Rushing through the commons of middle school as a newly minted eight grader, a friend suddenly rushed up to me and–slightly out of breath–said something akin to “NIKKYITHINKSOMETHINGHITTHETWINTOWERSINNEWYORKIHEARDITONMYALARMCLOCKDIDYOUHEARABOUTIT.” Squinting my eyes, my reaction was bewilderment: I hadn’t heard of anything significant and suspected he had wildly misheard whatever was actually happening.
More than anything else, this interruption messed up the tight timing I had to get to class. I was taking math classes at the next door high school, and while middle school started at 07:40, math started at 07:30. Hustling to class, I entered only to find all of the 10th graders inside staring at the small television. The time must have been around 07:27 PST–I had only sat down when the North Tower collapsed.
The next ninety minutes of class consisted of absorbing what we were watching. The teacher was just in the dark as we were about the circumstances of the events unfolding, and discussion mostly consisted of a few older students professing opinions–correct, as it turned out–that bin Laden was one of the likely suspects.
Back at middle school, our teachers did their best to give us as much background information as they could: we were eight graders who were just starting to absorb the idea that the United States existed in a very complicated world. Prevailing emotions were those of shock and anger: our teachers were upset that our nation were attacked, and in one particular discussion I remember my English teacher was unable to keep their “don’t swear in front of students” filter working. This is when I belatedly realized that we were really experiencing an extraordinary event when even the adults around us were starting to act in unusual manner.
9/11 happened on a Tuesday–soccer practice day. Only around half of the team showed up, but for those that did, their entire family came. While we ran through some light drills, all of the parents were deep in discussion. The general consensus was that we would find whoever was responsible and bomb the entire country until it turned into glass. At the time this seemed like a very reasonable reaction and I didn’t have any sort of worldview to even consider alternative options.
Life slowly returned to normal in our small chunk of the Pacific Northwest. With more flags.
In early March 2017 there was an event where the public could walk through the Battery Street Tunnel, which is a 960m 4 lane cut and cover tunnel that carries State Route 99 traffic. Slated to be decommissioned and filled in once the new tunnel is complete, it was a rare opportunity to explore this aging piece of infrastructure on foot that is normally off limits to anything that doesn’t have wheels.
Thermos of coffee in hands, we walked down to the tunnel for an early morning stroll.
There was a striking difference of light when looking back at the entry versus facing forward: we figured out that the lights were recessed to be invisible to the direction of traffic.
Signs of aging were visible in the tunnel: the walls were chipped, the ventilation fans were slowly being covered in rusty dust, and various types of mold seemed be growing on the walls.
As always, the full album can be viewed on Flickr.
You can spot my hair, blue vest, and black/white backpack in the center-right of this photo in the SeattlePI.
The last post is finally arriving! It’s been almost six months since we actually visited Reykjavík! I’ve only visited Iceland once before in 2012 for a brief 24 hour interlude, and since Tracey has never visited we decided to take a nice two night siesta in the city on the way back from Europe.
Reykjavík isn’t a particularly large city, only around 120,000, nor is it a particularly tall city: the most prominent building is the Hallgrímskirkja.
We basically had two main objectives while in the city: drinking plenty of hipster coffee, and getting Icelandic wool products. This could easily be accomplished in a day and a half of sightseeing, as the sights are compact.
Iceland has been populated for centuries, but never has sustained a very large population. Although their parliament no longer meets in the fields of Þingvellir, it’s still housed in a humble building near the center of the city.
In case you were wondering, the Þ, or thorn, is an archic letter that still survives in modern Icelandic: it’s pronounced ‘th,’ more or less.
Wondering through the streets, there’s a striking amount of color that pops through the concrete grey of the city. When even a slight amount of sun is shining, it pierces through the shroud of grey.
Street art is found on almost every empty wall. It’s heavily skewed towards contemporary art rather than the more graffiti inspired art that’s found in many American cities.
Locating the Handknitting Association of Iceland, we stuffed our bags with sweaters and blankets. The Icelandic sheep produces a dual coated fleece that’s combined into a wool called Lopi. Unspun, it combines both the longer weather-resistant outer layers with the shorter insulating fibers. The result is a fairly rough product, but it’s fairly effective at resisting water, wind, and cold.
