Category Archives: Travel Notes

August 8: A Gray Line Through Wicklow

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All photos are mine.  Click to view them in more detail and to read captions where applicable.

Today’s tour is courtesy of Gray Line Tours. We booked through a site, wicklowmountainstour.ie, which offered even more of a discount than did booking through the Gray Line site, but it was confusing because none of the email addresses were what I would have expected.  Gray Line was helpful and quick to respond when I wrote fearing that our purchase had been illegitimate.

Another of the bucket list items that we sought to check off was a walk through the Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains. My sister was long in love with the film P.S. I Love You and wanted to recreate the scene where the American woman is wandering lost along the road.

No tour that we could find and no public transit will get you near the Sally Gap, a crossroads in the middle of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, nor could I even find a way to hire a cab to drop us there, though I did my research only online and didn’t actually call any companies to ask if it was a possibility, international rates for phone calls being what they are.

There were many different sites and tours offering to go through the Sally Gap and the Wicklow Mountains National Park, and several offering photo opportunities at a bridge in the Park where the two main characters of the film kiss, but when I started tracking the tours back, they all seemed to boil down to three or four different companies. The one walking tour ran only once or twice a month and not during the time that we needed it to be.

I contacted one company and was told that a walk such as what my sister wanted would be impossible. Because I was running short on time, I did not email ahead to ask Gray Line if they thought that such a walk was possible. Sometimes it is better to have fewer expectations.

When we arrived at Gray Line’s office, the Dublin Visitor Center on Grafton Street, there was already a long line out of the door, and none of the people in the line were there for the tour that we were. But my sister wound her way to the front to pick up our tickets while I watched for the bus, not really sure what I was looking for but hoping that I’d know our tour bus when I saw it. Ultimately, from the office a guide emerged and called forth groups for different tours and led them to the correct bus around the corner in front of the Bank of Ireland, another tour before ours but then ours.

My sister managed to pick up our tickets from the desk inside and have them in time to be called forward, but the tour did leave a few minutes later than was advertised.

Once on the bus, things went more smoothly.

The tour is supposed to visit Glencree German Cemetery, but the day of our tour the company had learnt that the roads to get there were impassable so we got more time at Glendalough (the “lough” is pronounced like “lock”) instead.

Since we weren’t there to go to Glencree and I’d forgotten that we were with this tour supposed to stop there (I did look at a lot of tour itineraries), I didn’t much mind, but I hope no one on the tour was particularly upset.

Our bus pulled out, heading south this time, where we saw St. Stephen’s Green and more sites important to the Easter Rising.

We were driven along some narrow mountain roads past a hut-like construction that from our guide’s story I suspect may have been a set piece for Vikings, past Lough Tay to the bridge called the P.S. I Love You Bridge, though it’s real name, I think, had something to do with sheep (our guide mentioned it, but now I can’t find it online anywhere). While our driver went on to turn the bus around, we were given 15 or so minutes to climb around the stream and photograph the hills and the heather—our guide said it wasn’t heather, but everything else I’ve read, and my own instincts, think that it is—perhaps a specific kind of heather or heather locally known by another name, but I think heather nonetheless.

 

Turned around, we headed just a bit farther back the way we had come to an overlook point that looked down on Lough Tay or Guinness Lake and the valley that it occupies, and were given another ten or fifteen minutes to go explore the area, to take photographs, and enjoy the scenery. On this tour, I learned a lot about the Guinness Family and their legacy not only of world-renown beer but also of philanthropy.

 

It started raining just as it was coming time to get us back on the bus.

The views out the window were obscured by trails of water across the glass.

Thankfully the rain had all but stopped by the time we arrived at Glendalough, and the sky cleared as we wandered the ground of the monastic settlement.

We were pretty much set loose on the grounds. We wandered first through the cemetery, a blend of old plots with illegible headstones and newer markers.  We did a lot of careful tiptoeing and stepping and apologized often to the dead as we unavoidably trod on gravesites.  Between the headstones are the ruins of the settlement: a nearly in tact chapel, a ruined cathedral, a priest’s house, and a tower also nearly in tact.  An archeological group was doing some excavation just outside of the graveyard, cordoned off and too far away to be disturbed the tourists.

 

Most of the buildings on the site are from the 10th-12th century, the settlement having been destroyed by Norman invaders in 1214.  Visit Wicklow has a lot of good information about the individual structures around Glendalough.

We walked out from there towards the Lower Lake.  The way through the woods is fairly broad and flat.  I think it was even paved.  There were occasional benches to sit and trash bins.

 

We didn’t go much past the edge of that first lake, but went back towards the modern village, such as it is, ducked into a few shops, two of which were permanent structures but more of which were pop up tents, and saw a sign for a sheep dog demonstration. We tried several routes to find the entrance to the event without success, though over the wall that bordered the road we could catch glimpses of the sheep and the young Border collies, one of which was definitely a pup. Unfortunately, we eventually found out, we’d missed the beginning, and the next demonstration wouldn’t begin until after we were supposed to be on the bus back.

We sat for a little while, having nowhere else to go in the time that we had, on the hill beneath the trees just a short ways inside the monastic settlement’s stone gate, overlooking the road.  Sitting beneath the trees on the hill was peaceful with the cemetery behind and a sheep pasture beside and more pasture across the road below.

