10 Reasons you’re missing out if you haven’t visited Scotland

1.         You can walk for miles over hills, through woods and heather, savouring the complete isolation as you conquer a ‘Munro’…and just when you thought you’d mastered this mountaineering lark, you find yourself knee-deep in marshes laughing so hard you haven’t the strength to extract yourself.

2.         The people are so friendly, you’ll be ‘pals’ with every shop keeper, pub landlord and passer-by within minutes of arriving.

3.         You can order most of the menu knowing it’ll be tasty hearty fare (fattening but after those hills absolutely necessary re-fuelling material), even if you have no idea what it is – think neeps and tatties, haggis, rumbledethumps, black buns, Ecclefechan tart, tablet and soor plooms.

4.         Scotland has thousands of different varieties of whisky.  If you weren’t a whisky lover before, you will be by the time you’ve spent a couple of days here.  Alternatively there’s always whisky-flavoured fudge, whisky cream, whisky-flavoured cheese, whisky-flavoured tablet…

5.         It’s cold, wet, icy, snowy or ‘driech’ as a true Scot would say.  Which means you are entirely justified in spending whole afternoons by the crackling log fires drinking tea or sampling your way through ‘wee drams’ of the aforementioned vast collection of whiskies.

6.         Nothing but nothing beats a pipe marching band in full swing on a bright summer’s day in the Highlands (for a taste have a listen to Highland Cathedral played by massed pipes).  Hairs on the back of your neck, lump in throat stuff…

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Nothing quite like a marching pipe band

7.         Where else can men wear skirts and look more manly than any of their trouser-wearing counterparts.  No, really.

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Throwing the hammer Highland Games-style

8.         The tough Scots spirit peaks in towns and villages across the Highlands throughout the summer.  The Highland Games have something for literally everyone: Girls of all ages in clan tartans deftly dancing over swords looked upon sternly by a row of judges, pipers in the corner of the field warming up for their solo piping contest, cross-country runners setting off up the nearest hill to return some miles and large clods of mud later in the afternoon, large burly (kilt-clad – see no.7 above) men hurling a 19ft lark tree into the air, and others bulging out of their vests carrying large boulders as far as they can down a track (think ‘World’s Strongest Man’ but with stones that are shaped as nature left them rather than manufactured perfect spheres).  And if you’re more of a couch potato, there are always craft stalls, falconry displays and rows of tasty food stalls to keep you going (essential when the sun goes behind a cloud or the heavens open – which in this part of the world doesn’t even elicit the batting of an eyelid.  Even the highland flingers have special waterproof macs and clogs to keep their costumes dry).

9.         If you’re a budding Tiger Woods or a retired Gary Player, you are spoilt for choice.  You could play golf on a different course every day for over a year and a half and the views are spectacular.

10.       And to finish off the day, there’s no leveller on the dance floor like a Ceilidh.  With hands, arms and legs flailing, you’ll find yourself grabbing hold of complete strangers as you attempt to ‘Strip the Willow’ or keep up with the ‘dance caller’ as you fumble your way through an ‘Eightsome Reel’.

A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

BLOG – What NOT to do on an inter-continental flight….

Just when you think you’re well-travelled, just when you think you’ve got the packing, the transfers, the finding your way around an alien country in the dead of the night totally sussed and you are the special forces operatives of adventures….you get caught out.  It doesn’t matter how often I march off on a new adventure or how many bags I pack and unpack, I never get rid of that small niggling feeling of controlled panic that hits me when I’m on my own in a foreign land, it’s the middle of the night, I’m in the wrong time zone, a bit smelly after a long flight, and I’d rather lie down on my bags than actually try to get to the bottom of the fact that the driver I should have been meeting hasn’t turned up, he has the keys to the apartment I’m meant to be staying in, and I have no idea where said-apartment is.  Of course the feeling passes as quickly as it appeared, as I tell myself to ‘man-up’, find the phone number of the contact on the ground and hump my bags to the nearest obvious pick-up point (no, not that kind of pick-up point).  But it’s still there, waiting to rear its head after years of doing this kind of thing.  Keeping me on my toes.

