United Kingdom Shenanigans

After a brief, self-inflicted, hiatus, our scribbles are back!

After being spoilt silly in Nairobi, we made our way up north to the United Kingdom. Our first stop was London and we had yet to figure out how we were going to get to Scotland before our trip to Norway. Getting to Norway much later was not an option considering that although I had a bunch of clothes that were weighing me down, none of them was warmer than a flimsy sweatshirt. All the stories I had heard of Norway’s winter made us hop over Tanzania and Morocco (and many other countries in between, that I was hoping to convince Vivek to go to), to ensure we didn’t freeze just because we missed the almost 2 days of warmth in the country. There’s some saying in Norway about how there is never bad weather, just bad clothing. I may need more convincing. So, here we were on our way to London, funnily enough, with a substantive layover in Casablanca, Morocco. We didn’t extend it due to (my) fear of the cold in Norway, but knew we would come back along our travels in Europe. We began reaching out to friends a few weeks in advance of our trip to London, and only once we had two full weeks of back-to-back coffees, lunches, coffees, and dinners scheduled, did we realize how many of our friends – from various stages of our lives – were now in the city. We were also able to plan for fun family reunions, one with Vivek’s aunt in Birmingham, who he hadn’t seen for over a decade, and the other with Richa’s sister and brother-in-law.

The first few days were a whirlwind of reunioning with people we hadn’t met for so long, but who we were blessed to pick up with exactly where we left off. We got tired of hearing ourselves talk about tentative plans, especially since there was no telling how the actual plans would unfold given the immediate adaptation required once we considered cost, availability, safety and convenience. Even then, we were encouraged to repeat our structure-less uncertain lives to many of our wide-eyed friends and family who knew exactly what the next 3 years of theirs’ looked like.

Having seen most of the to-do list sights of the city on a previous visit, and consequently, with no agenda whatsoever, we decided to avoid getting stuck behind tour groups. Instead, we made our way through many laughter-filled catch-up sessions, a Pink Floyd exhibit, suggested local spots for food and drinks, and a few have-to-do spots (the Monument, the Tower and the Bridge). We found a decently priced flight to get to the warmer-than-usual Norway from Edinburgh, and so we bought our train tickets to the land of whisky and rolling hills. We left an open end to our trip, to continue on to places that more closely matched the content in our backpacks.

The train ride to Edinburgh was extremely scenic. I’m really glad we listened to the feedback from friends and strangers about not taking a flight. As we stared out the window, the whole scenery seemed as though it was composed of a select few colors: the never-ending green – perfectly manicured – hills, a pastel blue sky, sprays of lilac, and off-white dots of fat grazing sheep and bales of hay that peppered the landscape. Time and time again, the greenery ended abruptly with the navy blue ocean, and as the train made its way forward, we caught a glimpse of a random castle or its ruins.

After picking up the rental car in Edinburgh, we made a quick stop in Glasgow to meet Vivek’s childhood school friend from India. We were able to pass by a beautiful botanical garden too. This was the start of wet and gloomy weather, which followed us through much of our drive in Scotland. Even though we had a tiny car, the rain made the thin windy roads more treacherous than they seemed and disguised many of the deep potholes as shallow puddles. I felt more comfortable driving on the racy roads in Namibia, than here. The next day, we began our journey to the Isle of Skye. On our way there, we stopped to take in the sights of Loch Lomond, a long stretch of water with mountains on all sides, and hilly islands jutting out the middle. Our destination was Raasay, 5 hrs away, where we would take a ferry to our unique Airbnb for the night, a sail boat, with the closest toilet 200 meters away. This was the cheapest option at one of Scotland’s peak tourist times, but we were excited for the unique experience. We were making terrible time due to the rainy weather and slow cyclists on the windy roads, and had several more hours to drive. After more rain, and a bit more communication with our Airbnb host, we realized that the last ferry was at 17.45hrs. We were still 3 hours away and if all went exactly as planned, we would be lucky if we made it. It didn’t….As I typed to the Airbnb host that we may be fine, and would be in touch with him regularly, we went straight into one of those deceiving puddles, and the car tyre began hobbling. We pulled up into a very cautious person’s driveway, and once granted permission, began the dreaded process of changing our flat tyre. Our Airbnb host, who we had choppy access to with the compounded difficulties of bad signal and rain, progressively became doubtful that we would make it. So, cautiously driving with a spare, and nowhere to stay, we made it to Portree.

