Sunday, November 27, 2005

The end of the road... for now

Bristol - Slough - Windsor - Oxford - London

Hey everybody,

So, after over 2 years of travelling through Europe and the Middle East, I’m finally on my way home. What an amazing eye opening time I’ve had, with many places visited, friends made, memories cherished, lessons learnt, dreams fulfilled, and beers drunk. Although doing all this meant a departure from what most people consider real life, never on my travels have I ever regretted what I’ve done. Sure, now I’ll come home broke, with suspended career and old friends moving on and settling down, but it is all worth it. The way I see it is that I am in almost the same situation as I was two years ago, except that I’ve seen a great part of the world and experienced things that not many people ever will, and can never be taken away from me. Anyway, enough of this reflective tone, must be the music on the radio...


Flew from Dublin to Bristol to spend one whole day in Longwell Green, in order to catch up with old friends that I have made during my time working there as Barman and Internet Education Consultant for the schools in the area. First was Sue, girlfriend of John Barnett who I lodged with, then Helen, ex-Librarian for SBL (the school down the
road I based myself at), who I enjoyed gossiping with when working there. Then it was to SBL to quickly see my old bosses Jez and Tony, a few teachers (Terry, John, Jane) and students (Sadie, Amy, Stacy, Toni). Then to a pub to see Donna, ex waitress from the bar I worked at, cool chick who steals my heart whenever I see her , followed by
going to another bar to see my old drinking mates Tina, Nick, Tom and Luke. The next morning I visited Juliet and her kids Zoe and Robert, responsible for introducing me to Jana, their old Slovakian au pair and my secret girlfriend during my time in Bristol. Phew! I did say this was a whirlwind tour didn't I?

And then I caught a train to Slough.

Well almost, since the train decided to not stop at Slough and take me to London instead, despite assurances from station manager and ticket inspector that it was going to stop at Slough. Anyway, another train later and met up with Tim and Karin, an old co-worker back at etechgroup where I used to work before I went travelling. Here I was to also base myself for the next couple of nights as Slough is close to the airport.

Ironic how after two years of travel, the last place I go to before heading home is the backwater that is Slough.

We did a pub crawl in Windsor, home of the Queen. The palace is pretty impressive, but ill lit at night which was a little disappointing. Could not tell if the queen was actually in or not.

Slightly hungover, the next day we did a day trip to Oxford. Oxford is quite a pretty place with cool stone architecture full of detailed sculptures and gargoyles of peoples heads and animals.

There is usually much debate over which is better - Oxford or Cambridge. I must say that Cambridge gets my vote as the better city. Oxford is larger, with more tourists, and seemingly impractical people. In oxford you would see bridges designed for water being built over roads, crooked misshapen doorways on houses, and crowds that like
to congregate at places in the narrowest part of a street for no apparent reason except to slow down people trying to walk down the street, which proved quite infuriating.

There is also nothing less welcoming than paying 3 pounds to visit a university (Christchurch), then upon walking past the ticket booth find a sign saying "Cathedral and Way Out". What, they want us out already? Plus the main hall was closed, leaving only the Cathedral to visit, which wasn't really that exceptional. The grounds were pretty
uninspiring also. The city's amazing architecture saved it from me declaring Oxford a complete letdown otherwise.

Anyway, got back to Slough, where I then went into London on my own (Tim and Karin had to work) to try and meet up with people I knew in London, and spend my last night in Europe partying in the town!

Went completely awry when I discovered that the only person capable of joining me on my planned night of boozed fuelled revelry was none other than Jennie, who came all the way down from Birmingham to join me! Everyone else was either busy, sick, or just didn't bother. Oh well. Anyway, the immediate problem that dawned on us was that none of us actually had a place to stay. Although I had many offers to crash at people's homes, we decided that we would try to find a hostel or hotel instead as it meant we could stay out longer instead of going home on the last tube train at midnight.

2 pints later and a mad trawl through Coventry, Piccadilly and Earls Court amongst fully booked hostels and hotels, we finally stumbled across a hostel with available beds - at 11:10pm! By this time, despite the countries move to 24hr liquor licensing taking effect that night, most of the bars in Earls Court had closed at than their usual 11pm time! However, we were not perturbed, as we managed to find a club that was open till 2am, playing karaoke and disco music. So we happily consumed much pints while amusing ourselves with the awful singing of drunken British louts and dancing to cheesy disco tunes. All this goes to show that things always work out in the end. It also shows that you should try to book a hostel in London in advance if you want to stay on Saturday night, and not when you how up in the city at 8pm that night! Still, alls well that ends well

So now here I am in Slough, where, after miraculously getting out of being mugged on the street (long story), am about to head to the airport in a few hours time for my flight back home to Melbourne!

