Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prague to Olomouc, Written 19 June 2008

My last evening in Prague was fantastic. A small pub drilling out some low key drum and bass (that seems like an oxymoron) with a student feel, lots of younger Czechs exhibiting different clothing and hair styles, just having a good time. It’s pretty mellow but fun is definitely on the agenda…

I really enjoyed my time with Jaroslav, our conversation meandered from Southeast Asia to Japanese and Korean film to growing up in communism to canoeing in the Czech Republic to hitchhiking horror stories…I really wish I could have stayed longer in Prague. I have a feeling I’ll be back.

Wednesday morning I got a relatively lazy start to my day and headed off to the hitchhiking spot listed in hitchwiki. Metro from I.P. Pavlova to Opatov, and found the right bus to get to K Suvoku. It was just a 9 minute bus ride from the metro station, but…it was miles away. Getting off in Suvoku, the only establishments were some pivnice (beer houses) and restauraces…green green green, with red roofs and white houses scattered about. I really was astonished that so close to central Prague I felt completely in the countryside. Not like the suburban sprawl of Tokyo, obviously, but not even like the sprawl in France, or England…lovely.

I got to the petrol station, asked around for a ride to Brno at the McDonald’s, no one was headed that way, so I decided to use the restroom, then went out to the lot again, and asked the only person that had arrived in that timeframe. He was headed to Bratislava but agreed to take me, so off I was. First ride of the day took 7 minutes to catch.

A German couple who were headed to Bratislava because he races motorbikes for BMW. They had a decked out van with a trailer behind for his motorbikes. DVD Player was blasting Dire Straits and Rory Gallagher concerts, and he was winding adventurously through traffic considering the size of his vehicle and trailer. Lovely couple, he has a used clothing company in Germany and he distributes used clothes to Africa and Eastern Europe. He regularly heads off on trips to ride his bike around West Africa and Eastern Europe. She barely spoke English but lots of smiles…a great ride.

We were chatting too much and we missed the last petrol station before the road split, me wanting to head north to Olomouc, them heading south to Bratislava. So I asked to get let off at the next petrol station, which unfortunately was headed in the wrong direction. We sat and had a coffee and I decided I would wait optimistically since there was a turnaround point, but it didn't work. The sun was beating down and after 1.5 hours, I decided my approach would be to catch a bus back into Brno and then try and find a good spot to hitch from. If I couldn’t, I would catch a bus or train to Olomouc.

Went up to a guy who spoke no English, so he wrote on a sheet of paper the bus number I was looking for and gave me very detailed directions, none of which I understood, as to where I could catch that bus. I signaled in the direction away from him, and he nodded yes, and I’m thinking, hmm that is a lot less complicated than what you just blurted at me. Anyway, thanked him and headed on my way.

10 minutes later, totally confused as to where I am, no bus stops to be seen, and wander into the IKEA parking lot where I meet David. He is playing with his son in the parking lot trying to put things in the trunk and I ask him if he can tell me where the bus is. I show him the number 67 and he says, oh, Brno centrum. I say yes, and he says, if you want I can take you there. Of course I oblige, and then I meet Christopher, his 2.5 year old son. When Christopher is told to greet me, he says ahoj with no hesitation, but when he realizes I’m getting in the car with them, his eyes widen and his lips draw shut. I’m told by David that he has just gone over talking with him about how he should be careful of strangers. Go figure.

Anyway, we chat on the way back to Brno, about his travels in Korea and Vietnam for 8 months, how he doesn't like Czech people because they’re grumpy (all Czech people say this yet they’re all smiley…strange strange people)…and we go around Brno for a bit before I get let off at the bus station.

Turns out I missed the bus by…2 minutes. Next one is in…2 hours. I decide to go over to the bus stop anyway, and find the one person in the line who speaks English and he tells me in fact there is a bus in 5 minutes headed to Olomouc. I’m suspicious but stick around (what options do I have at this point?!) The bus driver arrives and I’m told that in fact he isn’t going all the way to Olomouc – only to Prostejov. But it appears that’s on the way to Olomouc so I think why not, I don't want to stick around the bus terminal for the next 2 hours.

What a gorgeous ride. Czech countryside is…rolling poppy fields, bright floating white that looks like cotton balls swaying in the grass…yellow flowers dotting the landscape…castles popping out on the horizon…tiny, tiny villages with elderly Czechs riding on their bicycles with bags of potatoes strapped to their bikes…

I arrived in Prostejov…I can bet that tourists aren’t common there…the bus timetables in the Czech Republic make no sense whatsoever. So imagine the scene: the place names are listed vertically; Brno, Prostejov, Olomouc, Ostrava. Then the times listed next to them are listed, but they’re going reverse – therefore counter-intuitively, you’re actually looking at a bus that’s going from Ostrava to Brno. This happened many times on the chart, but also sometimes there were schedules for buses that were indeed going from Brno to Ostrava. So many different columns for km traveled, price, time, special holiday time, etc etc…it was a big mess. I pondered over the schedule with a lovely girl from Olomouc and finally she said that she thought there would be a bus in 15 minutes, and if there wasn’t, there was a train in half an hour. Prostejov was a small town that felt like most small almost-countryside towns feel, and it was great to watch the people going by.

