Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Leaving The Blogosphere (again)

There are many advantages to having some time without internet access, but not being able to blog is not one of them. Alas.

But, as is always the case, the cliche "I'll be back" applies. So don't go away.

Thank you to those of you who left comments whilst I was in Shetland. I do now have my results (though I didn't when I composed the post) and I am able to continue my studies next year.

On the Cyprus front, the idea of 'ethnic cleansing' on behalf of the Greeks is not one I had come across (obviously in the Greek side) but a theory to be investigated. As ever, I will do my own research. Watch this space.

Thank you very much for calling, bye for now.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Some People (the latest episode)

We have another winner of JP's Muppet Awards. This time it goes to the middle aged woman in baggage reclaim this morning. After waiting an age, the baggage eventually appeared on the conveyer belt, and her husband (or should I say 'Partner' to be on the safe side in this overly PC age?) collected their ridiculously heavy suitcase. He then tried to place it on the trolley she was holding, and despite requests to 'hold it still' she failed to notice, let alone use the big green brake lever and the trolley wobbled around like an excited dog, bashing in to those of us around her.

Worryingly, she probably holds a driving license :S

Shetland: He's got a dream about buying some land...

..He's gonna give up the booze and one-night stands.

It might come as something of a relief that today's chosen lyrics are not connected with me (though I do fancy a bit of land). In fact, the only connection with our trip is that they feature in one of the tunes which has accompanied us as we've been driving around. And what a tune it is. I wonder if someone with too much time on their hands can tell me which 70's classic I am referring to.

So, 5 days in Shetland. Aside from visiting random relatives, what have I been up to?

We spent a day exploring the north and west parts of the Shetland Mainland, which really does boast some stunning scenery. After the fog which dominated our first 24 hours or so, the weather cleared and we enjoyed hot sunshine. The weather was good enough in fact to enjoy spending time on one of the picturesque beaches, with its expanse of unspoiled sand and crystal clear waters. The water was so inviting that I donned my swimming shorts (not speedos, I hasten to add) and went for a bit of a swim. To say that it was not warm was an understatement (by the time I was in up to my waist I could have joined the alto section of the choir) but I was not the only one brave/stupid enough to take to the water and I very much enjoyed it. 'Refreshing'.

Our day in this part of the mainland also included a trip to Grobsness - a remote coastal settlement in which there is now only one occupied house - where we located the remains of the small dwelling in which my grandmother was born all those years ago. It was a bit of a mission, and was a very special moment when we found it.

By far and away the most beautiful settlement we visited was Voe, where we visited the local shop (as ever in these parts, quite a novelty) and procured some Shetland Bannachs. A bit like scones they were very tasty and went down well as we munched them sat on the harbour wall.

One of the funny things about Shetland is the extremely poor quality of the postcards which are generally available. Voe is a good example of this, with the only postcard I found shunning the attractive lower harbour for a photo of a generic war memorial on the bleak hillside above. Needless to say, I resisted the temptation to buy one.

Our day on the mainland ended up at the remote Croft/B&B mentioned in one of my previous posts. It was ocated on a peninsula miles from civilsation save for an antiques business at the end of the road, (how it gets any trade is beyond me), and a sinister looking B&B further south, and is certainly worthy of a mention here. Mein hostess agreed to put the three of us up (though the room was humourously cramped as a result, and I had to sleep on the floor) and she went out of her way to ensure a comfortable stay for us. She washed and dried my frankly rancid walking socks, ensured that the nearest pub would serve us an evening meal, booked our ferry to the northern isles and cooked us a delicious breakfast, Mmmm.

The use of the term 'nearest' when describing the pub in which we dined is a bit of a misnomer, as it was a good 10 or 12 miles away in Brae. Brae is one of the larger settlements on the map, but turned out to be disappointingly souless with no character and a fairly ugly waterfront. It did boast an impressive leisure centre though, and Skittles nearly burst with excitement when he saw that it had an Astro Turf pitch. Dinner at the Mid Brae Inn was delicious, and I enjoyed a sizeable portion of Shetland Lamb.

The next day we ventured north, crossing the island of Yell, which to be honest was quite bland. The title of 'second most northerly of the UK's inhabited islands' just doesn't quite cut it, and the scenery was less dramatic than the mainland. It did however boast some gorgeous beaches, and we enjoyed lunch on one, again in the hot sunshine. Unfortunately we didn't see any of the elusive otters said to inhabit the island.

