My great love affair

Mural at Raising Voices - domestic violence awareness programmeI have always held a special place in my heart for the African continent. Since my childhood, I knew it was somewhere that would be important to me. It captivated my sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. Of course, I had no idea just how influential the continent was to be in shaping my life, my career and myself. From the moment I first stepped into the smothering heat of Ghana 10 years ago, I have been embroiled in a passionate love affair with Africa that has taken me places I could never have dreamed of.
The closest I can come to describing the root of this love affair is a sense of wholeness. When my feet are on African soil, I feel whole. Connected. Alive. Joyful. For all of the heartache and frustrations, for all of crushing unfairness and inequality, I always depart knowing that I am leaving another little part of me under that fierce blue sky.
Over the course of a decade I spent time in 10 African countries. Some of this was spent travelling, some volunteering, some working for my keep. Each and every place was unique, and brought its own joys, challenges and beautiful moments. The most recent trip to Uganda was different. I was there in a professional capacity with a group to show them first hand the impact of our long term development programmes.
Working in development is not easy. It can hard to see the impact of what you are doing, and I have often found myself questioning the morals, ethics and purpose of the industry. Sometimes it can feel like a constant uphill battle, where the efforts of individuals, communities and even countries are pushed back down by a global system that is inherently unjust. The sheer scale of the challenges can be overwhelming. The vacant stare of a child who has had the odds stacked against him from the moment he entered the world is, quite simply, heart-breaking.
Driving through Uganda, two things stood out for me. One was the number of children. There were children everywhere. Playing with a tyre and stick at the side of the road in a town, walking down a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, filling water cans at a pump, peering around from behind their mothers wrap, running after their younger siblings, dancing, playing, singing as children do all over the world. But there were just so many of them. 50% of Uganda’s population is under the age of 18. Each one of those children needs to be fed, educated and nurtured to reach their potential. That would pose a challenge to any country.
The second was the landscape. Parts of Uganda are incredibly lush, with maize, coffee, pineapples and plantain growing everywhere. The greens are dazzling and beautiful. Further north, the landscape changes, becoming drier and more arid. The air feels like there is not enough rain. For a country where millions are still entirely dependent on the land for their livelihoods, the landscape takes on a whole new significance. One of the projects we visited is focused on land rights and land ownership, an issue that certainly resonates with Irish people. In so many countries around the world, land is the starting point. If you don’t have access to land, where do you start to feed your family, earn an income, send your children to school? I often thought this while looking at a family who were eking out some form of existence on a piece of concrete in Kolkata, who had, quite possibly, had to leave their land due to drought or floods and now found themselves without the means to even feed themselves. Land matters because of all that it represents.
Meeting partner organisations and local staff gave me a very unique insight that you don’t get as a tourist. Firstly, I had the privilege to meet amazing, innovative and committed people who are doing fantastic things in their communities. They have a vision and a drive that can only impress and humble. Secondly, I had the even greater privilege of visiting places that no one would ever think of going as a tourist. Kampala is all activity, chaos and vibrancy. While having lunch in a local version of Starbucks, I remarked to my colleague that we could have been anywhere in the world such was the mix of people enjoying their Sunday afternoon cappuccinos. We chatted with our driver, Myles, about dating, politics, careers and travel. Myles is savvy, intelligent, ambitious and fiercely proud of his country. This dynamic and ambitious middle class, the hustle and bustle of city life is certainly one face of 21st century Uganda.
The rural areas felt a galaxy away from this. There, life moves very slowly. People exhibit endless and enduring patience, sitting under a mango tree talking for hours amongst themselves and appearing to take pleasure in the little things as life moves languidly onwards. A far cry from our culture of instant gratification, information overload and, increasingly, social isolation.
We travelled for hours down deeply rutted dirt tracks, passing only cows, goats, people carrying plantain, pineapples, charcoal, chickens and the occasional door (seriously!) on bicycles and motorcycles. And of course countless people walking, to where and from where being a mystery. We visited remote villages that appeared to have sprung up from nowhere. As life was so stripped back, so unhurried, even our brief visit afforded us a glimpse of the real beauty that could be seen in the gentle ebb and flow of village life. A calf lowed pitifully from where it was tied under a banana tree, chickens pecked busily in the undergrowth, washing dried in the sun spread out on a thatched roof, and beaming, waving men sat around a calabash of local brew that looked, quite honestly, like diarrhoea. Being welcomed into these communities with singing, dancing and bright smiles was truly humbling. I did wonder what the reaction might be like if a bus full of 13 Ugandans rocked up in a rural Co. Donegal village. I like to think they would indeed be greeted with a flurry of set dancing and a 30 verse long sean-nós song.
Something that has always struck me anywhere in Africa, including Uganda, is the tangible sense of joy. Children squirm and wriggle with glee as they wave from the roadside, their faces breaking into the purest and most dazzling smiles. People dance and sing and exude pure joy in each others’ company. But behind all of this, life is far from easy. In one district we visited, 93% of the population are farmers. The rains are unpredictable, meaning food is a constant concern for this population. Schools are overcrowded and poorly resourced. Educated, capable young people cannot find work so drive boda-bodas (motorbike taxis), or find some other informal work. Health services are inadequate, and all the while the population is exploding, putting ever more pressure on already strained resources. The challenges are plain to see, and the deeper you dig, the more complex they become. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this, I instead felt uplifted by witnessing the good things that can happen when people work together in solidarity, from the grassroots upwards.
Partners talked candidly about complex issues such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation, prostitution and early marriage. It is well known that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by poverty and inequality around the world and the statistics that we heard in relation to sexual abuse and domestic violence highlighted that fact. However, the dialogue taking place at community and national level struck me as being far more sophisticated than anything we have ever had on these issues in Ireland. We could have much to learn, if only we would listen.
One of the most memorable parts of the trip was a visit to Barlonyo Memorial Ground near Lira town. David, from the partner organisation who was hosting us that day, explained in blunt terms what had happened there. During the prolonged and brutal conflict with the LRA, there was an IDP camp at Barlonyo. One day in February 2004, the LRA entered the camp disguised as government forces. They told everyone to go into their huts for protection. Families obeyed. The LRA then set the huts on fire. When people ran from their huts to escape the flames, they were shot. Somewhere between 400-800 people were killed; men, women, and children. Nobody really knows the true number. Later that day, the bodies were put into a mass grave, which remains at the memorial ground. It is difficult to comprehend how one place, one community can experience this kind of trauma and suffering, when life has been so willingly wasted. The presence of the mass grave contrasted with the gang of curious children who surrounded us, full of life and laughter (although some of them did look utterly terrified and maintained a safe distance from the weird wazungu!). The family we visited later that day had been in the camp when it was raided. They fled into the bush with their 3 small children. Their father was captured twice by the LRA but managed to escape. They had, somehow, rebuilt their lives and livelihoods and afforded us the privilege of a glimpse into their family life.
This family represented for me the resilience of the human spirit. Despite having experienced such massive trauma, having lost everything, having lived in fear for so long, this family were still able to smile, be welcoming and be inherently hopeful about the future. Betty and Joel-the parents-had careworn faces that told a story of the hardships that had aged them well beyond their years. Yes they had found a way to move on, to focus on the future, but their faces and their eyes said that some things can never truly be forgotten. And yet, the human spirit prevails and finds a way to smile.
Each and every trip to Africa has taught me something different, opened my eyes in new and surprising ways. This trip was no different. It afforded me a different perspective, a deeper insight into the culture and society, an unapologetic view of the challenges and inequality inherent in our world and a reminder that we cannot, any of us, ignore this injustice because at the centre of it all beat human hearts with all of their potential, hopes and dreams.
Like any great journey, no two moments were the same. There were moments that were heart breaking, moments that were joyful, moments that were overwhelming, moments that were uncomfortable and moments laden with both desperation and hope.
And so my great love affair continues, taking me to ever new and surprising places, and reminding me to never stop seeking to understand the world around me, in all of its beautiful imperfection.


