Arriving in Aberdeen on the overnight ferry from the Shetland Islands, I was very early showing up at my childhood friend’s place. During the short walk to Vero’s place, I made a new drunk friend on the sidewalk. He absolutely wanted to show me pictures he took on the top of the building next door… Véro opened the door a few minutes later and after saying my goodbyes to my new ”friend” she let me in. It was so nice to see each other once again after so many years apart. Knowing that Véro had lots to do with her wedding planning as well as organizing the Alaska dig (she’s an archaeologist), I had made plans with Lilian, my new French friend, to meet up later. We had planned to spend the day in Aberdeen, exploring the city, but Véro told me about a nearby castle so we changed our day plan over coffee.
After our breakfasts, we headed to the station to catch the bus. While in line to buy our bus tickets, there was an older couple asking the cashier how to get to Dunnottar Castle and then they ran off towards the platforms. The bus being scheduled to leave at 10:20 and seeing it was already past that, we assumed we would have to take the next one, so we walked slowly towards the right gate. As we were approaching we could see people still getting in, so we joined the queue, and were the last ones to get on the bus before it left.
It took about 30 minutes to get to Stonehaven, the village located next to the castle. The bus almost emptied in the village so we decide to follow them being, once again, quite lucky into finding the coastal path right away. The walk to the castle was stunning, and with the beautiful sunny weather, we enjoyed every minute of it.
We arrived at the castle, paid our £6 entry fee, and started wandering around the castle ruins, looking through all the windows and fireplaces. We took the views in, and once we arrived in a different area of the castle, we stumbled on a wedding celebration including lots of nice dresses and kilts.
After exploring the castle ruins, we walked down to a pebble beach we had seen from the top and decided to have lunch there, sharing all the food we had brought with us. We even put our feet in the cold water for a few minutes. It was all very relaxing and a much better way to spend the day than walking around in Aberdeen. The transition between peaceful Unst, relatively busy Lerwick and Saturday morning Aberdeen, was good even though it made me realize I don’t really care for cities anymore, and I would rather be lost in the wilderness, surrounded with amazing views, wildlife and nature then concrete, traffic, and people.
Once we were done eating, we walked back to Stonehaven, discovering a very adorable town, with a port looking a lot like Croatia. We kept seeing locals and tourists alike eating ice cream cones, so Lilian decided to treat himself with one of the biggest cones I’ve ever seen, but definitely the most beautifully presented, with candies, chocolates, cookies and marshmallows decorating the cone.
We took the bus back to Aberdeen and went our separate ways; Lilian trying to find another book to read during his night bus to London and me walking up to Vero’s place to met with her and Paul for a few drinks in her favourite pub. After the pub, we went back to her place and had dinner. We ended up talking all night, catching up on the last 10 years of our lives.
The next day we went dress shopping. I hadn’t been in a shopping mall in a very long time and somehow did not miss the feeling of looking inadequate that usually creeps on when I see people who obviously follow fashion trends.
That part of living in the city always gets to me, even though most of the time I am ok not wearing the latest fashion. Sometimes, though, I do feel like everybody is judging me, when they are most probably not even seeing me, and most definitely not caring about me and what I look like. I keep telling myself that I don’t have to care about that, but it’s much easier said than done.
Bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus to the Northernmost island of the UK
After leaving the hostel to get to the Viking Bus Station, I met a few fellow tourists waiting for the bus to the other end if the island. It took about 1.5 hours to get to the first ferry. Luckily, one of the guys on the bus (who had a Sea Shepherd backpack!) was a local going back home after 2 weeks of work, so we were able to follow him and know where to go. The first ferry was pretty quick, and once on Yell, we hoped on the bus. This time it was not a city bus but a big comfortable coach. The driver was really friendly and he pointed out things to see along the way. When we arrived at the other end of Yell, we had to wait for a few minutes because the original ferry had troubles. While we waited for the second ferry to come pick us up, the local guy and us tourists, were wondering if there was still going to be a bus on the other side as we were now very late. But somebody had called the driver and he was waiting for us. The quiet driver of the minibus dropped us off to our different destinations.
I checked-in at Saxa Vord Resort and as I was going towards the restaurant to use the little internet available, I met Jim,the Irish guy from the reception. He was driving down to Baltasound and he offered me a ride.
I got dropped over at the Baltasound Hotel and started to walk in the village. The views were amazing and it was very quiet. I saw the northernmost UK post office and the adorable Unst bus shelter, decorated with a regularly changing theme. This time, the theme was puffins. I walked back to Haroldswick enjoying the very sunny day.
On my way, I stopped at the reconstructed Viking ship. Later on, as I was taking a picture of an abandoned house with lots of flower in front of it, a small cat came out. At first, I wasn’t sure if he was going to be friendly, but it turns out, he was very friendly and cuddly and I ended up petting him for a while.
I came back to the hostel, relaxed for a few minutes and because it was still sunny, I decided to go to Norwick Beach. It was amazing. And so relaxing. The whole day was actually very relaxing, and I do understand now why in one of the booklets it said that it was good to get away from the bustle of the city of Lerwick. Lerwick is not that big of a city, but when you arrive on an island where you can very easily not see anybody all day, it puts things into perspective! All the islanders were very friendly and waved hello to everybody.
I woke up this morning to a rainy day but when I was done preparing my breakfast and sandwiches, it was sunny again, the joy and unpredictability of Scotland’s weather! I left the hostel and started walking towards Hermaness National Nature Reserve.
It rained on the way there and I was hoping somebody would pity me, but nobody drove by except for a minibus already full. I must have been too late for locals (or more likely going in the wrong direction) and too early for visitors. It took me about one hour to get to Hermaness Visitor Centre.