After crossing Yell we ended up on Unst. The UK's most northerly inhabited island. Now that's more like it. Despite a population of just 600, it has a lot to offer. The main settlement has Britain's most northerly Post Office (and quite a large shop - by Shetland standards at least), and on the same theme Britain's most northerly church was to be found a little bit further up. Not much to look at from the outside, it was well worth a visit, as the inside was particularly striking. Unst was where we also found the famous bus shelter complete with sofa and TV. Very cool. It even has a visitor's book...

Hermeness Nature Reserve occupies the northern most point of the island, and a trek across it leads to Muckle Flugga. Funky name, funky place; the lighthouse just offshore is the most northerly point of the British Isles. Our first attempt to get there was thwarted by the mist which rolled in, and though we once again enjoyed seeing some puffins it was disappointing to have to turn back. Happily the weather the next morning was better, and I am proud to say that we made it.

Overnight in Unst was spent at the very comfortable Youth Hostel, which made for a very sociable evening. Digressing slightly, two of us had made the most of being so far from civilisation and people we knew to have an informal facial hair competition, and with hindsight it was not wise to have 'styled' my beard without proper use of a mirror that morning. I don't think it looked too bad, and nobody commented; it's just that it hadn't occured to me that we might actually meet people that evening when I had made use of the razor blade (or not as the case may be).

The people at the Youth Hostel were great. The conversations included the usual "when I was in Zimbabwe waterskiing in a lake full of crocodiles..." anecdotes, but we had good fun, gained some local insights and met a Swedish guy who looked like McBain (The Simpsons) and tracked wolves for a living.

One of the guys was visiting for the Unst Thrash ("Britain's northern most track day"). Quality name, quality event - apparently. We didn't specifically look for it, but it was advertised as just being 'on Unst' and though our travels took us across the entire island and through all the main settlements there wasn't even so much as a sign for it. The only evidence was the plethora of chavved-up cars, with some drivers looking ever so slightly lost.

Tempted though we were by a bit of thrash,we ventured south. After some shopping in Lerwick we checked in at a B&B, enjoyed a quality meal in Spiggie, climbed Noss Hill with its eerie military ruins and made it to Sumburgh lighthouse. Northern most tip to southern most tip of the Shetlands in a day. And some more puffins. Nice.

And so after an early start we wound up at the airport, which is where I wrote my last post and began this one. As I wrap up this epic I am still travelling home, now on the final leg (the train from Gatwick). Ladies and gentlemen, I wound up on the boat. To be fair, it was comfortable, we got free meals, the transfers worked, and today's BA flight was excellent. I even qualified for entry in to the BA Lounge at Aberdeen, complete with comfy chairs, newspapers, free tea/coffee/croissants/cereal/soft drinks and booze should I have wanted it at 9am. Mmmmm.

I wonder if being almost 24hrs behind schedule still counts as fashionably late?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Shetland: In the Remote Part

The song title for this post is the most relevant yet; it describes my location well, and is by a Scottish group to boot.

This post was going to come to you a few days ago from a B&B/Croft on a remote peninsula on the Shetland Mainlaind, but the reliability of the Vodafone email server (poor, despite good GPRS coverage) coupled with days packed with better things to do than blog means that I've got a bit behind with my diary.

Anyway, I now have all the time in the world to ramble about my trip so far because I am fog-bound at Sumburgh Airport with no idea when and how I will leave the Shetlands. Apparently fog affects the flights here all the time in the summer, so I am a little bit annoyed that there were no warnings about this when booking, and no information on the Tourist Website under the 'Getting Here' section. The announcement has just been given that our flight is still delayed, with the next update due in an hour. At this rate I'll be on the boat to Aberdeen overnight tonight; and I could have planned to do that myself (probably) for less money than my flight and certainly I'd have been able to arrange my schedule better to suit my plans.

Hey ho. Once again 'In the Remote Part' feels quite apt.

On a more positive note, Sumburgh does have a 'prayer room' in which I have been able to catch up with my Bible reading and take some space . As a result I am feeling quite buoyant and I will now write another post reflecting on the highlights of the last week (which has just been fantastic).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Shetland: Shine on you crazy diamond

Another cue from a song; I think that there is a bit of a trend emerging. And this one is (possibly) more relevant than the last.

It turns out that my grandmother's 80 year old cousins are both in good enough shape to look after a few acres of land and keep sheep. As Skittles noted, the word 'legend' is often applied very liberally, but these guys certainly deserve the title.