We did get the bus at 17.45, and rather than go the 20km direct to Olomouc, it went on windy countryside roads to get to Olseny to drop people off. The public transport in the Czech Republic is impressive; punctual, affordable, numerous, with good connections, clean, and safe. I’m a big fan of countries with good public transport so this is greatly augmenting my impression of this place.

I arrived in Olomouc and watching the names of the bus stops clearly written, realized I was in Fakultni nemocnice, where Petra had told me to get off to catch the tram. I did so, and arrived in the city centre shortly thereafter. She came to meet me and we went to the Good Tea Room ( in Czech) – another small (or not so small) detail of Czech life that I’ve quickly grown fond of.

Tea Rooms are increasingly common in the Czech Republic. Basically, they’re smaller dim-lit establishments where there are tables with chairs, or there’s a separate area with cushions and you sit on the ground without shoes. There’s a separate room for nargileh/sheesha. The walls are covered with various photographs relating to tea; perhaps of plantations around the world with the locals involved, or just portraits of locals from areas that grow tea, and there are trinkets, mostly of an Asian feel – bamboo window coverings and small lamps and candle holders. It’s supremely relaxing, of course added to by the fact that you’ve got this book-thick menu to peruse through with descriptions of tea from hundreds of regions around the world, talking about their histories and their distinctive tastes and purposes and functions.

I left the tea room after awhile to take some twilight photos around Olomouc and loved the feel of the empty streets in contrast to the lively pivnices around town. It’s got a completely different feel to Prague, and though I did see a few guesthouses dotted around, it seems to remain largely unspoiled by tourism as of yet.

I had my first Czech meal in a pub and enjoyed it – Pepin’s pork with mushrooms on rice. I went back to meet Petra and company and then we moved back to the pub I had eaten at, joined by some biology professors from the university. I think the Czechs are extremely friendly people once the initial interaction is made; maybe breaking the ice seems more difficult or awkward, but they’re really lovely people.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ostrava to Berlin, 22 June 2008

7am...the alarm that was set for 6.45am didn't go off...oh well. Got dressed, brushed teeth...walked back to Patrik and Jitka's flat from his parents' place. Packed my bags, got my food...

Patrik drove me all the way to the Polish border. What a nice guy. Really.

No cars. Either direction. Arrived at the border at 8.30am.

I had my highlighted maps, and I was trying to take the 45 to Raciborz to hit the autobahn...after about 30 minutes, a Czech car stopped. No common language, jumped in, and realized they were going to Rybnik - not where I wanted. So they let me out and I was back to square one.

Walked to the starting point of the 45, found a shady spot, waited half an hour, then decided maybe I had better rethink my route. After all, my map showed Rybnik in all capital letters (perhaps indicating a larger town?)...so went back to the main road.

I was getting a little frustrated, mostly just because I was surprised at the lack of traffic, but looked around and thought to myself that being stuck in this gorgeous countryside with bright blue sky wasn't the worst situation I could be in. An army truck with two officers came to check my passport and were totally amused that I had ended up there. They said they could take me to the train station...

About 10 minutes later, a guy pulled over and said he could take me to Rybnik. Jumped in. In Rybnik, about 20 minutes after he picked me up, he left me at a bus stop and after about 10 minutes I got a ride from a guy who was headed to Zory but said he could take me towards Gliwice. So about 20 minutes with him, and he left me 2km from the autobahn. 5 minutes til a young guy stopped and took me to the entrance of the autobahn...

By this time it was about 10.45am and I had gone about 60km...15 minutes later, a car with two guys stopped and agreed to take me to Opole...this was 80km away so I was pretty happy to jump in. They left me at the exit to Opole, and in less than 10 minutes, at 11.50am, a big truck transporting beer stopped. I was in luck - I thought my next stop would be Wroclaw, but he was headed further, to Legnica. Slow pace but comfy ride, so I had my lunch and a little snooze. I got to see a lot of the Polish countryside with him...church roofs dotted the landscape and cute countryside homes, lots of green and fields full of yellow flowers...He left me at a petrol station on the side of the road and I asked around with no luck...

So got on the road, and about 10 minutes later a construction worker stopped. No smile or anything but he had the kindest eyes I've seen in a long time. No communication whatsoever so he pulled over and showed me on the map that he wasn't headed to Berlin - he had to drive west across Germany. I was torn about what to do, since I was really excited about the idea of getting this long ride, but it wasn't exactly where I had wanted to go...but I decided to take it, and showed him that I wanted to get off at Dresden. He said ok and off we were.