We then set off in search of supposedly the “most popular” place to eat in the country: a hot dog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.
It was a fairly normal boiled hotdog in the Scandinavian tradition, but it had peculiar toppings: crispy onions, raw onions, sweet mustard, and rémoulade.
Finished with Iceland, we flew back home to Seattle and took the traditional light rail from the airport while ordering take-out Thai from our favorite vegetarian restaurant. Between Global Entry and the train to Capitol Hill, we were back home faster than ever!
Everything is written from this trip! You can see my other photos from Iceland on my Flickr. I plan to write another post wrapping everything up with a heavy dose of planning and packing analysis. It’ll sure to be devoid of thrills and fun.
Continuing our theme of only experiencing Western Scotland in the bright brilliance of the October sun, we set out from our caravan in search of the rugged Western Coast and scenic hiking.
Making our way past the best named Loch of them all—Snizort—and some single lane roads, we ended up at Neist Point. In the distance we could spy the outer Hebrides, but our goal was to locate Neist Point Lighthouse, which is supposedly located on a cliff a mile or so beyond the end of the road.
Except there was no lighthouse to see. Only fields, stairs, and rusting infrastructure that could conceivably be used to resupply a remote lighthouse station. Still, we trusted the trusty guidebook and set forth with snacks in hand.
Following the old resupply path and rounding the outcropping, Neist Point suddenly made itself known. There was a lighthouse after all!
It was converted into some sort of hostel years ago, but was abandoned quite recently. Sadly, many of the outer accommodations were vandalized and unmaintained, but the main portion of the lighthouse seemed to be intact.
Many selfies were taken.
Next stop of the day was the Fairy Pools. These aren’t actually fairy related, but instead just a series of pools in a river coming from the (extinct) volcanic portion of Skye. Hiking across the rocks we spent a lovely afternoon in the waning sun surrounded by eroding peaks, water smoothed rocks, and other curious visitors.
Fairy Pools explored, it was just about time to head back to the caravan for the night. When all of a sudden, a Hairy Coo appeared! Screeching to a halt on the side of the narrow road (single lane, naturally), Tracey ran out of the car and got some lovely pictures of this particularly hairy cow ambling towards greener pastures.
Coo photographed, we returned to the Caravan for reals and since the WiFi was horrendously unreliable, watched Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was just lovely!
October 7th, 2016
Today’s plan: driving tour of the Trotternish peninsula on Skye. As geological formations passed us by, signs of a more industrial past were hidden along the coast.
Ruined castles dotted the landscape, but the strategic value of Skye has been important to British security even in the last century: a WWII-era lookout post was constructed on the Northern tip of the island.
Along the route, the Skye Pie Café beckoned with its invitation of filling Scottish pies. They did not disappoint.
We essentially had this scenic part of Skye to ourselves.
October 8th, 2016
After saying goodbye to the cozy caravan that had been our home on Skye, we started the next leg of our trip with a drive to Glencoe.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a traffic jam suddenly appeared! What could this be?
And then miles down the road, we suddenly found out the cause.
Wind turbine blades were being moved along, and the load was so lengthy they couldn’t pull over for miles to allow overtaking traffic!
It’s about this point in any trip that there’s an overwhelming desire for burritos. Notwithstanding that burritos are nasty shit in Europe, we found a chain bar in Glencoe that claimed to serve these delicious meals. They were not delicious: lesson still not learned.
Our destination was the small seaside town of Oban. A fishing town, it offered many ferry connections to other parts of the Inner Hebrides, but that would come tomorrow. First we had to explore the town!
Walking from the SYHA Hostel, we made it to the top of Oban and a rather out of place monument appearing at the crown of the hill. A local cat was here to greet us in the dying sun.
As the sun set behind the Inner Hebrides, it offered some excellent opportunities for photographs.
Dinner was fish and chips (what else?) before retiring back to the hostel common room for some soccer.
