Here & Not Yet: Rethinking Advent Days 11 – 15

It’s a proper New England winter outside, snow accumulating along brined pathways, the draft from my window at war with my clanking heater. Jonathan’s out for a walk, the novelty of pink cheeks and frozen noses still in tact. He arrived in New England just in time to experience  it at its worst best.

Day 11: Steadfast. Taken in July, when we first adopted our kittens!

Day 11: Steadfast. Taken in July, when we first adopted our kittens!

I’m not a fan of the end of the semester. Yes, it’s the bulging purple bags under my eyes and the sort of haze everyone is over finals, three papers suddenly seeming more insurmountable than they were three weeks ago. I love Christmas, i love being home – whether home is here or North Carolina – but i just don’t love goodbyes. And yet the end of the semester means i get to leave one family for another, reconnecting with people i said farewell to in September.

Day 12: Hope, given by the MHC North Carolina Alums who send us Carolinians care packages every exam season!

Day 12: Hope, given by the MHC North Carolina Alums who send us Carolinians care packages every exam season!

Advent makes the most sense to me, now. Not when i’m home with cocoa wrapped in Ghanain quilts and binging on Scandal, not when the carols are on while i’m tucking tape into the corner of the last present to be wrapped. No, Advent makes the most sense to me in this horrible tension, this waiting – the here of Mount Holyoke, the not-yet of Durham, the half-packed bags and room in disarray.

Day 13: Justice. Tibetan prayer flags, a gift from my brother Thom.

Day 13: Justice. Tibetan prayer flags, a gift from my brother Thom.

When i come back to Mount Holyoke in the fall, it will be the last semester i do this. The last time my home is stretched across state lines, the last time i feel uprooted twice over. For that, i will be grateful. I’ll have had four years of Advent, four years of here-and-not-yet.

Day 14: Gather. Not sure if Jonathan is doing the Great Thanksgiving or basking in the falling snow.

Day 14: Gather. Not sure if Jonathan is doing the Great Thanksgiving or basking in the falling snow.

But for now, i’m trying to stay focused and lost in the process all at once. Trying not to want too much stability because in six weeks i’ll be doing this whole thing again in reverse order.

Day 15: Rejoice. On I-84, due West.

Day 15: Rejoice. On I-84, due West.

I’m finishing this blog, 24 hours later, from a very-welcome hotel bed over a very-finished plate of Indian take-out. J and i have made it the first 500 miles southbound towards NC. I’m feeling less and less torn now, more focused on the miles and right turns and ensuring we have enough nutella to last through tomorrow. The tension between here-and-not-yet doesn’t feel quite so bad when on the road.

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best thing: christmas music.

first advent photos

Loch Ness & the Highlands!

The sound of death is surely someone wheedling out a hymn on faulty bagpipes.

Like a mixture of Dory, from Finding Nemo, bellowing in her best Humpback and a blunt hacksaw taken to a chalkboard. (You’ll want to take my word for it.)

There Jonathan and i were, enveloped by the mountains of Glen Coe. Probably the most famous of all Glens in Scotland – at least, cinematically speaking – Glen Coe boasts of a film C.V. including Hagrid’s cabin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the drive to the lodge in Skyfall.

highlands 02At our stop-off within the movie-star glen was a Highland lad, clad in full tartan regalia, muttering about a broken reed in between his attempts to play what i could only assume was meant to be “Amazing Grace.”

We’d made the decision to go with a tour bus, which is not my favorite way to travel. (The asinine teenage boy behind us who referred only to his mother as “Geez, WOMAN!” is a prime example of why American tourists get such a bad rep). But it was the most affordable way we could see as much as possible in one day, so we took it. As if the sights of Scotland weren’t enough to drink in, the sightseeing of thirty tourists in “Hairy Coo” fanny-packs certainly was.

Mr. Blurpity-Pipes was making a killing, asinine teenage boy posing for a sour-pussed grin as Grandma snapped a shot. Then went the Portugese Clooney-Lookalike, who posed for all his pictures like he was a supermodel: butt out, chin up, shades on, half-grimace sexy-grin. Behind him was a clattering group of Germans.

And so on, each plopping a fiver in Blurpity-Pipes’ tin, each encouraging him to play past that wonky reed. Granted, it’s a pretty stellar shot to bring home and make your profile picture: a real Scotsman in the Highlands!!1!!1!

