Friday, December 21, 2012

Stoner Bat Cave Waterfall Day -24/07/2012

At 9am the busy bees of the group headed out on a cultural tour of Moshi's surrounding area while the other half of the group went to a hot springs. Our tour was led by Stewart (another anglosized name) and included a trip to Marangu cultural village, a banana and coffee plantation, a chagga cave and waterfall and all for about £20 each. Bargain.

Our first stop was the Marangu cultural village. The minibus chugged up the steep sides of Kilimanjaro and our stomachs started to turn as we saw the pointy wooden structure of the start gate of a route heading up. The familiar cold air nipped us as we stepped off the bus and danced around the fresh faced climbers in our flip-flops. They exchanged glances among themselves as they overheard our flashbacks or they just thought we were idiots about to climb Kilimanjaro in flip flops. In the way of a cultural village, there wasn't much culture as the majority of people around were either Europeans or Americans. However the Marangu gate has a lot more plaques and information than the Machame gate but I still couldn't help but notice the dominance of Europeans on them as well.

Snake defences...
The flashbacks became more distant as we moved back down the mountain and headed to a cave that was built by the Chagga tribe to hide from their enemy Maasi tribe. This was one of their many strategies to work against the Maasi's great stature compared to the Chaggas comparatively stumpy gait. As we rolled up to the site of the cave we commented on the shoes slung over the electrical wires above, and what this meant in British culture. Apparently this is not the same in Tanzania, apparently being the important word.

We were greeted by who appeared to be Stewart's bleary eyed mate and he took us to the entrance which was a dark hole covered primitively by a thatched roof and surrounded by a subterranean moat of pineapples to protect against snakes. Although the hole seemed to descend into endless darkness, I am pretty sure a 6ft Maasi warrior could have his feet at the bottom and still see daylight.

For having a fear of flappy things, I coped quite well being in a confined space with bats flying about. The caves were less cave-like and more a labyrinth of underground tunnels. The tunnels were not nearly big enough to stand up in and so you were constantly crouching. I was glad I was in shorts, until I noticed the bats and remembered where their faeces go and more importantly my lack of a rabies immunisation. Either way I still scrambled about on my hands an knees as we were guided around the caves which would hold around 10 families in relatively few chambers. Some of the tunnels were so small you had to army crawl through them, this was where the Chagga outdid the Maasi as their chief would hide in the furthest chamber at the end of the the smallest tunnel. Back int the daylight we washed off all the mud, faeces and rabies before heading back to the car but not until we got harassed by the local crazy man who 'does that to everyone'.
In the cave

The next stop on our less than typical tour was the Kilasiya waterfall (which means endless waterfall) which was also home to numerous coffee plantations mainly in villagers back-gardens. We felt like we were miles away from any part of the tourist trap and the locals had that genuine happy look, they didn't look at you like you were another sales opportunity. Stewart told us about the coffee production process and the uses of bananas. Stewart also pointed out the tree from which the bark is used as quanine to treat malaria, the locals simply pull bark off the tree and boil it in water to create a broth.

He led us through some winding paths in between avacado plants and more importantly some aloe vera plants. My tick bite was agony for me and when Stewart offered me some pure aloe vera I could not refuse, however I advise you to refuse a taste of it. Another of Stewart's friends greeted us in a wooden hut that was used as a waiting room but had a sign calling it the "office of Kilasiya waterfalls". A winding path was built through the lush forest and we hopped our way down dodging ant colonies as we went. The trees cleared to reveal one of those waterfalls, the ones you only see as desktop backgrounds. I always think its funny computers have typical 'paradiso' pictures on their background, it's like their computer is subtly telling the vacant face in front of it to get outside.
Kilasiya Waterfall

The waterfall wasn't quite endless but it was pretty high but the plunge pools were pretty shallow. Alas I stripped down quicker than if Joshua Radin had just sang me a song he wrote for me, and got in the water. Other than my red hair, my attempts at being the little mermaid were feeble to say the least. Even if I managed to get in the water without slipping on a rock the force of the water kept me awkwardly shoved up against a rock while my knee got repeatedly beaten on the adjacent rock. Also, nobody does the drowned rat and panda-eye look like I can. You did eventually get used to it and learnt where the gentle currents were and we had a wonderful time which wouldn't look out of place in some horrendous teen horror film, but the nice bit before we realise we are abandoned in the middle of nowhere. After the inital dip in the pool we got our best lunch down from the mountain yet, which made up a surprisingly satisfying packed lunch with a chicken wing, a beefburger, cake and a banana. I have now realised the advantage of being friends with fussy eaters, their leftovers are essentially a whole meal! The trip to the waterfall was one of the most idyllic moments of the trip as it was just simple fun with great people and a beautiful backdrop.

Banana Beer
After a few more dips in we had to leave to head to the last leg of our tour; to test some banana beer. This time Stewart had definitely just brought us to a friends house. We parked next to this restaurant building but he guided us straight past into this small hut. We were led along a small alleyway to what could only be described as somebody's back porch. We all sat down on a collection of plastic chairs around a small wooden table as we waited to be 'served'. I had heard a few things about banana beer and I was told it was one of those things you had to try when you came to Tanzania. Nobody told me how strange it was. A young woman came out with several huge plastic beakers full of a strangely viscous liquid, this was banana beer. The smell was a very familiar smell to me, the smell you only know if you have lived on a farm; that smell of sheep pellets. Now I know what sheep pellet soup tastes like. As horrible as it was you kept drinking it to be polite but also there were seeds in it that were almost moreish. I say almost. When I heard banana beer I thought like how westerners probably think; yellow banana, yes? No, this beer was made from the green banana, aka plantain. Hence the lack of any sweet taste whatsoever. The woman did bring out another drink which was a bottled banana wine made by nuns in the area, this was much tastier but still not what I expected and at 10% you couldn't have too much. Who knows what percent banana beer was, it would have to be a lot to make it worth it!
Bottle cap tiling on the floor. 

