A Great British June – 5

Editor’s note: I am spending most of June 2024 in Great Britain and when possible, I’ll journal by hand and some of that journaling will be transferred here, with minimal edits.


I’m starting this entry the same as before. I’m once again on a train headed back to Dundee from the Isle of Skye. Scotland and especially its Isle of Skye and the surrounding highlands are magnificent. Almost every look out of the car or train window is good enough to be plastered on a postcard.

Daniel and I picked up the Smart Fortwo at Dundee’s train station close to 10AM on Sunday. We familiarized ourselves with the car and its oddities.1I never quite got used to just how short it was. It’s like someone chopped off the back half of the car. Although it’s an automatic, there’s no gear for park. Instead, we leave it in neutral and pull the manual parking brake — which doesn’t inspire much confidence because the parking brake barely moved when pulled upon. At times, we needed to pull it harder and again because it didn’t stop the car from rolling about on sloped parking areas. The car also doesn’t creep forward when it’s in the drive gear. Instead it acts if it’s still in neutral. So you gotta quickly transfer your right foot from the brake to the gas pedal. That hasty transition can result in the lifting of the hood and a jerky start. Reversing also feels weird, because I always imagine the boot of the car to be further out than it actually is. It’s so small that I can turn around and touch the very back of the car.

Like before, I got to experience a day in Daniel’s life. We drove to a sport center that is somewhat close to St Andrews. I got to visit another place that certainly cannot be labeled as a tourist trap. It looked like there was a local swim meet going on. But we weren’t fans of the local swimming community — we were there to say hi to Daniel’s friend who was playing wheelchair basketball. Two more of Daniel’s friends were arriving to play too. We watched them play a little while. Since it was a facility I’m unlikely to ever visit again, I snapped a few photos of the hallways.

We arrived at that sports facility from St Andrews. It looked to be a quaint town2Or city. Like the difference between hills and mountains, I’m unsure of where the line should be drawn between towns and cities. There were small stone houses lining the roads we walked on and I was told that the world famous Old Course was located in St Andrews. We looked at it from a distance but I chose not to walk closer. As a non-golfer, it wasn’t worth walking through the rainy weather to see a little stone bridge for a game I didn’t play nor understand.3I don’t dislike golf. I’m merely uninterested. I was in good spirits though. We were starting out on the open road in Scotland.

On the drive to Loch Ness or more specifically the Cannich village nearby Loch Ness, I appreciated whenever the roads widened to become a dual carriageway. Coming from Singapore and even with my higher than average driving experience in Malaysia,4given my age and nationality. I did not enjoy driving on undivided roads with the oncoming traffic zooming past us. I was grateful that the long summer daylights made it extremely unlikely we would ever need to drive in the dark with the opposing headlights blinding us. But at the back of my mind, I was aware that one subtle shift in the weight of my arms (or the opposing driver’s arms) would result in a crash. A crunch of metal and bones. A splash of mechanical liquid and blood. It’s safe to say I’m not used to driving on these undivided roads. I can do it, but it doesn’t feel natural. I don’t trust myself enough yet. The Scottish authorities didn’t seem to trust its drivers either. Every time the dual carriageway narrowed to become a single undivided road, after a few miles there would invariably be a speed camera. These were no ordinary speed cameras — they were average speed cameras. They track your entrance and exit and calculate your average speed for that zone. I was relieved they existed though. It gave me a reason to drive the speed limit of 60 mph, or less.

We went down the windy road that surrounded Loch Ness in the late afternoon. I remarked to Daniel that the person who crafted the Loch Ness monster story is probably one of Scotland’s best marketers. Before my trip, I knew next to nothing about Scotland but I did know about this lake and its imaginary monster. Sure Loch Ness is a scenic place but after visiting the Isle of Skye, it’s not as nice as the latter. I’ve never even heard of Skye before the trip.

That night, we got microwave food from Coop and then I bombarded it with reduced-to-clear salad vegetables. That elevated my slightly spicy pasta arrabiata and paired well with England’s first game of Euro 2024 on the telly.

The next day we visited Urquhart Castle. It’s places like this that would make me a proud Brit or Scot, if I was one. They have such a long national history. I don’t know enough to write about this intelligently, but they have two universities that have existed and educated for almost a thousand years. More recently, in the previous century (which can safely be regarded as “recent’ for the British) they built a global empire where the proverbial sun never set.5Side note, I am going to miss the late sunsets and even the early sunrises. I’m currently typing this up at 11:48PM on 23 June 2024 in Glasgow and looking out the window, there’s still a glimmer of light blue on the horizon. It’s not pitch black. My life, my parents, and my grandparents have been influenced by that empire. It’s one reason why Singaporeans learn and use English. It’s why I marched the way I did in the army during National Service. It’s why Singapore’s public Public Warning System sirens ring at 6:20PM every year on 15 February.6It marks the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. It’s why I still learn some English case law in my studies.

I will sidestep the question of whether the British Empire should be something that is celebrated by today’s Brits. I am not knowledgeable enough on the matter and it’s too large a topic. However, I will note that if one wants to picture that empire as an evil empire, you will find all sorts of evidence that support your proposition. Ruthless exploitation, deceitful divide & conquer tactics and pure violence. Lots of it. The same is true if you want to picture that empire as a benevolent one. The improvement in living standards, the introduction of a fairer legal and government administrative system, and other general development.

Before we drove to the Isle of Skye, we took a short hike nearby. There was no one else there and the entire hike took less than one hour to complete. At the viewing point, which marked the end of the hike, we sat down and played a one minute mindfulness clip.7 From the Waking Up app.