I did my best to avoid the crowd, memorizing every curve of the mountains in our fifteen minutes of allotted time.

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The real event of the tour was to be a boating ride on Loch Ness, involving sonar technology to scan the deeps for the monster below. But as Loch Ness is some four hours north of Edinburgh, we got to see plenty of Scottish countryside along the way.

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After a lunch of disappointingly slim sandwiches (Jonathan’s face caved when he realized he had a what barely qualified as a tissue for his slice of ham) we were bound for the boat. I jockeyed my way to the front, rather than the sonar get-up, so as to avoid Asinine Teen and the Clooney Lookalike. Jonathan and i actually quite enjoyed the Loch, steep cliffsides and water so dark it was almost black really living up to its legend. This was my second time to Loch Ness, the first being a sojourn to Urqhart Castle with my Dad. It was my first time on the water, and we were delighted with the breadth of the sun.

Until, characteristic Scotland, the cloud bowled us over with pelting rain. Suddenly, all the fannypacks were clustered around the Sonar, making awkward small talk about flesh-chomping monsters.

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Our jaunt was over before we’d even made it two kilometers out, and in a pressure-cooker of a run back to the bus we made a pit-stop into a petrol station. Laden with cheese and breadsticks, we clambered back on the fannypack machine headed due south.

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And while we had to deal with the best of American culture and Blurpity-Pipes’ backdrop tunes, Jonathan is quick to say this was one of the best days of his life. Only the day before had he proposed, and i was desperate to see the Highlands one last time before i was stateside for the foreseeable future.

There is magic in those mountains, i tell you. Magic that still bathes the day as enchanting, even when set to the tune of Blurpity-Pipes.

in case you missed it: my sojourn through the highlands with my dad.

best thing: we took photos for our christmas card yesterday! who wants one?

Bears in the Shenandoah.

My throat was made of glue. The girl (let’s call her Ginger Dreadlocks) behind me on the verge of shrieking her head off. Ponytail-and-Manicure next to her was valley-girl-shushing her. There was nothing to be done, except:

“ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT!”

I was not even eleven and reeking of the day hike in the New Mexican mountains. The whole family had made the flight to Philmont Scout Ranch, NM, for my Dad and his bud to complete Boy Scout leader training. Mom was busy ziplining with the other spouses, the boys doing boy-things, and me?

I was a day’s hike into the woods on a camping trip with a dozen other pre-pubescent girls, staring down a mama bear and her two cubs. Our two counselors were younger than i am now.

We’d been strictly informed that, were we to see a bear, under NO circumstances were we to react with fright. We’d even had bear drills. No shrieking, no panicking, no fleeing into the woods without a guide. Instead, in an effort to keep us calm under duress but still, you know, let the leaders know a monster-sized mammal was in view, we were to sing “row, row, row your boat.” Loudly. But calmly.

Of course it was i who sounded the alarm, loudmouthed and lung-lusty even then. The two women in charge of us, all their lessons aside, flew into a panic. “Hey!” they screamed. “Back up girls, BACK UP NOW!” I yanked Ponytail-and-Manicure behind me, staring down the scream clearly welling up in Ginger Dreadlocks’ throat. Surely, these adult leaders knew what they were doing. Surely, they whom we had put our wisps of armpit hair and water-bottles half-full trust in, would take care of us.

“HEY, BEAR! RUN AWAY!! ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!”

These “adults” were, quite literally, chucking rocks at the mama bear. Not exactly what i’d had in mind when i envisioned them ensuring our safety.

Shockingly, it worked. The mama bear barely gave them a glance before lumbering deeper into the woods, babies in tow. When at last her large brown rump was out of sight, Ginger Dreadlocks next to me broke out into sobs and Ponytail-and-Manicure gushed a stream of more EhMyGawddddZZZ than i had ever heard in my life.

I tried not to let my ear-to-ear grin explode. A bear! A real bear! I was really a warrior in the wilderness, saving my team with nursery rhymes!

We strung up our bear-bag that night, a white trash bag stuffed our snacks and the illicitly smuggled perfumes from Ponytail’s cohorts. If we heard a lumbering giant in the night, we were under NO CIRCUMSTANCES to leave our tent.

The next morning, the bag was slashed. Perfume bottles and chewed-into wrappers cluttering the roots of the tree the bag had been hung on. Luckily, there was enough food for breakfast and a slimmed-down lunch, pushing our hike back to base camp on a considerably less luxurious schedule than the hike out.