Before we left Stewart we had to get money out to tip him but it took us attempts at four different banks before our cards were accepted (Barclays is the saviour in Tanzania, despite it's UK reputation!). We said goodbye to him outside the bank and thanked him for giving us a real and different insight into some Tanzanian history, scenery and cuisine. We all agreed it was a fun and exciting, if not bizarre, way to spend our day off. Afterwards we wandered to the supermarket to get food for tomorrow which was the long drive to start our big leg of independent travel. Instead of going back to the hotel we decided to eat somewhere in town, it was cheaper and after last nights bill fiasco we decided it was easier to eat with less people.

An easy option was the Coffee Lounge, we had become worryingly local to them over the past two days but as good it is to absorb the local culture it's nice to get a rest from street sellers every now and then and just drink your coffee.  The food was simple but very good, it wasn't cheaper than any local places but it was still cheap by our standards. One reason I am very glad we went there was because I ordered their banana smoothie for the first time which was the best smoothie I think I have ever had. It might have been because I couldn't remember the last time I had fresh fruit (other than the obligatory watermelon at breakfast) or because the bananas here are some kind of wonderful.

THE Banana Smoothie
 The taxi ride home was much simpler than the previous night as the Coffee Lounge staff members organised it for us and we arrived back before the rest of the group with minimal driving violations. Back at the hotel we met our guide who was going to be taking us on safari tomorrow as well as taking us to Zanzibar later in the week. His name was Muskim Mush and he was joined by his younger brother who made up the president and vice-president of their tour company Homelands Adventure. They were both pretty young so it was quite impressive they had set up a whole company between themselves to a pretty high standard. Best of all they understood we were young and so suggested stopping at an off licence on the way to Zanzibar (even during Ramadan?!). The briefing didn't tell us much more than we already knew but he did tell us of a ferry crash on the Zanzibar route which we were oblivious too, but I doubt our parents were. It ended on the note that we had to leave the hotel at 7am. So off we went to pack late into the night before setting disgustingly early alarms.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Recovery" Day - 23/07/2012

Waking up feeling as if we had been engulfed within a marshamallow came as a surprise after our first night down from the mountain. However we weren't going to laze around all day, we only had eight more days as much of Tanzania as we could squeeze in.

Three taxi's for 17 people and many forms of health and safety rules out the window, we arrived in the centre of Moshi. Our first port of call was the somewhat familiar sight of a Barclays bank branch. Although in the UK Barclays wasn't making a great name for themselves, here in Tanzania they would be our saviour on many occasions. After not being quite sure how much money I had just taken out after losing count of the zeros I headed over to the Buro de Change. Tanzania has taken advantage of it's weak currency by forcing tourists to use dollars. This does mean you are constantly working with three currencies in your head. If you can manage a few phrases in Swahili and know how to work Tanzanian shilings then you will be well on your way to getting a price to your companions.

This was our first encounter with Tanzania away from the mountain, on the mountain there are foreigners everywhere. Downtown Moshi is a different story and we were hawked down whenever we saw sunlight. Luckily with a little polite Swahilli and the ability contain my emotions and not flip out at them I could walk around surprisingly freely. The streets were covered in brightly dressed vendors with equally bright personalities selling everything from oranges to mattresses. For being at the foot of one of Tanzania's biggest tourist attractions (literally), Moshi still appeared to be a town for locals. This was all true until you started reading signs and they were highly anglosized cramming in any western reference possible. I think my favourite one was a tiny stall called the "Hilary Clinton Shop."

Moshi market
We took shelter in the highly westernised café called the Kilimanjaro Coffee Lounge which a man on the street said was "a favourite of the whites." I went off with a separate group that decided it would be more fun to embrace this hectic little city we were in. As a whole group, we were heading out on Safari in a couple of days but I, at least, wasn't the type to let these days go to waste. Across the street from the cafe was the Hotel Kindroko where we could book a number of excursions out with Moshi. Without little bother at all we managed to organise a tour the next day out to a waterfall, coffee and banana plantation, a cave and most importantly (to me) we got to try some Banana Beer.

Feeling proud of ourselves we headed into the market hoping to find some local street food. The market directly opposite the Western café our friends were in turned out to be a pretty local market selling hardware supplied and food staples. The food market itself was a sight to behold and it laughed in the face of health and safety. Slabs of half slaughtered cow were plonked on wooden benches under the hot midday sun to give any nearby flies their lunch. We decided mangos were the best way to preserve our insides, for now. In Tanzania, it is illegal to drop litter on the ground and when our personal rubbish bag broke and a mango skin fell on the pavement one of the locals took advantage of this and posed as a policeman. We were about to buckle and follow him to "his office" until we noticed other locals fighting in our corner, we weren't scared to walk away.

Ugali and the mystery stews
Fleeing the crime scene, we headed into a Tanzanian equivalent of a Gastropub. As we nursed our 'Kilimanjaro' beers we were fed a selection of Tanzania mystery stews and ugali, a form of cornmeal that you roll into a ball and dip into your concoction. While the group in the other cafe were paying about 21,000Tsh a piece, we paid that for all six of us- that's about £1.30 each! Smug and equally satisfied we headed back to meet the other group who were only just gracing the market with their presence. I had read in my guidebook that the coffee in these areas is some of the best in the world so I wanted to see what the fuss was about. The coffee is probably as fresh as you can get it with coffee plantations all around Moshi from tiny household plantations to much larger corporations. You truely can taste the difference; a fly landed in my cup halfway through and that didn't stop me from finishing it.

Half the group headed back to the hotel while the rest of us went in search of a small artists market out beyond the centre. This meant navigating our way through countless street sellers, Moshi's Dalalala stands as well as it's main roads. Trusting not much more than our gut instincts, we found it and although it was smaller than anything in the centre there was a much greater wealth of interesting souveniers. The stall owners were also a lot less pushy than those in the centre, they let you peacefully look around and only start the bargaining when you do. It's safe to say we all still came home with several things we didn't really need, mainly gigantic  painted canvases of elephants.

Something I never quite picked up on before coming to Africa was the sheer amount of dust everywhere. It's not instantly visible and doesn't get in your eyes or face, it's gets on your feet and legs. It doesn't just get on your feet, it get's all over them and in between your toes. I walked into our restaurant for the evening as if I had been spending the day knee-deep in mud at a music festival. However those who have been to a festival, or third world countries know that tissues are a must for the day bag.