Take a moment…


Just because some times it is nice to remember what a wide and wonderful world it is out there…..

I love sunsets. I love how each one is unique. Sunrises are full of hope and possibilities. Sunsets are a celebration of a day, a rousing tribute to everything that was that day.

I took this photo in Nyika National Park, Malawi in 2007 on a drive back from one of the safari camps. I remember feeling like I could have reached up on tippy toes and touched the clouds.

Moments like this are made for cherishing.


You always get there in the end: Thoughts on travel

I have traveled by ferry, bus, train, canoe, bicycle, rickshaw, tuk tuk, minibus, jeep, car and with my trusty two feet. I have spent hours at the side of a road squinting at the hazy horizon and hoping for a bus to magically appear. I have held a random woman’s baby on my lap for the entirety of a 3 hour bus journey (the child did not cry once). I have had goats, chickens, fish and guinea fowl as travel companions. The destinations these journeys led me to were indeed incredible, but the journeys were in and of themselves something to remember.

Below are some random thoughts on the journeys, the places to which they lead you and the lessons you learn along the way.

1. Some of my fondest memories in Ghana were formed while sweating profusely on a sweltering half full mini bus, chatting to random people over the course of several hours while the bus filled up at a leisurely pace. Through all the sweat I learned the real value of patience. After all, you always get there in the end.

2. Eat well. Trying local food and indulging in local delicacies is half the fun. It’s far less fun being that guy wandering around Hanoi looking for an Irish stew with a cup of Barrys tea.

3. No matter where you are, remember that it is the place that someone somewhere calls home.

4. Things may not always work, in fact they may be positively haphazard and stressful at times (see above sweaty mini bus pondering). Embrace this;often the most haphazard of times can contain the most precious memories and impart the most enduring lessons.

5. Journal. You might think that you will remember all the fine details, but they will fade with time. Writing it all down is one of the best gifts you can make to yourself.

6. You are a tourist; get used to it. Over the years I have heard endless ‘I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller’ or ‘I don’t consider myself as a tourist’.  You may be  a particular type of tourist, but you are a tourist none the less. Unless you are going to live somewhere for an extended period, you might aswell get comfortable with this fact and make some choices about what type of tourist you want to be.

7. I met a guy once who was travelling the world by beer i.e. he made sure to get a photo of himself drinking the local brew in every country he visited. I like this idea – travelling by theme seems like a good idea….ice cream perhaps?

8. Sometimes you come across a place that really doesn’t care that you are there. Life goes on and breezes past you, pausing to mention casually that you are welcome to watch but don’t expect any recognition. I love being somewhere like this, I feel that it gives you a genuine glimpse into the fabric of another place, aswell as allowing you to sit back and relish the discovery.

9. Never say never. I have met people well into their 60s and 70s who were undertaking wonderful adventures. This gives me hope for actually being able to make it through my list of places that feature on my bucket list.

10. Every so often, put the camera/Iphone/Ipad down and savour the moment. Chances are, that very moment is a privilege.


Santorini and the donkey blues

Going back to somewhere familiar is like slipping on a pair of well worn comfortable shoes. Returning to Kolkata for the third time recently, I had that wonderful feeling of returning somewhere that I knew well. I knew how to get around, I had a fair handle on the cultural dos and don’ts and I had long ago accepted that any time spent in India will have a slightly haphazard and chaotic feeling to it. I threw myself into the familiar and relished in the unfamiliar, of which there is always a fair share in Kolkata. For example, one sweaty day I was walking down a street in a neighbourhood I know quite well, only to have a rather large water buffalo amble calmly across my path. As you do.

Returning to a place is to take another step in the adventure of getting to know somewhere, to peel back the layers and see it in its entirety. But there is no replacing the excitement that you feel when your feet land on new soil. There can only ever be one sparkling new first day in a place. It is a very special thing to look at a place with completely fresh eyes, to take the time to find out the answers to all of those questions, and sometimes to accept that the questions may not have an answer, or at least not the one you were expecting. How does the public transport work? What are the potential cultural pitfalls? What does the local beer taste like? I like to try to visit at least one new place per year, and that place this year, was Greece.

