Monthly Archives: November 2022

All’s well that ends well

I struggled up as if from a deep abyss. Up towards the surface I kicked one last time and I’ll allow that last kick was a mistake, but I was suddenly conscious. Nurses were everywhere assembling clear tubes to valves into various beeping boxes with bags hanging from stands filled with clear liquid and Marce holding my hand. It’s coming back to me in dribs and drabs now. I remember sitting up in bed leaning forward and the nurse saying hold this pillow in front of you this might pinch a little. The next thing was the abyss.

I asked for this, as a matter of fact we paid for this, but I pushed that poor knee until I felt there was just no alternative. It was a lot like when I was a kid and my friends and I rode our bikes all over the place on a steamy hot Pennsylvania summer day and somebody said let’s ride over to a well known public water fountain for a drink. I remember saying, “not me, I’m not thirsty enough yet.”

It’s a sobering decision to have your leg sawn in half with a Bosch saber saw, or whatever they use. Three years ago we went through this same process but under very different circumstances. At the time I was responsible for our safety on a sailing yacht and I had only a rough idea what I was in for. I was encouraged when I could stand on my leg the next day. I had to learn patience, but it turns out not much happens until the swelling goes down.

This time I had much better movement from the get-go and a couple of times I startled my doctor and he would say, “slow down!” Point taken. After all, it’s just glued on.

Maybe it was better pain control and better physiotherapy in a brand new wing of Island Hospital with more exercise machines than one of those fitness gyms where they yell at you.

You get really close to your Physio; after all you’re in it together. Mine was Zoey, maybe 90 lbs. but she could make me cry squeezing my leg with just two fingers.

Over the top, all the way around. It’s a big thing as it means you’ve got over 120 degrees of movement.

I walked out of here without a cane mostly due to Dr. Aaron, or “Mr. Aaron” as they prefer in Malaysia, but he’d be the last to stand on ceremony.

He’s witty, loves bright colors especially the Rosso Corsa of his Ferrari that I pass every day in my Proton Grab ride.

They say all’s well that ends well and that works for me.


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Body shop

As soon as we arrived in Penang we made an appointment with the surgeon for pre-op tests and evaluation, then set out to reacquaint ourselves with one of our favorite places to hang out. It was Diwali, or as they call it in Malaysia, Deepavali, so the big malls were festooned for the occasion.

We hoped we could enjoy a similar Diwali to the one we experienced in Trinidad where families dressed in new fancy clothes and decorated their houses with lights and handed out sweets to passersby, but our Grab drivers told us most families in Penang live in high rise buildings and celebrate at home with family. There would be nothing for us to see beyond the special displays in the shops of Little India.

We enjoyed that first week’s Airbnb with the great view toward the north and the Malacca Strait and spent our days discovering more of Penang’s famous street art.

Jack was determined to sample every kind of Eggs Benedict offered in Penang.

On the day of Jack’s appointment we joined the scrum at check-in and saw Dr. Aaron Lim for the first time in three years. He’s still the fashion icon.

During all the pre-op tests the cardiologist wasn’t happy with Jack’s blood pressure so they pushed back the surgery a few days to allow time to get it under control. Then a week after landing in Penang, we left the Airbnb and and moved to the hospital where Jack was prepped for surgery in the morning. I stayed with Jack in his room.

With the correct knee well-labeled, Jack was off to surgery. I paced in the room and occasionally badgered the nurse for updates when it seemed to take much longer than the first time.

Finally Jack was back, still loopy and feeling no pain. Later Dr. Aaron came to check his handiwork and pronounced it good. Tomorrow, the work begins.

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Wrap it up

Missing the northern lights in the perfect spot was a big disappointment but time is getting too short and we’ve got to get down to business. So back toward Glasgow we go, a place we’re starting to think of as a home base.

We drove right past the public parking lot at Balmoral Castle. You can actually overnight there in designated motorhome spots but with no spare time to explore the grounds we nixed the idea for now and drove on.

Farther west I picked an innocuous parkup in a layby on a gravelly road in the Cairngorms. With barely a moment’s warning, the predicted solar activity that failed to materialize two days before while we were in Portsoy suddenly came to life where we were surrounded by mountains and on a road with occasional traffic. I barely had time to set up the camera while keeping an eye on the dark clouds rolling in.

Despite being interrupted by headlights and eventually obscured by clouds, we saw the coveted and rare red Aurora. It only lasted a short time but what an unexpected thrill it was!

The foul weather that moved in overnight continued through next day and we skipped some planned tourist stops and carried on westward.

During the next week we booked storage for the van, did some last minute travel shopping, dug out our warm weather clothing, found accommodations in Penang, and generally prepared for living out of a suitcase, something we’ve never done for longer than a couple of weeks. All the while we stayed in some new parkups and some old familiar ones and made creative meals out of fridge and pantry leftovers.

