Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A really long trip

When I went to Brazil last summer, I had never been on such a long flight, or trip, in my life—I was in the air for a solid 9.5 hours between Atlanta and Brasilia, with an overall trip time of about 20 hours, including all car rides, flights, layovers, and shuttles necessary to get me from Williamsburg, VA, to Pirenopolis, Brazil. Little did I know then that it was good preparation for this summer’s trip to Perth, Australia: I left Falmouth at 9 AM on a Monday morning and arrived in Perth at 3 PM on a Wednesday. I’m too lazy to do all the time zone math in order to calculate the exact length of that trip, but the bottom line is that it was long. However, because I was routed through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I got to add two continents to my growing list of visited landmasses (Asia and Australia, for anyone who is not geographically inclined; this coming winter I will also check off Africa, but I suspect it will be a while before I get the 7th and final continent, Antarctica). The other benefit of flying through the Malaysian airport and having such a ridiculously long layover there was that I got to spend the night in a transit hotel (which, prior to this trip, I did not even know existed) in the same time zone as my destination; this was very effective in helping me battle jet lag. But I digress.

As I said, I left Falmouth at approximately 9 AM on Monday morning, which gave me enough time to endure the 5-hour train ride and 15-minute Heathrow express ride required to get me to the airport. It was a distracting train ride because the car was incredibly full, and only kept getting more full as we went on. I have no idea where everyone was going on a Monday morning, but it seems that all of Cornwall and Devon were desperate to relocate. Directly in front of me were a couple with a baby that could only be kept quiet with the aid of a rattle. Further on up the car were two caretakers and their mentally handicapped wards, one of whom periodically asked for food/drink/blanket with a heart-rending and ear-shattering bellow. This is yet another example of how impressively blasé the Brits are about handicaps; people with crutches/walkers/canes/wheelchairs/etc. are out and about in public much more than in the US, as are individuals with all sorts of physical deformities and intellectual handicaps, and nobody bats an eyelash. I felt bad for these guys, though, because (as I learned through a bit of unintentional eavesdropping) the handicapped toilet on the train was out-of-order, and they had nowhere to take their wheelchair-bound ward.

During the ride, I amused myself with music and games; not to harp on about how awesome my iPhone is, but I was also able to use it to determine which terminal I needed to get to once I reached Heathrow. As per usual, once I got to the airport it took me very little time to check in and get through security, leaving me with oodles of time to wander around wondering why on earth they tell you to arrive two hours before your flight. There was one slightly interesting event during check-in that came back to haunt me once I reached Malaysia: The woman at the Delta desk informed me that I would need to collect my luggage once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur and then immediately re-check it so that it could be sent off to Perth. I immediately thought this sounded bizarre, since normally you have to go through immigration in order to retrieve your luggage, and I would never be leaving the airport; however, when I asked her about this, she assured me that I definitely needed to go to the baggage claim area once I reached Malaysia. We shall return to this concept later.

My trip from London to Amsterdam was not very interesting, though I encountered an airport feature that would be a recurring (and annoying) theme throughout my journey. You know how you can’t ever take bottled drinks through the security checkpoint prior to the terminal? Well, in many airports, there is now a second screening process to get you from the terminal into the gate; at this point, you have to throw away anything you purchased between the previous security checkpoint and the new one. I understand why we are cautious, in general, but I am not quite sure I understand why we are that cautious. I wasted three different nearly-full bottles of water/juice during my trip because of this new technique, and I did not like it.

Things got much more interesting on the flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur; given that the flight was the longest I’d ever taken (11 hours), how could they not? First of all, I discovered that my ticket placed me right in the middle seat of a three-person row. *sigh* For a long time, the row remained empty, and I began to get excited that I might actually have two or more extra seats to myself, which I could use to stretch out and sleep. Alas, no. My aisle-side seatmate arrived and immediately asked me if I was Norwegian, a question he explained by saying that he (a Norwegian) and several members of his company were being sent to Kuala Lumpur together, but that the different travelers had not previously met and were looking for each other on the plane. It turns out that my window-side seatmate was one of these, as were the three men in front of us. Thus, for the first hour or so, my two row-mates chatted to each other across me, which would not have been particularly annoying except that one of them had extremely bad breath and it kept wafting in front of my nose.

