This is Greece – Paros (Days 4 and 5)

If we were to imagine Paros as a person, then that person would be a teacher.

We braved a bit of a tourist-storm at the Mykonos port earlier this day. Have you seen a port filled with people who look like extras from a Korean skincare TV commercial? No? Lucky you. But alas it was a storm that turned out to be mostly blowing towards Santorini, which gave us much needed reprieve but offered us a glimpse of the influencer-packed, straw hat-totting, sundress-flowing typhoon that awaited there later in the trip. There is a kind of charm that is attached to boarding a ferry from one island to another. It offers a glimpse of how people would’ve traveled in older days, offering oneself to the elements just to get from one place to another. Granted the only elements we had to brave here on this relatively large ferry (it was large enough for more than a few pickup trucks to drive into it before swallowing a few hundred tourists), was being bombarded by a song-long commercial of the company who offered the ferry services. That saying, you don’t know what you’re missing out in life if you’ve never sat through a power ballad called ‘Paros Jet’. The name Paros Jet offers quite little opportunity for your imagination to flex on both the intended destination of the vessel, nor the speed it was going to hit to get there. It does reek of insecurity issues though. Wished you were taller? Had longer legs? Six pack? Ryan Gosling’s features? Meh. How about a ferry who wants to be a jet? There you go.

Oh right, the teacher bit. Yes. We got schooled by Paros in the age-old lesson of ‘not judging a book by its cover’, or in our case, ‘not judging a Greek island by the how much it initially looked like a city wrecked by civil war’. I suppose we have little else to blame but our own narrowmindedness. What triggered the impression? Narrow dusty roads, mud-stained buildings, dry and parched landscapes, etc. In another mindset, this would all be framed as ‘charming’ but we’ve just come from what was essentially paradise (when I type this, I am thinking about the beaches in Mykonos, and not the grandads trotting around in speedos when they really should know better) so forgive us while we adjust to suddenly being thrusted into Helm’s Deep. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride from the ferry port of Parikia to the fishing port of Naousa and the journey was about as scenic as the interior of a dilapidated cow carriage. And because buses were less frequent in these parts, they pack them up real tight, like they do back home. Nothing like the whiff of an afternoon armpit to remind you of your motherland. At this very moment, Agios Ioannis, the beach, and dreamy lifeguard seems like a dream and two nightmares away.

We alighted the bus at the Naousa bus station hoping for some reprieve but found little. The roads were caked with dust, the buildings stained yellowish and the kids were playing with Uzis at the back of pickup trucks (just kidding, although they might as well be). Ten minutes into our walk to Despina’s Mare, where we would be hanging our weary sails for the night, we found some reprieve at the skirt-end of the town center of Naousa, with a little more cobblestone walkways, restaurants and buildings that did not look like they’ve just tangoed with a sandstorm. It’s hilarious in hindsight because the path we took to get to our accommodation was just a street away from what is certainly the most charming town centers of this trip, and quite possibly ever, to me. In fact, we would later realise that the bus station was just a short walk down the road from a charming bent of seaside restaurants and a clear sight of the gorgeous aqua-marine Aegean sea. But we saw nothing of the sort as we made our way to Despina’s Mare. It was almost like an anti-Truman Show, where forces were conspiring to keep our sight away from the beauty of the island to teach us a huge slap-of-a-lesson in being judgmental.

Slap One

Despina’s Mare as it turned out, looked delectably comfortable. Not quite like the meat and potatoes accommodation we had to get by with at Mykonos. For one thing, they had a sign here right upfront which helped us not to have to literally sail the seven seas to find it. Despina’s daughter Konstantina greeted us and informed us that there is a nice beach about 10-minutes away on the right by foot up the road and that the main town center of Naousa with its restaurants and bars, also a short 10-minute walk to the left. At this point of time, given how famished we were from the trip from Mykonos and the fact that we had to walk through what was essentially Mogadishu in 1993, we would’ve been okay with a McDonald’s. Actually I kid, my wife would’ve probably started a civil war herself if I had made her eat at a McDonald’s. No, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Paros. At least I don’t think so.

The room was a sight for dusty eyes. Granted it wasn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria but it had a large comfortable bed, a spacious restroom where you don’t need to feel like an Argentinian center back planting an elbow on an unsuspecting opponent every time you reach for the shampoo. There were welcome cake and pastries on the table, two spacious side tables with USB plug points and there was going to be breakfast in the morning. As far as we were concerned, it was The Jetsons in 2063 for us. But it wasn’t the slap yet. The spacious bed and breakfast spread was that fraction of second before a slap makes its intended contact, the point when the hand leaves your side, raises to form and prepares to strike hard.

Then we drew the curtains and slid open the door and we were greeted with this sight.

Now that was the first slap.

Slap Two

The walk into town brought us a little more back down to earth. Winding cobblestone roads cramped with messily constructed homes. Not too dissimilar from Mykonos except a lot more poorly curated with many homes looking incredibly cluttered and the roads just a degree grimier. It was like experiencing a Greek island town with a little South East Asian filters on.

Greek towns and villages seem to become more beautiful in relation to how close they are to the sea. Granted most of them are settled near the sea, but the disparity between settlements inland to those near ports can sometimes be quite gob-smacking. There’s of course a very logical reason why this is so. Tourists in these parts tend to flock to seaside towns and so there is more money floating around in them, hence the better amenities and honestly, it’s quite difficult to be ugly when you’re joined to the hip with that sea. But I prefer the more romantic notion, that the Greeks get their lifeblood from the sea and the closer they are to it, the more nourished and alive they seem to be.

Ouzeri Mitsi was our pick for lunch on the first day at Paros. Not because the menu enticed us or because the name of the restaurant sounds like a Greek superhero but because we were famished and it was the first restaurant we came into contact with. Life becomes a lot simpler when you’re faced with food or death decisions. Eating at Ouzeri Mitsi proved a couple of things to us. Firstly that, because the standard of accessible Mediterranean fair and freshness of seafood produce back home is a lot more touch-and-go than go, walking into any random restaurant on any Greek island is generally going to taste pretty decent. And secondly I am never going to eat pastas back home again.

And if I still had lingering grunts about how Paros looks more like the end of a shotgun barrel than a Cyclades paradise then, it gave me a second lesson in not putting my mind’s boots into its own metaphorical mouth by offering us a spectacular view while we chomped on our sumptuous lunch. The only thing inhibiting this view to our left was the sight of a portly man in an unbuttoned white shirt at another table in Ouzeri practically making love to the fish he was eating. I mean it’s one thing to enjoy your food, it’s another to be licking your fingers seductively with an orgasmic look in your eyes. Actually we’re glad we ever laid eyes on him eating. He has basically changed the way we view eating fish forever. That ‘bulus’ back at Acha Curry House is never going to be devoured the same again.

