Monday, September 12, 2011

Going to the Places that Scare Me

On Tuesday (tomorrow!) I start volunteering in Penn Vet's Emergency Service (ES) department. Orientation was last Thursday. I've been anxious about doing this. I'm excited about being in a hospital environment and learning about how medicine works in practice (especially at a preeminent institution), but I'm worried about how I will react to seeing suffering, both of the animals and of their people. On the day of the orientation I was feeling a sense of peace (I think my subconscious has been working through the conflict). I believe I can see this as exposure therapy: a way to go to a place that scares me and learn, eventually, that the place is not as scary as I believe it to be. Besides, I want to be there for the animals; if that's hard for me to do, so be it.

I admit I was slightly shocked when we were told "If you're in ES, the first thing you do when you come in is check for dead bodies. It's okay, they're already bagged and tagged; you just need to take them where they need to go." Dead bodies? How can I not pick up those vessels without wondering what suffering brought them to this point? Did they have a good life? And who had to go back home to an empty house with an irreparably broken heart?

After considering this part of the job, I decided I would be okay with it. Animals die; that's something I'll be close to when I'm in this hospital. After all, I don't have to look at their faces or their damaged bodies; they'll be bagged and tagged. That was my rationalization until the volunteer coordinator opened the door of the cooler where the dead animals are kept and I saw the shelves holding the black bags. That made a rock drop into my belly, taking my wind away.

We volunteers have an out. If we ever feel uncomfortable, we can leave the room. I've already decided that that won't be me. Even though I'm scared. Even though I probably will feel like I want to leave the room. It's important for me to stay.

We only saw a few animals during our orientation. On the 3rd floor of the hospital is the IV fluid ward. That's where lovely Zose spent a night in January 2010, two months before she died. I looked in and saw a couple dogs, and a cute kitty looked back at me. She seemed small, but bright, healthy. I hoped she's not a terminal kidney patient like so many of the IV fluid patients are (and Zose was).

Serendipitously, my preparation for working at Penn Vet is the culmination of challenging work I have done this summer: participating in a weekend workshop with Pema Chodron at Omega and immersing myself in meditation practice; nine credits of Thanatology courses at Hood College. My understanding of myself and my capacity for compassion has grown. I am ready and willing to face my fears and be available to provide the furry patients with lovingkindness, to take in their fear and pain and anxiety and send them calm and compassion.

Not surprisingly, the IV fluid ward is on the same hall as the rooms for the feline kidney transplant patients and the feline kidney transplant donors. One is across the hall from the other. No transplant patients are in residence right now, but I looked in the donor room and saw two black cats lying casually on a round pet bed on the floor. These cats are waiting to become a match for a cat who is in acute kidney failure, is deemed a good candidate for transplant, and has a caretaker willing to spend the upwards of $5000 that a transplant requires. After transplantation the kidney donor cat goes home with its donee. It doesn't seem like much of a life for them to be confined to a small room with no windows. But they really didn't seem very bothered. As I consistently find, and try to remind myself, these creatures are often far more resilient than I give them credit for.

The hospital is quiet after 6pm. All of the scheduled appointments are over for the day: the staff of the dentistry and opthamology departments (and other non-emergent services) have gone home. The staff that I did see moved about the building with a friendly confidence. I wondered if I could have been one of them if I had made different career choices in my youth. (I am older than most, if not all, of the other volunteers.) Moving through the hospital, I felt I was where I was supposed to be. I have felt this way before: lurking around observatories, especially old ones (Nantucket, Wellesley, Edinburgh). Now I am in a new chapter, with my eyes and my heart open to the beings proximate to me rather than to the intangible bodies far above and far away.

There are many things about this experience that I anticipate will be difficult for me, and likely many other things that I cannot yet imagine that will challenge me. But this is where my courage will grow. I will lean into the fear and the discomfort. I will be a presence of calm for the people and animals who are having one of their worst days. I will not leave the room.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Iceland on $500 a Day

[This post was written on 12 January 2010.]

We got a slow start today. From all the research last night we were ready to be gung-ho this morning, but I just couldn't fall asleep when it was time to be doing that.

I had hoped to get up at 8am, but I probably didn't fall asleep until around 6am, so, consequently, I didn't get up until noon. And if it wasn't for Robin's prodding it wouldn't have even been then. Though, to be sure, it's silly to sleep through the daylight since there is so little of it.

The first errand was to find the shop with all the maps; my Insight Guide gave the address for the office of the Iceland Geodetic Survey. However, my Insight Guide is from 2000, so when we arrived at the address we found the office no longer there. We did find a helpful person inside whatever organization is now using the space at that address. I don't know what the office was; there was a rack of postcards on the reception desk, but there was no sign or anything identifying what the business was, so I don't think it was a place for the public. In any case, this helpful person gave us the address for an academic-type shop that had loads of maps and just what we needed. We got a nice map of the Reykjanes peninsula, and a road atlas of the country. All together, about $50, which I thought was very reasonable considering our experiences with the knitting book and the dictionaries.

