County Kerry

We’ve been here three months now, and people have been asking what Ireland’s about. Do you like it? Is it what you expected? Do you like the people? Somehow it’s hard to reply. I’m not really sure exactly what the place is yet – I feel like I can’t properly answer.

The beating heart of Ireland is not in Dublin. I’m inclined to think it’s in the grass, or the wind – or maybe the sheep. Countries often seem to have this problem: the city, where everyone lives, doesn’t represent the world they identify with, the way that they picture home. Just like in Dhaka, that huge city of rural immigrants, the people here seem to often have a second identity: ‘I’m from Cork’, ‘I’m from Galway’, or ‘I’m from Port Laoise’. Born-and-bred Dubliners are common as well, of course, but there’s a pervading feeling that much of the city has been imported form somewhere – that real Ireland is outside the ring-road freeway that circles the city, that it only starts once you reach the hills.

It’s possible I’m bringing my own touristy romanticism to this first impression, and that none of this represents how the Irish feel at all. But I can’t help it: like people everywhere, when I play image association with ‘Ireland’, I don’t see the harp-like Samuel Beckett bridge over the Liffey, or the neatly Georgian streets of Dublin, but hills so green, round and rolling that they seem to come from a child’s drawing of what hills should look like, dotted with shaggy, damp sheep. I picture brooks and glades where dark pools of clear water collect and old patron saints and even older celtic spirits live side by side. I picture rugged coasts, specked with lonely whitewashed cottages, huddling against the hills with their hats pulled firmly down over their brows. Winding roads, squeezed on each side by dry stone walls. Slate grey Atlantic water under a slate grey sky. This is the Ireland I hadn’t found yet, and it was the Ireland we went in search of over the Easter weekend.

Armed with the keys to a rental car, two Aussie friends visiting from the Netherlands, and an AirBnB booking without a street address (only GPS coordinates which seemed to indicate that we would be staying in a field), we set off down to the famous Ring of Kerry. We’d planned to stay in Dingle but somehow, when browsing all the historic cottages available for rent, I got distracted and ended up with one in Cahersiveen – a place that I’d never even heard of, 1 1/2 hours’ drive away and on entirely the wrong peninsula.cahersiveen mapDespite initial dismay, my increasingly  Irish-accented interior monologue reminded me that getting upset just wouldn’t be in the spirit of things, now would it, while passing me a metaphorical cup of tea. I put the mistake down to serendipity and the others cheerfully forgave me. To be honest you really can’t go wrong in this part of the world.

(It’s worth mentioning at this point that in the 5th Century a man later dubbed St Brendan ‘The Navigator’ sailed all the way from Dingle to Valentia island, just off the coast of Cahersiveen, where legend has it that he scaled the cliffs, met two dying pagans and converted them. It truly was a miracle. Buoyed by his early seafaring success, he decided to sail to America, and was never heard from again. He was assumed to have made it.)

Our cottage was a thick-walled stone farmhouse across the water from the town, with a view right into the crumbling kitchen hall of Ballycarbery castle, a 16th century tower on  a small hill overlooking an inlet. Bombed and ruined centuries ago, it’s since grown furry with photogenic ivy. Some of the stairs are still intact, meaning you can scramble up on it and play the world’s best game of Attack the Fort.

It must have been a good place to spot raiders coming, because right behind the castle there are two even older stone forts – Cahergall and it’s more ruined twin, Leacanabuile – built roughly 1000 years ago. With two concentric circles of beautifully constructed dry stone walls, they would have provided a safe haven to a central homestead and animals. The two forts are so close you could practically lean over the wall and throw clods at the other. Which I suppose they did. It would be Pythonesque if it wasn’t so bleak.

The weather changed while we were out, and decided to try to kill us. After being almost blown off the top parapets of the castle, pelted with hail and soaked to the skin, we retreated to the farmhouse to throw ourselves into the peat fire.

Deciding that it might be better to drive (‘wear the car as a coat’) than explore on foot, we headed out to do what we came for. The Skellig ring is a short, windy and stunning coastal section of the Ring of Kerry circular drive. Taking the ferry over to Valentia Island, we walked around the lighthouse headland and then drove up over the spine of the island to explore the flat, boggy fields facing the open Atlantic.

O’Shea’s pub warned ‘Next pint, New York’ – sadly, it looked like it had been a while since they were able to pour one.

The hills from Valentia give you a good view of the tiny, craggy Skellig islands. Little Skellig is apparently home to a large population of gannets, while Skellig Michael was once populated by monks and now appears to mostly attract dragons.

