Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Arabian Nights – Sahara Desert

We had multiple people tell us going on the two night three day tour of the Sahara Desert was well worth it. Plus, how could we say no to riding a camel? We were so close to it (12 hour bus ride). Our roommates, Millie and George, were also going on the same tour, so we all woke up at 6:00 am and were out the door by 7:00. Several other people going from our hostel as well, including people from Spain, Montreal, England, USA, and Australia.

The small bus and long journey meant we all became friends rather quickly. The first day included taking many pictures of beautiful Morocco. The geological structures and various rock formations on our way to the desert were stunning. Our driver didn’t speak any English except for “picture please” whenever we stopped to take in the views. After driving for about five hours we stopped to eat lunch and walk around a neat Berber village where about five different families lived. The Berber are the indigenous people of Morocco and largest ethnic group. Movies like the Gladiator, Babel, Lawrence of Arabia, and many others were filmed there. After seeing a really big stork nest, I wish I had brought my big camera. We decided to bring the smaller camera on this journey for fear of getting sand in the big one.
While wandering around the village, this was when I started feeling ill. At the time, I thought it was a combination of dehydration, headache, and cramps. Later I learned, I had travelers diarrhea. This quickly became one of the worst days of my life.
After eating lunch in the village, we still had a six hour bus ride to the hotel. I was feeling pretty bad after lunch, but I still wasn’t sure what was wrong. After about an hour we stopped to use the toilet, and this was when the first sign of travelers bug happened. I told Bryan, but I don’t think he realized how bad I felt at the time. After another hour or two, we stopped for the second time. It was awful.
Everything was coming out in both ends. I started crying because I didn’t know what to do. I needed to be by toilet at all times, but instead I had to be on a bus with ten other people. At this point, Bryan realized how bad it was and sat in the front of the bus with me as I was crying and trying to hold it all in. On the way to the hotel, we stopped about 4 more times to take pictures. I thought I was going to die. Despite how bad I felt, I still remember looking outside and thinking how beautiful it was.
After finally reaching the hotel, I ran to the toilet and stayed in the room for the rest of the night. Luckily, Bryan and I had our own room and bathroom.
The hotel was placed at the bottom of a gorge by a river and was quite picturesque. I was just thankful to be by a toilet. Bryan and the group all had family style Moroccan food for dinner while I drank some sort of herbal tea in the room. The tea was supposedly good for the stomach and was brought to me by the nice man who did pretty much everything in the hotel. We decided to supplement it with the antibiotics we’d brought from the US.
The following day, I woke up feeling better but still not good. My whole body was sore and tense. Probably from the stress of trying to hold it all in from the previous day. I also still needed to be by a toilet, and so we had to stay another night in the hotel. We were sad to say goodbye to our group – they were wonderful and so much fun. The price for the first night in the hotel was included in the package, but we had to pay for the second night. The price was a little more than we would have liked, but we had no choice. Bryan had a great time in the hotel relaxing and reading. It was actually a nice break from all the bus riding.
The next morning we joined in with another group. There was a family from Romania, a couple from Holland, a couple Moroccan women, and two English girls. I didn’t think they were going to be as much fun as our first group but that changed over time. They were all wonderful as well. There was a five year old Romanian boy named Lucas who didn’t whine or cry the entire time. We were pretty impressed.
The second day of the tour (third day for us) included another Berber village with hand made rugs, a river which came straight out of the massive cliffs from underground, and then the much anticipated camel ride in the desert.
Unfortunately, as soon as we hit the dunes, our camera died. We have no pictures of the second night in the desert, but it will forever be in my memory.
Camels are painful to ride. Despite this, it was well worth it even though I’m still sore. We spent almost two hours on the camels before we reached our camp. Once we reached camp, we all hiked up the dunes for sunset. Words cannot express how cool this moment was. Seeing miles and miles of sand dunes with the sunset is indescribable beauty. We all just sat there in awe of where we were. We all took in the moment and then headed back to camp for dinner.
The local Berber/Saharan men who guided the camels and ran the camp were so much fun and made the whole experience that much more memorable. They were quite impressive, each speaking fluently in multiple languages. French, English and Spanish seemed standard on top of the “normal” Arabic and Berber. After dinner, they played what they called tom-toms but they kind of looked like bongos. They sang and showed us some Saharan dance moves. Omar, one of the guides, started telling jokes which I’m sure Bryan will tell you in person. As he was waiting for us to come up with the answer to the joke, he would dance with his arms and sing. Sort of like the jeopardy theme song but better. It’s hard to explain. I wish I would have had a video camera. It was hilarious.
They told us there are a lot of scorpions in the desert, so I made sure there weren’t any in the tent before heading to bed. :)
We woke up at 5 am the next morning, got back on our camels for the next two hours before eating breakfast.
Our journey back to Marrakesh included a 12 hour bus ride and many windy roads. It was a bit daunting at times, but we finally made it.
The whole experience was phenomenal, and we kind of want to do it again… except for the being sick part.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Into Africa – Marrakesh, Morroco

The straight of Gibralter is only a small bit of water seperating Gibralter from Tangier, but make no mistake about it. Morocco is African. They top two languanges are Arabic and Berber; the Berber being the indiginous people and the largest ethnic group. The currency is the dirham (about 8 to a dollar) and alcohol is rare, as Muslims do not drink it. The call to prayer rings out five times a day and the touts are back.