The walk to get the maps was windy and far, but we got to see the striking mountainous scenery across the bay. Since we'd only been out in the dark so far, we hadn't seen this yet.

We did a little grocery shopping to get a few more items for our larder, including some milk to replace what we mistakenly thought was milk when we were shopping yesterday, but turned out to be a carton of yogurt. You'd think that mjolk would be milk (the label on the yogurt carton), but no, milk is clearly marked "Muu." Silly me.

Next we went to the Tourist Information Center where we learned that there's no easy way to get to the Blue Lagoon other than an extortionately priced coach ride. And the admission to the Lagoon itself has become extortionate: nearly $40. I remember it being something like $12 or $15 when I was last here, in 2001. Now that Conde Nast Traveller has been singing its praises the Blue Lagoon can apparently charge virtually whatever they want. What other reason to travel to Iceland than to bathe in the runoff from a geothermal power plant? (Okay, to be fair, it's a pool of interesting silt and minerals that is heated by the runoff from a geothermal power plant...)

In any case, the costs involved caused me to think that perhaps a car rental would be better. Frankly, I hate being without a car. I love the freedom of going where I want when I want, not having to wait for someone to pick me up, to keep checking my watch to make sure I am on schedule. The cost for a car is high though. I sent my sister Jess a text to look up the cost on Travelocity since I thought it would be cheaper to book from home. $76 per day for two days, $204 total. (This compared to renting a car in Scotland last year which cost about $200 for two weeks.)

We also went to the handknitter's shop (see Handknitting Association of Iceland). They still have the nice style Nordic sweaters similar to what I bought when I was last here for about $100 and other more bulky knits for about three times that. Perhaps the ones I like are not handknit? They also have some yarn for sale, but it was hard to get to in the shop as it's near the stock area. They have some pattern books, but I didn't see anything terribly inspiring. I bought some Icelandic (probably machine-knitted, but reasonably priced) mittens for our friend Brandi, the vet tech who is helping out with Zose (my kitty with chronic renal failure) while I am away. The woman on line in front of me bought a small ball of yarn for the equivalent of about $3. My eyes were surprised to see such a low price. I would love to find a nice Icelandic pattern and the wool to make it with. There are other shops. The search is not yet over.

The best turn of the day came when we were leaving the house to try to find the thermal beach we saw on the map yesterday. Hlin was outside and she was telling Robin about her cats. She told a familiar story of families moving away, leaving their cats, and she takes them in, or at least looks after them. There's one ginger tom (a doppelganger for my Little Ginge) who is incompatible with her indoor cat, so he lives in a shelter that her husband built for him. Hlin also has a parakeet that was brought in (alive) by one of the cats. She invited us in to meet the parakeet and in the course of conversation asked us how things were going and how our plans for the week were shaping up. We expressed our desire to find a car and right away she was on the computer looking at local rental agencies. The first one she looked at was more expensive than what Jess found, but Budget turned out to be cheaper. They don't allow you to reserve online less than 24 hours in advance so Hlin picked up the phone right away to call them to inquire. They have a good rate (for here, anyway): the equivalent of about $200 for three days.

So now, with our car, our plan for tomorrow is to head to the Reykjanes peninsula which (I hear) has lots of lava beds, hot springs, and other geo-interesting things to see. And some lighthouses. Hlin's husband Sigi had a look at our map and gave us a very useful overview.

Hlin and I talked about how expensive entry to the Blue Lagoon now is. She seemed slightly surprised that I also felt it was expensive. I have the feeling she thinks the rest of us (in the world? in the US?) are much better off than the Icelanders, and that spending close to $40 to sit in a thermal pool is small money. Frankly I was encouraged by her reaction. I was starting to feel that maybe the Icelanders weren't bothered by these price tags.

We have not had a meal out yet and have been quite satisfied with our diet of bread, cheese, tea, yogurt, toast with jam, and juice. Today we even had some meat: salami with cheese and crackers (for me) and bread (for Robin). Yesterday we found ourselves hungry often; probably from our adjustment to the time and place. But we don't seem to eat more than a snack at a sitting. Maybe it's the good Icelandic air?

I read tonight that the cold water here comes from springs, and the hot water comes naturally heated from geothermal sources (and that's why it smells like sulfur; after lunch today Robin had a good laugh making farting sounds while he was doing the washing up to pretend that he was making the smells rather than the hot water. Ha ha). So no energy is needed to make the hot water, and most electricity is generated by harnessing the geothermal energy, making transportation the primary source of pollution.

Later in the day (that is, when it was more or less dark) we had a nice six-mile hike (as tracked on my Garmin wrist GPS) to the "Dome", a funny, yes, dome-shaped building that houses a revolving restaurant at its top, then to the thermal beach which was unfortunately closed, then a walk along the path that follows the coastline before heading back home. It was a nice walk but I am not struck by Reykjavik. It's hard for me to remember my exact impressions from when I was here eight years ago. There is something about it that seems unsettled, as if it is trying to be a modern European city, but it's not sure how to go about it. Even though it is nice to walk along the coast, there were several areas of detritus (presumably from the business of the Reykjavik Airport which we walked around) and some derelict huts of unknown (current or former) function. Even on our walk to get the maps, once we got past the swanky shopping area that is clearly dressed up for the tourists, the buildings look much more utilitarian (that is to say, ugly), the roads are busy and the ambiance is far from charming. Robin said yesterday that he didn't care so much for Iceland and wouldn't want to live here; he much prefers Scotland. I challenged him, citing that we had hardly been here long enough to make an informed comparison, but for now I have to agree with him. I think that the next few days will tell. We will be getting out of the city and exploring the countryside to the south, north, and east.

