I never did learn how to coil and uncoil them properly during my years as a band boy. Purists would bark psycho at me turning them in a lazy circular motion until everything is coiled and I stuff it into the narrow pocket of my guitar case. The price I pay for being unlearned about the art of coiling a guitar cable is that I have to spend more time untangling them and lifting portions of it so that gravity will help me uncoil them to an extent. They never do get properly untangled though, because I was careless when I coiled them to begin with.
That’s pretty much a fairly accurate analogy of what happens to my mind sometimes.
I imagine for some people, a more accurate analogy on what happens to their mind sometimes is of a sheet of pristine paper that’s been crumpled. Undoing it merely involves flattening the paper out. It’s never going to be pristine again sure, but it’s a lot easier to bring it back to it’s rough original shape.
Actually what I do with my mind and thoughts sometimes is like coiling a lengthy guitar cable carelessly before stuffing it into a narrow pocket of a guitar case, yes. Except I then coil another lengthy cable and repeat that process and stuff it into the same pocket. I pretty much do this for about four lengthy cables before stuffing my hand into the packed pocket and start mingling the cables around inside. What I am left with is a mess of tangled thoughts, feeling and emotions that I wouldn’t even know how to start untangling.
As such I often sit there, with my tangled mess, surrendered to the notion that I would never be able to uncoil it and start planning on how I should learn to live with it. So I am grateful for friends who can come along and get their fingers in and start figuring out how to start untangling my mess from the base cause. People who are willing to process things with me patiently at a psychologically conceptual and almost incomprehensible level to help me figure out how to start untangling the mess I’ve gotten myself into. I am aware portions of my mind may never be completely the same again but at least I can start uncoiling them to an extent where they can become useful to someone again.
To them I raise a glass today. I am grateful for you because you keep me sane by being just a little insane, at times.
We all have ‘relationship gut’. That unsightly bit that hangs out a little when we are giddily existing in a loving relationship. It often manifests itself through a series of habitual behaviors. Naturally, the intensity varies from person to person. Some people express it by being a little more confident than they usually in person, others express it through detonating a thousand heart emojis on your screen. But if we are honest with ourselves, all of us have relationship guts.
I confess that over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with the idea that I am someone that does better when I am in a relationship. I know the world informs me that I shouldn’t be like that. That the utopia is always to develop strength as an autonomous entity first because being emotionally dependent on another person is well, a little weak. I agree wholeheartedly to these points of course. Which is why I have never dived into a relationship purely as a survival mechanism. But on the occasion where I have found a relationship worth pursuing or in my current state, a compatible partner for life, I am not ashamed to admit that it has, in those moments, made me a better version of the person I am.
I don’t know why that is. I supposed the answer I like was that I was made this way. Some people hate the cold, some people love licorice, some people prefer chicken breast, I just prefer to be in a relationship rather than not. Sure, I am conscious enough to know that preferences are often informed by personal experiences. I do not know what is informing this preference of mine. I mean, I have some ideas and theories but none I like enough to express here. But I do like the stability that comes from being a part of a unit. It often feels like it forms the base by which I build most extensions of my existence from.
My ‘gut’ is that I am a calmer, more clearer-headed individual when I am in a relationship. I make better decisions and I seem more focused on what I aim to achieve in life. Okay perhaps that’s not an entirely accurate statement. I do also have a propensity to make above-average amount of references to my partner in most conversations as well. That’s the proper love handle there.
Some people find purposes in a variety of things, their career, politics, a cause, etc. Perhaps I am someone who finds purpose in being a partner to someone. As much as the world and probably most of my community has a condescending view on this, and in many ways if I had a choice, I wish I was not naturally like this, perhaps it is time I accept the reality that maybe this is in fact, who I am.
There are probably worst things in the world to aspire to.