In fact the food in Paros may just be some of the best we had in Greece. The fried calamari in Taverna Glafkos has properly set a standard for all other fried calamaris to contend with for the both of us, and we suspect it will remain so for a while yet. Maybe we were starting at a very low base, but it was amazingly delicious. Not that it was gastronomical science or anything, just baby squids perfectly deep-fried in batter, garnished with pepper and salt and a squeeze of lemon. But the taste was just tantalizing. It provided me just a moment of realisation at just how much rubbish tasteless frozen calamari I’ve been eating all my life back home. There was also this charming little café called what I can only roughly identify as Kafeneio, where they served small plates of Greek dishes. Our favorite was a dish of freshly cut tomatoes, feta and olive oil. It’s a dish that appears so simple that it feels like a restaurant should be ashamed to serve and charge money for it. But yet, it’s a dish that feels almost impossible to replicate back home because it was all down to the natural quality of the tomatoes, the feta and the olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were the stars, sweet and juicy to taste, not at all like the sour bombs we often get back home.

That was the second slap.

Slap Three

Naousa’s town center is not large, but it compensates for its lack of size by being interestingly intricate. We explored them for two days and even on the second day, we were finding little nooks and corners we could tuck into and discover things. Whether it’s little knickknack shops, fun-sized gellatorias or to-go pizza joints, Naousa is like the town that keeps giving. At the heart of its night life is the restaurants around the port. Packed with tourists of all shapes and sizes, the clinking of wine glasses against each other, utensils against dining ware and the sound of indistinct chatter punctuate the serene and calm skies of Paros. It’s noisy sure, but quite unlike the sound a city makes. There are no awful stabs of frustrated honking by motorists, raised frustrated voices against each other and against the city or thumping pop music emanating from departmental stores. This was a more joyous sound. The sound of relaxed revelry, of happiness at conversations and the joy that can really only come from having a meal in a gorgeous island in the middle of the ocean with people you love.  

This ‘sound’ was what endeared Paros to me. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. Suddenly it all made sense. That life can also be a celebration beyond just birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. That life itself can be a celebration. I’ve always been apathetic about food and celebrations. I generally eat to live and I’ve not had many celebrations since my sixth birthday that was more than just my family going out to a Chinese restaurant and ordering a few dishes to fill our tummies. But suddenly, standing there in the middle of the Naousa port, watching the people there, hearing the ocean cooing behind us, it suddenly all made sense. How food, culture and celebration all came together in a more relatable sense to me. It wasn’t about gifts and fancy outfits. It wasn’t about just enjoying a moment, or a day. But it was about enjoying life itself through these things. Even as I reminisce these things now, I no longer associate Paros to the first impression I have of it – the mud-stained buildings and dusty streets. In fact, those initial memories are fast-fading, replaced by the scent and sounds of the lighter side of Paros.

This was the third slap.

Slap Four

A trip to Greece is always going to be about the beaches. The seafood, sunshine and the facial hair sure, but on top of that list, the beaches. We would eventually work the ‘beach itch’ out of our system during the trip but we were still at the height of it when we were in Paros. After our lunch at Ouzeri Mitsi, we walked another 10-minutes up pass Despina’s Mare and just as Konstantina said, we reached a beach called Agii Anargiri. It’s quite a different experience from the organized beach at Agios Ioannis back in Mykonos. Here, the beach front is just a few steps away from the vehicle road and splayed out in a way that appears unappealing at first because it had patches of uncut grass all around and the sand appears stodgier here. The wonderful thing was that it did not cost us a cent to be here. Just open up your towel over the sand and you’re good to go. Don’t expect any tropical cocktails though.

And while Agii Anargiri may rank as probably the least appealing beach we spent time at in Greece, all you need to do is look sea-ward and everything else no longer matters. Not even the fact that you’re laying your towel just ten steps from where a Prius just zoomed by. The sea is all that matters and when you get into it, besides the fact that you immediately feel like curling inside a microwave oven because of the cold, you feel free and at-one with mother earth. The sea here, as is the case throughout Greece, is gorgeous and being at the center of it, with the sun beating down and the waves gently caressing your chest, you just feel like it’s possible to just close your eyes and lose yourself to the calming elements.

Like the building blocks for a castle in my mind, these little experiences have slowly warmed me more and more to the idea of finding a belonging on a beach. Agios Ioannis in Mykonos was a crucial piece, but so was Kolymbithres beach here in Paros, which we went to on our second day there. We took a short boat ride over to the beach, traversing through unbelievably clear aqua marine waters to get there. The water felt deceptively inviting with its color, like diving head first into Jell-O. But given that we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, my guess is it won’t feel like Jell-O if I decided to plunge in. Given my inability to swim, it will be more like a big fat sack of rice being dumped into the ocean.

Once there, occupants of the boat flooded into the different segments of the beach like ball bearings slipping into the different nooks of a pinball machine, to grab themselves an umbrella for the day. We initially got a paltry one that was two rows from the sea at the first beach front we got to. But my wife had that look. Let me explain the look. It’s basically the look of someone who has been forced to watch a litter of puppies being drowned. Okay, I jest. Let me try again. It’s the look of someone who has been forced to watch a puppy being drowned. Yup. So we moved. You move when your wife has that look. That’s my marriage advice for everyone out there. Free of charge. So move we did, to the next beachfront, where it was almost empty and we had our pick. And score, cause now she looks like a puppy greeting her master at the door or an alcoholic influencer at an open bar. I can never tell which is which.

Some moments of the day flash to mind. The American family and the father with the sardonic wit and two women who we couldn’t distinguish were either his daughter, wife or mother-in-law (yeah I know it doesn’t say anything well about the women in discussion). The wonderful cold hit of fig tequila on lips against the punishing sun. Me getting my leg wedged against two rocks from a slip which threatened to ruin my beach day but papa powered through. The sight of a heavily pregnant but fit woman dancing around the upper regions of the queer rock formations that characterizes Kolymbithres, with not much of a care in the world. I mean why would you when you have the sight of that ocean in front of you? Yet another entry filed under the folder ‘Things a Middle Class Asian Will Never Do’ in my head. My sporadically dipping into the calm, clear sea, watching fishes swim around my frame. It was a wonderful day indeed.

This was the fourth slap.

There’s a unique sense of wonder and romanticism that comes from being a person who was raised in one end of the world, under markedly different conditions than the people here and somehow ending up in this relatively small island in the middle of the Aegean sea, taking in their culture, eating their food, breathing their air and walking on their streets.

Even now as I sit here back in humid and dense KL, typing this, my mind is bathed in endorphins as I think about what it was like to be in Paros. That things are chugging along just as they were when we were there. Despina is still welcoming guests to her abode with her warm smile and hearty breakfasts in the morning. Glafkos is still dishing out delectable calamari and turning away hopeful diners because they are fully booked. The streets are lined with visitors from around the world, baked by the Mediterranean sun but joyful for being in the midst of a gorgeous island getaway. And Lola, the aged and grumpy cat I met somewhere in the town centre of Naousa is hopefully still guarding the entrance of that cute boutique that’s tucked under the stairs. ‘She’s an old lady’, a girl sitting outside the boutique assured me when Lola gave nary an expression to me when I tried to play with her.

Lola the Grump

The same can probably be said of Paros. An old lady of the sea, glistening throughout history from her renowned white marble. She may not be as zesty and sociable as Mykonos or as breathtaking and spectacular as Santorini (as we would soon find out), but she has a charm or two up her understated sleeves yet. It’s not an obvious charm, but once properly unveiled, it can be quite breathtaking. It says a lot, given our initial impression of her, that Paros ended up being our most favorite portion of this Greek sojourn and will probably always hold a special place in me and my wife’s hearts.

Santorini awaits.