I preoccupied myself by perusing the list of movies I could watch between Holland and Malaysia. I was on a quest to catch up on all the films I’d missed in the last several months. I saw “Shrek 3,” “Kisk-Ass,” “2012,” and “The Wolfman.” As you may notice, this is approximately 8 hours of film, which is a good portion of the flight. That is because I am pretty much incapable of sleeping on long plane rides unless I am able to position myself horizontally. I have a blow-up travel pillow, but I can never seem to get comfortable with it—it is always too flat or too low or too high, and the built-in seat pillow tilts my head forward at a funny angle. During this particular flight, I also had to contend with my neighbors. Both of them were dozing and, as they slept, began to take up increasingly more space—my space. Their legs and arms started bumping into mine and I kept folding myself smaller and smaller in order to avoid contact. The only advantage of this was that it forced me to find a position that was actually fairly easy on my bad back, such that when I arrived in Malaysia after 11 hours of sitting, I was less sore than I often am after only a couple hours in the car.

This is a good time to register a complaint about the airline and airplane itself. Back in the golden days when I first started traveling abroad, planes were not as crowded as they are today. This is an actual fact, which I can prove by offering the evidence that in the majority of those flights, I had at least one and sometimes two or even three empty seats next to me. I could lift up the arm rests, spread out some pillows and blankets, and recline in comfort for the duration of the flight. Lately, though, I’ve been on one sold-out flight after another, and there is just no room to breathe. Also, while some airlines have fairly comfortable planes (e.g., Virgin), others do not. Previously, I considered Delta to be a pretty lackluster company, but on the way to Malaysia I discovered that their affiliate, KLM, is even worse. On this particular flight, there seemed to be a problem with the air conditioning, such that it was boiling hot all the way to Kuala Lumpur; this completely caught me off-guard, since I always prepare to be frozen stiff during airplane rides. I had to strip off both my jacket and sweater and sit around in a tank top--and I was still hot. Despite the heat, the staff did not come through the compartment with drinks during most of the “night” (the latter half of which was actually “day,” since we were flying into the sunrise); by the time we arrived in Malaysia, I was sweaty and parched.

In this heat-stricken state, I wandered into Terminal C of the Kuala Lumpur airport with two goals: a) take care of my baggage issue, and b) find my transit hotel so I could shower and enjoy a loooong nap. I had decided on the way to Malaysia that the London check-in lady couldn’t be correct about my baggage, so I wanted to find the local airline desk in order to ask. On my way to do this, I passed my hotel and dropped off my carry-on luggage; the lady at the desk told me where to find the airline information people. When I got there, I started at one end of the counter, was referred to the other end, and then slowly worked my way back from one person to the next until I finally located someone who told me that the KLM-specific staff weren’t in yet. I was told to go to the main terminal, which was a short “aerotrain” ride away. The aerotrain was not your typical shuttle between terminals—it did not roll along the ground on rails, but was balanced by super magnets so that it hovered in the air as it moved. Pretty cool. In the main terminal, I found a general information desk where I was told my baggage would go all the way to Perth without any interference on my part. However, the woman who gave me this information also misread the ticket and thought I was going from Perth to London, so I didn’t feel too confident in her proclamation. Thus, I wandered around some more—a trip that included a journey down to the immigration area and back to Terminal C—before I finally found a KLM person who told me that the lady in London didn’t know what she was talking about, and that I could rest easy that my luggage would be in Perth once I got there. Whew.

That settled, I grabbed some food and headed back to my hotel. Prices in Malaysia seem exorbitant given the amount of local currency required, but through the wonders of exchange rate, they are actually very affordable. I spent something like 35-40 ringgits on 2 drinks, a sandwich, and a muffin, but that was only about $11—pretty darn good for airport food. Oddly, my sandwich was purchased from an Irish deli, which I thought seemed a little out of place in Kuala Lumpur. What was really crazy, though, was how many duty-free shops there were; I have never seen so many. If the prices there were similar to the prices at the restaurants, I understand why--people must have been getting some amazing deals on high-end designer merchandise. There were also several specialty shops geared towards Middle Eastern and Muslim customers, which I found interesting; they sold head scarves and burkas and traditional regional dress in a variety of rather beautiful (and, I am guessing, upscale) fabrics. As I mentioned in a previous post, the majority of travelers I passed were, indeed, Muslim, so I could see why these shops might be particularly popular. As an aside, I will mention that the majority of non-Muslim travelers (who appeared to be mostly Middle Eastern and SE Asian in origin) were clearly from northern Asia (especially Japan, but also China, Korea, etc.). The proportion of white people was infinitesimal, while the proportion of native English speakers was even smaller; this was quite an eye-opening and humbling experience for someone who otherwise has never been somewhere where she looked or felt in the minority.

