More than Haggis

Fluffy eggs whipped and frothed to perfection, a Lazy Susan covered in local preserves, and tray after tray of the smokiest, umami-est, salmon I’ve ever devoured: this was my breakfast for three straight mornings in Scotland and only a nibble of things to come.

Among the foodtopias of the world, Scotland remains forgotten. Its beauty is conjured through images of towering peaks, trains turning bends worthy of the Hogwarts Express, cold rain spitting down, and miles and miles of land to get lost in. I had forgotten the raw beauty of a fresh oyster, of local ingredients deemed low in a world of haute cuisine. After all, when was the last time you heard someone wax rhapsodic about haggis and neeps?

Arriving at Torridon Estate, a centuries-old home and grounds in the Wester Ross village of Torridon, my high school friends and I drove down a gravel path, rhododendron blooming violet on each side. Torridon sits between the River Abhainn Coire Mhicnobaill and Loch Torridon, an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, and about an hour’s drive west from Inverness. Nearby, Beinn Alligin juts out of the earth to a dizzying 3,235 feet, containing two Munros, or Scottish mountains over 3000 feet high. As I looked out Torridon’s window to Beinn Alligin, its peaks seemed to glint invitingly; I couldn’t wait to climb them.


Mountain, Sea, Sky

The next morning, I woke early, prowling the house as if I were both a Lady of Torridon and a servant downstairs. When breakfast began, I entered the dining room, complete with wide windows, and high, crown molded ceilings. But all of that escaped my notice at first glance. The smell of warm eggs, sausage hot off the griddle, and other things I couldn’t place beckoned. Walking over to the buffet, my eyes bulged, and I hoped my stomach was up to the challenge. I gathered cereal and fruit for my first breakfast. Breakfast two included typical Scottish breakfast sausage, eggs, creamy-soft cheese, and that salmon, quite truthfully, perfection in food form. Breakfast three included more salmon, obviously, and some toast with jam. As I sat nibbling my toast, the lady of the house, Sarah, entered, Scottish fiddle in hand. Her bow flew across the strings as she kept beat with her well-worn boot, and we clapped along in time. The smell of freshly caught Atlantic smoked salmon reached my nostrils and I realized I might know what Heaven is like.

That afternoon, we crossed over a footbridge to walk along Loch Torridon towards the Atlantic. We passed the estate’s old church, now a glass fronted modern cottage. Farther along we saw sheep, and a couple walking their cat, Putin. The ocean glimmered beyond, but we had to turn around when we saw a camper van with a family inside; it felt rude to pass a stirring family.

After our day tramping about, we spoke to Sarah, who owns the estate with her husband Felix. She asked us how long we were staying and when we told her we’d be there three nights, she replied, “That’s good. Most people stay one night and then fuck off.” We had chosen the exact perfect place to hole up in the Highlands.

Our first formal foray into Scottish cuisine began at 1887, the Torridon Hotel’s fine dining restaurant. My friends and I arrived and were guided to a parlor resplendent with 20s glamour. We took their “which whisky are you?” quiz and looked at a map of Scotland marked with whisky distilleries and their styles. More unsure of our choice, we each ordered a whisky. I ordered the Balvenie 12 Year, a distillery owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own neighboring Glenfiddich. I brought the Balvenie to my nose and was instantly transported to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, which I associate with sugary, rich honey. I tipped the glass to my mouth and the sweet, languorous taste of honey flowed down my throat. Later, when my Dad asked if I brought home any whisky, I promised him only the best: Balvenie 12 year.

One bottle of wine, two whiskies, and seven courses later, we arrived back at Torridon Estate. Sarah’s husband, Felix was telling his visiting friends goodnight and asked if we wanted some wine. Never to turn away a free drink, we slumped down on the vermilion couch by the fire to tipple some more.

“That’s Donald Trump’s couch, you know.” My friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in confusion. Quite apart from being taken dramatically out of our holiday mindset, we weren’t sure we’d heard correctly. Felix went on to explain that Trump, having got rid of a hotel in Scotland, needed to sell its furniture, and quickly. Felix proceeded to buy several chairs and couches, and 100 pendant lights for about 10% of their retail price. Pouring us each another glass of red, Felix gallantly responded to our questions about Brexit and Scottish independence; he avoided these topics by deftly switching to praise of Angela Merkel, Germany’s progressive chancellor. Some say politics and wine don’t mix, but with the right host, and the right couch, they just might.


