Eurotrip Day 36: Bright Sunday Sunshine in Madrid

Had the most lovely afternoon ever. Long bus ride from Granada back to Madrid, and after checking in, I went to Parc Retiro, Madrid’s equivalent of a Central Park.

It was wonderful. Spring flowers in full bloom, bright sunshine, clear skies, tall pruned hedges, tons of benches to rest on, soft grass to sit on, and above all, thousands of Madrilenos all out and relaxing in the park. The main thoroughfares of the park were a beehive of activity, perfect for people-watching. People-watching is pretty interesting in Madrid. Families, retired persons, young couples, guys skateboarding or cycling, middle-aged persons jogging… a colourful moving portrait of activity and non-stop chattering (the Spanish talk very animatedly).

The park has several monuments, including a pretty impressive Crystal Palace (looked like the greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow, but bigger), elegant fountains, statues and ponds. Near these areas human activity is at its most bustling and busiest, and at times so crowded its like Orchard Road on a weekend. There's the usual group of people who make a living by painting themselves silver and standing stationary for hours, or by dressing up as Minnie Mouse and going around entertaining children for spare change.

This park is not as massive as Central Park or Hyde Park in London (actually I can’t say for sure, didn’t have time to enjoy the latter thanks to the lousy English weather throughout my stay in London), but its large, and there’s space for everyone, even on a Sunday afternoon. I walked away from the busy areas and down one of the numerous shady tree-lined little paths, and plonked myself down on a bench directly facing the sun. Took off my jacket and glasses, rolled up my shirt sleeves, plugged in my earphones and then lay on the bench, enjoying the warm sunshine (I like it that you can ENJOY and not hate sunshine here unlike in humid Singapore!). I whiled away the last remaining hours of the afternoon in this fashion, doing nothing in particular. There are times when doing nothing on this trip makes me think of home, but there are also times when it makes me realise how lucky I am to actually have this chance to be doing nothing. One of the little luxuries in life must be not making productive use of one’s time. I could really get used to these Sunday afternoon rest-times in the park.

Today was the first day of Daylight Savings Time. All the clocks moved forward an hour, and 2am 28th March became 3am 28th March. Its a pretty good idea actually, because then you’ll spend more time outdoors. 8.30pm and the sun’s setting on another glorious day in Spain.

Eurotrip Day 34-35: Granada

Left Sevilla and went to Granada by train. 

Arrived in Granada in the afternoon and checked into the hostel. Hostels in Europe are all pretty good, actually. They’re clean, comfortable, cosy and have this built-in friendly atmosphere that allows you to make friends. But I was feeling pretty unfriendly and introverted during my stay in the Granada hostel, so I mostly kept to myself. Sometimes I find myself getting tired of making small talk with people at the hostel, only to just leave a few days later. That’s the biggest difference with couchsurfing I guess. Through couchsurfing, I feel like I’m building a friendship, but staying at a hostel feels like just passing through. Its true that sometimes even such passing encounters lead to good memories, like in the hostel at Sevilla, but right now, I just need to be by myself, quiet and alone. I need to regain the feeling of independence and freedom that propelled me to travel alone on this trip in the first place.

Woke up early the next morning to queue for tickets at the Alhambra, Spain’s most visited tourist destination, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an attraction that had its tickets for the next two weeks sold out online, the last stronghold of the Moorish before they were driven by the Christians from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquest. Everyone I’ve met who’s been there, every review I read online, all pointed to an amazing, almost life-changing place. It was even described as “on par” with the 7 wonders of the world.

Well, its not. I much preferred the Alcazar in Sevilla, which was free-of-charge for students (the Alhambra had a 12 euro admission fee) and didn’t require any queuing. Sure, the Alhambra is beautiful, and has a great view, but it stops there. Sevilla’s Alcazar is lavish, grand and jaw-dropping in its intricacy and beauty. In contrast, Granada's Alhambra feels like a disjointed public park of sorts, with no interconnectivity between the buildings. One moment you’re in a paid area and the next you’re walking through what looks like a modern thoroughfare lined with souveniour shops and then you suddenly come to an old building again, before finding yourself in a garden of sorts that looked like it could have been built anytime between the 12th century and today, such was its "timeless” look. Really, the Alcazar was better, and the Alhambra somewhat disappointing.

Anyway, I got there at a quarter to 7 when it was still 7 degrees celsius at dusk and whiled the almost 2-hour queue by talking to a fellow traveller from Brazil. She’s taking a semester abroad in Madrid (a lot of the people I meet on this trip are actually doing that, and there's especially a ton of Americans studying in Spain. You know what Europeans say about Americans -- you can hear them before you see them). Learnt quite a bit about Brazil and Spain in general by talking to this traveller.

We had an interesting conversation about languages and culture. I’d rank Spanish as one of the major world languages, along with English, Mandarin and Arabic. The great thing about being Singaporean Chinese is that it immediately gives me a huge advantage in that I can speak two of these major languages.

Europeans are fiercely European, I’ve realised. They like to learn each other’s languages, and basically live in a world where there’s only other European countries. Cosmopolitan in that they readily embrace the ideas, cultures and languages of other European countries, but also un-globalised as compared to Singapore or other Asian countries in that they don’t look outside of Europe much. At least Spain doesn’t. Many Spanish I meet can speak French, German, Italian, Portuguese, i.e. languages that used to be as widely spoken as English is today, but they don’t know anything about Asia at all. They are European, but not globalized. We know much more about them than they know about us, which I think is definitely a pity. 

After wandering through the Alhambra for a bit, the Brazilian girl was so tired that she fell asleep on a bench and I tried to pick myself up and went to explore the Albazyin, the old Arabic quarter. I had a pretty good time, actually, climbing the steep cobblestone streets and admiring the whitewashed Mediterranean houses. This area is authentically lived-in, and doesn’t feel like a Disney-Granada like so many old historic towns feel (especially those in Japan, with all the old houses converted to omiyage shops). In Spain, all the old buildings are actually lived in by residents, some of whom may not be wealthy, despite the heritage of their buildings. I can’t tell for sure, but the people living in the Albazyin, a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Granada, don’t look like rich folk. A positive point in Spain’s favour is that it has managed to preserve so much of its heritage as it modernises. Take the old buildings for example. There are so many of them around even now, still lived-in by residents. Its a huge pity that China is demolishing so many of those as it rushes headlong into becoming a world power, as well as during the Cultural Revolution, absolutely one of the most horrible episodes in world history.

Eurotrip Day 33: Rain

The previous night, the hostel organised a free flamenco show and we went to watch it. It was not very good, I think, although it was apparent the dancer had very strong feet (she was stamping away non-stop during the entire duration). Not bad though, for a free show. Following that the two American girls, the Korean girl and I found our way back to the hostel, where we had supper in the kitchen (they ate doner kebab, I had croissant with chocolate).

Before the show, I had a very impassioned discussion with a Finnish guy staying in the hostel. I felt slightly insulted when he criticised Singapore, saying it's “sterile”, and saying that marijuana, cocaine and other drugs should be legal in every country, that fining people is the wrong approach to curb littering, and that countries with the death penalty are “backward”. I can’t stand these liberal hippie-types who try to impose their radical ideas on the whole world. Apparently the only way is to be as westernised as possible, so that we aren’t “backward” and “sterile”. I don’t agree with the death penalty, and I think Singapore is sometimes too strict, but the thing I hate most is when people criticise Singapore without ever having been here. I do not think at all that we are a “sterile” country. And yeah, Singapore is pretty boring, we don’t do marijuana, taxes are low, we have very low crime, you feel safe walking home at night, there’s no natural disasters, no one disrupts the airline and train services by striking, the streets don’t have horse and dog poo on them, people don’t smoke in restaurants, weather is at least better than London’s, no one vandalises your houses by spraying masterpieces of “graffiti” on them, and food is very edible here. Well, the same can’t be said for a lot of European countries!

- end of rant -

Next morning, the skies were gloomy. Somehow my mood changed a lot. I guess weather has a lot to do with my feelings! I feel so happy and carefree when its warm and sunny, but when its overcast and drizzly, I feel rather sian. Went out to walk a bit but didn’t have much enthusiasm and then got back to the hostel to laze around. In the evening, had a pretty interesting chat with the girls and Arele as well as Betty (Argentinean guy and Hungarian girl respectively; they run the hostel). Then we went for drinks with 3 German guys who were also staying there. It was pretty interesting talking to them and I think I’m getting better at telling which country a person is from based on their face shape.