I don't have any pictures of the bear itself, but here's me about to head out on the hike.

I don’t have any pictures of the bear itself, but here’s me about to head out on the hike.

That was to be only my first encounter with a bear.

The second was less rife with pre-teens: Jonathan and i were cruising along Skyline Drive, a chunk of the Blue Ridge Parkway that edges the Shenandoah Valley.

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We were on vacation with his family, trailing behind them to enjoy the sun set while they made dinner. Naturally, we’d seen the placards warning not to feed bears (i’d like to keep my arm, thanks) but hadn’t expected to see any ourselves.

Until we rounded the corner on a dead stop in traffic.

“What’d going on?” i craned my head, trying to see past the truck ahead of us.

Jonathan swore loudly. “Look!! Over there!” his fingers indecisively jabbed out the window and tried to roll it down in one motion.

“What is it? I can’t – oh my God!”

Her arms, wrapped around the trunk of a particularly sturdy pine, looked bigger than my torso. “Quick!! The camera! The camera!!” Jonathan was scrambling with his arms, head locked on the bear.

Of all moments to have left the camera in the backseat, this was it. I handed him my phone with the scold not to chuck ANYTHING under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES at the mammal in front of us.

And then, to our bewilderment, the bear unlocked her arms and sauntered across the road. She didn’t seem to care there were five cars piled in either direction, tourists hanging out the windows with Nikons in hand. She stopped right in front of us. Turning her head back, she must have made some kind of magical bear-call because two little cubs came gallivanting out of the woods behind her.

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They dipped down the side of the road, the knobs of their tails disappearing in the darkening forest.

And that was the last we saw of the Skyline Drive bears.

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in case you missed it: my favorite summertime 2013 blog, when my mom got arrested for moral monday.

The Season of Weeding: Abim & Kotido, Summer 2011.

It was a two-day journey from Kampala to Kotido, only half of the way on paved roads. We did it in one day once (well, i did it once, my housemates lived there for three years and i, only three months). And the one time we did in one day was hell – my stomach had shrunk to the size of a walnut with its inability to keep anything down for three weeks, i was dehydrated, and i’m pretty sure i hallucinated.

But when we made the trek over two days, it was a dream. To get to Kotido, we had to pass through the Abim region.

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Abim is like nowhere else i’ve ever been. Even at the time, i think i wrote more blog posts about how voracious the colors were of the Abim mountains than i did about Kotido, which i did in fact quite love.

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You could see where the powerline stopped, somewhere in a town in the Abim region but long before we were in Kotido. Our home has a solar panel and small amounts of voltage so long as the sun was out. We’d take turns charging our laptops, running a mini-fridge a few hours a day to keep home-made ricotta cool. It was the rainy season, nothing like the dust-curling bone-heat they told me of when it was the dry season. I remember being grateful for the one sweater i’d thought to slide into my suitcase.

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In the Kotido market, during a rainstorm.

In the Kotido market, during a rainstorm.

My “room” in the house was a mattress and mosquito net tucked in a corner, shrouded by a collection of curtain pieces like the ones in the above photo. It was Thera‘s (very thoughtful!) idea, to give a fellow introvert some more privacy. She’d even saved me some ticky tack, to hang a collection of photos and postcards on my wall.

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I was re-living this summer while Jonathan (supposedly) studied for his Greek exam.

“It’s kind of crazy to me that you did that,” he commented, the photo Thera snapped of me on a boda-boda on my screen.

Photo by Thera Freeman!

Photo by Thera Freeman!

He didn’t mean crazy as in foolish, or as in out of character. This was a hint of green in his voice. More like it was a reality unknown to him, a part of me before us. And yet it was because of Uganda the “us” even happened. We’d had a champion of awkward first dates, us alone in an Applebee’s save the one guy hellbent on making Karoke night a thing. I’d just buzzed my hair, prepped for a summer of sub-Saharan heat and lack of hot showers. I noticed his dimples, the eyes, even then. But i my focus was on the 7,414 miles to conquer and courage to find.

Thank God for my mom. A friend of ours had prepped and de-briefed with both of us, a woman who had spent the bulk of her adult like working for MCC on the continent of Africa. “You’ll need spaces to really talk, to really be heard,” she’d told us. Mom arranged for me to preach my first Sunday stateside again, at her then-new church. She let me lowercase the bulletin and screen a video i’d edited of my time abroad.