I took a few minutes to read about the birds I could see in the Reserve, and started my ascent to the cliff. It was fairly easy, and I got to see a lot of Great Skuas, or Bonxies, as they call them here.
The views from the cliffs were amazing. As I was heading north it was very windy and so cold; I had to add a layer of clothing. I saw lots of gannets and fulmars. I also saw one lone puffin flying around. He must have had other friends but because they nest in old rabbit warrens and fly by fast, they are especially hard to see from the top of the cliffs.
I found myself an almost dry area to sit and have lunch while enjoying the never-ending flying ballet of the gannets. The soil on the island is made of bog with deep peat. In the old days, the peat was collected, dried and burned to heat houses. Peat is mostly water with just a little bit of partially decayed vegetation, so when you step in it, you can lose your footing easily, while getting your shoes wet of course. I had read about it, but my feet decided to try it anyway when I lost my balance and almost fell right in. It was indeed very wet and soggy!
I walked for a while and eventually I smelled what reminded me of Antarctica, the ‘sweet’ smell of bird poo! I knew I was onto something. Little did I know I had just walked in on a huge gannetrie, with the odd fulmar and another puffin. It was amazing to watch the gannets fly by, at great speed, using the wind to their advantage. Their wingspan can be up to 6 feet, making this a fairly big bird! The adult gannets are very stylish and it looks like they wear makeup. Their chicks are dark grey and can take up to five years to get the white plumage!
It was a rainy morning again, but I decided to go for a walk anyway. I ventured towards Burwick, but this time, I decided I was going to walk until I reached Skaw, as recommended by the guy at the hostel reception. Skaw was a radar station during World War II. On my way there, I stopped in the last bus shelter. I thought it might be a good idea to wear my rain pants for once… What a great idea it turned out to be! They are great against the rain but also very good against the wind and made my walk much more enjoyable.
The road to Skaw was marked as closed, but I decided to go over the fence and see if it was really that dangerous. A few minutes later, I understood why it was closed for vehicles, as there is a good chunk of the road that had fallen down.
On foot, it was great and a very nice shortcut. I followed the cliff, looking at the birds and accidentally herding some sheep as I walked along. I kept telling them not to be scared of me, but they didn’t seem to trust me!
I entered one of the buildings that had been used during the war, and because I didn’t have my flashlight, I was slightly scared. The first building had boats, table and lots of tires in it. I kept walking along the cliff and entered the second building on my way back. I was nervous to walk in the dark, not knowing what I could walk on when I heard a noise. It startled me, to say the least. I waited to see what it was, heart thumping. It turns out, I had scared a bird by coming in, and in return it scared the hell out of me, by swiftly moving around in the dark! I quickly went back outside, preferring the safety of the open space and light to the dark and wet unknown building.
I had a quick bite to eat before heading back onto the closed road. When I arrived at the bottom of the hill, a tiny Shetland pony came rushing towards me, hoping I would give him something to eat. I let him smell my hand and he quickly realized I had nothing to offer, so he, unfortunately, went back to where he came from no even waiting long enough for a selfie!
Bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus back to Lerwick
I woke up the next morning after a very exhausting night. For some reason, when I know I have to wake up in the morning, and I have put my alarm on, I get so scared of not waking up on time, that I barely get any sleep at all. It’s not logical whatsoever but happens every time. And it pisses me off, and I can’t sleep because I’m mad at myself… A never ending circle!
So after my almost sleepless night, I went in the hostel kitchen and met a family. I had talked to them a little bit before, and it was interesting to learn that they had lived on Unst when it was a military station. The kids (my age now) had actually grown up there, so it was very interesting to hear about how life on the island was back then, what had changed and what hadn’t.
A good thing to know before getting to Unst is that the combined bus-ferry is actually much cheaper than the individual ticket. When the bus, or any vehicle, gets on the ferry, the price is only for the vehicle regardless of the number of people actually on board. And when you walk on the ferry, you have to pay for the crossing by itself. Odd, but once you know it ends up being half price.
I was very sad leaving Unst. I have liked it so much there and relaxed like I hardly ever do. I really wanted to stay there for much longer. I also did realize it was the last stop before the mainland, and it meant that I will start working very soon. I’m far from being sure that I’ll know how to readjust to the working life and the routine that comes with it. A lot of things were going through my mind as I sat on the bus this morning, which probably explain why I was feeling so sad and out of it for most of the day.
After getting back to the hostel in Lerwick, I used the internet for a while as I was in no rush to get back outside. Later on, I went to see the Broch of Clikimin, conveniently located between the older part of the city and the newer part, and also right next to Tesco, where I was planning on buying some food. The broch is well preserved, but it lacks a little bit in interpretation, which makes the walk around quite quick.
Later in the day, I decided to go for a short walk in the city as it was sunny and ‘warm’. When I arrived on the pier, the sailing boat with the Canadian flag I had noticed the day before was there, so not thinking any further, I went ahead and talked to the two Norwegian men (one of which is married to a French-Canadian, hence the flag). They had to leave for a few hours but they told me to come back later for a chat.
I came back to the hostel and about one hour later went back out there, and sure enough the nice Norwegian guys were waiting for me. I had expected to spend an hour or two on the boat, but I ended up spending the whole evening with them talking about sailing and the long term travelling life.
I had laughed at the ‘bustling’ city comment I had read, but after a few day on Unst, I can say, it was true and I felt like I was coming back to the hustle and bustle of a big city. And I did not like it. I was craving more silence, birds, overall quietness. Looking back, it was a wise choice to stay for one night in Lerwick instead of taking the ferry the same night, as Aberdeen would have definitely been a bigger shock right after Unst!
