We Need More Ireland

Canada is home. I have enjoyed time in a number of countries but for years was comfortable in my conviction that there is no other in which I would be happy. That no longer holds. Having just returned from twenty days in Ireland, I now have a second country where, if for some reason I was deported, I could quite happily resettle. My wife and I travelled with two other couples, met another friend there, rented cars, and stayed at tremendous Airbnb houses.

We avoided much time in cities and tourist spots, shopped markets for food, wandered small towns and villages, drove the countryside often somewhat lost and exploring, and enjoyed local pubs. I fell in love with the place. It has to do with the intersection of the physical and historical.

The physical begins with the roads – they’re nuts. Getting used to driving on the left and shifting with the left hand comes quickly enough but once outside of Dublin the roads become narrow and curvy goat paths. Every tiny, shoulder-less road is flanked by stone walls making it impossible to give way when a car is approaching. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle brings heart-to-throat with the screaming imminence of a side-scraping incident or head-on collision. I felt myself involuntarily inhaling to shrink thinner as each vehicle whizzed past with my left mirror skimming the wall and the other narrowly missing his. Every passing was an adventure with many of the insanely blind and tight turns bringing audible gasps.

But then I got it. I relaxed. The speed limit signs are wry jokes. The roads are meant to slow you down. They are a reminder of a gentler then and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the frantic now. The roads remind you that the journey is as important as the destination.

The valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. There is tranquillity in a horizon so distant and shades of green so endless. There is perspective in the walls, stone buildings, churches, and castles constructed hundreds, or in many cases, thousands of years ago. Enormous cliffs and sweeping empty beaches welcome the Atlantic’s cascading waves with a rhythmic reminder that they were there long before us and will be there long after we’re gone; sparing nary a thought for our piddling worries and trifling foibles.

Irish Eyes...

Like the physical, the historical is everywhere. The Irish do not hide and deny their history like Canadians or bleach and commercialize it like Americans – they live it. We visited three memorials to the 19th-century famine that killed thousands and sent millions abroad in a diaspora that changed Ireland and the face and culture of many nations. The blunt and honest memorials spoke of tragedy and loss and hinted, some rather directly, of the damn English landlords who swept the suffering from the land and the damn English government that offered scant help for the starving who remained.

Irish Eyes

We visited Michael Collin’s grave. Collins was the West-Cork rabble-rouser who was jailed for his role in the 1916 Rising and then became a guerrilla fighter, leading the fight for Irish independence. After negotiating a treaty that allowed the Protestant north to become a separate country and the Catholic south to declare itself the Irish Free State, he was assassinated in the subsequent civil war.

Irish Eyes.

The visits added a great deal to books that I had read in advance and the biography of Collins that I read when there. Together, they revealed the major themes of Irish history that I came to know better as I watched, listened, and eavesdropped: tragedy, resilience, strength, pride, humour, community, and the long-held, deep-seated desire to be left alone.

Like every nation’s history, it is lived not just in what they choose to memorialize, buildings they chose to preserve or tear down, and the roads they refuse to straighten. It is more subtly revealed in how people treat each other, relate to each other and strangers, and in song. History is alive in the pubs. The made-for-tourist pubs in Dublin’s Temple Bar district are okay but the tiny pubs in tiny towns are magical. In Sneem, for instance, population 850, the young barmaid told me there were six pubs and believed I was having her on when I said that my village of 2,400 has only two.

Irish pubs are small, low-ceilinged, wooden, with tilting floors and doors that no longer hang quite right. They smell of the decades when smoking was fine, of generations of patrons packed shoulder to shoulder, and of oceans of poured pints. Did you know it takes 119.5 seconds to pour a perfect Guinness? Signs indicate that the local was established in 1812 or 1759. There are no drunks. Locals gather to tip a pint, yes, but is more about coming together. The pub is their communal living room. A few folks bring a fiddle, concertina, accordion, flute, or bodhran. They sit in a circle, not on a stage but around a table and somehow without discussing the tune or key, play one lively song after another. From time to time it’s everyone else’s turn. The players stop and the pub falls silent when a person stands to sing. A funny, bawdy song or, more often, a long and forlorn ballad about heartbreak and loss fills the pub and hearts. And there, in sad and happy songs, the playing not by professionals but fun-loving neighbours, and in the laughter and stories and tippling together is betrayed the history that defines the culture that fills the spirit.