What I had failed to realize was that indeed the roads in Poland aren't exactly what we can call highways. The A4 that I had been on, which goes straight to Berlin, WAS a proper highway, but the route I went with the construction worker wasn't. It passed through beautiful countryside though, so no complaints. Plus I was comfortable enough to have a short snooze. We stopped for some lunch and I had my only Polish meal, and all smooth til the turnoff for Berlin. Throughout the day just looking at all the signs and menus and things in Polish, I realized just how foreign this language was. So many multiple consonants together which seemingly made no sense to me at all, and the pronunciation seemed impossible to decipher.

Unfortunately, there were no service stations near this spot so I had to walk the exit (luckily in Germany there's a huge shoulder) and stood...it's not ideal to hitch on the autobahn in Germany since the cars are going so fast - they don't have time to stop. But I had no choice...and in less than 10 minutes a Citroen stopped, I ran up to them, and I was on my way - direct to Berlin.

This couple was lovely, and they had both grown up in East Germany and loved all the questions I was throwing at them. We talked about the wall and they showed me old maps of Berlin and how the underground used to stop at the Western border...about traditional German food and different beers...about what I perceive as the differences between Europe and Japan...

They were in their late 40's, so they really lived through the communist times. It was like having my own private interviewees for 1.5 hours. (Unfortunately, until this ride, the whole day I hadn't been able to speak to my drivers because of language barriers...)

They totally coincidentally live about 15 minutes drive from Arnaud...so they said they could take me to the S-Bahn station nearest his house...and then proceeded to drive me to his door. So my total cost was 0 for transport today because lovely Patrik started me off and this couple took me to the final destination, meaning I didn't pay for public transport even once.

According to google and Michelin, the original route I wanted would have taken 6 hours and 10 minutes from Ostrava to Berlin. Add in lunch and fuel refills and realistically, driving straight through in a passenger car, it would have been 7 hours. Changing the route as I did, to go to Rybnik instead of Raciborz, and Dresden instead of Cottbus, it should have taken about 8 hours and 15 minutes. So adding in my lunch stop, and factoring in the slow speed of the truck driver, I did fantastically well to arrive in just over 10 hours.

Exhausted but happy and glad to have done the trip. I was really impressed by how kind the drivers were about taking me to the best spot convenient for both of us, and how much they tried to communicate with me.

Prague, Written 17 June 2008

I arrived in Prague and well, it was cold and gray again. But something struck me as being different. It’s my first time in Eastern Europe unless you include Tallinn and St. Petersburg for tiny periods of time each. I managed to find my way to meet Marko, from Serbia but who has lived in Prague for the past 15 years.

The past two days have been spent walking, walking, walking, and making the following observations…

When I got off the bus, 119 from the airport, and had to find the tram I was supposed to take (20), I was totally overwhelmed because it’s the first time in awhile that I’ve been somewhere where the language is COMPLETELY foreign to me. At least when I got to Brasil I could speak Spanish so therefore could somewhat decipher what was written. Well, the thing about Czech people, from what I can tell so far, is that they’re not outwardly smiley and openly friendly (this isn’t a bad thing, after all, why would they walk around smiling at me?) However, it’s unanimously surprised me just how friendly they are when I do go over and ask for help. The first couple changed their route so that they could take me on the metro, and then they were going to go further than my stop but decided to get off so they could show me where the tram I needed was, and were extremely friendly asking about Japan etc. When I had to switch trams the guy walked over to the timetable and showed me alternatives – 1 or 25. All with huge smiles and excellent English. It’s kind of funny. All day today it’s been the same, you just go ask with a smile and it’s entirely reciprocated.

Prague is breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s surprising to me that it’s been so far off my radar for this long. Not saying that I know everything there is to know about Europe, but how come the Czech Republic doesn’t come up more in conversations with other travelers? It’s not all that far from my stomping grounds of Holland, France, and Italy…

The architecture is extremely varied, with a row of houses having different colors, different bricks, different windows…it looks like it’s come straight out of a painting. It was made pretty just to make it pretty. How refreshing. (I have no idea how this architecture came about in actuality and it may have function and lots of history behind it)

There is tons, I mean tons, of green space all around. and it’s so green. You feel like you’ve left the city behind and are walking through viney trees and you can’t hear traffic, and it’s really like fairy-tale land.

