10 Travel Tips for Scotland Without a Car

10 Travel Tips for Scotland Without a Car

Scotland… the land of kings and Vikings, the Loch Ness monster and highland cows, Game of Thrones and Outlander. It took me about 80 countries before I made it to the United Kingdom, and the wildness of Scotland made it my personal preference. I had waited to go because I thought it was a place you’d need a car to explore, and therefore wouldn’t be the best choice for a solo traveler by myself.  However, I was able to pack in a lot within my 8 days: Edinburgh->(Highlands, Glen Coe, Loch Ness)-> Inverness-> Nairn (beach town)-> Skye (Fairy  Glen, Kilt Rock, Old man of Storr)-> Fort Williams-> Oban -> Isle of Mull, Staffa (great alternative to the Giant’s Causeway with hexagonal rocks) and Iona-> Glasgow-> Home, mostly following Beyond Our Horizons’ itinerary.  I figured I’d write down some car-free travel tips for Sotland to make your  journey easier. 1) Travel around Scotland is absolutely possible via public transit.  With the plethora of one lane, winding country roads, it’s way more relaxing when someone else drives. I mostly followed this “two-week car-free” itinerary and it worked quite well for me. I had booked all my buses ahead of time because I was worried about traveling through peak season (July) especially because some routes may only happen once a day. However, I don’t think any of my buses were completely full. I also learned that Citylink has a “Explorer Pass” bus deal with unlimited rides during a specific time period.  That would have been cheaper than buying tickets individually, so look into that. 2) May is the driest month. I lucked out with wonderful weather in July and spent most of my trip in sunshine or passing cloud. However, I heard tales of plenty of people who spent extended time in Scotland and couldn’t see anything because of rain, wind and fogs. Scottish people are pretty fun but it would be disappointing to spend vacation time and money seeking shelter in the pubs. 3) There isn’t that much to do in Loch Ness. One of my couchsurfing hosts was infinitely amused by all the travelers who can’t leave Scotland without looking for Nessie. Yes, Loch Ness is pretty (especially when you consider the surrounding park), but all it is only a really big lake.  The joke is Nessie doesn’t make an appearance until you have a few whiskeys in your system. I saw Loch Ness on Timberbush’s Highlands tour, where you had the option to hang out at a hotel, do a river cruise or check out Urquhart Castle and do the river cruise. I did the castle and river cruise (£40), because I was already there, but neither was too extraordinary. The castle did have tours and characters in costume, but there are so many other free castles around the country. One related hack: I did the highlands tour and asked my driver to drop me off in Iverness. The cost of the day tour was about the same as a flexi-bus pass to Inverness (£40) and it helped shorten a long day. I highly recommend Timberbush as a company. 4) Campers often get the best spots. Wild camping is legal in most places in Scotland and throughout my trip (but especially on Skye), campers had front row seats to some of the most amazing views in the country. Because I was traveling by myself and weary of the weather, I didn’t camp but if I could do it again, I might spend a whole week camping and hiking on Skye.  Here’s a list of top wild camping spots in the country that I plan to save for my next trip. 5) Book accommodation in Skye in advance. Most of my trip could have been done without advance bookings but Skye’s popularity is skyrocketing. This was the one place that some people had to miss out on because they did not arrange their transport and accommodation in advance. I heard they may need to explicitly restrict the number of visitors to the island in the future, so plan for this part. 6) Dining options are somewhat uninspiring for vegetarians. Supposedly Glasgow’s west end is becoming a new vegetarian hot spot, with places like the 78 bar and kitchen. Throughout my trip on the west coast, there were a lot of pubs, fish n chip shops but not a ton of inspiring options for vegetarians. Most towns had an Indian Restaurant, but even the menus at two Indian restaurants were more meat-heavy than I was expecting.  Scottish cheese and chocolate is cheap and delicious, but can’t live off that! 7) If you’re short on time, skip Glasgow. It’s...

