There’s something in the air

Have you ever been to a place which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and your skin crawl? Is it the history of the place that’s got to you? Did something horrible happen there? Or is the history / purpose of the place totally unknown to you? 

In my life, the places which were used for good have been significantly outnumbered by those which weren’t. For example, the three spookiest places I can remember visiting are:

  • Glencoe in Scotland, where in 1692 members of the MacDonald clan was massacred by members of Clan Campbell on behalf of the English government;
  • Culloden in Scotland, where in 1746 the Jacobite rebellion was crushed and Scotland finally subjugated by the English; and
  • James Island, which is in the middle of the Gambia river and was a staging post for slaves before they were shipped to the Americas.  

At all three, there’s a palpable sense that something “bad” happened. I didnt know the full story when I visited the first two but I still “knew” something nasty happened in the past. As for James Island – it was really hard walking over the island, looking at the ruined fort and cells where so many unfortunates were held before being forced on board ships with no idea of where they were going, or what was going to happen to them. (The Gambia is where Kunta Kinte, the first of the characters in Alex Hailey’s Roots came from.) There were a lot of tourists there when I visited over 20 years ago, and I don’t think there was a single person on the island who was unaffected.

I find it odd that I didn’t get that same skin crawling feeling at Auschwitz, and the only thing I can attribute that to is that perhaps my senses were so totally overwhelmed at the horror and scale of the place, that they were totally overloaded and unable to take it all in.  

If I contrast that “bad” feeling with one that was almost euphoric, the first place that springs to mind (not including gigs / listening to music) is the Sanctuary near Avebury in Wiltshire, England. It’s a neolithic site which once had circles of wooden posts and, later, stones. My partner Dee and I were visiting one day recently and walked into the circle.  She’d walked straight into the middle, while I remained on the periphery reading some information about the circle.  As I walked towards her I stopped dead in my tracks, and could feel the hairs on my back, neck and scalp tingling, in a very pleasant way.  At the same time, Dee said her hands felt as though they were burning with positive energy.  As we left the circles, the feeling subsided, only to return when we walked back into the centre.  After we left the site, the feeling of “good” lasted for half an hour or so – it was really strange!

What is it about places that give them the ability to make you react in either a positive or negative way? Is there any place in particular that makes you feel really good, or really bad, possibly without any logical exmplanation? I guess it’s just another of life’s mysteries…

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Norway in a Nutshell – Part 1 of 2

Several years ago, two days after moving into my new house, two friends picked me up and we drove to Stansted for a trip to Norway. My friends had never been to Norway before and I had planned what I hoped was to be an epic “long weekend”! We flew into Bergen on a very rainy evening, and took a taxi to the hotel which we’d booked near the airport – it was nearly midnight so we weren’t going to go far!

For those who don’t know, Bergen has a reputation for being wet – the civic symbol is an umbrella : not really, but that’s a joke the Norwegians tell. I’ve heard tell of a tourist who asked a local youth whether it always rained in Bergen, and received the reply “I don’t know, I’m only 15”. To this day the friends I travelled there with and I always refer to heavy rain as “Bergening”.

The following morning (and in only light rain) we took a cab to the airport and collected our hire car. Once the formalities were over we hit the road, heading for fjords and mountains. You can’t avoid either when driving inland from Bergen, as the road either takes you along the edge of one or through the other in a series of tunnels.

Norway in a Nutshell was the slogan on many a tourist bus and poster – this trip was going to be all that and more!

After a couple of hours we arrived in Voss, which is a well known tourist spot, arguably more popular in winter than in the summer. Having had a look round the town and some coffee and pastries, we returned to the car just in time to talk to the traffic warden giving me a parking ticket. My very rusty Norwegian had led me to misunderstand the parking sign, and I still maintain that there was no ticket machine in sight so how was I to know? I went in to a nearby bank to pay my fine and found that it would cost extra to settle up in cash – that’s just strange!

Our journey then took us out towards and beside Sognefjord, the longest and deepest in Norway. We passed innumerable rivers and streams, and so many waterfalls of all sizes that we started to become blasé about them. We’d chosen to take a ferry from Gudvangen to Kaupanger along Naeroyfjorden, across Sognefjord and found that we had a long enough wait that we could have our lunch before getting on the boat. (I’ve mentioned previously that Norwegian ferries are a very efficient and cost effective method of travel.) One of my pet hates came to light during the ferry crossing: why do people insist on feeding seagulls, then get upset when the birds won’t leave them alone?

The further inland we got the lighter the rain became, and at some points we actually had sunshine! After a couple of hours we arrived at Kaupanger and drove off the ferry to continue our journey up into the mountains. As we climbed the weather started to close in again and the air became much colder, till we arrived at our high point for the day near Krossbu. We got out the car to look at the nearby lakes (which were mostly still frozen), glaciers and to walk on the vestiges of snow by the roadside. For travellers from the UK snow is quite exciting, and in summer it’s even more so!

