Wednesday, December 31, 2008

a note from the north

Dear Friends,

Wish you all have a relaxing time and a happy holiday. Wherever you are during this vacation, it’s my hope that you have it the way you want it to be. Some of you might be returning to your parents’ houses - having family reunions. Others preferred to (or had to) stay at work or study place, or visiting friends. Well, in any way, - I hope you enjoy it.

To me, this December break gave an opportunity to make a solo journey through several cities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. After the weeks of my first term – Michaelmas – are over, I thought it would be a liberating thing to do. And it was, actually. Especially because I sensed that such a chance will hardly come again to me – at least in my years as a student – when my legs are yet unwearied by long journeys, when my eyes are eager for seeing new things, and when my heart, thirsty for knowledge, drinks its fill. :)

But being a student also means I have no luxury to afford travelling in expensive manner. Therefore, the lone backpacking which I just did, apart from giving me the excitement of sightseeing, also provided me with a useful lesson on planning skills. My scenario was to visit eight cities in sixteen days. It involved trips by foot, coach, plane and boat, but no train – except once from the airport to the city centre of Glasgow. Most of the itinerary was arranged a month in advance, so that I could save from the discounted fares an amount which I then allocated on meals, lodges and modest entertainment. It was a rewarding deal, even that as the consequence I could not alter the time or the route, and must keep myself accord with the minute precision of the schedule. Punctuality was essential in this voyage - as is in many important things in our lives. :) And thanks God; I think in this matter I became more proficient.

I met many friends during the trip. I stayed at their homes in some cities. But most of the travel was conducted in solitary. Not that I was in the mood of solitude, even though I had been alone from the beginning of my trip in Belfast city. It was mainly because my free time and my priority of travelling did not seem to coincide with those of my colleagues. So we went our own different ways. Yet it worked out fine for me. I had no need to adapt myself to loneliness as many must, since from the start it was like a second home to me - a place I can always visit whenever I want to chill down or simply to read or compose a writing. In fact, from solo travel like this I feel that we can learn for ourselves the ability to mingle with strangers, although sometimes – when you’re out there on your own – the strangest person you might find is perhaps no one but yourself. :)

Now I am home, and it remains for me to take a little rest and write some of my reflection about the journey. I call it “A Note from the North”. If this interests you dear friends, please do read on...


It started with a study tour to Northern Ireland. I came to Belfast as a part of my programme in the University. My class is of eighteen students coming from thirteen lands of origin. I am one of the two Indonesians in the group. On Monday eight of December we left Oxford at seven in the morning by coach. Dark and cold. No surprise if among us there's somebody who did not take shower beforehand - can you guess who? Hmm… :) well, anyway, I was wearing a formal black suit with tie and carrying a large backpack, which in terms of fashion didn't seem to match at all. :) And through the cold I had to walk slowly from my house in Wellington Square to the meeting point since the street was slippery with ice that was forming the night before. I arrived in Mansfield Road just when the coach was about to depart to London. During the coach ride and the one hour flight from Heathrow to Belfast afterwards, I slept soundly and undisturbed.

And then we arrived in Belfast - the capital of Northern Ireland. If you Googled or searched in history books, you may find that the city of Belfast has a lot to tell about conflict and peace. Many people in Northern Ireland want to join the Republic of Ireland; and many others want to remain as part of the United Kingdom. The issue has not been completely settled until today – yet the situation is much more peaceful now.

During the three days of my group’s stay in Belfast, the British Council filled the schedule with programmes that gave us an idea about the recent history of the city. It included trips to the parts of the city where the community and the neighbourhood are divided by a long tall fence and where armed conflict used to take place. But besides that we also had a trip to Stormont castle (parliament building) which can be seen as a symbol of willingness to resolve the conflict through political and peaceful means. We had the chance to hear from the NGOs, the police and the political parties’ members, about the way they settle the differences since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in a non-violent manners. I witnessed too - when we went through the roads - the colourful murals made by both the Unionists and the Republicans, which ascertain me that besides fighters they also have visionary and talented artists and poets on their sides.

