Sunday, June 7, 2009


So my parents really wanted to meet me for a vacation but not all the way in Malawi (a bit too much I think). They have always wanted to travel to Ireland, and I really needed a vacation…so we booked the tickets!
The flight from Johannesburg to London was incredibly long (as expected) and when I landed in London the first thing I did was immediately stop by the closest coffee shop I could find. I asked for the biggest cup of coffee she could find and proceeded to tell her I hadn’t had a good cup of coffee in 14 months. I certainly felt a bit out of place in Heathrow. Everyone was so trendy with their wool coats and hats, adeptly balancing a cup of coffee and their Blackberry at the same time, all while on a pair of stylish heels. And then there was me: dirty jeans, no make-up, not in a hurry. I caught my flight to Dublin just fine and arrived shortly before lunch (just in time for another cup of coffee:). I didn’t have much trouble finding my parents as the Dublin airport is a bit small. I think we were all so overwhelmed by the moment that we couldn’t even be bothered to cry. It was so great to finally see them after 14 long months! Unfortunately, I had to immediately look in my suitcase to make sure the ice hadn’t melted on the second series of my rabies post-exposure shot.
Sorry for the side-bar, but the story (in retrospect only) is hilarious. So a few days before I was scheduled to fly out I decided to give my dog a bath. Sako doesn’t really like getting a bath. About a week later I’m in the medical office getting clearance to leave the country and Dr. Max casually asks, “So, is there anything else I need to know?” And I respond, “Well, my dog scratched me about a week ago. Do you think that is a problem?” Dr. Max thought a 1-inch scratch was severe enough to give me the post-exposure shot—only problem was that I needed to give myself the second shot three days later, but was leaving for Ireland in 12 hours. So, Max and I spent the next 30 minutes scheming how to get it on the plane. Do we smuggle it in checked baggage, hoping they won’t look? Attach the prescription hoping they won’t read that it is for rabies. I could just imagine me spending my vacation in quarantine because Ireland has no rabies and they won’t let me enter the country. My favorite part of this whole story is when I decided to consult my boss, Brian, about what he thought was best. I go in his office and explain my predicament and all the illegal options that Max and I have come up with. Brian’s face becomes increasingly twisted and at the end of all this he turns around in his chair, bangs his head on the wall three times, and then turns back to me saying, “I should write a fucking book about the trouble you guys (i.e. Peace Corps Volunteers) get yourselves into.” In the end we packed it on ice and I got to play Dr. Alicia for about 30 seconds three days later.
Ok, back to Ireland. After some wrangling with the rental-car company and with the GPS (which dumped the maps about half-way through the vacation and became totally useless) we were headed out of Dublin. About halfway toward our destination for the night we stopped at the ruins of Casheel Castle. (Not a vacation in Europe without castles and monasteries!). It has beautiful views of the surrounding hills and valleys as well as one of the only remaining intact round towers in Ireland. We traveled a few more hours to Rathellen House. I think this was my favorite place that we stayed. Although a newly constructed B&B (surprisingly most of them in Ireland are) it had great views of the mountains below. We went out for dinner in town and I had some really amazing chicken with blood sausage and we also had the first good bottle of red I have had in well, 14 months!
Tired from flying, we woke up late the next day but still got the full Irish breakfast: white and blood pudding, sausage, tomato, toast, jam, fruit, and of course, more coffee. I will tell you right now I ate more meat in those two weeks in Ireland than I did the past 14 months in Peace Corps. Both my stomach and my waistline paid the price for that, but it was delicious! We traveled to Kilkenny town where I could have spent hours wandering around, but it was raining like crazy so we didn’t. We got to see Kilkenny Castle, which I think to its detriment, had be restored a bit too much. Continuing the meat tradition, I had a burger and a Guinness for lunch. And yes, the Guinness is better in Ireland.
