Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

imagesAh, Carry On, the story everyone wanted to read once they read Fangirl. I wonder if you would then count this as a novel or fanfiction. It’s fanfiction written by a fictional character (technically). Maybe it’s fanfic-ception!!! Though that doesn’t really make sense…

Anyway! This was a fun read. I enjoy Rainbow Rowell’s writing. It is super simplistic but still engaging and fun. Anyone who has read Fangirl knows that the story of Simon Snow is very similar to the Harry Potter series, but it has enough of its own personality that it doesn’t feel like a shitty remake. I find it kind of cute and silly that the spells in Carry On are essentially popular idioms and phrases from everyday life. I also like how there is an emphasis on the power of words throughout the book.

This story has a good ol’ fashion mystery element to it. The characters peel back layer after layer to discover the answer to their problems and of course end up finding things they didn’t expect. This next part is going to be very vaguely spoiler-ish so BE WARNED!

I like that, at the end of the book, everything kind of went in a much different direction than you would’ve expected. I mean, hmm, how do I say this. Things that happened weren’t totally out of left field but I just like that they happened that way, as opposed to some other way that was similar but not quite the same. Characters like Simon and Agatha sort of broke the conventional bonds we see their type of characters living out in most ‘chosen one’ books, as Rowell calls them. She puts her own spin on things, and that was very refreshing.

This was a fun, easy read, and definitely for people who like sort of silly teen romance, intrigue and magic.

~Ren

Advertisements

Floating Down the River

We meet again, fellow travelers. And so soon! I know I said you’d have to wait but who knew it would be so short! I just love you guys that much, I guess. Also it’s my last day of mini vacation so I’m taking advantage of it. So let’s get started, one more story for you all before the work begins again.

This adventure was a couple of weeks ago. A work mate, Emma, posted in our Hobbiton Facebook group explaining she had access to some kayaks and was thinking a group of us could take a trip up the river then float back down in the dark to see the glow worms. Heaps of people were keen and a plan started to form.

Now, it wasn’t till writing this blog that I realized I complete forgot about the glow worms mentioned in the initial post. I somehow got stuck on star gazing, which we also did a bit of. So I was rather taken by surprise on the trip back. But more about that later. First we had to find our kayaks, and even before that my friend Hannah and I had to find the camp.

Our destination was about a 20 minute drive south of Matamata. Actually getting there was no problem, but when we came to the end of the final road we were faced with two signs for two different camps and we weren’t sure which was the right one. So we called Emma.

We turned off to the right and followed the dirt road down to the river’s edge where most of the group had already gathered. Hannah and I walked over and joined them on the pier. William was already in the water with his own kayak. The rest of us were informed presently by Emma that the majority of the camps kayaks had just been discovered stolen so there weren’t enough to go around.

Luckily, the camp next door (the one Hannah and I originally drove into) had plenty of kayaks and said we were welcome to use them. We all climbed back into our cars and pulled around to the neighboring camp. By some sick twist of fate, though, Hannah and I, as well as Glyn, got left behind which resulted in us getting lost again. What the fudgeballs.

Through process of elimination we finally picked the right road and rejoined the group. An assortment of different colored kayaks had been pulled out of the shed and set by the water. Everyone was grabbing life jackets and oars and claiming their kayaks before scooting off the slipway into the lake.

I’ve only been kayaking once before, just before I moved to NZ. It’s not the toughest thing in the world to do. If you have any degree of coordination and some upper body strength you can manage on still water easily. The difference this time was I had a destination and of course had to keep moving. It was a bit of a workout and my arms were feeling the burn by the time we came to our pull off.

The journey there, however, was quite lovely. It had a bit more shouting and off key singing than I would’ve liked but even with all that it was enjoyable. We started by crossing the lake (which was really just a rather wide spot in the Waikato River). The surface was thick with lengths of some spindly-needled plants that I worked hard to keep from wrapping around my paddles. They slid over the underside of the kayak, making a sound like long nails over dry skin.

On the other side we started down a tiny side stream. Here I managed to break to the front of the group and put a bit more distance between me and the more exuberant members of our group. At this point my bottom half was already well soaked from all the water dribbling down the handle. That’s just to be expected though. Slowly but surely the group glided past the long grasses flanking the stream and moved under a canopy of trees.

The cliffs themselves weren’t that high but the trees towered higher still, their branches reaching out over the water. The blue strip of sky above wavered in size, dependent on the thickness of the canopy as we continued to slip by far below. The closer we got to our destination, the more exposed we became once more.

Docking was fun. Our pull off point wasn’t much more than a break in the grass where you could get a bit of your kayak out of the water if you made a quick enough approach. Emma was first out and to keep the rest of us from losing a shoe in the muck, she helped pull our kayaks further onto the shore so we could avoid any such mishaps. Everyone who was on land already lent a hand as the rest of the group began to arrive.

The sun had vanished behind the tree line sometime ago. It was dusky, but would still be a while until it was completely dark. A few of us went off to explore the area while we waited. Following the curve of the river, we discovered a staircase made of tires, which by they way are terrible to climb in cowboy boots, especially when the tires aren’t fully filled in. But I digress. At the top of the stairs we discovered a camping area complete with lean to and fire pit. Everyone grabbed a seat and we killed time chatting and making jokes about being in a horror movie. We would’ve told scary stories but no one could think of any.

With the last dregs of light left, we climbed back down our rubber staircase (which is even worse to do in the dark with cowboy boots) and returned to the rest of the group. Now, Emma had enough foresight to suggest in her post that we bring a torch or a headlamp if we had one. But those who did have one forgot and others, like myself, just didn’t have any sort of light besides the one on their phone. In the end not having a light was of little consequence.

When all the light had faded, we busted out what lights we had so we could clamber back into our kayaks. As we launched back into the river, one by one, a general consensus went up it would be better to stay together on the way back. But that didn’t happen. Rachel, Hannah, and I were the first three in the water. We did our best to wait for the others but they were taking a ridiculously long time for some reason, so even though we were barely moving they were still ages behind. Oh well.

The three of us moved slowly on the way back. We were quiet with our paddles and didn’t talk much. I had my phone tucked into the front of my life jacket for a light but didn’t end up using it much. The evening was cloudy but the moon gave off enough light that we could make out the gap in the trees and use that to guide us down the river. And then of course, there were the glow worms.

Now remember, up till this point I had forgotten that glow worms were part of the deal tonight. I just thought it was stars and kayaking. The glow worms appeared little by little. At first it was just one or two dotted on either of the banks. Steadily their numbers grew. Our path home was illuminated from above and below, celestial light and bioluminescence working together to guide us.

It was almost like being in a kaleidoscope tube, enclosed and surrounded by a brilliant collection of lights and shapes. And it was so quiet. The most you could hear was the sound of your own breathing and the gentle gurgling of water as your kayak pushed through the water and your paddle dipped below the surface for another stroke.

Eventually, we left the magic behind. Rachel, Hannah and I crossed the lake and found our way back to the slipway, where it was much easier to get out of our kayaks. We replaced our kayaks and life jackets in the shed then went out onto the jetty to wait for the others. Once we were all back on land, we hung around eating all the snacks we’d forgotten to bring with us up the river and spinning yarn after yarn as the hours passed.

As you can see, no pictures were taken. I mean, it was dark and all I had was a phone. Plus my camera doesn’t do night scenes very well anyway. Those facts aside, I don’t think I would’ve bothered. That journey down the river was an experience I wanted to immerse myself in. I didn’t want to be distracted by taking pictures of it. I might not have any visual reminders that the trip happened. But random, spontaneous adventures like that are sort of what I live for and are often what I remember with the greatest fondness when the journey is over. Pictures couldn’t have captured the feeling anyway.