The last bit of driving that day saw us arrive at Spiterstulen, a hotel in the heart of the Jotunheimen mountains about 1600 metres above sea level – that’s 200 metres higher than anywhere in the UK! (Jotunheimen is the “Home of the Giants”, and reputed to be where the biggest trolls live.) The hotel is run by DNT, the Norwegian Tourist Association, and we’d booked beds there. It has to be said that it’s unusual to be able to book beds or rooms at DNT places: normally you sleep where you can, and if that means in a mattress on the floor then that’s how it is. Think of them as a cross between Youth Hostels and bothies in the UK. After dinner and a quick beer, it was bedtime, as we had a big day ahead of us.

We were up early to find that the sun was shining, and that even at 0630 we weren’t the first to breakfast! We filled up on porridge, fruit, bread, cold meats and cheeses, and also made a packed lunch and filled our flasks with coffee. Our destination, and one of the main reasons for doing the trip, was just across the valley floor and up, up, up: we were headed for Galdhopiggen, or the “galloping hopping pig” as my friends called it. At 2459 metres, it’s the highest peak in the north of Europe, and we were determined to see the view from the summit.

The path is really well marked, as DNT trails invariably are, with a prominent red letter T painted at regular intervals to show the way, though to be fair on this day you could just follow everyone else. The sky was clear and the sun very strong as we hiked upwards, and in very little time we were high above Spiterstulen with stupendous views along the valley and up at the mountains around us. Initially the path was dry earth through silver birch woods, but it gradually became more rocky, then the rock gave way to smaller rocks and boulders, then we were weaving between patches of snow and rock outcrops, but always heading up. Numerous false summits appeared in the horizon above us, each one making us think we were nearly there. After several hours, and having made sure we skirted the steep drop down onto the Styggebreen glacier, a most welcome sight appeared: at the top of a steep snow covered slope, we got our first view of the hut at the top, and it wasn’t long before we were standing on the summit looking across what seemed like all of Norway. I’ve heard it said that you can see the sea, but I think that’s just wishful thinking! The skies had remained clear and snow covered peaks sketched off into the distance in every direction, the sun glittering and glistening off all that white expanse. Just as well we were wearing sunglasses, as snow blindness would have been particularly nasty up there. I used to work with a guy who was a keen climber: he’d been where I was three times and had never seen the view, so I was more than pleased!

I mentioned a hut: it’s actually a cafe and shop! Hot coffee and hotdogs were very welcome, and one of my friends bought a t-shirt which is only available from that shop – you can’t buy that design anywhere else in the world, even down at Spiterstulen.

The trek back down was almost as hard going as the route up, though we did find that for the snow covered slopes near the summit the best route down was to put on waterproof trousers and slide down – that was a lot of fun! We arrived at the bottom, still in glorious sunshine, at about 9pm. After getting cleaned up, we headed to the bar for a welcome couple of beers and to enjoy the view out along the valley. This was at the beginning of August and the sun hardly set, so it didn’t really get dark. It’s quite a strange experience if you’ve never seen that strange light that passes itself off as night before. And so to bed, tired, but happy.

We’d only been in the country 48 hours and had crossed its biggest fjord and scaled its highest peak!

Part 2 of this story, which covers the remaining couple of days, will follow shortly, so keep an eye out for it…

Is it really a scary world out there?

As some of you may know, I work in information security (also called IT-, cyber- or data-security) and as a result I get to hear about all sorts of interesting goings on. There are a fair few which fall into the “you couldn’t make it up” category, but others are just beyond any “normal” person’s experience – at least, they’re not something you’re generally aware of.

Two of the topics which I don’t get involved in are covered in books by Misha Glenny, and I think they’re a really interesting read, even for those who don’t work in that area.

Dark Market focuses on the world of credit card fraud, cloning and other related topics. It’s all about the people involved and the services offered, and the challenges which law enforcement globally has in tracking down and preventing such activities. Ok, so it gets a bit techie in places, but never to the extent that you can’t follow what’s going on.

McMafia is a fascinating insight into the comoditisation and industrialisation of various forms of criminal activity, from people smuggling to drug trafficking, from financial fraud to the impact of the fall of the USSR. As a journalist and former BBC Eastern Europe correspondent, there’s a lot of really interesting detail which is provided  and the links between these various activities are fascinating.

If you’re mildly curious about either of these areas, these are really good, well written books and well worth your time and attention.