Irish Eyes....

I love Ireland. I love the stunning views. I love the heartfelt music. I love that when ordering a pint, the barman or barmaid stays to chat. We were not customers but new folks to meet. I love the smiles that come quickly and often, the gentle sarcasm, hilarious slang, and ribbing that simply disallows arrogance or pretention. I even grew to love the crazy roads.

Canada is great. But we could use more Ireland.

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A Mother’s Lesson: Experiences or Stuff

The greatest hoax perpetrated upon young people is that adults have it all figured out. In fact, in any examined life, which according to Socrates is the only life worth living, existential angst is an old friend who regularly returns to visit. I recently experienced such a call and, as is always refreshingly the case, re-examined what truly matters.

I was led back to the belief that money can be spent on only two things: stuff or experiences. Stuff, no matter what it is, always wears out or is thrown out and always demands more in money, time, or distraction. Experience, on the other hand, enriches rather than costs and endures rather than indentures with pleasure that is profound rather than superficial. I bounced from the depths of my angst back to the gentle guidance of that belief by recalling one experience and a particular moment.

My mother was a tough woman. While only those truly close knew the gentle heart within, her upbringing and then the raising of four rambunctious boys made her tougher than she sometimes needed to be. Rheumatoid arthritis led to one fused ankle, a brace on the other, 24-hour pain that would drop me to my knees, and then mood-altering medication that all made her tougher still.

While visiting my parents after I had just returned from two weeks in France and Belgium, she declared, in her way that often ended conversations, that every city in the world was the same. The next day, acting on an idea from my dear wife, I returned and told my Mom that I would like to pay for a week for the two of us in London to test her assumption. Three weeks later I had her in a Heathrow Airport wheel chair, then the London tube, on the top level of a bus, and then, for our first evening, in Covent Garden.

I noticed that there were more police about than I had seen in my previous visits. I inquired of a Bobby and then, without telling her why, we walked to the nearby Opera House. A large crowd was gathered around the grand entrance but I noticed the media further down the block. I asked a cameraman and was told exactly where to stand. Within five minutes the big black car arrived and out stepped Prince Phillip and the Queen. Her Majesty turned, not twenty feet away, and waved.

When my Mom called home, my Dad asked with a joking tone if we had seen the Queen yet. “Well,” giggled my Mom, who, for a sliver of a moment allowed me to see her as a ten-year-old, “As a matter of fact we did.”

The next day we toured more and I left her at the Victoria Fountain before Buckingham Castle while I cabbed to the Canadian embassy to pick up my pre-arranged tickets. We then walked past an enormous line, presented our tickets, and were led to the public gallery to watch Tony Blair masterfully handle the Prime Minister’s Questions.

There were plays, galleries, museums, the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, pints in pubs, and long dinners. One afternoon I positioned her with my camera in the middle of the street and told her exactly how to frame the shot. She worried about being hit but I assured her that no one would run over an old lady plus, at this spot, everyone knows what we’re up to. I then went to the cross walk and she snapped a perfect picture of me, the unrepentant Beatles fan, strolling across Abbey Road.

On our last afternoon she took a deep breath and with me holding much of her weight with her left arm as she pressed the cane with her right, we very, very slowly made our way up the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. About half way up, I saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I said that we should stop and rest or, if it hurt too much, we could turn around.

“No, Johnny.” she said, “It’s not that. I just never in my wildest dreams thought that it was so beautiful or that I would ever, ever be here.”