It was fun hanging out with this diverse group of people from all over the world and drinking with them. But drinking in Spain is pretty tame though compared to the UK. Really, the UK wins hands-down for drinking culture. The people there just drink and drink and drink, and beer comes in pint-sized mugs. Unlike Spain, where they come in tiny glasses that are less than a half-pint in volume. The Germans were positively mocking the beer in Spain, saying that they have better beer in Germany. Funny thing about Spain is that they have a very uh, warped, version of time though. They eat dinner at 10pm, drink at 12am, and then go partying at 3am till 8 in the morning.  Perfect country for insomniacs, I guess. And if you like working, go to Korea – they have just 5 days of annual leave a year, or so we heard over drinks. Germans and Spaniards are entitled to at least 1 month.

The most amazing fact about Europe is that you have so many diverse countries with totally different cultures, food and drink (British microwaved food and Spanish overpriced tapas are miles apart), peoples and languages (for example, Hungarian is not at all related to the language of any neighbouring country around it, its supposedly closer to Estonian and, get this, Korean!). And all packed into a tiny continent, with small countries, side-by-side. I’d say its definitely the most diverse region in the world.

Eurotrip Day 32: Satiated in Sevilla

Question: Which is the country with the second-highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world?

Answer: Spain, of course!

Spain’s such an exotic country to me, especially the city of Sevilla. Its definitely very un-European. The weather is almost always clear and sunny, the people lively, and the architecture decidedly unique. Another great day today. It feels like I’ve been having a succession of good days in Spain, over and over, and I’m seriously entertaining the thought of staying in the Iberian Peninsula, missing my flight to Paris and such, and then just buying a ticket home when its time to go.

Woke up and once again, bright sunshine and blue skies greeted me as I looked out of the window. I could get used to this! Had a very expensive (about S$10! First and last time!) but delicious breakfast at a cafe overlooking the plaza just a couple of metres away from my hostel. Basking in the bright sunshine, I started on one of the novels I bought in the charity shops of the UK, munched on my delicious ham-and-cheese sandwich and sipped a cappuccino. All the while indulging in that feeling of contentment and happiness. Lovely.

The weather was positively getting hotter, so for the first time on this trip, I shed my jacket and jeans, and changed into T-shirt, shorts and slippers back at the hostel. Never has sunshine felt so comfortably warm. I cannot even begin to describe how light-hearted and high-spirited I felt as I strolled down the maze-like streets in the ancient quarter and found my way to Sevilla’s No.1 tourist attraction, the Alcazar.

This could very well be one of the best things I’ve seen in my life. It ranks right up there with the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden Palace, Bondi Beach in Sydney, Mount Fuji and the Scottish Highlands in my personal rankings of things I’m glad to have seen in life. An absolutely stunning monument deserving all of 10/10.

And the best thing, once again, is that its free. Free-of-charge! 0 euros! (only for students though). But wow, so amazing. You simply have to visit this place one day. It is reason enough to come to Spain. I was stunned beyond belief by the grandeur of the rooms and gardens of this huge palace. The architecture is so unique and intricate, a blend of Islamic and European influence (it was once a Moorish palace, they ruled Spain for quite a long period of time). It's incredible, it's superb, it's fantastic, it's gorgeous, it's beyond words.

I lost track of time as I went shutter-crazy, intent on capturing every single inch of beauty, the lovely fountains, the lush gardens, the delicate carvings, the intricate mosaic tile patterns, the bright colours, the sweeping arches, columns and pillars, the richly-patterned ceilings… and of course I found time to sit down in a corner of the garden by myself, taking in the splendour of the scene before me and scarcely believing what I was seeing. For free! I’d willingly part with 20 euros or more for this, really. The palace is big, and I lost my way several times, but each time I got lost, I discovered another gorgeous courtyard or stunning garden. Each turn, each corner, reveals something of such beauty I felt I could just spend an entire day wandering through, bench-hopping to different corners of the garden, admiring the flowers, the shrubs, the pruned hedges, the cool fountains…

But of course my stomach got the better of me. By 3pm, I was starving, having had nothing to eat since that S$10 cappuccino-and-sandwich at 11am that morning. Since I was having such a wonderful day, I decided to pamper myself further and so gloriously overstretched my budget with an 8 euros (S$16) menu del dia lunch. It roughly translates to set lunch menu of the day, and is a regular fixture in every Spanish bar/restaurant/cafeteria (remember I don’t know how to differentiate between them). They usually cost around 10 euros, but Sevilla seems to have quite a few of these at 8-9 euros. I even saw a 7-euro establishment, but it was empty so I didn’t go there. If I had money, this is what I’d do every day in Spain: wake up early, have a cafe y toasta (coffee and toast) for about 2 euros, explore the old town leisurely, have lunch for 10 euros, then take a siesta or laze at a beach/plaza under the warm sunshine, go for some shopping and pre-dinner drinks, and have a late dinner at 10pm before going for more drinks. Now, that’s the life! But because I’m really just another poor backpacker, I only had an 8-euro menu del dia for lunch and that’s that.

To be completely honest, a S$16 or even S$20 lunch isn’t expensive for what you’re getting. What can S$20 buy you in a restaurant in Singapore? Sub-standard mass-produced crap along the lines of Fish n Co and Cafe Cartel, that’s what (and then comes the irritating 17% surcharge. If I ever become a politician (not that I want to at the moment), the first thing I’ll do is to abolish this practice of tacking on taxes when the bill comes). Here, it gets you two courses, bread, a drink and a desert. Pretty good quality most of the time, from the happy faces of the locals patronising each place, but I have to concede the lunch I had wasn’t the best (probably because its only 8 euros). Still, it was nice to just slow down and relax, eat a very very slow lunch and continue reading that great book I started at breakfast.

On a separate note, throughout the streets of Sevilla, there is this fragrant smell of flowers. It's really nice, and although the streets aren’t as clean as you’d picture, the sweet, flowery smell is very pleasant. The fragrance seems to permeate the entire old town quarter! Looking up, I’d see balconies overflowing with hanging vines and flowering plants. It's just such a beautiful, beautiful city! And although it's incredibly touristy, it's very lived-in as well. I saw school children getting off from school, teenagers hanging out, old people talking in the plazas and many other snippets of daily life on my way back to the hostel.

Perfect weather can’t last forever, and after lunch it finally rained. Not a heavy rain, just a normal-light shower, but still it was pretty irritating. But the weather in Spain is so good that even rains last for less than an hour, and before long the sun was out again. Now, that is something I can get used to!

Eurotrip Day 30: I’m In Love With Spain

Today was one of those perfect days. I seem to be having a lot of them when I travel, especially on this trip! In Cambridge, in York, in the Isle of Skye, in Barcelona, and in Sitges, just to name those that spring to mind… I’ve realised that a lot of what constitutes a perfect day depends on the weather. Today’s weather was gorgeous – bright, clear blue skies with warm sunshine, bringing daytime temperatures to a very comfortable 20 degrees.

Had a nice, long well-deserved sleep and fully recovered from the hangover-like effect of the long distance bus yesterday. Woke up and my spirit immediately lifted when I looked at the sky. Ahhh… I really, really love clear blue skies. Its my favourite weather! Best still if there’s not a single cloud. Even in Singapore, when clear skies mean scorching temperatures, I still like it, because the feeling of looking up at a sky that’s so gorgeously blue and clear for miles is so uplifting and inspiring.

Breakfast was some lemon biscuits that I still had leftover from the UK, dipped in cold semi-skimmed milk. Explored Madrid more wholeheartedly today. Trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds. I walked the streets, admired the architecture, relaxed in the palatial gardens, and I have to say, Madrid isn’t so bad after all. Okay, I like it. I like Madrid. The architecture isn’t as picture-perfect as Barcelona’s gothic quarter and there are no avant garde buildings that bear Gaudi’s name. But the plazas and gardens are just lovely, and there are so many of them in Madrid. Even the touristy places are extremely nice and populated with locals (like the stamp and currency market yesterday at Plaza Mayor).

Many streets outside the very core of the city are not particularly picturesque, with very business-like and functional buildings, but the heart of town, centred on Plaza Sol, is pretty lovely. I enjoyed myself immensely just walking along the streets, taking short detours to see specific landmarks. I especially like the brightly-painted traditional Spanish buildings near Plaza Mayor. Once again, very different from Barcelona! Throughout the day, the song “马德里不思议”by Jolin Tsai kept coming into my head. Its my official theme song for Madrid (because that’s the only song I know about Madrid, I guess). Its tune is so catchy and happy, exactly how I felt the entire day.

I went to this temple with a strange name, which is an ancient Egyptian temple that was donated to Spain by the country of Egypt as a way of saying “thanks for your help” when Egypt was hit hard by a natural disaster some 30-40 years ago (I’m not very good at remembering facts, which is why this sounds so vague). Small but atmospheric and lovely ancient structure. I sat in the park surrounding it, admiring it and eating my 1.20 euro chocolate pastry from one of those lovely Spanish bakeries (they actually bake fresh on the spot, because you can see the kitchen at the back, and are mostly independent-owned, no chain stores! What a brilliant country!)