Our restaurant was made up of two kitchens one serving Indian food and the other Italian, hence the name Indioitaliano. The restaurant appeared to be a haven for anyone not wanting to go anywhere near the local cuisine and was filled with westerners waiting to enjoy their favourite imported dishes. Our group slowly arrived and seventeen refreshed students filled up four tables and, naturally, proceeded to get drunk. Compared to British standards the food took longer than people were used to but I imagine the poor waitress wasn't fluent in drunken English. Before the drama of splitting the bill spiralled into madness, the half of us at the drama-free end of the table were bunked into another cosy taxi.

London cabbies are known to past a test known as "The Knowledge" where they must be able to recite any potential route in the whole of London turn-by-turn. There is no such equivalent in Tanzania. We thought repeating the name of the hotel would help our driver but the go-to British tourist strategy didn't work this time. Eventually we got back to the hotel, being the first to leave the restaurant but the last to get back to the hotel and everyone had accumulated on our balcony and we continued playing to the student stereotype we do so well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Reason's I love the Dutch.

Their Plane Food.

They have signs like this on their trains

They love passenger

They know how to do chips Pulp Fiction style.

They are the politest people I know

They love long coats

They sell an amazing gouda with cumin seeds in it

They gave us Tiger Bread and Stroopwafln

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tis the Season to be S.A.D.

Winter is the time for Christmas cheer when everyone gets excited to eat their body weight in food and cosy up on the sofa to watch Murder on the Orient Express. But this isn't for all people, yes you get your usual Chrismas Grinch who has a phobia of Tinsel but some people dread winter before it's even begun.

The winter blues is a somewhat colloquial term for when the weather is getting us down and we've forgotten that daylight isn't always laced in cloud and washed down with rain. Feeling low from time to time in winter is perfectly normal but some people get a much more serious seasonal depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or more conveniently - SAD.

SAD affects over 12 million people in the Northern Hemisphere and 2 million in the UK alone, yet it is surprisingly unknown. It is found predominantly in people between their late teens to thirties and symptoms are similar to depression:

 - a lack of energy during the day to get anything done
 - sleeping problems from too little to too much
 - prone to illness
 - mood changes - manic stages in Autumn and Spring which means SAD is often wrongly diagnosed as manic depression
 - Anxiety and social problems - panic attacks, stressed, doesn't want to see people
 - loss of labido
 - Craving of carbohydrates and weight gain
 - alcohol and drug abuse

In winter it is likely to wake up while it's dark and by the time you leave work/school it's dark again. Before the invention of the light bulb people would would sleep when it was dark and be active when it was light outside, simple. Nowadays we revolve our lives around a rota to keep up with someone else's demands and we ignore our natural body rhythms. Light tells our bodies that it's not time to sleep and we trick our brains on a day to day basis using laptops screens, tv screens and light bulbs. SAD is becoming more common and I predict it will become more-so in the future thanks to the facebook generation and the growing habit of staying up late in front of a computer screen.

You'd think all this artificial light would mean people shouldn't be getting SAD but this isn't the case. It is just meaning we are not getting "real light" from the biggest light bulb there is, the sun. Two chemicals in the brain are thought to effect SAD: melatonin and seretonin. Melatonin is related to our sleep cycle and high levels of it make us sleepy. Suffers of SAD have often described a need to hibernate over winter Studies on melatonin production in sufferers shows that they produce a higher-than-normal level of melanonin in Winter, similar to hibernating animals. People with SAD will struggle to get out of bed on the sunny side of lunchtime, if at all during the day. Seretonin is a happy chemical and it is produced in bucket loads when we have a really good hug. Sufferers of SAD and depression have lower levels of seretonin and it is thought that the seretonin in these people may not actually work properly.

Most people just have a mild form of SAD but at least 2% of the UK have a much more serious form of the condition where they cannot study or hold down a job over the Winter. Treatment is available but there is currently no real cure other than willpower. One of the most effective forms of treatment is the use of a lightbox which uses a special lightbulb giving off 2500 lux -10,000 lux (to put that in perspective since you don't really need to know what  a lux is: an office gives off about 400 lux but the sun ranges from 32000 - 100000lux). There are several different models but can be quite expensive and they are not currently available on the NHS. However more affordable models in the form of "sunrise clocks" are now available. The light can be switched on at a desk while you do work etc and simulates a little bit of sunshine indoors and has been proven to vastly improve symptoms when used daily.

To just prevent the winter blues or to help reduce the effects of SAD there are a few tricks you can live by:

 - When the sun is out, GET OUTSIDE!   I know here in Scotland even if the sun's out it doesn't seem strong enough to sunburn a ginger without their suncream, but it will make you feel better even if you don't notice it instantly. Try to get outside at least once a day while there is day light.Stick a note on your laptop to remind you.  If all else fails book a holiday to somewhere warm and sunny for a few weeks, after winning the lottery that is.

 - Exercise - This can help tick off two things at once, go a run or a cycle outside but if you prefer running in a room full of body builders then that's fine too. As we are all told, exercise releases endorphins which do make you feel good afterwards even if you feel like and asthmatic sloth in the process. Plus if you keep it up you'll start to get addicted and miss it when it's gone. Eating those green things they call vegetables helps too.

  Ignore stress in Winter - Now I know most people have exams around Christmas and they can't really be ignored but make that your biggest stress of the season. Plan ahead in winter, just like you were going to hibernate: get your presents sorted early and stock up the cupboards. Major life-changing plans should definitely be put off for a time when you will be feeling much more proactive, that is if you can sometimes things happen just when you don't want them too.

 - Morning Sunshine! - Try to get in a routine of waking up before the afternoon, you will get more out of your day and might even get outside. It may sound simple but in the height of winter it can seem so horrible outside there is no point getting out of bed. There is no use feeling sorry for yourself because everyone else will be pitying you, and not in the good way. In the end nobody is going to drag your carcass out of the bed but yourself.

Although SAD is prevalent in high northern and southern latitudes, you probably don't have it.  You probably have the "winter blues" I mentioned at the start, but if you are worried then go and see your GP or a counselling service.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

So, You've Finished School?