Back at the hotel, it felt absolutely wonderful to take a shower, eat non-airplane-food, and then crawl between the crisp, clean sheets of my bed to sleep. I went to bed at 5:30 PM (local time) and didn’t need to leave the hotel until 6:30 AM the following morning, so I was able to get quite a bit of rest. However, I couldn’t sleep all the way through the night because it was just such awkward timing for my body. With stops and starts, I did manage to make it until about 5 AM, at which point I finally gave up and departed. I had several hours before I needed to report to my gate, so I headed to the Starbucks (is there an airport anywhere in the world without a Starbucks?) and took advantage of their free wireless access while drinking an enormous cup of caffeinated tea (just to further confuse my body). Not only did the Starbucks have free wireless, but the whole airport did, as well. How civilized--all airports should have free internet. I was able to send e-mails, catch up with the news, and even download a new album onto my iPod. After all that tea, I eventually had to head to the toilet, and this is what I found there:

(A squat toilet, also known as a Turkish toilet, which I had heard of before but never seen.)

To be fair, this was only one of three stalls, but I can confirm, after repeated sampling, that this style of toilet was present in each of the restrooms in the airport. I am not sure why anyone would choose to use this when she could use one of the two “regular” toilets next door; given the number of women in burkas, I thought perhaps it might be an easier style to use when you are maneuvering lots of skirts and robes? Anyway, I didn’t give it a try. I also didn't try the little hoses next to the toilets, which I always find odd because I don't understand how you're supposed to dry off after giving yourself a mini shower. That doesn’t mean that I completely avoided walking on the wild side, though. As I wandered around trying to amuse myself prior to catching my flight, I passed a Japanese noodle restaurant at just the moment that my stomach started growling for more food. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but the noodles looked good, so I sat down and had noodle-y chicken broth for second breakfast—I even used chopsticks, and it was delicious:

(I felt pretty good about using my chopsticks to eat this until I watched the Japanese girl at the next table over--she was holding the sticks much further up, which is a sign of better control, and she did it much more gracefully. Oh, well--I get points for trying.)

Soon enough it was finally time to catch my flight, and after passing through the second security check, I managed to set my passport down on a seat in the waiting room and then wander off without it. Thankfully, I happened to notice its absence before I got onto the plane and left it behind in Malaysia—that would certainly have been my worst travel mistake to date. My flight to Perth was operated by Malaysian Airlines, which was a huge upgrade from Delta and KLM. For one thing, there was a ton of leg room in front of my seat, and for another thing, there were three seats between me and the next passenger over (also, the hostesses had really cool uniforms). I plugged myself into my iPod, pushed aside the arm rest, and curled up for a nice, long nap.

After flying 11 hours from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, you think you must be near Australia, but, in fact, another 5 hour journey is required to get to Perth. When I awoke, we were over land again and flying low enough that we could clearly see the bright red soil and sparse scrubland; there was no question about where we were. I’m not sure why we were flying so low, since such flights are normally conducted at 30,000 or so feet; perhaps there is just so little competing air traffic in Western Australia that it doesn’t matter, and/or the sky is so clear that there are no clouds to obscure the view. In any case, it was cool to catch a glimpse of the land that I would be traversing in the near future (also a little daunting, given its remoteness and excessive size).

Before I could do that, though, I’d need to make it through Australian immigration and customs, which can be pretty hard-core. The immigration bit isn’t any different than in the US or UK, really, but the customs people are very intense about what can and can’t be brought into the country. The landing card you have to fill out has tons of questions about all sorts of things that you may or may not be carrying or have come into contact with during your travels. Because they live on an island, and have had serious problem with introduced pests of various sorts, the Australians have to be pretty careful. They are even concerned about the dirt on your shoes—one question asked whether you were carrying anything that had come into contact with dirt or carried dried dirt, such as cleats, etc. The scientist in me wanted to point out that all of us were wearing shoes that carried some amount of dirt from foreign countries, but I didn’t think that would go over very well. In any case, I was slightly worried because my suitcase contained an entire plastic box full of "pookies," the Metamucil-like bran cookies I eat every day. You aren’t supposed to bring any food into Australia, though I couldn’t quite tell whether they meant the “normal” sort of forbidden food (e.g., meat, cheese, nuts, fruit) or all food; this was the defense I planned if my hidden stash was discovered.