Researching the trip was bewildering; there is simply so much to see and do in Greece. On the advice of a Greek friend, we decided to focus on one geographical area and err on the side of quality over quantity in terms of the number of islands we would visit. I knew I wanted, and needed, a relaxing and relatively easy holiday as my energy stocks were quite depleted; my ayurvedic masseuse told me the week before departure that my ylang was cold which is a sign of low energy….you learn something new every day!

In the end we settled on Athens and the islands of Paros, Naxos and Santorini. Each place was unique and beguiling in its own way. The Acropolis, despite a layer of scaffolding, is impressive and awe inspiring. The Acropolis museum is wonderfully detailed and laid out, with a glass floor looking down into ancient ruins. As often happens when I am away, I got to thinking about the image we present of Dublin to our tourists. Instead of having a similar museum at Wood Quay, we send our tourists to the Storehouse and to The Quays Bar. Which is fine, but it should only be part of the picture. I can’t help but feel that, with a history as ancient and rich as ours, that we sell ourselves short by not displaying it proudly.

I had mixed feelings about going to the Greek islands. I think I had watched a few too many Boozed Up Brits abroad programmes and was expecting them to be overrun with hoards of drunken English and Irish students.  That’s not to say that may not have been the case on other islands, but the picture on Paros, Naxos and Santorini was certainly very different.

There were many postcard perfect moments; cats stretched out luxuriantly on the roof of a cave house, narrow perfectly paved streets snaking their way haphazardly through an old town, white sands and turquoise waters, a group of old men in their flat caps talking animatedly over their ouzo, two old Mammas dressed in black shooting the breeze outside a blue domed church. Paros and Naxos were quieter and calmer, Santorini was somewhat glitzier and more mainstream. The people were uniformly warm and welcoming, and the way of life came across as wonderfully easy going and family focused. I have visited islands all over the world, and find that no matter where they are located, they share a gloriously unhurried pace of life; as one barman on Naxos said to us ‘Here, we never know what day it is’.

Anyone we spoke to about the current economic crisis were optimistic and accepting; but I guess if you live on an island in the middle of the Aegean you have always had an ethos of self-reliance and resilience.

Santorini was jaw droppingly beautiful. It is one of the most striking and spectacular places I have ever visited. That first view of Thira town is one that will remain with me for a long time to come. Whitewashed buildings cling to the top of the caldera with the cliffs dropping precipitously to the sublime blue of the Aegean. Everything is painfully perfectly white, with blue shutters and blue balconies, and the occasional dramatic splash of bougainvillea. The overall impression is of a place built to both cope with and complement its environment and the result, for the visiting eye, is spectacular.

And the world knows it. As with so many of the world’s most beautiful places, tourists come in their thousands. Each of the three days we were there, 3-4 cruise ships docked at Thira town and thousands of their inhabitants made their way to the already crowded narrow streets of Thira and Oia. The sunsets on Santorini are indeed beautiful and do live up to their hype, but just be prepared to share them with a large crowd of camera wielding fellow visitors, many of whom are not afraid to use their elbows. I do not kid myself with the ‘I’m not a tourist’ mantra,  and I am fully a that I was one of the crowd, but I have always been slightly uneasy with manic mass tourism and what it breeds.  This manifested itself most strongly for me with the donkey taxis.

The port of Thira is, unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the cliff, and the town is at the top of a very steep path that consists of 600 cobbled steps. There are three ways to make your way up and down; on your feet, by cable car or by donkey taxi. Witnessing the donkey taxis was the low point of my holiday. Heading to the port one day, we walked down the steps and passed, at a guess, 100 odd donkeys carrying tourists up the path in the midday sun. Having done the path on my feet, I can safely say that it is steep, uneven, hot and hard on your legs. Now imagine this for a donkey carrying a 90kilo man. I was shocked at how many people used the donkeys, and how many of them were clearly far too heavy for the animals. Some of the animals, especially the larger mules, were in good enough nick and seemed to be managing quite well. But some of them were clearly struggling, especially the smaller donkeys. Their breathing was visibly laboured, some of them had sores from where the crupper or girth had rubbed them, many of them wore muzzles and some of them were visibly underweight. I saw water at one of the donkey stations but not at the other two.  If I could see all of this, I struggled to understand how the singing and giggling tourists on their backs could not. I concluded that everyone (or at least sizeable numbers) wants their photo on a donkey in Santorini and they are so completely blinkered by this that they lose sight of the situation of the animal that is carrying them up the hill. I was shocked and upset and utterly helpless to do anything for the animals. So I cried. The whole way down the cliff I cried and cried and thought very bad things about mass tourism and tourists and the donkey owners.

I know that donkeys and mules are hardy animals, bred in this environment and well used to carrying loads, and that donkeys had been making the trip up and down that hill long before tourism arrived on the island. I know that, from what I hear, domestic donkeys are well cared for in Greece. But these donkeys and their situation are different, they are caught up in a giant money making machine. It is €5 per trip one way, so the more times a donkey makes the trip up and down the hill, the more money his owner makes.

There is clearly demand for these donkey taxis. Some visitors feel that they are entitled to this ‘experience’ and to their souvenir photo (an attitude I have come across frequently elsewhere, for example among backpackers telling me they were entitled to climb Ayers Rock even when they knew the significance of this action for Aboriginal culture). The donkey owners are simply meeting that demand and making money in the process.  To my mind, there is a marked difference between a donkey doing a few trips up and down with building materials or with a wiry Greek fisherman, and doing several trips per day with an overweight tourist with no experience or idea of how to carry himself/herself on an animal.

