Right Now, #2

I couldn’t sleep tonight so I came outside to type some stuff on my laptop. Earlier, when I was waiting outside for the dog to finish his business, I looked up at the moon hanging low near the southern horizon. In the distance, I could hear a bird doing a whistling routine, a mix of chirps and whistles. For a moment, it seemed like I was in a jungle. Now, a few hours later, I can still hear the bird occasionally, but the moon is up much higher in the sky, and further west.

It’s been a while since I’ve been up at this hour. Ever since we attended a wedding in January, our sleeping schedules have reverted back to a more normal time. Prior to that, we would still be up at this time, playing Skyrim, surfing the internet, or enjoying a late meal. I haven’t thought about it, but it’s been two months since then.

When I was in bed earlier, I thought about the Right Now post from when we first started living in Hong Kong. Being outside with the moon and the chirping bird, it felt like another “right now” moment, so I got out of bed to type this. I wondered if it would be like the Coincidence post, but it’s actually a couple of weeks away before it will be exactly four years. Close enough.

When I was in bed, I listened to the bird and thought of the moon, and thought about how different the world is here compared to Hong Kong. Here, it’s actually quiet enough to hear a bird that’s chirping a couple of blocks away. The light pollution is low enough that you can look up in the sky and not only see the moon and its craters clearly, but also see the surrounding stars and planets. On many nights I’ve looked up at Orion’s Belt, amazed that I can actually see it, that the sky is so dark. Before moving to Hong Kong, I used to look up and see it too, but I never appreciated it as much as I do now.

Another thing that I appreciate more now is mortality. Tomorrow (or today), we are taking our niece to the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It is one of many activities that we have been doing with our niece since moving back to America. Being around her, I am ever more aware of life being a queue: that those who come first, go first.

When I was in bed, I thought about the trip tomorrow. I thought about the car booster seat, and how to install it in my car, which led to my thinking of what I would do if the worst should occur. In a situation where I could choose between losing my own life or hers, I would choose to lose mine, because as I said above, life is a queue. I’ve lived nearly 40 years and had a pretty good life up to this point; she’s barely had 4 and still has so much to experience. As I’ve probably mentioned on here before, everyone gets a turn.

I also thought about what I would say to JC if the worst should occur and I had a last chance to say something to her. I would tell her that she is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life, that I became a different person because I met her. I would thank her for being my JC, and my partner in life. As I’ve said so many times before, life is fragile and can end at any moment. Being around my niece has only reinforced this notion. We would be wise, while we can, to tell our loved ones how we feel about them if we have not yet done so.

I’ve talked about life being a cruel joke before. Our parents dote on us, we fly away only to realize how much they mean to us, they die, and the same thing happens with our children. Yes, it seems cruel and unfair, but that’s the way it is, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. That is life, the nature of our existence. It would be better to embrace this fact, our mortality, so that we don’t take life for granted.

Tomorrow, I will forward this post to JC and let her know (again) how I feel about her. I hope you will do the same with your loved ones. Four years ago, I sat on my bed in our little flat in Hong Kong, looking out the window, sipping a Laguvulin, contemplating life. Right now, I sit at the dining table of the inlaws, savoring a Laphroaig, our family dog sleeping on a cushion with a blanket over his head, the clock ticking loudly with each passing second, the moon shining outside. Life has gone on for four years, and will keep on going. Time to go to bed. Good night.

Scotch

Was talking to a friend about Scotch tonight which got me thinking about my old collection. I used to have a bookshelf dedicated to it and each night I would come home from a hard day and sample one of the bottles. It was nice being able to choose from so many different expressions, but it did get a little bit crazy after a while, drinking hard liquor every single night.

I first discovered single malts in 2008. It was a Glenfiddich 12 in a little neighborhood drinking spot in Hong Kong. On the same night I had a Macallan 12 as well. Later, when I returned to Oakland, I bought my first bottle of Macallan 12. Prior to that I would randomly pick bottles of spirits in the supermarket, wanting to sample them all. With single-malt Scotch, I finally found my go-to drink.

Over the years, my collection has grown and shrunk depending on my circumstances, and I am lucky to always have access to at least a bottle or two. When I lived in Hong Kong with my limited income, my “collection” was always a single bottle. Due to how single malts are perceived there, prices can be ridiculous which led me to sample blended whiskies as well as non-Scotch whiskies. That’s how I discovered Famous Grouse, the number-one selling Scotch whisky in Scotland. 🙂

The photo below was taken about 5 years ago. I never took the time to take a proper (i.e. staged) photo of my collection, but like whisky, I don’t think anything else matters as long as you enjoy it and it makes you happy. Cheers to you, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Scotch Shelf
So many choices, let your mood decide

(Disclaimer: No Lagavulins were actually stored sideways before or after the taking of this photo.)

To Aberdeen, Scotland

11:00 PM, October 18, 2012 (Thursday) – After going to Buckingham Palace earlier in the day and spending the rest of the evening waiting in the lobby of our hotel in London, we made our way to Euston station to board the Caledonian Sleeper, a sleeper train that travels between London and Scotland. Our train: the 23:50 headed for Edinburgh. Because we had booked at the last minute, the only sleeper train available was the one to the Scottish capital; our plan was to transfer to an Aberdeen-bound train from there.

