Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part IV: Тэмээ

Camels! Camels camels camels.

Riding a camel was really one of the only expectations I’d had as far as what I’d do with my time in the Gobi, but almost as soon as I arrived, it started to sound as though I wouldn’t be able to. When Mongolians give you a possible date for something but then push it back every time you ask about it, chances are it’s not going to happen. The camels were really far away, we were told; it was too snowy here, so they’d had to go further out, where there was more food. The roads were bad and they didn’t think we could handle the ride. We would go on Friday, then Saturday, then maybe Sunday if the weather was good.

And then one day one of Eric’s counterparts informed us we’d be leaving at noon the next day. In most of Mongolia, this would mean we wouldn’t actually hit the road until two, but because Delger occupies a hole in the Mongolian space-time continuum, we actually left at ten. It’s a good thing we knew to be ready early, because bundling up for the occasion involved the time-consuming donning of many, many layers.

I could have just worn my coat, of course; since my deel isn’t lined,  it’s nowhere near as warm as my winter coat. But if you had a chance to ride a camel in the country’s traditional dress, wouldn’t you? That’s what I thought.

An hour in the car brought us past mountains, roaming herds of livestock, and a strange line at which the snow just stopped. It didn’t correspond with a ridge, or a road, or anything that I could see; nor did it transition gradually. It was like someone had laid a giant tarp across the ground and removed it after the snow ended.

Weird, right?

Weird, right?

Finally we arrived at a small cluster of gers. We disembarked from the car, pausing so I could put on my deel –  hadn’t been wearing it because I knew it would be warm in the car, and I’m more likely to get carsick if it’s too warm – and headed for the nearest one. The guard-kid bleated at us as we approached, so I stopped to take a picture.

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

What with my (utter lack of) Mongolian language skills, I didn’t really know what was discussed in the ger. Eric attempted to translate huushuur into English, and we learned that “fried pastry” is an amazingly effective tongue twister for Mongolians; as their language contains neither [p] nor [f], they tend not to be able to differentiate between the two sounds. Our hosts threw some buuz in the steamer and handed us steaming cups of milk tea. I sipped politely at mine, glad that southern suutei tsai is made without most of the fat and salt they use up north, but still unable to stomach a large quantity of the stuff. I was glad to be able to hand my bowl off to Eric when he finished his own.

While we waited for the buuz to finish cooking, Eric presented our hosts with a gift to thank them for their hospitality. This is pretty standard anytime you visit someone, but especially when they’re doing you a favor like letting them ride their camels. In that case, there is a specific protocol to follow. You present the gift with both hands; you might need only one to hold the gift, but the хадаг (the ubiquitous ceremonial blue scarf) must be draped across both. And as when doing anything important in Mongolia, you’re supposed to wear your hat.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

Finally, the sitting and eating and talking and gift-giving were complete, and our hosts took us out to their camels. There were two saddled, but it seemed we’d only be riding the one. They’re much larger I would have thought; it’s one thing to know an animal’s big, but quite another to stand beside it and observe that its head is roughly the size of your entire torso. We were seeing them in all their winter glory, bulked out by a significant quantity of shaggy hair. In the summer, that hair comes out in patches, leaving the camels looking positively diseased.


Sitting down, he’s almost shoulder height. Told you they were big.

I got to go first, and it was clear they had absolutely no faith in my abilities. I was pony-led the entire time, and they told me to hold onto the hump when the camel stood up – a totally unnecessary direction. Camels aren’t exactly graceful when they stand up and sit down, but the motion doesn’t begin to compare to sitting a bucking pony. Like draft horses, camels don’t seem prone to, or even capable of, large sudden movement. Besides, the humps fore and aft of you make for a very secure seat. A comfortable one, too; Mongolian camel saddles are apparently much more padded than the ones they use for their horses.

I was bound and determined to have another turn, especially after they let Eric control the camel himself. And they were kind enough to let me have one. The camel was biddable, but I suppose I would be too if I was being directed through a piercing in my upper lip. He responded to leg pressure too, which is more than can be said of many of the horses here. And he stood and sat in response to verbal commands. He wasn’t happy about it, though. From all his whining, you would have thought we were doing something much worse than walk him around in circles.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

I’m not sure what I expected a camel to sound like, but this one certainly defied all my expectations. He moaned and whined and squeaked, emitting noises that doubtless have been used for aliens in movie sound effects. I mean it; that’s the closest comparison I can come up with.

Camels make funny noises. Fancy that.

