Travel in time with me for a spell, dear travelers. In addition to the book reviews and blogs about my adventures in New Zealand, I will now be regaling you with my recent time in Scotland. I hope you enjoy, and are maybe inspired to plan your own trip to Alba!
Some people call a big trip ‘going on holiday’. Where I come from we usually call it a vacation. Personally, I like both terms, but not for the same reasons. I like the word ‘holiday’ because it takes some power away from those other, nationally recognized holidays, which, let’s face it, aren’t always that great even though they are supposed to be. But I like the word ‘vacation’ for its implications. You are temporarily vacating your life. Life, as you know it, is changing. And when you return home you aren’t going to be the same person anymore.
My most recent vacation (that took place over a year ago now; yes, I know I’m late) from life took me to Alba, better known today as Scotland. Home of the Loch Ness Monster, the Highland cows and more rainy days than one might care for.
I’d been to the British Isles many years before when I was just a teenager, and mom had spent time there in her youth as well. It was her inability to reach Scotland during her youth, as well as my own, that cemented another journey across the pond with Scotland as the goal and prize.
Big trips like this one (and by big I mean you have to spend more than four hours on a plane to get there and you have to stay at least two weeks to make it worth your while) start long before you actually get on the plane. And they always seem to come about in a similar pattern. They start as a some wild fantasy. A trip to Scotland; wouldn’t it be wonderful? But I’ll never make it. It’s too far, too expensive. But wouldn’t it be great. But the idea keeps niggling at you until it becomes a mission to complete. You start making a budget, doing research, stressing about how much time you can get off of work to go. Then suddenly you have a plane ticket and there is no going back.
Mom and I got our seemingly wild idea just after returning from a fully realized wild idea. I feel confident in saying that not 24 hours after we got off a 13 hour plane ride from Auckland, New Zealand we were talking about making plans to go to Scotland. Our sore tailbones and numb butt cheeks were not enough to dissuade us from thinking about the next time we could spend hours upon hours on a cramped plane. Of course after that initial discussion the plans were put on hold. We were heavy with fatigue and we had to get our lives back in order. It would be a month or two before we started manifesting Scotland in earnest.
All the usual signs were there. We bought a Scotland calendar to hang on the wall. We listened to songs with prominent bagpipe parts. Our dreams were filled with men in kilts, and maybe a nightmare or two about driving on the opposite side of the road. We spent a month or more being indecisive about when to buy our plane tickets, troubling over whether we were getting the best deal we could. Finally we couldn’t wait any longer and we suddenly found ourselves at the point of no return.
Trans-Atlantic flights are the worst. They don’t leave until the evening, which gives you plenty of time to worry and stress throughout the day about how many things you forgot and whether you’re leaving early enough to get through security and to the gate. But I tried to stay as calm as possible. Eventually the anxiety wears you down and you just don’t have the energy anymore.
Mom and I met up with my dad and brother for a late lunch the day of our departure after we had gotten all of the big things packed away. During the course of conversation we came to realize our shuttle to the airport was leaving much too late. So we ended up cutting lunch a bit short and moving our departure time up an hour. With that crisis averted, we instead began to worry if we would have enough time to get home to finish packing. This was not my ideal scenario for starting a long trip.
I’m sure I scarfed down the rest of lunch a little faster than I needed to but it made me feel better to leave the café an extra five minutes early. We got home about an hour and a half before we had to catch the shuttle. Final checks began immediately. We began reciting over and over to each other that we had packed: socks, underwear, toothbrush, raincoats, chargers, camera, did I say socks already? When dad showed up, whether we had everything or not, it was time leave.
One thing I do pride myself on is how good at traveling light my mom and I are. In New Zealand, we managed one suitcase between the two of us for a month and a backpack each. For Scotland, we brought an extra carry-on, but it proved useful in the long run. Four pieces of luggage (most of them small) for three weeks is pretty good. With it all loaded into the van, we drove to the transit center. It was a nice sunny day, and I found myself wondering if this would be last one I saw for three weeks (no offense, Scotland). The shuttle hadn’t arrived when we pulled into the parking lot, so we brought our luggage to the curb and waited.
