The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

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Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

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I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

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I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

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The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

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We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

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The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

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After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

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The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

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I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

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Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

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Myths & Tales from China 06

The Kingdom of the Sea

When westerners imagine life under the sea, it’s mostly human people with some fish attributes like fins or gills, but in many parts of Asia, the kingdoms under the waves are filled with sentient and often extremely large versions of familiar sea creatures — and dragons. Here are 3 stories about the Sea Kingdom, ruled, not by a merman King Triton or a humanoid sea god like Poseidon, but by a Great Dragon King who rules all life in the sea from his crystal palace.


Dragon King of the Boiling Sea

A long, long time ago, on the southwest side of Zhou Shan (a city in Zhejiang made soley of islands) there was a small island. On this island, under the ground, was buried a great deal of bright yellow gold, so the people all called it Jin Cang Dao or “Hidden Gold Island”. Some time later, the ever greedy and never satisfied Dragon King of the Eastern Sea learned of this news. In order to claim all of Jin Cang Island for himself, the Dragon King amassed large quantities of Dragon Princes and Dragon Grandsons and Shrimp Soldiers and Crab Generals, and launched himself at Jin Cang Island: rising tide after rising tide, breaking wave after breaking wave, a fierce torrent that overtook the sky. The trees on Jin Cang Island fell and the houses collapsed; it was an extremely miserable sight.

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On the east side of Jin Cang Island was Fang Hua Shan or “Flower Spinning Mountain”, at the top of the mountain lived the Flower Spinning Sprite. She saw the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea causing trouble for no reason at all, devastating the common people, and she felt entirely angry. She picked up her magic broom and lightly swept towards the sea surface. The water that was coming up the mountain then retreated back down with a crash. The survivors on Jin Cang Island one after another ran to Mt. Fang Hua to take refuge. The Flower Spinning Sprite changed her shape in a single shake of her body, she became a white haired, ash grey hundred year old granny, and said to everyone, “If you want to save Jin Cang, follow my lead and spin the flowers into thread. Weave the spun flowers into fishing nets and go down to the sea and defeat the Dragon King!” Everyone heard the old granny’s words: men and women, old and young, all together set about the task, united in the common effort of spinning flowers and weaving nets. They spun and they weaved, they were wholly occupied for seven times seven or forty-nine days, they wove nine times nine or eighty-one pounds of golden threaded fishing nets.

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They finished weaving the fishing nets, but who would they send to the sea to fight the Dragon King? Everyone bickered back and forth, talking about it continuously. Just then, a small chubby boy appeared suddenly out of the crowd, he smacked his chest and said, “I will go!” His fellow villagers looked and saw it was little Hai Sheng and could not help but laugh. How could a seven or eight year old child fight the Dragon King? The old granny, however, smiled and said, “Go to the sea and fight the Dragon King, there is nobility in having courage, so let little Hai Sheng go!” So saying, she took up a suit of golden threaded clothes and bade Hai Sheng to put them on. Next she passed on to Hai Sheng the secret trick to fighting the Dragon King.

Hai SHeng put on the golden threaded clothes, and his whole body immediately felt a burst of soft tickles. In accordance with the spell the granny imparted to him, he said “big”, and all at once he grew tall in height. Suddenly he became a powerful, large, inexhaustible giant. His fellow villagers stared with their eyes wide and mouths open. Hai Sheng picked up the golden threaded fishing nets and took large strides down Mt. Fang Hua, then with a plop sound, jumped into the sea.

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It’s strange to say, but wherever Hai Sheng went, the tidal waters and sea waves in that place made way for him. In actuality, the golden threaded clothes Hai Sheng was wearing were water repelling treasure clothes made by the Flower Spinning Sprite just for him. Hai Sheng took out the golden threaded nets and cast them into the sea. He said, “big”, the net flew toward the ocean in such a way that it hid the sky and covered the earth. In a short time, he started to collect the first net. He had captured Gou Manjing, the treasure guardian general for the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. As long as he had captured Gou Manjing, he would be able to get the Sea Boiling Pot; then he would have no fear that the Dragon King would not return Jin Cang Island. Hai Sheng was extremely happy, and ordered Gou Manjing to hand over the Sea Boiling Pot at once!