We still haven't seen any aurora. Perhaps tomorrow we will stay away from the city until after dark (and hopefully it will be clear!) and we will have a better opportunity. If nothing else, it would be nice to have a clearer view of the night sky than we get at home.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrival in Reykjavik, First Impressions

[This is my entry from 11 January 2010.]

The flight was awful. I don't know if it was because I wasn't in a flying frame of mind (whatever that is) or that it really was just awful, but we were so uncomfortable most of the time. There are worse things that can happen on flights, to be sure, but this one was awful because it was so cramped, and hot, and dry. It was like being in a sauna. The two small children (one yabbering, a younger one screaming and carrying on most the time) didn't help, and Robin's incredibly frequent coughing and throat-clearing left over from his Christmas flu also did nothing to help me as I tried to get some sleep.

As an extra bonus, on arrival at Keflavik airport, you get to go through the security rigamarole all over again. This is because, once you arrive in the airport you "mix" with all the people who have already cleared security. So even if you're staying in the country, I guess just in case you change your mind and hop on another plane, you must be cleared through security: take off your shoes again, take your computer out of its bag again, put your liquids in a separate container again, and have a friendly pat-down by the security guard AGAIN. Thankfully the line moved pretty quickly, but the inanity of this exercise is striking. [rant]Do they ever stop anyone dangerous this way? Has a terrorist attack ever been prevented through these checks? If a guy can still get on a plane with a bomb in his pants, I know it's an obvious question, but what is the point of these "security" checks?[/rant]

In fact, a minor note: I usually bring an empty water bottle with me into the terminal, and once through security I fill it up at a water fountain in the terminal (this useful tip given to me by my good friend Cathy Andrulis). When at JFK, after passing through security, I went to retrieve the bottle from my hand luggage, and I realized that the bottle was not at all empty and had about 10 oz of water in it. Maybe they're not as careful if you're leaving the country?

In any case, our minds dulled from the time spent in the Sauna in the Sky and a general lack of sleep, we had a pretty hard time making our way out of the airport. As if something in the air sapped our intelligence we wandered around a very quiet terminal and it took some amount of effort to even find the luggage carousel (when we finally did, it was only our bags sadly traveling round and round on the belt).

We took a very expensive coach trip (about $35 for both for a 40 minute ride) to get from Keflavik Airport to the bus depot in Reykjavik. We walked to our apartment, at Forsaela, from there.

The apartment is adorable. It is lovingly maintained and has a lovely entrance done with lights on the tree outside and in the garland decorating the window boxes. My heart warmed as soon as I saw it. As I walked past the kitchen windows with their pretty lights, I thought, how lovely if that was to be our kitchen. And it is! As with our wonderful cottage on Islay, I feel lucky to stay in such a lovely place. Two views are below:

Our hostess, Hlin, is very personable and has offered to help with any extra arrangements for tours, etc., that we may want to make. She instructed us that we must leave our shoes on the rack in the entryway outside the door to our apartment and don the slippers she has provided when inside.

Many people still have their Christmas lights and decorations up. It is fun to see how others in the world decorate for the holidays. Not that it's much different, but there are some cute departures: Santa in Iceland has a more Scandinavian physique (read, skinny) and a less full beard.

I had a lovely nap after we settled into the apartment; I had some of the best sleep I think I've had in weeks. Unfortunately, I slept through almost all the daylight, of which there was very little. When we got on the bus from the airport at around 8:30am and were walking to the apartment at around 9am it was dark as night. The streets weren't even busy and it was a Monday morning. Many shops open at 11am (sunrise is at around 11:30am). What do people do for work here? Why wasn't there rush-hour congestion?

Also, why are the houses covered in corrugated sheet metal? It's generally not very attractive (unless painted a lovely cornflower blue, like our apartment house) but perhaps it's long-wearing? Good for keeping out the elements?

Robin's first comment on starting out from the bus depot was "Iceland smells like farts." I thought the smell was from the sea; the smell seemed similar to the kelpy, salt-watery smell common to the seaside, but no, he's right, it smells like farts. The hot water smells like sulfur. Turning on the tap in the apartment, it's a bit strange to smell the "eau de sulfur."

After napping, we walked around the shopping district some. We bought some groceries; the grocery store was pretty rudimentary by our standards, even by those of the Scottish Co-op in Bowmore on Islay. The store here is called Bonus; their logo is a cartoon fat pig with money popping out of his spine. I find it unpleasant; he looks crafty to me. Here's a screenshot from their website:

I like that their refrigerated food section is an actual refrigerated room that you walk into: kind of the inverse of what we have at home. Neither of us is in the mood for elaborate meals, so we bought some basic staples: yogurt (Icelanders love their yogurt), bread, cheese, pasta, and what we thought was milk, but turned out to be a carton of yogurt. Robin tried to make the best of it by putting it in his tea, but that turned out to be a bad idea. Thankfully there was at least some powdered creamer left by a previous resident.