Several vans came and went, some staying parked for a while, but no one approached or asked us what the name on the reservation was. So we kept waiting. I was gazing past the pick up spot to the street beyond, watching car after car streak by towards the city. At last I saw the jumbo sized Green Ride van turn off the highway and into the transit center. I turned to mom, smiling. We gathered up our bags and moved closer to the curb so we could hand our suitcases to the driver. The goodbyes started and the hugs and the wishes for fun to be had. Walking up the steps and sitting down on the shuttle is thrilling in its own way. Those are the first steps of a much longer journey. A small rush of endorphins is clouding your thinking and for a moment you don’t worry about the hassle you’ll have getting through the airport. All you know is you’re going! We waved goodbye from the window as the shuttle left the station.
Maneuvering the airport turned out to be pretty seamless. Check in wasn’t too slow, security was moving pretty swiftly and the walk to the gate wasn’t too long. The flight itself wasn’t ideal, but when is it ever? The person behind me was reaching into the seat back pocket a little too often it seemed and it constantly felt like they were trying to stick their hand up my bum. And the guy next to me decided the armrest was all his and spent most of the flight asleep with him mouth wide open.
We didn’t hit our first snag until we landed in Heathrow. Stiff and groggy, we de-boarded and began to navigate our way to our connecting flight. I haven’t heard any personal horror stories about Heathrow but apparently they exist in abundance. I don’t know if mine qualifies as a horror story but it wasn’t a walk through a field of daises either. First we came to immigration and made the mistake of letting some one go ahead of us. It sounds insensitive but you should never be overly nice to people in airports. On top of that, we had picked the line with the newbie who took forever to process just two people. So we stood there watching everyone in the European passport line move further into the airport while we waited on the people who could’ve been us. Alas.
When we finally made it through immigration we continued to follow signs to our connecting terminal and soon found ourselves in what felt the long forgotten bowels of Heathrow. We climbed escalators in a wide empty room filled with thick metal pillars crossing every which way. There were no personnel to be seen. It was just us and all the other passengers trying to find their way. When we rejoined airport civilization we found ourselves going through security again. I’m always flustered by security stops in countries outside the States. They aren’t quite as paranoid as we are and more often than in the States you find yourself dealing with a security agent who is actually nice and friendly. It’s very confusing to my American brain.
But the nice security guard did not make up for the fact that I left security only to see that our connecting flight had just left. I couldn’t even make a mad dash to hold the gate while mom caught up with me because I didn’t know where the bloody gate was. Admitting defeat, we went searching for a help desk to get on the next flight to Edinburgh.
The gentleman who helped us was very nice and got us taken care of no problem. But he also taught us a valuable lesson about how they do things in Heathrow airport. It’s time for a lesson, children. If you miss a connecting flight, go to get a new boarding pass and the clerk asks you if you’d like him to bin your old boarding pass tell him NO! (thank you; best to be polite about it). Hold on to that old boarding pass for dear life or you will end up like mom and I did (maybe).
Here’s what happened. It seemed perfectly fine to me that I let the clerk toss my old boarding pass. I had a new one for a new flight, so why would I need the old one? Well apparently, that first boarding pass was associated with my freaking biometrics or something. They use those fancy cameras in Heathrow that must scan your DNA or something because if your biometrics don’t match up with your boarding pass the gate agents will make you wait, for whatever security reason, until everyone else is on the plane before you can get on yourself. It was quite a mortifying situation. Completely not our fault but mortifying nonetheless. Everyone else was seated and ready to go and it was just us two in the aisle trying to shove our carry-on into the overhead bin.
This all sounds terrible (and it was) but it was actually kind of nice that we missed our connection. It gave us a chance to walk around and stretch, sit somewhere that wasn’t a plane and get something to eat that wasn’t airline food. But Edinburgh was calling.