We got off the plane, made it through customs, got some money out of the ATM and found the 19 that would take us to Djemaa el Fna, which is a massive square in the middle of the old town of Marrakech. The bus driver had a map for us, but the majority of it was in French and Arabic. Nevertheless, the street signs were helpful.
As soon as we got off the bus we were surrounded by people trying to “help”. “Where you going?” was the constant cry. “You have reservation?” “Come see my riad!” It was almost as if we had a target on our back. Considering we had packs on our backs, I guess we did.
Travelers in the developing world are walking ATMs. Everyone wants a withdrawal.
The part of the square we were in was about three city blocks wide with cobblestone covering the entire ground. A layer of sandy dust covered everything and was constantly being kicked up by cars, horses-drawn carriages and motorbikes.
We had attempted to get past the group so we could sit down, readjust stuff and check the Lonely Planet map, but soon, another friend joined us. “Hello, friend! Where you going?” We had gotten everything into the packs, so off we were into the main part of the square.
The main portion of Djemaa el Fna was huge, about eight city blocks wide. A row of carts sold fresh squeezed orange juice at all hours of the day for 4 dirham (50 cents US), but everything else was in flux. During the day, carts selling fruit, gadgets and henna tattoos were prevalent. At night, over 100 stalls selling couscous and tanjines populated the square, each one trying to get you to their place. The motorbikers would fly through the square, weaving around people. The seperation between street and sidewalk was blurry at best.
Eventually, we asked a shop-keeper where our hostel was and he pointed us in the right direction. We ducked down a street off the main square and hasselled by another two touts. “Where you going?” Eventually, a young woman in a light blue burqa and matching head scarf looked at us and said, “hostel?” She motioned for us to follow. She ducked down into an alley, then into a second. She knocked on an unlabeled door. A guy answered and said, “hello, where you going?”
Now I couldn’t help but think that as soon as we stepped through the door, we were in an alley, in Marrakech, where nobody knew where we were. That said, what choice did we have? Sooner or later we had to trust somebody.
We stepped through the door and Mehdi immediately became an amazing host.
“You have made it my friends! Sit, relax, you are here at Trip and Friends!  You are home.” Soon, we had our shoes off, our hands full of sweet Moroccan mint tea and were being offered sheesha from a hookah. The hostel was riad-style, meaning a common area in the middle, open at the top. A ring of rooms around the central area hosted kitchen, bathrooms and about twenty people. The common area was filled with Berber carpets, comfortable cushions and fellow travellers. On top of the place was a shaded terrace where people would hang out and clothes would be hung to dry.
In fact, the common room turned into a fun, time-consuming activity in its own right as we spent time chit-chatting with people from all over the world. Conversations were always interesting as their was no common languange, but it all seemed to work as people figured out how to communicate. People would often return to the common room with their latest prize from the markets. Some of the best marinated olives I’ve ever had were 3 dirham for a fist-sized amount. Roasted almonds, dates and fresh fruit were also popular.
The Medina deserves a mention as well. Every city we’ve heard about in Morocco has a medina, which is small, windy streets filled with shops. The Medina in Marrakech was mostly covered to create shade and crowds of people walking up and down the medina were joined by donkey-pulled carts and motorbikes transporting people and goods.
Leif, is a guy from Jackson Hole, Wyoming who had been in Morocco for three weeks and took us to the moussaui place in the Medina for lunch. Moussaui is a lamb that’s been slow-roasted overnight. We ordered two sandwiches, at which point the man began chopping at the cooked lamb with an axe. In the end, we got bread the size of a salad plate filled with lamb. There was some gristle and bones we had to pull out, but it was excellent.
More common was the tajine. The word tajine actually refers to a covered clay dish. Food is put in the clay dish and baked. Couscous, chicken and veggies are common ingredients. Everything is served with flat bread, about an inch thick. Traditionally, tajines are served communally and you rip off a piece of bread to grab the food. No plates or silverware needed. After the meal you’re served more of the sweet mint tea. This sort of meal in the middle of Jamal el-Fna turned into a nightly event.
At the end of our second day in Marrakesh a man from the tour company came into the hostel to show everyone a bunch of tours. A few of the local waterfalls, the highest peak in Morocco, etc.
Basically, it was a fancy way of saying, “Where you going?”
“Three days, two nights. Sahara.”

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lost in Seville

The heat of Seville, Spain hit us like a brick wall as we disembarked the flight London. We took a public bus towards the center of the city, along with about 2/3 of our flight. It seemed like the right thing to do, but soon, we found ourselves lost on the streets of Seville, without a map.