We walked around the main shopping district where there are lots of swanky boutiques; no sign of a collapsed economy here. We went into a couple bookstores to try to find an English-Icelandic dictionary; I thought this might be useful for signs and labels (everyone here speaks at least passable English). Even the teeny-tiny one we found cost the equivalent of about $30 (something that would cost about 6 USD). The exchange rate is currently about 120 Icelandic Krona (ISK) to the US dollar (compared to around 85 ISK when I was last here in the summer of 2001). I saw a beautiful knitting book, on sale for 15,900 ISK (about 132 USD). I couldn't believe the price could be so high. Surely it must be 1,590 ISK? Who would spend so much on a knitting book? The high prices are discouraging to me. I was expecting things to be priced more reasonably than this.

Of amusement: we passed a (closed) sex shop while walking through town. Their URL is included on their shingle: Cute.

We've been seeing lots of cats around. Since I am a cat magnet I guess this shouldn't surprise me. We've already seen three or four, including one who said hello as we were walking from the bus depot (what better welcome than one from a cat?). They all seem very tame and friendly and have collars with tags. It's heartening to see that people here seem good about keeping up with their animals.

Tonight we took a walk to the harbor area where we thought it might be darker to try to look for aurora. It was a bit overcast though. No aurora to be found.

We spent the rest of our time today at the kitchen table poring over our guidebooks, brochures, and maps, most of which we picked up at the airport and bus depot, trying to work out what to do and where to go (the picture below shows the spread). It's hard to work through all this! The maps are hard to follow and the brochures don't give a lot of practical information; for example, how to take the bus to the Blue Lagoon. This and the extortionate book prices we encountered earlier are making my head spin. Thankfully we have an adorable apartment and lots of cats to meet.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Last Day

[Written 5 June.]

If I didn't have my furry monsters to go home to I'd want to stay here much longer. The weather has been absolutely terrific this week. Again today we woke to sunny skies. It's getting colder, but I don't mind about that. It's the grey skies that bother me.

Today turned out to be more of a pajama day (that is, one where you don't do much, and more or less spend the day in your pajamas). We woke up late and I had one of those headaches where my eye felt like it wanted to force itself out of its socket. After some pills and a nap we took a walk to Brigend so I could post a letter. When we got back we started, ugh, packing. I'm going to hate leaving my charming cottage! (Here's a view of the rhododendron and trees just outside and to the left of the cottage entrance.)

After another nap and some dinner (during which we had a caller whom Robin dealt with -- apparently the young man was inquiring after a Miss something-or-other who is apparently one of the Queen's ladies in waiting. The gentleman said that she always stays here when she's on holiday) we took another glorious sunset walk. I wanted to go back towards the hill that we climbed the other night. The map shows that nearby are remnants of an old village: forts, "burnt mounds," and hut circles. I thought it would be fun to try to find these things. We walked through a lot of farm land, were told where to go by countless cows and opened and shut several
gates. (Below is a picture from our route that passed near Knockdon Farm.)

It was not clear which path led to the ruins and one went through a meadow where some intimidating cows were. We could skip it, I thought. By this time we could see the Loch Indaal (really a bay) and Bowmore. I decided I wanted to walk along the coast. So we left the search for ruins behind and walked to the road. We soon found ourselves on the same road where we saw the swans the other day. Tonight there were other water fowl there, as well as many sheep on the beach. As the sun sank lower the hills to the east were coloured pink and the puffy clouds made for a very pleasing view on this our last night on Islay.

Tomorrow we leave the island at around 2pm and head back to Glasgow from there; to fly home Sunday morning. As much as I hate to leave, I am so pleased to have had such a wonderful trip. I will savour these memories for a long time to come.

Shifting Focus

[Written 4 June]

I think we've arrived at the point in the trip when our minds are starting to drift back to home. Today is Thursday; tomorrow will be our last full day on Islay. It will be sad to go. I'll miss sitting in the sun on the bench outside, the blue skies that we've been so lucky to have while we've been here, the people who wave from their steering wheel as we pass each other on the road. We've been joking all week about what sort of enterprise we could start up here so that we could sustain ourselves. Today I hooked on the Islay Cat Sanctuary and Astronomical Observatory (ICSAO). What fun to combine those two loves into something I could do full time. I always thought I might want to spend my sunset years as director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket. Starting a new venture of my own here would be far better.

Our energy was pretty low today. Maybe because we've been keeping our days pretty full and we needed a break and/or maybe because we're starting to feel the pull of home and it's getting us a little down. We talked at dinner tonight about how work feels like it's another world away. Robin can't believe he's thought of it so little.