Highland Games, Scotland

The next day promised a hike as the weather looked comfortable (meaning gray and 60s). Our directions from Sarah went along the lines of “stay on this side of the river and follow the path as far as it goes.” Her instructions were easy to follow; I proved less successful in convincing my friends to turn left for a climb up the mountain. Instead, we followed the straight and narrow through a valley, two imposing Munros on either side. About an hour and a half into the hike, we met two women in their 60s walking with their dogs, two charmingly bread loaf sized terriers that I’m sure would have outstripped us all. We stopped shortly for lunch, my best friend soaking her butt in a small puddle on the rock where she had chosen to roost. Although we had shed layer after layer on our slow, steady climb, the wind proved too strong for us once seated. So back we went, butt-wet and tummy-full.

As I looked at the mountains surrounding us, I had to remember to watch my step so I wouldn’t break an ankle. Moss covered every rock, slick from recent rain or the passing river. The sky changed from a faint white to raincloud gray, to palest blue, and when we could see it, the loch shimmered as the sun sparkled above. The mountains rose straight up from the sea on either side of us, looking like sleeping trolls cursed to stone forevermore.

After a few hours of “hiking”, my friends and I needed more nourishment. We drove ten minutes down the coastal road to Sheldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen, another recommendation from Sarah. Upon entering, we noticed a Viszla dozing on the floor while a terrier sat on its owner’s lap, waiting for a stray crumb. The dogs and owners alike seemed content, talking with the bartender, and eating fries and fresh seafood. After a quick pet, we sat and perused the menu. I asked for oysters, fresh beer, and a dish of grilled goat cheese with pine nuts. Looking out at the loch beyond, feeling the cold hard pattern of the oyster shell, smelling the salt as I brought it to my nose, it was pure joy to sip it down. What more could a girl want? Another pint, of course.


Bliss (in the form of fresh Atlantic oysters)

Our last evening at Torridon, we relaxed and dreamed about our next stop on this Gaelic culinary tour. Sitting opposite the hearth on that Trump-red couch, we talked about a doctoral dissertation, court trials, and baroque gowns, things worth working towards, in other words. Sarah, Torridon’s owner extraordinaire and femme insouciante, told of the many types of people that were coming to the area: moneyed drivers of Maseratis, a Big Pharma executive and his wife who turned the estate’s kirk into a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled marvel. It left me wondering where I fit in, with dreams of an itinerant life waylaid by the realities of bills and debt, at least temporarily. Sarah’s brash words and joyful music gave an aura of hope; if she could cast aside other demands for a life full of travellers, music, and sweet smoked salmon, why not me?

After the unexpected musings and epicurean wonders of Torridon, we headed east to Speyside- whisky country, for the uninitiated. Rather than sleeping inside old Auchinroath House, we tested the elements as we glamped. True to the name, the tents included heaters and full-size beds. Drifting off to the changing rhythm of dripping rain, comforter pulled tight around my chin, I slept for hours. I woke around four am to dawn’s dim light and a melody of birds, so I decided to explore. Walking uphill behind our tents, I came to the top of a small knoll which looked out at the rolling land all around. I could see sheep and cattle grazing for miles up and down the countless hills. Back down and around the polytunnel greenhouse, I passed four or five calves in spotted fawn to reddish-brown. They stopped and we stared at each other for a time, until I walked away announcing to their mothers, “Just taking a walk! Enjoy the grass.”

For dinner that night, we went to The Highlander Inn, a hotel, pub and restaurant local to Craigellachie- pronounced Craig-AL-icky in the local brogue. They had whisky flights, which I naively assumed would be small pours. I’m partial to whisky that tastes like it swam in a peat bog, but I wanted a whisky tasting with a bit more diversity. So, I chose the Alternative Highland Flight, and substituted one of the Scotch whiskies for a Japanese whisky. The bottle was pretty and that’s the best I can say. Six whiskies and a dinner later, we found ourselves tipsy, warm, and ready for bed. We wound our way back to our glamping tents, sure to sleep soundly under the cloud-covered stars.


