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Our luggage engineered by Ruth (I don’t know how she does it but she is an Olympic-level packer), and stored at Paddington Station, we had one last day in London before our flight back to Sonoma County. We had a lovely afternoon in Chelsea at the Physic Botanical Garden, founded in 1687, the oldest such garden in London, a city noted for its gardens. This one is walled, next to the Thames, and didn’t disappoint. First of all, we went to its cafe which served food and drink that could have been Michelin rated. We got in line and chose the salmon, perfectly grilled and surrounded by a delicious pastry crust, with a side salad and a glass of Italian pinot grigio. Never have we seen such a meal served at a botanical garden in the States. We ate at tables surrounded by plants in the garden with yet more friendly people, this time David and his wife Maryann from London, progressives who were boycotting Harrods because of the fellow who owns it, and bemoaning the fascists in the government who were intent on regulating everything.    

David grew up near Stonehenge, which we didn’t get to see, explaining that the huge prehistoric blue stones actually came from many miles away in south Wales, transported via water and overland. He had no idea how they were brought overland but, in fact, they were. How they were put upright is still a mystery. They left for a tour and we shook hands as I joined Ruth to review these gardens with plants from all over the world, including ones for edible and medicinal purposes, which was of particular interest to Ruth who uses flower essences in her practice.
We left and ambled down the Thames for a bit, finally catching a two tiered bus on our way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, for more Arts and Crafts wonders of the late 19th century. Caught by London gridlock we talked our way off the bus (the driver was none too happy about breaking the rules) and walked until Ruth went off to the Museum and I took a break at the magnificent Michelin Building, had an apple elderberry drink and surveyed the rush hour scene, sitting near a flower vendor who took whatever time was necessary to make sure her customers got the right bouquet for their needs. Lovely to watch her serve with care and expertise.

Vacation last days have a bit of sadness in them, but also a bit of anticipation for the return home and thought of settling into your own bed again. Funny that the bed is the place most anticipated. Those vacation beds are not of our choosing, and can often be just not quite right. Hobbits spend a lot of time picking out their beds and they are quite right. Quite right, indeed. But vacation is over and planes return where they started and we think back to the fine times we had and the people we met and the things we did that we never did before and the adventures we encountered, like the sprained ankle I suffered climbing the hill to the beeches and bluebells above Princes Risborough, and the time I left my sling bag in a London pub and ran back from Covent Gardens in a panic to retrieve it, finding it on the floor just where I left it, and the time Pam, our great host in St. Andrews had me try haggis with a bit of whiskey poured over it which I actually liked very much, to the time, I, a golfer of 50 years played in the rain, hail, wind, and sleet on the oldest golfing linksland in the world.

Ah yes, ’tis a mixture of nostalgia and joy on the last day of a vacation, a day that comes to us without any effort or volition on our part. It is, like every other day, to be experienced, felt, and lived, fully, gratefully.

