rock Hostel where we said our goodbyes to Neil and thanked him for his fantastic stories and his deep yet comical insight into the beautiful history and landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Then we thanked ourselves lucky that a Scotsman can remain sober enough to drive a bus.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

And I am an Immortal!

Skye-kylarkin on the Isle of Skye is a tiny town facing a bridge and most of the town centres around a giant carparking area surrounding the seaside/loch. the bridge leading to the island splits into two paths. One path leads into the centre of the town. Though it would be accurate to say the road leads through a carpark past a pub with a grocery store connected to it which also acts as the local postoffice and there just happen to be a few houses along the road.

The other path leads off into the mystical world of the Isle of Skye, an ancient land deep in the bowels of winter, frozen and covered in thick snow and shrouded in a mysterious thick fog, luminescent in the sunless morning light and like the icicles hanging from the mountain streams it drips with aeons of faerie magic from an age where a murderous barbarian could be a hero if not for the shame of defeat at the hands of a cunning and voluptuous warrior queen. But Neil's stories would have to wait, as now we had to get Hemorrhoid off us.

We opened the door to let the cat out and it lazily picked itself up and left the room as if it had decided on its own accord to leave the room. We found Hemorrhoid a moment later downstairs cutting circles on the kitchen floor while feigning affection in a ploy to get someone to feel obliged to feed him. Cats are smart like that, and also somewhat irritating, so naturally it works. There was a sense at breakfast that everyone was hesitating to finish their breakfast and head out of the cosy hostel to explore more Scotland.

That is because it was fucking cold outside.

We wound our way through the windy Skye hills around windy roads and wound up at Sligachan, a small frozen river ran from the mountains until it tucked itself neatly under an ancient stone bridge that was built wide enough for a car to pass over, proving great Scottish forethought as the invention of the automobile would have been stamped as witch craft in the days of the bridge's construction.

Neil gathered us on the bridge and we stood hand in hand in a giant circle as he switched over to "bard mode" and told us the legend of Sligachan. Enriched with more fairy magic than the Sydney Mardigra, the river below us was said to have magic healing properties, and if one were to fully submerge one's face in the icy waters for seven seconds, one would find oneself blessed with the fountain of youth. Sensing our scepticism, Neil promptly ran down to the water's edge, dragged himself carefully to a gap in the ice and face planted the water, while we counted to seven.

Despite fact that Neil didn't look any younger when he emerged from the frozen water, a few of us decided to give it a whirl after Neil said with sincerity that he was actually in his seventies. Dipping your face in a frozen river might seem like an easy way to attain immortality, however the remuneration for the prize is a strong kick in the face with the mother of all ice-cream headaches. My theory on the "icy river of youth" is that it works because all of the skin on your face stretches back towards your ears in a desperate attempt to flee from the ice-cold water.

Having attained immortality we fought off the urge to spend the next thirty or so years wandering the earth trying to figure out the meaning of life or grab a sword and decapitate our fellow immortals while listening to Queen. Instead we got back on the bus and headed south towards Oban, our second night's rest stop, while Neil continued his Barding ways and told us a fantastic story about a race of Giants who inhabited the hills and had a tea party on top of a mountain. With outstanding comic timing he finished his story by pointing to a road sign of a picture of a man holding a child's hand and said "see there are still giants in these parts today".

I guess you had to be there...

Our next stop was Glen Sheil where other than the pretty view from the car park across a loch, the highlight was a public toilet (which we had to pay for) that was decorated in Scottish history and had a clan map with all the locations and clan sheilds from Scotland. After finding the clans from my ancestry I decided it was a little weird to be taking photos in a public toilet. Then I remembered that I paid fifty pence to use the loo, so it was my right to snap out a few shots.

After passing a Loch with the imaginative name of Lake Lake, we arrived at the banks of Loch Oich. Another beautiful panorama spread out before us, a picture of absolute tranquility. We decided we should smash the peace with a rock and stood at the waters edge skipping stones across the silver surface of the Loch. Of course the Loch objected as best it could by denying us the perfect skipping stones, which it had frozen to the waters edge as if they were cemented in place.