We knew our hostel was at “19 Santiago”, and my Spanish is very basic. We ended up asking about five people where to go in Spanish, each time we understood little of their response, but got a block or two closer. The last people we asked said, “Sorry, I don’t know any Spanish” in a thick English accent. Turned out they were at our hostel.
The Garden Hostel quickly became our favorite we’ve stayed at so far. In fact, it’s been rated 8 or 9 in the world for the past 5 years by Three stories with a glass ceiling, a garden out back which offered wine, beer and a rotating menu. Hammocks, free breakfast, free sangria from 8-9, quiz nights, free walking tours, free ‘net access, knowledgable staff, a living room and a roof-top terrace.
It took about a day for Leslie to declare that this was her favorite city we’ve ever visited. It was easy to see why. The windy little roads made for great pictures and fun ways to get around the city. Everything was bright and colorful, with flamenco dancers and bullfighters adorning the paintings around the walls and the entire city seeming to move at a pace three times slower than Seattle. It took a bit to get used to the afternoon siestas, where most shops closed but once we made sure to schedule our day to include siesta it just added to the character of the city.
We spent five days in Seville relaxing from the hectic journey to get there, wandering the tight alleys and exploring the neat little tapas bars. Most of the time, I would order in Spanish, so it was rather hit and miss as to what we got.
Our first experience with tapas was a miss. We sat down on a sidewalk cafe, hoping to order six tapas. However, the menu was not in English, so I took a guess as to what to order. We decided that “mondaditos” looked about right because of the price so figured they were little tapas. I was quite proud of myself for ordering in Spanish, but then realized I didn’t really know what I ordered. Nervousness began to set in and turned into full-blown embarrassment as a plate with six hamburger-sized sandwiches showed up on the table. Leslie got pretty good pics of my reaction in the slideshow above.
Later in the week, we received recommendations from Valentina at The Garden and actually found some excellent tapas. Every time we’ve ordered tapas in the US we end up with little plates of food for $8 and end up leaving hungry and frustrated at the cost. This was very different. Most items on the menu could be ordered as tapas, 1/2 racion or racion. A racion would be a full-sized plate, while a tapa would be about 1/8 of a plate for $2-4. Rinconcillo was the most “traditional” place we went, where you belly up to the bar, just like at a pub, but the bartender serves tapas along with beer and wine. There’s usually whole dried, spiced pig legs hanging behind the bar knowna as Jamon Iberica as well as a plethora of spiced, dried meats and sausages. These are called chorizo, but do not taste like the Mexican staple of the same name.
Often, the table is made of a hard-wood and chalk is used to keep track of the tab. Cruzcampo is the local beer and usually served in glasses about 1/2 the size of a pint. Its much more like Budwiser than any sort of craft ale. The wine was actually cheaper than coffee (and sometimes cheaper than water) and the locals would often mix it with lemonade or tonic water.
Both of the places that were recommended had English menus and some of our favorites were a spinach and garbanzo bean mix, quail eggs and chorizo on bread and pig cheeks in sauce. Each was available for about $3, but you’d have to order 5 or so to make a meal for two.
Tabernas Coloniales was a popular night tapas bar we went a couple times with about an hour and a half wait for an outside terrace. It was mostly tourists out there, so we went inside to the bar where you could get served as soon as you made your way to the front.
One of our more interesting tapas experience was on our last day as we headed to Trijana, an old gypsy market. Trijana is a less touristy side of town where we found a tapas bar serving caracoles… the local snails. We’d seen live snails crawling around a big tub in the market earlier in the week and just had to try them. An order for $3 garnered about 40 of the little guys, boiled inside the shell, so you’d grab it with your teeth and pull them out. Think shrimp, except more rubbery and really salty. Leslie had a couple, and while they weren’t her favorite, then did not end up in the napkin. I managed to finish the plate, but it was an experience that I’m only having once. To top it off, the menu wasn’t in English, so we were ordering a bit blind. Once we got past fried chicken and tomatoes and oregano my Spanish was done, so I just ordered a couple random dishes. We ended up with a steak and fries, which was great. Then there were some 6 inch fish that had been dipped in batter than fried whole. They were okay, but we aren’t used to food being served with the head still on it. Some sort of really salty fried fish rounded out the mystery meal.
On our third day, we were drinking the free sangria at The Garden and were trying to figure out how to get to Morocco. In the end, we settled on a RyanAir flight to Marrakesh. We needed to move to a different hostel for a few days because the Garden was all booked up, but it worked out in the end.
Next stop, Africa.

Friday, May 18, 2012

First Month Best and Worst Awards

As of May 17th, we will have been traveling for one month. To recap, here’s where we’ve been: London, England – Brighton, England – Lewes, England, Edinburgh, Scotland – Portree, Isle of Skye, Scottish Highlands – Portnalong, Isle of Skye, Scottish Highlands – Glasgow, Scotland – Dublin, Ireland – Galway, Ireland – Cork, Ireland. We thought it would be fun to sum up with our Best and Worst of the British Isles.


The Caledonian Hostel -Edinburgh, Scotland.

18 pounds for two beds including breakfast, a full bar with 3 pound whiskey, nice hot showers, two great common rooms (one for quiet), a movie room and great artwork all over the walls. The twenty bed dorm was big, clean and had “lockers” the size of personal closets.

Honorable Mention – Skye Walkers – Portnalong, Scotland

Good dorms with bunks made out of wood, wonderful story-telling hosts and a nice “solar dome” out back to hang out in the warmth even though it was cold out. Lack of breakfast, internet and any sort of on-premise food/drink gives the edge to The Caledonian but we loved this place.