I think for those of us standing around and observing the demise of a relationship, we often treat it like a linear narrative of an anti-romantic comedy. You have the protagonists, their respective friends, the detractors of their union, the third parties and every unimportant character they encounter on the way to the end credits. Everybody has a role to play, nobody deviates from their function and the narrative plays out as predictably and as cleanly as a children’s alphabet block game. If we were to envisage an adequate analogy for the ‘break’, it would be likened to taking a very sharp knife and slicing through a cucumber (pardon the phallic pun). Sure, there are some residual moisture but the cut is often clean. Black and white, so to speak.
But really, the end of a relationship is more akin to trying to tear a large piece of really dry and stale bread into two. There’s a separation, but its lines are never that refined and clear. There are residual crumbs spilling all over the place, some at his end and some at hers. And the two pieces that are separated, in some ways, will no longer ever be as pristine as before. There’s obviously been a break, it obviously hurt and there’s clearly been pain all around.
We can sometimes be perplexed when looking back in hindsight, how it’s possible that during the tumultuous weeks of a breakup, that you find a conversational exchange between both parties on menial things like what gift to buy for a mutual friend’s birthday or a seemingly innocuous comment on a social platform. That’s because the narrative of a breakup is never linear, and if faithfully translated to film, would make for an extremely tedious, confusing and frustrating watch. The residual crumbs of the break requires time and effort to be properly swept away cleanly.
We sometimes forget the amount of force that’s required to bring two people together. The years of having your character and physical appearance molded by happiness, tragedy, social connections and experiencing life, so that you can be attractive to the other party. The serendipitous circumstance that may have brought your paths to intersect, at times with the pathways shaped and altered years in the making, so that you can end up at that party of your friend who also happens to know her. Fate? I call it force.
When so much force is required for two people to find and choose each other, it seems almost foolhardy to think that by nature’s law, it would be simple to separate them, or that it would be possible to separate them cleanly into autonomous entities again.
It’s been about two weeks since I picked up Peter Hook’s book Unknown Pleasures and I’m already done. This is quite possibly the fastest I’ve ever gone through a book. I’ve always read books with shorter chapters quicker. That has to do with my compulsion to only end my reading at the end of a chapter. If I had ten-minutes to go before the end of lunch hour and I have the prospect of a 20-page chapter in front me, I usually never take the shot. But with ‘Hooky’, you’re usually only about five-pages out from finishing another chapter. Plus he’s got a sardonic writing style that just greases things over easy, even during lunch hour on a workday.
But perhaps it also has to do with what he’s largely writing about. The start of his aspirations of being in a band, the eventual formation of Joy Division and the fun and travails from trying to make music with three other people who are not really like you at all. A lot of what he said just rewound me back 20-years. The endless hours of practicing and hammering out song ideas, traveling to shows, playing in shitty venues, the constant waiting for shows to start, playing to empty venues, getting stiffed on payment, the joys of hearing your music being recorded for the first time, disagreements with other bands, etc. I guess it’s comforting to know that even a seminal band like Joy Division labored in the same salt mines as I did.
I found music as a time when I was desperate to carve an identity for myself. I was a recluse in secondary school. I was not good at sports, I had no affinity for studying and I did not have the balls to be a delinquent as well. I was basically not orientated to be ‘someone’ in school. So I was searching for something outside of it, so I could in a way, win by not playing the game of school popularity at all. So I could scoff at everyone by being out of the system. I was looking for a way to express what I was feeling and finally finding it at the low-end of an open E note.
I remember the days when I breathed playing music. The silliness of discovering a three-chord progression and writing a hundred songs based around it. Detailing out concepts for songs before a note’s been written (‘Okay, let’s write a six-minute-long ballad’). Scribbling every interesting word or phrase you’ve heard in a notebook because it could be used for a song. Spending Saturday mornings with the boys, in someone’s room, just exploring song ideas. Spending all the money we had on jamming studio sessions that were tucked beyond smoky corridors, to play through dusty Peavey amps and sing through smelly microphones.