I just filled in a survey for uni and they asked me what advice I'd give a future student from a similar background as me. I thought I would take it as an opportunity to share things I wish I knew when I started the UCAS process; the tedious prelude to one of the most important chapters of your life...

Make sure you choose your course wisely and go for something you think you'll genuinely enjoy, not just something you think you will get you a job. If you do your degree well you should get a job regardless, plus it is more likely you will end up doing something you enjoy. Sometimes to know what kind of person you are or should become it is good to look back to what you did as a child. Back then you just do what you enjoyed and nothing more as you were in a care-free cushioned world without the worry of jobs, money and maintaining your dignity.If you have to take a year or so out to figure this out then go ahead. Don't let a school force you into applying for something you are not sure you want to do.  If it turns out university isn't for you then that's fine and don't let your school try to change your mind just so they get an extra tick on their inspections. Some of the most influential(and richest!) people I know never went to university at all.

When it comes to picking a university, choose a university which has a good reputation with their students and not just with the league tables. Meeting new people and discovering who you are are one of the best reasons to go to uni, otherwise all you will get out of the experience is a bit of paper with your name and a crest. It's time to stop being who you think you should be and just be yourself, it's not school anymore and nobody really cares what clothes you wear.

Don't be scared to live up to the student stereotype, it's the only time you can!
Don't stress over lectures and coursework too much in first year. I'm not saying don't go or work hard, it's just you probably aren't going to miss much that you can't read up on later. First year is a prime time to join as many societies than humanely possible and add all those drunken toilet best friends on facebook. Do something interesting with your time and learn something you've always wanted to learn or get a part time job to add to your infinite list of skills. Employers will be more interested in the people who can show they know the world outside the library. You have all of third and fourth year to slave away in the library and complaining how young everyone is and how little money and time you have, as that's when the grades start to add up.

If you apply and hate your course, it's not the end of the world. Some people are guilty of just sticking it out to not cause a fuss, eg yours truly.Don't listen to other opinions and do what makes you happy, it's much easier to realise this sooner rather than later. Its surprisingly easy to change course in first, or even second year.

If you make good friends at uni, stick by them as they are probably going to be in your life from now on. It's likely you'll make hundreds of new"friends" in your first few years but only a few will last the distance and those you thought would might just change come third year and it could sneak up on you. Sometimes you don't meet your best friends until third and fourth year when the classes get smaller and you start hanging around with more like-minded people. Don't be deceived by the fact that because you are friends means you will be great flatmates, everyone has (surprisingly) different living standards and they don't always correspond to yours.

Your time at university will undoubtedly be full of memories, or lack of them ;). Getting the most out of university is all about finding a perfect balance of the work hard play hard ethic. Unlike a lot of people's experience at school, you will find somewhere to fit in even if it isn't straight away you'll know when it happens.  Don't hold back and just make the most of what's on offer to you, never again will you have so much opportunity just served on a plate right under your nose.

If you have any of your own pieces of advice for those fresh faced Freshers then post them below!
Uni allowed me to climb Mt Kilimanjaro for crying out loud! Get out there!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Busy Bee!

There are so many things I need to write to you guys about such as the rest of my time in Tanzania, the Bon Iver gig I was privileged to go to last week followed by the hairy bikers and the recent news that I am heading out to Canada in January...

Unfortunately exam season has hit and so my workload at uni has quadrupled. After the 14th December I will be back on top form!

Have a nice picture of Justin Vernon to tide you over for now.

Friday, November 02, 2012

I pretended to be a scientist....

Although I am studying a biology degree, I often feel like a bit of an art student in a lab coat. I thought I'd add to my facade by writing about science. One thing I love more than travelling and food is sleep, so I decided to get all scientific about sleep:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Graveyard of the Unknown

Albern Hafen is situated along the banks of the Danube and is one of Vienna’s not-so-grand industrial districts. Instead of grand baroque architecture we slowed the car down outside a large warehouse wedged between some industrial silos. The glare of floodlights hit us and that was briefly followed by the nip of the cold November-evening air. My aunt handed me and my cousin a pack of candles and we turned towards the only signs of life on this ghostly harbour. One by one we lit a candle and set them down next to each grave, I started with a grave simply named Mary. I did not know who Mary was. I did not know anybody buried here. There are some graves here that nobody knows. They are unknown.

 Vienna’s lesser known 'Freidhof der Namenlosen' means Graveyard of the Unknown as the many of the bodies are named with just a Christian name, if anything. The graveyard lies on the banks of the Danube at the place where bodies were washed up by the flow. Many of these bodies were from boating accidents but the majority were suicides and never got a proper burial.  In the late 1800’s bodies were buried in unnamed graves by the side of the Danube but from the 1900’s onwards a second cemetery was built which has been maintained to this day.

The cemetery had a brief appearance in the film “Before Sunrise” and gained some tourists hoping to lose themselves in Vienna like the film’s protagonists. The cemetery is one of Vienna’s hidden treasures and remains unspoilt due to it’s relative inaccessibility. There is only one bus that passes Albern Hafen, but beware that in the wrong context the word “albern” could mean 'foolish'. The harbour is relatively hard to navigate  even when you have a car. Despite the industrial surroundings, the cemetery is set in it’s own natural oasis by the river encased by trees. The cemetery is one of the few sites left in Vienna that does not leave you fighting for elbow space even in the height of summer. One visit leaves a lasting impression

On the first night of November, while the United Kingdom is busy preparing their bonfires and clearing away pumpkin residue, other parts of Europe celebrate All Saints Day. Poland and other predominantly Catholic European countries celebrate All Saints Day by lighting candles by the graves of the dead to remember them. This  produces a light display to rival the fireworks back home. In Vienna the ZentralFreidhof becomes illuminated by candles of those paying their respects to celebrated figures such as Ludwig Beethoven as well as many of their relatives. The Friedhof der Namenlosen may not appear as impressive as the larger graveyards in this grand city but there is something so much more touching about the celebration here. The thought that all those unnamed bodies still have someone there to remember them even though they are left with nothing, not even a name.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Little Gems - Covers Special

Maxence Cyrin does melancholic covers a bunch of contemporary  and often dance, songs and makes them sound lovely. Songs that are made for either late night thinking or Sunday morning relaxing...

