A Day in the Life of a “Vinaka Fiji” Volunteer

As I might have mentioned in my previous posts I am in the magical Yasawa Islands in Fiji. My reason for being here? Five days a week I am travelling out to three primary schools and one high school to volunteer.

Details about the type of volunteering are in a previous post, but what has happened in the average day for the last month or so. I’ll tell you….

0600 – On weekdays and in fact most days I will wake up now, often being woken by the amazingly bright sunrise.

0630 – After I have  watched the sunrise from the Sunrise beach (adaptly named I know) and perhaps read my book for a while, I try to go for a run. If your not a fan of running up and down the beach then there is the ‘Hike’ up to the higest point of Drawqa Island. This run usually takes about 20 minutes though can take longer if I meet Saki. Read the next one!

0700 – Short shower. All of the showers on the island are set to cold making them a great way to refresh after sweating it out on the run. Sometimes if it’s a really warm morning I’ll go swimming in the sea instead.

0715 – Breakfast! Best meal of the day. There is a big selection for breakfast I tend to keep it simple with some cornflakes. Sometimes I’ll treat myself with a pancake if I’ve had a particularly hard time on the ‘Hike’. At breakfast we will receive our pack lunches for the day and will choose what we want for dinner that night. So much thinking about food at the same time!

0800 – After breakfast the boat will depart to the next island along, Naviti. Journey time depends on which school we go to, the weather and which boat captain we have. Though in fairness Jim and Sammi are both exceptional. The closest school at Soso usually takes about 20 minutes to travel to, while Naviti District School can take up to 45 minutes to get to.

0900 – Most of the schools start their day at this time and we will usually get our first students of the day just after the bell. As mentioned previously, each session with a student is meant to last 25 minutes.

1030 – Mid Morning Break. Between the start of the day and recess we will likely see about three students each. This break lasts 15 minutes. If I’m lucky I sometimes get to throw a rugby ball around with some of the kids.

1200 – Most of the time this will be when we take a break for lunch and can attempt to eat the enormous contents of our pack lunch boxes which will often contain fish, or rice. Most of the primary schools have lunch at the time, but Yasawa High School students don’t knock off until 1 pm.

1330 – Our lunch break lasts for a long time! It is often very hot and humid by midday/early afternoon so it is nice to take rest bite by going paddling in the nearby ocean after sitting on the beach. Eventually we will start with the students again and will usually see about two each before we leave for ‘home’.

1430 – Mid afternoon we will usually wander down to the beach to catch the boat back to ‘Barefoot Manta’. Sometimes the long boat will be waiting for us while on other occasions we will depart at around 3 pm. Before we leave the high school we will often choose some resources to take with us we know we will be visiting one of the more remote schools the next day.

1530 – Most days we will arrive back at ‘Barefoot’ in the late afternoon and will sit back and relax until dinner. Depending on how I’m feeling I might do the ‘Hike’ again or have a nap. Recently the nap seems to have been the preferred option as the heat and a course of antibiotics for an infection on my ankle has made me feel quite drowsy by this time of the day.

1800 – Will try and catch the sunset from the beach on the other side of the island if there is one! Have tended to be more lucky with stunning sunrises for some reason.

 

1830 – By this time in the evening I’ll make my way down to the Main Bure or to the sunset deck in preparation for dinner at 7 pm which is always top notch.

2000 – Sometimes there will be post-dinner entertainment. Every Friday the staff members will patrcipate in Fijian traditional singing and dancing, ending in a rendition of the national anthem.

2100 – As a result of the heat I will often find myself going to be early during the week. Before I got to bed I like going to the beach with my music. The lack of natural light means there is a stunning view of the stars when there is little cloud cover.

2130 – Bedtime. Ready to do something similar the next day!

Weekends – My weekends tend to be spent chilling by the beach, running and just socialising with the other volunteers. Not a bad way to spend your days off! In recent weeks I have kayaked around the island and last weekend I went to Naviti to watch a local rugby game. This was a great experience and some of the hits the locals put on each other were massive. I couldn’t choose a better place to spend your down time!

 

 

Why Have I Actually Travelled to Fiji?

Believe it or not there was actually a specific purpose to travelling to the other side of the world. As well as enjoying the island paradise which I have found myself on, I will also spend the next six weeks travelling in between three schools on a voluntary basis.

Now two weeks in, I have learnt a lot about the school environment in this very specific part of the Pacific region. The three schools I have been travelling to with two other volunteers are all located on the largest of the Yasawa Islands, Naviti.

From Monday to Friday, we embark on a small boat which takes between 30 minutes and an hour to reach Naviti. This depends on which school we are visiting, whether we need to do errands and the weather conditions.

I have found the boat ride a very enjoyable experience, feeling the cooler air on my face as we speed between the islands. However, a choppy day last week has confirmed that my stomach and I are not fans of rolling and pitching when the waves get slightly larger.