Of course we visited yet another castle, one we’d driven past a number of times but hadn’t noticed. And of course it was closed.

At a parkup along the Firth of Clyde we saw the conning tower and rudder of a submarine sliding by. It was almost out of sight before I recognized what I was seeing. It was a US flagged nuclear sub on its way home from a summer at Faslane military base. I didn’t get a photo but you can see video someone else captured here.

We spent a night at a campground flushing the tanks and doing laundry. There’d been so much rain that we were nearly surrounded by mushrooms, some I’d never seen in real life before.

From the campground we moved to a hotel for two days while we deep cleaned the van and packed for an indefinite odyssey to mostly unknown destinations.

On departure day we dropped off the van at the storage place, got a ride to the airport, and started on our 2-day, badly planned (by me) four-flights-with-long-layovers journey to the other side of the planet.

We left the UK at 10am Monday morning and arrived at our Airbnb in Penang at 2pm Wednesday. A few hours later we were in t-shirts eating takeaway Banh Mi on our balcony overlooking the Malacca Strait. It’s been eleven months since we were here. We missed the place!

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A brush with fame

Today’s installment begins with a rare parkup failure, which is to say that paper will sit still for anything and as we pulled off the hard road this place didn’t look anything like what was promised. It hadn’t a view and was exposed to the weather. But as I turned off the road my peripheral vision caught a brief snapshot of what might be a footpath along the steep cliffside over toward Portsoy, the next village along the coast. We were left facing down a narrow death spiral half lane, twisting around an outcrop of rock where you can be assured that if somebody’s coming up around that blind corner while you’re going down, you’re both going to have a bad day. It’s steep, tight, twisty, and there’s no way to see if anything is coming.

As we inched down, Marce practically stood up in her seat. Luckily we met nothing coming up. As a matter of fact, no one was down at the bottom either so we had this beautiful rocky coastal parkup to ourselves.

This place was chosen as an Aurora observatory for Marce, having northern exposure, low light pollution, and an observable horizon, but it necessitated a drive across most of the country.

A quick shower and all is forgiven

To our left we found strange concrete constructions tying massive piles of rocks together in what appeared to be a way to keep the ocean in a tidal pool for swimming but there was a sign that forbids swimming in the tidal pool.

We decided the empty pool deserved further exploration but it was called due to darkness.

It seems the electromagnetic gods giveth and they also taketh away in what feels like a completely arbitrary way without regard to how far you might have driven. It seems the high Aurora activity alert was pushed back a day but Marce was on full watch all night which it must be said makes for poor companionability aboard Escape Velocity in the morning.

After caffeinating, we decided an exploratory stroll along the cliffside path into Old Portsoy was just the ticket.

It was a fine morning and eschewing the twisty access road, we soon found our way up a steep path to the top of the ridge and spectacular views.

Calling Portsoy quirky may be an understatement after we bumped into this memorial.

Turns out some of the TV show Peaky Blinders was shot in Portsoy. A genuine brush with fame.

Marce on top of Portsoy

Back at the parkup, with the tide filling in, the pool starts to make sense.

After a second night of little or no electromagnetic activity you just have to accept that sometimes there are things over which you have no control.

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We have a deadline, and yet we can’t seem to firm up our immediate plans. We drove to Stornaway — a legendary name in sailing circles — for the ferry back to mainland Scotland. Stornaway was a bit of a disappointment, perhaps because we were unsure where to go and what to do.

Still, we did the walkabout and took tourist photos before boarding the ferry to Ullapool.

“No one knows who they were, or what they were doing there.”

Our weather is up and down. Bright sun and blue sky followed by thick cloud cover and heavy rain. Or sometimes light rain. Or high winds. We’ve learned to be prepared for everything and keep an eye in the forecast.

With flights booked and lots to do to before we leave for six months we really should have turned south toward Glasgow to shop and prepare the van for storage. But my Aurora apps were pinging and vibrating with alerts about strong activity at the end of the week. In my latest source of Fear of Missing Out I asked Jack if he would mind driving clear across the country to a place where we might find the perfect conditions for the northern lights — a north-facing horizon, a dark sky with minimal light pollution, and no low clouds. Add that to a new moon and we could hit the aurora jackpot. I found what looked like the perfect place, but it was in the wrong direction and farther than we usually drive, a laughable (by American standards) 120 miles. “Sure,” Jack said, and we even took a longer scenic route at 140 miles.

On the way we couldn’t pass up another castle ruin, this one guarded by a large but friendly hairy coo.

Castle Roy is a 12th century fortress that only opened in 2022 after extensive work reinforcing the foundations to make it safe for the public. There’s not much to see, but the setting is lovely and apparently it’s become a popular picnic and wedding spot in the local area.