It was Jonathan’s first Sunday as the worship music leader. He was one of the first to really listen, to let me be really heard. I remember noticing the eyes again in worship planning, how he didn’t judge me for wanting to juxtapose John 15 with an E.E. Cummings poem.

The fact that it’s me in that picture feels unfathomable. Not that i had the desire to learn and see and listen in Uganda, i still have that desire. But that time in my life, the depth and wonder and complicatedness of where i was feels far, far in my past and far from here. I know it happened, for how could a summer of confronting my own white, American privilege not leave contours on my perspective today?

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Maybe it’s the coming-full-circle thing, that bite and blister and beauty of seeing the time and the growth and the redaction between lizzie on that motorcycle and lizzie getting married. I have no regrets, the loves of my life all intertwining in the most bizarre of stories. I was so young, so eighteen, so fresh out of my first year of college and so wanting to know more than i did.

I said then it was a summer of pruning, like the name i had been given: Nachap, the season of weeding. The seed that has grown the most, though, is the realization that every season is one of both pruning and growth. Sometimes the balance tips, hands deep in the earth straining with the baobab roots to come up. And sometimes it’s the blossoms, blossoms who need water and sun like all seasons but whose focus is so on being alive there’s little room for weeding.

And sometimes, i think you just have to slap on the gardening gloves and make a choice to keep planting, whatever the weather.

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in case you missed it, some of my favorite posts from my summer in east africa: south sudan’s independence daywhen we went all the way to kampala so we could see the last harry potter movieon our access to water in kotido.

New Posts of Old Things.

I named my external hard drive “the penseive” in a moment of Potter genius in the summer i lived in Kotido, Uganda. It mostly houses back-ups of my photos and comfort movies, like The Princess Bride. But, being as absent minded as i am, yesterday was the first time since March i cranked open the two-terabyte Valhalla.

Oops.

While cataloguing my backlog of photos, i came across a few old gems that i’d neglected to post/write about here. So over the next few days, i thought i’d share a mélange of old tales dating back as far as the naming of the very external hard drive that prompted this serenade down memory gig lane. And maybe some stereotypical pseudo-philosophical reflections on how these journeys in life have brought me to the woman i am today, blah blah blah.

But for today, here are a few snapshots and accompanying stories from my six months spent in love with and living in Edinburgh, Scotland.

You know you’re an American expat when…

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It’s true that the cultural clash between the UK and America is no chasm. Sure, they prefer tea to coffee (i can hear the hipsters screaming: SO DO WE!) and say “schedule” the way i did when i was six. I delighted in the wee differences, the brogues and the bagpipes and the slang. But there were three big things i missed most: fresh, non-root vegetables, my mother’s fried chicken, and peanut butter. I handled the chicken-making myself, and made do with Spanish apples for the bulk of the semester. But it wasn’t until i realized Lidl carried peanut butter for under eight quid that i had a field day with my favorite fat-laden snack. I never thought i’d say it, but over a plate of artery-clogging food i basked in the stereotype: GOD BLESS THE USA.

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I snapped this photo from the topmost layer of the Scott Monument on Princes Street, wheezing with the narrowing stairs and staving off my vertigo. I’d saved the clamber for when my Dad came to visit, because he’s the macho man with zero squirms when it comes to elevation. Might be a product of his upper-troposphere height. But this same obscene scale of stature made it impossible for him to follow me to the tippy-top: the stairways were too narrow. So alone, wind ripping off any moisturizer clinging to my cheeks, i snapped this picture and plummeted my head between my knees to keep from vomiting.

‘Twas a charming view.

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My favorite sightseeing to do in Edinburgh was easily the clamber up Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano overlooking the whole of Old Town. I only once got to see this marker of the elevation, because any sunny day i chose to scale its peak half the tourists in town had the same idea. On that same Dad-visit we made our way to the top, my father protesting i was trying to kill him with the hike. But it was a rare rain-free morning with no one else on the mountainside, and i insisted. He later confessed it was his favorite part of the trip – and it’s easy to see why.

Overlooking the city from Arthur's Seat!

Overlooking the city from Arthur’s Seat!

(Okay, that one was previously published, but still. Context.)

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in case you missed it: my favorite posts from studying abroad, including saying goodbye in january to jonathan, jonathan’s proposal, faerie-spotting on the isle of skye, and riding a camel in morocco.

The Last Five Days.

