Friday, November 1, 2013

Touring tourism in Scotland

Near town of Talbert on Isle of Harris in Scotland

Ah, the English countryside! I know of no American equivalent in lushness, in greenness, in pastoral glory.

The color of the landscape dazzles—a rich, deep, startling green that beckons the sightseer with promises of health, wealth, and fertility. There seems to be an orderly perfection to it all: It's as if these rolling hills have been sculpted, these hedge rows planted, these dark forest islands in seas of bright farm planted with the sole purpose of pleasing the human eye. The grass is so alive and vibrant and verdant that each blade appears to have been babied by an old English gardener in his tweed flat cap, who, in the early hours of the morning, brings out a beaker of lake water, a handful of manure, and a few soft words of encouragement. I grasped a thatch of grass when ascending a steep, shaggy hill, and was astonished to feel that it was as dense and strong and heavy as a mane of hair.

I often dream of Alaska and Africa, and in those dreams my “illustrator within,” for whatever reason, sees fit to make the mammals bigger, the mountains larger, and the jungle darker than they are in real life. These places are ferociously, scarily, but cartoonishly wild—wilder than any region of the earth could ever truly be.

But, in terms of lushness, fertility, greenery—whatever you want to call it—having seen a British countryside, I realize there's no room for imaginary expansion: It is as if a landscape artist's most ecstatic vision of green glory has been transferred to the real, present, three-dimensional earth. Our dreams can do no better.


From Stonehenge, I took the train to Penzance—a touristy sea town on the Cornish coast in southwestern England, admiring, through the train window, the dusk-kissed grounds of Cornwall, darkened with evening shadows that angled from the heights of pine and hardwood forests onto rolling hillocks. Gleaming castles and towering cathedrals would slide into view every half hour or so—just a few of many wonders I felt I was inadequately exploring.

I walked along a coastal walkway, dug a flat spot into the sloping sand beach, and laid out my sleeping pad and sleeping bag just before nightfall. I had much ground to cover—the whole of Britain!—so, the next day, I took the train up to northern England’s "Lake District," which is a protected area, somewhat like an American national park, though in such a "district" farming and habitation are permitted.

The train took me to another touristy town—Windemere—and after a rather miserable day walking in rain and fog, I took the train up to Scotland, to the Isle of Skye on the western coast. As I soared past the tree-barren but moss-covered mountains in the train, I felt I was doing each a dishonor by not properly hiking, photographing, and describing it.

I ended up in a small coastal town called Kyleakin before taking a series of ferries and buses throughout the Hebrides Islands. I was again stunned by the verdure, the shaggy greenery, the irresistible composition of mountains rising up out of quiet ocean coves. But the land was by no means a hidden wonder of the world. The Hebrides, like the rest of Scotland and the British Isles, seemed to be a giant playground for tourists. (Tourism is Britain’s fifth largest industry, creating $184 billion in wealth, and employing 2.6 million people.) Wherever I went there were not only tourists, but a vast tourism infrastructure: buses, trains, ferries, information booths, walking tours, bus tours, boat tours, bike rentals, hiking paths, trail guides, B & B’s, hostels, hotels, pubs, public toilets, public showers, tartan shops, outdoor gear stores, not to mention all the other restaurants, caf├ęs, and shops that exist solely for the traveler. The infrastructure of the town is as shaped for the tourist as the sewers are for the townsmen’s bowels.

These gorgeous, quaint, exquisitely composed towns—the buildings bright with fresh, colorful coatings of paint and shop signs dangling over sidewalks like hanging plants—were definitely picturesque, yet there was something almost too perfect and picturesque about them. Where was the slime, the grime, the poverty? Where were the rusting capsized ships, the sewage treatment plants, the industrial squalor? It was as if Britain has, somewhere far away, some giant rug under which it swept all its eyesores.