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This is Greece (Day 1 – 3)

Mykonos.

I have an occasionally fractured mind.

I’m not a person with an elaborate wish list in life. It’s a habit. Wish for less, and you get less disappointed when you don’t get your wishes fulfilled. But as I began writing this I am suddenly reminded of something I did as part of some group exercise years back – to identify some dreams I may have in life. As part of the exercise we were asked to draw out our dreams on a sheet of paper that we were supposed to frame up. I remember drawing the Greek flag. I don’t actively remember Greece being one of my dream travel destinations to begin with, but I do remember the activity of drawing that flag. Which probably means Greece was somewhat floating in my mind as a place I would like to visit at some point in my life’s existence.

Yet, when the wife put forth a query to me on where we should travel to this year, my answer was a rather resounding ‘anywhere’. That is if a response like that can be resounding. It was truly really an ‘anywhere’ for me. I mean I would’ve preferred to answer an ‘everywhere’ but remember that ‘wish-for-less’ thing about me? Yes. And to then have to decide between chocolate, banana or butter cake when I never knew cake was important to me until three years ago is like being asked at a buffet line – ‘what are you going to eat’? – ‘I guess I will decide when I get there’. Not even when Greece was mentioned as a possible destination at the start of the year, did my ears perk up and my memory jogged. In fact, I even offered a lazy retort for our original choice of Croatia and Bosnia, because well, Daenerys (In hindsight Greece over Croatia could not have worked out any better).

But yet as I sit here writing this, tanned like a Bronze hyena and taste buds sufficiently tingled by the taste of exceptional Mediterranean seafood, I am suddenly reminded of that activity and me drawing that flag. So it turns out that I had a wish fulfilled when I had forgotten it was a wish to begin with. Does that even count? Can you name and tag something on to your bucket list, after the fact? Hmm … feels like it’s cheating.

I had quite little inclination regarding Greece before I got there. I am not always one to do a clinical investigation into the history and details of a country before I visit it. Why? Because I am not a dignitary who is trying to build trade connections. I am on a ‘vacation’, and that word can be categorized broadly into just about anything from having an uneventful cup of coffee at a café at Paros port, powering an ATV rather unconvincingly across Mykonos or just spending the night in café hotel in Santorini. I don’t always need my vacation packed with eventful nuggets. I suppose I should, given we (me and my wife) really don’t travel that often. Perhaps I have taken my wife for granted because she always comes through with us having the best experience on any vacation or maybe I am just someone who can find happiness in almost anything when we are on vacation. Yeah, probably the second one (coughs).

Greek weather is like being hugged and slapped at the same time. The first thing I felt when stepping out on to the airport tarmac to the plane that would take us from Athens to Mykonos is the wind. It’s gusty, enthusiastic and chilly. It lulls you into thinking you should reach into your bag for your jacket and just as you do, it fades away, leaving the punishing heat that more than often feels a little like you’re a bell pepper being roasted on a slow charcoal fire. Not that I would know what that really feels like but I am assuming it’s just pretty bloody uncomfortable. And this parlay basically plays out back and forth, like being the center of a tug of war between Buffy Summers and a, err vampire?

The plane we were taking to connect to Mykonos was tiny. How tiny? Well not as tiny as a two-seater sea plane but tiny enough for it to have propellers and the attendant requesting that we redistribute ourselves in a more balanced manner across the plane for weight management. There might’ve been a slight possibility that if I made some strategic efforts to lunge myself at the right side of the plane that we could’ve had paella in Barcelona instead that evening.

Our vessel.

People have impressions of certain countries. They may be pretty accurate or absolute nonsense but they are impressions nonetheless. I had patches of impressions of Greece of course – the Moussaka from that café in PJ, Zeus and his philandering ways, Angelos Charisteas’ winning goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. I have since discovered that the Kraken belongs to Scandinavian folklore, which perfectly explains why it did not come greet me at the shores of Kolymbithres beach on Paros even though I implored it so fervently to. If you can’t trust movies anymore, what else can you really trust?

But buried deep under all that fluff, I have always had a more subconscious impression of Greece – that it’s a dated country and its datedness would be confirmed by the mullets the people choose to wear on their heads and the dated classic rock they choose to play on their stereos. I am not sure why this is the case. At the same time, I quite consciously banish these thoughts because well, it’s silly, disrespectful and probably completely inaccurate. Right? Yes. Well, that is until I boarded the bus upon reaching Mykonos airport and tucked into the driver seat was the bus driver, who looked like an offspring of a union between wrestler Shawn Michaels and well, Shawn Michaels (Okay, my bad, shouldn’t have brought you there) and fitted out with a flowing mane of The Rockers-era mullet. As if things cannot get more testing for my mind, he turns on the stereo and what does it play? ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits. I mean of all tracks the uncoolest, bandana-waving classic rock dross you can find. It was the most open invitation for my mind to misbehave.

I started out as a novice traveler years ago, bandying the idea that I was someone who preferred a vacation in the city rather than the outback or the beach. I’ve since revised this view dramatically but if I were to experience a city while traveling, my preference is to experience cities that are dense and chaotic with imperfect pathways, uneven steps and shops and buildings with messy configurations and sizes. I mean what’s the point of experiencing a city that’s impeccably planned, perfectly outlined and neatly constructed (I’m looking at you Sydney)? If I wanted that, I’ll just buy a Lego set. Actually, Mykonos doesn’t exactly have a city. Chora is often cited as its main hub but it’s at most a vibrant town. There are no skyscrapers or wide and long streets filled with automobiles. In fact not even bikes and ATVs are allowed into Chora so you can walk in relative peace and not to have to worry you’re going to get mowed down by an enthusiastic grandma on an ATV. Instead it’s bustling with people decking through its complex and windy streets. Streets that are just bursting with little nooks and lanes that lead to even more nooks and lanes. Essentially, it’s a maze, but a maze lined with gellatorias, fish taverns, cafes and even a gorgeous port, so you don’t actually mind getting lost in it.

I suppose you wouldn’t mind getting lost if it means stumbling on to something like this.

That saying, it’s that same messy and irresistible structure of the city that resulted in us being thrusted into a roundabout quest to search for our lodgings. When you ask for directions and someone says, ‘It’s two streets back’, it’s a little problematic when it’s not really clear what constitutes a ‘street’. The amount of small lanes running through building and structures can sometimes cause you to wonder if you’re doing the math right. Was that two streets, or just one and a half? So we tried various mathematical permutations and we were still very much lost. I was starting to think that a ‘street’ is really a ‘continent’ in these parts and that maybe we booked a lodging in Minnesota by mistake. Alas, we found the place eventually. Turns out it was a nondescript building that we must’ve passed by about 560 times in our search. Perhaps someone should tell them that it’s really a lot easier to look for something if you have a sign upfront?

Actually, it feels a little overzealous to call the commerce and home structures in Greek islands ‘buildings’. Huts? Pods? They are mostly the width of living rooms in developing Asian nations and do not go more than two stories high. It’s common for people to be living above nick-knack shops and bars on a busy street. There’s a kind of romance to that, living in a Mediterranean concrete hut, right in the middle of a Greek island buzz, with the sound of revelry and dining all around you. While that’s generally the case where I come from as well, it’s not quite as romantic when you’re eking out an existence in a grimy flat above a dense and humid street as opposed to living in an arctic white structure (with pastel-colored window panes) between charming cobbled streets with the cooling Mediterranean breeze blowing through your home and the sound of the Aegean sea waves greeting you in the morning.

