Ullapool’s a quiet little town, and I spend my night there reading and writing. A bus the next day takes me back to Edinburgh.
I’ve made a decision; my reasons for not flying on this trip is that flying has a tendency to separate one place from another, and removes your ability to see what lies in between. Night buses, while less extreme, tend to do the same thing. I want to see the places I go through, and so I listen to audiobooks — the history of Rome — as the Scottish Highlands roll past outside. A storm chases us south, and the light on the dark hills and crags alternates between gold and gray as we go.
I make it back to Edinburgh in the evening and am greeted by my friends there. Initially, I plan to stay for a week; but as days pass, the date of my departure moves further and further away. For the first time on this trip, and for one of the few times in my life, I feel as if I belong in a place. Briefly, ever so briefly, I consider giving up this quest for the time being, getting an apartment, and settling into the routine of Edinburgh life: wake up, write, work, eat, then go out to the pub with my friends for a night of conversation. Our backgrounds are varied enough to provide us with a wide range of topics, from science and economics, to history and archaeology, to literature, art, music, film, television. I find myself wondering if, ten or twenty years down the road, these friends of mine will be known beyond just the pubs and cafes of Edinburgh.
Toward the end of September, some friends and I go to a burlesque show called “Confusion is Sex,” a local mainstay. It’s meant to be fancy dress, and the four of us fit ourselves out in evening finery. In my case, I borrow a tuxedo, which fits surprisingly well. I learn to tie a bow tie, finally breaking my one-time resolution to never tie a bit of cloth around my neck just because the Parisians of the 17th century found the Croatian mercenaries employed by Louis XIII of France fetching.
The venue is the Bongo club, and the evening opens with a take on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a bit of improvisational theatrics thrown in; actors dressed like characters from the movies accost random visitors and make melodramatic accusations of treachery and adultery and one-night trysts over cereal and tea.
Then the main event; a cavernous room filled with people losing themselves to electropop beneath strobelights, punctuated by carefully choreographed burlesque acts. Given the intro, the acts themselves are surprisingly unimaginative, and so I turn to the audience; as a dancer teases off clothing under the spotlights, a young man slow dances with his girl, his back conspicuously to the stage. Is it love, I wonder, or just making a point? The music resumes, and two men dance in the corner, shyly. There’s no way of knowing what their daylight lives are like, or what their worlds expect of them, but here in the noise and darkness, no one is watching.
A month later, my departure date is no longer receding. While I don’t look forward to leaving this city and my friends here, my feet are starting to feel that old familiar itch, and the road beckons. One night, a week or so before I leave, Kate the hitchhiker and musician shows up in Edinburgh again, to the delight of all. She and Thom and I take a trip up to St. Andrews over my last weekend, where I visit an old friend of mine, John, from back in the States.
St. Andrews is a university town, home to the third oldest university in the Anglophone world. It’s small and rich, with students nineteen or twenty years old walking about arm-in-arm in two-hundred-pound sweaters and leather shoes. My friend John, in contrast, has been working for the last year and a half in Kabul, and is studying Central Asian and Middle Eastern security; his fellow security students, with their experiences in Tajikistan, Libya, Syria, and other little-visited places of the world, make for a tight-knit group and are a blast to hang out with. One of them, a sharp-tongued Englishman called Richard, writes down the directions to his favorite restaurant in Tripoli, and tells me Libya should open up for travel by spring.
Kate, Thom and I leave at the end of the weekend, and miss the last direct bus due to problems on the route, and spend six hours on what should be a two hour journey, taking local buses from little town to little town, in what turns out to be one of the most ridiculous legs of travel I’ve yet experienced — six transfers, including one at the Edinburgh airport, before we finally get back into town after midnight, starving but triumphant at not having had to sleep under a bench somewhere.
Kate’s heading back to the States in a week, and she and I decide to visit Shreya in London before parting ways. There’s a last night, with chess and pints and live Scottish music, and then goodbyes are said. As Kate and I head to the station the next morning, fully packed and ready to be on the road, the sky is unusually blue. As we wait in line to board our bus I realize that, whatever else happens on this journey, I’ll eventually make it back to Edinburgh. It’s only a matter of time.