The last five days in Scotland have been some of the best five days i’ve had all semester. Last Wednesday, J pseudo-surprised me by rolling out a suitcase from the arrivals gate at Edinburgh airport. (Pseudo, because it was meant to be a total surprise, but i’m very good at guessing and also am in the middle of exams, so certain details had to be divulged ahead of time). There was a lot of nervous tippy-toe walking around until he arrived, and even more (probably embarrassing) embracing when he did.

I couldn’t believe my blessings: he was here, with me, in my favorite place in the whole world.

Yet the excitement didn’t abate there- two of my very best friends from Mount Holyoke arrived the next day for a weekend trip full of milkshakes, late night catching-up-chats, and even a daytrip to the Trossachs for some hairy coo sightings! (Needless to say, there was a lot of hugs in the arrivals terminal of the airport this week!)

My favorite shot of the daytrip! Taken by Stirling Castle. (J should always wear a Hairy Coo hat, should he not?)

My favorite shot of the daytrip! Taken by Stirling Castle. (J should always wear a Hairy Coo hat, should he not?)

Enacting romance by the shores of Loch Katrine, the setting of Sir Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake."

Enacting romance by the shores of Loch Katrine, the setting of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.”

The view of Stirling from the Wallace Monument!

The view of Stirling from the Wallace Monument!

Called "THE Bridge" by civil engineers for its feat of genius, this rail bridge crosses the River Forth just outside Edinburgh!

Called “THE Bridge” by civil engineers for its feat of genius, this rail bridge crosses the River Forth just outside Edinburgh!

The Wallace Monument, Stirling.

The Wallace Monument, Stirling.

Our tour, which was the most excellent TheHairyCoo.com free tour, began in Stirling and made its way into the lower Highlands around a number of rather famous lochs. It was a beautiful, uncharacteristically rain-less day to spend frollicking on mountaintops and even feeding bread crumbs to the “dangerously cute” highland cows (for which the company is named!).

My favorite part was the stop off at Castle Doune, where the famous scene with the French guards takes place in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. J and i couldn’t resist clambering our way to the top to yell out our own (very poorly accented) French insults at my friends below!

Hairy Coos!

Hairy Coos!

Doune Castle - where the bulk of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed!

Doune Castle – where the bulk of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed!

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The view from the top of the castle!

The view from the top of the castle!

 

I was running on a high of can’t-believe-this-itis, especially when the tour guide of our day trip put on The Proclaimers as we drove past the lower Highlands. If a perfect day exists, that was it: Scottish mountains, excellent music, and a batch of my closest friends to sing along with.

Trying to get us all in the shot!

Trying to get us all in the shot!

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The last five days have been bliss, but now i have to face the last five days i have left in Scotland. And that, that’s just hard. The good-byes have been a mixture of late-night chats in the flat to quick, painful hugs farewell. My friends from MHC left this morning, and my dear flatmate Abby leaves tomorrow. It’s been a day of sad farewells.

J being here is enabling me to not ache so much for the Carolinas and their rivers of sweet tea, which is such a gift. I feel truly able to grieve for my last walks past the Scott Monument or cups of tea at the Elephant House.

It also means i spent half of my morning weeping over my cup of after-church tea, trying not to think too much about what life will be like without the hum of this rain-slicked, enchanted city.

And in the midst of this emotional farewell to the semester in Edinburgh, i have two exams to tackle and a life to zip fast in my suitcases. So the next five days are shaping up to be crammed – crammed with wadded-up t-shirts in my suitcases, crammed with farewell-to-Scotland activities, and a helluva lot of cramming for finals.

For days of auld lang syne.

Just outside the Writer's Museum, Edinburgh.

Just outside the Writer’s Museum, Edinburgh.

current jam: ‘come thou fount’ sufjan stevens.

best thing: having places and friends so wonderful that the time to leave them brings mourning. it’s the double-edged sword of loving something, i guess.

Faerie Frolicking on the Isle of Skye!

In the midst of all the excitement surrounding the Indiegogo campaign for Talking Taboo, i’ve let my recounting of Scottish Highlands adventures lapse. But no longer!

After our morning in Dornie admiring Eilean Donan Castle, Dad and i set off for the much-anticipated meander through the Isle of Skye.

Can you spy the Skye Bridge?

Can you spy the Skye Bridge? (Look to the right!)