Plans for the future involve 1 year teaching English in Asia, followed by 1 year travel in Asia via Transmongolian and Silk Roads. Then 1 year working holiday in Canada followed by 1 year travelling the US and South America. Finally 1 year volunteer working and travelling in Africa. I also think 1 year working holiday in Ireland is also on the
drawing board.

Who knows what the next year will bring me. But whatever I do, I will try to keep you all posted

Till my next big adventure,
James Lee
Sunday 27th November 2005, 5:45pm

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 3: Ireland

Belfast - Giants Causeway - Galway - Dublin

Aye there, now where's my Guinness! (ok, so maybe that's not how they say hi in Irish...)


Well, it's been quite an exhausting but fun month around the UK and Ireland, considering that I’ve been going out almost every night partying it up in the clubs - since most cities in the UK and Ireland have really good nightlife. (Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Galway, Dublin).

Maybe I can stop partying in my next destinations; Bristol - nup, party town... then London, nup again, more partying there!

Looks like no break from this partyboy lifestyle till I get home, where I really do need to detox and abstain from drinking for a while (yeah right!)


Forgot to mention doing a day trip out to Rosslyn from Edinburgh, to seek out the famous Rosslyn chapel mentioned in "The Da Vinci Code" book and touted by many historians to be the residing place of the Holy Grail. It's quite an amazing place alone, although small it's interior and exterior sculptures and carvings are quite odd and eccentric, no wonder one would think there is something suspicious going on there. Take for instance, the carving of native American plants inside, made before America was even discovered! Or the strange pagan symbols and astronomical stars carved on the ceiling! Freaky!

No grail found though. Just a guy asking for 6 pounds for entry!


I like Ireland. It reminds me alot like Wales with the wild hills and sheep and rugged coastline of steep cliffs, the houses especially near the coast, and the friendliness of the inhabitants. The girls are quite stunning too, and just like in the UK, they sure love braving the elements in their short skirts and big boats and big fur hooded jackets which makes you wonder if they've forgotten to put on a pair of winter trousers to complete the ensemble. Not that I’m complaining mind you. Anyway, as with most nations with stunning girls, I can't understand a word they are saying, even though it's English! Their accent is truly unintelligible, all I can do when they talk to me is smile, say "uh huh" and nod at the end of each sentence, and when they ask me an incomprehensible question, quickly down my pint of Guinness and say I need to get another drink. Then run away.

Guinness is great here, I actually didn't like it when I first tried it in England (mainly because it is brewed in England there). But the Guinness here is quite smooth, and you can taste the burnt malt in the brew. You beauty!

Belfast is much like every other city in Ireland (and the UK), same old modern cobbled shopping pedestrian malls as city center configuration, with waterfront and a few grand buildings like the town hall. Shopping center by day, party town at night, one could easily forget what the place is like. Belfast however does have a bloody history that makes it stand out and worth visiting, being one of the battlegrounds of the Troubles that plagued Ireland for the last 50 or
so years.

Belfast also has the prettiest girls in all of Ireland.

Visited the Europa hotel, which is the most blown up hotel in the world by IRA terrorist bombings. Makes you wonder why people would want to keep checking into the place with that call to fame. Adrenalin junkies perhaps. Thrill seeking businessmen adrenalin junkies more like it - the place is big and expensive.

Also noted the Northern bank of Ireland that recently was infamously robbed in broad daylight by some guys who made two trips to take 20million from the vaults straight to their van parked outside – and no one knew it was happening till after they left!

From what I’ve gathered, basically the situation of Northern Ireland (AKA Ulster), is this - a civil war against the Protestant British loving Royalist Loyalists, (their militants are the UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force) and the Catholic Independence from British Separatist Republicans (their parliament being Sein Finn, their army the IRA - Irish Republican Army) who want Northern Ireland as part of Ireland.
See, travelling truly is an educational experience!

I've been told the situation is similar to the Israeli-Palestine issue, except instead of Jews occupying Palestinian land, it is Protestants occupying Catholic land (which occurred after Britain occupied Ireland a long while ago). In fact, you would see the star of David painted on the UVF flag, and apparently there is support from the Jewish settlers for UVF and Palestinians for IRA (also evident in the wall murals painted - more on that later). And even though it's peace time etc, there are some places I've been told to avoid at night.

Did a tour of the Trouble related sights, which took us to the Falls and Shambles areas, the front battleline of the two sides. Between the two areas is a huge wall, similar to the walls used in the Berlin wall and Israel/Palestine. On the main roads of each area near the wall you would pass famous colourful artistic murals, each depicting a political point of view supporting their cause.