Our next stop was the confusingly named Spean bridge, which wasn't a bridge at all. As far as I could tell it was a monument to a bunch of Commando's which I'm sure had a glorious and bloody tale to be told, one that probably involved a bridge, probably involved some fighting and most definitely involved drunken Scotsmen. Alas, I don't know the story, maybe I wasn't paying attention to Neil, or maybe it was just a crap story, maybe there is no story... Either way, if you really care you can Control-T and Google it.

From Spean-Bridge we had our first glimpse of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in all of Britain. At only 1,344 metres above sea level, it is slightly underwhelming, but it does look quite impressive covered in snow and ice with massive bare rock faces sticking out the sides. I like its name, no one bothered calling it Mount Hardcore or Mount Doom, just Ben. Actually, Ben Nevis means "Venomous mountain" or "Mountain with its head in the clouds", and yeah, I Wiki'd that.

Our next stop was in the uninspiring town of Ft. William where we ate lunch in a supermarket cafe. Which as you can imagine was crap, but they served eggs and baked beans for lunch and it came with chips. Ft. William is a bit of a nothing place, primarily used as a place to stay when you want to do interesting things in the nearby area. With that in mind we headed back to the bus to do some interesting things in the nearby area.

One such interesting thing was Glencoe. I think I missed the point at Glencoe. Glen means a valley, however I think I spent most of the time staring at the hills on either side of the glen as Neil told us the grim story of the massacre at Glencoe. In my defence I shall relate Glencoe to a pair of breasts, where men tend to enjoy looking at the sticky outy bits, and not so much the gap between them.

After a long days driving and stopping and looking and sitting and looking some more we finally arrived in the sea-side town of Oban. We took a short tour around town on the bus, which was mostly due to the fact that the roads were narrow and Neil missed the parking so we had to drive right into town and back again to find a place to turn-around. This turned out to be quite helpful as we were given a quick preview of the town's collection of pubs. Eventually we parked illegally directly in front of our Hostel and unloaded ourself upon it.

After picking up keys to our room, we took a quick stroll into town before deciding to head to our pre-determined pub of choice. It was at this pub, in the highlands of Scotland, that I had my first experience at not understanding someone speaking English. While doing my business in the urinal of the men's toilet a couple of locals came in speaking fluently in some kind phlegm derived language. Eventually I figured out they were actually speaking English, but to this day the only two words I have been able to translate are the ones they used between every other word, "fook" and "coont".

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Driving Scotsman

The adventure began the night before in an underground bar called Frankensteins (Not Dracula's as previously posted) which had a toilet that played creepy sound effects. We were introduced to our fellow MacBackpacker tour companions by way of a meet and greet drinking session. It was here that we met Neil, a kilt wearing Scotsman with a hereditary gift for story telling. He was to be our bus driver, our tour guide and our entertainment for the next three days as we toured the Highlands of Scotland.

Neil would later explain to us that his family came from a Highland Clan renowned for its Bards. This was self-evident for as soon as the Bus has set off gliding down the icy hill he had switched on his mic and set about telling stories with as much humour and as many tangents as a Billy Connoly joke. He even began the trip with an apology for his use of profanity, but he explained that this was unavoidable as he was Scottish there was nothing he could fookin do about it.

We headed out into the frozen country side with every surface blanketed in thick white snow, the bus dug in or veered menacingly across ice patches, which added a slight alarm when Neil would interrupt himself from a story with a "Oops Shit!" especially alarming as we crossed the Forth Bridge, a massive suspension bridge crossing the ocean and completely concealed by thick fog which gave the impression that we were surrounded by a vast empty void, our only tether to the living world was the frozen bitumen around the bus and the vague shadows of railings through the fog.

We wound our way northward as the plains turned into rolling green hills, or at least we assumed they were green, somewhere deep underneath the snow. Scotland had been lavished with snow like a spew is lavished with sawdust. The further north we travelled, the deeper and whiter it became. The trees drooped as the burden of snow pulled every branch downwards. The snow even piled up on fence wire creating thin lines of white. The snow even covered the sheep, the sheep covered the fields and the fields were covered in snow. It was like a fluffy white layered cake, but Scottish... and not cake.

