old friends and the wild atlantic way

wild indeed, where is the water coming from?
wild indeed, where is the water coming from?

this weekend, i have been enjoying a few days in ireland’s west with an old friend over visiting from boston. in addition to trying (perhaps unsuccessfully) to recreate the types of travel adventures i got into on my very first forays abroad to ireland in my early twenties, we did get down to the business of seeing some real stuff. driving a portion of the newly-dubbed wild atlantic way was a particular highlight. this series of connected small roads dips up and down through the irish landscape, which goes from craggy and ethereal in the western reaches of connemara, to soft and ancient further south into county clare. in theory, the aim of our drive was the stoic cliffs of moher – a must on any itinerary to this part of the world – though sadly the irish weather being what it is, the cliffs were completely shrouded in a fog blown up onto the crown of hag’s head by a wind that several times threatened to steal my woolly cap away into the crashing, foamy atlantic.

in fact, the rough weather gave the drive a spiritual quality that encouraged old friends to dig deep in memories and erstwhile conversations whilst the rain not so much pounded but rather gently tousled our little hire car.

connemara dusk over the twelve bens
connemara dusk over the twelve bens

i am admittedly a sucker for connemara. i love its rough rocky edges where corners give way to rounded bulbous mountains blanketed in purple gorse and ponies with long manes look away at you as if waiting for the next round of uninvited visitors to pass through.

but county clare has charms that may be even more difficult to pin down. sure, it is home to some of ireland’s most famous landscapes, including the aforementioned cliffs of moher, as well as the faeryland-like burren, a karst rockscape broken up by streaming grikes that fill up like rivers with all manner of strange herbs and flowers come summer.

the coast along clare is sometimes oddly low, given that it rises into a 120-metre pinnacle at hag’s head. you feel like the land just sort of…stops…and the sea begins, sometimes after a small beach of rocks or grass tufts covering bits of sand and seaweed. in my imagination, the world starts and ends here.

flaggy shore: clare's low, ancient coast
flaggy shore: clare’s low, ancient coast

this morning, a wistful farewell for two old friends, and then i’m on the road solo in pat (the moniker we’ve given the shitty little white skoda i’ve hired). today is sunny, the sort of elusive cold, bright, clear day that only presents itself once in a very long while during an irish winter. there’s no wind; i make perfect time down the n18, and then the m18. few cars are about, and i find myself closer to shannon airport than i want to be for so early in the day.

a small brown sign beckons me to knappogue castle (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that, i’ve no idea), and so i find myself navigating a tiny laneway buttressed by giant damp hedges and the odd thatch cottage. i’m aiming for knappogue, but a few kilometres find me in the village of quin, a one-street affair with side-by-side pubs – the abbey tavern and the monks well – both named for the imposing quin abbey, which juts into my lefthand view as pat and i coast through the village.

quin abbey all to myself
quin abbey all to myself

the abbey is striking – perhaps moreso today than usually, as its pointy roofends and tall crumbling bell tower make a stark grey punctuation mark on the the blue sky and patch of soggy emerald in the middle of town.

i’m the only person at quin abbey, apart from an older gentleman i pass leaving with his dog on my way down the path to the gate. normally the abbey is open, but as it’s monday morning in mid-february, there are no visitors. quin abbey was a franciscan friary founded in the early 15th century by the macnamara family (the most powerful clan in this part of ireland at that time) on the site of an earlier anglo-norman fortress. parts of an accompanying church, apparently built a bit earlier around 1350, are located a little ways up the path.

chieftans' resting ground
chieftans’ resting ground

all of the macnamara chieftans are buried here, including the last of them, john ‘fireball’ macnamara, a notorious character who was as the stories go prone to duels and an excellent marksman and swordsman, with a pair of duelling pistols he named bas gan sagart, or ‘death without a priest’.

knappogue castle, it turned out, was closed for the season, and so i set off happily for the final few minutes’ drive to shannon airport and, now, a flight back to london. after an airport guinness (or several), of course.

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Photo by hobvias sudoneighm

check-ups in a foreign land

Photo by hobvias sudoneighmone of my favorite stories to tell people is about the time that i got rolled over on by a horse two weeks before my first trip to china and fractured my wrist and L3 vertebra. i was pretty out of it for a few days, but i got a cute, short cast (in purple) put on my left forearm and somehow managed to go on my merry way across the world for nearly a month of english teaching and then traveling.

despite my pleading, the US hospital was unwilling to take off my cast just four weeks into the healing process when i was due to fly out. instead, i’d have to wear the cast for an extra unnecessary four weeks because of my trip.

i was not prepared for the 40-degree heat and high humidity that would make my cast an unbearable prison within the first two days in china. the itching was so bad that i began sticking a chopstick down the cast, which would inevitably bring up chunks of rotting skin. that’s when i asked marco, an enigmatic chinese dude who wore aviators, carried a black man-purse and had connections in the nanjing mafia, to help me out.

[tweetmeme]off we went in marco’s little black VW jetta with its tailpipe barely rigged on by a coat hanger. we were staying at a private boarding school quite some distance from nanjing city, so the nearest hospital was one village away. it looked like something straight out of the cultural revolution. nurses wearing paper hats with red crosses on them had me fill in paperwork (thanks to marco, for my chinese reading was minimal at the time) and head down the bare concrete hall for x-rays to see if i was fit to have the cast off.

after two x-rays (the first of my casted arm and the second of my good arm, for comparison) taken by a massive and indescribably ancient machine, i was sent in to see the head honcho, who was seated in a dusty office with several other doctors, musing about my x-rays over green tea and cigarettes.

i was fit to have the cast taken off, he said, and i would be tended to in his private office, no less, just around the corner. after paying the mere $13 for x-rays and consultation, i sat nervously in the office.

