Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Travel on a Shoestring

Looks like it's time for a new brand: College purse tips.

College purse tip #305: Always bring your own lunch. Food in Europe, as previously mentioned, is muy expensivo. It's worth getting a few weird looks from your fellow travelers to save twelve bucks. Also, in N. Ireland, nothing goes better with a cold cheese sandwich than a 2 GBP warm bowl of soup and wheaten.

GBP = Great Britain Pounds.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Inishowen with Mizzou with Swat Stowaways, Inc.

Travel on a Shoestring tip # 1279: Always hook up with a tour group for hard-to-reach locales. Preferably one that's already paid for their bus. There was a group of students on a summer study abroad experience from the U of Missouri (they have a cute name for it: Mizzou) living in the dorms. I was lucky enough to be able to hitch a ride (via Denise) on their bus to go to Inishowen. Inishowen is a peninsula at the north of the Republic of Ireland. Its northernmost point, Malin Head, actually extends above Northern Ireland. On the bus I sat next to Maurice, another Swattie who had just finished his semester abroad in Derry. We got to visit to Fort Dunree, Griannan of Aileach, and the Famine Village.

Above: the view from Fort Dunree. Below: the Famine Village tells the story of the Famine, and ends the tour with inspirational quotes reminding you that other parts of the world are still in need.

I actually saw a real thatched-roof house on my second trip to Inishowen.

Before I came of Ireland, I used to picture rolling hills and misty green fields. Although I saw plenty of those, I never expected to see a lot of beaches. The Emerald Isle: go figure, it's got a lot of coastline.

Mo skipping a rock:

The view from Griannan, and Iron Age stone ring fortress.

I snagged an aerial view from the great Ireland website so you all can see what it looks like as a whole.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Trade Show

Wham! I just got hit with my first interview. Today, Denise took me to a tradeshow in Belfast for social economy organizations, to see if I could make any contacts that would help me with my research. Even though this is what I'm studying this summer, I still find it kind of wierd when organizations that are dedicated to helping people take part in stereotypical business activities. When we got there, I was a little intimidated by the suits and business cards. It always helps me to imagine everyone in a beige tunic. Visualizing tunics: covered.

Next, Denise sent me out among the different booths to explain to people that I was an undergraduate student asking for their time. I gained a new appreciation for the salesman. You have to be a certain type to walk up to a stranger, chat them up, and remember eveyone's name and what their company does for the ten minutes that you talk to them. Add a wink, a smile, and sparkly teeth, and we've narrowed the Master Salesman field down to about 5% of the world population. Most people at the tradeshow either gave me a lukewarm reception (they were mostly there to get their products out to paying clients), but a few were really nice and helpful. Some of them explained that they were students themselves, going for a masters or a doctorate in their free time. When you're only in an area for a short time, the access problem can be greatly ameliorated by creating a network of other students and internshippers.

I was just getting over my go-up-to-people-in-suits-and-explain-yourself nerves when someone offered to do an interview right there. Wait. What? The man was the head of a street carnival/peace and reconciliation group in Belfast. He told me to come back in half an hour, at which point I had to prise him away from his African drum circle, fighting the urge to lose all of my professionalism by breaking out some serious dance moves with one of the performers: a clown on stilts.

For a first interview, it went well. It was more conversational in style, since I hadn't cemented my interview questions yet. The concept that stood out the most was that of "shared space." His carnival venue provided a neutral place for people to come together in the streets, which was of vital importance during violent years when people were reluctant to go out and celebrate. Now, the shared space still operates out in the street, but also provides a neutral venue for making friends across communities and learning neutral music that is not tied to any specific N. Irish community (mostly drumming). At the end of the interview, he told me he thought it was better to record them on tape. He said the risk that a tape would cause people to self-censor was small, because, as he put it, "everyone here is used to that kind of thing--people waving recorders in their faces."

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Arthur's Seat

On my last day, I woke up early and had a nice bowl of Wheetabix. Wheetabix is a miracle for people who want to stop the rumbly feeling in the morning but can't quite deal with tasting anything that early in the day. Then, four of us left the flat and went for a hike. After the hike (did we go to the art museum? I can't remember when during the weekend this happened) Amit and I had the best Indian buffet I've ever encountered in my life. We started out going to a pub that Lonely Planet recommended, but were turned off when the we went inside and saw that their idea of non-bar seating was curtained-off beds. The Indian restaurant had tables with chairs. With tablecloths instead of comforters. Always a good sign. It was a hot buffet with a drink and dessert, all for six pounds, which is dirt cheap in Scotland.

