The Year of Living Differently #13: Book, Cod and Two Smoky Bars – Giant\’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

12: Book, Cod and Two Smoky Bars

GIANT’S CAUSEWAY, NORTHERN IRELAND – 1 September, 2002
I figured Belfast would be a dead town as well on a Sunday and hence, when I saw a tour for the Giant’s Causeway posted at my hostel, I decided to join it.

The weather was excellent and we were first driven to a place with a rope bridge called Carrick-a-Rede. Hmmm… an example of how the authorities would and could milk tourist money out of a construction, which would have otherwise been an ordinary rope bridge across any other chasm.

Why did some fishermen sling a rope bridge across this chasm? To get to the other side. Ingenious. The road down to the bridge had spectacular coastal scenery, crashing waves, swooping seagulls and all. I registered that this was my first coastal scene since I started on my trip. Yeah, I had been meandering inland all this time, hadn’t I?

The bridge was not that scary but perhaps, someone with crossed eyes or was afraid of heights would shiver in fright and yelp for their boyfriends. This being Ireland, things would be fixed up with proper safety features (e.g. no fraying ropes and you could not put a hole through the boards like what usually happened in Indiana Jones movies) to ensure no tourists died. They, however, did not extend their guarantee to dogs. So, do not bring Rover along.

After an inexplicable stop at a castle, we finally got to the Giant’s Causeway. This unique and breathtaking structure had hexagonal-shaped rock columns packed tightly along a section of the coastline. The heights of the rock columns varied and looked like giant organ pipes or stepping stones. It was truly an incredible sight.

The story has it that Finn McCool, a giant warrior, fell in love with a giant babe, who lived on an island, and built this bridge to bring her across. Something like that, at least…

Or, you could believe the other hocus-pocus story that this structure was a mass of basalt columns formed from solidified lava. Bollocks, if you ask me.

I spent a long time at the edge, admiring the crashing waves on the unique rocks. Despite being swarmed with tourists, one could still find quiet spots to sit and stare. This place had the awesome energy to make one feel small and at peace.

I made my way to the top of the cliff for a bird’s eye view of the rock columns. The strong wind was howling away. A few times, I felt myself nearly blown off. Indeed, when I returned to the tourist centre, there was a sign saying that due to cross-winds, one should not take the cliff road today. Ooops. A bit too late for that.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND to CARLINGFORD, REP. OF IRELAND – 2 September, 2002
Life finally stirred in Belfast today, after two days of rest. The town actually looked quite pretty. There were some areas that seemed a little worn-down but still, I quite liked it. I seriously had to ask Jane which buildings had been blown away before. I hopped in and out of second-hand bookstores. Ah, scores of English books! Wonderful. I could spend hours browsing in them.

By late afternoon, as agreed via emails with Jane, I took a bus down to Newry where she worked and I waited for her until she knocked off from work at 5pm.

There, reunited again! We hugged. It was wonderful to see her. We had really gotten along well during the three weeks in China. I had missed her.

She drove me down to the Republic of Ireland where she was living now. When I crossed the border, I did not notice… the price signs posted at the petrol stations were similar, except that in Northern Ireland, it was in pounds and in Republic of Ireland, it was in Euros.

After her China trip, Jane had rented a cottage in a charming little village called Carlingford right by a lough. We twisted and turned precariously up very narrow and steep stoned roads lined with rocky walls and finally stopped in front of her cottage.

OK, she had not had time to decorate the cottage to her own taste. So the cottage still had the old-fashioned country-style atmosphere with pine-wood kitchen set, green-yellow checked curtains, velvet-upholstered sofa and brown carpet. She claimed to be terribly embarrassed by the decorations.

I spied chili-light bulbs, fake fruits and plastic flamingos not yet set out at the garden and agreed. I thought these latter items belonged to the landlady but as it turned out, she confessed they were hers. Gosh, she herself would have quite a kitsch kitchen and garden too. Was she into gnomes as well, I asked her.

