Finally Writing About Ireland

I have published something like 6 posts that are distinctly NOT about Ireland since I got back this past summer. Usually that would be because I was hard at work chronicling my adventures and polishing each post into a sparkly gem, but this time… it’s not. This post is going to be the start of the Ireland Chronicles, however, I’m going to take some time at the beginning to talk about a personal issue, so for those who are just here for the tourism, please feel free to skip down to the second segment. 


Why Aren’t You Writing About Ireland Yet?

It’s starting to feel like I can’t go traveling with anyone really important to me. I’ve now had two close relationships disintegrate after a trip, while the travels I take with friends who are less close have been great. I don’t define “relationship” as only romantic or sexual, by the way. I happen to think that any degree of association can be a relationship (work relationship, teacher-student relationship, my favorite barista relationship, etc). In this case I am talking about people with whom I felt a long term and deep emotionally intimate connection.

In reality, those close relationships were never actually healthy, and the constant close exposure of travelling together simply put them under a microscope until it was impossible to deny the core problems. As I learn about healthy relationships and boundaries, I find that it’s easy to spot the red flags in a new person, but almost impossible to drag myself out of denial with a person I’m significantly attached to. When you’re so used to something being a certain way, even if that way is awful, it just seems normal, and the abnormal situation of long international trip can cast it into sharp relief.

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In this case, I think I was most of the way out of the fog of denial before we actually embarked, but the plans had been made and the money spent, and I genuinely hoped that a nice, low stress holiday would reduce the big problems that I was still blaming on things like job and life stress. The only thing that could have made that more sarcastically apt is if we’d gone to Egypt instead of Ireland and I could really make some d’Nile jokes. I suppose I’ll have to settle for Blarney jokes instead.

I know in my heart of hearts that a single vacation cannot ruin or fix any relationship, it can only blow the truth up to billboard sized letters. However painful the experience was, I’m glad it happened because I think it’s better in the long run to identify unhealthy relationships so that we can either work to make them healthy or if that’s impossible to walk away. However, it makes it hard to write about a holiday when the memories are either good memories tainted by loss or just plain old bad memories. It’s like that movie, Inside Out, when Sadness touches all the memories and they turn blue and sad forever.

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When I wrote about the Philippines I did my best to simply leave out any and all references to the person I was with, treating it like a blank space in the narrative and jumping around the timeline to avoid describing the personal details of arguments and emotional clashes. I think it helped, too. The memories of that relationship are still painful, but now I can look at the experiences I had in the Philippines and remember the joy I took from them, happily recommend the island, and even think positively about going again someday.

I’m going to try to take the same approach with Ireland, yet at the same time, I don’t want to paint this in some kind of idyllic holiday life. Those who read this blog often know that I don’t like fake-positive online life, but I struggle to balance my need to be honest about the challenges I face with my desire to share only the best and most delightful experiences. I’ve been putting off writing about Ireland explicitly because I don’t want to think about the hurtful parts, and yet I think it’s vital to my gratitude practice and to my remembering self that I take the time to tease out the good parts and keep them alive.

So here’s the disclaimer: I’m cutting out all the personal negative experiences, I’ll only be including things that could happen to any traveler or group based on regular travel challenges. It could result in a choppy or unbalanced story, but that’s just how it has to be. My life is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to be better.

Without any further ado… Irish Road Trip

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Renting a Car

I enjoy road trips when I’m getting out of a city. I love public transit and happily take buses and trains on most of my excursions, but I had some lovely experiences driving in the US, and later in Germany, France, New Zealand and Sweden. When I choose to get a car it’s because I want more freedom to go to places that are off the beaten track, way outside the city, or just generally hard to get to. Ireland is no exception.

When I was planning my trip, a friend of mine told me that he and his wife had done an Irish road trip about 20 years ago, before there was any kind of highway system at all. Although there is a large intercity highway system today, most of the things we wanted to see in the countryside were still on the old roads (more on that later).

In case you’re curious about renting a car, we used EuropeCar. I looked at a few local rental places, but it seems that there are a fair number of hidden fees with those places that can add up and be frustrating and expensive. By opting for a larger company, we got a real price quote up front and the process of picking up the car was much smoother. I was initially irritated that they were trying to up-sell us the “full coverage” insurance (quite expensive) at the pick up. I was extremely tired from running around Paris all day and a delayed flight into Dublin, so all I wanted was to get to our hotel. When we were standing there it felt like a scam sell, and I was very dubious.