~Ren

Wairere Falls (I know how to say it now!) and other fun things

Well travelers, it’s been a bit there since I’ve regaled you with stories of my adventures down under. And there have been a few, one of which I’m keeping to myself and one that you’ll have to wait a bit longer for. Trust me, it’s a good one. So let’s get started!

Follow me back to the end of February. Yes, all those weeks ago (March is going by super fast if you hadn’t noticed). What was so great about the end of February? Night tour. Night tour? Yes, night tour. Technically it is the Evening Dinner Tour. This is where you get to go around Hobbiton at night. Coolness on a whole other level. Also they feed you food, which is nice. A bunch of the staff wanted to book onto an EDT but they were all booked solid until mid-March. So instead, management set up a staff only tour probably so we would all stop nagging them I’m sure.

During my time at Hobbiton I have learned that most of the people who work there are a bit crazy. Like, young, unencumbered, prone to drinking lots crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I can be, and have been, crazy with the best of them, but it was never really my thing. Even when I was young(er) and (more) unencumbered I always felt I was a different kind of crazy. And my crazy does not always mesh well with Hobbiton crazy. But damn it all if I don’t have fun with those peeps. The point is, I felt quite sure this evening was going to be…interesting.

One of the new guides, Glyn, was still homeless back then so he was moving from place to place and crashing on peoples’ floors and couches. I had offered my place up for the night so we decided it made sense to carpool to the tour as well. We had a beer, or two in Glyn’s case, at mine before we finished up our last minute preening and hopped into my car.

The energy level was high in the staff room and positively electric once we were all on the bus. Our fearless Head Guide, Teresa (or T) would be driving us, as well as walking us around the set. T has been at Hobbiton since the beginning practically, and she’s just a total BA, so we were all in for a treat. The whole bus speech, while being informative like it’s supposed to be, was also one big roast of all the ridiculous things the drivers say (and a few things some of the guides do, too).

Things weren’t much different on set. Teresa still gave the tour like you would with any other group, but with bits of added color and flair your typical tourist wouldn’t understand, and a bit more swearing. It’s easy, as a guide, to forget that not everyone at Hobbiton spends their day out on set talking about all the history and random facts regarding the set, and many people that were on the staff tour had never really set foot on set. Hence why T tried to make sure the tour was still informative, but maybe a bit more amusing for the guides.

Since so many different departments were being thrust together for this tour, there were lots of new acquaintances being made. Glyn introduced me to one girl who I recognized but couldn’t place for the longest time until I realized she worked in the kitchen at the GD (Green Dragon, if you were wondering). I found myself able to have more than a two-minute conversation with people I saw almost as often as my fellow guides, and on this night, all three of Hobbiton’s Renees were in the same place at the same time. We all ended up sitting at the same table for dinner actually.

So we went through the tour, making a few unusual stops, then lingered on the other side of the bridge while we waited for the last actual tour to leave the Green Dragon. Then it was time to get our drink on! The dining area was curtained off while the kitchen staff finished setting up the feast. The group swarmed the bar for their first round then dispersed to the tables, chairs and fireside seats while they waited for dinner to be served. I took my drink back to the Snug and had a quite moment alone, remembering when my mother and I had been here enjoying our very first drink at the recently opened pub. Then I went back to mingle.

It didn’t take long for the singing to start. Disney songs of all things, and that theme continued right through to dinner. It was very appropriate though. Many a song has been sung in the Green Dragon I’m sure, and we would have been very poor Hobbits indeed if we had not continued that tradition. When we were all a couple beers in, the curtains finally opened to reveal the feast.

Three large tables, which I’d seen in an empty state many times before, were now covered end to end with Hobbit-style dishes filled with expertly prepared food (hardly any of which I could eat but I appreciated the presentation nonetheless). The group scattered like roaches for a seat and in an instant food was transferred from platter to plate. The feast had begun.

I grabbed some salad and piled some taters onto my plate. While I nibbled those and sipped my drink I was brought a bowl of stir-fried veggies that were quite tasty and very filling. The songs began again once everyone had gotten some food in their bellies, and great feats of food throwing were performed (by which I mean a bunch of us started seeing from just how far we could throw a piece of food and make it into someone’s mouth. Pretty far, it turns out.)

Nearly everyone over-indulged that night I think, at least at my table they did. When everyone had finished eating, we hung around the pub for a bit longer, had another drink if stomach space allowed, then were told to find a lantern buddy for the walk back through set. Each pair was given a lantern (hence lantern buddies. You always realize how redundant you are in the proofreading phase) then sent out the far side of the pub into the rain. For a little while I was disappointed that we hadn’t actually got to walk through set in the dark. But that was before we took a left instead of a right when we had crossed over the dam.

In a near single file line, we sloshed and squelched past the lakefront hobbit holes before climbing back up the hill to the Party Field. Here we stopped and were told to form a circle and set the lights at our feet. The bugs were a nuisance and the rain wasn’t helping my mood, so I started to get impatient for something to happen. When at last we were all accounted for, a few of the lads stepped into center circle.

Ethan, Sam, and William began by telling how this was a tradition on the night tours, that everyone had to do this. And what was that? It was dancing. A few dance moves were demonstrated for us, such as the Frodo (see below), but ultimately we were just encouraged to participate. The three of them then stumbled into a brief rendition of the Green Dragon song (I don’t know what else to call it), which I’ll recount for you here:

Oh, you can search far and wide, you can drink the whole town dry. But you’ll never find a beer so brown as the one we drink in our hometown. You can keep your fancy ales you can drink ’em by the flagon. But the only brew for the brave and true comes from the Green Dragon!

Huzzah!

frodo-dancing-o.gif

Ladies and gentlemen, The Frodo.

After our less than enthusiastic dance circle we all shuffled over to the Dell. This was my favorite part of the tour, but could’ve been better. William, our other guide, told us to turn off our lanterns and take a moment of silence to just appreciate the set, here in the darkness, all lit up and glowing. He also mentioned this was the most difficult part of the tour to execute, and it was no different with this lot. Some people were just too hyped up. We did eventually get our less than reverent moment of complete silence, and we even had a few songs here as well.

We finished the tour with a nice walk around the Dell before heading back through the cutting and to the bus. Some people stopped for a lighted photo before leaving but I was ready to be back on the bus and on my way home. My mood had definitely mellowed. Back home, before we each crawled into our respective beds, Glyn and I sat on the living room floor enjoying a cider, chatting about how amazing the evening had been.

12802706_215183702168560_726055464054247770_n

Hobbits.

Phew. Well that was an adventure in itself. You made it travelers! Now you all want to go and do your own evening tour, don’t you? The last few things I have to tell you will go much quicker, I promise.

So, there are, certain classes of people let’s say, that have very different and interesting ideas of what ‘entertainment’ is…I guess. That’s my nice way of saying there are crazy, redneck, thick-skulled and possibly slightly inbred people no matter where you go in the world. Here they are called bogans. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m running in any bogan circles but I did a very bogan thing the other night, at least I would consider it to be.

So Blair has this lawnmower (some of you might know where this is going). It also comes with its own grill and table, I guess you’d call it. Well one night, I was over, hanging out with a few other peeps, and for some reason we decide to go drive this thing around for a bit. Just down the lane, into the country a ways. So that’s what we did. Blair is at the wheel, I’m in the passenger seat, and May and this other tiny dude are sitting on the table. Several thoughts went through my mind. 1) All the neighbors probably hate us right now, cuz this thing is loud as. 2) I really hope Blair doesn’t steer us into a sign post. And 3) What the actual fuck, I’m riding a lawnmower down the edge of a highway.