Once again, I have to say I like the abundance of benches in Spain. You never have to worry about a place to sit down. There are benches everywhere! After sitting on a bench at the temple park, I went to a nearby park that is just next to the royal palace, and sat down there as well. I don’t just sit there and stare blankly into space, mind you, I people-watch, which is a favourite activity in Spain, and sometimes read my copy of Bill Bryson. Its so relaxing to just slow down and do nothing!

The royal palace park was just wonderful. The trees and hedges were neatly trimmed and manicured, and there were a couple of lovely fountains. Now, just picture yourself sitting there, basking in the warmth of 20-degree sunshine, sitting on a bench, reading a book, and occasionally looking up to take in the splendour of the park and palace once more…. ahh…

I have to say that the Spanish Royal Palace is huge. Okay, I haven’t actually been to Buckingham Palace (London isn’t one of my favourite cities and I didn’t feel very much like visiting Buckingham in cold wet winter weather), but yeah, the Spanish Royal Palace is really big. It doesn’t have much of palace grounds, unlike the one in Japan, so all you have is a monstrously huge building that looks like one of those government buildings in Washington D.C. Many tourists milling about, and where there’s tourists, there are pickpockets so needless to say I was being extremely cautious. And also, wherever there’s tourists in Europe, there seems to be people who are willing to dress themselves in unorthodox ways to earn a living. There’s one girl dressed up as a fairy, and stood there immobile in white paint the entire day while people dropped coins into her box. And lots of other people dressed up as strange characters and looking like bronze/silver statues. Bull-fighting matadors seem to be a perennial favourite as well.

Went into the cathedral next to the royal palace, and it was good, but wasn’t particularly interesting or anything (like my previous post about art museums, there are tons of cathedrals and churches in Europe, so I left after a very brief moment.

Walked back to Sol, admiring the architecture as usual, and then back to the hostel at 1pm! At 1pm, most Spanish people have lunch and then take a siesta (i.e. they sleep. What a wonderful country!). But I had already slept too much the night before, so I busied myself cooking exactly the same meal as the previous day (delicious and healthy!), called home and used the internet before heading out again.

Went to the bus station to buy a ticket for the bus to Sevilla the next day. Why are people at tourist information counters at bus/train stations always so glum? Anyway, ticket bought, I decided to go to… okay, I forgot the name of the place. Ah! Alcala de Henares, that’s what it was called (thank you wikitravel). Although the name doesn’t sound particularly attractive (it reminds me of hernia), I have to say, this very town made me fall in love with Spain. After spending four hours here, I’m smitten with this country and can’t wait to return even though I haven’t left yet!

There was a conspicuous lack of tourists the entire day, this being not as popular a day-trip destination from Madrid as Toledo and Segovia are. I really, really loved this town. Its such a beautiful university town. I was in my most contented state ever just wandering through the picture-perfect small college patios and courtyards, down the main street which was lined with plum trees in full bloom, and sitting down on benches in random locations whenever I felt like it.

Grabbed a 500ml San Miguel (just 0.68 euros! It's amazing how cheap beers are in Europe), a baguette and ham-with-olives-in-them (what do you call those?!), then settled down at the central plaza to eat, drink, read, people-watch (old couples holding hands, young couples kissing, teenagers skateboarding, kids darting around, everyone talking and looking so radiant and happy), admire the colourful buildings fronting the plaza and gaze at the clear blue sky gradually turning dark. In these 2 hours, I fell in love over and over again with this country, and was completely smitten by Spain.

And when I tried to find the train station on my way back, the people I met just had to be so smiley and helpful, the most positive reception I’ve ever encountered from strangers so far on this trip. I walked around the old town and back to the train station, listening to music on my iPod, radiating contentment and happiness, and was so full of joy I couldn’t believe myself. It was just so perfect. I love Spain. I love this country, its plazas, its architecture, its mostly-friendly and always beautiful-looking people, its gorgeous weather, its lovely scenery, its exotic culture, its foreign language and its slow, relaxed attitude to life. I love it all.

Eurotrip Day 29: First Impressions of Madrid

I was not in the best state of mind to wander around Madrid, having arrived at 6am on an overnight bus feeling like I spent my entire night preparing for a Projects Day presentation. Couldn’t sleep much on the bus!

A cup of tea and coffee at the hostel failed to perk me up significantly, but I concede I was pretty excited for about 1hr when I explored Madrid. Left the hostel at almost 11am and made my way to the famous Sunday market via Plaza Mayor. Madrid is really completely different from Barcelona. I never thought they were so different! Madrid’s architecture is terrible compared to Barcelona’s, it seems like a jumble of buildings hastily constructed out of nowhere and without the historic, preserved feel of Barcelona. In fact, Madrid looks more like London than Barcelona in my opinion. Not the most pretty city but certainly a large, heaving metropolis and I haven’t had much time to explore it yet so I won’t pass any further judgement yet. Lots of tourists and locals milling about in the market. The market was huge and filled with cheap clothes, antiques and lots of stuff that you’d only find in the Spanish-speaking world like Latin America-style posters, accessories, etc etc. It was rather interesting but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to browse.

But because it was Sunday, the modern art museum was free-of-charge and I wouldn’t be doing myself justice by retiring to the hostel and taking a long siesta. So I went there. And promptly regretted it, because it was another art museum! Yes, they have works by Picasso, Dali and whoever else famous, but really, I have been completely saturated by art on this trip and I can’t take anymore in. If you’re an art lover, you’ll love Western Europe. Thanks to the great excesses and lavishness of Western civilisation in the past few hundred years, there’s so much art floating about in Europe, in tons of museums, many of which are free (not in Barcelona, but certainly so in Madrid and the UK). I suppose these nations, UK, France, Spain and Italy, must have over 90% of the world’s art or something. The collections are vast and staggering This museum in Madrid was huge and free-of-charge only on Sundays, but I was too tired to care. I walked back to the hostel, past ugly buildings that looked like they were plucked out of Washington D.C and London and placed at random along the streets, and back to the cosy comfort of the hostel, where I cooked myself a nice meal of Chilli Pasta with Spinach and Sausage, then settled down to chillax by surfing the couchsurfing website, reading Bill Bryson, and taking a much-needed evening nap.

Eurotrip Day 27 – 28: Mediterranean Sunshine

Ah – how good it is to escape Barcelona! After that horrible bird poo experience (I still cringe whenever I recall how stupid I was), it felt good to get out of Barcelona and into the sunshine of the Mediterranean coast.

Barcelona lies directly on the Mediterranean coast, and I’d already been to the beaches in the city, so it was time to get out.

Sitges, less than an hour south of Barcelona, is a great little beach town. It has large, wide beaches fronting the Mediterranean, which glimmers under bright sunlight. It felt so summery, so light-hearted and carefree, and I suddenly understood why Europeans like to travel in summer. Trapped for nine months in coldness and drowning in beer, they go crazy every June to August and drink even more beer then.

It felt just like summer, and though the weather wasn’t still yet right for the beach (give it a month or two and things should have heated up sufficiently), I was content to sit on a bench facing the sea, listening to the sound of the waves, delving into a good book, stopping occasionally to munch on some chocolate (extremely cheap in Spain; I surmise it is because of their close relationship with Latin America where chocolate is produced) or a banana. I loved it – just having the luxury of time to do whatever I want, and slow down to appreciate the beauty of the instant, the moment. Not just to snap photographs as is the case at most places, and scoot off to the next highlight. Sitges isn’t a place of outstanding beauty, but it was still beautiful nonetheless – how ugly can a beach by the Mediterranean get? It also felt good to be out of Barcelona, a city which enthralled me, but where I seemed to be in constant danger, my skin colour immediately identifying me as a naive tourist, ripe prey for all the shady characters in the big city.

After sitting by myself for a couple of hours, I decided to explore the town a bit. My impression of the town is a very lived-in, prosperous place that obviously does a brisk tourist trade but is now basking in the off-peak tourist-free season. I wandered to the cathedral and the surrounding old streets, then went uphill and poked through leafy residential districts before catching the train back to Barcelona.

The next day, I spent a long and frustrating but very educational time on the regional railway stations of Barcelona trying to navigate myself to the beachside town of Tarronga. 

The train system of Spain, or at least of Barcelona, is bewildering to the tourist. Know that in Spain, they have even less English signs than in Japan. And a lot of them can’t speak English. Don’t assume, like I did, that white people can all converse in English! Most Spaniards can’t speak Spanish. The reason for this is simple to comprehend – Spanish is one of the world’s most important languages. It is spoken by almost the entire continent of South America, and English isn’t a necessity at all. There’s like this other side of the world which I’m not aware of that speaks Spanish, eats tapas and burritos and tacos and has Spanish architecture, Spanish culture, Spanish festival, yet is an entire ocean away from Spain. It’s amazing how Latin America gets so little coverage in Singapore – its like how Australia is almost never mentioned in American media, according to novelist Bill Bryson (his books make good travel reading).

