24 August 2010

Written August 14th in Edinburgh International Airport:

I am writing this entry from a chair at Edinburgh airport. My luggage is piled on the seat next to me and despite the fact that I have done barely anything today, I am thoroughly exhausted. Every time I leave Edinburgh, I always tell myself that I will take a taxi to Waverley Bridge and save myself the trouble of walking a mile with large suitcase, duffel bag, backpack, and purse. (All completely full – one accumulates a lot of stuff when one is away for three months.) And yet, despite these promises I make to myself, I somehow always seem to find myself dragging my copious amounts of luggage through the Meadows, up George IV Bridge, and down pass the Bank of Scotland building. It is always a decision that I come to classify as ‘decidedly poor’ by the time I am halfway through the Meadows since that is around the time that the muscles in my shoulders start protesting the sheer amounts of weight that I am forcing them to carry. Today was no different. I like to think that next time I will be smart and take a taxi – but probably not. Some small part of me likes to say ‘yeah, I am that badass. I walked all of that way with this luggage. I don’t need no stinkin’ taxi.’
Such was my excitement to come home that I have been living out of my suitcase for the past week. I carefully laid out everything that I would need for work and running, and packed the rest of the lot. Of course, this meant that last night I had very little to do and so I found myself idling away the time, wishing that the hands on the clock would move a little bit faster so that I could go to sleep and then, at long last, go home to my family and boyfriend. This morning I woke at 8 (I slept in…sort of. I had been awake since 630 but stubbornly remained in bed), fixed a breakfast of 2 pieces of cheese and a few slices of tomato/yellow pepper in order to use my remaining food in the fridge, took out the trash, and then lugged my bags down the narrow spiral staircase of my building and out the door. A walk that would normally have taken me 20 minutes if unencumbered took me 45 today. I left by 9 thinking that the Fringe tourists would be out in force if I left any later. I was partially right – a few tour groups were out and about, no doubt soaking in the city in the wee hours before the masses emerged and things became crazy – but it was nothing like I had imagined. The Airlink bus had absolutely no problems with traffic on Princes Street, and the end result is that I arrived at the airport at 10:20. I have no problems with this save for the fact that I can’t check-in my luggage until 11:45. And so here I sit with my luggage piled around me and the knowledge that in 44 minutes time I am going to have to drag it back to the British Airways desk for check-in. At least then I can say bon voyage to it and not have to deal with it again until arrival in Baltimore. (Although knowing my luck, now that I’ve written this, it won’t arrive in Baltimore at all.)

My last week at the Consulate passed in a rush. The Fringe Festival, a month long cultural and arts festival, has started in Edinburgh and thousands of tourists have descended upon the city. There was no gradual increase in this transformation; one day there was the usual rush hour pedestrian congestion on the walk home from work – annoying but nothing to write home about – and the next day it was absolute madness. A walk that should have taken me 25-30 minutes took 50 and I was so incredibly upset by the time I arrived at my flat. Tourists were simply everywhere, clogging the streets, stopping to take pictures, blocking the normal routes with their tour groups. Even worse than them were the promoters for the Fringe’s more than 2,500 shows. Each show seemed to have a promotion company of at least half a dozen people and they would emerge in force, dressed in identical hoodies promoting the show, armed with leaflets to thrust at unsuspecting passerby. At first I would accept these fliers and simply bin them further on down the street. But after some rather aggressive promotion tactics by one guy, I became rather less cooperative. My strategy this week was to adopt a ‘you really do not want to mess with me’ expression upon my face and walk in a manner that suggested I had someplace that I really needed to be. Most promoters left me alone after this.