Most days we will visit Naviti Elementary School, a compound which has faced many challenges after a monsoon paid a visit a few weeks before I arrived. With children up to Year 8 attending you would presume there would be eight classrooms.

Unfortunately these buildings were torn apart by the high winds, forcing the teachers to set up tents. These temporary classrooms make it very difficult for the pupils and teachers, as temperatures often rise to 30 degrees plus.

Even more recently these tents were blown down and flooded by a  short storm while we were here. This had resulted in two days off school at the start of the week, before six classes were forced into the teachers’ accommodation to study, while the other two remain in the tents in a muddy field.

When we visited the school earlier today we were lucky enough to sit through assembly. During the headteachers’ remarks he thanked the children for showing up to school despite the challanges they were currently facing.

Prayer was also said before he reminded pupils that they needed to follow the strict dress code which dictates that knees should be covered at all times. I have also been following this dress code, wearing a sulu (or sarong).

Going into the volunteering I wasn’t sure what my role would but I thought it likely included helping out in the classroom. Instead, pupils come up to a building set aside for “Vinaka Fiji” volunteers.

This base has many resources that have been donated to the organisation and when the pupils visit we will usually spend one-on-one time with them for 25 minutes. This time is spent reading or teaching them English words that they might not know.

This can be quite challenging with the younger pupils especially because they will usually speak Fijian at home and when with their school mates. There is definitely more translation included than I was expecting. I was also saddeed to find out the reason they put their hands over their heads when they get a question wrong.

The base is located in Yasawa High School which is on the same campus as Naviti Elementary. This is the school we will visit when the elementary is closed. Pupils start high school in Year 9 before leaving in Year 14, often for the mainland.

Although it wasn’t as badly affected by the monsoon, older pupils face many other challenges. As the only high school in the Yasawas, boarding is offered to pupils, a amenity that it has to fork out for itself. Pupils who board are woken at 5.30 every morning before being put to work in the fields until 7. School starts at 8am. Not the easiest start to a school day.

For many pupils who don’t board it is equally as difficult as they leave home at 7am to make a difficult hike over the mountain from their villages on the other side of the island. They must walk up a steep ascent and descent which I can imagine becomes treacherous after heavy rain. Having caught a glimpse of the route, it doesn’t look like a track I would want to tackle bare foot or in sandals. A reality for the students.

We do similar activities with the high schoolers when they visit the base. Some have good English while others struggle to even write a sentence. These students can be very difficult to work with, but slowly reading through a book with them can be rewarding as they start to pick up new words.

On Fridays, or when the weather is too stormy, we visit Apensia Memorial School located in the nearer village of Soso. This is another elementary school of around 80 pupils set in a background of two foliage covered hills. Two rugby posts made of bamboo add to this stunning setting.

Inside the school building there is three classes,  with the youngest students hosted by a nearby building. “Vinaka Fiji” doesn’t have a base here, so we sit on the floor of the school office when reading to the kids.

In the last couple of weeks we have focused on learning rhyming words, with a large collection of Dr Zeuss books coming in handy. Intrestingly the children at this school seem to be much further ahead than the ones we work with at Naviti Elementary. This is surely a result of the many challenges that the Naviti students face on a daily basis.

Friday afternoons at Apensia are fun as they are set aside for “organised” sports. This includes kids of all ages running around throwing rugby balls and footballs, while showing why the Fijians are known for their offloading skills even at a very young age. I try to take part even if trying to pass three balls to like 15 children at the same time can be challenging!

 

Adaptions to Travelling to the Other Side of the World

I have now been in Fiji for eleven days. Three days on the mainland followed by eight days on Barefoot Island, a tiny island in the remote Yasawas. Looking back on my short time in this magical part of the world, I thought I would look into eleven adaptions that I’ve had to make to life literally half the world away from Scotland.

1. Air Travel – Having never travelled by airplane alone, using three flights and visiting four airports was a bit of a thought. However, I quickly learned the protocols that needed to be followed when using this form of transportation. I’m not a particularly nervous flyer, but did become restless when tackling the 14 hour flight from Dubai to Brisbane. Good tips would be to take a good book, watch a few movies, sleep and whatever you do don’t clock watch!

2. A different accent – The majority of Fijians speak English along with their native Fijian. However, there is a minority that speaks Indo-Fijian and most Fijians have a strong Pacific accent which my ears weren’t used to picking up. They are now!

3. Very friendly people – This doesn’t sound like much of a challenge and isn’t. Most Fijians seem to be the most friendly people I have ever come across and take great delight in greeting you with an enthusiastic “bula” in passing. In Scotland we aren’t that big on saying hello to strangers, so it’s important to pay attention and respond if greeted this way!

