Tuesday, June 12, 2007

7 Big Things That Made My Trip Better

For whatever it's worth, here's some things that helped preserve my sanity while traveling to the UK. I really needed some stuff to make sure I didn't spaz out too much before, during or after the trip since it was going to be two weeks away from work, and only one day back home before jumping back in.

1) We made a solid commitment to go to bed on time for the two weeks before the trip.
(for us that meant 11pm) It worked up until the last couple of days, (and we fudged a little bit the weekend before - but we slept in the next morning) and I have to say it really made a difference to have a backlog of sleep stored up.

2) We took homeopathic jet-lag pills. You take one before you take off, and then every two hours in flight, and one on landing. Other than needing a one hour nap in Dublin we felt pretty darn good, so I think they worked! (remember you shouldn't eat/use mint in combination with homeopathics because it cancels out the effect - includes gum and toothpaste!)

3) We made a spreadsheet of everything we wanted to bring. Yes, seriously. Pretty geeky, I know, but it actually saved me from trying to hold everything in my brain. I guess the biggest reason I opted for spreadsheet over a simple word document was because we wanted to strategize our laundry to all be washable in one load on the day we got to Scotland in the middle of our trip. The spreadsheet let me coordinate outfits and check that they were all of colors that could be washed together with G's clothes too. (SuperGeek: We did it in Google spreadsheets so we could both access and update the same spreadsheet at any time. Useful for random rememberings at work. Jot it down and then I can focus back to the task at hand.)

4) We made a spreadsheet of "To Do Before" and "To Buy"
Actually it was a different worksheet in the same Google spreadsheet, but the same principle - having a joint place to jot down things we needed to remember, and then color coordinated the cells for who was supposed to do what task. Also helped us prioritize and know which things to let go of when we ran out of time.

5) We brought earplugs and eye-masks for sleeping on the plane.
It was actually the first time I tried either of these things on a plane and I was really surprised at just how much they blocked out and let me get better rest in flight.

6) We brought our own (somewhat healthy) snacks.
Granola/power bars and dried fruit, I thought about other things but didn't have time to get them, protein would have been nice. I learned on our first (and only!) big driving/no stopping for food day that skipping a meal was REALLY bad for me. The only saving grace on many a day was the Power Bars I had in my backpack. Crazy stuff happens on trips, especially when you have to work within the time schedules of public transportation. Not so much a worry when you are coming here to a house full of food and natural foods store nearby, but for long trips, especially since somehow we didn't have vegetarian meals reserved for us on the overseas leg, and they sell silly, expensive boxes of crummy snacks for in-country flights. (Beef jerky and Oreos anyone? Ok, Oreos if I have to...)

7) I mentally prepped myself to "be in the moment".
For the two weeks before the trip I kept reminding myself of what an opportunity it was to be going and that I really wanted to get as much as I possibly could out of it. I think it really helped me to quickly get back to a good attitude whenever I got cranky/tired/worn out on the actual trip (cuz that just happens when you travel). Practicing getting in that frame of mind made it easy to find the beauty in every moment, the silver linings in any little clouds. Being in the moment also meant taking on less stress/worries while traveling - there's much out of my control, freaking about it won't change anything, so may as well just go with the flow.

I think those were the big things that helped the most. I'm posting this as a reminder to me for the next time I take a trip.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Stonehenge, Salisbury and travels in between - Slideshow

If you click through to the web album (the little colorful symbol in the corner, and then the album title) you'll be able to see the video clips as well...

Stonehenge was amazing, the Salisbury cathedral was amazing. It's crazy what people accomplished so long ago, and probably not with the thought in mind that so many people would be coming to see it, so many years later.

Really wild, high contrast lighting towards the end of the day - dark clouds, bright sunshine... crazy.

Train blogging

Disgustingly expensive to have wireless on the train, and for some reason some of the sites are showing up in some bizarre language... crap, out of time. posting from yesterdays thoughts on the train.

Thoughts on traveling from the past several days, while on the train to Grantham.

There’s a lot of waiting involved in traveling. Because for every mode of transportation you take, there’s the time it takes to get from one to another, and the time to wait before it departs. On off, train, tube, train, bus. Will the taxi make it to the station in time? Up down, escalators, lifts. Nearly miss the plane to London, arrive a full hour and a half early for the bus to Dundee and can’t take the earlier two busses because they’re both full. You’re reduced to the basics – what can I eat and when, where am I sleeping and how much will it cost? Do I have enough clean clothes to wear and if I end up having to wash something out in the sink will it dry out in time to wear the next day? The problems are immediate, small and fairly simple to solve. But when the regular schedules of eating and sleeping are left behind, and the food and the beds are strange or not quite comfortable, mini problems staring you in the face can seem gargantuan and disproportionately urgent.
When you go into a shop for sunscreen and can’t find any brand that’s even remotely familiar, you spend $30 for whatever tube the lady behind the counter recommends as safe for sensitive skin, even if you’re pretty sure there’s got to be something that would work for just $5. Your face is worth it and now is not the time to experiment.