We left Rathellen House on Good Friday and went out towards the Ring of Kerry in County Kerry and our B&B, Kathleen’s Country House. We arrived in early afternoon and went had enough time to go to Muckcross House just outside of town. The grounds were beautiful and the house was equally as impressive. Much of the renovations on the house had actually been done for a visit from Queen Elizabeth; renovations which in the end, bankrupted the family and caused the owner to have a nervous breakdown. They also had a weaving shop where real people weave real stuff—an art that is all but lost these days. In the afternoon we went to see Ross Castle—the most intact 14th Century castle in Ireland. The reason 14th century castles are cool is because they are the stuff that 5th grade history projects are made of. They are complete with pots of boiling oil, rocks falling from above onto unsuspecting victims, and closed rooms with holes for guards to shoots arrows on intruders below. We had dinner at Bricin in town where I took a break from meat but switched to dairy overload on full cream wild mushroom pasta and chocolate cake. And more Guinness.
The next day we took in one of the most common sights for tourists—the Ring of Kerry. And after seeing it I can see why. It is a long but beautiful drive around the Kerry peninsula with cliffs plunging down into the sea and lush green fields full of sheep. We drove through parts of Kilarney National Park and it was a fairy tale forest. Much of it reminded me of parks I had travelled to in New Zealand. It was a long drive for Dad, so I convinced him to stop for a break of coffee and carrot cake. I can’t really do the drive justice with words, so I’ll just include a lot pictures below.
On Easter Saturday we headed north toward the Dingle Peninsula. We stopped for a bit at Inch Beach and then kept heading west and north round the peninsula. The weather was the best day we had in Ireland. I wouldn’t call it warm, but we had blue skies almost the entire time. Speaking of weather…it was freezing! Ok, at least to me it was. In Malawi it never gets below 55, even at night. We arrived back late at our Inn and ate dinner at Foley’s Restaurant in town.
On Easter Sunday we went to a small church in town and then left Kilarney for the Cliffs of Moher. We arrived around lunchtime and got to stop and eat lunch overlooking the cliffs. Dad had his picture taken with someone one who was campaigning to make the Cliffs of Moher a World Heritage Site. We kept driving through County Clare and arrived at Dunratty House which overlooked the bay and behind us the Burren Mountains. I really enjoyed the Burren. The biological landscape is just so bizarre that the place is captivating. It is covered in heavy limestone deposits and where people can eke out some farmland, they have built the fences from the limestone rocks. For all its barren appearance, of the native wildlife in Ireland, 90% of its native species are found in the Burren. Dunratty House also had the best breakfast spread by far and all arranged in beautiful pottery by one of Ireland’s most famous potters. And as most of you know, I’m a sucker for pottery.
The next day we went to Bunratty Castle and Historical Village. The castle was cool, but I thought the historical park was better. We chatted with lots of the people who worked there, walked around the grounds, and had some really great food in a local pub. Dad had some of the best lamb sausage I have ever had and I got some amazing lasagna. The park included a working water fed grist mill, a small sheep farm, a beautiful walled garden (complete with 2 Irish wolfhounds), and thatched roof cottages that had been moved from their former location and reconstructed on site. The village reminded me of vacations we use to take as kids to historical Williamsburg.
We left Ballyvaughan (town that Dunratty House was in) and drove through the Burren and the Connemara on our way to Clifden. The Connemara was beautiful and so different from the Burren! The Connemara is full of rolling hills, including the famous Twelve Pins. We took a drive through vast peat bogs and into Connemara National Park where Dad and I took a short walk inside the park. The park visitor center had a great information section on both the biology and Irish culture behind the peat bogs in this area. Often Irish immigrants to America would bring a piece of the family peat with them to remind them of home. And, peat is considered a fossil fuel since it takes thousands of years to form and just the right ecological conditions!
The next day we traveled all the way east, back to Dublin. Halfway there we stopped at Kylemore Abbey which is one of the most photographed buildings in Ireland. It is indeed a gorgeous abbey built along the River -----. High in the hills above a statue of Jesus has been constructed as a place of prayer and pilgrimage for the nuns below. We arrived in Dublin in the late afternoon with just enough time to take a walk down Fleet Street. In the area of town that we stayed in all the doors are painted different colors. After Queen Elizabeth died, the Irish were asked to paint all the doors black as a sign of respect. So with a big Irish F* you, they painted all the doors the brightest colors they could find! We had dinner at a restaurant that served just kofte, which are pancakes made of potatoes and filled with some kind of delicious filling. I had a creamy mushroom filling in mine. Apparently, this is a very traditional Irish food. And, I also had a plate of oysters with a Guinness, which surprisingly is a much better combination than Tabasco sauce or lemon juice!
