Rain Soaked Textures In Bloom – Weekly Travel Photo

Flowers Blooming After Rain

I discovered these flowers covered in fresh raindrops just after a Scottish drizzle raced across the small village of Durness in Scotland’s far north western reaches.  The vibrantly colored flowers were in a small garden beside the road and I found myself separated from them by an ancient stone fence.  As I paused to snap this quick shot, I was forced to continually keep one eye on the flowers and the other on the small single lane country road that hopped over a small hill, turned a corner, and then raced along the coast with only a few feet on either side to spare.   Far from ideal, but never the less it did add a bit of excitement to an otherwise peaceful moment!

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of davidberger.net, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  - This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.

Arizona

Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.

Denmark

Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

Scottish Waters – A Photo Essay in Black and White

The Hermitage Waterfall, Scotland

From its music to its history and folklore Scotland has always been one of the world’s epicenters for the mystical and magical.  It is an ethereal place which seems both a part of modern times and lost in the mists of  romanticized visions of bygone eras.  Cleared of trees thousands of years ago, the Scottish landscape has adapted, evolved, and transformed into a land of wonderful valleys, waterfalls, breathtaking lochs, and mountains. Mountains that are sometimes brutal, harsh and primitive with a naked majesty and elegant beauty unlike their cousins in the ranges of Norway, the American and Canadian Rockies, the South American Andes or Europe’s Alps.  This post seeks to showcase and share a sampling of Scotland’s incredible waterfalls.  Some are small – you’ll notice that one is more a rapid than waterfall – while others are related to waterfalls such as the flowing water inside Smoo Cave.  All were taken during a 6-day solo driving trip I made in August 2013.  Enjoy!

Skye's Fairy Pools

This location was made famous a year ago by Reddit when several photos of the “Fae Pools” on the Isle of Skye were posted.  It is a wonderful spot situated in the southwestern part of Skye and sits at the base of imposing cliffs with sheer walls that look straight out of the Lord of the Rings.  This waterfall is part of a series of falls that make up the fairy pools.

Corrieshalloch Gorge - Scottish Highlands

Located about 10 minutes outside of Ullapool, Corrieshalloch Gorge is a mouthful and a bit difficult to find on the map but an incredible location. This imposing waterfall crashes down into a narrow gorge with near-smooth walls heavily laden with rich green ferns and gorgeous moss.  The suspension bridge that crosses the gorge just above the falls is free floating, allowing both an incredible view of the falls and a hair-raising experience.

Scotland in Black and White

While far less famous than its big sister in south-central Africa, Scotland’s Victoria Falls is also well worth a brief stop.  A beautiful waterfall located along Loch Maree about an hour’s drive outside of Ullapool, this lovely waterfall was ringed by blooming flowers, heather, and thick ferns.  An added perk were the fresh raspberries which could be found along the path to and from the falls.

Skye's Fairy Pools

While the primary fairy pools are located along the main stream which is fed by runoff from the area’s craggy cliffs, there is a second smaller stream that feeds a series of petite falls and cozy pools which are located just beside the start of the hiking path.

Skye's Fairy Pools

This is the third photo from the fairy pools in this series.  This shot captures the incredible power of water as a cutting tool.  Note the smooth but abandoned channel immediately to the right of the jet of water currently cutting its way into the ancient bedrock.  A simple feat of natural engineering or an illustration of fae magic?  It’s hard to say!

Scotland in Black and White

A random waterfall situated near the road on the Isle of Skye.  The water from this stream flowed down across the grasslands before winding its way through orange, gold, and yellow- hued kelp and sea moss to the nearby sea loch.

The Hermitage Waterfall, Scotland

Located just outside of Perth, there is a wonderful nature reserve and brief hike. Commonly called “The Hermitage” it is home to this gorgeous waterfall. Perched overlooking the falls is a Georgian Folly – which is to say a semi-modern building built during the Georgian period for decoration with the goal of appearing much older than it actually is. If you’re lucky you can find massive Scottish Salmon running the waterfalls during their spawning season.

Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

One of my favorite places in Scotland, this photo is of Smoo Waterfall situated deep inside Smoo Cave.  The cave sits at the end of a small inlet carved over centuries of wear and tear.  It is easy to imagine that Smoo Cave, situated right outside of Durness, is the source for numerous myths and stories. Of these, Beowulf comes to mind. Over the years the tides, harsh coastal winds, and the constant onslaught of nature have carved out a large cavern which opens onto the ocean.  At the same time a nearby stream has gradually cut and tunneled its way towards the sea creating a series of caves.  As the flow of water changed, the stream periodically would carve holes in the roof of the chamber which at times caused it to collapse. At other times it created stunning portals such as this one where a small waterfall crashes down into a large pool.

Inside Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

If the weather cooperates and the falls are not raging, it’s possible to take a small inflatable raft across to the main chamber where the waterfall is, under a low hanging stone arch, and to a human-sized tunnel that winds into the hillside 100 feet or so before dead ending at a second small pool and series of small stalagmites.  While the path stops, the water’s source does not.  Testing done on charred ash which has been found in the water dates back thousands of years and indicates that humans have likely been exploring the cave system since before the rise of the Roman Empire.

Scottish Stream

One of the wonderful things about Scotland is the wealth of picturesque streams which line the bottoms of the area’s countless glens. This photo captures one such spot along the road just outside of the tiny village of Ratagan near the famous Eilean Donan Castle. A photo cannot convey the tranquility and rich scent that permeates the air, but I hope as you look at these photos you take a moment to close your eyes and imagine.

Skye's Fairy Pools

The final photo in this series is from the fairy pools. This pinned boulder easily weighed as much as I do.  It was a not-so-subtle reminder about the potential for harsh floods and thunderous water flows that no doubt happen several times a year during the heavy rains that keep the Isle of Skye and Highlands so alive and covered in a thick blanket of rich green foliage.

Corrieshalloch Gorge - Scottish Highlands

I’ll leave you with this final photo of the Corrieshalloch Gorge situated just outside of Ullapool. There’s something wonderfully dramatic about these falls which adds a sense of grandeur to them.  Perhaps it’s the confined space they exist within and the way the gorge frames them.  If you’re a waterfall fanatic like me, they’re a must-add to any Scottish itinerary.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the black and white photos I shot during my visit.

These photos were taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon 50mm f1.4, Canon 18-135mm, and Canon 55-250mm lens. A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

It’s delicious, it’s distinctly Nordic, it’s relatively healthy, and it’s surprisingly more complicated than one would think.  What is it?  It’s Danish Smørrebrød or “Smorrebrod”.  In the past I’ve written about local Danish cuisine and more specifically the every-day variety of Danish smørrebrød while suggesting several local hole-in-the-wall venues around Copenhagen where cheap and delicious smørrebrød could be found. Today I want to talk about the other end of the spectrum – fancy Danish Smørrebrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

In recent years Nordic cuisine has exploded onto the international stage led by restaurants such as Copenhagen’s world famous Noma restaurant.  These foods are known for using fresh, local ingredients in innovative ways to create flavorful plates that are both a delight to taste and a feast for the eyes.  One incarnation of this push towards fancy Nordic food has been a re-visit of one of the staples of the Danish diet.  In so doing, modern high end restaurants have re-worked smørrebrød while capitalizing on the food’s inherent inclination towards color, attractive appearance, and diverse use of ingredients.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

I recently had the opportunity while in Aalborg to sample a mixture of re-imagined modern smørrebrød at Utzon Restauraunt.  The venue is situated in a gorgeous center that overlooks the city’s fjord while providing a great modern-Danish backdrop.  The food served consisted of beautifully colored and portioned pieces of smørrebrød which used ingredients such as steak tartare, herring, various fish fillets, giant capers, beats, giant asparagus, shrimp, fish eggs, pickles, dill, fresh onions, Danish remoulade, and of course the cornerstone of it all – Danish rugbrød.