99 barrels of Scotch on the wall….

The next day, after lunch at Glenfiddich, we drove to Johnston’s of Elgin, a two-hundred-year-old wool mill with a warrant as manufacturers of estate tweed from Prince Charles. I had left the US dreaming of a soft wool blanket, a green and blue tartan to match my family’s heritage. At Johnston’s, my friend found a deeply discounted wool blanket that raised my hopes immoderately. As I sifted through utility wool blankets that scratched a bit too much, and softest cashmere that cost hundreds, I felt my hopes sink. In the next room, I passed my hand over blanket after blanket, quickly turning over price tags to find my diamond in the rough Scottish wool. I finally felt something soft but not so delicate that a spill wouldn’t ruin. I looked at the price tag and exhaled a sigh of relief. The wool was a seafoam chevron, with two patches of color-blocked light blue and creamy moss- colors of the Scottish beach.

Not long after our purchases were wrapped up with a bow, we drove to the village of Cullen. The town is famous in Scotland and beyond for its Cullen Skink, a dish made not from the slippery salamander-like reptile, but cold-smoked haddock in a rich potato-filled chowder. It was a typical Scottish day, cesious sky with rain always imminent. The drizzle came down softly, but the cold stayed in my bones as the wind from the ocean blew through me. Cullen sits on a cliff above Cullen Bay, white waves crashing into rocks that have endured its onslaught for centuries. It made for a romantic picture, but not one we wanted to experience outdoors. We headed for the nearest pub, finding one that looked like my grandmother’s living room in the 90s, framed applique included. When I went to use the bathroom, I noticed a picture of Tony the Tiger on the wood-panelled wall. I smiled at the thought of someone’s grandma sewing him onto a throw pillow.

After a pint, we had worked up an appetite, so we decided to stay in Cullen for dinner. At the Royal Oak Hotel, we ordered Cullen Skink. It came, hot in its cream ceramic bowl, ready to be indulged. Putting spoon to mouth, I sipped, then bit into some haddock and potato. The chowder tasted of ocean and bacon, the rich broth mixing it all together magically; Cullen Skink did not disappoint.

We rounded out our tour of the Highlands with a visit to the city- Glasgow, where students and hipsters mingle with dog lovers and joggers. I had read somewhere that the best haggis in Scotland could be found at The Ubiquitous Chip (so named for Scotland’s supposed chip on its shoulder). Walking from our hideaway in West Glasgow, we trotted down leafy paths with urban gardens. As we turned into the alleyway to our destination, a mingling of whitewashed buildings awaited. The restaurant itself is part greenhouse, part 1920s Paris salon, with huge skylights bathing all its plants in sun and warmth. As advised, we ordered the haggis, a Scottish dish usually made from a sheep’s internal organs, mixed with oats, seasoning, and traditionally cooked in the animal’s stomach (if that doesn’t make your mouth water, then you are completely normal). On a platter with traditional neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), the spiced venison haggis tasted slightly of anise and rich game. We returned the plate, sparkling white, in a matter of minutes.


Pigeon, far right

We noticed another, weirder item alongside the haggis starter: pigeon salad. Never one to refuse an unorthodox meal, I asked the waitress about it. “It’s my favorite thing on the menu. I’d order it every time if I could.” I wished my stomach were emptier, so I had room for pigeon. Unable to resist, we returned the next day for late lunch and a pigeon. Dark like duck, fatty like goose, the small strips of pigeon nestled among the greens, melted on the tongue. Pigeon, rat of the air, is indeed fine dining.

Rarely do trips turn out as I expect. From fine pigeon to missed hikes, the unexpected frames how I live while away. But I also travel to escape my expectations, or at least let them drift behind while I soak in the present. An easy romp and rainy sky are perfect reasons to cozy up next to a fire, whisky in hand and slàinte mhath on my lips.