I’m writing this at a different place and day now. It’s now Saturday June 22 and I’m sitting at a park close to Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow, Scotland. I didn’t get to finish this entry on the train back to Dundee. I have some time to spare because I can’t check in at my Airbnb until 3PM. It’s the type of Airbnb where you get your own room and where the host continues to live at the same house. It’s what I call the original Airbnb experience. Someone just opens up an extra room or two at their own home for other guests to use. It’s not a big landlord running the place. Anyways, I arrived in Glasgow at 11:30AM and even after a slow lunch at Greggs and after bringing myself and dragging my luggage to this park, it’s only 12:45PM. There are low-rise flats surrounding this park area, but it’s quiet here. There is too much litter though. Vapes, cigarette butts and cartons, and spoons dot the ground. Back to the scheduled programming.

Daniel and I started on our drive to Skye. He drove more of the short-distance trips and I did the longer ones. We stopped many times along the way. I would pull up to parking bays at the side of the road to let cars overtake me, take photos of the landscape, and take a quick break from driving. I don’t remember there being anymore dual carriageways from this point onward. As we approached Skye, the scenery transformed. At one parking spot, we walked to a rocky-coastlined pond surrounded by green hills. There weren’t a lot of trees on the hills nor by the pond, so you could take in the entire valley. Daniel skipped some stones (successfully) and I sat down to call my friend because we needed to settle some plans.

This is going to sound selfish, but I wonder in the future if I’ll ever be able to completely disconnect for work on holidays. Once in a while, I come across headlines about how certain countries, states, or cities (all of which seem to be located at the same specific continent) talk about a right to disconnect. Over weekends and after a certain time on weekdays, bosses cannot communicate to their employees about work-related matters. Or employees are entitled to not reply.

When people say Singapore is fast paced, I sometimes don’t know what that entails. It can’t be referring to the way we drive. Our highway speed limits are fixed at 90 km/h (56 mph) and there’s little space to go too far, too fast, on a straight line. I think a big part of it refers to our work culture. The fact that you can send an email at 8PM, only to receive a response at 10PM the same night. Or the expectations on response times. I am usually quite slow to respond and I have to pepper my replies with “sorry for the late reply” but part of me wants to stop saying that. It is up to me to decide how long I want to take to reply and whether I want to reply in the first place.8To be clear, the same also applies the other way round. Meaning I cannot expect others to reply quickly to me either. They are entitled to take their time too.

As I wrote earlier, I’m in a park by the bus station at Glasgow. I hear birds chirping, the occasional honk, and for the loud walkers, the sound of their shoes scraping against the asphalt walking path. Most of the time, there’s no one else seated on these six park benches — bar a smoker or two who sits, smokes, and leaves within 15 minutes. If I had done this travel back in the 1990s, I would practically be uncontactable unless I found a phone box or internet cafe. If I was trying to contact home on a budget, I may send a postcard home every few days. But those who received it would have no way to reply unless I stayed at one place long enough for the postcard to reach them and for a new postcard to be sent my way. The vast plains, mountains, and cities, and the pockets of water that sit between Scotland and Singapore would feel even more distant. A kilometer then would feel like a hundred today.

Going back to the right to disconnect, I think for better or worse (I’m not sure), it’s antithetical to the very idea of Singapore. We have been told ad nauseum that Singapore cannot be an average country. If we are average, our city state will be below average. Other larger and better endowed countries can survive by being average. Singapore cannot. I believe this. But, like my generation, I am also questioning what it is that I seek. I am wary of sleep-walking into a rat race to achieve a definition of success that I was not asked to define. Perhaps I should be more grateful and perhaps I’m one of those in my generation that knew not Joseph.9See Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy for Mr S. Rajaratnam in 2006. And maybe I’m classifying this as an A or B situation when there are actually many other options available. It should be possible to live a balanced life. At work, I work. I find it purposeful. It helps myself, customers, society, and Singapore. At the same time, I can be realistic with how I view work. It’s not the most important thing in the world. There’s this saying that’s stuck with me ever since I first read it: when health becomes a problem, it becomes the only problem.10I searched this up and couldn’t find it. Maybe the actual saying is: a healthy man has 1000 wishes, a sick man, only one.

I’m meandering here, so let’s return to Scotland. We arrived in Skye and here I got to realize why some Scots are so patriotic. When one has sea, sky, and peaks like that in the Isle of Skye, who wouldn’t be? Daniel and I had a late lunch at what is perhaps Scotland’s most scenic Coop and got settled into our bed and breakfast.

Written at 5:54 PM on June 23, 2024.

Photos

Click on the photos to enlarge them. Chronologically ordered.


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First published: June 25, 2024
Last updated:

Footnotes
  • 1
    I never quite got used to just how short it was. It’s like someone chopped off the back half of the car.
  • 2
    Or city. Like the difference between hills and mountains, I’m unsure of where the line should be drawn between towns and cities.
  • 3
    I don’t dislike golf. I’m merely uninterested.
  • 4
    given my age and nationality.
  • 5
    Side note, I am going to miss the late sunsets and even the early sunrises. I’m currently typing this up at 11:48PM on 23 June 2024 in Glasgow and looking out the window, there’s still a glimmer of light blue on the horizon. It’s not pitch black.
  • 6
    It marks the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942.
  • 7
    From the Waking Up app.
  • 8
    To be clear, the same also applies the other way round. Meaning I cannot expect others to reply quickly to me either. They are entitled to take their time too.
  • 9
    See Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy for Mr S. Rajaratnam in 2006.
  • 10
    I searched this up and couldn’t find it. Maybe the actual saying is: a healthy man has 1000 wishes, a sick man, only one.