We didn't get out of the cottage today until about 2pm. We started by going north few miles to Port Askaig. This is a ferry port that serves Jura and the mainland. We want to go to Jura tomorrow (it's only a 5-minute crossing, and there is a distillery there) and we wanted to look into booking. But there is no ticket office. It turns out that getting to Jura works in much the same way as I found when I was traveling through the islands of Shetland: show up at the dock and drive on when the boat comes in. I suspect we'll also have the guy coming round to the car windows with his mobile till to collect payment. Have I said this before? I love how simple life here can be.

We booked ourselves for a 15.15 tour at Bunnahabhain Distillery. Since we didn't have much to do in Port Askaig we had some time on our hands once we got to Bunnahabhain. The day was clear and bright, but quite a bit cooler today, especially on the water where we were. After a few minutes outside we moved to the "office" where people are meant to wait for their tour. There was surprisingly little to be seen going on while we were waiting. Only a few workers were around (which probably means they don't have many -- this actually wouldn't be unusual; it takes surprisingly few people to run a distillery). We thought we might be able to spend some time looking around in the shop before our tour, but when we actually found the shop (it wasn't easy!) the woman there suggested we come back with the rest of our tour when it was over. Not a very warm welcome to Bunnahabhain (pronunciation: boon-a-hav-an; remember, in Gaelic bh=v).

Our guide on the tour couldn't have been more than a few weeks outside his 18th birthday and mentioned that he thought at first Robin and I might be "part of the Opposition from down south"; that is to say: English. This remark came after the other tour-goers reported that they'd been to Caol Ila (cul-eela) Distillery earlier in the day and our lad said "may be a nice shop, but not a nice whisky." This brusque arrogance contravened the good naturedness we'd seen in all of the other distilleries we've visited so far, to say nothing of the good will they have all shown towards the other distilleries on Islay. I had half a mind to walk out at this point, but decided not to make a scene, so we carried on.

There's not much to see at Bunnahabhain. They get their malt from Port Ellen, and they sell much of their whisky for blends. So they have no malting floor, and very little aging is done on the premises.

We saw their mill, the mash tun, the wash backs, and the stills. None of the few workers we saw around the place seemed in a particularly good mood (this was definitely out of character from what we'd seen at other places). Many distilleries (including Bunnahabhain) are cutting down on production due to the recession; perhaps this is hitting them harder than the others. Also, it is a shlep to get to them; they're many miles down a single-track road. It seems like they may be at the end of their golden days. Perhaps it won't be long before they're absorbed by a corporate giant.

Bunnahabhain takes pride in the fact that their whisky is only lightly-peated. I don't see how this can be much of a selling point on Islay where most people come for Laphroaig, the most peated whisky around. It seems that Islay visitors are looking for the peatiest whisky they can find; the peatier the better. Although they do bottle a single malt, Bunnahabhain's claim to fame is their "Black Bottle": a blend of the seven whiskies on Islay (Kilchoman is set to be added at some point in the future). This seems like something of a gimmick, though the whisky does have a good taste and it does have a hint of peat to it, so you're not going to mistake it for a Speyside (north east mainland Scotland) whisky. The blend uses mostly Bunnahabhain (again because of its lack of peaty character).

Some photos from Bunnahabhain. View of the distillery from the pier:

View of the Paps of Jura from the Bunnahabhain pier:

Empty casks getting sprayed with water outside one of the warehouses:

Me, enjoying the view and the sun, while waiting for the tour to start:

After we left Bunnahabhain we made a stop at the historic site Finlaggan apparently a medieval seat for the Lord of the Isles (who ruled the islands and part of the west of Scotland). It's a somewhat interesting collection of ruined buildings, more so because it's on island reached by a causeway. While Robin took pictures, I (you can probably spot a trend here) sat down and enjoyed the sun. Unfortunately I did this out of Robin's sight, and when he called to me I couldn't hear him for the wind over the water. After awhile realized that it had been awhile since I saw him and I stood up to see him walking back towards the visitor centre, clearly perplexed that I'd gone missing. Thankfully he wasn't angry, just "glad that you're still alive."

A few views of Finlaggan. The ruins of the Great Hall:

Two views of the ruin of the main house of the complex:

We've decided that we won't make it to all of the distilleries. We will probably go to the Jura distillery tomorrow, but we will likely miss Caol Ila and Lagavulin. These are both run by the large conglomerate Diageo and we have read some very scathing criticism of the company in the local paper we picked up The Ileach. Both Laphroaig and Ardbeg (the distilleries we visited yesterday) are owned by large bourbon distillers (I can't remember who owns whom; this is a useful partnership though -- bourbon casks can only be used once and Scotch whisky loves to mature in bourbon casks. When you're owned by a bourbon company it's a lot easier to get the casks). Feeling this local animosity toward Diageo has cooled our interest in visiting these distilleries, even though they make a damn fine product (and, as Robin points out, what is being bottled now was produced before Diageo took over).

Ah, and for once, I'm done writing before midnight.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


[This is my entry written 3 June 2009.]

