Day 52 – November 30, 2010
I’m writing and recording less of my thoughts now that I’m here in the US. Not sure if it’s because I feel like the photography-centric part of this trip is over, or because I have less to say. Maybe it’s the falling drive to document everything and focus on only the really strong stuff that isn’t as forthcoming. Whatever the case, a few things have happened since the last entry in this log.
New York feels special. Much more than I had imagined it would. Not sure if it’s due to the scale of the buildings, density of people, the festival season or just plain imagination. I really pushed myself physically in the two days I was there, walking around for 8-10 hours on both days, and getting back to the hostel with both feet almost destroyed. Shot with the F100 but there’s no way to know whether the images are going to turn out good or bad till they get developed. There’s a lot to see and do in NY, and two days certainly isn’t enough time for even half of those things. I’d like to come back to the city and spend more time in it, exploring it more. Don’t know when that will happen, though.
Las Vegas in stark contrast is all glitz and pomp. Where NY is a truly big city, not only in terms of size and scale but also in terms of depth in culture, arts, commerce, etc., Vegas is unbelievably superficial about everything. Everything here is larger than life, and unabashedly materialistic. Gambling, cars, hotels, casinos, helicopters, imitation buildings – everything is surface pretty. If you’re not into those things then there is really nothing here that will hold you. Just look at the city from a good vantage point at night and that’s the most beauty you can get out of it.
Death Valley is absolutely nothing if not a grand show, only this time it is nature that is turning it on, not man. And what a show it is – reminiscent of two other places that leave you with the same feeling – Ladakh and the Australian outback. There could be others, but my experiences are confined to these two, hence the comparison. Common features include vast areas of barren land with no signs of greenery. Only thorny shrubbery scattered across the plains in a meek attempt to cover the dry, cracked soil that forms the surface of the valley’s base. On all sides, the valley is surrounded by mountain ranges that are largely responsible for keeping the heat inside, thus making it one of the hottest places on the planet each year.
There is a very strong sense of isolation here, even though cars and people crossing your path aren’t very infrequent. I guess it is the realization that even with all our possessions, this is the planet we live on. Just stepping out of our comfort zones – the cities and houses we live in, allows us to really get back in touch with where we stand in the ecosystem of life, and also makes us realize what a small part of it we really are. Transient and fragile, just like everything else. The sheer scale of the landscape in the valley is hard to fathom. Standing at many points in the valley, it is possible to simultaneously look at land at altitudes ranging from below sea level to over 11000 ft. Try and recall the altitude of the last hill station you went for your holiday, and then imagine looking at it while standing 282 ft. under the ocean. That’s Death valley.
I’m heading onwards to Yosemite now, with a brief stopover in Vegas and Orange where other matters must be attended to. I’ve been looking forward to Yosemite for some time, and I really hope it isn’t snowed in yet.
I spent a couple of hours in the Museum of Fine Arts looking around various artifacts from a multitude of people. It’s simultaneously inspiring and humbling to see such work. On one hand you stand in awe of the sheer talent, commitment and perseverance of these people who, without the aid of any kind of modern instruments or technology, created such magnificent pieces of art. On the other it makes you realize that even with all of today’s crutches it would probably take a really long time to achieve anything that could be remotely considered as significant as these guys. The stuff belonging to tribes and minority communities – articles of religious and ceremonial use, now serve as educational tools to give us a brief glimpse into life as it was for everyone back then. Then of course there are paintings by many artists who lived in the centuries gone by. Portraits of royalty, scenes of religious epochs, of significant and insignificant details, which caught the imaginations of the artist, displayed in all their glory. A fitting tribute to the craft of these people and their art.
Spent the rest of my day just walking around the city centre, parts of Chinatown and the Boston Public Gardens next to Park Street and Tremont Street.
Boston, as heard from various others, is known as a walk-able city and today I found that out. Didn’t go to downtown Boston, but quite close. It’s wide, open, and I thought Newbury Street was chic. Easy to get around and clean in layout, I think I like what I saw, which I know isn’t all of Boston, but then the bigger picture is made up of smaller snippets.