So that is a thing I can say I’ve done now. Didn’t see it coming, but it happened.

Now were are going to go way back, my dear travelers. Remember that blog I posted ages ago, just shortly after I moved to NZ, the one about hiking Wairere Falls? Well things have developed since then! First of all, I know how to say the name now. Phonetically it is ‘why-rear-ree.’ Not so sure why that was so hard to figure out but whatever. Also, I have now actually made it to the Falls, not just the lookout point. And I had so much fun doing it.

Okay, the winding stairs and rocky terrain and mugginess and general fatigue accumulated were not fun, but it was all totally worth it at the end. I sweated and toiled for nearly the entire hike. I had a moment at the lookout point where I considered turning back. It wasn’t really that important that I reach the top, was it? But dammit! It was! That’s what I had come there to do and I was going to do it! So I kept going. And an hour and a half later I had reached the Falls.

P1050231

Can’t stop here. Onwards!

Now, I had been listening to music the whole way up to the Falls, and as soon as I reached the top, an absolutely perfect song came on. I had just left the thick bush behind and stepped onto the path at the edge of the river. Through my headphones began the hushed, eerie beginning of Imogen Heap’s “Clear the Area” and it just fit. The place as silent, deserted. Everything here was new, being explored for the first time. I was glad no one was around. Everyone else that had reached the summit before me had passed by me some time ago.

I moved forward slowly, stepping carefully. The ground here was very damp and quite muddy in areas. Beside me, the river was quiet, but the further I moved down the narrow path, the more the howling of the wind grew. It wasn’t long before the showers began. They were short, just small bursts of water droplets falling from who knows where. I kept moving. When I’d finally reached the end of the trail, it became clear where the water was from.

The wind at the top was ferocious. It was catching and casting great streams of water from the Falls’ edge and sending them back the way they had come. In the battle between gravity and Aeolus, the wind god was certainly holding his own. Mere minutes had passed before I was sufficiently soaked. And I was loving every minute of it. From the second the first unexpected shower and fallen onto my shoulders, I was smiling. Smiling at what? I have no idea.

Maybe it was the child-like wonder evoked from being spritzed from a source I could not see or touch. Maybe it was the relief I felt when the cool waters hit my skin. Maybe it was just endorphins kicking in after the long hike or just the mere satisfaction I had reached the top. I just couldn’t stop smiling. There were a couple viewing platforms right at the edge of the cliff. I walked straight down to the lowest one, cast my arms out wide and let the water pelt me straight in the face as I stood there with a giant stupid grin on my face and a laugh lodged in my throat.

P1050253

There’s a part of me that never wants to go back to the top of Wairere Falls because I’m afraid nothing could ever top that moment. I don’t want to spoil the memory I have. The other part of me doesn’t want to go back to the top because I have PTSD about those freaking stairs. If the one time is all I ever have it will be enough. I stopped for quiet sit next to the river and gave my feet a chance to breath before I made the climb back down. I even came home with a few nicely aligned battle scars (topically speaking).

I’ll end this blog with one more brief story. Just a few days ago it was my last day of work before my mini birthday holiday. It was my last tour of the day. New Zealand is very like Colorado in that weather can turn on a dime (which I find an interesting expression to use here because they don’t even have dimes in NZ). It had been one of those days, and while I had brought my rain jacket I decided earlier I wasn’t going to need it. Well of course, last tour of the day, just as we get to the pub, it decides to start pissing down.

Me, being a good tour guide, did what I could to scrounge up umbrellas for my group. I managed about five. Better than nothing. The time to leave came and me and my group trudged out into the rain. Now I didn’t care much that I was getting wet. I was going home after this. I was busy enjoying the view. It was a sunny rain we were getting. Half the sky was covered in dark gray clouds while in the other half the sun was still fighting to be seen, casting a wall of light at the darkness.

The surface of the lake was alive with droplets, jumping and winking with reflected bits of light. Individual drops of water could be seen as they made their decent from cloud to the earth below. And of course, we were in Hobbiton to enjoy it all. When we came back to the bus, I got the wild idea to take a selfie with my group. I was feeling a degree of camaraderie with them all since we had braved the storm together. So that’s just what I did. Not my best picture but they can’t all be winners.

Until next time my dear travelers. There are always more stories to tell.

~Ren

The Wolves are calling…

Hello my dear travelers. I’m taking a brief aside from my travel blogs and book reviews to ask for your help in a matter very near and dear to my heart.

I’ve had a love and passion for wolves since a very young age. Back home, there is an organization called W.O.L.F (Wolves Offered Life & Friendship). Recently they have faced hardships that have made it hard for them to serve the wolves they care for, and the community, as well as they would like. But they now have the opportunity to move to a new location that will allow them to improve the sanctuary as well as better educate the community about the plight of wolves and wolf dogs.

Please considering making a donation to W.O.L.F to help them secure this new facility. You can read more about W.O.L.F at their website located here.

If you would like to donate please click here. The deadline is April 22nd. Every little bit helps.

~Ren

Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor-Park-Book.jpgThis is the second book I’ve read recently that made me wish I was a teenager again (the first being John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson). It sounds crazy, I know. Who would ever want to go back to those tumultuous teenage years? But there is something appealing about them. Something about being that young and living your life with all senses on maximum. When everything you feel you feel with your whole being. Where everything that happens is the end of the world. Adulthood, by comparison, seems dull.

Anyway, yes, super cute book. Eleanor and Park are a bit sassy, clever, adorable, and of course a bit awkward as they journey further and further into their relationship with each other. As I read, all I wanted was for everything to work out for them. Life is never that easy though. The two characters come from completely different worlds, but somehow they carve out their own space somewhere outside of those two places.

I think, first and foremost, this book is a love story. An unconventional one, but I like it even more for that reason. But it also sheds light, and breaks down barriers, on a lot of other things, silly things, that keep people from each other. Things like race and socioeconomic standing, and things as stupid as appearance, how someone dresses. For a brief moment, Eleanor and Park are just as hung up on these things as everyone else around them, but the magic of music and reading (how magical they are) brings these two people together.

What a beautiful world it would be if we valued those things we had in common with one another above those things that were different.

~Ren

Traversing the High Street

Mom spent a decent chunk of the next day shut up in a tiny room in West Highland College doing more research. I spent most of the day shopping, of all things. We both started out the morning with a shot of anxiety from navigating our way into the town centre and finding parking. All of which went very well. We just worry a lot. After paying the meter, we hiked from the Middle Street to the High Street where all the shops and cafes were.

Neither of us had much in the way of breakfast before we left Onich so our first stop of the day was somewhere that would give us a nice cup of tea and something tasty to eat. But for all the coffee shops that lived on the High Street, not a one of them was open before ten. All except the Hot Roast Company. What would we have done with out the Hot Roast Company? They were open early, by some standards, and they had free wifi. Needless to say, we went there almost every day we were in Fort William.

When we’d had our fill of the internet and finished our breakfast, I accompanied mom back towards the Morrison’s to help her track down the college that was located somewhere just beyond. When we’d found it, the woman at reception pointed us through a side door that took us back to a hallway where the archives office was located. There were two older women already seated at the table, which took up most of the room, and one man behind a short desk shoved into the corner. There was almost too much furniture in the room to have it all fit comfortably.

Mom and I shuffled in and took a seat while the man brought out a form for us to fill out, detailing who had visited the office and what their purpose was. I stayed just as long as it took for the man to get a roll of microfilm set up for mom. Then I left her to her work and went off to wander amongst the shops we had seen that morning on the High Street.