It seems like places like Kyleakin wouldn’t exist, or at least exist as they are, if it weren’t for the swarms of tourists that keep the paint fresh, the pubs full, and the jobs plenty. What was Kyleakin? Was it a real town? Or was it more like a cluster of buildings in Disneyworld, a sort of fake-town that exists because of and for tourists? If that’s so, then what exactly are we tourists coming to see? We come to see the charm, the pretty buildings, the authentic Scottish village, but what we’re really seeing is a town whose architecture, population, and character is profoundly affected by tourism. The pubs are full of tourists who came to see real locals, but the locals are there to make a living off the tourists. The mental contortions I had to endure to try to understand this odd dynamic sprained my brain. I realized, finally, what I was touring—I was touring tourism.

But does tourism make a place any less real? Isn’t tourism just one of several industries a town or city or country has? The oil and whiskey industries don’t make a town “fake,” so why should the tourism industry?

I suppose there are many reasons to travel: to learn about the history of a place, to see picturesque scenery, to shop, to become lost in another culture. There are still many ways to enjoy a British journey, but I’d argue that it’s near impossible to enjoy the best of travel when there is no curiosity between the traveler and local. When tourism is everywhere, the locals are no longer curious about the traveler, and the traveler is no longer curious about the local. The local has constantly been exposed to people of other cultures and is thus “globalized” into something more boringly global than uniquely local, and the traveler is more or less a nuisance the locals must tolerate: someone who the locals need (and resent because they need).

Basically, the magic just feels a bit sucked out of the place when tourism’s everywhere. And even an interesting history begins to feel old and dead. It made me wonder if I’d rather be exploring a place that is truly living and breathing, where history does not have to be viewed through the window pane of a sightseeing bus, a ferry, or a museum display, but where history is happening now: a Chinese textile factory, a Middle Eastern War, a decimated Brazilian jungle.  One feels like a pitiful traveler who’s taken the wrong fork in the road when your arrival is expected and your dollars eagerly slipped into the till.

[A crazy idea: Tours of the tourism industry. I will take a van-load of tourists through the city of Edinburgh, London, or wherever and lead tours of the tourism industry, trailing other tourism vans and discussing what they’re discussing. A special tour in a second van will be given of our tour of the tourism industry.]

Curiosity is the key ingredient for a worthwhile encounter between local and traveler. I felt it all the time on my Keystone XL walk: I was walking where no one else walked. The cows, the dogs, and the people were curious about this strange walker, and I was curious about them. The traveler traveling the UK is so common there is no curiosity. The only way, perhaps, to win one’s curiosity might be with the grandiose: a route no one’s ever taken before, bouncing across the country on a pogo stick, walking across the world. The grandiose is a ticket for that precious cultural moment. Pay with grandness and you shall buy curiosity. A bed, food, and conversation will follow.


I landed on the Isle of Harris from a ferry from Skye in a town called Talbert, asked the lady at the tourism office where I might find a bed, and she pointed me down a six-mile “old postman’s route”—a mountain pass route that skirts along the edge of a tranquil ocean cove. The postmen, before there was a road, used to hike this route three times a week to a small village called Rhenigidale, where there was nothing but six homes and a scattering of sheep.

I was alone within the hills on this lonely and wonderfully idyllic path, and I finally felt I’d escaped the reach of the tourism infrastructure. The hostel was a small, white, stucco-walled hut with a coal-fired stove. I spent the evening talking with two Americans, an Englishman, and a Scotsman. In the morning, the owner of the hostel advised that I take the school bus out of town, since there was no other source of public transportation. This struck me as charmingly novel—proof that there are in fact places in Britain that are off the beaten path, where you can hope for some sort of authentic cultural experience. But the kids, I could tell immediately, had no interest or curiosity in me. It was normal for tourists from the hostel to take the school bus, and I was basically invisible. Two teenagers were busy thumbing iPhones. I started a conversation with an 8-year-old girl and she told me she’d watched the Pixar movie Brave the night before. I was in a tiny village on a remote, far-flung island, but everything around me reminded me that I was still very much in the 21st Century.  On the next bus—a normal bus—two Scotsmen sat behind me, and I overheard one say. “The world… It’s getting smaller every day.”