Returning home, I sat at my desk and tapped out responses in Outlook, dreaming of Scottish peaks and wild salmon. On a whim, I checked prices to Inverness for a long weekend and saw a sale on tickets from the West Coast. I set a tracker for September, hoping against hope, that sale would get me back to Torridon, where Beinn Alligin’s two Munros waited and watched, ready for me to test my luck.

Loneliness Unplugged

I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing?

Loneliness eats away at the tissue of your heart, isolating you quickly, fully, suffocatingly. When you’re at the bottom of the well, despair shuts out the light creeping in from the top, so that the darkness blinds you to the sun’s rays reaching down to warm you.

And when you’re at that point, where is the catalyst to shake you awake, to remind you that your friends and family have been there the whole time, hard as it might be to see them through the lens of an increasingly lonely iWorld?

Peace Corps work is hard work, as is any that demands not just your mind, but your heart, self-worth, and every last nerve. When you reach your breaking point, you want to shut down and build walls to hide behind. That’s when the loneliness wins, when it settles in your bones, crippling you from the inside out.

I’ve felt that way, escaping into a world of Netflix and pretend that all your problems don’t matter. In a world where we shut off when we tune in, loneliness is cheap and ubiquitous. It’s as inescapable as afternoon rain in the tropics, but colder, subtler, and more insidious.

I try to always have an answer, to see the world as a child would, with the curious eyes of one that hasn’t been jaded by politics or hate, but answers to problems like loneliness must be felt. This is a wall that cannot be climbed except by standing on the shoulders of loved ones.

In that way, the answer is obvious. Unplug, reflect, tune in to each other, and ignore the vibrating notifications that don’t notify you how your soul is. Remember that we are meant to be outside, to get dirt underneath our fingernails, to hold hands with one another while walking side by side.

After a Netflix binge that lasted too long, I got up one day and walked outside, talked to my neighbors, got rained on, goosebumps forming in the fog of a raincloud enveloping me, followed by a hot walk up a steep hill, sweat beading down my back. And it was so good. The answer to my loneliness had been waiting for me just outside my door. I just needed to turn the knob.

​Sharing Stories

“I exist in two places, here and where you are”. – Margaret Atwood

So much of our life seems to happen in moments of waiting: sweating while a bus fills with passengers, nervously going over what you want to say before your big presentation, looking out the window as the raindrops fall, knowing your plans will be canceled before they even occur. But in these moments of waiting, we reflect, strengthening our self-awareness so that we can go out into the world and share our story with others. Reflection makes possible connection.


Relaxing at “hilltop” above my house. This is not a promotional Peace Corps picture (but maybe it should be) 😛

On the ride to church, I quietly look out upon the open vista of clouds playing tag with the mountains below. I put up my hair and lean my face towards the window to catch a breeze as I sit on the hot, gray fabric. I wait to arrive at church, to sing, to pray, to listen, and to have my thoughts wander lazily like a desultory conversation among old friends. On the ride back, however, I talk to my family, joke, and discuss the sermon or songs sung. As I play with my hair, I listen as my family kisses their teeth* or tells me, “Yu nah easy” which I generally take to mean that I’m willful. Continue reading

Falling into Rhythm


Running pon di road

Each time my foot pushes into the ground, propelling me further down the road, my breath comes a little bit quicker, heavier, wilder. Afterwards, I wonder how it is that I managed to bounce around the potholes, fly down the hills and trod back up them; I’m not a runner so finding my pace takes time.

When I imagined myself in the Peace Corps, I pictured an integrated me, hungry after working all day in the field with local farmers, wiping sweat from my forehead as I rubbed my clothes clean watching as other women did the same, teaching a class how to improve their crop yield with biodynamic farming. This image, one of hard work and success, ignored a necessary step: figuring out how to fit in. Continue reading

Starry Night

I wonder what Van Gogh would have thought about seeing his Starry Night on the insides of umbrellas, twinkling on the wall above college frat parties, and hidden underneath plates at dinner. Would he have picked that painting to canvas the world?

starry night

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night

Standing in front of said masterpiece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I walked as close as possible to the painting, looking at the meaty, brusque brushstrokes, wavy trees and sky, and fairy tale village cradled in the hills below. The many blues calmed me as the yellow stars popped out, a macaroni and cheese colored moon promising serenity and hope.