After making it through immigration, I headed to the baggage area to see if my suitcase had successfully made its way from Kuala Lumpur. As always, I was accosted by a second security guard on my way to the conveyor belt. I don’t know what it is about me, but people love to stop me for further questioning. As far as I can recall, this always involves young male security people, so I’d like to think they just find me attractive and want an excuse to talk to me. I think that’s probably unrealistic, so one day I would love to ask someone why they’ve pulled me aside—do I look suspicious? dangerous? I find it very difficult to talk to these people because I’m usually quite distracted and tired, which makes it hard to provide answers without sounding as though I’m making something up. In any case, I was finally waved through and, lo and behold, almost immediately found my suitcase—miracle of miracles! Keeping my fingers crossed, I headed towards the customs area and was directed into the line of people whose bags would be sniffed by a little beagle. Part of me thought that was pretty awesome, since I love animals and all, but part of me thought this made it pretty likely that my pookies would be rooted out. The beagle seemed utterly fascinated by my carry-on, and it took the customs lady several attempts to get him to move on to my main suitcase; I have no idea what he was smelling in there, unless perhaps it was the remnant smells of my parents’ cats. After he took a couple perfunctory sniffs of my suitcase, I was waved on, and my heart lifted. My pookies and I had made it without incident and were about to begin our journey through the land down under.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I: drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, all by myself; discover Aussie hospitality; identify my first Australian avifauna; go shopping at an Aussie mall and find things outrageously expensive; pay $20 to go see a movie by myself; and return to the airport to pick up my husband so that our belated honeymoon can begin.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Rosturk Woods, Ireland

I don’t know what most Americans think of when they hear “Ireland,” but I have always imagined a very green place with quaint cottages, stone walls, and lots of sheep. Also, because I have read many historical fantasy novels set in Eire, I pictured sprites and pixies and all other manner of supernatural beings that emerge from the mist on a long winter’s night. In other words, I suppose I thought of Ireland as being, on average, slightly more rural, picturesque, and magical than the most rural, picturesque, and magical part of England. On the whole, my recent trip to Ireland confirmed these suspicions (though I never did see any fairies).

Before I moved to the UK, I didn’t really understand the difference between the two parts of Ireland, but now I am more educated. “Ireland” refers to the large island (the third biggest in Europe, in fact) that is off the west coast of Great Britain. It is divided into two parts: the Republic of Ireland, which covers most (5/6) of the island, has a government that couldn’t care less about what Queen Elizabeth and the coalition Parliament think, and uses the Euro as currency; Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is a part of the United Kingdom with the same kind of separate-country status as Wales and Scotland and uses pounds sterling as currency. When I recently went to visit “Ireland” during the first week of September, I traded in my pounds for Euros and went to Clew Bay in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland—or, as I tend to call it in casual conversation, “Ireland Ireland.” (I bet a lot of Northern Irish would cringe to hear me say that.)

The trip began with a flight into Dublin, which really could have been a destination unto itself—one day I do hope to go back and get more than a bird’s-eye-view of the city. We flew there from Newquay Airport in Cornwall, and it amazing how quickly we arrived in a whole other country—we were not even in the air for an hour, and barely had time for drinks and miniature bags of nuts before we were back on the ground. The flight itself is pretty impressive, since it takes you over the many peninsulas and inlets of Cornwall, then along the southern coast of Wales, before finally approaching the eastern coast of Ireland. You can see all sorts of cliffs and beaches and giant green fields, as well as the deep turquoise ocean along the shorelines:

(A view of the coastline from our plane back to Newquay; I forget where I was when I took this, but I believe it is Cornwall rather than Wales.)

As soon as we arrived at the airport in Dublin, it was obvious that we were no longer in the UK. It’s amazing how such a short flight could transport you to a place where people wear such obviously different fashions. Of course, an airport crowd is not exactly representative—there were many Americans there, and also a bunch of Brits—but even among people with Irish accents, I could see a difference; this held true even once we left the city and explored some of the smaller towns. Even down in Cornwall, which is not exactly what I would consider the most modern part of Britain, there are people who wear the types of very current trends you see in fashion magazines. The style of dress in Ireland was toned down in comparison; people weren’t dressed unfashionably, but they weren’t wearing some of the more outrageous things I normally see in the UK, either (e.g., none of those little Charlie’s Angels beach rompers or ankle socks with loafers—thank God). In other words, while the Irish looked unmistakably European, had I seen them elsewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily have identified them as coming from Ireland rather than, say, Scotland or Germany. The exception to this was many of the older working men that we saw—in particular, farmers and fishermen:

(Our caretaker, who is also a fisherman, and his son--those are genuine seafarers' oilskins!)