Along with their nephew and his wife we enjoyed a wonderful meal, complete with home grown spuds. Conversation flowed as we traced family links, learned about Shetland and just made general small talk. The evening flashed passed, and as we took our leave at midnight it was still twilight. I'm thrilled to have completed another link in the family chain, and really hope that it will remain for years to come; "Shine on..."

Aside from meeting distant relatives, yesterday was filled with adventure. Despite the lingering fog, we opted to continue with plans to island-hop to Noss.

We started with the short ferry across from Lerwick to Bressay and after a brief spell in the interesting Visitor Centre we struck out across the island. The guidebook was wrong when it came to the distance-it was the longest 2 1/2 miles I've ever walked. However, punctuated near the beginning by a visit to the quaint little shop for supplies, our trudge through the fog peering at buildings and lochs eventually came to an end.

To cross to Noss there is a 'ferry' which runs in the summer, except in stormy weather when a red flag is shown. I wouldn't have seen a red flag at the end of my nose but some cyclists assured us it was running and we picked our way beyond the ferry sign and down the track amidst a few ruined buildings. It was surreal searching for a man in a rubber dinghy in such conditions but the makeshift jetty was pretty obvious. Joined by one other we donned life jackets and motored across the short stretch of water.

The fog was lifting all the time and as we stopped for lunch we had good visibility. Perched on the cliff above a stack we watched many seabirds, including puffins. Awesome (though smaller than you'd think).

Our return journey saw ever increasing visibility, so we enjoyed seeing where we'd been. The scenery really is spectacular, a point hammered home when we finally left Lerwick and set out en route to visit my distant relations.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Shetland: Showing off your something shaved and lacy

I attempted to post a photo of our successful rendezvous in Edinburgh, but so far it hasn't appeared.

Anyway, continuing without the need for pictures, we have arrived. The journey was pleasant and smooth and we docked at 7.30am this morning. Sadly the clear skies evident as the twilight faded near John O'Groats at 10.30pm had given way to mist and drizzle when I looked out at 4.30am and have not reappeared since.

Nevertheless, we've had a pleasant morning in Lerwick, finding our accommodation and indulging in a delicious and hearty brunch in a local cafe. Lerwick is fairly bustling, and does not feel that remote. Aside from a few Scandanavian influences in some of the buildings, we could be anywhere in the UK.

We've seen the impressive Town Hall and the local loch and later plan to explore further, maybe visiting the Up-Helly-Aa exhibition.

So what does the title of this post have to do with all this? It's a Kings of Leon lyric, quoted by Stan, and doesn't really relate to anything much. Except to say that the woman I feared I might have to kick out of my reclining seat on the boat was very definitely un-shaved and lacy.

I didn't-as it happened-have to kick Ms Whispy-Whiskers out of my seat but I do want to rant about some of the passengers on the boat. They had deemed it sensible to sleep on the floor in front of the reclining seats, blocking access to up to three in some cases.

One such selfish bint prevented me from reaching my (otherwise empty seat) but rather than giving her the kicking she deserved I occupied another seat and hoped I didn't get turfed out. Fortunately I didn't, but I was woken at 2am but an altercation caused by someone trying to evict a grumpy Scotsman from a seat that he probably wasn't meant to be occupying. Grrr.

Right, after a nice cuppa and a blogging session it's time once again to hit the UK's most northerly town. Planned highlights include dinner at Monty's Bistro.


Defined by user

Monday, July 17, 2006

Shetland: The Adventure Begins

Shetland: The Adventure Begins
Originally uploaded by JP1984.

After a pleasant journey north to York yesterday, I met with one of my travelling companions - Stan - and stayed with his brother. The sun was shining and it was great just to chill out.

And so, at a not uncivilised hour, the journey continues this morning. Flat and featureless scenery has given way to something a little more picturesque, and we have just passed Durham and its striking cathedral.

We change trains at Edinburgh, where we should be joined by Skittles, the third member of this intrepid trio. I say should, because he had to leave very early this morning, and matters were complicated yesterday by his realisation that he needed to arrive at the station in time to renew his YP railcard. Those of you who know him will know that the odds are not certain, but he should have been underway for a while now and no news, as they say, is good news. At least after yesterday's conversation he knows that it's Waverley and not Haymarket.

Will the rendezvous go to plan? Watch this space...

Meanwhile, we've just passed the Angel of the North.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Naked Women (and other things)

Disturbingly, I noted this morning that since getting back from Cyprus and posting my thoughts several people have found this blog by searching for 'naked women' or 'topless'. It was probably my report on the Blue Lagoon which led them here, but I don't think it was what they were looking for (sorry, Nathan).