On our first night in Belfast, aside from sharing a light moment of walking around the city centre, we also shared a special experience of waking up to a loud fire alarm in our hotel. At half past twelve AM, we rushed in our pyjamas, kimonos, and wearing sandals from our rooms, and gathered outside the hotel lobby. No doubt we were sleepy, surprised, and upset at the same time. Yet it turned out to be my first chance seeing some of my friends’ faces without make up. :) So natural of them. Interestingly, I saw a friend from Tonga called Leo who managed to secure a large bag with him, carrying it all the way from his room through the stairways and got to the roadside; while another friend of mine from South Korea, April, came down in a hurry that she was not even wearing a sandal. A few minutes later two fire trucks arrived, and the brave men in bright yellow vests entered the building. Later they said the heating system had a problem and caused some smoke which set the siren on - and it was solved. The hotel crew were then allowing us to re-enter the building, and offering us free drinks from the bar - although in that hour most of us found no appetite except for continuing our sleep, which was understandable.

Next day, we went to Harland and Wolff yards. It’s the dock where RMS Titanic was built in 1911. We know the ship is famous for a wrong reason - it sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden trip from Southampton to New York in 1912, causing the loss of more than a thousand lives. The disaster still makes a lot of us ponder about how such a tragedy could happen so unexpectedly, and at this my thoughts went to the victims of sea liner accidents in my archipelagic country, and I prayed to God for the safety of our next journeys.

At the end of our second day's programme, a merry evening was awaiting us. After having a fine dinner at a restaurant nearby the hotel, everybody’s courage and hidden artistic talent were summoned. Each of us had to sing to gladden our hearts - even though many of us could barely carry a tune and despite there was no karaoke machine to be our guiding angel. We performed solos and duets, live of course. Alison, our programme’s secretary, was the only one who luckily managed to keep her talent unnoticed by Jan, Abdulai, Mr. Hunt and the other talent scouts – so that she did not have to chant any melody that night. But next time, who knows? We simply had a very good light moment that night; although I reckoned that deep in our hearts we hoped the fire siren would not ruin our dreams again.

Giants Causeway

On the following day, the study tour programme ended. And as everyone else returned to London and Oxford, I remained in Belfast. During my extra stay, I was hosted in my friend Gillian's parents' house. I felt warmly welcomed by her family; even though Gillian herself was not yet there on the day I arrived at their house. And, ah! My heart was as light as a bird when Helen, Gillian’s mom, showed me the room: there were piles of novels and storybooks in it. So it happened that during the two nights of my stay I finished reading two small books: the adventures of Sinbad and of Tom Sawyer. The last one somehow reminded me of my childhood time with my oldest brother Zacky.

I was also introduced to Gillian's sister Emily and learned that the horse paintings in their kitchen were made by her. I forget whether they were of crayon or pastel, but two out of the five were blue and red with dreamy psychedelic backgrounds. I love them. I later found out that except David - Gil's father, everyone else in the family is left-handed. And they all are fond of horses.

I had an extra stay in Northern Ireland because I wanted to have time to see more of the place, especially County Antrim and the north-eastern coastal areas of the island. Therefore on the following day, early in the morning, I took a coach to join a day-tour to Giants Causeway. It had been my dream to go up there. I saw of the place from movies. Last one was Hellboy II, which was showing a scene with County Antrim on it, a place where the main character, Red, was resurrected by the Angel of Death. Have you seen the movie, by the way? Ah - anyway, on my way there, I also had the chance to see more of the countryside. The coach driver shared some stories about the surroundings, and we stopped in few locations to see and breathe the fresh air outside: in Carrickfergus, Carnlough, Portaneevey, and on the way back, in Bushmills – a home of the oldest legal distillery in the world. In one of the stops I found a spot where King William III, known as William of Orange, landed in Ireland more than three hundred years ago. We also passed a tranquil village called Glynn, which is said to have been founded by St.Patrick - the saint patron of Ireland. The west coast of Scotland was visible from the coastal way too.

