Friday, June 14, 2013

Day 14 -- Goodbye UK

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.

Molly Skovronski

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Day 13 -- Glasgow

After our brief touring of North Ireland, we took a ferry across the Irish Sea to Scotland.  We stayed in a town called Paisley just outside of Glasgow which is Scotlands biggest city [according to Wikipedia…].  In the morning, we took the ScotRail, an over-ground version of London’s tube, to Glasgow’s city center and walked to George Square.  While in George square, we got to see some of Glasgow’s older buildings and beautiful statues.  In addition to that, we were there at just the right time to see the troops returning home.  They marched around the square led by a military band complete with bagpipes.  The square was filled with people who wanted to show support for their soldiers including their families.  After the march, they had some pictures, and then they got to reunite with their loved ones.  It was amazing to get to see this.  It reminded us all of the people who serve and have served in our military and was definitely tugging on some heart strings. 

After the soldiers homecoming was done, we walked to Glasgow cathedral.  It was a beautiful stone church with Medieval [or whatever kind it was] architecture.  Inside the cathedral was beautiful with tons of stained glass windows, beautiful tombs, and Scottish crests adorning everything. 

Just a short jaunt from the cathedral was the Necropolis, an old Victorian style cemetery on a hill.  It was filled with huge elaborate headstones, graves, and statues.  Walking the winding path up the hill and seeing all of the monuments was a chilling experience.  With the imposing cloudy skies, the graves, the wind, and the beautiful wildflowers and lush green grass, it was the perfect and peaceful combination of eerie and incredible.

From there, we found our way to Glasgow market.  It was an interesting experience.  Picture a giant garage sale/ farmers market/ secondhand shop.  It was massive and filled with all kinds of mostly second hand items.  It was something you definitely don’t see most places in the U.S., and not at all what we were expecting to find.  After picking through the market, we walked through the park along  the river Clyde back to city center where we continued to shop and spend the day.  We all met up for our last big group dinner at [Italian restaurant…].  It was the best meal of the trip, and a great time to catch up with the rest of the group and hear about everyone’s day in Scotland.  After dinner, we headed back to Paisley to celebrate our last night of the trip and sing karaoke with the locals who enthusiastically joined us!  We were all sad that we had to leave so soon, but Glasgow was a great place to end our tour abroad.

Nicole T.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Day 12 -- Rope Bridges and Causeways

When you think of Ireland, what comes to mind? Green and gold, four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, red-heads, rainbows with a pot of gold at the end? I can’t vouch for the pot of gold, but it sure rained enough for plenty of rainbows. And red-heads are quite abundant as well. But the green, the green is everywhere. Grassy hills, weeds, plants, trees, moss, buildings, clothing, tourist attractions, absolutely everything. The power of nature in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is apparent every direction you can possibly look.

Our morning began with an early 8 a.m. departure from our hostel in Belfast. It began raining on the trip to Giant’s Causeway and continued to rain and mist throughout most of our stop there. However, most of us didn’t let that stop us and we continued down the cliff to Giant’s Causeway. The area that falls under that title is quite large and has tons of, well, rocks! The constant crash of the waves against the rocks adds to the majestic beauty held in this place.

Giant’s Causeway was created by a lava eruption thousands of years ago. The rock columns that are found here are due to the quick cooling of that lava, causing columns with different heights to appear. There are also myths associated with Giant’s Causeway, most dealing with an Irish giant named Finn McCool, who was said to have built the causeway across the sea to challenge his Scottish giant nemesis, Bernandonner. When Bernandonner started to cross the Causeway, Finn ran in fright of his enemies much larger size. Ironically, he ran to his wife, who passed him off as her child, then causing Bernandonner to run in fear of a father that would be much, much larger than the child in Finn’s wife’s arms.