I'm off to Shetland this afternoon. At least, I begin my journey in that direction. Assuming that there is enough phone service for my free GPRS to work I will endeavour to post about things as they happen, so watch this space.

It should be a great week. Trees are apparently a novelty in that part of the world, the nearest railway station is said to be in Norway and rumour has it that a bus stop complete with TV and microwave is one of the main attractions. There is also some family history there for me - I am looking forward to seeing the house where my grandmother was born, and meeting (for the first time) her cousins.

Rock on.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Return of the Mack

You knew that I’d be back.

Spread the word. I have returned from a fantastic couple of weeks in Cyprus, and I am feeling very rested, despite not arriving home until some unearthly hour of the morning.

Because I enjoy writing, I kept some form of diary – which you will find in the preceding posts. If my aspirations get involved in travel writing go get anywhere, material may also get published on bethejam. I’d highly recommend a visit to the site, and keen readers will already find one article of mine which has been published.

I have to get packed for my next trip (to Shetland – watch this space) and I’m also going out shortly to an annual family BBQ, which will be fun. Before I go, however I would like to have a rant or two about some people I encountered on my flight home.

1) Airline stewardesses
- what is it with their constant misuse of the reflexive pronoun? If you don’t know what I am getting at, please leave a comment for myself at the end of this post.

2) The club class passengers
- honestly, some people. How hard is it to obey the instruction “please return your seat to the upright position during the meal”? The couple in front of me couldn’t manage it, and neither could the woman opposite. Fortunately, Sam had once again wangled de-restricted club seats, and so I still had ample space, but that’s not the point. The woman opposite also deserves a special mention for having to be asked more than once by the cabin crew to move her seat when the poor lady behind fainted. And for someone who’d apparently just been on holiday she looked unbelievably grumpy.

Cyprus: Drinks at the Theo's

Drinks at the Theos’ turned out to be quite a social occasion; there were various other English people who were also staying in their villas as well as a couple of locals. Their house was very well appointed, and we sat out on one of the balconies enjoying the beautiful views across the hillside and out around the Chrysouchou Bay. Mrs Theo had made various things to eat, including some delicious pastries and a fresh fruit salad. Mmmm.

We met some interesting people, notably Andreas (the author of this book) and his wife. Andreas grew up in a village near Kyrenia (in the now occupied part of Cyprus) and I was able to learn a lot from him about the division of the island and the Turkish occupation.

He was not the first person to tell me that the hostility was not between Turkish and Greek Cypriots – who lived happily together in the past – but between the Cypriots in the south and the Turkish people occupying the north. The current situation is certainly very complex and I shared Andreas’ frustration as he told me how he had to show his passport when he visited his home village and his objection to the border controls. Evidently Turks from the north quite happily cross the border every day to work in the southern part of the island or tend land which belongs to them, and yet Cypriots from the south are apparently not allowed to work in the north.

In southern Cyprus, mosques are largely left untouched (or even restored) and churches built alongside, and Turkish land is left undeveloped. In northern Cyprus however, churches are apparently converted to mosques and Greek land is built on illegally. A recent court case taken up by Cherie Blair highlights the issue of land ownership in the north, and the whole scenario is not pretty.

It seems to be fairly common to claim that the Americans were somewhere behind the illegal invasion, and although I need to investigate further there are various theories about this which would seem to hold water. Sadly, the British forces did not stand up to the invasion, and in many ways made the situation more complicated. Rather than protecting Turkish Cypriot villages in the south, such as Androuliki, they instead bussed all the refugees across the dividing line. Feeling the need to take a political swipe, I will just make the point that it was a Labour government in power at the time.

None of the locals I have spoken to seemed impressed with the current reunification plans. The general feeling is that it is the interests of the big boys such as Britain and America which are held as most important. Interestingly, as part of the plans, an 800 page document was allegedly produced with just a week to verify it, which someone fortunately refused to do. Hidden in the clauses was a waiver of Cyprus’ right to veto new EU members. Why, might you ask, is that significant? Had the plans been passed, Cyprus would no longer have been able to prevent Turkey joining the EU. If Turkey joins the EU with the island as it is, Turks would as EU citizens have rights in southern Cyprus but there would be little sign of improvement in the rights of the Cypriots who wanted to move to, or work in, the north. At least, that’s how it could be perceived.

I have purchased a copy of Andartes (Guerillas), which will apparently give me a lot of the background about the struggle for independence and the build up to the invasion despite being a novel. It should be an interesting read, and I certainly intend to continue my research in to the situation in Cyprus. Oh to be in a position where I could take up a research fellowship somewhere (All Souls would be nice) and write a book on the matter.

