Monday, September 12, 2016

In Exciting Edinburgh--Attending a Conference, Sightseeing and Dinner with New Friends

Thursday, September 8, 2016
Edinburgh, Scotland

     I surprisingly had far more sleep on the red eye coach than I had imagined. It was 6. 30 am when we arrived in Edinburgh. The city was barely stirring but as the Coach Station is right in the heart of it, I was able to follow directions I had received from folks at my ‘hotel’ to the bus stop that would drop me close by. I arrived at the bus stop and found out that buses only take exact change—no notes. There was some anxiety as I fished for change, but in the end, a bus came along, I boarded it, reached my destination and checked in. It turned out to be a Conference Center complete with rooms, a dining room and other facilities. I loved my en suite room (with a TV!) and a lovely thick shower (which I took immediately). Then, I dressed and found out from Reception how to get to the Conference Center. The 15 minute walk they sent me on turned out to be a 45 minute one! I was exhausted by the time I reached the main campus of the University of Edinburgh at George Square and arrived with just 5 minutes to spare before the Keynote Address began.

Conference on Indentured Labor:

     The speaker was Nira Wickramasinghe, a Sinhalese scholar from Sri Lanka, now attached to the University of Leiden in Holland. Her work has dealt mainly with Indentured Labor from Sri Lanka under the Dutch colonial government and is based on her scrutiny of the Dutch archives. I found her speech very interesting. It set the tone beautifully for the rest of the conference as she covered so many aspects of the topic that would be taken up other speakers over the next couple of days. There was a coffee break but by then the long overnight coach ride had taken its toll on me and I decided to get out and do some walking or else I would fall asleep in my seat.

Seeing Something of Edinburgh:

     I ended up walking out in the slight drizzle (which certainly woke me up) to Greyfriars Churchyard which is renowned for the lovely story about the Skye terrier called Bobby who spent 15-odd years following his master’s death sitting on his grave. He became known as ‘Greyfriars’ Bobby’ and there is a little sculpture to honor him right on the street outside. There is also his own gravestone in the church yard. A really good movie has been made about this faithful dog. Since I saw it a few years ago, it was nice to actually see the sites associated with it.

     Greyfriars Church was closed but it is usually very well visited. I walked down the road towards the Royal Mile. Although most first-time visitors head for the Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House, I had seen both on a past visit and wanted to see attractions I had never seen before. Hence, I walked to the Writer’s Museum which is housed in a very old ‘close’, a courtyard with a house that is used to pay tribute to three of Scotland’s best-known writers: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. It is a very small museum but a lovely one—well-curated with many personal items on display that belonged to these writers as well as varied editions of their work and portraits of these men made at different stages of their lives. The house itself is charming with its interior balcony, polished carved woodwork and high ceilings. There are spiral staircases inside that make you feel as if you are in an ancient castle. It does not take long to see the place (unless you read all curatorial notes). In the basement, is the exhibition on Stevenson. I spent a while here and thoroughly enjoyed reviewing their work (most of which I had read when I was a teenager).

     I walked a bit down the Royal Mile. The rain had left, the place had dried up, the sun was shining and people were smiling as they browsed in the many souvenir stores that line this main artery through the city. There was loads of really beautiful Scottish merchandise (kilts, scarves, woolen throws, gloves, whiskey, as well as the usual magnets, postcards and porcelain plates). I only picked up a postcard for my scrapbook and then walked towards St. Giles Cathedral which was still open.

     St. Giles Cathedral is huge and atmospheric with its soaring Gothic design and its lovely interior statuary and stone carving. After a while, however, I have to say that every Cathedral looks alike and I am now finding it difficult to find elements that make one stand out more than the other. I paid a prayerful visit and left in about ten minutes after skirting the interior and taking in the many side chapels.

Back to the Conference:

     I walked back to the University then to rejoin the last session of the Conference. The rain had begun again and it really did wake me up. I found the session just as interesting as the one in the morning and very well attended too. The conference coincided with a festival of Indian films that included features and documentaries that were being screened all day—none of us could attend, however, as our conference sessions were on simultaneously.  Still, there was a lovely photography display also by Hermann Rodrigues, a Goan from Jaipur, who made his home in Edinburgh about 25 years ago. He has spent this entire period photographing what he calls ‘Broonscots’—i.e. brown Scots (Sikhs and Hindus from the Indian sub-continent whose families made their home in Scotland several generations ago and have never had any contact with India). He gave a short introduction to his work. On viewing it, I was deeply struck by the concept and by the variety of ‘situations’ he has depicted of a diasporic Indian community of which not much is known in an academic sense.

     Meanwhile, dinner was served and as the crowd dipped into the Indian buffet offerings, we had a chance to get to know fellow-scholars working in similar fields. I was struck by the vast female contingent from South Africa—many of the scholars come from indentured stock. Today, they are working on topics that are related to their own family history. I also met a few delegates from India and other parts of the world.

Dinner with Friends:

     I did not eat much at all, however, as I had made my own dinner plans with someone I was meeting for the first time—Hina. She is a very humorous person I follow on Twitter and when I informed her that I would be in Edinburgh, she very spontaneously suggested we have dinner. Hina was lovely. She brought along her friend Wendy who is married to an Indian and has visited India frequently. They arranged for us to eat at a very charming bistro called Blonde, not far from the University Campus. I ordered a venison casserole (since I was in Scotland, it made sense to have some) and it was simply amazing with its rich red wine sauce laced with chocolate! Served with creamy mashed potato and topped with parsnip chips, it was a great way to sample some Scottish cuisine. You would never had guessed we were all meeting for the first time—we got on so well, it was incredible. We chose to share dessert—a poached pear in a chocolate brandy basket with raspberry sorbet. Needless to say, it was a very successful evening indeed as we ran the gamut of topics to discuss from books to movies to travel.

A Night Time’s Drive up Calton Hill:

     It had been my intention to try to climb up Calton Hill (Edinburgh is studded with hills), but I have been much too fatigued through the past few days to do so. Instead, Hina volunteered to drive me up so I could get some nice views of the lighted city below. I have to say that although the drive was nice, there was not much I could see on a cold and drizzly night. Still, it was good to take in a really grand city by night. Edinburgh projects an image of solidity as its architecture is entirely clad in grey stone. It is picture perfect and I could not stop clicking at every venue. Castles, churches and manor houses in the Old Town are built in tiers with spires adding to the stunning skyline. It is astonishingly beautiful.

     About half an hour later, Hina and Wendy dropped me back to my hotel and I have to say that I just lay down and fell fast asleep.

     Until tomorrow, cheerio…  

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