Saturday, November 27, 2010


sligo, ireland to galway, ireland
before i'd been to ireland, the mention of it conjured visions of green grass and thatched roofs. by the time i had gotten to sligo i could understand the green, it was everywhere, in every shade imaginable, but i had yet to see one bit of straw roofing. ten days in, i finally saw a thatched roof! it was ridiculously exciting, and looking back seems really sad on my part, but still, at the time, it warranted an entry in my journal.

and as you would expect, it was quaint. bucolic. made me feel like i had stepped back in time. but thatching wasn't the only thing ireland was going to serve up to boggle my 20th century brain. most folks on aran island lived without electricity - to this day i can't imagine my life without my kilowattage!

i hopped a bus for westport with an aim to go to clare island. the weather didn't cooperate, so i spent a nice chunk of time at matt malloy's bar, an old fashioned irish pub, owned by matt malloy, of chieftan's fame. no matter what time it was, seemed there were always folks up for  performing a little traditional music.

the next day it was still fogged in, so i gave up on clare and headed for galway and the aran islands.
caught the ferry (really just a small boat with an open back that seated ten or eleven people max). the seas were a bit wild and the ride was a rough one. it was here i began to believe i was prone to sea sickness. the fear of the return trip kept me on the island a couple days longer than planned, but that was alright, it was a swell island! i stayed at a hostel run by joel, a gourmand who happened to be a cousin of the great opera singer, jessye norman, a woman whose voice thrills me. he ran a pretty fancy restaurant, but let me use the kitchen to make my famous cheese souffle and as we ate the cheesy clouds, we talked food and music into the wee hours.
i woke up feeling revived and went off to explore the seven churches and dun aengus, the remains of a norman fort on a cliff edge. taking a breather from tourism, i sat in the common room at the hostel and saw a copy of the unbearable lightness of being sitting on the table, face down as if someone had been interrupted and would be right back. i put a slip of paper in to mark the page and began reading from the beginning, knowing that any moment the owner might come back to claim it. as i got more and more caught up in the story, i began to read faster and with a sense of urgency, the idea that i wouldn't get to finish it caused a little despair to well up. i couldn't risk it, so i didn't go to bed and finished the book by morning. the owner never knew that someone else had devoured their book.

"...there is nothing heavier than compassion. not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echos" - milan kundera

the following evening i ventured out to the pub for what was supposed to be a quick bite. it was so much fun, seemed like everyone on the island was there, that i ended up staying until way past dark. this isn't such a big deal in most towns, but on the island the houses were few and far between and most had no electricity, coupled with no moon the path i walked very carefully was doused in pitch black. as i made my way in what i hoped was a homeward direction, a man's voice boomed next to me,
i nearly jumped out of my skin. he kept on walking down to the pub, but i had to sit down right there in the middle of the dirt road to collect myself. i did eventually get back to the hostel, but i made sure that i always had my little flashlight on my person from then on!

the island was beautiful but a little beyond my budget, so i braved the ferry ride back to galway.

Friday, November 19, 2010


dublin, ireland
at the beginning of my first big adventure, i was a nervous nelly about my stuff, and jeez, i had so much of it! but this was before the world of electronic books, the internet, cell phones and bank cards, so you can hardly blame me.
aside from the 70lb backpack that was mentioned in an earlier post, i also had on my person, that first week of travel, my passport, $1,000 in travelers checks, 2,000 american dollars, 2,500 british pounds, a eurail pass and a trans siberian train ticket. all of this could be stuffed into a plastic pouch meant to be worn around the neck. it was waterproof, so it could be taken into the shower, perfect for the kid who is staying in youth hostels that offer no privacy or security.
well, talk about rookie mistakes - my first night i dumped my pack on the floor by my bunk and prepared to take a shower. i pulled out the waterproof pouch and put all of the money, etc. in it, grabbed some clothes to change into, toiletries and my travel towel and headed to the communal showers. as i washed my hair i thought about the safety issue and was glad i had that pouch -
wait, where was the pouch?
through the shampoo suds i madly searched the shower stall and looked through the tiny pile of clothes, no pouch. without taking the time to rinse my hair, i grabbed the insignificant towel and ran back to my room, a room i shared with fifteen others. folks looked at me queerly, and why not, but all i had eyes for was that damn pouch! i ran to the bunk, and there it sat, on top of the bed, waiting for some kind soul to take a shine to it! i grabbed it and ran back to the showers.
i couldn't believe my luck. my trip could have ended right then and there, at my very first stop. that particular fear induced rush of adrenaline was so unpleasant (i can still remember the roiling of my stomach) i never left that pouch anywhere again.

