Reflecting – The British Isles

Hello again, I’m currently writing from Berlin – Sorry for the lack of updates – there just hasn’t been time or quality access. I also apologize as I will inevitably switch out Ys and Zs during this post – the keyboards here in Germany are different and I may not have time to correct/notice all the errors.

During the final day in London I explored the city a bit more. Unlike the previous days where I had started out at Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square I decided to head toward the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the map I’d purchased didn’t quite extend that far. As a result, I ended up kinda guessing as I picked tube lines…meandered in their general direction. Eventually, I made it to the Tower of London where I poked around the outside a bit, walked along the water front (it was a beautiful, crisp day, with the occasional light misting/bone chilling breeze), then made a huge loop around the entire Tower. I decided not to pay to go in, as I’d done the tour in ’04 and a lot of the info was still fresh in my memory.

From there I wandered north – exploring the skyscrapers and eventually ending up in the financial district. It was awesome, so much energy and bustle. The architecture – Lloyds building especially – is spectacular. It’s also a pretty eye-opening experience standing in front of a medium-sized old gothic cathedral, and being surrounded by massive skyscrapers that dwarf everything.

After my meanderings I made my way back to the hostel, ate, took a nap, and tried to connect with some family friends by phone but didn’t have any luck. Then, decided that despite my aching legs and feet I should hit up the salsa club again for round two.

I was not disappointed. The experience was a blast. Great energy, friendly people, great dancers. Met two French girls who I ended up dancing with for a good chunk of the evening. We had a fun political discussion before calling it a night and I caught the last tube home – the tube closes down around 12:20 which is a major PIA.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed, splashed some water on my face and made my way to London Heathrow where I caught a nice flight on BMI over to Amsterdam. I’ll leave off there on the update part and focus on general reflections.

I really loved my time in the British Isles. Even – and perhaps more so – after this second visit I’m definitely still in love-fascinated by the Highlands. The beauty, richness, and majesty of them is captivating. My taste of England was also reallz enjoyable. It wasn’t planned but between Leeds, York and London I feel like my experience was diverse. York was incredible from a historical sense, it was beautiful, and rich. Leeds was an awesome university experience. The warm reception I recieved from Meagan and the guys/girls in her dorm was reallz fantastic.

The other side of Leeds that was truly fascinating was it’s business and economic prosperity. The city, while possesed of historic architecture is also very modern. A feeling added to by the mixture of contemporary architecture and Victorian era shops, markets, and buildings. It truly is a youthful, vibrant, beautiful city. My hunch is between the universities and the economzy – that it pulls a lot of the best and brightest from the small English towns across the country side and retains them.

London – Well London is London. The city’s depth and diversity is incredible. The history is fantastic and for a big city the people were decent as well.

The pound-dollar difference was really rough. It’s incredible what a difference it makes and how it changes the way you calculate things and view them. I suppose the benefit is that it forces you to pick more carefully what you choose to do as well as really increasing your level of awareness about how much you spend, where you spend, and the spending habits you have that you don’t even really realize you have. The lucky thing is that in general things in England are slightly cheaper e.g. – where a burger might cost us $6 it will only cost 4 pounds. I think that slight difference more than anything really saved me…that and finding ways to avoid the tourist areas and exploit that cost of living difference.

I would have loved to visit one of the Colliers offices while I was in GB – but just did not have the opportunity. It was really fun though seeing Colliers-for-lease signs up all over the place. Though I didn’t see a ton in London, they seemed to dominate Edinburgh. There were also a decent number in Leeds.

The last 48 hours have really been a different experience. I’ll write a bit more about it later, when I write on Amsterdam and Berlin – but briefly, it wasn’t until I arrived in Berlin that the language barrier really hit me hard and I really felt like … Ok, here I am. Just me. Right now. Right here. What the hell have I gotten myself into. Oh well – time to swim.