The village was so tiny that for her address, it was just her name, the street name (and there was no road sign either, the locals just knew what the street was called), ‘Carlingford’, and ‘Ireland’. No street number or postal code. She had gone down to the post office and described where she lived and asked for a postal code. “Postal code? We don’t have that sort of thing here, love.”

Down by the harbour, some boys were plunging into the icy-cold water. “Now why do you boys do this?” Jane called out to them. “Good craic.” They brrred away. And here, I was introduced to an Irish word previously unbeknownst to me – ‘craic’ which means ‘fun’.

Jane wanted to introduce me to another typical Irish experience – the pub. Naturally, we had to head for some ‘good craic’ while in Carlingford. The pub was crowded, smoky, rowdy. A guy in Superman t-shirt was shouting over the counter. Ruddy-cheeked farmers and their wives sat in the corner, probably with visiting relatives, guffawed away. Many other half-pissed and very happy Carlingforders boozed away all over the pub. The traditional music, as advertised, did not turn out to be the fiddler-Riverdance-sort. It was just Irish songs sung with guitars plugged into amplifiers.

I was standing next to a typical, rotund Irish bloke with a crew-cut. He spoke with a huge accent and an unfortunate lisp. On learning that I arrived from Belfast just today, he immediately congratulated me for surviving it without being bombed away. He kept going ‘Woah woah’ about the recent gaellic football matches. Nope, between the melee created from the music, the people at the pub, his lisp and his accent, I did not understand what he was talking about half the time. Still, I put up a good show by merely smiling and nodding away.

CARLINGFORD, REP. OF IRELAND – 3 September, 2002
Woke up late. Jane had to work. She couldn’t take time off as she had just started on this job. No problem. I pottered around the kitchen, doing the dishes and laundry – country-living. In a week, one might find me making my own bread and jam. Nah… Maybe one might find Jane making her own bread and jam in a couple of years’ time.

The weather was splendid but I was very lazy and merely lounged around, reading books I dug out from Jane’s yet-to-unpack boxes.

When I finally decided to head out for a walk, using a guide that Jane had given me, the sky had turned cloudy. A pity.

As I meandered up and along the country roads, I really admired the beautiful homesteads and gardens these Irish people lived in. The houses were all perfectly painted. The gardens were taken care of immaculately. Multi-coloured flowers bloomed in every charming garden. Some had pairs of stone eagles. They seemed to like eagles, I didn’t know why but I had noticed 5 or 6 pairs already. Instead of flower-beds outside windows that I saw quite often in Austria, here, they hung lovely flower baskets near the top of their doors. I noticed a family actually left their key in the key-hole of their front door. How trusting.

I was greeted by friendly Irish folks who passed by. An elderly man even stopped his car to wish me a pleasant walk up in the mountains. Gosh, these people were really nice.

According to the guide, I had to turn right after I came upon ‘a stone cottage with evergreen trees’. Indeed, I came upon a stone cottage. But the owner had recently chopped down his trees, I supposed, as I could still see the stumps. This guide was printed probably 10 years ago. Still, with descriptions like this, it was amazing how accurate the rest stayed.

That night, it was nippy in the cottage. Jane tried to start the fire in her fire-place. Believe it or not, if the fire really got started, it would be my first fire in a fire-place. But, she did not manage to start it. She blamed the coal and the old-fashioned fire-place. Of course.

CARLINGFORD, REP. OF IRELAND to NEWCASTLE, NORTHERN IRELAND – 4 September, 2002
Unlike yesterday morning, this morning was foggy. I tried a different route suggested in the guide and walked through ‘ferny paths’ and opened ‘a wooden gate’ and went up the slope to the ‘slate rocks’. I tried to be creative and used different routes but all led to nothing except thorny bushes. I pricked myself several times. So, I obediently stayed on the suggested path.

I reached the pass and like all passes, it was windy and freezing cold. There was a big rock there, so I lay there and closed my eyes. The cloud had started to close in on the peak of the mountain called Slieve Fog. It was wonderful up here, especially alone. The mountain, the wild flowers like heather and gorse, the wind, the view of lough and the village, ah…

Before frostbite set in, I opened my eyes and headed down. Such was my luck that by the time I returned to the cottage, the sky had turned blue and sunny, the mountain peak showed its glory, and birds started to chirp.