We managed to reach our final destination before rain, and as soon as we arrived, I walked through the cliffs and down to the seaside, North Atlantic Ocean, with another visitor whose name is El, from Singapore. We followed a route with a wooden fence on our left-hand side. The earth was fresh and green. Grasses as far as eyes could see; and I heard frogs croaked from the bushes. Winter wind was heavy; my arms freezing and my nose was running. I needed to take the supply of pocket tissues from my bag. But it's all worth it. I lingered for more than two hours around the spectacular site, set my eyes and mind free, and marvelled at the natural wonder that has been in existence since 65 to 30 million years ago. Columns of stone, piling high as if they were arranged by a mighty designer, partly emerging from the sea in an orderly manner. Most of them are hexagonal stones. So cool. I ended the journey with a lunch at the Causeway hotel just before rain started to fall – for upon us all a little rain must fall, sang Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. :)


After Northern Ireland, I shall write now of Scotland, and of three cities that I visited in this beautiful country: Glasgow, Inverness and Edinburgh. This country occupies the third northern part of the island of Great Britain, and used to be called by many names; it was known as Caledonia – the name used by the Romans, and also as Alba – after the kingdom that once existed there; but today we are most familiar with Scotland, for everyone knows what land that is.

Before I came there, I looked at some maps of the cities on the internet and tried to master them by logic and, when possible, by heart. I understand that a man travelling with this knowledge could make himself aware of directions when necessary. I didn't carry a travel-guide book. My intention was to discover whatever I could along the way. In that way, life became not easier – but simpler to me. However, I had a few names of places which interested me most. I wrote them in a little black book where I sketch and write down my thoughts. Their function was simply to provide me with a sense of destinations so that I can navigate myself better and in a clearer gist of direction. But if it turned out that I could not reach those places – surely I found something else – and I had no regret about that. Because like what James Bond said, “If it happened, it happened. Regret was unprofessional.” :)


My arrival in Glasgow was met by a friend whose name is Nuh. He is a student of Strathclyde University. At the sight of him, the first thing I noticed was his hair - not very short as it usually was anymore. He came to fetch me at Prestwick airport which was located much farther than the other airport of the city which he knew. As soon as we reached Glasgow Central Station, I saw that the city centre was transformed into a fair ground, where there was dancing and where gaily dressed crowds poured along the streets and mixed among the police officers in yellow and Santas in red. Nuh loved the Christmas lamps on George Square – especially those in the shape of bells. We tried to reach another friend – Fitri, but failed. We believed it must be because of the many works she had to prepare for an exam or an essay. Nevertheless, Nuh made sure I had a great time in Glasgow. Not only the large portions of his delicious food that filled me, but also the knowledge he shared with me during our walks – we talked about computer, sciences, virtual world, home; all the things that are worth contemplating.


On Sunday morning, fourteenth of December, I left Glasgow and went to a smaller city to the north called Inverness. It’s the capital of the Scottish Highlands. To get there my yellow bus took me across mountainous road with snowy sceneries. I saw that every valley has a hill, and beyond each hill lies another valley – for four hours. Upon my arrival, first thing I did was to find a safe place to store my backpack. Luckily there was a hostel nearby. I didn’t understand why there were so many Hungarians in that hostel, but instead of finding out why, I was a lot more interested in walking around the street called Academy. There I found an antique Victorian market. Most of the shops were closed as it was Sunday, but I there was one that opened and selling postcards. I purchased some.

I content myself with kebabs, salads, fish and chips and sandwiches during the trip. And once I restored strength to my legs I walked through all the marked paths along the side of a river called Ness. ‘Inver’ in Gaelic is a word that means ‘mouth of a river’, thus the city is called Inverness: the mouth of the River Ness. The streets were rather empty before dark, and only few cars were seen. The River Ness on my side originates from a lake famous for a legendary monster perceived to be dwelling in it – Loch Ness. The water on the river looked dark and thick with vegetation. On a distance I could see ducks floating in small group. I crossed one bridge and found a path that led into a park on an island, but it was already too dark and too cold to stay there. So I continued walking and decided to make a phone call to Indonesia telling my father of what I saw. I did not call my mother knowing it had been already late at that time in Indonesia and, unlike my father had, surely she had been asleep. And it was really nice to hear the voice from home again, you know, as if you are you are touched by the care in his familiar speak and laughter. He told me news from home, and they made me feel more jovial. It was as if “You are taking a drink of cold water when you are thirsty. Every tastebud on your tongue, every molecule in your body, says thank you,” to borrow some lines from Leonard’s.