Much like how I took my first travel steps convinced that I prefer city vacations, consequentially, I used to say that I dislike beach ones as well. Why? Well what is there for me to do? I don’t swim, nor look good topless running in a pair of sexy red shorts or able to move gracefully while playing volley ball in a skimpy bikini. As you can see I have no bloody idea what really goes on at a beach or that whatever I think goes on, is probably about 20 years outdated. Our trip to Danang two years ago opened my mind up to the possibilities of how lazing on a beach can be fun for a tubby swim-light human being who is afraid of the open ocean like me. All you need is a book, and own the act of ‘dipping’ like you were born for it. Yes, dipping. Some people swim, others like me dip. It’s a thing. Watch this space.

Agios Ioannis beach on Mykonos provided us with probably one of our most memorable days in Greece. But it’s not like a lot happened. If anything it’s arguably a day where the least happened for us. Perhaps it’s the tranquility that only a secluded beach could provide, with the waves roaring against the beachfront as the radiating sun cooperates with the sea breeze to construct a haven for you to just sit back with a book, shutting your eyes occasionally and just allowing your mind to take a long and deep breath. I could never see the logic of how some people would say they love running because it helps them think. How can you think when you’re in a moving iron maiden. Now lazing on a gorgeous and secluded Greek beach, this I can understand how it helps you think. If only what helps me think doesn’t make me fatter but actually helps me get fitter instead. I guess that’s my lot in life.

It was a sand, Pina Colada and sea kind of day at Agios Ioannis. I of course say that, completely aware of how contrived it sounds, except that for someone who has only very recently learned to appreciate the merits of spending time doing nothing on a beach and drinking alcohol, I am pretty much still in the impressionable pup phase of this sojourn so don’t mind me as a pant and stick my tongue out for a bit. I became so comfortable with sand on my feet that I took quite a bit of it with me to the restaurant for lunch. At some point I stared down in the midst of stuffing my face to find a pile of sand under me. It looked like I’ve tunneled like a mole from the ground for some sea bream.

Not to show the obvious but, yeah …

I got acquainted with the Aegean sea as well over the course of the day. By sporadically dipping (yes own it). The water is always deceptively cold in Greece. With the sun funneling down like an aerial barbecue pit, you would think that at some point it would heat up the sea. No chance. I suppose it’s akin to biting into a fried ice cream pastry. The thrill is in the torture perhaps? Me and the wife usually do a three-count, dive in and surrender ourselves to Poseidon’s cold, cold heart.

The coldness of the Greek sea is not only mitigated by the searing heat, but also the warmth of the people living in Greece. There was some heat emitting from the fit and dreamy lifeguard at Agios Ioannis as well but I suspect that was mostly felt by my wife. We would encounter individuals, vendors, servers throughout our 10-day sojourn who would come to redefine friendliness and service to us in many ways. At the top of the list was Yannis who works upfront for Kounelas Fish Tavern, whom we met on our second visit to the place on our last day at Mykonos. It’s infectious to see him work, chatting with passersby, cracking jokes with diners and attempting to speak the local languages of the different people he meets. He thought Malaysians were generally ‘darker-skinned’ than we were, explained to us what Mastika was and how to drink it (‘We sip it, we don’t do shots’) and attempted to speak decent Mandarin with us when he told him we were ethnically Chinese. He was not self-conscious about his love for the food he was selling, the people he worked with and the job he was doing. It was enlightening to watch such candor in action. Here was someone who has eked a meaningful existence on a gorgeous island, doing what a lot of people would foolishly call ‘insignificant work’ but has radiated the days and nights of so many diners and revelers by just simply loving what he does and believing in what he is selling. And why wouldn’t he? Kounelas serves some of the most delectable and freshest seafood I have ever tasted.

Cured sardines at Kounelas. Not from a can …

A friend remarked that Greek food is ‘simple but delicious’ and I couldn’t have concocted a better description of it myself. Nothing we ate was very complicatedly put together or terribly fussy up till this point. Just some of the freshest ingredients (particularly seafood) tossed on a searing grill and salted. No sauce or a thousand ingredients, just food tasting the way it’s meant to be tasted. We had a rude awakening on just how large a pork Souvlaki can be in these parts on our first day, but since then we’ve dined mostly from the grocer in the sea and it does not look like it was going to stop anytime soon. The Greeks treat their seafood seriously, which is basically an all-encompassing love letter to my wife. They treat fish like Asian do, good from head to tail and we felt so at home eating there. Every meal was paired with lovely wine and a side of bread. No sauces are given beyond olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon slices. It’s like taking food back to basics, to what it should be really about – the freshness of things, of dining straight from the produce of the land and sea, without the commerclialisation from middle men who step in to provide us with produce that are pricier, less fresh but more convenient to purchase.

The sea urchin pasta. Looked just a tad better than it tasted unfortunately.

We experienced the full gamut of dining options in Mykonos, from the sit-by-the-sidewalk style meal of pizza and ‘Portokalopita’ (orange cake with honey) from il forno di Gerasimo, a charming Greek-style bakery to the fussier end of the spectrum with Spilia at the other side of the island. Our conclusion? Finer Greek dining options doesn’t have a lot on its grimier counterparts. You’re better off saving that additional €30 and spending it on fancy late night cocktails. Sea urchin pasta sounded like the pasta equivalent of a Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan team-up to my wife but it turned out ridiculously underwhelming at Spilia. To top it off it was quite a quest to get there, about 19-minutes on an ATV.

I know, 19-minutes is hardly a lifetime. In fact, in most fantasy canons it would be laughable to call that a quest. It’s more like stepping out to the garden rather than journeying to Mount Doom. But if you factor in the fact that it’s left-side drive in Greece, most roads in Greek islands are single lane and that I have never been on ATV before, those 19-minutes felt like the third act in Endgame. In hindsight it was a scenic, breezy drive up and down hills and coastal roads to get to our dinner but in the midst of that 19-minute journey, it was like trying to read Shakespeare while being strangled. So stressed was I on the contraption that any missed turns was not resolved by a three-point U but to go straight and hope that the road doubles back somehow like a faithful boomerang. My wife felt necessary to point out the fallacy of renting an ATV for flexibility but not being flexible myself. Boo bloody hoo.

No u-turns on this baby.

Mykonos is often cited as a party island. But that seems to suggest that it’s packed with drunks, getting overtly fresh with everyone and piercingly-loud music punctuating the air. We experienced none of the sort. In fact, so much so we started wondering where were the ‘parties’? Our money’s on the beachfront clubs but Chora, for a city boy like me, hardly registers much on the city-vibe scale. There are clearly a lot of people, but it’s people dining over good food, with a glass of wine or two. It’s hardly a London rave in the 90s with Begbie.

The truth is Mykonos does offer plenty of options for seclusion if that’s your preferred beverage. Moments that spring to mind is us having coffee on separate occasions at Little Venice, just taking in the sun and the turquoise sea, or staring out our bedroom window at the empty cobbled streets in the morning, buying delicious spinach and feta pastry from a home-style bakery around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, there was clearly a lot of people buzzing about, but the beauty of what was around you was louder and more pronounced than tourists in sundresses. We still managed to feel alone, amidst people.