October 9th, 2016
Here’s the plan for the day: we take a large ferry from downtown Oban to the Isle of Mull, which is the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides. Once on Mull, a bus will meet us there and drive us across the island to Fionnphort. This hamlet has a small port that will take us on a ferry to the Isle of Iona, where we’ll stay for a few hours before taking the reverse journey.
As we waited in the Oban ferry terminal, it seemed like we weren’t the only people with this idea. A few hundred people from a local tour company showed up as well. Lame.
The bus across Mull was narrated by the driver, who offered plenty snippets of island life. Pointing out the only Munro (3000m+ peak) on the Isle of Mull—Ben More—he noted that there’s an annual hill race to the top. Speaking of races, there’s also the Mull Rally race every year that winds through the island via roads. They’re a competitive bunch.
Crannogs also appear on the island. These prehistoric structures are small artificial islands that hosted small fortified houses. Since they’re in the middle of lakes, they’re easily defensible. The structures are long gone, but the rough pile of stones remain and are strewn through the Mull lakes.
Scrambling on the second (much smaller) ferry, we make the short hop to the Isle of Iona. This small practically car-free island is the regional center of Christianity in this part of Scotland, and hosts the Iona Abbey.
Tracey and I toured the Abbey while Brian and Amber went to have what they reported to be a very tasty lunch.
Along the way we found a pair of Hairy Coos, which Tracey named Fred and George. Unfortunately for us, they were extremely disinterested in posing for pictures.
Piling back in the small ferry, we explored Fionnphort for half an hour. Although hardly even a village, it did have some local characteristics: cows on the beach! It seems that free range Hairy Coos would wander around in the port. After watching them for a bit, the bus returned to port us back to the Mull port and we soon were back in Oban for the evening.
October 10th, 2016
Our second day in Oban was always planned rather loosely in our pre-trip itinerary, and we decided to spend the day and see what local sights we could find. But first, it was time for breakfast.
The Oban Chocolate Factory was just what the doctor ordered. Delicious waffles and coffee awaited us and provided fuel for the day!
There’s not too much to do in Oban proper, but the Dunollie Museum and Castle was plenty close. Although the castle is not much to look at (it’s more of a tower), it offered great views of the bay, and the museum was an interesting look at the life of the local lords who still lived in parts of the house.
Dinner was, quite naturally, fish and chips. It’s basically legally required in Oban.
October 11th, 2016
It was time to leave Oban, but not without first stopping by Oban Chocolate Company for yet more waffles and coffee. Today we were off to the town of Stirling, which features the aptly named Stirling Castle.
The weather had turned unusually misty for our day in Stirling, so we were happy to be indoors at the castle, even of the interiors were rather lackluster.
It was pretty clear why they decided on a castle here: the hill it was on featured commanding views of the surrounding countryside.
Our hotel for the night was Inglewood House. This is where Brian and Amber decided to stay in a fancy place on their honeymoon, and it looked like as good a place as any to luxe it up. Driving up to the manor house, it seemed like we were the only guests for the night.
Actually, we think we were the only guests for the night, and it suddenly got slightly creepy. Not so much scary, but the sense that one may get when they realize that they’re living a story that could be very much the start of a horror movie. You know the troupe: tourists from out of the country in an old house, and they’re all alone.
October 12th, 2016
Nothing happened to us, and after the other members of the party had a nice stay in the spa the following morning, we rolled out.
First stop of the day was at the Helix park, and as we walked along the paths, we came across a series of locks that were remnants of the industrial past that put Falkirk on the map.
However, there was something particular about these locks. They were human powered!
The claim to fame for the Helix park is the Kelpies, which are giant horse sculptures that honor the contribution that these creatures made towards hauling ore and materials along the local canals.
We had a jolly good time walking around the Kelpies.
Close by is the Falkirk Wheel. Part of the aforementioned canal system, the wheel approaches the question of differing water levels in a fundamentally different approach than the locks. Whereas the locks used a series of rises and drops to facilitate interconnectivity, the wheel navigates the difference in one fell swoop.
Before our eyes, a small canal boat putted up into the bottom of the wheel. It suddenly groaned to life, and slowly rotated a full 180 degrees until the boat at the bottom was suddenly at the top!