What threw me literally off my toes recently however was what will now be classed as my most embarrassing travel episode.  I was taking my flight back from Nairobi to London for a break.  I had made it through the chaos and remote airstrips that represent the geographically short but in practice convoluted and bureaucracy-heavy journey out of Somalia.  I had spent an entire day (longer than the duration of my actual flight home) in the airport in Nairobi.  So far so good, although I could have done without the group of Scottish musicians having one last blow-out in the airport before heading off to bother other passengers at their next destination.

I boarded the Kenyan Airways flight to London and after the dinner trays had been cleared, curled into my best pretzel position to try and get a bit of kip.  If I’m honest, I was feeling a bit smug that I’d nabbed one of the ‘emergency exit’ seats so had loads of leg room AND had remembered to take my travel pillow out of my hand luggage before stuffing it into the overhead locker.

The next thing I knew, I was flat out of the aircraft floor, with half a dozen air stewardesses peering down at me (a desirable dream for some but not my own), a cold wet flannel on my forehead and some chap with a concerned ‘doctorly’ look on his face, holding my wrist.  My instinctive feeling was one of mortification.  I remember years ago coming-to just as I was being loaded into an ambulance after I’d been found unconscious on a coast road in Ireland following a biking accident sans helmet – the first thing that came to my bleary half-conscious mind was the realisation that I must be in the middle of ‘causing a scene’.  It didn’t matter that I had a trashed knee, a head like elephant man and had left a pool of blood on the tarmac; I started trying to get up off the stretcher and telling the paramedics that really I was fine and could they please stop making such a fuss.

Exactly the same thought came into mind on the deck of the Kenyan Airways flight.  How embarrassing, I’m fine, please talk amongst yourselves.  And what the hell am I doing down here??

I had apparently gone to sleep, then some time afterwards slumped across the aisle in my seat.  When someone tried to rouse me and get me to move (trolley coming through no doubt), I was out cold and didn’t respond.  The alarm was raised and I was lifted onto the floor of the cabin where a cardiologist – who fortuitously was on his way back from honeymoon with his GP wife – was called over to sort things out.  Poor chap spent the rest of his flight taking my blood pressure (“in my boots” according to him), my pulse and making me drink gallons of water then making me go to the loo with air hostesses on ‘keel-over-watch’ with door ajar.  My hero-doc was a star and very sympathetic; putting up with my repeated “but this never happens to me, I don’t get ill, oh how embarrassing” burbled statements, and the fact that by this time I was a sweaty (sorry, glowing) mess with the shivers from the aircon which had now been turned up to the max by the air hostesses, to stop me from dying on them, and causing the rest of the aircraft to request extra blankets.

The rest of my family will tell you I’m not averse to story-telling and being the centre of attention.  As my sister will also tell you however, I tend to prefer to be the one who ‘saves the day’, rather than be the damsel who collapses in a dribbling mess and needs saving.  Particularly in such an undignified heap in amongst my grimy desert boots and collection of glossy mags.  So not quite the five minutes of fame I had in mind.

But I like to look on the bright side; I was fit enough to decline the golf buggy and wheelchair on arrival at Heathrow and managed to make a pale and reasonably dignified jog out of there as quickly as I could.  Dignity almost recovered.

BLOG: Mogadishu – city of colour

If I expected subdued or morose when I arrived in Mogadishu, or imagined that for Somalis life was a tough war-ravaged event to survive through gritted teeth, it was yet another preconceived idea that was very quickly dispelled.

Whereas in many other Muslim countries, I’ve seen women cloaked in black and resolutely avoiding any eye contact with anyone, here the swathes of fabric covering their modesty could not be more vivid.  Fuscias, lemon yellows, bright greens flash past confidently as I make my way down shopping streets.  And far from averting their eyes, I’m greeted with beaming smiles and waves.

