People have never been a consideration for me when I’ve traveled in the past. Connection with fellow homo sapiens is usually optional, unless I first have a connection to them. The irony of that statement is of course not lost to me. I find the act of constructing commonality and chemistry, the building blocks of friendships, relatively tedious. As such that the only occasion I traveled on my own back in 2008, to Sydney, I spent three days basically not speaking to anyone except to the person who got me my meals. Even with that, I found myself frequenting the same eatery on the chance that they may remember my order so that I would not have to speak unnecessarily.
I’ve been known to polarise people on this though. A minority of people in my life would say that they have issues keeping me quiet. The others would say that I really should try to speak more. I think my dalliances with social engagements is similar to the music of The Smiths – it’s either you get it and it changes your life or you find it so unbearable that you want to eject the tape and toss it into the flames (a little more on Morrissey and co. later), there are no allowable middle grounds. Which is a roundabout way of saying that if I am fond of you, I will gush like a fountain but if I am not, then you’re going to need a large spanner to pry my taps open. I couldn’t give a toss about what’s the polite thing to do. Nothing has ever been changed by politeness anyway.
But age and marrying a sensible woman has tempered some of these old flames. I try a little harder these days. Well, I at least place my two feet in a hopeful position in case I need to dance a little. Old habits are still generally hard-to-snuff bastards but on some odd occasions you could find me telling the person who hands me my coffee to ‘have a nice day’ or ask a cabbie if he’s ‘been in the business long’. I still spend a lot of time trying to angle people out of my photos though, something that becomes starkly obvious when I’m trying to illustrate a post about some of the people I met in Scotland.
The effort to reach out is still laborious, but unlike Sisyphus, it’s been getting better with each attempt. I am aware that it’s probably why for the first almost-forty years of my life, I have rarely been occasioned by serendipity. No warm and fuzzy chanced-encounters to look back on. Mainly because I never put myself in a position where anything can happen. I was the guy who sat around and raged against the world passing by without ever thinking of getting off my seat. So I went into this trip courting serendipity a little by telling myself I should not do the instinctual thing of building a thick cast-iron wall as soon as someone tried to strike up a conversation with me. To allow that dance to play out organically to see where it takes me.
The lover at the train station
Our stop at the Glengarry Heritage Center at Invergarry was meant to be nothing more than a whizz and hot chocolate detour. We had left Fort Williams with full tummies and a tank of gas, eager to explore the wonders of the Scottish outback. These centers, with one situated in even the most remote of towns, were often well-fitted with amenities, sometimes a café and in the case of one we stopped at later on in the trip, an impressive restaurant/merchandise store. For us, they were useful to look out for, when we needed a loo break or just to stretch our stiff legs. This one in Glengarry was fitted with a small cafeteria manned by some friendly old folks and an adjoining heritage center. Glengarry was a charming Scottish village, with its cobblestone pathways, thatched roofed stone houses and trees that seemed intent on invading into your personal space. It’s a grey town, straight out of a brooding period piece. The entire town seems almost untouched by the cold and calculated arms of modernisation. Crinoline dresses would not have looked out of place here. The wife placed orders on our hot chocolate as I waited at the back end of the cafeteria. I wasn’t expecting us to stay long here. But we were told the drinks may take a while. We looked around and besides a couple half way into their meal, we saw no one else in the café. Ah, just a couple of old folks taking their time making them then? That’s fine. I am hardly a hurried traveler anyway.
I walked into the heritage center. The room was square with the walls packed with newspaper clippings, dated pictures and old posters. At the far-right corner was a lady, sat at a round table with a large black book in front of her, hacking her lungs out. Poor thing must’ve caught the chills. It was a cold morning. I continued to browse the historical records in front of me, looking at the names, tracing heritages that were far remote from mine. The wife came in soon after with our drinks. I took a sip. It was sweet as sin. No matter. It was warm. We continued to browse the blocks and chunks of information in front of us, trying to make sense of it all, desperately looking for a context, ‘Where are you guys off to after this?’ It was the coughing lady, standing just behind us. Her façade appeared brighter than a moment ago, she was still stifling coughs in between her words but she still managed to put up a helpful demeanor. We proceeded to tell her our trajectory, heading up North towards the Isle of Skye. She suggested an alternate route that would’ve allowed us a more scenic view of the seaside. She moved from giving directions to us to remonstrating about rich Sheikhs building huge holiday homes up in the Highlands although she pronounced them as ‘shakes’ which left me and the wife a little clueless awhile. I was conjuring an image of rich septuagenarians in blue suede shoes out on a luxurious dance floor. Reality was not quite as cheeky though.