Jane managed to escape from her office earlier today. She drove me up through the Mourne Mountains opposite the lough all the way to Newcastle, a typical Irish coastal resort.

Along the way, we stopped by a park which had a dam. We took a walk through the paths and woods and came upon a freshly-cut grassy slope near the dam.

Being the mature women that we were, when faced with a freshly-cut grassy slope, we decided to roll down the slope. Jane took off her jacket and went down first. I placed my arms across my chest, Egyptian-mummy style and rolled down next. I did a better job than her and even changed directions mid-way and more than doubled her distance before I came to a frantic, dizzy stop.

At Newcastle, she explained that typical Irish vacations were spent on such tacky coastal towns with their grannies and embarrassing families. She showed me arcade games which were essential to a coastal resort in case of bad weather, such was the unpredictability of Irish weather. We even found a traditional old-fashioned 1970s-style chippie and ordered fish (cod or plaice, love?) and chips.

NEWGRANGE, REP. OF IRELAND – 5 September, 2002
I read about a nearby sight called Newgrange and decided to loosen my lazy bones and head out in Ireland on my own today.

Caught the bus from Newry to Drogheda. From the bus window, I knew I was already in Drogheda but the driver kept spinning around and did not stop. When we were back on the highway, I knew something was wrong and went up to ask him. He explained that I should have told him to stop at the bus station. Well, I was actually waiting for him to stop at the bus station as I figured he would have passengers to pick up from there. Now, he couldn’t stop until he got to a bus-stop further out where I could try and catch a bus back to Drogheda.

I waited a while at the bus-stop and spotted no bus. I wrote ‘NEWGRANGE’ on a piece of paper and held it out, hoping some tourists in camper-vans were heading the same way. Immediately, an elderly gentleman stopped and asked me to hop in. He apologized he was not going to Newgrange but he drove me back to Drogheda, right to the bus station. Sweet of him. I caught a bus to Newgrange right away.

There were many Megalithic Passage Tombs here in the Boyne Valley. The two main ones here were Newgrange and Knowth. Both required different admission fees. The sights were very properly restored. And as there were no records, the megalithic art was never deciphered. The guides kept saying your guess was as good as mine. Built by Neolithic communities 5000 years ago, they were even older than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

If I had gone to one and not the other, I would have been disappointed. Both had something to offer. At Knowth, the stone-art on the stones at the bottom of the passage tomb mound were varied and interesting but one could not visit the passage tomb. At Newgrange, there was only one stone with artwork but one could go inside the passage tomb. The authorities had artificially simulated the sun-rise on winter solstice which would illuminate the passage tomb for 17 minutes.

CARLINGFORD, REP. OF IRELAND to BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – 6 September, 2002
I had yet another day to potter around the cottage and go for mountain walks. This was the year of living differently. How else could I live like a country girl?

Took a four-hour walk around the mountains, woods and country roads today. Greeted ‘Hiya’ to ruddy-cheeked, missing-a-tooth farmers and home-owners lounging in their gardens or porches. Exchanged a few mumbles with hunky construction workers fixing windows, fences, whatever. Waved to drivers who passed by in their cars.

During this walk, the sky alternated between rainy and sunshine-blue at least three times. Towards the end when I was heading back, the sky really opened up and poured. I was soaked to the skin. I had thought I would be walking in the rain until I got to the doorstep of the cottage. But nope, by the steep mountain road to the cottage, birds were chirping and it was bright blue again. Strange Irish weather.

I had a bus-cum-ferry-cum-bus trip tomorrow to Manchester, leaving at 6:45am from Belfast. Jane made arrangements with her friend so that we could spend the night at her flat in Belfast.

When we arrived at Belfast, Jane decided to take a spin around the Protestant area to show me how they had painted the sides of the pavements ‘blue’, ‘white’ and ‘red’ – British colours – and how they waved British flags from their windows. We stopped by a mural showing King Billy in triumphant glory, with a dying, bleeding Catholic by the bottom. Some kids were playing in that area. Jane quickly drove away, fearing they might stone her. Then, we passed by some men in brass-band uniforms getting ready for an anti-Catholic march down the streets. She panicked further.