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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part II: Buying a Deel

Although stopping for food was certainly a necessary part of our trip to Altai’s zah, it was not our primary objective. That had long since been established: we were going to get me a deel.

The deel (transliterated from the Cyrillic дээл, but pronounced more like “dell”) is the traditional dress of Mongolia. It’s a wrap-style outer garment that reminds many Americans of a robe, though it’s worn more like a coat. (Albeit a coat with a very useful front pouch in which you can put things like your wallet, or a bottle of vodka, or the adorable rabbit you’re petnapping from the vegetable store.)

Deels come in two varieties: summer and winter. The summer ones are lighter, though not exactly breathable. Of old they were supposedly made of silk, and some of the fancy ones still are, but most of the ones you find these days are synthetic. Winter deels, too, are usually synthetic, but the nicer ones are made from lambskin. It’s also pretty easy to get a woolen lining, which makes even a cheap winter deel considerably warmer.


Inguun hasn’t really got the “smile for the camera” thing down, but little kids in deels are pretty much the cutest thing ever.

In the countryside, many people wear their deels every day, but city-dwellers typically don them only for Naadam, Tsagaan Sar, and special occasions like weddings, graduations, and haircutting ceremonies. They also tend to favor updated styles for these special-occasion deels; they’re often cut much closer and are pulled over the head or zipped close rather than wrapped and tied. Even the ones with front closures bear as much resemblance to a dress as to a traditional deel. I wore one such garment for our Teacher’s Day concert last month, and I’d like to buy one before I leave the country to wear on special occasions back home.

Me in my Teacher's Day concert finery.

Me in my Teacher’s Day concert finery.

But our search that day was for something simpler: just a common winter deel. Preferably a blue one, to match my eyes and approximately half the clothing in my wardrobe. Even so, this proved trickier than expected. While the lady at the first place we went to was very friendly and helpful, the deels she showed us were all turquoise. I like turquoise, but not like this; these were flat, unpatterned, and eye-smartingly loud. We did spot one swath of ice-blue fabric way up on a shelf, but it was far too ornate and definitely out of our price range.

I tried a few on anyway, shrugging reluctantly out of my coat and pulling them on as quickly as possible. An unheated Mongolian store in January, even a mild January, is not a comfortable place to be without a coat. Especially when the “warm” clothes you’re trying on have been chilling on those freezing cold shelves for goodness knows how long.

Unfortunately for me, fastening a deel is an acquired skill – one which, needless to say, I had not yet acquired. Common deels do not zip, and while some of the nicer ones have buttons, most don’t have those either. Instead, they close with small loops of trim through which you slip knotted trip affixed to the other part of the garment. The system is button-like, to be sure, but less secure; the knots are far more likely to slip from their holes than your standard button. It’s also more difficult to master, as the trim is somehow simultaneously slick enough to slip between your fingers and rough enough to hurt that one nailbed that was exposed when you broke a a nail last week. The placement doesn’t help either: two on your collar, two to three along your shoulder, another two to three along your thigh, and one under the armpit. The shoulder and thigh fastenings are easily visible and accessible, but the other two locations are not, even if you hoist your arm awkwardly to try to peer under it. And they’re all on the right side of your body. Being a lefty is a definite advantage when it comes to getting deel-ed up.

Eric helped me fumble through the process, but even after all that trouble, we were forced to admit that these were not the deels we were looking for. We did find a very nice white fur hat (to the back of which, I swear, the rabbit’s ears were still attached), but hats are apparently one of the things for which the price mysteriously doubles when a white person does the asking.

So on to the next delguur we went. This one, thankfully, prominently featured a little space heater. By no means was it roasty-toasty in there, but at least I wasn’t covered in gooseflesh the instant I unzipped my coat.

It only took a few moments of browsing for us to identify the deel I wanted to try on. A shade or two darker than cobalt, with white-gold trim and embroidered blue flowers outlined in white, it matched my specifications much better than anything I had seen thus far.

This time, we has a shopkeeper’s assistant to help me into my deel. She made quick work of the fastenings, though she clucked in disapproval at the apparently inadequate length of the deel itself, and especially of the sleeves. Hudoo deels often have extra-long sleeves with flared ends, which can be rolled back to free the hands or extended to keep them warm. Mine is not a hudoo deel, but the little boy’s in Gracie’s adorable photo is.

Shopkeeper-lady apparently though I needed one. She extended one of my arms, taking my hand to demonstrate – and gasped, clutching both of my hands in hers and exclaiming at how “хүйтэн” they were. I get this reaction a lot: from friends, from boyfriends, even, when I was in UB for Thanksgiving, rom a a drunk man on the bus on whose foot I tripped. Mongolians seem particularly concerned by it and often make much over the temperature of my hands even when I don’t find them noticeably cold.