Popped into the Sein Finn office where they kindly allowed me to pick up a copy of their last year's manifesto from their dumpster out the back. Hmmm...

Went up to see Giants Causeway, which is an amazing coastline of black basalt hexagonical cylindrical pillars of various heights, which stretches for miles. Apparently caused by some freak volcanic activity and slow lava cooling. The mythical reason being that it was created by a giant called Finn McCool who built it so he could cross to Scotland to see his lover. Couldn't he just build himself a boat?

Anyway, this was followed by a visit to the Bushwells Whisky distillery, currently the oldest original Whisky distillery in the world. The tour was a standard tour showing how whisky is made etc. But when they asked for four volunteers I was the fastest person with my hand up. Because it involved me and three other people testing 3
shots of whisky and comparing it with a shot of bourbon and a shot of scotch. All in the space of less than 5 minutes. Hic!

Differences? Scotch Whisky is smokier flavoured (and my preferred spirit), Bourbon is floral/perfumed flavoured, and Irish Whisky generally as a bit of bite followed by smooth aftertaste (favourite being 10yo single malt, ends with a chocolately aftertaste.)

Afterwards I was given a certificate calling me a certified Irish Whisky Tester! Woo Hoo!

Finally made it to Galway in the Irish Republic after a 6hr bus ride and three bus changes. Hardcore traveller me! Anyway, Galway is a very small but lovely cultural university town, full of vibrancy and life, crowds constantly on the streets shopping, having a pint or eating, while buskers play loudly within earshot of one another so it sounds like a badly conducted orchestra. Was disappointed with the famous nightlife though, which is one of the reasons I went there, mainly because everyone else was there also looking to have a good time. The pubs were so crowded I had no desire standing squashed on all sides in the smoky haze, but eventually found a quieter place to chill and chat.

Ireland in this part of the country is quite homogenous, so I do get alot of stares and attention, some of it bordering on racism if I didn't know better. But the people are still good humoured and lively.

Day tripped to the Cliffs of Moher, stopping via the famed Dolmen which is an ancient tomb of one slab on top of two vertical slabs much like a doorway or what you see in Stonehenge. The cliffs were quite dramatic but hazy. Nearly fell off it actually when this Mexican girl wanted to take my photo and told me to move to my right closer to the cliff edge, to which I tripped myself doing but luckily steadied myself in time! Phew!

5 bars visited, 7 pints of Guinness drunk, many random friendly locals met, 1 cute German girl kissed, partying it up till 4am - all on a Monday night. What does this mean? Dublin has awesome nightlife!

Dublin is very cosmopolitan, where a huge number of Asians (as well as other ethnic minorities) coexist happily with the Irish. To see Asians working in an Irish pub behind the bar shows how well integrated they are with society. The French can learn from this.

Did a tour of the Guinness brewery, where I got to do a taste test, and got a free pint in their skytop bar overlooking the city below. Then went shopping and wandering the many pedestrian malls full of life, crossing the numerous bridges over the river, and failing to find anywhere cheap to eat (as Dublin is expensive).

Anyway, tomorrow I fly to Bristol, then a trip to Oxford followed by London, before my voyage back home to Melbourne! *sob, sniff sniff* my two year roaming Europe and Middle East is almost over! Any regrets?
None whatsoever!!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 2: Scotland

Newcastle - Edinburgh - (Glencoe - Loch Ness - Inverness) - Glasgow

Aye me laddies and lassies,

My last day in Newcastle involved venturing to the outskirts of the city to find the Segemum Museum which contained some Hadrian Wall ruins and a ruined fort. It was pretty unspectacular considering all that was really left was the foundations - you had to rely on their museum's computer reconstructions to work out exactly what you were looking at. I then continued on to Whitby bay, to see huge sandy beaches and freezing cold North Sea waters. Don't understand how the crazy Brits can go to beach resort places like this in the freezing cold wind and water, all in the name of relaxation and fun!

Scotland, the land of Kilts, Whisky and Haggis, also a land of large grey granite cities separated from one another by vast areas of desolate land, of highland hills and mountains, valleys and glens, and cold icy deep lochs. Also the land of thick accents and drinking lots at all hours of the day (clubs close at 3am but pubs open at 6am meaning virtually 24hr drinking if you went back to the hostel and drank during the 3hr transition period)!

Tried haggis the day I arrived. It's actually pretty good, it's just like eating the stuffing you get in your roast chicken (probably because it's made of the same stuff, just different animal). You can also have haggis on all sorts of things like jacket potatoes or some on some serving of meat. Just don't think about what it's made of (same goes with black pudding, hotdogs and minced meat).