Though we were stuck in Heathrow for a bit, at least we were there. The worst part of the journey was over. We had made it to the right country. Missing our flight did highlight just how much it sucks not to have a smart phone, however; one that you can use anyway. There was no time or opportunity to get a new SIM card so mom and I were both completely cut off from everything unless we were lucky to be somewhere with wifi. And even if were lucky enough to find some it was slow as balls connecting and thus ultimately useless to us. I don’t usually have qualms with lack of an internet connection but there were things that needed doing. We had no way of contact our host to let her know what was going on or where we were. We had no way of locating a cell provider in Edinburgh we could get SIM cards from. It was maddening.
We didn’t get decent wifi until we were on the tram from the airport into town. The flight, despite getting off to a rough start, was quick a painless. We collected our luggage and then, rather confused, left the airport without stopping at immigration or customs. We were rather concerned, funnily enough, that no one had rifled through our underwear before we were allowed to enter the country. Feeling like fugitives, we followed the path flanked by chain link fences to the tram platform and had our first experience with chip and pin machines. (Also, my friend has since assured me that someone definitely went through my knickers at Heathrow; we just weren’t there for it.)
For those who don’t know, chip and pin cards are the way of the credit card future. America, who is perpetually behind, just joined the 21st century before we left, but apparently Scotland doesn’t like American cards. Of course we had no cash yet either so we couldn’t choose that option. But luckily there was someone there to help us get tickets. He was the first of many good looking Scottish men I would see that trip and the first of even more lovely Scottish accents we got to hear.
Tickets in hand, we pulled our bags onto the tram and took our seats. We had arrived! It was official now. We were in Scotland, in Edinburgh, on the tram. The stress and exhaustion of traveling melted away briefly and we allowed ourselves some excited squeals and joyous declarations that we were indeed in Scotland.
I spent my time on the tram messaging our host what the situation was and staring out the window at the city. My first impression was that Edinburgh is a city, which would be obvious to anyone. While I appreciate all the various activities and sights most cities have to offer, I’m not the biggest fan of spending much time there. And for a while I worried I might feel that way about Edinburgh. We exited the tram at Haymarket Station to a street noisy with cars and bustling with people. And we had no idea where we were going.
Our host, Rebecca, had provided instructions to her flat from Haymarket Station, which was very fortunate for us phoneless wonders. But we had to ask a gentleman on the sidewalk which direction we needed to head (Coloradans, am I right?)
We told him we were headed to Lauriston Place. He thought for a minute before he pointed to his right, then looked at us and said, “That’s a bit far though, isn’t it?” Not exactly what weary travelers with lots of luggage want to hear but I also wasn’t feeling up to trying to wrangle a taxi (plus we still had no cash and I was paranoid about having another card incident). He gave us directions as best he could and we were off.
What I will say about the walk to Lauriston Place is that I’m very sure it was not as long as the walk mom and I had to make to our hostel when we were in Christchurch. It was still long though. The sidewalks were bumpy and we were going uphill. Navigating the crowds was difficult with a bulging suitcase following behind you and it didn’t take long for the straps of the backpacks to start really cutting in. We had to ask once where Lothian Street was since Edinburgh apparently doesn’t believe in street signs (I mean, they had them, they just weren’t always the most obvious) but once we got there it was a straight shot down the road to our flat.
I don’t think I could ever, or would ever, want to drive in Edinburgh, at least not so near the city center. There were so many lanes and lights and traffic markings I had no idea what they meant that I’m surprised I didn’t die just crossing the street. The building our flat was in was right at the Tollcross junction and there were at least six different ways traffic could be moving at any given time. But we made it across safely and found the entrance.
We weren’t thrilled about what we found on the other side of that door, however. The flat was on the top floor of a four-story (I think) building. We had to carry all our stuff up a narrow cement stairway, which is just as difficult as it sounds. Sweating and out of breath, we reach the top and found Rebecca waiting for us. She introduced us to what I’m pretty sure was her boyfriend, Dave, and Dave was nice enough to carry the biggest suitcase up the last flight of stairs into our room.