But we felt absolutely unstoppable. In the book, Hook recounted a theory Pete Saville had (this would be the same Peter Saville involved in the recent Burberry logo redesign shenanigans) that musicians stop writing great music when they learn about the formal process of making music. Because it means they stop taking chances and start adhering to the ‘rules’ of writing and playing music. It ultimately throttles the creativity out of the process. We certainly did not know the formal rules of writing music in a band when we started out. We were just feeling things out in front of us and taking things a step at a time.
But whenever we juiced up those awful amps, cranked up the volume and got into the groove, it felt like life was barreling forward at light speed and we were all struggling to just hang on. It’s hard to describe that feeling. The feeling of creating something collectively that was solely your own. That buzz, I don’t think I’ve experienced it since. The lack of knowledge of how things are meant to unfold and that we were just discovering things about ourselves and music as every week passed. That exciting sojourn into the unknown – it’s a kind of high, for sure.
There’s a line in Mad Men, when protagonist Don Draper was accused for being someone who ‘only likes the beginning of things’. There’s some credence for saying that is not too dissimilar from me and the bands I’ve been in over the years. If I were to offer myself just a superfluous review of my memories of being in them, the initial months and years of them tend to pop up in the highlight reel. For each of them, I eventually found a way to become disconnected from them emotionally. I suppose you could accuse me of being someone that didn’t fundamentally really loved playing music and I may not find the strength to offer you a convicted retort.
Perhaps music to me was a crutch I used during my teenage years to offer myself a convenient excuse to not belong to anything, but at the same time to also belong to something. And once I discovered something which could offer me that without having to lug a guitar to an obscure drinking hole, I dropped it. I don’t know. I am not sure if that’s true but perhaps there is some truth in that.
I’ve often been asked if I miss playing music. My answer will often jump immediately to a specific moment in my life. It was a weekday night. My church was located at a once-popular corner of SS2, PJ, just above a Shakey’s Pizza and opposite the popular pisang goreng truck. We had the lights mostly off at the church, but we had the amps cranked up and the PA was hissing. We had asked for permission to have a jam session and the pastor was okay with it. There were five, maybe six of us. We had been given an old, scratched cassette of a Pure Metal compilation. There was a track on it called ‘Warrior of Light’ by a band called Force 3. We were trying to play that song. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. I had a mic and I remember screaming into it. Yeah screaming, not singing. I had not learned to play the bass yet then so all I could offer to proceedings was my complete lack of singing ability.
Yet, I felt powerful at that moment, like my soul was finally afforded proper release from its shackles. Like I had been searching for something unknown all my existence and at that moment, I found it. Like I was struck by lightning and given divine powers. I was lost, but now I was found. It probably sounded like an otter being waterboarded with acid for people walking the street sidewalks below but to us, we felt like the greatest band in the world.
People have never been a consideration for me when I’ve traveled in the past. Connection with fellow homo sapiens is usually optional, unless I first have a connection to them. The irony of that statement is of course not lost to me. I find the act of constructing commonality and chemistry, the building blocks of friendships, relatively tedious. As such that the only occasion I traveled on my own back in 2008, to Sydney, I spent three days basically not speaking to anyone except to the person who got me my meals. Even with that, I found myself frequenting the same eatery on the chance that they may remember my order so that I would not have to speak unnecessarily.
I’ve been known to polarise people on this though. A minority of people in my life would say that they have issues keeping me quiet. The others would say that I really should try to speak more. I think my dalliances with social engagements is similar to the music of The Smiths – it’s either you get it and it changes your life or you find it so unbearable that you want to eject the tape and toss it into the flames (a little more on Morrissey and co. later), there are no allowable middle grounds. Which is a roundabout way of saying that if I am fond of you, I will gush like a fountain but if I am not, then you’re going to need a large spanner to pry my taps open. I couldn’t give a toss about what’s the polite thing to do. Nothing has ever been changed by politeness anyway.
