Every so often it's good to take stock of where you are and what you're doing. As I sat on a crowded bus rambling across central Ireland, I thought about my fortunes and how at this moment, I wouldn't trade places with anyone.
In March of this year, I boarded a ship called the Explorer bound for the Antarctic Peninsula. As much as for the scenery and wildlife, I'll remember the trip for the people I was fortunate enough to meet. Young and old, over 100 of us braved the elements (and the Drake Passage) to set foot on the white continent. Admittedly, it's a different type of folk who use their vacation time to freeze their ass off at the bottom of the world.
Two people in particular remained in my mind long after the trip. After we were under way, I sat down at a table with an older Irish couple named Brendan and Róisin who were sipping on some wine. We started talking about all kinds of things, including my trip, their home in Ireland, their daughter's upcoming wedding, and more.
As the boat is relatively small, we ran into each other several times. And, as fate would have it, we were even invited to the Chief Engineer's table for dinner one night. Needless to say, we became good friends in a very short amount of time, and as we pulled into Ushuaia, we had a final drink in the lounge before departing. We had a grand time - talking about our experiences crossing the Drake on the way back. Brendan actually fell out of bed and slept on the floor at one point! Brendan bought us a round of Irish Mist (appropriately enough), and we toasted to our wonderful trip to Antarctica. Before we left, they both insisted that if I were in Ireland, I simply must come to Galway to visit.
Fast-forward to August. About the time I pulled my backpack out of the bowels of the bus, a familiar sounding "Hello Matt!" hit my ears. There was Brendan, white hair and glasses, a khaki jacket and brown trousers. It was wonderful to see him again.
Upon our arrival at their lovely home, I met Róisin in the kitchen. She was all smiles and we greeted each other warmly. I was shown to a guestroom down the hall, and in a few minutes was ushered out to the back porch to enjoy the afternoon (as well as some smoked salmon and bread). They have a lovely garden, filled with beautiful flowers and some of the rocks which the Western Irish landscape is so famous for.
After catching up, they both recommended that if I'd like to stretch my legs for a bit after the long bus ride, I should check out the beach, which is just a short walk away. I agreed, and went for a stroll. It was indeed very close, and very beautiful. Full of people sun bathing, reading, flying kites, and just relaxing.
When I returned, I was treated to a glass of wine, and a wonderful home cooked meal. Chicken, potatoes, vegetables, you name it. As I've mentioned before, I have never had an appreciation for home cooking like I do now. Just travel for a couple months and you'll know what I mean. We had a lovely meal. Them catching me up on their daughter's recent wedding, me telling them about my travels since March.
The rest of the week entailed a lot of sight seeing and a lot of eating.
I spent the majority of Thursday exploring the city of Galway. Brendan gave me some pointers, a map and some directions, and dropped me off near the city center. It's a lovely little city with lots of chic little shops and restaurants, a couple of large churches, and a nice little square in the center of town. It's growing like crazy though. I read somewhere that it was the fastest growing city in Ireland, and the cranes all along the horizon proved it. Though a little touristy, still has a soul - for now anyway.
Back at Brendan and Róisin's that evening, dinner again was started with a glass of red wine. We sat down to a lovely meal of fish, potatoes, tomatoes and more vegetables. I hadn't eaten this well for a long time. I'm pretty sure my body nearly went into shock at the introduction of vegetables two nights in a row. To cap the night, I pulled out a bottle of Irish Mist which I'd found in town. We again said Slainte ("Cheers" in Gaelic) to our travels and our voyage to Antarctica. It was wonderful to hear their stories. Just when I think I've been to a few places, I meet a couple who has easily eclipsed me. No substitute for experience.
The next day I took an organized day-tour the areas surrounding Galway, specifically into an area to the South of Galway called the Burren. It's an absolutely gorgeous place, but beautiful in the way that the Badlands of South Dakota are beautiful. Sometimes beauty comes where you least expect it. Creases of jagged, slate gray limestone literally fill the entire landscape. It's almost like being on a different planet. Super-hardy grass and flowers fill up the spaces it can, but the majority of the land looks simply un-livable. It's interesting too, because a majority of the Irish Catholics in the 1600s were forced here by Oliver Cromwell. It's better to hear it from a native, but this is the basic story:
"Cromwell tried once and for all to crush the Irish resistance by deporting thousands of Irishmen, using the catchphrase: "To Hell or Connaught!" At the sight of the poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell's own generals observed that there was "neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him." From this time every conflict in Ireland has been fuelled by religious hate."
The people did an admirable job of transforming the land. Stone fences lined the rolling hills, creating small fields for cattle and sheep. Stone houses and small buildings dotted the green rows. Once in a while we'd drive by a great stone castle, still standing proudly against the shoreline.
We eventually reached the Cliffs of Moher, where green hills used for cattle grazing suddenly drop hundreds of feet into the Atlantic.
It is absolutely jaw-dropping. It's considered one of Ireland's show pieces, and even boasts a stone tower from the 1800's used as an observation area for tourists then. Even though it was raining, and somewhat miserable, the sight of the cliffs was stunning.
The next day Brendan, Róisin and I took a daytrip to the Aran Islands - a set of three islands to the west of Galway. We took a ferry out to the middle of the islands, called Inishmaan.
Just as the Burren seemed alien, even more so was Inishmaan. The indigenous population is very small, with very few houses and even cars on the island. However, it does leave the island relatively untouched, and somewhat preserved. Stone fence after stone fence divided the island into small plots, many smaller than most people's backyards.
We walked and walked, Brendan and Róisin leading the way, me lagging behind taking pictures like a true tourist. We went from one side of the island to the other, visiting a few farms, a church, a place known as Synge's Chair (the writing place of an Irish playwright) and a little coffee shop which served a pretty good vegetable soup.
It had been misty all day, but almost appropriately, as soon as we headed down to catch the ferry back to Galway, it started pouring rain. We took cover under the eve of a small shed and waited for it to pass. When it finally did, we were treated to a beautiful rainbow running from the land into the sea. An Irish rainbow. Lucky right?
Words can't express how much fun I had with Brendan and Róisin. They are wonderful travelers, wonderful hosts, and above all, wonderful people. I feel absolutely blessed to have gotten the chance to know them, and am honored to have them as friends.