The last stop on the tour was Avoca, a small village known for its hand-weaving center but also as the filming location for the BBC show Ballykissangel (1996-2001).  We ate in the pub, Fitzgerald’s, which frequently appeared in the show. I got the sense that visiting this pub was like visiting the Cheers bar in Boston. But the food was good, the service quick, and fairly inexpensive.  There were only a few people there besides our tour.  One of the televisions inside the airy pub was playing episodes of the show, but I was more interested in the airing commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens on the other television behind the bar.

We didn’t have much time to explore Avoca itself.  We crossed over Main Street to a small park overlooking the river that gives the town its name , and we went up the road a little ways past the lot in which our bus was parked to see what was over the hill’s crest.  Looking down the road we could see the Avoca Handweavers, but we didn’t go down the hill towards the museum and factory because we didn’t want to be late for the bus back.

This tour wasn’t necessarily what we were hoping for, but the places that we did visit were beautiful.  I just wish we’d had more time to wander in the mountains.

To the best of my ability to track our travels through GoogleMaps, my photos, and my recollection, this might’ve been our route, but I’m much less certain on on our route out of or into Dublin.

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Which would mean in all that this is what we managed to see of Ireland, only really a third of the country and a fourth of the island.

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We got off the bus around 6 PM on O’Connell Street. We spent the evening ducking into bookstores—on my sister’s suggestion not mine, though you know that I happily acquiesced. We visited larger more corporate bookstores like Eason and little used shops too. We wandered and found St. Stephen’s Green, and ended up—by my own faulty sense of direction, I’ll admit—down by the Grand Canal.  The canal was pretty, but I didn’t take any pictures; I was too busy consulting maps.

Again, thank God for GPS! When our map failed us—we’d wandered too far south and were off the edge of one of the maps that we had, and I don’t think that I consulted the other, though I should have done—we pulled out my phone, and turned north. We passed the Bleeding Horse Tavern, a tavern that’s been at that site since 1649 (I didn’t realize at the time that it was any point of historical interest, but I remember commenting on the name; I found it on that second map after I had got home and was researching these blog posts), and continued north around the side of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We ate our wrapped, convenience store sandwiches (purchased the night before in case the pub on the tour offered nothing that my sister could eat) in the park beside the cathedral before heading back to the dorm to pack and sleep for an early morning.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the most prominent tourist site near our dorm; it seemed like a place that we should spend some time.  We were never there when the doors to the cathedral were open, but we were able to say hello to the building this way.

 

 

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August 7: Coast to Coast in a Big Green Bus

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Click on the photos to embiggen and to read captions where available.  All photos are mine.  Trying to decide on pictures for this post was so hard, and I have so many more that I want to share.

This day’s travel was courtesy of Paddywagon Tours.

At Destiny Student – New Mill, we were about a 20 to 25 minute brisk walk from the meeting place on College Green. I’d asked the front desk for better instructions to our meeting place the night before and been supplied with a map and a route. The route we were given took us up a residential street, New Row South, then up past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, turning at Christ Church right along Dame Street.

We found the green Paddywagon Tours bus easily on Dame Street and confirmed with the driver that we were in the right place. He welcomed us convivially and sent us off to pick up coffees and breakfast since we were a few minutes early.

Fortified with caffeine and sugar, we climbed back on the bus. Once we were all assembled and the bus took off, our guide talked us through some of the sights out the window, the Bank of Ireland with its bricked in windows to avoid the light tax and Phoenix Park with its herd of deer. And the tour continued as we got out into the country, our guide talking us through Ireland’s history from the four kings of Ireland, to Strongbow’s arrival at the behest of Mac Murchada, the former king of Leinster (mid-1100s), to the Burren, and the penal laws when being Catholic was outlawed (mid- to late-1600s). He explained the importance of peat and the importance of the potato. He talked about the Potato Famine, better called the Great Hunger (mid-1800s), and about the tension between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, including what he has witnessed himself as a tour guide (ongoing but finally, thank God, cooled after the late 1990s).

He was a fabulous tour guide, and I wish I could remember his name to commend him personally!

I learnt more on this tour than I did on any other, from my history classes, from stumbling upon Tumblr posts, or from guidebooks. I laughed at some of the bad puns, and just had to smile at his enthusiasm, while my heart sank with his sadder stories.

Between stories, he played us a mix of more modern Irish bands like the High Kings singing primarily more traditional pub songs.

Meanwhile, out the window, the Irish countryside rolled past. It’s green. Everyone says it, but it is true—and we were in Ireland during a drought, so I imagine I have seen the country less green than it might usually be. There were far more cows than I ever imagined. On earlier train rides through England, I marveled at the number of sheep. Here I marveled at the absence of the sheep and the abundance of cows.

We passed a great diversity of landscapes: fairly flat fields with far off rises, a peat bog, and then rocky mountains like I’ve never seen before: rocky but not in the way that, say, Croatia’s or Montenegro’s mountains are rocky. From a distance they looked like mounds of gray stone rising from green fields. Nearer, you could see the tracery of green breaking through the rocks. And the mountains were crisscrossed by low stone walls: stone walls to nowhere, fencing nothing, built by a starving people to whom the government refused charity and refused “handouts,” making them work for rationed food even if the work accomplished nothing meaningful. That sentiment stung. It rang too familiarly in my ears. I don’t like the idea. And I think those walls will haunt me.  I think we are not far at all from repetition of that same government refusal, though the work left behind by our starving people may be more ephemeral.  In some ways I think we are already there.

