Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rambling and Relaxing: The Royal Botanic Garden

With all the madness of moving into and furnishing my flat, orienting myself in Edinburgh, taking care of University paperwork, and getting to know my (lovely) flatmates, I needed some serious peace and solitude.  So when I woke up to beautiful weather yesterday- which is rare in Edinburgh- I decided to ditch all the running around for a few hours and visit Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

A lovely view of the city skyline
Even though the garden is only a short bus ride from the city centre, I haven’t yet made it there on any of my previous trips to Scotland.  This is a bit ridiculous, as it’s one of Edinburgh’s most popular attractions, and it’s free!

I hopped on a bus near my flat, and it took me all the way to the Garden’s East entrance.  It would have been easy to miss this gate- it’s smaller and not as well-marked as the main entrance on the West side.  Luckily, I had a map and a general idea of where I needed to get off- If you ever visit Edinburgh, I highly recommend print out a bus guide from it’s been a complete lifesaver for me!

At the entrance, I paid one pound for a park map, and began to ramble.  Different sections feature plants from all over the world, all well marked with explanations of how different flora and fauna evolved and adapted to diverse environments.  The Chinese Garden was especially scenic and impressive, with traditional sculptures and pavilions, and a hillside walk that I counted as my exercise for the day.

While these regional sections were impressive, my favorite part was the Scottish Heath Garden.  A wooded pathway right near the East Gate, this walk featured plants native to Scotland.  Signs next to these plants not only identified them, but also detailed their uses throughout Scottish history- I loved imagining Scottish cottars weaving baskets or making mattresses out of heather!
In addition to plant life, The Royal Botanic Garden showcases the work of artists from around the world.  Right now, wildy painted jungle animals are scattered throughout the garden, as part of Edinburgh’s Jungle City program, to raise funds to protect endangered animals.  Also, inside the West Gate Building housed an exhibition of pieces made from recycled materials- very impressive.

Before I left, I was sure to see the impressive glasshouses (I didn’t go inside- there’s a 4 pounds entrance fee), the Queen Mother's Garden, and Inverleith house (a exhibition hall).  When I exited through the West Gate, I felt rejuvenated and ready to get back to the hustle and bustle of the city center.

The Greenhouses

Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Experience REAL Local Culture

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of talk about experiencing real local culture.  When travelling today, people avoid the foods, entertainment and activity that they typically engage in at home, seeking out favorite local hangouts instead of chain restaurants and shops.

As a student traveler, this behavior makes a lot of sense to me.  I chose to study abroad in order to enhance my education; I believe living in a foreign culture will give me both perspective on my own culture, as well as an appreciation for human diversity.  More simply put, change is good, and it can be fun and energizing to learn how people across the world spend their time!
Photo Credit: alexallied

Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalized world, it becomes difficult to identify local customs and traditions. Multinational corporations can own even seemingly local businesses, so that a student tight budget and schedule might find themselves eating at Starbucks and McDonalds rather than sampling local fare.  Even backpacker’s oases like hostels are being bought up by multinational corporations; While I enjoyed the St. Christopher’s Inn in both Berlin and Edinburgh, they were almost identical, and neither added to my knowledge of German or Scottish culture.

With a little practice and a lot of patience, however, it is possible for young travelers to get a bit of local 
  • Do your research ahead of time- Before you even think about stepping on a plane, get online and read up on your destination.  Go deeper the usual stops like Trip Advisor and try visiting blogs, forums, and local business’s websites.  These will allow you to get an idea of how locals, not tourists, spend their time in your destination.  Don’t forget to write down all your plans in a travel notebook!
  • Opt for smaller touring companies.  If you plan on taking any sort of tour, try and book with a small, locally owned company.  This will help you support the local economy, rather than big companies with tours all over the world.  Plus, local tour guides can point out hole-in-the-wall hangouts that would never be included in a major tour.  
  • Talk to adults.  Student travellers’ first impulse may be to seek out advice from other young people, but “mature” natives have simply spent much more time in their home city, and can often offer much better suggestions on enjoying local culture.
    For instance, I recently attended a folk music night at a tiny Edinburgh pub. Although my first impression upon entering the venue was “I’m the youngest person here by about 15 years,” by the end of the night I felt this was my most authentic Scottish authentic experience yet.  I heard real Scottish music by talented musicians and spoke with welcoming and enthusiastic locals who were happy to provide their opinions on life in Edinburgh.
  • Consider couchsurfing.  This form of travel allows you avoid hostels and hotels, which can be impersonal, and stay at a local’s home. I haven’t yet tried couch surfing, so for more information on its implications and benefits, check out this excellent article from the Indie Travel Podcast.  If you do decide to try couchsurfing, be sensible and keep these safety tips in mind!
  • Be patient.  As wonderful as traditional customs are, it’s not always possible to act like a local on limited time and budget.  Don’t feel guilty about patronizing chains every now and then to save money- seeing how these places pick up local flavor can be fun and interesting too (did you know that Scottish McDonalds’ sell doughnuts?)