Engineering marvels seen, we pressed on to the city of Glasgow. Navigating the confusing streets of the city, we ended up at our stop for the night.
We started the day in a manor house with crystal chandeliers, and ended it at a disgusting hellhole of a hostel. I’d probably describe it as “urine strewn,” and we all thought we were bound to get bedbugs.
It was such a dirty place, we went on a quest to find sanitizer wipes just to get things clean enough to tolerate.
October 13th, 2016
Spoiler alert: we didn’t get bedbugs, but we were thrilled to be leaving.
After a quick jaunt to the Glasgow Airport, we flew together to Reykjavík before parting ways with Brain and Amber. While they were going back to Seattle, Tracey and I were going to spend a few nights in the city. This will be the subject of a new blog post which is tentatively scheduled for 2019.
I’m writing this post with my Apple MacBook Pro. This is a big deal in Nikkyland.
My first laptop was a trusty 15.4″ Acer acquired right before going to college. It was big, powerful, and was about as portable as a large water yak. It quickly got a permanent side living by my desktop computer screens in the dorm, and was only ported around when I felt it was worth the effort. It was stolen in 2011, and the replacement was a generic HP Ultrabook that I was still (sparsely) using until fairly recently.
These systems almost immediately had their Windows operating systems replaced with Ubuntu Linux, and were my main Linux systems over the past decade. As such, I tended to classify these as better to be productive on because of the Unix-y functionality and better software package management. Windows is for photos and games, you see.
As the Ultrabook turned 5, I started looking for replacements.
Simultaneously, I’ve been running on Apple-based laptops for the past three years at work. First a 15″ super powerful MacBook Pro, and now a 13″ MacBook Pro Retina. Learning how to be productive on the pseudo-Unixy Apple systems was frustratingly annoying as they lack many of the essential tools developers really do need, and instead we have to rely on 3rd party package managers and hacked-up solutions in order to get things done.
Yet after a few years I found myself not exactly hating working on them. Once I realized that it’s basically a system to use a browser and run a code editor on, it didn’t require a lot of maintenance or thinking about. It just worked in its own weird frankenstein way, the hardware was reliable, and it was well constructed.
The announcement of the late-2016 MacBook Pros with the touchbar seemed like a good time to jump ship onto the Apple side of the aisle. A few weeks after their release, I plopped down for the 13″ MacBook Pro with TouchBar. And that hurt a little, even with work paying for half of the system.
A month or so of waiting, it arrived! These models have received a lot of press attention, so here are my impressions after using it for a few weeks.
It’s not hard to regard the touchbar as anything other than a gimmick, and at launch a precious few applications support the touchbar besides Apple-made programs. However, it does show a surprisingly amount of utility once some sort of effort is made to integrate it with daily use.
I went through a lot of thought before eventually landing on the smaller 13″ model. Although I could certainly use the extra power, it’d immediately land where my other larger laptops are: left at home. I don’t miss the larger size at all, especially with my desktop providing most of my computing power.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth was had over the announcement that this model would only have 4 USB-C ports and 1 3.5mm headphone jack. As an Android user who has a Nexus 6p, this was absolutely wonderful news.
I can charge my phone using a native USB-C cable from my laptop, and I can even use my fairly highly rated USB-C phone chargers to provide ~15W of power into the laptop. It’s not enough to replenish the battery when under heavy load, but it’s a handy trickle charger that can either fill your battery up overnight, or significantly decrease your battery usage.
This means I can use any of the Monoprice Obsidian chargers I already have around the house and work for sustaining my battery without toting around the larger 61W Apple charger, and that’s a real handy thing. With new USB-PD chargers coming on the market, it’s not too far away where you could get a replacement charger that’s just as good as the Apple one, but cheaper, can also charge your phone, and has 4 or so USB ports for charging other devices as well. This is a huge travel win if I can bring less chargers.
After the Basque portion of the trip, we met up with Brian and Amber for a fortnight exploring Scotland via car. The idea of a followup to our 2013 Ireland Trip has been floating around for a few years now, and when we originally envisioned this journey it included all of Great Britain. We quickly realized that most of our destinations were in the Scottish Highlands, and condensed the plan to include less geographic area so we could spend more time exploring the area.
