Saturday, September 28, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

cows, crosses, Ladas

It might be a little hard to see, but this cow has a cross on a chain draped over her horns.

There are three things in abundance in the Caucasus - monasteries, cows standing right in the road, and Ladas. I think there were more Ladas in Armenia than Georgia, but that's beside the point. Someone had a theory that the cows stand in the road so the passing cars will whisk away all the flies. They really couldn't care less about the cars. Most of the time they don't bother moving, causing everyone to honk (it doesn't make a difference) and swerve around them. And when they do move, it's never quickly; they just lumber off in their own sweet time.

I returned to Georgia from Stepanavan, Armenia. The bus station is right next to a roundabout, and as I was waiting for the marshrutka to leave, I watched a farmer herd a bull, a cow, and a calf down the street, going against traffic. They went through the roundabout, and started up another road, still going against traffic, but slowly heading into the other lane. A Lada Niva 1600 4x4* was coming down the road a little too quickly, and put on the brakes sorta late, resulting in a fast approach to our bovine family. Too fast. For just one second, the bull charged the Lada. In one smooth move, he turned left, lowered his head, and took a couple of quick steps right towards the car. And then it was over. The car slowed, the bull evidently decided it was no longer worth his time, and the family continued across the street. Hard to say what would have resulted, had the charge continued. Judging by the state of many of the Ladas chugging down the roads here, they are built to take a substantial amount of abuse. Some might think their longevity may have something to do with the amount of religious images and crosses that adorn many a dashboard. I'm not inclined to believe this, but I am pleased that at least some of the cows are similarly arrayed.

* I really sort of covet one of these now. They have two of the attributes I respect the most - functionality combined with a completely outdated style.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thumbs up Scotland

I camped in Scotland for about three weeks, mostly on Orkney, Skye, and Harris. Three weeks of rain, drizzle, damp, socks that just wouldn't dry out, and some fierce wind that at one point had me trapped in my tent for close to twelve hours. I spent the time swaddled in my sleeping bag watching Game of Thrones on my iPad and eating the only food I had available that didn't require the stove, caramel Hob Nobs. And the midges. They too had me trapped on more than one occasion, the worst being the first of two nights on Hoy (subsequently followed almost immediately by aforementioned wind storm). There were so many swarming the campsite, the only thing I could do was pitch my tent as fast as possible, and dive in, leaving everything else outside. It sounded like it was raining lightly as they converged on my tent, sniffing me out. More often than not I would unzip the flap in the morning to a small swarm bobbling around the entrance, and would scramble to get through the low flap to dash to the toilet blocks. Despite best efforts to keep the little buggers out of my tent, I think a couple got trapped in with me one night and had themselves a midnight snack. I had more bites on my face and neck than I could count. I started running my fingers over them, and soon gave up. Being one of those unfortunate souls who has strong reactions to bug bites, I didn't look very good for about a week. And if they weren't bad enough, I also has to contend with earwigs. After noticing them in more than one location, I started giving my rucksack a really good shaking out before packing up each day, but as I was packing up for the final time in Inverness, I discovered a number of earwigs had taken up residence in, of all places, my tent poles. I popped two sections apart, and out fell an earwig. I did it again, and out fell another earwig. They may be mostly harmless, but they have a really off-putting appearance, and an unpleasant tendency to appear exactly where they are not wanted. So I started checking each pole section. They were all vacant until the last (of course) - I peered down the pole, and there they were. Some of you may recall the scene from Aliens, where the diminished group of survivors has sealed the door against an approaching alien assault, but confusingly the motion detector indicates there is movement inside the perimeter, and finally someone thinks to peek up through the ceiling panels...oops, alien swarm. Like that, except in miniature. I dislodged them with a quick puff of air, tied up the pole bag tight, and shoved it into a friend's freezer. I figured that would kill off any remaining unwanted lodgers.

But lest that sound utterly dreary, there was also lots of sunny dry weather, luscious green scenery, bizarre scenery (Harris), Skara Brae, standing stones, Neolithic tombs, a wide variety of really pretty cattle, Highland games on Skye with more kilts and pipes than you can toss a caber at, fried meat, fried carbs, meat stuffed into carbs, and my cheapo camp version of a cream tea - a package of cheap scones, a container of clotted cream, and a basket of blueberries. And I tried haggis, but it was sort of a gourmet presentation of haggis, arriving with its traditional plate brethren, tatties and neeps, in a very tidy three-tiered tower in the middle of a puddle of gravy. Not really what I wanted. I was hoping for three discrete blobs of food. As it was, I couldn't really distinguish the taste and texture of the haggis from everything else on the plate. I guess it was tasty.

Public transit proved somewhat of a frustration, being both expensive and running on either a limited or non-existent schedule. There are no public buses at all on Skye and Harris on Sundays. Not wanting to be stuck in one place for the day, and after an assurance from a local that it was perfectly fine, I gave hitchhiking a whirl. Hitching goes against my nature, as I'm both shy and don't like asking people for help. I never felt completely at ease standing on the side of the road with my thumb out, but it turned out an overall very positive experience. Most of the lifts were from other holiday-makers. Some took me only a few miles, just as far as their next destination, and others let me tag along on driving tours. One couple bought me a lunch. One lift on Skye was from a local with a very playful dog in the backseat, who spent the entire nine mile drive offering me a soggy ball over my shoulder. One couple picked me up right after a downpour, even though I was wearing soaking wet waterproofs. And twice I netted rides in what I think was under one minute.

The best hitching was on Harris. Somehow, several random meetings in campsites and while hitching wove themselves into a thread that ran though the very few days I spent there.
On the day I arrived, I met a father-son duo at Horgabost campsite. I also exchanged silent greetings with a Swiss couple at the same site who were camped next to me.
This same Swiss couple picked me up the next day while I was hitching, and also offered to give me a lift to another campsite on the opposite side of the island the following day.
Later that day I was scooped up by a pair of sisters with an interest in blackhouses. Since my destination campsite had a blackhouse, and it was a short detour from their day drive, we all stopped by the campsite to check it out, and got a tour from one of the owners. Coincidentally, this campsite also has seasonal yurts, and one of the sisters had lived in a yurt, so naturally there was a yurt show-n-tell.
A couple of days later I took the bus to Scalpay for what turned out to be a soggy, boggy hike that was basically a Bad Idea. The trail was so wet and disintegrated I had trouble following it, zig-zagging all over the place, and it took me longer than expected to complete the circuit. Even the sheep were smart enough to avoid the worst parts, whereas I clearly was not. By the end I was tired and frustrated, had long missed the last bus to Tarbert, and it was too far to walk. I figured I would get across the bridge connecting Scalpay to Harris, and hope that at least a few cars would pass on an otherwise lightly trafficked road. In the middle of the bridge a car caught up to me, and lo and behold it was a father and son pair from the first campsite. "Hi, do you need a lift somewhere?" Talk about good timing.

I have to note that my hitching luck was only on the isles. Being relatively small, isolated land masses with narrow roads, they are the perfect hitching environment. The given population at any time is comprised of friendly locals and jolly tourists. I had no luck at all trying to catch a lift on the mainland out of Shiel Bridge to Inverness. I ended up gritting my teeth and popping for bus fare.

I did receive an unexpected cultural bonus on bus rides on Harris, where many of the older locals take the bus, and most, if not all, speak Gaelic. I had a couple of rides surrounded by Gaelic murmurings that I assumed were village gossip to which I was not at all privy.