Sunday, June 23, 2013

A wee bit of everything

Edinburgh Scotland June 23, 2013

Before we leave this wonderful country, I just wanted to jot down a few final thoughts on this amazing trip. I simply love Scotland. I love the people here. 

Since we are from Canada, I think the best way to try to put my thoughts into perspective and help those who have not been here is to compare this country to home. It seems to me that Scotland is to Londoners what the Maritimes are to Torontonians (for my American friends, the "Maritimes" are the four Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia). Or, for Americans, what Maine and Vermont are to the rest of you. Relative to London, Scotland is a bit distant, is somewhat cold and rainy, has a coastal maritime orientation, and is not densely populated. The parts of Scotland we saw were quaint, charming, and were dotted with little hamlets (much like some parts of the Maritimes). 

But Scotland is also bit like our province of Quebec. There are language issues and a deep-rooted stubborn independent streak. The language issue centres on the future of Gaelic, the somewhat forgotten, and nearly impossible to learn "original" language of Scotland. Gaelic is present on every road sign, train station, and public notice, but hardly anyone speaks or uses it. Even less can read or write it. That's because when it is written down, it looks like a secret code rather than an actual language. It is almost impossible to read, even for native-born Scots. Yet there is a small vocal Gaelic-speaking community here who have won hard-fought education rights for Gaelic speakers and are trying to keep the language alive.

Also like Quebec, there is Scotland's long-simmering urge for total independence from England. They are having a referendum on independence here in Scotland in 2014 and it will be quite the debate. I can't imagine independence will win the day, but who knows. Whatever. In the meantime, Adam and I are having  a great time. 

I still can't get over the different things we have seen/experienced here versus home, like:

-mini-telephone booth-like showers
-power plugs that must be turned on (you don't simply plug things into a wall outlet, you have to turn the power outlet on itself, like a light switch)
-push-button showers
-pay toilets (when was the last time you saw those?)
-this probably sounds gross, but super-deep toilets
-a bit less gross, but still on the toilet topic, toilets that flush with the power of Niagara Falls
-final toilet thought; great toilet paper (and I mean everywhere, like in public washrooms)
-horrible internet
-horribler (is that a word?) cell service
-teeny tiny sinks that are really low (you can't even fit your hands into some of them!)
-shower and sink water pressure that is like a weak trickle (the water pressure must be in use for the power flush toilets!)
-the worst TV in the western world (TV shows about dirt, a reality show about street repairmen fixing potholes...seriously???)
-love of cricket (that is one seriously boring sport)

But Scots have this wonderful outlook on things. "Keep calm and carry on" is a popular thing to see on t-shirts here these days (though I believe it is a throwback to WWII) but Scots seem to have that bit of psyche embedded in their soul. The Scots we have met are calm, polite, witty, and engaging. They approach challenges in a direct matter-of-fact manner. People still smoke here and they definitely enjoy a pint or two as the Scots natural sociability is quite in evidence everywhere you go. 

Plus the Scots have a great sense of humour. The other night at dinner, Adam overheard a cute couple of older ladies talking about how they were enjoying a wee bit of dinner. Adam said (a bit louder than he intended) that in Scotland, there is always "a wee bit of everything". Now in other countries, the people who overheard something like that might have been offended. But the two ladies just started laughing and thought Adam was too cute. 

As for the cycling trip that is now done, it is fair to say that I bit off more of Scotland than I intended (mountain-biking-wise). Like last year's Ride the West trip, I didn't read the brochure carefully enough (in this case, the Wilderness Scotland brochure), and the Wilderness Scotland brochure didn't fully disclose everything in detail about the trip and the nature of the cycling. The brochure described this trip as "challenging" and that "riders should do some training" before they arrive. To me, that was quite the understatement. Let's break those two areas down a little further, starting with the nature of the cycling.

The mountain biking itself was harder than I thought it was going to be, and I think a better word for what we did cycling-wise would be categorized as "expert" rather than "challenging". You know, like double-diamond skiing (experts only) versus challenging skiing (very good skiers or better). The pitches were steeper, the rocks bigger, the ground looser/slipperier, and at times the descents were downright frightening. All that is OK by me. It is hard to nail the degree of difficulty on a trip like this and it's OK that this was harder than I expected.