4. The Heat – Coming from a sub-zero Scottish winter to the Fijian Summer was always going to be a big step. Now in the wet season, temperatures usually hover between 25 and 30 degrees celsius, with humidity often upwards of 75%. If wanting to go for a run then you need to get up early. Although the warm ocean is a great place to cool off after breaking a sweat.

5. Mosquitoes – If travelling to Fiji you need to be prepared to wear lots of mosquito spray, ecspecially at night or after rain showers when they are at their worst. I have lots of red bumps and spots, but have become gradually better at not itching them and making them worse.

6. Wearing lots of Sun Cream – On most home-is-best Scottish holidays sun cream is an accessory that can often be left at the bottom of the suitcase. In Fiji however, you need to make sure you are throughly covered in the white stuff.  Two very unattractive shoulders covered in brown and white patches are a reminder that I learnt the hard way.

7. Shared sleeping spaces – Sleeping in close proximity to strangers isn’t something that I’m used to but was a good opportunity to meet other travellers.  Although it can be difficult depending on who your dorm mates are. Despite an intresting encounter with a French couple who pushed the boundaries of what was appropriate in a shared space, I have been lucky. Luck of the draw I guess.

8. “Fiji Time” – The Fijian concept of time seems to be a much looser concept than at home. Patience is a virtue and for things to run slightly late at a more relaxed pace is the norm. Can be a change from the systematic  approach to time in the Western world. I’ve become a big fan of “Fiji Time”!

9. A Kava Ceremony – When being welcomed into a village or onto an island, visitors should be prepared to participate in a ceremony where a drink made of pepper plant root is consumed while sitting in a circle. Although it may look slightly like muddy water is doesn’t taste too bad at all and it was great to take part in an important part of Fijian culture.

10. The Food – No complaints here! Delicious meals including fish, rice and lots of salad are often cooked up for visitors. If you are worried about changes in diet you should take stomach tablets. I have some but hope not to use them. Fingers crossed!

11. Jet lag – Lastly there is obviously a reaction to travelling to the other side of the world. Fiji happens to be 12 hours ahead of GMT, meaning that it can be difficult to get used to this significant time difference. I managed to sleep a lot while flying and went to bed at 8pm local time the evening I arrived. This seemed to help, although my waking hours have changed drastically. I usually go to bed at 9 pm, waking at 6 am, before often napping when late afternoon rolls around. I think it may be the heat!

 

Dess Woods Night Race (26/01/18)

On a chilly Friday evening my Mother and I embarked on another adventure down the Deeside Valley to participate in our second race of the year respectively. This time we would be stopping just short of the village of Lumphanan, the destination being a sizable area of woodland two miles short of where we had ran the detox three weeks previously.

This had been a race which I had wanted to take part in for while, taking place in my old training grounds, Dess Woods. These woods were located on a sloping hill, about a mile outside Kincardine O’ Neil, the village which had spent the first 17 years of my life living in. With lots of different trails to explore alongside steep climbs and technical descents it played in major part in kick starting my running obsession. Many a moonlit night had been spent testing my legs in these woods so I was excited to be returning. I was also excited and partly nervous to see how my legs would fare in a full out trail race.

After the Lumphanan Detox at the start of the year, my training had gone into a slight decline again, before I had reversed this in the ten days or so before this next race. I had been doing a lot of trail running, but had struggled slightly as Braemar had been coated by a relatively thick layer of snow for the last couple of weeks. I knew that I wouldn’t be competing for the top places but had the target of perhaps finishing in the top 10. I had looked at the times from the two previous years and thought this was a realistic target if I decided to really push myself.

As I had often been free during the day in recent months I hadn’t done much night running, an activity which I used to love. The fact that this was a night race also added a tinge of excitement as I packed my head torch along with my ‘Garmin’ watch that I had finally got to work!

On arrival at Dess Woods we met my Auntie and her partner and went about picking up our race numbers and safety pins. With our numbers pinned to our clothing, we studied the race route…

The route would be completed by doing two loops, with the first of the loops being completed twice. At 8.7 kilometers it was as hilly as I expected it would be, starting with a tough climb up from the Deeside Activity Park at the bottom of the woods, up to the gate at right at the top of the woods. After this steep fire track climb lasting about 900 meters, there was a slight grassy descent before a left turn took you up through some undulating fields.

When I had trained here I had affectionately referred to these as being part of the ‘sheep fields’ due to the creatures of a wooly nature which usually habited these parts. Great views up and down the valley where gained from this high point, though in the darkness the lights of Kincardine O’Neil could still be viewed, lighting up the valley floor to the east.

After a short loop in these fields a technical bit of the route would have to be negotiated, with an off-piste jump over a wall and a fence to access Dess Woods again. This was followed by an easier section which completed the first loop, with a long-ish descent, in which the route crosses the climb which the runners will have started they’re race on. The route then returns to being undulating, passing a waterfall which is another place which I used to love past.

