Wednesday 27 November 2013

Getting Hitch-Hiked

This post is just the story of one day of travel, specifically traveling from Birmingham to London. For reasons I will elaborate upon below, I decided it would be a good idea to hitchhike. "How did it go?" I'm sure you're asking yourselves, desperately living vicariously through me. Well I'll tell you and you can decide whether or not it was a success. Although I'm quite far behind on my blog at this point, this all happened today and I'm writing it now so it's fresh in my mind.


I was staying in Birmingham with Micque (Mick) who I knew from my time working at Sporties and I was off to London to see Santi who I met in high school and who was undergoing further pilot training at Gatwick Airport in London. Santi was actually in Berlin, but he was flying into Gatwick that evening. So why did I decide to hitchhike? Well there are a couple of reasons. In no particular order;


I'm poor - I checked my bank account yesterday and found that it didn't contain quite as much as I thought it did. In fact, it might even border on alarming given hat I have two and a half months of travel left. I'll get by with it but it just means I will have to tighten my belt a little more.

It seemed like fun - I've always wanted to give it a go and it seemed like it would be a fun and interesting experience. It certainly was an interesting experience, I won't deny that.

I'm currently halfway through Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" - if you've read the book, this point is self explanatory.


I think the best way to do this is probably with a timeline of my day from this morning to the present. I'm kind of guesstimating with some of the exact times, but you get the idea. I'll include some of the lessons I learned along the way.


10:30 - I woke up in Micques spare bed above the bar where he works in Barnt Green on the outskirts of Birmingham. I got up and ready for the day, packed what I thought I'd need for the next few days into my small backpack and left the rest of my things in my big bag with him.


11:30 - I checked google maps and walked towards the nearest highway heading in the direction of London. On the way I passed Tesco and bought a ham sandwich for £1 (see point No. 1 above).


12:00 - I reached the point where, on the map, the country road and the M42 motorway intersect. In reality, it's just a motorway bridge over the country road. I had to climb into a farmers field, climb a barbed wire fence and land in a large, soft looking patch of blackberries.


Hitchhiking Lesson Number One - blackberries have thorns.


I scrambled up the embankment and ended up on the side of the motorway heading towards London. I stuck out my thumb and began walking in what I assumed was the right direction. Surprisingly, it was actually the right direction.


12:15 - I'd only been walking about fifteen minutes when I came across the site of a car accident on the motorway. There was a flat-bed truck (lorry?), a highway patrol car and two completely destroyed cars. One car was being loaded onto the back of the truck. One of the traffic officers asked me where I was going and informed me that hitchhiking, and indeed just walking, on a motorway is quite illegal in the UK. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest service station once they were finished loading the first car into the truck.


12:30 - Content with the ease with which I had obtained my first hitch, I climbed into the backseat of the lorry and the driver dropped me and the shaken driver of the destroyed car at the nearest service station. This was, unfortunately, a service station pointing in the wrong direction and not on the motorway like I would have liked. Making the best of a bad situation, I crossed the road and found quite a good spot on the road heading back onto the motorway.


I stood there in the brisk, English air with my thumb extended knowing it would only be matter of time before someone picked me up and my adventure would be underway again.


2:45 - Yes, it was more than two hours before my next lift. Two people stopped to ask where I was headed but neither were heading towards London. Eventually one middle aged man in a very expensive Jaguar stopped and offered to take me to a big service station a few miles down the road where the trucks did actually stop.


Hitchhiking Lesson Number Two - Standing on the street is for chumps. Standing at service stations and just ask people where they're going.


3:00 - I got to the service station. It was indeed full of trucks and regular cars as well. I was pretty tired and lethargic so I bought a generic brand energy drink for 55p from the station and ate my ham sandwich.


I asked around the truck drivers if they were going to London. Most were either happy to take me but were trying to avoid London or were not allowed to have passengers for insurance reasons. I turned my attention to people in cars.


I asked one friendly looking guy if he was going to London. He said he was passing close and I explained I was trying to get to Gatwick. He gave me a complicated run-down of the motorway system around London which really only confused me more than said he could take me close to Gatwick. Gratefully I followed him to his expensive looking Mercedes and climbed in the front seat. His three year old daughter was in the backseat.