The demand is not going to go away, and Thira is not going to magically relocate, and the cable car is not going to treble its capacity. So what’s to be done? There have been efforts at regulation in ter past which have failed. Regulation is one way. Weight restrictions; most of the yards I have worked in had weight restrictions and it is a reasonable enough idea – if you are above a certain weight, you take the cable car. It might ruffle a few peoples feathers but they will still get up the hill, which is ultimately the name of the game. Rotation of the animals so that each animal is only doing a certain number of trips per day. Regular water breaks. Fines for neglect.  I am aware this is all idealistic and I have no real suggestions as to how this could be managed among donkey owners who are set in their ways, aside from a permanent welfare presence. But this is what I thought about on the cable car back up the hill; surely there are simple ways to make it less harsh. But the most effective thing would be for tourists who opt to use the donkey taxis to think, to take off the hat of their ‘experience’ and look at the bigger picture and think about whether or not they truly want to be a part of this.

So the donkeys of Santorini left me with a dose of the blues. Animals  – donkeys and horses in particular – have always been my trigger, which may seem a little odd when there are so many millions of people suffering in the world. But that is how I am wired. The donkeys of Santorini were yet another lesson in how our own individual choices can have an impact, however small and insignificant it may seem at the time. When we visit a new place we all become tourists, over that I believe we have little choice, but we DO have a choice over what type of tourists we decide to be.


Travel highlights

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”- Jawaharial Nehru

One of the most wonderful things about travelling is that you need never stop. You may pause every so often to lay down your pack, catch your breath, eat the food you missed most while you were away, and plan for your next step. Each journey leaves you with precious memories and spine tingling moments, but the good news is that these are not in finite supply. They do not end when you lay down your battered, sorry looking rucksack. There is always a new adventure to be had, a new challenge to be faced, new lessons to be learned, new memories to be forged.

I recently challenged myself to try to identify my own personal travel highlights to date. These have happened over 7 years, across 25 countries, and this list could have been far longer than I have made it. For that fact, I feel truly privileged.

  1. Ancient Rome; walking the footsteps of emperors, standing in the greatness of the colosseum and gazing the in incredible dome of the Pantheon. Humbling and awe inspiring
  2. Lipari, Sicily; picturesque side streets, slow pace of island life, delicious food and friendly locals. A very special place.
  3. Plitvice National Park, Croatia; azure blue waters, skeletal trees and sweeping vistas. Paradise.
  4. Split; like walking under peoples washing hanging out in a museum
  5. Etosha National Park, Namibia; watching black rhino and lions drinking from a floodlit water hole at night
  6. The Zambezi, Zambia; watching the sun fade through shade of orange from a wood canoe on the Zambezi.
  7. Bazaruto Archipaelago, Mozambique; blue waters, white sands and fresh seafood picnic on the beach
  8. The first time I saw an elephant, Kruger National Park, South Africa
  9. Nyika National Park Malawi, galloping alongside herds of zebra and eland as the mountains sweep away ahead of me. Glorious, untouched, spectacular.
  10. The Western Escarpment, Nyika National Park; looking over layer after layer of mountains towards Zambia, not another solitary soul and only the sound of birds to keep me company
  11. The Statue of Liberty; thinking of what she meant to so many souls
  12. The Taj Mahal, India; classically beautiful, picture perfect
  13. Cape Coast Castle, Ghana; 21st century fishermen at work on the waves at the doorstep of history
  14. Lake Malawi; the venue for many’s the morning swim, sundowners and sunrises, endless smiles, spectacular storms and a hundred shades of blue
  15. The Spanish Riding School, Vienna; a childhood dream come true
  16. Isle of Skye, Scotland; unrestrained rugged beauty, the jagged Cuilfhionns peaking up through the purple sunset
  17. The Empire State Building; the view to end all views
  18. Wild camping in the Okavango Delta; bring a torch with you to the loo and be sure to check for snakes!
  19. Travelling through the Sundarbans, watching rural life unfold
  20. Wild horses of Garub, Namibia

When in Rome…..

As city breaks go, it is hard to beat Rome. Steeped in history, and heaving with beautiful architecture, artistic masterpieces and picturesque streets, the city has much to offer. Whether you are an art fanatic, a history nerd (like me), a foodie, or just looking to soak up some atmosphere, Rome has something for everyone. And if you happen to like churches, you will certainly have a field day!

Around every corner lies a new set of ruins or the site of some historical event; it can in fact become a little bewildering at times as the Romans feel little need to label their extensive ruins. You never know what artistic genius is waiting for you in some inconspicuous church; passing a church the other day, we joked that we should pop our heads in just in case there was a masterpiece to be found within. What did we find? Three Caravaggios. Only in Rome.

I vistited Rome first in September 2010 and again recently, in the first week of May 2013. It was much as I remembered it, but seeing it for the second time gave me the chance to reflect a bit more.

Some of the sights have that once in a life time ring to them; the first time you step into the Colosseum and look up into its 2,000 year old heights, the first time you enter the Pantheon and see the sunlight pouring in through the occulus, your gut reaction to the opulence of St Peters, giving yourself neck ache gazing at the Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…the list goes on. There can be an awful lot to take in, not least getting your head around the fact that the pillars you are looking at are thousands of years old and still standing; it seems that some Irish builders would have done well to learn some lessons from the Romans.

Walking around amidst the living history of Rome made me sad that Dublin has destroyed so much of its heritage; Wood Quay could have been our version of the Forum, Fitzwilliam Street could have been the photo opportunity that every visitor wanted. But what did we do? Stuck great big concrete monstrosities over our history.  Admittedly Mussolini did this when he built Via di Fiori Imperiali over a large chunk of ancient ruins, but still…

Historical contemplation aside, part of the beauty of Rome is to be found in flopping down to people watch over a cappuccino…which is a good thing really as the city can certainly leave you foot sore. Apart from the need to take the weight off, it also does the city a great disservice to simply charge around the sites and not sit and take time to soak it all up and watch the city playing out around you.