Friday, August 26, 2011


Those of you who know me know that I like to run.  If you know me well, you know that I also like to talk about running.  A lot.  My brother tells me it’s annoying.

If my habit of talking about running irks you too I apologize, because I’m about to babble about my fantastic run this morning.  So far, it’s the highlight of my time in Edinburgh.

I woke up at the crack of 7am this morning feeling chilly (in August!), and forced myself to change into shorts and hit the road.  I had to do this fast and mindlessly, because I could have easily been tempted into making a cup of hot chocolate and getting back under the duvet.

I left my flat and decided to run the short distance from my flat to Napier University’s Craighouse campus, to check out my new school.  The weather was cool and breezy; the sun peeked through the clouds just enough to keep me warm.  THIS WAS perfect running weather and I made it to the University’s stone gates fast.

By the time I ran up the drive to the first building, however, I was huffing and puffing as if I’d just finished a race, not a 10-minute warm-up.  Scotland is very hilly!

Slowing to catch my breath, I took my first look at Edinburgh Napier University.   Craighouse campus is all old castle-like buildings set on green hillsides and connected by heavy stone fences.  The place looks more like a fancy golf club than a school to me, but I’m certainly not complaining!

I jogged around the buildings and found a path leading into the woods behind campus.  While unmarked, it looked well-trodden and safe, so I took off into the trees, thinking it was probably a short loop.  Instead, I found myself in a huge network of connecting trails!  Some are marked, some unmarked, some wide, others only fit for single-track mountain bikers.  Each and every one is scenic and hilly, though!

I spent an hour exploring as many trails as I could before descending a final hill up and out of the woods.  By this time, I was a bit lost, and starting to think about the warm coffee waiting for me at the flat.  Luckily, the steep hill I had chosen led to a green peak overlooking the city.  What a view.

From this height I was able to easily pick a route leading me back toward campus.  I only paused for a minute at one of Napiers buildings to snap one more photo of the Edinburgh skyline.

As I ran down the hill to get that well-deserved hot chocolate I felt, with certainty, that I’m in the right place.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

It IS Possible to Travel Safely

I am very lucky to be surrounded by people who support my decisions to travel.  Their enthusiasm energizes me even when last minute nerves and the stresses of packing get me down. Every now and then though, I meet an “anti-traveler.”  Beyond disapproving of the idea of travelling, these people actually try to dissuade me from going. For the most part they seem to believe that tourists are danger magnets.  I cannot tell you how many people out in the small town I grew up in are convinced I’m going to be assaulted, kidnapped, or at the very least pickpocketed in my travels.

One woman even insisted that I watch the movie Taken before backpacking Europe.  If you haven’t seen it, the film's basic premise is an American girl takes goes to Paris, and almost immediately upon checking into a fancy hotel, is abducted and sold as a sex slave.  This is pretty darn ridiculous:

Now I won’t deny that travelling, especially solo, has inherent risks.  Everything good in life does.  What’s important is that we stay informed, and do our best to exercise caution.

Here are some steps I take to protect myself, that may be helpful to you as well.