Those guys could have walked off the set of Far and Away or any other period Irish drama set over the last 100 years. The majority of elderly gentlemen walking through town or working in their fields wore wool flat caps that matched their wool jackets. I can imagine wearing this when going on the weekly shopping trip, but while ploughing the field?—that is pretty hard-core. It must have been rather toasty, but it did lend the gentlemen an air of distinction.

Once we left the airport, we had an unexpectedly long drive in order to get to our destination, Rosturk Woods. Given that Dublin is located on the east coast of Ireland and Clew Bay is on the west coast, we actually drove across the width of the entire country (though not across the widest part), and in a single day. I think that is the first time I have ever done such a thing, anywhere. Although I don’t particularly love car trips, given my propensity to become massively motion sick, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch the countryside as it became increasingly rural. For about the first two-thirds of the trip, the scenery didn’t scream “Ireland!” in the way that I had expected; we could easily still have been in England (though the vistas were much wider than those in Cornwall, since the roads weren't hemmed in by stone walls). However, it was extremely green (just as I predicted!) and the fields were decorated with many sheep and bright orange wildflowers. As we moved into the center of the country, there were lots of picturesque rolling hills. To my excitement, there were also tons of pine trees. Although there are also evergreens in Cornwall, the landscape is dominated by deciduous trees, and conifers are few and far between. Not only did Ireland have many pines, but they were grouped together in big patches; that is a habitat feature that reminds me of home and that I miss in the UK.

One of the other big scenic differences between the UK and Ireland was the style of house that we passed. Bungalows abounded—one-storey homes spread out over a lot of ground, fronted by a little stone or cement wall and fairly sizeable front gardens. Many of the gardens contained topiaries, or at least very well-sculpted red-cedar-like trees. I suppose the bungalow-style home is a modern version of the traditional long-house style of dwelling that many of Ireland’s first residents used. Oddly, though, we also passed some brand new McMansion-style homes like those you see in the US, jutting out of the landscape in a very unnatural way. I did not expect to see those in the middle of the Irish countryside, and they looked as surprising and bizarre there as they do in the middle of an otherwise empty field in the US. I will never understand how anyone could choose to live in such a home/location. Both the McMansions and the bungalows were situated extremely close to the road, which also reminded me of much of the US. I had a friend from the Great Plains who could never understand why East Coasters didn’t use long driveways in order to give themselves some privacy. I suppose it is a bit odd—if you have several acres of land, which these places clearly did, why not remove yourself from the noise of the traffic? I suppose it allows residents to maximize the amount of space they allocate to their livestock, which abounded. In fact, sometimes the livestock felt the need to break free of their confines and occupy some additional space, regardless of how their human neighbors felt about it:


The landscape really started to change around Westport. Suddenly there were picturesque stone bridges stretching over tannin-darkened waters and glimpses of fishing vessels sitting in the mud flats, awaiting high tide; we were definitely nearing the coast. From Westport to Newport, and then from Newport to Rosturk Woods, we passed many roadside shrines to the Virgin Mary, which is something I haven’t seen in other highly-Catholic countries I have been in; maybe I just haven’t been to the right places. As one might expect, there were also tons of Catholic churches, whose adjoining graveyards also contained shrines. This in the same country where the “quick-release” tab on a kayak’s spary skirt is referred to as the “Oh, Jesus!”handle—as serious as they may be about their religion, they can also involve it in a laugh.

We finally reached our house just before dinner time:

(Home, sweet home, for our week at Rosturk Woods.)

Like freshmen arriving at our dorm for the first time, we explored our surroundings and staked out our sleeping quarters. Oddly, two pairs of bedrooms were “stacked,” such that you had to walk through one bedroom in order to reach the other from the hall. On the bottom floor, where the bedrooms also had patio access, this meant you could reach the living room or kitchen by going outside; on the top floor, where my husband and I were staying, the only way out involved intruding on your neighbors. I found this to be particularly uncomfortable because we ended up in the back bedroom, but I was consistently the earliest riser in the house, which meant that every morning I woke up our friends in the adjoining room on my way down to breakfast. Sorry, guys! The other weird architectural thing was that the bathroom doors in both of the upstairs stacked bedrooms had panes of glass in their upper halves, covered only by a thin curtain. Thus, anyone who wandered past could see you using the toilet. I’d like to have a chat with both the architects and interior designers involved in making this building.