Primary school children bob down the street in apple green shirts with their beige shorts, competing for attention with those from the secondary classes, in their canary yellow smocks and headscarves.  Buildings join the rainbow with walls of one house clashing furiously with its neighbour.  Trucks carrying charcoal and straw are not immune; with their slats painted every shade of pink and purple.

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Illiteracy gives shop-keepers a worthy reason to get the paint brushes out.  They’ve devised an ingenious and artistic way to advertise their wares to passers-by unable to read.  Plastered across the walls either side of their entrances are large elaborate cartoon-like drawings of the items that can be found on the shelves inside.  So the streets become one long picture book; burgers depicting snack bars, an open mouth with tongue sticking out directing you to the dentist, hand-drawn computers – a technical shop and a haphazard selection of squiggly-shaped women’s footwear – a fashionable shoe shop.

The aim of the bright billowing gowns may be to conceal.  Their effect is an African celebration.  The aim of the childlike drawings along every wall may be to entice and inform.  Their effect is to draw the eye away from the pockmarks in the cement and  bring vibrant hues to the dusty streets and remnants of buildings torn apart by years of bloody war.  They shout out in big bold print, that cracks no matter how traumatic, can be painted over.  And as long as they can draw it, they’ll be selling it on the streets of Mogadishu.

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Meeting Mogadishu

Roaming the streets of Mogadishu for the first time, my eyes are on stalks, my ears pricked; trying to take everything in and start to discover the city that has until now been just another news report about an attack or a bomb.  What I find is a sprawling city, much bigger than I had imagined, bustling with people getting on with their lives.Image

Central Mogadishu

I’m travelling in a three-vehicle ‘Casper’ convoy of Ugandan soldiers from the African Union mission here in Somalia.  This particular patrol usually accompanies the Force Commander around but as he’s out of the country, we have the use of it for the day.

We’re off to Maslah.  It’s a drive North-East, about twenty kilometres from central Mogadishu up the coast, and where the Ugandan Battle Group have their Headquarters.  Once we’ve negotiated the crowded centre of town, I’m told by the patrol commander that we’ll have to go through the district of Sokoro, on the outskirts of the city.  Here houses become more sparse, the dirt road widens and we’re heading out towards less built-up bushland.  Sitting next to me, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye and a broad grin that this is the district where they always get hit.  “They like to attack us here, this is where Shabaab still think they have a bit of power, they try small arms fire and sometimes IEDs, so we are prepared”.  “But we’ll be fine” he says, and chuckles.  As it turns out, Al Shabaab must be out for lunch as the locals continue to carry their shopping and push their carts of straw up the road and there’s not so much as a dog barking.  My friend seems almost disappointed.

We are welcomed like old friends at the camp at Maslah and taken on a brief tour of the basic but well-protected HQ, before meeting the newly arrived commander, Colonel Kimbowa.  Over sweet juicy orange segments and digestive biscuits – huge treats that we do not get on our camp – he describes his area of operations and jokes that he feels quite at home as the countryside is very similar to that in his native Uganda.  He’s optimistic about the improvement in security and while admitting there are challenges ahead, is confident that the war in Mogadishu at least has been won.  He’s looking forward to his year-long tour here and believes he and his men can bring invaluable experience to help, since their own country was itself “at war for so long and had its own similar problems”.

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Maslah

It’s a symbolic place for the African Union troops to have control over; Maslah used to be one of Al Shabaab’s main bases on the outskirts of Mogadishu.  They planned and launched their operations from this high ground surrounded by bush.  I’m shown a row of eucalyptus trees and told this is where enemies and defaulters were hanged as examples to the rest of the community.  Urban myth or fact; the soldiers are proud of their achievements in Mogadishu and from my first impression rightly so.  From the street corner gunfights and bloody battles a couple of years ago, this city has come a long way.  The only obstacles to our patrol were vendors taking their produce to market, long lines of trucks queuing to deliver goods to the port, and an unruly herd of goats taking their young minder for a walk.