And though I’m not a beer connoisseur, I have decided I like the beer culture here. The Czechs are extremely proud of their beer, and I knew I liked Pilsner Urquell, but the one I had here really blows away the ones I’ve had abroad. I am guessing the Czechs are quite reserved, and last night, Marko took me to a small Pivnice – pivo being beer, so pivnice a place which has beer. Lots of it. We went to a small room on the side with just two tables, and sat with two slightly older guys. You order beer and when it’s brought with its thick head of foam, the waiter makes tally marks on your check. I glanced across and the gentlemen across had 15 strokes when we arrived. That's 7 or 8 pints each – and they were not boisterous, obnoxious, or anywhere near pass-out drunk. They smiled and raised their glasses to us. The table across was 6 younger people, who were definitely enjoying their drinks and seemed to be having a great time. I had a spicy sausage and Marko had some herring…

There are tourists crawling all over the place if you go to the tourist spots, but if you go just a bit away from them, it seems that they disappear altogether. In parts of town I could be in a plaza with hordes of Spaniards, and wander two blocks away and find myself completely alone. So in that sense, Prague has managed to maintain herself. Same with the gastronomy – the tourist areas are crowded with signs of “Traditional Czech Food,” but it appears that if you stray slightly, there are no tourists around.

I like that they have held on to their own currency; I like that they are friendly but don’t seem to be obsessed with taking from tourists; I like the red trams which seem to be super efficient, clean, and safe; I like the cobblestone streets; I like the magical streetlamps that seem to transport you back centuries; I like the green that explodes all over the place, that makes you think you’re wandering through a forest that is recapturing the land that has been built on; I like the variety of color through the city; I like the variety of clothing, style, and overall what seems to be freedom of expression…

I am very excited to get out and see other parts of this country that I know so little about…

Dublin, written 17 June 2008

Dublin is so…familiar. It’s kind of like how I find London to be, where all the “culture” has already been exported so going to the origin, the source, results in a feeling of anticlimax. Cozy “Irish” pubs all over the place, with the stereotypical pint of Guinness (I actually for the first time ever had a mouthful that I enjoyed - but I’m still not converted).

Being in Dublin was extremely challenging in many ways as I was in totally unfamiliar territory (yes, this seems to contradict what’s written above). Meaning, I was in Keith’s home, with a very strange uncomfortable energy being exuded, with Keith’s group of friends with whom I didn’t click with instantly and immediately – it’s difficult to explain why. It all worked out as the days went on as I grew more comfortable and met people who really sparked my interest. Funnily enough, I made a fantastic connection with a Brasilian girl, Cleo, and an Italian girl who was adopted in India, Bettsina.

I find Irish people extremely reserved until you give them some alcohol, and I guess what I’m finding about English speaking countries in Europe is that there is this huge drinking culture, and yes, you always do have a choice as to whether you drink or not, but I highly dislike feeling like the only entertainment option available involves alcohol. And even more than that, it seems to be drinking for the sake of getting drunk, not to savor the beverage itself. I guess the weather contributes to this culture of people getting together to sit in a dim-lit place and consume alcohol rather than finding alternative activities. Yes, there are options – I loved stumbling into Tom’s neighbor’s barbecue, but that had a total of…1 Irish person there? Going to the cinema was good, and the World Street Performers Championships was great, but…it ended in rain. I’m absolutely completely sick of the cold and rain and wind, and want to get south south south now.

But on the other hand, Dublin was pretty amazing for how cosmopolitan it’s gotten. I guess since I don’t know much about how Ireland used to be, it doesn’t affect me as much to realize that now you can walk the streets and potentially not hear English being spoken, that in a coffee shop like Lemon Jelly where I met a lot of the workers, you’ve got people from Brasil, Argentina, India, France, Romania, Slovakia, and Ireland. And I like that you can walk everywhere…and it feels safe.

However, the lack of integration was surprising – in all of the social things we did all week, there was a conspicuous lack of Irish people – more than once, Keith was the only Irish person there. Strange, because it’s not like Japan where people can’t speak the local language so stick together. In all the gatherings where there were usually at least 5 nationalities, the common language was English. So what’s going on? It’s probably a complex phenomenon with lots of reasons, and I hope Keith finds out : )

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Plockton, Scotland (June 2008)

Jan lives in a utopian Scottish highland town, Plockton. It’s one of the last villages before you get to the Isle of Skye. This is a town with a few B&Bs, one sizable restaurant, one shop, and lots of nature. The village has about 350 people, and Jan and Hamish have watched it grow over the past 20 years.

I arrived around 8.30pm on Saturday, so we had some mezze for dinner and just caught up and it was lovely to chat about all sorts of things that had happened since we last saw each other last March.

On Sunday, Hamish and I walked Maddie at around 7am going through sheep paddocks, magnificent views over the bay, and I went on the boat with Jan at both 10am and 3.30pm. The first trip lasted about an hour and the prime objective was to see harbor seals; we did, as well as two otters and various birdlife. In the afternoon the trip was to go see dolphins, and the two we spotted were quite playful and stayed around the boat for over half an hour. The area supports quite a variety of birdlife and mammals, and remains relatively unspoilt. There doesn't seem to be a huge amount of tourism although it is certainly starting to become recognized and thus on the tourist trail. The boat tours, cleverly called Sails to the Seals, are run by a man named Calum who has been doing boat trips for the past 27 years in Plockton. He is a cheerful, jolly, humorous fellow, as seems to be the case with most of the Scots I meet – a good thing indeed.