Always finding time to nerd out, before we left the island we took a few minutes to walk down a steep path to find the Valentia Tetrapod tracks – the world’s oldest and largest in-situ evidence of an animal that walked on land.

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Across the rock in the foreground, you can just about see the footprints…

Yeah science!

Back in Cahersiveen, we made the most of the incredible local seafood at QC’s, and chose a place for a cosy pint or two. Because everyone knows everyone in this country (it seems to be an Irish trait to remember names and faces), we go to Keating’s Corner House, where we meet Ollie’s colleague’s aunt, who owns the pub. Josephine inherited the pub from her grandfather, and it has been in the family for nearly 100 years. She sits with us for a good long chat. Josephine knows everyone who comes and goes while we are there, greeting them by name, asking about mutual acquaintances and advising them to stay for another pint. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph, ye can’t take the child out in weather like this. Stay for a little while longer, near the fire.’ Eammon, a retired history teacher, sits with us and wants to talk about Mussolini, and the quality of the Thai restaurant down the road. This isn’t really a pub – it’s a communal living room. Cahersiveen is a quiet place, Josephine tells us. She’s not a city person – she likes ‘the slow life, the good life’. She nods once, gravely, certainly.

The town itself is small, and when we leave the pub to head back to the farmhouse it’s only a few moments before we’re driving through total darkness again, the shine of the headlights bouncing off the rain and the hedges that line the narrow road. Maybe it’s not the foreigner looking for the ‘real Ireland’, after all, but the country girl in me: there’s something about it that feels familiar and comforting – a world where there is real darkness, no street lights, and we are buffeted by the wind, not protected by tall buildings. It’s nice to feel Ireland breathing. Out here, where the humans are quieter, you can hear the place speak.

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Sugar and Facebook: the national drugs

Every town or country has its drug of choice. In Canada, Colorado, and my small Australian hometown, it’s weed. In Greece, it’s tobacco. In Russia, it’s paint stripper. In the 1950s, it was valium. And in the UK you’re hard pressed to find a toilet seat that doesn’t bear traces of cocaine.

But in Bangladesh, where alcohol is illegal and cigarettes are so frowned upon that they are often smoked furtively on tiny balconies, behind dusty air conditioning units, it’s sugar.

Mishti conjures a sparkle in the eye, and the kind of passionate opinions that recall Melbourne hipsters talking about coffee. If you want to make friends, apologise in style or get ahead at work, buy a box of assorted, milky, syrupy balls, squares and swirls

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At Mahan Chan Grandsons, one of Old Dhaka’s most famous mishti shops

At work meetings and afternoon teas alike, every tiny cup of cha will come lovingly saturated in three heaped teaspoons of chini. If you need to hang out with friends, grab some ice cream – Movenpick, Gelato, Cream and Fudge, take your pick: I’ve seen more New Zealand Natural ice creameries in Dhaka than in Sydney.

This ability to live on sugar and disdain alcohol has made me look more closely at my own dependencies. A glass of riesling after a hard day at work, a pint at the pub with colleagues on a Friday, a round of tequila shots to kick a night up a notch or two: as a white westerner, booze is my chemical relaxant and my social crutch – the fermented foundation on which my leisure time and friendships are built.

Likewise, sugar, for Bengalis, seems to be much more than an addiction: it’s a foundation for social interaction. Where alcohol is the necessary social lubricant of the perpetually awkward West, sugar is Bangladesh’s social glue, drawing people together with its sticky allure.

Before I came to Bangladesh and lived without pubs and bars, I never really thought about the social value of booze being a function of the social spaces that we distribute it in – places where it is ok to just be, because drinking is considered some kind of magical activity that allows you to exist and interact, under the influence, without other reasons or excuses. Bangladeshis need no such excuses – dining rooms and bedrooms are social spaces and people are invited to just hang out, usually with the offer of food and mishti, but often just to spend time together. Have a conversation. Face to face. With no props. The British in me crawls with discomfort: how do you do it, fully conscious, and with nothing in your hand?

The alternative is, of course, public cafes and restaurants. Ice creameries are your best bet, and they’re often not relaxing spaces – brightly lit with neon strip lights, and full of uncomfortable metal chairs and plastic tables. It seems that a cultural enthusiasm for alcohol can make pleasant, dark, squashy, public social spaces economically viable in a way that food, including sugar, just doesn’t. So at home they proliferate – whereas here, those kinds of open, mingling spaces are much harder to come by. It was one of the hardest culture shocks when we moved: I wasn’t expecting to miss pubs almost more than I miss what they sell.