(Our see-through bathroom door. Luckily the curtains were not hung on a rod, but on a flexible, stretchy wire, which allowed us to hang towels in the window for better coverage.)

Our arrival at Rosturk Woods coincided with a bit of nasty weather, which was fine by me. For one thing, I like cloudy skies and rain, anyway. For another thing, I hadn’t had a true vacation for a very long time. I had a lot of sleep to catch up on and some very long books to read. Other than a brief foray down to, and along, the coast (about 5 minutes’ walk from our porch), and a short blackberry-picking expedition, I pretty much didn’t leave the house for the first three days.

(I took this photo during one of my brief forays along the coast outside our house; this castle was built in the 1800's and our caretaker's father grew up in it. I believe this may be the first time I vacationed within walking distance of an actual castle.)

It turns out that Ireland is a great place to hunker down inside, snack, and take naps. Our bedroom was particularly good for sleeping because, from it, I could hear the waterfall, the rustling leaves, and the birds singing outside; it was very peaceful. In the evening, we lit a fire and burned some very Irish peat bricks. In front of it, we watched movies and played Celebrities (in which I redeemed my poor performance in the one-word round by discovering a talent for the charades round).

I finally ventured out on the fourth day for an afternoon kayaking expedition. Although I am quite fond of kayaking and, indeed, own a kayak, I hadn’t been out on the water for over a year, and had never before been out on the sea. The day started stormily, but cleared up just in time for our outing. Clew Bay supposedly contains 365 islands (one for every day of the year), and we paddled from one to the other in bright sunlight atop sparkling waves:

(A view from my kayak of one of the Bay's more impressively-sized islands and its smaller neighbors. Unfortunately, my camera was just not up to the task of capturing the phenomenal, wild beauty of the Bay.)

We visited maybe 3-4 different islands and a nearby salmon fishery, taking shelter along each island’s coastline in order to rest up for all the hard work required to get across the choppy, open bits in between. Nobody tipped over and nobody was too sore the next day, so the trip was definitely a success. Once we got back to the pier, we had to rush home rather quickly, because the gravel track that got us back to the main road was being overrun by water as the tide came in. I suppose that is a bit of evidence in support of the widely-held belief (by Brits, anyway) that roads under control of the Crown are always in better shape than roads maintained by the Irish.

The next day, we went back out on the water in vehicles that could move a bit faster. Our hunters and gatherers hopped aboard a small fishing vessel in order to throw out lines for mackerel and collect some scallops; others of us took a rib out to meet them, making a brief detour to do some seal-watching along the way:

(The Twilight Star, our caretaker's boat.)

(If you look closely, you will be able to see that the dot in the water is the head of a bull seal investigating our presence.)

After we rendezvoused, we pulled into an island and had a little picnic, complete with freshly-made hot tea (our skipper was both prepared and thoughtful). As we ate, we could see very intense clouds making their way towards us from the open water; just in time, we collected our belongings and set off for home. Our brief window of sunny weather was closed. Luckily, we had a home-cooked meal of freshly-caught seafood to distract us from this unfortunate fact.

On our final full day in Ireland, my husband and I drove to Westport for a little shopping. I was hoping to find some traditional Celtic-themed jewelry to take back to the US as presents. Oddly, this proved to be nearly impossible, despite the fact that Westport had many shops, a large proportion of which we visited. However, there were tons of other items on offer, including a wide range of things made by local artists. My husband and I were both impressed by the quality and the prices of these artisanal products, which were made in many media. In many cases, the art had a Celtic theme, but did not dwell on the stereotypical images of Druids and "faeries" and knots and the other sorts of things that most tourists might think of; rather, they reflected contemporary ideas of what it means to be Celtic and/or Irish now. That surprised me, but I also thought it was pretty neat (and I used my credit card to show my support).

Throughout our stay at Rosturk Woods, we also did “regular” shopping, which was an interesting process. The nearest village, Mulranny, had quite a tiny grocery store—smaller than many typical 7-11s in the US. Although that is completely understandable, given the size of the local population and the distance to the nearest supply centers, it was difficult for those of us who had planned to cook complex recipes. For instance, there were no fresh herbs in the store, and only a half dozen dried herbs; there was only one brand of tea, with no herbal options; and there were no options for health and beauty products for those of us who ran out or packed too lightly. Although none of this really bothered me during my 7 days in town, it did make me think about how difficult it would be to live that way year-round; I am definitely not a city girl by any means, but I do like the choices and conveniences that are a part of being nearer "civilization."