Fancy Danish Smorrebrod

While all of the smørrebrød we sampled was fantastic, I think the most unusual was the steak tartare which had raw ground beef and used fluffy white bread in place of the traditional dark rugbrød. Accompanied by sauce, onions, pickles, giant capers, potato chips and greens it had a light, fresh, flavor which nicely accompanied the meat without being overpowering.  During previous meals I had encountered more basic versions of the other variations of smørrebrød we tried, but in the case of the steak tartare it was the first time I’ve seen raw meat used. While not for the feint of heart, I can say I eagerly await my next opportunity to dive into a similar variation on traditional smørrebrød.

You can find my previous post on budget smørrebrød in Copenhagen here.  Have you had any experiences with smørrebrød?  I’d love to hear what you thought of it!

Fresh Austrian Air – Weekly Travel Photo

Innsbruck Ski & Snowboard Competition

It’s the heart of summer so I figured a shot to help cool us all down was in order.  This week’s photo comes from the ski slopes above the gorgeous Austrian city of Innsbruck. While visiting I stumbled onto a fantastic ski and snowboarding competition where local athletes showed off their high flying spins, turns, flips, and periodic crash-landing skills.  Situated about two thirds of the way up the mountain the competition provided a gorgeous setting with an absolutely amazing backdrop out over the valley.

If you get a chance to visit the Tyrol region and the slopes around Innsbruck I highly recommend it!

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Summer Sun – Weekly Travel Photo

Copenhagen in June

For Danes and their expat guests alike summer is a special treat. It comes as a reward for those who have survived the long dark winter months and while Denmark is not nearly as cold as one might imagine, days with more than 17 hours of near complete darkness can be a hefty challenge. So, it is with an unusual zeal and zest for the sun that Danes embrace the spring and summer months where the opposite occurs.  With less than four hours of darkness at the summer’s apex, there is ample time to bask in the warmth of the sun.

This creates an incredible sun-centered summer culture in Denmark where locals flood the streets for no better reason than spending a few relaxing moments outdoors. Visitors often note a certain level of surprise at the hundreds of Danes lounging along the city’s many bridges, wonderful outdoor cafes, and the thousands of Danes that add color, vibrancy, and the scent of BBQ to the city’s many parks.

I snapped this photo while meandering my way through Christianshavn’s back streets. The Christianshavn part of town lies in the heart of Copenhagen and is crisscrossed by a series of small canals.  It is a wonderfully historic district, full of beautifully painted old buildings and sagging cobblestone streets.  The building’s walls are decorated by thousands of leaning bicycles, while doorways are often framed by blooming rose bushes.  In the photo above, I captured a Danish woman relaxing in the sun while chatting on her phone. Half lost in conversation and half distracted by the afternoon’s warmth. For me, it helps showcase the charm and spirit of summer in Copenhagen – something that everyone should experience.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Highlands – Weekly Travel Photo

Scottish Highlands

It is no secret that Scotland is one of my favorite places in Europe.  Perhaps it is because I’m a child of the Colorado Rockies, or perhaps it is solely the pure rawness and majestic glory of Scotland.  A large part of the discussion about Scotland revolves around the Scottish highlands, and they are without question worth every ounce of praise they receive.  That being said, it is Scotland as a whole which is a wealth of incredible cliffs, wondrous lochs, and gorgeous glens.

This particular shot was taken en route between Scotland’s famous Glen Coe and its equally famous and picturesque Eilean Donan Castle.  I love it because it highlights the raw beauty, and incredible light that defines the Scottish Highlands. The true brilliance of Scotland as a destination is that it is, as a whole, a destination. Far too often a nation’s wonders, natural beauty and charm are relegated to a few small areas inundated with tourists and cheesy shops. With Scotland, breathtaking moments like this are everywhere. The challenge is less a matter of finding them and more a matter of battling the weather long enough that it breaks.  Yet, even the surly Scottish weather is part of the country’s deep charm. It provides grand vistas, beautiful waterfalls and perpetual change set to an ancient natural backdrop.