September 29th, 2016: Edinburgh, Scotland
The stately capital of Scotland was the logical start to the trip. After flying in and meeting at the airport, we took the tram to the center of the city before settling in at our apartment near the Royal Mile. We ate pizza, drank cider, and did nothing else of much note for the rest of the day. Everyone had been up way before dawn, and we all crashed early.
September 30th, 2016: Edinburgh
Most people choose to do the Royal Mile on their first day of Edinburgh so they can get the touristy parts done while simultaneously getting oriented. Since it was going to be rainy all day, we decided to spend our time at the Scottish National Museum.
After the museum and a nice hot baked potato for lunch, we continued on towards the Maison de Moggy: a cat cafe. Checking in for our scheduled time, we quickly set ourselves loose exploring the various cats that lived here. Although Fabian the Norwegian Forest Cat, Pauline the Maine Coon, and Sebastian the British Short Hair were all popular, Elodie the Sphinx was the star of the show.
The cats basically ignored us and slept unless there was food available. The Sphinx however, was rumored to be an outstanding cupcake snatcher and we were adamantly warned not to let any food unsupervised: even for a moment.
Being mostly hairless, the Sphinx loved to live in a basket next to a heater. Unfortunately for the hairless creature, the other cats were extremely aware of this wonderful heat source and would steal the seat every chance they got.
After a much too short hour, we reluctantly parted from our furry relaxation for some more serious matters: whisky tasting.
Dinner was Indian food from the place below our apartment. This resulted in us getting curry grease all over the apartment and our clothing for the rest of our stay.
October 1st, 2016: Edinburgh
Cat cafe and history completed, it was time for the Royal Mile! Except we were doing it backwards and starting at the Scottish Parliament and then working our way up to the Edinburgh Castle. Why? Because our Parliament tour was scheduled for early in the morning!
A recent building, the Scottish Parliament was an outstanding piece of modern architecture’s take on what a democratic institutional building looks like. Airy and light, it embraced eco-friendliness and open government while hiding little symbols of Scottish Nationality throughout.
Making a leisurely stroll up the Royal Mile, we soon bumped into the Edinburgh Castle. Naturally we went inside.
The military value of Edinburgh Castle is apparent as it the volcanic plug it is constructed on looms over the entire city. With three steep sides on the hill, there exists only one approach to the castle itself. They needed this advantage, as the castle has been the site of numerous sieges over the centuries.
October 2nd, 2016: Edinburgh to St. Andrews
Today is the day to pick up our 2008 manual transmission petrol Peugeot or similar rental car. When we showed up to pick up the car, turns out the only thing they had available was an automatic diesel DS 5 by Citroen. Free upgrade? Sure! With Brian in the driver’s seat, we pulled out into midday Edinburgh traffic and headed off towards St. Andrews.
The town of St. Andrews serves many roles. It’s the home of the Old Course at St Andrews Links, which is more-or-less considered the spiritual birthplace of golf. Founded in 1413, the University of St Andrews lives within the city as well.
Arriving on Sunday, we lucked into a particularly good day to visit St. Andrews. For you see, on Sunday the Old Course is open to all to wander around: there is no golfing. Naturally we took advantage of this situation and wandered around a bit in the glorious Scottish sunshine.
After wandering around the course for a bit, we pulled out our guidebook and started a walking tour of the town. Home of the ruined St Andrews Cathedral, the town still retains many characteristics of a pilgrimage destination. All of the main roads lead towards the cathedral, and only small secondary alleyways called “wynds” run perpendicular to the main streets. Following a few of these as they run past backyards and stone walls, we inched our way closer to the cathedral grounds.
Reaching the evocative ruins, we poked around at the few remaining walls and towers that still survived.
We were kicked out of the cathedral grounds when it closed, and made it to our luxury Premier Inn in Dundee for the night.
October 3rd, 2016: Dundee to Inverness
As we traced our way through the heart of Scotland, the first stop of the day was the small town of Pitlochry. Home of two whiskey distilleries, we visited the extremely small production facility of Edradour for a tour of the distillery.