10 Facts of life on camp in Mogadishu

1.  You spend the first few days with a remote control in your hand, trying to find a happy medium between fridge-like conditions with the air con on and wandering around with documents stuck to your arm with it off.

2. Outsmarting flies becomes an Olympic sport.  Gold medal goes to the individual who manages to terminate one without the assistance of an industrial size can of ‘Taj’.

3.  Every morning the shower block almost transports you to a dreamed-of beach holiday as you wash the sand off your feet and flip flops and stand under a cold shower of salt water.

4.  Meetings and meals become rather more intimate than intended when you are suddenly plunged into darkness – and it always takes you by surprise –as the camp maintainers swap generators over.

5.  You look forward to Fridays like a child listens out for the tuneless jingle of the ice cream van.  You have no idea how he does it but that’s the day the cook magics pots of sweet vanilla ice cream out of nowhere for you after lunch.

6.  No matter how tired you are when you start your day, your spirits will immediately be lifted by traditional cheery ‘Hello sister!’ greeting as you emerge bleary-eyed from your bed.

7.  You spend interminable amounts of time swearing at keypads – in a country with two mobile phone networks that cannot speak to each other, you are not anybody unless you are juggling two phones, two sim cards and two numbers for everyone you’ve ever met, and trying to figure out which one to use on which.

8.  You go through the winter months forever hugging awnings and sidling up to any kind of cover, anticipating the flash torrential downpours that strike without warning for a monumentally drenching 2-3 minutes before giving way to scorching sun again.

9.  You try to find someone juicier than you to stand next to at dusk as the resident mosquitos make their way out for a spot of dinner.

10.  You have no time to miss your pet cat or dog back home.  Amongst the more familiar-looking stray canines, you have safari-like proportions of unusual feathered and furry beasts to enjoy – among them the Somalian slender mongoose.  I believe the leader of the pack lives under our office.

Arrival in Mogadishu: an unlikely seaside ‘resort’

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I’ve arrived at my seaside location.  There are glorious long empty beaches, blue seas, waves that shimmer in the scorching sunshine.

Influenced by news reports and pictures of suicide bombers, as a first-time visitor it’s not the vista I expected to greet me on arrival in Mogadishu.  But it is the one that hits you – and very nearly literally.  With the runway practically extending into the Indian Ocean, it’s only as you’re about to reach under your seat for your life vest and feel the thump of the wheels on the ground that you realise you are actually over land.  But only just.  No doubt a fun landing to execute for the pilots of African Express Airways, as their unsuspecting passengers peer out of the windows at the expanse of blue coming up to meet them.

I was greeted at the airport by a smiling Ismail who immediately took me under his wing to negotiate the bustling organised chaos that were the visa and passport counters.  In the small arrivals hall – nothing more than a large dark concrete building with a couple of booths – families arrive to greet passengers, a yellow arrival form is thrust into your hand, self-appointed porters offer to go and find your hold luggage for you and arguments break out about queue-jumping.  Just as I made it to the front of the snake of frazzled passengers, an American news crew swanned past to the booth accompanied by big burly body guards, leaving Ismail feeling somewhat put out.  Although not as much as the elderly Kenyan lady behind me who remonstrated about preferential treatment with anyone who would listen.

The smiling immigration official welcomed me to Somalia and Ismail, my bag and I headed out to a battered minibus for the trip to my new home.  No sooner had we stepped out from under the concrete awning than we were drenched from head to toe by a almighty storm.  The kind of African tropical downpour that is so sudden and ferocious it’s like someone tipping a bucket of water over your head.  The advantage though – unlike our constant cold and grey drizzle in the UK – is that it lasts minutes, stops as suddenly as it began and the sizzling sun has dried you back to a warm crisp within seconds.

Our driver took us off along a bumpy dirt track flanked by tall and overgrown bush, avoiding large trucks and AMISOM (the UN mission in Somalia) vehicles careering ominously towards us from the opposite direction as they swerved around the large potholes.