Living in a flat with 11 other people and only one not studying abroad, i’d heard songs waxed lyrical about the beauty of Skye. It had only mounted my anticipation to see it myself – craggy mountains, frigid sea, ewes in such abundance i would have no shortage of puns to make.

My father, on the other hand, was not too ecstatic that the only thing i’d suggested we do, rather than just see, was the Faerie Glen south of Uig. (He was never one to clap in the Peter Pan scene when Tinkerbell fell flat). But Uig was at the northern crest of the Isle, so we took the morning to drive through Skye’s wee little towns and not-so-little countryside.

We also couldn’t resist a stop-off at a little knitwear shop called “Hand Spinner Having Fun!” Dad tried every sweater in their arsenal on, but to no avail. Being the size of a medium oak tree (as J would say) has its disadvantages. He did, however, procure for me a warm hat-like thing to keep my ears from getting redder in the cold.

The shoppe had a cat!

The shoppe had a cat!

The Cuillins.

The Cuillins.

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There wasn’t a whole lot of traffic to contend with, so i managed to snap what i think might rank in my top-ten favorite photos (of mine) of all time:

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Well, not much traffic save the rogue sheep or two.

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When we at last reached Uig we prioritized food over faeries (bet you can’t guess who prioritized that list!). There wasn’t a whole lot to be seen in town – a ferry (without wings, alas), two restaurants, and a gift shop. It was the kindly gentleman behind the counter who gave us better directions to find the odd road off the main one to get to the Faerie Glen. Suddenly, i was five years old again and half-tempted to buy the faerie dust for sale. Instead, we settled on post cards and set out for the road posted as “Balknock.”

And at its end we found the Faerie Glen.

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The Faerie Glen!

The Faerie Glen!

I clambered out of the car with a jolt, frolicking in the muddy sheep-paths and delighting in the conical hills.

“What exactly makes this a faerie glen, anyway?” Dad asked behind me. I was initially too busy clapping my hands and repeating that i did, in fact, believe in faeries, to answer.

“Isn’t it obvious?” I was all sass. “Faeries live here, Dad.” I think i even did my best toddler-pout.

He mouthed an “oh” and snapped another picture.

In the end, i think the glen won him over. We split paths, he up one hill and i its cousin, drinking in the damp glamour of this little corner of Scotland.

We took matching opposite-hilltop photos!

We took matching opposite-hilltop photos!

The rain was in a pelting phase by the time i at last un-muddied my boots and plopped in the car. Once more, i asked the universe to invent windshield wipers for glasses. We were off again, back to the south of the Isle. There was a bounty of waterfalls, a hop-off at the gorgeous Talisker distillery (we were too late for the tour, alas) and even a rainbow over the sea.

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Rainbow over the sea!

Rainbow over the sea!

We stopped in Portee for my favorite British delight, millionaire shortbread, and some hot chocolate to warm up. (I also may, or may not, have taken seven or eight maps of the island for my collection. They were free! I couldn’t resist!)

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Casual roadside sightings in Skye!

We were bound for the B&B which was nestled near more castle ruins and a seaside port. It was a charming end to a breathtaking day.

Dad would like you all to know he took this one.

Dad would like you all to know he took this one.

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I won’t say i convinced my father to believe in faeries, but i think Skye’s magic did a pretty good job of enthralling us both!

current jam: ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ janelle monáe featuring erykah badu

best thing: my friends come soon! and so does a certain non-medium-sized oak tree lad!

support talking taboo on indiegogo!

Exploring Eilean Donan Castle!

The cap off to our first day of road tripping through Scotland was the quaint, no-stop-lights-needed town of Dornie. A jig step away from the Isle of Skye bridge, Dornie promised us two conveniences: the ridiculously beautiful Eilean Donan Castle and ease for traveling to our next big destination: Skye itself.

Our first glimpse of the castle!

Our first glimpse of the castle!

So cute!

So cute!

The only place, really, to stay in the Highlands is in a B&B (we passed all of three hostels in our lengthy afternoon wander through the hills). Fortunately for travelers, these wee little stop-offs dot the towns of the Highlands in high numbers – and it means you get to have a more personal experience when traveling (and less expensive!). Our host, Jim, was a lovely and chatty man who boasted of being “born and bred here.” Our room, as the only guests in for the night, overlooked the exquisite castle itself – a serious, jaw-dropping treat!