In the evening we headed to Plockton Shores Restaurant for my pre-birthday dinner, and it was a gorgeous meal of Roast Lamb, Goat Cheese Salad, Spicy Vegetable Nut Roast with Goat Cheese, and Fish and Chips (Jan and I were sharing). And of course a bottle of wine, all with a panoramic view of the waterfront.

Monday I headed to Skye, and Tuesday was a lazy morning followed by a very scenic drive up to Applecross, where windswept cliffs drop steeply down to the open sea, with stubborn single white houses dotting the landscape of boulders, moss, and cliffs. I love Scotland.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hitching Skye (Written 3 June 2008)

Yesterday was my birthday, and it was a marvelous day. I had decided to head over to the Isle of Skye, which both Mika and I had wanted to visit the first time we were in Scotland in 2001, but hadn’t made it that far north.

Woke up early in the morning to walk Maddie with Hamish, again the greenery, the open sea loch, and the picturesque boats taking my breath away. After a quick breakfast Hamish took me to the bus stop down in Kyle of Lochalsh, but the next buses headed over to Skye were about 2 hours later. I jumped out on the road, stuck my thumb out, and the first car going by stopped, and I jumped in.

He was a computing professor at the Gaelic College in Sleat, which is at the southern end of the Isle of Skye. He was going to Broadford to the co-op there (one of the larger British supermarket chains) and agreed to take me as far as there. He mentioned that at the college in Sleat he had a half Japanese, half Swiss student who was currently studying Gaelic. He had also had a previous student go teach English in Japan.

When we arrived in Broadford he directed me to the next best hitching spot on the road and wished me luck. I waited about 10 minutes at this next place, until a woman headed all the way up to Portree, my destination, pulled over.

She was from the suburbs of Edinburgh but had moved to Skye about 20 years ago, and after 15 years on Skye moved back to Edinburgh for family reasons, but her and her partner found that they just couldn't stay away – they've been back on Skye with their two daughters for about 18 months now.

We started talking about the English having holiday homes on Skye and how it’s affecting the local economies and property prices; of course, shooting them up and making it difficult for normal working-class Scots to be able to afford buying a house. She was lucky enough that her partner and her had bought houses 20 years ago, and sold them for profit, so that they were still able to buy a decent sized house on Skye. However, she feared for her daughters, who are currently aged 8 and 20 months. By the time they’re adults, even if both they and their partners have good jobs, it may be unrealistic for them to be able to buy even a small flat. I was quite engaged in our conversation, as well as captivated by the view of the Cuillins – the Cuillins are the mountain range on Skye, a mesmerizing, dramatic landscape with steep slopes and high pinnacles, bizarre because the elevation isn’t high but there are no trees on the tops of the mountains…it was also the first time since I had arrived in Scotland that it wasn’t bright sunshine; instead it was cloudy and overcast, adding an ominous, mysterious look to the hills.

Before I knew it, we were in the main car park in Portree and we headed our separate ways. Jan and Hamish had told me of a worthwhile walk just outside Portree, starting at the Cuillin Hills Hotel, and at the tourist info they suggested the same walk, so off I went. Given that it was a walk starting at a hotel, and it was only about an hour long, I wasn't setting my expectations high; the rewards were fantastic. A narrow gravel path wound through woodland and emerged with views over the sea; on one side you could see the colorful pier of Portree, and on the other, the sea as far as you could see. Dramatic vibrant green cliffs led out to the open blue, and the hills were dotted with giant granite boulders covered in lichens and tall wild grasses. Eventually the walk led through sheep paddocks with asymmetrical yet somehow balanced stone fences dividing the livestock.

Around this time Bryn, an Australian I had met on the train from Inverness to Plockton, called so we decided to meet in Portree. I mentioned I had been interested in going to the Isle of Rassay, so we decided to try and get down to Sconser. However, we had to have our fish and chips lunch first, sitting on the Portree pier, legs hanging over the edge, seagulls circling above, hoping for scraps.

Just seconds after we got to the side of the road, a man with a mustache and sunglasses pulled over, saying he was only going 3 miles down the road but we were welcome to go with him as far. Why not, right, so we jumped in. I don't remember what the impetus was but he instantly started complaining about the fuel prices on Skye – 1.35 pound per liter – which makes that about 2.75 USD per liter – so Americans, that’s 11 USD a gallon – compare that to the 4 USD Californians are complaining about! (Not saying you shouldn't be complaining, just remarking, wow, some people are paying a lot more!)

Anyway, we got to talking about all the environmental issues surrounding the island currently, and indeed there were many.

The landfill on the island has been filled to capacity, so now there are trucks coming over from eastern Scotland on the mainland to take out the trash, so they are driving hundreds of miles transporting rubbish.

Public transport is abysmal and very expensive (5 GBP, or 10 USD, for a 30-40 minute bus ride), and some routes like Portree to Uig, only run twice a day. This of course means you’ve got to be wealthy enough to have your own vehicle and pay to fill it up, or you’re forced to hitch. Or, you just don't come to the island.