Later, when she thought the coast was clear, we returned to the mural and I sneaked out to take a picture. Just then, the kids came by. To take control of the situation, Jane called out to them, “Kids, do you want to have your photos taken?” “Aye!!!” They ran forward and stood proudly in front of the mural, marching on the spot. I snapped a frame furtively and we left. We were not stoned.

Jane’s friend got a fire going at her fire-place and now, that was my first fire ever at a fire-place. She was also the hostess-mostest, lighting candles around the house, making a wonderful pasta dinner and apple pie dessert.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND to MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – 7 September, 2002
I was placed in the attic for the night. I opened my eyes and stared at the sky-light. It was already light-blue. I continued to admire the sky sleepily. Then, out of curiosity, I decided to check the time.

My alarm clock read 6:05am. Huh?? I had set the alarm to ring at 6:00am. But it did not ring. I just happened to wake up and happened to check the time. I double-checked and to my horrors, I had set my alarm clock for 6:00pm! Sheesh… I was usually more sensible. In a way, how lucky I was!

A very groggy Jane put me on the bus and waved me goodbye. I transferred to a huge ferry for the ride across the Irish channel to Scotland.

Then, I got onto a bus and travelled south to Manchester. I was to visit another friend, Brenda, there. When I arrived, she was there at the bus station to meet me. She introduced me to her boyfriend who looked younger than her. I figured he was perhaps 24 or 25 years old. He was a dead-ringer for Tintin, with the curly hair in front and the mouth twisted to the side.

Then back at the flat, I was introduced to her flatmate Manesh who was of Indian nationality and who was watching the most exciting TV programme ever – cricket.

We headed out for Indian curry that night. Due to the cosmopolitan culture of United Kingdom, one could get rather good curry here. I enjoyed the familiar smell and taste very much. Yeah, I had missed spicy food from back home.

During dinner, Brenda and her boyfriend kept making goo-goo eyes at each other, snogged frequently and kept conversations to themselves. I believed Manesh felt a bit embarrassed by them ignoring me and made valiant efforts to converse with me. It was very nice of him. Somewhere in the conversation when the lovey-dovey couple was briefly interested enough to join in, I found Brenda’s boyfriend to be just 19 years old. That was a whole 9 years younger than her. Gee… the gap was a little large, I thought.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – 8 September, 2002
Manesh was glued to cricket-on-TV again this morning. As Brenda, her boyfriend and I prepared to head out, Manesh claimed to be busy with some reports from work and declined the invitation to join us.

We went to the town square and visited a bookshop. As I was heading to South America soon, I was keen to find a book from a South American or at least a Latin American writer and finally settled on 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

As Brenda and her boyfriend walked together hand-in-hand in a world of their own and snogged frequently, I was happy to trail behind them and admire the contrasting modern and old architecture of Manchester. Many times a very space-age, glass-and-metal building would be right next to a Baroque-style building. Interesting juxtaposition.

We found time to visit an art gallery. This was what was great about the UK – frequently, the museums and art galleries were free-of-charge. It had an excellent exhibition which I enjoyed thoroughly.

By 3pm, Brenda’s boyfriend complained of fatigue and looked really unhappy. So, we returned home. When we reached home, Manesh’s eyes were still glued to cricket-on-TV.

Finally, that evening, Brenda was on her own because her boyfriend had fallen asleep due to the very tiring day today hiking around Manchester, visiting a bookshop and an art gallery, and I could chat with her. I had met her previously in Egypt where she went to study Arabic.

Soon, the conversation went to why she took up Arabic for university. What inspired her to take up this difficult language? She pondered for a moment and explained that when she was young, she was thoroughly fascinated by Tintin and there were adventures to the Middle East, of course. Hmmm…. Tintin. Now, whom did I say yesterday was a dead-ringer for Tintin?