I've enjoyed a bit of Stu Larsen for a while, if you are a fan of Passenger you have more likely than not heard of Stu too. I recommended him some songs once and he sent me a copy of his album. Great guy. Enjoy his nice wee cover of Mr Brightside too.

Daniel Docherty was busking in Dundee a few weeks ago and spends pretty much all of his time busking around the country for a living. He has a beautifully distinctive voice as well as mad guitar skillz. I can't wait for the day he has it all recorded everything onto a CD so I can enjoy his songs away from just looping them on youtube.

I have recently been infected bythe most infectous disease around, One-Directionitis. Luckily this dibilitating condition can give you some nice side effects, like finding this cover by the singer known as Tich.

I haven't been that big an X-factor fan in the past but I saw Ella Henderson's bootcamp audtion and I thought it was amazing. I love nothing more than a cover that is compleltely different to the original and she did just that!

With the recent Mumford and Sons mania with the release of Babel and the announcement of their forthcoming tour I stumbled across this little gem from Kate McGill casually singing my favourite old Mumford track in the bathroom.

Ray Lamontagne is a folk genius and although his song-writing skills are brilliant he can also do amazing covers.

Kudos to First Aid Kit for performing this track infront of Paul Simon himself. These sisters capture that spirit of 1968 for those who wish they were there.

Many people in the UK were impressed by James Arthurs rendition of LMFAO's "Sexy and I know it". Few of those people will know that James Arthur has Noah to thank. Noah's version is amazing and I hate LMFAO but he makes me actually like this song.

Friday I am in Love is one of my all time favourite songs and I didn't think it could get any better but I am a sucker for a stripped down version. Scars on 45 are pretty unknown in the UK, despite coming from Yorkshire, but they are making a name for themselves in the USA.

If Dolly was a heavy smoker, this is what she would sound like.

I just found this today and it is an absolutely beautiful cover of Robyn's Dancing on my Own by a Danish Girl's Choir fro Mariagerfjord , a small county in Denmark. I really want to be part of a choir now!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Someone already living my dream!

Have a wander over to this blog by Marta and Raul who are cycling the length of  the Americas with real aim or plan other than to be on the road.

That's how it's done.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Memoirs of an Air League Scholar

On a New Year’s resolution style whim I applied for a scholarship from the Air League which offered 12 hours flying towards gaining your Private Pilots Licence (PPL).  Shortly after applying I got invited to an interview at Tayside aviation. I was petrified for technical questions or some mental maths but all they were testing me on was my interest in flying.  I was interviewed by Kate Watt who is the Scholarship manager at Tayside and Michael Todhunter from The Swire Charitable Trust who would be my sponsor. Although I was 15 minutes early my interview, it finished before it was even meant to start. I left feeling confident as the only note Mr Todhunter made was “v. good.”

A few days later while I was passing Dundee on the train  I got a phone call from Tayside Aviation telling me I had won the scholarship! I couldn’t believe it and I spent the rest of the train trip smiling like an idiot.

Three months later at 8:30am on the 21st of August I was starting my training. I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what to wear or what to bring except for sunglasses. I was training alongside Air Cadets who had travelled from all over the country to carry out their Air Cadet Pilot Scheme training. It turned out even though they were 3 years younger than me, they all had gliding scholarships under their belts.  The other Air League scholar was a girl who had already done the ACPS course and was also studying Aeronautical engineering.  Even the introductory lecture made me feel like the dunce of the class.

The next day I got to meet my instructor and get into a plane for the first time since a Groupon trial flying lesson. I was both petrified and excited.  I can’t say I got on amazingly well with my instructor as I don’t think he was quite aware that I was not as clued up as everybody else. However his cruel-to-be-kind tactics got me studying harder which in retrospect was very useful.

On my first day in the sky I had to get taught all the basics of flying and there wasn’t really time to run over things twice. The amount of work I had to do in the first three days of my scholarship was more than I felt like I had done the whole summer including climbing Kilimanjaro and working at Wimbledon. Even though it was hard work and I dreaded what my instructor was going to tut at next, when I was up in the air I enjoyed every minute! Remember that buzz you had during driving lessons when your instructor stopped clinging onto the edge of the chair? Well try that buzz 3000ft in the sky.

In the first few lessons we flew out of Dundee airpace to practice climbing, descending and stalling out of harms way.  Once we had ticked the boxes on the basics we spent time learning the circuit around the airport for landing and take-off. The cadets and myself were aiming to go solo within 12 hours of flying which involved doing one of this circuits without the help of an instructor. I wasn’t thinking hopefully as I just couldn’t catch up as quickly, I would rather get hold of the basics properly than rush them just to go solo. After seven days  I had clocked up my 12 hours and I had learnt more in the past few days than I had in two years of a degree, as well as realising a childhood dream.

Pretty much anyone is eligible to apply to a scholarship as long as they show enough enthusiasm and can afford the annual members fee(about £30 for students). The current price for getting your PPL is currently around £6000-£7000 and if that scares you don’t even think about the price of the full commercial licence. Other than entering through the RAF, becoming a pilot is a posh boys game and those with access to Mummy and Daddy funds. However scholarships are becoming more readily available and the RAF Air Cadet scheme is also a great way to get a foot in the door.

If anyone wants tips or advice on applying for a scholarship then please leave a comment and I will get back to you!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chocolate French Toast

Don't knock it until you've tried it...

To Grab:

Cocoa powder
Chocolate chips

Dissolve some cocoa powder is some warm water to form a thin paste.

Mix the paste up with some eggs and cream until smooth and runny.

Dip those slices of brioche all in there.

Heat up a frying pan to a medium-high heat and melt up some butter.

Fry one slice of brioche and flip after a few minutes.

Put a few chocolate chips on the cooked side.

Immediately add the next slice of eggy brioche to a seperate part of the pan.

Once one side is cooked place it on top of the chocolate chips.

Carefully flip the sandwich and cook the other side, nobody likes burnt chocolate!

Add some more chocolate chips and continue stacking in this way as high as you want to go!