Cyprus: Long Lunch

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

We decided to treat ourselves to a long lunch at Zouk today. It was bliss. Theo turned up, not in his 6-Series but in the flashy 5-Series with no number plates that I'd seen around. Class. Surprisingly,"Mr Fontana" was not there, which was annoying because this time we actually wanted to talk to him - about holding on to our 4x4 for a bit longer. He wasn't in the office when we popped by later, but the woman behind the desk assured us that he would definitely be at Zouk later. "Not so," came another (English) voice from behind the desk, "Tonight is his night with the family." Evidently there is also a "Mrs Fontana".

Cyprus: The Blue Lagoon

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

We made it along the track to the Blue Lagoon. Admittedly the track was steep in places, and the drop from the edge was “noticeable” (if picturesque), but we made it nonetheless. Humorously it is only when one reaches the other end and turns around that the ‘Dangerous Road, Do Not Enter’ sign is visible, but we didn’t die on the way home either.

Parking up by a pickup truck belonging to a fisherman we made our way on to a little beach and swam in the crystal clear sea. I enjoyed snorkelling and there were lots of fish to be seen.

As we prepared to head home a speedboat arrived in the bay. Not unusual – there had been a couple floating around earlier. This time however we couldn’t help noticing that the passengers included one guy and four women who were either topless or completely naked. I couldn’t really see if the women were attractive or not but if they were I really do wonder how some guys manage it.

The scenery, the quiet bays and the clear sea compelled us to return again to the Blue Lagoon – after all, the drive along the track only took 15 minutes or so. The first time we returned it was a Sunday, and the peninsula was teeming with locals, who had set up camp on the various beaches. Despite the presence of a joker on a jet-ski*, there was a good atmosphere and I enjoyed another pleasant swim. It seems as though this place attracts exhibitionists though – this time it was not naked women in a boat but a couple (in full view of quite a lot of people) attempting to have sex in the water.

We returned twice more and on both occasions it was much quieter; sometimes it was just us, the fish, and the jelly-fish. Quality.

Cyprus:"Mr Fontana"

When we first arrived at Zouk we were greeted like long lost friends by a Cypriot man we later remembered to be the boss of the car hire firm. Not being entirely sure of his name I shall call him simply "Mr Fontana".

When we popped in to the car hire office to swap our Daewoo saloon for a 4x4, the woman behind the desk described Zouk as “the boss’s new home”. She wasn’t far wrong, for almost every time I have been on the waterfront and passed Zouk, “Mr Fontana” has been there.

Amusingly his beaming “Hello, howareyou?” is invariably followed by the ringing of his mobile phone and an “excuse me” and so conversation never proceeds very far. On the one occasion that it did get further than a greeting, I was pleased to note that his attitude to car hire is as laid back as everything else in this part of the world seems to be. We enquired about taking our Toyota RAV4 to the Blue Lagoon – a bay along the Akamas Peninsula which is good for swimming and normally best reached by boat. There is a dubious track along the peninsula which the locals seem to manage (in a 4x4 or Pickup Truck) but the Tourist Information Office had suggested a ‘road’ across the top of the peninsula instead. “Mr Fontana” had no qualms about us taking the car off road, or driving to the Blue Lagoon and without hesitation he told us that the best way of getting there was the track along the peninsula.

It struck me as quite trusting; I’m sure that there are some parts of the world where you could rent the most capable off road car available and still receive an incredulous “Gee, you’re not going to take it off road are you?” from the hire car people.

Cyprus: The Mystery of Androuliki (solved)

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

Captain Zorba was to be found on the waterfront the other evening, and he joined us for a drink after our meal at The Village Tavern. Typically he was on good form (“almost perfect”) and we enjoyed a good chat. He no longer does boat trips, nor does he play his bouzouki in the local restaurants anymore, but he has instead seen a business niche and set up a chandlery shop and boat care scheme for the new ‘marina’. Shrewd.

We took the opportunity to ask him about Androuliki, and he was indeed able to shed some light on it. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that it is a Turkish Cypriot village, abandoned at the time of the 1974 invasion. Some such villages were used to house Greek Cypriot refugees from the northern part of the island, but Androuliki is apparently just that little bit too remote.

Cyprus: Nice to see you, to see you nice

One of the great things about having been to a place so many times before is that we have got to know some of the local people, to some extent at least. The big names include "Mr & Mrs Theo" - Theo's parents - who pop round from time to time to check that all is in order with the villa, "Mr Fontana" - the car hire firm boss - and "Zorba" who used to do boat trips and play his bouzouki in some of the local restuarants. They will probably crop up a little bit in this travel journal.