Travel is Medicine? The healing powers of sunshine in Scotland

Travel is Medicine? The healing powers of sunshine in Scotland

It’s funny how sometimes cliché travel sayings require a dozen reads before they impart the insight that made them so popular in the first place. On this trip, that happened with this saying, which has been quoted so many times that it has lost its attribution; “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us”. We travel not to escape life… At the beginning of the trip, I was trying (and failing) to escape life. My wounds from a recent breakup were raw. I don’t like how I’m treated at work and that created another midlife crisis. My landlord was bullying me to sign a yearlong lease, and despite loving my flat, I felt like I was not in a state to make that kind of commitment. During my first week in Ireland, I wanted to forget about all these things, but without a car, most of my time was spent in hostels with students and tour buses that seemed to require at least 65 years to ride, but somehow I was on them. The weather was typical for Ireland but I was wondering why I was spending nearly all of my annual leave getting rained on, when I hadn’t recovered from spending two winters back to back. When I was struggling to adjust from jetlag and someone in the hostel was making kissy noises over Skype with a remote boyfriend, it was even harder to quiet my mind from all the things that were stressing me out. But somewhere on the mystical island of Skye that all changed. I felt comforted by being nestled between the mountains and the sea again. I stopped worrying about past and future and instead revealed in the feeling of sun on my face in a country with some of the most infamous weather on the planet. I didn’t even check the weather to see how long it would last, because my days were pretty much planned, so the show would go on, in the wind, rain or sun. I started to talk to people again, whether they were old or young, and they reminded me how awesome my life is. Literally to the point, where I thought, “what was I complaining about last week?” Yes, I don’t know what I’ll do next but I got paid to travel the world while earning an advanced degree. My life has not always been easy but looking back I won’t change any of it. Despite the awful way this most recent relationship ended, I don’t regret any of the time we spent together. With him, hanging out at home was as fun as going an adventure. We dressed up to stay in for Valentine’s Day (he even brought out the cufflinks), baked a chocolate cake, ate it and cuddled by the fireplace. It was perfect.  We went to Haida Gwaii, which was #1 on my British Columbia bucket list, walked awkwardly in rubber coveralls and ate omelets with foraged nettles for breakfast.  He was the one who suggested we find couchsurfing hosts, which made a wonderful trip even more epic.  All those moments were better because they were shared.  While things didn’t work out with us, he made me realize I can have both comfort and adventure in a relationship and I shouldn’t compromise. In some ways, I slightly regret turning down my Fulbright for my current position, but then I wouldn’t have an adorable albino hedgehog named Pearl waiting for me when I return to Vancouver. Would I prescribe travel as medicine? Even though my nomad life has meant that I’ve had to deal with some incredibly difficult things alone, I still find traveling incredibly healing, mostly because it puts your problems in perspective. When I wrote my last post about my personal troubles, I was in Belfast. Northern Ireland suffered from forty years of conflict stemming from different views of national identity and belonging. Guerilla warfare and terrorism led to the deaths of almost 4,000 people including women and children. While the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, there are still walls dividing the communities, segregated schools and the pain lives on in people’s memories. My couchsurfing host lived near the Republic of Ireland and grew up to the constant sound of helicopters in his small village of 50 people. Travel also reminds me how many good people are out there. My ridiculous bus driver (decked out in a highlands cow hat and a kilt) on a trip to Loch Ness kept giving me hugs because he knew I was traveling alone. Even though he didn’t know how much I needed them. Sure...