Following on from the waterfall, is a very steep climb taking competitors on a windy route between the trees before eventually coming to a forest break. This break in the woodland doesn’t last long however, as after a short descent there the route rejoins the first climb, returning runners to the first loop which they will have to complete again before a long descent to the finish line which they will hopefully reach in one piece.

Having completed a short warm-up and taken part in some pre-race chat, I lined up on the start line, hoping that I would be able to hurt enough to finish in a position or time I was happy with. With my trusty innovates I decided to just wear on layer, a long sleeved top knowing I would warm up quite fast. I was also wearing running leggings to try and keep my legs and their muscles warm. If you can’t tell I’m very scientific when it comes to these details.

Soon enough we were off, with 60 so running being unleashed like a frantic group of wild dogs. It took while to find my breath, but when I did I surprisingly felt good on the first climb, deciding to push myself harder than I probably should have and by the time I reached the gate at the top my legs were already shot. “Damn that was stupid!”, my legs shouted.

Making my way towards the ‘Sheep Fields”, it was good to get out into the open, as the lights in the valley below were joined by a starry night sky. This provided an atmospheric background to some tough running over muddy ground which was as equally hard in some places as it was soft in others. At least ice was minimal! The fields where lit up by runners weaving between the old walls and rocks which littered the grassy surface.

After some undulation, it was nice to then get a long descent, on slightly interrupted by the hurdle section over a wall and fence to get back into the woods. On arrival into the woods I felt that there was another runner close behind and I fell back a place on the latter half of the descent towards the waterfall. I attempted to keep her in sight for as long as possible, but lost sight of my fellow competitor on the hard ascent back through the trees.

I was annoyed at myself for letting this happen but was slightly more sympathetic when I found out later that she was the current Scottish Hill Racing Champion. However, I realised I had to carry on pushing on completion of the second loop, continued to push myself as hard as possible up the final ascent of the race, returning to the first loop including the difficult terrain of the fields.

At this point my legs felt like led and I was hurting physically, but still loving it mentally. Again the view of the stars reminded me why I loved running in the great outdoors and I savored every minute of the squidgy ground as my head torch picked up the eyes of deer, rabbits and other creatures acting as the race’s accidental spectators.

Crossing into the woods for the second time, I pounded the long descent hard, aiming to keep three as the maximum number of people that had managed to overtook me when I reached that finish line. Reaching this target, I crossed the line in 13th. It wasn’t a top 10 position but it would do.

That had been tough but I there was no doubt that I was glad that I had taken part. It had provided me with another boost in my confidence and I was realizing that I needed to stop being so hesitant to take part in events like this one. I had ran the hilly 8.7K in just over 41 minutes, so was happy with my overall pace and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. My Auntie wasn’t too far behind finishing in 18th place while my Mother came home well of last position, a placing which she had been convinced she would have finished in.

 

Highland Cross 2017

I actually wrote this ages ago midway through June but forgot about it. Was a great experience and would love to get another opportunity to participate in the same or a similar event.

I had been standing at the window of the bathroom in my hotel room for a while, looking at the Highland village I was staying in. The view from my window was of Beauly square which was barely dark as the summer night had nearly come to an end, it being around 4 am. It had been a sleepless night to say the least, my body kept awake by the pre-race nerves which were haunting me before the race which would now start in little over seven hours. This was perhaps a useful warning that the 2017 “Highland Cross” couldn’t be underestimated, that a 20 mile run over rough hilly terrain starting on the west coast followed by a 30 mile ride back to Beauly wasn’t going to be at all easy. I eventually stopped staring at the flickering lamppost outside the bathroom window and made my way back to bed, telling myself to think positive thoughts. I must have woken up about 25 minutes later, cursing the butterflies in my stomach for causing my far from helpful sleep deprivation.

To participate in the “Highland Cross” you need to enter as a part of a team of three and pledge to raise money for charitable causes in the Highlands. I was lucky enough to be asked to take part in a team with a local to Deeside who had been competing in the Cross for many years, while also boasting an impressive set of marathon medals. In the run up to race day we had discussed the fact that he had been wanting to break five hours for the event for a while now, finishing just outside this target for the last few years. This led to discussions about completing the route as an actual team. A team that would stick together and hopefully assist in helping him achieve that elusive sub five hour time. I could feel that the frustration at coming so close to doing this was nearing boiling point, increased by the fact that when actually competing as a team before, his team mates hadn’t actually raced with him, looking for their own individual times.

His other choice of team mate was an immensely strong tri-athlete, who also happened to be a local. A strong cyclist and runner, this race looked like it would suit him down to the ground. Meanwhile, I had seemingly given the impression to the team leader that I was good at this kind of stuff, despite not having any experience of competing in dualthons. Though I knew that I did have stores of endurance, shown in the past by showings at the annual “Strathpuffer” 24 hour mountain bike race, which I felt would be beaten in terms of challenge by what was coming this time around.