1.     Don’t carry large amounts of cash.  Even when I need foreign currency, I only bring a small amount. I’m sure to inform my banks that I’ll be travelling, and I visit atms to get more money when I need it- isn’t modern technology great?
2.     Keep valuables out of sight.  If I absolutely need to have something expensive with me, like a camera, I keep it tucked into an inside pocket of my jacket or bag.
3.     Choose hostels with lockers.  This way I don’t have to lug my stuff around with me all day, but I don’t have to leave it under my bunkbed either.
4.     Know what areas to avoid.  When you arrive, ask the receptionist at the hostel, or a school official (in my case), what places aren’t safe to walk in at night.  Then avoid those areas after dark!
5.     Trust  your intuition.  I believe this is the single most important thing for solo travelers to remember, especially women.  If you feel uncomfortable in a situation get out of it- call the cops, duck into a restaurant, yell “fire!,” do whatever you need to.  It’s better to be safe than sorry, and you should never be ashamed to ask for help if you think you might need it. 

There are tons more resources online about travel safety. Although none will give you a 100% guarantee against travel dangers (nothing will), these can go a long way towards minimizing risk:

The Indie Travel Podcast's Safety Guide
US Government Guide to Safe Travel
NY Times on Safe Solo Travel for Women

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Scotland?

Whenever I tell people that I spent a semester at the University of Stirling or that I'm moving to Edinburgh, I get a incredulous reaction.  People seem excited for me, don’t get me wrong, but I repeatedly find myself responding to one question: Why Scotland?

An ancient castle-turned-bed and breakfast!
 Each time I’m asked this I draw a blank.  To be honest, I can’t really remember how or why I fell in love with Scotland.  I don’t have any familial connections there, or any friends who visited the country before me.  Before my first visit, I wasn’t a Braveheart fan, nor a whiskey drinker (I’m both now).  I’m a vegetarian, so I didn’t make my trips for a heaping serving of haggis or fish and chips.  And as much as I enjoy tartan, bagpipes, and Highland dance, I never gave these things much of a thought before I applied to study abroad at Stirling.

The truth is, I found Scotland sort of randomly, without much reason or forethought.  You might say I chose it because my school offered a reasonably priced program within my field of study.   Also, people speak English in Scotland, but with an accent to give it unique cultural flavor. Other than these vague ideas, I didn't give my location much thought; so in retrospect, I may not have chosen Scotland for the best reasons.

Now I don’t think any of that matters.  Like in most blockbuster romantic comedies, I fell in love accidently, messily, and a little inconveniently (by the time I decided that I loved Scotland, it was already time to go home!).

My new friend the Hairy Coo (Highland Cow)
So I suppose the moral of my little story is simple, and a bit hackneyed.  Don't worry about where you should and shouldn't go and why, just travel, and go where feels right.  Don't worry about where things won’t turn out the way you expect, no matter what you do.  I never planned on jabbering on endlessly about the real story of Braveheart, and whiskey, and haggis and hairy highland cows, but that’s what I do now. 

And I love it, so it’s all good.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Marie's Maiden Post: On the Move

I'm taking a break from packing (well, ok, a break from staring at my suitcases) to create my first-ever blog post.

How exactly do you create a first-ever travel blog post?

I guess I should start by introducing myself.  Hello!  My name is Marie, and I'm a student from Upstate New York.  I recently graduated from SUNY Geneseo's Bachelors' in Communication program, and in just a few days, I'm off on my next big adventure to begin Masters' in Journalism in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Edinburgh, Scotland- The View from Calton Hill
But if you're on this blog, this is probably old news to you.

What you may not know is that I've been struggling with myself about whether I should enter blogosphere for quite some time now.  I love reading travel blogs, and though I've often thought that writing one could be fun, I've often felt that I don't have anything of value to contribute to an already thriving community of young blogger-backpackers.  However, today at lunch my Aunt called me out on my BS.  She reminded me that as an aspiring Journalist, I should definitely have some work on the internet, so here I am, an hour later, starting "Marie on the Move."  It's a catchy name, no?

In writing this blog, I hope to document my adventures in Scotland, as well as offer my opinions and advice about living, studying, and travelling abroad in general.  Please do leave comments and suggestions-- I'm hoping this blog can become a forum to connect with friends everywhere!