The Peak is not the Point

As I lay  beneath the bed covers, the morning sun peeking between the drapes, I had a recurring thought.

I need to have an Irish coffee.

I’ve never tried an Irish coffee, I don’t even drink coffee normally. But  if I failed, something massive and wholly abstract would be thrown out of cosmological alignment, leaving my existence in utter disrepair. So, after a shower and a light breakfast, I walked up the street to the pub Kilderkin.

The place is exactly what a Scottish pub should be. It’s small and dimly lit, sells cask ales, has live folk music, always two or three old men sitting at the bar, and attracts locals with the occasional tourist.

The scene that followed was something out of a Clint Eastwood Western, or at least that’s what it felt like to me. I approached the bar wearing a dusty white shirt and worn cargos. I hadn’t shaved in a week, and my beard looked messy. One of the bartenders, an older looking gentleman with a bald head and a creased face, approached me from the other end of the bar. I felt he could sense I was there on a mission.

“Can you make an Irish coffee?” I asked.

He narrowed his eyes and nodded his head, “Oh yeah.”

“I’ll take it.”

“Five pounds forty.”

I slapped the money onto the bar.

He picked up the notes and coins and counted them carefully. “Take a seat. It’ll be right out.”

He brought the coffee to my table. The drink was tall, chocolate brown with a dollop of fresh cream on top. I ate half the cream with a spoon then stirred in the rest. The first drink was sweet and the whisky bit nice. Soon I was halfway, feeling the booze buzzing in my head. My body felt tense but alive, and my heart pulsed quickly. The final sip was bitter, left a strange but fulfilling taste at the back of my mouth.

Then it was time to climb the mountain.

The mountain in the center of Edinburgh, also known as “Arthur’s Seat,” used to be a volcano. Over thousands of years the land mass was eroded by a glacier, gradually shaping it into a large, craggy mountain.  Today, Arthur’s Seat functions as a public park. So, while climbing it is a difficult and interesting thing to do, it’s done rather often around here.

It took me over an hour. I hauled myself over boulders and waded through fields of tall, sharp grass. My body felt strained and tired, but my mind was electric, and when I finally reached the top, I gratefully sat down on a cliffside and took out my ukulele. I strummed quietly to myself while looking out over the city, the countryside, and the ocean. Gray clouds shifted and collapsed and became new again. I heard a marching band playing in the distance, some vaguely recognizable tune.

There were a lot of people on the mountain, and that ruined it for me! I wanted to sit by myself and pluck a solemn tune, and bunch of people are around, taking pictures, looking over at me and whispering to each other about my “small guitar.” Just leave me and my caffeine alcohol buzz alone!

So I left earlier than expected. I walked another hour down broken rocky paths and flat grassy clearings, and eventually arrived home to my apartment. Finally, I thought, I can be away from people again. But who did I find in my kitchen but two forty-year old Spanish women and their two teenage kids, cooking pasta, tossing salad, making themselves at home.  

I enter the kitchen panting, sweaty, dusty, dehydrated, and there’s a moment where I look at them and they look at me and nobody says anything.

“Who are you?” I ask bluntly.

One of the older women answers. “Ay hello, I am Laura’s friend,” (Laura’s the woman from whom I sublet the apartment),”she has let us stay here for a few days.”

“You’re staying here?”

“Yes, a few days, in the living room. I hope you do not mind that we use your kitchen?”

“Oh…no, it’s fine.” The water started boiling in the pot on the stove. “You know, Laura never mentioned this to me before she left.”

“Ay, I am sorry.” She grabbed my hand. “This must be then a surprise to you,” she smiled, revealing crooked teeth.

I could have protested. I could have called Laura and told her to make these interlopers leave! But instead, I said, “No no, it’s not a problem.”

And in reality, I was sort of warming up to the idea. I mean, who were these people anyway? I liked the suddenness of their entrance into my life. I wished them a good lunch and returned to my bedroom to write.

I can’t say I can think of some higher meaning to all of this. I guess I found it to be a lighthearted expression of the unpredictability of life while traveling. You can feel so certain about needing to accomplish something, like drinking an Irish coffee or climbing a mountain, but be utterly unprepared for the reality that awaits you when you reach your goal, like the number of people on top of that mountain or two random Spanish ladies making lunch in your kitchen.

But traveling wouldn’t be worth it if there wasn’t this polarized imbalance between what must be done and the unpredictable. Otherwise we’d be able to foresee the outcome of our days, weeks, and months before they even happen. That’s not the life I want to live. Sometimes I want life to push back. To throw my expectations for reality out the window, and place me into a situation I wasn’t expecting. There’s a joy in that somewhere, and I think it lies in the inability to see it coming.

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