So as race day finally rolled around I awoke from my disturbed sleep at around six in the morning, an early start was needed if I was going to I lot least try and be prepared. I got out of bed and checked my race bag for like the thousandth time after packing it the day before and went looking for my tight lycra which I firmly believe is mandatory. After getting my race gear on I threw on some running tights and a jumper and made my way downstairs for breakfast. One of my team mates was already there and copied he pre race food choice, thinking that he definitely looked like he knew what he was doing unlike me. As we greeted our other team mate I ate the porridge very slowly, seemingly feeling sickly with no appetite as the nerves once again got the better of my body yet again.

Once I had eventually swallowed as much of the porridge as I could, I made my way back to my room to make final preparations before we would get on a bus which would take us to the west coast of Scotland. From that point there was no turning back. Having packed and checked my race bag several times over, I couldn’t help but worry about the nausea that I felt as I contemplated the challenge that lay ahead. My mental preparation didn’t seem to be going to well. Rejoining my team mates, we got onto the nearest bus and I hoped that the knowledge that there was no return ticket would help settle my nerves. I made nervous small talk as the bus seemingly slithered its was through some of the slowest, windiest roads I had ever experienced. This wasn’t helping.

I also had the urge to go pee, and was greatly relieved when we stopped just off the banks of the world famous Loch Ness to let the athletes do what they had to do. When I got back on the bus the empty bladder and the fresh Highland air seemed to have done the job and I started to feel much better, even managing to take on a little bit of food. I felt slightly more at ease and was able to enjoy the dramatic scenery shrouded in cloud as we approached the location of the start line in wet but not cold conditions.

The journey took around two hours and when we arrived we actually had to walk about a mile to the start line. I was relieved to have arrived and felt ready despite the nervous build up. The excitement was papable as we approached the start line which had been at  the front of the mind everytime I had put my running shoes on or got on the bike. The time to shine was now and wanted to everything I could to help my team mate reach the finish line in under five hours. Any worries about mental and physical weakness had to be put to the back of my mind and forgotten about as I convinced myself that perhaps missing out on some of the right type of training in the build up wouldn’t be a justifiable excuse when we returned to Beauly.

It didn’t take long to arrive at the starting point and final preparations didn’t take long. I was carrying a few energy gels, my trusted digital watch and wore a waterproof around my waist in case conditions became wetter. It wasn’t actually really raining as we jostled through the crowd to find a good starting position, though there was many a muddy puddle on the track. After situating ourselves in the middle of the massive field of competitors, it was a short wait until the staring pistol followed. The aftermath was pandemonium as near 500 runners struggled for position in what surely didn’t seem like an effort which was meant to last at least a few hours.

I was relieved that after the first few kilometers the pace settled down as the field became more spread out, as our team managed to regroup. Most people must have realized by this point that it was best just to tackle the puddles head on as we made our way North-East along the flooded path through the mountains. As we neared the ten kilometer mark the path thinned, resulting in a long line of runners as we approached the first real challenge in the form of a steep climb. However, being in a slow moving line of runners meant it wasn’t too much of a struggle and I began to enjoy the dramatic views as I passed a water station at a waterfall. The atmosphere was adeptly assisted by the mountain rescue helicopter as it roared up and down the valley.

By this point we had become separated and I realized that if we were going to support each other we likely needed to stick together. I waited for the team leader, who was a little way down the incline, at the next water station at the beginning of the descent. In fairness to my other team mate he was waiting for us at the next water station down and was looking to be in better shape than I definitely felt. In that moment I seemed to be suffering from discomfort in my knees, which seemed to get worse as we carried on. This was momentarily forgotten about when my team mate took a nasty fall, explaining that he was suffering from bad cramp, hindering his progress. After looking in absolute agony for a few moments his facial expression changed to one of determination and he was back up on his feet.

As we continued past the halfway point I attempted the difficult task of finding a softer running line than the rocky track to run on, as my knees continued to bother me. Eventually we came to the last few miles of the run, Roshan and I battling pain as I started to feel slightly envious of how content Wilbur’s running style looked. I had been warned about the last section of the run referred to as ‘The Golden Road’. A slow, undulating section on track which for a couple of miles towards the end turned into tarmac was to follow. This was becoming a real challenge, as I counted down the miles to the transition point. My Auntie Marie wasn’t wrong when she told me of her experience of wanting to get on the bike just for a seat, after the 20 miles on foot. I wasn’t comforted by the fact that Roshan had seemingly fallen silent, a unusual occurrence lets say.