Eventually, she stopped fussing about my hands and started fussing over my choice of бүс, or belt. They wanted to give me one in construction-sign orange. It’s a common belt color, and my father the faithful Illini fan would have heartily approved the color combination, but I was not a fan. The next one they tred to give us was green. But while the tattered leaf-green sample sash we’d used when I tried the deel on went nicely with my blue deel (and dark green Mongol boots), the fabric they had for sale was much… brighter. Acid-green belts might be just as common as fluorescent orange ones, regardless of what color deel they’re holding on, but that didn’t mean I wanted one.

Finally, we persuaded the shopkeeper to cut us a strip of white fabric, which I thought looked better with the trim and embroidery on my deel. Helper-lady wasn’t pleased with this one either, declaring it neither long nor wide enough. It was just long enough double knot when (tightly) wrapped around me twice; the more elaborate tying methods would have required a few extra feet of sash. I’d like to have that option, but fabric is easy to buy, so I shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a longer bus. So we paid and headed out to catch our ride. I had my first deel.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains - Mongolia in a nutshell.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains – Mongolia in a nutshell.

A final picture with my director's parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.

A final picture with my director’s parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.

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Stepperiders and a Visit to UB

October 9, 2012

To all who expressed sympathy or concern in response to last week’s post – thank you. Your messages of support have been immensely helpful, even when they come all the way from the other side of the world. The past week has been difficult, but I think this one will be better. I had an expensive but fun and productive weekend in Ulaanbaatar, which seems like a promising way to kick things off.

I arrived in UB by train around 8 am. The train station is about a 40-minute walk from the apartment where I was staying – if you know where you’re going, which at the time, I did not. But I met up with Alex and Matt eventually, as well as the French couch surfer who had stayed with them the night before. The four of us went out to breakfast before meeting the rest of the group for the drive out to Stepperiders.

The drive wasn’t as long as I had feared it might be, nor as nauseating. The setup, out in the hills south of UB, was quite simple: about five or six gers on concrete platforms, an outdoor eating area, a corral full of horses, a shed full of helmets, and an outhouse. (A really nice one – it even had toilet seats and toilet paper!) The place was clearly catered to tourists: the saddles were Russian (and therefore padded); the guides spoke reasonably good English; we were offered coffee with breakfast, as well as milk tea; they had Sriracha and Tabasco. I usually dislike such tourist-type operations, but in this case, I was glad of the pandering. Since my Mongolian is limited, and I dislike Mongolian-style saddles and milk tea, the tourist experience was both easier and more enjoyable.

They even let me ride bareback, though not without several assurances that yes, I was sure I didn’t want to use a saddle, and no, I didn’t mind that the horses were bony. In retrospect, I should have minded – though they put me on the fattest little pony they had, I could still feel his spine digging into me the entire time. I quickly decided that it was easier and more comfortable to walk downhill than to spend the whole time trying not to slide onto his withers. Luckily, my little pony was so short that I could hop onto him without difficulty, even when he was uphill of me. He was a grumpy thing too, keeping his ears perpetually at half-mast and trying to bite me when I asked him to go faster than he deemed reasonable, even though I smacked him around each time he did it. But he never tried to buck or kick. I liked him.

The ride was long and fun, and we got to do plenty of running. My pony and I had some disagreements about whether or not trotting was permissible, and these were primarily responsible for my ongoing soreness and my first-ever saddle sores – or more aptly in this case, should-have-used-a-saddle sores. Spines, tailbones, and bouncing are a painful combination.

We had tsuivan (stir-fry with noodles) for lunch and curry for dinner, both of which were excellent. I built a fire in Lisa and Chris’s ger, but only with Joe’s help: those stoves offer very little room to maneuver, and there isn’t much in the way of kindling to bridge the gap between paper and split logs. Mongolians usually solve this issue by lighting their fires with a blowtorch, but ours was nowhere to be found.

We also hung out with the other people at the camp. there were three other “tourists,” though the term doesn’t exactly fit, since they all lived and worked in UB. One was British, another Indian by birth, though he’d spent most of his life in Britain; the third was Mongolian but American-educated. We had a good time hanging out with all of them, and also with a member of the Stepperiders staff – a French college student who’d hired on for the summer to teach the rest of the staff English. I was glad of the chance to practice my French with the two native speakers, since I’ve let it go rusty recently.