The Isles and Amsterdam were really a great soft transition. The architecture is different (though not AS different as say, Germany). Even the simple difference in background noise really effects the way you feel and think. In the Isles it was familiar, normal, ‘right’ if you will. Now it’s different, it seems almost wrong on a subconcious level. I find myself in a different state of mind – different perspective on how I fit into the culture and need to approach things in part because of it. My ears and brain are constantly scanning. Trying to locate the familiar or make sense of it. It’s incredible, but also definitely tiring. Hostels – so far they’ve been really good. Better than I expect. Some are loud, some are dirty, some are less secure than I’d like – but all in all the people have been fun, decent people. While there have been one or two nights where I couldn’t find someone to explore with, or socialize with – in most cases I’ve met people and found things to do. It’s definitely a different experience sharing a room with 10-20 perfect strangers.

It’s also really interesting to watch how standard protocol and rules go out the window. The mixture between cultures and environment creates a very unique experience. Especially between the sexes. Since many of the dorms are mixed and everyone is constantly coming and going things are much more sexually relaxed. While not, per say common – it’s not overly unusual for people to change quickly in the dark, sleep/walk/mingle in their boxers, or wander around in towels. Especially since most of the bathrooms-shower areas etc. that I’ve seen so far are mixed sex even if the dorm itself isn’t. In a lot of ways it’s much nicer and more natural (in a completely non-sexual way) than things are normally. I think the longer people spend traveling and in hostels, the more comfortable they become not only with themselves but interacting with and being around others.

Some have kitchens, others don’t. So far one of the biggest things I’ve found is the importance of a common area where people can mingle – and a common area with a ‘backpacker’ feeling to it – so people WANT to mingle. The greater the number of long-term residents typically the colder and more clickish the crowd. This can make it hard when you first arrive to try and mingle and meet people.

Drinking – both a blessing and a curse. While in no way necessary, it’s a big part of the travel experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that a new designation needs to be created for young (and perhaps old) travelers alike. That of the TA – the Traveling Alcoholic. Short of Salsa, i’ve found few ways to mingle, meet people, and cement bonds as quickly as sitting around the hostel drinking in the common area, or heading to the local pub, or a pub crawl with people after a long day spent exploring the city. In many ways I think it’s a major component of the hostel culture. It is that one thing that brings complete strangers together, provides a common interest that then allows friendships or at the very least social acquaintances to sprout.

It’s really something else traveling on my own. I knew it would be, but theres even more to it. I have not quite figured out how to put it into words, but when I do – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though, being forced to deal with and push through highly uncomfortable situations is really an incredible experience…One that builds confidence and really makes you more comfortable with facing decisions that scare you, or you don’t want to make.

Times running down, I’ll try and post my Amsterdam – and First Berlin experiences later tonight.

Sorrz again for the ys and zs!

Leaving Leeds, Exploring York and Arriving in London

It’s currently the 23rd, around 3 o’clock. I just arrived at my hostel in London and am taking a bit to update things before heading off in search of dinner.

Day 8 – Cont. (Evening) – After making my previous post I joined back up with Meagan and her flat mates at which time we headed to the local University pub to watch the soccer game that was on. When the game ended we wandered around and explored various destinations before eventually ending up at a fun little pub that consisted of a barge with the side cut out and a building built around it.

Day 9 – Leeds -> York. I woke up around 10, threw everything in my bag and began the trek across old town to get to the train station by 11:00 for my train to York. The weather was nice, with just a very slight drizzle and no wind. I made good time and arrived a good 30 minutes early which allowed me to catch an alternate direct route commuter train. By 1:00 I was in York. Once in York I found the local tourist office, got my hands on a map and made my way to one of the two hostels they suggested. Luckily it was centrally located in the old town and only a 5 minute walk from the rail station.

The hostel itself was definitely C grade. Instead of changing out the complete sheet set each night, they left the bottom sheet, then changed out a sleeping bag like sheet which laid on top of the bottom one. This barely kept the dirty old comforter off of you. The beds were squeaky old metal/wood bunk beds and instead of a common room they had the kitchen or a movie room. The staff was friendly however, and the people I met there were all fantastic. After arriving I dropped off my bag and set off into the city.

The city of York itself is a pretty awesome city. The architecture is great! Most of the interior streets are closed or limited to car traffic and everything is vibrant and fun. York cathedral is fantastic. Not only is it massive, but it is majestic, clean, and had a uniform flavor to it that really makes it special. In addition to the city’s main cathedral it’s dotted with small/medium-sized churches and cathedral’s. During my wanderings I would say I easily saw 8-12 of them. It’s also very easy to see why the city was so popular with the Romans and Vikings. With it’s fantastic location and a decent sized river that flows through the center of the old town it’s no wonder that it’s evolved as it has.