I find I’m watching the weather forecast almost as much as I did when we were on the boat, and I saw that a front is moving through with high winds predicted. We like to be in a protected spot for that kind of weather, so I found us a quiet parkup along a river popular with flyfishermen. We tucked into a corner beside a graveyard under some tall trees.

The front came through as expected with seriously high winds that made me question the decision to park under the trees. All night we were pelted by leaves and twigs and I worried a larger branch might damage our solar panel.

The rain continued the next day but the fishermen showed up anyway, undaunted, and put in the time whether they caught anything or not.

Finally on the second day the rain stopped enough for me to traipse through the soggy cemetery in search of a Pictish carved stone marked on the ordinance survey map.

After consulting a few websites I finally found the stone embedded in the wall. They say there’s a cross carved into it but the surface is so weathered and eroded you can’t really see it. I couldn’t, anyway.

With the sky clearing by the hour we turned north toward what I hope will be Aurora nirvana.

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Iron and Rock

Archaeologists have identified nineteen megalithic sites in this immediate area and while we haven’t pledged to see them all we do want to visit some of the more important or scenic ones. We’re both fascinated by the urge to erect such monuments, the effort it took, and the locations chosen.

The landscape here, especially under the northern sun, is exhilarating, and at the same time almost soothing. Being able to see long distances, where you can almost perceive the curve of the earth, is always my favorite place to be.

We have a Scottish Islands Passport app that recognizes when we visit a new island. It’s fun to get the ping and a new “stamp,” and for that reason only we drove toward Great Bernera nearby. Little did we know it would involve a sea journey.

“Bridge over the Atlantic” might have been a bit of an exaggeration but it lead to another of the megalithic sites, this one Callanish VIII, which may be our favorite. The view in either direction is breathtaking and the stones themselves are beautiful.

Jack was, as usual, compelled to summit the nearby hill. No matter where we go, no matter how much ibuprofen it takes, he will always get to the top of wherever we are. He’s a High-man.

On the north end of Great Bernera is an Iron Age Village. We assumed this would be a cutesy touristy thingy, but we forgot for a minute that we’re in Scotland and Scots don’t do cutesy. The visit was an enjoyable surprise, and while we only understood about a third of the docent’s strong dialect, she was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. The site, like others in coastal Scotland, was uncovered by a violent storm that eroded the beach in the 1990s. The reconstructed house, dating from the Pictish period sometime after 500AD, is a pretty good depiction of what daily life was like.

Back on mainland Harris we visited more Callanish sites. I could post hundreds of great photos but suffice it to say that being in the place, feeling the wind, gazing at the horizon, and appreciating the beauty of each stone from close up and afar are what make the sites worth visiting. These are special places.

Jack playing the Neolithic Witless Bass. I think he’s out of practice. I heard nothing.

We think this is the tallest individual stone we’ve seen in our travels. I keep touching these things but so far time travel has eluded me.


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The false men of Callanish

The sun finally showed up to reveal a beautiful parkup by the water. I don’t know how she does it night after night, but she does it.

Marce’s Ordinance Survey Map shows every bump or feature on the land in the UK and it swears there’s some nineteen or so Megalithic sites in what would have to be a very successful fertile valley. These folks must have been well fed with a lot of free time, organized enough to find and quarry large slabs of stone, strong enough to schlep them to the designated spot — you can just imagine the arguments — then solidly erect tons of them. We’re very near one of the sites right now but you couldn’t prove it by me. A few miles across the loch there’s supposedly a massive circle and that’s where we’re headed this morning.

Turns out the parking lot is already filling up and I can’t help but notice a bus parked near the visitor center. There’s a gaggle of passengers politely waiting in a queue for the visitor center to open, probably for that second cup of joe and maybe a T-shirt or a couple of postcards.

Without a word we adroitly swerved around the thrillseekers and headed up the path toward the stone circle of Callanish on top of the hill. What a dramatic presentation as you wind your way up around the hill and begin to see the standing stones with virtually no one else there. I’m filled with awe and wonder at the mystery of it all. It takes your breath away.

At first it’s hard to see a design to the layout but it’s described as cruciform and it’s thought to be over 5,000 years old, the oldest in the UK.

A chambered cairn is at the center with a tight circle of 4.5m standing stones each weighing over 5 tons.

Each stone seems to take on an interesting character of its own. Was it originally chosen for its shape or color? Some seem to look like old twisted wooden tree trunks or thin warped boards. Did the passing centuries of nasty weather imbue each stone with its own character? I’ve seen some pretty amazing looking standing stones and wouldn’t it be a human trait to choose the most interesting? I guess we’ll never know.

Avenues radiate out from the center circle and as you walk through suddenly a whole row of stones will line up seemingly out of nowhere.

You are looking at 50 large standing stones.

These standing stones have been battered by Outer Hebrides wind and storms for over 5,000 years.