Spain is like the capital of the Spanish-speaking world. They live in their own Spanish-speaking world with all their Spanish stuff and completely different way of thinking. They travel to Latin America, trade with Latin America, are influenced by Latin America, and this exchange with Latin America is probably the most important international relation that Spain has today, even more far-reaching than the EU. Its so strange, huh? The Commonwealth countries don’t have much to do with the UK anymore, but the ex-Spanish colonies still have special relationships (culturally and economically) with Spain, or at least this was what I gathered from speaking to Spanish people. Truly one of the new perspectives I’ve gained on this trip (along with the importance of the EU, the drinking culture, the way Europeans think and many, many more lessons that I could never fully comprehend if they were taught from a textbook): the entire Spanish-speaking world, until now lost unto me, was suddenly revealed with amazing clarity and focus, and found to be of such surprising magnitude and depth.

Tarronga is a strange place. They have a nice, big beach, similar to the one at Sitges, but the town and the beach is separated by the railway station and the railway lines branching out from it. There’s no easy way to get from the town across the railway station to the beach. No pedestrian tunnels or anything across the length of the track, but rather just two rather lame crossings at either end of the town, very far apart. This has the effect of making the beach so inaccessible, which I though rather strange as Tarronga is one of those beach towns which depend on tourism.

It was Saturday afternoon, and everything seemed closed. I don’t think it was to do with siesta, but most likely that businesses don’t operate on the weekends in Spain (in Madrid today, on a Sunday, many shops are closed too). The only shop open was a Carrefour express, and I grabbed some processed breads and biscuits once again for my meal, as well as a small pomelo which cost me S$1.20. The processed food in Spain seems a little healthier than that in the UK, because there are noticeably less microwaveable lazy-food options stocked in the supermarket aisles and there seemed to be many different medium-sized chain supermarkets and not just a few dominant ones.

Then made my way down to the beach and sat there, reading my book and enjoying the luxury of time once again.

Went back to the hostel to pick up my bags and met Jin, the Japanese guy who was going to Madrid together with me (we met at the hostel, he’s also travelling alone). Had more processed food for dinner on a bench opposite the Arc de Triompf and practised my Japanese on Jin while getting tipsy on cheap Spanish beer. Rediscovered my love of Japan - I’m definitely going back there soon.

Eurotrip Day 28: Sleepless in Spain

I keep typing entries in weird places. First it was Park Guell in Barcelona (I mean, how many people actually type a blog entry in a park?! Well, yours truly is definitely an unconventional weirdo in that aspect). And now, its between Barcelona and Madrid.

In keeping to my cheapo ways, I’m taking the overnight bus between these two cities, because the night bus costs the same as the day bus and I get to save on one night’s accomodation. Its a pretty good bus by European standards. European standards for buses are pretty low, by the way, as anyone who has taken a bus in Malaysia can attest to. I met a Malaysian couple in the Isle of Skye (probably one of the most far-flung places, so it feels surreal to meet literally our neighbours in such a remote corner of Scotland) and they just took an overnight bus from London-Edinburgh, and had horror stories to tell for it. Such a bus would be classified as a "school bus” in Malaysia. Its a 40-seater, and 40-seaters are the lowest class of buses in Malaysia. Strange, because Malaysia is obviously less developed than Europe, but in terms of long-distance coaches, Malaysia is definitely miles ahead. In a previous trip to Penang, I took a 24-seater bus with huge comfy seats and personal screens in front of each of them. Good memories!

So, back to the current moment. I’m on one of those 40-seater “school buses” between Barcelona and Madrid which costs 28 euros (about S$56), but this is marginally better than a school bus because it has a toilet and the seats can recline, albeit slightly.

Anyway, as I’ve said in my previous post, I’ve stopped couchsurfing for a bit. Half-true reason is because I crave the independence that comes with not having to arrange couches to sleep in through, and being able to go wherever I want to without having to plan so far ahead. 100% true reason is that I couldn’t find a couch in Spain.

The Spanish are a strange lot. They’re conservative yet liberal at the same time. Conservative, because they live with their parents (hence less couches available – but actually its mostly my fault for last-minute requests) and are as devout Catholics as you’d ever find outside of the Vatican. Liberal, because apparently gay marriage is legally permitted (according to an Italian I met in the hostel), the people apparently consume the second-highest amount of drugs in Europe (according to Daniel in Edinburgh; I bet 1st prize goes to The Netherlands) and the people are so refreshingly open and friendly compared to the dowdy, cold English. Well, let’s just say I can’t wait to see how rude the French supposedly are. Haha.

Spain is an exceedingly dangerous place for tourists. Just a mere hour after my arrogant boast in the previous post for pickpockets to "come forth”, I was fucking pickpocketed in Park Guell itself. Third time unlucky, I guess. After the incident I went online and realised I had met with the most common scam in Barcelona – the bird shit trick. Involves 3 accomplices. One guy sprays you with something foul resembling bird poo, and the other two help you to wipe it off, posing as helpful passer-bys. And before I know it, one of these ‘helpful passer-bys’ produces my wallet, which had hitherto been sitting snugly in my pocket. He said I dropped it on the floor, and should be more careful. Then both of them gave me a final pat-down and wiped off the bird shit, before departing, leaving me with one credit card less. And, because I only possess a single credit card, it effectively left me 100% credit card-less. Fortunately I realised my folly almost immediately and placed an expensive long-distance call to Citibank Singapore and voided the card, so no damage done except for the phone bill which might run to about S$10. So, for all their efforts, the thieves had effectively made off with one useless piece of plastic. Lesson learnt for me, and in future, I won’t be so trusting of ANYONE that speaks to me whom I don’t know.

The luckiest thing was that I actually had 150 euros (S$300) in one corner of my wallet, but I happened to have it folded up and stuck among a bunch of innocent receipts (if any thief is reading this right now, sorry mate, I don’t put so much money in my wallet anymore), so it escaped unscathed. Phew. I wonder why they didn’t take the entire wallet though. Whatever. They could have made off with my credit card, my ATM card, and 150 euros, a bountiful stash indeed.

I just know I’m going to need tons of coffee to keep me awake tomorrow.

Eurotrip Day 25 – 26: Barcelona

Second day in Barcelona and I’m sitting on a bench in Park Guell, listening to uplifting Spanish guitar music and basking in the warmth of the Mediterranean sunshine.

Two nights before I took Ryanair from Edinburgh to Girona Airport, 1h outside Barcelona. Ryanair’s low cost model is astounding. They’ve done away with boarding passes, requiring you to print your own or pay an exorbitant fee at the airport for them to print for you. And they’re pretty strict about carry-on baggage as well, requiring passengers to fit their lugage in a box-like structure and those who don’t comply are immediately slapped with a hefty charge. On the plane, they’ve removed the seat pockets behind every seat, and there’s no safety information cards – the safety essentials are printed on the back of each seat. I kind of pity the air stewardesses; they push the food cart up and down the aisle throughout the entire flight, like they’re operating a food stand. Which they are, kind of, I guess. Occasionally during the flight advertisements come on the audio system, like one for Hertz, the car rental company.

But by far the most ridiculous one was when the plane touched down at Girona airport, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. A “victory tune” blasted out from the speakers, and informed everyone that Ryanair is the leading European carrier in terms of on-time performance, that over 90% of its flights land before or on time. Which is really an outstanding performance, considering how Jetstar constantly bungles that up. Still, a victory tune? I almost laughed out loud when I heard that. It was just super cheesy.

First impression of Spain – why is it so dark? I looked up and could see the stars overhead, one of the most number of stars I’ve seen before. Then I realised – the airport was IN A BLACKOUT. Yes! A blackout at an airport! I mean, its not Barcelona’s most important airport, but how can airports undergo blackouts? The entire place was dark, and the passenger gates everything dark as well. Airports are usually the brightest places filled with floodlights so this was really an, ahem, novel experience for me. The automatic doors between the tarmac and the interior of the building couldn’t open thanks to the blackout, and the whole group of passengers were stuck outside for 10 minutes. Well, I’ve a good impression of Ryanair, but not of Girona airport!

Arrived at the hostel which is a really clean, new and cheap place at just 10 euros a night. What I liked best were the free lockers and curtains around every bed complete with individual bed lamp so there’s privacy. Oh, by the way, I’m staying at a hostel because I’ve had enough of couchsurfing for a while. Not that I don’t like it, but I want to pause for a bit, and stop sending couch requests which are pretty tedious. The downside? I’m paying for accomodation, and most importantly, I don’t really get a good feel of the place I’m in without a local to talk to.