Paros awaits.

This is Scotland (Part 2 – The People)

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The charming city of Inverness.

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.

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Somewhere between Invergarry and Isle of Skye.

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.

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Our ‘chariot’, parked at the Glengarry Heritage Center.

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 for 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.

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A model of the Invergarry Castle.

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.

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The streets of Inverness, where we met a Caribbean prince.

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.

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Decking the halls in a Gothic classic called Bluebell House.

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.

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The Bluebell House.

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.

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Those 5 quid cocktails were really something.

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.

This is Scotland (Part 1 – The Land)

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The refuge of ‘Passing Place’ signs.

To properly understand and appreciate Scotland is to understand that it is akin to a moody, beautiful woman. She doesn’t beckon, she just stays, confident that you will be compelled to come to her. She knows she’s the most beautiful girl in the room, so she does not feel the need to impress you, she knows you’re already impressed. She’s unapologetically passionate, moving from warm, sunny and happy to cold, quiet and nonchalant within minutes. She’s confident in what she is, she never feels the need to explain herself to you.

If you realise this swiftly about Scotland, then you can properly appreciate her beauty. The weather in Scotland is as unpredictable as a kite without a string. You can be decked down in sunny garb because you see the sun outside, but from the time you put on your loafers to the time you step out the door, it would already be drizzling hail and freezing. The weather got so moody, that our philosophy when it came to doing anything in Scotland almost never came down to the weather. If it was pouring outside and we wanted to hike, we still went because some sun is usually just around the corner. A host in one accommodation we stayed in very aptly described the weather in Scotland as ‘four seasons in a day’.

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Our chariot.

We rolled into Waverly station from York, cold, a little lost but gamed to start the road trip leg of our trip. But first, we needed our chariot. She booked the cheapest car on the menu, which she expected would be a smallish car where I could possibly have needed to press my derriere against her face just to release the hand brakes. Instead, we were given the keys to a C Class. We paid for a chariot but got a wagon instead. Mistake? Luck? Blessing? Who knows. I was just dreaming about rolling like a boss. Now, where were my shades? But jokes aside, the difference between a nice and unforgettable holiday often comes down to the little things. Like the sunroof that our car had. To be able to wind it back to enjoy the warm sun on chilly mornings or to allow the cool evening gust to rush through the car on warmer afternoons, made the long drives very memorable for the two of us indeed. They did not feel like wasted travel time. We were experiencing Scotland even inside the confines of German engineering.

It was nice to drive away from the bustle. I have very little preferences when it comes to traveling (mainly because I didn’t do much of it before) but I think something I have developed in recent years is a schedule that goes from the bustle of a city, gradually retreating into quiet solitude. I’m not sure why, but there’s an instinctual comfort that comes from having your senses overloaded and then gradually unwinding into an almost meditative state. London played it role as the ringmaster of the circus wonderfully, orchestrating trapeze jumps after another through things I loved but I was equally excited with the prospect of having the lights dimmed and the curtains fall now as I retreat into the quiet.

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Our cameras were engorged with huge landscapes.

The terrain in Scotland is unrelenting, larger than our camera lenses could comprehend. While we were properly wondered by the picturesque landscape of New Zealand, Scotland’s charm is a little more uncouth, a little more uncontrollable. While New Zealand often seems like God’s own properly manicured garden. One where he brings a gardener or landscaper in frequently to tend and beautify, Scotland feels like the garden in his second home. One where he doesn’t quite leave completely to rot, but does allow the seasons and forces of nature to shape and refine. Being somebody that has never enjoyed anything that’s too refined or pristine, I really appreciated the ruggedness of Scotland’s landscape. There wasn’t always amenities where you expected them, the car parks to the walks/hikes were often self-shaped and defined, you had to hike at times, uncomfortably through forages and bushes to get where you need to. But that adds to the charm of it. This wasn’t nature on a Top-40 million-dollar production budget. This was the heart and soul of an artist grinding through a track in the basement of his mother’s home, more or less unconscious of the brilliance that is about to bloom.

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Wild, untamed nature.

This unpredictable charm was best illustrated during our hike up to see the Old Man of Storr. And before your imagination starts running wild to a malnourished, bearded spiritual guru who sits on a rock on a mountain, awaiting Asian tourists to pop by so that he can enlighten them with the secrets of life and death, the Old Man of Storr is really just a large boulder. But, the fun’s not always in the objective right? My wife might sound a retort. Anyway, we made our way up, going from well paved roads to sludgy puddles of mud, while weathering wind, rain and eventually hail. 40-minutes later, there we were, taking refuge at what can probably be described as the derriere of the Old Man as the winds rustled up a whistle and the hail getting vicious. For a moment stuck up there, with no fellow hikers in sight, it felt, dangerous. Like perhaps we forgot to read the fine print on the brochure – ‘May potentially not come back’. I did not sign up for this. I started the journey thinking it was going to be a breezy walk, adjusted my expectations when I saw the muddy climb and now you’re telling me it ends here? Surely thou jest. But that well-publicised moodiness of Scotland weather was to be our salvation, as the weather turned tepid as quickly as it did dangerous and we started making our way down.

One of the magical things about traveling is that it introduces you to lifestyles that are different from yours. Experiencing these idyllic lifestyles abroad is a way I deposit some hope into my heart and soul that there are better ways to live this life. Sure, we may never attain them but it somehow feels better to have something to aspire to than having absolutely nothing at all. We’ve witnessed people who have carved out an existence in between a scenic loch at the back of their home and snow-capped mountains at the front of it. We’ve seen people who tend to a croft for a living, up in the hills, unburdened by the excesses of civilisation, contented with forging a meaningful existence largely with and around nature.

I lost count on the amount of charming small towns we drove through, marked by scant pockets of settlement and civilisation. The idea that someone has created an existence for themselves so removed away from the existence I’ve carved for myself continues to be endlessly fascinating for me. To be able to take our time and drive through them, at times meeting the people there, dine with them, just increased the fascination for me. Flashes of scenes pop into my mind as I write this – the candy shop in Portree where we bought some Haggis-flavored chocolates, the town of Inveraray where it’s largest attraction is a prison, the delectable langoustines we had at the Oysters Shed, tucked away on top of a remote hill in the town of Carbost and my wife tempting death or at the very least, frostbite by climbing the iron cable bridge at Ben Nevis across a lake.

But the experience we had at the peak of Kilmuir, a village above the town of Uig up in the Isle of Skye was nothing short of surreal from an existential perspective. Surrounded by rolling peaks, scattered housing, little rustic roads that look like they lead to the afterlife and a clear view of the distant sea and the sun on the horizon, Kilmuir seems like a town drawn out of the pages of an Enid Blyton book. Realistic enough to not have to pinch yourself but with just a dash of the whimsical to have your head up in the clouds. The heavens felt uninterrupted up there, like they were an arm’s stretch away. And in the midst of this breath-taking experience, there we were, holed up in a stationary camper van, tucked under an electric blanket with nature just cooing a gentle melody around us. That evening where we rustled up a no-fuss pot of meatball soup, sat ourselves out on a wooden bench and watched the sun go down on a heavenly horizon remains one of the most memorable nights for me on our Scottish journey.