After only two days in Dublin it occurred to me that it is a very young, hip, party hard city. Everyone woman under the age of thirty, and I do mean everyone, was running around the city in brightly colored tights and flashy ballet flats complete with some kind of baggy dress cinched with a belt and a bag they could fit a small child in. It didn’t take long to figure out Dublin’s style. But, none the less, I loved it! On out first day for a bit of Irish history (and a fantastic history it is) we headed to Killmainham Jail on this big touristy double-decker bus. I felt like a big nerdy tourist, but at least it was convenient. The Killmainham jail is at the center of so much of Irish history. Throughout “The Troubles,” the jail was used to house and execute many famous Irish dissident of the crown. Our tour guide placed a special focus on the women and children that were jailed and executed there, which I greatly appreciated. It was a saddening experience, but I don’t think any trip to Ireland would be complete without an appreciation of its rich history.
On Saturday we also travelled to...the Guinness Factory! They charge a small fortune for the factory tour, but at least you get a pint of Guinness at the end. The tour was great! They have toasted barley for you to eat, pump in real hops smell around the fake vines, a tasting lab with instructions from a real Guinness taste tester (how would you like that job), and they have a huge exhibit about Guinness advertising and the Guinness Book of World Records. My favorite part of the tour was the exhibit about the Cooperage. The Guinness coopers were thought to be the first people to burn the inside of the barrels in order to burn away the tannins which will make the beer bitter. It took true skill, brute strength, and dedication to be a Guinness cooper. The apprenticeship alone took seven years and even after that each cooper was required to mark his own barrels, thus allowing the bosses to keep track of who’s leaked and who’s didn’t.
That night we ate dinner at a restaurant called Fire, where I had a delicious beet salad and thin-crust pizza. On our way out we happened to be eating right next to the place that was hosting the Irish Daytime Emmy’s! So, Mom and I stood around and gawked at all the pretty dresses for about 15 minutes.
On Sunday we went to church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral—which to my great surprise and disappointment was completely empty. This beautiful cathedral had halfway been turned into a tourist shop, there wasn’t a choir to be seen on the program list, and there was only 3 other people in church that morning. It is really quite a shame. We had our last Irish breakfast at a local cafĂ© and then took the big red bus again to Trinity College and the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is also another massive tourist attraction, and I was a bit skeptical about the whole thing at first. But, after seeing the books I can totally understand why people flock in droves to see them. The Book of Kells is one of the first copies of the Four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Trinity College places on display two of the four books at time and also two other Coptic texts. The craftsmanship alone is enough to amaze most, but I think for the religious the books hold a special spiritual importance. The books are made of the skins of 150 calves, the inks made from various rocks and beetles, all painstakingly scribed by candlelight over many years. My trip to see the Book of Kells was actually one of my most favorite experiences in Ireland.
That night we under-estimated the availability of Irish restaurants on a Sunday night and ending up eating at a burger place! It was actually really good. Mom and I walked just around the block to see the Dublin Chamber Orchestra perform and the National Concert Hall. What a treat! After being in Malawi for so long it was wonderful to hear the music of my own culture: Handel, Mendelssohn, and even modern Irish classical composers. It was a great evening of music and a wonderful way to share my last night together with my mom for the next 8 months!
The next morning I rode with my parents to the airport even though my flight didn’t leave to a few hours after theirs. It was a wonderful trip and I really enjoyed spending time with my parents for a full two weeks. We made some great memories together and it is a trip I will look back to with great fondness. We said our sad goodbyes at the airport and parted ways for the next 8 months. But, I get to see them again at Christmas so I’m already looking forward to that!

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