With a digital camera you can take pictures of anything and everything. The only trick is getting it out of the camera bag and turned on in time. Especially when trying to take pictures from moving trains, buses and cars. There’s less discretion than with a film camera – just snap away at everything and hope that at least something turns out well. With a finite number of 35mm shots, and the expense per roll each one should at least TRY to be fabulous, even if circumstances mean that a few or several don’t turn out well. It’s a similar principle to what’s happening on a larger scale with all the self publishing software these days. Anyone can spew out large amounts of content, but how much of it is any good? Generally the good stuff rises to the top, but if it’s hard or frustrating to find because it’s buried under junk, will people even bother to look? I’m just dumping ALL the pix online as a backup to this laptop, and so we can empty off the camera each night, but my intention is to go back and pick out the cream of the crop when we get home. Finding time to do it is another thing…

We saw Adrien’s play last night. It was FABULOUS! Not sure how well the subject matter would go over in Fairfield as it was pretty raunchy and raw, but it was incredibly well done and everyone was quite talented. I can see how it could be a bit draining and intimidating to go from a small pond where you’re a pretty big fish, and then land in a huge pond with tons of bigger fish and plenty exactly your size. You’ve got to eat a lot and swim a lot to become one of the big fish and rise to the top. She had one of the 4 lead roles and was really, really great. Cute costumes, great sets, every person was strong and talented. Live band on the stage on a top balcony. The characters at the party stayed on stage during intermission and wandered around as if there wasn’t really a break at all, which was fun to watch since we didn’t leave our seats. Even Gilberto was really impressed and said several times that it was definitely worth it, which was a relief because he had seemed a little irked right up until the opening number that we had changed our schedule around in order to make the show. I don’t think he’s ever seen a Broadway quality show, pretty much everything he’s ever been to was with me, and probably mostly in town, or at least all community theatre. And we have quite a lot of good stuff locally, but it’s amazing to see what can be done with more resources available, both talent and technical.

We stayed at the YMCA. It was directly kitty-corner from the train station, and the theatre was just around the corner from that. They only had single rooms available, but it seemed much preferable to just stay there than to wander around the city with all our suitcases and bags, and to not even know if there would be a room available once we found a place. It included breakfast, and we had two rooms right next to each other, so we were the only one’s sharing the bathroom, which was nice. So there, I got my tiny taste of a hostel type accommodation. Lots of teenagers around with all sorts of piercings and hairstyles.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Leaving Scotland Tomorrow

Not sure when/if we'll get internet in England, but that's where we're off to next. We've had a nice, low-key time here staying with Brooke & Rynny, they've made us yummy food and given us bus directions and helped us buy tickets online and such. It's definitely more relaxing to be somewhere with someone who actually knows what's going on :)

We were super low key yesterday, pretty much slept in and went out to explore Dundee just a little bit in the afternoon. Stopped to eat at a little pub called Drouthy Neebors and had nachos, salad, veggie burger, baked potato and french fries (or chips as they say here)! It seemed like a lot of food, but we were SO hungry, hadn't really eaten anything besides a scone and a bit of cereal for the morning, plus it seemed to be rather light, as in not too greasy, so it ended up being just the right amount I think. And the biggest looking dish was the huge salad, and that's all green stuff anyway. :)

This morning we had to get up "stupid early" (to borrow a painfully accurate phrase from Rynny.) to get to the Campbell Castle in Inverary. We were a tiny bit worried it might be closed or something because it was a bank holiday, but it turns out just the bus ride itself was worth it! We went through these towering, rock-covered hills that were just gorgeous and full of tiny streams and boulders and trees. And then the castle was open anyway! Hooray!

They only let you tour through a portion of the castle, because the current Duke actually still lives in the castle part of the time! and I saw him! Just briefly, i was coming out of a room, and there is a glass door marked "Private" down the hall and I saw a lady in the hall and then the Duke came out! Just looked like a good-looking late 30's guy in a red sweater, except that I'd just come from a room plastered with photos and newspaper clippings of his achievements, so I recognized his face right away. Not wanting to stare I just continued down the stairs as normal, hoping that G would come out in time to see for himself, but unfortunately the Duke was gone by the time G came out.

