Well, 14 days touring the United Kingdom (not forgetting Ireland) have come and gone much quicker than I had expected. I feel like we were all boarding a plane yesterday with anticipation of the foreign experiences to come on our overseas adventure. For some this was their first time traveling outside the US or even riding on an airplane. For me, this was my first non-military and non-desert experience outside the US so I was thrilled for this trip to say the least. Looking back I have to say my most vivid memories aren't about where I went but more of what I experienced throughout the trip.
I was ecstatic to visit London because, well hey-it’s LONDON. Seeing iconic attractions such as the clock tower (often incorrectly referred to as Big Ben which I learned is actually just the name of the bell inside the tower) & parliament, Tower Bridge, the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, experiencing a lovely Westminster Abbey service, and visiting Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station for a picture was fun and surreal but my favorite part was seeing all of London from the London Eye. Being terrified of heights made it a rough ride and I didn’t even venture from the very center of the pod to look down until it was halfway through but I’m so glad I did because the view of London was awesome! My second favorite experience in London was visiting the famous Abbey Road from the Beatles Album. However silly it may seem actually standing on the corner and walking across the same street the Beatles did was exciting, I only wish my sister could’ve shared it with me. Growing up the one and only thing my sister and I had in common was our absolute LOVE for the Beatles. I thought of you the whole time Mer.
I found touring Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and The Roman Baths in Bath enjoyable, interesting and memorable. The Castle was beautiful inside and out, then Marissa and I got a picture with a Royal Guard, which everyone strives for when traveling to the UK, right? Stonehenge even became more memorable (and perhaps a little exciting) when we experienced an unexpected UK weather event…it not only rained but it hailed! I found it almost ironic that here we all were to visit a large rock formation and we were being pummeled by small rocks from the sky. It did stop long enough for us to hurry around the formation for some quick pictures but most of us were quite cold from the whipping winds and very damp upon returning to the bus. I will definitely never forget Stonehenge.
Canyoning in Wales was probably my most memorable experience. Having been described as White Water Rafting without the Raft – I definitely felt the intensity of that description after donning wetsuits, helmets, life vests and other various safety gear. I was filled with excitement and nervousness at the thought of wading through and jumping into rapidly moving water but after the first plunge into the extremely cold water my adrenaline kicked in and my excitement took over. Rushing down a waterfall as a natural waterslide was amazing but I will never forget the exhilaration I felt taking a running leap off a waterfall’s ledge to zip-line down and plunge into the water below. Not long after that I had the opportunity to truly conquer my fear of heights when we had to climb up the side of a cliff and then climb sideways with very little foot room before the cliff drop-off. We were perfectly safe attached to a rope with a harness, but for me it was one of the most difficult tasks I had ever undertaken and I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment upon successful completion. It was an absolutely amazing day!
The day after that several of us made the courageous decision to hike Mt Snowden through the wind and rain. Probably not the brightest decision I’ve ever made armed only with waterproof tennis shoes, a jacket and a cheap poncho but nevertheless I faced the horrible weather head on with eight other brave souls. Over the next few hours of crossing between hiking and rock-climbing on all fours we all became completely drenched before turning back due to the horrible weather. The hike back down was the most memorable part as Olivia and I sang the entire score of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (and several other songs) together to keep our minds off how chilled we were. Although we were all soaked and shivering once we entered the lodge at the bottom everyone agreed (while devouring the Snickers candy bars Eric provided us as our reward) that they were glad they’d done it even through the horrible weather. This is another experience I will never forget.
A few more of my most memorable experiences were being chosen to become an official taste tester at The Old Jameson Whiskey Distillery (and yes, it was better than the others I tasted) and visiting the Molly Malone statue in Dublin (we share a fabulous first name). Moving on to Northern Ireland I crossed the very narrow, rickety and high up Carrik-a-Rede rope bridge, twice. I even took a few pictures very close to the edge of the island making a few people nervous but I made sure I had good footholds the whole time. I especially enjoyed the view of the cliffs on the way back from the bridge because to me they resembled The Cliffs of Insanity from one of my favorite childhood movies, “The Princess Bride.” Northern Ireland was incredibly beautiful and memorable.
Our last destination before boarding the plane to return home was Scotland. I toured St Mungo’s Glasgow Cathedral and the Glasgow Necropolis which were very historical and breathtaking. The part of my Scotland experience that hit me the most was happening upon a homecoming ceremony for Scottish troops returning from Afghanistan. I will never forget hearing the drummers’ music and the sight of rows of men in dress uniforms with bayonets marching around the town square while hundreds of friends, family members, and strangers watched in support of the happy homecoming...some (including me) with tear-filled eyes. I’ve served in the US Military for twelve years and have never seen a sight as this heart-warming welcome home; it was a very emotional experience for me. Strangely I knew none of these men but was filled with joy for them and their families that they had finally made it home safely. I then ended the evening as every tourist who wants the full UK experience should; I joined several other classmates and many Scotsman (& women) in a local pub named The Court Bar in Paisley (where we were staying) for karaoke. Most of us couldn’t even understand what the local people were saying their accents were so thick but it definitely made the perfect ending to an amazing trip abroad.
I want to mention a little something about one of my favorite aspects of the trip before ending my story…the food! Of course I tried fish & chips (that’s fried fish and French fries for those who don’t know) in several different cities. And even though I’m not a big fish fan, I loved it all but one time. I tried the traditional English breakfast almost everywhere we went as well which includes: eggs, bacon, sausage, cooked tomatoes, cooked mushrooms, baked beans and toast. The bacon over there is more like cooked ham so that was a little disappointing but as I love mushrooms and beans and can never get enough at home I thought the breakfast was delicious! In the first place we stayed, St. Simeon’s, a staff member named Alexander was very persistent in ensuring we all received enough to eat. On multiple occasions each morning, even when we had multiple plates of food in front of us, he’d bring more fruit and cheese on a plate to my table insisting we eat it or take it with us for lunch because London is expensive…boy was he right! My first evening in Scotland a few of us were hungry after getting off the ferry so we walked along the streets of Paisley until we found a little pizza/sandwich carry-out place to order from. I wasn’t too terribly hungry so I thought I’d be safe and order a kabob…much to my surprise it was basically a large gyro with lettuce and a red sauce instead of onions and cucumber sauce. Although it was delicious I decided from then on to play it safe when ordering food. It’s a good thing we had less than two days left at that point.
You may be saying, well this seems like a fabulous trip but what did you learn about sustainability? For starters, throughout this trip I noticed a serious lack of gas stations, numerous bicycle racks and rent-a-bicycle racks throughout several cities, bicycle lanes being much more common here than home, many people-including men in suits-riding bicycles around and numerous off-shore wind farms. I also found it very interesting that the country of Wales has a bag tax. While shopping, if I wanted a bag to place my items in I would have to purchase one for 5 pence; something I think might just encourage people to be more mindful of the resources they are using. We also spent a day at Swansea University interacting with the other students discussing ideas on furthering sustainability followed by a guided nature walk around campus which was absolutely beautiful. Overall I was impressed with many options available to the general populace which make it easy for them to implement measures to help preserve the environment. Not to mention, I had an amazing experience abroad with fifteen fabulous people that I already miss and will never forget.
Thank you to everyone for making this such a memorable experience! Good-bye and God Bless.