Inverness was the northernmost place that I visited in the entire travel. But my journey had not reached its farthest destination yet. It was the following day’s boat trip that made the ultimate fulfilment of my reason of coming there. I took a small coach from the bus station to reach the lakeside. And I went on with a Jacobite boat cruising Loch Ness until I finally landed again not far from the ruins of a castle named Urquhart. While on the boat, I climbed to its upper deck to feel the gentle spray on my face. What a liberating feeling, my friends! I yelled and sang aloud up there - for there was no one would be disturbed as long as the boat crew downstairs played traditional Scottish music on the stereo as loudly as possible. Well, I then visited the ruined castle and spent one hour there. With that I end my story from Inverness, for in the next couple of hours I was already in another city called Edinburgh.


This capital of Scotland has a breathtakingly beautiful castle located in the city centre, atop a rock, which looked so majestic to me – especially at night when I arrived. If you walked around the Princes Street, you can sense how grand and important the charm of that castle is to the entire surroundings. And for that reason I sincerely wish that Najib, my friend from Edinburgh University, will one day manage to enter the castle and comprehend the marvel that I experienced at that time. In Najib’s house I stayed for the next two nights.

My intention of visiting Edinburgh was inspired mainly by the city’s history and fame in literary arts. A writers’ museum located not far from the Royal Miles is one of the places I longed to revisit – for once I saw and entered the place in 2005, and something written in the ceiling of that particular museum is memorable to me, and somehow I wanted to return there: “I travel for travel’s sake”.

In Edinburgh I also met a friend from Malaysia whose name is Aiyub, a fellow classmate who previously parted after the tour in Belfast. With his companion I went to several places including the Childhood Museum and the National Library of Scotland - where a book titled “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” - handwritten by J.K. Rowling was displayed in an exhibition. And then we also found a cafĂ© nearby, called Black Medicine, in which J.K. Rowling wrote some of the early chapters of Harry Potter novels. Aiyub and I entered the building, and moisten our throats with a measure of “black medicine” – the coffee – prepared by the long-haired barista in black dress. We stayed there until the guy started to mount the chairs from our next table and therefore we understood that the coffee shop was about to close. The last thing I did before returning to Najib’s at that night was joining a ghost tour to the underground of the city. I listened with full curiosity to the storyteller when legends and horror tales were floated in the air. We walked into the vaults underneath the South Bridge, along the dark and damp small rooms lit by candles and ended the trail at an old cemetery located behind a church. With large tombstones and under the moonlight, hmm… my thought went to a ghost-buster TV serial in Indonesia: “Pemburu Hantu.” Haha!


In the following day, I continued my journey alone to my next destination, the fifth city: a city called Newcastle upon Tyne. It is an old city that, like London and Paris, began its history with a garrison or a settlement by a river – and in this case, by the Romans in about the second century AD. It was on the north bank of the River Tyne. The town has then developed into a port and major trading centre whose strategic value is the close distance to Scotland. Coal was the most important export of the city. The Tyneside people and the way they talk are often known as ‘Geordie’. Why this is so I cannot tell, except it was from my “private investigation” which I learned that some people believed the term “Geordie” is originated from the safety lamps used by the coal miners in the nineteenth century; and those lamps were designed by a person named George (Geordie, for short) Stephenson. Hmm…

Actually, I knew next to nothing about the city before I came. Mark Knopfler’s song “Sailing to Philadelphia” was perhaps the closest reference that made me familiar with the names and terms such as Durham, Northumberland, Geordie boy, and coaly Tyne. But when I set my foot on the city, I was deeply impressed by the view of River Tyne. And I was curious to learn more. I walked along one of the bridges that connect the two riversides, and I marvelled at the city before me. Later my curiosity took me to a grand sculpture made of steel called “The Angel of the North” – perhaps the largest angel sculpture in the world. Made by an artist named Antony Gormley, it was made from two hundred tonnes of steel. Thank to the favourable weather, I was able to take many pictures of the fantastic sculpture. Perhaps, like Robbie William sang, I was loving the Angel instead. :)


