Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gotta Love Loch Ness Kitsch

Blaring bagpipes, whisky bars, ginger wigs, kilt towels, stuffed sea monsters: Loch Ness is not the place to go if you want a taste of authentic Scottish culture.

It is, however, a laugh and a half.

Claudia with a Nessie Beanie Baby

Loch Ness might be a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also fun and interesting.  By volume, it’s the U.K.’s largest body of water; at over 1.5 million gallons of fresh water, it contains more water than all the freshwater lochs and lakes in England and Scotland combined!

And in case you haven’t heard, it may also contain some sort of beast.

Nessie was first sighted in 565 A.D.  Local legend says the monster came ashore to eat a local farmer, but was forced back into the water by Saint Columba.  1446 years later, many people are still convinced that the Loch Ness monster exists—thousands claimed to have spotted her. Some speak of the “water horse” of Scottish mythology, while others say the deep caverns beneath the water’s surface could house a prehistoric animal.

Millons of pounds have been spent to investigate this mystery, and the monster’s existence hasn’t been confirmed.  However, I think that this is a mystery each person should investigate for herself before dismissing.  This is why, on a trip to Loch Ness last year, I jumped in to “swim with the beast.”

More recently, my friend Stefan gave it a go.

Neither of us met Nessie, perhaps because we were distracted by the arctic temperature of the water.  Regardless, I have wonderful memories of the Loch, and would encourage anyone in Scotland to make a trip up there and dive on in!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Group Travel: Oh, the Frustration

People. It’s the reason I fell in love with travel, and the reason I ‘m “on the move.” I’ve met some of the most fascinating, diverse people travelling. The girl from Liverpool who befriended me even though I was homesick and antisocial. The Kiwi guy who taught me to drink. The Indonesian women with the best relationship advice ever. Each and every one of these people left me slightly changed, and I think I’m a better person for it. 

So last weekend, I jumped at an opportunity to see Scotland’s West coast with a group of 13 international students. If people make travelling worthwhile, than what could be better than travelling with a great big group of people?

Well, a lot of things.

I had fun travelling with my new friends. However, I felt that we missed out on a lot of important Western Scottish experiences because of the nature of big groups:

The more people, the harder it becomes to organize. Trying to see a foreign country on limited time can leave even one person’s head spinning. Trying to get 14 people in 3 rental cars to 10 to 15 attractions in 3 days, well, it’s practically impossible. Our group got split up less than 15 minutes on the road.   Everyone was torn between trying to see the sights and trying to find one another. Our car missed out on Rob Roy's grave, feeding highland cows, and hiking Glencoe, trying to find the others.
After lots of confusion, our car went off on our own.

Everyone has different travel values. Some people like to spend their travel time drinking beers and socializing with locals. Others like to see sites of historical significance and learn about local traditions. Many people like to spend time outdoors, getting their feet dirty and taking inspiring photos. None of these styles are better than the others. However, none of these styles are compatible with the others. My travel group spent a lot of time debating which sites were most worth our time and money. This was not only a waste of sightseeing time, but created negative vibes in a great group of friends.

Big groups are conspicuous. When a crowd of loud young people walks into a restaurant, hostel, or attraction, they tend to get treated very differently than a few people. This worked in our favour in some places; for instance, a charming woman at the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre offered us a huge group discount. In other places however, I could feel eyes rolling as soon as we walked in the door. Service people simply don’t want to deal with a mass of hungry students (and I can’t honestly blame them!). If I had travelled alone, I may have had the chance to interact with these people and gotten a more authentic taste of local culture.

These issues aside, I would never label travelling in a large group as “bad.” Groups offer a sense of camaraderie and a great energy. But I now realize that group trips are a different experience than going solo.  If I travel in a group again, I’m going to keep several things in mind:

It’s essential to plan ahead. If I could change one thing about last weekend, I would have held a meeting days before we left to talk about the trip. This would’ve allowed us to sketch out a rough itinerary, decide what we needed to pack, and simply get an idea of what everyone else expected from the weekend. A pre-departure meeting would have also given us a chance to discuss money matters; because we never decided how we’d pay for car rentals, petrol, and groceries, we’re still working out how much everybody owes one another!