Thoughts on a regular update

I’m struggling to work out what I should be posting on as a regular thing, so thought I’d ask you what you thought.  Looking at my stats, there seems to be a relatively even spread across the Lifestyle and Travel items I do, but is that just because they’ve been the main topics of Blogging 101, or are they what people are generally interested in? Please take a moment or two to let me know what you think

So, without further ado and no more procrastination, here goes. This will be my first attempt at setting up a poll, so bear with me!

It was meant to be just like this

Over at https://myredpage.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/red-echo-date/ the weekly event set the challenge of writing a post relating to “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” as quoted by Paulo Coelho.  There are two recent events which I think show this to be true.

First, earlier this month I travelled to north-west Scotland with my partner, my partner’s mother and her husband for a week long holiday overlooking the Isle of Skye.  I’m pretty sure that most people will know that Scotland has a very deserved reputation for two things in particular: bad weather, particularly rain and cloud, and midges, those annoying biting insects which gather in their legions around any breathing thing.  This was a pilgrimage to the family home, and my partner hadn’t been there for some 25 years or more.

Imagine our surprise when heading off on holiday on the Friday evening we had glorious sunshine for the drive to the Scottish border, and all day on the Saturday while driving around Annandale and Eskdale – and then being even sunnier for the long drive up to the Kyle area on the Sunday.  A smidgeon of rain as we drove over the hill known as Mam Ratagan brought the midges out in droves as we unpacked the cars – and that was it for the rest of the week!  The next rain we saw was on the Saturday, just as we came over Mam Ratagan to start the journey south, and we were treated to torrential rain and wind for the next 3-4 hours: that was more typically Scottish weather!

My partner’s mother had always wanted to see the sea eagles that nest nearby, but had never seen them in all the years she’d lived in and visited the region.  Guess what?  On her birthday, out of season, a sea eagle made an appearance, stayed in sight for a full five minutes, calling constantly to its mate – and then, on hearing an answering call, flew off into the distance.

I think this is a very fine example of wanting something to be just so, and the universe (or perhaps the spirits of the departed) conspiring to make it happen.

The second example I have is even more recent.  Last weekend saw the Battle of Britain 75th Anniversary airshow at Duxford, near Cambridge.  The main attraction was a mass flight of Spitfires and Seafires, as well as a number of Hurricane fighters and the Red Arrows. The whole weekend had been sold out for some time, but we’d managed to get tickets early enough.

Not really knowing what to expect (it had been years since I’d been to an airshow) my partner and I left relatively early in the morning.  With very little queueing, we were directed to our parking space, conveniently near one of the exhibition halls.  As luck would have it, there was a great spot to sit near one of the barriers and close enough to the tannoy to be able to hear what was going on all day.  And then the real treat – most of the air displays seemed to involve planes flying towards us and then banking away, all in glorious sunshine.  The sound was just incredible (I may need to write a sequel to this as the sounds of all those Merlin engines was spine tingling) and made the day just awesome. When the planes had finished their displays, almost all taxied past us at a distance of about 20 feet.  We couldn’t have chosen a better place to sit!

The cloud only started to make an appearance late on in the day, and served to provide an amazing backdrop as the Red Arrows closed out the event.  The final treat (if you can call it that) was that as we were parked only a couple of minutes walk from where we’d been sitting, we also got out pretty quickly.  There were 24000 people there that day and we were out of the car park within about 20 minutes.

I think that was another example of wanting something to be perfect, and the fates conspiring to make it so.

If you can’t explain it to…

…those with no knowledge of a subject, then you probably don’t understand the topic well enough yourself.  (That’s more or less what Einstein said, but he contradicted himself by also saying, on another occasion, that “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize”.)

The first statement is a truism I think, one that I’ve sought to address with my posts here.  The main aim of that section on my blog is to get away from confusing words and language, and to explain things so the layman can understand them.  I’ve even had positive feedback on one of the articles from my father, who said he understood it all – not bad for a silver surfer! (Him, not me!)

Too often too much jargon is used, in all walks of life.  You just need to hear the experts being interviewed on the news – how many times do they launch into language which just confuses the rest of us? Using jargon, acronyms and other terms which have special meaning in that subject doesn’t help understanding for the uninitiated.

I’ve spent much of my working life in IT and Security, with a bit of engineering thrown in.  I’ve never been able to maintain the technobabble that so many of my peers manage, and have made a point of trying to explain things simply and in plain English.  It even helped me in one role where I actually worked as a sort of translator between the really bright, techie guy who couldn’t explain things simply, and his boss who was a technophobe.  I can effectively translate from very technical into English, but I’m not too good at going the other way.  That’s no bad thing though, in my opinion, as I never like to assume that people understand everything first time round anyway – if I’ve put my thoughts into plain terms in common usage, then there’s less chance of misunderstanding.

I got my inspiration from this piece from http://patriciasplace.me/in-other-words/ – it’s the item for #40.  Pop over to the site and have a look around!

The guy that speaks his mind

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