Mr Theo popped round with some fresh Olive Oil for us, and we have been invited for drinks at their house, which I am looking forward to. This necessitated finding a florist today (in search of a token gesture), which turned out to be quite an experience. A bunch of mixed flowers turned out to be relatively inexpensive and we watched in awe as the bunch was carefully selected, prepared, and arranged. The finished product is beautiful, and Mrs Theo will hopefully be very pleased.

Bursting the Bubble

I said that I would post some thoughts on leaving Oxford, and so here goes.

It is not without regret that I turned down the offer of studying for an MSc in Mathematical Modelling at Oxford, but after much thought and prayer I felt that it was the right thing to do. I hope instead to embark on a similar course at the University of Bath, where the course would appear to suit me better, and the change of scene would do me good. So – to quote a good friend of mine – the Oxford Bubble has been burst.

Of course, moving on is always hard, and after a fantastic four years amongst the dreaming spires it feels in some ways as though my whole world has been whipped from beneath my feet. Even if I stayed in Oxford my friendship group would largely have dispersed, and it feels strange to think that at the end of the summer we won’t all be back in the same place.

Finishing exams so late in the term-my final exam was on the final day of official term-was odd, but having to work so hard gave me something to focus on and prevented me from getting too sentimental. On the other hand, it did all mean it came to a rather abrupt end. Admittedly I remained in residence for a few days, but that quickly disappeared in a blur of punting, greasy breakfasts, pub banter and fried onion rings – so still not much time to be sentimental. I did have time to tick a few things off the ‘must do in Oxford’ list, including Christ Church Evensong (which was great), and my (Black Tie) Schools’ Dinner turned out to be a wonderful evening with much banter and a debate with the Philosophy tutor. Unfortunately the Geographers’ beat the Physics & Philosophy group at pre-dinner bowls, but I guess it’s only fair that they have one area in which they are superior.

My final day ended with a communion service for the students at church, which was a fitting way to end my time in Oxford before my brother drove me home. Since leaving, it’s been difficult to stop thinking of Brasenose as ‘home’ and all I can say is that it’s weird. No longer do I have an Oxford postal address, and never again will I have a fob to access the library, or let myself back in to the college after a night out. Still, all good things must come to an end, and I guess that the cliché ‘the end of an era’ is appropriate here.

Looking back on my time at Oxford, I have been reflecting with fellow students about the amount of work that we were expected to do. In a recent conversation over a picnic in Christ Church Meadow, a couple of us agreed that life in Oxford can get very tough. There is sometimes a misconception that ‘Oxford is only good because it selects the best people’ and whereas there is an element of truth to that, it actually runs a lot deeper. As I compile this, I do not know my results so I would like to state that I am neither blowing my own trumpet nor justifying any poor performance. I think that it goes without saying that Oxford (and perhaps Cambridge) students have much more work per term than those at other Universities. For essay subjects, 12 2500-3000 word essays per term is the norm at Oxford; that’s 1 ½ a week! As a scientist I had up to four tutorial assignments in a week (though the norm was 2), and they needed to be fitted in around labs and lectures. The long ‘vacations’ were often needed to catch up on work, or complete further assignments, and there was usually revision to be done for start of term exams (‘Collections’). Poor performance is not taken lightly at Oxford, either. Failure to keep on top of things can result in disciplinary action and penal examinations, and if you fail the first year there is no coming back if you don’t pass the retakes. I don’t wish to belittle other institutions – far from it – but I do want to point out that though Oxford has many benefits, one has to work for them.

Personally I feel an enormous sense of achievement at having completed my degree, and although change is never easy I am excited for the next stage.

Cyprus: The Mystery of Androuliki

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

We had a day exploring the Akamas peninsula today, winding our way out through the beautiful village of Neo Chorio and out on dirt roads, eventually dropping down to the other side to Lara bay, where a turtle conservation project is in place. Unfortunately there were no turtles to be seen (not even at the Turtle Station itself) but there was a lot of interesting information about the project, and the beach was a great spot for a picnic lunch and a spot of swimming (though the sea on this side was not as clear).