The sun was still hidden behind some early morning clouds, making the air brisk. More people had arrived on the cobblestone street and many more of the shops had opened their doors. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, so I went into the first shop that peaked my interest. It was a jewelry shop with cases lining the walls and several tables set up in the main room. I ended up leaving with a bar of soap shaped like a Highland cow.

IMG_2591.jpg

What a cutie. Pretty sure this is still hanging around our bathroom back home. He’s too cute to use.

Most of the shops were catered specifically toward your everyday tourists, but I’ve always been very selective and utilitarian about the souvenirs I bring home. But I always enjoy looking. After browsing through the jewelry shop, I wandered down the street a bit further to the next shop that caught my eye. They were all more or less the same, really. There were spinners of magnets and key chains, many with thistles, Highland cows, or kilted bagpipers printed on them. There were tartan garments in all shapes and forms: kilts, skirts, ties, scarves, hats. One place sold whisky tea, which I was tempted to buy.

One store had more household items; bookends, mirrors, pictures and other tchotchke-covered table after table. There were lots of beautiful things but it was all too big to fit in a suitcase. I did, however, buy a couple bottles of wine here. It wasn’t until after we had returned home the night before, after our trip to Morrison’s that we realized we didn’t have a nice wine to sip on while sitting on the deck enjoying the view. So I picked out a strawberry wine and a nettle wine, mostly because I’d heard of nettle wine before but had no idea what it tasted like. Both of them turned out to be rather enjoyable.

I spotted a pair of Highland cow ear studs in another shop and thought they would be perfect for mom. Just after the store clerk had opened up the case and handed me the earrings, mom called to tell me she was wrapping up her work. She also mentioned that the man at the archive office recommended stopping by the bookstore on the High Street to talk to the owner about the town’s history. We had planned to stop by the bookstore as soon as we’d seen it that morning, so we decided to meet there and go look together.

I paid for the earrings and went back out onto the street. The sky had been overcast all day but the weather had turned from chilly to rather mild. I turned right and walked past a section of shops to the next street. The bookstore was just up the hill on the right so I found a patch of wall to lean against and waited for mom. I passed the minutes people watching. The sense I got from the people I saw walking up and down the High Street was that most of them weren’t tourists. Some of them were just local folks on their way to some engagement or picking up a trinket of some kind. On the High Street of Fort William was also the place I first noticed the familiarity so many people in Scotland seemed to have with each other. It was probably due in part to the small size of Fort William, but it made me happy, even envious to a degree, to see it.

A tent had been set up a block down from me just in front of a plaza area. It was ‘Yes’ rally. People with ‘Yes’ t-shirts and Scottish flags were striking up conversations with people passing by. They were giving out badges and stickers to those who would take them. After a time, I heard a laugh that sound very much like, and turned out to be, my mother. Of course she would’ve stopped at a ‘Yes’ rally tent. But I couldn’t blame her.

Eventually her conversation ended and she walked the last hundred feet or so to where I stood. We stood and talked for a minute. I asked her if her research efforts had been fruitful and she told me they had been but in a rather backwards manor. Apparently everything she thought she knew was wrong. Still a step in the right direction, even if that direction was backwards. Now at least she knew not to bother with those leads. We turned and walked up the hill to the bookshop.

The front door opened almost immediately to a flight of stairs partially covered in books. This, I would discover, was a theme with most bookstores we visited in Edinburgh, at least the ones that weren’t part of a chain. At the landing we found more stacks and a shelf of books before entering the main body of the store. There was an unoccupied desk set in front of a row of bookshelves in the middle of the main room and another doorway leading to a back room complete lined with shelves.

A man and a woman were standing in the narrow walkway between the two rooms. The man was helping the woman search for a title and when he saw us he said he would be with us in just a minute. I went over to browse in the second Scottish section of my trip. Working in a bookstore, I was well acquainted with many of the books in every other section. But we don’t have a Scottish section at home so that was where I had the best chance of finding something new and interesting.

The shop’s owner finished helping the woman and came to help mom. While they talked I went to the second room to see what might be hiding amongst the cramped shelves and crooked stacks of books.

Nothing jumped out at me, and the Fort William bookshop became one of the few I left with empty hands. Mom didn’t come away with much to show either. We still had over an hour left on our parking time so we returned to the High Street to find a place to eat. A few places had menus posted outside and some even had a few things we could eat. But nothing was calling to us just yet. The last place we looked at was the Ben Nevis Restaurant and Bar. Here we found something to fit our dietary needs and something that sounded appealing to eat.

We squeezed through the narrow doorway and up the stairs to the restaurant. It was empty except for a table of four seated in the corner. There was one guy working the floor that came over and told us to sit where we’d like. We picked a spot by the window. He came over a second later with menus, two glasses and a pitcher of water. Both of us had really mostly picked what we wanted to eat from the menu outside. Now it was down to final deliberations. Of course just after we ordered, I found out they didn’t have all the ingredients for what I wanted. I was only a little disappointed. The turnover I got instead had sounded good, too.

Throughout the meal we maintained a conversation with our waiter, who was very friendly. The whole thing started because we had mentioned we were vegetarian (or vegan in mom’s case). He told us how his sister was also vegetarian and from there we went all the way to talking about America’s treatment of wait staff and how our health care system is simply terrible. These sorts of interactions are my favorite ones to have when I travel. To me, getting to know the people is the best way to get to know the country.

We finished our chat and said our goodbyes and not five minutes out the door I was kicking myself for not getting our waiter’s name. For this very purpose! I always try and shine light on the places we visited and people we met when I travel. It’s small acts of kindness from strangers that make a trip memorable. I did get his name, however, just a little while later. We were on our way back to the restaurant the day before we left Fort William with that as our mission when we saw him walking down the street.

We called out to stop him before he disappeared down a side street. He turned back with a smile. I went up and explained to him why we were accosting him in the street. He didn’t seem to be bothered at all. If anything, he struck up another short conversation and recommended some places for us to visit when we went to Glasgow later in the month. His name is Darren and he let us take a picture of him. What a sweetheart. He also smelled really nice. Bonus!

IMG_0883

Darren took slight issue with me being taller than him. It made me giggle.

Anyway, let’s get back on track. We left the restaurant and drove back home with my many bags of shopping. Okay it was like, three, but that’s a lot for me. It was still early when we got home; there was enough light left to finish out the day on the deck with a proper cuppa. We had been smart and stopped by the Tesco express to get tea, which we had also forgotten to get yesterday at Morrison’s. The temperature had dropped a bit so I bundled up in a jacket before stepping outside with my tea and a sleeve of biscuits.

The thing I loved, and miss most, about Onich was the silence. Every other cottage besides the one next door (of course) seemed unoccupied and the people in the manor house were gone most of the day and were quiet when they were home. You couldn’t hear the cars on the road, no one was mowing the lawn or doing yard work or playing music. The loudest thing, besides our own voices, was no greater than the distant caw of a bird flying overhead.

IMG_2586

Oh yeah! We had an unexpected visitor from next door. Always nice to have a visit from a wiggly ball of furry energy.

The other thing I loved and miss even more than the silence was how blissful I felt, sitting there on that deck with not a single thing to worry about except my tea getting cold. No one needed me to make a sign or edit a website. There were no dishes to be done or carpets to vacuum. The mood of the day hadn’t been spoiled by some retail customer shenanigans. It was fantastic, and the tiniest bit alarming. The last time I felt this tranquil was two years ago on the other side of the world.

When our cups were empty and we’d had our fill of biscuits we went back in to make a real meal of rice and stir fry vegetables accompanied by a glass of our newly purchased wine. The day came to an end with both of us on the couch with a glass of wine in our hands, happy to watch whatever we could find on the telly.