Scotland seems to naturally be gifted for exploring alternative energy sources such as hydropower and wind power. However, there has been public uproar about putting up wind turbines on Skye because it would ruin the natural beauty and landscape. However, this gentleman who picked us up (and we were only with him for 3 miles! Imagine the pace of his talking : ) ) argues that a windmill can be taken apart quickly, whereas nuclear power stations which are the alternative that are likely to be constructed instead, are a definite eyesore, bad for the environment, and much more permanent than wind stations.

So he took us to a good turnout on the main road, a gorgeous spot with good scenery all around. Lucky for us that it was as such, because we waited nearly an hour for our next lift. By this time, the sun was fully out and not a cloud was to be seen. We debated whether going to Sconser and over to Rassay was still realistic for me, since I needed to get back to the mainland that night. We decided perhaps we should go down to Sleat.

Finally a young English girl (from near Birmingham) picked us up – she works at a hotel in Portree and it was one of her days off so she was going on a drive around the island. She was able to take us as far as Sligachan, which was not much further but at least was further south of where we were. She had been on Skye, working, for about three years now, and loved it. We talked about the high tourist season, which normally runs from Eastern through September, but Easter was so early this year that the real peak tourist kick hadn’t started until just a few weeks ago.

When we arrived in Sligachan, Bryn and I decided to check out some clearly marked walking trails. The scenery was phenomenal, and there was a campervan parking area, with lots of tents up. The Cuillin Mountains are in perfect view there, and you can hop about on the rocks and swampy area to get a good look up close.

We headed back to the main road and waited for just a few minutes until a fancy SUV pulled up. Different to our previous rides, this was a fancy, swanky car with a well-groomed couple inside (not saying any of the previous rides were grotty or shabby, but well…these two were just a bit different). They were a couple that lived just outside of London but had a holiday home in Avymoor, over on the Scottish mainland. They were just on Skye for a couple days. They love Scotland and Skye, and love coming up here several times a year to get away from the hustle and bustle of England, or London rather, and really enjoy the scenery and nature.

They took us to the turnoff towards Sleat in Broadford, since they were headed back to the mainland to stay in their holiday home. I guess Bryn and I (or I did, in fact) scrapped the Rassay idea for time and logistical purposes, since boats are quite regular but not THAT regular – and then the English girl who took us to Sligachan said Sleat was definitely worth a look, as it was called the Gardens of Skye. It’s considered to be the greenest part of Skye.

Anyway, here we were on the road turning down to Sleat, and a couple looked directly at us but the woman made some strange hand motion and left, and then they seemed to be slowing down, then reversing, then stopping again…we thought they weren’t stopping for us but they seemed to be moving things around in the car so we jogged up to them, and indeed they were taking us.

They were originally from New Zealand but had been living in Brisbane for the past 12 years. They were on their genealogy pilgrimage to Scotland, trying to find out where their grandparents had come from decades ago when they crossed the Pacific. A really interesting couple who had lived in 6 countries in the Pacific, including Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and this was the first time they had been north of the Equator. They were loving it, though the wife half-jokingly mentioned that there seemed to be too much distance between coffee and pubs on the island.

The drive down to Armadale, on the southern tip of the peninsula that is Sleat, was indeed lovely, with lots of bright green deciduous vegetation that seemed quite varied, leading right down to the rocky coastline. At Armadale we went our separate ways and Bryn and I decided to do some of the walks fittingly called the Armadale Walks. We did a combination of the blue and red trails, which took us several miles through paddocks, hills, woods with plenty of fantastic moss and gnarly trees, and close to sheep. We emerged on a stretch of pebbly beach, had a mini-picnic, and stuck our thumbs out again.

An elderly Welsh couple picked us up quickly, and they didn't know where they were going. They had just arrived on the ferry from Mallaig, which arrives in Armadale, and were just driving around and looking at things until they would check in at a Bed and Breakfast. They were interested in doing the small scenic loop drive on Sleat and Bryn and I jumped at the opportunity to tag along for this.

This road, and the part around Sligachan, would definitely rate as my highest in Skye. The road to Ord and Torskavaig is hilly, winds through farmland and from the high vantage point the views across the bay are breathtaking. The green green green of the place…

Afterwards, we drove up to the junction for the main road, the A87, and the couple took Bryn towards Portree, and I jumped out. I walked down the road a few hundred meters to a good spot to wait for a lift, and a few minutes later a man who I would say was the stereotypical Scotsman, jet white hair (does this term exist?) muscular with sailor tattoos on both forearms, bright green eyes and defined features, stopped. He said in a thick Scottish accent, “holiday?” which I understood to be some variation of “how old are ye?” and it was a great icebreaker as I was slightly surprised. It turned out that I was in the presence of Joe Brown, who knows Jan because he plays the fiddle, teaches the fiddle, and is also in charge of culling deer. He was a lovely man and though we weren’t going far, had a great talk about the differences between Japan and Scotland and he was very interested to hear about the landscape in Japan. He dropped me off at the Kyle of Lochalsh bus terminal, where Hamish had dropped me off 8 hours before.