On our return journey, after taking in the views from a Forestry Lookout Post atop a hill (and working our way back down the hair-raising road) we decided to take a loop which bought us back round through the village of Androuliki. The map lied to us when it showed the dirt road as having no junctions or ambiguous forks, but we navigated ourselves there eventually. As we approached however we could see that the whole village looked deserted. It was – without a doubt – Androuliki, but far from being the picturesque settlement we had expected it was almost entirely abandoned. Most of the houses were dilapidated like the one in the photograph and overrun by goats, and the whole place was quite eerie. There were a couple of signs of life - including a goat herder and his family – and bizarrely most of the occupied houses contrasted completely with the wilderness around them. Along with their gardens they were well maintained, and had modern water tanks, solar panels and even Satellite TV dishes. I even saw at least one Mercedes parked on a driveway.

The biggest contrast which struck me, however, was that on the distant coast, and visible through some of the crumbling houses lay the Anassa hotel – famous for its opulence and for at least one of Elton John’s lavish parties.
I was fascinated, and intrigued, by Androuliki, but I was not sorry to move on and head the short distance back down to more civilised territory.

Cyprus: Which way now?

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

Out and about in Cyprus I was amused by the ‘quality’ and inconsistency of some of the road signs. My particular favourite was the one in the photograph where we could apparently set off in completely opposite directions at the junction and still cover the same distance to Lefkosia. I was also amused by the various signs to ‘Secret EOKA Hideouts’. EOKA was – I think - a guerrilla group who fought for independence (again, I need to do some more research) but the need to signpost ‘Secret Hideouts’, especially when the signage for more important things was so poor, made me smile.

The lack of good signs was also evident on the road down the valley from the Troodos. The road was evidently being improved in stages, but in a completely random and unmethodical way, and with no warning bar perhaps a few skidmarks we often rounded a blind bend or crested a hill to find that the new, wide and smooth road suddenly reverted to little more than a track for a couple of km or more.

Cyprus: Getting Here

By booking directly with the guy who owns the villa out here we were not tied to flights and times and - perhaps surprisingly - British Airways offered us by far the best deal. A lot cheaper than the likes of FirstChoice and without the need for an early start, the flight out was rather good. Sam worked out how to check in to the de-restricted Club Class row of seats so I enjoyed ample leg-room, and an extra table in lieu of a middle seat in the row. Food (and drinks) were complimentary and all started well.

Unfortunately, 25 minutes before landing it transpired that a plane had burst its tyres upon landing at Paphos and was blocking the runway. This meant that we had to divert to Larnaca, which was an inconvenience but not without its novelty value. It's just as well, I guess, that Cyprus has more than one airport. Paphos did not reopen in time for us to take off again and fly there, so this meant it was time for a bus transfer.

One plane of people in to one bus does not go. Nor do all the people fit in two buses, even when some are standing down the aisle. So a handful of us were left in the car-park awaiting another bus. It gets dark quite early on in Cyprus, and it felt as though it was about 3am, but it was all really chilled out. Eventually a bus rocked up and I sat back and peered out through the darkness as we made our way along the motorway. Passing several McDonald's arches, we really could have been anywhere, and it was difficult to make out much scenery (though the stars were impressive).

However, it was as I was sat back on this rather non-descript journey that I thought 'this is blogworthy'. If you're wanting a description of the bus, you've come to the wrong place. If you're wanting tales of a near death experience however, read on...

I first thought that something was up when - negotiating some roadworks - the engine started to rev really loudly. Something is wrong with the bus, I thought. I continued to think this as we continued along an empty motorway, with the engine revving but without the speed to go with it. But then as I noticed that other cars were flashing their lights at us, and I was alerted to the fact that we were not heading straight down a straight road I thought 'something is wrong with the drver' instead. Was he drunk or just overtired? I know not, but as we counted down the kilometres to Paphos things became worse. We started weaving over to the hard-shoulder and back again and the gear changes and braking became increasingly erratic. The driver's inability to drive in anything resembling a straight line became so bad that one of the other passengers resorted to going forwards and asking him if all was OK. Some humourous hand-gestures were used in conveying the message that the constant weaving was a bit concerning but apparently "all was OK" and we continued to lurch towards our destination. Being in such a badly driven vehicle with no control over the situation was certainly an experience, but fortunately we didn't hit anything or career down a ravine.

Arrival at Paphos was surreal, as the airport was closed and deserted, aside from the crashed plane which was still on the runway. In the midst of all the diversions and delays the plans to be met by someone with a car had evidently gone a bit awry. The problem was solved with a quick phone call to Theo. As chilled out as you could hope for, the voice at the other end directed us to a Daewoo Kalos "parked between Departures and Arrivals, with the keys under the mat" and said "see you at Zouk". How James Bond (Daewoo aside). Paperwork and payment for the car was evidently not important, and could wait until (much) later on in the holiday; all that remained was 35 minutes of high speed (but sober) driving and our destination was reached.