Being here in the US is the second time in this trip that I’ve felt strange while being in a new place. I’d read that travelling for an extended period of time helps people find out more about themselves, but it’s only now that I’ve started to understand how that works. It’s sometimes a little surprising to find out things about yourself that you never earlier considered. It’s interesting to realize and understand how you respond, either by natural instinct or by habit, to a particular situation in a particular manner, and is something that becomes readily apparent if you experience it more than once. Being in new places on a very regular basis in the last few weeks has given me that opportunity, and I think it’s going to be helpful to me further in my travels to know that. Now that I know how I react habitually, I think I’ll be able to make better judgments about places I visit and stay in.
Spent the day visiting Birmingham. Not many words to do the talking today, just some photographs.
Drove down to Oxford today. It’s about 65 miles from Solihull and took a little over an hour to get to. Silverstone, where the British round of the Formula 1 world championship is held every year, lies on the way and I was extremely tempted to ditch Oxford and head over to the track instead. Not knowing whether they’d have a track day today, and also not having much money in the wallet did convince me to keep driving without turning off the motorway though.
Oxford is a student city and feels like one. Everywhere you go, you’ll see somebody walking about with a set of notes or a pack of books in their hands, while others scurry about going from home to their college or vice versa. Of course you can’t help but also feel a bit of nostalgia about your own college days when you look at all of them, and it’s a good feeling to be reminded of those relatively carefree days. The college buildings are great to look at from a design point of view, as are the streets and small alleys between them. I mostly walked around and didn’t bother with any of the touted tourist attractions that I find to be trite in a place such as this. Spent a couple of hours walking the streets and came away with a good feeling inside, of having visited what is possibly one of the most revered cities, educationally, in the world.
Not much done today. The guys at Jessops say it will take two weeks for Nikon to tell them what the problem is and if any repairs are possible. Unfortunately, I neither have two weeks here, nor am I convinced it will be reasonably cheap. The second point is debatable, but I could check the same when I land in Boston, and I’m certain it will be easier on the wallet there.
Today was again spent walking around the city on foot. A part of the area covered by the tour bus yesterday included a road called the Royal Mile, which I wanted to walk along. I didn’t walk the length of the road, but only a part that I thought was more accessible to me.
The weather again played in my favour and walking around didn’t feel tiring at all. I think Edinburgh could be a very nice place to live in, not least because it has a very interesting mixture of modern commercial outlets intermingled with classic architecture and monuments that serve to create a very special atmosphere. I walk here and can’t help but think that it must be similar in some ways to other major European cities in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, etc. where life and history have been coexist in a very appealing manner. No wonder they’re all so popular as tourist destinations.
I’m not quite sure of where I’m going tomorrow. I’ll sit down later in the evening and sift through the options list. I have been considering going to the Isle of Arran, said to be Scotland in miniature, but the ferry service from Ardrossan to Brodick seems to have been suspended for a day or so some time ago due to weather conditions. Seeing how the weather has been fine these last couple of days leads me to believe that worse is in store in the next few days, in which case the ferry service may be erratic, so I’ll have to investigate that a little more before I make up my mind.
I caught up with a friend today and we spent the day taking a hop-on hop-off bus tour of some of the main attractions in Edinburgh including the Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum and Holyroodhouse Castle (not necessarily in that order, though). Some of the exhibits in the War Museum inside the Edinburgh Castle premises were fantastic, but not having enough stamina to look at everything closely meant that we didn’t spend a ton of time within the castle, even though the exhibits and views over the city were quite good. It was quite windy up there, not to mention chilly being a dry day, so we were both glad when we good out of there and got ourselves hot coffee at a café nearby.
Walking along the city streets had us pass by a Scot dressed in a full kilt, standing on a busy street corner playing his bagpipes, much to the joy of most passers-by, especially tourists who couldn’t get enough photographs of theirs taken with him, to which he would graciously agree.
The Scott monument in the city centre is extremely distinctive and stands out among all the other buildings, being a very different colour from them. I’m not sure whether the dark stone which the monument seems to have in abundance was a design choice or a result of many years of existence among the elements, but it sure does give a very strong presence to the structure, which means it is impossible to miss if it occupies any part of your vision while walking around the streets. A 3 pound entry fee allows you to climb to the top through a narrow spiral staircase in the middle of the monument, which again is always crowded, particularly at the topmost section where there is space for no more than eight to ten people at most.