Scotland is a must visit and somewhere I hope each and every one of you find your way to. Just be forewarned. One visit is almost never enough.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here.

This post was made possible in part by Sykes Cottages who provide a wide selection of self-catering holiday cottages.

The Naked Truth – A Beginner’s Introduction to Austrian Saunas

Obergurgl - The Austrian Alps

My palms were far beyond clammy.  They were completely committed now to downright slick and sweaty. As I grimaced and wiped them on my towel, I couldn’t help but imagine them turning prune-like.  They had devolved into the type of palms that make a soft slapping sound mid-handshake and cause the person you’ve just met to grimace in thinly hidden disgust while trying to quickly retrieve their hand….desperately looking around for something or someone to wipe it on.  Which, you might think, is to be expected given my seat perched inside the beautiful and newly renovated upscale dry-sauna on the fourth floor of the Hotel Josl in Obergurgl, Austria.  After all, isn’t the whole point of a sauna to sweat?  To allow ones body to purge itself of contaminants? To sooth the muscles and to encourage a hearty rush of circulation through the body?

The catch was, I’d just entered the dry sauna and assumed my seat.  My body hadn’t had time to warm to its core. This was nerves plain and simple. I’d spent the day with fantastic guides introducing me to the finer parts of ski culture.  The gear. The locations. How to ski. The snowshoe hike. But now?  I was on my own with only a confusing mixture of poorly written online guides to sauna culture and etiquette bouncing around my head. As I sat inside the wood-lined room trying to relax and enjoying the intense heat I stared straight ahead.  I’m not sure why, after all, without my glasses on the world was one giant blur. Then, of course, there was the fact that the room itself was empty.  Never the less, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Just as I’ve found myself standing at a stop light in the pouring rain at 4AM with a small group of Danes at a deserted intersection here in Denmark waiting for the light to turn. Social protocol demands it.  Even when it goes in the face of reason and common sense.

I’m not sure how or why I’d never done a sauna as an adult.  I remember them as a child, and even from my high school days, but those were different.  I just followed along with what the others were doing and for whatever reason (it being conservative Arizona a likely factor) we always wore our bathing suits. About a year ago, some of you may recall my awkward introduction to the Turkish Hamams…which…I suppose…was a very similar experience minus the naked massage and the rotund Turkish man rubbing my nearly naked body down. It was with some shock then that I strolled into the hotel’s sauna expecting the usual American structure – sex segregated changing rooms, lockers, people in swimsuits, etc. – only to discover a room full of quasi-naked people relaxing in naught but their towels with a bank of mixed-gender shower alcoves along the side wall. My face went white as I quickly realized that the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing over my swim-trunks beneath the robe the hotel had provided were grossly out of place.  I was completely over dressed. I quickly made a U-turn and headed back to my hotel room.

In a flurry of key strokes I searched the web trying to find a more in-depth write-up on the etiquette of sauna culture. My original research had obviously been flawed. After finding a few posts that argued the finer points of nudity, I toyed with tossing in the towel and abandoning my adventure.  Then, reminded by the ache in my knees and back from a day spent learning to ski, I sucked it up, stripped down to my swimsuit, wrapped my towel over it to try and hide it, tossed on my robe, and made the trip back to the 4th floor.  I was ready.  I was prepared. I was strangely terrified…and then the elevator doors opened.

Snowshoe Hike - Obergurgl, Austria

This time as the door slid open I kept my eyes peeled, watching what the others were doing and then carefully trying to emulate them while looking as casual as possible.  I kept my composure and made my way towards the three shower alcoves, only losing it slightly as an older gentleman exited completely naked and shrugged back into his robe. That’s when I realized that I was STILL over dressed.  My American prudishness was in full form….which left me somewhat annoyed with myself. I don’t mind being naked, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it.  I also don’t have any moral objection to people spending time together socially in their natural state. Yet, at the same time I also come from a culture where even in high school after gym class none of the men would shower out of fear of being naked around other people.  Even simple things like a visit to the doctor for an annual check-up is the source of anxiety for a lot of young American men. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part young people in the US have been drilled with a puritanical message that you only spend time naked with romantic partners. Anything else opens you up for judgement and/or comes with the risk of implied ulterior motives (read: how you doin’ darlin’).