But age and marrying a sensible woman has tempered some of these old flames. I try a little harder these days. Well, I at least place my two feet in a hopeful position in case I need to dance a little. Old habits are still generally hard-to-snuff bastards but on some odd occasions you could find me telling the person who hands me my coffee to ‘have a nice day’ or ask a cabbie if he’s ‘been in the business long’. I still spend a lot of time trying to angle people out of my photos though, something that becomes starkly obvious when I’m trying to illustrate a post about some of the people I met in Scotland.
The effort to reach out is still laborious, but unlike Sisyphus, it’s been getting better with each attempt. I am aware that it’s probably why for the first almost-forty years of my life, I have rarely been occasioned by serendipity. No warm and fuzzy chanced-encounters to look back on. Mainly because I never put myself in a position where anything can happen. I was the guy who sat around and raged against the world passing by without ever thinking of getting off my seat. So I went into this trip courting serendipity a little by telling myself I should not do the instinctual thing of building a thick cast-iron wall as soon as someone tried to strike up a conversation with me. To allow that dance to play out organically to see where it takes me.
The lover at the train station
Our stop at the Glengarry Heritage Center at Invergarry was meant to be nothing more than a whizz and hot chocolate detour. We had left Fort Williams with full tummies and a tank of gas, eager to explore the wonders of the Scottish outback. These centers, with one situated in even the most remote of towns, were often well-fitted with amenities, sometimes a café and in the case of one we stopped at later on in the trip, an impressive restaurant/merchandise store. For us, they were useful to look out for, when we needed a loo break or just to stretch our stiff legs. This one in Glengarry was fitted with a small cafeteria manned by some friendly old folks and an adjoining heritage center. Glengarry was a charming Scottish village, with its cobblestone pathways, thatched roofed stone houses and trees that seemed intent on invading into your personal space. It’s a grey town, straight out of a brooding period piece. The entire town seems almost untouched by the cold and calculated arms of modernisation. Crinoline dresses would not have looked out of place here. The wife placed orders on our hot chocolate as I waited at the back end of the cafeteria. I wasn’t expecting us to stay long here. But we were told the drinks may take a while. We looked around and besides a couple half way into their meal, we saw no one else in the café. Ah, just a couple of old folks taking their time making them then? That’s fine. I am hardly a hurried traveler anyway.
I walked into the heritage center. The room was square with the walls packed with newspaper clippings, dated pictures and old posters. At the far-right corner was a lady, sat at a round table with a large black book in front of her, hacking her lungs out. Poor thing must’ve caught the chills. It was a cold morning. I continued to browse the historical records in front of me, looking at the names, tracing heritages that were far remote from mine. The wife came in soon after with our drinks. I took a sip. It was sweet as sin. No matter. It was warm. We continued to browse the blocks and chunks of information in front of us, trying to make sense of it all, desperately looking for a context, ‘Where are you guys off to after this?’ It was the coughing lady, standing just behind us. Her façade appeared brighter than a moment ago, she was still stifling coughs in between her words but she still managed to put up a helpful demeanor. We proceeded to tell her our trajectory, heading up North towards the Isle of Skye. She suggested an alternate route that would’ve allowed us a more scenic view of the seaside. She moved from giving directions to us to remonstrating about rich Sheikhs building huge holiday homes up in the Highlands although she pronounced them as ‘shakes’ which left me and the wife a little clueless 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.
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 wife and Christine from Croft 336.
Christine’s marvelous breakfast.
Linda’s trailer. Did not get a picture of Lexie though, sadly.