one of the hardest parts about backpacking is feeling like your possessions are never really safe, that you aren't ever really safe. there are opportunists, pickpockets and nasty, bolder thieves, thugs who like to hit things, rapists and murderers - just like at home! but at home you have your home, and it provides an illusion of safety that gives you peace of mind. you also have accumulated knowledge of what parts of town are especially dodgy and even if you live in that neighborhood, you know, roughly, how to avoid being a victim.
when on the road, i don't really think you are in more danger, but when you don't know your surroundings very well, you are more likely to accidentally wander into a dead end alley or a part of town that the locals refer to as 'murder city' (or, as in the case with my belfast experience, not realize that a place you want to go presents dangers to the ignorant) and without the safety net of the known, you find yourself operating on a higher level of alert which is stressful and exhausting.
rookie mistakes still get made all these years later, but accumulated knowledge means they happen less often and usually come with less painful consequences. touch wood - let's see what happens this first time of traveling with my computer...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


london, england to belfast, ireland
so i left london with not much of a plan. i had a little over six weeks to get to my first destination, if i was going to stick to the 'itinerary'.
i took the train to holyhead, wales, caught a ferry across the irish sea and found a hostel in dublin. the first thing on my to do list was get my visa for russia. i don't remember now why i didn't get it before i left, but i am guessing it had something to do with poor planning on my part. russia had an embassy in dublin, and it would take several weeks for them to process my transit visa, so i left my passport with them, always a little nerve racking, and headed off to begin a loop around the island. at the hostel i met two aussies who had rented a car and were heading up to belfast, so i caught a lift with them and headed north, hoping that border patrols would accept my passport photocopy and let me in, and out - they did.

belfast is a fascinating place. there is a wall that separates one half of the city. it is a big cement thing with additional fencing and razor wire. it starts near downtown and goes straight up the hill and seems to go on and on. there are several breaks in the wall, allowing passage from one side to the other, checkpoints, manned by serious looking soldiers. once you are somewhere towards the middle of this so called peace wall, there is a sense of martial law and of being protected from political terrorism. but the thing that made the wall seem completely absurd was that at the bottom of the hill, where the wall began, you could cross over onto the other side completely unchecked. if i were up to no good, why would i try to smuggle anything through a checkpoint, when i could walk 10 blocks to the bottom of the hill and walk up the other side relatively unnoticed?
so, the divide, which i had difficulty understanding as a physical thing, and my ignorance of the religious animosity got me into a little bit of trouble, but nothing unmanageable.
i walked up the hill on the catholic side, thinking of it as nothing more than a touristy ramble. as i was rummaging through my bag, looking for the map that would show me where i could crossover to the protestant side, i was startled by a vision of british soldiers, in full combat gear streaming into the street - it seemed like they appeared right out of the brick wall! i realized one of the soldiers was pointing his gun at me and i froze, hands still in the bag. apparently this was considered suspicious behavior (seems the locals just ignore them and continue with the business of living), and he kept his gun pointed at me until all of the other soldiers had passed out of my 'danger' range and then he followed them. having the rifle pointed at me kind of freaked me out, and even though i probably had never been in any danger, i decided to take this divided city a little more seriously - but i was still going to crossover and walk down the protestant side. a couple of teenaged ne'er-do-wells saw me pass through the checkpoint and decided to follow me. when we neared the bottom of the hill, they thought it would be funny to chuck some rocks in my direction.
i began to feel like my lack of understanding could get me into real trouble and i pledged to do more reading about cultural biases down the line. i turned on the teens with my best crazy new yorker look and ran at them shouting gibberish at the top of my lungs. i am not sure what i expected to happen, but they took off, and i resumed my walk down the hill, though at a slightly faster clip.