Castle Moil in Kyleakin

Kyleakin, Scotland

The Postman's route from Talbert to Rhenigidale, on the Isle of Harris, Scotland

Hostel in Rhenigidale

I took a train to the Scottish town of Aviemore—another tourist hub—and began a five-day hike across the Highlands. I was following the “East Highland Way,” which is a trail, but nothing like the Appalachian Trail, where there’s essentially one path that leads you from Georgia to Maine. In Britain, the trails are more like a network of trails, logging roads, scenic highways, cow pasture, and farmland. In ways, they’re superior in that they expose the walker to different walkways and, since they often head straight over farmland, a more diverse landscape. The East Highland Way, though, was a bit of a bore, leading me through forests that were hardly forests, as they were more or less ecologically-barren tree factories in which rows of homogenous trees were grown purely for the sake of harvest and consumption. I had a series of topographic maps, so I decided to cut off the trail and take a wilder route, literally over and atop the highlands.

The highland terrain reminded me of the Brooks Range in the Alaskan Arctic. The highlands were spongy, mossy, grassy, and wet, but far more pleasant on the foot, as there were far fewer ankle-twisting tussocks that are ubiquitous in Alaska. I couldn’t believe how wet everything was. It rained on me every day, if just for a bit, and there were little freshets and creeks and rivers literally every fifteen yards apart—I carried no water with me the whole trip; rather, I simply dunked my head into the ground at the slightest hint of thirst. 

The Scottish Highlands, like the Brooks Range, seem like a perfect landscape for a foraging grizzly bear or a pack of wolves, but the biological diversity is actually pretty underwhelming: cows, sheep, deer, some bobcats, some foxes, rabbits. And while, from a passing train, the highlands appear wild, when you’re among them, they don’t feel wild at all. There are trails and logging roads in even some of the most remote parts, and more than a few hikers. I randomly chose a route through the mountains to the town of Fort William, and I’d end up passing several hundred hikers taking a similar route.

But I ought not judge a place—especially a small, resource-scarce island like Britain—for not being sufficiently wild. Human habitation over a small land mass, over tens of thousands of years, will no doubt affect the landscape in dramatic ways, and my American “is it wild or is it civilized?” lens through which I see the world may not be the best way to view every place I come across. Plus, the history of Britain is essentially a royal bloodbath, a convoluted string of wars between kings and clan leaders that any casual reader will want to hang himself with—so perhaps the shepherds and their sheep deserve a break from any fanged animals. Yet, I did miss the wild; I felt I was missing something on my hike: the threat of a charging moose, the glare of a grizzly bear, or even the thrill of illegally trespassing over someone’s property. Rather, there was no immediate threat except for that of getting rained on to death, and certainly no angry property owners.

In Scotland, they have what’s called a “right to roam” in which hikers have the legal right to cross and camp (or “wild camp” as they call it) on public and private property. There’s essentially no such thing as “trespassing” on someone's land, and the “No Trespassing” signs that are littered across the American South are nowhere to be found in Scotland, and are rarely seen in the rest of the British Isles.

The highlands—without the wolves or blue-faced clansman—is essentially a somewhat more demanding stroll through a picturesque garden. But the picturesque, without the jagged edges of the wild, is a dull form of beauty.

This place was just so perfect. The quaint villages. The stable economy. The picturesque mountains. The universal healthcare. The universal education. Now that I found myself in a utopia of sorts, I felt the need for my dear old American dystopia: the shameless consumption, the fracked landscape, the government that, at the time, had mindlessly shut itself down: the America that had long been missing the right half of its brain. At least there’s work to be done there, I thought. I’d rather be among the reformers than the reformed. I don’t know if I'd be able to take this perfection for too long. 

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

This is a bothy. They are abandoned shepherd huts that are maintained for the use of hikers. 