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Jim laughed at my hop-stepping glee over the castle, saying he couldn’t even see the glamour of it anymore. But he also was quick to assure us the most beautiful time to capture the castle in photographs would be in the evening, at twilight. As far north as we were, that wouldn’t be much before 9:30 PM.

So to dinner we went, at “a pub just down the path from those wee blue gates” at the end of the B&B’s driveway. (We’re pretty sure it was one of two options in the part of town we were in). Feeling particularly British, i ordered a fish pie with a local ale.

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After dinner, we walked back through the we blue gate to drink in the blue-ing sky enveloping the castle. Just as the sun stretched its last farewell over the mountains, i snapped this photo:

Pretty excellent suggestion for a photo, Jim!

The view of the castle from our room!

It was a pretty remarkable ending to a pretty remarkable day!

The next morning we made our way into the castle itself, marveling over its pivotal role in the Jacobite rebellion and laughing at the most excellent wax sculptures in the kitchen. The castle bears a long history of Hollywood, too, having been featured in a James Bond film and a number of other Scotland-themed movies. While the interior is tremendously cool to see, it’s easily the exterior of the castle that makes it so enchanting. Seriously, the castle on an island on a loch thing never gets old.

Our first-morning look at the castle!

Our first-morning look at the castle!

Within the walls!

Within the walls!

Best photo of the day.

Best photo of the day.

And the surrounding landscape isn’t too shabby, either. In misty rain (as it was when we first set foot on the island) or in basking sun (as it turned into, ten minutes later) the castle retains a sense of awe and glamour. What a treat to see in all shades of sun and moonlight!

Barely twenty minutes passed between these photos.

Barely twenty minutes passed between these photos.

Arms laden with postcards from the giftshop, we made our way back on the road. It was only the start of the day, but it was a wonderful way for it to begin!

current jam: ‘skyfall’ adele.

best thing: kind shopkeepers.

Castle-Spotting & Whiskey-Sampling

Stop one on our epic Scottish Road Trip: Oban, a port town on the West coast. Dotted with brightly painted homes and endless wool boutiques, Oban boasts of a booming care home population and even more ferry rides to the surrounding islands.

The Oban port!

The Oban port!

We, however, were there for the whiskey.

My Dad is a connoisseur of alcohol-producing-places and the tours they offer. He and His-Buddy-Mark in their 1989 semester of living in Denmark frequented the brewery down the block so much they were unofficial tour guides by the end. When the tour guide of the Oban Distillery asked what other distilleries he’d been to, i swear he listed every bourbon in the US.

So he’d hunted, far and wide in the land of the internet, for the best whiskey distillery in the land of Scotch. Oban, he decided, held the prize: it was one of the smallest distilleries he’d heard of, so the tour promised to be up-close and personal. Looking over the boiling barley-and-sweetwater mixture in a 32,000 litre contraption, i thought the proximity divine. I also thought my Dad was going to pee himself he was so elated. “Normally, all the distillery stuff is behind glass!” he exclaimed gleefully.

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Looking gleeful with a sample of Oban scotch in hand!

Looking gleeful with a sample of Oban scotch in hand!

Two wee samples and a free whiskey glass later, we were more than pleased with our time in Oban’s Distillery (such a fun and inexpensive attraction to see, should you be planning a trip to Scotland!). Then a fish-and-chips later, we were back on the road bound for the northwest coast.

Scotland is not renowned for its weather. That whole saying, “don’t like the weather? wait five minutes,” surely was born here. Everywhere else i’ve heard the saying employed it’s been a Southern hyperbolic stretch. In Scotland, i oscillate between opening an umbrella and taking off my scarf every ten minutes.

So much for hyperbole.

But for us, blessedly, this day was of a kind i hadn’t seen in Scotland for a long while: a day where the sun was the norm and the rain, novelty. Glistening lochs and sun-dappled mountains embraced our tiny rental car, the clouds lazy white and the beauty of this incredible country unparalleled.

And then, in a serendipitous and ridiculous manner only Scotland can produce, we stumbled upon an old castle. On an island. In the middle of a loch.

castle stalker

A castle! On an island! In a loch!

on the road

Dad focusing intently while learning to drive on the left - no easy feat!

Dad focusing intently while learning to drive on the left – no easy feat!