We came back around 1 pm on Sunday, tired and hungry but happy. I spent the afternoon lazily: napping, getting food, and eventually wandering down to the train station to purchase my return ticket to Erdenet the next day. I made two more stops on my way home – one for food, and one because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check out a place called the Edinburgh Scottish Pub. It was nice and had a reasonable selection of whiskey (by Mongolian standards, at least), though nothing else about the place was particularly Scottish. They did give me ice with my whiskey, though, which isn’t a very common occurrence here. And I had a nice conversation with the bartender, who had lived in Norway for two years and spoke very good English.

On Monday, I got in contact with an Australian expat who’s scheduled to leave in a couple of weeks and was looking to sell her coat. It was a little tight in the shoulders but otherwise seemed great, and I’d rather buy from an expat than Narantuul. More quality guarantee, for one thing, and a chance to keep goods recirculating. Why buy new coats when other people are looking to get rid of their still-good-but-no-longer-needed ones?

Catherine’s apartment turned out to be in the same block as Alex’s, so the whole process took very little time. I then set off on the familiar bus ride to Zaisan to visit Lisa and Chris for lunch. There are a lot more people in the area now that school has started, and the buses are much more crowded, but the area still feels like home. Even if the women at the reception desk didn’t want to let me into the dorm. And I enjoyed the chance to catch up with my hosts, of course.

Eventually, I headed back to the city to meet up with Lisa and Baagii so we could go to Narantuul together. I got a coffee at the Grand Khan Irish Pub while I waited for them and struck up a conversation with some oddly-accented English speakers. They turned out to be from South Africa; the Germanic-sounding language I’d been straining to catch was Afrikaans. They were very nice, and one of them insisted on giving me his email address. He runs a farm and a guesthouse along the coast, where he said I was welcome to stay “when I come to South Africa.” While that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I still took his name and email address. No sense in burning any bridges.

Finally Lisa and Baagii and I made our way to Narantuul to do some shopping. Since neither Lisa and I can manage more than a few mangled sentences in Mongolian, Baagii proved invaluable. It was he who negotiated things like trying on shoes and finding out which ones were available in larger sizes. Lisa and I each found a pear of lined felt boots (mine are embroidered reindeer and stars) and a pair or two of woolen socks (since you can never have too many. I now own two of camel wool and one of yak, as well as many of the standard US sheep). I also bought a dress, also made of wool, though I’m not sure which kind. Baagii swears it’s long enough for me to wear to work but also says I will probably attract a lot of attention in it. Exactly what I need with classes full of sixteen-year-old boys, right?

All of those purchases added up, of course, but I knew going into this weekend that it would be an expensive one. The coat and boots and socks, at least, were necessary, and preparing for winter ain’t cheap. But I got what I needed, and I had fun with old friends and made new ones along the way, so I would call the weekend a complete success.

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August 20

The past two or three days were the best we’ve spent so far, even if parts of them were cold, wet, or uncomfortable. We visited a tourist camp called Буянт (“Boyant,” more or less), and it was absolutely marvelous. I know we’ll be heading to the countryside again next weekend, and I hope it’s as much fun as this was.

Five of us – everyone but the two Lisas – went out for the first time on Friday. We met one of our coordinators at a place called the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The only “Irish” thing about it was that it served Jameson, Guinness, and Murphy’s – but in cans, which no self-respecting Irishman would ever drink. We had a good time regardless, especially when the band started playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It seems we came halfway around the world just to hear the same music.

After our first round of drinks, we left for another bar Chimgee knew of. On our way, we managed to pick up a drunken Kazakh name Eric. He introduced himself to all of us in English and then followed us into the second pub. This one had already closed, though it wasn’t yet 11 pm, so we moved on to a third placed called the Golden Lounge. I hadn’t expected to go clubbing, and none of us were really dressed for it, but when we found ourselves at a club, everyone went with the flow.

Inside, the place looked like a cross between a laser light show and the set of Rent. We sat around a table on the upper deck and ordered what, split evenly, was the cheapest thing on the menu: a bottle of vodka. I’m not usually one for shots, and straight vodka’s not exactly my thing, but even the cheap Mongolian vodka is better than a lot of expensive American stuff, so it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I did skip a couple of rounds, mindful of my last experience with vodka; I didn’t mind being the least intoxicated of our party.

Chimgee, Lauren, and I left the boys to dance at one point, while they polished off the remaining 30% of the bottle. Mongolian club dancing is very different from American. There’s no grinding – the men and women touch at the hands, if at all. There were a lot more men than women on the dance floor, most of whom bopped around in a style distinctly reminiscent of awkward bar/bat mitzvah attendees. One by one, the boys filtered down to join us, though we each took a turn guarding the table with all our stuff.