The snow was so deep that several times early in our trip Neil apologised that we may not be able to get to some places as the roads would be closed. Never less he would still try his best to find some "cool stuff to look at". The first "cool stuff" was the small town of Dunkeld, which is famous for being the muse place of Beatrix Potter and also for some very elaborate and violent story about Vikings and Scottish bravery that may or may not have been embellished a little for entertainment purposes by our Bus driving Bard.

Dunkeld was our first glimpse at a quaint little village in Britain, and very far removed from the mountain villages of South East Asia, the similarity was only in the name (It must also be mentioned that referring to a Scotsman as a Brit could find oneself being led to the carpark or shown the underside of a barstool). Dunkeld was also our first indoctrination into paying for a ticket to use a public toilet. But after two hours on a bus it was a necessary expenditure.

We explored the town a little and tried our hand at snowballs, but the snow was so cold it wouldn't stick together and was as useless as throwing balls of sand. The store in the village should have been called the "Mother Hubbard" as the cupboards were bare and on the way back to the bus I found myself ducking and weaving to avoid the patches of yellow snow behind the public toilet block, obviously not everyone thought it was a necessary expenditure.

Throughout the following days, the snow decided to prevent us from going to a lot of places. The first of which was Culloden, the site of the final battle in the Jacobite uprising. Unfortunately the road was snowed over and we travelled around it, missing out on visiting the battlefield but Neil treated us to a good yarn about it regardless.

Our next stop was Ruthven Barracks which was prefaced by Neil telling us we couldn't get there as the road would be snowed over, which was followed by a collective "ohh" from the bus to which Neil replied "fook it lets give it a shot". We arrived at the Barracks and set out to explore the old stone ruins. I was a bit of an excited little kid as this was the closest I'd come to a real Castle so far. Although it wasn't really a castle, it was still cool and could've have looked a bit castle-ish if you squinted and tilted you head to one side.

From the Barrack's hilltop we watched with amusement as Neil tried to turn the bus around on the narrow road and managed to get it completely stuck in the snow. With the help of the group he managed to get the bus free from the snow, moved it around a bit, got it stuck again and then got it out and turned around. I watched safely from the well guarded position of my hilltop castle, deciding to leave my garrison to help exactly one second before they finally got the bus free.

From Ruthven we headed into Aviemore where we stopped for lunch. Aviemore is a ski resort town, and was bustling with holiday makers. I found the place a little strange as there weren't any visible mountains on the horizon, yet there were skiers and snowboarders filling the lines in the cafe's. I reached the conclusion that Scottish people are known for being drunks, which of course distorts their vision making the ground seem uneven, they then ski down the slanty bits. This probably meant that the ski lifts would be no more than a few well spaced bar stools.

It would be an understatement to say that our next stop is the most well known point of interest in all of Scotland, but before we could reach the gift shop we stopped the bus on the side of the road and headed down to the icy shores of Loch Ness. It is fair to say I have a fair portion of scepticism regarding the myth of a gigantic dragon like sea creature living in the deep water of Loch Ness. Especially one with such a girly name.

But, being a little wise to possibility that Scottish people are occasionally sober, I decided to keep one eye Loch-ward and of course the camera was waiting in anticipation of getting a million dollar photo, or at least a soon to be discredited one. Loch Ness was beautiful, especially when flanked by snow covered hills and covered in whisps of mist, it is also fookin huge, so it was nearly half an hour before we reached the gift shop.

It was mid afternoon and night time was upon us. While still travelling along side the length of Loch Ness we turned off the road at Urquhart Castle. From the hill we could see a real Scottish Castle on the banks of Loch Ness, lit up brightly with yellow flood lights and mostly destroyed by time, war or lazy caretakers. We didn't have long to stop, as Neil was becoming nervous about the number of hours ahead of us driving on narrow and windy icy roads in total darkness. I was becoming nervous that he kept bringing it up.

