Climbing the Reek

We spent Tuesday night at the Old Mill Hostel in Westport. After talking with a few British cyclists who were part way through a two-week trip, we set out for a rocky peak, known as Croagh Patrick or the Reek, rising 2500 feet above Clew Bay on Ireland’s west coast. Like a lot of the country’s natural wonders, the lead up to the mountain is a staging area for trinkets and pricey vittles, as well as a cursory visitor’s center. But once we left the pavement of the first half-mile of the hike, we found the challenge we were looking for.

Just before the pavement ends is a statue of Saint Patrick. According to legend, he climbed to the summit and fasted there for 40 days. The sacrifice of its patron saint rid Ireland of its snakes. I looked, and I can say that I didn’t find any while circling the island.

Twenty-five hundred vertical feet over a one-way distance of about 3 miles isn’t much to speak of when you think of the Sierras or the Rockies or even the Appalachians, and indeed, the round-trip journey only took us about 3 hours. But what the Reek lacks in height, the local believers who have carved a trail to the top for their annual pilgrimage have made up for by taking the straightest, steepest route to the top.

Starting on one of the mountain’s smaller foothills, the sandy scree path took us straight up to a saddle that connected to the main peak. Parts were fairly steep and loose enough to force a bit of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ progress. But the rolling saddle, perhaps two-thirds of the way up the mountain, provided a nice rest before we took on the last pitch – a guileless climb up a swath of boulder that led to the very top. Going up was tough, but I honestly worried more about the descent. A misstep on the way down probably wouldn’t kill you, I thought, but gravity would probably relish thrashing you against the rock garden runway all the way back down to the saddle.

We made it to the summit and took in the vast peat bogs on the far side of the mountain. On the side we came up, Clew Bay arced to the northwest like a hand that had just let fly the dozens of tiny islands poking out from the sea. One of our hosts early on had told me that the west coast of Ireland was unique because it’s been ‘beat all to hell by the Atlantic.” Further south, I’d noticed the spiky peninsulas and multitude of bays and inlets around Kerry and Dingle, but it appears as though the ocean has pummeled this part of the rocky coastline with an especially intense vigor.

Perched just off the summit is a surprisingly stout church, built in the early twentieth century by leveraging only the brawn and sweat of donkeys, horses and local Irishmen. I tried to picture anyone hauling even one of the stones required to build the church, and couldn’t believe it was possible. But then, Ireland seems to be filled with a sturdier class of beasts (including men) than what I’m used to. On our descent, not five minutes from the top, a mother ewe and her lamb picked their way through the field of boulders beside the trail with their match-stick legs as easily as if they were mowing the lawn on a soccer pitch.

It wasn’t until about halfway down the steep approach to the summit that we started to see other hikers. Some were bona fide pilgrims, stopping at each sign-posted station to say a few Hail Marys or walk the short path around a pile of rocks a number of times. A few young guys who looked to be in their teens or early twenties were doing it barefoot, as the most devout are apt to do. When we saw them, they were just beyond the paved section, but they were already seeking out the grassy shoulder of the wide rocky path – not a good sign so early on.

As we approached the parking lot, a huffing Englishman asked us if we’d been to the top. I tried not to be too offended when, after we said we had, he replied, “Well, you must be in better shape than you look, mate.” Maybe I have had too much stew, stout and fish and chips here.

I’ll post a short video of us at the top (and clear evidence for why my career in videography hasn’t taken off) soon.

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Craic at the Pub

I’m in the process of trying to catch up a bit with my blog posts. We’ve seen a ton here in Ireland, but most of it has involved (me) driving long distances, so I haven’t had the time taking public transportation to write. Anyway, I’ll try to put together a post or two a day for the next few days. In the meantime, I had to share our night at a pub we stumbled into today in Westport.

A little background first… Westport seems to be doing well economically. It began as a planned settlement in the 1700s to support a local estate, and it seems to strike the right balance between the charming storefronts and B&Bs to support the tourists, but still enough of a local population out and about that it doesn’t feel like a movie set. It’s also home to Matt Molloy, a flute and whistle player with the famous Irish group the Chieftains. He owns a bar here in town. When we first arrived, it was too early for dinner, so we decided to have a drink.

The second pub we came to was Matt Molloy’s. Frosted glass windows and solid doors didn’t allow us to see what was going on inside, but as soon as we opened the door, the sounds of a sort-of sing-along rolled out. Not wanting to disturb a private party, we let the door slide back closed. Thankfully, though, we decided to go in.

The long and narrow pub seemed to stretch back room after room quite a ways. On either side of the only way to get to the other stools and tables in the bar were 8–10 red-faced Irishmen harmonizing artfully a tune I’d never heard before. Most of the towns and villages we have visited, especially Doolin and Dingle, have traditional Irish music every evening at every pub to attract tourists. But here, we’d stumbled upon the actual organic precursor to all that.

We found a couple of perfect seats at corner table to watch as the men swore and laughed, pausing only to take a sip from their beers or glasses of whiskey (most had both), or to ‘get the choir back together,’ as one man said. As I walked up to the bar, they started a verse of ‘In the Early Morning Rain.’

