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Coast-to-Coast for End Polio Now

4 May

[UPDATED 30 June 2011, 4:58 PM]

I am now three days away from leaving on my coast-to-coast hike across Scotland to raise money for Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign! On Sunday, I will set forth from the town of Montrose on Scotland’s east coast, and will arrive at the Atlantic Ocean two weeks later at the Knoydart peninsula, one of the British mainland’s most westerly points. My 200-mile route passes through some of Scotland’s most rigorous terrain, including a summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point of the British Isles! I have been very busy the past few days making last minute preparations, checking my maps, and packing my gear. I can’t wait to get out on the trail and see Scotland the best way I know how—one step at a time.

So far I have raised about $1,000 for End Polio Now, and my goal is to reach $3,000 before I return to the US in September (roughly equivalent to $15 per mile walked). If you are interested in making a donation, please follow this link to my CrowdRise.com donation website and click on the big orange button that says “DONATE.” It’s easy, safe, and for an excellent cause. All donations go directly to the End Polio Now campaign.

For the latest updates on my hike, follow me on Twitter. I’ll be trying to post something every day while I am out on the trail, so check back frequently!

—Robert

[Original post follows below]

So…it’s been a while since I’ve posted, about six months or so I think. As you have probably noticed, I have been more interested in photography than writing as of late. That being said, I am planning something exciting for this summer that I thought I should bring to your attention.

But before I get there, a brief answer to “How’s Scotland been recently?” It’s been quite lovely actually. The weather has been fantastic for the past few weeks, full of long sunny days and blue sky. I finished my semester over a month ago and am getting ready for final exams. I also went back to Texas for a few weeks in there, which was really nice. I’ve been making lots of friends with other students in my program, who are from all over the world. So I am here for the summer, working on my dissertation and then coming back to the states in the fall. Okay, that’s enough of that, let’s get to the exciting bit.

I am going to walk across Scotland, from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea. It’s roughly a 200 mile trek, should take about two weeks. Oh, I’m going to use the hike to raise money for Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign, which I think is one of the most important charities in the world today. My goal is to raise £2,000/$3,000, or enough to vaccinate about 6,000 children against this devastating disease.

As many of you know, a few years ago I hiked from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail. Although this trip will be similar in many ways, it will have its own unique set of challenges. For instance, there is no single coast-to-coast trail in Scotland. Instead, I’ll make my way across the island by piecing together a variety of different paths, including deerstalking trails, range-rover tracks, old military roads, and good old-fashioned bushwhacking.

Right now I am in the planning phase of the trip. I’ve been working with my friend Michael Reader-Harris to chart my route (pictured above). Michael and I go to church together here in Glasgow and he’s pretty much an expert on hiking in Scotland (or ‘hillwalking’ as the locals say)—he is only a few summits away from having climbed all of Scotland’s 283 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet tall). As of now, my route will take me through some of Scotland’s wildest regions and will include summitting Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles. I’ll even swing by The Old Forge, which holds the record for the world’s most remote pub! Pretty cool!

So. That’s what’s new. I’ll keep you posted as things develop!

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Oh the weather outside is…

30 Nov

…delightful? Yes, I think that is the right word. There is snow. Everywhere. It’s been snowing off-and-on since Friday night, and it is really delightful. Here, see for yourself:

The Bell Tower With Snow:

Snow on Campus:

Snow in the West Quad:

Kelvingrove Museum:

In other news, I’m almost finished with the semester. In fact, I should be working on some final projects right now, but instead I am doing a much needed update to my blog. Things have been going swimmingly well here recently. I got to have not just one, but two Thanksgiving parties while I was here, one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh. They were really neat because a lot of my friends who are not American came, most of whom had never tasted pumpkin pie! I used Paula Dean’s the Secret Kent Family Pumpkin Pie Recipe. SPOILER ALERT: the secret ingredient is pumpkin. We even went around the table and said what we are all thankful for, which the New Zealanders thought was a bit silly but participated in anyways.