Luckily the weather today remained good throughout and despite the cold winds blowing it was great to see Edinburgh (well, most of it’s most popular places) with the sun shining on it.
I came to Edinburgh today and thankfully the Youth Hostel here wasn’t hard to locate. It was a short walk from the bus station. The hostel itself is quite a departure from the others I’ve stayed in so far, mostly up in the highlands. It’s much larger, has a huge number of rooms, and is open all day long. I’ve grown quite fond of these hostels, funnily, and I do believe they make it so much easier for someone on a budget to travel around a country such as Scotland in relative comfort and security.
I rested for a short while after checking into the hostel and then proceeded to take a walk on the streets of the city. The architecture is certainly distinctive and has elements such as the few cobbled streets, especially in the old town, that speak of days gone by. It’s also very crowded, and the whole place seems to have been overrun by people from out-of-town, looking to capture some of the enigma that Edinburgh, as the capital of Scotland, is associated with. I was admittedly one of them, although being alone allows me a certain degree of detachment from the whole process, while retaining the curiosity and willingness to explore.
Once again, having no fixed agenda or desire to only see the monuments, but rather giving into whatever I feel like doing at any point of time allowed me to catch a faint tune while I was taking a walk through the Princes Street Gardens. At first it seemed as if I was hearing things, because even as I stood at the same spot where I thought I had heard the sound, all I could make out was the wind ripping across the branches and leaves of the trees nearby along with the cackle of a group of youngsters chatting nearby. Just as I moved I heard the sound again, and this time I was sure I wasn’t imagining stuff. It sounded like a flute or a saxophone, and as I followed the notes over the air, I found this young fellow standing in the middle of the walkway in the park playing his instrument while resting on the railing besides him. I shall refrain from stating the instrument he was playing because, frankly, I don’t know and I didn’t ask him. All I know is that the music he was playing was extremely good, and seemed perfect for the late evening ambience that prevailed at the time.
I sat down close to where he was playing and stayed there for 15-20 minutes, while people crossing both ways stopped, listened for some time and then walked away, or paid no heed to the beautiful sounds being created by this young fellow and his instrument, and went on with their (rather loud at times) conversations and walked right past. His tunes were melodious and soulful, and he seemed to be quite proficient in his playing, as one who has spent years practicing their craft. The music I heard sitting there that evening was a great way to get introduced to the city on my first day there. It never ceases to surprise me how having music can alter the way we perceive the world around us at any given point in time, irrespective of our own mood or state of mind. It was great timing that I was there when he was playing, because as I later found out he wasn’t a regular there, but was only playing for a short while on his way to the west of Scotland where he would soon commence his new job. Thank you, Ano (I hope that’s how you spell your name) from France, for making my first evening in Edinburgh such a great one.
Today turned out to be quite a day. I had booked the ticket to Aberdeen thinking that I’d want to at least see one place on the east coast between Inverness and Edinburgh, but little did I know it was to turn into something so unexpected. While walking out of the train station at Aberdeen in the afternoon I heard someone call out my name, and I turned around to find, to my amazement, Barbara (from the workshop) standing there looking astonished (as much at my presence there as my at facial expression, I’m sure!) I didn’t know she’d be travelling by the same train to Aberdeen as the one I had booked my ticket in. I had a faint idea that she had told me yesterday she’d be in Aberdeen today for some reason, but I didn’t know anything about her itinerary. I was as surprised to see her at the station as she was to see me standing there.
We ended up sitting in a restaurant, having food and talking about everything under the sun for a good two hours, I think. She had originally planned to do some shopping in the city before leaving for Dublin in the evening, and I had thought I’d roam around the city after dropping my bags off at the local Youth Hostel. In the end she did manage to get a short amount of time for shopping while I got trashed by the time I got to the hostel, waiting for the bus for almost 45 minutes. I found it so easy to talk to her, both yesterday and today. I think she’s a beautiful person, full of life, and has an easy-going demeanor and the desire to explore new things and places. She has a child-like curiosity for new things, but a sensible approach to them guided by her experience, and I think that makes her a very appealing individual to hang around with, especially in a strange new city, be it Inverness or Aberdeen.