Photo by David Schroeter

two nurses arrived and inspected the cast as if it were made from the intestines of an alien life form. they murmured a moment, disappeared and then reappeared with what can only be described as a humongous pair of scissors. one of the nurses struggled to stick an edge of the giant scissors down my teeny, silicon cast while the other watched with mysterious eyes. a lot of intense sawing ensued, none of which was successful in breaking me free of the little purple cast.

more murmuring and they were off again, this time returning with a tiny round saw. as they approached my cast, i prayed to god that this was the type of saw that could cut material but not skin and finally, my arm felt fresh air for the first time in five weeks. meanwhile, the nurses were enthralled with the cast and wanted to keep it as a souvenir, nasty rotten skin and all.

most people i tell this story to are fairly horrified by it, and that is in part why i love to tell it, but also because it is an apt example of just how harrowing it can be to receive medical attention in a foreign country. in all my moving around the world, i would venture to say that having a medical problem abroad has got to be the single worst part of expat life. the language barrier alone is enough to scare the lights out of you, not a mind fears about hygiene, sanitation, general medical knowledge of the doctors and everything else.

having just come from my first appointment at a sparkling new czech clinic with a brilliant doctor that spoke perfect english – all of which cost me only $1.69 in total – i can safely say that what is most interesting is that the scariest, most expensive and generally WORST doctor’s experiences i’ve ever had have been in the united states.

Photo by Flickr user Sugar Pondsure, the chinese hospital was dusty and old and the doctors were smoking inside, but they cared for me perfectly and didn’t send me bankrupt for it. and yeah, chinese pharmacists have given me a pill made out of cow gall bladder to soothe a cold before, but guess what? it worked.

same experiences in ireland, even seeing basic student doctors or walk-in clinics – all were incredibly well-appointed, clean and, most of all, the physicians were quite competent.

and best of all, unlike in the united states, most doctors around the world don’t just brush off your symptoms and shove the latest Pill of the Moment down your throat. they listen to your symptoms, check you thoroughly and offer remedies – whether they be herbal, pharmaceutical, dietary or otherwise – that are right for your condition. best of all, you are not asked to hand over ungodly sums of money to them for it.

and that makes all the scary moments of “will the doctor understand me?” and “will my medical history translate” completely worthwhile.

oh, and if anyone in prague wants the name of my awesome, english-speaking doctor, just lemme know and i’ll gladly send you her way.

a first-time love affair

every traveler has a first love. i believe this as strongly as i believe in real love. it is that city – or sometimes that place or country – that you first completely fall for. you are a young traveler, inexperienced and green enough to think the world is even more amazing than it is and fully believing that none of your experiences will ever disappoint you. you can only learn later that, sure you’ll be disappointed, but that only adds to the experiences.

but there is always that one place that you fall for and can never go back. Continue reading “a first-time love affair”

plastic paddies

Photo by Photobucket user ayinmcfyei learned a new phrase today: plastic paddy. it happened as bill and i were walking along silver ave. admiring a lofty irish flag hanging randomly from one of the houses. we pass this flag everyday and we admire it everyday, but i constantly feel a strange sense of oddness with bill, and actual irish person, by my side and this flag just hanging there.

it has caused me to think in wonderment back to when we were in ireland, what if there was just a random house with an american flag hanging on it. how would that make me feel? weird? grossed out? offended? patriotic? i’m honestly not sure and it would probably be some nauseating combination of them all.

this leads me to plastic paddies. Continue reading “plastic paddies”

creating the world we want

it’s monday and what could a girl want more than some great travel reads and a cute clutch to throw into the luggage for a night out when travelling? to that end, i give you irish jaunt and kattybabylove purses.

i am a big believer in self-employment, handmade items and personal attention in this world that is so corporate, global and unattentive. that’s why i absolutely adore the handmade purses, clutches and wallets that my good friend kathleen has started making and selling through her etsy shop, kattybabylove. the clutch above is a sampling of the items that will become available in her shop over the coming weeks – items that are handmade by kathleen and sold straight from her. i love this concept and i admire anyone like kat that has a knack for sewing. Continue reading “creating the world we want”

traveltuesday photoblog: pot o gold

after yesterday’s rant about a movie filled with awful cliches and stereotypes about ireland, i decided to remind myself that all stereotypes are born out of some kind of truth.

here, in county clare, where a rainbow meets doonagore castle flanked by emerald green, it takes little imagination to envision a leprechaun hording his pot of goodies just below.

snapped just north of the cliffs of moher, with ballyvara and coogyulla beyond.
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the worst movie of 2010

it’s the 4th week of 2010 and the worst movie of the year has already been released, bombed at the box office, and caused my husband and i to get into a row. that movie is leap year, starring amy adams and matthew goode (i know, i know… who?). folks, this film is the stinker to end all stinkers. what could’ve been a cute, insightful piece of cross-cultural, rom-com, travel eye candy is nothing more than a series of cliches and stereotypes sandwiched between some seriously bad cinematography and brought together by even worse writing. Continue reading “the worst movie of 2010”