Smart Hyde View Backpackers – London, England

To start, they “conveniently” exchanged our money into dollars before charging us . . . at an exchange rate that was 8% in their favor. Then, they charged us 5% for paying with a card and another 3.5% fee for their service. They marked up the price over 15%! Then, they charged extra for lockers, maps and printing. Often, these are charged for, but what set these guys apart is they charged extra for all of them. They had us put our own sheets on the bed, did not wash the duvet cover and had a “convenient” en-suite bathroom. One to share with nine people. To top it off, we dropped the alarm clock under the bed. I won’t make you read what we saw when we looked under the bed. Finally, Leslie couldn’t sleep because the entire room smelled like feet. Can you say ventilation? Boo!


Leslie’s Winner – Abr Hur – Galway, Ireland

A quaint little cafe located by the Spanish Arch right on the water. It was packed, but we were invited to the bar where the friendly staff gave us free samples of some of the baked goods. It was located in an old Garrison of the City Wall which had been updated and colored brightly. We shared a crab-salad sandwich and a pot of tea. The sandwich came with some sort of candied pear and homemade bread. The pot of tea was a good one, with proper cream and sugar and enough to share for two.

Bryan’s Winner – Bill’s Restaurant – Lewes, England

English Breakfast! Fried Egg, two bacon, two sausage, baked beans, fried tomato, mushrooms and toast. When they say “bacon” they mean what Americans would recognize as slices of ham. This was standard English Breakfast fare, but this one came with locally made sausage, thick homemade bread and the best mushrooms ever. Bill’s was also unique because it was an organic / local grocery store. You would have an order form at your table so you could check off your groceries, give it to the waiter and they would have packages ready for you when it was time to go.


Edinburgh – Scotland

“Real Ales” would be the flat-warm beer that England is famous for, although we in the Northwest would call them craft ales or simply “good beer”. Locally made, distributed and always served on cask, these were prevalent throughout England and Scotland. Lewes had plenty of the “Sussex Ale” the English love, but we have to give the nod to Edinburgh for the vast array of darker beers and IPAs. We may have just been there at the right time as Edinburgh was celebrating their “30 days of IPA”, but at the same time, it was 30 days where the pubs had come together to celebrate local 11 different local IPAs! Top that off with the selection of Porters available in New Town and we have our winner.


Our buddy Hugh! Portnalong, Scotland to Glasgow, Scotland

Hugh was staying in the same dorm room with us on the Isle of Skye, having driven there from his home outside Newcastle, England. He offered to give us a ride to Glasgow and taught us all about sea otters, English politics and a mess of other parts of Scottish and English culture and history.


London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland Overnight Bus

Overnight bus. ’nuff said.


REI, Issaquah, USA 220 volt to 110 volt converter

All of our stuff that needs to convert from European to US voltage has a converter built in. D’oh!


Cliffs of Mohor Tour. Dublin, Ireland to Galway, Ireland

The Cliffs of Mohor were awesome with a 700m drop directly into the ocean. We saw a 5000 year old burial site and hills completely covered in limestone, but the true joy was the bus driver. Historian, geologist, archaeologist and full-blooded Irishman who shared stories from books, college classes and his dear old mum. Taught us all about Irish Blarney, which means never let the truth get in the way of a good story.


A tie! Haggis and Vegemite.

Both of these ended up in the napkin. The first being sheep’s lungs and innards boiled and turned into a sausage. The second being an Aussie favorite of some sort of yeast paste that taste’s kind of like concentrated foot juice.

Honorable Mention – Black Pudding

A standard in the Scottish Breakfast. This was okay until we figured out it was spiced and semi-coagulated pig’s blood. She didn’t want anymore after that.


Running to catch the bus from London – Victoria Station to Edinburgh. We knew we needed to be in Victoria Station, not realizing that Victoria Station is about six city blocks big. We ended up running from one end to the other and barely made our overnight trip.


Leslie had to go REALLY badly, but we were late, so we boarded the Irish bus from Galway to Cork, expecting a bathroom for the 3.5 hour ride in front of us. We start off, and there’s no bathroom at the back of the bus. An hour and a half in, Leslie asks the bus driver if there was time for her to hop off at a stop to use the restroom. The bus driver pointed out the snack locker we’d been sitting next to in the middle of the bus was actually the toilet. Oops.


“The Pub” – Portnalong, Scotland

We don’t actually know the name, but it was the only pub within walking distance of Skye Walker’s Hostel. For that matter, it was the only thing open past 1pm. Despite the fact we had nicknamed the bartender “Surly McSurly” the food was great, the patrons were friendly and they local real ale on tap. Add in a view of the Loch, singing Scotsmen and a couched TV room for the FA Cup final and we have our winner.


The Wetherspoon!

Bryan loved the British chain because it was reliably cheap and always had real ale on tap which rotated depending on where you were. Leslie hated it because the food tasted like somebody had boiled a pine tree and served it with grease fries. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. That said, we ate there 4 times due to our strict daily budget and convenience. Once in Glasgow, London Victoria Coach Station, two different Wetherspoons in Brighton and we skipped a plethora more. Towards the end of month one, Bryan kept insisting on going and Leslie would have rather ate boogers, so she inevitably said no. This caused a controversy in the relationship, only for a little bit though.