As I wandered I explored the old streets laced with modern retail and eventually found my way to the York Gardens. There I paused for a brief snack before continuing my meandering up past the old Cathedral and then back into the heart of the inner city. The architecture is definitely different from Leeds and Edinburgh, while they had a strong Victorian element. The city of York was dotted with inns and homes that had the classic plaster covered thatch with dark wood boards.

In the inner city I discovered an outdoor market, on – go figure – Market Street of all places. As far as I could tell the market ran every day (at least that I was there) and featured a few outdoor butcher shops, fish mongers, 4 or 5 fruit and veggie stands as well as a number of clothing and odds and ends kiosks. I picked up some fresh meat, a sweet potato and some baked beans.I made my way back to the hostel to cook dinner, converse with the other travelers and grab a quick nap.

After my nap – refreshed and roaring to go-I met up with a few of the others and continued what’s become a hostel ritual… socializing briefly before heading out in a small group to explore the city’s night life.

Day 10 – I awoke to a nasty, rainy day. Eager to explore the city further, I struck out – motivated to brave it. My first stop was the rail station – where I initially planned to book my ticket for the following day to London. As things turned out, all of Saturday’s advanced bookings were sold out, which meant I either had to stay until Sunday and get the discounted rate (more than half the same-day purchase price) or do the same day and pay the 2x rate. I elected to spend an extra day in York, and booked my ticket for Sunday. In the grand scheme of things – it’s a good thing I did.

After booking the ticket and exploring the city a bit more in the rain, I went to the Jorvik Viking center – what I hoped would be an in-depth museum dedicated to the early Viking city and artifacts. It ended up being a big disappointment. On the old excavations they had built a Disneyland type ride – where you sat in little cars that went through a 5-10 minute ride. The ride consisted of slightly animated dummies that had been reconstructed to show what the excavations had found. It was boring, simple minded, and smelled bad. At the end of the ride there was a museum component, but it was limited and consisted of maybe 5 minutes worth of content. Annoyed and wet I wandered around the city a bit longer before finding a cheap place for lunch. I headed back to the hostel to take a nap and watch a movie with some of the others. BTW – English beef/meat sucks.

After the movie and a nap the in-house pub opened up at 10:00, I headed down to see who I’d meet. I connected with another guy from the US, a girl from Finland, and a Canadian. After a drink, as we all got acquainted, we decided to head into the inner city and explore. All in all, it was a pretty standard evening at the pubs – apparently York has a pretty decent night life with something like 300+ pubs within the inner city…it’s a huge destination for Hen and Stag Parties (bachelor/ette). Met a few locals who were all incredibly friendly and fun. Eventually got back to the hostel, then sat around talking until 4:30 in the morning. Ouch.

Day 11 – Woke up and was on the streets by 10:30, meandered around old town a good bit. Explored some back streets, the market, and a huge food and drink festival that the city was having. The weather was significantly better and allowed me to explore a lot more. As I wandered I ended up stumbling into a small furniture/antique/random crap shop. The place was great, full of anything and everything deemed interesting…it was a mess.

York castle is actually just a small tower on the top of a dome, so in that respect I was a bit disappointed. However, the old roman walls which are almost all still intact were awesome. In many ways the day was similar to Day 9 – just checking out odd streets, weird architecture, random stores etc.

On a side note – I’m trying a new travel strategy. As I mentioned previously English meat sucks. They might even inject water into it. While I was in the inner city I passed the equiv. of one of our GNC’s having a sale. In the window they were advertising muscle supplements (protein, amino acids, minerals etc). They had mid-sized powder bottles (it’s for shakes – like creatine supplements but sans the creatine) for a really reasonable price so i picked one up. So far I think it’s been helping. Not only as a tool to offset any dietary failings I might be having as I travel, but also because it’s specifically catered for workout routines. Since I’m walking all over the place – the shoe seemed to fit & so far it seems to have had a positive effect.