Driving through the darkness was an eerie experience, Neil had gone quiet (well mostly) to concentrate on driving, so we listened to his favourite playlist of obscure songs while I stared out the window watching the trees and hills fade in and out of the darkness, illuminated by the moon reflecting on the snow and ice. Occasionally the lights of a small (and no doubt quaint) village would flash past until eventually we wound our way alongside another massive body of water, The North Atlantic Ocean, or Loch Alch, if you think lakes should be allowed to be connected to Oceans.

We had one last stop before crossing the Skye Bridge over Loch Alch (and the North Atlantic) to the Isle of Skye. There can be only one, and that is Eilan Donan Castle. We trudged from the bus into the bitterly cold night air to cross a short stone foot bridge leading to a small but mostly intact Castle which featured in a couple of wars, a whole bunch of romantic comedies, but most importantly, it was in Highlander.

At the time none of us knew that like Connor McLeod of the clan McLeod, who was an immortal, we too would be facing our own chance at immortality a small distance away on the other side of the Skye Bridge, but let's not get ahead of ourselves, as for now we have a bigger issue to face. Arriving in Kyleakin on the isle of Skye we quickly noticed that there was only two pubs in town, and one of them was closed. Luckily the open one was next door to our Hostel.

The hostel was pretty cozy (read: small but comfortable) and after grabbing one of the private rooms for an extra £7.00 we headed off to feed and water ourselves at the pub as quickly as possible. Our plan was well rewarded after finding the pub only had one cook, was already full of locals and didn't have enough available chairs for 20 or so hungry backpackers, especially after another bus full of more MacBackpackers arrived shortly after us.

We had to wait too long for meals that wern't really worth waiting for, however those on the bus that took their time in the hostel, were told by the bar staff they couldn't take any more food orders for an hour. So we ate our meals as slowly as they came out while a few hungry backpackers stared longingly at our forks and checked their watches.

While having a cigarette outside the pub I was interrupted by a young local Scotsman who had heard me say the word "dollar" and assuming I was American was ready to have a fight. Turns out he didn't like Americans and he definitely didn't like the English who denied the Scottish their right to be a republic by way of a conspiratorial voting manipulation and were a bunch of no good oil stealing bastards.

I didn't realise Scotland had oil, so I assumed that my drunken Scottish friend didn't like Americans because they would start a war with Scotland for its oil. Or maybe he didn't like Americans because he had common sense... and maybe he was sober, hard to tell with him being Scottish and all. Fortunately he had no negative opinion about Australians or Kiwis and encouraged us to spend money in their tiny island economy. I made a mental note to tell the couple from Chicago not to say the word "dollar" and headed back to the bar.

Back at the Hostel we settled down by the fire in the common room, where I managed to rid myself of my guitar withdrawals and have a nice cup of hot chocolate. Unfortunately time away from playing guitar hadn't improved my ability to play it, and any ability I had previously attained seemed to be content hibernating. Later on after pulling myself away from the coal fueled fire and the book I was reading I returned to our private room to find a fat ginger and white cat asleep on the bed.

The cat's name was Hemorrhoid, or Hemmy for short. Prue had been unable convince him to leave the room, so after filling the sink with water for the cat to climb into and drink out of, Hemmy nestled into the end of the bed and dozed off. Prue, who was suddenly missing our own cat Lucy was soon also in the land of nod. After a massive day of seeing the Highlands of Scotland, I too found myself heading for dreams, thankfully my dreams were enriched with more colours than just white. I like that...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chapter 7: Can you hear the pipes?

After having breakfast and saying our goodbyes we left the Astor Hyde Park Hostel and headed out. We'd decided to catch the number 10 bus instead of the Tube because it went directly to Kings Cross Station, we wouldn't have to change trains and it was a lot cheaper. We walked across the road and waited for the bus and climbed aboard realising straight away that we weren't going to be able to get upstairs let alone sit down due to our huge backpacks strapped to both our front and back.