~Ren

A Cottage in Onich

We woke up the next morning and were quick to realize we had no idea when we were supposed to be out of the house. After getting dressed and packing away most of our things, we found Bill downstairs and asked when they needed us out of the house. Check out happened to be about two hours before our bus left. Instead of leaving and having to come back for our luggage, we decided to try our luck at storing it at the bus station during our last few hours in Inverness. Once we were informed it would cost us to stow our things for a while, we re-evaluated our departure time.

We had scheduled our bus to Fort William for later in the day for some forgotten reason so we had no problem leaving on an earlier bus. We had left Jean and Bill’s with enough time to stop into Charlie’s Café for breakfast first, where we both enjoyed nice big bowls of porridge. Before we knew it we were back on a bus driving down the edge of Loch Ness once again. Our stay in Fort William would allow us a bit more flexibility when it came to check out and arrival time. We had an entire holiday cottage to ourselves and as long as we arrived before eight we were in the clear.

This was the first and only place we would be renting a car while we were in Scotland. It was partly because the place we were staying was about a 20-minute drive south of Fort William and we were pretty sure there weren’t any buses that were going to take us there. The other part of necessity was we had plans to drive down the coast to a place called Oban. From there we would be taking a ferry to the Isle of Mull to see some brightly painted houses that had been photographed for a calendar we had back home. We’d become rather fond of them before our trip, and this excursion also validated our decision to bring our hiking boots.

The Fort William bus station was in the same building as the train station. This was fortunate for us, as we would be coming back to the train station later in our stay. I won’t say for what though just yet. When we booked the car we had the option of picking it up from the station, which was convenient. But once we had arrived, it was not obviously apparent where the office for the rental company was. We asked at the ticket booth. What we found out was that there was no actual office there. Instead someone from the company was supposed to meet us at the station with the car. The problem was we had not told them we would be arriving early.

The man at the ticket counter kindly gave the rental place a call to let them know we had arrived. Several minutes later a tall blonde man was helping us load our things into a silver sedan and whisking us away to the office. We parked just out front of a small gray building marked with the words ‘Easy Drive’ printed below an image of the Scottish flag. Our driver pointed to the small, black four-door car beside us and asked us if we were alright with this one. We had no objections. It had wheels and was tiny, which meant it took up less space on the road where there would be other cars that could hit us. He helped us transfer our bags into the boot then directed us into the office where we could get the paperwork taken care of.

The gentleman behind the desk was very friendly but still new at the job. Everything went smoothly but he wasn’t sure how to refund us the fee we were charged for scheduling a pick up time outside of business hours. He said he would leave a note and have someone help him take care of it the next day. We told him that was just fine. With everything signed and paid for, we left the office and got into the car, feeling a bit backwards. I was stuck being passenger the whole stay. There had been an additional fee for drivers under the age of 25, so in the interest of saving money mom agreed to be the solo driver.

We hadn’t even made it out of the Easy Drive parking lot, hell, we had barely made it to the exit of the parking lot, and mom was already driving on the wrong side of the road, something I was sure to tease her about and we both had a good laugh being overly dramatic about the whole thing. Lucky for us no one else was picking up a rental car at that moment in time. Mom pulled out onto the left side of the road and went back in the direction of the bus station. Before driving south to the cottage, we went back to the Morrison’s grocery store that was also conveniently located by the bus station.

It was the roundabouts. That was the toughest it got for us. The lanes were not marked quite as clearly as they are on the roundabouts at home, probably because they actually use roundabouts in Scotland and we barely seem to know what they are back home. Our roundabout intuition was lacking. Working together to identify the right exit kept us from having to drive around in a circle and look like lost and confused tourists, thankfully. When we turned into the lot of Morrison’s mom parked as far away from any other cars as she could.

Navigating grocery stores for the first time is almost as overwhelming as driving a new car in another country for the first time, only the consequences if you do something stupid aren’t quite as severe. No one is going to sue you if you crash into their shopping trolley. We didn’t know it then, but in the end we wound up buying more food than we needed for our stay. That didn’t stop us from eating it all, mostly out of refusal to carry it with us or waste it. Now came the real driving test. Finding our way all the way down the peninsula to a place called Onich.

The trouble wasn’t finding the road to take us south. There was only one that would do that. It was finding the right turn from there, and you bet your bottom we drove by it the first time. This made it easier, however, to find it on the way back since it was now a left turn instead of a right (remember, everything is backwards from what make sense to you). After that we still got lost a bit, but at least we were already in the ballpark. We bounced through the little village on an uneven dirt road, keeping our eyes peeled for a gravel driveway. Then we drove down the wrong gravel driveway. The one we picked first took us across a grassy field spread out in front of a large stone manor house. We let ourselves entertain for a second that this was the humble cottage we were staying at but quickly changed our tune, deciding it was better to turn around as soon as possible before someone came out and shot us.

IMG_0845

A view of the manor house from out backdoor.

Our turn was just before the driveway to the manor house on the right. It took us around to the end of an L-shaped line of cottages. Number 11 was the last unit in the last row. Mom swung into the extra wide spot out front and turned off the car. I looked at her and shouted, “We made it!” She let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. The worst of it was over. We got out and began schlepping all of our stuff down the short flight of stairs and into the house.

IMG_2639

Our nice compact car.

The front door opened to reveal a small foyer area with stairs straight across from the entrance. The kitchen and living room were off to the left. At the top of the stairs was the bathroom. The first bedroom was to the left of the stairs and the other was at the end of the hall. It was a very nice place, just big enough for two people to move around in and share comfortably. But the best part, by far, was the view from the back deck.

IMG_0846

Onich is right on the edge of Loch Linnhe. The rocky beach was not even a five-minute walk from our cottage. Across the water were the hazel and forest green hills of the Highlands. The clouds overhead were a churning cluster of grays and whites accentuated with shadows cast by the pale yellow rays shining from somewhere amongst the muddled mass. The whole scene was idyllic.

Once we had put our things away a snooped through all the kitchen cabinets, we walked back down the gravel drive to the beach. There wasn’t a bit of sand to be seen. This was a Scottish beach after all. So we carefully picked our way across the expanse of gray stones, finding flat land where we could. There was an occasional lump of vegetation strewn across the rocks. Our eyes were fixed on the ground, not only to keep us from breaking our ankles but also to spot any shells that might have been washed up.

We hadn’t gone too far from our starting point before I had at least three or four shells worth saving cupped tenderly in my hand. The light was steadily slipping away so we left the beach from where we were and walked back to the cottage on the road. We passed a pasture filled with some cows so of course we had to stop and try our luck at enticing one or two over so we could give them a pat. But it was no good. The grass in the pen was the same, if not better, than what we had from along the fence line. We gave it up and went home.

Back at the cottage I began to fuss with the cable box. We didn’t have anything else to do, why not enjoy a little telly while we had the chance? Once everything was switched on I began flicking through channel after channel until I found Doctor Who (which really isn’t that surprising)! I know this seems silly, but I was abnormally excited by the idea of watching Doctor Who in Scotland/the UK, especially since Peter Capaldi is the current Doctor (he’s Scottish). I was equally as excited when I came across Top Gear the following night. It just felt decidedly British to watch those two shows. But I digress.

After we had finished a light dinner of pasta and watched an episode of Doctor Who we climbed up the stairs to get ready for bed. The next day would bring new adventures and new things to see. And you can’t do much exploring if you’re half asleep.

~Ren

Review: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

12842115Okay, so I know this book is supposed to be this big amazing long-distance love story, which it is, and that is super cute and makes you just ooze sunshine and rainbows out of your pores, but holy crap this book made me want to travel. (Yes, I’m currently living in New Zealand for a year but that involves real life crap like a job.)