Camping spot on Aviemore to Fort William hike 

Spot the herd of deer?

Another camping spot. This barnhouse helped block the wind.

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William

Scottish Highlands--from Aviemore to Fort William




Thursday, September 19, 2013

Travels to Stonehenge and up the family tree

"It's our yankee family member!" said Margaret, a Scottish relative who I was meeting for the first time.

After Paris, I took the train back up to London and on to Luton, a small community north of the city, where my father's cousin, Scott Ilgunas, lives with his family.

Scott, an Englishman by birth but a Scotsman at heart, had visited my family in Canada when he was a young man. He'd come to visit us just after having a gun put to his ribs and his wallet stolen in NYC, so he lingered with my family longer than he'd expected so as to give himself time to psychologically adjust to the apparently lawless Western Hemisphere. Eager to return the favor, Scott invited me to spend time with him in Luton, where he'd teach me as much as he knew about the Ilgunas family tree.

His mum Margaret and his brother Gordon stopped by to say hello. They were driving up to Scotland, where they were on a mission to get meat from a Scottish butcher among other matters. Margaret struck me as a strong matriarch, with a head full of sense and a tongue that didn't mince words. She told a grandson: "If you don't have a job by the time I come back, I'm going to kick your arse from here to yonder."

Naturally, I was curious to learn about my family roots. Since both sides of my family are relatively recent immigrants to the U.S., I've had little opportunity to learn about my European roots. My Lithuanian heritage ("Ilgunas" is a Lithuanian name) is a great mystery to me. Why did my great-great-great granddad leave his home country for Scotland? What sort of work did Ilgunas's do? Were they religious? Nature-lovers? Athletes? Bookish? On my mother's side, I'd always considered myself Polish, but I didn't learn until recently that my ancestor's hometown is now within the borders of Ukraine. Scott, though, would help me at least gain an understanding of the Scottish side of the family.

(Apparently British people don't pose with their arms around each other. Ken, Margaret, Gordon, Scott, and Gary.)

Scott tells me that knowledge of our family tree goes back to Jouzas Ilgunas, who married a woman named Elzbeta. Jouzas, my great-great-great grandfather, was Lithuanian-born, and came to Scotland sometime in the 1800's for reasons unknown. (Scott hypothetizes it was due to reasons of war.) Once in Scotland, Jouzas and Elzbeta had a son, who they named "Jouzas," who may have went by "Joseph."