So what’s Spain like? I can’t tell, because my knowledge of Spain is limited to Barcelona, and from what I’ve heard, the Spanish don’t like to be Spanish. Daniel told me that this is a people that’s very proud of regional identity and dialects, and the majority of Spanish people think of themselves as people of that region first, and Spanish second.

But Barcelona as a city, is really, really… different. Its like poles apart from any city in the UK, although they’re just a short hop away. Its more different from the UK than Singapore is different from Thailand or Malaysia, for example. The most obvious thing is the architecture. The variety of architectural styles on the streets is just staggering. I can’t tell my modernista from my gothic, so lets just say architecture in Barcelona seems to consist of building whatever they want, wherever they want it. Its so flamboyant and passionate. Buildings without a single straight line, in weird curvy shapes and decorated with what looks like shells that glow orange in the sunlight.

Even the classic Spanish architecture is beautiful in its own right. This is my favourite city for wandering the streets, because everything feels so exotic to me. Down the streets in residential neighbourhoods, 4-5 storey buildings with wide elaborate balconies (balconies seem to be a defining feature of Spanish architecture – indeed, with the gorgeous weather, I think everyone wants to be in the sun as much as they can) stand side-by-side, in pastel colours, and lines of clothes hang from the backs of these buildings, down the tiny, dark alleyways.

Every single thing is in Spanish. Its so exotic, really. My first impression is that it looks like Mexico or any other city in Latin America. Not that I’ve been there, of course, but now I’m really intrigued. How did Spain manage to turn an entire continent of the world into Spanish-speaking people (with the exception of Brazil, which is Portugese-speaking) and the same kind of architecture? What happened to the native languages and religions of those places? They’ve just become… Spanish?!

As a developed European city, Barcelona doesn’t look its part at all. When I think of Europe, I think of everything that doesn’t look like Barcelona. I think of castles, vineyards, nice quiet streets, cold, arrogant people, the Eiffel Tower… okay, maybe my idea of Europe seems to be like France. Barcelona feels a bit like a developing city, because it is just so, so vibrant. You can feel it even if you don’t talk to anyone (and I hardly do, because Spanish is really the only language most people speak). The people seem to be more open, more expressive, friendlier, happier even… I guess it has to do with the weather! Which is so comfortable and nice. For two straight days already its been incredibly clear blue skies and bright sunshine, with day temperatures just below 20 degrees and a minimum of about 10 degrees at night. Almost perfect, really.

Just a few more weeks and it might be good enough to go to the beach. I went to the beach, which is really accessible (walkable) from the city centre, and the water is pretty clear, and the sand is so nice and clean. Too bad its still a little bit chilly, else it’d really be the perfect holiday destination – Barcelona. Wander the streets, admire the architecture, chill out at the beach. That’s life!

It’s important to remember though, that Barcelona is an incredibly touristy city. This place staged the 1992 Olympics after all. In these two days I was a victim of pickpocketing twice, more than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Maybe Singapore’s too safe, but I’ve never had anyone try to unzip my sling bag and take stuff out, which is what both pickpockets tried to do. The first was along one of the most famous streets in the city, crowded with tourists, souveniour shops and painters offering to paint your portrait in just 5 minutes. I’ve always wondered why there are so many of these painters around in every major tourist destination, and how many pictures of myself I would have collected had I agreed to get myself drawn by every one of them!

I was doing the normal thing of wandering down that road when suddenly I felt a tug from behind. Turned around to find my bag half unzipped and the perpetrator, a 20-plus woman in dark sunglasses, turning to move in the opposite direction. Well, nothing was stolen, because I don’t put anything important in my bag, but just for the fun of it, I followed her for a bit. After like 2 minutes of me glaring at her from behind she finally acknowledged me and shrugged her head as well as opened her palms to indicate that she didn’t take anything.

This morning, I was on my way to Park Guell, when along one of the main streets, I felt that same tug again. There was no one nearby except this couple who suddenly acted lovey-dovey and turned away, so I knew it must be them. Thankfully, once again, I had nothing in my bag.

You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to find out how to write ‘get a life, you [insert vulgarity]-ing thief’ in Spanish and put a large piece of paper with those words just under the zipper. Come forth, all the pickpockets of Barcelona!

Eurotrip Day 23: We Are Very Different

Spent the day doing nothing much unless you count walking up and down North and South Bridge Street and Nicholson Street trying to find the best rate to change pounds into euros, and realising after walking across the city centre that the first place I came across offered the best rate. The remainder of the afternoon, I occupied myself for about 3hrs by reading about Spain and planning an itinerary for the Iberian peninsula (which is now junked in favour of spontaneous, go-wherever-I-feel-like-on-the-spur travel) in a corner pub, having long overstayed the duration of patronage that a 99p cup of coffee would entitle me to.

Dinner was another one of my healthy, home-cooked meals. This one was chicken and tomato macaroni, which turned out surprisingly tasty. Even Daniel, my couchsurfing host in Edinburgh, agreed, though he couldn’t resist himself from also eating slices of wholemeal bread spread with mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. I asked him if it was a Spanish thing, having seen him done the same thing the previous night, and he laughed and said it was only him that loved mayonnaise and ketchup. Well, you meet all kinds of people when you couchsurf, that’s all I’d say. As you can probably tell, mayonnaise and ketchup rank very low in my list of edible substances.

Anyway, I got a little ahead of myself. The point of this post is to recount a very long and interesting conversation Daniel and I had. First things first, a proper introduction is in order. Daniel’s a 19-year-old guy from a relatively obscure small city in Northern Spain. He’s an ex-law student, and dropped out of law school after just a year, citing lack of interest and a desire to find a direction in life. Something’s that apparently very popular in the West, because both my London and Oxford couchsurfing hosts did something like that as well. Or maybe its just a couchsurfing thing?

Anyway, Daniel’s been in Edinburgh for three and a half months now, having moved here to seek a new direction in life. It’s not as difficult to just uproot and move as you think; thanks to the European Union, all it requires is just a snap of the fingers. No visa, no paperwork, nothing. Its hard for us in Singapore, one of the most internationalised cities in the world, to even comprehend how big the European Union is. Well, it's very, very, very big. Not just in terms of population or economic power, but in terms of how profound an impact it has had on the people and society of Europe. For example, my couchsurfing host (he’s Polish) in Aberdeen studies for free in the University of Aberdeen, kudos to the European Union. As well as his Bulgarian friend, which I met in the pub that night. And of course, we have Daniel here, who just moved to Edinburgh and is currently competing with the highly-unemployed workforce in the UK in getting a job. No need for a visa at all. Can you imagine that?

And in the airports, the lack of customs checks for citizens of the EU is just amazing. They just go through as if they had just come from Glasgow, and not Krakow.

You can just imagine the kind of social tensions that are created by this huge force of internal migration, which is aided by a huge fleet of low-cost airlines. For those skeptics who still think low-cost is a myth, that after adding up taxes and baggage allowance it’d cost about the same as a full-service airline, think again. I flew from Kuala Lumpur to London for 543 ringgit on AirAsia including two meals and checked baggage. That’s just over S$200 one-way. Try finding a one-way flight on a full service carrier for below S$900. And if you fly within Europe, especially when flying with Ryanair, it’s so ridiculously cheap. There are tons of fares where Ryanair just absorbs the airport tax and fuel surcharge – Lukasz said he once got a ONE POUND flight back to Poland. One pound! One of those many flights in which Ryanair magically waives the taxes and surcharges for you and gives you a rock-bottom fare, AND flies you to your destination on time. Anyway, that’s not the point. More about that in another post.

Let’s get back to the topic from which I’ve deviated quite a bit – the conversation between Daniel, 19-year-old Spanish guy, and yours truly. It was primarily about the differences between East and West. How this highly intellectual and important discussion transpired, I have no idea. It must have been something in my chicken and tomato macaroni.

We were both astonished at the differences between East and West. Approximately 100% of the Europeans I’ve met know about Singapore’s strict drug laws, and think its a draconian state. Do you know why? Because drugs are just so, so prevalent in Europe, its actually commonplace. Commonplace! Daniel has taken cocaine, marijuana, and tried a variety of other substances before, as well as smoked tobacco. And he gets drunk four times a week, once becoming so drunk that he fell off a one-storey building (but thankfully didn’t get hurt). He told me he’s not addicted to marijuana and such but has now stopped (not enough money). And then he said that he’s “not addicted” to it, but frequently finds himself thinking how good it would be to have some marijuana available right in his pocket when he’s waiting for the train or bus, so he can have a ‘happy’ time waiting. I’ve never taken marijuana before, but he describes it with such intensity that I felt as though I know what he means. Apparently when you consume marijuana, you look at life with a whole new other perspective. You see things you’ve never seen before, and you think wild thoughts and lots of inspiration suddenly floods your brain. It’s a state of mind when you feel you can solve problems, think creatively, paint a masterpiece, blah blah. You feel good.