I ran an incredibly hilly 11 miles on Saturday in preparation for my half marathon on the 28th, and followed it up with a moderate 5.6 miles on Sunday. I also had to work Sunday evening since the Consulate was holding a reception in honor of the Franklin Institute. I must say, if I had the opportunity to travel back to the Revolutionary area, I would love to meet Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The event was nice, although I spent a good majority of it running upstairs to the kitchen to refill water and juice jugs, and making trips down Princes Street to Sainsbury’s to pick up dip. Monday at work was spent working on the intern briefing book and interval training for 30 minutes on the treadmill since my legs were completely trashed from the weekend’s exertions. Tuesday was a short day for me as I started feeling sick after lunch. The erratic weather (sunny one minute and then freezing with torrential downpours the next) and lack of consistent sleep had left me with a debilitating headache, and so I was allowed to leave work early to head home and recooperate. I slept from 3pm to 7pm, woke long enough to eat something and check my email, and then slept through the night.

I was feeling much better by Wednesday. I spent the morning waiting for the plumber to show up at the Consul’s house and then worked on the briefing book over the lunch hour. This meant that I had to wait until 2:45 to take my run. I was really looking forward to it since it would be my last run around Holyrood Park and the Salisbury Crags. To end the summer on a good note, I was going to run around it one way and then turn around and do it the other way for maximum hill training, a distance of a little over 6 miles. It was on the way back to the Consulate, the second round of hills, that my day was compleltely ruined. A man was standing in one of the observation areas on the far side of the Park overlooking Duddingston. He indicated for me to stop and asked me for directions to Holyrood Palace. Happy to oblige (mostly since I actually could provide directions for him and appreciate it when strangers assist me when I am in need), I started to tell him that he simply needed to continue down Queen’s Drive and he would be able to actually see the palace. However, no sooner had I gotten more than a sentence out, he stopped me, his expression turning ugly. “I don’t take directions from dirty Americans,” he snarled, and then spit on me. I looked down at my shirt where the offending saliva had landed (had it been my face all sorts of shit would have gone down because my revulsion would have given me superhuman strength) and then took off running as fast as I could. It was a few minutes before I stopped, more out of necessity as I had used up a lot of energy in the sprint than anything else, and when I did, I simply collapsed on the grass, still shocked at what had just happened. I’ve experienced anti-American sentiment before, but usually anonymously and never entirely directed at me. It took me a while to make my way back to the Consulate and even after showering I was still shaken. My boss took one look at me and knew that something was wrong. So I had to explain and then file a security report. I still can’t believe that it happened. Still, that is just some people for you. I will probably be reluctant to give out directions in the future though.

Thursday was my farewell lunch. The ladies of the Consulate went to lunch at Amore Dogs, a funky, semi-upscale Italian restaurant in the New Town. The proprietor, who knows the Consul, gave us a complimentary round of champagne. I had a really nice, fresh bruschetta for an appetizer, and then mushroom risotto with truffle oil for my main. It was absolutely delicious. I’ve never had risotto again, usually preferring to stick with my tried and true pasta when it comes to Italian, but I think that I am sold for the future. That evening I did my last run in Edinburgh – 3 (or was it 4?) laps around the Meadows. It started to pour as I finished up and I arrived home at my flat completely soaked through.

Things I learned in Edinburgh
  • I like sweet potatoes.
  1. I also like falafel.
  2. It is possible to get all 4 seasons in one day. And it is miserable.
  3. It does thunder in the UK. Rarely, but it does happen. (Ironically it happened immediately after I had just written to my boyfriend that I miss the thunderstorms in the US because it makes precipitation events a little more exciting.)
  4. Stir-fried cabbage and red peppers can make an incredibly filling meal.
  5. When your own dinner sucks (i.e. you’ve made yourself a ‘cup-of-soup’ in a bowl because it is 5:30 and your blood sugar has plummeted), looking at cooking websites online can actually make things seem a bit better. Although it is a bit depressing to know that you would probably go crazy if you ever did make that triple chocolate-banana crepe.
  6. I can successfully make eggplant! (This is a remarkable achievement.)
  7. I can survive a run in the double digits.
  8. I will never be able to tolerate small talk and pointless conversations. This is probably why I would never be a successful diplomat – I find it too hard to engage strangers in random conversation.
  9. It is possible to miss someone so much that you feel like a part of your life is missing without him around.
  10. I am going to really miss the fall season when I leave for grad school. It is my favorite time of year and the UK simply doesn’t have the same type of autumn.