Scalloway and Ferry Lerwick-Aberdeen
I took my time in the morning and decided that because it was yet another mostly sunny day, it would be worth going to Scalloway and see the ruins of the castle. I went to the bus stop right in front of the hostel and met one of the Australian ladies with whom I was sharing the dorm. When I got on the bus, I saw Lilian, a French guy I had talked to earlier that morning so I sat next to him and we chatted on our way to Scalloway.
All three of us ended up visiting the village together and having great conversations. The castle was already open so we did not have to go and fetch the key in one of the local businesses. The ruins of the castle were very similar to the ones I had visited in Birsay, on Orkney, which made sense as they were all built by the same Earls.
In the afternoon, after picking up my backpack from the hostel left-luggage room, I walked to the Shetland museum. I had liked the Orkney museum, because of all the artifacts, but this one was much better, with a more finished look. At around 4:15, I walked toward the ferry where I met again with Lilian. We watched the islands slowly disappear as the ferry left, and it was once again truly beautiful. Seeing the length of the island of Bressay, it made me realized why it took me so long and why I was so tired after my walk a few days back!
We came back inside and settled into our seats on different sides of the ferry. There was a very loud snorer for the first half of the trip, but luckily enough, he moved to the other side of the ferry later on, so I got to get some sleep, regularly changing positions in order to try to find a suitable one. I had a much better night then my first time on the ferry, even though the sea was quite rough from Lerwick to Kirkwall. Many people looked like they were going to be sick but lucky for me my body seemed to be readjusting very well to rougher conditions, which is great giving that I do dream to buy myself a sailboat eventually!
On the ferry from Kirkwall we were joining the people that had left from Aberdeen a few hours earlier so there were already many people on board. I found the cinema and settled in one of the seats, expecting other people to enter. Nobody did so I ended up having the whole cinema to myself! The seats were somewhat reclinable, but I still had a hard time finding a comfortable position.
Lerwick, Jarlshof and Sumburgh Head
The night ferry arrived in Shetland at around 7 in the morning. After cleaning up in the bathroom, I made my way out of the boat, waited for my bag to arrive on the trolley, and headed for the Islesburgh Hostel. It was a 15 minutes walk with just a little bit of rain, so it was actually pretty good. I hadn’t really looked at the directions, but I found it easily.
I entered the building at the same time as a couple from New Zealand. Some people were already waiting to check in, so the reception guy decided to take us on a tour of the building, showing us everything we needed to know. After the 2-3 check-ins that had arrived before me and what felt like forever, I got my key and went to my room. I was exhausted and barely coherent but managed to talk with one of the girls in my dorm. I took a shower, had breakfast, and once I felt like a human being again, set up for a walk to VisitScotland offices to gather information on where I wanted to go and the ways to get there. The guy was very useful and he knew exactly the answers to my questions.
I walked in the older part of the city, going from shop to shop trying to find a raincover for my daypack, but oddly enough, nobody seemed to keep them in store. I went to the Viking bus station to catch the bus to Jarlshof. Jarlshof is another area of the northern islands that had been inhabited for over 4500 years.
Over the years, the different arrivals shaped different building, sometimes stacking them onto what had been previously built. Even nowadays, there is still a village of farmers nearby. These ruins were discovered when they were exposed after a great gale. The site provides a very interesting audio tour and takes visitors around, from the first settlements to the 16th century Laird’s house (now in ruins). During the audio tour, we actually get to go inside the buildings, and it felt like a much more complete experience than Skara Brae. I was lucky, it was sunny during my tour, very windy but quite sunny.
After visiting the archeological site, I decided to walk to the lighthouse. Instead of walking on the road, I followed the advice of the guy working at the reception of Jarlshof, and did the coastal walk.
The beginning of the walk involved going over some fences and in a bull area. Fortunately, there was no bull in sight in the fenced area at the moment I was there, but I was still quite nervous going through the field. The fact that I couldn’t see a bull didn’t mean he was not there somewhere!
The wind was becoming much stronger and the rain started. I saw a lot of shags, cormorants and other water birds nesting on the cliffs. The wind was so strong that I would hide behind the stone wall, standing up only to take some pictures of the many birds. When I arrived at the Sumburgh Lighthouse the sun came back and while I was enjoying the sea views, I looked down and was pleasantly surprised to see my first puffins!! There were right on the other side of the rock fence, and I spent a good amount of time taking pictures and struggling to restrain myself from picking one up, cuddling and bringing it back as a pet! They are simply so adorable! And they sure know how to fly. For such clumsy looking creatures, they are really well adapted to the area.
After a short break from walking, I decided to head back with a little detour on the hill overlooking Jarlshof and the lighthouse. I followed an older man as he went up. I had never experienced so much wind!! I understood the guy’s earlier advice not to stand too close to the edge when it’s that windy because it would be easy to fall off into the ocean. It was so hard to walk straight that I had no problem believing him.
After a while, I had enough and cut through the land in between the sheep and back to the main road, towards the hotel and bus stop. I went to the bathroom in the hotel and as I was getting ready to head back to the bus and wait for 45 minutes, the older men arrived and offered me a ride back to Lerwick. I gladly accepted once again. He had gone for another walk in the morning and had learned about a very scenic little detour, where he took me. It was absolutely stunning and totally worth it. We chatted the whole way back to the city and he dropped me off next to my hostel.
The next day I walked to the port. There was a huge sailing vessel, which looked more like a cruise ship. I encountered a strange sight: some Vikings getting their stuff out of the car! While waiting for the ferry to return from Bressay I enjoyed the stillness and quietness of the place. At 10 am, I got on the very short ferry ride to Bressay and headed north. I was thinking I would run into the standing stone according to the map, but they turned out to be fairly far out of the way. I did, however, see Old Haa of Cruster, or at least I think that’s what I saw!