I need to get to Europe bad. I want to explore cities and just go for it like Allyson did. She’s my kind of girl. Sorry, let’s talk some real review stuff. I’d heard good things about Gayle Forman so, as I was barred from the Scifi/Fantasy section in the library due to a broken window, I picked over the Teen section and came home with this.

There are plenty of adult books that I really love because they are profound and funny and have just the right amount of silliness. But I love teen books because they explore all those raw teen emotions in a completely unapologetic way, they don’t hold back because something might be seen as too whiney or too dramatic. It’s a teen book! We’re dealing with teens! It better be whiney and dramatic (but in a good way).

Forman’s writing is easy to get through but is still good writing (one of my favorite lines is, “A condom materialized.” Bloody brilliant). She captures those new and tumultuous years after high school where everyone is off to uni and you are growing and learning so much so fast. And I absolutely love Dee as a character. He’s fantastic.

Now I just need to track down a copy of Just One Year to figure out what the hot Dutch guy was up to that whole time!

~Ren

The Loch and the Wood

Jean and Bill’s house had one of the most comfortable beds we slept on during our trip. It was difficult to throw off the covers the next morning I was so warm and snuggly. But we had things to do and places to see! There was no time for a lie in. I was the first out of bed, being the one on the outer edge, and felt only a twinge of jealousy that mom got to enjoy a few more minutes of cushioned comfort. I gathered up my bath things and went to take a shower.

We had been shown the bathroom the night before. It was beach themed and painted in lovely sea foam green and steely blue. The couple had boasted their new improved power shower, which to my slight dismay only had half of a glass panel to close it off from the rest of the bathroom. I had never come across anything that looked like this and I was sure I would spend most of my shower worrying about splashing water all over the floor (which did happen a bit).

There was also the trouble of turning the damn thing on. It should have been easy. There were only two dials for Pete’s sake. I turned the obvious ‘on’ knob and nothing happened. I tried turning on the tub faucet and then turning the dial. Still no water out of the shower head. At last, I had to concede defeat to the all mighty power shower and go ask mom for help.

She couldn’t figure it out either. Since she was still fully clothed, she went down to find either Bill or Jean and ask how to work the shower. Hiding back in the bedroom, I heard Bill’s voice float up the stairs. He sounded apologetic as he lead mom back up the stairs and began to explain that all you needed to do was flip the switch outside the door to turn on the water. Whodduh thunk it? I slipped back out into the hall as Bill descended the stairs and mom turned towards me. I smiled, feeling silly and went to take my overly exposed shower. Thank goodness there was a lock on the door.

When we were both clean and had finished up our morning Facebook sessions, we left the house for the bus station. Oh! A brief tangent if I may. I fiddled around with the phones the night before and managed to get our 3G working! So we left feeling much better about our navigation abilities. Today we were headed south, down the coast of famous Loch Ness to a little place called Drumnadrochit. From here we would take a cruise out into the Loch while being regaled with many facts about the spindly body of water and stories of the Loch Ness Monster, affectionately named Nessie.

We left with plenty of time to kill before the bus actually left. The café inside the station office had just opened once we walked in so we ordered tea and scones for breakfast and waited for our bus to arrive. Just like in Waverly Station, we had to sit patiently staring at the schedule board for our bus’ stance number to appear. With a few minutes to go, we left our table inside and moved outside to stand with the rest of the passenger waiting at the stance. I watched expectantly as bus after bus turned the corner and pulled into one of many long rectangular spots beside grimy glass hutches. Ours finally came to a stop in front of us and we began the slow process of boarding, one by one.

Loch Ness is really a very long, well, loch. It stretches southwest from Inverness about 26.5 miles. Drumnadrochit is just under the halfway point between Inverness and Fort Augustus, which is situated at the western end of the loch. I spent the 20 minute drive to Drumnadrochit taking in 14 miles of dark water that shimmered and danced with reflected light and the steep angled banks on the opposite shore covered with densely packed trees. I think mom spent most of the trip trying not to be sick.

Drumnadrochit, or sometimes Drum to the locals, seemed to consist mostly of farmland, with only one or two main roads where most of the shops resided. We were isolated to one area during our visit so it was hard to be sure. We were dropped outside the post office and across from a strip of houses, cafes and a bed and breakfast. Once again, we found ourselves with ample time on our hands. The cruise didn’t leave until noon and we had arrived shortly after ten.

The bus left for the harbor from the Celtic Crafts gift shop up near the Nessieland shop we had passed on our way into town. Deciding it was best to know where we had to be before we got busy with looking around, we walked back up the hill to Nessieland. It was pretty standard as gift shops go. Glass cases filled with glittering stones and statues stood front and center when you walked in. Wooden spinners and stands followed, covered with key chains and bookmarks and magnets of all kinds. Stuffed animals slouched on shelves, some realistic, others cartoon-y.

We were the only ones in the store besides the clerk, so we took our time browsing everything at least twice over. I had an eye on a Nessie pin for my work apron back home and was a little disappointed when they didn’t have violently purple tartan flats in my size. I scanned several displays of clan tartan key chains looking for McMillan before seeing they had bookmarks to the same affect. Plus I already had enough key chains.

Having seen all I wanted, I began to wander aimlessly through displays just for the sake of doing something. I drifted back towards the counter when a woman approached me. “Are you here for the 11 o’clock cruise?” she asked. I told her that we were here for a 12 o’clock cruise. This seemed to be good news. She asked us if we would mind moving our time up an hour. We told her we had no problem doing so as we were already here early. It turned out that our captain for the day didn’t typically do cruises on Saturdays but he was filling in for the lad who did. He had a prior engagement scheduled for later that day which turned out the be the reason why we had to switch our cruise time from 3 to 12 before we had even arrived in the country. There was a shinty match on, a sport we were told was the real official game of the Highlands (as opposed to what, I can’t remember. Football maybe?).

Our wait time was cut from an hour and a half to just 30 minutes. We had a bite to eat at the little café tucked away on the other side of the shop, apart from all the souvenirs. The woman who approached us turned out the be the captain’s wife and we spent a bit of time chatting with her before sitting down to some homemade lentil soup and bread. When our bowls were empty we left the shop and went round the corner to the car park where we’d be departing from. That’s when we came across the giant Nessie sculpture, accompanied by a baby Nessie. Luckily we still had a few minutes to spare so we had a chance for a photo-op.

With the closest thing I would ever have to a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, I replaced my camera in my bag and mom and I went into the small shop that served as the meeting place for the cruise. It was smaller than Nessieland, just a single room filled with mostly jewelry displays. Presently, a short, stocky man with white hair and a goatee to match entered the shop. This was George Edwards, our captain.

We followed him out to a van parked adjacent to the shop. Another couple was there waiting. They would be the only other tourists joining us on the cruise, which we were just fine with. We drove a short distance back the way we had come from Inverness then turned down a narrow ramp which took us to a small harbor where a few boats were docked. The five of us climbed out of the van and stepped over the stern railing and onto the boat. Mom and I, with our fellow tourists, took seats up top while George stayed below at the wheel.

Within a few minutes we were pulling out of the harbor into open water. The rumble of the engine vibrated through the bottom of our seats and made my legs tingle. There was little wind but that caused by the motion of the boat, but the air was cool enough to make my coat feel comfortable warm. Two or three boats besides our own dotted the steel-gray water of the loch. Each was a fair distance from us. The closest we ever got to another ship during the cruise was when exiting and returning to port. It was a quite day on our part of the loch. The only sounds to be heard as we moved farther and farther into open water was the gentle gushing of water cleaving against the boat’s prow.