We squished in and tried not to knock anyone out. The Bus made its way slowly up Oxford St, thanks largely to the second day of the post-Xmas sales and the resulting crowds. By now we were starting to worry as we were getting close to our departure time and we weren't even half way to where we needed to be.

We stood side by side waiting and waiting for the Bus to say it had arrived at Kings Cross Station and when it finally did we had less than 10 minutes till the train left. We ran into the station and found the automatic ticket dispenser. The easiest machine ever, using the credit card that we booked the tickets with 2 months earlier, we instantly grabbed out dispensed tickets.

We found our way into a huge open train station like I hadn't seen before. It had as many lines as the huge station in Bangkok or back home at Spencer St in Melbourne, but it was all made out of wood with vaulted ceilings. We walked past platform nine and three quarters to our platform, secure in the knowledge that we had a few minutes to spare and found our train and our allocated chairs.

We were facing backwards and sitting down, but that was the end of the similarities between this and any train we'd caught before. The chair had sturdy tables that came down off the back of the seat in front of us. Similar to an airplane, but more solid. There was a power point on the floor next to the window to plug in your laptop and free wifi! This was amazing.

As we pulled out of the station Drew Skype called his parents, though due to the overuse slowing the bandwidth it was easier just to use text chat. We played on the net, ate a dodgy meal from the food car. We watched the snowy English landscape change into a wild Scottish countryside marvelling as the flat lands changed into rolling hills so quickly once we were over the border.

People got on and got off the train as we stopped on our way to Edinburgh and we realised that there was a huge lack of seats. People were standing in the walkways packed together so tightly that they could hardly move with all there belongings at their feet stopping people from being able to squeeze past.

Overhearing conversations we discovered that you can book allocated seated or non allocated seated tickets. Non allocated seating was cheaper, but they still sold them after they sold out of allocated seating meaning that all the people with non allocated seating were standing up and like late day female commuters in high heels, all vying for the one seat that gets freed up each time someone gets off the train.

If you went to the toilet you'd come back to Drew or me trying to explain that the person sitting in the spare seat would be back and no, they couldn't take the seat. As amusing and oddly embarrassing as this was, we will never forget the people that had to stand up the whole way and will never book unallocated seating. What a horrible time they had with little kids crying and parents at a wits end. They couldn't even sit on the floor because they'd just have to get up for someone to go around them.

We pulled into Edinburgh station and as it was almost 3:30pm it was about dark. We made our way into the foodcourt at the station to find a map and a toilet (which you have to pay for in Scotland). The map was quite hard to find and the city was being descended upon for New Year. We tracked a dodgy map down with adverts all over it and found our way out of the station.

When we came out of the tunnel onto the street we were immediately overwhelmed by the old stone buildings. We walked along past so many dark towering buildings that even with the map we were starting to second guess our ability to find our way. We turned a corner and asked some policemen who, with adorable Scottish accents, pointed us in the right direction.

We walked up a small alleyway and out onto what could only be the main street in the old town. It stretched as far as we could see down to the sea in one direction and up to what from this angle looked like more buildings on the hill. The afternoon sun had set by now and visibility was quickly slipping away, much like our feet underneath us on the slippery ice covered stone.

We followed the map and the Policeman’s directions and walked up past a lot of Scottish themed souvenirs shops and onto the quieter street that our hotel was on. We walked around the corner and noticed the amazing view that left us standing in the cold staring. It really was Castle Rock!

The huge castle standing on top of the hill in the middle of Edinburgh was monolithic and Gothic in the encroaching dark and we were left feeling overwhelmed by the sight. In the end the cold got to us and we made our way into the hostel and checked in. There was going to be a meet and greet tonight and we would have a few hours to kill before then. We made our way down to our room past the suits of armor and the huge murals on the walls. Our room was a huge open space with our bunk beds all pushed up against the walls leaving a large open space in the middle of the room.

We wandered outside and walked down through the town a little bit. We made our way out of the old town and over the other side of the parks where we walked into some of the newer shops and picked up some bits and pieces we wanted. Slowly we made our way back towards the hostel with more “oohing” and “aahing”. We slipped into a pub just up from the hostel and grabbed some dinner and a drink.