11 August 2010

Sun, Sea, & Sheep: A Scottish Adventure

Oban Town Center as seen from the train station
Welcome to Oban. This is the Scottish version of Ocean City...except without the sandy beaches. And the kitschy tourist attractions. Or the sun for that matter. OK, so it is not really like Ocean City, but a trip to Oban was my highly anticipated vacation for the summer. I first visited Oban in 2005 with my father. We were on a Timberbrush tour of castles in the lower Highlands and made a stop in Oban. I remember it being very  cold, very rainy, and not much was open. Despite this initial first impression, I made a pact with myself that I would one day return. Five years later, this pact was fulfilled. Monday, August 2 was a bank holiday in Scotland and so I didn't have to go to work, which is always nice. With three entire days to my self, I decided that this would be the perfect time to go to Oban.
View of distant islands from Oban
I traveled to Oban via the CityLink bus, which left St. Andrew's bus station at the fairly obscene hour (for a Saturday anyways) of 8AM. It is not actually an unwelcome hour for me because I can't sleep past 7:30AM these days anyways. The trip from Edinburgh took close to 4 hours and I arrived a little before noon. By this time I was starving and so I set out for the first cafe that I could find. By some strange coincidence, I ended up at Spinnaker's, the same cafe that my father and I ate at in 2005. The primary reason we ate their last time was because it was one of the only places actually open in November. The food was much better than I remember -- but this could also be because I was absolutely famished.

Oban is a very popular holiday destination for the Scottish and so the streets were crowded with tourists. With the 'staycation' being the latest trend in these recessed economic times, I imagine that Oban is currently experiencing more of a surge than usual. (Considering the number of guest houses that had 'no vacancy' signs posted on their doors, I believe it.)

It was still too early to check-in to my hostel after lunch, so I set out to tackle my list of 'must do' activities that I had planned for my holiday. First on my list was visiting the Oban Distillery. For those of you who do not know, I am a big whisky fan. There is nothing finer than a dram of nicely aged whisky, gently sipped so as to taste the different notes. (Yes, I am an old man at heart.) Such is my dedication to the drink that I have been to the Scottish Whisky Heritage on three separate occasions. Still, I had yet to go to a working distillery and so a trip to Oban's was a must. One of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, it was started in 1794 and has been in (mostly) continuous operation ever since. It is located in the very city center and so remains a source of pride for Oban. Despite this, it is a very small distillery, having only two stills, and produces only around 1 million bottles of single-malt a year. The tour was quite interesting and I feel even more knowledgeable about the whisky production process than before. Well worth the visit.
Dunollie Castle

Afterward, I tried to climb the hill to McCaig's Folly. McCaig was a businessman from Oban who visited Rome in the late 1800s and was so inspired about by the architecture that he hoped to build a version of the Colosseum in Oban, which was to house an art gallery. Unfortunately for McCaig, he died before it was completed and so the shell has remained on the hill as a testament to Oban's semi-eccentric past. My visit to the structure was thwarted by the fact that a wedding party was leaving the church at the base of the stairs that provide access to McCaig's Folly. Not wishing to disrupt them, I decided instead to head across town to Dunollie Castle.

Dunollie Castle is a ruin of the seat of one of the West Highland clans. It sits perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the sea. Oddly enough, I ran into the wedding party again as I reached Dunollie and the Oban War Memorial. I will probably appear in dozens of their wedding pictures as a result. Anyway, Dunollie Castle can only be reached via a steep dirt path through the woods. As I traveled up this path in my dress and boots (non-climbing boots), it occurred to me that Scotland, and the UK in general, is not a very handicapped-friendly place. Monuments are often unreachable to anyone incapable of walking stairs or long distances. But then again, I've only ever seen perhaps a dozen people in wheelchairs throughout my numerous stays in the UK. Most people, even those missing limbs, use crutches. Either way, the view from Dunollie Castle was absolutely amazing.