MANCHESTER to LONDON, ENGLAND – 9 September, 2002
I caught a bus from Manchester to London today. I arrived in London at around 4pm, the last hour of which was a tedious crawl across town in the horrible London traffic.

The friends that I was staying with – Nick and Denise – were supposed to be back from their Scotland holiday the day before yesterday but last night, I had not managed to contact them. I only managed to leave a message with a lady who picked up the phone late in the night. So, now I was quite lucky to get Denise on the mobile phone on my first try and she gave directions on where I should take a train to meet up with her.

I had met Nick and Denise in Peru in 1999 when they were on their first day of their RTW. When they came by Singapore the following year as part of the RTW, I had put them up at my place and showed them around. Now, it was really terrific to meet Denise again.

As it turned out, after their trip to Scotland, they went to Paris yesterday and Nick was still in Paris and would be back only in few days’ time.

All over their house, they had put up enlarged photographs of their RTW trip. Gosh, they were wonderful… I spent some time, examining them and guessing their locations. I was not bad at this. We caught up with each other. As our interests were very similar, we could not run out of topics to talk about.

I also gave Robin a call. Robin and Louise were a couple I went on a horse-trek in Songpan, China, with. They had been really friendly and funny. We kept in contact via emails and we had looked forward to catching up in London. We agreed to meet on Sept. 11 to visit the Natural History Museum.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 10 September, 2002
I made a photo-card and bought a 7-day pass usable in the tubes, buses and trains. Excellent. Now, I feel a tad like a local.

Remember my application for the Bolivian visa in the Bolivian Consulate at Beijing? I had submitted my application for visa authorisation on 1 July. Now, more than two months later, I headed to the Bolivian Consulate at London to see if they could help inquire about my authorisation status.

I waited for about two hours before finally meeting the Consular. He was very understanding and helpful. He promised to fax to the Consulate in Beijing to inquire. I was to call back two days later.

I headed to Charing Cross Road and gosh, this whole area was simply lined with second-hand bookstores. I did not know this previously. I spent the entire day, just browsing in them and walking up and down the road. Books were dangerous stuff. I was tempted to buy many books. As I could not carry them all, I would have to send them back. They were not terribly cheap either. Through some self-control, I did not buy them in the end. Sigh…

From a free magazine I picked up, I read that the ‘Earth from Above’ exhibition by Yannar Arthus Bertrand was now being exhibited outside the Natural History Museum. What a coincidence! I had first seen the exhibition in Warsaw, Poland and now, it would be exhibited at the museum that I was going to visit tomorrow with Robin and Louise.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 11 September, 2002
OK, today was the ‘special’ day. All over Victoria station, there were announcements repeating that all unattended items would be removed and destroyed. I was not sure if it was my imagination but there seemed to be loads of policemen all over today.

Robin had agreed to visit the Natural History Museum because according to him, that was the nearest to Central London he would allow himself to come today. I waited for them at South Kensington tube station. Louise came first. Robin had just cut his hair and was having hair trauma and would join us later.

After about an hour, Robin with a bad hair-cut arrived. We sat at a cafe and told one another hilarious stories about our trips and stuff. These guys were just great. We finally dragged ourselves to visit the Natural History Museum which had a rather original way of presenting their displays, thereby making them really easy to follow and interesting. We browsed through the Dinosaur and Human sections and barely had time for the Mammal section before the announcement came to ask us to scram. I was delighted at the exhibits at the Mammal section because I recognised many animals I saw in my past trips to Africa, Mongolia… Excellent museum. Free too.

Bought some bread, salad, cheese, etc… and ate dinner at Hyde Park. Soon, it got nippy and Robin browsed the London A-Z that I had brought along and decided on the spot to run to the Royal Albert Hall to try and catch a PROMS performance. Four pounds for standing ticket.

Gosh, Royal Albert Hall! I never imagined I would ever live to see the interior of it. This was turning out such a wonderful day, experiencing London. Just before we reached there, Louise received a call from her mom. She explained where she was going. Then, she said, “No, mom. I don’t think the Royal Albert Hall will be bombed. OK, mom… Bye.”