London-Victoria Coach Station

Try as we might, we just couldn’t avoid it. The central hub of UK public transportation, we always found ourselves here. The first day we arrived we took the train to London-Victoria to catch the transfer to the Brixton district and the last day in the UK we took the bus service from here to get to the airport. The cheapest path to get from Cork, Ireland to Marrakash, Morrocco went through London-Victoria . . . twice. In the UK, (for us at least) . . . all roads go to London-Victoria.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Irish Whirlwind

We woke up in Glasgow about a week ago, disappointed to leave behind the relative luxury of a television set in a private room with a bathroom, but knowing that we needed to get a move on to get to the land of leprechauns. We woke early in the morning and got on a bus to the port town of Troon to take a Ferry to Ireland. A train ride down the coast saw us arrive in Dublin, which was the city we were most excited to see in all of the British Isles.

Isaac’s Hostel was our establishment for the next three nights, but we had been thinking about staying longer . . . until we got out onto the streets of Dublin.
We’re not really big fans of visiting American chains, but we can use them to gauge how expensive a place is, so when we saw the Hard Rock Cafe in the Temple Bar District we checked it out. $22 for a burger and fries. Uh oh. We ended up getting falafel and kebabs for $16. Later, back at the hostel, we learned that Dublin, and Ireland as a whole was one of the most expensive places in Europe.
The next morning we woke and made a bee-line for the most visited tourist attraction of Ireland: the Alpha Alehouse, the Bastion of Beer, the Capital of Coopers and the Supreme Source of Suds. No visit to Dublin is complete without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse.
Seven floors tall, with a 360 degree bar on top, the Guinness Storehouse is a lesson in how to make, distribute, market and pour Arthur Guinness’ creation. It began when Guinness found the perfect water source for his beer and signed a 7000 year lease on the land for 45 pounds a year. First we learned the process of making Guinness works. Next came transportation and the history of the ships that have been used to turn Guinness into a global brand and my personal favorite part, how the coopers would hand-make the casks. For the record, “barrel” actually refers to a certain size of cask.
Finally, we learned to pour The Perfect Pint.
Pouring a pint of Guinness is actually a process that will take two minutes.
  1. Hold the Guinness glass firmly at a 45 degree angle.
  2. Pull the tap fully towards you to release the proper mixture of gas and Guinness. Pulling only partway will mess up the gas to Guinness ratio.
  3. Aim for the harp on the glass. Slowly tip the glass back to level. Stop when the Guinness is mid-way up the harp.
  4. The Guinness will “surge”, which is gas escaping the Guinness and creating the head. Wait until the surge stops.
  5. Push the tap away from you to finish filling the glass. No gas will be mixed with the Guinness. The Guinness head should be about 1mm over the top of the glass. The Perfect Pint will have no spillage.
We did want to make it to the top of the Storehouse for a pint, so we had to get another one pint (aww, dang!)
Unfortunatley, I made a major mistake.
I went to the bartender and ordered the drinks, but when the surge was settling I told him.
“So I guess you don’t serve car bombs here, eh?”
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the $3 special available from the Royal in my college days, the Irish Car Bomb is a drink that is 1/2 a pint of Guinness. You then get a shot of Jameson Whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream. You drop the shot into the Guinness and chug. It will curdle, so go fast!
The bartender looked at me like I’d just offended his entire nation, which I think I had.
“No. You will find nothing of the sort available here, nor anywhere in Dublin. You will not find any ‘car bombs’ nor that ‘Black and Tan’ that you favor. In fact, if you order one, you’ll probably get kicked out of the pub!” Ouch. I then thought about even the phrase, “Irish Car Bomb” and figured the name itself was pretty offensive. I thanked him, gave him a disproportionate tip and headed up to the top to view Dublin with Leslie.
That night, we headed to the “cheap Boxty place” the guy at the Hostel had pointed out… $20 a plate. Eventually, we found ourselves a noodle house where we could get fried noodles for $15 for the both of us.
That night, we went on TripAdvisor to find some discount food places, and it actually worked okay. Unfortunately, when we asked where the “Parnell St. Pub” was the friendly guy gave us directions, but said, “make sure your guard’s up and you have a hatchet before you go in there.” We ate more noodles.
That night we went to a college bar the hostel guy had told us about, which had some good music and was fun. We wandered through the Temple Bar district. “Traditional” Irish Music blasted out of bars and tourists went up and down along with pickpockets and touts. It was entertaining, but we didn’t stay too long as we had a tour the next day.
Our biggest expense of the trip was a day-tour to the Cliffs of Mohor, which was definitely worth it. It also doubled as our transportation from Dublin to the west coast town of Galway. The highlight of the tour for me was learning that there were 14 families that ruled Galway for years, one of which is the Morrises, which is a major branch of the Wokich family tree. Throughout Ireland there’s little keychains and stuff with the family crests. This was different though, as in Eyre Square in the center of Galway there was fourteen family banners flying, with the Morris’ family banner flying in bright yellow.
The Cliffs themselves were awesome, a sheer 700m drop from the coast to the water.
All that said, the highlight was the tour guide himself. He was a wealth of history, geology and legends.
My personal favorite was about The King’s Head. (Here’s hoping I get it right).
When King James I was captured by Oliver Cromwell he decided to cut off his head, but Cromwell could not find an Englishman willing to do it. He turned to the Irish in Galway and found his volunteer. Still, payment was needed, but instead of gold or silver, the headsman received a pub and named it “The King’s Head”.
The next day was the last day of the Premier League, so Leslie and I watched Manchester City earn their first title in over four decades in The King’s Head. The staff had shirts on the back that said, “drop on in” in Gaelic.
That was Mother’s Day and fortunately we got to speak to my parents over Skype and Leslie’s mom Deena over Skype connected to my Mom’s telephone.
That day was our last non-travel day. In fact, since then, we’ve been on buses, planes and trains almost non-stop. Our goal is to make it to Morocco for a few days before we have to activate our Eurail pass, which is good for three months. We came up with the cheapest way (we think) to get from Ireland to Morrocco while we were in Glasgow and purchased two RyanAir tickets. That journey has made the following happen.
  1. Day 1 – Take a bus from Galway to Cork on the southern tip of Ireland
  2. Day 2 – Fly from Cork to London – Gatwick Airport
  3. Day 2 – Bus from London-Gatwick to London-Victoria Street Station
  4. Day 2 – Underground from London-Victoria Street Station to to our hostel
  5. Day 3 – Underground from the hostel to London-Victoria Street Station
  6. Day 3 – Bus from London-Victoria Street Station to London – Stansted Airport
  7. Day 3 – Fly from London-Stansted to Seville, Spain
  8. Spend a few days in Seville.
As I write this, we’re on the bus to Stansted Airport from Victoria Street Station in London. We still have to figure out how to get from Seville to Morocco, but we figure we’ll have better info once we’re closer to the Straight of Gibraltar. Plus, the hostel we have lined up has been rated number 8 or 9 in the world by for the last few years running, so we’re excited to be there and relax in the warmth for a few days. We’re also going to use it to regroup, as Leslie’s fighting a bit of a cold and I’m out of clean socks.
This stretch of travel days has been a bit grueling. We got to meander Cork for a bit, which was nice, but you can’t really get much of a feel for a city in 1/2 a day. This morning we also were able to go to Notting Hill in London, which was a great market, but it would have been nice to be able to hang out there a bit longer.
There’s been some cultural differences, but the British Isles are probably the countries most like the USA. We have been able to travel with some Brits, and while we laugh at the few words that are different there’s a reason we have a “Special Relationship” as the politicians put it. Our cultures are similar, we hold reasonably similar worldviews, and of the utmost importance for travelers, we both speak English as our primary language.
That ends today.
Hastla la vista, English speaking world.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Highlands