We stopped to stretch our legs in the small fishing village Kinvara. Just briefly. We walked along the park-edged harbor and turned up the hill along a road called The Quay to catch a quick glimpse of the town farther inland, peering up and down Main Street, before returning to the waterside and walking around the corner from the park. Across the water we could see Dunguaire Castle. True to form, I only took pictures of the boats and the water.

Our tour continued along the Galway Coast, but we had chosen seats on the wrong side of the bus for there to be photos; sorry.  Driving along the coast we learned about another export of the country, though: seaweed.

We stopped a little while later at an area the tour called “the baby cliffs” near Bothar nA hAillite. I’m not actually sure what Bothar nA hAillite is (it might be the road’s name?), but it was the nearest marker I found on GoogleMaps to the place where we stopped, which I was able to identify in part because one of the photos uploaded onto GoogleMaps showed a Paddywagon bus.  We climbed about on the rocks a little, getting as near as we dared to the sea. I’d done enough research to know that the Burren is home to all kinds of unique plant life, so I was peering into the mossy, grassy, crevices in the rocks too, though I don’t know enough to identify any of the wildflowers.

I have no pictures from Doolin, the next place we stopped to stretch and to search out lunch. I thought I did, but I don’t. It was a tiny place. We stopped along Fitz’s Cross, a few shops side by side along the street, two hostels, a pub, a café, a welcome center with a courtyard behind the lot with benches and fire rings and picnic tables. It looked like someone had set up a corner for a celebration when we were there. We grabbed sandwiches for lunch, ate in the courtyard, and hopped back on the bus, finally arriving not long afterward at the Cliffs of Moher.

I was unprepared for how beautiful and rugged and wonderful these cliffs are! I know everyone says that you must see them, but I’d sort of dismissed the hype. Believe the hype. Go see the cliffs. You can’t get anywhere near the water. If you get near the water… I doubt anyone will see you again, but just looking out over these rock faces topped with green grass and lines of people who seem dust specks in comparison with these monstrous heights in photographs—! It’s beautiful.

Our tour guide had told us to walk out towards the right for a better view of the cliffs, towards O’Brien’s Tower. We’d been fiercely warned not to climb over the rock walls or get too near the edge. I’m glad we followed the advice.

Past the Tower too, the stone walls and paved walkway abruptly ended, and a well-worn dirt track along the height of the cliffs replaced them. There was a less-trodden trail below this. Perhaps the trail we took for most of our journey out was meant to be the top of an earthworks divider between a tourist and the cliff, but everyone else was walking it too, and it was still some distance from the edge. It took a steady foot, though; not for the fainthearted and not for the wobbly. We came back along the lower trail when we’d felt that we’d gone far enough, letting those unacquainted with the views stay up higher to gawk.

We ducked into the museum, but frankly, it wasn’t much, though the structure of the museum within a hill is in itself intriguing. We sat to watch a digital animation of the fauna of the cliffs, in the air and in the sea, but it wasn’t very impressive, frankly. And we didn’t stay to read plaques for the exhibits; outside the museum was too pretty.

So we struck back out along the left side of the cliffs, climbing up the top of the iconic view. We didn’t go far that way, though, because we were coming close to our deadline to be back on the bus. We perused the stalls set up by the museum’s exit, and overheard a couple from our tour group admitting to their friends that they’d become engaged on the cliffs.

Our tour guide found out too, and every song remotely about a man and woman in love was dedicated to the couple from there on out.

Clambering back on the bus, we struck back east again, passing Dough Castle, a heartbreaking monument to all those but particularly the children who died in the Great Hunger, Bridge Street in Ennistimon, and the ruins of Clare Abbey. We stopped again to stretch across the street from Bunratty Castle, though there was not much time to explore the area around the castle—or any time to enter the castle itself.

Though we were still a good ways away from Dublin, I haven’t any more pictures from that day until after getting off the bus that evening. Maybe I slept. I know we listened to more Irish music. I was awake long enough to hear the story of one man’s discovery of his link to President Barack Obama. We passed the town, Moneygall, that was home to Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather, where now a rest stop is named for the former president, owned by a distant relation.

At any rate around 8 PM, we got off the bus on the north side of the Liffey near O’Connell Street in Dublin after stopping one last time at a rest area for toilets—I think that a requested stop of one of the other travelers, to which I’m glad our tour guide acquiesced, not because I needed another stop, but because it’s nice that a stop can be added because of a need.

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I can’t swear that this was our route, but this was our route, the best I can figure using GoogleMaps and my photos.

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We ended up shopping at some of the tourist shops on the northside that evening, meeting a man in one of the shops and having a long conversation. We crossed over the pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge (built 1816) around sunset though, where I snagged this stunning photo looking west, crossed through the beautiful pedestrian streets of the Temple Bar area, and found our way back to Dame Street, ate some delicious, fancy, branded burgers (Greek-flavored lamb for me, Cajun-flavored chicken for my sister) at BóBós Burgers and sat long into the night after a bit of confusion about whether or not we asked for the check, but it was pleasant to sit, pleasant to talk, and no one seemed fussed about us sitting.