Birthdays, Breakups and New Beginnings

Birthdays, Breakups and New Beginnings

One of the blog posts that resonated with me the most over the years, especially during my 30th birthday, is Alex in Wanderland’s post, called “What are your anchors?”. In this post, she writes about attending a church service where the parish given time to reflect and write down their anchors, the parts of their lives that hold them steady when proverbial bad weather blows in. With it being a church, she estimated that most people wrote down faith but other responses probably included home, marriage, career, family and friends. For Alex, she had to think long and hard about what anchored her. While she had a travel writing business, a boyfriend and a temporary home in Thailand at the time of writing, she didn’t felt like it defined her as a person. While relationships end, careers change and people die, many people don’t consciously change up their anchors. Eventually, upon reflection, Alex decided, “By sailing into the unknown I inadvertently built a foundation for my life that no one or no thing can ever take away from me: a lens of gratitude with which to see the world, a strong sense myself and a deep well of faith in my journey.” She elaborates, “How does travel build confidence and a sense of self? It just does. When your flight gets cancelled and it throws your trip into chaos, you deal with it. When you get dropped off at night at a hostel in an unfamiliar city and the doors are locked and you have no phone and no idea were you are, you deal with it. When you find yourself heartsick and ego-bruised and completely alone after a travel romance goes wrong, you deal with it. You suck it up, you deal with things, you figure shit out, and in between you find yourself regularly in awe at the absolute beauty and magic of this big wide world you’re lucky enough to be exploring. You’re surrounded by unfamiliar everything — language, climate, currency, everything. And you’re not just surviving, you’re even maybe every once in a while thriving. How could you not think of yourself as a total badass after that? And spending months with your own company as your only constant helps you develop a pretty rock solid sense of who else you truly are. Other than a badass.” Her words resonated with me strongly. I spent the second half of my twenties living out of a backpack for a couple years, then upgraded to two suitcases in New Zealand that I could move easily between sublets (I lived in 7 flats in less than two years). In Vancouver, I finally had my own space with some eccentric furnishings, purposefully chosen from thrift shops to be functional for awhile, but not to inspire any long term attachments. For the past five years, I’ve barely been able to spend any quality time with the long-term friends, the ones that know I find comfort in a bowl of instant oatmeal before bed, the ones that know I rolled my tongue and made wishes at 8:08:08 in high school, the ones that know I went to a dozen countries of one of my favorite musical artists at the time and he signed my jeans multiple times.  Maybe I get to spend a week per year with people I know at this level.  If you round up.  And no, that’s not a week with one person, that’s a week total of Starbucks visits over the holidays and crashing on the couches for a night between flights. I had life changing relationships but none lasted more than a year, and at least half were long distance. I’ve only had a couple jobs after graduate school and both were temporary positions with no promise of being long-term careers. My current position is so disappointing that it has me questioning a career in teaching, a choice that I’ve refined over the years but never questioned, since I came home from my first day of kindergarden. I spent my 25th birthday in Singapore, with a Turkish feast on Arab Street with friends from my fellowship and an honorary night out at the Marina Bay Sands. I spent my 26th birthday escaping a bad situation in Turkey with a 1:00 AM flight to Georgia (the country) to be greeted by incredible hospitality and a dumpling feast. I spent my 27th birthday on a Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam, and when I returned to the city at 5:00 AM before the hostel opened, a tattooed motorcycle riding chick named Ling Ling kept me company and offered a birthday massage (which I politely...