Today we woke up on time, but we still got a late start. I guess we thought that Laphroaig (la-froyg) was closer than it is. We booked ourselves in for a 10am tour this morning and it turned 10am when we were still about 3 miles away. Thinking that Laphroiag would be more formal than the others we'd visited so far (because it's more famous and more popular), we thought they probably would start right on time (the others started a few minutes late). So Robin phoned from the car and gave our coordinates as I was barreling down the road (and still waving to as many people as I could -- everyone waves on the road on Islay, not just when you're at a passing place; it's friendly island living). We were told they might be able to wait, but put our names on the list for 11:30 just in case. When we finally parked the car, since it's a big distillery, it still took us at least another minute and a half to make our way to the visitor centre. But they hadn't started yet. There were four other people on the tour: a young (early 30's?) American and two older men who sounded Irish to me.

Here are a couple views of the exterior of the distillery:

Our guide was David. He was visibly thrown-off by the scheduling change. I saw him ask who was probably the centre manager if he should modify the tour because we were starting late. She said no, just do what you usually do. I thought this was a little strange because David looked to be at least in his late 50s. Is he new at this? It turns out that, yes, he's been in the tour guiding job for about a year, but he's been at Laphroiag since the mid-70s. In the course of the tour he told us that he used to work in the warehouses (I think) but that handling all the barrels got to be too much on his body. He was even away from his job for more than a year to get his hip replaced. Having been at the distillery for so long (and having a very colourful personality) meant that he had a lot of good stories. In the old days workers on a break were able to drink samples from the still. He said it was better than Valium. As they do, the laws changed, and this is no longer allowed. David seemed to have fond memories of those days.

He also told us about the two visits Laphroaig has had from the Prince of Wales. The first visit, in the 80s was accompanied by 40 members of the press. During his visit last year, there was no press coverage at all. David was proud to tell us that Laphroiag is the only Islay distillery the Prince has ever visited.

I took several pictures at Laphroaig to document the whisky-making process. First, we were able to watch the wet barley get rolled out onto the malting floor:

Because it has been so warm in recent days the barley was germinating faster than usual as can be seen in this closeup of the barrel used to pour the barley on the floor:

A malting floor nearly completely covered with barley:

We were allowed to pick up and sniff the wet barley that had just been laid on the floor:

David showed us the kiln that burns the peat:

The barley is laid out on a mesh floor above the kiln. The heat dries the barley to stop its germination. The smoke from the peat fire infuses the barley and gives our Islay whiskies their distinctive flavour. Here we were able to look onto the drying floor. David said that the kiln had just been fired up a little bit ago. When it really gets going, you can't see the back wall anymore.

After the barley is dried (I think we call it malt now) it's put in the mash tuns and rinsed through a few times with hot waters of different temperatures. I didn't get a picture of the mash tuns. It's the liquid that is drained from the mash tuns that is used for distilling. The spent grain is fed to Islay's cattle (which are apparently very yummy to eat). Yeast is added to the liquid and fermentation begins. At this point, we are pretty much making beer. The fermentation is done in big vats called washbacks. Bowmore has wood washbacks. At Laphroiag (and also at Kilchoman) the washbacks are stainless steel. When the yeast is working hard there is a lot of bubbling activity. We tried to capture that here:

Here are a couple views of the washbacks:

The liquid at this stage in the process is called worts. It is pretty stinky and has a sharp though slightly sweet taste, with some carbonation from the fermentation with the yeast. Nevertheless, David broke out some little cups and gave us all a taste to try.

Once the worts has finished fermenting it moves on to the stills. This is where the magic happens. The spirit is distilled twice. Each distillery's stills are a different shape. This and the angle of the neck of the still (is it pointing up or down, is it parallel with the ground) are supposedly the key features that give a whisky its character.

As the spirit is produced it goes through a spirit safe. Here the distiller can test for alcohol content and flavour and decide when to take the "middle cut": the spirit that is put into casks. Here's David at the Laphroiag spririt safe:

When we reached the warehouse where the casks were filled I asked David if you can overfill a cask. I thought you would want to avoid losing a drop at all costs. This is where David told one of my favourite anecdotes (possibly better in the telling). He said, no, today the pump that fills the barrels will switch off automatically when it's finished (akin to a gas pump at a filling station is my understanding). But back in the day, he used to fill the casks and if you weren't paying attention ("if you were talking about the football or whatever") you could end up getting soaked with the stuff. Then you'd go home to your mum reeking so much that she'd accuse you of drinking at work. Here are some recently filled casks:

After the tour we tried both the Quarter Cask and the 12-year Festival bottling. (Islay's Music and Malt Festival, Feis Ile, occurred the week before we arrived and most distilleries did a special bottling for the event. We were initially planning to be on Islay the week of the festival, but when it became clear that accommodation was going to be hard to find, we opted for the week following. This turned out to be a good choice; staff at the distilleries were in good spirits (ha ha) because the festival was over and it had gone well and the masses of people who were thronging their visitor centres were now gone away so they were relaxed and happy.)

After our excellent tour from David we went down the road to the Ardbeg Distillery (Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin are very close to each other on the southeastern coast of Islay). Ardbeg no longer malts their own barley (they get their malt from Port Ellen Maltings down the road) and they have converted their kiln rooms into the visitor centre shop and cafe. So we booked our spots for the 3pm tour and had a reasonably tasty lunch in their cafe.