Gou Manjing started to struggle while still in the net. Hai Sheng shouted, “small”, and the golden threaded net instantly started to shrink. Gou Manjing was choked to within an inch of his life. He had no choice but to stop and lead Hai Sheng to the Hundred Treasure Hall of the Eastern Sea Dragon Palace to take the Sea Boiling Pot.

As soon as he had retrieved the Sea Boiling Pot, Hai Sheng then, in accordance with the Flower Spinning Spite’s instructions, set up the pot at the sea side, scooped out one ladle of Eastern Sea water, poured it into the pot, burned a roaring pile of dry firewood, and pili-pala it started to boil. Boil! BOIL! Several incense sticks burned in the time that passed; the water of the sea gave off steam. The Dragon King openly and honestly appeared on the water’s surface, behind him followed a group of hot and panting shrimp soldiers and crab generals repeatedly bowing and kowtowing and earnestly calling for their lives to be spared.

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“Ebb the tide and rest the waves, return Jin Cang to me, otherwise I will boil the Dragon King soft!” Hai Sheng said. The Dragon King hastily gave a command for the tide to retreat by three feet, and the waves to subside by thirty feet. Jin Cang Island was at last once more protruding from the sea. 

Who could have guessed, as soon as Hai Sheng picked up the pot in both hands and doused the fire, the Dragon King once again immediately rose the tide and beat the waves. One wave swept up the Sea Boiling Pot and it disappeared without a trace. “What to do?” Hai Sheng anxiously stamped his foot. The stomp was no small thing, and suddenly all the gold buried under the earth was completely brought out by Hai Sheng’s stomp, and flew one piece after another, down to the sea shallows, dropped onto the beach, and in the blink of an eye built a sparkling golden sea bank. No matter how the tide rushed forth or the waves churned over, Jin Cang stood, majestic and towering. From then on, the Dragon King does not dare come to cause trouble, the people live in peace and work happily, and Jin Cang Island, or “Hidden Gold Island” became known as Jin Tang Island, the Island of the Golden Embankment.


LongNu (Dragon Maid) Visits Guan Yin

According to legend, there is a pair of young innocents standing in attendance at Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s side. The boy is named Shan Cai (which means ‘cherish wealth’) and the girl is named Long Nu (which means ‘dragon maiden’).

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Originally, Long Nu was the daughter of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. She was clever and bright, and the Dragon King doted on her very much.  One day, Long Nu heard that the fishing village by the seaside was having a Boat Lantern Festival, and loudly demanded to go and see the bustling scene. But the Dragon King shook his head and said, “That is no place for a Dragon Princess to go!”

Long Nu thought to herself, “You won’t let me go, I must go!” She waited with difficulty until midnight, then took advantage of the Dragon King not paying attention, and stealthily slipped out of the Crystal Palace. She transformed into a maiden from a fishing family, and entered the fishing village. The main street was unusually bustling. There were all kinds of fish lanterns in numbers beyond counting: there were Yellow Croaker Fish Lanterns, Octopus Lanterns, Squid Lanterns, and Shark Lanterns; along with Lobster Lanterns, Crab Lanterns, Scallop Lanterns and Conch Lanterns… Long Nu stared east, gazed west, and then broke into the crowd without thinking.

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At that moment, suddenly a half cup of cold tea spilled down from a loft above, and splashed impartially on Long Nu’s head. Long Nu was so scared her face went white. For in actuality, whenever she transformed into a human, if she came into contact with water then she would quickly change back into her original shape. She was afraid that changing back into her dragon shape in the middle of the crowd would cause trouble, so she ran with all her might back to the seaside, she barely made it to the beach when she transformed into a large fish. She lay on the beach completely unable to move. 

Along the beach there came two fishing lads, one lean and one plump. They saw this bright and lustrous large fish and all at once they stared distractedly. The plump boy said, “What a fish! How did it get up on the beach?” The lean boy, moving the fin to and fro, said, “Let’s take it!  We can carry it on our shoulders up to the road to sell, it will fetch a good price.” So saying, the two boys carried the big fish on their shoulders up to the road to sell it.

Meanwhile, Bodhisattva Guan Yin was sitting in meditation in the Black Bamboo Forest. She saw what had just taken place, and acting without thinking from her merciful heart, she quickly called the boy Shan Cai to go and buy the large fish and release it into the sea. Shan Cai stood upon a lotus flower and flew down from high in the clouds.