Hitchhiking Lesson Number Three - Apparently people with nice cars like to pick up hitchhikers?


The ride into London was fairly uneventful. The guy was nice and as traveling from Wales to Kent with his daughter to see family. His name was Seth and the daughters name was Ella. Ella kept us both entertained by saying truly the darnedest things as only an inquisitive young child can do. This included the "Why?" game for most of the trip wherein an initial question is asked and then a subsequent "why?" is asked after every subsequent answer until one of the players gets bored and stops replying. Hint: Ella never lost.


The traffic on the M25 (which I learned is essentially the ring road which encircles London) was horrendous which is apparently fairly standard.




6:00 - Seth dropped me off at a McDonald's by the side of the motorway which he assured me was quite close to Gatwick Airport. I thanked him profusely, said goodbye to Ella and got out. I went into McDonald and I got a small meal. By this time, I'd spent about £7 all day which was fine by me.


I pulled up google maps on my phone to see how to get to Gatwick. Google maps suggested a 4 hour walk. As it turns out, I was actually not remotely close to Gatwick. Like, not even a little bit at all. What's more, unless I wanted to stand by the side of the motorway in black in the dark, hitching a lift was going to be very difficult.


6:15 - I worked out an alternate plan. I would walk to the nearest train station and catch a train to Gatwick from there. The nearest train station was an hours walk away, according to google maps, but I was fine with that. Santi wouldn't be free until about 9:30 anyway so I had lots of time to get there. I set off along the road.


It turns out "road" might be a bit of an overstatement. It turns out the route was not exactly a major thoroughfare by any standards. I was strongly reminded of the Robert Frost;

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference"

I did indeed take the road less travelled by. It was also a road through a wood. Did you know they have woods in suburban London? No, neither did I but they do. Big, dark, creepy woods. When I say this was a road less travelled by, it was literally a potholed dirty road only big enough for one car (and then, only barely) through a dense wood in complete darkness. I don't mind admitting, I really was actually a little creeped out by the complete stillness. I'm not afraid of the dark or anything but I was really, really, really glad I brought a torch (flashlight) with me.


Hitchhiking Lesson Number Four - Bring a torch.


This went on for about 45 minutes until I eventually began to see houses and real roads again. I wandered though the village of Oxford and found the train station. I bought a ticket to Gatwick Airport (£11.80!!! Goodbye budget.) and set off. Halfway to Gatwick, I got a call from Santi saying that there had been a mix up with his ticket and he would now be flying into Southend Airport instead of Gatwick. The 'mix up' here was that he had purchased a ticket on a flight to Southend not a flight to Gatwick. Anyway, halfway through making plans to just meet in London city the reception dropped out. I tried to call back but, of course, I had no credit and by the time I did he was already on the plane.


10:00 - I'm sitting in McDonald's near London Bridge writing this waiting for Santi to land and call me to organise a place to meet.


General Backpackers Lesson - McDonalds (and other chain restaurants to a less degree) are your best friends. They are a (usually) free source of wifi, electricity, warmth, bathrooms, running water and they are usually open all night. Also, I think they do food as well.


Possibly the most London photo ever. Black cabs, double-decker bus, Big Ben, London Eye, constant rain


Monday 25 November 2013

Belfast and the Furious

Most of the major, traditional tourist sites in Ireland are in the Republic of Ireland (the southern bit) but there was one big thing in Northern Ireland that Courtney and I did want to see. That was the giants causeway.

If you don't know what the giants causeway is, you've probably seen it before on the Internet or in books about Ireland. Is probably easier to include a photo her than describe it.

I still don't know what a causeway is or where the 'giant' fits in

All those pillars that look like they must have been carved by hand to make them so perfectly shaped are actually all naturally occurring. Courtney tried to explain to me how they came about but she has a funny accent so I didn't listen and just silently laughed at her Kiwi-ness. Anyway, they were pretty cool.

Also around the giants causeway was this cool rope bridge suspended between the mainland and an otherwise inaccessible island. The views were pretty incredible.


By the time we made it to the giants causeway it was already starting to get dark so we got some pretty awesome picture of sunsets and other Instagrammable things.