After lunch, because we still had about an hour before the tour started (and of course we wouldn't want to be EARLY for our tour) we took a drive up the road to see Islay's one official Historic Scotland site: Kildalton Cross. It being another nice day (the heavy cloud forecast never materialised) we enjoyed the scenery:

I enjoyed finally getting to see the cross:

From the chapel nearby:

We got back to Ardbeg in plenty of time and had our tour done by Rachel, who announced at the very start that this was only her third tour so "be nice." She was very sweet but quite unsure of herself, even though she did a fine job and knew her stuff. Here's a picture of her consulting her notes at the spirit safe:

Ardbeg's mill (the malted barley is milled before it goes into the mash tuns):

The view of the distillery from the Ardbeg pier:

Unfortunately Ardbeg isn't nearly as tasty as Laphroaig; we made no purchases in their shop.

After Ardbeg I decided I wanted to back to the shop at Laphroiag and satisfy my vacation shopping impulse by buying their "Islay weather proof" jacket (very nice, with a nice Laphoiag stitched logo). David was manning the shop and seemed quite pleased to see us back. He offered us another wee dram and this time had the Cask Strength (very good, as fellow whisky-lovers may imagine). David was in a good mood. The weather was good and it had been a "good day." While sitting at the bar/counter sipping our dram he gave us each some chocolates that could no longer be sold in the shop since they "expired" on 1 June, and 5cl Quarter Cask mini-bottles. And pens! A Laphroaig pen for each of us. A wise choice indeed to return. [Two days later when I was wearing my jacket to protect me from some Islay weather, I found a piece of cat hair. How can I have cat hair on my new jacket? I'm thousands of miles from the cats. Further proof that, ah yes, they are always with me...]

It was a long day! And especially after 4 or 5 drams before 5pm, I was sleepy. When we got back to the cottage I had a wee lie down on the couch while Robin channel-surfed. At 9pm I was refreshed and ready for a walk. Today we decided to go left out of our road instead of right. I've been feeling a little lazy/guilty for doing only one walk on the walk map/guide I bought before the trip. I'd been thinking that if we drive out to a walk site we'd probably see better scenery and views than if we just walked locally. Ho hum. But after an already busy day I don't really feel like getting back in the car and doing all the single track shenanigans. I mean, I need to return the Fiat with the axles intact! So, we're walking along and arrived at a sign: "Footpath to Carnain." Hmmm, okay.

"Carn" generally denotes a hill, and yes, there was a hill in front of us, as well as lots of cows and sheep (we had also passed the sign for Knockdon Farm). These animals were very wary of us. They watched us closely and moved quickly if they thought we were getting too close.

The footpath soon ran out, but as we climbed we found that we were getting some of the most astounding views we have seen so far. We could see Bowmore on the left, and Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich on the right. As we climbed higher we could begin to see more and more of the complete southern coastline of the island.

And then, as we reached the top of the hill, the setting sun was the backdrop for the rocky hills of Islay to the north, Jura, Oronsay, and Colonsay. Shown here are the Paps of Jura:

All of this in our own backyard. It was an amazing find. I walked home elated.


[I wrote this entry on 2 June.]

First, make sure you know what peat is. This entry will probably make a lot more sense.

A pretty low-key day (did I say that about yesterday?). It's a good thing I'm blogging all this. There is no way I would remember everything. In fact I'm not remembering things from one day to the next. Did we go here? Yes? Was it by car or on foot?

So, yesterday I phoned Kilchoman Distillery just around closing time to arrange for a tour today. We got going this morning a bit later than planned (surprised?) so we arrived just about on the minute for our 11am tour. Strangely, not much seemed to be going on at the visitor centre shop (which for being a good way down a single track road was pretty extensive).

Kilchoman has been something of a mystery to us. It is often not included in the list of Islay distilleries (for those of you playing at home, these are: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig). And we didn't know why that was. After a couple minutes in the shop, Robin wandered over to me and whispered, "I think I see why they're not always on the list; they don't have any whisky yet." In order to be a whisky, you need to have matured for at least three years. And indeed, when I read the labels on the bottles on the shelf they all said "spirit." Uh-oh, we thought, are we wasting our time here?

But no. After wandering around for a few minutes I caught the eye of an employee who had just come out of the office. When I told her we were there for a tour she seemed surprised. Oh, you must've talked to Mr. Wills, she said. He's the owner. Hmmm, small operation. I booked the tour with the owner of the distillery? She shook off the surprise and promptly took our money and started us on our tour herself. At the other two distilleries we've visited there have been about 15 people on each tour. To be the only two seemed like an extravagance.

The name of the distillery is pronounced kil-HOME-an, not KILK-o-man as we'd been saying it. Another complete surprise. I didn't even understand what she said at first when she asked if we'd ever visited the place before.