In any case, the castle was beautiful, the grounds were beautiful, and it was an all around great experience. I know G wanted to talk a bit more with someone about family history, but there didn't really seem to be anyone available to talk with... Ah well. I think he enjoyed it too anyway.

Tomorrow we have to get up "stupid early" again to catch our plane into London. From there we take a train to Guildford to see Adrien in her play, which is very exciting! Snilly us did not try to reserve a place to stay ahead of time, so we are going in fingers-crossed that the B&B we found online tonight will have a vacancy for us, because it's right by the City Centre, which is also supposed to be close to the train station, and the theatre.

As I said at the beginning, not sure when/if we'll get internet again, so this might be my last entry before we come home! But who knows!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

7 Things I Would Do Differently Next Time

So I really am having a great time, and we're already talking about the things we want to do next time, but we're also learning some things about how we could do it better.

1) I would NOT try to see 3 countries in two weeks.
Even though everything is closer together than in the states, it still takes time to get from place to place, and those travel days left me pretty tired to do much at the end of them.

2) IF I really wanted to see 3 countries in two weeks (or a lot of one country in a short amount of time) I would pay for a tour.
It seemed like we'd be saving so much money by doing it all ourselves, and I'm sure we did, but what with getting lost, trying to find food, the right money, bathrooms, being on our own time table (which includes waking up late, missing the early bus into a place and therefore getting there right before/as everything is about to close down) it feels like we are missing out on actually exploring the inside of castles and churches and such and just getting a lot of pictures of the neat architecture. I'm pretty sure a tour would get you to a lot of the highlights in an efficient manner, and while we might be giving up a little bit of choice, it would also be nice to be taken care of when there are so many new experiences to process. And it wouldn't have to be a glossy packaged tour, just someone who knew their way around - like when Jyoti took us around San Francisco, or when I went on my school block to Switzerland. Someone who had done it before and figured out the details and travel timetables, but we'd still have tiny chunks of flexible time to explore each place.

3) I'd rent a temp phone once I got here.
If I really felt like I needed a phone. Much less need for one on a guided tour of course (probably no need at all), but for all the trouble we went through and money we paid to get the phone we had to work here, we would have been a lot better off to just get a temp phone here. Now the only thing I'm not certain of is whether you need an address and a landline to get any type of phone, so maybe that plan wouldn't have worked either. I think our phone company also told us we could rent a phone, and to be sure whatever phone we used was unlocked... we paid for a UK phone chip and an unlock code, but turns out it only had bands for the Caribbean and US, so by the time we'd spent that much money we'd kinda blown our phone budget to buy a whole new phone over here.

4) Sleep in the city we want to tour the next day.
I guess this applies more to the self-guided driving tours. It worked out really well to sleep at a B&B about 5 minutes drive from the Blarney Castle itself and then go there in the morning and spend a few hours there. But then trying to drive to Killarny AND do the Ring of Kerry that afternoon was nuts! It actually worked out because with less time we only did about a third of the ring and then turned around to come back, and we quickly realized that trying to do the whole ring in less than a day would have been pure insanity. It supposedly takes 3 hours to get around it, and that's without stopping. However the roads are bumpy and winding by the ocean which makes it physically exhausting for anyone in the car, but especially the driver. If we'd had 1 or 2 whole days to do the ring, we could have gotten out and stopped at every spot which would have helped to break up the driving, but as it was we would have just made ourselves carsick if we had done the whole thing.

5) I would always be sure to eat something before it got to dinner time
On our first drive from Dublin to Blarney (with a quick stop in Waterford) we somehow managed to not eat anything but granola bars and dried fruit, an apple and some string cheese until a late dinner in Blarney. Woke up too late for breakfast and then got lost trying to get out of Dublin and didn't ever feel like we had time to stop for a proper meal. Unfortunately this made me pretty cranky and also gave me a headache and I was probably not a fun person to be around.

6) I would budget more time for getting from place to place.
This applies more to the self-led driving tours again I guess. We just looked at the mileage on Google maps and based our timing on how long it takes us to drive places in Iowa. We didn't take into account getting lost, rough and tiny roads that didn't allow you to drive full speed, needing to stop for food and gas, a minimal amount of small road signs that were easy to miss (especially in roundabouts), trying to find parking, one way streets, big slow tractors etc. We also pretty much threw out our Google maps on the first day and just went with the road map from Hertz Rental Cars. MAYBE if the maps had been from actual addresses they would have helped, but since they were probably just from city centres, the detailed instructions about how to get to the big main roads were actually confusing.