Bizarre Orcadian Traditions

Travel brochures and guide books cover most things to expect when visiting Orkney, but there are a lot of traditions that they miss out that leave many tourists simply bamboozled.


If you see a group of men or women covered in treacle banging drums on the back of a truck, it is most likely that you have just seen your first blackening. A blackening usually occurs at some point the week before a wedding and the bride and groom are taken on their seperate trucks and the aim is to get the couple as drunk, and as dirty as possible. All the while you are being driven around the town trying to make as much noise as possible. Local policemen describe blackenings as an "acceptable breach of the peace."  A blackening usually ends up with the bride or groom either in the sea or tied to a local landmark with clingfilm - which would you prefer? The origin of this tradition is fairly uncertain but has thought to have something to do with ensuring the bride/groom is dirty before the washing ceremony before a wedding.

The Orcadian Dialect

"Beuy, I'll tak a peedie swadge as me puggie is affie full o' wind."
This is roughly translated as "I need a rest after this meal because I have flatulance."

Although the Orcadian dialect is dying out there are still many phrases and words in circulation today and is a large part of the identity of the county. The strongest accents can be hard enough for me to understand let alone a poor Frenchman who has barely got the gist of English. Many words are nearer the Norwegian equivalent than the English. The Orcadian dialect comes from Norn, which was a mixture of Norse and Scots and provides Orcadians with a "sing-song" accent of the same tonality as Norwegian and an accent not a million miles from Welsh.
Some of my favourite Orcadian words:
Peedie - Small
Pugie - stomach
Swadge - A rest after a meal to let your food settle so you can continue eating.
Gansey - Jumper
Throughby - Next door

Shopping week

The Queen and her Attendants
In the middle of July every year my hometown of Stromness has it's main calender event which used to be the week of the year where traders were attracted to sell goods within the town and beyond. Nowadays it is more just an excuse for a bit of a party; for the whole week there is a programme of events to keep all ages happy. Most notable events are the Yard O' Ale, three legged beer race around the town and the parade followed by an open air dance on the Saturday. One of the strangest traditions as an outside must be the "Shopping Week Queen." On the opening Monday there is a ceremony in the morning, not unlike a wedding ceremony, where a girl in a long white dress accompanied by two "attendants" and led through the town in a horse and carriage. The "Shopping Week Queen" is elected by fellow pupils in the local secondary school and often has to spend their first Shopping week as an eighteen year old by being respectable and keeping up with their duties.

59° North

Other than the Shetland Isles, Orkney is as far north as you can get in the UK. Located on the same latitude as St Petersberg and Alaska we should experience temperatures similar to that of a freezer but thanks to the North Atlantic Drift we get a much milder, wetter experience. However we do get to take advantage of about 20 hour daylight during the summer solstice and the occasional glimpse of the Northern lights in the winter months. Unfortunately this comes with darkness from 1pm to 4pm in winter. 

Orcadian Strip the Willow

Throughout the year there are several "barn dances" that have grown from a get together in a barn to celebrate a good harvest but are now major gatherings for locals. It has also lead to the development of our own versions of Scottish dances. Our version of Strip the Willow has become popular on the Scottish mainland too as it is much more fun as it involves more people and much more spinning!

Ploughing Match and Festival of The Horses

The Horses
I don't know how many of you will be familiar with the concept of ploughing matches but they are normally done by horsepower or on tractors and are meant to demonstrate precision and skill in the art of ploughing. However in the town of St Margarets Hope the ploughing is all man-power, well boy-power. The horses are not forgotten though as other children dress up in elaborate costumes to represent horses with harnesses and straps. These costumes are often very beautiful and handed down generations with each generation adding something to the costume.

North Ronaldsay Sheep
Yup, we have sheep that eat seaweed because they somehow got stuck on a beach on the wrong side of a six-foot wall. Confined to Orkneys northernmost island of North Ronaldsay this exotic feral breed of sheep are bred for their wool. They have evolved a unique method of extracting sugar from seaweed and graze and ruminate in-sync with the tides.

The Ba
The Ba is notoriously hard to explain to people. It's is essentially a massive ball game with no rules where beefy men fight for a leather ball.  Oh yeah and it all happens in the middle of winter. There are two teams, the "uppies" and "doonies" and their allegiance is decided by where they lived but is now mainly through family loyalties. Orkney's biggest town, Kirkwall closes down on Boxing day and New Years Day and shops board up their windows as the streets fill with spectators. There is also a 'Boy's Ba' which takes place earlier in the day which is just as brutal. Each side has a goal; the uppies head inland whereas the doonies have to end up in the sea. If you are still confused this video might help give you more of an idea:

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Hoy Tape

My playground

Every Friday I would run from school and straight onto the ferry that would take me to the island of Hoy: my muddy childhood paradise during the summer. My family had a cottage on the island that sat high up on a hill. Heated by peat that my Dad had dug up and dried earlier in the summer and water came from a homemade pump up the hill. The gas stove was just about functional to cook some tins of soup for dinner and the porch was cold enough to function as a fridge so I could have my bowl of coco-pops in the morning. The hill was home to miles of heather which provided my sister with berries for jam and my granddad with the pink flowers he used to make his infamously intoxicating homebrew of heather ale.  The cottage provided me with the best playground a child could ask for: there was a beach with a sea to swim in, sand to search for treasure, endless animals to draw and keep as temporary pets, and endless places to explore and conquer.

The house, the dog and the Lada.
 Over the years, our cottage in Hoy became a bit of a graveyard for cars as my parents inability to throw anything out progressed beyond the boundaries of the house walls. Most of the cars still actually worked but although failing an MOT means something in most places, Hoy is not one of them. One by one our family cars ended up there. As a child my favourite car was our tough Soviet Lada Cossack 4x4 which was white with black zebra stripes. Every time I got in it I felt like we were about to embark on an epic adventure deep into the rainforest. The thing didn’t even have seats in the back but was so full of things that it wasn’t much of a problem and we didn’t mind cuddling up to the dog. The car had a single green and white cassette tape that I would play whenever we went anywhere in that car and those songs will forever remind me of driving around Hoy with my family. More so it reminds me of my real childhood, the one before computers appeared. The one that instantly makes you remember the smell of mud in your hair and when car journeys really did seem to take a lifetime.

