Driving Through The Scottish Highlands

Pankaj Mehta, Mahesh Samat and I were school buddies. Together we grew up over Tintin, Nancy Drew and the Jataka Tales, while secretly salivating over our ravishing English teacher. But as happens with many lads, we drifted apart when school ended, each going in search of his own destiny. The years rolled by, life happened, and we forgot all about school and the wonder years.

Then, one fine evening about four years ago, we found each other again. The days of comic books were over, but we discovered that we were united by a new passion: single malt whisky. We immediately began discussing the possibility of driving through Scotland together, enjoying everything the Highlands have to offer (except the kilt, which doesn’t work on hairy Indian legs), and visiting as many distilleries as possible.

It took four years to reach the point where we were knocking on the doors of the UK consulate for our visas and doing the rounds of RTO offices to obtain International Driving Permits. Finally, in September, our very own -style saga began.

Of course, the most exciting part of the journey was driving on Scotland’s splendid country roads, dropping in at quaint distilleries and shamelessly knocking down their complimentary drams, and drinking some more at the B&Bs we would retire to each evening. But it was equally exciting to spend a whole week rediscovering my old school friends and observing how friendships can evolve as you live, breathe, drink and sleep together (well, almost). Remember, the three of us had lost touch for many years so in a strange sort of way, these relationships felt brand new.

What quickly emerged, and this is something that can happen only when you travel together, were our individual quirks. Some cool, some a trifle annoying. r I have a habit of lapsing into a ‘trance’, as Mahesh politely puts it, retreating into a shell for no apparent reason. Though my pals didn’t say as much, I suspect they found this ‘quality’ to be irritatingly anti-social. Worse still, I demonstrated a nasty tendency to slip back into driving habits: abrupt braking, sudden turns and raging overuse of the horn. The next time we go on an international road trip, I suspect I shall remain chained to the back seat, as bawling babies usually are.

Pankaj, we discovered, is a pucca tourist. He likes to film every grazing sheep, every innocuous pond, every wild flower and every oak cask for posterity. Our suspicion that he must have been Japanese in a previous life was confirmed by his fetish for cars. It took an enormous amount of cajoling (bordering on emotional blackmail) before Pankaj would reluctantly agree to hand over the keys to our SUV.

Mahesh used to live in the UK and had done these sorts of journeys before, so he decided to play the role of a nagging mother hen. His list of British dos and don’ts was always at the ready: hot tips on how to drive in that part of the world, how to get your way with the locals, what to order for breakfast, even how to savour the bloody black pudding (eek!).

Evenings were when the fun really began. We would get busy probing each other on tricky subjects. Of course, being a journalist, this line of entertainment was my idea. And all those miniature bottles from the various distilleries we’d visited served as the perfect icebreaker: with a few pegs of the finest malt in our systems, any remaining inhibitions were quickly discarded. Stories of assorted disappointments and regrets in life, crazy career decisions, lost opportunities for easy sex and other unprintable confessions came pouring out. The trip reintroduced us to one another in a deeply personal way.

The child in us often came to the party, too. At one B&B two of us had to share a room, so we drew lots to decide who would get a room to himself. As luck would have it, I won that round and had to spend the evening listening to two overgrown kids cribbing about the unscientific system we used to pick the winner.

However, a minor crisis during the journey revealed to me that my school buddies had actually grown up to be extremely resourceful men. Our return flight from Islay (a Scottish island on the west coast) to Glasgow, where we had a connecting flight to , was cancelled because of horrid weather, and we had to be in London that evening for a prior commitment. Even as my shoulders drooped and I began scratching my spinning head over the next course of action, Pankaj and Mahesh had already swung into Plan B and C modes.

Calls were made, lines of enquiry pursued and locals consulted. Before I could take in the stress of the situation, we were downing more drams aboard a scenic ferry en route to Glasgow. Instead of causing headaches, the cancelled flight turned out to be a bonus, offering an exhilarating ride on the high seas.

My old pals, who at school would get caned regularly by the principal for indulging in mischief, had become the sort of men you would want to travel with—the kind who can enjoy a drink even when things go awry.

By the time our journey ended, I was kicking myself for not having remained in touch with Mahesh and Pankaj all these years. Unlike the stars of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, we didn’t have life-changing epiphanies. What we did come away with was a firm resolve to take another trip together soon (this time through Italian and French wine country), along with the peculiar sweetness of finding familiarity in an entirely new place. 

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Anil Thakraney

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