The thing is, Daniel is not an isolated ‘case’, for want of a better word. He’s not a member of the mafia, for goodness’ sake, he’s a law student! Almost every young person in Europe has gone through a stage similar to his, in which they drink themselves crazy and smoke kilograms of weed. In comparison, according to official statistics, more than half of Singaporean youth haven’t even smoked a cigarette before. I told him about the negative connotations smoking, drinking and taking drugs have in Singapore, and he’s honestly shocked. That’s how common it is in Europe.

Another very obvious difference between Europeans and Asians is how they deal with other people. We concluded that Europeans tend to be direct and straightforward, whereas Asians like to go in a sort of roundabout sort of way to avoid causing any damage on the surface. In Asia, society usually comes before individual. We usually are somewhat okay with suffering some sort of indignation as long as everything appears harmonious on the surface. I told him that democracy will never be invented in the East, it could only have been a product of Western culture. He asked me if I feel ‘repressed’ living in a society like this, and I honestly told him that it doesn’t really bother me. I mean, growing up in a society where face matters, where people would be more likely than Westerners to swallow their opinions than create a huge confrontation, it just feels natural to me. And then Daniel said, “I think maybe I don’t like Asia".

Well, to be fair, he hasn’t been there before, but by that statement and what I’ve just expounded on, you can see the apparent gulf in culture between the West and the East.

Yes, we have a lot in common, but we are also very different. Fascinating, huh?

Eurotrip Day 22: Edinburgh (or Tartanburgh?)

Every single person I’ve met had good things to say about Edinburgh. “There’s a fucking cool mountain right in the city”, “You’ll love Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh is amazing”. These were some of the comments when I mentioned I was going there.

Which was why I was inevitably a little disappointed when I walked down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, only to find myself surrounded by tons of souveniour shops, all hawking assorted Scottish memorabilia like tartan kilts, Walkers shortbread cookies and bagpipes for 75 pounds (after 50% discount). The most ridiculous affair was when I actually walked into one of these souveniour shops next to Edinburgh Castle (because I was attracted by the "free Haggis tasting” sign – there wasn’t any) and found myself in the interior of a huge 4-storey partially-underground complex complete with tartan-weaving machine on display, money changer and hundreds of associated products with the checkered Tartan design on them, as well as an area where you can pay to have your picture taken in full Scottish highland dress.

Most of the other souveniour shops along the Royal Mile weren’t as elaborate, but even they had tons of tartan stuff and annoying bagpipe music playing through loudspeakers. Hey, I came to see Edinburgh, not a red-and-green checkered version of Disneyland!

The Scottish themselves are, to put it mildly, amused by all the souveniour shops in Edinburgh. I read in the daily newspaper that this is precisely the kind of image that “a modern Scotland is struggling to shrug off”. Not that Scotland is abandoning her heritage, but rather, she wants the rest of the world to know that this country is not just about mountains, sheep, tartan and skirt-wearing men (say that and they’ll punch you; they call them kilts here). Stereotypes are stereotypes, Scotland is definitely more than that.

And – there’s more than just souveniour shops along the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s most famous street. There’s also a whole clutch of tourist traps, easily identifiable by the steep admission prices you pay for “dungeon experience”, “prison experience”, “ghost experience”, “scotch whisky experience”, blah blah.

My couchsurfing host says Edinburgh’s the second most touristy city in the UK after London, which is why he moved here to find a job. But it probably feels even more touristy than London because its so much smaller, and you run into a souveniour shop in almost every corner of the city, even in those traditionally non-touristy neighbourhoods.

But despite the clutch of tourist kitsch, Edinburgh’s still a very beautiful city. Its called the Athens of the north. Well, I’ve never been to Athens before, but to me, its something like Sydney. Yes, they are as different as chalk and cheese, but the biggest similarity is that both have excellent natural features. Sydney has that gorgeous harbour, with stunning beaches all around, and Edinburgh has a kickass mountain ridge right next to the city!

It's just so amazing. I mean, how many cities in the world are so blessed in terms of natural beauty? Edinburgh has a dramatic landscape as its backdrop, and is dotted with so many monuments, spires, churches and ancient buildings that it makes for an extremely pretty city, probably the most beautiful urban landscape I’ve seen.

Itching to escape the ubiquitous tartan shops with amazingly awful screechy bagpipe music, I walked up the Salisbury Craigs, that rocky ridge that overlooks the city. It’s not as difficult as it sounds as vegetation on the mountain is pretty sparse, so you can walk almost anywhere. This area has actually been designated a city park, and while other cities have flat, grassy lawns, in Edinburgh you have a huge mountainous feature right next to the city centre, where if you ignore the buildings and just focus on the green valley between the hills as well as the ponds and lakes nearby, you’d think you were somewhere in the Scottish highlands, and not in the second-largest city in Scotland!

Got to the top and I immediately noticed two things: 1) Edinburgh is so, so, so beautiful when there aren’t any tartan shops in sight, and 2) It is really windy. So windy, in fact, that I felt like I was going to be blown off the rocky outcrop atop the Salisbury Craigs. Needless to say I was holding my camera tightly – I didn’t want it to be blown away, which was an entirely realistic possibility.

The view was nothing short of spectacular. The city felt so far below, and I could only barely make out some of the characteristic monuments and buildings. Beyond that there are mountains in the distance, snow-capped, as well as a beautiful river (called the Firth of Forth or some other similar old English name) running next to the city. The most special thing about the view had to be the lighting. In characteristically British fashion, it was cloudy and rather overcast with what’s known as ‘white cloud’ here in the weather forecast. But as the sun set beneath the clouds, I could see the bright rays of sunlight piercing through the layer of clouds. It appeared almost divine, biblical even.

At that point in time, I knew how God must have felt, having created the world and looking out over it. Edinburgh is, simply, the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Now the next step is to get rid of the 18259195721 tartan shops in the city.

Eurotrip Day 19 to 21: Aberdeen

I’m glad I came to Aberdeen. It’s not usually the most popular tourist town, but I liked the sound of the name so much I knew I had to visit. Aberdeen. Aberdeen. What a classy, beautiful name!

On arrival by train from the north of Scotland I was met by Lukasz (woo-kash-z), my couchsurfing host in Aberdeen. This is probably one of the best couchsurfing experiences I’ve had so far, and he’s one of those people I’d probably hang out with and get to know if we lived in the same city. Lukasz is from Poland, studying Sociology, on his 3rd year at the University of Aberdeen. He has such a relaxed, cool, happy attitude that its really easy to get along with him and talk about stuff. I felt instantly at ease, and we had many interesting conversations over the 3D2N I spent with him. Learnt a few Polish words as well, and probably found out more about Poland than I originally knew.

On the first night I went shopping for groceries at ASDA, one of the big hypermarkets. Was transfixed by the discount section, and grabbed 4 1-pint bottles of milk for just 5p each. The guy there was sticking reduced labels on every item and kept piling on the discounts until people bought all of them. I also got a huge bag of spinach for less than 20p and a Spotted Dick and Custard for 57p (more on that later).

Dinner was pasta with a minced beef and spinach tomato base. It was one of the most delicious and healthy meals I’ve eaten on this trip, proving that food in Britain generally sucks (a point concurred by all the people I’ve met in the UK, British or otherwise).

The next day I explored town. I actually quite liked Aberdeen. Its called the Granite City because all the buildings are built with granite bricks, such is the abundance of the mineral in the vicinity. At first it looked grey and dull under the overcast sky, but when the sun emerged, it was positively sparkling and very nice indeed. There’s also unique architecture along the main street, Union Street, such as some castle turret-like buildings. I spent a few happy hours just wandering the streets, window shopping at Marks and Spencers, buying some books at charity shops, darting into the library and art gallery, as well as looking through the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, another one of those amazingly free-of-charge museums dotted around the UK. Really, I haven’t paid a single admission charge since arriving 20 days ago except for the London Transport Museum (5 pounds)!

For dinner, Lukasz made some baked potato dish which was a bit too savoury for my taste, but nevertheless interesting. I did my specialty Thai Red Curry again, with Red Curry from a can bought from ASDA (1 pound) and some chicken. It actually tastes quite nice though was somewhat lacking in the spicy department. About spices: all the Europeans I’ve met so far on this trip (except a Bulgarian girl) love eating spicy food, so its somewhat of a stereotype that they can’t take spices. In particular, Lukasz has eaten wasabi on its own without any sushi or anything to go with it. None of the people I met liked durian though!

Then we went to the pub and had a few drinks. Its definitely more lively and boisterous than the one I went to in Glasgow, because its right next to the university and frequented by students for the cheap drinks. Met friends of Lukasz, who are very friendly and amicable. Interesting people and I wish I had more time to get to know them!