Here is my take on how to approach a few days in the Eternal City

  1. Make a list; there is simply so much to see, and all of the sights deserve time and attention. Both times, we hotfooted it around and still only managed to see a fraction of the sights Prioritise visiting what interests you the most and plan around that. A lot of the sights, such as the many wonderful Piazzi can be visited in the evenings.
  2. Bring your queuing shoes; for St Peters, the Vatican, the Colosseum, and maybe even for the odd popular restaraunt. Book ahead if you can, but if not be prepared for a queue. Bring protection from the sun, a sense of humour and a bag load of patience for the many touts who will claim to be able to help you to skip the queue.
  3. Make time for aperitivi; it’s hard to beat an hour spent people watching over a chilled prosecco. The many piazzi and narrow laneways are made for people watching, and I whiled away many the happy hour watching suave and sophisticated Romans breeze their way through throngs of flustered red faced tourists.
  4. Avoid peak season…. and avoid a sea of tourists. On a busy day, the busiest sites can attract well in excess of 10,000 visitors per day. This totally took me by surprise on my second visit (the first time I went was early September, the second time the week of the May Bank Holiday). The Spanish Steps were pretty much totally obscured by the crowds, and the Trevi Fountain was akin to a mosh pit. The Vatican was like being on a giant conveyor belt of tourists all racing their way towards the Sistine Chapel. Visit in April or September if you can, it will be cooler and the hoardes will be less – therefore possibly lessening afore mentioned queuing and freeing up time for coffee drinking and selecting your next gelato.
  5.  Visit Trastevere; narrow winding laneways, ivy clad buildings, mamas sitting out shooting the breeze of an evening… Trastevere oozes Italian charm and is chock full of good restaraunts and bars. Sure  it is touristy, but no more so than other parts of the city
  6. The view is free; many of the cafés facing onto the more famous squares charge in the region of €6 for a coffee and €9 for a beer. If these prices make your eyes hurt, grab yourself a gelato or a take away beer and pull up a pew on a bench or on the steps of a fountain and enjoy the same view for a lot cheaper.
  7. Wear comfortable shoes; there is a lot of walking involved, and the cobblestones can be hard on the pegs.
  8. Do your research; Italy, and Rome, has a fascinating and rich history and knowing the story behind the monuments and masterpieces really makes the city come alive and can give much pause for thought when you realise you are walking in the footsteps of emperors
  9. Eat gelato; it really is terribly good.
  10. Even if churches are not your thing, take time to pop into Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo and the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesci to feast your eyes on the artwork and to marvel at the fact that someone’s local church contains three paintings by Caravaggio. As you do.

Catch the trade winds….

I have been thinking over the past few weeks about the purpose of this blog. What am I trying to achieve by it (other than emptying my brain every so often)? It does not have the structure of other blogs, is not about any ‘one thing’ as it were, and will most likely only ever be read by my close friends. So I tried to think about what inspires me to write, and, hardly surprisingly, I found the answer in the things I am passionate about; travel, people, opportunities for change and social justice. These are the things that make me tick (aswell as a ramble in the hills and a good cup of tea).

I had a moment of clarity on a beach in Ghana a few years ago. It was before dawn, the Atlantic was washing around my feet and there was that wonderful purple calm in the air before the searing heat of the West African sun descends on the day. It was an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place and I wondered how on earth I had found myself there.  I realised that the world is such a big and beautiful place and it is there to be explored. Given the privilege of where we were born, we really have no reason not to get out and explore it and try to understand a bit more about the world and our place in it. It was starkly clear on that West African beach that we have no excuses, (apart from the ones we make up for ourselves) not to get out and do what makes us happy.

I have been lucky enough to have had a great many moments such as this, moments that give you clarity, moments that shake you up and  refocus you, moments that add up to a new way of looking at yourself and looking at the world. I think travelling is one of the best ways in which to discover these moments, as you challenge yourself, push yourself out of your comfort zone and realise that the world is more complex than you ever realised. I recently tried to figure out how many countries I have travelled to, and think I came to the conclusion that it was somewhere around 35, across 5 continents. But of course it is not a case of simply ticking places off a list, it is much more about the quality of the time you spend there and how that place shapes your understanding of yourself and how the world works.

I think there will always be a part of me that wants to throw a few things in a rucksack and go, hit the road and see where it takes me. That is the part of me which will most likely lead me to never have any savings or own any property! Once the Wanderlust is in you, it is mighty hard to get rid of. Two weeks in Hungary and Croatia reminded me of how diverse and fascinating Europe is, how there are mountains, coastlines and historical cities of breathtaking beauty right on our doorstep. It also reminded me of the turmoil of recent European history. I grew up watching news reports on the shelling of Dubrovnik, Srebenica, the siege of Sarajevo, refugee camps full of Kosovars of all ages who had walked across the mountains to Macedonia to escape persecution. I recently read an exceptionally good book called ‘Antigona and me’ by Kate Clanchy which sparked an interest to find out more about this part of Europe. I had read books about the Balkans before (Asne Seirestad ‘With their backs to the world’ for example) and even wrote a paper about it during my Masters, but it always seemed to enormously complicated that it would take me hours to just figure out who was who.  There is no denying, terrible things have happened throughout history, acts of unimaginable cruelty. And yet, somehow, people prevail. Cities are rebuilt, communities return to rebuild their homes and their lives. Peace is often spoken of as if it is an event rather than a process. While the physical scars may have healed, the emotional and mental scars of conflict heal more slowly.  But yet people find a way to forgive, or at least find a way to deal with what they cannot forgive. This is the beauty of the human spirit, even in the most horrendous circumstances, somehow humanity prevails. And I think it is only throw visiting a place that you get a real sense of the humanity that binds it together and makes it what it is.

I think that is one of the greatest lessons that travelling has taught me. The world is all about people and we all have much to learn from each other. Place of striking beauty stay in our memories for a long time and perhaps they teach us something; certainly I have had many of my ‘aha!’ moments out in the wonders of nature, often with not another soul in sight. But there is something in the people who we meet along the way that runs that bit deeper, something that connects us through our common humanity.  So travelling is so much more than simply seeing a place; it is exploring what that place can teach us about ourselves and about humanity in general.