A Mother's Lesson- Experiences or Stuff

(Photo: http://www.stpauls.co.uk)

Last week, when deciding whether to buy some stuff, actually a great big piece of stuff, my angst was relieved when in the midst of a long run down my Village’s riverside trail, I revisited how blessed I am to be surrounded by stunning physical beauty and a community of friends and family. Even more than that, though, was the St. Paul steps. The memory brought my run to a walk. I was reminded of what cannot be bought at a store or negotiated with a real estate agent. It reminded me too that mothers never stop teaching. Even when they’re gone, they are not really gone.

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Watch for Your Crazy-Eyed Monkey

We were all nervous so I went first. The nurse walked me to a world map where I pointed to Nepal’s remote north-west and explained that the other teacher, six Lakefield College School students and I would be enjoying a two-week rafting and kayaking adventure down the Karnali River.
“Well then,” she said, “let’s not worry about the rabies shot because it’s just meant to keep you alive for a few hours until you can reach a hospital. But if you’re way out there then by the time you get to a medical facility you’ll be dead anyway. So I suggest you stay away from crazy-eyed monkeys.”
I promised to do my best. When properly stabbed I told the first of what would be several white lies; the little stories for which parents and teachers forgive themselves when protecting kids from being afraid of things they can do nothing about anyway. “Good news,” I said, “the needles are painless and we don’t need the rabies shot.”
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport is the perfect introduction to Nepal. We deplaned down rusting metal stairs and as we crossed the cracking tarmac we grouped a little closer upon entering the cacophony of the small terminal. Pimple-faced kids not much older than our young charges slouched in ill-fitting army uniforms with the universal look of sullen teenaged boredom and enormous automatic weapons slung over slender shoulders.
There is always a point, a precise moment, when you realize that the carousel will not produce your bags. I stood in a long line of disgruntled tourists until finally able to tell the disinterested young woman behind the old card table about our mixed up connecting flight in Los Angeles and the promise that our bags would be properly transferred. She had me fill out a long form and then drop it into a tall, wooden box that must have contained at least two hundred others. With a glance over her John Lennon glasses she promised to call our hotel if the bags arrived. If.
Stepping into the bright sunlight, we were staggered by the line of shouting cab drivers, hucksters and sign-wavers , the sudden sting of heat and the pungent smell of diesel and cow shit. We stumbled to our bus and after swerving around a large and sickly looking cow lying casually in the middle of the road were soon on our way to the tourist district.
A jaunty guide told us of the city. The green lawn and white gleaming splendour of the Narayanhiti Palace was a jarring sight after miles of shabby brown buildings and dusty brown streets. It was March, 2001. On the day of our arrival, the long-suspended parliament reconvened only to be suspended again when members immediately fell into a bench-clearing brawl. A few months after our departure, a young prince interrupted a palace dinner by spraying gun fire and killing nine members of his family including his father the king. A few days later the prince died mysteriously which put his uncle on the throne. This would happen later, of course, but the chatty guide that day said of nothing the country’s current political chaos or of the Maoist rebellion that was sweeping the countryside.
Our hotel was a clean and pleasant three-story concrete bunker. We enjoyed dinner on the roof, awed by the spectacular view of the city bathed in the gold of the gigantic sun sinking slowly behind the mountains. We met our lead river guide who promised to loan us camping gear while delaying our departure so we could buy clothes.