‘The Hoy Tape’ as it became to be known had songs that at the time I had no idea what they were but later in life I heard them and was instantly transported back. My mum recently found the Hoy Tape and wrote down the eclectic mixture including soul from The Drifters, country in the form of Neil Diamond and Glenn Campbell and even some 70s glam rock from Marc Bolan. However even with modern technology, they will never quite sound the same as they did on the crackling tape player while I wiped sand out from between my toes and seaweed from my hair. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

A Young Person's Guide to Orkney

Are you planning to travel to Orkney? I grew up in Orkney and there are a few things locals know that would be valuable for tourists to know when visiting the islands.

As both a young person and a local, I can't help notice that most of the people visiting Orkney are of an older stature and it's always quite exciting if I meet a group of young tourists. It would be quite refreshing to get more young people visiting the islands as it might help develop more things for young residents to do on the islands as well as young people visiting the county.

 Most young Orcadians will agree that there isn't much to do on Orkney, but this is mainly in the winter time when the weather doesn't really let you leave the house. In the summer my local town, at least, is full of students home for the Summer from university and the pubs are full of young people. In the summer Orkney has a great pub scene, especially during the Folk Festival in late May every year. This is a weekend full of organised gigs as well as spontaneous pub gigs. There is also Stromness Shopping Week which is another time to meet groups of young Orcadians in the pubs as it is usually a "must" to be back home for. This is a week long gala-like celebration, think of it like a mini-jubilee every year, which is quite bizarre for a tourist to see as the opening ceremony looks bizarrely like a wedding. There is a "Shopping Week Queen" elected from the local school by fellow pupils and they get to spend the whole week in a pretty (usually white) dress for the whole week with two attendants (bridesmaids essentially) also chosen from the local school. Along with bizarre old time traditions there are stalls and a variety of activities as well as, you guessed it, an active pub scene.

Another "must" for students to return home for is "the shows" which are agricultural shows which are good fun to visit during the day  but even more exciting is the night time celebrations which usually involve a band as well as a lot of drinking. The biggest of these shows in "The County Show" where this year's evening acts included Scotland's favourite twins the Proclaimers. The shows are usually held in the first week of August and usually coincides with Orkney's best weather.

Now, Orkney doesn't just have the pubs on offer, us young locals like to take advantage of the spectacular scenery we have here. If you are studying in Scotland you are most likely in one of the big cities, Orkney offers a very different landscape to the cities and is easily reached by ferry from Aberdeen (they also offer a student discount but only on telephone or in-person bookings). Although this ferry is 6 hours long as long as you take a good book or a laptop and some films you will be fine. There is wifi but it is very temperamental and I would buy some food before you board as it is notoriously expensive, then again the battered haddock at the restauerant is one of the best I have had... Flying is also an option but is often very, very expensive. It is cheaper to fly to Bergen from Kirkwall than to Edinburgh, Orkney logic.

Brochures will tell you numerous sights to see and some of the most scenic spots are best visited in the evenings when the majority of tourists have headed home and Orkney is renown for producing some spectacular sunsets that are worth staying up for. Some of my favourite beauty spots for sunset watching are Skaill, Rackwick Bay on Hoy, Waulkmill Bay in Orphir and Yesneby. Skara Brae is one of Orkney's most famous tourist attractions and is located next to Skaill Beach and at night anyone can get into the site for free via the beach if you walk along the edge of the coast from the beach car park. I am not 100% sure if this is actually okay to do but it's been accessible for many years with the gate unlocked so I don't see the issue as long as you take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints!

The easiest way to get around Orkney is by car, but this can be expensive and you may notice that fuel in Orkney is surprisingly expensive considering we have one of the main oil terminals for the North Sea located on Flotta. Currently petrol is around £1.47 per litre and I won't dare tell you diesel prices. One little tip I can give you is that for some unknown reason the petrol in the village of Dounby is cheaper than elsewhere on the island so if you can find your way there then try and fill up when you can! The buses are relatively few and far between but do offer services to the main attractions but do not give you the freedom to go as you please.

Orkney looks best dressed between May-August as the weather is often at it's sunniest, not necessarily warmest though... May offers a great pub scene with the Folk Festival, in June there is the Summer solstice which lasts pretty much 24 hours on Orkney and July and August provide the busiest event calender for the county. Bear in mind though that later in the summer Orkney begins to get plagued by "midgies" which are smaller, and more irritating mosquitoes and stop you from being able to eat outdoors without ingesting some extra protein. It is also entirely possible to travel to Orkney in Winter but the weather is much riskier and the options for tourists will be a lot more limited. The "Merry Dancers" or Northern Lights have been spotted on the isles on numerous occasions and are one of the few places in the UK they are regularly spotted.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Everybody in our group made it to the summit which was unbelievable as we passed many people having to descend through Altitude sickness. Although it seems like a bit feat to have climbed the World’s highest free-standing mountain, we only had to talk to the guides and porters to put things into perspective. One of our guides completed his 840th summit attempt and was heading up again in another few days. The porters are required to carry so much equipment and when they sprint past you instantly stop complaining… They really are the unsung heroes of Kilimanjaro. Their praises should be sung as loudly as they themselves sang on the mountain.

As a farewell, the 55 strong team of guides and porters gathered to sing us traditional mountain songs and we all ended up dancing and singing with them. The last morning was slightly emotional as the past six days had been unbelievable yet one of the toughest things we had ever done. The amount of work that the porters and guides put in over the course of the six days is outstanding and often provide a better service than anywhere 5895m nearer sea level.

As we trudged back down through the rainforest I experienced my first fall of the trip which left me with a more than impressive bruise on my bum. The group could essentially go at our own pace but the porters were absolutely racing down the mountain. The walk was  relatively quick due to good company (alas, I had no idea you could have a 15 minute conversation about one salad) and the fact every step down from the summit was easier, well except on the old knees.