*I want it noted that it IS possible that I am misremembering which tour guide gave us which information, but I do remember that this was the more eloquent of the tour guides, particularly about more ancient history. Both talked a good deal about their own experiences in Ireland and recommended places to visit. More on the second tour guide in the next Travel Notes post.

August 6: Evening in Dublin

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Click on the photos to embiggen and to read captions where available.

This trip began with a long wait, and then a lot of dashing.

When delays on my first flight, supposed to be just a quick hop from the local airport to a larger, international hub, caused me to miss my original flight to Dublin, the American Airlines representative at the airport was admittedly very quick to find me the next possible flight, which had me in Dublin the same day, but later in the afternoon rather than the early morning.

 

I did not land in Dublin itself to nearer 4:00 PM. Getting into the city, my sister and I dashed to Trinity College. When she had left me to do most of the planning for our stay in Ireland, I had asked her what bucket list items she had to check off in the country. I had none—or had only one that I learned was a scant possibility too late to plan. (I wanted to visit the island where Luke Skywalker hides himself in this newest trilogy, but never dreamed that island was in as accessible a country as Ireland. Next time I’ll have to find my way to Skellig Michael; this time it was not possible to squeeze in. And I did not want to cross the border into Northern Ireland, just to keep things as simple as possible, but I would too one day like to see Giant’s Causeway.) Seeing the Old Library of Trinity College was one of those things.

Trying to figure out the bus system proved confusing for both of us, tired as we were from a day on planes and in airports. We’d found a manned booth outside of the airport’s exit. We overheard one of the employees giving directions to a less expensive bus into the city, and we first sought out that stand, but then couldn’t quite figure out the machines to know what ticket to buy. So we returned to the manned booth, and bought the ticket for the waiting bus.

We arrived at Trinity College with only maybe twenty minutes to the exhibit’s close (heads up: it and practically every other museum close at 5:00 PM), paid our €14 entrance fee, and fairly ran through the exhibit on the Book of Kells. The information on the maze of walls was undoubtedly interesting, but we peered at the items in display cases without much time for reading. There was a case explaining how the monks achieved some of the vibrant colors on their manuscripts, then a case with four open books, two of which were sections of the famed Book of Kells and two of which were books of similar age. The Book of Kells was written around the beginning of the 9th century, the Garland of Howth was written around the 8th or 9th century, and the Ricemarch Psalter c. 1079. The detail and the color and the preservation of the books was itself pretty stunning, but what really stole my breath was the Old Library: two stories of bookcases in niches, clearly a library in use with tomes tilted where books were missing and a few books laid haphazardly on top of others. Busts lined the hall between the shelves, first of important figures of literature and science and philosophy, but later names we did not as readily recognize, local figures maybe or figures of importance to the college itself. We’d looked before leaving for the trip for ways to get into the Old Library bypassing the Book of Kells exhibit and the €14 entrance fee, but we hadn’t been able to find any way to do so without either making friends with a student or having a legitimate reason and approved letter for permission to study within the library; we had time for neither.

 

As the Library was closing, we next wandered the grounds of the college. We were trying to find the psychology building, but never did. My sister had at one point looked at going to Trinity College herself, so she had wanted to see what she might have had, where she might have lived. It is a large, beautiful campus, and looking at a map now to see where was the psychology building, I think we didn’t stumble into maybe but a third of it.  It feels a bit like a city unto itself, with its own park and its own back alleys and streets, buildings old and ivy-covered and new.  My sister and I both attended more rural undergrad universities, and I think both of us had prettier campuses.  I didn’t spy any water feature on this campus–not the part that we made it to; she had a large duck pond and waterfall into a river on her campus, and we had a number of creeks and a much smaller pond.  We both had more grass.

 

We meandered a bit on our way to our dorm, and stopped to duck our heads into Christchurch and the entrance to Dublinia when we passed it and to explore the area around Dublin Castle. Maybe someone can explain to me: In both we saw red, yellow, blue, and green used side by side. Being me, I recognize the four Hogwarts House colors pretty quickly, but why were they used together in Dublin?

 

 

We stayed at a place in an area known as the Liberties. When we’d gotten into a friendly conversation with a man in a shop, and he asked where we were staying, he was appalled by that answer. Though the dorm was farther out from the city than was necessarily ideal, it seemed safe enough—after we had found it, and knew our way. Finding it was a problem. I had to pull out my Maps app to get us there. A paper map didn’t do us enough good; streets are not marked as clearly I feel in the UK as they are in the US—or perhaps I don’t know where to look for street signs. Too, there was construction not far from the dorm—on the next building across the street. Perhaps the trouble was more that he lived North of the Liffey, and we were staying far to the South; he was not alone in mentioning that there was loyalty to North or South Dublin among their residents.

The dorm itself, Destiny Student – New Mill, which I think is used during the school year especially as student housing, was really quite nice, with a lot of shelves around the desk and around the bed. The bed had padding on both sides that were against the wall, and there was a cushioned bench at the end as well as a comfortable desk chair. The window was most of the fourth wall of the room and overlooked the courtyard and facing buildings. There were doubled blinds, which made the room plenty dark to sleep in at night. There was a locked gate. And the help desk was open 24-hours, so that we needed to check out quite early was no problem. By booking the room through the website, I was able to get a free towel for us, and we were given soap and shampoo as well. The bedding was included, two comfortable pillows, clean sheets, and a white duvet.