The two boys carried the fish to the main street, all the people watching the lanterns all at once gathered around, pointing and talking, however no one dared to buy the big fish. An old man said, “Boy, this fish is too big, you ought to cut it up and sell the pieces.” The plump boy though this was sound reasoning. He borrowed a hatchet, raised it high and was just about to chop. Suddenly, a small child shouted out, “Quickly, look! The big fish is crying.” The plump boy paused the hatchet and looked. The big fish was indeed crying two streams of sparkling translucent tears. At that point, a young Buddhist monk came over and blocked them, saying, “Don’t strike! Don’t strike! I will buy this fish.” Everyone who heard this roared with laughter. “Young Monk, why would you buy the fish? Maybe you’ll start eating meat again and leave the monastic life!” The young monk’s face went red, he explained nervously, “I would buy this fish in order to save its life.” So saying, he took out a silver piece and handed it to the lean boy, and had them carry the fish back to the shore and release it in the sea.

As soon as it touched the water, the fish made a big splash and swam far far away, after that it turned around and nodded to the young monk, only then did it swiftly dive into the water and vanish. What’s more, when the young Dragon Princess wasn’t seen at the Dragon Palace, everyone was thrown into confusion. The Dragon King angrily puffed his mustache and opened his eyes wide. After daybreak, the young Dragon Princess finally returned, not until then was the Dragon King’s mind at rest. However, in order to teach her a lesson, the Dragon King expelled her from the Crystal Palace. 

Long Nu was broken-hearted. Weeping endlessly she arrived at the Lotus Flower Sea; the sound of her weeping reached the Black Bamboo Forest. Bodhisattva Guan Yin heard this and knew that Long Nu had come. She instructed Shan Cai to meet Long Nu and bring her in. Shan Cai appeared before Long Nu and smiling asked, “Little Sister Long Nu, do you not remember me?” Long Nu recognized him as the young monk who had saved her and she could not help but turn her tears to laughter. She went forward and was about to bow to him. Shan Cai drew her to a halt and said, “It was Bodhisattva Guan Yin who told me to go and rescue you!”  Long Nu lifted her head to look and saw Bodhisattva Guan Yin seated on a lotus flower platform so she bowed and paid her respect. Guan Yin liked Long Nu a lot, so she kept her by her side. From that point on, Long Nu and Shan Cai lived like brother and sister in a cliff cave near to Chao Yin Cavern. That cliff cave was later called “Shan Cai Long Nu Cave”.

Long Nu served as a maid to Bodhisattva Guan Yin, but the Dragon King regretted his actions, and called for Long Nu to return to the Dragon Palace. But Long Nu was unwilling to return to the Crystal Palace that imprisoned her.

**There aren’t many pictures of this myth, although it was made into a TV drama in Taiwan, the screen shot quality is abysmal. However, Long Nu and Shan Cai are regular characters in an insanely adorable web comic called “Inhuman” about how all the old magical beings are getting along in modern China. I haven’t found a good translation, but the art alone is worth a look.

This one is from a school field trip. Shan Cai asks Long Nu what’s wrong, and she’s feeling really motion sick from the bus ride and can’t help but throw up. However, because she is a princess of the sea, she fills the bus with seawater and animals, so when they get off the bus all the human students are wet and angry, but Shan Cai says “now we have enough to make seafood hot pot!”


Ne Zha Disturbs the Sea

Once upon a time, at Chen Tang Guan there was a military officer named Li Jing (historical figure 570-649 CE). When his wife conceived her third child, he was conceived for three years and six months and still hadn’t been born. Once day, very late at night, Mrs. Li felt a burst of pain in her belly, and unexpectedly gave birth to a ball of flesh. Li Jing belived it to be some kind of evil spirit, he took out his double-edged sword and cut the ball of flesh. The ball of flesh split open and out hopped a small child. As soon as the child was out, he ran all over the place. Li Jing was very happy and gave him the name Ne Zha.

Early in the morning the next day, a Daoist came requesting to see Li Jing, he wanted to take Ne Zha as an apprentice. He was the Golden Light Cave Sage Tai Yi. He gifted Ne Zha with two treasured objects: one was the circlet Qian Kun Quan (Universal Ring), and the other was the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling (Sky Budding Sash). Li Jing happily agreed.