I had a stall at my church’s Christmas fair last weekend, trying to hawk some  of my photographs to unsuspecting strangers. I even surpassed my expectations and sold one! You can see it here. There was actually a lot of very complimentary interest in my work, just not many buyers. The Christmas craft fair circuit is probably not the best market for moody B&W prints of western Scotland, especially since my main competition at these fairs are things like this. That only leaves me with about $200 worth of unsold stock to get rid of before my return to the US next year. Did I mention that I ship internationally [suggestive clearing of the throat]? I think I will try to do a few more Christmas fairs here in Glasgow and see if I can sell a few more.

It is 4:11 PM as I am writing this sentence, and the sun is almost set. I am counting down the days (24, to be exact) until my family and my super-awesome-girlfriend arrive. They are all pretty much amazing, I love them all very much, and am pretty excited about seeing them. Not sure how to end this post, so I’m just going to end it…here.

Three Anecdotes

28 Sep

First off, let me preface this post by saying that British people are nice. They are. Really. Now let me also say this: when at work, Brits seems to derive some kind of pleasure by making things as difficult as possible for the customer, e.g., me. It’s as if they have never heard of the concept of customer service, much less the radical notion that the customer is right. Three examples:

1. The Mobile Phone: I brought my iPhone here with the intention of setting up a 12-month contract on O2, one of the local mobile networks. I went in to the store, and they ran me through the application process, but got an error message when their computer was checking out my bank details. They politely told me that I needed to confirm with my bank that my address was correct. I said “no problem,” and headed down to my bank, who confirmed with me that my bank details were indeed correct. I trotted back up the street, and tried again with O2. Again, same problem, but this time the O2 attendant suggests that there may be a problem with my UK credit history, and tells me to consult my bank. I ask if she can provide me with any details, and she replies that I would have to email their company headquarters to get more details. I ask about a phone number to call, and she says there isn’t one.

So, I gamely trot back down the street to my bank to check one more time. The teller at the bank gives me a deadpan expression and says, “I’m sorry, but we really can’t help unless we have more details from O2 about the specific nature of the problem.” I am starting to get irritated. I decide to go downtown to O2’s main location, and see if they can help. I go through the application process yet again, and again the same problem. As politely as I can, I tell the O2 saleswoman “I am trying to spend my money with you. There has got to be some way around this! Is there anything you can do?” Very sincerely, she tells me that I could visit the O2 headquarters…in Leeds. That’s right, Leeds! That’s over 200 miles away! I can hardly believe my ears. The ridiculousness of her suggestion slowly washes over her, and she then says, “Er, well, you could write them a letter if you wanted.” A letter?! What year is this, 1952?! She finally gives me an email address for customer complaints. I practically beg her for a phone number to call, but she says that their office only responds to letters and email (and probably carrier pigeons too), but not phone calls. It’s not like they are a phone company or anything…

2. “Do you have a _____?” British workers take questions very literally. If you are at a restaurant and ask the waiter, “Do you have a bathroom?” they will simply reply “Yes,” and look at you expectantly, and then wander away unless you ask the necessary follow-up questions, “Where is said bathroom, and may I use it?” My first week in Glasgow, I was in a local café ordering lunch and had a paper bag I wished to dispose of. I approached the counter and asked the waitress, “Do you have a trashcan?” to which she replied “Yes” in her best no-DUH-voice while pointing behind her to something beneath the counter which I can only assume was the rubbish bin. I held my fistful of garbage a bit closer to her face and quietly asked, “May I throw this away in it?” It dawned on her what I was asking, and we both shared an embarrassed  laugh. It’s like they don’t get implied questions, or like getting wishes granted by a genie—you have to be very specific with what you want!

3. The Battle of the Youth Rail Pass: This is perhaps the most egregious case of how the British completely disregard customer satisfaction. The National Rail sells a discount card to students that grants them the right to purchase train tickets at a lower price, typically 1/3 off. The card costs £26, but in my case it paid for itself in my first trip. The trick is that you have to present your student rail card along with the tickets while on board. I ordered my rail card and tickets about a little over a week before I was planning on traveling to Oxford. As my travel day got closer, I still hadn’t received my rail card yet in the mail, and without the rail card my discount tickets would be no good and I would have to purchase a full-price ticket. I called National Rail, and they told me that there was nothing they could do, and that I would have to purchase a second rail card from the station directly. I could not believe my ears. I asked, “So, you are telling me that I need to purchase the rail card twice so that I can use it once?”