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A view from our dorm room of the courtyard

It was directly across from the Dublin Liberties Distillery. The distillery itself was not yet completed and not open to the public when we were there. The general manager says that he has plans to make it so.

For now at least, the area was quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Even the construction didn’t disturb my sleep.

Shelfie: July 27, 2018: Next Week in Wales

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Time for my announcement!

This will probably be my last post for a little while as I am preparing next week to leave on a plane that will take me first to Ireland where after a few days I will I board a ferry and finally make it to Wales, a corner of the world that stole pieces of my heart long ago–probably as long ago as the first time that I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence, which I’m fairly sure was some time before or around 2001, when I was but a wee thing not even introduced yet to Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Almost every free day that I had in July and the last bit of June has been taken up with more and more frantically researching, Pinning, and Google searching various places and things to do in both countries, skimming travel books, comparing prices and itineraries of this or that tour, trying to plan travel routes that will get us in any timely manner between one destination and another, emailing tour companies and hostels and B&Bs and student housing facilities with questions, finding the appropriate currency, finding the appropriate bags in which to pack for two weeks abroad, knowing that I intend to carry everything I bring with me up and down two different mountains, trying to plan a trip that will tick bucket list items for both my sister and I while being as inexpensive as is possible and while she and I are 5 hours off one another, my lunchtime her dinnertime so by the time I want dinner it’s nearing her bedtime–  Breathing has been difficult.  Forget writing.

This is really the first international trip that I am taking where I will be doing most of the planning–accompanied by my lovely sister, who is currently living in one of these two countries, but who wishes to see sights on this trip that she has yet to see, so where we’re both going a bit blindly.

You might remember my trip to Japan, where a great friend met me in the country where she lived and took me to her favorite sights.  I relied on her quite heavily to get me to where she wanted us to go, and did very little research, and had very few expectations prior.  I had to.  (I’ve learnt more Welsh more solidly than I had learnt Japanese before that trip, but I think my Welsh will be less useful, and frankly I still can’t say much, though I can convey that I like tea, and I have hello, goodbye, and thank you down pretty solidly–all of which are important.)

To create this post, I went through the house and found all the books I had that I read that were set in either of the two countries (and allowed one that leans very heavily on Welsh history and mythology but actually takes place here in the mountains of Virginia.  I will be in the same town where Owen Glendower set up a Welsh parliament.  My sister’s university also has a building named after the rebellious Prince).  I have read surprisingly few books set in Ireland; this might have to be mended when I return.

When I return, I hope to turn this blog into a travel blog for a little while, so that I can share with you all my adventures and some of my pictures, all of which I hope will be magical.

Pinned Ya: Tracking My Travels

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I suffer from wanderlust. There is too much of this world that I have not seen—and really, I have seen more than many do. Around the time I went abroad in my junior year of college, I found TripAdvisor and enjoyed seeing the map slowly fill with places I’d been.

tripadvisorRecently, though I found Pinterest and of course in the intersection between searches for travel destinations and tips and home décor and do-it-yourself projects, I found the various ways that people track their travels across the globe. And I’ve wanted that—a physical tracker to display and to look at and dream. Well, within these past two weeks, I’ve tried two different ways of marking my travels on maps.

I originally wanted a globe with pins of my travels.

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But they are very expensive.

My sister bought me a globe, but it is not cork, and I wasn’t able to push a pin into it. It’s still beautiful and excellent for dreaming of future travels. It looks so classy.

Later she found a cork map. I’ve seen cork maps marked very elegantly, and with such a map, one is not limited to pins that will still allow the globe to turn past its cradle.

sales_mapThat was the first map on which I was able to mark my travels.

img_0773It’s not large, just about 9.5” x 14”. Australia is only 1.25” wide. I like how this one looks. With the pins, it looks like I’m fairly well traveled, but this map has no borders between countries and very little detail (Ireland seems to have been absorbed into the Great Britain).

I like it, but I wanted something that more accurately tracked my travels too.

I caught my roommate about to toss out a map sent to her by SmileTrain (I don’t know much about this charity, but since I’m using their map, I thought a shout-out was appropriate). img_0811

img_0816 img_0814img_0812 This one is 30.5” x 20.5”.  Australia is 3.25” wide. It does have borders between countries and between the states of the United States and the providences of Canada; Ireland is a separate island. Country capitols are marked with red stars. The more detailed coastlands make it easier still to determine the approximate placement of a city. I decided to mark each place I’d been not with a pin since I have no cork back on which to keep this map but with a purple Sharpie—purple because it’s my favorite color and soothing but also because it’s a color not used on the map. The Sharpie allows for more overlap than does a pin. There were a few marks that I made that I realized afterward were maybe a bit too far in one direction or another, and the Sharpie didn’t allow any second chances, so those marks had to stay, but because I was using so many fixed markers to determine the placement of cities, I was not very off, I don’t think, in any of my marks—always within the correct country or state at least.

I did not add any labels to this map, and I’m not sure if I will do, because I’m not sure how to do so without pins of some kind and because I rather think that even the smallest dangling tags could easily look messy and cluttered.  Though I do sort of love the idea, and it would be nice to be able to remember the cities’ names when time has passed. I expect even names inked onto the map would map it look cluttered quickly. Any examples of or thoughts on that?  I suppose I could do a legend off to the side, or maybe even write a list of places I’ve been in the white space of Antarctica….