Like Bowmore, Kilchoman malts their own barley. This involves wetting and draining the barley 3 or 4 times in a large vat, then laying it out on a concrete floor to germinate, but only slightly. After germinating (this has to do with releasing sugars from the starch in the grain) the barley is dried in a kiln. Being Islay, the barley is dried in a peat-fired kiln. Kilchoman is a small operation on a farm; the owner started the distillery because it was something he always wanted to do. Consequently their malting floor is very small (compared with 3 levels of large floors at Bowmore). Distillation is done in an interesting still with a funny bulge in the middle:

Our guide gave us the sense of the collaborative relationship between the different distilleries on Islay. It is not a competition. In fact, Kilchoman borrows warehouse space from Bruichladdich. At the end of the tour we had a dram of the two-year old spirit; this was quite tasty and rather peaty. The spent mash (what's left of the grain after it is dried and then put in "mash tuns" with water to extract the sugars) is fed to cattle (this is done island-wide), and apparently (our guide tells us this is often asked) it does NOT make their meat taste peaty (???).

We bought the "Connoisseur's Collection" in the shop: small bottles of the 2-year, 1-year, and 1-month bottlings. Kilchoman's first batch of proper whisky will be ready in September. Robin has already reserved and paid for his bottle (and says he probably won't open it; Kilchoman has already created a very good reputation for itself; the first bottling could be a significant collector's item).

Port Charlotte was nearby so we stopped in to do some more blogging, and had some soup and scones. Again, we were very lucky with the weather and sat outside, but the mist on the horizon in the distance told us that the rumours are true about a cold front coming in. The weatherman on the BBC confirmed this tonight, and was almost defensive about it, just in case we'd all suddenly come under the mistaken impression that we're actually living in the Mediterranean. He told us it's going to seem colder, but really these are normal temperatures for this time of year. He should have had a subtitle reading "Don't Blame ME!" Really, it must be a terrible job being a British weather forecaster. The news is hardly ever good. And we've had such a run of nice days that I suspect no one wants to be the one to tell the nation that Shangri-La is coming to an end.

We'd been up late last night poring through our hundreds of pictures, trying to find the best to post here. With less sleep than I wanted and a dram at noon I wasn't sure I was up for much more without a nap first. So instead of going to another distillery we decided to have a look in at the Islay Ales Brewery. They're a small operation (as many things seem to be around here) run by two salty guys from England. Yesterday we bought a pint of their Bruichladdich Ale at the eponymous distillery. Islay Ales takes Bruichladdich's (what, mash?) and turns it into beer. When we arrived we started straight off with a couple half-pints for tasting (as you can imagine, just what I needed to really drive me into the ground) and enjoyed chatting with one of the brewmasters before heading out with a selection of six bottles.

Next we went a short way up the road to the Islay Woolen Mill. Yesterday I bought a wool throw at Bruichladdich in their own tartan that was woven at the Mill. I thought this might be a fun place to see lots of fabrics and maybe find some more tartan. Unfortunately the shop was stocked with mostly knitted garments (they don't do spinning or knitting at the mill) and an odd selection of "gifts" (knick-knacks and other things one doesn't really need). There were a few samples of tartan, but they seemed to have been on the shelf for years. And some tartan hats and jackets, but nothing well-suited to either of us. The owner/operator of the mill appeared (another rather salty fellow) and showed us the room where the very noisy looms were running and told us that his fabrics are sold to Chanel and to Savile Row in London. Near the till in the shop was a newspaper page with a photograph of Princess Anne wearing clothing made from tartan made at the Mill. He (rightly so, I guess) is quite pleased with himself for these achievements.

Apparently cashmere comes from China (I guess I remember that, but only vaguely). I learned this for good because he gave me a good scoff when I asked if he used wool from Scotland to make his fabric. Oh no, 90% of the wool produced in Scotland is shipped out of Scotland, and 90% of the wool used is Scotland is imported from outside the country. (He obviously mostly uses cashmere.)

He asked where we were staying on the island and when I told him Eallabus Cottage (using my self-fashioned pronunciation, EALL-a-bus) he immediately corrected me. It is ey-al-A-bus. Those women at Islay Estates are too polite to correct my pronunciation, but I'm feeling a bit silly now. However, we did learn that the owner of Eallabus is also the owner of about "one-third of the island" and is one of the richest men in Britain. Sounds like someone worth getting to know!

We headed back home at around 3pm and I went straight outside for an almost hour's nap in the warm sun. When it was time for dinner we knew we were hungry but didn't know what to eat. I had roasted a chicken a couple nights ago and had saved some juices for making gravy. Hmmm, but we don't have any flour for thickening the gravy. Oh, but we do have that oatmeal that's been pretty finely ground, let's sift out the finer stuff and try that. Worked a charm! But oh, it's a little too thick, we need some liquid. Let's add some beer! So we opened our Bruichladdich Ale (it's peated beer; a bit strange) and added that to the mix. Okay! Now for the chicken: just to make it (more) interesting, let's cut it up into smallish pieces, toss it in some beaten egg and more oatmeal and fry it up. Okay, it sounds strange, but it really tasted quite good. I think the influences of these master distillers and brewmasters are wearing off on us: be creative, use your instincts. And how much more Scottish can you get than having oats in your chicken?