Scale down the itineraries. Big groups move more slowly than solo travelers- there’s no getting around it.  By trying to see everything on the West coast of Scotland, our group only set ourselves up for disappointment. Selecting a few attractions and spending quality time at them can be just as rewarding.

Keep an open mind. If you’re going to travel with a group, you must accept that there will be some level of confusion. Just go with the flow; on a group trip, time with friends is as important as sightseeing. Even when things go wrong (and they almost always do), you still come back with happy memories- or at least a good story.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Highland Games are Not for the Faint of Heart

“I’m really glad I wore a rain jacket” I said as I stepped off a bus last Saturday.  I just arrived in Pitlochry, a small city north of Edinburgh, for their annual Highland games, and it was cold, misty, and extremely muddy. The weather, however didn’t interfere with attendence- the field that served as the games’ venue was crowded with participants.

When I bought my ticket, I imagined a small crowd of people playing tug of war and throwing logs.  I thought the Highland Games were dying tradition, kept alive only by a few devotees, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Stepping into Pitlochry was like joining some mad, crowded fusion of a track meet and a festival. 

There were about a million events going on at once.  As expected, men in the center of the field threw logs and had an epic tug-of-war game. More modern sports cycling races (very interesting to watch in 3 inches of mud), and relays were also included.  And it wasn’t just a sporting event- on one side of the field highland bands and dancers performed and for adjudication.

Did I mention that all of this happened at the same time?

Adding to the madness, food and goods stalls ran around the perimeter of the fields. Run by local clubs and charities, they offered cheap homemade food -I bought 3 cupcakes, a hot chocolate, an egg roll, and a juice for less than 5 pounds! What a welcome change from the posh coffeehouses and crowded pubs that I eat at in Edinburgh!

These little shops represented what makes the Highland games so special- a sense of shared community.  While competition was clearly necessary for the games’ existence, more important was a celebration of Scottish heritage.  Even though the crowd was huge, people seemed to know one another.  Several of the events even featured members of the same family competing against one another.  It was refreshing to realize how much these people valued their shared history.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Big Pointy Building

Last week I was meeting my friend Stevie in Edinburgh’s city center and I was running late. So, I gave her a quick text: “I’ll meet you at the Scott Monument!”

“Is that the big pointy one?” she responded.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  Stevie is one of the most well-read people I know, and she’s been living in Scotland for 4 years; how could it be that she didn’t know that the big pointy building next to Edinburgh’s train station was a Monument to one of Scotland's most famous writers?

Walter Scott is a symbol of pride to the people of Scotland. As the writer of Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, and many more titles, his historical fiction gave this small country international fame in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Like Stevie though, Edinburghers tend to take the Scott Monument for granted.  It’s an iconic part of Edinburgh’s skyline, yet, few realize that the “big pointy” building is more than a meeting point for tourists.  

Furthermore, many don’t realize that you can climb up the Scott monument.  Even though the stairways are winding, and claustrophobic, it’s worth the effort and the 3 pound entry fee. Don’t even think about going to Edinburgh without doing this!

Some fun facts about the Scott Monument:

  • Designed by Scottish Architect George Meikle Kemp
  • At 200ft 6in, it's the highest monument to an author in the world!
  • It takes 287 dizzying steps to reach the top
  • The base holds a statue of Scott with his Dog, Maida
  • Scattered around the area are 64 statues of characters from Scott's novels
  • The first stone of the monument was lain on Scott's birthday: August 15th 1840
  • It's crazy windy at the top!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Benefits of Bilingualism, or My Educational Regrets

My new international buddies!
Besides friendly locals and deep-fried treats, I initially chose to study in Scotland because it is an English-speaking country.  Like many Americans, I know little more than a few words of any language other than English, and until recently, this has never been a problem for me.  Over the past week though, I seriously regretted never learning another language.

This remorse started when I met up with a group of international students from my university.  While they come from all over Europe, most of them speak German.  My new friends have been so accommodating, speaking English even when I'm the only non-German speaker present.  Still, in their presence, I feel embarrassed.  I'm often the only monolingual person at parties and pub nights!

