A word about other bloggers…

Today I’ve spent some time reaching out to other bloggers and commenting on a number of their posts. That means spending a lot more time reading and less writing, but I think that’s part of the fun of blogging.

The first article I read was this one, https://nihongojapango.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/and-i-still-have-over-half-my-life-to-live/. I was drawn to the description of ageing with friends over decades, and of taking up new challenges, living life to the full. What struck me was that the writer had climbed Kilimanjaro in their 40s, as did I. Hopefully you’ll like the article too.

I then headed over to http://melissaintransition.com/2015/09/11/15-things-that-do-not-define-your-self-worth/. I’ve been going through a number of changes myself over recent months, and the items on the list resonated with me. Saying that, I noticed some gaps in the list – can you think of any others?

Next up was https://sophiasramblings.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/the-scottish-borderlands/. It’s more or less from my neck of the woods from when I was growing up, so it was lovely to hear someone else’s take on countryside I recognise and love. The photos were great too.

Finally I checked out https://dreamingofbigger.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/books/. I’m an avid reader and it was interesting to see that I’m not the only one who struggles to finish some books! Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky took me months, mostly because I initially struggled with the long Russian names, with variants and nicknames, and I found the sentences were very long – sometimes covering more than a page.

It’s interesting to see the various topics people choose to write about, and that’s one of the things I like about the blogosphere – it’s so diverse and you can get lost in it for hours if you wish. There are so many creative writers, thinkers and photographers out there, it’s quite humbling.

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Cracking Kraków

In the summer of 2014 I had the pleasure of visiting Kraków for a few days, and managed to secure hot and sunny weather for the duration of the visit too, at no extra cost! For those unfamiliar with it, Kraków is in the south of Poland, with the Tatra mountains visible on the southern horizon – or at least, they are if you’re a few floors up!  The suburban sprawl isn’t too bad – on my first visit a couple of years previously a taxi from the city centre to the airport took about 20 minutes in rush hour – hardly what you would call congestion! The city itself is centred on a medieval market square which has over 800 bars, cafes and restaurants around it: some are in the basement, some are upstairs, some are indoors and some are outside. The old city is surrounded by high walls, which are in really good condition, and the old moat around them has, for the most part, been converted into parkland with shady seats, fountains and walkways.

At the edge of the walls, to the south west, is the impressive Wawel castle. It stands high above the river Vistula, Poland’s longest. It’s easy to walk round the castle, for some of the time on the ramparts, and it’s also possible to tour round the inside, though I didn’t take that opportunity.

I decided on a very full day for my first day, visiting Auschwitz in the morning / early afternoon and the salt mines at Wieliczka afterwards. I did both as part of the same trip with one of the many tour companies, and deliberately chose to fill my afternoon / early evening with the mines in order to lift my spirits slightly after the Auschwitz visit.

I’ve mentioned that part of the trip in earlier blogs (see here), but the more detailed version is here. On the hour long drive to Auschwitz, we were shown a film of the history of the place, including footage from within the camp during the war and some which was taken after the Russians had liberated the site. Some of the film was very harrowing, suffice to say that I had to look away a number of times.

On arrival at the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), we were taken to Auschwitz I, which has the infamous wrought iron gates with Arbeit Macht Frei above them. Our tour took about an hour or so, and in that time we were guided round a number of the buildings there, including the site of the first test of Zyklon-B gas (on Russian prisoners) and the Black Wall in the courtyard between buildings 10 and 11 where people were shot. The effect of rooms full of discarded shoes, or suitcases, or hair, or glasses or prosthetic limbs etc is difficult to describe, save to say that most visitors were silent and lost in their thoughts. The end of this part of the visit was marked by seeing the gallows at which the former camp commandant, Rudolf Höss was hanged in 1947, and by walking into the original gas chamber and past the two ovens which were used in the early part of the war.