I will finish by going back to that beach in Ghana and the moment of realisation I had there that has never left me, and that Mark Twain did me the good favour of capturing so beautifully; ‘Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do more than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover’.


Kolkata – colors, chaos and contemplation

The air is heavy, the sound of blaring car horns rings endlessly in my ears, an array of smells awaits around every corner and humanity pulses around me in all of its glorious chaos. Yes indeed, there was no doubting that I was back in Kolkata.

I am lucky enough to be brought into constant contact with wonderful and inspiring people in my daily work, and my recent two and a half weeks in Kolkata highlighted that in many ways. The Volunteers, the Coordinators and the staff and founders of our three partner organisations cannot help but strengthen my belief in the inherent goodness of people.  The bright and eager children, striving to learn from dedicated teachers in often difficult surroundings, smiling and keen despite whatever heartaches and troubles they carried on their young shoulders. There is nothing quite like a few weeks in Kolkata for a healthy dose of perspective.

I enjoyed being back in Kolkata much more than I was expecting. There is something incredibly comforting in arriving to a place and feeling that familiarity, knowing where things are and how things work. Arriving to a new place is exhilarating and the ultimate thrill of travelling, but the feeling of arriving to a second home is exhiliarating in a different way. Kolkata feels like a city very much in transition; in the blink of an eye, things seem to change. In the 10 months or so since I had been there, new buildings, shops and restaraunts had sprung up in the neighbourhood where I lived. On the outskirts of the city, multicolored high density apartment blocks sprawl out into whole new townships to house the ever growing middle classes. the city feels dynamic, a place on the verge of great achievements. But that is one side of it. On the other side, nothing seems to change at all. The traffic is still impossibly chaotic, with buses belching black smoke and tuk tuks, cycle rickshaws, cars, buses and trucks engaged in a constant battle for space, all to a constant backdrop of beeping. While it may appear chaotic, it still works. Millions of people move around daily, and the city seems to get everyone where they need to be, even if the journey may seem at times to be impossibly precarious. One of the days we were travelling to the schools along the train line, there was a problem on the line and the trains were suspended. But they were functioning again within a few hours; Iarnród Éireann it would seem, has something to learn from Indian Railways.  In the midst of all this change, some things stayed comfortably familiar.  The same man cheerily brewed chai at my old favourite chai stall, and on the road opposite, the same men fried samosas and bhajis, sweating and spitting in equal amounts.

All life is in Kolkata, every space occupied with people, people engaged with all manner of activities.  Life and death are presented in their starkest forms; suffering, degredation and hopelessness are paraded alongside ambition, apathy and affluence. Families still live on the side of the road, eating, sleeping and living on the same few square feet of concrete. I recognised some of the same beggars from last year, the same woman living in a pile of rubbish along the road to Kasba, the same blind man begging around Gariahat. In the past year, my life has changed in many ways, and many doors of opportunities have been opened. But for so many people in Kolkata, and elsewhere, their situation will never change. They will, most likely, still be living the same struggle this time next year,and the year after that. It is crushingly unfair and unjust. That thought makes me believe fervently that change has to be possible, because life should be so much more than a struggle for survival, but in the same moment the scale of it all feels overwhelming.

I had the privilege of spending a few days in the Sundarbans, in the company of many lovely people and lots of colorful insects (most of which bit me). The Sundarbans feels like life stripped right back; take away all of the clutter and distractions of what we call modern living, and you have the Sundarbans. Life in its simplest, purest form. It is hard not to get romantic and verbose about the Sundarbans, but behind the beauty and tranquility, life is hard. The area is totally at the mercy of nature; too much rain, and there will be flooding, not enough rain, and the crops won’t grow and people will go hungry. If the people of the Sundarbans fall, there is no net to catch them. So where would they go? To Kolkata most likely, to try their luck in the city and stake out a piece of concrete for their home, to fret about the safety of their children, and to join the masses determined to survive against what seem like insurmountable odds. Their neighbors might be from Bihar or Orissa, driven to the city by a similar cruel strike from nature.  Surrounded by the sounds of nature and the gentle breeze in Nandakumarpur, it is easy to forget that reality and let it slip away with the tides.

Kolkata is a place of contrasts, paradoxes, joys, frustrations, color and constant movement. It is life and humaity in its rawest forms, and it is this rawness that fills the heart and stirs the soul.  Nowhwere will ever uproot Africa from the place it has in my heart. But the glare of Kolkata’s colors make a fascinating tapestry against which to consider the world in all of its shades.


A tale of two cities?

I have been lucky enough to visit New York city three times, the most recent of which was a few weeks ago. For a girl who revels in open space, mountain air  and muck, I never expected to like NYC as much as I do. Despite the towering sky scrapers, the crowds of people and all the various other trappings of a city (shopping malls, subway system etc), NYC, or at least Manhattan, kind of feels like an overgrown village. It is nowhere near as hectic, anonymous or, well, mean as I was expecting.  The people struck me as friendly, quirky and generally happy with life. An hour spent people watching in Central Park is one of life’s joys; you can see anything from families out for a picnic, a baseball game, new Mothers doing yoga with their babies rolling around beside them, a dog on a skateboard, a girl meditating propped against a tree, an achingly cool hipster type walking his (ironic) dog…the list goes on. On reflection, I think the reason I like New York is that it feels very much like a city for people.

As with all other cities, New York has its challenges. If you do well there, you do very well and can have the very best of health care, education and  leisure. If you are anywhere south of the middle, life is very different. While Manhattan is a gloirous melting pot of people and cultures, there is also something that hinted that all is not exactly equal. And of course, there are us Irish; Irish surnames, Irish shops and oh so many Irish bars. The church where Ronan and Alexis got married used to be a boarding house for Irish immigrant women fresh off the boat (this was told to us by an Irish American priest). It seems the Irish have indeed left their footprints all over that city. As I often do when I’m away, this all made me reflect on my home city.