Our abode for the night in Kilmuir.

Our hosts ran a small farm behind their home, tending to sheep and journeyman travelers. They talked about attending a neighborhood birthday party down the road with glee and on evenings they come out to the back of their home where they get an almost uninterrupted view of the sea and the clear horizon. Being in a place like that, to self-consciously milk a city cliché, ‘re-orientates’ you. We often stress ourselves with so much expectations that come from trying to survive and thrive in a concrete jungle. But the people out in Kilmuir content themselves with pretty sunsets and clean air. No need for fast cars and dangerous men and women when you have a lovable dog named Lexie to brighten up your day.

For a split second of a moment, I envied the simplicity of their lives and how uncomplicated they made everything seemed. An existence such as this may seem too remote for most of the people I know, but the thing about being in the limelight is that it sometimes burns. We exhaust ourselves by going on a treadmill and running on it for basically the majority of our lives, unable to stop, unable to rest. But out here in the highlands of Scotland, you are allowed to walk through your existence. The contrast made me want it.

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The walk towards the Fairy Pools was pretty mythical indeed.

Scotland’s nature still appears to me in my pensive moments. The rustic highlands, thronged by wild brown grass, punctuated by deep blue lochs. The flash rains and hail that blow through us like a passing carnival troop, imposing and disruptive for a moment, but gone as quickly as it came. The miles of undisturbed roads, navigated by ‘Passing Place’ signs that assure you that salvation is but only a few yards away. The North Coast 500 road that takes you up gorging canyons down to hilly passes and up beside scenic lakes, so unbelievable that one needs to experience it to properly believe it exists. The sad reality is that for a lot of us, we would not have enough resources or time to revisit a place like this. Just something we check off the bucket list, consigned to only repeat in the theater of our minds until we part this earth. I wish I would be able to come back to revisit this beautiful moody woman one day.

To see how far she’s come since I last gazed eyes on her.

This is England (Day 5)

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The famed Shambles …

As someone who has never been to the UK, I have subscribed to certain clichés about how the place would be. Now I am aware that these are blatantly untrue for some parts, but like the irresistible urge to pick up the last piece of roast pork and stuff it into your mouth, there are things one can’t logically reason with your mind. Or at least I can’t with mine. It’s stuck in its rebellious teenage phase for some time now. It locks itself in its room, turns up the volume on a Morbid Angel record and pretends like I have little control over it. It’s been doing this for so long that I have all but given up and surrendered to its intended notion that I indeed have little or absolutely no dominion over it.

So what are these clichés? Proper polite people speaking in rounded sentences, existing amidst a landscape of cloudy and cold weather, cobblestone streets, charming Victorian-era buildings and lush and pretty countrysides. The food would always have a side of gravy, the cars would travel at pedestrian pace and you need not be alarmed if you have to stop at a junction to allow way for a horse carriage. Yes, my mind occasionally knows how to have its cheese. Granted London, sometimes regarded as an unforgiving city, has done a decent job in smashing these islands in my mind’s sky to bits in well-coordinated attacks during my four day stay there. The Estonian with a heavy Baltic accent serving us our pint of ale at a British tavern was the final swing of the hammer.

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Like you’re walking in a British dream.

But our adventure on the fifth day, which started with a train ride from King’s Cross up north, did much to restore my delusions, despite the day ending with us enjoying a spicy cup of Korean noodles. York is a city that has no qualms with encouraging the most typical of stereotypes concerning a city in the Queen’s land. If I had landed in York before London, I would be slightly crippled at just how true the definite-delusions I had were. The streets of York are paved with cobblestone, often between rows of Victoria-style buildings housing old-school candy houses, bookshops and the occasional tavern. There are cathedral-like structures at the end of most streets, housing anything from churches to restaurants. The town is not designed in neat grids, with little lanes sprawling into little nooks and crannies that you wouldn’t resist exploring, giving the impression the town was constructed a structure at a time, not by a well organised town council. There is even a medieval wall flanking almost the entire city, which you can walk on and imagine what it would’ve been like in days or lore, to patrol and guard the city vigilantly. If not for the sight of Primark breaking my reverie on one of my lookouts, I might have been inclined to lob the largest rock I could get my hands on outwards to starve off an invasion. Thankfully, no man nor his dog was hurt.

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A lovely sight.

It was a city that encouraged me to be silly in my indulgence of British stereotypes. One that you would not find too difficult to imagine being stalked by the ghostly figure of a serial killer named Jack or an actual specter in a top hat. Yes, that kind of specter. You can even attach a Lincoln-like beard to that specter if you please. In fact, I can confirm that one of the reasons my wife wanted a stop at York, was because she read that it was one of the most haunted cities in Europe. My wife appeared thrilled with the thought, repeating it a couple of times in the months leading up to the trip. I suspect she felt the pictures she was looking at of York, made it feel like she was obligated to bump into a specter in a top hat or a serial killer vying for her entrails. No visits of a macabre nature unfortunately for her, but we did get a jolt when trying to check into our accommodation, the White Horse Inn. We were told by the polite policeman at the door that the premise was closed at the moment because it was a crime scene. Yes, a crime scene. I would imagine my wife would’ve been tempted to ask if it was committed by a bearded man in a top hat that was glowing green. We didn’t, which probably served her fantasies and notions better. To be told that it was just a reveler in a footie shirt clocking another over the head with a bottle of Guinness would’ve been underwhelming to say the least.

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The Hairy Fig: The main even of the day.

It’s hard to pin down just what was the nature of our day in York, but it would be hard to look pass our meal at The Hairy Fig as probably its main event. A part of the cheesy clichés playing in my head of course includes the kind of food I would be expecting to eat in Britain. I imagined warm tomato soup served in pretty dinnerware, preceded by puffy scones with a side of clotted cream and preservatives and a main of no-frills pork pie served with a side of mushy peas. And of course, tea. And that was exactly the meal we had at The Hairy Fig. I could’ve snapped a picture our meal, print it on a postcards titled ‘British Food’ and sold them to naive Asian tourists. The café itself was insanely charming. Just a small dining room with about four tables hidden behind a storefront that sold exotic oils, vinegars and spirits. It was the stuff of children’s novels. The floor panels creaked with each step, the doors framed with aged wood and the tables and chairs lacked uniformity, like a scattered set of random heirloom furniture that were put together in a single space.

The meal was exactly what we needed at that moment, after the cosmopolitan meals of the last couple of days, it was nice to tuck into something that felt home-cooked. In fact, it was probably not that far from the truth. The pork pie was brought out of a refrigerator, padded up and sent into a home-sized toaster oven while the mushy peas were cooked and softened in a small hand-held pot that looks like something we had at home as well. No juggernaut-sized confectionery ovens or military-drilled line of sous-chefs. Just a small café run by three ladies who have no desire to see this business turn into an empire. The ladies running the place were so warm and friendly that for a moment, I forgot that I was dining in a café. It felt like we were invited into someone’s home for a meal with their family. The pork pie was especially a pleasing thing. I’ve always read about British meat pies and have been intrigued by them and this one at the Hairy Fig did not disappoint. It was basically just sparsely seasoned minced pork in flaky pastry. No jazzy ingredients. And this would be my cliché-laden mind working again, it tasted like food for the working class. And after all we’ve consumed up till that point, eating something so simple but delicious, was just glorious.