On the morning that we took off, we woke up to the sounds of rain but, after pulling back the curtains, saw sunlight streaming through the clouds. This yielded some of the prettiest views I had seen yet, which also matched most closely with my preconceived notion of what Ireland looks like:

(The view from our bedroom window on our final day--notice the simultaneous rain and sun.)

Unfortunately, the loveliness of the first few moments of the day did not persist throughout the rest of the day; after issues with unplanned potty breaks and fuel stops and traffic jams and lacking/poorly-positioned car rental signs at the airport, we barely made our flight—by which I mean that we were the last people to check in, and did so during the final five minutes before the gates were closed. That was undoubtedly the most stressful airport moment I have ever had when traveling, but at least it had a happy resolution. Maybe after a week in the country, we had been blessed with a little of the luck of the Irish.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Travel thoughts

When I am traveling, my mind seems to work overtime, and I find myself contemplating all sorts of stuff. Mostly I think this has to do with the fact that I get extremely motion sick, so whenever I’m on the road/air/water, I am forced to do absolutely nothing except maybe listen to a little music—a far cry from my normal state of being, when I can barely think straight because I am usually busy accomplishing about ten different things simultaneously. I am, by nature, full of curiosity, so with the unusual amount of mental freedom afforded by long-distance travels, my thoughts wander far and wide. In addition to all the normal thoughts in my head (the book I’m reading, the last movie I saw, my research project, etc.), there are also many ideas related to the new and interesting things I’ve been exposed to during my trip. Having just completed 37 long hours of travel (that’s 5 hours on the train, 18 hours of layovers, and 17 hours of flying, in case you were curious), I currently have a very tired brain.

What was I pondering during that long trip? Well, for starters, I started wondering about geography after I checked out a map of the flight route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I realized that I wasn’t really sure if Malaysia and Indonesia were both countries or whether one (or both?) of them was a collective name for one or more of the archipelagos in the region (it’s the former; and, speaking of archipelagos, would you believe that Indonesia comprises 17,508 islands?!). I also noticed that Singapore was at the tip of the Malay Peninsula—this leapt out at me because that’s where my husband is right now—and it occurred to me that I didn’t really even know what Singapore is: a city? a territory of another country? a country in and of itself? When I looked it up online, I discovered that it’s a city-state, which then made me wonder how many other city-states there are in the world (apparently 2—the Vatican and Monaco). As you can see, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to geography and world history, which is a shame; I really find all this stuff fascinating, especially because I like to apply that kind of knowledge when I travel. Every time I discover yet another obvious geographical fact that had previously escaped my attention, I cringe at the knowledge that I am proving true the stereotype that Americans only know about their own country.

I also think about cultural stuff, for obvious reasons—when you are in an airport, you are bound to run across someone who is “different” in some way. When I was in the Kuala Lumpur airport, for instance, I encountered more Muslim women than I have ever seen in my life (the only other place I’ve observed multiple burqas in a single day/location is Minneapolis, Minnesota—weird, huh?). Given how few burqa-wearers I’ve ever seen, it is perhaps unsurprising that I’d never noticed how the women often decorate their otherwise bland outfits in order to spice them up a bit—many of the ladies had beads or sequins placed around the edges of the headpiece, or along the trim of the sleeves and dress; some had also pinned their scarves in place with jeweled barrettes. It was quite pretty, and I was surprised to find that such a practice was allowed, given how solemn that particular mode of dress is. I also noted the striking eye makeup that all the women wore; they all looked quite beautiful, though of course it is difficult to make those judgments very accurately when all you can see is someone’s eyes. That made me wonder what courtship is like in areas where the women always wear burqas in public: Is there ever a time when their husbands-to-be get to see their brides prior to marriage, or does the literal unveiling only happen on the wedding day? If it is the latter, one would imagine that some men are in for a serious disappointment, if their brides’ eyes are their most attractive feature. Perhaps you will forgive me for being so shallow when I tell you that my Muslim-oriented thoughts also drifted to a wonderful book I read in high school, called Daughter of Persia. It is the autobiography of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of an Iranian prince and a humanitarian who lived through the turbulent, US-aided regime change in Iran. I had always meant to re-read that book, but never did; now I’m feeling inspired to return to it. Back to a bit of semi-shallowness, I was also trying to remember the names for the different parts of Muslim women’s headwear. I recently read an article about the different components and how they all fit together to make the final product, which usually looks as though it is all one piece. I was totally convinced that one of the pieces was a habib, but when I looked it up, I discovered that habib meant “beloved.” The word I was trying to think of was hijab, which can be used to describe both the head covering itself and the modest Muslim style of dress, in general.