In England, they call fried potatoes “chips”. In Scotland, they call fried potatoes “salad”. Maybe not literally, but we had been warned the Scottish diet might not be the healthiest before reaching leaving Edinburgh for Inverness. It seemed like a good start, but despite being the unofficial capital of the Scottish Highlands, Inverness didn’t really feel very “Highland-y” to us. We caught an immediate connection to the West side of Scotland and the Isle of Skye.

Now we must preface this with the fact that we live in one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world with the San Juans off the coast and the Cascade Mountain range in the background. The first place the bus took us after leaving Inverness was Loch Ness, which seemed like a nice little town, but the hills didn’t seem that high, so we decided to keep rolling towards Skye. We knew that we’d reached the Highlands, but it didn’t really feel like it. The whole thing reminded us of home, except completely logged and more sheep. It didn’t feel like the Highlands.
After a couple of hours we found ourselves back on the coast, taking a bridge onto the actual Isle of Skye. Again, it was beautiful, but didn’t look that different. When we finally got to the two-horse town of Portree, we were a bit underwhelmed. We got directed to the nearest Bayfield Backpackers hostel by the bus driver. It was a clean, functional place with a friendly host named Bill; a gray-haired Scotsman with a penchant for stories and a reputation for hospitality that has gotten him personally named as a useful resource in our guide book.
The next day we used a map we received from Bill to give ourselves a tour of Portree. Fifteen minutes later we were done. We found ourselves walking along the road out of town, eventually finding a little pub with an outdoor beer garden, a bouncy castle and a view that was very much like home.
We were frustrated, and worried the “Highlands” we were looking for just didn’t exist except in the movies.
Then, in a forehead slapping moment we realized that “The Highlands” were likely up.
A quick stop by the grocery store and we had ourselves a picnic and were back at the hostel talking to Bill. I asked him about a hike and he showed us the walking-path outlined on the topographical map he had given us. (Yes, this is the only time a hostel has given me a topographical map).
“That’s about an hour though, right?” I asked.
“What if we’re looking for a little more?” He whipped out a pen.
“Right here, there’s a whole in the gate.” A few minutes later, he had drawn a line on the back of our map outlining a hike around a nearby hill and we were off.
It began with us making our way along a nice trail along the bank of Loch Harport. There were islands, water and a nice view, but still nothing incredibly different than home. The difference being that all of the trees have been logged and everything’s covered with grass that could be on a golf green.
Then a hard bank to the left and we ran into sheep.
There were three old, rock walls, separating three herds of sheep, but part of the closest one had fallen down, allowing the sheep to escape and cover the hill. A mother led her lamb away from us and back through the fallen wall. Baby sheep are cute. On the other side of slightly inclined sheep farms was a 200 meter cliff.
We’d reached the Highlands.
We continued along the trail, up a rather steep hill consisting of stairs and switchbacks. Upon reaching the top we realized the trail was beginning to head east, as opposed to the westward line that Bill had put on the map. I turned and looked back down from 100 meters above, and ever so faintly, you could see a slightly-worn trail through the sheep.
We went back down the hill and followed the sheep through the partially fallen wall. We ended up making our way through sheep before coming face-to-face with the 200 meter cliff.
It became very steep, very quickly, earning us a new found respect for the sheep, who could deal with any sort of steepness with no problems. In fact, as we became closer to the top of the cliff, we started scrambling, putting a hand down.
Then two hands. Then two hands and a hip. Then we looked down and realized we had gone the wrong way. If we slipped, we would have had a very long fall in front of us. About twenty feet away, a lamb and it’s mother were having no issues at all. Baby sheep on steep hills are cute.
A crab-walk returned us to safety when we took another look at the scraggy line Bill had drawn. It showed us another way up to the 200 meter cliff.
Heading away from it we realized the 200 meter cliff was nowhere near the top of the hill. There was a flat spot with a rock in the middle of it another 100 meters up. Fortunately, the path to the top was not as steep and perilous as the rest as we headed towards the flat spot with the rock.
It was beginning to get cold and windy as we approached the flat spot.
At this point, Leslie asked, “When did our looking for a nice picnic spot turn into a hike to the top?”
“But it’s right there!” I said. “We’re almost there.”