Back to the hillwalking. Arthur's Seat is a hill overlooking Edinburgh. It looks innocent when you're in the main town, but once you start climbing it gets really windy. Luckily, the wind was blowing the direction that kept me, Amit, Shay, and Shay's Flatmate ON the hill. The view at the top was definitely worth it. We also got to feel that cool sensation where you can lean back into the wind further than gravity would normally permit.

Working to fulfill the duties of my new post as Minister of Tourism in Scotland, I present a Come to Edinburgh photo story.

Arthur's Seat: He's got a nice one!

At the end of the day I got my stuff and hurried to the airport, terrified because I was running late. As it turns out, I could have waited another hour. F.Y.I.: the little hoppers that go around Europe are always late. The label on your ticket "Gate closes at 18:50" is more of a suggestion that you might want to meander over to the security gate. After you've finished your latte.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Pitlochry: The Scottish Highlands

Early the next morning, Amit and I headed out for the Scottish Highlands. Pitlochry is the shortest train ride away from Edinburgh that can still be called the Highlands. If you're staying in Glasgow, Loch Ness is doable for a day trip. Now, I always thought that the fabled sea snake was the Lochness Monster, and that Lochness was just her intimidating name. Like the Cookie Monster. Actually, though, it's Loch Ness, and there are Loughs all over England, Scotland, and Ireland. A loch is actually a "lake." How many people already knew this, and why are you keeping it from us? Going to Loch Ness would have been really cool, just to be able to say we'd been.

However, we had to weigh what would have been a 6 hour round trip with the benefits of a 4 or 5 hour hike. The train ride to Pitlochry ran along beautiful woodlands, and the entire time I was feeling wierded out (WAY more than the situation merited) that phonetically, Pitlochry should be spelled Pitt Lochrie.

Neurosis aside, we got there mid-morning and set off looking for a hike. The train station had a bathroom attendant. I usually find that when you're a young person traveling with relatively few restrictions, and you head into a small town, it's best to follow the advice of random locals. Ask a few to make sure the info is good. I started with the bathroom attendant:

"Where can I go hiking around here?"

"What? No, you don't want to do that!" I could see a hint of fear in his eyes.

"Why not?"

"A nice girl like you could get hurt. Don't do it."

"Umm, but I really want to go hiking. I have a friend with me."

"No. It's very dangerous."

(The lightbulb over my head flickers) "We just want to take a walk in those hills over there."

"Oh! You want to go HILLwalking! Yes, yes. There's a tourist information centre down the road."

Of course, it's always better if you don't accidentally ask the locals where a good place for hitchhiking is.

The tourist info centers in Britain/N. Ireland are exceptionally good. Whenever you stop into a hub town, it's a good idea to visit them, even if you already have a guide book. Always try to talk to the older person working there and not the (usually) clueless teenager working a summer job. If your destination is not well-traveled, it's good to ask them if they've been on the hikes or to the places they're suggesting. If you don't have a car, also ask whether or not they know anyone who has used public transportation to get there and back in one day.

The Pitlochry tourist centre was, as usual, a great resource. It produced its own detailed pamphlet on walks in Pitlochry. We chose the Craigower trail, which takes you up into the hills to look at the surrounding Lochs and Glencoe. The trail goes along the Old North Road, which was "the main means of communication between North and South in this central area of Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots and General Hugh Mackay the commander of the government troops who were routed by the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689 passed along this route." (cite)

We ate our Nutella sandwiches in a city garden--why don't we have more of these little gardens in the US?-- and then set off. On second thought, why don't we have more Nutella sandwiches in the US? On day trips, bringing your own lunch is a must, because restaurant food is very expensive in the UK/Northern Ireland. In America, we eat out. In the UK, they eat in and drink out. Recent economic surveys conducted by Jessa Analysts, Inc. estimate that 50% of the GDP in Derry comes from people saving what they would spend on a restaurant meal and dropping it in the pubs and night clubs. But enough about dining. Look at this country park in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.

The way up.

At the summit.

Back down to Pitlochry again.