Well, very early in the next morning, I was already on my way to Leeds. The bus arrived at the destination earlier than estimated, thus I had to wait for a couple of minutes before my friend named Piet arrived at the bus stop. From there we went to warm ourselves with a big breakfast near a marketplace called Sunday Market – or so Piet said. The kiosk was still closed when we got there. But we were determined to stay waiting until it opened, and when it did, ah, we rewarded ourselves with steaming hot cod fish and deep fried chipped potatoes, in short - fish and chips.

In Leeds I had no plan but to meet friends as many as possible. It was like my ‘social stop’. I was very pleased that besides I could restore my strength for the next journey, I also met with other Indonesian students there, namely Eko, Ai, Bambang, Arul and Budi with his wife Ester and son Dika. And in the second day of my stay, I went with some of them to the Royal Armouries where I saw collections of weapons from the Stone Age to recent days. It was a few hours before I met with two friends from Oxford, Rangga and Vishnu, who came to Leeds to participate in Indonesian students’ union meeting.


I left the city in the next morning just when the said students meeting was about to begin. And my next stop was Manchester. The story of my visit there could be summed in two words: Old Trafford. Even though I came from Bandung city in Indonesia, and therefore I still have a heart for the local football team of my hometown, the Maung Bandung, I was nonetheless amazed when entering the Theatre of Dream and the rooms accessible only to the players and officials of the Manchester United on match days. There was also a guide who replayed a recorded sound of the roar of seventy six thousand fans, so that I know now what Ronaldo or Rooney feels when they emerge from the player’s tunnel onto the football field. :) And truly, during most of those stunning moments in the stadium my thought went to my futsal colleagues in Jakarta. I wish all of them can someday have a chance to come there too; especially you Gustaf - if you read this. :)

But seeing the Theatre of Dream was not my sole intention of coming to Manchester. I also hoped to meet a Pakistani-British author I once met in Jakarta. Her name is Qaisra Shahraz. Her novels have been translated into Indonesian language. And when one of them – the “Holy Woman” – was launched in Indonesia with the title of “Perempuan Suci”, I happened to be the ‘moderator’ of the event in Jakarta. However, Qaisra on that day was not in the city. Yet it was very kind of her to take time and phoned me not long after my arrival in Manchester.

My memory of Manchester would have been better had the hostel where I stayed in was more quiet during that night. Hardly could I sleep – not because another fire alarm or the chatters of the other four guests who shared the common room, but from the noises from the upstairs. Well, I tried to fix that with songs from my MP3 player.

On the next day, as my bus was departing rather late, I had the chance to walk the city in the morning. And I said yes when another guest of the hostel asked me to join for the walk. She is an art student from the Lowlands; and Marjolein is her lovely name. Later that day I reached my last destination of the entire trip: Birmingham.


Of all the good things that I remember about Birmingham, perhaps I will always have a warm memory of it as the home of Momo restaurant and the “much worshipped” holy bull. This is another city to which the purpose of my visit was mainly to meet friends. I was hosted at the house where Najam, Myrdal and his wife Ulfa live – plus Nandi as a bonus. I am still amazed by the lively atmosphere they created. We had a non-stop merry moment for the entire two days of my stay. And I am thankful to Najam for showing me around his university from where a friend of mine, Dinar, earned her degree in 2002.