I turned around and decided to head back south. I walked all the way to Bressay Lighthouse and was looking for the Natural Arch next to it (according to the map once again). I couldn’t see it from the lighthouse so I decided to climb a small cliff, instead of going over some wired fence, and walked on the cliff for a while, looking for the arch. When I was ready to give up, I turned around and obviously the arch was right behind me… next to the lighthouse.
I enjoyed watching the seabirds fly around their nests for a while, before heading back to the ferry. When I was almost there, reaching the main ‘road’, a guy going in that direction asked me if I wanted a ride to the ferry, which I said yes. It wasn’t that far but it did save me a lot of steps.
A day later, after doing travel research on my laptop for most of the morning. I met Astrid, a Norwegian girl who had just arrived from Bergen on the amazing huge sailboat I had seen the day before. We walked around Lerwick for most of the afternoon, going to the ferry terminal to book our upcoming ferries. We arrived there at 2pm only to see that the office was open from 7:30 to 9:30 and 3 to 5pm. After walking around some more we went back to the ferry and booked our places. It was a quieter day, which felt pretty good.
I’ve been a member of Couchsurfing.org since 2010. I was living in Fort St. John, British-Columbia at the time and I started by hosting a few travellers on their way up the Alaska Highway. Most of them would arrive by car and stay overnight.
The idea behind couchsurfing is to facilitate encounters between locals and travel oriented people. It’s a free service, but the main idea should not be to be looking for a free night, but some kind of exchange instead. Trading stories, exploring cultural differences, having hands-on travel advice, making new friends along the way is what this is about.
The idea behind couchsurfing has always existed. When I was first travelling in Europe, I met a Swiss family in one of the hostels I was staying at. I had just entered Switzerland, and didn’t really have plans. While talking to them they said: You can’t come to Switzerland and not be in the mountains. They were away from their house for a couple of days, but they told me to take the train a few days later, and they would come pick me up at the station and bring me home, for a true Swiss experience.
It was the first time I had an experience like that, and being the young me, I didn’t know what to expect but decided to go anyway. It was at a time when Facebook did not exist, and most people did not use the Internet. A few days later, I took the train, not knowing if somebody was even going to be there for me. But when I arrived in Sion, the husband was there to pick me up. He drove us up the mountain, introduced me to all the kids, and showed me around the village. At night, they cooked a traditional Swiss fondue. It was a total immersion in the real life of a local family. The next day they took me around for some sightseeing, proudly sharing their history and favourite places with me. To this day, I still cherish that memory, as one of my best times while travelling. To me, a true insight into a local’s life makes a big difference while travelling. It helps understand the cultural differences and you do end up creating a special bond when you share a few days in close proximity with people.
Being a great guest
It is quite simple to be a great guest. It starts before you even send a request. Fill in your profile. This is what your host will use to decide if they want to have you over. Also make sure to read their profile as well. Some hosts will include a sentence somewhere in their profile that should be included in your request. If a host is saying it is a party flat and you are looking for a quiet evening in, or vice versa, it might not be the best match! In bigger cities, potential hosts receive so many requests everyday, if you want to stand a chance, you have to be distinctive.
Being interested in your host is the basic. When you do know how and when you will get to their place, let them know. If you are flying in, give them the flight number, that way if you are late, they will be able to find out. If taking public transport or hitchhiking, let them know what time you expect to arrive.
When you arrive, introduce yourself. You may be shy, but now is not the time! Treat their house like it’s your own. If you use the kitchen, clean after yourself. Try to keep your stuff in one place, and not spread all over the flat, as the host might get the feeling you are trying to take over. They are offering a place for you to sleep, they are not a hotel, a restaurant or an all-inclusive resort!
Sharing a meal is often the most pleasant part of the stay, as you get to cook together, and spend quality time getting to know each other. You do not have to bring anything, but it would definitely be appreciated by your host. Simple things like tea or coffee, product from your country, or even sharing a recipe. It doesn’t need to be big, even a small note that says thank you will be appreciated.
Keep in mind that the person hosting you is very likely to be working or have other plans, so you will probably have to leave at the same time in the morning or get in later at night. Some hosts will give you a key, but it should never be assumed.
Being a great host
When hosting, make sure to provide a clean and safe environment. Also, clear indications on how to get to your place are a must! To you, it is second nature, but to somebody new to the city, it can be quite confusing. Making guests feel welcome while explaining your expectations will make everything go much smoother. This may sound obvious but it is not always the first thing on people’s mind. If you want your guests to leave at the same time as you, say so. Tell them what they can use. And show interest in your guest’s culture, country etc.
If you know of any must-see, must-do or places to avoid in your area, share the information with your guests! They will be forever grateful!
Of course, like any other on-line site, you have to be careful. People that have hosted or surfed will have reviews from other members. Make sure to read the profile to know what to expect.
In order to have a great experience on both sides, I find that sharing as much information on the expectations, being flexible and not take anything for granted will make the stay more enjoyable for both parties.
Choosing a host, or a guest is a question of trust. If for some reason you do not feel comfortable, you can talk about it. Do keep in mind that you are never obligated to go through with it, it sucks to have to tell somebody that you are not comfortable or to leave in the middle of the night, but it is much better than risking anything. If you have a bad experience, leave a review explaining why so that other couchsurfers will know about it. When you do, include details, but try to remember to explain the situation in a clear, concise and non-judgmental way.
Don’t assume that because somebody doesn’t have any reviews that they will be bad news, everybody has to start somewhere to get the first review!
Getting your first review
Getting the first review can be difficult as obviously people don’t know you. You can start by meeting with people for coffee, of a walk in the city. Some cities even have groups that meet once a week, or once a month. Go there! Introduce yourself, meet other members and eventually you’ll get reviews. If you do meet somebody for coffee, don’t be shy asking for them to leave a review. And remember to leave reviews for people you meet too!