The first thing to take care of was our luggage. We didn’t even try to squeeze the two large suitcases into our cabin because our online research had indicated that there was a separate car for storing large items. When we got to our car and asked the steward where it was, she directed us back to one of the cars at the beginning of the platform (oops!), and we had to walk the suitcases back the way we came before placing them in the guard’s van.

Caledonian Sleeper Guard's Van
Our bags in the guard’s van

We were the only ones who had luggage in there and I wondered if other people just kept their bags in their cabin. I was a bit nervous about it, concerned that the luggage car might separate from our cabin car (the train splits off into two later on to serve different destinations), or that the bags might be stolen.

Soon after we settled in, the train departed and I got a little bit more acquainted with our cozy cabin. There was a counter that opened up on one side, revealing a sink. There were little buttons along the door to control the lights and air conditioning. On the bulkhead is a little door concealing brochures and guides, that also opens up into a tray-table. I poured myself some Laphroaig while reading the brochures.

That night, I slept badly mostly because I was worried about our luggage. I thought about my cousin. I was in a new bed in a new environment. I could feel when the train slowed down, when it sped up, could hear its creaks and squeaks as it slowly bobbed up and down on the rails. In the morning, when the train stopped and split, I could hear the mechanical clinging and clanging. Still, the noises and movement didn’t bother me so much as my own hyperactive mind did. On the contrary, the rhythmic sounds and gentle motion of the train provided a comforting, soothing contrast to the thoughts running through my head.

~7:00 AM, October 19, 2012 – At around 7:00, the steward knocks on our door to deliver our coffee and shortbread, indicating our imminent arrival in Edinburgh.

Coffee and Shortbread Aboard the Caledonian Sleeper
Coffee and shortbread just before arrival

After maybe five hours of light sleep, I had a rough time opening my eyes and then climbing down my bunk to get dressed and get ready. The coffee was hot and most definitely welcomed. I scarfed down the shortbread cookie. Shortly thereafter, we pulled into Edinburgh Waverley, and our first ride on the Caledonian Sleeper was over.

It was a cold Friday morning, and it started raining right when we stepped off the train. I quickly ran to the guard’s van and picked up our suitcases, all my earlier worry turning into relief when I finally saw that they were still there. The sharp, cold raindrops hitting my face as I rolled the suitcases towards the covered area of the platform served as a nice additional wake-up call. Wow! We were in Scotland!

With about an hour until the departure of our next train, we took advantage of the station facilities. It was at this time that I grabbed all of those distillery brochures. There was a pasty shop so I got another chance to enjoy my new favorite food for breakfast, though of course I waited until it was almost boarding time before I bought it so that I could eat it on the train. Speaking of which, it took a little longer than usual to find it because the electronic signage was down this morning (good to know that IT issues happen everywhere ;)). The station agents fell back on some good old poster paper and markers to get the job done.

When we boarded the train and found our designated seats, we found that they were occupied. Looking around at the emptiness of the train, we soon realized that seat assignments must be loosely enforced when the train is empty. So, we didn’t bother to disturb the people in our seats and found ourselves a nice 4-seater with a table in the middle, perfect for spreading out during the two-and-a-half hour trip. It turned out very well, really, a very pleasant and peaceful couple of hours, one of the best and most memorable parts of our entire adventure around the world.

Train Ticket
The man in seat 21F

The journey started off with a breakfast of steak pasty and coffee while listening to music on my phone. Soon, we crossed the Firth of Forth, and saw the Forth Road Bridge. It was like a twin of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, a marvelous sight. I took out my notebook and jotted down random thoughts as they occurred to me.

10-19-12 8:35 AM
Arrive Scotland early in the morning. It’s Friday morning. Seeing people go about their daily lives, Friday morning in the office. What’s it like to live here?

The Forth Road Bridge
The Forth Road Bridge

As we passed by various stations, I wrote down their interesting names along with my random thoughts (present-day commentary in parentheses):

Aberdour (like the whiskey? No, that’s Aberlour, this is Aberdour)
BurntIsland (actually one word, without the capitalized “I”)

Nice house in the countryside.
Lots of stone
Cold and gray
Glenrothes
(This one is a whiskey, but we passed by the town, not the distillery)
Ducks flying south (Actually, not sure if they were ducks, plus they were flying North parallel to us, not South)

Bird Flying North for Winter?
Flying North for the winter?

Scotch beef (must have seen a cow, thought of airplane scene in Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown)
Ladybank (Another station)
Golfers (oh that’s right, Scotland is the birthplace of golf!)
Bunny Rabbit in field (super funny, I actually saw a bunny hopping into a hole as the train sped by)
Sheep
Horse w/ blanket
Dundee (the 4th largest city in Scotland, and yes, I did think of Crocodile Dundee)

Michael Jackson’s Beat It started playing on my playlist. I thought back to when we saw the Cirque du Soleil show just a few days ago. One of the more memorable scenes was the song’s performance by a couple of female musicians, a cellist (Tina Guo) and a guitarist (Desireé Bassett), each standing on opposite sides of the stage. They were incredibly attractive in their sexy outfits and their display of musical talent, an irresistible combination of looks and brains. I still remember the bass thumping my chest every time Ms. Guo hit the cello with her bow; Ms. Bassett’s finger work during the solo was breathtaking.