I ordered a Guinness, and while I was waiting (Guinness takes several minutes to pour properly), an older couple at the bar asked me where I was from. When I told them California, they apologized for the recent rain. Sunday had been particularly wet all over the island, and even a lot of Irish folks we talked to had complained about it.

Ordinarily, they seem unfazed by the showers that can pop up at just about any time in Ireland. Anne-Claire and I will walk into a restaurant after a downpour and drip puddles of water all over the floor. Somehow, an Irish person will follow us in, and with a few flicks of the wrist, they’re as dry as a mallard.

“Well, you don’t come to Ireland for the weather,” the man at the bar said. “Friendly people though.” He and his wife were from Dublin and were celebrating an attempted hike up Croagh Patrick, a mountain not far from town where legend tells us that Saint Patrick rid Ireland of its snakes.

I said I agreed, looking at the old guys slapping each other on the back and telling stories. We talked a bit longer, and he told me this had been his third try and he still hadn’t made it to the top. The first two he blamed on too much to drink the nights before, and the third was out of his hands. “Now, I just might be too old.”

I wished him better luck next time, and went back to join Anne-Claire at the table. She sat surreptitiously snapping photos, and we even managed to record a bit of the old guys’ singing. We stayed for a few more rounds and stories. Then, with a final wistful tune, the leader – who also managed to greet just about everyone who came into the pub – he said he was off. On his way out, he tapped me on my shoulder and said goodbye to me as well. Here’s a short recording. Sorry for the poor quality.

‘Craic’ is conversation, entertainment, music – pretty much any of the mischief you can get yourself into at a pub.

Ireland, Coast to Coast

Wandering around Temple Bar in Dublin

It’s hard to believe we’ve been in Ireland for nearly a week now. Thanks to a mix-up on our part, we actually got into Dublin about 10 hours early, effectively giving us an extra day in Dublin to wander. We had arranged for to stay with a couple of guys south of the city (we didn’t know exactly where), but we weren’t supposed to meet them until the evening.

Being forced to stay in the city for the day was probably the best thing for jet lag, though a few times the tiredness was difficult to overcome. In the afternoon, I fell asleep sitting in a chair while checking out an exhibit at the National Museum of Archeology on some of the inadvertent mummies that archeologists – and sometimes farmers – have found in peat bogs. The way it was explained to us, as peat engulfs the body, it allows little air to reach it, thus slowing the process of decay. One of the mummies was so intact you could still see its fingerprints.

After dinner, we grabbed our bags from the Internet café that we’d left them at earlier and got on a bus heading south of the city. The directions we’d received seemed straightforward: Take the 54a bus to the end of the line, and look for Ellensborough, a housing development just past the bus stop. Technically, those directions were accurate. But Ellensborough, it turns out, is a massive collection of townhomes in three “phrases,” as we were told when we asked for directions from a woman selling Avon.

Weighed down with heavy packs and about 30 hours of being awake, we wandered into the first entrance, searching for the street name we’d been given. The night  became a lesson in getting directions from the Irish. Though she wanted to be helpful, the first person we stopped was selling cable TV and didn’t know the area. Next, we found a family who didn’t even know the name of the street just up the hill from them. “I think it’s back there. Head that way, then ask someone when you get there,” they said.

That last piece of advice might be why most of the maps in Ireland feel almost hand-drawn in their precision and signposts tend to point in a general direction rather than down a specific road. “To put the chat on someone” was an expression we’d learn later. Walk up to just about anyone, and they’ll tell you which way they think you should be headed. You’ll also learn a good deal more.

Earlier in the day, we talked to one of the security guards at the museum. Well-versed in the museum’s exhibits, he also told us about his Cambodian wife and their young daughter and the trip back to Cambodia they had planned in a few weeks. We also got his thoughts on the housing and unemployment crises in Ireland (always right on the tips of people’s tongues).

Heading up to the third “phrase,” we once more stopped someone, this time a boy walking his dog. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he pointed us down the street. Finally, at the very top of the hill, nearly the last street down, we found the house, a bachelor pad complete with two other couch-surfing Americans.

The Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin, made famous as the setting for scenes in Braveheart and the Tudors and for being the source of water for the Guiness brewery in Dublin

We spent a little time with Donal, one of our hosts, but quickly went to bed. I’ve never slept so well on a first night anywhere, especially considering that the sun was still out at 10:30. The backdrop for our first night was pretty spectacular, surrounded by the sheep farms leading up into the Wicklow Mountains.

A Single Bag…

Well, almost. It’s hard to believe I routinely traveled with little more than a half-full rucksack when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. Now, five years later, paring down my possessions to fit a full-on internal frame pack was a challenge.

With the hope of getting on an earlier flight to Dublin once we arrive in London, we carried on. The gate agent apparently didn’t notice me staggering toward the jet way under the burden of a load complete with rain gear for Ireland, a tent for southern France, and my winter sleeping bag for the Sahara.