I love Dublin in the kind of way that you love a cranky Great Aunt; with caution, sighs, much eye rolling, good humour and ‘ah sure you wouldn’t want her any other way’. Sitting in Merrion Square park on a sunny day, crossing the Hapenny Bridge when the sun is going down behind the Guinness chimneys, the pleasure of a quiet pint in a hidden corner of Kehoes or The Long Hall, these are the moments that make me love Dublin. The pride I feel in my native Wicklow is perhaps rooted in more obvious things; the mountains, the coastline, the country houses. Still, when I am in Wicklow, I am always wonderfully aware of the fact that it is, and always will be, where my roots are firmly placed. But with Dublin it’s different, more of a tempestuous relationship if you will. For every sunny day in the park (3 of them on a good year), there are equally as many, if not more days when Dublin makes me sigh in exasperation.

Dublin belongs to everyone, and while  Dubs are Dubs,  it is still home to many thousands of people who are not from Dublin (much like myself, regardless of what some folk have to say about Wicklow!). As Irish people I have always felt that, for a people so very full of national pride, we don’t always treat our country with the respect it deserves. Leave it alone to the developers who destroyed large tracts of perfectly good green countryside to build ugly apartment buildings in the back arse of nowwhere, most of which are now empty or inhabited by people who are chained to them for the rest of their lives, leave it alone to Greystones harbour and the likes; on a much more mundane, every day level, I often wonder where the national pride has gone. Rubbish and graffiti, dilapidated train stations (Broombridge station could really do with a facelift), women being punched in the face for their Iphone, tourists being hassled for change or cigarettes or whatever (something tells me the NYPD would not stand for their tourists being hassled by anyone other than the half clad musicians on Times Square), people pushing a buggy containing their child into a busy street (a particular bugbear of mine) and then cursing at the unfortunate driver who beeps at them, parents standing by while their children abuse the Gardaí, people carelessly tossing their used Statbucks cup onto the street, rubbish bags left uncollected by the side of the street for days on end; none of these demonstrate any pride of place or value for people.  I’ve seen saw heroin being openly sold and people shooting up in Temple Bar on more than one occasion.  I’ve heard racial abuse being thrown at people by kids as young as 10. Much and all as I do love Dublin and her people dearly, a little bit of me did cringe for the unfortunate German teenagers struggling to understand the request being made of them by a guy who was clearly off his bin on something highly illegal. Walking across O’Connell bridge a few months ago, I witnessed a tiny little old lady nearly being taken out by a guy roaring abuse at another guy walking ahead of him; to further demonstrate his anger he lobbed a full beer can at him (while continually roaring abuse), which promptly missed the guys head and narrowly missed the old dear toddling along with her shopping trolley. The withering look she threw at them summed it all up.

No city is perfect and everyone has their place in Dublin, no more or no less than anyone else. Perhaps I see these things because I live here and am exposed to them every day. Perhaps because Dublin is so small, the challenges that many cities push out to their suburbs are in the city centre here (and in the suburbs, mind). And perhaps because I have seen all the goodness that is here, how wonderful Irish people can be,  and all the great things Dublin can offer, it frustrates me when the foot we so often put forward is not our best. An English friend of mine arrived into Dublin last year and was treated to what can best be described as a racist diatribe by her taxi driver from the airport; he made monkey noises while they were passing some African taxi drivers, and he used extremely offensive language for the duration of the trip into town. Her boyfriend is half Algerian. This was what welcomed them to Dublin. Of all the cities I have been to, I have never, ever been greeted with a racist rant as my first impression.

Dublin will never be New York and New York will never be Dublin. Each city has its own identity, its own energy, its own soul. Perhaps I would experience similar frustrations with any city in which I lived; quite likely so. I often wonder if in the aftermath of a long history of emigration and colonialism, and a more recent history that swings wildly between recession and economic boom, did we simply stopped making any effort? If all we hear about is how great life is in other places, if the solution to our problems lies in seeking a life elsewhere (often a very valid solution, don’t get me wrong. The days are gone when people leave only by choice.), then what is good about Ireland gets swept under the carpet in a fatalistic flourish. Revelations of abuse and exploitation spanning two decades shocked and horrified, not only those at home but abroad and brought shame on an institution so long associated with Irish identity. In the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, we (or rather some of us) got so caught up in credit and cars and houses that, I think, we experienced a micro identity crisis.  We were so desperately trying to become like somewhere else that we forgot about ourselves. And now, back we are again, when credit and cars and houses are our enemy, our ball and chain, and we find ourselves getting a firm rap on the wrist from the big bad ‘Europeans’. If we hung our heads any lower, we’d need a cushion for our foreheads.  While we’re down here, mulling over our misdemeanours, we grumble away and point multiple fingers of blame.  Let’s face it, it’s by far the easier option. But now more than ever is surely the time to reclaim our identity, to decide who we want to be as a nation, to face up to our flaws and our graces and to hold some accountability for how we present ourselves. Now more than any other time, is the time to show pride of place and value in people. That would be something to hold our heads up about.


On travel….Darjeeling and Varanasi

It is no secret that I adore travelling. I love the freedom, the adventure, the characters you meet along the way, the privilege of exploring beautiful places, the privilege of being humbled by incredible and resilient people. I love trying new food and trying to understand local customs, and I always feel that little bit proud when I say I am from Ireland; I have always felt that your identity becomes magnified as soon as you are in a multi national environment. In its own way, I even love hauling a 20kg backpack around, manipulating my limbs into improbable positions on overcrowded transport and never really knowing what’s going on,because somehow, it all tends to work out in the end. Every place has its own joys and frustrations, every place leaves you with some sort of memory.  Some places you leave behind gladly, and some you pledge to return to before you have even left. Before I have even left India, I know I will come back some day.