After saying hello and giving a short account of the fiasco at Heathrow, she showed us upstairs where we’d be staying. The bedroom was small but with a window over looking the street, and the bathroom was covered in robot wallpaper. So that was pretty sweet. She had also written up a short list of suggestions of things to do in town and places to eat. After that, Rebecca and Dave were off to visit family for the weekend. Mom pointed out later that evening that they were very trusting to leave two complete strangers in their flat. She was right, but I wouldn’t have given a second thought about it if she hadn’t said something. I guess it’s just weird to think someone would be concerned that I would do something bad because I know that I don’t have any ill intent. But of course they don’t know that…but I digress.
Once we were alone, we took a moment to poke around the flat a bit and snoop in the kitchen, just to check things out. We sorted our things in the bedroom and flopped onto the bed, glad for a moment to relax. The sweat dried and my shoulders stopped aching but my feet still had a dull burning sensation. It was only after we both got caught up with all internet related needs (sweet wifi!) that we decided it was time to find a pub. We had walked by at least five on our way down Lothian Road. Calling upon our last reserves of energy we climbed back down the many stairs to the street to find a place to get a drink.
I think we were nearly back at Haymarket Station by the time we picked a place. Many of the pubs were on the small side and already rather full, and every one of them gave of that cozy pub feel, like everyone inside knew each other; everyone was a regular. I was nervous about stepping foot in any one of them because I would be the outsider.
So in the end we picked one of the quieter pubs, which in retrospect doesn’t seem like the smartest thing to do if you’re trying to fly under the radar. As soon as we walked in every single person there turned to look at us. We couldn’t have been more conspicuous than if we walked in wearing American flag jumpsuits. I moved straight for the bar. Beer would help! There were maybe five or six beers on tap, none of which I knew of course, and one of which I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. So I just let mom order and told the bartender to make it two. By the way, this was the second good-looking Scottish man I came in close contact with. Tall, dark and Scottish, the trifecta.
We took our beers and sat down at a narrow table against the wall adjacent to the bar and opposite from most everyone else there. We were silent for a while and just sipped our beer. Eventually we started talking plans for tomorrow when mom would be heading to the National Archives to do genealogy research and I would have the day to myself. From there we branched off to talking about who knows what before somehow getting around to discussing how messed up and unfair the world is.
To be fair this is a fairly standard progression of barroom talk. But before things got much darker, we threw back the rest of our beers and left to find some food. It was dark when we left the pub and the streets were significantly quieter. We weren’t in the mood for a sit down place so we stumbled into the Sainsbury on the way back to the flat. I say ‘stumbled’ because, even though we had only had a beer each, mom and I are lightweights, and one good beer is all it takes to make us a little loopy and unstable.
I picked up a basket and started walking up and down the aisles, peering curiously at a bunch of labels and brands that were completely foreign to me. I had no idea what half of it was, but if it looked good I grabbed it and tossed it into the basket. Drunk shopping is quite fun. In the end we made it to the register with a couple of bagels, some bananas, a container of soup, Jammie Dodgers, and a Mars bar. Not bad, I’d say, for drunk shopping at least.
We enjoyed some drunken banter with the cashier (he wasn’t drunk, just us) as I struggled with the card machine (it worked this time). Finally we stumbled back out onto the street and got back home. I was glad that we were alone in the flat. Drunken displays of cooking are not the best way to make a good impression. I kid though. We really weren’t that far gone, just thoroughly enjoying ourselves. I pulled down a couple bowls and got the soup in the microwave while mom toasted up a bagel for us to split. It certainly wasn’t the best meal we’d ever made but it was quick and easy and tasted fine.
My head was nearly clear as we washed the dishes and went up for bed. It felt good to be lying down after such a long day. I was feeling a little trepidation about the next day, and the whole trip for that matter. There’s always a degree of pressure I feel with grand trips like this to have a good time. But I was too tired to worry about it much just then. So I rolled over and went to sleep.