As the sun descended, so did the temperature which dropped and was in the single digits. We went from hotel to bar (some rented rooms above their businesses) to B&Bs, and either they had no vacancy or they asked for ridiculous rates, knowing we had very few alternatives. We managed to secure a backup plan with a hostel which would let us use a parking spot for the night and their restrooms to freshen up. Realistically however, we were not equipped to spend a night in a subzero rainy parking lot. We were both tired and frustrated, and tried one last place before we succumbed to the exorbitant rates or froze in our car with inadequate warm clothing. Someone was watching over us. The hotel had a last-minute switch with a bed and breakfast a few kilometres away, which now had an unexpected vacancy ready for guests. We jumped at it! It was one of the nicest rooms we had stayed at in a while and was very welcome shelter given the change in weather.

As the rain continued to come down, we dressed warm and filled up on a full English breakfast, black pudding included. We then made our way to our first hike, The Storr. This is where I understood why Scotland was such a coveted destination and why people raved on about its natural beauty. Even with gloom and an obstructed view, it was breathtaking. The rain heightened the contrast of colors between the rock formations and the hills. None of our pictures could effectively capture what we saw, but we definitely tried.

The rain was moody, it came as quickly as it went. We had to keep track of time, since we wanted to stop along the way, and were now driving on a donut. So, after many pictures and holy-shit moments, we stopped for a cup of coffee at an old mansion, and made our way to the nearby waterfalls. We drove carefully and hoped to make it to the Talisker distillery in time. We just missed the last tour and they were closing down. They were kind enough to give Vivek a quick sampling, but we would have to come back for more next time.

We completed our circuit around Isle of Skye, to head East to a small town called Lossiemouth past Inverness. Along the way we came upon Eilean Donan Castle, a fortress built on a tiny island in the bay, connected to the mainland via a picturesque bridge. Our way out to Lossiemouth was fortunately uneventful and we only had a night to spend there.

We left early the next morning to make our way towards Dufftown and the Glennfiddich distillery. Along the way we stopped at a small town called Elgin for two reasons: (a) we saw interesting looking ruins of what looked like a Cathedral, and (b) to stretch our feet. A few castles, some ruins and a biblical garden later, we found our way to the Glennfiddich distillery, which did not disappoint.

Having unfortunately missed Talisker, Glennfiddich had climbed higher on our list and we had timed our drive to ensure we made it for the tour. We got a nice look through the distillery from the mash being cooked to the fermentation process. Due to periodic maintenance we only got a look at the stills from a distance, but then saw the ageing barrels and barrel storage area, the only no-photo part of the tour, which was a shame. After the tour came the best bit – the sampling. Surprising to me, the distillery was very particular about identifying drivers prior to the sampling and ensuring they didn’t partake. Because of that, Vivek got a sampling while I came away with a small 12-year single malt bottle. This courtesy souvenir has made its way back to safety via a package sent back home from Edinburg, our last stop in Scotland. Before making it to Edingburg, we had one last night in the Cairngorms National Park

Wikipedia says “A bothy is a basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge.” Except for the last bit, this was all quite true about our Cabin in the Cairngorms. Basic is a very good word for this cabin, that was an outhouse for our Airbnb host. Luckily the firewood was stocked up. With the soup warmed, a sheepskin-lined bed and the candle lights dancing about, we got comfortable in that bothy for the night. The next morning we enjoyed the absolutely gorgeous vistas that the Cairngorms provided for our drive. After windy empty roads and lavender hills that never ended, we made our way back to Edinburg to drop off our rental and settle in for a few days in the city.

Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived during the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival and were lucky to catch a glimpse of the action. For some reason, we are missing all the photos from Fringe though so we added the ones we found. We caught a few comedy shows, a Korean Drum performance that was absolutely stunning, and a whole lot of street performers during our few days there.

Though Vivek’s favorite shades perished in the crowds, and I lost a pair of my jeans on our mad dash to the airport, we were coincidentally a part of the world’s largest arts festivals – a great way to say bye to the United Kingdom before we took our flight to Norway.

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