Maybe something like this?

travels(Obviously this is still a work in progress, and Word does not appreciate place names.)

This map makes me look much less well traveled, and that’s probably far more accurate. It shows the gaping gaps in my education and in my travels—from just skirting New Jersey to never having been in any country of the Americas except my own or in Africa or Australia.

The first map says to me “well done.” The second says “keep going.”

Of course the size contributes to that perception, but I think so too do the more accurate marks, where points like Perast and Kotor, Montenegro are almost on top of one another and the four places that I marked in the Iwate province of Japan look like a crooked line (and should really actually probably be more clustered than they are).

I expect I’ll keep them both, because my bedroom already would be the envy of a pirate captain—and not because it has a modern, cushioned bed—and because, you know, I’ve put in the work.

I don’t advocate one method of marking your travels over another—though I will say that size will effect your and others’ perceptions of your travels—but I thought I’d share what I’d learn from my own crafting.

The maps that I’ve made will embiggen if they are clicked upon.  The maps others have made will take you to the sites of their original postings if clicked upon.

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Travel Notes: Lake Norman State Park, Wet and Wild

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This time I’m traveling a little bit closer to home. To North Carolina. To Lake Norman State Park, a park built around the state’s largest man-made lake, and a point almost exactly halfway between my home and my sister’s new home. Not too far at all off of Route 77, the trip takes you through the town of Troutman, North Carolina, which has a downtown corner I wouldn’t mind stopping to admire one time.

A quick drive down State Park Road deadends at the park gate, but the road continues on and winds through the forest down to a welcome center, with information, facilities for those in need, an air-conditioned lobby, a shaded porch with rocking chairs overlooking the lake, and canoe and pedal boat rentals.

My sister and I had planned on a beach day. We piled into a car together and continued on down the road till we saw signs pointing us towards swimming. There’s plenty of parking behind the shelter—where are more bathrooms and outdoor showers to rinse off the sand. Five dollars would have gotten us all day access to the waters—and had we paid it or had rented a boat (also only five dollars per hour) those would have been the only fee the park asked of us—but we’d intended to lay on the sand.

Within maybe fifteen minutes of sitting down in the warm, yellow sand and admiring the view out over the lake waters to the far shore, we were all sent off of the beach and away from the roll of thunder.

IMG_0409We lay down in the grass at the top of the hill overlooking the lake for a bit, but with not sure how long the ban would last, we decided to head back to the welcome center and find some trails.

We did. We hiked around Park Lake, a little more pond-sized lake connected by channels and creeks to the larger body of water downstream.

We followed a sign for a heron shelter, which was really more of picnic area, then back into the woods, sort of chasing a small dam and viewing platform visible from the welcome center side of the lake. Then we struck out the other direction, setting our sights on a bridge visible from there. I’m not sure that the trail that we followed wasn’t a deer run, but we made it to the bridge, which turned out to be one we’d earlier driven over, much wider and a bit less picturesque than I’d thought, though the view over the lake on either side was a good one.

We went to the welcome center, and I asked what trail we should most enjoy before leaving. So armed with expert, local knowledge, we headed back towards the swimming area, turning just a bit before onto Shortleaf Drive, to find the trail hugging the edge of the lake.

IMG_0411We weren’t long on the trail before it started to rain, and not long after, the rain became torrential with wind howling for a while through the trees overhead, thunder booming in the sky, white caps on the lake, and waves crashing against the shore.

IMG_0414It was honestly kind of thrilling.

IMG_0416IMG_0418And then we were wet. Very wet. And for a while the displeasure of sopping clothes clinging to me and the one cold trickle of rainwater running all the way along my spine won out, and story research was my mantra, but then we moved past being able to become any wetter, and the trails looked more like something that I’d expect to find in an Amazonian rainforest than central North Carolina, with deep puddles marking the trail, dense greenery keeping us from going too far to dodge the puddles, and the occasional trickle of water and mud coming down the hill along the trail. And we were never overheated, dehydrated, or sunburnt.

We met a doe on the lonesome trail who must have let us get within maybe three feet before she dashed away. For a while we kept back maybe four feet and watched her, but when it seemed clear that she didn’t intend to leave, and we didn’t intend to turn back the other way, we moved off to the other side of the trail and forward, and she did eventually bound a yard or so farther into the woods.

I like to think that she came back to the bush she had been stripping before we rounded the corner. She didn’t go all that far from us.

When we could—when we found it, my sister and I fully agreed to take the short cut path (which made the hike 3.2 miles instead of five) back to the car. I didn’t get at all out of breath till those last few yards of the hill to the parking lot.

We laid down towels on the seats, drove back to the welcome center to change and dry off a bit, then opened up the trunk of her car and ate our picnic dinner there. By the time we were done, the rain had abated and steam was curling off of the blacktop, we were a bit drier, the roads were hopefully a little safer (though I found some more torrential downpours on my trip north), and our bellies were full.

Pictures by me.  In the words of Patrick Rothfuss, “Click to embiggen.”