And when the brilliant concert was over, we had about half an hour to browse the ‘Earth from Above’ exhibition before it closed. I had a thoroughly good time today.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 12 September, 2002
I had a flight ticket from British Midlands to Paris and another from Varig flying from Paris to Rio. I decided to go to Brazil on September 14.

I futilely tried to call the airlines to arrange my flight. I also could not reach Denise who had told me to call her at work as she could get off work at lunch and meet me. I was on the phone for about an hour, trying all three numbers and finally, I gave up.

I calculated the time in Singapore. It was about 5pm. OK, I decided to give it a shot. I called my travel agent in Singapore. And surprisingly, I could get him. Hahaa… He booked the flights for me. Really sweet of him. He would definitely be getting a souvenir from me.

I met up with Denise near her work-place. This was the banking district, the ‘Manhattan’ of London. But even in this business part of London, it was very cozy and charming. We visited Old Spitalfield’s Market, the Millenium Bridge and came by The Globe Theatre.

Robin had recommended me to watch ‘Twelfth Night’ at The Globe. We inquired and there were standing tickets for the matinee tomorrow for �5. Alright. I paid up. This would really be a quintessential English experience, I told myself – watching a Shakespearean play in a reconstructed Shakespearean theatre.

We walked along the southern banks of the Thames and when we got home, we met up with Nick (who had arrived last night) and they took me to another typical English experience – the pub. It was a traditional pub with broad wooden tables and benches. Fish and chips were served wrapped in newspaper. Delicious.

LONDON, ENGLAND – 13 September, 2002
I had called the Bolivian Consular yesterday and he said he had heard nothing from Beijing yet. I was to call him again today. Well, again, nothing. Sigh… I guess I would have to follow up on this issue when I got to Rio de Janeiro.

The ‘Twelfth Night’ play was put up by men only, like how it was done during Shakespeare’s times. What can I say? It was excellent. It was hilarious. We laughed all the time. It did not feel tiring standing for three hours in the yard, I thought. The sun cast a shadow on the yard for the entire matinee so it was really very pleasant weather. For �5, this was really cheap and fantastic entertainment in London. The actor playing the Lady’s Maid was superb with his acute comic timing. The Lady was played by a ghastly ugly man with a heavily-powdered face. He was great too. My favourite was the guy playing Malvolio. I highly recommend this to anyone going to London.

That evening, Nick and Denise showed me photographs of their trips to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Sheesh… from their descriptions, I would really need good rain-wear and warm clothings. What I had with me was not adequate.

LONDON, ENGLAND to RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – 14 September, 2002

Visited Borough Market this morning. This was London’s version of a wet-market. But unlike a wet-market I was used to, the attendants here wore spiffy uniforms and everything could be tried for taste. Nick bought loads of cheese, vegetables, fruits…

Just before I left for the airport, I sped through Wimbledon where Nick and Denise stayed to see if I could buy some suitable warm clothes for South America. Gosh, shopping in London must be the worst idea! Things were terribly expensive. But I did not foresee being able to buy warm gear in Brazil (skimpy bikini, yes but warm fleece?) or good rain-wear in Bolivia. Surprisingly, I found a nice warm jumper for �9 and a water-proof, rain-proof, breatheable jacket for �20. Bargains!

At the airport, I checked my backpack in and waited for my London-Paris flight. Then, I saw that it had been delayed for an hour. That would cause me to miss my connection to Rio de Janeiro. I found a British Midlands counter and explained my situation.

The lady decided to put me on a London-Sao Paulo-Rio de Janeiro Varig flight leaving later that evening. Oh, even better. She directed me to retrieve my backpack at the arrival hall and make my way to Terminal 3.

It was strange that I had to ‘arrive’ in London even before I left it. I even had to fill up the Landing Form and ‘clear customs’ before I could go hunt for my backpack.

At the Varig counter, the guy asked if my backpack had ever left my side. Well, yeah… I checked it in and then, I found it lying at Belt 7 before I took it now to Terminal 3. He paused a while and decided not to do anything about it. It was strange, they were trained to ask these security questions and yet, did not know how to handle it if the answer was other than the usual.

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