McCaig's Folly
On the way back to the city center and my hostel, I passed the Oban War Memorial (thankfully wedding party-less at this point) and the Dog Stone. The Dog Stone is a large upright freestanding stone in the middle of a field. Legend has it that this is where the giant Fingal would tether his dog Bran. The narrow base of the rock is from where the leash rubbed away the stone. I checked into my hostel, Corran House, and found that I was assigned to a 4-bed mixed dorm with ensuite bathroom. Luckily for me, I had the entire room to myself during my visit. Somewhat unluckily, the room was located immediately above the bar, which boasted live karaoke until 1 am each night. That was not so fun.
I enjoyed a salmon and mixed vegetable dinner at Cuan A Mhor restaurant after which I climbed to McCaig's Folly. Then I walked passed the ferry terminal to the other side of town and sat in a park drinking my Diet Coke, drafting a letter to my boyfriend, and watching the sun set over the harbor. Quite pleasant.

I woke up early next morning and went in search of breakfast. It was a Sunday so Tesco (the grocery store) did not open to late and most cafes were closed for the day. Luckily, I found a panini place that was open and so grabbed a mozarella and tomato breakfast panini. Then it was off to the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry terminal to begin my tour to Mull, Staffa, and Iona. The ferry ride to the Isle of Mull took 45 minutes. I managed to stay on the outer deck for about 10 minutes before I started to freeze. That said, I still managed to catch some incredible photographs, including that of this white stone lighthouse.

When the ferry landed in Craignure, I boarded a bus that took us across Mull. The bus driver lives on the island, which has a population of only 2,000 or so, and provided hilarious anecdotes of everyday life. For example, the population is so small that there is no grocery store on the island. All shopping must be done at the Spar convenience stores or in Oban. As a result, most people grow their own food. Also, no babies have been born on Mull for the past 14 years because the hospital is only equipped to deal with emergencies. When women are due to go into labor, they are taken to the mainland for delivery. It took an hour to travel to Fionnphort, where we caught the ferry to Staffa.

Rock formations at Staffa Island

Staffa, which means 'stave' or 'pillar' in Old Norse, has been uninhabited since 1800. It is located 10km from Mull and can only be reached by ferry on days with good visibility. One of the main attractions is Fingal's Cave, a large sea cave that provided the inspiration for Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. Tourists can actually climb into the cave; however, it is only accessible via a long narrow path along the rock face. I was quite happy to scramble away from the rope tethered to the wall and had fun jumping from rock to rock to get to the cave. Others looked like they were about ready to pass out and fall into the water.

Fingal's Cave, Staffa
After entering Fingal's Cave, I dashed (literally) to the other side of the island in the hopes of catching sight of the island's puffin colony, which was due to depart from the island for the sea any day at that time. Let me tell you, it is quite taxing to 'dash' anywhere when dressed in jeans, climbing jacket, hiking boots, and a full backpack. That said, I did a pretty good job of it and was as happy as a lark running over the hills and across the rocks. Sadly, the puffins had already departed.

After an hour on Staffa (on which I could have remained for a considerably longer period), I boarded the ferry to Iona.
Iona Abbey, Iona
Iona is well known for its abbey. The seat of Christianity in Scotland, the abbey was founded by St. Columba in the 6th century. Legend has it that over 60 kings, several of which are supposedly my ancestors, are buried in the Rèilig Odhrain, the cemetery

Other notable sites on Iona include the Celtic High Crosses that date from the 9th century, the abbey itself, and the ruins of the Benedictine nunnery. After roaming on Iona for several hours, it was back on the ferry to Fionnphort, the bus to Craignure, and the ferry to Oban. I did not arrive home until 8pm, by which time I was thoroughly exhausted.

