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 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.

 

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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 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 York (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.

Let your good heart lead you home

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Gritty but comforting …

I was trying to hail a cab. Traffic was blooming restlessly around me and luck was not being too magnanimous. Taxis were zipping by but none seemed too interested to stop. ‘You want taxi?’ It was the traffic warden from the swanky hotel situated on my foreground. Being bred on the occasionally unforgiving streets of the Klang Valley where hardly anything or anyone yields, I was naturally apprehensive. Does he want a fee for doing this, given I was clearly not a resident of the posh hotel that salaried him? I mean I was drenched in sweat, decked in dirt-soiled cargo shorts and I was obviously walking towards him from a direction that was away from the hotel. Nevertheless, I mentally waved a white flag at my ideals and nodded. He proceeded to use his hand-held ‘Taxi’ sign to hail down the first cab, had a furious discussion in Thai and frustratingly waved the taxi on. I was baffled. ‘No meter’, he said. He proceeded to wave down three more cabs before nodding to me to get into one. As I was preparing to board I turned to him, expecting him to collect his fee. He just smiled and gestured me into the cab. It was an unimaginable moment of grace from someone, in a buzzing city that was exploding with neon life. He did not have to, but he did. It was unexpected and frankly, as silly as it sounds, unbelievable. Such was the dizzy heights of my cynicism. For a moment, I reconnected with the human race. And I was glad to report that we were alright.

Bangkok, as a city, has always agreed with me as a person.

There are many obvious things to dislike about Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, from the  dangerously intimate proximity of its architectural structures doing its best impression of a pressure cooker, skylines littered with messy power lines that seek to charge its bustling heart and the unwholesome extensions of its maligned body providing sexual gratification for socially awkward patrons raised in lands with stronger currencies.

As someone who was born and raised in the city, I grew up with certain expectations on how a city is supposed to operate and how its inhabitants are supposed to behave. Every subsequent city, town or country you explore for the rest of your life is often measured against those initial set of expectations. From items you see on travels that you deem too expensive or unbelievably affordable, to people you meet who are almost uncomfortably friendly or unimaginably discourteous, everything is sized against those fundamental expectations we have built up during our lifetime. In most of my travels, rarely does a place hold up to those fundamental expectations.

Well, except Bangkok.

Each trip back opens up undiscovered facets of its multifarious personality that just makes me fall just a little more in love with it. This recent trip about a month ago, I discovered a sardonically hilarious tailor who makes lovely suits and shirts for decent prices that can be couriered back to you, an unadorned store in sec 16 of Chatuchak that sells brilliantly designed t-shirts of noteworthy indie bands and a tourist-light floating market that caters some of the most affordable and delectable food items to mostly locals. There’s a lot to both love and hate.

But like the one we start out with, we do not have the luxury of choosing what to call home. It just is, and this is

Small children in the background

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The town of Mossburn

Our rickety-sounding campervan barrelled down clear windy roads, gorging on kilometers as we made haste. Around us, nature was constantly purring an aria, primary blue skies venturing uncharacteristically downwards to meet frosty snowcapped mountains standing on the shoulders of spring-bloomed green fields. At times, it felt like the weather controls were left to the whims and fancies of a five-year old. I could be in a t-shirt standing next to someone in a down. Everything appeared possible and permissible.

It’s very easy to get lost in the gorgeousness of Te Waipounamu. To be literally transported to a place where industrial progress skipped a turn, where nature picked up arms and fought back. It’s a place that defies and denies the more capitalistic tenets of civilization. As our reliable bacon-odored transport continued to gorge on the open road barrelling from one holiday park to the next, we found ourselves zipping pass quaint little towns with pretty names, Geraldine, Fairlie and others with more cumbersome ones (Twizel). Some of these towns offer barely anything by way of township, a church that sits about 50, a garage that tends to only trucks and tractors, a snugged convenience store, a school if you’re lucky, etc.

As we zipped pass more and more towns, I find myself being increasingly fascinated by the seemingly randomness of thought that went to designing some of these towns. Some had fishing tackle shops but no signs of a petrol kiosk. Others had art galleries that also offered a cup of espresso and free range eggs but with no school in sight. My thoughts race back and forth, unable to satisfyingly resolve this conundrum of haphazardness. Perhaps each township is formed out of the chosen vocation of its inhabitants. Yeah, that must be it.

But that can’t be it, can it? Doesn’t the need of the many outweigh the desires of the few. Surely the community would benefit more from a small grocery store than an art gallery. Are businesses assigned based on needs? Are they legislated, and more importantly, how are they managed from a community level? I was drawn in, and fascinated with the nuts and bolts. Not just the political process of it, but also how it relates to ‘me and my neighbor living next to me’?

The obvious questions to ask are ‘why questions’ – Why can’t we carve out simpler existences like that for ourselves? Why was I born into a community that encourages the rat race? Why wasn’t I born in say, Mossburn, where the hills whistle choruses around me?

But yet, I find myself drawn towards the ‘hows’. How does one eke out an existence in a town like that? Where ‘choices’, something we demand unconsciously in cosmopolitan cities, are rendered meaningless by the fact that there is only one convenience store to buy your milk from, one school to send your kids to and one church to say your weekend prayers to God in. Does the 20-something manning the gas station on a chilly and lonely Saturday evening lock up at midnight, walk back to his home behind the station and repeats the same routine the next day? The things I have come to expect in my often bustling surroundings such as variety and diversity were turned on their collective heads. Perhaps it is just a case of wanting something I never had.

Perhaps.

I had a short conversation with the caretaker for the Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo. She lives about an hour’s drive up the main road. Every morning she wakes up, dresses and makes that scenic hour-long drive to the church, where she tends to tourists decked in bright fluorescent jackets, looking to take the perfect selfie with one of God’s more lovely homes in the background. She does it with a patient smile and informs each of them that ‘service is at 4pm later today’. At the end of the day, she packs up and makes that same drive back to her home where she probably would make her family a warm dinner as they look to fend off the chilly spring night winds before resuming the same routine the next day, “Oh you’re looking to climb Mt Cook. I would suggest you give that a skip today cause it should be raining up there.” Oh, how … “I did not see it this morning.”

For just a moment there, I greatly, greatly desired what she had.