There is, of course, more than this to couchsurfing, but if you follow these easy guidelines, if you are respectful and interested there is no reason you shouldn’t have a great experience.
Second day of biking in Orkney. This time I knew where to go: away from the ferry towards the Co-op on the main street. My legs remembered the day before right away but I kept going. The road was pretty, and pretty hilly as well. Some parts were really challenging, but I pushed through, using my Hell Week mentality and it worked! Soon, after seeing countless sheep and a few cows, I arrived to Skara Brae.
The visit started with a short movie about Skara Brae, and then we moved on to the actual museum, where artifacts were exposed and explained. Skara Brae is one of the best preserved groups of prehistoric houses in Western Europe. They were uncovered in 1850 when a storm removed part of the ground and uncovered the ruins. They date about 5000 years ago, before the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge, and because they were well covered by sand, they kept very well. Every house in the village is about the same size, so it is believed that every villager had the same status. The houses were all set-up the same as well.
A hearth in the middle, which provided warmth and cooking facilities. A small corridor to enter, ensuring not too much sand and wind would get in. Right in front of the door was a dresser where they probably kept food and valued items. On both side where beds made of stone, which were hopefully covered in hay and fur. There is even evidence that suggest they may have had some kind of sewer system. The small room attached to the main room may even have been a toilet. The houses were also linked all together with a roofed corridor to keep all the inhabitant protected from the elements.
It was a very interesting visit to see the ruins of the village and also to try to imagine why they would have picked that specific area. Back then food was abundant, and there was even a small loch of fresh-water between the village and the sea. The sea has since claimed its right and now the water comes right up to the village.
During the summer time, the ticket includes a visit to Skaill house, the house where Laird William Graham Watt lived when he discovered Skara Brae. The house contains artifact collected by the family over the years.
After the visit of Skara Brae, I got back on my bike and kept going until I reached the Earl’s Palace and St. Magnus Kirk. The palace was built by Robert Stuart, Earl of Orkney in the late 16th century. He was pretty mean to the villagers, and after his death his son Patrick succeeded, being even more tyrannical. Both Earl Patrick and his own son, young Robert ended up being captured later on and executed. The Earls’ story is actually a lot longed and more complicated than that, and after their deaths, the Palace was abandoned and it quickly became in ruins.
St. Magnus Kirk was built in 1064. It is a very austere church, but it was worth a visit, especially the cemetery, as it had an amazing view of the bay.
After a quick lunch at the Earl’s Palace, I got back on my bike once again to get to the Brough of Birsay. It’s a tiny island accessible only at low tide. There are also ruins of another Earl’s Palace, and a lot of birds nesting on the cliffs. I walked around, unwillingly scaring a lot of bunnies away, while taking in the views of the cliff and the turquoise water. I even saw an orange cat who looked terrified by me, but he must have thought he was in heaven with all the birds and nests. It must have been like an all-you-can eat buffet for him!!
After such a demanding day, I was not too enthusiast to get back on the bike, but I did so anyway. The way back turned out to be slightly easier than the way in as it was mostly downhill. The part along the Loch of Skaill was very good too, mostly flat, with lots or birds and swans.
When I arrived back in Stromness, I brought back the bike to the bike shop, and again nobody was there. I went back to the hostel and called it a day after about 46 km on my bike!
Stromness to Kirkwall
The next morning I woke up to heavy rain. I was very happy I took the bike the day before as I definitely would have not enjoyed my bike ride as much! I was not in a big rush as my sole mission for the day was to take the bus from Stromness to Kirkwall. I decided to call to Maeshowe to see if I could join one of the tours that day, and luckily there was room for the 12:00 tour. I was in the kitchen of the hostel taking things slow when 2 French girls arrived. They saw that I was looking at bus schedules and seemed to believe I was an expert, because they relied on my very recently acquired knowledge and decided to join me for the tour. It was nice to visit something with people instead of being all by myself.
Maeshowe is a Neolithic chambered cairn built around 2800 BC. It was later on discovered by the Vikings, who wrote graffiti on the walls. The funny thing is that all they decided to write was things that people today still write on bathroom stall all over the world. Mostly in the lines of ”So and so was here, 2015”. The tour was interesting, even though the guide seemed quite grumpy at first. In order to get in the chamber, we had to walk with bended knees through a long tunnel. The stones used for the tunnel and the walls are very big, and were brought as one piece in order to make the tunnel prettier. Another interesting fact is that during midwinter, the sun shines through the passage right into the chamber.
After the tour, I went back inside the main building to grab my bag, and as I was checking when the next bus to Kirkwall was, the lady showed me the outside camera where we could see the bus had just parked in front to unload and load passengers. I precipitated the goodbyes with my new friends and ran toward it.
When I arrived in Lerwick, I knew that my host for that night was not home yet, and thanks to Google, I knew there was a left luggage at the bus station. The left luggage was quite expensive, (£4 for about 2.5 hours) but I decided it was worth it for not having to carry my backpack.
When I started walking in town, there were tourists everywhere, most of them speaking German. I had heard that a cruise ship was in town, but I had not expected 3,300 people to be in the streets of the village, which usually has a population of about 9,000 people. I started looking for a place to have a coffee, in order to avoid both the rain and the crowd. I had almost picked a place that looked fairly full when I saw that the ice cream shop had a sign saying Cafe upstairs. I walked in and had a lovely chat with the older owner and a lady who may or may not have been his wife. We exchanged niceties and spoke about the tourists and the weather. Weather on the island and in Scotland in general is a topic of choice, and a great conversation starter. After my coffee and a talk with the sweet girl working there, and as the rain had mostly stopped, I walked towards St. Magnus Cathedral. The cathedral, built in the 12th century was constructed using red stones and it gives it a special look. It was obviously pretty crowded, but I took my time and enjoyed the woodwork inside.