Somehow, when I’m toting a roll-aboard suitcase, I tend to attract a suspicious glance or two from airline agents, especially when checking a bag costs as much as a parking ticket with most airlines. That’s often because, with a suitcase, I’ve somehow convinced myself that I have a Mary Poppins-like ability to fit everything I use while I’m at home, and oftentimes, a good deal I don’t. Three pairs of shoes for a weekend trip? Sounds practical. A hardbound complete anthology of James Joyce’s works? Throw it in there, I’ll have loads of time on the plane. It all adds up to a piece of luggage, seams stretched to capacity, the odd sharp bulge threatening the integrity of the ballistic fabric, that betrays my apparent fondness for traveling heavy to anyone with a discerning eye.

“That’ll have to be checked, Sir.”

“What, this?” I feign amazement.

“We can do it right here for you.”

“But I won’t have to pay for it, will I?” I ask, politely as possible.

“No sir,” she says.

Funny how these little plays in real life can make respectable runs. Airlines charge for checked luggage, causing folks like me not to pack lighter, but to stuff the same amount of stuff in a smaller space, which leads to passengers hoofing their dubiously designated carry-on luggage through security and to the gate. The climax arrives when the gate agent, by now old hat in the role of unwitting enabler, offers to check the bag for free at the gate. Not exactly riveting theater, but the seats facing the ticket counter where this all goes down are cheap. I’ve attended quite a few performances in the past year or so, and I’m always left wondering, do the airlines see the fact that you got your bag a little closer to the plane as worth $25 in the gas and labor it would have taken one of their people to get it there? Are they worried that pulling out the measuring tape and verifying that, yes indeed, Sir, you’ve exceeded our size requirements by a full 20 inches, might incite already-grumpy travelers to rally around the discriminatory “baggist” views of the airline?

I’m a proponent of the former. Call me an optimist, but in an industry replete with nonsensical fees and arbitrary safety and security rules (I seriously doubt we’ve foiled the plans of those terrorists who need 4 ounces of liquid for their diabolical plots – “Why did it have to be 3? they say. “With just 1 more ounce, we’d bring America to its knees.”), perhaps the airlines have finally conceded defeat to a flying public willing to take them to the mat in terms of ridiculousness. If you’re willing to carry it through increasingly labyrinthine airports to avoid the levied fees, they seem to be saying, well then, you’ve earned a free spot for your stuff.

Maybe that’s why the gate agent let me on today with my swollen pack.

Off we go…

Amid calls to credit card companies and trips to the travel clinic for a few vaccinations, I’m finally sitting down to start this blog. I’ve never been a particularly fruitful blogger, but I figured a two-and-a-half-month trip through Europe and Africa might spur me into action.

With the exception of our Peace Corps service, this trip is more about meeting people than any we (my girlfriend Anne-Claire and I) have taken. We’ll check out a few museums, churches and castles, especially early on in Ireland and France as we make our way to Morocco. The depth of history of these sites is too much to pass up.

But as we move south through the Sahara to West Africa, the people more than anything else harbor their countries’ history. Etched on their faces are ancient memories stretching back thousands of years – memories of living at the edge of existence, of coaxing crops from dry sandy soil, of the vital importance of their communities to survival in the Sahel.

In a way, we’ll be looking for that same history in the people we meet in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. Anne-Claire has several host families she lived with while studying in France, so we’ll see them. But we’re also taking the opportunity to stay with people kind enough to open their homes to us along the way. In part this helps make several months of traveling financially feasible. But we also thought, what better way to learn about a place and its people? We hope to move across the insular border that isolated hotel rooms can sometimes create.

Our plan is to literally cross a few borders as well. After a few hops on planes and trains to southern Spain, we’ll head through Mauritania to Senegal, across to Mali and into Niger. It’ll be the first time since we left 5 years ago that we’ll see the friends and family that made Peace Corps such a terrific experience.

I’m probably most excited about traveling overland extensively in this part of the world for the first time in my life. Apart from a short trip to Benin from Niger, I don’t have any African border crossings under my belt. Even the trip to Benin was enlightening, crossing from one of the poorest countries (Niger) to one 30-some spots higher on the to the UNDP Human Development Index (Benin). Just filling out the declaration form on the Niger side was difficult, as the customs officials didn’t have enough pens to go around. In Benin, every house in the villages along the road seemed to have a tin roof. Most huts outside the main cities in Niger had roofs of straw or (like mine) mud packed between timber crossbeams that melted in the tumultuous storms of the short summer rainy season.

Tin roofs. And pigs. Goats and sheep were everywhere in Niger – free-range livestock for a Muslim country. But just across the river in Benin, it was like walking into a porcine refuge. Perhaps it’s those stark contrasts writer Paul Theroux says are so “revealing.” In an interview for A Sense of Place, Theroux said, “The border is drama, misery, real life, strangeness, and the actual site line of the dotted line one sees on a map.” He goes on: “The international airport in the capital is the place to avoid if you want to know how the country works.”

So I suppose this first post is a rambling attempt to suss out what we hope to get out of this trip and what this blog will become. On extended trips, I usually like to send e-mail updates, but in an effort to avoid cluttering the mailboxes of friends and family, I’ll post here periodically about what we’re up to, where we are, and who we’re meeting.

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