What didn't thrill me were things not well-covered (or mentioned at all) in the brochure. This includes stuff that was physically demanding (OK...really f-ing hard!). Specifically, pushing our bikes (remember these are heavy mountain bikes) across miles and miles of gross, wet, gooey bog. Pushing our bikes up unrideable trails was no fun at all (unrideable because they were too steep). Having to carry my bike up mountains the height of Mt. Tremblant (seriously, no joke) was NOT in the brochure. I really did not like that. Making matters worse was that on the days we carried our bikes up the mountain we were hoping for an awesome descent but on those two days, the descent was really lousy. It was too rocky or too boggy, and I mostly walked down them.

We did more road cycling than I thought we'd do, but that was fine with me. Having said all that above though, we both have to admit that the schlepping allowed us to see parts of Scotland very few people ever get to see. We experienced the most remote awesome vistas you could imagine and got a true wilderness experience. Thankfully we also got a hot shower and meal at the end of each day. Except for the first night of the trip, the hotels/B&Bs we stayed in were awesome and the food was terrific. Our guides Dave and Graham were really nice. They helped us technically, looked after our bikes each night, put out an awesome picnic lunch each day, and pointed out interesting things along the way. 

Maybe I am getting too old but even with all the training I did (both on the bike and in the gym), I can now admit that this trip simply kicked the shit out of me physically. I fell numerous times on the grass, rocks, etc. (minor scrapes, bumps and bruises, that's all), but that is part of mountain biking. Because there was so much climbing condensed into so few miles, that was exhausting. I guess it's back to the gym and road for me if I want to do stuff like this in the future.

By the way, the final stats on the trip were:

-6 days of riding
-399.6 kms ridden
-6,258 meters climbed
-12.8km/hour average speed

I am relatively pleased with my stats, I must say. I forgot to mention that during our trip we rode very close (like within 5-10 kms) to three interesting places. The first was the Queen's summer residence Balmoral (shown extensively in the movie The Queen that Helen Mirren won her Oscar for) in the Scottish Highlands. The second was the setting for the end sequence of the most recent Bond movie Skyfall. The last sequence at Bond's fictional childhood home (called Skyfall) was shot on a Loch not too far at all from Fort William and Loch Linnhe, which we crossed last Wednesday. This location actually looks as remote on screen as it is in real life, let me tell you. Lastly, we were near several locations that were used during the shooting of the many Harry Potter movies. We saw the actual train they shot the Hogwarts Express train scenes for (the train is an actual steam train that still runs, and is called The Jacobite), the aqueduct the train goes over on the way to Hogwarts,  and various remote mountain/lochs they used as backgrounds/settings.

So Adam and I toured around Edinburgh yesterday and today. We hiked up to Arthur's Seat (a defining mountain landmark in the city), which was a bit of a hike (800 vertical feet up) but fun. Arthur's Seat (and many other locations around Edinburgh) were used extensively in the shooting of the classic 1981 Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire. You can see the entire city of Edinburgh from there and it is really quite beautiful. Edinburgh is a pretty coastal port with hills and heather and the whole nine (Scottish) yards. We walked back into the city along the Royal Mile, where we saw people shopping (hint hint) for all things Scottish. I now can see how JK Rowling got her inspiration for so much of the imagery used in the Harry Potter books/films. The whole city feels like a set for the movie.  

We also spent part of the day today touring Edinburgh castle and other sites with a former riding mate of mine from my 2010 cross-sountry trip (what I now like to refer as my "other cross-country trip" - hah!). His name is Ian Peden and he is a retired police officer who lives south of Edinburgh and was kind enough to drive here today, visit us, and show us around. We toured some cool sights and had a couple of pints in the Cafe Royale a classic Edinburgh pub that was just great. Just another example of Scottish hospitality, which has been top notch, or as the Brits say "brilliant", the entire time we have been here. Even the weather during this entire trip has been very good, with only short periods of rain in what is a normally rainy climate.

So, cheerio and farewell from another adventure. This is your intrepid traveller signing off until next time, whenever and wherever that is.

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