Friday, May 29, 2009

The English and Welsh Countryside

We finally DID something! We climbed Snowdon!

Rashed likes to tell people that he's interested in history and I'm interested in nature. He'll be reading the inscription of a World War II monument when I say, "Look! pansies!" or "Look! a dog!" and skitter away. I'm not a fan of big cities. So I was very excited on Sunday when, after a brief stop in the Lake District Saturday night, Rashed's relatives drove us to the trailhead of the highest peak in Wales and left us there to climb while they went off to find less strenuous enjoyment.

The peak is only 3,000-something feet, and the countryside seemed to feature only gentle hills, so I was skeptical. You could even take a train almost to the top, but I refused. As we started out, it did seem like an easy journey, but we were wary of the fact that we could never see the top, no matter how many hills we rounded. As the climb got steeper, with breathtaking views of valleys and lakes behind and higher hills rising up in front of us, the bleating of grazing sheep became less cute and more taunting, as they defied gravity, dotting the bare sides of the mountains far above us. The trail got steeper and steeper. And the mountains around there used to be mined for shale, so the path was little better than a slippery rockslide at times. We trudged and wheezed, and I decided it wasn't just a little hill. When we finally caught sight of the top, the sea was visible and the hills we'd already climbed stretched back into the distance. The peak looked like a little needle point from where we stood, with antlike people clustered on top of it, looking like they might push each other off and fall down the steep drops into the valleys below. We kept going, one foot in front of the other and reached the top, touched it, took a couple of pictures, and happily turned around, our soaked shirts drying and chilling us in the wind. We ate a sandwich and prayed and made it down in two hours instead of the three it had taken to go up.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tower Travails

On Thursday (21 May 2009) we were very disciplined tourists. We got up early, and, after an a phone interview in Belarusian Rashed had to give with Radio Liberty out of Prague, we rode the rails to London and took a Beefeater tour of the Tower. It is strange how easy it is to laugh at Henry VIII and his wives and various traitors who were tortured and murdered (those crazy, old-fashioned kids!), as if they were fictional characters and not real people. The ravens in the yards grunt and pick at unidentifiable bloody scraps, and it only improves our mood. I'm glad, though, that Rashed warned me of the tour guides' offensive humor. When ours makes a reference to Heart of Darkness, then comments that no one reads anymore, I surprise him by saying that I've read it, impressing him because I am 'blond, and a woman!' Later, he glares at me when a cell phone beeps, and I explain to him after the tour that I don't carry a cell phone. Maybe I've ruined his theories of young women; maybe I'm doing something to avenge those murdered wives?

The rest of the day, we zip from one place to another: an ice cream stand that charges £2.50 for an ice cream bar, a pretty boardwalk along the Thames (Tower Bridge is beautiful--London Bridge looks like the plain cement crossing between Maumee and Perrysburg, Ohio), the Monument (to the fire of 1666 and the rebuilding of London), Subway sandwiches, St. Paul's Cathedral (kind of sterile and too incense-y for me, but the views from the high galleries both inside and outside are magnificent), the Museum of London (free and fun!), the outside of Westminster Cathedral (with the bells pealing away like in the end of an old movie where the characters get married), Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

We take the train back at 8:00, and we go to sleep feeling pretty good.

Travel Notes

For the rest of the summer, my blog will feature notes from our travels. My husband, Rashed, and I are in England until May 25; then we will be in Belarus from May 25 until June 22; then we will be in Turkey from June 22 until July 27.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Yesterday (19 May 2009) Rashed and I did a walking tour of the West End of London from our Lonely Planet guide. We had made our way from Luton by train almost without mishap--we had the wrong underground tickets, and we couldn't get out of the gates as we left, but a kind, Dr. Who-like official took pity on us and (after telling us that our tickets were wrong and the penalty for that was death) let us loose in London. The streets were extremely crowded, though the buildings were beautiful. All the public bathrooms we came across were astoundingly clean! We had fish and chips in a restaurant near Leicester Square. The best part, though, was when we ducked off the streets into the shining expanses of Green Park. Taking a relieved breath, I coughed and was reminded of my allergy to European plane trees (the American sycamores don't bother me). But it was worth it. The clouds massed in the sky, covering the sun, then breaking away; the enormous trees stood guard over the long, straight, pebbled paths. As we reached the street at the other end, the gates near Buckingham Palace rose, gold and black, but I didn't want to leave. We circled back into the park, took some more pictures, rested on a bench, and finally moved on.

Buckingham Palace is not that pretty, for a palace. If I had a palace, it would be less square and more graceful. But I discovered something great about the fountain in front of it. The wide, granite ledge surrounding it has a curve that is perfect for sitting. Though you are sitting on rock, it feels like a cushion, and you can relax and look down on the swimming pool-like moat around the statue, at what looks to be the entire high command of all the branches of the Ukrainian armed forces, stout and dapper in Soviet-style uniforms, smiling jovially and taking pictures of one another (if they are there when you are there, too). A gasp. The drive in front of the palace is cleared, and a car comes out, but it is no one I recognize. And it is not the royalty here who are the attraction, it is the wide, fresh feeling, the escape from the crowded city streets where the locals in smart suits practically run to their destinations.

We leave the fountain and make our way to St. James's Park. It is a good strolling park; along the path is a waterway, travelled by ducks and geese with exotic stripes and colors. I love to see the common animals of Britain. The are so like the American ones but slightly different. The pigeons are greyer, the squirrels a bit thinner, the magpies are less shiny, and the crows are huge and menacing. The animals in this park aren't quite as common, though, and along the walkways beautiful flowering bushes attract bumble bees and locals.

As we leave the park, I feel sicker and sicker. I hardly slept on the airplane, and I feel like the atmosphere is crushing me, like I need to sink to the ground. We turn down a street still bordered by the park, and though we see some black swans, and another bird I can't identify with a mouthful of leaves to add to his nest, we also hear the rush of cars, and the cell phone that Rashed's cousin gave him goes off. The peace is broken. It's time to go "home".

We asked for the correct underground tickets this time and got to the train station to see that we still had an hour to wait for our train. We sat perched on a low railing, but I kept falling asleep as I tried to read so we wandered a bit in the giant, vaulted St. Pancras station. Rashed later said that my eyes were so weird and dilated that I looked like a monster. Once on the train, I tried not to sleep so we wouldn't miss the stop. The ride only took about 20 minutes, and we found our way home without getting lost (unlike the morning when we wandered forever looking for the station and getting directions like "it's around the back" from harried locals). Back at the flat, we ordered pizza and fell into a deep, 12-hour sleep.

We got up late this morning, but not too late. I think staying up yesterday was worth it to reduce our jet lag. It looks like we might just wander around Luton today--part of which looks like the South Asian strip of our Parc Extension neighborhood of Montreal and part of which looks like a fishing village, with small, attached houses squeezing together down hills that I imagine should lead to the sea but which appear to lead to more roads and parks and houses. The weather is warmer today, still intermittently cloudy and sunny, and there is a friendly little calico cat named Hadia ("Guide" in Arabic) waiting for us back at the apartment.

Happy Trails!