Guitar Player & Cello player badass (bass,power)
                                                          thumping chest

Broughty Ferry (a suburb of Dundee, with a dainty-sounding name)
Tyres (hard to get used to this alternative spelling of tire)
Smartphone Indispensable – GPS track-as-I-go (at that point I’d only had a smartphone for a couple of months)

Google Maps, Leuchars to Aberdeen
Leuchars to Aberdeen

Grounded boats with the tide. Ducks swimming out.
Old tires on grass
Pilgrimage to Scotland
Follow trail of whisky.
Excited about driving for 1st time in 2 months.
Power transfer
Old Walls (stone)

The battery on my phone was almost drained so I plugged it into my laptop and used its USB-charge-while-off feature. Essentially, my laptop served as a giant battery for my phone. Kind of neat, really.

With my phone continuing to work, I listened to podcasts of the BBC’s History of the World in 100 Objects, thinking back to our visit to the British Museum just a week ago and seeing if I remembered any of the objects described in the program. It’s something of an experience to have the imagination fired up trying to picture an historical object while the eyes watch the Scottish countryside fly by, all while sitting inside a warm carriage with the belly full from a hearty breakfast. It’s really wonderful.

The World Flies By
The world flies by…

When we passed by Arbroath, I saw what looked like a highway rest stop with both a McDonald’s and a KFC. Seeing these, along with the earlier Forth Road Bridge that looks just like the Bay Bridge, seeing the lonely house in the countryside, seeing ducks swimming around in a shallow pool, seeing all these things reiterated to me what I had started to realize that day at Crystal Palace: that life everywhere is the same, that people everywhere are the same. Here I was, in Scotland, on the other side of the world, the northernmost place on the planet that I’ve ever ventured to, and people are taking rest stops at McDonald’s just like I did on I-5 back in California. We share more in common than we have in differences.

Within an hour of Arbroath, we pulled into Aberdeen station, eager to get to the hotel to unload and clean up. We made it!

Next: On the Road to Glenfiddich

London, Day 8 – Rest and Relaxation

October 13, 2012 – Saturday

I woke up early this morning and took a walk around the hotel’s neighborhood. I went down Euston, around the British Library, along Camden High Street, and eventually made it all the way to Camden Town tube station before turning around. On the way back, I looped around Euston railway station and wondered if it might be a better option than King’s Cross for taking the Tube. Later on we gave it a try, and for the rest of our time in London, we used Euston as our go-to Tube station. It seemed to be less crowded and a better walk to and from the hotel.

Statue of Richard Cobden
Statue of Richard Cobden

At the beginning of Camden High Street I saw a statue of a man named Richard Cobden. Although I had no idea who Mr. Cobden was, I was still awestruck by the age of the statue, 144 years old at the time I saw it. The street itself was a pleasant walk and reminded me of Mission Street in my own neighborhood in SF, with all sorts of shops and eateries bunched up together. There was a vibe in the air, sort of like how it is when you’re at a show and everyone’s waiting for it to start. I think I got a feel of what it might be like to be a Londoner starting off my Saturday morning.

Back at the hotel, JC was now up so we enjoyed a breakfast of supermarket food purchased the night before. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a microwave in our room and I ate the Scotch egg cold. I liked it, but it probably would have been even better if it was warm.

The rest of the afternoon was spent resting and relaxing. After being on our feet so much the past few days, we needed it. I used the time to research and reserve a rental car for Scotland, as well as airfare to New York City, our destination after the UK.

In the evening, we had a relatively fancy dinner with steak, wine, and dessert at the hotel restaurant before making our way to Westminster again so that we could see nighttime versions of the famous sites. It was freezing cold but we couldn’t pass up on taking a few photos:

The Cenotaph
The Cenotaph, looks just like the one in HK
The London Eye
The Eye, viewed from Whitehall
The London Eye
The Eye, viewed from Westminster Bridge
Big Ben at Night
Big Ben at night

We crossed Westminster Bridge and headed for Waterloo station to check out this Bourne Ultimatum filming location for ourselves. Maybe it was at night and not as crowded, but I couldn’t recognize anything. We did use the 30p toilet and I bought a computer magazine from WHSmith, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Across the street from Waterloo station was another Sainsbury’s (our new favorite supermarket?). After having paid so much for alcohol from the hotel bar, I figured I’d save some money and buy an entire bottle instead. They had Laphroaig 10 for 33 pounds, so that’s what I got. One curiosity I noticed is that the “regular” size of Scotch in the UK is 70cl, or 700ml. In the US, the regular size is 750ml. I guess what they say about everything being bigger in America applies to Scotch, too.

We took the 59 back to the hotel and I spent the rest of the evening reading my new magazine and sipping my new Scotch, a nice way to end a regular day in London.

Next: London, Day 9 – Too Smart for the Lift