Jan arrived just a few minutes later, and all was well. A giant curry feast with lentil curry, potato and spinach curry, eggplant curry, mushroom curry, and chicken curry, with naan and chapatti and rice, and I was off to bed.

What I loved most about my day hitchhiking around Skye was the variety of people I met, who were all real people with completely different backgrounds and perspectives and it made it entirely worthwhile listening to their situations and how things are changing and have been, and continue to be affected, by tourism and climate change and globalization. And of course, that just by the way the rides worked out, my route and itinerary on the island would shift and change and be set on new courses.

Monday, June 9, 2008

English, British, hmm...

Scotland feels completely different as soon as you step off the bus. Even before, actually. I don’t know what it is. Actually, it’s probably more similar to Wales in terms of pace of life, how GREEN everything is, the hilly landscape with sheep dotted all across. The further north you go, the more lush, fairy-tale it transforms into.

I arrived in Inverness on schedule and spent the day walking with Simon. We went down to the Ness Islands, walked along the canal, and did a big loop back to the city. We then lounged on the lawn of Inverness Castle…great pub stop at the top of the canal as well. Lovely lad with lots of great travel stories as well, and a true example of Scottish friendliness, good humor, generosity and openness.

So let’s see, I’d probably like to write about what I think about the UK, England, British.

Well, first off, I now (think) I have a more clear understanding of what these terms mean. The countries of Scotland, England, and Wales form Great Britain. Throw in Northern Island and you’ve got the United Kingdom.

I didn’t realize that there was this big discrepancy between what English and British meant, until I went out for a drink with Sham and his sister Kaya the other night in South Kensington. Sham identifies himself as English; Kaya herself as British. Kaya associates the term English as a racial word, and British is more the general composite, of how Asians have integrated and created a distinct culture that is essentially non-English. Sham continued to say that he was English because he was born and raised in England, and things from England that are essentially English, such as football and drinking, are very much a part of him. Anyway, this got me thinking as I was trying to find the equivalent terminology for people in the United States. Would “American” be the same as “English” and if so, what would be the term for “British”? Kaya claimed that she thought “American” WAS the term for British, and pointed out that all the time people call themselves Japanese-American or Italian-American or whatever. I don’t really know what conclusions I drew but it was an interesting conversation.

The next day, I mentioned to John that this had come up and how the person who I had called English had been quite offended. What he said was also interesting, because he said it had to do with people’s perceptions. Previously, the English had a superiority complex, and being English meant being wealthier, and often times more educated and cosmopolitan. However, now there is a big push to emphasize the identity of Great Britain rather than England on its own, so it’s become politically incorrect to say you’re English. By claiming you’re English, people may perceive you to be discriminatory against the fellow UK nations. A complicated mess, if you ask me.

I don’t mean to sound whiny, but the public transport in the UK has shocked me. Yes, I realize that I’ve been living in Japan for the past few years and most people wouldn’t deny that Japan has either the best or one of the best public transport systems in the world. But had I forgotten, or did I previously not care, about shoddy transport? Maybe it’s because as my profession has required extensive time on public transport, I notice and appreciate the good systems. In any case, London was a shocker. Without an “oyster” card, which is an electronic refillable card, much like the Suica or Pasmo in Japan, a single ride on the tube costs 4 pounds – that’s 8 USD or 800 yen! That’s insane!

But it’s not even the price that irritated me. The quality was pretty abysmal. I often waited more than 10 minutes for a train, they were dirty, and the stations were dirty as well. I can think of so many places with better public transport: Paris, New York, Washington, DC, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Madrid, Amsterdam, well, wait, let me put it this way – I don't know of any other city where you would pay as much for the low quality.

And weather…oh the famous British weather. I guess I had forgotten about how much weather affects me as well. The unpredictability, the rain, the clouds, the cold wind…it just doesn't work for me anymore. California probably ruined it for me…

Friday, June 6, 2008

Why is it called Londres? (London, 26-30 May)

I got back to London early on Monday the 26th, and it was potentially the worst weather I’ve been in in months. Pouring rain, windy, cold, dark, ugh.

After sleeping more, went to meet Nick downtown for some lunch, went to the very impressive British Museum, where ironically my favorite exhibits were the temporary one with American prints from 1900-1960s, and the Japanese ceramics. Ironic eh?

The rain was highly discouraging me – the wind was making umbrellas useless – so I headed back around 6pm.