So. There I was, staring at the three open shower stalls trying to decide what to do.  Do I just go for it, pocket my swimsuit, and embrace it?  Or, do I keep the swimsuit on and chicken out? It was right about that time that the first woman I’d seen in what I had thought was a male-only sauna area emerged and walked over to the recovery/relaxation area.  Needless to say, I chickened out and left the swimsuit on. All the while internally mocking myself for being such a giant baby about it. I stripped off my robe, tossed the towel aside, and quickly rinsed off. Then in a flurry of motion I toweled off quickly, eager to re-disguise my swimsuit.  I made the brief trip to the now empty sauna, swung the door open, slid in, and plopped down on a bench.

Feeling self-conscious and convinced I was making a plethora of faux pas, I sat staring straight ahead. The door opened and butterflies lurched in my stomach. A middle-aged man made his way in, still wrapped in his towel and sat down.  Good I thought – maybe I’ve got this figured out.  Then the door opened again and another man entered.  This one yanked off his towel, spread it out on the wooden bench and then settled in. He was stark naked.  The whole time I did my best to stare at the wall with a blank look on my face.  20 seconds later the door opened and this time two women entered. The butterflies were back.  Is this normal?  Is he going to cover up?  Are they going to join?  Just how exactly does this work?

They peeled off their towels and tossed them onto the bench before settling in around me completely naked.  At this point the small sauna room was also getting somewhat full, which meant simply staring at my wall was no longer an option.  I needed to move to make space, which also meant violating my sprawling space bubble and saddling up nearly knee-to-knee with one of the other men and one of the newly-arrived women. Then it dawned on me. This was a new first.  In my nearly 28 years, I’d never been surrounded by so many naked people, in such close proximity.  Which, you can imagine, did little to help the internal narrative running through my mind – a raging debate between my intellectual brain which casually noted that naked bodies are not inherently sexual and that the experience itself was only minimally arousing.  Luckily, as I started to relax it dawned on me that it was just a comfortable extension of the shared experience we’d have all been engaged in if we were clothed. Meanwhile, my paranoid brain raged with fear and uncertainty – what if my primitive brain won out and arousal ensued. How embarrassing,  humiliating, and what sort of violation of the common norms would that be? All the while the wealth of obtuse American norms and cultural quirks polarized the experience…a fascinating counter to the much more relaxed approach to nudity and group nudity I’d encountered already in Denmark, and knew was much more common within Austrian and German culture.

All the while sweat slowly began to form all over my body and time ticked by.  It was only then, as I watched the others from the corner of my eyes that I observed and realized that the “decorations” I had seen earlier were in fact hanging sand timers which we could use to judge how long we’d been in the sauna.  It was a fitting moment of clarity and epiphany as my brain otherwise raged against itself trying to find balance.

Slowly the nervous sweat that clung to my palms was replaced by the clean sweat of relaxed perspiration. My sore muscles gradually gave way and the heat penetrated me to my core replacing the cold of a day spent outside covered in snow.  My condition as an uncertain and nerve-wracked mass of self-consciousness and uncertainty had now transformed into comfort and growing confidence.

As I left the sauna, rinsed off, and headed to the relaxation chairs I enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Alps. I realized that the experience had been far more than an introduction to sauna culture.  It had been an opportunity to enrich and truly mature my personal relationship with the human body.  As I laid there relaxing, I realized the next time I was ready to join the others. Strange as it is to say, in a way, it felt like a small piece of me that was long neglected finally grew up.  I silently resolved that on my next visit I’d leave the suit behind and embrace the vulnerability that goes hand-in-hand with spending time naked with others. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t have long to wait before I put my resolve to the test but THAT is a story for next time.

**My visit and stay at the Hotel Josl occurred as part of a press trip arranged by the Tyrol Tourism Board and their local partners during which I was hosted as their guest**