this part of the city is peppered with political murals and the martyrs are remembered everywhere. it is equal parts disconcerting, emotional and beautiful.

i talked my new aussie friends into going to giants causeway, an awesome natural wonder and then we headed for londonderry and the border.

giant's causeway
as we crossed from one ireland to the other i snapped a few pictures of the soldiers. only after i put the camera back in my lap did i see the sign that said NO PHOTOGRAPHY. while they let me pass with my illegal photos i pledged to be a little more mindful of the local rules and regulations!

all in all, northern ireland proved to be a great place to cut my vagabonding teeth. i realized that my lack of cultural awareness could get me into real trouble and i found myself excited about delving into the personality of the countries i was going to visit. i would still go on to make some rookie mistakes, but i was miles ahead of where i had been just weeks earlier!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

first trip of a lifetime

if you think my itinerary for the 2011 odyssey sounds loose, take a look at the one i worked up for the wanderings i did in 1994:
budget - $6,800 (and $1,200 sent home for safe keeping with mom - where ever i ended up penniless, she could purchase my ticket home)
timetable - until the money runs out
type of travel - train and boat
countries being visited - ireland, france, italy, russia, china, and as many as i happen upon in between
itinerary -
    dublin on st. patrick’s day
    paris on my birthday
    rome on easter sunday

that’s right, only three dates in what was planned to be six to nine months of travel!
oh yeah, no taste
i bought a eurail pass and a ticket on the trans siberian train, i had a big backpack, a sleeping bag, copies of rick steve’s europe through the back door, lets go europe and lonely planet china, a handful of phrase books, a walkman (tapes included bjork’s debut, highlights of opera, the best of the disco era, take that’s take that and party, jamiroquai’s space cowboy, the best of beethovan, stravinsky's rite of spring, a mixed tape of gothic dance club hits and three tapes of my favorite 80’s tunes), two cameras (so i could shoot color and black and white film at the same time - thank god for the digital age!!!), some clothes and a journal to record the misadventures of each day. backpack weighed in at 70lbs. idiotic. i have since learned how to pack light, thanks in part to gadgetry.
times two - what a control freak!

back when i let fate determine my path on that trip to italy, i discovered lucca, a city that stole my heart. this armed me with a new sense of adventure and trust in the universe, so my plan for travel was to go to the train station and get on the first train going anywhere and be open to other opportunities that presented themselves.
i think there was a small part of me that recognized this as possibly dangerous, but mostly i was stupidly fearless, i trusted myself to be observant and resourceful and it never occurred to me that i might get into something i couldn’t get out of.

as it turned out, that was usually true...

Monday, November 8, 2010


london, england to rome, italy
when you work two full time jobs, it is difficult to get two days off together, even with schedules posting at two week intervals - but when you get four days off in a row from both gigs, the universe is telling you something! i headed off to the nearest student travel agency to book something last minute. i'd been in london for about ten months and i missed seeing the sun in a blue sky, so that was the goal.
sistine chapel ceiling
i couldn't get a flight in and out of athens, cairo, casablanca, seville, barcalona or nice. when i was nearing the giving up point, the agent suggested rome. i didn't want to go to italy - i'd heard the men could be 'persistent' and there just had never been any pull for me, despite my love of puccini and michelangelo. she looked anyway, and found a flight into rome and out of milan - not ideal, but the closest i could get to sun, so i gave in, and two days later i was landing in rome with pavarotti blaring nessun dorma through my headphones.

my first impression was that the light was different, diffused with red and orange filters. i fell in love almost immediately.
i wandered through the city with a slight sense of urgency - i was heading to sienna that evening. i saw the colosseum, ate pizza at the spanish steps, discovered gelato and hung out at the sistine chapel (so beautiful). at 7pm i caught my northbound train, but missed my stop (being a monoglot has it's drawbacks), and ended up in florence. that night i paid for a moderately fancy hotel room near the train station and fell asleep watching the a-team dubbed in italian. a wonderful first day!
lucca tower
i had intended to backtrack to sienna in the morning, but the first train didn't leave until noon. i headed off to the uffizi to visit david and then wandered around the famous duomo, but i killed too much time and missed my train.
i gave up on sienna and took the first train going anywhere west or north. 10 minutes later i was on a train headed to lucca. there was an italian deli by that name where i grew up, but that was the extent of my knowledge on lucca. what i found was an utterly charming, non-touristy, medieval walled city that turned out to be the home of puccini (i visited his house and touched the piano he composed turandot on). instead of heading on to pisa, i stayed in lucca, just wandering the streets, drinking in the light, basking in the sun, finding hidden art treasures in the little cathedrals that were everywhere, and, of course, eating gelato.
i was enjoying lucca so much that when i finally left for milan, i only had time to go see the last supper before heading to the airport to go home. but it was an overcast day there anyway, so i wasn't sorry to miss the city famous for fashion.