Tuesday I met Paul at the London Eye for a fabulous day out. We went up the London Eye, a really magnificent piece of work, and the views were fantastic. We then caught the thames clipper down to Greenwich, where time started. The whole area of Greenwich was so different from Central London, with its parks and little streets with different shops and restaurants that as far as I could tell were mostly not chains. From there we caught the boat back up to the Tate Modern, and checked out the permanent collection which had about equal amounts of works I really enjoyed and works that made me question what art is, who defines it, and how come putting a block of bricks on the floor now allows you space in an exhibition. We then walked across the Millenium Bridge which isn’t wobbly anymore, to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Walking up Southbank from there up to Charing Cross/Enbankment was lovely, passing lots of museums and theatres and cafes, and just seeing life unfold. I really love how the river is a central point of life in London.

I met Anne that evening in Leicester Square for dinner and drinks and had a great time updating and chatting; she’s lovely.

Wednesday I met Nick for lunch in Aldgate, then experienced horrible tube delays which I had already seen, but didn’t realize they were such a norm…but I finally got to Putney to meet Sham. His parents are lovely, from Bangladesh, and his mother was typical in that she wanted to feed me everything, especially when she realized that I liked Bengali food. She was surprised and impressed every time I recognized a spice or flavor, it was really sweet.

Had a great afternoon with Sham, we rode bikes through Richmond Park, went to the driving range for golf, had lovely food, then to Kensington for a few drinks with his sister and Jules also showed up.

Thursday I did my last great spurt of sightseeing, with the Natural History Museum, Hyde Park (lovely rose garden!), Piccadilly Circus, then it was pouring down rain. We went to Camden Town for Brasilian food which was fantastic to have some picanha, but even more so the beans…mmm I love beans.

Friday went to Borough Market and spent some time in bookshops…and now I’m on the bus to Inverness, which left at 23.45 and I’ve still got a few hours to go to complete the more than 12 hour journey…

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Strawberries on a Hill and Swans at the Sea? England and Wales, 19 - 26 May 2008 (Written 30 May 2008)

I arrived in London late at night on the 19th, and went straight to Dani and Jorge’s house. Oh, and of course, the real owner of the house is their beautiful golden retriever, Gisele, Gigi, Gidioca…lovely. On the 20th Jorge was kind enough to cycle with me around Regent’s Park, we saw the Rose Garden, stunning Japanese and English Gardens, and I got to see the area around Finchley Road.

In the evening I went to meet Firas at Strawberry Hill, where we were staying on his friend Kirstie’s houseboat. On the Thames, no sound of traffic, lots of ducks and other waterfowl, eating up on the roof of the boat, gently swaying…it was magical. We spent the next day walking around the area, cooking very international vegetarian food, just being. Lovely lovely.

The next day we went to Richmond early in the morning and wandered around Richmond Park, which was quite impressive; it’s the largest urban parkland in Europe (according to Lonely Planet London) and it feels wild. Deer, rabbits, and other animals roam freely without paying much attention to the human intruders.

Then it was off to Paddington to catch the train to Cardiff. I arrived and Martin and Jenny were there, waiting. I absolutely loved my stay with them…on Thursday they took me on a walking tour of Cardiff, and Friday we did a walk down near Swansea (apparently Catherine Zeta Jones’ homeland); we went to Three Cliffs Bay and Rhosilli Beach, the later considered the best beach in the UK. It was certainly nice. What really impressed me was how many different shades of rich, full green there were…but then I quickly confess that it rains such ridiculous amounts here that if it wasn't this green I would be disbelieving.

Saturday was spent doing a quaint flat walk alongside the canal in Breacon, about an hour away from Cardiff. We trodded through sheep paddocks on the way back, which resulted in us having to nimbly avoid all sheep droppings, which meant more looking at my feet than the scenery around.

And Sunday was BBQ day, so staying at home and cooking for hours, followed by eating for hours. But the wonderful food gluttony started much earlier. Thursday evening was Penne Puttanesca, all made from scratch, Friday was oven roasted vegetables – lots of different vegetables – with sausage, Saturday morning we had paninis with grilled halloumi cheese, roasted red peppers, rocket, and lemon olive oil, Saturday evening was stuffed mushrooms and Moroccan lamb tagine. Martin is a fabulous cook and that is no understatement.

So Sunday was all about food. We were three people at home, and there was one couple coming over. So for a grand total of 5 people:

Yuri Salad (which actually is a variety of what’s now quite common in California) – beetroot, spinach, goat cheese, and mandarin

Avocado, Mozzarella, Tomato, Sun-dried tomato and red onion salad – this was GOOD

Rocket and Red Onion Salad with Lardons

Mango chili salsa


Good old Caesar salad

Pesto / Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

Pita Bread and Tortilla Chips

Burgers and Pork Ribs

And lots and lots of beverage…I was in heaven.

To top this all off, we were going in the hot tub every evening, which we all referred to as the onsen…I really believe now that that is the hardest thing about me not being in Japan, I absolutely love jumping in and soaking and relaxing…Ahh I love Wales. Or, actually, I love Martin and Jenny’s house.