The regular minimum insurance covers any scratches or dings that are less than a 2 Euro coin size (it’s a law) so the car companies can’t charge tourists for tiny chips, dings and scratches that occur in the normal course of driving. It also covers a minimum amount of liability in case you damage someone else’s car or property, or have to go to a hospital. There was a high deductible, but to me, it seemed worth it not to pay a few hundred more in insurance. However, since I wasn’t the one paying, we got the full coverage, and after I saw the driving conditions in the countryside, I was very glad that we did. To sum up, if you want to drive anywhere other than the cities and highways, get the extra insurance. If you want to stay in the cities and highways… ride the bus.

Driving in Ireland

The first thing to mention here is that driving in Ireland is done on the left side of the road, and that the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car… completely backwards from the US where I learned to drive. Lucky me, this wasn’t going to be my first time driving left as I’d had a chance to learn in New Zealand some three years previously. Nonetheless, I still spent a good portion of the first few days just reciting “left side, left side, left side” under my breath the whole time.

You also need to know how to use a roundabout, which is a complex system of yielding and merging that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than traffic lights. Basically, anyone already on the roundabout has right of way over anyone trying to join it. Interestingly, some of the busiest roundabouts at major highway interchanges also included traffic lights because otherwise no one would ever get on.

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The road signs are pretty good, written in both English and Irish, and the streets often have painted arrows to help you remember your lane, and also let you know which lane to be in if you want to turn or go straight. There were a few times that the signs an Google Maps did not agree and I got a bit tangled up, but it never took more than a few minutes to sort out.  Except Coleraine (pronounced call-rain) in Northern Ireland, which is a hellhole of one way roads and inaccessible streets. My Google travel history looks pretty linear everywhere else, but in Coleraine it looks like a Gordian knot. Don’t get sucked in, drive around.

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There’s only one more very important note about driving in Ireland which is that outside the cities and arterial highways, the roads are typically only one car wide, but accommodate two way traffic. Even in the villages with two lane roads, there are so many cars parked along the roadside that traffic is reduced to a single lane’s width. In a lot of places, they are also lined closely with thick hedges, deep ditches, or stone walls meaning you have zero shoulder room. Two way traffic includes other normal sized cars, tour buses, farm equipment, and livestock.

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On the one hand, it can be a relief driving these roads because there’s no need to worry about left-side or right side. On the other hand, when you meet oncoming traffic, your knuckles immediately whiten on the steering wheel as you try to figure out how not to have a head on collision.

The good news is that the locals are very used to this. There are a fair number of turn outs on the most narrow roads, and often there is *just* enough room for two cars to pass on the single lane if we’re both willing to rub up against the shrubbery. Once I realized that the vast majority of other drivers were polite, careful, and familiar with the process, I did relax a little bit. As intimidating as these roads can be, it’s worth it to drive them because a lot of little hidden gems can only be accessed this way.

Public Transit in Cities

While we were in Dublin, we were actually able to simply walk everywhere we wanted to go by getting a room next to Trinity College. The main tourist district is quite tightly packed and walk-able, but if you want to go a little further or it’s just too rainy, there’s a great system of buses and trams. However, paying for these modes of transit are unnecessarily complicated. Fares change based on where and when you board and exit, so you can easily end up paying the maximum if you don’t know how to navigate the system.

The easiest way around this is to get a LEAP card. There’s a few ways to do this, but the simplest is to walk into nearly any convenience store and buy one. They cost about 5 Euro and are re-loadable. Fares are automatically calculated if you tap in AND tap out, plus you get a fare discount for using the card instead of cash. I wasn’t able to get the reloading app to work for me, but it’s very easy to reload at any number of grocery shops and convenience stores.

There is a tourist LEAP, but I’d shy away from that one because of the limitations. They are technically unlimited travel, but they only apply to city transit (and a few airport options). Generally, visitors to Ireland want to see the countryside or travel to more than one city, and the LEAP doesn’t cover that. The LEAP is good for most major cities (NOT Derry or Belfast as that is a different country), so I think the top-up card is the way to go.

Please note that the LUAS tram system is a bit unique. There is a post at the tram stop OUTSIDE the tram where you need to tap your LEAP card BOTH before you get on and AFTER you get off. If you don’t tap when you leave, you’ll be charged the maximum fare! I was a bit thrown off by the tapping posts being at the stops rather than inside the tram, but it did make boarding more efficient. I used this in Dublin.