It might to have been what I expected of the evening, but it was a lot of fun There were no incidents with handsy or pushy Mongolian men, though Lucas was convinced there was trouble brewing between him and the guy who wanted our table by the time we left at 12:30 or so. The music was largely remixed pop, much of it American, and it wasn’t so loud that left feeling deafened, as is often the case at American clubs. Aside from the grumpy taxi driver who overcharged us on the way home, it was a great night.

I was up at eight the next morning to pack for our overnight trip to the countryside. Evidently, I was one of the first to rise – at least two of our party slept through their alarms and were rudely awakened at 9:30, when we were getting ready to leave. I’m glad I paced myself the night before, as I was the only one of the five who went out who wasn’t hung over in the morning. Lucas and Eli in particular were pretty miserable during our long train ride.

The train itself wasn’t much fun. We split up to fill whatever spaces we could find, which often meant cramming uncomfortably close together. I had a window frame digging into my back for most of the ride, and the car grew uncomfortably warm. Best of all, the train broke dwon for two hours with a third of the journey left to go. We were all starving by the time we arrived around 3, and very glad to disembark.

The view from the train windows, though, was incredible – shining rivers that wound between green mountains, rolling plains dotted with clumps of white gers, dust roads lined with brightly-painted buildings. I could bare contain my delight as we neared our destination, my window showing me a herd of small, stocky horses wandering along the riverside.

“This is paradise,” I breathed as I stepped down onto the platform, and I heard several of the others voice the same opinion. We were in a little valley, surrounded by green mountains and blue sky. These mountains might not measure up to those of my childhood, but they were majestic nonetheless.

So, naturally, the first thing we did after dumping our stuff and scarfing down lunch (soup and гуляш, or gouliash) was to climb one. We didn’t even stop to grab water bottles or grab walking sticks – we ambled towards the nearest mountain, and before we knew it, we were on our way up. The ascent probably took us an hour and a half, but we were in not real hurry. We stopped often to marvel at wildflowers and mountain views, or to comment on the agility of the cows, horses, and sheep that had clearly preceded us. Eli and Lucas reached the top first, followed by Joe, then me, and then Lauren. I had caught by breath and was getting goosebumps from the cool breeze by the time our teacher Bold reached the top with Bayasmaa’s 15-year-old niece, Undra. Bayasmaa herself appeared shortly after that, holding her three-year-old grandson by the hand. We’d taken lots of pictures by this point, and I had found a walking stick for the descent. It was almost six o’clock at this point, and we were supposed to be at dinner at seven, so after taking a few group pictures, we headed back down.

Dinner was hearty – four хуушуур (hoshoor) is a lot – and lunch had been only four hours previous. But the hike had given us an appetite, and nearly everyone finished the flat, fried dumplings full of meat, onion, and cabbage.

We were in for a special treat after dinner: one of the staff members asked if we’d like to see her milk the cows. We agreed enthusiastically, and with a little persuading, we even got her to let us give the milking a try. I did reasonably well, I think, though I could certainly do better with more practice. The cow she let us milk was called ‘small one;’ besides being small, she was the gentlest and the least likely to fuss and upset the milk. This was an important factor, as the bucket was nearly full by the time we got to try. It was warmer than I’d expected, verging on hot, and capped with a thick layer of frothy cream.

That pail of milk appeared on our breakfast table the next morning, in the form of homemade тараг – yogurt. This was thick and sweetened, and I disliked it less than the other Mongolian dairy products I’ve tried, but even so, I could only manage a few spoonfuls before it started to make me queasy. Everyone else found it delicious, and I’m beginning to fear there is no hope for me where Mongolian dairy is concerned. Everything has a strong, gamy aftertaste that I just can’t stomach. And if I can’t manage freshly-made yogurt, I don’t think there’s anything I can. I can’t abide сүүтэй цай, for instance, even though everyone in Mongolia seems to enjoy this salty, buttery milk tea. You’d think a tea-lover would be in paradise in Asia, but Mongolia seems to be the exception to the rule.

On the other hand, Mongolia has a lot in common with other Asian countries (particularly India, from what Corry tells me) where the toilet situation is concerned. I learned the hard way at this tourist camp that it’s always a good idea to carry toilet paper with you. I’m pretty used to latrines, but at least they usually have seats and toilet paper. The outhouse at Буянт was more of a Turkish toilet, which is to say, a building with a hole in the floor. And no TP. City buildings usually have more standard toilets, but even they are not always equipped with toilet paper. Note duly taken; I shall be better prepared for our three-day journey to the countryside this weekend.