I accomplished some of my Scottish food goals that day: steak and ale pie and Irn Bru. Other Scottish food goals accomplished during the trip: Scotch broth, squash (weird concentrated fruit juice), toffee, Belhaven's Best, and Wheetabix. Yet to be determined: fried Mars Bars, true scotch, haggis. A note on squash: you must dilute it with 4 parts water before drinking it. Don't ask me how I know this; ask my pancreas.

Steak and ale pie:

Irn Bru, an orange soda so acidic that it will strip rust off nails.

It was actually a little bit of a hassle to get them to sub a soda for the pint. I don't think customers usually turn down beer. The poor bartender, his eyes had a little red text scroll that read: "ALERT! COMMAND DOES NOT COMPUTE. ALERT! COMMAND DOES NOT COMPUTE."

The end.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Edinburgh: it starts with a C and rhymes with "Fastle"

Roowwaaawwrrrr!!!!! They made me put my broadsword in a glass case when I went through customs. Good thing I brought appropriate attire. I think I blended in well enough...

Since this is my first time in Europe (if you don't count a very dark stay in Poland), I was excited to get around to some other countries. Although my experience is limited, I believe Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It's an ancient town, complete with old, hauntingly beautiful buildings, a bustling, modern feel, and a steep valley full of flora running through it.

Amit is traveling through Europe this summer, and his friend Shay invited me to stay at his flat in Edinburgh so that I could visit them. The weekend was a blast! This is an amalgamation of moments from my first day in Scotland, hope you enjoy!

Reuniting with Amit after 5 months, I was blown away by the coolness of his backpacking gear. (Yeah, I was a little happy to see him as well.) Can you tell if the cowboy hat is an ironic nod to how Europeans view Americans, or if it's purely functional? I always think people look awesome when they're all decked out as backpackers. I check them out as the walk down the street, thinking, "at some point in my youth I HAVE to do the stereotypical backpacking trip across Europe." Listening to his stories has only reinforced my yearning to don a wire-framed sack and sleep in lice-ridden beds for the only three months out of the year when I don't have to don a book-laden sack and sleep in...wait...the beds are still lice-ridden. I think the charm of backpacking through Europe comes partly from the fact that it's what we're already used to. Also, our stomachs can still handle dehydrated noodles.

In Europe they have castles. I'm not sure if I can quite explain the impact this should have on you. They have CASTLES. Slap one of those pointy princess hats on me and I'm good to go. Do you think they take kindly to squatters? I promise I'll set up my own tent. Just let me bask in the castle air!!! Please?!?!!

This next pic ties into my cardboard box theory. Will explain in a later post.

The National Museum of Scotland is basically like the Smithsonian Museum of National History. When I was little I loved museums. I would insist on reading every sign posted, attempting to absorb all the information I could from each exhibit. It would take me all day to visit the museum. This drove my family nuts. It only took us two hours to move through this museum, mostly because I wanted to leave enough time to see the CASTLE. This spinning wheel is from the Museum's extensive exhibit on the Industrial Revolution. It really tickled my economic history fancy (see my post on sheep).

Shay and his friends impressed upon us that Scottish people resent being thought of as the broadsword-waving, war-loving types depicted in Braveheart. Well, how about kilt-wearing bagpipe players? Ask these guys who set up shop on the Royal Mile. "I don't give a damn about accurate cultural representation if it eats into the tourism industry, laddie!"

Why does Edinburgh get described as "hauntingly beautiful?" This is the building that sealed the deal for me. And there's the fact that it reminds me of the Licorice Castle from Candyland.

Those philosophy classes really come in handy when you're hanging with your famous Scottish buddies:

Later that evening, we went to a gathering of Shay's friends at a pub they like. I met some lovely people, including an expat who moved here to go to the University of Edinburgh. The Expat is actually from California, and the part of home she misses the most is good Mexican food. The reason I remember this detail so clearly is that in a loud, crowded pub, the phrase, "man, I could really use a good burrito" repeated five times over the course of the night really sticks with you.

Don't go making any assumptions, I just blinked at the wrong time. By the way, why on EARTH did I not even CONSIDER going to college abroad? Tuition ranges from free to 6000 pounds. And this is one of the University of Edinburgh dorms. Harry Potter, much?

From left to right: Shay's flatmate, the awesome Shay himself, Amit, and Jessa. What, you can't see me? I'm in the castle, begging them to take me in. They used a loophole in their extravagant welfare laws to let me stay. All I had to do was become a citizen, 'cause in Europe, EVERYONE gets a CASTLE!!! Stay tuned for day two :-D