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I used buses in Galway. With a bus you need to tell the driver what stop you plan to get off BEFORE you tap your LEAP card. The driver will program your fare and then you can hold your card to the reader. It takes much longer than the tram, but the drivers are generally pretty nice about it. Just make sure you use Google Maps or similar to know the name of your stop before you board. Again, failure to do so means a much larger fee.

Traveling Outside the Cities: Public Bus and Tour Bus

If you do want to travel to another city, there are great and affordable inter-city bus options. I used CityLink. You get a slight discount for booking online. The drivers don’t generally require a printed ticket, so you can book online from your phone or hostel no problem. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations in each city.

Finally, another great way to see Ireland without a car is to join tour buses that leave from the major cities and head out to the countryside. I personally did this twice: once from Dublin to the Wicklow mountains, and once from Gallway to Kylemore Abbey.

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I shopped around using Viator to compare deals and I found that a LOT of agencies overcharge or misrepresent their tours. Read the details carefully. One of my day trips from Galway was to go out to Inishbofin. I did find a “tour” but it was nothing more than the public bus (CityLink) and the public ferry. They wanted to charge three-four times the cost of those tickets and didn’t even offer a guide to help you find the bus/ferry!

Long story short, if you can use the public transit to get someplace, do it. If there is no public transit, then make sure you pick a reputable tour company with plenty of positive reviews for the tour you are interested in. You can find the links for the tours I went on here:  Kylemore Abbey with Galway Tour CompanyWicklow Mountains with Gray Line Dublin.

If you do choose to join one of these tours, please be aware that not all the buses offer all the amenities. WiFi, charging ports and the like are hit or miss, but the seats are comfy and the drivers are very entertaining. I would recommend bringing lots of snacks or even a pack lunch as the timing doesn’t always allow you to eat when you’re hungry or both eat and sight see. They also have deals with some random tiny towns that they stop in for lunch. There’s usually only one place to eat, so it can get crowded or expensive.

Planning the Route

We had decided on a basic road trip itinerary before arriving. I think it’s important on any time sensitive vacation to schedule a certain amount of things. I like to schedule where I’ll sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner (lunch can be on the fly unless there’s a special reason to schedule it). I like to schedule one or two things in a day and also leave myself room to change, rearrange, add or subtract. The schedule for Ireland was unusually tight because my travel companion had a very long bucket list and while I might go back one day, it’s unlikely they will, so I tried hard to accommodate them. Even with a tight schedule, I don’t like to buy tickets in advance unless they’re likely to sell out so that I have the freedom to change things around as needed.

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Our schedule was also based on not doing more than about 4 hours of car time a day. It’s a holiday after all, there’s no point in spending all day driving. As a consequence, there were a couple places we visited just because we needed to stop. No regrets, though, even the small out of the way places were awesome. Our final road map looked like this:

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Finally, the end of the trip we spent in Dublin, so we returned the car and used the excellent buses or just walked from our very central hostel next to Trinity College.

After 16 crazy busy days, my travel companion returned home, and I had a much more slow paced week spent between Dublin and Galway where I relied on coach bus tours and public transit to enjoy myself.


EXPANDED 3 WEEK ITINERARY

For those who either want a sneak preview or need some ideas to plan your own Irish holiday. You could use this in all or part:
two week drive -day 1-14
one week drive: South = day 2-6+12&13 or North = 11-7 (backwards) + 12&13
one week Dublin/Gallway no-car experience – 12, 13, 15, 16/17 combo, 18, 19, 20/21 combo

Day 1:
arrived very late at Dublin airport, picked up car, stayed in a hotel near the airport

Day 2:
Irish National Stud
Leap Castle (haunted?)
Sol y Sombra Tapas, Killarney

Day 3:
Kerry Ring
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)

Day 4:
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars

Day 5:
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Doolin Cave
Traditional Music House

Day 6:
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone

Day 7:
Belleek Pottery
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Downhill Demesne

Day 8:
Giant’s Causeway
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Dunluce Castle

Day 9:
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Glenarm Gardens
Glenariff Waterfall

Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
Inch Abbey

Day 11:
Newgrange
return car to Dublin Airport
Pub Crawl in Temple Bar
This is the day we were supposed to go to Newgrange, but had a “zero damage” accident with a German family in the parking lot and ended up doing police and insurance reports instead, then had to leave to get the car back to Dublin on time.

Day 12:
Viking Splash Tour
Dublin Walking Tour
The walking tour was cancelled last minute, but we were so tired that neither of us actually minded and we spent the afternoon resting.

Day 13:
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”

Day 14:
End of two week version, companion departed from Dublin airport
As the person doing the 3 week version, I took this day to rest and do laundry.