There is something about a thatched roof cottage that stirs the cockles of my heart. Perhaps I’ve lived in one in some former life. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the sight of such a cottage in a guide book read about six months before this trip got me and Ruth to Chipping Camden, a village in the Cotswolds in central England. We arrived by bus from Stratford upon Avon, of Shakespeare fame, in a weather of on again, off again rain and sun, cold and crisp as a snowball, with a light that kept cascading as the sun dipped and dove behind giant rain clouds. As for thatched roofs, we were not disappointed. For those not in the know, a thatched roof was popular about 300 years ago as a way to  reuse farm material as an insulator against the cold, heat, and rain. It worked well, lasting about five years. Only thing is during that time, rats, squirrels, birds, snakes and several other critters of farmland picked and gnawed and chewed through the thatching material for their own nesting supplies and made a bloody mess of the roof. This of course led to using other kinds of roofs until wire screening was invented in more modern times to protect the organic material from the same critters as before. Anyway, they are works of art, and very soothing to see a house that is nearly half straw. Chipping Camden had at least six such houses that I discovered and other towns we passed through like Broadway and Moreton on Marsh had a number of others. That which drew me to England was magnificently manifest to my eyes.We climbed Sheep Street (the Cotswolds thrived on sheep farming for wool and meat for many years until cotton became king) past the late author Graeme Green’s thatched roof cottage to lovely views of the town and surrounding fields bathed in a gorgeous after rain light where we met a lady from Toronto being shown around by her English friend. Then it was back down to town to visit the local silversmith who tapped out masterpieces as they did in William Morris’s day.
Our fill filled, we hopped the bus to Stratford and returned to Shakespeare’s origins, a town of Tudor antiquity and the Garrick Pub, serving drink and grub since 1406, one of the oldest in old England. We chatted with a few jolly locals, a fellow from Holland who was biking through Ireland and the UK, and Dave, a rock concert promoter whose accent labeled him a Scotsman from Glasgow, a great guy whose humor and insights and generosity took Ruth and I well into the night

Food: The King’s Hotel. Fantastic. Michelin star.

Silver: The Guild

London

London is a fine mixture of old and new. The two complement each other like bread and butter and marmelaide. Westminster Abbey dripped with history from kings and queens of antiquity to Shakespeare and Coleridge to Newton and Darwin to the latest wedding of William and Catherine.  The Thames was bejeweled with bridges while scullers and sightseeing boats plied its waters. Harrods was a circus of food and frippery while anti fur trade protesters gathered signatures at its main entrances. The Tudor Liberty sold every fabric known to humankind, a modern version of the Arts and Crafts movement that spawned it in the mid 19th century. London is traffic of every kind, driving on the blasted wrong side of the road, with a steering wheel on the wrong side of the vehicle, around circles they call roundabouts, crazier than Boston’s rotaries. London is people from every corner of the world. A passport and promise will get you there, and if you have a bit of cash so much the easier. Just be on your best behavior or Scotland Yard will root you out and send you packing. we met and talked with students from Saudi Arabia, a waitress from Spain, a clerk from Slovakia, and another from Croatia. What are they looking for? Opportunity. London is cool. London is hip. London is style. London is the world’s premier melting pot. Move over New York. London was totally overwhelming, but we loved it.

Traveling gets you out of your comfort zone, and once out of it, you can never quite get back in until you return home.  You’re like Alice in Wonderland, where everything is not quite like it is at home. That in fact is what makes traveling a spiritual experience, whether you intend it or not. In fact if it’s too comfortable as it probably is for the rich, it won’t be spiritual at all, and so won’t be of much value for one’s life. It will be one more pleasant experience piled on to a whole load of pleasant experiences until that one  monsterous, unpleasant experience comes, namely death. To deal with oncoming death in a conscious, hence spiritual way, you need smaller uncomfortable experiences. Life was harder for people of ancient times, and if it became too easy, let’s say they got it all down and tegether, they took on uncomfortable tasks, like moving impossibly giant stones around, or carving incredibly intricate drawings on dark cave walls.

For the traveler, there are different levels of discomfort. There’s the backpacker, the most extreme type of traveler. Everything is carried on the back. Of course everything’s getting so high tech, discomforts are becoming fewer and fewer. That’s OK: Just hike higher and higher, or farther and farther. Or you can travel within your home country. Difficult, sure, but still familiar in many ways. Same breakfast places. Same toilets. Same shower fixtures. Same roads with the same kinds of signs with the same kinds of drivers with the same emergency numbers to call if you get in a jam with the same language.

Up the ante by traveling to a foreign country. First, second, and third world ups it accordingly. My present level in England and Scotland is relatively light compared to Thailand a number of years ago, and less severe than Brazil last year. So there are different permutations and combinations that determine the degree of difficulty.  Age and physical fitness is a factor too. There are no standards. Everybody’s different.

