Friday, June 25, 2010

UK Travelogue, Day 8: Scotland the Brave

Saturday, June 5

Immediately upon our coach wheels departing Victoria, I’d taken a sleep aid, consequently zonking out before we’d even left London proper. Now you must understand that while I'm not a fan of sleep aids as a general rule, I've found their help to be invaluable on trips, especially trips involving vast time differences. Jet Lag (The Evil One) must be conquered by any means necessary, even by unnatural sleep products which often produce the effect of rendering one completely senseless.

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Sidebar: on my most recent trip to Haiti (last week), lest the oppressive night heat keep me awake (I find it difficult to sweat and sleep at the same time) I took two of these little blue pills and dropped right off. The problem came around two hours later, when some massively frightening sound jolted me halfway out of sleep. Who can say what I actually heard? A meteor falling on the tin roof? The two roosters in the yard starting their auditory olympics a few hours early? I struggled feebly toward consciousness, attempting to identify the sound, but found that I could no more have opened my eyes than I could have performed a tap dance. It really was a horrifying feeling.

Now, there I was in a country in which the UN currently finds it necessary to patrol certain parts of the city relentlessly to maintain order. (I found out upon arriving home that the same week I was there, a missionary friend of ours was shot in the leg during a robbery attempt on the other side of town.) In fact, the next morning I recalled a TV program my sister had watched in which people who take sleep aids were subjected to nighttime "emergencies" and then recorded via hidden cameras. You know, the house filled with smoke and fire alarms, dogs barking while security systems wailed, etc. The results really were telling: most of them would have died in their sleep. I studiously set the sleep aids aside for the rest of the trip.
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But back to the subject at hand: I woke up at our first "comfort stop" along the route to Scotland, and after that had considerable trouble falling back to sleep. I couldn’t get comfortable. Take the limited amount of space one has while riding on a plane, then take away the foot room underneath the seat in front of you and you will about have the idea.

At one point, I woke up in the middle of the night in the most ridiculous position imaginable. My left foot was on my own seat, my left knee up by my face. The outside of my right thigh was lying along the outside armrest, and my neck pillow-cushioned head rested on my right knee. (Got that?) My right arm was tucked into my chest like a chicken wing, and my left arm was curled up over my head. I could not have compacted myself into a smaller or more unusual contortion if I tried, and what I found truly remarkable was that it wasn’t even comfortable! But somehow I had gotten into this position and had been in it for quite some time, if the pain in my joints could be taken as any indication.

I had the better end of things. Bethany, although she had the coveted window seat, barely slept at all. Apparently, resting her head against the vibrating glass caused her nose to itch incessantly for eight hours straight.

About sunrise, I came just to the edge of wakefulness. I thought to myself, “We must be in Scotland,” and tried to lift my head and have a look. With my near-sighted eyes (minus glasses, which in my sleepy haze I'd lacked the presence of mind to prize from the seatback pocket in front of me to put on) I spied a muzzy green mountain rising proudly in the East, the sun shining just above it like glory.

“Why... it’s beautiful,” I thought. Then I fell back to sleep.

I remember nothing else until about 6:30, at which point I sat up, popped on my glasses (and my head wrap, no doubt to the vast relief of the other passengers) and watched the Scottish countryside undulating before us like a green-blue heaven. Fields dotted with sheep were cut through by cold-looking streams, dry-stone walls, and occasionally offset by stone cottages or a far-flung village.

Long before we even reached Edinburgh, I knew that I had begun to develop a serious crush on Scotland.

Upon entering Edinburgh, this tender feeling quickly blossomed into full-blown love. Bright morning sunshine splashed the buildings with color. The empty streets felt fresh and new despite their obvious age, some still slick with early-morning dew, just ready for exploring.

I woke Bethany, who had just then dropped off to sleep, and together we rumbled with our rolly suitcases down to our hostel without making a single wrong turn. Even in retrospect I find this unbelievable, considering the meagerness of our directions and the wide array of wrong turns that we could have taken. Even the direction we took upon leaving the bus station was a mere guess, the streets being bare of helpful pedestrians whom we may otherwise have asked.

Of course, we couldn’t officially check in to our room until 3:00pm, but we checked our bags into a locker, ascertained our space-time location, and turned our faces toward Old Town.

I hate to call anyone a poopy head, but...