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Challenge: Legal Theft: When All Else Fails (322 words)

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Oranges meant vitamin C, and vitamin C meant a swifter recovery. She wasn’t sure if that logic really ought to apply to orange-flavored tea or orange cake, but even so she felt a little better with a bite of spongy cake in her mouth and the fragrance of the tea wafting from her mug. The placebo effect, she knew, but belief was a powerful thing, and it meant an excuse to eat cake and drink tea. She even wore orange blossom perfume on her wrists, hoping that carrying the essence with her would help. It was probably more the perfume than the orange blossom fragrance that helped her feel more awake, more put together, healthier.

Illness was a funny thing. Sure it was physical. There was definitely something amiss when her glands swelled and each swallow seemed to drag sharp claws along her throat and when her nose clogged with yellow mucus. But the battle—that was mental—or could be.

It was all about feeling better. Feel better, and the being better would come.

Besides, there was nothing else to do about a cold. A cold would run its course and run you over if you let it, and no amount of medications could do anything but mask the pain and misery.

Those medications might as well be tea and cake.

The line stolen this week was mine, and the line itself might tell you why the piece didn’t get written ahead of time.  This week when I meant to be writing the distractions were vast.

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Beacon Heights, Linville, NC.

And many.

My sister's robe not mine.

My sister’s robe not mine.

So my apologies that this piece is short and perhaps not all I dreamed it to be.

My dutiful and wonderful thieves are:

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Invention” (748 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, who wrote “Bolstering Immunities.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy, who wrote “Bedside Manner.”

and Bek at Yeah, But So What? Everybody’s Weird, who wrote “Illness Recovery” (432 words).

May 26: Chasing Tokyo

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We decided to spend our first day in Tokyo at Ueno Park, a sprawling place with a number of museums and other attractions, plentiful street performers and people watching. We’d planned to head first to the Tokyo National Museum, a museum of Japanese historical artifacts and artwork. We left the station and walked up the park towards the end where the building sits. We passed a number of peculiar sights: a reproduction of the Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” and a sculpture of a blue whale that put me in mind of childhood days spent crawling inside a hollow sperm whale at a more local museum.

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We found the National Museum’s gates locked.

So we changed tact. We decided we’d try for the Shitamachi Museum, a museum of traditional culture and craft. First, we misread the map and left the park behind to wander the streets around it, streets filled with academic buildings and offices and small houses and shops. Our search led us to a locked annex for one of the museums.

Returning to the park, we took our time wandering in the direction that we thought we ought to go to find the Shitamachi Museum. We passed fountains and reflecting pools, playgrounds, street performers, and equestrian statues. We paused to climb a hill to view what remains of the giant statue of Buddha that once stood within the park.

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We came to the far southern end of the park—and didn’t find the museum.

We found a temple complex—the Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple—and then the road.

It wasn’t till we passed the temple that we discovered a long flight of stairs that led to the lower level of the park.

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We hurried down the steps and not long afterward discovered why the Shitamachi Museum is so difficult to locate.  We also found the pond that Kari had known was somewhere within the park and which had been the most puzzling site that we had seemed unable to find.

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We followed the sign and found that museum locked as well. That’s when we realized that the museums are all closed on Mondays, and we had to reevaluate our plans. 

We were already at the park, and it had gotten fairly late in the afternoon by this time, so we decided to spend the rest of the day enjoying the outdoors. We wandered along the paths of the park and decided to enjoy the pond to its fullest extent by renting a pedal-powered swan boat.

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We pedaled ourselves around the pond for a full half hour, learning to navigate, pretending to be seamen, and serenading passing boats with Disney covers. It was a grand time. Others seemed to enjoy themselves too.

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We explored the park a bit farther, but we’d done most of what we could there with all of the buildings closed to us, so we left for Sensoji.

The approach to the temple is composed of several streets of vendors, selling mostly snacks and tourist goods, including this wonderful treasure.

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A popular and colorful temple, Sensoji is also the oldest temple in Tokyo, having been completed around 645. The temple’s Thunder Gate is one of the symbols of Tokyo.

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Stepping off the main paths brought us to several other temple buildings and many statues, various copper and stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Bell of Time (Toki-no-kane), the Asakusa Shrine built to honor the men responsible for building Sensoji Temple, and the burial site of a samurai from the Edo period named Kume no Heinai.

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Having explored Sensoji, we had time for one last adventure, and we went chasing it on foot. We walked to Tokyo Skytree, the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and were going to climb as high as we possibly could do.

We wound through side streets of high rises and finally spotted the tower across and upriver from us. We walked through a park and along the Sumida River and then across it. We hadn’t any directions and were simply using the tower itself as our guide, heading for it as directly as we could do. It felt like a quest, like Frodo and Sam approaching Mt. Doom, though our destination was significantly nicer and our quest less epic and more personal.

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The weather was not with us, and we were not able to climb very high within the tower, to the fourth maybe fifth floor, but we thoroughly explored the shopping center within the Skytree and allowed ourselves both dinner from the food court and crepes for dessert.

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The trek and the journey were worth the trip and the food made an excellent reward for its completion.

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(Those Northern-most points are our hostel and the railway station nearest to it, which we frequented.)

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

May 25: Keep Walking

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We left Hostel Kanouya the next morning. Our hostess followed us out into the street and just as we were about to turn the corner, we turned around to share a wave. “Wait. It’s tradition,” I said, before turning. After we’d turned the corner, Kari told me that it was in fact traditional to see guests off like so. 