Finding Peace in Place: Feeling At Home in Vancouver

Finding Peace in Place: Feeling At Home in Vancouver

I have been planning to write this post since Valentine’s Day when I realized that I was in love again. I was in love with my new home of Vancouver. Love is one of those irrational feelings that you don’t need to justify. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that Vancouver has the trifecta of the mountain, sea and the city. Absolutely, it’s nice to be surrounded by badly dressed nature lovers who say “thank you” when they get off the bus and sincerely apologize when it rains. I love finally having friends that I see on a regular basis, people who willing to camp in the middle of winter, people who are willing to wake up before 5 AM to sit at a coffee shop and talk about their feelings. Hiking friends that suddenly become country-dancing friends who swap bathroom-cleaning secrets (yes, that was a clear indication we’re not 18 anymore). But love defies logic, and puts everything in a more positive light. I have a partner-in-crime that makes me smile even when we were drowned rats trudging through slippery slush for 18 hours and we have just as much fun adventuring in the kitchen as exploring the outdoors. Vancouverites still complain about things- Canada has some of the most expensive cell phone plans worldwide, domestic travel is ridiculously pricey, housing prices in Vancouver has skyrocketed in recent years and immigration can be a challenge. For me personally, my job at University of British Columbia still feels like a major step back from the autonomy and impact I had back in Auckland. But when you’re in love, those things don’t really matter. Yes, even after 2.5 months, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing at work but I have taken the opportunity to use the extra time for professional development and networking. I’m practicing programming, relearning how to do statistically modeling and finally writing up a paper that has been discussed for three years. Some almost-strangers have taken me under their wing, inviting me to networking events in Vancouver and colleagues from the past nominated me to represent physics at an important meeting about university reform. Sometimes people in love get criticized for seeing the world with rose tinted glasses but what’s wrong with that? Why do we have to focus on small imperfections when the fact that we’re living, breathing creatures on an awe-inspiring planet should always be reason for celebration? Things don’t need to be perfect to be worth loving, and life remains interesting because they aren’t perfect. If it didn’t rain for 6 months out of the year in Vancouver, the housing crisis would be infinitely worse! Advice from an Elder The final push to write this post came from a fireside chat with an indigenous elder on a group trip to the Yukon this weekend. He told an allegory of a studious young man whose teacher had him collect the shit from all the animals in the forest (his words not mind). The young man did as he was asked, and collected big shit, little shit from elk, deer, beers, beavers… all the creatures he could find. The teacher asked him to grind the shit into a fine powder, add some water to make a paste, use it to draw a circle on the ground and meditate inside it. The young man did as he was asked, then meditated in the circle for three days but he couldn’t figure out what his teacher wanted him to learn. On the fourth day, a crow saw him and started laughing and laughing at the fact that he was sitting in a circle of other’s people shit. And this was kind of the elder’s takeaway message, that we constrain ourselves, trap ourselves, immobilize ourselves by surrounding ourselves with other people’s problems and unrealistic expectations. Fireside chats in the Yukon in onesies At another chat, one guy finishing up his Master’s and getting ready to graduate was stressed because “I don’t know what I want to do with my life”. Of course, all the people around him said, “we don’t know what we’re doing either!”. Some of them were married, some are well-established in jobs they love so they don’t let that question bother them as much on a daily basis but there’s also a lot of societal pressures that create unnecessary stress surrounding that. Like I wrote in my last post, when people ask, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, that you can only do one thing, you should be neatly defined in one box. But the reality is that, these days, no one does the same job for 65...