We were also disapointed by the lack of showers. It’s not something I would have expected had I known more about where we were going, but we had been told they would available and were rather counting on that fact. Our dorm has been without hot water for almost two weeks now, so a hot shower would have been a lovely departure from the cold shower/warm basin bath combination I’ve resorted to.

At least the train ride back was nice. We were cold and wet by the time it arrived, and my toes were going numb; it had been raining for a solid twelve hours at that point, and the temperature was probably down to the high forties. But the setup was much nicer once we were onboard. Lisa B., Lucas, Eli, and I had our own compartment – a vast improvement over the cramped quarters on the previous ride. We curled up under the blankets they provided, ordered Russian-style instant coffee (which is more sugar than coffee), told embarrassing stories, and played with Bayasmaa’s grandson, who kept popping in and out. The landscape appeared a little more drab than before, overshadowed by the dreary sky, but we enjoyed our journey and the view nonetheless. We all wished we’d been so comfortable for the longer ride out, but it was a great way to end the weekend nonetheless.

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I fail at this blogging thing.

And so I present to you another entry I should have posted long ago.

October 18: Belfast

The number of unoccupied weekends before me is dwindling, but if I can, I’m going to have to come back to Belfast. It was far too much to try to take in in a single weekend.

We visited the Giant’s Causeway on Saturday morning, and I was enchanted. They gave us two hours, most of which were occupied by a guided tour; I could have stayed at least another three hours to explore.

The Giant’s Causeway is basically a big set of cliffs beside the sea. These are pretty awe-inspiring by themselves, but what’s really awesome about them is the rock formations.  The cliffsides are largely composed of interlocking hexagonal columns of gray stone, though there are pentagonal, quadrilateral, and heptagonal columns as well. Each column could be circumscribed by a cylinder about a foot to a foot and a half in diameter, and most of them have curved horizontal divisions every foot or so. The overall effect was a lot like looking at a giant, petrified honeycomb, but none of the explanations offered involved behemoth prehistoric bees.

Explanation the First: Giants

This area was once home to the legendary Finn McCool, an Irish giant. Here he lived with his wife and grandmother and a slew of animals. The chimney to his house is visible in part of the cliffside, and he left behind other traces as well. His hunchbacked grandmother is now part of a neighboring hill, where he turned her to stone when she refused to deal with her drinking problem and returned after indulging her taste for uisce beatha one time. (Literally translated ‘water of life,’ the phrase is pronounced ish-kuh baha and is the origin of the English ‘whiskey’). His dog, duck, and camel, all proportionally giant-sized, were covered in lava once upon a time, and thus they are still visible as well. And then, of course, there’s the size 96 boot he left lying on the beach.

Anywho, Finn and his family weren’t the only giants in the vicinity—Ben something-or-other lived across the way in Scotland. Apparently he was a bit of a bully, and so one day Finn took it into his head to make his way over to Scotland in order to beat Ben up. And so he built himself a bridge, carving the columns that we see today. But when he made it across to Scotland, he found that Ben was quite a bit bigger than he. Since he had no desire to play David, he abandoned his plans and fled back to Ireland, with Ben in pursuit. Following his wife’s advice, Finn hid in the baby cradle to await the arrival of the Scottish giant. When Ben arrived at the house, Finn’s wife told him that her husband was out at the moment, but that he was welcome to come in and say hello to the baby. Ben took one look at Finn, curled up in the cradle with the blankets pulled up to his chin and a pacifier in his mouth, and decided that if the baby was this big, he didn’t really want to fight Finn after all. So he fled back to Scotland, tearing up the bridge behind him. All that remain now are the hexagonal columns at either end of the bridge, for the same stones are to be found at a site in Scotland.

Explanation the Second: Plate Tectonics

Northern Ireland and Scotland lie along the edge of the European plate, and when the American plate started to pull away millions of years ago, magma oozed through the resulting gap, covering the area in lava. These lavaflows became the basalt that is to be found throughout Ireland today, though in places it changed into other kinds of rock. The top- and bottommost layers of this lava cooled relatively quickly, forming your standard, rather amorphous basalt. The middle layer cooled much more slowly, however. It began cracking as it cooled, forming three-pronged stress fractures. These stress fractures grew eventually joined up, resulting in the geometric formations we see today.