On the last day in Aberdeen Lukasz brought me to a ‘fishing village’, which is a charming little community of picturesque small row houses and beach shacks located right between the beach at Aberdeen (with dark waters that looked super cold, though the beach itself was actually not too bad) and the industrial district bordering the port. And then we went to the city for a bit, before heading back to his place and cooked some pasta for lunch. Also had the spotted dick for dessert, LOL. It actually doesn’t taste half as strange as it sounds.

Eurotrip Day 17-19: Breathtaking Scotland

Scotland is probably one of my favourite destinations so far. I love the unique Scottish accent (now officially my favourite accent, more so than the English Corkney one), the down-to-earth friendliness of the Scots, the quirky sarcasm and sense of identity in the newspapers, the signs in both English and Gallic, the regenerated beauty of Glasgow and the pristine, rugged landscape of the Highlands. And I still have two more destinations to visit: Aberdeen and Edinburgh!

The train ride along the West Highland Way was awe-inspiring and breathtaking. But I’ve already dedicated an entire post to that. If that was something I felt was missing as the train chugged through the landscape, it was not being actually in it. On a train, you’re just passing through, sheltered in the comfort of your cabin, eating a sandwich while beautiful scenes unfold before your eyes. I actually had a desire to be IN the landscape, walking and hiking in the wilderness.

And I got my wish in the past few days. Although they were just short walks of just 2 hours maximum each, I enjoyed them a lot.

First, the Circular Walk in the town of Mallaig, the terminus of the West Highland Way. I had a couple of hours to kill before the ferry to Skye, so went on this walk. I didn’t have great expectations of it, but wow, was I blown over. The first half took me through the hills, as I walked through a stunningly beautiful valley and climbed a short hill at the end of it. It was lovely, really. The weather was sunny and the skies were a clear blue, and it actually felt a little warm! My heart lifted (the same feeling you get after exams) as I just walked along, savouring every moment, snapping photographs, stopping at strategically-placed benches along the way to eat some sandwiches I brought along. The next part, going downhill along the coastline, afforded me brilliant views of the bay and the town of Mallaig. It was a perfect walk, only 1.5 hours and so well-marked and accessible from the town.I’d thought that Mallaig held little interest for the visitor, and that most of the scenery would be found on the Isle of Skye itself, but really, it was an amazing walk which didn’t disappoint.

Took the ferry across and transferred to a bus, then checked into Skye Backpackers, a hostel in the town of Kyleakin on the southeastern coast of the island. I like this hostel – its cheap (only 10 pounds a night, because they gave me a free upgrade from the caravan dorm to a normal dorm room), clean, the staff are friendly, it has a well-equipped kitchen with free tea, coffee and hot chocolate as well as a cabinet marked ‘free food’ where I found two 150g packets of chips, and I met some nice people. Well, I guess meeting new people comes with every hostel experience, but this time, it was fun to meet fellow Asians from the same part of the world – a Malaysian couple, and a Taiwanese girl, and they invited me to join in their dinner which consisted of heated/microwaved food like pizzas and pies. I was only too happy to oblige (free food! who cares whether its microwaved!) but most of all, glad to have a chance to speak Mandarin again, if only for a brief moment!

The next day I bought a one-day bus pass (6.70 pounds) and set out to explore the island. Took the bus to Portree, then transferred to Staffin. And you know what, this is officially the northernmost point I have been in my entire life. Of course, a lot of ‘northernmost points’ have been chartered since I arrived in Scotland, but after that I’d be going south again to continental Europe, and thus, the small community of Staffin on the Isle of Skye marks the northernmost point I’ve been thus far.

Took the Staffin Slipway walk and it was gorgeous. Although the weather isn’t great, cloud-covered sky, but at least it wasn’t raining. I enjoyed the walk down the coastline and there were signs that marked out fossilised large dinosaur footprints from 170 million years ago if I remember correctly, and iron age fort from a few thousand years ago, but the footprints were under water at high tide and I couldn’t identify which of the large boulders around were remnants of the iron age fort. Still, it felt cool to be ‘roaming’ a land where dinosaurs once roamed and ancient humans once settled. Nice coastal scenery, black beaches, sharp cliffs, huge rocks. Then I climbed up to the top of a hill that was nestled between the cliffs on a well-trodden path and got panaromic views of grassland leading up to the snow-capped mountains behind, craggy hillsides and the coast in front of me. As well as saw lots of lamb and sheep (shit, I can’t really differentiate between the two!).

Then got the bus back to Portree and did the Scorrybreac walk. Pretty coastal scenery and after rounding the bend up one of the hills, short highland trees and fields on the way down.

The bus rides themselves from town to town on the Isle of Skye are particularly scenic as well. Some buses were filled with high school kids as they double as transport for tourists as well as school buses – I don’t know whether the kids look out of the window and think how lucky they are to be seeing this, but I certainly did!

Left Isle of Skye earlier today and walked approximately 2 miles from the youth hostel to the train station at Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland across the Skye Bridge. Once again, great views. This place is really such a beautiful corner of the world!

Day 19: Thoughts

Last night, I had the most amazing realisation: its only two and a half more months before the end of my trip.

Yeah, I know, 78 more days is still a very long time, but I can’t help feeling that time has really passed too quickly on this trip. Just like it had on the 2-month Japan trip.

I’m not even 1/4 into this trip and I’m starting to feel a little melancholic that there’s so little time left already. Something must be wrong – it means I’m addicted to travelling!

Many people have asked me whether I feel lonely travelling alone, and why I’m doing this, especially right on the heels of the Japan trip. It might seem that 3 months is a little long, but really, its just a blip in the entire duration of life. Life’s too short, and there’s so much of the world I want to see, so many people I want to meet, so many different cultures I want to experience, that I couldn’t fathom spending the nine months between army and university working a menial job in Singapore (no disrespect intended).

Obviously, money’s a huge impediment to travelling more, but it doesn’t affect my travel experience at all. For example, I think I’m far richer for the experience of staying with locals through couchsurfing and doing the things they do, being able to join in fantastic experiences that other tourists would probably never even get a glimpse of. Really, couchsurfing is something that has changed the world and probably my life as well. I’m also lucky that I have such supportive family and lead a relatively comfortable lifestyle which allows me the financial means to see the world.

I once thought that my biggest passion was probably food, but now I know for sure that its travelling. I’m willing to sacrifice on the type of food I eat (as evidenced by previous post) so that I’ll spend less, and be able to travel longer. And being on a tight budget forces you to make interesting decisions on food as well. Self-catering, as opposed to eating in cafes and restaurants, is infinitely more fun because I love the experience of wandering through supermarket aisles, checking out how companies market their food, studying the different brands, comparing prices, and appreciating the packaging design.

Loneliness is not a problem. I haven’t once felt lonely or afraid on this trip, and like what my couchsurfing host in London said, being alone lets you have more chance encounters with the people around you and a more intensely rewarding travel experience. Of course, having a partner/a group of friends to travel with is great, but I’m just saying that I also enjoy travelling alone, and don’t feel any worse for the experience.

And now, I’m on the train again, this time leaving the northwest corner of Scotland for the city of Aberdeen. Looking out at the raw beauty of the mysteriously craggy, rocky coastline and the dark grey skies looming overhead, speckling the train windows with drops of rain, I realise how lucky I am to be seeing all this, as well as how fortunate I am to be travelling right now.

Eurotrip: Day 18 And I Swear To Eat Better

After nearly three weeks of stuffing myself with junk from supermarkets without giving a care to the consequences, I’ve had a change of mind after eating six very sweet Scotch pancakes in quick succession today, which resulted in a net gain of 1100 calories in the duration of a snack as well as an overpowering urge to throw up (not because I was too full, but because my stomach is reacting to disgusting food).

It’s not a sudden change of heart, to be sure. I swore off microwaved food in Cheltenham (about Day 11), when the pervasive smell of preservatives in the room at the youth hostel got so bad it almost smelt like combat rations. So it was only a matter of time before processed food had to go too.

When travelling, I seldom give a care about the nutritional value of what I put in my mouth, reasoning that all the years of eating healthily in Singapore is enough to justify greasy and processed food on the road. But now I realised that I like travelling so much that I don’t want to stop soon. and I want to make it a part of my lifestyle. And if travelling is going to be something I’m doing often, and I continue eating with a short-term mindset that it’s just another quick trip, then I’d soon fall ill, be tormented by constipation, get diabetes before 30, suffer stroke before 40, or a combination of the above.

So now, from this historic moment in the kitchen of Skye Backpackers in the town of Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye, Northwestern Scotland, I vow to eat healthily and treat my body well.

No more 75p microwaveable cottage cheese pies from TESCO and 1.29pound double cheeseburgers from McDonalds. No more 4 for 99p sausage rolls from disgusting chain store bakeries and no more 1 pound kettle chips/walkers crisps from supermarkets. Out with the 82p chocolate chip cookies from Marks and Spencer’s as well. In other words, cut as much processed food from my diet as possible, and cook more healthy stuff. If I have to spend a bit more, then I’ll have to!