when you get it in your head to do one thing, but road blocks come up everywhere you turn, being stubborn can kill your joy. letting the universe point you in a new direction can be an amazing gift. if not for that travel agent, i probably would have avoided italy my whole life, and what a loss that would have been for me.
to this day it is my favorite country in europe and the only one i continue to return to.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


london, england to glasgow, scotland
two coworkers, one a fellow american the other a canadian, invited me to go along with them on a long weekend roadtrip to see the band kingmaker.
we left early on friday morning and drove straight through to glasgow, trying to get to king tut's wah wah hut by showtime. we were told it would take about nine hours, so we thought we would have plenty of time. for reasons still unclear (possibly to do with the blasted roundabouts) it took much, much longer and when we finally got to the club the roadies were packing up the gear. we were drowning our disappointment and hunger in alcohol and crisps (potato chips), when i started telling our woeful tale to a fella who turned out to be the drummer from the band. sympathetic, he told me that they were playing in aberdeen the following night and if we could get there by 8pm, he'd get us on a list, as the show was sold out.
so long glasgow, i hardly knew you - okay, truth be told, we spent approximately 25 minutes wandering around our b&b before we got into the car to zag across the country, so i knew you not at all! one day i'll return and give you the attention you deserve.

we raced down narrow country roads, defying speed limits, fearful of reliving the previous day but arrived with plenty of time. we found a b&b, had a proper dinner (not a crisp in sight), and then got dolled up for the show. the band was awesome and we were stoked as we headed back to the b&b. i think there may have been some expectation that we would hang out with the boys, but honestly, i've never aspired to be a groupie.
we woke up to an amazing highland breakfast - tea, crumpets, fried potatoes, eggs, bacon, tomatoes and blood sausage. while we ate, our hostess, and wonderful cook, told us about ben nevis, the tallest peak on the island, and about how we could climb it in just a couple of hours. after our hearty meal we were sold on the idea, so off we went, zigging back across scotland.

i don't think the b&b proprietress had ever climbed ben nevis.
partially stepped trail going up ben nevis
we hiked and we hiked and we hiked. every time we saw the top, when we reached it, we would see it was really just a little further up. it was vexing. but more frustrating was watching the kids and senior citizens who would pass us going up, and then pass us going down again. clearly we were city folk not used to a little up hill action.
after four hours the top was finally achieved!
this was where i was at when we reached the peak. unbelievably, there were two lovely british soldiers stationed at the summit who made us each a cup of tea and passed their biscuits around - oh so civilized! nothing but snow and frostbite greet you at the top of everest.
going down the mountain took about an hour, practically running. the thought of a nice juicy steak pushed us to go faster and faster and take silly shortcuts - thankfully we only sustained one slightly sprained ankle between the three of us. we got to the one restaurant in town just as they were closing. we begged them to throw three more steaks on before they turned out the lights and i don't know if it was the near homicidal look in my eye or the pathetic limping canadian, but they turned the fire back on.
best. steak. ever.

the following morning we zagged again, this time heading to edinburgh. we stopped briefly to see lock ness (no monster, big disappointment) and followed a detour to doane castle (my namesake, now just a crumbled down outer keep). we arrived at our destination a little after sunset and opted for the touristy 'creepy' walking tour (not creepy at all, and honestly, a bit of a bore), and then headed to the hostel for the night. in the morning we were eager to get back on the road for home. it had been quite the long weekend.

lessons learned: don't do cheesy walking tours, waste of money and when a local tells you how long it will take to get up that there hill, double it and bring the trail mix!