Only speaking English isn't considered disadvantage in this day and age.  English has become the world's common language, the lingua franca that scientists, politicians, and (of course) travelers rely on.  Still, by never becoming fluent in another language, I feel that I've put myself at a cultural and cognitive disadvantage.  Words are representative of society, so learning how to communicate in another language is a means of fully immersing oneself in an unfamiliar culture. For instance, learning that the Inuit people have multiple words for “snow,” gives insight into their perception of weather.

In addition to gaining cultural insight, learning a second language enhances cognitive strength.  A study at York University in Toronto demonstrated that multilingual individuals are better able to cope with Alzheimer’s disease than monolingual people.  According to Dr. Ellen Bialystok “Switching between languages is a stimulating activity — it is like carrying out brain exercises which builds up higher levels of what we call brain or cognitive reserve.”  By failing to learn a second language, I fail to develop extra brainpower!

I would love to blame the American education system for my language-deficiency, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair.  I had 6 years of French classes in high school, all taught by kind and capable teachers.  In truth, I failed to learn French because of my own complacency; “why should I bother?” I thought, “Everybody speaks English.”

Now that I understand how shortsighted and ignorant this was, I'm eager to start learning another language.  Even though I know it will be a while until I can fully devote myself to this, I hope that once I have my masters degree, I'll have the time to take some French, Spanish, or German classes.  For now, though, learning German curse words in a pub will have to do.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: Blackford Hill

Most of Edinburgh’s popular attractions are located in the city center: the castle, the royal mile, the museums, monuments, and all those famous caf├ęs and pubs.  As a student on very limited funds, however, I’m not able to live there. The residential village I live in however, has plenty of it’s own attractions that most tourists may miss.

As I said in Sightrunning, my daily run is perfect a vehicle for discovering these attractions.  On a run, I discovered this fantastic view.

This is Blackford Hill.  Located 2 miles out of the city centre, it’s 539 feet high, and offers a variety of trees, trails, look-out points, flowers.  Perfect for a picnic, jog, or a short break from the city.

Sadly, the royal observatory perched on top of Blackford Hill is members’ only.  This didn’t stop me from snapping photos from the outside though, and I’m sure I’ll visit Blackford Hill again and again- highly recommended!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Edinburgh's Seaside: The Good, the Bad, and the Bathrooms

Edinburgh is not exactly what you’d call a beach town.  While the Firth of Forth flows into the North Sea on the city’s northeastern border, cold and wet Scottish weather doesn’t accommodate days in the sun. Nonetheless, the beach village of Portobello is mentioned in most Scottish travel guides. So I thought I’d check it out.

Historical Significance
Portobello has as much history as it does sand. Throughout the 18th century, it was a resort for Edinburgh’s middle class because it featured rare and fancy “bathing machines.” It wasn’t until the late 19th century growth of railways that working -lass citizens flocked to the beach “fun fairs” were erected.  In time, these “fun fairs” Americanized to become arcades and ice cream shops.  Kitzchy-fun, unhealthy food, you can imagine why I just had to visit!

Safety Concerns
While I was excited to visit, I was also a little apprehensive about travelling to Edinburgh’s Northeastern outskirts. Though several bus lines run from the city center to Portobello, buses back are infrequent.  Planning my trip, I was careful to avoid being stranded in the beach town.  Portobello is close to Leith, a “dodgy” area with drug activity made famous by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

And indeed, the further my bus traveled from the city center, the dodgier the neighborhoods looked.  Rather than trees and gardens, the streets were flanked with greasy bars and crumbling sidewalks.  Out here, the bus stops were covered in graffiti- and not graffiti of the artsy sort.  Out here, there weren’t any tourists taking photos, just locals smoking or carrying groceries home.  Out here, I was completely out of place.

When I stepped off the bus at King’s Road, the first thing I saw was a large pub with peeling green paint and signs plastered across the front door:  “Absolutely NO Under-21s Served,” and  “No Football Colours  Allowed Inside.”  Fantastic, I thought So there’s definitely lots of brawls here.

