All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.

Robert Kennedy

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Leg #1 - Belfast

Coming to Belfast from Dublin was not only simple but it was a lovely bus ride through the Irish Countryside. I arrived in the center of town on Wednesday and when I came out of the bus station I was at the Grand Opera House. 

I was attending the Colm Wilkinson concert there that night so I popped in and got my ticket and also asked the fellow for directions to my hostel. He got up from his desk, walked me outside, showed me which way to head and we chatted for 5 minutes. It's all true, the Irish hospitality is immeasurable. I found my way to my hostel and checked in to a 6 bed dorm. I dropped all my stuff off and wandered the city. The first thing I found was a Starbucks. Heaven. I ordered sat down and examined the map. After wandering for a bit, I found a movie theatre and bought a ticket to "This is the End", had the entire movie theatre to myself. 




I was really starting to wonder if I had died and gone to heaven. After the movie, I stopped at Subway and had a sandwich and then had a small glass of Jameson at the local Crown Bar before heading to the Opera House.


Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean is someone I have always wanted to see perform live. He's fantastic and sang for 2 hours. Everything ranging from Irish drinking songs, to showtunes, to the Bee Gees to Johnny Cash, it was wonderful. Sitting in Ireland, singing along to Danny Boy was pretty much the best. For his encore, he came out in his Jean Valjean jacket and sang Bring Him Home as I sat there blubbering like an idiot. He's amazing.

When I got back to the hostel, there was another girl sitting on my bed. We went down to the front desk and there had been some confusion and I had been put in the wrong room. I had to switch to another room, filled with boys, whose stuff was all over the floor. There was only a top bunk with no railing and it was blazing hot. The boys all stumbled in at 3 and passed out. It was not a great night.
BUT, the next morning, I went down to breakfast and they cooked me a big plate of eggs and bacon. The boys all checked out so I switched beds, set up my stuff and felt much better. Ever since then, the hostel has been an absolute delight. I got dressed and went downstairs to go on a Black Taxi Tour. This is a tour in a Black Taxi (imagine that) given by a native through West Belfast in the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods and the scenes of the majority of the conflict. I was on the tour with a lovely woman, Helen, from England and her 16 year old daughter, Lily. The three of us became fast friends and wound up spending the rest of our time in Belfast together. They were delightful. The Black Taxi tour was fascinating as I learned all about the religious conflicts that inspired the riots. We drove around the Catholic sector and saw all the murals painted in memory of fallen citizens as well as embracing other nation's struggles.
Then we drove through the gates (yes, there are still gates) into the Protestant neighborhoods. A giant 'peace wall' bigger than the Berlin wall separates the Protestant district from the Catholic district. We were fortunate to arrive the day before the Northern Ireland equivalent of the 4th of July. However, picture if on the 4th, we all marched through the British neighborhoods to show off that we had won our independence. Needless to say...it was gonna get tense. Even though Belfast is a super safe place now...on this particular day, it could get 'dodgy' as the locals say. Great planning. Our tour guide, Joe, had been born and raised in Belfast and he was SO thorough and it was so interesting. One of my favorite moments so far.

Joe teaching us about the International Mural Wall behind him in West Belfast.

A local hero, Bobby Sands who died after a hunger strike.

Memorial for fallen at Catholic Sinn Fein headquarters.

The Peace Wall that separates the Protestant and Catholic districts.

A view into the Protestant district through the fences.

Kindling for a giant bonfire to be set the following day for the holiday.

Creepy 3D mural. Wherever you go, the gunman follows you.

Me with Joe, our tour guide, and Helen from England.
From there, Joe dropped us all off at the Titanic museum. It was quite extraordinary. I think in all the commercialism of it, sometimes I forget that these were actual people that died. Northern Ireland is still very proud of the ship and insist that it was Irish built, but an Englishman sank it.

We walked away from Titanic and found what I was looking forward to the most:

This bar is older than our country!!!

No...I did not get a discount. Turns out there are a LOT of McHughs in Ireland...
We sauntered back to the hostel where the owners were throwing a barbecue. CHEESEBURGERS!!!! But I made it an early night. 
On Friday was the big holiday so most everything was closed. I wanted to stay out of trouble but I did want to see the parade. On my way down to the center of the city, I ran into Lily and Helen again. We just couldn't escape each other. So we all went to the parade. It was great. Probably about as Irish as you can get. Bands marching with drums and flutes while shirtless, tattooed, drunk Irish boys sang drinking songs in the streets. It was crazy entertaining. 






To be clear, this is a Protestant holiday (the Orange party). There are NO signs of the Irish Republic flag today. This is a UK/Northern Ireland pride day. The parade was very civil. The turmoil began when they turned to march down a Catholic road. And thus? The riots begun.
However, me and the Brits headed back toward our hostel and wound up at a Botanic Garden park and just people watched all day.

I love nature...
The plan was to find a place for dinner but everything was shut down for the holiday. And as we were walking along we turned a street with a lot of police in full riot gear with shields, water cannons and armored trucks so we made the wise decision to just head back to the hostel. In the morning, reading about all the riots on the news, I think we made the right decision.
However, walking around Saturday morning, you would never even know that anything had happened. It was just a normal day. Lily and Helen went on a bus trip tour up to the Giant's Causeway but since I would be staying there the next few days, I decided to just relax. Went to Starbucks and had a coffee, wandered down to a street market and had some street food. Had an "Ulster Fries" which is bacon, sausage and egg on grilled Irish soda bread. 

I walked around for a while and wound up back at the movie theatre. I mean, why not, right? Then I went back to the hostel and rested. I found out I had gotten paid by Peace Corps so I was able to book my final flight home. Yes...I'm coming home. Fell asleep for a while until I heard someone come in the room. A new guest...a very striking Canadian boy  named Clark. He politely nodded and he too fell asleep quickly. Oh, the hostel life.
Lily and Helen returned from the day trip and another girl, Rachel, checked into our room. The four of us whispered to each other while Clark slept soundly above us. We all decided to go out and have an Irish meal at a Pub. We found this "Morning Star Pub" in the middle of town and it was great. I had seafood stew, a steak (of course), Bailey's cheesecake and a "Feckin' Irish Coffee." It was perfection.


Two Irish fellas I would NOT mess with...

Helen, Me, Lily and Rachel enjoying our Irish dinner.

Our lovely waiters, Connor and Rory...for reals.

Seafood Stew

My steak...:)))))

Bailey's cheesecake
So I got up early this morning to have breakfast with Rachel, Helen and Lily. We all swooned over Clark when he offered to bring us all coffee. (Seriously, a great dude...)
We all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways; Helen and Lily back to England, Rachel off to Dublin and I got on a bus to Bushmills.

So what have I observed so far:

  • Irish hospitality is unparalleled. I am SO disoriented at the kindness and the customer service I have seen here.
  • Ireland is JUST if not more green than rumored to be.
  • Tattoos are REALLY popular here...and I like it.
  • I am a complete dork in supermarkets. I just keep pointing at things and squealing. 
  • The rumor that no one here likes cold beverages is a complete myth. EVERYTHING comes with tons of ice.
  • The sun doesn't set completely before 11:00pm.
  • Peace Corps has prepared for situations I had no idea they would. I knew what to do if I got caught up in a riot, I knew how to apply first aid when Lily cut her shoulder, I knew how to provoke conversations with strangers (so much easier in English, btw), and I know how to be completely content if no one feels like interacting with me. Remarkable.
Most importantly, this is the happiest I have been in a long time. I have a stupid, silly grin on my face. I can't stop it. It's borderline creepy, for reals.
Here's where I am now looking at the North Atlantic...to be continued...


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