Breakfast and coffee at an Italian café gave us just the charge we needed to negotiate Princes Street and The Mound as we made our approach toward Edinburgh Castle, which looms in its stately grandeur above the city.

Tourist Ruth has difficulty climbing.

Even in my sleep-deprived state, I was nearly tap dancing with excitement.

O hai there! (Outside Edinburgh Castle.)

“Why did we stay in London so long?” I harped at Bethany. “We should have come here days ago!”

I’d like to say we timed our arrival perfectly to the opening of the gates, but we did no such thing. It was a coincidence, but a happy one. A very short wait in a very short line passed quickly, and the next thing we knew, we were welcomed through the gates, barely resisting the urge to twirl around to the skirl of the bagpipes. In we went, glorying in the history, the exhibits, the kilts, the bagpipes, the Stone of Destiny, and the spectacular view that a peep over the parapets affords.

We found these junior cadets quite amusing.

In one of the exhibits, I got a bit ahead of Bethany, so sat down on a padded window seat to allow her time to catch up. Almost immediately, I was joined by a dear old French man (named, wait for it -- Pierre) and his wife (Anne).

“Hello,” I smiled.

“Where are you from?” he asked, eyeing my head wrap.

“From Florida, in the United States,” I replied.

He looked visibly startled. “Really? Hmmm.”

“You look surprised.”

“Well, it’s just that…. Americans are very different, I think.”

“Different from…?” I prompted.

“From the British,” he said eventually.

We had a nice little chat about the weather in England and Scotland (he didn’t seem to approve of all this sunshine, blaming it on Climate Change, and saying he had trouble feeling at home in Great Britain without a bit of cloud cover), the oil spill in the Gulf, etc. Eventually Bethany joined us, and the chat became even more lively. Anne predicted that BP would go out of business, and Pierre said no, it would get bought out by another company.

“Maybe I will buy it,” he said in mock seriousness.

“Ah! Then it’s good that we’re friends now!” I rubbed my hands together greedily. “We are friends, aren’t we, Mr….?”

“Vanderbilt,” he supplied.

We all laughed.

Eventually they moved on (they were part of an organized tour group, poor things) but we did see them later as we were exiting. Actually, they spied us first and called out a hearty goodbye.

I can't say enough about how much we enjoyed Edinburgh Castle: the fresh morning air, the relative lack of crowds, the history, the sunshine, the spectacular views, the bagpipers...

We Heart Bagpipers Jump!

Tourist Ruth scales the battlements!

Edinburgh Jump!

Reveling in the awesomeness of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle Jump!

When the castle finally became swamped with tourists (woe!), we nipped down to Greyfriars Kirk, where Bethany parked herself alongside a monument to finish her book, and I napped in the sun. This was, after all, supposed to be a vacation.

Cemetery of Geryfriars Kirk.

Cemetery of Geryfriars Kirk.

At 3:00 precisely, we presented ourselves at the hostel's front desk, checked in, and after a little series of misunderstandings with reception, we showered, organized ourselves, and took a little rest before heading out to seek an early dinner around 4:00. (We wanted to be sure to be back in time to catch our friend JW’s wedding, which was being streamed live over the internet.)

Just down the road, we found a charming little Italian bistro (sensing a pattern here?) where I had a sizzling cannelloni and Bethany had something with meatballs in tomato sauce. Both dishes were absolutely outstanding. We discussed the relative distance between the UK and Italy and hypothesized that could be why Italian food tastes so much better in the UK than it does in the US. (The only place I’ve had better, of course, would be Rome.)

A light rain began to fall outside just as we logged onto the computer to watch the wedding, so we felt doubly justified in spending a quiet night in. After going strong for a week now, we found ourselves well in need of some down time!

We also looked forward to having our Monday and Tuesday schedules all planned out for us by other people. After days of maps, timetables, maps and more maps, we began looking forward to being led around by the hands, especially with such a fabulous backdrop as Scotland!

Edinburgh

4 comments:

  1. As If I didn't already want to go to Scotland! Now I really do!!

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  2. Yup, not surprised that you immediately sensed the superiority of Scotland. =P It's not a bad thing that you ate Italian. The only thing I find lacking in Scotland is the regional fare, that is unless you like organ meat.

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  3. Um, yes.... can't say too much about regional cuisine, as we were trying to "eat cheap" the entire trip, and also had decided that haggis was not an option anyway.

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