The Caribbean prince
There it was. At the end of a busy pedestrian walkway, buffeted by concrete and the misty evening Inverness sky – bad typography. The one thing I’ve often been impressed by on this trip is just how instinctively likable most shop signages have been to me. The pub-style fonts on the faded sides of watering holes have proved easy on these eyes. So imagine my surprise when in the midst of the small city charm of Inverness, with its scenic link bridges and semi-Victorian architecture, there stood a Jamaican eatery with absolutely awful fonts, bad spelling pun (Kool Runnings?) and a menu upfront that looked like it was designed by a 5-year old with hopeless color coordination and bad taste. The signage was wildly inked with Rastafarian colors. The wife stopped to gaze at it, I stopped as well. ‘Jerk Chicken’? That sounds more interesting than the Northern Indian place we were making haste to. Why not? We pushed the door, but it was locked. Perhaps it was closed. ‘It opens at 8pm’, a couple passing by hollered at us. Check of the watch says it’s 6.40pm. Perhaps it was not meant to be. Just as we were about to resume our quest for ‘palak paneer’, a gangly man decked in an all-white cook garb emerges from the kitchen and unlocks the door, ‘We’re open’, he said and let us in. The restaurant seating area was the size of a spacious apartment living room, adorned with murals of beaches, coconut trees and footballers.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve officially left the hipster motherland.
The man grabs a pair of menus, handed them to us made small talk with us which largely involved him lambasting Theresa May’s policies and introducing himself as Glen, then proceeds to disappear into the kitchen, again. No other staff in sight. No other customers. It was just us, in faux Waikiki land. It felt a lot like a drop site. Like we were a pair of drug mules waiting for the dealer and his armed entourage to come in. We made our choice and an agonizing 5-minutes later, Glen emerges from the kitchen again to take our orders. Jerk Chicken was a given, and the wife inquired about a dish called Manish Water, ‘It’s nice. I make it for you.’ And then he disappears into the kitchen again. It’s about this moment that we became quite aware that are witnessing a one-man restaurant operation. DIY, so to speak, in a less traditional sense. We felt both admiration and concern, knotted into an inseparable ball in our stomachs. Was he able to manage on his own because no one eats here? And is that an indication that the food here is awful? God help us. We have about 45 meals to spare on this trip so what’s one given to a guy who needs it right? Just about this moment, two other customers walked in. Relieve. Drug mule scenario avoided, or at the very least apportioned and some hope sprung that perhaps this is a proper eatery after all. He emerged from the kitchen, handed them menus and took their orders before scuttling back into the kitchen to prepare our food.
Ten minutes later he emerged with our food and it was surprisingly, delicious. The Jerk Chicken was cooked to perfection, with nice caramelisation and char served over a bed of liquored purple cabbage. The presentation for the dish was well, quite fantastic. The Manish Water dish was a little like what happens if a mixed pork soup had children with an ABC soup. On a windy and chilly Scottish evening, it was exactly what we needed. As we were tucking into our lovely dishes, more customers entered the restaurant. A couple who sat themselves immediately, perhaps familiar to the limitations of this operation, and a group of Aussie rugger types looking for a good time who were less self-servicing. The space was bustling but Glen was nowhere in sight. We somehow became emotionally invested in the restaurant’s operation and the character of Glen, like how you can get invested in random unknown characters doing everyday things on a reality TV show. We wanted him to win and he won’t win if he doesn’t come out and seat these group of customers. I contemplated getting up and walking into the kitchen to inform him but just as the group was about to turn and walk away, Glen bursts out from the kitchen and hailed, ‘What’s your problem? What’s your problem? Is there something wrong with my restaurant?’, in an accent that can only be described as ‘sunny Scottish’, grapples the hand of one of the stocky fellows and sat them down forcefully. Score.
I still think about Glen sometimes, how grateful he looked at the end when I paid for our meal and told him to keep the change. Probably not because of the extra two pounds but because he did not have to run to the cashier to fetch our change (he was at the bar playing the bartender at this point). Me and the wife still laugh at how he would go out to the streets to procure customers with his trademark opening line, ‘What’s the plan tonight? What’s the plan tonight?’ I think about how he told us he’s been living in Inverness for more than 10-years and how he’s carved an existence for himself in a foreign land far away from where he was from by doing what he’s good at and giving people something they did not have. The thought just makes the world so much smaller to me, and the smaller the world is, the more comfort I take that a better life may just be a reach away.