Multipotentialite Midlife Crisis

Multipotentialite Midlife Crisis

I learned a new word! Not just any word, one of those words that makes the seemingly random events in my life morph into a meaningful pattern.  One that coincidentally seems to speak to my soul, with things I’ve been stressing out with turning thirty on the horizon. Drumroll, please… “A multipotentialite is a person who has many different interests and creative pursuits in life. Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. We have many paths and we pursue all of them, either sequentially or simultaneously (or both). Multipotentialites thrive on learning, exploring, and mastering new skills. We are excellent at bringing disparate ideas together in creative ways. This makes us incredible innovators and problem solvers. When it comes to new interests that emerge, our insatiable curiosity leads us to absorb everything we can get our hands on. As a result, we pick up new skills fast and tend to be a wealth of information.” — Emilie Wapnick, Terminology, Puttylike  Sound like you? Well, this is definitely me. Yes, from the first day of kindergarten, I knew I wanted to teach and from the first day of high school physics, I knew I wanted to teach physics. Because I always knew what I wanted to do, my “multipotentialism” had remained hidden but it’s always been there. As an undergraduate, I picked up a minor in Asian Studies “just because”. Sure, I ended up pursuing a doctorate in Physics Education Research (PER) which is a mixed field- I’ve always “lived” in physics departments and had to take the same qualifying exam as any PhD but at the same time, I was taking courses in English departments on analyzing qualitative data, in Psychology about tests and measurements and in Statistics. Lately, I’ve been interested in organizational change so reading a lot change management books from business.  While I believe physics departments need people with expertise in the discipline as well as research-based strategies about how to best convey that information to undergraduates, this is not always well received. The “real” physicists may judge me for “diluting” my degree with education, but I knew I could not do “just physics” all the time. I suppose I love learning, so as an undergraduate and graduate student, this tendency served me well. In graduate school, fellowships and teaching opportunities through physics facilitated my ability to travel internationally to an extent that I became nomadic for a few years. Traveling has become a huge part of my identity, almost as much as “teacher” and “physicist”. Traveling led to me to experiment with writing. I started my own blog, started “interning” for an online magazine about food, wine and ethical travel then scored a freelance gig for a South American travel company. Despite always thinking of myself as a “numbers” person instead of a “words” person, I was amazed how my writing was getting published alongside people who devoted their lives to literature. When the tourism board of Colorado invited me on a press trip, it was humbling to be surrounded with people who worked for NPR, the LA Times and Oprah magazine.  Then it was my turn and I raced through my introduction to disguise the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged, “I’m Katie. I graduated with a PhD in physics was last week. I write for Epicure & Culture”. No one was more amazed than me, that dabbling in something opened doors to new worlds; it required curiosity more than “skill” or a massive amount of effort. But what do I want to do with my life? Within the month, I’ve started a new job in Vancouver but as a non-tenure track position in another city with unaffordable housing, I’ve also been wanting to “settle” somewhere more permanent, which means thinking about a “long term” job. I don’t feel like I’d fit the typical “tenure track” mold but that’s the most obvious choice for the path I’ve been on. I’ve always been curious and love the challenge of trying new things but quickly lose interest once I feel like I’ve “figured something out”. When I already seem to be losing interest in this temporary job, I wonder whether “long term job” should even be in my vocabulary. The department head at Auckland said he pictured me as galloping on a horse in a “wild west” situation, leaving a trail of improved physics departments in my wake. “The man who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The man who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before” –Albert Einstein...

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

An Impossible Romance & My Week As A Cowboy in Vinales, Cuba

Viñales is part of any Cuban tourist itinerary, recommended as a place to enjoy nature, cigars and rural culture and recover from noisy, chaotic Havana. Approximately a three hour drive from the Cuban capital, the straight roads along the “tobacco route” turn into twisty roads through dark forest which suddenly open up into a breathtaking valley. This UNESCO park is known for its limestone karsts or “mogotes” jutting up over the large fields, dotted with palm trees, lush vegetation and tobacco plantations. The town is no stranger to tourists, with a couple main streets filled with restaurants and almost every house containing a sign that it’s a government-endorsed casa particulares where you can rent a room. Just An Innocent Walk Through the Valley My casa was on the edge of the valley, and while my hosts offered to connect me for a guide for a walk or a horseback ride, I looked forward to exploring the area on my own. So I set out the next morning, with a giant bottle of water, following my host’s directions, “the path is behind the tree. Just go straight then when you can’t anymore, turn right!”. I found the path and the valley, walked by patches of trees vibrating from pruning by machete, walked across a sketchy “bridge” of haphazardly placed planks and suddenly, the foliage opened up to the valley. Vast fields, oxen hooked up to wooden ploughs waiting to start their workday and explosions of purple wildflowers caused my jaw to drop and I couldn’t help whispering “wow” to myself. I walked until I could no longer go straight, turned right and jogged past a sweet smelling bush that buzzed with bees. I found a wider dirt road that was flanked with tall bushes on each side so it wasn’t very scenic. Well, until a cowboy trotted by, in a small herd of five horses. “Quires un cabalagata? Hay una piscina natural” (Want a horseback ride? There’s a natural pool), he asked as I tried to avoid the miniature stampede. “No tengo mi ropa de nadar y estoy caminando,” (I don’t have my swimming clothes and I’m walking) I responded, thinking about how warm it suddenly felt, my cheeks flushing. I continued to march down the large dirt road, even though I couldn’t see anything over the tall shrubs. After about ten minutes, I admitted defeat and retreated to try the other path at the intersection, just to run into my cowboy friend again. “Change your mind?” he asked from under his cowboy hat, and I stubbornly said “I’m walking”. So I walked past the horses, tied to trees waiting for tourists, past the office and suddenly I was in the street of the town, lined with casas on each side. I sighed, because I was supposedly to be visiting the valley but it seemed my navigational skills failed me and I didn’t even have a map. So I slunk back where my cowboy friend was now sitting on the steps of the office. “Regresé. Una hora.” (I returned. One hour) I told him, and I told myself that a short ride would get me to oriented so I could continue to explore on my own, and there no other reason I gave into the guy that mysteriously made my heart beat faster. I hopped on “Cuba Libre” and we headed off. He was pretty quiet, punctuating the comfortable silence with occasional names of crops in his limited English. When he tried to take me to the coffee planation tourist stop, I declined, anticipating the awkward part where they’d want me to buy something. I started sharing random travel stories in broken Spanish, about drinking “cat-poo-chino” in Bali, with little indication if I was making sense from my silent tour guide. When we returned to the starting point and I tried to pay him but he refused and asked what I was doing later and offered “sunset, rum and galloping” as an option. “Soy libre. A que hora?” (I am free. At what time?), even though I knew it sounded like trouble. Fireflies & The Milky Way At 5, I returned to the office where I didn’t see Yasmani, so I found a dog to pet until I got covered in a dust cloud generated by a horse that halted in front of me. He hopped off to help me up, then climbed on behind me, kicked the horse into a trot and we headed further up the path to get a second horse. He pulled a plastic bottle of rum out of his gumboot, “Havana Club Especial” he explained with a wink as he...