Upon arrival at the Mweka Gate there was a group of porters and guides singing and dancing to congratulate us on reaching the top.After signing out for the last time and grabbing some souveniers we headed down to our bus. Rather than being at the gate, the bus was parked at the village down from the gate and this gave any hassling salesmen the chance to hawk us down, but by now most of us were getting pretty savvy at haggling. At this point we had to say goodbye to two of our guides; Msechu and Pasco but we invited them round to the hotel in the evening.

The drive back was a bizarre sensation as we experienced motion that wasn't self-propelled for the first time in days. Back at the hotel we were all desperate for a shower but there was only time for one person to shower before we had to be ready for lunch. As the seldom clean people started to appear we realised the extend of how disgusting the rest of us were, but nothing could prepare us for the colour the shower-water would be.

The evening was spent on the balcony with everyone enjoying some beers and the feeling of being clean but as for me, I spent the evening thinking I had Lyme disease due to a rash I'd picked up on my ankle. Everyone thought I was being ridiculous as usual and convinced me so. On return to the UK I got to rub it in their faces by being right all along as I was diagnosed with it and treated. Yes, I am a ridiculous human being and excellent hypochondriac.

 Later that evening some of the guides came round the hotel with our certificates from the Park offices to celebrate reaching the top. It was lovely to see them again so soon and a nice round off to a wonderful experience.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Summit Day

Barafu Camp (4673m) - Uhuru Peak (5985m) (and back down to Mweka Camp 3100m)

The Morning of Summit Day
I woke up thanking my lucky stars that out of sheer exhaustion I fell asleep with 4 layers and a down jacket on as the tent door broke as Kyra and Emma were heading to bed. The freezing temperatures and pitch darkness was somewhat disorientating as we headed to our mess tent for breakfast. Morale was pretty low at breakfast but I tried my best to keep everyone going and Dan's Lindt chocolate brightened up  our faces and our porridge. After breakfast we said a prayer under the starts in respect of the guides and tradition and by 1am we were plodding along at summit pace.

Sunrise on Kibo
Doing the final ascent in the dark had it's advantages, as you couldn't see quite how far-and how high- you had left to go. It also showed how impressive the guides were as they were able to navigate the footpaths in the dark. The actual walking was pretty monotonus other than the obvious steep gradient, much steeper than previous days. Breaks were becoming much more regular and the guides came round with an ominous white powder and told us to take it, thankfully it was nothing more than glucose powder. A few members of our group had to slow down and wait behind as altitude started to hit and we also passed several people having to descend due to altitude sickness. Thankfully for me I wasn't experiencing anything more than breathlessness of every other day but combined with general exhaustion didn't leave me feeling exactly on top of the world, yet. Kyra and I tried to rectify the mutual feeling of fatigue by singing but low levels of oxygen didn't make that an easy task!

I promise you this is frozen Berrocca, not pee. 
Stella Point was the first major rest point the guides had told us about, but the walk seemed never ending. Stella Point is at 5745m, over 1000m from Barafu Camp which was our starting point that evening. You could see the light from the head-torches of climbers dotting the sky like stars, reminding us how far there still was left to go. The temperature was also dropping to below freezing and our platypus' were starting to freeze The ascent to Stella Point was the worst we all had felt, but just as we were given up, the sun broke through the horizon and managed to warm our cold fingers and dampened spirits.

Stella Point
When we finally reached Stella Point the sun had risen high above but was still producing a cacophony of colour as the clouds started to dance around Barafu camp but left the view of Kibo crater unspoilt. You could see the summit and fellow climbers around the sign celebrating and if the sun didn't boost your morale then that did. The walk to the peak was only about 200m away but because we had to go "pole-pole"  it was going to take us and hour and a half. For the first time during the climb I plugged into my ipod which was also cheering me on as I had "I will survive" in my ear as I reached the summit. As we walked up climbers on their way down were spurring you on and when the sign was in sight any aches and pains banished as Msechu (one of the guides) and me were dancing and singing our way to the top. Msechu was great for keeping spirits high throughout the climb which was important as I think having a positive attitude was a very large part of what got me up to the top.

Many people say that reaching the summit is like a drunken night out – you need photos to piece everything together. You remember seeing the sign and hugging everyone but details are blurred. Never-the-less, we had such a huge sense of relief and satisfaction that we had finally made it that any tiredness was banished by complete euphoria and relief. There was only time for a few photos as we had to head back down again after about five minutes. Everything felt so easy and you forgot you were still over 5000m asl. This time you were doing the cheering on to those heading up and when we bumped into the girls we had lost on the way up everyone was over-joyed as it meant every single one of us had made it to the top!
At the Summit!

On the way back to Stella Point I even managed to get signal on my phone and phoned home, forgetting it was actually 5am back home and my parents were actually in Spain so woke up my poor aunt who was dog-sitting. Thankfully she is the type who appreciated a call from the top of the world regardless of the hour. Our walk back to camp, well I say walk but we were essentially dry skiing down Kilimanjaro, took two hours even though it took us 8 hours on the way up . However by now my knees were ready to fall off and so a welcome rest at the bottom was just what I needed. Unfortunately we were only allowed a two hour nap before the turnover of brave climbers at Barafu Camp sent us packing all the way down to Mweka Camp at a mere 3100m.
View From Stella Point

Our body clocks had skipped several time zones over the past few days and so any sleep was better than none. Twelve hours after heading out to the summit, we were heading out on the road again and we all thought we would be fitter since we had got to the top but even a trip to the bathroom resulted in a minor aneurysm. After a brief lunch we headed along  several stony ridges and before we knew it we were surrounded by the same foliage as day one. We all headed down at our own pace which was nice but we passed several more people who had severe altitude sickness, some even had to get a piggy-back back down again. 

Heading back down again.
Mweka camp is the first camp on the Mweka route but also the last camp for most routes. Compared to the rest of the camps this one seemed like a hotel. For the first time there were toilets with a seat and there was even a sink, alas minus running water. I had arrived before Kyra and Emma and so I made sure that last nights freezer experience wasn't going to happen again but scouting out one of the remaining tents that had a working zip. Our dinner that evening felt like the best we had had yet, however that might have had something to do with the fact that we had descended 2000m and our appetites had come back with a vengeance. Our heads hit the pillow for a well deserved rest after conquering our Goliath and prepared us for leaving the mountain behind.