From this point, the schedule is FAR more relaxed… and I really needed it after so much fast paced adventuring. I also did the final week on public transit or tour groups.

Day 15:
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough (GrayLine)

Day 16:
Bus to Galway
Honestly, you could do more, but I was enjoying the slow pace life.

Day 17:
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march

Day 18:
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)

Day 19:
Inishbofin Island (public transit)

Day 20:
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.

Day 21:
Bus back to Dublin airport and fly home.

Myths & Tales from China 03

As the Gods withdraw from creating the earth, the age of great heros begins. Demi-gods and great sages who challenge the gods and the natural world to bring specialized knowledge of technology and medicine to improve the lives of humanity, lifting us from stone aged hunter-gatherers into the metal-working, agrarian societies that lead to greater civilizations and achievements.


The Story of Fuxi

A very long time ago, there was a country called Huaxu. The people who lived there were happy and long lived. Their lives were not that different from the Daoist Immortals. One day, a beautiful young Huaxu maiden was out strolling in the forest near Thunder Lake when she unwittingly wandered into the domain of god of Thunder. She saw a giant footprint on the ground and she was very curious. She held out her foot next to the giant print to see the difference in size. The instant she set her own foot into the giant footprint, the air was filled with the rumbling sound of thunder, and giant passed over her head then disappeared in a flash.

The Huaxu maiden took fright and ran back. She didn’t expect that after that day her belly would begin to get bigger, but ten months later she gave birth to an adorable baby boy. She named him Fuxi.

From the time he was little, Fuxi was smart and talented. Once he chopped down a small paulowina tree, trimmed it, and strung it with fifty strings. He called it a Se Harp and when he began to play it, it made melodious sounds that were very beautiful to hear. 

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One day, while Fuxi was playing music, a peal of thunder arrived from far away. He raised his head and thought to himself, “I have heard it said that my father is the god of Thunder that lives in Heaven. I too should go to Heaven and see him. Yes! Some people say that there is a tree called Jian Mu in the Southeast, it is extremely high and large, only if I climb that can I reach the Heavenly Court of the Immortal gods!” Thus, Fuxi took his Se Harp and departed Huaxu to begin his search for Jian Mu.

Fuxi headed out towards the Southeast. The more he walked, the more desolate it became. One day, he saw a group of starving people hitting a bison in order to kill it for food. They pulled the meat off a piece at a time, dripping with blood, and stuffed it into their mouths and ate it. Seeing them act this way, Fuxi was extremely astonished.

When he arrived at the banks of Blackwater River, Fuxi saw a person standing in the river grabbing at fish. When a small fish passed by, the person immediately pounced on it, but actually pouncing on thin air they were swept into the torrent and were carried away by the water in the blink of an eye. Fuxi saw this and felt very sad.

Fuxi walked and watched, walked and watched until he met the goddess Sunu. He then went up and asked, “Excuse me, but may I ask, do you know the way to Jian Mu which leads up to Heaven?” She answered his question with one of her own, “Are you so unsatisfied staying upon the Earth? What are you doing looking for Jian Mu?” Fuxi answered, “In order to go up to Heaven! In Heaven waits my father, the god of Thunder!”

“Very well, I will tell you where to find Jian Mu, but remember, when you climb up Jian Mu, you must on no account turn and look down!” When Sunu finished speaking, she pointed her finger. Fuxi followed her pointing finger and as expected, he saw a giant tree, unmatched in size by any other, growing straight into the sky. It was surely Jian Mu.

In order to show his gratitude, Fuxi loosed the Se Harp from his back and gave it to Sunu. After that, he began to climb Jian Mu. This was a very strange tree, the bark was very smooth and difficult to climb. Fuxi didn’t dare to be even a little bit careless, and slowly, slowly pulled himself up. Meanwhile, Sunu sat down under the tree and used the Se Harp to play some music. The sound that traveled up to Fuxi’s ears was very soulful, like it was expressing all the woes of the mortal world. He listened and listened and was soon distracted. Not paying attention, he slipped a long way down the tree.

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Fuxi quickly pulled himself back together and continued climbing upward. At the very moment he climbed to the highest branch of Jian Mu, the music Sunu was playing echoed through the skies, forlorn and filled with sorrow.  Fuxi was afraid; he forgot the warning of Sunu and turned his head to look back downwards. This time he was ruined. He felt nothing but the sky and earth spinning, and all of a sudden he fell down.

