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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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91109, Pasadena

wind

Wind-blown schmutz turned the sky a woolly gray color.

Dear ——–,

When L.A. has weather, it has WEATHER. The winds on Tuesday and Wednesday ripped fronds off palm trees and whipped up the ash coating recently burned hillsides in La Canada. Just as I was about to leave work, an announcement came over the loudspeaker warning about the fierce gusts outside. The wind even threw open a door to my office building. When I walked out to my car, the schmutz in the air made my eyes water and my throat itch. It was just another reminder that while Los Angeles seems mild-mannered, it has a savage temper. When I worked at the L.A. Times, I couldn’t believe we wrote so many weather stories. I grew up in New Jersey, so rain, snow and thunder were a fact of life, a limiting factor. But I guess Angelenos so rarely feel limited by the hand of Nature (let’s create a city in the desert!) that these kinds of things really are news.


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AB35 5YJ, Braemar

Wedding reception at Mar Lodge

Wedding reception at Mar Lodge

Dear ——–,

One of the guys giving a toast referred to the reception hall as “Bambi’s worst nightmare.” The hundreds of stag heads on the walls and ceiling were pretty awe-inspiring. It felt as if we should be raising chalices of mead to Beowulf or something. We came to Braemar to see Mary-Frances and Hamish finally tie the knot, 20 years after they first met. A bagpiper greeted us in front of the lovely stone church and we saw many a kilt filling the pews. Buses whisked us off to Mar Lodge for the party. Many ladies were wearing chiffon dresses, so I was worried that my head-to-toe woollen outfit didn’t look formal enough. Thank God I prepared for the cold because the reception hall had the insulation of a barn. I think it was barely 50 degrees inside. After dinner — which included Stornoway black pudding, which others informed me was the “nicest” black pudding in Scotland — the fiddle band set up and the ceilidh started. The band leader called out some of the moves, but it became clear that ceilidhs weren’t about rhythm or technical skill. All you needed was raucous enthusiasm!


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AB35 5YL, Braemar

A walk in the Cairngorms

A walk to Loch Calleter

Dear ——–,

Although it was drizzling, Bryan was very keen to play golf in the country of its birth. In the morning quiet, we walked to the Braemar Golf Club, whose claim to fame is that it is the highest 18-hole course in Britain (elevation: 1,200 feet). Surrounded by the Cairngorms, I watched the game under an umbrella and lifted up the red flags in the holes. I enjoyed it for about 8 holes, when I started feeling a little too cold. We also had to hurry back for a group hike with Mary-Frances the day before her wedding. Nine of us strolled through the hills to a bothy, which I learned was an empty cottage that anyone could use. As we sipped champagne by Loch Calleter, a man showed up in a Land Rover with a rope tied around his waist. Mary-Frances asked what he was doing here. “Stalking,” he replied. It took me a second to realize he was talking about hunting. He pointed up the hill, where the stag he killed was coming down on the back of a white pony.


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IV30 8SJ, Elgin

Stewart, in the warehouse where Ben Riach's whiskeys are aged

Stewart, in the warehouse where BenRiach's whiskeys are aged

Dear ——–,

Bryan really wanted to visit a Scotch whiskey distillery; I was just going along. But it turned out to be totally fascinating. Leah (she of the aviation cocktail post) hooked us up with a private tour of the BenRiach Distillery, near the town of Elgin. Bryan prefers the cleaner Speyside malts, rather than the salty, smoky, peaty whiskeys of the western islands. Stewart at BenRiach obligingly took us around, dipping buckets into mash tuns to let us taste the warm barley fermenting in sugar water and showing us the copper stills where the alcohol is evaporated and condensed again. (Apparently, the copper leaches out some of the toxins in the fermented barley mixture. That made me think of the copper bracelets that some people wear. Same effect?) He even took us to the warehouse where they’re experimenting with aging the whiskey in a variety of barrels that used to hold other alcohols (madeira, port, Jack Daniels, etc.). He popped open the cork on an old bourbon barrel, drew us a dram of well-aged scotch and offered us a taste in a wee glass. Very smooth. Even I thought it was delicious.


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IV63 6SJ, Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness

Dear ——–,

No, we didn’t see the Loch Ness Monster. But we did get to an unrestored, ruined castle: Urquhart Castle. It changed hands many times through its several-hundred-year history and English soldiers finally firebombed it to pieces in 1692 so it couldn’t be used by the Jacobites (loyal to the Scottish king James VII). I liked imagining what it would be like to live in a bedroom in the tower overlooking Loch Ness and what it would be like to bake in the stone oven. This was so much better than listening to the recorded sizzling and clanking sounds piped into the kitchen of Eilean Donan Castle. We arrived at Urquhart (pronounced ERK-ert) right after it opened, so we had the castle almost to ourselves for an hour. Then the swarm began, with sounds of Mandarin, Italian and some Eastern European language echoing through the stone corridors. Sometimes it was hard to get up the spiral stairs because tourists carrying enormous backpacks were blocking the narrow path. Touring Scotland = touring castles, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. At least we limited ourselves to only two castle visits.


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IV51 9LA, Isle of Skye

The Quiraing rock formation and Staffin Bay

The Quiraing rock formation and Staffin Bay

Dear ——–,

Our amble through the Quiraing in the northwestern Skye gave us the most spectacular views of the entire trip. We passed rock formations with names like the Prison, the Needle and the Table. We had a great time making our way over rolling, emerald hills and scrambling over scree (a new word we learned when a fellow hiker warned us about the fragments of shattered rocks covering a slope). The wind was stiff, but the sun came out for a few hours. Everything sparkled. By the time the sun resumed its regular position behind clouds, we had driven past many crofts and started browsing stores in Portree. “That’ll probably be the last sun I see for the rest of the year,” sighed one of the shop girls. (How sad — but another sign we were a long way from Los Angeles!) We drove to Inverness that evening and warmed ourselves up with the most delicious version of minestrone soup I’ve ever had (butternut squash, green beans, peas, finished with a spinach and basil pesto) at Rocpool, overlooking the River Ness.


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IV55 8WY, Isle of Skye

Sunset, at the jetty a short walk from our guest house

Sunset, at the jetty a short walk from our guest house

Dear ——–,

We’re definitely into the highlight reel now. Sunsets and sunrises are cinematic here, though the sky strangely turns gray for much of the main part of the day. We had an amazing view of Loch Pooltiel and purple-colored islands in the distance from the dining room of Carters Rest guest house, our home base on the Isle of Skye. The proprietors Betty and Freddie — possibly the nicest people in the universe — cooked up chicken soup, a succulent pork chop and bread and butter pudding for about $25 a person. After dinner, we took a walk down to the jetty and marveled at the amazing view that the grazing sheep get to enjoy every day. One of the other couples in the guest house had just gotten engaged at the lighthouse nearby. I could see why. Everything was perfect right then — dramatic lighting, a strong wind, and silence all around.