Local lore calls the stones “false men” probably due to later Pictish Christian influences that claim if a person refuses to convert to Christianity they turn to stone. I don’t know but it sounds biblical to me.

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Skye to sea

There’s a funny thing that happens to me when a deadline looms. I panic. I resist. The joy of unstructured wandering vanishes and suddenly I have to schedule, make reservations, backtime. Plan. This is not the way the Escapees live. We are plan averse.

The end of our six month tourist visa is coming up and all kinds of decisions have to be made. Should we leave the UK and continue camping in Europe? If so, how long do we need to stay out of the UK before returning to explore Ireland, England and Wales? What do we need to do to our UK van to make it legal on European roads? And so on.

More important than where to go next is the question of what to do about Jack’s deteriorating knee. He’s hiked heroically all over Scotland but it’s clearly getting more and more painful. We know he needs a total knee replacement but where? And when?

The colder weather tipped the knee decision toward returning to tropical Penang and the same doctor and hospital as knee #1. And to do it now and spend the winter months in a warm place. That’s a win-win. The surgeon assured us he’s still available and gave us advice on lead time and recovery to aid in travel planning.

Once the decision was made to fly to Malaysia we suddenly have a deadline and a long to-do list. And where should we go in our remaining few weeks in Scotland?

We assumed early on we would wander the western islands at the same unstructured make-it-up-as-you-go-along pace we normally employ but now we need to prioritize and squeeze what we can into the time we have left. Skye, while beautiful, has the worst roads we’ve driven so far in the UK, and the weather has become particularly sodden and unpleasant. Even the obligatory hike to the Old Man of Storr got crossed off the list when it looked like the fog was in for a long stay. We just managed to get a quick long shot from the deeply rutted road.

We booked the ferry to Harris and Lewis and called it a day, then found a remote parkup that looked like Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, the Māori name for New Zealand. We even had a welcome committee of the ovine ilk.

The weather continued to be wet and gloomy and the crossing was bumpy. Our planned drive around the south end of Harris was nixed because of the driving rain and we found a safe place to park and wait out the weather. It took two days before the rain stopped and we carried on.

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Duntulm Castle

We woke at another stunning Skye parkup featuring this view of Harris and Lewis, which will be our next destination.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when you build a stone castle on a narrow pinnacle overlooking the sea, it’s a strong defensive position but a weak position for durability, especially in this windy and rainy climate. Have I mentioned the wind lately? So after jockeying for a roadside place to park the bus, we assumed, rightly, that Duntulm Castle would be impossibly perched cliffside high over the sea. It wasn’t a long hike but we couldn’t see much of it until we were on top of it.

The castle was built in the 14th and 15th centuries on a former Pictish stronghold that later saw the feuding of the Macdonalds and Macleods. The Macdonalds claimed the upper hand in the 17th century but by 1732 the fortress was abandoned.

The castle was built mainly for defense but you’ve got to have a few luxuries in life. For instance, how could you not put in a picture window with a view like this?

Turns out on the Isle of Skye first you get the rainbow then you get the wind and rain. We were sopping wet by the time we got back to the van.

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Convoy to the Fairies

It’s a blessing and it’s a curse. It makes life easy while making it worse. It’s this handsome bridge to the Isle of Skye. You don’t need a ferry, you just drive on over. Well, you and just about every other RV owner in the UK. We soon found ourselves nuts to butts in a camper van bouncing along Skye’s potholed roads in a conga line winding our way apparently towards the same destination. It’s the Big Enchilada of Skye, kind of like heading south on I-95 in the US and you start seeing signs for “South of the Border” several hundred miles before the actual venue. If you ever headed South with a child in your car it’s safe to say you’ve been there. As a matter of fact, I remember my parents trying to explain the meaning of the term “tourist trap” to a tearful me as we drove on by.

For the Isle of Skye it’s the Fairy Pools. One wonders where they could possibly put all of these RVs. Well, they put them in a massive rough gravel parking lot terraced into a mountain, directed by every teenager in Skye. There’s no indication where the Pools are but this parking lot represents a serious hike just to get out of it.

We could see a mass of fellow thrill seekers gathering a km up a steep grade and we headed towards them. Stopping for a breather we tried to see the fairy pools but the valley before us was so majestic that we figured it must be somewhere over there.

Didn’t enjoy the down bits of the gravely hike but inevitably we started back up the mountain beside the gorge which apparently contained the Fairy Pools.

With little rain lately neither fairies nor pools were much in evidence.

Some of our party were not amused and stubbornly sat down refusing another step while Yours Truly soldiered on until the last dribble of a stream could be seen.

With thoughts of the long hike back and even longer rutted single lane access road, we turned for home.

Back at the main road most of the RVs turned right toward the main town. We turned left, as we do.

Marce found another cracking parkup which was to become a hallmark of the Isle of Skye.

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