The little village, nestled beneath the light-filled expanse of night sky, captured my attention. What were the villagers doing? Had this always been their home? How did they know that it was the right home for them?

A few years later…

I arrived in Port Morant, Jamaica last Sunday. My host mom, Herma told me they were going out to Morant Bay and Seaforth; would I like to join?

On the pot hole filled, narrow road, cars and trucks zoomed toward us, letting us know of their presence just around the corner with many a loud, “HOOOONK!” There weren’t any seat belts in the back seat- I think I checked five or six times- instead, I maintained a death grip on the passenger door handle.

As we sped down the road, I stretched my head and neck out the window, observing the fading outlines of mountains, a twilight beach and a purple-streaked sky.

On the way back, I chanced another peek. As I craned my neck upwards, more constellations filled Jamaica’s sky than I had seen in months. I ducked my head back in as a truck passed, only to stick it out again, and again.


Port Morant, Jamaica

Something about that sky seemed to simultaneously comfort and encourage, as if you could lay in the grass looking up at it, sharing stories about the past and hopes for the future with a loved one, knowing that everything would turn out OK.

I felt the prickly sensation of déjà vu on the back of my neck as I pictured myself at the MOMA in front of Van Gogh’s star-filled night. That oil painted canvas elicited feelings of home and warm fuzziness.  As I gazed up at Jamaica’s night sky, my eyes began to water and I realized how the villagers of Van Gogh’s tiny town felt, how something as ordinary as stars could make you feel that finally you found home.

What does the Food Say?


Here’s to you, birdie

Midnight blue curtains tickle my arm as the early morning breeze blows in. The curtain’s silver sequined flowers sparkle iridescently as they catch the predawn glow, coaxing my eyes to break their fast.

I walk into the living room, where I hear the sizzling, spitting, sputter of the fry pan announcing breakfast. Minutes later, I smell fried dumplings, a softly sweet aroma that puts to mind N’awlins, beignets, and powdered sugar down my front.

My host mom sets my plate before me. I savor the stir-fry of pepper, onions, and seasoning, then cut into the smooth plantains. The banana-like fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in maple syrup, then fried in Heaven. I close my eyes and enjoy that honeyed bite, my rapture catalyzed knowing the sweetness is innate.

As I walk to training, I begin to sweat. I feel as if I’m in a sauna, but wearing too many clothes for the health benefits to kick in. Once I climb the stairs to our veranda training grounds, the sea breeze whips and stirs my hair into Medusa-like frenzy.



When I get home, I feel like someone tried to cram the contents of Moby Dick and War and Peace into my bleary eyed brain. Then, I smell pumpkin cooking in the kitchen. Something else mixes with the summer squash- I later learn it’s pimento.

At the table, my host mom, joined by her mother and daughter, talks of cinnamon chocolate tea, ginger, sorrel root (it makes good beer), ackee, naseberries, June plums, at least four kinds of mangoes, star apple, and an aptly named fruit called stinky toe cheese. Her arms waving, and brow sweating as my host mom tells me of another foreign fruit, I imagine trying all these foods and drinks, stinky toe cheese included.

Watching three generations of women talk over each other in a rush to discuss the past and present of Jamaica’s fruits and food exotica, I realize all my conversations include food. I remember learning to love wine in France, always asking my host mom and dad for “un petit peu” more, making cheese over cow paddy fueled fires in Mongolia, and sharing baked macaroni and cheese with my ostrich farm family in Bulgaria. Now I sit at a table talking about a future filled with stinky toe cheese and ginger.

Coming together over food is not an esoteric cultural rite. Something about seeing people close their eyes and “mmmmm” while chewing food I have prepared sends warm flutters through my body. Sipping my host mom’s Jamaican Saturday soup, I feel grateful that someone includes me in their culture, and wants me to understand it. Since before Proust bit into his madeleine, humanity has embraced the nostalgic, intimate, historical stories food tells, for through them, we begin to understand the people behind the food.


I’m glad my camera made this mistake, but I wish I knew how to recreate it!