We learned, via a conveniently placed roadside gift shop, that it was Castle Stalker on Loch Linnhe. And we learned, via the stunning and uncharacteristic sunshine, that it looked like something out of The Princess Bride. Mostly, i just learned in Scotland to expect the unexpected – including random castles alongside the motorway.

current jam: ‘girl in the war’ josh ritter.

best thing: such incredible, humbling opportunities to see so much of this stunning country!

Into the Land of Scotch and Lochs.

To describe my last week spent in the north of Scotland as breathtaking would qualify in the understatement-of-the-year category.

I’ve seen more wonders this semester than i could fit in a personalized National Geographic volume; everywhere from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to the fairytale streets of Chefchouen the brushstrokes of an intricate, well-traveled map. Every place i have seen has possessed its own magic. The romance of Paris, shared with the love of my life, will forever captivate me with its fervor and caprice. The ridiculousness of riding on a camel (for no more than three minutes, if we’re honest) retains a place on my shelf of best-ever’s. Even a frigid day trip to the coastal town of St. Andrews retains a place of glee and stair-clambering soreness in my heart.

But nowhere, nowhere that i have been contains the clash of majesty and ferocity that is the Scottish Highlands and Isle of Skye.

I’d heard tales of the wildness of the Highlands; reminiscing travelers recalling a time at Glen Coe or reading about the Jacobite rebellions. Stories about the peoples whose audacity was paralleled only by the unforgiving landscapes they dwelled within. But it was only when we were immersed in the monsters themselves that i began to really understand that untamed enchantment. In the Talisker whiskey distillery (one of the five we encountered) i heard the hills described as “fiercely intrusive.” Like the paradox of their beauty meant my heart thrummed in my ears, the beats indecisive as to whether it was passionate love or passionate terror that i was experiencing. Honestly, it was probably both.

Off the road near Glen Coe.

Off the road near Glen Coe.

On A87, bound for Eilean Donan castle.

On A87, bound for Eilean Donan castle.

Not many folks on the road, 'round these parts.

Not many folks on the road, ’round these parts.

mountains and lochPerhaps it is the mountain’s unsettling power that makes them so inspiring. When thrown off-kilter i feel brazen.

There was a pier that jutted out into a loch somewhere near Glen Coe – i can’t recall the precise location. But i remember us pulling off the road to sit and take it in, trying to capture in photographs what defies even the reality of looking with our own eyes. I ran along the pier, not caring that the coat i’d left in the car would have kept the frigidity of the wind at bay. Before me was nothing but mountains and sky and loch. The water chopped and served reflections of the surrounding hills, a kinetic storm of energy and anger and beauty and solace.

I was in love.

flag on the loch

(Thanks for the pic, Dad!)

(Thanks for the pic, Dad!)

I’ve fallen for places before – Uganda’s Abim region is a hot contender for the Scottish Highlands – but not like this. Not like the storm of sun and rain, the thunderous winds and snowcapped chill that made me want to cry for laughing and laugh for crying. I was ecstatic, i was terrified, i was head-over-mud-caked-boots for this place.

The best part, though, was being able to share it with my Dad. Running back along the pier, going camera-crazy and chortling off his put-on-your-coat scolding, i just couldn’t believe how blessed i was.

I’d wanted to share with him the world as i’d fallen for it. Cook him dinner in my shanty little flat and take him to the peak of my favorite place in Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat. And we did those things, and they were all that i wanted them to be. We had our famous roadside conversations, passing the hours of driving with debate and honest reflection. But best of all, we got to see a piece of this planet together for the first time.

While i think i did indeed show him the city i’ve so come to adore, Scotland does a pretty good job of asserting its own prowess and power. Through seeing a new part of this country with him, i got to fall in love with Edinburgh all over again.

Maybe that’s the thick of the goodness of my life as it stands now, on the precipice of saying goodbye to Scotland and starting my last year of undergraduate school. It’s burning the spinach for our calzone dinner in an attempt to show off my cooking, but it’s also realizing the adventure doesn’t end with a diploma or a plane ticket. There are places as frightening and gorgeous as the Highlands to remind me of beauty, unmitigated and untampered beauty. Places to feel insignificant and childish and filled with significant dreams. Places that will remain as wild as they were in the days of the Jacobites, the folklore of old.

And sharing in such adventures with the people i love makes that a tremendously exciting prospect.

In Oban, on the West Coast!

In Oban, on the West Coast!

current jam: ‘dry bones’ gungor.

best thing: the highlands!

coming soon: the fairy glen on isle of skye, castle stalker, eilean donan castle, loch ness…