That charming man and woman
The Bluebell House looks like a fairly unassuming home from the outside. Situated on the suburban end of Inverness, across the footbridge, it blends rather innocuously with its surrounding peers, offering no indication to the aesthetics that would greet us inside. Our host, Neil Hart greeted us at the door. A tall bespectacled man with a proud mustache who ironically, reminded me of another Hart from my childhood, Jimmy. Yes that runty professional wrestling heel manager that looked like a love child between Elvis and a sewer rat. Except Neil was a lot more dignified, with his well-manicured hair and middle-age fashion sense. He could’ve played a police captain in another life. The house, seems plucked straight either from prairie of your dreams, or the recesses of your nightmares. It’s an American Gothic masterpiece with wall-to-wall wallpaper, carpeted floors and Victorian-like furniture and fittings. It could both be a set for a tepid film about the tribulations of a family managing a farm house or a psychological thriller about a family with a sinister past. It’s no fault of the Bluebell though, it’s just the travails of an overactive imagination. But Neil (and eventually his wife Margaret) did a lot to dispel those macabre thoughts with their warm hospitality. As far as hosts go, I’ve never encountered one that took to his tasks as passionately as Neil does. His enthusiastic recommendations for breakfast (he always wholeheartedly suggest you get the potato scones) was like an adrenaline shot in the morning.
We never did see Margaret in the two mornings we tucked into our breakfast. Neil made references to her being the person churning out the wonderful food but we never did see her until were packed and ready to make haste towards Edinburgh, on the morning of our second day at Edinburgh. “You like The Smiths?” That was the first thing Margaret said to me as she gestured to my t-shirt. I like her already. As I’ve said earlier, The Smiths are not one of those artistes in whom your allegiance makes no statement. They are not Ben Folds Five. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ben Folds’ music to bits but it’s hard to make anything about someone who loves his music. To understand and appreciate the music of The Smiths suggests you appreciate a certain aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic I find a lot of belonging in.
I’ve always been attracted to music that makes a statement. I have the tendency to seek solace in the voice of Steve Perry occasionally, but for the most part, I am attracted to music that feels uncomfortable. And as much as I enjoy the music of say, Carcass as well, The Smiths seems to get under the skin of bystanders in a way that not many people’s music do. Because with say a band like Carcass, it’s easy to just dismiss them for being loud and unlistenable. But The Smiths form of jingle-jangle indie pop, bookmarked by Johnny Marr’s trademark hook-laden picking and Morrissey’s crooning delivery can on the offset seems inviting enough to casual observers, but only the really captivated stay for the encore. It’s a great source of comfort of mine to find someone who can appreciate morose artistry.
They spoke about traveling to Nepal, enjoying Nepalese wedding music and how they hope to make a chunky stop in South East Asia really soon, “We usually close up during the winter and travel somewhere warmer,’ Margaret said. It’s inspirational to see folks like them who have eked out an existence in this part of the world without resorting to running the rat race. It made me wonder if I would dare dream about something like that happening to me. Not quite yet.
As we made our way out the door and to our car, I thought about how Neil and Margaret would be welcoming another set of travelers that afternoon, eager as we were two days prior to start their exploration of Inverness. We thought about how they would make their way across the link bridges, sit down for an enjoyable £5 happy hour cocktail while they watched merry locals walking dogs and clocking running miles by the gorgeous river that runs through the city. And how they would retreat back to Bluebell after dinner, exhausted from the day, shower and tuck into a movie before waking up to the smell of potato scones in the morning. Time never stops, which is a tragedy during these times. Sometimes I wish we could just have a handy rewind button to enjoy a little Groundhog Day before moving on to the next panel in our existence.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.