Edinburgh is a beautiful windy city, full of grey Georgian? Style buildings which despite the bleak colours, it's style still manages to make the city very picturesque. Was fun just wandering the many closes and wynds of the old town, the model looking Edinburgh castle on top of a cliff in the centre, and the surrounding hills.

I've become addicted to Ghost tours now, simply because you get a tour of the city at night, a bit of history, some cool stories, and a bit of scary fun. So I did two in Edinburgh.

One was the City of Dead tour, which has as it's drawcard the only keys to the infamous Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars Cemetery, regarded as one of the top five most scariest places in the world because of the "MacKenzie Poltergeist", known to attack tour groups and leave scratches and marks on people the day after (though that's probably due to the drinking - Edinburgh parties every night!). Didn't get attacked though it was frightening enough being locked up in a cemetery at night sheltering within the Black Mausoleum itself. One woman even fainted. And all this in the name of thrillseeking fun!

The other one was the Auld Reekies Terror tour, involving us going down to some haunted underground crypts and vaults, including an underground pagan temple. I actually found this alot more scary, especially as I swear I saw some white figures walking past the doorway behind the guide, this doorway leading to the most haunted dangerous (due to poltergeist attacks) vault in the complex. Which we then had to stand inside with the lights off while the guide explained the scary stuff about it.

Took some photos, but hard to tell if there are any strange floating orbs of light or shadows or ghostly faces until I extract the photos from my digital camera. (apparently 1 in 2 people have orbs appear in their photos).

I do however bear some scratch marks on my arm, which no reason as to what caused it. This is what reputedly many people who visit the poltergeist places end up with, and it's more freaky when you think it is all fake until it actually happens to you!

Due to time constraints I decided to do a day trip around Scotland that involved going all seeing the highlands, mountains and lochs, Glencoe, Loch Ness and Inverness - all in 12hrs, most on bus!

Scotland has truly extraordinary nature, with towering mountain ranges topped with frost and snow, to the flat glens of grass and heather, to the deep dark depths of the lochs full of mystery and intrigue, capable of hiding a monster despite our best scientific equipment. No sigh of Nessie the Loch Ness monster unfortunately, only
replicas dotted about as statues, paintings and merchandise.

Glasgow is not really a city of sights. Besides the town hall and Cathedral, it has the usual shopping malls and chain stores which seems to be the standard British city these days. Did however enjoy the free Religious art and life museum depicting relics and exhibits on most religions in the world today. Only by comparing them can you notice the similarities of stories and rituals behind them.

I love their accent here, even though I can't understand a bloody word of it! Ireland is next on my list, and I reckon it would be even harder to understand there!

There is a bit of rivalry between Edinburghers and Glaswegians. Glaswegians say Edinboogers are moneypinchers and unfriendly snobs, whereas Edinburghers say Weegies are dirty and ugly and talk too much crap. I don't think either stereotype is true, but I do prefer the Glaswegians to the Edinburghers as I do think they are alot more
friendly and talkative. And as I said before, I love the accent.

Anyway, just arrived in Belfast now, more on that next email!

Friday, November 11, 2005

James' Whirlwind Tour of UK - Part 1: England

Cambridge - Birmingham - Liverpool - Manchester - York - Newcastle

Good Day, Ladies and Gentlemen,

So, having left my lovely vivacious Cynthia back in Estonia, I flew to Stansted Airport in London, England, where I was to start a quick 26 day whirlwind tour of England, Scotland and Ireland, before flying home on the 27th Nov (unless I can get a stopover in Singapore to visit my sister, which means a few days after that).

So, England, a place where no one actually seems to speak it, a place where one is obsessed with football, birdwatching and queuing; a place that has brought us wonderful things like pub meals, English breakfasts, The Beatles, and Monty Python; a place where I am called "gentleman" rather than "mate", "man" or "dude"; a place that pretends to be small when in reality it is stuck in some space/time warp making it bigger than it appears on the map...

There is something to be said about the trains in this country! They are immaculate, comfortable and absolutely fantastic! Even the conductor would tell you exactly where you are, and explain why the train has stopped in the middle of nowhere, and also kindly reminds you what the next station is, and to please "mind the gap" when
exiting! The only problem though is that they are expensive! Which meant I relied more heavily on the National Express buses which have a tendency of taking too long to get anywhere. At least they're comfortable and much cheaper than the trains...