We were then bussed about 10 minutes away to the Auschwitz II camp, known as Birkenau. On walking from the car park to the main gates, the sheer scale of the site is slowly revealed, with row upon row of identical wooden barracks inside a seemingly never ending fence. I have to confess to being very light headed and giddy as the enormity of the site struck me. After walking through the stone archway of the main building, where the railway tracks still run, the platforms where so many people were sorted into those who would die immediately and those who would live, albeit for a short while, came into view. Our tour turned right and visited two of the barracks buildings, one containing the wooden bunks that the prisoners were crammed into, the other was the washroom: both were shocking in their scale, their lack of facilities, in their sheer cruelty – it must have been a living death. We then made our way up to the platform, then further on to the edge of the forest where the four crematoria had been. These were blown up as the Russians neared the camps, so all that is left is rubble, but their size was not difficult to see. At this point the tour ended and we headed back to the bus: there was a very sombre mood and not much talking on the trip to Wieliczka, which is a small town just south of Kraków.

People have been mining in and around Wieliczka for hundreds of years, starting with salt water springs and gradually burrowing deeper. The mine was still working as a commercial venture until recently, and there are over 280 kilometres of tunnels in the mine. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We entered the mine down 378 wooden steps to a depth of about 65 metres (over 200 feet), and began the tour. We visited various chambers and gradually descended until we were about 135 metres underground, walking about 3.5 kilometres in the process. The mines were pretty much a consistent temperature. I’d read that it would be cold and had a long sleeved jumper with me, but didn’t need it. The various chambers and passageways had all manner of carvings and tableaux, all painstakingly made from the salt that surrounded us. There were also a number of churches / chapels, including the famous Chapel of St Kinga, complete with salt chandeliers and frescoes carved from the walls. Towards the end of the tour we visited a chamber which has hosted the world’s lowest hot air ballon flight and bungee jump, before heading for a number of underground souvenir shops and cafes. Getting to the surface was relatively easy – a 30 second lift brought us out about 10 minutes from the mine head where we’d gone underground a couple of hours earlier. It was a fascinating visit, though I’d say that those with limited mobility or ability to stand for long periods might not be able to do it. It definitely helped my mind get back on an even keel after the horrors of Auschwitz earlier, and meant I could have a pleasant evening back in Kraków.

The following day was spent walking through the Jewish quarter, exploring the old streets, before crossing the river and visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory, made famous by the film Schindler’s List: I’d watched that for the first time, and read the book that inspired it, Schindler’s Ark, shortly before making my trip. Being able to relate the place to the camps from the day before, and seeing photos and artefacts of people I’d recently read about enhanced the experience, one which I found to be very emotional. It was another fascinating tour, though only a third or so of it was related to Schindler’s actions, with the remainder being a history of that part of Poland both before and after the Second World War. That was an unexpected treat, and very enjoyable. On the way back to Old Town, I passed through what had been the Jewish Ghetto, though very little remains. The Memorial Chairs which stand in Plac Bohaterow Getta are a very moving reminder of what had once been there.

On the whole, I got a lot out of both days, but it wasn’t until weeks and months later when the enormity of what I’d seen and the human cost started to sink in properly. I’m still affected by it today, and it reinforced the views I’d held beforehand that genocide, hatred, torture, xenophobia, bigotry and all other forms of discrimination and subjugation were abhorrent and that we as individuals should do what we can to stop and prevent mistreatment of one person by another, whether by single people, gangs, nation states or whatever. We should not be afraid to stand up and be counted, and to speak out when we see wrong being done.

It’s all about the bass…

I’ve always been “into” music and, despite a brief time in my teens when I wanted to be drummer, bass lines are what really hook me. It’s no coincidence that my favourite playlists include great bass, and even the songs that I want to play in a covers band also feature bass heavily. For years I’d loved the playing of the likes of Ali McMordie from SLF, Tim Commerford from Rage Against the Machine / Audioslave and Donald “Duck” Dunn from Stax records / Blues Brothers, and I wanted to be able to play what they did.