We headed back to Derry and the next morning we moved on to Belfast. Belfast is the biggest city and capital of North Ireland. You might say it has a colourful history. Might also say it has a violent and depressing history and you would also be correct. Belfast is where the tensions between Catholics and Protestants (and between Republicans and Monarchists) were highest throughout the conflicts in Ireland. I was expecting Belfast to show the scars of these tensions and conflicts and it. I did not expect the conflicts to be on going, however.


We'd been warned that there were parts of Belfast that were walled off and segregated to separate the Catholic minority but I didn't expect them to still be there.

That is a real series of gates (complete with a no mans land) guarding the entrance to an entirely walled of section of the city that is still to this day closed off and locked up at night. The perimeter walls have enormous nets into the sky in palaces to stop things being thrown over them. There is an unspoken, indescribable yet palpably real sense of segregation as you walk through those gates and its astonishing to consider that this could till be the case in the centre of a modern city in this day and age. The walls and gates, I was told, are not to keep Catholics in but to keep Catholics safe. There were similar walls in Derry (although we didnt' see them) that worked in reverse to keep the Protestants safe but I was told they had been all but disassembled (the only thing they actively protected was the Protestant church in Derry).

"Republican Murder Gang: We Have T-Shirts"

Yet the walls themselves were all completely painted in paintings and motifs which saved as monuments to peace and unity. That kind of summed up the tensions in Belfast for me. On the outside, everyone is hoping and striving for some peaceful closure and unity to bring back their community which has been completely torn apart by war and violence. I don't doubt their convictions for a moment which makes it sadder that precautions like literally walling off a minority group are seemingly necessary.

And a disconcerting number of riot vans

As for Belfast itself? It's ok, I guess. Nothing special and quite forgettable. We were there for an afternoon and a night before we both flew out our separate ways the next day and that was honestly enough. Belfast is a real middle-child of a city.


The next morning Courtney flew back to her school in England and I flew on to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh I met up with and stayed with a friend I met on Top Deck, Fraser, and his room mate. I actually shared a tent with Fraser for 34 days traveling around Europe so we became quite good friends and it was great to see him again.


Well, him and ol' Walter Scott

It wasn't a hugely eventful two days in Edinburgh but it was a pleasant one. It was a chance to catch my breath and hang out with a good friend.

Drinking Irn-Bru. I couldn't get more Scottish unless I was born in Scotland, lived in Scotland or had Scottish ancestry.

From Edinburgh I flew down to Birmingham (flights in the UK are quite cheap) where I met up with Micque (Mick) who I knew from by previous job at Bankstown Sports Club. Mick quit shortly before I did and was living above a pub in Birmingham where he worked. Again, Mick is a good friend and it was good to see him again too. I only stayed with Mick a night because I wanted to see as much of the UK as I could in a short time and Mick and I already had plans to go to Estonia and Finland the week after.



Sunday 17 November 2013

Dublin' Back

The next day was dominated by the fabled cliffs of Moher, but on the way we stopped off at more old castles and the mini cliffs of Moher.

There's really not too much to say for Ireland that can't be said better with pictures so I'll let the images do the thousand words of talking for me.

The next day we headed towards Dingle in the southwest of Ireland, deep in County Kerry. Most of the day was just spent driving along and stopping at various points along the coastline which was completely fine.

We had lunch in Dingle itself and I got the opportunity to continue my theme of "me sitting on top of public animal statues". That's the dolphin that supposedly lived in Dingle harbour but clearly died years ago and being kept alive through the magic of photoshop by the ferry companies.


We overnighted in Killarney for the last night, but on the way we stopped via Inch Beach.


The final day saw us visiting the famous Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in County Cork. Kissing the stone is traditionally said to bestow the upon the kisser the gift of speaking absolute rubbish, but very convincing rubbish. It's also embedded in the parapets of the old castle in literally the least convenient place ever.


Beyond just who stone, the grounds of Blarney Castle were quite nice too. Of course it was raining most the time. Ireland gets four seasons in a day and three of those seasons are winter and all four of them are raining.