There’s a path along the top of the cliffs, and I would have liked to hike it, but we hadn’t the time. On the way out, we stopped for a group photo at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. You had to pay to get into the castle itself, so we followed the footpaths around and under it instead. Here we were provided with a couple of irresistible opportunities to see just a little bit more. And so, in brazen defiance of the “no access” signs, we climbed down to the subterranean beach in a cavern below the castle, and up the cliffside along one of the walls. Dirt, a spectacular view, a rare sunny day, and the opportunity to scrabble up and down areas I probably shouldn’t be climbing—a good day, all in all.

I ran into Maggie towards the end of our time at the cliffs, and we made tentative plans to meet back up at the hostel, Unfortunately, these and subsequent plans to meet each other fell through due to the separation of the buses, my lack of internet access, and our mutual failure to include the country code when sharing our phone numbers. (I have since become far more proficient at making international calls). We shall have to be better prepared when she comes to Galway in two weeks for the Aran Islands trip.

Friday and Saturday afternoons I spent wandering the city with Celina, and part of the time with Jordan and Emily. The city center is beautiful, full of that juxtaposition of history and modernity that so characterizes European cities. It more what I expected Dublin to look like, and from what I had seen of the two cities at this point, I much preferred Belfast. With the exception of Grafton Street, I found Dublin rather dull and monotonously modern in its urbanity, with little of the historic charm I associate with European cities. Belfast seemed to have much more character, even though it’s a much younger city.

Sadly, I was once more disappointed in my quest to visit the great cathedrals. As at St. Patrick’s in Dublin, I arrived too late in the afternoon. The cathedral was closed, and I had to content myself with taking pictures from the outside. But I did get some lovely pictures of the exterior, for we arrived at that magical hour of the afternoon when the sun gilds it touches before sinking into the shadows.

Other highlights included the majestic town hall in the city center, and over on the banks of the Lagan, an enormous ceramic blue salmon and a modern statue of a woman on a globe, holding a ring over her head. She’s meant to represent peace and prosperity, but the locals refer to her either as “the doll on a ball” or “ the thing with a ring.”


Since we confined our wanderings to the city center, it wasn’t hard to forget that we were no longer in the Republic. The buildings were beautiful, the atmosphere vibrant, with no sign of the tumult the city has experienced. The only sign of this division we saw in our first two days was the bar across the street from the hostel. It was called The Royal, and both its name and the flags it flew (British, Ulster, Australian, and Confederate) proclaimed it to be a Loyalist establishment. We were advised not to go there.

For those unfamiliar with the politics of Northern Ireland, the country is divided between the Nationalists, who want the six counties it contains to be part of the Republic, and the Unionists, who want to stay part of the UK. Each of these sides is further divided between a more moderate faction and an extremist, paramilitary one. The extreme Nationalists are called Republicans, the associated paramilitary organization being called the Irish Republican Army; the extreme Unionists are called Loyalists, the associated paramilitary groups being the Ulster Volunteer Force and the UDD (Ulster Defense… something), or Ulster Freedom Fighters.

While the city center shows little evidence of the Troubles, as this conflict is called, the bus tour on Sunday took us out to Sandy Row and Shankill, old Loyalist areas where the conflict was literally splashed all over the walls. (Shankill, incidentally, is not a combination of the words ‘shank’ and ‘kill’ – it’s the English version of sean cille, Irish for ‘old church’). The walls here were covered in murals, some older and more violent than others. Depictions of Unionist heroes King William (or Billy the Bastard, as I’ve heard him referred to in the Republic) and Oliver Cromwell were popular, and one mural even asserted the right of children to a safe place to play—but others showed masked men holding machine guns. The spiked fences and barbed/razor wire that had only appeared occasionally in the city center were a lot more prevalent here, and we saw more and more of them as we approached the peace walls.

The walls were erected at the height of the Troubles to separate working-class Catholic and Protestant communities. The idea was that separating the two groups reduced the possibility of violence between them. What resulted were tall walls topped with spikes and razor wire and covered in murals. The spikes, images of weaponry, and overall dereliction of these areas served as a vivid reminder that Belfast has yet to finish recovering from its war-torn past.

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Blogging Backlog

So it has come to my attention that I haven’t blogged in quite a while. The homework load here is fairly intense (I’m taking 9 credit hours… not the best decision on my part!) and we have required or recommended excursions on a regular basis. So I have a lot of things to write about that I haven’t had time to record.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time today either.