By this point in my contemplation, I was feeling pretty stupid, which prompted a whole new flow of ideas—about Americans and their general ignorance about Islam. This was a particularly timely topic, topic given the recent events with that idiotic pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Qu’ran last week. It occurred to me that, while Americans have become more aware of Muslims and Islam since 9/11, most of us haven’t really become much more knowledgeable about them. As someone who’s taken some history courses examining Muslim countries, who has read up a little on Islam-related history and current events, who has some Muslim friends, and has been to places where multiple Muslims can be seen at any given time, I would say that I represent the American median, in terms of Islam-savviness—although a part of me suspects, with a bit of dismay, that I might actually be slightly above average in this respect. Either way, that means there are actually people who know less than I do, and that is pretty scary. What is even scarier is that I was having these rather deep thoughts at what was, to my body clock at least, 3 AM.

Of course, at that time in the day, it’s a miracle that anyone can think straight at all, and I will admit that my mental stability was waning. That’s another interesting thing about travel-induced meditations. They are not only affected by my surroundings, but also by my state of being. There always comes some point when I am running on empty, and when that happens, I find everything funny. This is dangerous because I keep wanting to chuckle to myself, which probably wouldn’t do much to endear me to other nearby travelers. I’m also often highly caffeinated, since I am an avid tea drinker, slurp down Cokes in order to minimize motion sickness, and take caffeinated headache pills. All that caffeine makes my thoughts race—not only am I constantly thinking of something, but I also jump from one topic to the next with amazing rapidity. For instance, the following is a fairly accurate representation of a sequence of thoughts that actually went through my head during my recent trip: (listening to iPod) “Wow, this is a great song, I’m glad I bought this album. I wonder if Mom would like this? Well, she would, but she might not have the time to listen to it. I wonder what kind of souvenirs she’d want me to look out for? I could buy her something with my own money, maybe as a Christmas present; or, I could use her credit card and she could buy it herself. I wonder how much money is her limit? I should buy Dad something, too, but that’s harder—what would Dad like that I could fit in my suitcase? What am I going to get Dad for Christmas? I should go shopping for myself at Christmas, too, and take advantage of being able to spend in dollars instead of sterling. I definitely need some pants. But no sweaters—I have too many sweaters. I’m going to need to reorganize my clothes when I get back home. And clean. I need to vacuum and do the bathroom and dust. Ugh, I hate dusting. Why can’t they sell Pledge in the UK? That’s what I really need but they don’t have anything that good…” I could go on, but I won’t bore you; it’s boring even to me and they’re my own thoughts.

When I get to this phase—the uncontrollable-racing-thought phase—I often am overwhelmed by the desire to list things. I think that may be my coping mechanism to prevent myself from coming totally unhinged. Sometimes I make to-do lists; other times I make grocery lists or plan out travel itineraries in more detail. Occasionally, I record all of the questions I’ve pondered during my trip (e.g., Malaysia vs. Indonesia, names of headdress components, etc.) so that I can remember to look them up when I get to a computer; likewise, I also write down words whose definitions or pronunciations I’ve realized I am unfamiliar with. Since starting the travel blog, I’ve also started writing down all the topics I could discuss in future entries. That’s what I did this afternoon at the peak of my over-caffeinated, under-rested mental overload. I made a list of all the bizarre things that happened in the day and a half since I’d left Cornwall. Thus, some of my most recent travel thoughts have ultimately proven to be useful, since they will help get this blog rolling again. That just goes to show that all this cogitation can sometimes be good for something, as when I catch a little inspiration, remember a vital piece of information, or, on the rarest of occasions, have an epiphany. But, most of the time, my mental chatter is relatively pointless--I have fleeting thoughts that keep me entertained for a bit but then vanish into the mists of my mind, never again to resurface. I think maybe there is a metaphor somewhere in there, but my brain is just too tired to grasp it right now.