We got back to Dublin in the afternoon and the final part of the tour was a visit to the Guinness factory. To be honest, I wasn't exactly impressed with the Guinness factory. I understand that it's purely a promotional gimmick by the company but it was so over the top pretentious and self-serving it lacked any sort of genuine feel. I was also a little bit dull. You essentially just walk around the building and read things and watch videos. You don't even see anything being made, it's al just history and technical explanations of how e beer is made. The high point of the tour is the end, which culminates in being allowed to pour your own pint of Guinness which, after working in a bar which sold Guinness for the last two years, lacked the novelty value it no doubt held with others. I'd heard all this about the Guinness factory tour before and I heard the Jameson experience is much better, although I didn't get to try it and find out. The bar at the top of the factory had a nice view, though.

Magic Guinness water

I'm a giant

As for the Paddy Wagon tour, it wasn't really as great as I expected. I'd heard how great they are and, in my personal experience, I found that the things we saw on the tour were infinitely better than the tour experience itself. The driver/guide, for example. Brought his girlfriend along and spent most of his time with her. It's not that it was bad, it's just that I've experienced a lot better. I'd still strongly recommend them for anyone coming to Ireland, however. It was a fantastic trip regardless and I wouldn't have seen even half of the sights I did if I travelled on my own or with just Courtney.


That night that we got back to Dublin, Courtney and I met up with Szabi who had been our bus driver on our Top Deck through Europe for 34 days. Szabi is Hungarian but lives in Dublin. He's a fantastic guy and very funny. He took us to an all you could Chinese buffet and I made an absolute pig of myself and I would do it again in a heartbeat. The food was delicious.


The next morning was a bus to North Ireland but that can wait.


No Man Is An Ireland

Landing in Ireland was almost like coming home after my trip around Europe. I don't mean it literally, of course. Despite my Irish heritage (doesn't get much more Irish than 'Murphy'), I've never even been to Ireland. I just mean that I was back in an English speaking country for the first time in four months and culturally, Ireland (and the United Kingdom) really aren't that different from Australia. I don't want to sound ignorant here or seem as if I disliked being in non-English speaking countries. It was just a really pleasant change to not have to start any and all conversations with "Do you speak English?".

I landed in Dublin airport without a problem (the line for EU citizens was enormous but I simply walked straight through customs. First time this has happened ever) and caught the airport bus into Dublin which, quite conveniently, stopped directly in front of my hostel on the banks of the Liffy river which runs through Dublin.
The first thing I did when I got settled into the hostel was something I'd been looking forward to for weeks. I went to the local pub and ordered a Sunday roast pub meal. Again, it might sound trivial but after four months of eating delicious and varied European cuisine, all I was craving was a traditional English-style roast dinner which I got and enjoyed more than you would probably expect.
I was traveling around Ireland for the next week and a half with a friend I'd met on my first Top Deck tour through Europe. Courtney is from New Zealand (but she's still ok) and is living in England, working in a school for a gap year. She was flying into Dublin late that night which gave me a few hours to explore on my own.
Courtney and I
I wandered around Dublin on my own for a few hours but I was eventually driven back to the hostel by the constant rain. I cooked a fairly haphazard meal from whatever odds and ends they had lying around in the corner store near the hostel (pasta in Malaysian curry sauce) and kicked back to wait for Courtney in the hostel with Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" (bear that in mind for later). Courtney eventually showed up around midnight and we turned in because tomorrow was an early start.

We had arranged to do a Paddy Wagon tour of Ireland. I know I've done a lot of tours but literally every person I spoke to who had gone to Ireland did one and they all raved about them. It also seemed like a good way to see a country like Ireland, where the main tourist attractions are scattered around in remote parts of the country.

The next morning we met everyone else on the tour, climbed on the bus and set off. The first day was probably the least interesting of the four days because it contained so much driving but even so, it was still pretty spectacular. Ireland is a super beautiful country and exactly like you expect it to be. It really is endless lush, green fields divided by low stone walls, filled with sheep and a constant light drizzle of rain.

The first stop was in the bizarrely named village of Cong in County Mayo. Cong was the stereotypical quiet, Irish village. There was a river running through it and the ruins of an old abbey and a few shops and houses. And a pub, obviously.
There were other stops that day besides Ireland's only fjord and Kylemore Abbey.
Eventually we got to Galway where we were to overnight. That night there was a pub crawl through town but most of us eventually abandoned it halfway through because the band in one pub was too good to leave. The next morning I woke up with 8 potatoes stuffed into the pockets of my jacket. That's not a joke, either. That's just Ireland for you.