Once again, I woke early on the third morning. I grabbed breakfast from a local cafe and a sandwich to eat at lunchtime later in the day, and set off for Pulpit Hill. McCaig's Folly provides an excellent view of Oban, but so does Pulpit Hill on the other side of town. I climbed the hill, enjoyed the fine early-morning views, and then started on the public footpath to the Kerrera Ferry in Gallanach. The public footpath consisted little more than a dirt track which quickly deteriorated into a muddy trail and, finally, a sheep pasture. This would set the tone for the rest of the day. 

Kerrera Island is a small island less than a mile from Oban. It has a population of 40 and is not exactly the most popular of tourist destinations. The ferry, which was little more than a tugboat, reflected this. A handful of me and my fellow passengers climbed into the back and enjoyed the five minute trip across the bay. I then began my 12-mile trek around the island. The entire island is essentially a giant sheep pasture punctuated by a few farms. Two hours into my hike, I had seen more sheep than I had in my previous 22 years of life. Indeed, by the time I reached Gylen Castle, I had seen more sheep than humans (the ratio was roughly 20,000 to 1). Reaching Gylen Castle once again required a hike up a cliff face and involved a nasty encounter with some stinging nettles. Suffice it to say, I emerged slightly worse for wear from this encounter. Gylen Castle was an impressive sight with magnificent views over the islands beyond, but I can't even imagine how isolated it must have been to live there during the 17th century when it was in its heyday. 

The next stop on my trip was the Hutcheson War Memorial at the completely opposite end of the island. It took several hours to get there, during which time I spent an hour or so afraid that I had gotten myself completely lost. I didn't have a map of the island and was relying on directions that were of such stellar caliber as: 'Follow the grassy track until you reach a sheep gate. Go through the gate and continue down the boggy track. Turn left at the stony beach.' (Prior to my trip, I had no idea what the difference between 'boggy' and 'muddy' was. Now I know. Boggy tracks will suck the shoes right off your feet.) Incidentally, I was not lost, but it was not until I found the slightly paved sheep path that my mind was finally set at ease. Prior to reaching the memorial, I encountered countless sheep, a few rams, several Highland cows, ducks, swans, a very friendly cat that followed me for a mile, pigs, and chickens. Most memorable was a horse that was lying flat on its side in a barn yard and, for all intents and purposes, appeared to be dead. Indeed, its eyes were closed and it did not move at all during the two minutes I stood staring at it. In fact, I was silently accepting the fact that this was life, when it sat up and looked at me like 'What? You thought I was dead?'.Very strange. 

I eventually reached the memorial and then made the long trek back to the ferry landing. It dropped me back at Gallenach and I made the additional 2-mile trek back to Oban city center. So in the end, my journey was about 14 miles. I was exhausted and it was all I could do to drag myself to the nearest bookstore to kill time before catching my train to Glasgow. The train ride took 3 hours and was on a train that could best be described as 'creaky' but could more aptly be considered 'falling apart'. Indeed, I almost hopped off at Crianlarich (a station I know well, having stopped at it on two occasions when in the Highlands with my boyfriend and his family earlier this summer) for fear of impending disaster as it coupled with the train from Fort William. I arrived in Glasgow shortly before 9:30 and caught the 10:00 train to Edinburgh. I arrived home at 11 and was almost dropping from exhaustion. A good trip to be sure.
Oban at Sunset
Gylen Castle, Kerrera

08 August 2010

Blair Atholl

Entrance to Blair Castle, Blair Atholl
The week after I traveled to Linlithgow, I suffered a painful running injury that sidelined me for two weeks and causing immense emotional distress. For me, running is a form of personal therapy. It is an entirely selfish activity that helps me and benefits only me. It helps me deal with the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. Not being able to run meant that I did not have an outlet for these stresses and, as a result, my nerves were on edge for the entire two weeks. Not fun.