When we got about forty yards away we realized. . . that’s not the top and I’d earned myself a nice little look. The next top was only a 100 yards or so away, and it looked easy!
So off we went to the next “top”, but this time, when we reached it the wind whipped into our faces. We turned around and could see the sheep farms a couple hundred meters below. Off at an angle was the city of Portree, looking like civilization compared to the green hills around it and Loch Harport dominated the southeastern skyline. We could see for miles, but reaching the top of this hill made us realize; this was nowhere near the top. Around us were six or seven hills of similar sizes with a couple out-rising the one we had climbed. The largest was actually across Loch Harport on an adjacent island.
We may had made it to the top, but the temperature and the wind had made it a terrible picnic spot, so we climbed down about halfway and had the picnic about 50 meters above the sheep. Two lambs were playing, running around while their mother rested.
Baby sheep are cute.
We spent another couple days in the Highlands.
We traveled to the other side of the island and stayed in Skye Walker’s Hostel where we met our friend Hugh. It had some wonderful hosts and really funny storytellers, Brian and Lisa. Skye Walkers had a “solar dome” out back that was a globe-like structure providing 80 degree weather in the middle of the biting cold. Within walking distance, there was one pub, one cafe and about ten thousand sheep. The pub served dinner between six and nine and the cafe served breakfast and lunch. That was it. We went to dinner with Hugh the first night.
The second day at Skye Walkers we went to the cafe for breakfast and the cafe-owner helped us find a ride to the Talisker whiskey distillery with a couple guys in the cafe. The distillery was fun and also taught us a bunch about how the distillery workers help take care of the sheep. Unfortunately, we failed to get a ride while hitch-hiking back. Hitch-hiking is the norm on the island. We ended up in the pub that night watching the FA Cup Final with some Scotsman. They knew a bunch of Seattle bands and played in one themselves. Leslie decided they had good taste in music. After the match we ended up singing and hanging out with them as a bunch more Scots on vacation from Perth joined us, and we ran into Hugh again.
We rented a car the following day and drove around the island, picking up some hitch-hikers from Belgium to increase our hitch-hiking car-ma (lol). Neist Point and Fairy Glen were the highlights of that day. They were both covered in sheep.
The last day was one of the best, as Hugh offered to give us a ride to Glasgow, meaning we hung around with him that morning. We headed to a peninsula that jutted out into the Loch to look for otters. The peninsula was covered in sheep, but we were having no luck in the otter hunt. Unfortunately, Leslie had great luck finding a puddle with her foot, so we sat down to watch some sheep and dry out. Looking down from the hill, we saw Hugh, making a diving-type motion. Leslie put on her shoe, and we ran down the hill to catch up as Hugh led us back towards the otters.
Hugh had found a family, a mother with two nearly-grown cubs.
We all snuck up to the edge of a precipice, making sure to stay up-wind. We crawled up to the edge, staying on our bellies and poking our heads off the cliff so we didn’t create big shapes on the skyline to spook them as they’re easily scared. Hugh told us about how old the otters were. He pointed out that the mother was feeding the kids, but wouldn’t be doing so for much longer. He discussed the territoriality of otters and the fact males are rather solitary. Hugh was a fount of information.
On the way back to the car, Hugh told us he had studied otters while earning his masters degree, but didn’t want to tell us until he actually found the otters. We spent the next four hours or so solving the world’s problems as we left the Highlands and headed to Glasgow.
We had returned to the Scottish Lowlands. There were no more sheep.
As we write this, we’re on a ferry between Scotland and Ireland. Next stop, Dublin.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Arthur’s Seat – Edinburgh

Sometimes when I wake up, it takes me a little bit to remember where I am. Two days ago, I woke up, rolled over, stretched a little bit and farted. Laughter reminded me that I was in mixed-dorm of 10 bunk beds in Edinburgh, meaning Leslie and I had 18 roommates. There was “hairy guy who can’t seem to cover himself with his blanket” and “long-haired friendly guy who only knows the word ‘hi’ in English.” I said hi to him. Across the way was “petite woman who snores surprisingly loudly”. Leslie and were next to “friendly Canadian who has been here a long time” and his bunkmate “hungover guy that can’t figure out what he drank last night”. I never did figure out what he drank, but I did figure out it wasn’t his. The worst of the bunch was probably “guy who farts loudly in the morning”. Oh, wait. . . .