I think we were all relieved when we saw all the bikes lined up along the tarmac road. After a few minutes in the transfer zone which was on quite muddy, solid ground, we set off again on our energy sapping journey across the Scottish Highlands. After the first few hundred meters it was even more obvious that Wilbur was in much better form than his two team mates as he ploughed on ahead of us. The first part of cycle was quite technical with some gravel and a rough road surface adding to an already twisting descent. I spent most of the descent focusing on my bike handling skills but Roshan was soon on my tail again as we joined some other riders.

At the bottom of the descent we finally caught up with Wilbur as he slowed to let us catch his back wheel and into his slipstream. This rest from wind resistance didn’t last long as Wilbur sped up again, making it hard to stay on his wheel. As I struggled to stay on his wheel I realized that Roshan had fallen back, and I knew I also had to drop back to help him out. This became a bit of a recurring pattern as Wilbur continue to slow and then sped up when we rejoined his wheel. I can sympathize with this as it is difficult to judge the speed that others are going out when on a bike. On the other hand it was massively frustrating for Roshan and I to watch his back wheel go in and out of sight.

After a while I realised that the best solution for Roshan and I was to stay together and help each other get across the finish line in a time under the elusive five hours. As I pulled him along at a pace which suited us both we came across other riders who had the same idea as us. Though unfortunately these riders’ idea of working together seemed to differ with each individual we encountered. Some riders in a group were happy to give fellow athletes a hand while others seemed more focused on gaining as significant a personal advantage as they could for themselves. This could likely be excused by utter exhaustion which I think we could all sympathise with after four and a bit hours of draining exercise.

The chaotic nature of these groups came to a head when we were almost involved in an accident. As a group of around ten of us blasted down the predominantly flat roads we were met by a car coming towards us. As it became apparent that we needed to make more room for it to pass on our right some sudden maneuverers were made in front of us. I know that I almost became a cropper as I hammered the brakes, avoiding the next riders’ wheel by mere centimeters, exchanging a look and a rude word with Roshan before carrying on a little shaken.

As the cycle went on I began to lose a sense of distance keeping my team mate up to date with the time on my digital watch. Towards the end of the race we were rejoined by Wilbur and were relieved and probably surprised when we saw we were coming to the last corner in a time well under the targeted five hours. After taking the last corner the group of us was lined up like a long sprint lead out as we rode the last mile into Beauly.

Getting cut up by a car and some more questionable mannouveres by other riders couldn’t take the icing of a great day as we all crossed the line around the 4 hours, 40 minutes mark. The pain had been worth it and I was chuffed that I had finished the epic event with a performance I could take pride in. The fact that I had also been there to see Roshan achieve a target which he had held onto for a fair few years was also great and I was pleased that I had contributed in some way.

My legs were shot though a seat and an ice cream soon helped me forget about the aches and pains of the race. However, as I struggled up the stairs to my hotel room the pre race nausea of that morning suddenly returned and  floored me for a couple of hours, meaning I missed the main section of the awards ceremony though was fortunate enough to catch the end of the speeches which thanked the many helpers and supporters of the Highland Cross.

This thanks was the least they deserved as the support and organization of the whole event was top notch, with the money we raised for Highland charities hopefully giving a little back to communities which participated. Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Escape into Europe – Part 3

To pick up from last time…it took us just under two hours to travel the 300 odd miles to Strasbourg near the German border from the French capital. Not bad going considering this journey would likely take around 4 hours, 30 minutes by car! After a very smooth journey to Strasbourg we had arrived slightly late and just missed the earlier optional train to Offenburg. This wasn’t of to much concern however as we knew we would just catch the next one an hour later, meaning our two next connections before Berlin would still fit into our make shift schedule.

We wondered through the train station and bought some baguettes (had to be done in France), before wondering out the entrance into a grassy area. It was about 8 pm as we devoured our packaged French delicates in silence. As I ate I looked at the small square we had found ourselves in and wondered whether we were missing something by just passing through Strasbourg. In fairness, our chosen place to seat hadn’t looked that inviting, with lots of rubbish and serious looking old mannies (you get them everywhere), but maybe there was some hidden gems around the next corner.

However, we didn’t have much time to hang about and were soon making our way back through the train station to the platform we needed to wait at. When we reached said platform I must admit I was struck by the fact that it was so much smaller and further away from the other platforms. There was also maybe two benches giving the impression that our next destination wasn’t a particularly popular one. While we waited for the train the sun was preparing to drop below the horizon bathing us in a fantastic orange light.

When we boarded the small train there was the sense of relief that we felt everytime we managed to catch the right train. I sat down and checked I had the passports and interrail passes as I always did before and after moving anywhere. For some reason Rory had thought it wise to leave his passport on my person meaning there extra pressure to actually not lose something for once. The train kept a slow but steady pace through the outskirts of Strasbourg before entering the flat surrounding countryside. It didn’t take long before we could tick another country of our list as we crossed the Pont de l’Europe (Europe Bridge), passing two large German flags.