Dinner was a step in the right direction. It’s probably the healthiest meal I’ve eaten on this trip, which isn’t saying much because, yeah, I succumbed again to the scourge of processed and prepared food, buying a deeply-discounted cup of soup from Somerfield.

BUT I added vegetables to it. Okay, I admit it was a pre-cut packet of cauliflowers, broccoli and carrots. But hey, its time-consuming to cook and they’ve cut it for me, plus that packet of veg was on discount as well. Haha. In the end my first “healthy meal” consisted of heated soup from a can and pre-cut vegetables.

It’s a very small step, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. Ganbatte!

Eurotrip: West Highland Railway

Day 17 on the road and this is singularly the most incredible part of my trip so far. I mean, going to the squat party in London where people were smoking marijuana and going crazy all around me was interesting, and wandering through the perfectly manicured lawns and streams of Cambridge was great, as was walking in the rolling hills of the rural Cotswolds, but now, on a train journey up the West Highland Way between Glasgow and Mallaig, its just unbelievable.

This is perhaps the first time I’ve seen such magnificent, breath-taking scenery. I mean, Mount Fuji in Japan was excellent and so was the volcano in Bali, Indonesia, but the scenery along the West Highland Way is completely in a new league of its own. Its so magnificent, immense and awe-inspiring, it has to be the best I’ve seen so far. My eyes aren’t accustomed to such beauty!

Let me put you in my state of mind right now. I’m drinking a cup of hot coffee, munching on a chocolate biscuit, and looking out of the windows. Bright sunlight is streaming through the windows, and as the train chugs, puffs and hums its way in an incredibly loveable manner, I gaze in awe at the landscape we’re passing through.

Its the kind of scenery that makes you feel glad to be alive. Its the kind of scenery that’s worth enduring almost anything in life for, and travelling any arduous route or distance for. Its the kind of scenery that reminds you why you travel. Its also the kind of scenery that makes you appreciate the vastness of nature and the planet we call home.

I’m so lost in the moment and captivated by what’s before my eyes that there really is no way to describe the scenery that will do it justice, but here’s a good-natured attempt anyway.

Craggy, snow-capped steep rocky ridges rise sharply out of marshlands covered with short, yellow grass, dotted with bare, leafless trees, their branches taking on a reddish hue, as well as majestic green oaks; adding a varied autumn tone of red and green to the scenery.

Large tracts of the valley floor are covered with melting snow that gives rise to streams that wind through the landscape and the ponds and lakes that dot the land. Wide rivers carve their way across the marsh, their waters an incredibly deep, clear blue, so clear that the varied hues and tones of the mountains above are reflected in perfect synchrony and colours. Mostly its unfrozen, clear water but sometimes portions of the river are frozen so solid that ripples are etched into the ice, such that it’s not just one frozen block of water, but intricately-patterned ice floating on its surface. The sky is a light shade of blue, dotted with puffs of harmless white clouds, and occasionally streaked with the smoke trails of airplanes above.

Most of all, it is immense, and it is the scale of it all that makes it so breathtaking. This train journey is five hours long, and after the first half-hour or so of suburban Glasgow crap, the landscape becomes increasingly rural and rugged until I suddenly found myself immersed in a beautiful, untouched land. So for over four hours, the train is journeying through a huge pristine wilderness area, and every second of it is beautiful. You don’t just glimpse spectacular scenes as the train makes a turn; on the other hand, such gorgeous scenery is before your eyes at every second of the journey. Whatever angle the train is turning towards, there is always a picturesque view unfolding before you - for four hours straight.

Sigh. The Scots really are a blessed people, aren’t they? Somehow Mother Nature decided to give them a disproportionate amount of beautiful scenery, leaving England with largely boring, rolling lowlands.

What else can I say? I know I’ll be back, and the next time I want to walk/cycle the West Highland Way instead, and see it all again.

Ahhhhhhh. But for the moment, I’m still on this train, and I’m going to enjoy it all I can.

Best part of my trip so far – Day 17, on the West Highland Way between Glasgow and Mallaig.

Eurotrip: Britain, Britain

2 weeks in the UK already, and as usual, being a traveller that just passes through, I have lots of generalisations to make about it:

1) Microwaved Food Culture

No wonder they have people like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver. I mean, it's not surprising that you need heroes to save the country from bad food considering the easy-to-cook microwaveable nonsense stocked in the aisles of supermarkets. Some of these boxed foods are actually pretty cheap, and it's not that hard to find boxes for below a pound (S$2.25).

I confess to being rather enamoured by them at first. What’s not to like? You don’t spend too much more as compared to buying the ingredients separately and cooking it yourself, plus this saves all the effort. Just remove the paper packaging, pierce holes in the film lid and pop the entire thing into the microwave and voila! Cottage pie is ready for dinner.

But I think I kind of overdid it. After ten consecutive days of popping stuff into the microwave, I have gotten quite sick of it. The food has started to taste more and more terrible, and the very smell of the preservatives-laden food is beginning to induce nauseating reactions in me.

I swear especially never to eat TESCO’s frozen chicken pies again.

2) Drinking Culture

In Singapore, when we want to hang out, we generally have a variety of things to do that does not involve alcohol. Not in the UK, though. Several conversations with new friends I made here revealed that drinking is very much a part of the British culture. They admitted that drinking is actually a pretty serious problem in the UK. In most cases, hanging out with friends = drinking. They really don’t do much of anything else, like watching movies, going shopping, going to chalets (sorry, no good sunny weather), going to eat cheap hawker food (because there’s none here), staying over at friends’ house, playing mahjong, eating buffets, singing karaoke, blah blah blah… Well, yeah, you get my point. In Britain, its just drinking and drinking and getting drunk every Friday and Saturday night. I know some people in Singapore do that too, but by far the majority can’t afford to spend so much on liquor what with the heavy excise taxes and all. Plus, its not in our culture to get drunk whenever we meet friends. And of course, we don’t have as many good beers and pubs as the UK.

3) Organisations Love to Act Virtuous

Maybe its more of a Western thing than specifically a British characteristic, but I’ve noticed that shops and restaurants here love playing up their green credentials. All the major supermarkets can’t help but print large messages on their plastic bags advertising that its made from 30% recycled plastic, and exhorting shoppers to reuse the bags. And everything from fruits to coffee gets a ‘organic’ and ‘fairtrade’ label saying that they procured the good in question from ethical sources which help to build and not exploit local communities. And of course, all the charity shops doing a huge business of getting people to donate by spending with them.

I get the impression that Britain is really into ethical, green, charitable stuff. Why then, is there still so much litter on the streets, and people not sort out their garbage? Food for thought, just don’t let it be microwaved food…

Note: Every country is unique and has their own quirks and peculiarities. I hate classifying them based on stereotypes, but sometimes I just can’t help doing so. Take it with a pinch of salt!

Eurotrip: Rainy England

Have been in the UK for a week already and it's been pouring every single day. Except today. For once mother nature decided to grant me a cloudless, pretty blue sky.

In a cafe in Oxford now and attempting to recall the highlights of the past week.

21st Feb 2010: Took AirAsiaX to London, changing planes at KL. For the dirt cheap fares, it really isn’t too bad. Spent a third of the trip talking to a Malaysian about what the heck is wrong with Malaysia. We both had many opinions in common.

22nd Feb 2010: On the first full day in London, did the touristy stuff and chatted with random travellers in the hostel. Visiting the Houses of Parliament was particularly memorable, as well as tons of other old ancient monuments and buildings.

23rd Feb 2010: Met Alex, my couchsurfing host in London. He hosted me for 5 nights. Really chill and friendly guy who shares a common interest in all things Japanese. Enjoyed myself staying at his place, going to weird places and getting to know his friends.

24th Feb 2010: Cooked curry chicken for lunch (it tasted good I think, Alex seemed to enjoy it), went to Camden Town, then a Japanese movie screening in the evening and drinks after.

25th Feb 2010: Lots of touristy stuff, like London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Tower of London, blah blah blah. Language exchange with Alex’s Japanese friend and her friend at night. Am terrible at Japanese and need to improve!

26th Feb 2010: Fascinating London Transport Museum satisfied my interest in the Tube. Interesting night including a party in a damn cool building that was slated for destruction but occupied by students to prevent it from happening.

27th Feb 2010: Brief stop at Oxford Circus, Chinatown (which is quite a Singapore town), Portobello Road Market, cooked curry rice with Alex and had some interesting conversations.

28th Feb 2010: Cambridge. Met Shir Li and had lunch at a place called Zizzi’s. Went into many of the colleges without paying. Breathtaking old college scenery.