Sunday, September 29, 2013

Caledonia (Part III)

Another belated travel post.  For the earlier stages of the adventures in Scotland, see Caledonia (Part I) and Caledonia(Part II)


I had lunch on a tussock, and then made my way around the beautiful lake.  Aside from the hostel at one end of Loch Ossian, there was only one other human habitation, a posh hunting lodge at the far end.  In some parts of the highlands, walkers have to take care during hunting seasons when recalcitrant landowners—unreconciled to more democratic laws governing Scotland’s twenty-first century countryside—have been known to harass them.  Jan reassured us at the hostel that short of wearing antlers and grazing around the heath we were unlikely to find ourselves receiving any hostile attentions from the hunters.

My feet being slightly battered from the morning’s walking, I found a nice little peninsula jutting into the loch, and took a nap on the rock, dangling my feet into the water and enjoying the solitude—something difficult to come by in either Nairobi or Lusaka.  I spent another hour and a half circumnavigating the lake, and was a little sad when I found myself back at the hostel, my final full day at Loch Ossian at an end.  But the midges were coming out, and they provided some incentive to retreat inside, where I joined the other hostellers for our respective suppers and after-dinner conversations.

We all swapped ideas about good walking areas in Scotland and England.  I also asked the two Scots about the looming referendum on independence, and they voiced the uncertainty and scepticism that seem to characterise the aspiring nation’s outlook.  They were Labour supporters, and so although there was nothing in particular about the National Party (which currently governs Scotland with a majority in spite of the country’s system of proportional representation) policies which they disliked, they were not particularly enamoured of Alex Salmond.

They also expressed some unease about whether Scotland could afford to make its own way in the world.  Their unease reflects the competing narratives about Scotland’s viability as a nation.  Supporters of independence point to the country’s successful social system, which unlike its English counterpart does not crush university students with fees.  Opponents cite supposed subsidies by the south of the British Isles, where most of the population is concentrated, and where London’s financial sector creates a great deal of wealth (which does not trickle down very effectively).  One rejoinder holds that Scottish taxpayers would no longer have to subsidise Britain’s imperial foreign policy, its obsession with “punching above its weight”, its costly wars, and its expensive and foolish nuclear deterrent.  Scottish nationalists point to Scotland’s oil as a source of wealth, and say the country could emulate the likes of Norway (which seems optimistic).  British nationalists invoke ‘tradition’, ‘history’, and the ‘monarchy’ as cultural reasons for preserving the Union, a claim which is answered by centuries of English conquest and exploitation.

Scots will have to do their homework, and evaluate the economic claims of the competing factions with particular care before they vote in 2014.  But there is something inspiring about listening to a public debate such a critical decision, and as someone who thinks that California would be improved should it separate from its neighbours, I hope that Scots take the referendum seriously.

The next morning I had to make my way to the train station to return to Fort William.  The skies were dark and some droplets were coming down, but the midges were out in force nonetheless, the swarms thick enough that they immediately began clogging my eyes, nose, and mouth.  It was a bit over a mile to the train station, but I donned my rucksack and broke into as much of a jog as my blistered feet would allow.  I was a few minutes early, and so I did laps around the signpost on the platform to stay one step ahead of the midges, which were blackening me as they set in with even greater numbers.  The 9.10 train only stopped by request, and so as it trundled down the track I jumped up and down and waved, and then as it slowed, sprinted down the platform to the door, hotly pursued by a flock of midges who would have put the Nazgul and their foul steeds to flight.

Once in Fort William, I had lunch, bought food for supper and dinner, and hiked back to the hostel, via a detour up the slopes of Ben Nevis and along the river at its base.  That evening I finished up World War Z, which felt appropriate, as the hostel residents all bore a certain resemblance to a bunch of zombies, lurching around on blistered feet, battered knees, crooked backs.  After some long days of walking, I certainly felt more dead than alive in body, if considerably reinvigorated in spirit. 

The following morning I shouldered my pack and made my way to Fort William, in a light rain.  Besides the train to Glasgow, the famous tourist train which recreates Harry Potter’s journey to Hogwarts was also at the tracks.  The weather was drizzly, and on one highland platform a group of walkers was dancing furiously and swatting the air, their faces wrapped in scarves and nets, and I was happy to be in out of the midges, but very sorry indeed to be leaving the lovely region behind.

The days of writing in Nairobi cafes, no less the blissful months in Lusaka’s archives, seemed very far away, but the good news was that the following morning I would be boarding a plane bound for San Francisco, from where I would make my way back to the People’s Republic of Berkeley, where no nuclear weapons may fall (legally) and where the sun would be shining.

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