I went to the station, and after speaking with four different people it became clear to me that there was no winning. Everyone kept saying that it was out of their hands, their computer systems were different from the National Rail system and they couldn’t access my records, that I should talk to National Rail directly, blah, blah, blah. Since I didn’t want to re-purchase my very expensive ticket at the regular rate, I had no choice but to purchase a second rail card. As of yet, my first rail card still has not arrived in the mail. I am now doing battle with the National Rail customer service team via email (surpise! they also DO NOT HAVE A PHONE), politely requesting a refund for one of the two cards that I have now purchased from them. We have only fired our opening salvos, with me requesting a refund, and them saying that it is not their policy to issue refunds, but the battle has only just begun. Mark my words, I will emerge victorious from this with my £26, even if it kills me.

It’s common to see posters in train stations, banks, the underground, warning that  “this company has a zero tolerance policy for verbal or physical abuse of our staff.” I mean, when it seems like every employee is out to make you the customer’s experience with their business as difficult as possible, it’s no surprise that people lose their tempers. I bet that companies would have a lot less problems with customers assaulting their staff if they trained their staff in how to look after the customer’s needs.

Here’s thing I just don’t get: how do the British live like this? How can they stand it? In America, if customers were routinely treated like this, then that company would simply go under. And when I tell people over here these stories, they understand my frustration yet show no idea that there could be a better way. I want to take them all to America, to the promised land of the empty “How can I help you?” and “Please listen carefully as our choices have changed. Press one for….”

Last Day of Summer

20 Sep

When I wrote that title, I was thinking “last day of summer vacation,” but then I realized that it is also the last day of the summer season, since tomorrow is the autumnal equinox and thus by definition fall starts tomorrow. Wait, scratch that. I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and the autumnal equinox is actually on September 23. Whatever, the point is that autumn is almost here. And while I am using the word “autumn” can we all agree that is quite a nice word and much prettier than “fall”? The equinox also means that the days will be shorter than the nights, or to quote Mr. Arda, “Now is the time where we meet the night.”

It’s hard for me to believe, but I left Dallas a month ago today. It feels like I have been gone only a few days really, and I certainly don’t feel particularly settled here yet either. Part of the problem is that I am not really settled yet. Last week I moved out of my dorm room, but the flat that I will be moving into isn’t ready until October 1. For a while I thought I might end up being homeless for a two weeks (just kidding…sorta) until at the last minute my local Rotary host here called me and said that I could stay in one of his relative’s flats while they were on vacation. It has really worked out perfectly so far, it was definitely an answered prayer. But I will certainly feel more at home once I actually have a home. The flat that I will be moving into in October is really nice actually, in a beautiful old Victorian building, literally across the street from the library. I am thrilled about it!

Isn’t Hipstamatic the greatest? Look at how it makes my new place seem so moody!

I’ve spent the past week exploring the city and the West End. Last week was what they call “fresher’s week,” which I would describe as “Baylor Welcome Week Minus Jesus Plus Booze,” and as you may guess from the title is geared towards freshmen, or “freshers” as they are called here. I’ve been really surprised at how few post-graduates I have met during the past few weeks. Most international students seem to be third-year exchange students. I guess all the other post-grads are already holed up in their study caves, getting prepared for the long winter of reading ahead of them.

I’m only enrolled in three courses this semester, and only three next semester. It seems a bit odd to me that somehow six courses and a thesis somehow equals a master’s degree, but I ain’t complaining. I tell you what though, this whole one-year-master’s thing is the deal of the century!

The air is getting cool now, but I wouldn’t really describe any of the days as “crisp” in that way that some falls day are. I really can’t even put my finger on what makes one day “crisp” and another not. We have had plenty of sunny and cool weather, but the air hasn’t really had the crisp, autumn, feel to it. I have a suspicion that crisp days also have low humidity, and since we get a lot of rain here in Glasgow, even when it’s sunny it’s still damp.

Well, it’s getting about supper time here. Wish me luck tomorrow for my first day of class!