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The start of a ‘happy’ evening.

Our day in York was a befitting recess between the manic senses-overload of London to what would be a gorgeous sojourn into the solitude of Scotland. It was a rag-tag, patchy day punctuated by oddball activities such as a shopping spree at Primark to a personal prelude to a ‘happy’ evening for me thanks to some lovely testers of ale at the Ye Old Shambles Tavern. No, it was not lit by candles and managed by a hunched inn-keeper.

By the time we retreated back to our accommodation, the police were gone, the bar downstairs was opened again for sloshing and the inn-keeper (she called herself a manager but I’ll call her whatever I want here) claims she has no idea what the crime was all about (strokes chin). We opened and checked all the closets and storage spaces anyway just in case. Reflecting it did not feel we did anything of significant meaning but yet it felt like the end of a good day. Looking back, I would still not trade my day in York for any of our other stops. In fact, it’s one of the places in this trip that I would want to return to and experience properly.

Maybe spend a little less time in Primark next time.

This is England (Day 3 and 4)

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The gorgeous sight of St Paul’s reaching for the heavens.

‘Your seats are down that way’, the steward gestured us down the steps towards the Wembley pitch. I was expecting for me and her to climb steps upwards, only finding our seats when our noses bleed and lungs rupture. I’m not sure why that would be my posture. Perhaps it was a defence mechanism against disappointment. Then again, looking around the stadium, seeing half of it bathed in Chelsea blue, it would be hard for this fan to be disappointed today, even if I had to lose a lung as a result. But as it stood, we were sitting about 10 rows from pitch side, the manager dugout about diagonally 30 feet away, surrounded by Blues supporters and it feels absolutely surreal. Those lonely nights in front of the telly at mostly-witching hours, urging the team on with a cup of coffee in one hand while clenching the edges of the couch with the other has led me to this. Finally, fiction has become fact.

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Digging for gold, Solid Gold …

The day had already been pretty fabulous up till that moment. We had woken up early for a leisurely coffee stop, decked in our matching Chelsea kits, We chatted briefly with a stately-looking Chelsea fan at the coffee place who told us that his daughter named her hamster ‘Vialli’, after Gianluca Vialli, the once-Chelsea forward/manager. We then headed over to the Music and Video Exchange at Notting Hill Gate for a bout of vinyl-digging where I managed to find a Shadows compilation my dad used to have and a double LP Carpenters compilation for me to properly drown my sorrows in (should I ever need it). She managed to find a couple of classical ones for 10p each. We then headed across the main road to The Mall Tavern for their Sunday Roast. Actually, it was more like lunch had us. I had told her before the trip that one of the boxes I wanted to tick was to have food I’ve come to dub ‘medieval food’. In my mind, it was pornographic amounts of meat with vegetables and potatoes and downed with a nice bitter pale ale. The kind of food I would eat before a day of war-mongering (I am under no illusion that I am being insensitively general and thick here). What I got was more than I bargained for. Crackling-skinned pork slow-roasted to tenderness accompanied by sweet root vegetables, soft potatoes and a threatening-sized Yorkshire pudding. For a moment I thought my meal was going to come alive and devour me. Thankfully, I devoured it first.

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Unleash the Crack-en

The journey to the stadium was an experience in itself and I was determined to take it all in. We took the train from Queensway, following the Central line. With each stop, sporadic pockets of Chelsea and Southampton fans boarded, with the train gradually morphing from a hodgepodge of random colours into a forming sea of blue and red. As the train filled, I grew more self-conscious about wearing my jersey. We had this season’s matching away kits on. I thought about how we looked. Two Asian tourists, with new-ish kits on looking like this date with Wembley would be a one-and-only. I felt judged. I clearly did not look like I was reared in the bowels of Putney or Parsons Green. But I wished so much I was at that moment, only because it would embellish me with much needed credibility to wear this kit. I look to the left and see a young father and his son in a black Chelsea polo-tee and Hazard-10 blue kit respectively, enjoying their train ride to the stadium. The son was waxing lyrical about the rumoured return of Ramires and how he thought Cabellero is a better keeper than Courtois (the boy obviously has no idea what he’s talking about). It was a nice picture of what Sunday football is or could be.

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Doing the Wembley walk

Once we found our seats, it took us a while to settle into the occasion, to take everything around me in. When I eventually did, I noticed the Chelsea players warming up just a stone’s throw from where we were. Pedro was kicking a ball into a second goal behind the actual one, Gary Cahill was leading the starting lads on a jog-about in the foreground. She notices her favourite player Willian. Actually she probably noticed his hair before him. In many ways, watching these players in the flesh is more gob-smacking to me than catching an Arcade Fire concert. I’ve spent probably more meaningful time watching them in the last two years than I have listening to Win Butler and co. But these are not rock stars bathed in spotlight, designed to look more superior than the average human being. The one thing that immediately struck me was just how human they looked and moved. Stripped of dramatization from eager commentators, they just look like a bunch of athletic individuals preparing for a bout of sport. I found it doubly intriguing just how normal and approachable they looked.

It was strange to take in a top football match without accompanying commentary. I have been so used to watching all matches with the velvet-voiced Peter Drury guiding my eyes and thoughts that at first, I found it a little bewildering on what I should be focusing on. My eyes darted around furiously during the opening exchanges, going from the dugout where Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was typically doing his best impression of a corporate executive with a rat running about in his pants to the fans all around me back to the pitch where I just about caught Willian doing a typical mazzy run by accelerating himself past a couple of Southampton players. Quarter of the match in, it felt like my eyes had just participated in the London Marathon (incidentally, also happening that day).

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#ktbffh

There was also the ‘Stand Up If You Hate Tottenham’ song to keep things ridiculous throughout. Thankfully, my detention time in the closet of bewilderment was chopped short thanks to a bunch of hilarious Chelsea fans just behind us. No commentary, no problem, they came up with their own. No Drury like vocal warmness or even the monosyllabic droll of Beglin. What we got instead was snappy British humor without the watching eye of censors and powered by a pine or two. They went after Cahill first (‘Calm down Gaaraay’), were suitably incensed when Bakayoko was asked to warm up (‘Sit back down Bakayoko’), segwayed to how well they would do if they entered the London Marathon (‘I would just cab it to the end’) and even delivered some absolutely gob-smacking industry-changing ideas (‘personally, I think if you are earning 100,000 quid, you should not be offside, ever’). I was so entertained by their commentary that I was a little lost again when they came back late from half-time drinks. It was 0-0 at half-time, 2-0 at the end, thanks to Giroud and Morata. It had been a glorious afternoon, mainly because I was glad that I did not spend the monetary equivalent of my right butt cheek to watch my team crash out of the FA Cup semis

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The moment just before we discovered just how good our seats were.

It was a fittingly rapturous end to our London sojourn, and a nice shift of pace from the museum-filled day on Saturday, a day which began with a lovely brunch with Audrey and Guy, followed by a whole day of filling our minds with a bit of culture. There may or may not have been some delectable cod goujons and ale in between (there was).