As I walked outside of the cathedral, I met again with the two French girls I had visited Maeshowe with. We spent more time walking around Kirkwall together.
Later on, I picked up my bag from the left luggage and walked towards my host’s flat. It was located on a very tiny street and because they don’t tend to put the numbers on all the doors, I wasn’t sure if I was in front of the right building. He had told me he lived in a place with multiple flats, so as the door was left ajar, I walked in and looked for flat no 5. As soon as I saw the rasta sign on the door, I knew I was in the right spot!
Broch of Gurness
A day later, I decided to head to the Broch of Gurness, another archeological site of the island. In order to get there I had to take the bus no 6, to one of the closest village (Evie), but unfortunately, the only bus running when I was ready was for Tingwall, another village located a little further away. I took this one anyway, knowing I would have to walk about one hour until I reached the Broch of Gurness.
When I arrived at the Broch, a man that had passed me with his car not long ago offered me a ride back to Kirkwall, which I gladly accepted! We visited the site together and had a chat on the way back. He lives part time in Scotland and part time in Sydney, Australia, enjoying summer in each country. He also had visited and worked in many countries so we had a travel-filled conversation!
The Broch of Gurness is an Iron-Age building style unique to Scotland. It is basically the ruins of a village which had a tower in the middle. It was again very cool to see, and because it is more open than Skara Brae, you can actually walk around and within the structures, as long as you don’t break anything obviously!
When we arrived back to Kirkwall, I thanked my good Samaritan and went for a visit of the Bishop’s Palace and yet another Earl’s Palace next to St. Magnus Cathedral. The Bishop’s Palace was built in the 12th century while the Earl’s Palace was built by Earl Patrick Steward, the son of the other brutal earl, in the 17th century.
I woke up slowly this morning, had my breakfast and said my goodbyes to Alana and Maeve, my new Irish friends before checking out and walking the very short walk to the station. The train was 10 minutes late, and the controller took the time to say that he was going to get information on the platform, and advise the next train that we were 3 people going there.
Finally they were able to catch up and we arrived on time. I went to platform 5 quickly as I had only 1 minute in between trains. The train had just 2 wagons, but for some reason they were not (or at least I didn’t see it) marked which wagon was A and which one was B. My place being A14, I obviously entered in wagon B, and because the train was going to leave soon, I decided to walk inside instead of outside in case it would decide to leave while I was changing wagons! I found my seat in a very quiet wagon, and enjoyed the scenery until Thurso. It was sunny for most of the way, we met a lonely shower for about 2 minutes right before arriving. Tomek, my couchsurfing host had asked me to let him know when I would be a few minutes away, so I called him and he told me he would be able to pick me up, but might be a few minutes late. I was very happy to have a chance to get a ride, not that it was very far from the station, but because it was so much colder than I expected. The weather in itself was not that bad, but the wind!!! It looked like and felt like true north when I got out of the train!
Tomek arrived soon, and within minutes we were at his place. I was lucky enough to have my own room with double bed and all!! Tomek and I had dinner and we went to see if we could access the caves. Unfortunately, it was high tides, so we could not, but I got to see why it is a popular destination for surfing. The waves were great.
He told me about a walk starting right behind the lighthouse. It was sunny so I decided to go. It was definitely worth it. I had my first close encounter with some sheep when I went through the first gate as a bunch of them were there with their babies. Adorable!!
I walked slowly through the first area, letting the sheep and little lambs enough time to move around so they would not feel threatened. I then made my way to the cliffs of Holborn Head. I enjoyed the view and the wind for a while before walking back to my house for the night.
Ferry to the Orkney Islands
The ferry from Thurso to Orkney actually leaves from a part of town called Scrabster, about 30 minutes walk from Thurso.
When I arrived at the ferry, I was following two girls with huge backpacks, so I assumed they were getting on the ferry, but no, they were just waiting with a bunch of people for the bus to the city. I was glad I asked right away as I could have waited for a long time! I made my way to the ticketing area, picked up my ticket and was told I could put my bag in a luggage storage, getting it back on the other side. I gladly obliged and went upstairs to the waiting area. I was the first one in.
When we were allowed on the ferry, I kept going back and forth between the deck 5 and 6 (the only two allowed) as the 6th had the outside deck and the 5th had a lot less people in the sitting area. I enjoyed the waves and realized how much I had missed the open sea.
When I arrived in Stromness, I was a little worried about finding the hostel, but I soon realized that it is such a small place that there is no way I would have missed it!
Biking on Orkney
Once I put my bag down in the small three-bed dorm, I left to find Orkney Cycle Hire. I followed the main road, which changes names a few time, and found it easily even though it looked like somebody’s private yard. Three biked were parked there. Nobody was there, but I had received an email saying if they could not make it there would be a bike with my name on it and instructions for payment. Sure enough, there was a paper on one of the bikes with my name on it, the code for the lock, and a small brown envelope for money. It said on the paper 10 pounds per day. Having booked the bike for 2 days, I put £20 in the brown envelope and followed the instructions. I had to put the envelope in the mailing trap, on the brown door number 45. At that precise moment, it sure felt like I was in a small village!
I hoped on the bike and set off in the wrong direction. I had been hoping to talk to somebody or get a map about directions, but I was on my own. I decided to make the most of it, thinking that worst case scenario, I would end up biking around town, enjoying the view and the activity and best case scenario I would actually find my way!