After exploring for a good chunk of the morning, I picked up some carrots and stopped at the old merchants hall (think of a banquet hall with thatched/plastered walls etc) and ate them in the garden.

Running out of time – so the evening was spent much like the previous three, but with new people. The Finnish girl again, an extremely tall Aussie over doing security work, and then another American from Florida. Another fun evening, exploring new places and seeing a different side of the city.

Today I woke up – caught a train – and then ran into major delays. Apparently there was an issue with a bridge on the route which delayed our train 40 minutes. After that though it was smooth sailing. I got into London, figured out the metro, and got to my hostel.

Will update soon – ton more photos on facebook as of today!

Leeds Update – Edinburgh and the City of Leeds

Hello all! I’m currently winding up and preparing for my second evening in Leeds. Here’s a quick update.

Day 5 Cont. – Luckily the weather was a bit more welcoming for the third and final leg of our trip. We left our hostel at about 9:30 and began the trip back towards Edinburgh, however, while it was the final leg it was far from the last part of the trip. The night before upon our return, cold, drenched, and energized from a magical day we cooked a communal stir-fry and then headed down to the two local pubs in the little town we were staying in where we met a few of the locals, celebrated one of the guys on the trip’s birthday, and relaxed.

From our hostel we wound our way to Loch Ness, where we stopped briefly – long enough to see it and for Scott and Ariel to jump into it’s icy waters. Given the temperature outside, how cold the water was, and the fact that i wasn’t very impressed with Loch Ness I contented myself instead with eating fresh blackberries I’d found growing next to the lake. I was really impressed again with wild in Scotland, because unlike other tours we didn’t waste time or money with the castle, a boat ride, etc. – rather we just went down a rural dirt road to the loch…jumped in…saw it…moved on. It was perfect.

From there we wound through the highlands – the farms, towns, etc. were all gorgeous. As we drove the rain come and went but was never super heavy. The wind also had died down considerably from the day before. While the entirety of the drive was beautiful, the only other major stop during day 3 was at an incredible glen. The glen had served as some baron/duke/lord or whomever’s private garden where he’d planted trees from all over the world. The whole thing was built along a beautiful stream about the size of the river that flows through oak creak canyon. There was a beautiful stone bridge built right before one of the more major water falls, as well as a stone watching room built above and across from the main falls which offered and incredible view. In addition to ferns, moss covered rocks and green grass everywhere some of the smaller bushes had started to turn a rich yellow/gold. When we reached the overlook/waterfall we stumbled upon another total surprise. There were salmon running! We stood up at the overlook for a good 15 minutes watching as the salmon made a mad leap toward the waterfall and worked their way up it. It was incredible. One tried I’d say every 30 seconds or so and they ranged in size from a good foot and a half to about a foot long.

From there we headed back to town and passed by the Forth? Fourth? Rail bridge. An incredible creation made out of steel that apparently may have been the motivation for the Eiffel tower. Looking at it, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination that it was.

We got back into Edinburgh about 6:30 that evening. I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the hostel where I checked in for 2 nights and then set out again. After scrounging up some food I spent most of the night around the hostel relaxing and recovering. Met some interesting people, posted my last update and called it an evening.

Day 6 – I started the day by walking down hill and around the eastern face of the castle (previously I’d always gone up and over the royal mile). My path took my in a lazy loop around the front and eventually dumped me into the princess st. gardens. While beautiful, the garden’s were fairly sparse. The most interesting part however, was a floral clock. The clock operates and is created completely out of flowers (arms, digits, everything) the only exception is an underlying mechanical framework.

From the Gardens I headed over to the train station where I made an important discovery – tickets the day before are 1/3 the price. I booked my ticket for Leeds for the following day and then continued my exploration. I wandered up and down princess street and all of the streets beyond eventually making my way to the Botanical Garden, which while beautiful was fairly plain. The real interesting part would have been the greenhouses – a large indoor area full of exotic plants and flowers – BUT they charged and I didn’t want to mess with it. So, contented I began my long trip by foot back toward the castel. Eventually I stumbled upon a large Tesco (think Frys/Safeway) and picked up some food for dinner before continuing back to the castle/hostel.