We went to Kyoto Station, checked all of the coin lockers, and eventually settled for putting our luggage in the luggage room downstairs for a little more money and a bit less stress. There are fifteen floors in the JR station. We climbed as high as we could go through a series of staircases and escalators for the view from the top of the building. Plexiglass kept us from a dizzying fall but also obscured the view a bit. There was a small garden on the rooftop. There have been buildings I’ve regretted not climbing, however, so I’m glad this cannot be one of them.

A train then took us out to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, easily one of the most photogenic architectural pieces I’ve ever seen. I have a wealth of pictures of the complex, which ranges across the mountainside along 2.5 miles of trails (let me tell you, it felt like much more than that). Trying to cull them down to the best to put on this blog has been a challenge.

We spent very little time by the main shrine itself. It was a breezy day however, and the breeze made the streamers flutter, so those pictures are worth including.

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Then we left the main complex to strike out for the trails, and perhaps you will recognize the site from this first picture.

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There are two branching trails beneath rows of these orange torii. The crowd thins the farther you go along the trail, but even so it was difficult for me to take pictures that would not include fellow travelers.

The trail wound and branched and deposited us at minor complexes, abandoned save for us—or maybe they belonged to men or women who lived on the mountaintop. One just off the path backed up against a house, which we discovered only by accident by taking narrow, greenery-lined trails. I can only imagine that the shrine was there first, for the stone has an ancient feel to it—but perhaps that is the my Western mindset speaking, where a standing stone is a thing of ancient wonder, no one knowing how long it’s been there, how it came to be there, or why it was set so. Still, there’s moss on the steps of this shrine complex.

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Kari had told me that this particular shrine sports feral cats among its patrons and inhabitants. I lost Kari briefly following one beautiful tom down a narrow path.

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There too I shared a moment with a pair of Japanese women over arachnophobia when I spotted a spider dangling not too far in front of me. Some things truly are universal.

A little farther on and higher up, past at least one way station where refreshment and talismans could be found, we passed a passel of kittens among the azalea bushes. I rested a long while, watching them. By that point in our hike, Kari and I were flagging, but then began the litany of “Just a little farther” and “I just want to see what’s around that bend” and “I just want to see the view from there.”

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That litany, joined by the occasional rendition of VeggieTales’ “Keep Walking,” took us the rest of the way along the mountain trails, with a few setbacks.

A man at a map of the trails told us to take the trail to the left after the way station that we would come to, claiming it would be the quickest way to our destination (I’m not sure we had a destination, but apparently, we did).  We found the next way station, which boasted a lookout area as well. We rested a bit.  We thought that we’d turn around, and with the thought that we might leave, I decided to climbed a steep set of stairs on the right. They led past a small house and to a mazy collection of shrines.

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As I wandered the narrow paths between stone torii and upright markers, all dotted in orange torii-shaped petitions and red bibs for the kistune, the man from the house came out to his porch to play his wooden flute. It was a magical moment I wouldn’t have missed it for nearly anything.

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The rest changed our minds, and we thought that we could go a bit farther.  We thought that we took the leftmost turn, but we were mistaken. We went a ways and turned around, lured back to the way station by the promise of soft serve ice cream. I’m still puzzling whether soybean flavored ice cream provides more than the usual protein found in soft serve.  (It was delicious, sort of sweet and salty at once.)

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Kari found the third trail that we’d missed, the leftmost. We followed this beneath orange torii that opened up in occasional glades of stone and orange torii and upright stones. As we were following this trail, we passed a couple who were pausing before the shrines.  I’d heard a strange trumpet earlier in the day, and had wondered, and I witnessed this man now blowing a long note on his conch shell. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you’ll recognize the importance of the conch shell. It is a magical thing. I thought then that these were perhaps genuine pilgrims, travelers here for the shrines and not for the trails or to check another feature off in sight-seeing bingo. Now I wonder if this man was a priest, having learned that conch shells are sometimes used in Shinto religious ceremonies.

This trail took us most quickly too to the peak of the trail. I think this was the destination to which the man referred.

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The trail from there, of course, went downhill—and we began to worry how long the trail might be and whether it would loop or whether we could wander too far from the gate and be stranded in the dark woods overnight.

We waited on a steep flight of stairs for a passerby, and Kari asked if the trail did in fact loop and whether we would find an exit if we continued downward; neither of us had much desire to climb the steep steps upwards.

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Having learned that we in fact were on a path towards and exit, that we weren’t likely to be lost in the wood, we continued downwards with a little more enthusiasm. We stumbled into more glades of shrines, including one that featured a small waterfall that could be found down a very narrow and by then quite dark trail, its stones dark with runoff, but was out of sight above or outside of that cleft. I wish that picture had come out more clearly.

Eventually we met up with a familiar path and familiar friends.

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We also met up with a woman who seemed to live on the mountainside, carrying her groceries up the path. The cats were following her. She wanted to practice her English and gave us gifts, including a paper crane.

Having found the exit, we had to catch a train to Tokyo, where we had hostel reservations for the night.

Inari was a great way to end our stay in Kyoto, and for only having been there three days, we saw a great deal.

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We arrived in the new city late at night and in a heavy rain. We decided to call a cab rather than risk being lost and confused in such a situation. The drive was short, but our cabman was amiable.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.