As I was leaving towards what would become the golf course, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, but I found a viewpoint. I walked there, took a few pictures and got on the bike again. This time, I decided to follow the direction of most of the cars. I kept going uphill, and it was not easy. I found a brown sign saying something Brae, so I went up the stairs and up the never ending hill to an amazing view over the island. I had left my bike unlocked and was worried that it would not be there when I came back. Not because somebody would have taken it but because it was a hill and the bike could have easily gone downhill by itself.
I finally decided to use my GPS on my phone to get an idea of the itinerary, which turned out to be very easy… main road until you see the signs and even the standing stones from the road…
Once I knew where I was heading to, it was going well. I got pretty comfortable on the bike, and it was mostly flat and downhill. I made my way to the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Barnhouse Neolithic Village. The ring is quite similar to Stonehenge, but might actually be older. It consists of 12 stones from 3000 years BC. The interesting fact about this ring is that archaeologist found what looked like the remains of a village dating approximately the same period. The Barnhouse Neolithic Village is a partly reconstructed Stone Age village dating 3000 BC.
I walked around the stones first and then to the remains of the village before getting back on my bike to see another circle of stones; the Ring of Brodgar. This time the circle was much bigger. Unfortunately there were no interpretive sign over there, so I do not have much information on how, when and why this was built. It was originally a sixty stone circle with 36 now remaining as standing or as broken stones.
After this second short walk around the stone circle, I got back on the bike, and returned to Stromness. The road was not as easy as on my way there, partly because it was uphill, but mostly because I was getting very tired as it had been forever since I had last biked somewhere.
On the morning of my departure from London to Edinburgh, I took the very packed Underground to Sloane Square and followed my Google maps indications (this makes travelling so much easier!) to Victoria Station and hopped on the Megabus to Edinburgh.
The bus was okay. It was actually quite dirty, but the bathroom did not smell. This was a good thing as I was sitting right next to it. I slept for the first half of the ride, but enjoyed the scenery and the amazing rainbow when we entered Scotland.
I met up with Tanya, a friend of a friend, in Edinburgh. We walked around, took care of some business (banking and SIM card) and mostly just enjoyed the sunny day and each other’s company.
We stopped for a coffee and snack at Waterstone, a huge bookstore with a cafe providing excellent views of the castle and Princes street.
I left the next day for Perth, in order to attend my job interview. Because the job was to be a Seasonal Visitor Services Advisor for VisitScotland, I spent the next day learning a lot about things to see and do in Scotland. The interview went very well even though I clearly lacked the local knowledge, having just arrived in the UK a couple of days earlier.
I had a few days to spare before I would hear back about the job, so I decided to head out to Pitlochry, a charming little village located a short 40 minutes bus ride away from Perth.
I checked-in at the Pitlochry backpackers hostel and met the lovely and easy-going staff. Most of them were temporary staff working for two hours a day in exchange for a free bed.
I followed some of the staff’s suggestion and went for a walk in the Tay Forest. It was a great walk. It reminded me of Fish Creek, a place where I used to walk my dog back in Fort St. John, northern British-Columbia. I met a few people enjoying the trail, everybody sharing a quick hello, and a few people walking their dogs.
While I was walking and enjoying the peace and quiet of the loch next to a local fisherman, my phone rang. It was Katie, my interviewer from VisitScotland, offering me the job in the Perth Visitor Centre, which I gladly accepted, of course!
I happily walked back to Pitlochry, following Loch Faskally, and stopped at the dam and fish ladder. It was interesting to see and I took a few pictures for my dad, but unfortunately I did not get to see any salmon using the ladder. I stopped by the station to pick up my train ticket for the next day and went to the supermarket to buy some food. I even added a cider to my basket in order to celebrate my new job.
When I came back to the hostel I realized I just had one of the three tickets I needed for my train ride the next day. I had a little panic moment, and almost ran to the station to see if they could re-issue my ticket. Which they obviously could. Phew, I could breathe again! It felt good to relax after my slightly exaggerated reaction regarding the ticket. Having to buy another ticket would have made for an expensive ride, but it was definitely not the end of the world!
I spent the evening chatting with a Spanish-Dutch couple and a Welsh man who hitchhiked from Montreal to Vancouver and then Guatemala and back in 1973. It was quite the story! It must have been a very different experience to what one would expect nowadays. He obviously did not have Internet access, so no Skype session with his parents, no way to find out if it was easy to cross the borders beforehand etc. It was very inspiring and reminded me exactly why I love to travel so much, getting out of my comfort zone, experiencing some challenging situations and overcoming language and cultural barriers.
After spending a year almost to the day back in Canada, it was time for me to move on. This time on my own. I received my visa and booked my flights. New adventures awaited me! My favourite thing in life is never knowing what the future holds. Most people find it scary. To be honest so do I from time to time. But I mostly like knowing that everything is possible and that I’ll make sure to get the most out of every situation.
My parents came to the airport in Quebec City, and I was so focused on my new adventure, that I even forgot to turn around and wave goodbye as I walked through security. The short flight from Quebec to Montreal was quite a rocky ride and when we landed we got stuck for about 30 minutes on the runway because of a thunderstorm. My connecting flight was delayed as well and when they called for our flight, everybody was packed around the gate anxious to miss their plane or lose their spot if they were not right in front of the gate… The staff tried their best to be quick, but with the number of travellers not listening the whole process of getting on the plane was very slow and inefficient.
It’s not easy leaving everything and everyone behind. I almost felt bad for not feeling that sad about my decision yet. I thought I would cry in the plane, but no tears were shed yet. It took me up until my 1st flight to start realizing what I have decided to do. But as soon as the stress came out, it vanished almost entirely. It is different through to wait in an airport by myself. I haven’t done that since my first trip, but it is all coming back to me. I know I have to trust myself and my instincts. I do feel it might take me a while to get accustomed to having nobody to share the discoveries or experiences with. When I feel like that, I have to remind myself that being alone is my choice and if I don’t want to be alone anymore, I just have to strike up a conversation. And if it sounds overly simple, it’s because it is! Most people are happy to have a chat, be it either in hostels, restaurants, trains and even park benches.