More information about Giant’s Causeway can be found here:

We then made our way to another tourist attraction. The area around the rope bridge to the small volcanic island named Carrik-a-Rede was beautiful as well. I’m overusing that word—beautiful—but it’s really the only way to describe everything I’m seeing here while in the UK and Ireland. The bridge to Carrik-a-Rede is a reconstruction of the past. Fishers used the old bridge to travel to the island to catch salmon. Back then, the bridge only had one rope to hold onto, but it was said they fearlessly crossed over the bridge day after day during the warmer months to bring in fish to feed the village as salmon swam by while migrating. The bridge was reconstructed to be a tourist attraction.

Amanda Heesch crossing the bridge
This shows how high up and how narrow the bridge was
I was quite impressed and excited that the bridge and area around it wasn't overrun by tourist-y places where they asked for a bunch of your money to see things that don’t supplement your experience at all. They had a simple building with toilets and a tiny cafĂ© with souvenirs to purchase and that was all, besides a ticket booth and parking areas. 

The blue-green color of the water meshed with the moss-covered rocks and created simple, natural beauty that cannot be beat. Seagulls nested in the pockets of the side of the island while the waves continued to crash against the sides. It was a very peaceful place that I would love to visit again and again.

Our guide, Darren, hurried us along on our way and took us along the Causeway Coast Route to Larne Port, where we boarded a ferry to Scotland. The waves of the Irish Sea broke against black and grey rocks all along our route. I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean, and driving along it for an hour and a half was basically heaven and I loved every minute of it. I’m sad our trip is coming to a close, but we have experienced so much in such a short amount of time, that processing all of these things will hold me over until my next adventure!


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Day 11 -- Belfast and the Titanic Experience

Hello from Belfast, Northern Ireland! Today was a fairly laid back, but exciting day. I went shopping, walked on the beach, rode on a bus, went to the Titanic Experience Museum, and ate at a pub called Elms.

I started my morning out bright and early by waking up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready and go out to adventure the city of Dublin. A couple girls and I chose to do this because we wanted to see more of Dublin and get our shop on. Since we only had until 11:00 a.m. to see the city and do some adventuring of our own, we got up early and went on our way. We walked around the city and took lots of good pictures and even visited Trinity College and purchased a few souvenirs while we waited around for the shops to open up. While walking around we came upon a shop called Pennys that opened at 8:30 a.m. so we waited around outside of the shop until the doors opened. I was getting really excited waiting because I love shopping and am kind of addicted to it. Once the doors opened we rushed in and ran around the store looking for cute clothes and accessories. It was awesome because everything was a bargain and was also really cute. Once the 10 o’clock hour rolled around we moved quickly and headed back down the streets of Dublin making a few quick stops at souvenir shops and made our way back to our hostel where we had stayed the past night, to grab our luggage. We loaded the Paddy Wagon bus and then headed for our next adventure.

After about an hour on the road we came upon a beach area where we were able to get off the bus, stretch out our legs, and venture around the beach. It was super nice outside! People ran out by the water, walked in the sand, took pictures, and hunted for neat looking seashells and rocks. After that we boarded the bus and headed a few more miles down the road and into town for lunch. We found a nice looking restaurant right along the beach and ordered our food. A large majority of the group ordered and enjoyed fish and chips or seafood of some kind.

Me (Amanda), Janet and Paige

Soon we were on the road again and headed to Belfast. Once we came upon the city of Belfast we headed straight for the Titanic Experience Museum. I have to say that this was the highlight of my day as I really enjoyed the experience. The museum had four floors of exhibitions starting with the history of shipyards in Belfast all the way to where it is today with the placement of the wreck. My favorite parts were the guest rooms (first class, second class, and third class) and the numerous videos, as well as the walking with the workers mini-ride. The experience museum was interactive and intriguing, yet sad, especially when reading about the aftermath. Altogether I really enjoyed my time at the Titanic Experience and am glad I made the decision to see it. 

Replica of First Class Cabins

As for the rest of the night, we checked into our hostel and went out to explore Belfast and to find a good, yet reasonably priced restaurant/pub. Overall, I had a wonderful day and the nice weather helped to make it even better.