Jonah M. Kessel / China Daily

Armed with useless maps and pocketsful of rupees we navigated the district’s narrow winding streets. We found that stop signs were merely suggestions, mangy dogs were everywhere, the diesel fumes were suffocating, and the packed, tiny stores with their negotiable prices invited claustrophobia. We drank it in. We loved it all.
After leaving the group to find something a little different, one of the students and I hopped into a small, three-wheeled cab. After a minute I tapped the driver’s shoulder and suggested that he was going the wrong way. “Short cut,” he insisted. A couple of minutes later I said, in a little firmer tone, that we really needed to turn around and he then confessed that we were on our way to his uncle’s “very special” store. I whispered to my young friend and then on the count of three we leapt from the moving cab, disappeared under string of colourful saris and ran until the driver’s shouts faded. Safely back at the hotel our guide told us that we were indeed probably being kidnapped.
The next morning found us standing together in stunned silence before a small Tata bus. It was a Frankenstein of a rusty hulk, obviously cobbled together from long-gone others. The back of my cracked, vinyl seat scissored me forward at 75 degrees or so and its legs were secured by two concrete blocks. This was our home for two days.
The countryside was spectacular. The jungle was dense, the valleys deep and vast and the enormous sky was a brilliant clear blue. We had seen Everest piercing the clouds as we flew in and now the Himalayas were a backdrop to overwhelming beauty.
The villages along the way were small, poor and dusty. Around noon we stepped over an open sewer to an outdoor restaurant to enjoy our first of many plates of Bhat, Nepal’s staple diet, consisting of rice, lentils and curried vegetables that you dip into one of three fiery hot sauces. Our guide had warned that we would adjust but only after first falling ill after a day or so of Bhat. The vomiting soon began with a green and moaning girl hanging her head out the window of the rickety, bouncing bus.
We slept that night in the third floor rooms of another bunker hotel. The lone toilet was bolted to a cement porch surrounded by plywood walls, a ceiling open to the sky and a hole beneath it that allowed deposits to plop loudly into a large barrel on the ground far below. I spent most of the night alone on the roof with its cooler, fresher air and making frequent jogs to offer Bhat to the barrel.
The next day saw us on increasingly narrow roads carved into mountain sides that dropped into deep, rocky chasms. A boy of about ten years of age had joined our group and was hanging out the side of the bus and from time to time tapping on the roof. The driver explained that his tap indicated when the tires were nearing the edge of the abyss. I decided to neither distract the boy nor explain his job to the others.
We were all riding on the roof when stopped by a makeshift barricade. The driver had us climb back inside while he spoke with a small group of folks. I was a little shaken to see a man appear wearing shorts and flip flops like everyone else but also an alarmingly out of place powder-blue button-down oxford shirt. In his left hand he casually toted an automatic weapon. The driver said that he was a Maoist rebel and was demanding a fee for us to continue. I reached for my money but the driver said he could negotiate. He waved off my objection and disappeared with oxford man into a small hut. I told everyone that the driver was just paying a toll but waited to hear shots and wondered what I could possibly do if oxford man then returned for us. In five minutes that seemed like hours the driver was back. He had bargained the price of our lives and freedom down to about three Canadian dollars.
The twelve days on the river were magnificent. The guides were skilled and friendly and every night around the fire we shared songs and stories. An Australian told us of his love for the outback. An Isreali spoke of his military service and his desperate hope for peace. An American told us of the vastness of Montana and his love for horses, rivers and adventure. Each of us was far, far from home and yet when each day’s thrill of rapids and serenity of floating through the dazzling valley was over, it was thoughts of home to which each of us returned.


After our short flight back to Kathmandu the rest of our group enjoyed a tour in which they saw temples and even a little girl who was celebrated as a living God – but I was at the airport. Not surprisingly, my form was lost but after ascending several rungs of the bureaucratic ladder a man was escorting me to his office when I glanced through an open door and into a gym-sized room strewn with suitcases. I spotted my big green pack perched high on one of the piles. I eventually found all of my group’s packs and secured a cart to haul them away. The gentleman never consulted a piece of paper or had me sign a thing. I guess he either trusted me or didn’t care.
All travel is time travel and all travel is good. Few minds that travel remain small. How invigorating and instructive to allow even a brief immersion into a society where one’s rules, assumptions and expectations no longer apply. It is to be humbled with the twin reminders that people wake up every day everywhere and do the best they can and that other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.
Last night I sat on my deck and stared up at Orion glittering in the heavens. It was years ago now that I gazed up at him every night from the banks of the Karnali River. Shortly after our return, the Maoists won their revolution and swept aside Nepal’s monarchy and the planes that struck New York and Washington swept away much of the west’s blind innocence. But tonight, in my safe little Ontario village, there is Orion reminding me of how much that truly matters remains the same. And waiting for me somewhere is a crazy-eyed monkey that I will meet someday in whatever form he decides to appear – but not tonight.

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