After relaxing a little bit we headed back to the hostel and met with some of the people we'd be touring with. We went down to a bar called Dracula's and had some free shots and some normal drinks. We chatted to some people and met out driver whose name was Neil, who would turn out to be the best tour guide ever! We had some competitions and won some Macbackpackers stuff and then made our way back to the hostel for bed. Tomorrow would begin out great Scottish adventure and we couldn't wait to get started!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Do They Sell Fridges?

After the eventful Christmas Day we decided to head into the sales. Drew was kind enough to fully agree, but I think this had more to do with making things up for throwing up on the Hostel room. We headed down the stairs of death, had breakfast and then jumped on the bus. I admitted to Drew that I was hanging out to see Buckingham Palace and we agreed to head there first.

We caught a bus that got us close to it and then realising that there was people all over the place heading there, we got our first inkling that something was up a the palace. Most of the people were running so we ran to catch up. We arrived out of breath and saw an enormous crowd gathered with Police keeping everyone in check.

We wandered through the crowd who were all trying to see into the front area of the Palace. Police on horses repeated over and over "remember to keep a hold of your valuables, pick pockets are operating in this crowd". We weaved through the crowd and I looked down and noticed one of my zips on my bag had become undone. Luckily I'd been keeping everything in the main part, just in case this happened. Drew didn't believe that I hadn't left home with it open, but I maintain someone was a bit disappointed that I didn't have anything to give them.

We couldn't see over the crowd and being vertically challenged I decided to walk further along the front of the Palace and see if there was a spot that had less people trying to see through the fence. To do this we had to wait for marching bands to walk past while Police kept everyone from moving. We waited at the edge of the gates with the Police holding us back until the horse guards passed and we could move again. Grumpy Police kept people from stopping in front of the gates to take pictures without the fences by shouting at people "if you want to be able to see, you should have been here earlier". It was actually a lot of fun.

We headed up to the north side of the front fence and found a spot and after a while of moving and shuffling Drew and I made it to the fence to see guards with guns marching up and down the square while a military band played Christmas carols. The whole thing was an amazingly diverse show from the cheery Christmas music to the straight-backed-gun-toting-guards marching about. It turns out we'd ended up watching the Boxing Day changing of the guards. We had arrived fairly late though and it was over about 10 minutes after we finally got a good spot to watch from.

The crowd dispersed quickly and we headed north towards Oxford St. We had decided to walk as the distance wasn't actually that far. We walked up through Mayfair with all the old London houses that hark back to a bygone era. We found ourselves on Oxford St and decided to have some lunch. We found a little pub and went downstairs into their eating area and had some typical English pub food, Pie and Mash.
After a nice pint (or half pint if you're me) we headed off to brave the shops. It was horrible. I like shopping with female friends who can spur you on if you start getting tired or over it, but it doesn't work that way with husbands. We battled massive crowds like I've never seen before. It's like being at a over crowded music festival, but instead of everyone enjoying the music and having a good time they are practically killing each other trying to get to modestly discounted "bargains" that they probably won't want in a few days.

We walk into Selfridges because everyone said we should, the prices were less than 5% off and that still left things starting at around £150.00 for some makeup or a top. We walked out and past a line of about 100 people waiting to get into the Gucci part of Selfridges for the sale. Not being racist at all, but it was hard not to notice that all except about 4 people in the line were Asian. It was just amazing.

We went in Primark which we'd been loving, but the enjoyment didn't last very long. We couldn't move and the lines for the registers wound around the store. In the end, with my dreams of getting something nice for myself gone, we gave up and grabbed the first bus we could home. I won't ever go to the sales again in the UK, at least not on Oxford St. I've been and had a great time in Australia, but the massive crowds here make it no fun.

We decided to go out to dinner and ended up heading to an Indian restaurant around the corner. It was kind of pricey, but the food was really good and that was all we really wanted at this point. We stumbled home tired and full. After watching the TV for a while and contemplating the stairs we headed up hopefully one last time to pack our bags and get ready to catch the train to Edinburgh, Scotland early in the morning.