On July 24, I traveled to Blair Atholl to represent the Consulate at the Blair Atholl International Scouting Jamboree. According to my boyfriend, scouting jamborees are events where large numbers of Scouts gather together to talk, share experiences, cook things, trade things, and set things on fire. This was a very accurate description of what I experienced at Blair Atholl. The Jamboree was held from July 19 - 30 on the grounds of Blair Castle, ancestral seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl. Over 1000 Scouts (both girls and boys) from 10 countries participated in the event. Scottish Scouts camped in a field beyond the limits of the main Jamboree site while the international Scouts were arranged in six large sub-camps. Each international Scout troop was partnered with a Scottish troop. There were at least six troops from the US (including one from Maryland), but there were possibly more and I just didn't see them.

Main Tent at the Blair Atholl International Scouting Jamboree
July 24 was the International Faire part of the Jamboree, where the Scouts' family members were invited to come see what their children had been up to. Each troop developed a stall showcasing their country. Most of these stalls involved food of some sort, which could be purchased with 'atholls' (found in the program or purchased on the grounds of the event). Having eaten on the two hour train ride to Blair Atholl, I ended up giving away most of my atholls to some of the smaller Scouts running about. That said, I did try some apple Danish from a stand from Denmark and smores from the New York troop. Unfortunately,I now have the largest craving for smores ever. :(

Scouts from North Carolina peddling grits. Not a popular item.
Other stalls included steer roping (Texas), grits (North Carolina), sushi (Japan), haggis (Scotland), scones (England), bavarian creme (Germany), haggis bashing (Scotland), plus many more! During this, individual troops would gather on a stage to showcase their talents. I witnessed a Scottish troop playing the bagpipes, some North Carolinan troop leaders doing some sort of line dance, and a French group beat boxing. After an hour of this, I ventured to the subcamps to see if I could locate someone from the Maryland troop -- mainly to find out which part of Maryland they were from. Despite my creepy lingerings outside of their living quarters, I did not run into anyone from the troop and so left with my questions unanswered.

Blair Castle
The Faire continued on for the better part of the afternoon, but since I had already exhausted everything to do there (and since I was alone), I continued up the drive to Blair Castle. Built in the 15th century, it is still the ancestral seat of the earls of Atholl and is used as a residence. It is a magnificent estate and contains many interesting artifacts collected by the family over the centuries. It also contains a museum about the foundation of the Atholl Highlanders -- the only remaining private militia in Europe.

The Estate also boasts spectacular gardens. The Diana Garden is essentially controlled wilderness and contains some of the tallest redwoods and oaks in the UK. The Hercules Garden is a 18th century walled garden of 11 acres. It has a Chinese bridge, duck houses, and a curling house. It was absolutely beautiful, which, coming from someone who does not like gardens, is saying something.

Hercules Garden, Blair Castle

An Old Post now being Posted

First off: A big, huge THANK YOU to Kara and Alex who have supported me in my quest to raise money/raise awareness for WaterAid. This means so much to me. Thank you!!!!!

Yes, I am aware that I have been incredibly lax in updating this. Why? Because, honestly, there has not been much to write about. I wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep. Still, there have been a few deviations from this routine.

Deviation numero uno: Linlithgow Palace
A week and a half ago I traveled to Linlithgow, 20 miles west of Edinburgh. (If you click on the map and move your cursor to the left you will see Edinburgh)

View Larger Map

Linlithgow is famous for Linlithgow Palace, built in 1424 by James I of Scotland and famed for being the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. It exists as ruins now, but as far as ruins go, they are pretty dang cool. I spent a few hours exploring the various rooms, and then took a hike around Linlithgow loch. I had planned to visit the 15th century St. Michael's Church situated right next to the palace, but they were having mass since it was Sunday.

Other pictures from Linlithgow:

Deviation 2: Blair Atholl  (see next post)

Deviation 3: Injury
The major change has been that I am injured and can no longer run. I have no idea how this injury occurred, but it has sidelined me for the past week. My frustration increases by the day and I have to force myself not to try and push the limits of my injury for fear of making it worse.

Deviation 4: Oban
Coming this weekend!