First destination was Cambridge. Cambridge is a beautiful town consisting of alot of colleges, bridges and lovely cobbled streets. There are also more bikes scattered about the place than there are people that you could almost convince yourself that bikes here are the dominant species! Alot of people here don't seem to speak or even
understand English. Rarely did I overhear a conversation that was in English - because of the ethnic makeup of the area, everyone is speaking their own languages. Bit of a shame really; although I’m an advocate of multiculturalism, I do think that if you're going to live in a country, at least learn the country's language!

The colleges are full of gothic style buildings and immaculate green lawns you can't walk on, their piece de resistance the huge chapels, where every night there is a church service called Eveningsong which I attended, to hear the famous magnificent boys choir filling the chapel with their beautiful monastic voices.

Another flip of a coin landed me in Birmingham where I wanted to catch up with Jennie, an old friend from Melbourne (as well as have a place to crash ). I've been to Birmingham before, noting it for it's plethora of shopping malls, but there was also another reason to visit - to try the famous Balti curries that were invented in the region.

To do so, I was informed to head for the famous Balti Triangle just outside of the main center of town. So caught a bus and ended up getting lost (a bit like the Bermuda Triangle I guess). But then I managed to find my way by following my nose as you can smell the scent of curry and spices in the air. I picked a place called Adils, which
claims to have invented Balti. That's how much curry has integrated itself into English culture these days!

Balti comes in a wok shaped metal bowl, saucy, spicy and hot. One normally eats it with naan bread which, depending on how hungry you are, you could order the famous table naan - one that is as large as the table itself!

Verdict: I did find Balti spicy but a little bland - I prefer a nice plain curry instead.

Left Jennie after a good night at the Aussie bar "Walkabout" (and it turned out it wasn't the last time I would go to these "un-Aussie" Aussie bars) and headed to Liverpool.

I think everyone who has ever visited Liverpool and are a fan of the Beatles has at least one Beatles song repeating over in their heads while walking about! For me it started with "Penny Lane", then "Yellow Submarine", then "Please Please Me". Drove me insane in the end.

Of course I had to go to "The Beatles Story" museum, which ran through the lives of the Fab Four and contained many reconstructed famous places in their lives (the studio, the white room, etc) and Beatles collectors items, the most impressive being John Lennon's famous spectacles.

Dined at "The Grapes" where the Fab four drank before performing at "The Cavern" down the road (before they got famous). Used the toilets, where I amused myself by thinking that the Fab Four probably also urinated at the same spot I was on right then. Then I had a look in "The Cavern" which still looks as it did when the Beatles were still

On first impressions is a very red coloured university industrial city with very nice architecture, a huge shopping centre, and alot of bars and clubs. To which I had managed to dance my little feet away in after lighting some fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night here with some other Aussie dudes (none of us had a clue what we were doing). I can say that Manchester nightlife is definitely better than Liverpool. But apart from that, unless you're into Man Utd, there isn't particularly much to see or do in Manchester.

York is a wonderful town to stroll through, admiring the beautifully preserved city gates and walls, the magnificant monolithic Gothic Minister (largest Gothic cathedral in Europe I think - though I’m sure Seville's is larger?), and the lovely medieval top stacked buildings jutting over cobbled streets. Even did the famous "Sights and Smells" tour of the Viking Museum. York is full of history, and is in fact considered the most haunted city in Europe. Because of this I had to do a ghost tour of York.

The Ghost Tour of York is definitely worth doing, as you are led around the town by a dramatic guide through dark alleys, and shown houses and other buildings where ghostly events have taken place. There were some scary ones I admit, and in fact during one story the lamp above us went out leaving us in darkness. Freaked out alot of us until the guide told us "not to worry, it's just one of those motion detector lights!" I tells you, after the tour I was glad I wasn't sleeping on my own that night...

Decided to head north into Newcastle on route to Edinburgh, simply because I heard Newcastle is a party town (which it is – perhaps better than Manchester?), but also because I love the Geordie accent. I'm not sure why they are referred to as Geordies, but the accent has a kind of lilt to it that makes them sound so friendly and cheerful. I
find it hard to take a person with a Geordie accent seriously. (For those who want an example, famous Geordies are Ant and Dec, and Lister from Red Dwarf).

Besides that, Newcastle is quite a nice place, with not much to do but wander around, shop, and admire the quayside with the beautiful sleek modern millennium bridge. The city also contains heaps of overpasses that are old Romanesque style that is actually quite picturesque and monumental to the point that at night it's easy to imagine you're in a gothic Batman movie (or maybe I’m just reaching).

Anyway, I’m off to attempt to see something of Hadrian’s Wall (would you believe there is no public transport to the better areas of the wall in November!) within the Newcastle area, then tomorrow I enter Scotland! Woo hoo! Jolly good I say!