A patchy layer of ashen clouds hung low in the sky over our heads. Some spots were thick with the gray fluff but there were fractures here and there that let the frail rays of sun fall through onto the water. The light did little to penetrate the dark waters all around us. All it could do was turn the loch’s surface into a dazzling display of miniature flash bulbs. The hills surrounding the loch looked gritty through the morning mist, a blurry scene of trees and wild grasses.

Eventually, George’s voice crackled through speakers placed around the base of the upper level. He welcomed us aboard the Nessie Hunter (great name, right?). He began the talk by telling us of the loch’s history. Loch Ness follows the Great Glen Fault that runs from Inverness to Fort William on the other side of the country. It is Scotland’s largest loch by volume, second largest by surface area, and second deepest in Scotland after Loch Morar. The deepest point in the loch is approximately 813 feet deep and was discovered by our very own George Edwards and was subsequently named after him. It is now referred to as Edward’s Deep.

George told us about the thick layer of sediment that sits at the bottom of the loch. He said that scientists have taken core samples of the sediment and that they very accurately tell the history of the land. Effects of Chernobyl and the Great Scotland Fire could be found in the geological sandwich taken from Loch Ness’ underbelly and carbon dating revealed the timing was spot on. There was a whole book of history below the bottom of the boat, hundreds off feet down, made up of radioactive sludge and the burned down houses of people long dead.

We, of course, touched on the Loch Ness Monster. George is a believer, and I have to say to a degree so am I. The history of Nessie goes back years, and while it’s unlikely, nay, near impossible that one mythical water horse could survive decades and decades in the depths of the loch alone, it is very probable that some sort of undiscovered creature might have been living and breeding in the impenetrably murky waters. If you’ve ever wondered why someone doesn’t just lead a deep sea type of exploration in Loch Ness to find out once and for all if Nessie is real, the answer to that is people have. Maybe not specifically for Nessie, but people have attempted to explore what life is like beneath the surface of the loch. The problem is the peat.

Peat is a soil-like material that consists partly of decomposed vegetation and, when added to water, makes it hard to see anything more than a few inches in front of your face. The peat levels in Loch Ness are so high that it makes it nearly impossible to do any worthwhile exploring. In addition to being home to some enigmatic animals, Loch Ness also boasts a rather unique underside. Instead of progressing from a steady decline to a sheer drop off, Loch Ness looks more like an inverted trapezoid. The sides of the loch slant away from the banks at a steep angle before flattening at the bottom to form a sort of trough. George showed us just how true this was by bringing the boat within 20 feet or so of the shore.

P1030536

So close!

After flirting with the loch’s edge, we turned towards Urquhart Castle. Though it’s not much of a castle anymore. It’s little more than ruins turned into a tourist trap, a fact illustrated by the swarm of people crawling over every inch of the place. The castle was originally built for medieval fortification and later played a roll in the War for Scottish Independence before it was ultimately abandoned in the 17th century. For some reason, there was a trebuchet on the front lawn. Mom and I decided we were glad we didn’t make plans to go to the castle. Seeing it from the water was good enough.

Urquhart Castle was left behind and the trip was winding down to the end. We spent the last few minutes before reaching the harbor in silence, listening once again to the soft sloshing of water against the hull. There was one last bit of excitement to be had though. The harbor was rather small and George’s boat rather big. The neighboring boat was moored when we got back. I’m certainly not a boat savvy person but even I was sure that this park job would be tricky to maneuver, between trying not the hit the dock and trying not to hit any other boats. George was definitely flaunting his 26 years of boating experience with this one. Though I’m likely to be easily impressed when it comes to boat steering skills.

We waited for George to tie us off before climbing back onto solid ground. Everyone thanked him for the enjoyable time before we all got back into the van and made the short drive back into Drum, and thanked him again when we arrived. Mom and I returned to the Nessieland gift shop and picked up a few souvenirs we had decided on before we left for the cruise then ventured out in search of place to get a snack.

We discovered a little bakery round the corner from the shop on the ground level of the same building. The place was nearly devoid of all baked goods when we walked in but it was such a small place and we were so obvious walking in that it would’ve felt rude to turn around and walk out again. So we picked out a raspberry cupcake and some sort of pecan tart as well as a drink each. Goodies in hand, we walked back down the lane towards the spot we’d been dropped off at. There was a solitary picnic table outside the bed and breakfast that we occupied while we nibbled our treats.

The next bus back to Inverness wasn’t due till later so, as usually, we found ways to amuse ourselves while we waited on transportation. When we’d had enough of the sun, we crossed the street and sat at a table in the shade. A couple of ‘No’ supporters had set up a stand a short distance from where sat. Mom, being curious and open-minded, wandered over after a little while to chat and hear their side of the issue.

I sat people watching mostly. Not that there were many people to watch. The occasional couple walked by, a family pushing a stroller and their toddler dawdling behind them. Cars passed from both directions and only one driver was dickish enough to shout at the ‘No’ people. Mom wander back after a few brief minutes and the ‘No’ supporters began to pack up their pamphlets and flyers. We moved from the table to the stone wall running behind the bus stand.

A woman joined us a while later and we soon struck up a conversation. It turned out she was from Wyoming so we had some things in common to talk about to pass the time. The bus arrived at last and we relaxed for the 20-minute return trip into town.

It was really quite nice being so close to the bus station. Had circumstances been different, we probably never would’ve made it to the Clootie Well. And for being a last minute, we’ve-got-nothing-better-to-do activity, it ranks very highly on our list of favorite things we did. We took a short rest back at the house before talking about what we could do to fill that last couple of hours in our day. I had looked up things to do in Inverness before we left and the Clootie Well had been the only thing that stuck out to me. Our timing was just right to catch the next bus up to Munlochy.

Munlochy felt even smaller than Drumnadrochit. Google Maps was no help with locating the Clootie Well, so we walked down to the shop for crisps and some directions. With crisps and, unexpectedly, a pig-shaped cake in hand, we left for the Clootie Well. The shop clerk had been clear with her instructions but we were thrown when we found ourselves faced with a suburban neighborhood instead of a hidden forest path. We turned back, thinking we had missed it when we happened to run into the very same woman from the shop that had helped us. She graciously helped us out again and told us we just had to cross through the neighborhood to reach the path we needed.

The neighborhood was quiet. The only signs of life were some abandoned bikes on a front lawn. We passed by these and followed a sidewalk that led around to the back of the houses and into the trees. Suddenly we were in a proper forest, situated between what seemed to have been a recently built subdivision and main highway. It was one of many places in Scotland where the line between urban and wild blurred every so slightly.

By this point, if we never found the Clootie Well, I would’ve been fine just walking around in a proper forest. But since we did find the Clootie Well, I know now that I should’ve been disappointed rather than indifferent towards finding it. The signs were gradual. One or two thin strips of threadbare cloth appeared on lithe branches. Then a larger grouping would appear, but its reach never exceeded the slender branches reaching out over the path. That’s when we came across the stairs.

Large flat slabs of rock had been sunk deep into the earth to make a path up to the top of the rise. Either side was flanked with more trees covered with more and more scraps of cloth and other bits of refuse. At the top we realized the full extent of the Well. The ground fell away again as soon as we crested the hill. The stairs went down the other side and veered right at a cleft in the ground. Here the spring gurgled softly, pooling in a square stone trough before spilling over and down into a deep crack in the earth. A wide swatch of leaf-strewn dirt separated the trees comprising the majority of the forest and those down at the edge of the highway.

Every single tree within eyeshot was wrapped, draped and smothered with everything from ratty bits of fabric to shirts, flags and even a few pairs of shoes. I might have expected such a large display of grungy, mud-splattered clothing to be unattractive but it was one of the most breath-taking things I’ve ever come across. There was a spectrum of color that splashed bright patches among the browns, greens, and oranges of the trees. Reds and blues created the most contrast.