Seeing alcohol as a space, and not just something we consume, also starts to make more sense of Bangladesh’s other preferred addiction: Facebook. The national passion for Facebook has become far more apparent in the last week or so, since the Government blocked it on all local ISPs.

It’s a calamity – people honestly don’t know what to do with themselves. A friend of mine translated some talkback radio he’d been listening to. The distraught public called in, saying ‘It is not possible to do business without it’ and ‘The Government does not understand the people. This shows how disconnected they are from our needs’ – and even, ‘If the Government does not reconnect Facebook, I will kill myself.’

As hyperbolic as this sounds (and as many questions as it might raise about the mental health priorities of talkback radio), they reflect something honest about how Facebook functions in daily life here. Without it, people are disconnected: it really does form the backbone of everyone’s social life.

Including mine – since the ban, I’ve realised I don’t keep anyone’s phone number any more, just I just use Facebook messenger. When a friend decided to leave, she did the usual and advertised on Facebook to sell her furniture – when it was shut down, no one knew how to contact her to collect their purchases. I’ve never been somewhere where Facebook is so important to daily life. We are all dependent.

And I think this is, in some ways, connected to the lack of other spaces to congregate. Facebook, like a pub, gives people a place to sit and chat, a space to meet new people. That means much more here than it does in much of the world, where we are spoiled for alcohol-soaked options.  It also gives people a chance to interact in a way that bypasses strict tradition around what’s ‘acceptable’: it’s a space for the genders to interact more freely. It’s OK to chat on Facebook with someone of the opposite sex, but it may be difficult to find time alone with them in person without raising eyebrows, suspicions, and even (for many girls), fists.

So, in the absence of bars, we download VPNs and desperately try to circumvent the block on our shared addiction. I’ve just got mine up and running again and I’ve spent a good hour desperately scrolling, stalking, and getting my hit. It’s been so successful that I might even give myself a break from this screen and go and find something else to do. Maybe I’ll go get an ice cream.

 

Wines and tigers – no bears

The Sundarbans are one of Bangladesh’s jewels – a huge, World Heritage-protected expanse of forest that covers the southern delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and all their tributaries finally meet the Bay of Bengal. The last few Bengal tigers roam around between the sparse beeches, butressed figtrees and shrubby undergrowth, swimming across the smaller creeks in a vast network of rivers. Deer, crocodiles, Ganges River dolphins, turtles, crabs, and an array of kingfishers and birds of prey all share the tigers’ home.

In April a group of my friends got together to spend a long weekend cruising down the river. Starting from Khulna, one of the country’s most southerly large cities, our old cruising boat chugged through the forests of the Sundarbans to the beaches at the mouth of the river, and back again. Awash with sunshine and duty-free cask wine, and breathing deep lungs full of clean air and greenery, we played board games, cards and ukuleles, slept on the roof of the boat, ate endless courses of fresh seafood, squelched through muddy mangroves, and searched for elusive tigers.

Festival of colours: Holi in Kolkata

I’d always wanted to just throw myself into the pictures. Clouds of pink, blue and yellow powdered dye, exploding above people dancing and celebrating. Who wouldn’t want to visit India during the Holi festival?

Celebrated at the start of spring in honour of the victory of good over evil and the end of the winter months, Holi is a chance for everyone to let loose and play – children and older people alike chase each other through the streets with water cannons full of dye, throw water bombs from the tops of roofs, play music, dance and attack each other with fistfuls of iridescent powdered dye. Everyone’s welcome – whether you’re a street kid, a Muslim neighbour or a tourist – it’s the more the merrier as the party takes over the city.

While it’s celebrated in Bangladesh by the small Hindu community, a group of my deshi friends decided we would hop over the border to Kolkata to experience the festival in its home country. And was it worth it.

Kolkata’s an amazing city – a perfect mix of British retro nostalgia (a hang over from its life as the trade hub of the colonial British Raj) and the colour and playfulness of the Indian culture. From the ‘Ambassador’ cars to the amazing food, wide green parks and cheap markets, I pretty much fell in love straight away.

Putting on our old white clothes and wrapping up our hair in bandanas, we asked our hotel manager where the best place was to ‘play holi’. We were pointed in the direction of the flower market under the famous Howrah Bridge – as we wound our way through the city we started to see people walking down the street with fuschia dust in their hair and rickshaw drivers with bright red faces, and we knew we’d found the right place.

We stopped at a market stall to buy bags of dye and had a few first blessings of ‘happy holi!’ from grinning bystanders.