The Canadian guy had been working around Edinburgh, so I asked him what was the best thing to do in town. Without hesitating, he said Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is a hill off the edge of Edinburgh, but the word hill doesn’t do it justice. It was very steep rock formations that jut up out of the ground and seemingly straight into the mist. Than he added, “well, it’s great on a nice day”.
The first day in Edinburgh was not a nice day, it wasn’t bad mind you, but it was overcast and cold. We couldn’t see the sun and it was cold. Did I mention it was cold?
We started at Edinburgh castle, which is a huge castle on a hill overlooking the entire city. The High Street (a.k.a. Main Street) led from the castle, down the hill through the most touristy part of Scotland we’d seen, known as Old Town. There were characters dressed up leading historical or ghost tours, a bunch of over-priced pubs serving haggis and a ton of “Scottish stuff” shops selling hats, scarves, kilts, cashmere shawls and other Scottish swag. My first swag purchase of the trip was a beanie was the Scottish flag and Leslie got a wool scarf. Did I mention it was cold? At the end of High Street we found Holyrood Park (the start of the hike to the Seat), the Scottish Parliament and a tired pair of travelers.
Day Two saw us leave the hostel with me determined to get up the Seat. It also saw temperatures lower than the day before . . . and rain. Our first stop became an outdoors shop with discounts on all their winter gear. I got a fuzzy fleece that makes me look a little like a bear, but it’s warm. Instead of the planned trip to Arthur’s Seat, we walked through New Town, which is much newer than Old Town, with construction starting in 1767. There were again a bunch of pubs and shops, but it was clearly a section of town used by locals, as the prices dropped dramatically and the “Scottish” shops were gone. There were still characters, but they were just regular Scottish people. The day ended with the obligatory Manchester Derby and watching City off United 1-0.
On day three I woke to the aforementioned “petite woman who snores incredibly loudly” doing her thing, but looking outside, it was sunny. I woke up Leslie and we were off.
Our other goal for the day was to figure out the “Scottish Explorer” bus pass, but we breezed right by the places that had information and immediatly headed for the Seat.
We headed back into old town, and learned the walk which took us six hours before could be done in about 20 minutes if you have a mind to.
We began the walk in extreme wind on a six foot wide path of rocks. On one side was a cliff-face and on the other was a drop. I glanced over the edge and thought it was pretty steep, but the ground was close.
Then I tripped, the path had rocks jutting out of it, which were going to be an issue. After about five minutes we were shedding all the warm gear we had purchased the day before in favor of the sweat we’d built up from hiking up the hill. I glanced over the edge again. I probably could have climbed the cliff, and I might have stopped before reaching the bottom if I’d fallen, but I was no longer sure.
That said, the city of Edinburgh began to stretch out before us. The guidebook  said the hike was about two hours, but we were likely to accomplish it in 3 or 4 at this pace, mostly due to pictures and goofing around in the glens and whatnot.
After about twenty minutes we turned left around the Seat and the wind immediately died, making the whole experience much more enjoyable. On top of that our path widened and we were suddenly in what I’ve always pictured the Highlands to be. There were rolling hills, the stone-face jutting up next to them and grass that looked as manicured as a golf course. I’m going to have to look up why the grass does that.
Another thirty minutes and we saw ourselves looking at the final approach. The hills got larger, with maybe two football fields of the fine grass, followed by a spire and people hiking switchbacks up to the top. There were actually two ways. Steep and short or gradual and long. We went for the steep.
When we reached the spire I was surprised to find “steps” to the top. They were “steps”, but moreso they were rocks. Rock-wall sized rocks that created an uneven, but ever rising path to the seat. I couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of man-hours that had to go into creating this path.
Up, up we went as layers of clothes went into the backpack. Some of the steps were small, others large, but each and every one was uneven and a potential for tripping. I decided that it was now unlikely that I’d stop before I hit the bottom. Looking up, I couldn’t see the top. Switchbacks and the uneven cliff made it difficult to see the top.
After what seemed like an age of climbing, the ground leveled and I knew we were getting to the top. We poked our heads up off the top of the stairs and got walloped in the face by the wind . . . and the mist. The bear-fleece went back on.
There was about 100 yards of golf green-like grass, spotted with boulders, and then another spire. This time, we could see people standing at the top. There were no steps at the last, no path, just rocks we climbed the last bit to get to the peak.
We reached the top and looked out to see . . . mist. During the hike the clouds had moved in to cover the Seat, and it was cold. We decided to wait, and after about ten minutes the mist began to clear. About 20 other people were at the top with us, and you could hear the excitement as the mists parted. Then, you could hear the camera shutters.
To one side was the English Channel and the harbors of Leith. 30 degrees to your left was Edinburgh, with the castle that had looked so large before seeming small. Another 60 degrees and you could see where Edinburghers(?) actually lived, in neat little houses, much larger than anything we’d seen in England.
And at the top a small white monument.
Next stop, Highlands.