On this trip, we each carry a fairly small suitcase, a carry on, and a small satchel. We are out for 15 days. That’s not a lot of space. It involves some clothes washing in the sink before bedtime. We also brought a small computer, an iPad, a large camera with three lens, a small camera, and two cell phones for all our digital needs. Traveling in the 21st century has changed  considerably.  Still, two pairs of shoes apiece, two pairs of pants, one sweater, one fleece, three pairs of socks, you get the idea. As death approaches, we need fewer and fewer things.

We need proper nourishment. We need protection from the cold and the elements. We need a way to get around. We need loved ones near. So a mindful traveler reflects on these things that we normally take for granted. Traveling forces us to do so. But only when we do so consciously do we turn the mundane in to the profound, and an outer trip into an inner journey.

All this is not to say a mindful traveler doesn’t have fun on a trip, like we are having on this one, and like Alice had on hers.

I used to live in Inverness CA, a sleepy, out of the way village near Point Reyes National Seashore in the almost separate state of Northern California. It was named after Inverness in the almost separate country of Scotland. But believe me, they are very different places.  Though we found charming places in the countryside, the Scottish city is somewhat rundown, with a rising crime rate and a lowering standard of maintenance to its buildings. I was expecting no more than a village, but apparently it took more than a village. Inverness CA will always remain in my heart and soul. Inverness UK, even as I sit watching the River Ness flowing by, is fading from memory. Now the outskirts are another matter. We took a tour with a local friend yesterday of Loch Ness, (right, the one with the 1500 year old monster) and charmed by its beauty. No Tahoe, still there is practically no development around it, as that which spoils the California beauty. And it’s not even a protected area. Surprising, since it’s only 30 minutes from the city, indicating Invernessians are not all that connected with nature, or that builders are a bit behind the curve. Anyway, we took a bus and boat trip to Urquhart Castle, at least its ruins. Europeans value their ancient ruins. Wars made them ruins, and Europeans certainly are good at making war. But then once razed and ruined, castles, churches, even ancient rocks and stones of mysterious origins are preserved and honored. In America, we preserve cemetaries, and a few houses here and there, if fought for. New England is the one exception for good wabi sabi subjects.

Inverness UK was also both a baptism and wake to English driving practices. Driving is on the left side. The driver sits on the right side, leaving drivers from continents to the west and east misjudging the curb to the left. This was extremely nerve wracking, and after getting lost twice, I finally decided to give up the car rental and abandon driving in the UK forever forward. We retreated to train, bus, and taxi, and stress levels returned to normal where they should be on vacation.

Our last day in the Highlands of Scotland, which still tries to achieve independence from England to this day, was spent driving through the rain, thanks to local friends who insisted on showing us around. A married couple, he was Scottish and she Brazilian, an odd combination but no less so than me and my own Brazilian wife. He was from Glasgow to the south and possessed an accent that was close to being indecernible. I never did fully get the hang of it, and spent most of the trip nodding my head in benign confusion.

Fortunately our destination was a tour at a malt whiskey distillery and I took the opportunity to defensively muddle my head even more. With whiskey, teenage is best behaved, unlike with people, and 15 years was most agreeable. A castle on the grounds ended the tour and by the time we reached it, I was completely razed but not ruined.

On the rainy ride home–thanks to the angels for getting me out of driving–we drove through Findhorn Community, a place I remember from the 60s when they grew miracle giant vegetables from apparently in-arable sandy soil, but then switched to growing people, with workshops on relationships and sustainable living practices. We missed the tour, but it was obvious that the community still thrives with unique private houses connected within common purpose and simple values. I don’t know if the people have grown that much, but Findhorn is celebrating its 50th year, and judging from all the solar panels and signs favoring people and bicycles over cars, I’d say they’re making progress. Findhorn is 29 miles from Inverness, along the Moray Firth (or bay) which funnels out to the North Sea.