The train arrived in Offenburg approximately 30 minutes after its departure and after getting off we walked to the platform we needed to be at for the train to Mannheim. Two trains down. Two to go. We still had a bit of time so wondered around looking for advice on whether we should buy tickets for the next train just before boarding. To our disappointment we couldn’t any staff, asking an armed policeman who wasn’t overly helpful. We would just have to board as we were. Everything was going to be absolutely fine.

As our departure time came closer I couldn’t help but notice that the entire station was almost deserted. Scarce passengers and three armed police officers were dotted along the platform. Surely more people were getting on this train. The other concern was that ten minutes prior to its arrival the Mannheim train wasn’t up on the board, Baden Baden being the next location displayed. Rory pointed out that there was information scrolling along the bottom of the board, and hurriedly struggled to translate it through Google. It read that due to rail works north of here all trains would be terminating at Baden Baden, only 12 minutes further up the line. This was not good and it seemed although our plan had been suddenly thrown out of the window.

We hurried to try and find an alternative, reaching for the railway map and bringing up the app on our phone which provided us with train times (this was a life saver, thanks intterail!). It was becoming increasingly stressful as everytime we were provided with a possible option we quickly realised it wasn’t going to work. Eventually we realised we would have to go south, a long way south. Our new plan would include taking a arduous looping route through Switzerland and Austria, before re-entering Germany from the south-east near Munich. Also factored into this was that we would have to spend a night in Zurich train station, before we could catch the next train into Austria. We got on the southbound train at around 10.30 pm, and headed towards our next stop off point, Basel.

As the train whizzed through the now pitch darkness I wondered what type of landscape we were passing through as we headed towards the mountains of Switzerland. When we arrived in Basel just after midnight, we had a quick connection to make for the next train to Zurich. We made this no problem and arrived in Zurich 40 minutes later, contemplating what the rest of the night was going to bring. We searched the train station for somewhere to get a seat with the aim of spending the next five hours. Before we could have a proper look we were guided out of the train station for closing time. This was a certainly a game changer.

We walked out of the train station and headed into the area we thought looked the most central, finding a bench to sit on. This would have to be where we spend the night. A few minutes after sitting on our accommodation for the night, we witnessed a scuffle across the street involving the police. I suddenly felt slightly unsafe, wondering whether we would be confronted. Thankfully our only interaction was with a  local who wanted to purchase some weed. Unfortunately neither us could provide him with this, him being kind enough to translate his request into English for us.

The time on my digital watch seemed to change very slowly as we sat shivering on our wooden bench, looking out at the city lights being reflected onto the River Limmat. Likely a stunning city in daylight, at 3 am it felt rather lonely and hostile. Two hours later we set off to see if the train station was open yet, wandering around the area surrounding the huge building before it finally opened. We found somewhere to sit and Rory instantly fell asleep, while I desperately tried to stay awake, worried that we might miss our train at 6.40 am.

After just about managing to stay awake it took a wee while to shake Rory awake before making our way to the correct platform. Luckily the train was already there and we boarded our train which would take us to Kufstein in Austria. I realised quite quickly that the seats were fairly upright making it difficult to sleep. I found myself in a horrible kind of halfway house between being extremely sleep deprived while being unable to sleep. In some ways this was actually a blessing in disguise as the scenery was incredible. As the train winded its way into Austria the mountains became higher and more dramatic, seemingly rising out of nowhere with slopes which seemed to rise at an almost impossible angle. It was a shame we were so sleep deprived.

When we arrived in Kufstein we had to run for our next train to Munich, just catching it in time. As we re-entered Germany for the second time the landscape suddenly became much flatter, the chatter of German tourists not being enough to keep me awake, as I had 40 winks for the first time in about 30 hours. It didn’t take long to get to Munich and we prioritised getting food during the 30 minute wait for the next train. The huge train station wasn’t dissimilar to a shopping mall as we found a Burger King.

After some well deserved food we walked down to the right platform. The train was labelled as going to Hamburg, causing us some confusion. Though it was quite funny when Rory asked a train conductor whether he spoke English. His was answer was simply “NO!” as he barged past us. Some of the passengers were more welcoming to our appalling lack of German and reassured us that the train also went to Berlin. After a slight struggle to find unreserved seats we were forced to sit across the aisle from each other. I sat beside a businessman in a fancy black suit. We didn’t chat. Finally it looked as if we going to make it to Berlin, almost 24 hours later than planned.

The seats on the super cool, fast German “ICE” trains were much more sleep friendly, and I slept for a large portion of the journey. Awaking sometimes, worryingly close to the shoulder of the poor man I was sitting beside. He cast many strange look at me during the journey, though it remains a mystery as to whether I actually used his shoulder as a pillow. The journey lasted six hours and when we reached Berlin we decided to get off at the first station to make sure we had actually made it. It seemed inconceivable to me that we had actually made it to Berlin!