Saying all that, I didn’t actually start learning till I was in my late 30s, so I had a lot of catching up to do. Somehow I managed to find time to practice for 60-90 minutes four or five nights a week, and an hour long lesson every weekend. My practice and lessons always followed the same sort of structure: scales, homework (generally new pieces from various tutorial books) and finally jam / playalong. 

  • Scales etc are boring to do, but so important, as they are the basis for any new lines you want to be able to play
  • Tutorial books – especially those with playalong CDs – are also good, particularly if you want to learn multiple styles eg funk, reggae, rock, jazz etc. I worked through the three books written by David Overthrow – they’re brilliant
  • Jamming to a drumbeat with my teacher – he played guitar – using lines I’d learned in the lesson or improvising new ones, and playing along with music CDs helped build confidence and complemented the styles I’d been learning

One of the brilliant things about this approach was learning about new players too. Jack Bruce from Cream and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin came to my attention, as did TM Stevens. One of my playalong sessions was in the style of TM and, to be honest, I’ve never managed it. Check out this video and you may see why. 

I love the bit around 1:45 in when he’s introducing himself and has to stop talking, just plays then says “I’m back!”. That’s the result of a lot of practice! I’m going to keep trying, though I don’t practice as much as I used to, and one day I hope to be able to play at even 1/10th of the speed he does!

Fairy pools? Fairy nough! 

People probably wouldn’t believe me if it wasn’t for the photographic evidence I’ve accumulated, but the first half of my holiday in North West Scotland has been bathed in glorious sunshine all the way through. Everyone I talk to up here tells me that the weather has been atrocious all summer: looks like we’ve got the best weather of the year! 

Yesterday took me to the Isle of Skye, and was the first time I’ve ever set foot on one of Scotland’s islands. Rather than use the bridge, we took the ferry from Glenelg to Kylerhea: it’s the last turntable ferry still operating in the world, and has a maximum load of 4 cars! The crossing was quick and smooth, and in no time at all I was motoring up a narrow road with passing places to get out of the first valley. Cresting the hill, it felt like the whole of Skye was ahead of us, with the Cuillins in the distance. It was stunning! 

Our destination yesterday was the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle – that’s where the featured image on this post was taken. I’d thought it would be a quiet spot, but there were a lot of cars parked up, overflowing from the signed car park. Lunch was had sitting on a travel rug looking down across the glen and up at the dark crescent of the Cuillins reaching high above us. That’s as close to perfect a spot as you could hope to find. 

The path to the Fairy Pools is well marked, and follows the burn (that’s a Scottish word for stream) up into the natural amphitheatre that is formed by the Cuillins. Even though there were a lot of cars, it didn’t feel like there were a lot of people there, and didn’t feel crowded. Rather than follow the marked path, Dee and I walked up through the stream, hopping from rock to rock, taking photos all the way. There are numerous waterfalls, with clear and deep pools in between, with the most incredible range of colours. Mother Nature very kindly allowed us to see what she wanted to share, but kept some parts secret and to herself. That’s the way it should be I think.  

After three hours of fun and exploring, we headed back to the car. Shortly afterwards we rewarded ourselves with a swift drink in the Sligachan Hotel. Unfortunately we weren’t able to partake of the whiskies on offer – and there were a lot! I’ll definitely go back to the Fairy Pools and will need to visit the Sligachan for a wee dram or two…  

The Cuillins rising above the Fairy Pools

Roots – a new blog name

Given that I’m born in Uganda, with a Norwegian mother and Scottish father, and I live in England, I think I can lay claim to being a multinational. I’m not quite a polyglot – my Norwegian is very rusty, but my English isn’t bad.

I have travelled a bit, more than some but not as much as many. When I’m out and about I like to get my walking boots on and explore the landscape. I love being up high, so I can see how places are connected to each other and how they are related by geography. It’s a great way of connecting places in my head.

Alliteration in language has always fascinated me, so the title for my blog had to roll off the tongue. Hopefully I’ve explained how I came up with it!