Sometime in the near future, expect details about the following:

  • Our trip to Geneva, including hiking on a mountain, my continued obsession with European churches, antics with a stuffed marmot, RIDICULOUS prices, and our stay in the red light district
  • Our final excursion to Bussy-Rabutin and the Abbaye de Fontenay
  • My trip to Paris with Kimmy and our adventures with blues dancing, aching feet, British tourists in an ENORMOUS cemetery, and various cathedrals
  • Our excursion to Vézélay, with its gorgeous vista and still-running abbey

In the meantime, I have places to go, homework to do, and souvenirs to purchase. If you want something that a) is reasonably priced and b) I can feasibly take home (I don’t exactly have much room in my suitcase), let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

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le 26 mai: Des Léçons Appris en Faisent du Vélo à Beaune

Some of these were learned by trial and error today, and some at another date, but all were relevant to our day today.

  • Don’t try to order breakfast food from a brasserie at lunchtime, as it will take FOREVER. Long enough that you start to wonder if they’re out back collecting eggs for that quiche and waiting for your croissant dough to rise. If you want such things, go to a Boulanger, where they have them on hand all the time.
  • Any time my mother and I decide to go for a long bike ride, it will rain. Last time, we biked up to Lake Forest Beach from our house. It was HOT when we started, so we figured the rain would feel nice. We didn’t count on the rain dropping the temperature down into the fifties (or colder), and we ended up sitting in the bathrooms trying to dry off our clothes and borrowing sweatshirts from the lost and found for the way home. This time, at least, we were more prepared and outfitted with raincoats and quick-dry clothes.
  •  If the weather forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain, don’t go with your original plans and hope that there’s more than a 40% chance that it won’t.
  • When choosing a raincoat, make sure the hood a) can be tightened so it stays up in the wind generated, say, by biking, and b) does not flop down into your face, obscuring your vision to an absurd and unsafe degree. This will allow you to actually WEAR said hood while biking, keeping you warmer and preventing you from looking like a drowned rat.
  • When the guy at the bike rental place offers you a helmet, take it. Especially if it has a visor, as this will help to keep the rain out of your face.
  • Know that rental bikes are crap, and you will likely end up with a bike that  has no shocks, a seat that pitches you forward, handlebars  that aren’t meant for the racer crouch the seat wants to force you into, brakes that make an alarming crunching sound, and a front wheel that hits your feet when you try to turn, severely limiting your ability to do so.
  • Don’t stop halfway up a hill to wait for your mother. If you find yourself stopped with more climbing to do, find downhill or at least flat spot where you can start and gain a little momentum before heading back up the road. ANYTHING is better than trying to start up a muddy hill from a dead stop. (Told you, Mom.)
  •  DO NOT try to brake and turn at the same time on a wet, muddy road (knew this one already, but was rather abruptly reminded of it). Brake BEFORE that sharp turn at the bottom of the hill with a stone wall  on the downhill side, and after, if you still have to.
  • DO NOT try to brake too quickly while going downhill on said wet, muddy roads, especially if thy are not level (which they are not). Even if you are not turning, that back wheel will skid out from under you if it gets locked up, because the road is banked.
  • DO NOT sharply call out for your daughter, who is riding in front of you, to stop, causing her to brake too quickly and start to skid.
  • When you reach a fork in the road with a cross, behind which you can see that the sky up ahead is dark and tempestuous, while that behind you is reasonably clear, listen to your mother and take it as a sign from God to turn back. (I wanted to go on to the next little town/vineyard/whatever it was that we could see up ahead, despite the ominous rumblings of thunder. We got to the top of the hill, at which point I realized that the clouds where coming on much faster than I had anticipated, and it started to rain. So we turned back.)

  • If you find that you are on one side of a small, old, European city, and your destination is at the other side, don’t try to go through it. The streets are likely made of cobblestone, and bikes and cobblestone do not get along. Even if you go slowly. I’ve never tried to use a jackhammer, but I imagine that it feels something like that. Remember that you are on a rental bike that does not have shocks, and this will make the cobblestone an even more inhospitable surface. Take the ring road around the city walls instead, even if Mom wants to cut through.
  • Don’t try to eat at a restaurant that appears to have only one staff member present. The poor man was waiter, bartender, and (if someone wanted an omelet or a croque-monsieur) cook, and he had a bout nine tables’ worth of people.
  • There is always time for ice cream. Especially sorbet de cassis (black currants).
  • Check when the trains back to Dijon run before you leave the station for the day—and check when the desk closes. Chances are, the ticket machines don’t like American credit cards and you don’t have 16 euros in coins.
  • Don’t despair if you can’t buy a ticket for a short ride on the TGV. They might not even check to see if you have one.