From Berlin Sudkreuz station we got on the easy to navigate over ground system, taking us to the area where our hostel was located. We expected and wanted a nice place to sleep, being totally shattered and very grumpy. Unfortunately this wasn’t this case, finding out that my 30 euros had been spent on a double bed which fitted perfectly into our room for the night. It would have to do and we soon collapsed onto the bed in exhaustion, looking forward to what Berlin would bring tomorrow…

 

 

Escape into Europe – Part 2

So we had arrived in Lille and had spent the night in a hotel that did the job perfectly. We were all set for going into the French capital, not finding it to difficult to wake up at 7am for our 8.15 train from the huge station in the middle of Lille. For one, I was mega excited as I had never visited Paris before and it had been on my bucket list for a while. This time we found the walk to the train station a bit easier and arrived in plenty of time to find the platform we would be departing from.

When we got on the train I was reminded that my huge bag on my back made it difficult to navigate the tight corridors of the carriages, accidentally hitting people with the numerous straps hanging of my luggage as we tried to find a seat. We had booked tickets the night before but hadn’t been given seat numbers, leading us to sit in seats that had been pre booked by a poor French women with perfect English. She was very nice about it and I carried on whacking people with what I would soon label as my ‘big stupid bag’. Eventually we found our seats and I was able to reflect on the embarrassment of sitting in the wrong seat combined with our inability to communicate with native people in their own language. This would become a recurring theme throughout the countries we visited.

Amazingly it only took the TGV train just over an hour to reach Paris’ Nord (North) station, passing through the Northern French countryside at insane speeds. When we got of the train breakfast was on our minds first and we got some croissants at a café in the station. They definitely taste better in France. After we had been fed and watered we went to try and figure out the Paris subway system, which turned out to be a really effective way of getting across the large city. We decided that we wanted to see the Notre Dame Cathedral first, hopping on a underground train which left us only a five minute walk away from this historic building.

After admiring the impressive architecture and slightly spooky gargoyles of  Notre Dame, we wondered towards the Eiffel Tower, following the River Sienne. The sun was glaring and we realised that our Scottish eyes weren’t used to being exposed to that bright thing in the sky. Sunglasses were sought and then bought on our way to Paris’ main attraction. I went for some blue, red and white ones, (which I am proud to say aren’t broken yet) while my mate went for some black ones. They were both pretty cheap, though I reckon sunglasses can make any village idiot look cool. My friend disagreed and slagged me off endlessly for my choice of sunnies throughout the rest of the trip. You can’t please everyone.

As we got closer to the Eiffel Tower I realised that I needed the toilet. A new challenge had come about, finding a toilet in Paris. We kept wondering down the banks of the river, taking in the impressive sights of the French capital while becoming more and more desperate to find a rest room in some form. We went pass bridge after bridge until we eventually arrived at the bottom of the tower. Unfortunately we weren’t willingly to pay to go up the tower, but I was taken aback by how cool it was to be near such a famous landmark. We took some photos before setting off across the river to continue are mission which was now becoming a desperate state of affairs.

Up some stairs we went until eventually in a small square we had made it. Panic over. We realised that we were actually right next to the Trocadero, an area of beautiful architecture which provides visitors with a spectacular view of the tower. We sat there for a while, admiring the Paris skyline, while drinking some cokes. I never did get my hands on an ‘organia’! From there we travelled to the Champs Elyees and the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen the most famous piece of road in cycling being televised at the end of le Tour de France on many occasions, but it was something else to actually stand there and imagine the likes of Mark Cavendish whizzing past. The Arc de Triomphe was also massively impressive, it sheer size and width being a surprise.

By the time we had looked at these three attractions it was nearing the time that we had decided to book tickets for our next train. The aim was to save money by travelling to Mannheim on the German-French border, before boarding an overnight train to Berlin. These tickets would have to be reserved at Paris Est (East) station, a quick journey away by subway. After a quick discussion with the very French man at the ticket office we were informed that a collapsed bridge near Mannheim was causing issues for trains in that region. He carried on looking for options for us to travel to Mannheim, before suddenly he was buying us ticket for Strasbourg and handing as a schedule to get a train to the German town of Offenburg, before making our way north to Mannheim. Looking back it would have been sensible to have told him that our final destination was Berlin.

After this slightly complicated discussion we wondered around the streets surrounding the train station, getting a last sense of really fascinating city. It had been a short visit which had been enjoyed thoroughly and I hope I’m lucky enough to return Paris one day. I we wondered around with no agenda I was slightly pensive about the journey we were about to make. We now had to make an extra stop in Germany and I knew very little about Strasbourg. I had never heard of Offenburg and didn’t realise that it would become a major bug bear for us. As the afternoon rolled on we boarded another TGV, this time heading east, with no issues. The sun was lower in the sky and we were feeling more relaxed about the journey ahead. Berlin here we come….