Fuxi, bearing his pain, began to get up from the ground. He yelled out, “Sunu!”, but she was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, the waves in Blackwater River rose suddenly and issued forth a rare and mythic creature. The creature said, “You have fallen from Heaven. It was not Sunu that caused you to be distracted, but your own reluctance to leave the mortal world!” When Fuxi heard this he was quite amazed, and decided not to climb Jian Mu again.

Thus, he came into the East, and there he established a kingdom. He taught the people how to hunt, how to domesticate wild animals, how to use string to weave nets, and he taught the people to use the nets to catch fish and birds. Ever since then, people have not had to go hungry and their lives are much better than they were before.


Shen’nong Tries All the Plants

In ancient times the five crops and the weeds all grew together, medicinal plants and all the flowers bloomed in one place. No one could clearly distinguish which plants could be eaten or which ones could be used to treat illness. The common people were dependent on hunting for their livelihood, but the more they hunted the birds that flew the air, the fewer they became; and the more they hunted the beasts that walked on the ground, the rarer they became. People often went hungry. And if someone got a rash or got sick, then there was no way to treat them, and people could only look on helplessly and wait for the them to die.

The tribe’s chief, Shen’nong considered the situation of the suffering of ordinary people and he felt pain in his heart and mind. He decided to find crops that could sate hunger and herbs that could be sued to treat illness for his people. He lead several of his subjects, setting off from Mt. Li and walking towards the Northwest. They walked and walked, they walked for seven times seven or forty-nine days. They arrived at a place where the peaks of high mountains met and canyons ran into one another. Growing atop the mountains were strange plants and unusual grasses that they could smell even from very far away. Shen’nong was extremely happy and led his people into a canyon until they reached the foot of a large mountain.

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This mountain stuck straight up into the sky, and all four sides were steep cliffs. The cliffs were overgrown with moss, and rivulets of water slid down them. He saw without a ladder to heaven they could not ascend. His subjects pleaded with him to let it be, to return home with haste. Shen’nong resolutely shook his head. He looked up and down the high mountain, carefully sizing it up then thought hard. Suddenly he spotted several golden monkeys following along high old hanging vines and moving horizontally between the cliffs and climbing the trees that grew there. Shen’nong had an idea!  He called for his people to come then had them chop wood, cut vines, and build a shelf frame that leaned against the cliffs. Every day they built another layer no matter if it was windy and rainy, or snowing and freezing, they never stopped working. They built constantly for one year until they reached the mountain top.

Shen’nong carefully, cautiously climbed up the wooden frame up the mountain. Wow! The top of the mountain was truly a world of flowers and grasses, Shen’nong was very excited. He called to his people to guard against attacks from wolves, tigers, panthers or other animals. He himself picked flowers and plants and put them in his mouth to taste them. By day, he led his people around the mountain top tasting plants; by night, the people lit a bonfire, and he would sit by the fire and record in detail his discoveries of the day: which ones are bitter and which sweet, which ones can sate hunger and which can cure illness. He wrote it all down clearly and distinctly.

Once, he put a very strange looking plant into his mouth and began to chew, immediately he became dizzy and fell to the ground. His subjects rushed to help him up. He was at once aware that he was poisoned, but he was already unable to speak. He could only feebly point at the bright red reishi mushroom ahead and then point to his own mouth. One subject understood his meaning, and quickly fed him the reishi mushroom. After Shen’nong ate the reishi, he felt instantly refreshed, and the poisoned miasma melted away all at once. He quickly told his people to record the poisonous plant, as well the healing reishi. Even though this time they averted disaster, his subjects worried that this way of tasting everything would sooner or later be dangerous, so they begged him to go back down the mountain. But as before, he resolutely shook his head.

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When he finished tasting all the plants on one mountain, Shen’nong went on to another mountain to keep tasting, until his footprints were stamped all over the mountain range. Finally, he tasted wheat, rice, millet, corn and a whole bunch of edible beans and later these became known as “the five crops”. He also tasted three hundred and sixty-five types of medicinal herbs and wrote “Bencai Jing”, the classical book of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.

Years flew by in the blink of an eye, Shen’nong was about to carry the herbs he had picked and the seeds he had gathered down the mountain when he discovered that the wooden frames they had built had grown roots. During the long days, they had unexpectedly grown into a sea of trees. While Shen’nong was trying to figure out how to get down the mountain, a flock of red-crested cranes flew by in midair and carried him and the subjects at his side up into the Heavenly Court. In later years, people will come to give Shen’nong the title of Flame Emperor Yan Di.