After cooking, relaxing in the common area and socializing, and reading a bit. I bumped into Jonathan – a Canadian I’d gone out with the first night and we caught up a bit. I’d heard about a local salsa club – and despite it being Monday – a holiday for them I decided to check it out. I strapped on my shoes once again and made the trip back off the mile to a little basement bar a bit past princess street. When I arrived the place was mostly empty – as the night unfolded it turned out that because of the holiday the crowd was weird. Mostly late shows and more interested in drinking and dancing club style than dancing Latin. I did meet a friendly bar tender who after a neat conversation offered a few travel tricks she had picked up during her adventures. After a few hours I got tired of the scene and headed back to the hostel. There I bumped into Jonathan, a friend/co-worker of his, and an American girl over for a night. After talking a bit the 4 of us struck out for some late night food – it was about 1:30AM so we made a quick job of it at the local fried goods joint and then went back to relax a bit longer before turning in. People say McDonalds is bad, but the British fried goods places are 10 times worse. Everything is battered and fried. From mars bars to hot dogs. You name it. While I can’t say that it’s delicious…there are definitely times when it hits the spot.

Day 7 – Leeds. I woke up around 10:00 packed everything up and headed to the train station. After a little confusion I found the right train, found my place and was off. The countryside was beautiful, green rolling hills, ocean, sheep and the occasional city. The ride itself was about 2 and a half hours long. Not bad at all! Upon arriving in Leeds I hit up the tourist information center looking for a map and a place to stay. Much to my surprise and frustration it turns out that Leeds doesn’t have a hostel. The next best thing was a row of reasonably priced B & B’s located up by Leeds University, which luckily is just outside the old city and turned out to be where my friend I came to visit is attending. Unable to contact her until I got web access, I was able to find a B&B that wasn’t too outrageously priced and then set off into the city proper to find food, an internet cafe, and explore a little. The food and exploration was easy, an internet cafe took a bit longer. Apparently – as is the case with hostels-Internet cafe’s aren’t overly popular in Leeds. Eventually I did find one and was able to get Meagan on the phone. We coordinated and I headed toward her dorm…after a fashion. Getting lost, backtracking, asking for directions and wandering. About 20 minutes later, I actually ended up bumping into her on the street having made better time than she expected-she was still on her way back. We headed back to her dorm where we caught up, relaxed, and I met a bunch of her flat mates. We all took a break to tidy up, then went out to explore the local pub. Then we headed to the student union which had several other pubs and a welcome/first week dance. We found a nice area to the side and the 4 of us discussed, debated, and mused. Around 12:30 things closed down and I called it a night.

Day 8 (Today) – Woke up early, left the B&B and headed over to the dorms. Dropped my stuff off at Meagan’s room (I’ll be crashing on her floor tonight) and caught up for a bit before heading into the city. The city itself has a great feeling. It’s fresh, booming, vibrant, and modern. It’s a neat mix between modern architecture and old Victorian. The people are also a lot different. It’s a very attractive populace here – in many ways it reminds me of Scottsdale. I headed straight away to the rail station where I picked my next destination – York! Why? Who knows – it’s a major historical local town, has a castle (I think), and everyone says it is a great destination. I’m currently planning on doing York, then London, then leaving England. I may go to Wales though briefly depending on how things pan out. After booking my ticket I made my way across the old quarter to the old corn market and city market.

The Corn Market was a neat circular building, but fairly boring as it was under renovation. The city market however was fantastic. In an old Victorian building the market was full of booths that sold everything…there were butchers to fish mongers to shoe merchants to locksmiths. After wandering around a bit, and eating a great Gyro I left the market and walked to the Royal Armory. The RA was fantastic, full of arms and armor it has well laid out exhibits, an incredible mix of arms and armor and included a fun show. The show was a 30 minute event, that was a lot like the jousting events at the Renaissance Festival. Only instead of armor and fake lances there were dressed in padded garb that looked the part of a renaissance hunt or court. They performed various tricks to show skill with the sword, spear, javelin and lance. The event was fun and also even a bit informative.

From the Armory I wandered back across the city and made my way back to the dorms where I am now. What tonight has in store? Only time will tell!

Miss you all! BTW – I’ve put a VERY limited number of photos on Facebook – currently I can only upload them 2 at a time due to what I think is a university network bandwidth limit. Doh!