And that was it, my friends. On the twenty third of December, two days before Christmas, I returned to Oxford. It is needless for me to describe much of this last voyage, except to say that it was the first time a delay occurred in my long itinerary of coach journeys. The bus station was crowded with passengers – mostly elderly, who perhaps were on their way for Christmas vacation. And many were confused and feared of missing the right bus, since we saw there were more than one buses with exactly the same route numbers, but they went to different directions. So it was like the phenomenon of ‘mudik’. :)

During this last trip I did not sleep – I looked outside of the window until I reached Oxford again, welcomed by a long traffic jam. The bus driver was a little bit confused with the road to enter the bus station and almost dropped all passengers at the train station instead…

Well, I think that’s the story of the entire trip. My note from the North. Pretty lengthy, eh? I just recall again now some words from a New Zealand legendary mountaineer and explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, who once said, “If you set out for an adventure, and you're absolutely convinced you're going to be successful, why bother starting?” Well, in my adventure, I was not a hundred percent sure in the beginning that it would be an unmolested journey - but thanks God; I can finish what I have started satisfyingly. And now I am back in Wellington Square to fill the rest of my break, doing some works, alone or with some friends.

Before I stop this writing, I want to mention my sincere thankfulness to those who have been so kind in supporting me in various ways during the unforgettable travel. To my parents who always pray for my well-being; to the McFarlands, Nuh, Najib, Piet and the Birmingham’s Herons Ways cul-de-sac family - for their open-door atmosphere of hospitality; to Vishnu for taking my black suit back from Belfast to Oxford; to Fiona for the wonderful backpack – for without it, it would be impossible for me to number myself as a “real backpacker” :) ; to Melissa for the useful hints of Scotland; to Eko for introducing me to the Angel of the North; and lastly to Megabus - without whose service this trip would have been much more expensive to realise – and perhaps less adventurous.

Happy New Year!

the v of adfenture. :)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


farewell scotland. today i will continue the trip to new castle upon tyne. the buss will depart in less than an hour.

before i go, i'd like to say that i was very delighted to be able to return to the writers' museum in edinburgh yesterday. i travel for travel's sake...
next time i will write more about the entire trip but now i must go.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


it's six point seven degree celcius outside. cloudy saturday morning. makes me want to stay in the house a bit longer because the tea is so warm and comforting. but my time here is not too much. i need to prepare some meal before i continue my travel. well, in fact i just arrived from belfast last night. now i am in glasgow scotland. i come here to meet friends and simply to travel.

i may not roam the streets as much as i wanted to because of the weather. but the good thing is that i have more time to talk with people i meet in the house. i spend hours for discussion with friends. exchange our perspectives. learn new simple things in life which make me understand and appreciate whatever i previously did'nt really pay attention at.

he spoke of his family. his wife and children. and of how life has its' own will and we sometimes don't quite get what we want but if wee see in the long run there's other things we get and feel right for us.

well, this is my second time in glasgow. but this time i am not a lone wanderer. tomorrow i will pack my bag again, to hit the road up north to get to inverness. then i will again be accompanied only with my black jeans and pipin's backpack.

Monday, December 08, 2008

belfast revisited

today is a special day. i mark it as one different from any other. it's a birthday of a friend. a day of ied kabir festivity. and also the day to start a new journey: "there and back again".

yes, my bag is packed. the shoes are cleaned. documents are set. i am ready to leave the town before sunrise this morning. to belfast northern ireland. with great friends.

frank delaney's novel, which i lost somewhere in london in november, has done its motivating work on me. i bought the book in bandung second hand shop months ago. but before i finished reading it, i think i left it somewhere in merdeka guest house when opening my bag. ah, really a loss to me. i wrote some notes on it. marked the nicest parts as well. and missed it. it's about ireland.

but well, maybe the book is being read by someone else now. who knows. maybe the reason i lost the book is to make me write my own, hohoo..!

apart from belfast the trip shall take me somewhere else too. i will need a lot of good wish for this journey. i don't plan the details. i pray and let myself go and see why i arrive there.

Friday, December 05, 2008


have a safe long journey home dear friend.
your departure was quick, and came as a surprise, though i knew it wasn't the real end.
the news of your losing of a dearest one, was truly among the hardest to overcome.
when i walked home that night, i did not stop praying for you and your family. except when i had to receive calls from our friends who wanted to learn about your condition.
i wish you are blessed with strength to bear the calamity and great fortitude to move on mightily.
have a safe long journey dear friend.
until you return again, stay brave!