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In no time at all, Ne Zha was seven years old. He was very active and energetic. One summer afternoon, the weather was especially hot, Ne Zha ran down to the riverbank and used the Hun Tian Ling dipped in water to bathe, and as he washed he also played. The Hun Tian Ling is an amazing treasure, when it was immersed in the water, all the water in the river shone red. This river was the Nine Bend River that feeds into the Eastern Sea, and as Ne Zha shook the Hun Tian Ling in the river, the Dragon Palace in the Eastern Sea began to sway. The Dragon King got a surprise and quickly called the spirit that patrolled the sea, Ye Cha to go and look. Ye Cha drilled out of the water’s surface to see one small child holding a length of red silk in the middle of bathing, and then called out, “Hey, small fry, what sort of strange thing are you using, the Dragon King’s Crystal Palace was disturbed when everything started to shake?”

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Ne Zha raised his head to look and saw ferocious looking (green faced, fierce toothed) monster, then said, “What kind of monster are you? Do you not want to cause harm or not?” Ye Cha heard that and became angry, he raised up his axe and swung it towards Ne Zha.  Ne Zha dodged out of the way, and fetched Qian Kun Quan and threw it at Ye Cha. There was a noise — deng, and Ye Cha’s head was broken and he died on the spot.

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Ne Zha saw that Qian Kun Quan was dirty, so he sat down on a stone to wash it. The Crystal Palace was unable to withstand the vibration of these two Treasures and nearly collapsed from shaking. At that time, the shrimp soldiers came to report, “Ye Cha was killed by a child!”. The Dragon King heard this and became enraged, he was just about to dispatch the troops, when the third crown prince Ao Bing Zhan stood up and said, “King Father, allow me to go and capture this small child.” and thus saying, he dispatched the shrimp soldiers and crab generals and rode the great beast Bi Shui Shou. They arrived at Nine Bend River, Ao Bing Zhan called to Ne Zha, “Where are you, you Little Goblin, you dared to go so far as to kill Ye Cha, watch out that I don’t kill you!”

“I am not a Goblin I am the son of the Chen Tang Guan army commander Li Jing, Ne Zha!” Without waiting for Ne Zha to finish speaking, Ao Bing hefted his pike and ferociously began to stab. This time Ne Zha was really angry! Ne Zha flung the silk cloth Hun Tian Ling at Ao Bing, wrapped it around Ao Bing, then gently tugged, pulling him off the beast Bi Shui Shou. Ne Zha stepped on his neck, lifted the circlet Qian Kun Quan, and tapped him lightly on the head, and his true form was revealed, he was actually a small golden dragon.  Ne Zha pulled out the dragon’s tendons, wrapped it around his waist and joyfully returned home.

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The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea heard that his third son had been killed by Ne Zha, in less than (the time of) one breath, he invited the Dragon Kings of the other three Seas to gather together in Chen Tang Guan, drop a huge rain, and prepare/intend to flood the place. Ne Zha didn’t want to involve his parents and the whole village of regular people, so he calmly picked up a double edged sword and cut his own throat. Not until that did the Dragon Kings free Chen Tang Guan.

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Ne Zha’s soul left his flesh body, and slowly, flutteringly it floated down to Golden Light Cave, and met his Master Sage Tai Yi. Sage Tai Yi plucked several lotus roots from within the lotus pond, arranged them in the shape of a human, and slowly said, “Ne Zha, Lotus Flower Reincarnation!” Ne Zha’s soul leaned over the lotus roots, and before long, the lotus flower slowly blossomed. A small child stretched and stood up and was exactly the same as the original Ne Zha. Ne Zha knelt at Sage Tai Yi’s feet, and spoke sincerely, “Thank you Master, you have given me a second life, from now on I won’t wantonly fight with people anymore.” Sage Tai Yi smiled and nodded. He took out two Wind and Fire Wheels and a Fire Point Spear, and gave them to Ne Zha. Ne Zha then remained with Sage Tai Yi and followed his teachings.

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Later, when Ne Zha came down the mountain, he became the officer who would lead ahead of all the troops of arms master Jiangzi Ya under King Wu (historical figure 1046-1043), beheading goblins and driving out devils, establishing outstanding military service. He also performed many great deeds for the common people, and so the people all loved him.

**This is such a beloved story in China that it has been made into a popular animated movie which is where all these images come from. It’s in Chinese, but now you know the story you can watch the video if you like:

Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

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This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

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I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

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Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

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Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

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On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

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I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

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It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

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The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

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Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

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As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

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If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

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Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

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I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

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There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

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Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

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As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

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After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.