While the major streets were fairly quiet, once we turned into the alleyways the fun really started. We were beckoned into a small courtyard where at least 50 rainbow-soaked people danced to music playing from one of the upper floors. With cries of ‘happy holi, happy holi!’ people shook our hands and welcomed us by rubbing dye between both hands then smearing it down our cheeks, poured liquid dye over our heads, and shoving our faces full of special festival sweets made of rice, milk and spices.

(I took my little point-and-shoot in a plastic bag, so most of the photos aren’t great! Even then, all the buttons on my camera are now bright pink. 🙂 )

On our way out, a gang of five-year-olds carrying waterguns and soaked in red dye ambushed us at a narrow intersection. The dye gets EVERYWHERE – in your mouth, in your ears… After that, we were varying shades of dark purple and red.

We spent the rest of the weekend walking around town, visiting the Indian Museum and eating. Happy Holi, everyone!

Why going home is hard: it can’t be everything

We just got back from a trip back to Australia, and after two and a half weeks of whirlwind visits to four cities in three states, almost daily partying and celebration with friends and family, a redeye flight to Kuala Lumpur, a 16-hour layover and a couple of days of truly staggering jetlag, I’m taking stock of what it meant to be home.

I won’t lie, it was hard to leave. Sydney harbour glittered in the summer sun, the bush south of Adelaide crackled underfoot and yielded the gorgeous wines of the McLaren Vale, and the beach in my hometown was an endless yellow strip of sand that I had all to myself. I saw my family for the first time in months, saw one of my best friends who is about to become a mum, another who has been living overseas for two years, had a surprise visit from an old bestie and went to a fabulously happy wedding. And not least importantly, everything just felt so easy. I knew which trains to catch, I didn’t have to worry about what I was wearing, I could sit on the grass in a park and know that no one would question why I was there. It was like a festival of the best that home has to offer.

But something was nagging at me while I was there – it wasn’t all falling into place. I had wanted to do so many things and couldn’t fit it all in – for months I’d fantasised about sleeping in, relaxing on the beach, walking through Sydney city, going to the movies, getting up early and going for runs, seeing everyone I missed, hitting the town and having a few white wines, playing with the family dog, going shopping … But it gradually became obvious that it wasn’t possible to do all those things, not least because some of them were mutually exclusive (sleep in and get up early for yoga?). I wanted home to be everything it had ever been to me. Everything I couldn’t have in Bangladesh, all in the space of three weeks.

And that’s how I realised something important: you can’t live somewhere else and have one foot at ‘home’. While you’re away you need to let go of the wonderful things that make up home, and accept that while you’re gaining a new country and all the wonderful experiences it has to offer, you’re also going to lose some things. You’ll miss your sister’s birthday, the best part of summer, and maybe the birth of a nephew. You won’t be physically able to bring back a supply of cheese big enough to keep you happy until next time you’re back. Some things have to stay behind when you leave. With our suitcases packed with olives and wine and our cameras full of pictures of our most beloved people, we try to combat this reality, but there’s nothing we can do: you can’t bring home with you – and you can’t live a whole life in three weeks.

It’s good to be back in the Desh, living the life that I have here. But I’ve learned to think differently about home: those precious weeks back in Aus are important, but they don’t need to span the emotional sea of the intervening months. Between here and there, I live two lives interleaved, not two lives simultaneously. Now I know that, maybe next time going home won’t be so hard.

Stepping back in time: Panam/Sonargaon

A few weekends ago we went to Sonargaon, home to the old city of Panam. The historic capital of Bengal, Panam was first the seat of the Hindu Diva Dynasty and in the late 13th century became the Muslim Mughal invaders’ buzzing centre of power: emperors and administrators ruled from here, and boats came from all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa, up the kilometers-wide Meghna river from the Bay of Bengal to trade.

Centuries later, the city saw a revival as the centre of trade in the Bengal region of British-ruled India. Building their stately homes and impressive commercial buildings in a neo-classical imitation of European buildings, 19th century colonials established a main street lined with columns, curlicues, orchards and mosaics.

The town remained occupied until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 saw the mostly Hindu population flee to India. It’s now an empty, mossy, crumbling museum of successive histories, jumbled together and loosely protected by the Bangladeshi government.

Hiring a driver and minibus from Dhaka, a group of us explored the abandoned beauty of roofless palaces and rusted locks.

Chasing away the clouds

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In Nepal in early October, the streets and squares are full of children and the excitement is palpable. The monsoon is finally over – which means it’s kite flying season.

The kites are believed to chase away the clouds and stop the rain, so it’s only after the country has had a good drenching and the crops are watered that children are allowed to fly their kites. As the skies turn from grey to blue, the air fills with fluttering, home-made diamonds.