Cyprus: A Day In The Troodos

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

Cyprus’ interior is dominated by a mountain range, known as the Troodos. The roads wind along the edge of forested mountains, overlooking breathtaking valleys and occasionally passing through civilization in the form of some very picturesque traditional villages. No holiday in Cyprus would be complete without a day in the Troodos and we enjoyed visiting old haunts and exploring some new ones.

The first port of call was the Moufflon sanctuary in Stavros, where we saw (drum roll please) some Moufflon – Cyprus’ native sheep-like creature. I’m not sure exactly what Moufflon are (I guess I’d better look it up at some point) but I’ve heard varying rumours, ranging from ‘a type of sheep’ to ‘a cross between a sheep and a goat’. None of them seem quite satisfactory. They’re impressive creatures though, and the males are endowed with massive curly horns.

Our journey in to the heart of the island then continued – pausing on occasion, including at a small church - to a hilltop church where we enjoyed a picnic lunch with views of a village in the valley below. It was then onward to Kykkos; we didn’t stop at the Monastery this time, but I was pleased to note that Costas was still there in his souvenir shop. Onward (again) and upward we went to the top of Mount Olympus, passing Cyprus’ Ski Resort on the way (I kid you not). At 6000ft it felt cold, and the views weren’t bad, if a little hazy. Being above the cloud in places was novel.

It was Mount Olympus which gave the strongest reminder so far that Cyprus is a divided island, with the northern part being illegally occupied by the Turks since 1974. The military presence at the top was strong, with various listening stations, lots of razor wire fences, security guards, signs banning photography and cameras which followed our every move. I will probably share my thoughts on the Turkish occupation later when I know a bit more about it, but the whole scenario is intriguing and a lot deeper than most people probably realise. On a less serious note I was amused by the apparent need to camouflage one of the radar listening devices when the one next to it was bright white and stood out like a sore thumb.

And so down we went, past occasional signs in the forest proclaiming the presence of a ‘Giant Pinus’; evidently the large (black) pine trees are something of an attraction, but the signs would not have looked out of place in my Hotmail Junk Mail folder.

Next stop was the Kaledonia Falls, where we enjoyed a beautiful walk up the river valley to the famous falls. It was apparent that the water was pumped, but they were beautiful nonetheless. Although the shaded valley didn’t seem it, it was actually still 4000ft above sea level; which might explain why the walk was surprisingly hard going, even in the cool of the late afternoon.

The return trip covered lots of previously unexplored territory. We came through a pretty Alpine-style village with stunning views and our route took in some single track roads, devoid of crash barriers, around some fantastically remote valleys. We skirted a village with a mosque – indicative of a Turkish Cypriot population (before the island was divided, at least, if not now) – and further down there was a village complete with church and mosque side-by-side. Evidence, perhaps, that the Greek and Turkish Cypriots did (do?) live in harmony.

Just beyond this village our passage was interrupted by a flow of goats and sheep down the hillside and across the road. The line was unending, and it was reminiscent of the famous stampede in the Lion King. Having weaved our way through we paused to view an abandoned village on the valley floor and went scrumping, for lemons. Finally, as the sun disappeared below the horizon we joined the motorway near Paphos and sped along the familiar road home.

Cyprus: Day One in the Big Brother House...

Originally uploaded by JP1984.

...well, not quite. The villa in which I currently reside might be isolated from the outside world, and possess an open plan living area with breakfast bar and a swimming pool, but the similarities end there. Probably just as well.

Anyway, I have arrived on the beautiful island of Cyprus and although I don't have internet access, I do have my trusty PDA and - as any aspiring travel writer should - I have decided to record some of my thoughts for uploading on my return.

The journey was a bit of an epic, but not unpleasant. I might write about it in another post, but for now I'll pick up from when we arrived at Zouk, the new cafe-bar on the waterfront in the local village. It was about midnight, and the place was buzzing with locals. Theo, the villa owner appeared and bought us drinks and a pizza (not traditional Cypriot cuisine, I know, but it was amazing nonetheless) before taking us up the hill to the villa. I got to ride in his (black) BMW 6-Series, at speed. Sweet.

So, we arrived. Not at the villa we thought we were having, but instead in something of a mansion with four en-suite bedrooms. And an ice-dispenser built in to the fridge. What more does a man need?

I'll pen my thoughts if and when I have the time to write them, and I'm sure there will be a lot to say about this holiday...