We were struggling to make out her thick accent at times, so in our minds she appeared to float from topic to topic without much conjunction. But she became a little misty-eyed when she started talking about her late husband and in particular, his efforts to restore the old Invergarry Train Station as a static museum with a short workable track. It had been a passion project of theirs together with their son. They had submitted the papers to the council, fought red tape bureaucracy, only finally getting the breakthrough around 2016, which was about the time her husband passed. She and her son continues to work on the restoration project as part of a preservation society. I was taken by how she described her husband. As someone who was willing to fight for the things that mattered to him. She described him as a bit of a bibliophile, collecting these rare historical books about the lineages and lives of people who had lived in Invergarry, ‘I donated all his books to this Heritage center when he passed’. I first felt sad for her. That she had lost a partner so dear to her, an absolute treasure in her life. But the pride by which she spoke about him then made me feel like she was lucky to have had found someone who connected with her on such a fundamental level, for such a long time. They were married for close to 40-years. Society may look and frown down on her existence now but to me, she’s the prom queen. The one who lived a life many of us would give a lot for. I inferred that he would be proud that she’s continuing the work. She smiled.
As I pulled out of the car park, I thought about how she’s carved a rich and meaningful existence out of a town that until an hour ago, I did not even knew existed. She spends a lot of her time at this heritage center, attending to requests from people around the world looking to trace their family lineages. She pours over old letters, poems, record books to find traces and specks of their family’s history to see if she can offer some meaningful insights about their ancestors’ life here at Invergarry. She’s incredibly passionate about what she does. I thought about how there are thousands of people carving out meaningful existences out of the corners of the world that would appear so remote to me. It’s both a humbling and inspiring thought. The formation of the human tapestry around the world is something that is almost infinitely interesting to both me and the wife. We’ve spent time talking about the people we’ve left back at Scotland. Christine from the Croft 338 B&B up on the hill at Drumberg and how she would still be dishing out that delectable Scottish breakfast daily to travelers near and far or the warmth hospitality shown by Linda, her husband and Lexie (their friendly dog) up on the mountains of Kilmuir and how they would still be tending to that charming little farm they have behind their home as they take meals to a gorgeous sight of the horizon that no one should be able to enjoy as frequently as they do.
The feeling that wells up in my being is initially unrecognisable. I’ve since come to identify it as a form of hope. That there are simple and good people in this world carving out meaningful existences with limited resources somehow gives me hope that the world has not gone completely to the swine.
The Caribbean prince
There it was. At the end of a busy pedestrian walkway, buffeted by concrete and the misty evening Inverness sky – bad typography. The one thing I’ve often been impressed by on this trip is just how instinctively likable most shop signages have been to me. The pub-style fonts on the faded sides of watering holes have proved easy on these eyes. So imagine my surprise when in the midst of the small city charm of Inverness, with its scenic link bridges and semi-Victorian architecture, there stood a Jamaican eatery with absolutely awful fonts, bad spelling pun (Kool Runnings?) and a menu upfront that looked like it was designed by a 5-year old with hopeless color coordination and bad taste. The signage was wildly inked with Rastafarian colors. The wife stopped to gaze at it, I stopped as well. ‘Jerk Chicken’? That sounds more interesting than the Northern Indian place we were making haste to. Why not? We pushed the door, but it was locked. Perhaps it was closed. ‘It opens at 8pm’, a couple passing by hollered at us. Check of the watch says it’s 6.40pm. Perhaps it was not meant to be. Just as we were about to resume our quest for ‘palak paneer’, a gangly man decked in an all-white cook garb emerges from the kitchen and unlocks the door, ‘We’re open’, he said and let us in. The restaurant seating area was the size of a spacious apartment living room, adorned with murals of beaches, coconut trees and footballers.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve officially left the hipster motherland.
The man grabs a pair of menus, handed them to us made small talk with us which largely involved him lambasting Theresa May’s policies and introducing himself as Glen, then proceeds to disappear into the kitchen, again. No other staff in sight. No other customers. It was just us, in faux Waikiki land. It felt a lot like a drop site. Like we were a pair of drug mules waiting for the dealer and his armed entourage to come in. We made our choice and an agonizing 5-minutes later, Glen emerges from the kitchen again to take our orders. Jerk Chicken was a given, and the wife inquired about a dish called Manish Water, ‘It’s nice. I make it for you.’ And then he disappears into the kitchen again. It’s about this moment that we became quite aware that are witnessing a one-man restaurant operation. DIY, so to speak, in a less traditional sense. We felt both admiration and concern, knotted into an inseparable ball in our stomachs. Was he able to manage on his own because no one eats here? And is that an indication that the food here is awful? God help us. We have about 45 meals to spare on this trip so what’s one given to a guy who needs it right? Just about this moment, two other customers walked in. Relieve. Drug mule scenario avoided, or at the very least apportioned and some hope sprung that perhaps this is a proper eatery after all. He emerged from the kitchen, handed them menus and took their orders before scuttling back into the kitchen to prepare our food.