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. I was ready to leave Kolkata but was still sad to leave her behind. Once I left the city, I realised how accustomed to it I had become. The first journey started at Sealdah station with Clare and Kat, and ended after 14 hours or so in New Jalpaguiri. After unwittingly causing a fight between some jeep drivers, we eventually piled into a share jeep to wind our way up to Darjeeling. The jeep switch backed up an impossibly steep and windy road, through a stunning vista of green valleys and soaring mountains. There were no barriers, and nothing lay between you and certain death if the driver were to misjudge a bend. Nearly three hours later, with ears popping and a distinct mountain chill in the air we arrived in Darjeeling. It felt a universe way from Kolkata. The influence in the area is largely Tibetan and Nepalese, and as a result the people look different, dress different and act different. There is an interesting mix of Hinduism and Buddhism and everyone seems to rub along very well together. There is a strong political movement campaigning for a independent state of Gorkhaland and to be honest, I could see why; it felt in very few ways to be in India at all. The town itself is quite big but felt like a large village, everyone was friendly and laid back, everyone seemed to know everyone else and life moved at a deliciously slow pace. That said, life is far from easy in the mountains, the climate is harsh, there are regular landslides and the region is largely neglected by the government. Tiny old men walked up near vertical slopes carrying impossible weights like fridges, sheets of corrugated iron, and sacks of potatoes braced by a rope against their foreheads. The food was freshly prepared and delicious and the tea was, predictably, also delicious!! Over 60% of the population are involved in tea production, and a good chunk are also involved in tourism.

There were many wonderful moments in Darjeeling, watching the sunrise over the Himalayas, watching the snowy peaks appear through the clouds, marvelling that these are actually mountains and are attached to earth and not just the clouds!! But my most memorable moment in Darjeeling was on the day myself and Kat did a hike. Our friendly and informative guide brought us to a Buddhist temple, tucked up in the hills above the town. The temple is called Mag Dhog, which means War Peace and it was built during the second world war. The care-taker came out of his house and showed us around the temple. The art work was incredible, and the statues of the deities particularly impressive. At the end, we ended up in the third temple, up on the roof where there are 1,000 small Buddha statues circling the room where the main Buddha sits in such a way that the sun rises on his face every morning. We were the only people around, standing on a roof looking down a valley, with clouds swirling across the mountains. It was, as they say,  a special moment, and the moment that will make me want to return to Darjeeling.

I reluctantly had to leave Darjeeling after two days to make my way to Varanasi. I got into a share jeep at 7am and got off the train at 4.30am the following morning. That may sound horrendous but it really wasn’t that bad, the train network is so impressive and the trains are really quite comfortable. The chai man comes to visit regularly and you have a berth in which to stretch out (but not sit up!!). Once you master the art of actually booking a ticket, train is by far the best way to travel and Indians seem to be justifiably proud of their rail network. The worst aspect of the trains is that, when it is not an express train, beggars and hawkers get on and off at every station. Some of the listless faces of children walking up and down the carriage would break your heart. Some of the children you see in train stations are lively and cheeky, and bound around you with smiles and chatter. But with others, when I look at them, all I see is despair and desolation. It is something about India I don’t think I could ever get used to.

On arriving in Varanasi, a tiny old man led us through an impossible tangle of alleyways and lanes, some very steep, some very narrow, nearly all containing a cow and a large pile of rubbish, until we got to our hotel. The sky was pink over the Ganges and all was serene. This serenity was largely deceptive, as while Varanasi is the spiritual capital for India’s Hindus, it is far from serene. It is noisy and crowded and at times it can feel like everyone is either trying to drag you into their shop or force you into their rickshaw. There were an inordinate amount of cows wandering the streets, picking their way through the mounds of rubbish and roaming through the dense traffic. The water level was exceptionally high and the Ganges was a raging brown torrent. This also meant that you can’t walk along the length of the Ghats and somehow you have to find your way from one to the other through the maze of alleys. The ghats are interesting hubs of activity, people bathing or washing clothes, women selling garlands, holy men giving out blessings (for 10 rupees!). We visited a burning ghat and saw two corpses awaiting the ritual cleansing in the Ganges before cremation, as well as two corpses being cremated. Life and death make no appologies to anyone in Varanasi. I found it strangely calming to see death being embraced in such an open manner, to see it viewed as an inevitable part of life. To die in Varanasi is viewed as particularly auspicious. Six groups of people are not cremated and instead are buried in the Ganges as it is believed they are already clean and free; these include children, pregnant women, lepers and anyone who has been bitten by a cobra. Women family members do not attend cremations as they are considered to be ‘too emotional’!. In ways, I would have liked to stay much longer in Varanasi, as I felt that it is necessary to spend alot of time there to try to understand how the place works. But then again, there was alot of hassle, alot of traffic and chaos and I was ready to leave after one night. Ultimately, as a non-Hindu, the place is interesting but alot of the meaning and significance are lost on me. However, with all the color and celebration and vibrant humanity all gathered in the name of their faith, I have to say that Hinduism makes Catholicism look incredibly dull!!!

Agra and Jaipur were the next stops along the way before I landed up here, on the beautiful coast of Goa. At this juncture, I must take a break as to try to capture those places in the same post seems both an injustice and an impossibility. I am aware that no words can ever truly capture a place such as Varanasi, as anyone who has been there will understand. The magnificence of the Himalayas and the warmth of the Gorkhas have been among the highlights of my time in India. At every new place, every challenging sight or experience, a new self-awareness stirs, a new passion for the world and a greater hunger to understand the world at large and my place in it. Travel constantly challenges me to realise that the world is larger and more complex than we can ever understand, but more than that – it dares me to ever stop exploring, to ever cease striving to understand, and to ever stop considering my place in it all. To be able to go from the foothills of the Himalayas to the banks of the Ganges in one day is an incredible privilege, a freedom and an opportunity not afforded to many.  To be from a nation of not even 5million people, in a country of over 1 billion, makes you aware of how tiny and insignificant we truly are. But travel and the people you meet along the way ignite a passion that drives me to believe that insignificance is not inevitable; in fact, very little is inevitable. I suppose travelling is a reflection of how I like life to be – surrounded by interesting people, beautiful places, personal challenges and never quite knowing what lies around the next corner.