7) I would try to bring less stuff
Now, I feel like we actually did a pretty good job of keeping things to a minimum - we even made a spreadsheet to list each item of clothing to be sure we wouldn't over pack, and to be sure everything we brought could be washed together without ruining the colors, but even our two small suitcases and big backpacks each have been a bit much to haul around when we are moving from city to city so much. Plus on our first day in Edinburgh, we found a "Left Luggage" (this does not mean, as I first thought, luggage that people never picked up after a flight, it means a place you can pay someone to watch over your bags) place in the train station, but it was 5.50 pounds per bag, and at four bags that seemed ridiculous, but at the same time I wasn't up just leaving the suitcases and lugging the huge and heavy backpack around the castle. When we went back by bus the next day, we saw storage lockers in the bus station, where we could have easily left all four of our bags in one locker for 5 pounds, and probably could have even fit them all in the 4 pound locker! I'm not sure what less we could have brought, I personally can't wear a shirt more than once without needing to wash it, and trying to take the time to find a place to do laundry would have eaten into even more touring time. We're lucky Brooke & Rynny have a washer in their place so we can just wash and air dry while we're here. Otherwise in order to bring less clothes I guess we would have had to rinse out our clothes from the day in the sink as soon as we got in and pray they dried overnight...

All in all though, these are really more just little annoyances than big deals, and we're learning as we go. Even though I've traveled before, and I've even traveled overseas before, I've never done it outside of a school group, and it's a totally different experience. I just keep checking in and reminding myself to soak it all up and enjoy and then I find some little amazing and wonderful thing to notice and shift into that wonder. And even though sometimes the accents are more thick than charming, or they use words in a slightly different context, I realized that it's SO much easier to travel in a place that speaks/writes signs in my first language. There's a whole level of brain exhaustion that doesn't come in to play.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

St. Andrews and Dundee and BBQ

Today we went over to St. Andrews (maybe around 20 min?) and walked around the city, down by the rocky shoreline of the old castle, around the town, stopped for snacks and saw the ruins of the old chapel too. Took tons of pictures of the neat doorways and building carvings and windows and such.

I had to pay 30 pence to use the public restroom. That's a thing here, paying to use bathrooms AKA the WC. So far they've been pretty nice though, so I guess it's worth it. I was happy to pay but I couldn't see anyone at the window booth, so I just started going in, and this guy comes bombing out from where ever he was hiding shouting "Pence please!!!!" and I'm like "sure, I didn't see you." snilly. Was very happy to pay him, just had to go!

Afterwards we stopped by a grocery store and picked up things for a birthday BBQ of some of Rynny's co-workers and then took a taxi out to her place. She has two dogs and little backyard, and they had grills for veg & meat and a whole bunch of baked potatoes and grilled corn on the cob and this one nice guy who was part Iranian made all this really nice (nice is a high compliment over here, not a wishy washy thing to say)food, my favorite being this pot of rice that had a crispy bottom of turmeric.

Let's see if I can remember how he told me to make it.

Basmati rice - soak for 20 minutes. Put it in boiling water for 6 minutes. Prepare a pan with vegetable oil and turmeric, and then cook the rice again in that. Sounds easy enough. Might take a try or two to get it just right, but it was yum in any case!

It really cooled off towards the middle/end of the party, so Brooke & I moved the grill to the middle of the group and put more charcoal on. It was a bit smokey at first, but the Canadian guy - (Mike? Mark? too many new people!)got the flames going and that helped a lot. It's neat hanging out with new people and hearing all the accents and talking about our trip and what they do and such. Everyone seemed really nice, and it was fun to be outside, even if it got cold and there wasn't really anywhere to actually sit down. We all just ended up huddling closer as the night wore on, both to get closer to the fire and each other for warmth. Luckily two people had cars, so the people without were able to split between them and we didn't have to catch a cab home.

We've been watching a crazy British show called "Green Wing" on DVD. The closest thing I can compare it to is Scrubs, but it's totally wacked, highly stylized speed-up/slow-down of the action, distinctive music, and the people are crazy and silly, and it just cracks me up hardcore. Rynny mentioned it being just a bit "Dali-esque" and I can totally see what he means. I wonder if it's at all easy to find in the states? Last night we also watched a bit of Blackadder, with Hugh Laurie before he was the sex symbol Dr House, and was just a silly young goofball. Very funny, and I know that one is at the Library because my dad had recommended it before.

Alrighty, way past time for bed. I seem to have a hard time getting to bed over here still...

Edinburgh Bus Tour Slideshow

We went back to Edinburgh and took the bus tour again since our tickets were still good. It was fun because we had a different tour guide and we got to hear some slightly different stories, plus it was nice and sunny instead of raining, and we weren't tired from traveling all day.