Now back in town, where the rain has deepened the already deep grays of Inverness. Color is hard to find in this capital of the Highlands. Requires a bit of Scotch whiskey and water.

On the train to London, just finishing my breakfast, gazing out at snow on the high plains of Cairngorms National Park. It is May 10. Aye, I did say snow!

We’ve arrived at the home of golf, the Mecca for all serious golfers. St. Andrews, Scotland. Only ten percent of those who come to this knob of land jutting out into the North Sea play golf. The rest are connected to the thriving University of St. Andrew, founded in 1403, only behind Oxford and Cambridge as the oldest colleges in the UK. It’s a Scottish college town, complete with men in family kilts, coeds from the world over (including many Americans and Chinese), and their visiting parents. But to the outside world, the name St. Andrews stands for where golf was born. About 600 years ago, some shepherd picked up a stick of some sort and a ball of another sort and started knocking it around, adding a hole in which to bat it into, and golf happened, discovering itself really. It was there all along, perhaps from the Big Bang itself.

Of course that’s just my perspective. I’ve been addicted to golf since I was 14 and mesmerized by Arnold Palmer along with the rest of the country. Visiting St. Andrews has been an enduring dream, one that was running out of steam. But some dreams do come true. Yesterday, Sunday, Ruth and I strolled the Old Course, the oldest golf course in the world. It’s open to the public to do so every Sunday, closed to golfers. I had hoped to play the course but that dream would have to wait, as extra special dreams often do, given the Royal and Ancient Golf Association would be holding its spring meeting the entire following week. Later that day though I did play the Eden Course, one of nine connected with  the town, in rain, sleet, and hail. I think that makes me an honorary Scottish golfer! The garden of  Eden it was, and the memory of that round and the town of St. Andrews will stay with me until my dying day.

Here’s some of our tastiest St. Andrews treats. For lodging, you can’t beat Pam Izatt’s  Suite No. 12 B&B. Wonderful breakfasts. Great personality who knows the town and the linksland.

Drink: the Central Pub

Food: Rocco’s , One Down Under, Mitchell’s, The Glass House

Museums: The Golf Museum, Museum of St. Andrews

Golf: take your pick

On the East Coast to Scotland, past rolling farm and sheep land, past brick farmhouse and mustard field, with scattered rain clouds overhead, far from the iClouds under fingers. Lovely. We have a four hour roll to St. Andrews, a time to sit and peer and pen. The English surround us, from the gracious black trainman to the very Scot looking gentleman beside us to farm structures that are, like West Marin in CA, seldom new. There is a perenial weathered look to everything English. They, like most of Europe, value ruins. They put plaques next to them and give a history. They preserve them as they would a family heirloom.

The British are great talkers. I think they just love their own accent. They are born talking, I think. Americans are born acting. The British interact. They no longer own the world. But they own its airwaves. It’s the tone of authenticity. Walter Cronkite had a bit of British in him, I suspect. There’s also a weathered look about them. Perhaps it’s the weather. Perhaps it’s the war. Perhaps it’s all the talking. I love the British. And I love visiting since I can talk with them. My wife knows it makes me happy to be able to converse with people when I travel. I feel less isolated and being isolated is why we travel: to feel connected to this magnificent planet.

Newcastle: Nothing much to distinguish it from this train window. A large infrastructured river. A few church spires. A 19th century patina to it. If you’re from Newcastle and take offense, my deepest apologies. I’m sure there are some enlightened spots to the place. Like their Genting Casino, for example. Ah, the Brits can make any vice sound dignified with their way with words, and  excuse themselves with “Sorry.”

Mealtime. Cheese and Chutney or Salted beef and pickelilly along with Burts hand fried Potato Chips sea salted Made in Devon. Naturally delicious. It doesn’t even sound so bad for me. Haven’t the foggiest, but we’ll take it. Both. Thank you ever so much. TaTa. PipPip. Groovy.