It was unbelievable. I found myself wondering how long the Well had been there and if the volume of fabric was due to length of time or the number of people that had come to visit. The Well did make me ever so slightly anxious as to the environmental effects the Well had on the forest and the animals that lived in it. But I knew the trees would adapt to their cloth bonds, either by growing over them or breaking them with sheer girth expansion. And aside from a few plastic bags hung in the trees I didn’t imagine an old t-shirt would cause too much harm to any woodland creatures.

Mom and I hadn’t come to the Well empty handed. She had brought a well-loved shirt that I’m sure she would’ve gone on loving for a while longer had we not sacrificed it to the Clootie. But everything else we had brought we were less want to part with so mom’s old pale blue button up was our top choice. I mean, it already had holes in it! I did have a brief moment, however, where I considered leaving a piece of clothing of my own, a sock perhaps. I had plenty of socks with me on the trip. But I decided walking back to the bus stop would’ve been too uncomfortable with only one sock so mom’s shirt was sufficient.

I suppose I should explain what exactly a Clootie Well is before I go much further, at least what we thought a Clootie Well was when we showed up. A clootie (so we thought) was a kind of mystical being that lived in a spring. Anyone who visited the spring needed to dip a piece of cloth in the spring, make a wish and then the clootie would grant your wish. A cute idea. But really, a clootie is the Scots term for a strip of cloth or rag, not a mystical fairy-like creature. Clootie wells are places of healing in the Celtic tradition. If you were ill, you were supposed to go to the spring, dip a piece of fabric in the water and tie it to a tree and the spirit of the spring would heal you. There are variations of this practice but this seems to be the best-known one. A few of our details were wrong, but the idea wasn’t too far off. Alas.

IMG_0801

Before picking out the perfect tree to tie our beloved shirt to, I took a Sharpie out of my bag and wrote ‘Vote Yes’ on the back of the shirt. Then I picked the most difficult tree to get to and began scrambling up the hill, the loose ground shifting beneath my feet. I told mom to take an action shot of me tying the shirt to the tree, which turned out to be the best picture we took of us with our clootie. We tried a selfie once it was secured around the trunk but we couldn’t get rid of our crazy eyes. They were good for a laugh, both now and then. We spent another few minutes or so taking pictures from every angle we could, making sure to capture all the most bizarre things hanging from the trees. The shoes, for some reason, were my favorite.

IMG_0832

We finally tore ourselves away from the Well and crossed back over the ridge. The sun had sunk significantly lower in the sky while we were at the Well. In a few minutes we passed out of earshot of the highway, where only the occasional car would hum by, and we were back in our proper forest. The trees enveloped us in tranquil silence, the loudest noise being the dirt crunching beneath our feet. We took a short detour, wanting to spend more time in the forest. The rays of the setting sun were splintered by breaks in the canopy. They lit up the burnt orange trunks of the trees like sticks of fire. I didn’t want to leave. If we didn’t have to catch a bus and if I hadn’t forgotten to bring a book, I would’ve sat down on a stump and read till the last bit of light vanished.

We returned to the sleepy suburb and plodded down the steep lane that brought us back to the main road. The bus wasn’t due for another few minutes so instead of sitting in the dingy bus hut, we sat down the road a ways on a bench beside a grassy patch. The village was quiet. Several cars drove by but other than that there was no sign of life. I let my mind wander, staring into nothingness, only coming back to reality when I heard an engine. It was a good thing, too. The bus showed up a few minutes early and if we had been just a second later it would’ve flown right by us. And, fortunately for us, the driver picked us up even though were weren’t at the official bus stop. Mom and I were quite sure no driver back home would’ve done that for us.

Back home, we flopped down on the bed and began discussing what to do for dinner. Mom had discovered a website called Happy Cow which specialized in listing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in different cities. At this point in the trip I was still skeptical as to how veggie friendly Scotland would be. But there were several places within 15 minutes or so of the house that sounded just right for us. We chose a place called La Tortilla Asesina. I was glad we decided to eat out. I mean, I don’t think Bill and Jean would’ve let us use the kitchen, and we didn’t have any groceries anyway, but the walk took us into a much more lively area of Inverness.

It was a Saturday night and lots of people were out despite the chilly night. Music pumped out of bars as we passed and crowds of people moved up and down the street, looking for a place to eat or moving on to grab a drink somewhere new. We found La Tortilla Asesina easily. It was a cramped space, a fact accentuated by the large quantity of people it was currently host to. The ceiling was low and I was glad I wasn’t any taller. A two-person table had cleared just as we walked in. One of the servers wiped down the table and brought out silverware for us as we took our seats.

The place was about as vegetarian friendly as most of the restaurants back home. I still couldn’t eat a majority of the dishes but I could at least find a few things to choose from. I ordered an omelet that came out looking like a piece of egg pie. It was curious but still tasted fantastic, and despite not being a very large portion it filled me up just fine. We split a jug of sangria and passed the time chatting about whatever came to mind. When the jug was empty, we paid the check and went back out into the moist night air. This was the first day we had with any semblance of rain but you couldn’t really call it that. It was a spray bottle mist that was just heavy enough to bother your eyes but not much more than that.

Once we got home, we changed into our pajamas and sat down on the edge of the bed to Skype with dad. It had only been three days and he was already missing us, as was to be expected. I took out my laptop and launched Skype only to find it didn’t recognize my login information. I wasn’t going to waste time fussing with the thing so we were forced to use my phone instead. The conversation didn’t last long. We didn’t have that much to talk about. But we told dad about the Clootie Well and the flight over. Mom talked about her genealogy and asked how her cats were doing. All the important subjects were covered. We said our goodbyes, plugged in our phones and settled down into bed.

~Ren

Review: Into the River by Ted Dawe

Into the River3001Ted Dawe’s book Into the River recently came under fire from a conservative Christian lobby group who hoped to have it banned because it contained sex, drugs and inappropriate language.

So of course I was going to pick it up and read it.

Whenever I read a banned book, or a book some group tried and failed to have banned, I can sometimes see why certain people might have wanted that but also think they are wildly and wholly wrong for trying to force their own agenda on others.

Yes, Into the River has several sex scenes (and mention of an incestual encounter), it has drugs and bad language and characters who are reckless and break the law. And even a pedophile to top the whole thing off. Now, I’m not saying really little kids should pick this up and read it, but for a mature teen audience it could be a great read. Books like this help start a dialogue about these taboo topics. They get teens to ask questions. If you just try to hush it all up and pretended stuff like this doesn’t happen, it’s likely that kids will get into it anyway but be significantly unprepared for it.

This is a pretty standard coming of age tale. Our protagonist, Te Arepa, later known as Devon, leaves his life on the rural east coast to attended a prestigious boarding school in Auckland. The mere fact the book takes place at a boarding school is a dead giveaway that shit is about to go down. I don’t think I’ve read a book about a boarding school where things didn’t get crazy (Harry Potter, anyone?).

Devon is at a very impressionable age, and during the span of his first year at Barwell’s he grows and changes immensely. Most of the time he is following in the footsteps of his best friend Steph, who is a boarding school vet and all about being free. Which created an interesting dynamic between the two boys. Steph was all about freedom and Devon, who hung on Steph’s every word, followed him without question.

The book ended mostly in a way I expected but the last paragraph did take me a little by surprise. This book is a prequel to Dawe’s Thunder Road, so I may have to pick that up next just to see what happens to Devon.

If you want to read a bit more about the controversy surrounding the book you can check out this article here.

~Ren