The British Museum offered little intrigue for me. My travels have shown me that I have rather low affinity for historical museums. Then again, I should know this, especially when my Form Five history teacher chose to pinch me in the stomach when I asked her for my History forecast results. With each turn of her fingers, she was exorcising two years worth of nonchalance I have given her in the class. I suppose it was a big moment for her. For me, I guess it worked out well that I never headed to college immediately after secondary school otherwise I would have some difficulty explaining why I was able to obtain forecast results for all subjects except history, ‘I got a pinch instead’; ‘What’? ‘Yup’. I can see how something like the Rosetta Stone would’ve been a fantastic fast forward button in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs at the time when it was discovered, but that’s the thing, everything I am looking at in a historical museum is something that would’ve had its time in the sun a long time ago. In the now, framed against our current landscape, the Rosetta Stone looks well, like a large rock with inscriptions on it. I would’ve been just as excited to read about its relevance in a book. Looking at it offered little additional value for me. The sight of middle age tourists senselessly snapping photos of it with their flashes on, with phones on mounted monopods, just made it more of a turn off for me.

On the flipside I had a thoroughly enlightening time at the Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy exhibition at the Tate Modern. I normally would’ve been less than elated with an exhibition of this sort but the additional £4.50 we shelled out for the Audio Guides turned out to be a wonderful ROI for me. I am attracted to narratives, I need to see art within the context of its conception and not just as a piece on its own. I do not enjoy drawing my own subtexts from it. Perhaps I am lazy. I like it served to me, guiding me like a homing missile towards the intended target. The audio guides in the Picasso exhibition offered this to me in abundance. The narratives were forward and clear. The pieces I was looking at were created during the time when his first marriage was falling apart and he was obsessed with his new object of lust, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It offered a glimpse into the mind of a philandering genius who was struggling to cope with the expectations from the public and the forbidden lust he was feeling in his soul. It was a fascinating sojourn that unwrapped the crucial year of 1932 and what Picasso was feeling and being inspired by at that moment.

I spent a lot of the time I was in the exhibition thinking about motivations and inspirations and how they drive our expressions. Picasso had a wonderful medium to express himself, and the talent to do it. He captivated many with his creations, borne a lot out of his own desires, feelings and frustrations. I was wondering about the people who are not privy to such an outlet. What then happens to these feelings? Do they get filed into a deep cabinet in their mind and heart, left to fester like an infected wound over time. And what does that ultimately lead to? Well, dinner in my case. The one thing I’ve learned from age is that when storms hit your mind and you find yourself being bewildered by challenging existential questions, just feel yourself a lot of fried rice and go to sleep. I’ve found in most cases, it’s a new day when you wake.

Nothing resets the mind better than carbohydrates.

This is England (Day 1)

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‘We can chain you to the rail’ – The Clash

Stepping out into the streets of London was like putting on an old unworn suit. It’s all vividly familiar but yet, not quite. I have spent a lot of hours listening to its sounds, drawing from the words of its musical poets like Strummer and Morrissey, watching through its celluloid eyes and I have been captivated even before I laid eyes proper on her.

I was compelled to take a picture of the first London Underground sign I saw like a wide-eyed uncouth boy, a brand so synonymous with the pop culture I have spent a large part of my existence reveling in. But I did not care. I merely watched and listened before, but here I am. And I can’t help smiling.

And London smiled back, with rays of sunshine, literally. Our concerns that we may have to brave the remaining gusts of winter proved to be unfounded as we walked into the first day of London’s summer. So zesty was the day that the waiter at the restaurant we had our first lunch in, briefly suggested I reconsider my order of a hot lemon tea.

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Fulham Road

Blue is the warmest color

It was Gandhi who said, ‘Actions expresses priorities‘, and if that is so, then it was obvious that one of my priorities was on Fulham Road, given that despite having just endured a 14-hour flight on the balance of a decent red curry rice and some sleeping pills not an hour ago, my focus after stomaching a lovely lunch at Mandarin Kitchen at Queensway was to head immediately to the place my eyes has feasted on every other weekend since I became a fan about a decade ago.

I was home. That is if we are subscribing to the old adage that ‘it’s where your heart is’. I however prefer a more contemporary notion that one’s heart need not be completely circumscribed. While it rests more often than not at the feet of my wife, she knows it occasionally strays. Not to the nearest pair of fetching legs, that she would not stomach, but to what happens at Fulham Road every other weekend.

It felt almost surreal to walk down that road. To imagine how the huddled fans decked in blue would walk down that road, how the residents who reside in the flats just next to the stadium would have to contend with droves of Chelsea fans invading their space. It’s a walk I wish I could make every week, and perhaps one day with a son in tow. But alas I would have to be contented with this weekend pass for now.

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I ‘cheat’ on my wife every other week here.

While the other tourists trigger-happily click in hundreds of pictures of the Matthew Harding stand, I find my eyes drawn to finer, quirkier details. A rusted balcony bar, worn from decades of sweaty palms gripping it for support and comfort, draws me in. It gives me an indication of the world-wearier side of this structure’s soul, existing long before the millions poured in.

Then there is the painfully lopsided press table, not unlike the war-torn ones you may find at your grandparents’ place – a chasm forming at the center of its top from years of hoarded magazines, newspapers and empty biscuit tins being piled mercilessly on it. Well in the case of the one sitting in the Stamford Bridge press room, from years of managers resting their weary, contemplative arms on them. I marvel not at the history that so intangibly hovers over it, but at the sentimentality that still exists in a club so often accused of being soulless. That such a grotesque state furniture is allowed to exist at the forefront of its media thrust suggests that perhaps not all heart was lost in the fires of the Russian revival.

‘They’ll never take Piccadilly’

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A pence for a song.

There’s palpable excitement in the air around Piccadilly Circus. Buskers line the streets, entertaining revelers who are only too happy to bask in some sunlight after a long hard winter. The famous West End bursts with color, vitality and commerce. I feel my attention being dragged to and from like a drunk lord being harassed forcefully by a pair of barmaids. There’s just too much to do, too much to see. Oh what I would have given for some egg yolk, grease and ginger to gather my attention’s dignity, girth up its pants and to calm the hell down.

All those more than moderately-budgeted productions being housed in these little street-side theaters charmed me to no end, like a fairy tale princess being whisked up a brutish stallion amidst the gaze of millions of tulips. And if you are now imagining a stocky Asian man being given the Cinderella package, well done to me.

The plan, well the somewhat plan, was to watch The Book of Mormon, that is before my wife balked at the ticket prices and the plan got floated out to oblivion like a kid releasing a paper boat into a storm drain. It wasn’t cheap, but cheaper thanks to a tip from a friend – never buy the tickets ahead but go at the last gasp to see if there are stray tickets available. The lure to pack out a show would be worth more to the theater than the 20-30 quid discount you end up getting. So we did it.

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Watch or be watched.

I have never seen spending money on experiences as being a waste. After all, experiences are what glues generations together. I can still remember my dad regaling me about those sweaty 60s nights where he would play Shadows covers with his band to dance-floor merchants. It was what eventually inspired me to be in a band as well. You could well take that cash and spend it on a designer handbag if that’s your poison but the nostalgist in me is thinking it’s not like I can sit my kid down in the future and regal him/her about the time I had ‘a beast of a clamshell Gucci with a herringbone pattern’. Watching a musical at the West End featuring a reoccurring chorus about having ‘maggots in my scrotum’? Now that’s what you spend your dosh on.