Pictured above are Magdelane Kalwinski (1881-1940) and Scottlish-born Juozas (or Joseph) Ilgunas (1877-1942) at their wedding ceremony. Joseph would be my great-great grandfather. Joseph, to my surprise, according to immigration records, came to New York City when he was 21. Scott hypothesizes that he came to make his fortune, but, perhaps due to ill luck, failed and decided to come back to Scotland. Curiously, on the return voyage to Scotland, Juozas listed his age as 16, possibly to get a cheaper fare. (The cheapskate trait still runs strong in the Ilgunas blood, it seems.) He was a coal miner, and they lived in Holytown, near Motherwell, Scotland.
Pictured above are Hugh Holmes Caskie and Annie MacDonald Caskie, parents of great grandma Martha Holmes Caskie Ilgunas. They were from a family of crofters (sheepherders). Annie lived on the Isle of Lewis, born in the town of Stornoway.
Pictured above are great grandpa Joseph Ilgunas (Scottish born 1902-1963) and great grandma Martha Holmes Caskie (1906-1990), who married on June 14, 1924. Joseph was a coal miner. Martha was born on the Isle of Lewis, like her mother Annie. Joseph and Martha's marriage certificate shows that she was a spinster and bakery shop girl. Later, she became a cleaner for a bank, and worked for them for fifty years, into her seventies. "It seems that you need a special kind of woman to become an Ilgunas," said Scott. "Someone who can embrace the 'Ilgunasness.'"
Pictured above are Martha and Joe years later. Martha (1906-1990), Hugh, Great-grandpa Joseph (1902-1963), and Peter Ilgunas (1935-1990)
Picture above are grandma and grandpa Zoladz (born in U.S. of Polish/Ukraine descent); Mother Sistine Ilgunas [nurse] (1950-) and father Ken Ilgunas [factory worker] (1950-); Grandma Rose Anne White Ilgunas [mother of nine] (1925-1974) and Grandpa Joe Ilgunas [ambulence driver] (1925-1987) from Motherwell, Scotland at Mom and Dad's marriage ceremony in New York.
How touching it was to first see the faces of my relatives! In their marriage photos, they were younger than I am today, but when I look upon their youthful faces, I still see them as my elders. They could be pictured as schoolboys, and, if their images could speak, I'd still feel the inclination to call them "grandpa." I delight in observing the physical similarities: the modest height, but proportional build; the high (but not freakishly high!) hairline; the friendly stoicism. I feel a strange draw. They are just pictures, but I want to know them and embrace them as family--a strange sensation, indeed. Is kinship instinctual? Is it our impulse to want to protect, support, and love those with whom we share genes? Or has this idea of "family" been culturally passed down? Perhaps I've unknowingly absorbed our greater culture's tradition to idealize family? Either way, there's an undeniable draw.
Looking at the faces of Juozef, and Joe, and Annie, and Martha, and Margaret, I wonder how my life would have been different if, throughout my adolescence, I'd been surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces. Perhaps it would have been more difficult to live an eccentric life with so many influences, so many voices of reason and sense? Perhaps the sheer weight of all that social pressure would have been enough to squash one's individualistic longings?
The next morning, I took the train to the town of Salisbury. I bought a UK cell phone, a UK to US charger adapter, and a new digital watch. There was a tour bus heading to Stonehenge for twenty pounds, and a hostel in town for twenty-five. That being a price too steep for me, I chose to take a city bus to Amesbury for four pounds and walk the rest of the way to Stonehenge (about three miles one way).
I was getting drenched under yet another English rainstorm, and my views were obscured by mist, and fog, and storm cloud, the rain so consistent and heavy I couldn't even think to take my camera out. I made my way across a trail, and then over a sheep and cow pasture, which signs had directed me to cross. From the distance, I saw the stone pillars of Stonehenge, the fallen crown of the Salisbury Plain. And what a sight it was! Though dilapidated and mostly in ruins, the long history of the stones seemed to make them all the more imposing, their age adding a few extra feet in height, the mysteries, a ghostly gleam.
I'd been walking along "the Avenue," where, thousands of years ago, there was a prehistoric road that led all the way to the stones. Now, the Avenue is just a ridge line through cow and sheep pasture. All around me were King Barrows, a series of grassy mounds where important figures had been buried. To my right was where the Stonehenge Cursus was once positioned, a 1.75-mile, elevated race track-like structure, presumably used for ceremonial processions.
(Depiction of "Avenue")
(Depiction of Cursus)
I got to the stones, but was immediately shooed away by a worker, who told me the place had just closed for the night. I went back to the woods and set up my tent next to a King Barrow. When I got into my tent, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep as soon as I encased myself in my sleeping bag, not bothering to zip up the inner bug net section of my tent. I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that hundreds of spiders and plump potato bugs had moved inside with me to escape the rain and steal my body warmth. I felt like a great giant, crushing swarms of creatures with every thoughtless shift of my body. Owls hooted all night long, and, in the morning, I awoke to the gentle footsteps of a small flock of sheep browsing for fresh greens around my tent.
I'd fantasized about jumping the fence and stealing some sunset shots of Stonehenge, but my morning would be occupied with the task of drying out my sodden clothes, as I've learned to savor every bit of sunlight I get in England. Once my clothes had dried, I made my way back across the fields to Stonehenge, where there were hundreds of visitors who'd been brought in by a cavalcade of tour buses, many of whom were college and high school-age girls who'd pose for pictures in front of the stones every ten steps, sometimes pretending the stones were erections thrusting out of their arched abdomens.
I was mesmerized by the stones, but disappointed with England's management of the area. For one, the A303 highway runs alongside the stones (maybe about 400 yards away), so the buzz of heavy traffic is always within earshot, which I deem a crime of the highest order and an unbelievable desecration of our human heritage. (To their credit, they just closed the A344, which was, bafflingly, just a few feet from the stones.) Also, there's a mammoth parking lot not far off, which, in addition to the road, are the two unforgivable manmade features that corrupt an otherwise serene vista.
For thousands of years, the men and women and children who visited Stonehenge had to walk to get there. Why not move the parking lot a few miles away, rebuild the Avenue and Cursus using primitive tools, and require that visitors follow that ancient path, which will make the area more beautiful, the occassion more solemn, and the visit less a tourist destination and more a pilgrimage? Perhaps a good walk will give visitors time to contemplate the incredible task of moving the stones up this path, and consider the countless pilgrims who'd come here before to scatter ashes, bury their dead, pray to the gods, or simply meet up with long lost friends and family members--and maybe the journey will put us in a frame of mind to do something other than pretend the stones are gargantuan erections.
It is engrossing to think about this place. It's construction began some 5,000 years ago, and had been re-imagined and enhanced for thousands of years thereafter. Many of the stones are from Wales, and there are others from the relatively nearby Marlborough Downs, 25 miles from Stonehenge. The stones themselves are more complex than rectangular slabs. They'd been sculpted into their rectangular shape, and designed with mortise and tenon joints to strengthen the structure. The remains of mainland Europeans have been discovered, as has livestock from the Highlands, suggesting that Stonehenge was known far and wide. The stones, themselves, are positioned to be geometrically and astronomically precise, with the sun rising over certain stones at the summer and winter solstice.
I suppose I'm just impressed that they put so much effort into something so unnecessary. They could have used their spare time to loaf or engage in pointless tribal wars, but, instead, they chose to build something that would dazzle mankind for millenia. How did they "buy" the stones from Wales? Was there a trade, a payment, or was it a society's labor of love? Were the laborers slaves, or compensated in some way? Is Stonehenge a community's creation, or a few monomaniacs' wild visions?