I resolved to catch the next bus to the city center, which gave me 30 minutes to explore.  Then, I followed a sign for the Portobello Beach Promenade toward a red cobbled street.   When I came closer to the red cobbled boardwalk, I spotted a girl with a backpack taking a photo- another tourist!  Feeling a lot safer, I set off for a short walk.

Impressions of the Coastline
Altogether, Portobello beach was underwhelming.  Fish-and-chip shops littered the walkway and gave the air a greasy smell.  The sand was damp and orange-hued; I didn’t feel inclined to walk through it.  And don’t even get me started on the toilets! I was unfortunate to need to use one, and was again reminded of Trainspotting and the film version's worst-toilet-in-Scotland scene (don't watch this if you have a weak stomach. Seriously).  Gross!

This isn’t to say that Portobello is without charms.  It is possible to imagine- given nicer weather and a coat of paint- having a pleasant day with friends strolling beside the firth. Old-style arcades and ice cream parlours might provide hours of retro-style fun.  Also, I was impressed by lots of well-behaved dogs running off the leash while their owners took an afternoon jog.  I must have seen 15 dogs running free, but not one of them chased or barked at me!

Despite the cute puppies and retro-flair, I headed home without stopping for dinner.  Intuitively, I felt I’d be safer to leave before nightfall, and none of the pubs looked all that appealing. Still, I hope that Edinburgh’s city council will reinvest in the place- maybe on a sunny day in a few years I’ll return to a livelier Portobello beach.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How to Fight Homesickness

You’re about to hear details of something I like to pretend never happened: the time I got homesick in Stirling.

In 2008 I spent four months studying in Stirling, Scotland.  At the time, I was inexperienced as a traveler; apart from a 3-week trip to Europe, I had never been further than 60 miles from my hometown alone.  I was excited to travel solo for the first time. Nonetheless, I was apprehensive about leaving a boyfriend, my family, and my friends behind.

Hanging out with Stevie helped me get over my homesickness.

These apprehensions spread through me like cancer from the minute I stepped off the plane in Scotland.  At the airport, I ordered a coffee and couldn’t understand the barista’s accent; I thought to myself “why the hell did I sign up for this?”  My negative attitude did nothing to help my situation. By the month’s end, I sank into a depression and missed out on many fantastic opportunities.

Homesickness like this is utter misery.  During the day I struggled to muster the courage to attend classes.  At night I often cried until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. I wouldn’t have given travel another chance if I hadn’t made an awesome friend in Stirling.

When I got to know Stevie and became comfortable in my surroundings I found strength to get through lonely times.  Unfortunately, I wasted months feeling isolated. Now I often wish I’d known these ways to combat homesickness before it took over my life:

Seek out human connection. Being with others to distracts you, and reminds you you’re not alone. One of the greatest things about travel is the people you’ll meet, so get out there and hear someone’s story!

….but also save time for yourself.  Often, travel involves lots of rushing around, which is very stressful.  Homesickness might just be a symptom of this stress, so schedule in a little time for a walk, a quiet cup of coffee, or a good book.

Indulge in familiar comforts.  For me, this means making pancakes for dinner on a Saturday night or picking up a Harry Potter book.  Doing something you love from  home puts you at ease when you feel uncomfortable.

…but don’t forget to try something new.  Travel is all about new experiences.  Trying a new activity consumes a person so there’s no room on the brain for homesickness. Have you ever heard of a person moping while bungee jumping or trying sushi for the first time?

Set a goal.  Whether it’s to see every sight featured in The Da Vinci code, climb all the Adirondack high peaks, or to take 50 nice photos, decide to do something and write it down.  When you commit to an official goal, you become motivated to get moving.

…but occasionally be spontaneous. Spontaneity is a traveler’s privilege, so take advantage of it!  If I’m homesick, I sometimes like to ask myself “other than going home, what would I like to do right now,” and then just do it.  Just yesterday I felt overwhelmed, so I followed a whim Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Gardens. It worked as an instant destressor.

Finally, stay healthy.  Eat fruits and vegetables, get plenty of sleep, and make time for exercise.  When you’re physically well, it’s easier to stay mentally well, and when you’re well fed, rested, and fit, it’s easier to follow the tips above.