2017: Reflecting on a “Character Building” Year

2017: Reflecting on a “Character Building” Year

“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained it to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is not knowing what is happening… Those long periods when something outside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually becomes the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of personality is about to be reveled” –Alice Walker 2017… with what happened on the stage of global politics, I wonder if this year was a good year for anyone. Personally, it wasn’t one of my best, containing a lot of death, the temporary loss of my best friend with the end of my most significant relationship and a lot of misery as I prepared to end my two years of living in Auckland, New Zealand.  I earned a Fulbright to live in Cape Town which gave me a second chance to live in South Africa on my own terms but I decided that because of the instatibility over there.  While I know its for the best, it feels like the death of a dream, like I’m ignoring the irrational part of me was convinced that I belonged there for a year. Despite the fact this year wasn’t too much fun, as difficult things in life are, it was informative.  As the year (finally) comes to a close, I thought I’d share some of my reflections with you, the good, bad and the ugly. 1) Good things come to an end and that’s ok “Not everything in life is supposed to become something beautiful and long lasting. Sometimes people come into your life to show you what is right and what is wrong, to show you who you can be, to teach you to love yourself, to make you feel better for a little while, or just someone to walk with at night and spill your life to. Not everyone is going to stay forever, and we still have to keep on going and thank them for what they’ve given us” -Anonymous When I returned to the States briefly for a conference in July, one of the blog fans I didn’t know I had ran up to me and asked, “why haven’t you updated your blog?! The last I read, you met an amazing guy and everything was perfect and I want to know what happened!!!”. “Oh,” I replied, a bit shell-shocked but flattered. “That ended.” I responded at the time, with limited energy for elaboration. For those of you who do not know, I did meet an amazing Kiwi guy about four months after I moved to the country and was almost about to give up and return to the States. We dated for about a year and it was, by far, the most serious relationship of my life and it did inspire me to do crazy things like apply for my New Zealand residency even though living at the bottom of the world was a struggle for me. While I told him I was willing to return to New Zealand in a few years and I won’t mind it as a place to raise a family, I knew I had to get out for a couple years while I was young and early in my academic career. Eventually, the stress of constantly trying to figure out my next step (which will be starting as a Science Education Specialist in Vancouver, Canada) got to us and we mutually decided that we need to focus on our own careers right now. Furthermore, as our relationship progressed, my love of travel made it clear we want different things. Despite the fact it was mutual, despite the fact we both logically knew it was for the best, the hardest part of the breakup was we still really enjoyed one another’s company, respected each other and wanted the best for each other. Initially...