On arrival at my new home, more smiles – this time from the Ugandan army soldiers providing security for the area.  Having crawled out of bed in Nairobi what seemed like days ago at 4 o’clock in the morning, I was slightly alarmed to find that it wasn’t even noon and nowhere near time for a longed-for sleep.  Bags dumped, it was straight into a day of introductions, walkabouts, explanations and meetings.  The hours passed in a bit of a daze with my brain gradually reaching capacity so that by dusk, it was all I could do to remember where my accommodation, food and the loos were.  I may not have had much of a clue where I was or what I was doing by this stage, but the entire Somali mosquito population had no such difficulty.  They had my location tracked and logged as the new local juicy eaterie.

I breathed a contented sigh of relief when I finally made it under the covers at the end of the night.  No generator, buzzing flies or whining mosquitos were going to keep me awake as I allowed the overload of senses and information to settle gently overnight before starting afresh in the morning.  And get down to the serious business of counting my mozzie bites.

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My Somali adventure. First stop: airport ‘no-man’s land’

It doesn’t matter how many times I go through an airport, whether it’s for business or pleasure, or how many corners of the world I visit.  Every time I pick my way through the crowds of people all intent on making their flight, not forgetting their belongings or children and selecting last-minute overpriced ‘genuine craftwork’ paraphernalia to take home for friends and relatives, a childish wonder and excitement wells up in me at the exotic destinations announced over the intercom and the fascinating lands they suggest.  This time was no different and travelling at night added to the sense of embarking on an adventure.

I had to negotiate my way through a couple of Chinese tour groups waiting for a flight home; their trolleys linked into one long snake, and a family destined for a flight to Abu Dhabi who had lost their boarding passes.  Then there was the very nervous gentleman who had insisted on wrapping every last suitcase, bag and box in luminescent white plastic – preventing not only a would-be dodgy baggage handler but I fear also himself from ever gaining access to the contents again.

Seamlessly through my photo shoot at passport control, the ladies and gentlemen wafting the explosive-detector wands slowed me and the rest of Terminal 4 down on our quest to reach the blissful no-man’s land of the departure lounge.  I spent half an hour loitering for my bag, during a security scan so heightened that every man, woman, child – by this stage already barefoot, holding up their trousers with clenched fists and having emptied their pockets of any small change and remaining dignity – got patted down and every bag, belt, boot and plastic container of toiletries rummaged through manually after having already been zapped by the xray machine.  It may have delayed my progress through airport bureaucracy but it did afford an unexpected opportunity to peer into my fellow passengers’ belongings and therefore their lives, as they were unceremoniously laid out by latex gloves like evidence in a murder trial.  And there’s nothing more amusing than that aloof and ill-mannered superior woman who’s brushed past you in the queue, to whom the rules clearly do not apply being stopped in her tracks by an unflappable security operator.  An obsequiously delivered “madam, is this a bottle of perfume?…then. It. Must. Go. In. The. Separate. Plastic. Bag.……And is this an IPad? Then. It. Must. Also. Go. In. A. Separate. Tray….” And pedantically, patiently on, item by item, as her ladyness’ face makes its way progressively from the expensively rouge’d-at-the-cheeks look, to a rather less desirable dark puce of hopelessness, humiliation and barely contained rage.

Having just about managed to contain my guffaw at the now-deflated superior one still nodding her way through each painstaking question and item presented, I had ample time to find all sorts of lotions and potions that I absolutely HAD to have (well, it is very difficult not to when the packaging is so shiny and anyway everyone knows money spent in airport no-man’s land doesn’t count).  Ample time in part because I’m very particular about being punctual – you can take the girl out of the military and all that – but mostly because on checking in, I found out our Kenya Airways flight was delayed by at least two hours due to a technical fault.  No complaints from me as they compensated us with a meal voucher and I can think of worse airports than Heathrow to have a few hours to kill.  So I settled on a stool at the seafood bar on the main concourse and sipped a chilled glass of Chablis while people-watching over the top of my newspaper.

I had my boarding pass, I’d made it through to airport no-man’s land.  I was on my way to my next adventure.