Life must have been fairly comfortable to be able to devote so much time and resources to an inessential project. I would have thought that people at such a far-flung place 4,000 years ago would still be living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence, but clearly they must have been well-provisioned with food to sustain a labor force of builders, movers, and sculptors. Add in their impressive logistics, transport, surveying, and astronomical knowledge, and those who built it were part of a truly impressive culture, indeed. It likely would have been an event of a lifetime for a highlander to set his eyes on the stones, yet today, it's no more than a photo op and an afternoon diversion. Currently, plans are in the works to move the parking lot and build a visitor center, but English Heritage reports that there will be a "transit system" from there to the stones. It's the ulimate irony that all we have to do is pay a fee and sit on our kesiter to view one of the most incredible feats of human strength and ingenuity.

In the early afternoon, I walked back to the bus station, then got on a train for Penzance, on the Cornish coast in Southwestern England, before taking off north to the Lake District, then Scotland.

(Camping spot with King Barrow nearby.)
(Sunset view from tent.)
(Sheep pasture near Stonehenge.)
(Trail to Stonehenge.)
(The Nile Clumps on the walk to Stonehenge. These trees -- many of which are beech -- commemorate the Battle of the Nile, when Admiral Nelson, in the early 1800's, dominated a French fleet. At one point, there were 26 ships represented, but now there are seventeen.)
(While taking this picture, a lady, ambling by, exclaimed, "Penzance is just delicious!")

(Sleeping on the beach. In the dark, several people walked past me. One guy was singing "You've Lost that Loving Feeling." A young many sobbed on the phone, exclaiming, "How did that happen!? She just left me!" Another couple giggled, holding hands.)