As for the tag line? I first read it in Mad magazine many years back, attributed to General Santa Ana after the Alamo. Winston Churchill also said it in the 1940s. But the biggest reason for using it is that it appears on a plaque in Auschwitz. I visited there last year and it had a profound effect on me. It’s a lesson we should all learn and should all do our utmost to ensure that sort of thing never happens again: unfortunately genocide, religious and ethnic cleansing, hatred of those “not like us” still goes on and has to stop, for all our sakes.

Blogging 101 – new beginnings

I’m just starting a course on blogging, and will be publishing here regularly over the next few weeks. My first assignment is to explain why I’m here and what I want to get out of the course, so here goes.

I initially set my blog up as I had a number of streams of thought on things like travel, humour, music, personal change etc and found that writing about them was cathartic. I had thought it would be very structured but that’s not the way it’s worked out!

The main reason for signing up for the course was so that I could learn more about the best ways of getting into the habit of writing regularly, and also learning how to build interest and followers. The latter two are important to me because I have played in a number of bands in the past and I want to be able to develop a fan base for the next one I join and to encourage more people to go to see live music generally.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy this journey I’m taking – I’m very excited about it 😀

Mountains of calm

Think of a mountain. Think of a mountain that stands on its own. Think of a mountain that stands on its own and can be seen for miles all around. Chances are you’re thinking of Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world, with its snow capped, flat looking summit and perhaps elephant or giraffe on the savannah below. I don’t know whether it’s that image, or the fact that I spent the first four years of my life not too far away in the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon (properly called the Ruwenzori), but when my friend Andy and I were talking about doing something significant to mark turning 40, there was only one possible choice for me. We had to climb Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits (to be frank, probably the only one I’ll ever climb).

I’m sure that if you’re interested, you’ll find plenty of accounts of the climb, of the vegetation and landscape: this isn’t one of them. To cut a long story short, I failed to summit when I went with Andy, due to altitude sickness: I went back three years later and was probably the last tourist to reach the summit on the day (my cousin Chris had been to the summit and was on his way back down when I got there).

What I found fascinating was that when Andy got back down, he said “never again”; Chris came home and signed up to go to Everest Base Camp (after that trip he said it would be a long time before he went high altitude trekking again); and me? A month after I got home it was announced that my work were looking for people who wanted to climb Kili (I’ve been told you can only use the abbreviated term if you’ve been to the summit) the following year, for charity. I was sorely tempted, and would still love to go back.

The mountain is huge. Once up out of the savannah, rainforest and moorland (on my trips that took the best part of a couple of days), you leave most of the vegetation behind and arrive on a moonscape. Black volcanic rock and dust everywhere, with lighter coloured well worn paths crossing the landscape, and giant lobelia, mosses and lichen for company. And this is the bit I still remember most, which permeates my thoughts and dreams. Walking around the main summit cone of Kibo for several days as part of acclimatisation. Walking up and down the valleys which run down the sides, some of which are dry, some have a little water – that’s when it hits you.

You are tiny compared to the bulk of the mountain. You are flesh and blood, it is rock. It’s been here for thousands of years, you will be on earth (comparatively speaking) for hardly any time at all. I hesitate to use the word spiritual, but the realisation of how insignificant I was in terms of size and presence was a revelation, and brought about a massive feeling of respect, awe, and humility. It also brought a huge rush of calmness, of acceptance, of peace.

And yet, humans are doing untold damage to the mountain, its glaciers, its animals and its vegetation. And there’s a real conundrum at play too. The local people rely on tourism to provide money and jobs, and in order to get there the tourists tend to fly. But the glaciers on the summit have shrunk, which means the streams lower down have less water, which makes life for those who live around the foot of the mountain much more difficult, which means they need to rely more on jobs from tourism related businesses. And the cycle continues.

A final point. Would I go again? Yes! And again? Yes! If only to recapture that feeling of my true place in the grand scheme of Mother Nature i.e. a mere speck on the surface of our planet, but I’d like to find a way of doing it which didn’t contribute to the damage being done.

The guy that speaks his mind

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