My longer flight across the pond and my arrival in the UK were pretty smooth. The lady at the customs desk seemed a little rough on the edges, so as usual I saw this as a challenge to make her smile. She asked me the regular questions; where I was from, what my plan was for the UK and I told her about my job interview in Perth. She wished me luck and stamped my visa. I told her to have a nice day, and with a bright smile she let me go. Mission accomplished!
After the custom, I grabbed my bag, bought a coffee and tried to figure out what kind of underground ticket I should buy. With the many options such as Oyster Pass, daily pass or single ticket, it can quickly become confusing and overwhelming. I finally opted for the Oyster Card, putting the minimum in £5+£5 deposit. I got off at Hammersmith stop and easily found the hostel right on the other side of the street.
Check-in was only at 2 pm so I put my bag in a locker and went for a walk. I found a Whole Food store where I bought hummus, crackers, and peanut butter. Right after the supermarket, I found Hyde Park. I sat on a bench and did some people watching. Two ladies from Koweit sat beside me and we had a nice chat. There were a lot of Londoners in Hyde Park on a sunny spring Sunday. Lots of families with young children picnicking.
After enjoying Hyde Park for a while, I went for a walk towards Victoria Station. Back at the hostel, I looked at the menu at the bar, and couldn’t find a vegetarian option except nachos. I did a quick Google search and found an Indian restaurant with vegan meals. I hungrily walked over there, making quite an entrance when pulling the clearly-marked push door. The food was good but I was starting to feel quite lonely, so remembering my new resolution, I went back to the hostel with my leftovers and struck up a conversation with the Aussie and Irish guys from my dorm. And this was the end of my first day on English soil.
I celebrated the New Year on an almost private island in Indonesia, and right after that, I visited the Komodo dragons. Later on, I went on a sailing trip from New Zealand to Chile with a stop in Antarctica. It doesn’t really get any better than that! But after such a demanding and amazing adventure, I needed a break from moving. I had that revelation while hiking in Torres del Paine. We saw a beautiful glacier and all I could think of was, not yet another iceberg!
That’s when we decided to come back to Canada and surprise our parents while resting and trying to figure out our next move. I was happy to see my friends and family after such a long time, but in the same time, my heart was already set on leaving again. I enjoyed the summer, not worrying too much about the numerous resumes I sent that didn’t get me a job. I knew I wanted a break and mostly a job to make some money in order to leave again.
The plan was to quickly find a decent paying job in the tourism industry. But little did I know, it wouldn’t be so easy. We took a lease on an apartment in July for one year. In my head it was still very clear I would easily find something, giving that I had studied and worked in the tourism industry in Quebec City already. Seb found a job right away, he called two places and, sure enough, was called back by both of them offering him a job. I knew it would probably happen like this for him, being a long-distance truck driver, but it took a toll on my morale.
I kept searching for jobs daily, sending out resumes almost every day. It resulted in two interviews in the same week. I thought that I had a very good chance of getting, at least, one of the jobs, but it turned out I didn’t get any. Second hit on my morale.
But giving that the two jobs were more permanent jobs, I though it was almost a good thing as I was looking for a job that would allow me to travel, see other places, meet people etc. That is when I started considering working as a humanitarian. Surely I would find it very rewarding, I would be paid and I would be out of my comfort zone. Exactly what I was looking for!
I started the process to be hired, keeping in mind that it is a lengthy process that can take up to six months. I heard back from the organization within one month, asking me to clarify some documents and resubmit them. I took the time to work on it properly and send them again. It was, by then, already Christmas time. I had been back for over 6 months and still hadn’t find a job. I was starting to contemplate working in a supermarket so I would, at least, be doing something. But then, it didn’t take too long to get an answer from the humanitarian organization; I lacked experience in managing employees. That was once again a big blow, but I kept looking forward as I had sent out my resume to yet another company in the tourism industry.
I keep thinking, this is a new year, it’s got to work at some point. But when I got to the interview, I was told that for the 2 positions they originally had open, they had received over 80 resumes. Of those 80 resumes, they had called in 20 people for interviews and added one more position. The odds were still against me finding my way. I was feeling very discouraged when I decided to focus my energy on writing about my experience. 2015 was going to be better. I didn’t have a choice. It was either that or I would let myself slide into depression, and having already been through a pretty rough time when I was younger, there was no way I was going to do that again.
I kept sending resumes, without any results. In the meantime, Seb and I decided that we didn’t want the same things out of life. During our round the world trip he had talked about owning another house someday, so he decided that was going to be his next move. Finding and buying a house before our apartment lease was over. While he house shopped, I started looking for ways to work some place else. I applied for a job in Antarctica with the UK Antarctica Heritage. They did some promotion this year and got an overwhelming response from all over the world. I knew it was a long shot, but I sent in my paperwork anyway. Obviously, it didn’t pan out, once again.
Tired of trying to get jobs with no results whatsoever, I applied for the Tier-5 visa for the United Kingdom. I filled the paperwork, paid the almost 400 CAD fee and planned a quick round trip to Ottawa in order to get my biometrics taken and submit my application. About 10 days later, I received confirmation that I was granted a 2-year working holiday visa. I booked a flight on May 9, sent a few resumes all over Scotland and England, started packing the stuff I wanted to keep, all while realizing that the breaking-up of the 11-year relationship with Seb was truly happening. It was a challenging time to find some excitement about this new project while going through a separation.
I have no idea what is awaiting me when I’ll get to the United Kingdom, but my plan is to make it work no matter what!