How to Eat Chicken Foot

  1. Fly (or boat, or swim) to Jamaica

    Flying to Jamaica Photo Credit Stephen

    Flying to Jamaica
    Photo Credit Stephen

  2. Find a family to take you in until at least Saturday.
  3. Wait until Saturday Soup Day.
  4. On Saturday, your host family will make you soup, because Saturday is Soup Day, a day on which Jamaicans let a pot of soup simmer for hours. Make sure you ask for chicken foot in the soup.
  5. Don’t stare at the ominously puckered chicken foot as your soup is set before you. Picturing Chicken-You-One-Chased won’t help either.
  6. Eat the chicken neck if it’s there. You’ll know it’s a neck because it looks like a neck. It’s meaty goodness!

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

  7. Do glance at your host family as they eat the chicken foot. They will most likely spoon the foot up to mouth level, from where they will take their fingers, pinch the foot at its widest part, and bite off all three toes in one chomp.
  8. Do what they just did. Bite off the three toes.
  9. Repeat with the part of the chicken foot you pinched. Don’t eat the bone, but the cartilage is edible.
  10. Enjoy eating food some would not deem worthy of the word.
  11. Thank your host family!
  12. Help with the dishes, remembering to ask how to correctly wash dishes in Jamaica so you have content for your next blog post 😉

Hit the Road, Jack

Footsteps in the sand dunes at  Khongoryn Els

Footsteps in the sand dunes at Khongoryn Els

“You know, I told you how I have been translating the Odyssey. I always read it as a tragic tale of Odysseus’s struggle to find his way home. Now I understand more and more what Dante and Tennyson wrote about it, that he wasn’t lost, but that after the wonders he had seen, Odysseus couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to, return home.” The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

“We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.” “The Charm Of 5:30” by David Berman

The Van

The Van

Peeling my thighs from the seat of our Soviet Russian van, I slipped on my sandals, straps and buckles dangling and dinging like wind chimes, and hopped out. Sam had his Frisbee ready as I walked into place some meters away. Several 3-5 year-olds joined our catch-and-throw, Sam slapping his hands together like a crocodile chomping to demonstrate a proper catch. Whether or not the kids improved, we had to leave after a few minutes. Kicking off my sandals in the van, straps dusty from the sandy clay ground, I fell asleep once more.

“Do you have Backstreet Boys?” Another Gobi-ready van with blinking neon lights blasted Western and Mongolian pop music through the valley. After our first shaman ceremony, we celebrated the normalcy of dancing to catchy tunes. As “I Want it That Way” began, Petra, Sam, and I jumped around like toddlers after a lollipop. Taking the children’s hands, our Mongolian saturnalia continued until the moon rose high enough to wash away the starlight. I hadn’t seen stars like that in decades (excepting the few previous nights), but I was too busy singing and laughing to notice the moon and stars.

The Sky in the Gobi

The Sky in the Gobi

The last night, we slept outside, three S Shaped Sleeping bags spooning closer together for warmth. When I shimmied back into my bag after a predawn pee, I could feel Sam and Petra inching towards me once more, their bodies yearning for the heat of their friend.

“Whoa, did you see that one?!” Even after seeing ten shooting stars blaze across the sky, I couldn’t keep my giddiness to myself. Petra or Sam would nod or let out an “Ooooooh!” to accompany mine, the other having missed it. Then we returned to our puzzle. “A man goes into a pub in the desert, orders his meal, eats it, then walks out onto the path of an oncoming train. Why?” We hopped from question to question, uncovering more of the story until we could finally tell it ourselves. Our story told, we arched our necks backward and watched the sky’s play out until we were too tired to keep our lids open.

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

One last riddle: What do you get when you add a van, a reliable driver, a gracious guide, a Slovenian-Swiss girl who uses floss to repair tents and falls out of her seat as often as I do, a German guy who throws Frisbee by day and dances rumba by night, and me? Team Tao: Five humans traveling across Central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert singing, dancing, solving riddles, throwing Frisbees, farting (and yelling “Tallyho!” afterwards) eating, drinking, laughing, star-gazing, story-telling, being together ❤