Nestled between two small streams, the whiskey product is the original small batch distillers. They were hipsters before it was cool.
Further along down the road, we kept our eyes peeled for a small sign next to the highway for the Leault Working Sheepdogs. The only real instructions we had was that it started at 4pm, and to just show up. Turning down the dirt pull off, we’re suddenly alone by ourselves in a small grass parking lot in the middle of a field. Soon another car ambles down the path, and exactly at 4pm a tour bus shows up as well. We all get out in the chilly air and wait around when the owner appears and starts shouting commands punctuated with whistling. As the dogs raced around the field, they locate and consolidate a small group of sheep. Responding to the mixed commands, the dogs would quickly pop up to their feet, run around, and then drop back to a crouch when finished.
Within a few minutes, all of the sheep had been herded back to our general direction.
Wading into the flock, he suddenly pulls one away from the others.
After shearing this 🐑 sheep 🐏 , the owner started talking about what they did at the farm and the tradition of shepherding. Soon enough, he launched into an anti-EU regulation speech that led us to refer to him as “Mr. Brexit.”
Shearing completed, Mr. Brexit grabbed a number of plastic water bottles with rubber nipples on the end and handed them out a few of us. Almost immediately a large cluster of lambs were running down the path and eagerly brushed aside everything in their path to the delicious milk.
The cuteness wasn’t over. A litter of puppies was brought out and distributed.
Herding, lambs, and puppies complete, we piled back into the car and made it the rest of the way to our home for the next two nights: Inverness. Checking into our condo, we cranked on all of the heaters and settled in for the night.
October 4th, Inverness
Although not a particularly exciting city, Inverness is considered the capital of the Scottish Highlands and is a convenient base station for visiting nearby sites.
First stop of the day was the Culloden Battlefield. In 1746, the Jacobite forces were decisively defeated by loyalists in the Battle of Culloden. The end of the Jacobite uprising, the battle represented the final military action opposing British rule over Scotland. Laws were put in place to help weaken the clan system.
The grassy battlefield was windy and cold, and was an evocative sight as visitors followed the audio guide throughout the contours of the battle. Near the site of the final charges, small engraved stones represented the locations where the highlanders of various clans fell.
After Culloden, we headed back to Inverness for a brief lunch. While digesting food, we wandered into Leakey’s Bookshop, which was a bookstore located in a former small church. With a wood burning fireplace in the center, spiral staircase, and books stacked everywhere, it was a peaceful place to browse.
Bookstore urge scratched, we headed South towards Loch Ness and drove along the shores for a bit before arriving at Urquhart Castle. Situated near a strategic point on the lake, the semi-ruined castle was surrounded by beautiful scenery and was a good place to wrap up the day.
October 5th, 2016: Inverness to Skye
After visiting the “Highlands Capital,” we were on our way West towards the Isle of Skye.
First stop of the day was the box canyon of Corrieshalloch Gorge. A steeply dropping canyon, the Gorge was viewable from a suspension bridge hanging far above the river channel, and from a platform that hung over one of the gorge sides.
A short trail connected the bridge crossing to the viewing platform further downstream.
Perhaps even more exciting than the gorge was the detour we took to get there. The road traced along a wide array of water projects, all drenched in the stark Scottish sun.
There was one more stop before reaching the highlands: Eilean Donan Castle. It’s hard to miss, and we couldn’t resist the chance to stop by and take some pictures.
Refueled and ready to go, we crossed the bridge over to the Isle of Skye. The largest member of the Inner Hebrides, Skye features a large number of geological features, and as we went further inland, we passed by the volcanic remains of the Cuillin in the center of Skye. The clear skies and sunny day ensured maximum visibility. Stopping in the town of Portree for resupplies, we kept going North until we managed to find the caravan where we would be staying for the next three nights.
What’s a caravan, you may ask? It’s a single-wide mobile home. It was simple, but offered a great view, remote location, and plenty of heat. After watching The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition), we went to bed and rested up for the first day of Skye exploration!