Ten minutes later he emerged with our food and it was surprisingly, delicious. The Jerk Chicken was cooked to perfection, with nice caramelisation and char served over a bed of liquored purple cabbage. The presentation for the dish was well, quite fantastic. The Manish Water dish was a little like what happens if a mixed pork soup had children with an ABC soup. On a windy and chilly Scottish evening, it was exactly what we needed. As we were tucking into our lovely dishes, more customers entered the restaurant. A couple who sat themselves immediately, perhaps familiar to the limitations of this operation, and a group of Aussie rugger types looking for a good time who were less self-servicing. The space was bustling but Glen was nowhere in sight. We somehow became emotionally invested in the restaurant’s operation and the character of Glen, like how you can get invested in random unknown characters doing everyday things on a reality TV show. We wanted him to win and he won’t win if he doesn’t come out and seat these group of customers. I contemplated getting up and walking into the kitchen to inform him but just as the group was about to turn and walk away, Glen bursts out from the kitchen and hailed, ‘What’s your problem? What’s your problem? Is there something wrong with my restaurant?’, in an accent that can only be described as ‘sunny Scottish’, grapples the hand of one of the stocky fellows and sat them down forcefully. Score.
I still think about Glen sometimes, how grateful he looked at the end when I paid for our meal and told him to keep the change. Probably not because of the extra two pounds but because he did not have to run to the cashier to fetch our change (he was at the bar playing the bartender at this point). Me and the wife still laugh at how he would go out to the streets to procure customers with his trademark opening line, ‘What’s the plan tonight? What’s the plan tonight?’ I think about how he told us he’s been living in Inverness for more than 10-years and how he’s carved an existence for himself in a foreign land far away from where he was from by doing what he’s good at and giving people something they did not have. The thought just makes the world so much smaller to me, and the smaller the world is, the more comfort I take that a better life may just be a reach away.
That charming man and woman
The Bluebell House looks like a fairly unassuming home from the outside. Situated on the suburban end of Inverness, across the footbridge, it blends rather innocuously with its surrounding peers, offering no indication to the aesthetics that would greet us inside. Our host, Neil Hart greeted us at the door. A tall bespectacled man with a proud mustache who ironically, reminded me of another Hart from my childhood, Jimmy. Yes that runty professional wrestling heel manager that looked like a love child between Elvis and a sewer rat. Except Neil was a lot more dignified, with his well-manicured hair and middle-age fashion sense. He could’ve played a police captain in another life. The house, seems plucked straight either from prairie of your dreams, or the recesses of your nightmares. It’s an American Gothic masterpiece with wall-to-wall wallpaper, carpeted floors and Victorian-like furniture and fittings. It could both be a set for a tepid film about the tribulations of a family managing a farm house or a psychological thriller about a family with a sinister past. It’s no fault of the Bluebell though, it’s just the travails of an overactive imagination. But Neil (and eventually his wife Margaret) did a lot to dispel those macabre thoughts with their warm hospitality. As far as hosts go, I’ve never encountered one that took to his tasks as passionately as Neil does. His enthusiastic recommendations for breakfast (he always wholeheartedly suggest you get the potato scones) was like an adrenaline shot in the morning.
We never did see Margaret in the two mornings we tucked into our breakfast. Neil made references to her being the person churning out the wonderful food but we never did see her until were packed and ready to make haste towards Edinburgh, on the morning of our second day at Edinburgh. “You like The Smiths?” That was the first thing Margaret said to me as she gestured to my t-shirt. I like her already. As I’ve said earlier, The Smiths are not one of those artistes in whom your allegiance makes no statement. They are not Ben Folds Five. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ben Folds’ music to bits but it’s hard to make anything about someone who loves his music. To understand and appreciate the music of The Smiths suggests you appreciate a certain aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic I find a lot of belonging in.
I’ve always been attracted to music that makes a statement. I have the tendency to seek solace in the voice of Steve Perry occasionally, but for the most part, I am attracted to music that feels uncomfortable. And as much as I enjoy the music of say, Carcass as well, The Smiths seems to get under the skin of bystanders in a way that not many people’s music do. Because with say a band like Carcass, it’s easy to just dismiss them for being loud and unlistenable. But The Smiths form of jingle-jangle indie pop, bookmarked by Johnny Marr’s trademark hook-laden picking and Morrissey’s crooning delivery can on the offset seems inviting enough to casual observers, but only the really captivated stay for the encore. It’s a great source of comfort of mine to find someone who can appreciate morose artistry.
They spoke about traveling to Nepal, enjoying Nepalese wedding music and how they hope to make a chunky stop in South East Asia really soon, “We usually close up during the winter and travel somewhere warmer,’ Margaret said. It’s inspirational to see folks like them who have eked out an existence in this part of the world without resorting to running the rat race. It made me wonder if I would dare dream about something like that happening to me. Not quite yet.
As we made our way out the door and to our car, I thought about how Neil and Margaret would be welcoming another set of travelers that afternoon, eager as we were two days prior to start their exploration of Inverness. We thought about how they would make their way across the link bridges, sit down for an enjoyable £5 happy hour cocktail while they watched merry locals walking dogs and clocking running miles by the gorgeous river that runs through the city. And how they would retreat back to Bluebell after dinner, exhausted from the day, shower and tuck into a movie before waking up to the smell of potato scones in the morning. Time never stops, which is a tragedy during these times. Sometimes I wish we could just have a handy rewind button to enjoy a little Groundhog Day before moving on to the next panel in our existence.