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.

IMG_6249

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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Small discoveries in Dublin

I can fit a book in my coat pocket. And a bottle of wine in the other.

There are a lot of bookshops. And bottle shops.

Asking for ‘a pint of your finest’ yields Guinness. All other drinks require specificity.

Most conversations involve at least one phrase that I simply do not understand.

‘Your man’ reliably turns up in conversation, and roughly translates as ‘Old Mate’. The quirks of the language are adorably possessive.

Music is lifeblood. Violins, guitars and drums are standard accessories, slung over backs across the city. People hum and sing to themselves – in queues, while selecting detergent from supermarket shelves, on bikes.

Warmth takes priority over style.

Hipster style features – peaked caps and elbow-patched tweed jackets – are not nostalgic affectations. Nobody ever stopped wearing them here.

Whimsy wins the battle with order.

Like the English, the Irish have yet to discover the joys of single-faucet hot/cold taps.

Pub toilet doors are places for lines of memorised, scribbled, sublime poetry, just as much as phone numbers and dick cartoons.

Don’t expect cafes to open in the mornings or on Sundays. Don’t expect people in service positions to be nice to you.

Do expect surprising warmth and hearty chats from strangers. People always seem to have the time.

‘One swift pint’ does not mean one pint, nor will it be swift.

52 Portraits: The paan seller

IMG_6434In Old Dhaka, a contemplative street vendor with sad eyes sells tobacco from a hole in the wall. Buy a single cigarette and use his lighter, for only ten taka, or order paan and spices wrapped in in a betel leaf. If you ask, he’ll add in the white chalk paste to give the paan an extra gritty texture.

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!

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.

SKs and mainstays: What to wear in the Desh (for women)

Clothes are a huge part of culture and, somehow, knowing what people put on their bodies and what they wear as they go about their daily lives helps us to understand what that life is like.

Loads of people from home have asked me ‘what do you wear?’ – and I know that was a huge question I had before I left for Bangladesh. Travellers know that women are often expected to change the way they dress when travelling or living in a different culture – often more so than men – in order to be culturally sensitive. So what do you pack? What should you expect? Is it necessary to wear local clothes? How easy is it to make the transition? Does it feel like wearing a costume? Is it comfortable?

So here’s my low-down on threads in the Desh.

SKs

SK three-piece

In a ready-made three-piece – see how my orna and the detailing on the sleeves match the pants? (This SK from Aarong; little person not included)

While the traditional dress for women in Bangladesh is the sharee (sari), the Salwar-Kameez (SK) is now standard everyday wear for most middle-class Bengali women. This outfit is made up of a long top (kameez – it’s distinguishable from a dress because of the slits down the sides from the hips), pants (salwar), and a scarf or shawl (orna).

Matching your outfits is very important here, and most Bangladeshi women buy their SKs as a pre-designed ‘three-piece’, either off the rack (‘ready-made’/’cut’) or as a set of fabric that is then taken to the tailor to be sewn up in your size (‘uncut’). Usually the salwar and kameez will be made with different but matching fabrics, and the orna will tie the outfit together, often by repeating the pattern of the pants.

village

A colleague wears a three-piece SK while we walk through a rural village on a field trip. This is standard office wear for most Bengali women.

If you’re working in an office with mainly local staff (like me), wearing SKs is probably the easiest way to fit in, clothes-wise. It’s easy (buy whole outfits in one go and never worry about making decisions in the morning again!) and comfortable (yes, thank you, I would love to wear pajamas to work every day).

What is a boob curtain and how do I wear one?

As in any country, to avoid scandalising anyone, it’s important to ‘dress modestly’. Putting aside the slut shaming politics of this for a moment, let’s look at what that means in practice.

You might think your boobs are covered, by a shirt and several layers of fabric in your bra, but you were wrong! You also need an orna (sometimes called the ‘boob curtain’ by certain volunteers I know). The function of an orna is to hide your chest modestly. Most women wear their scarves ‘back to front’, with the end hanging down your back and the middle fold sitting over the chest, as this keeps the hot fabric off the back of your neck. It’s also fine to wear a scarf hanging down your front, or looped around, as long as it hides your chest.

Hippy chic

Hippy chic: If I’m wearing a shorter shirt I’ll often wear super-baggy pants to compensate (yes, I actually wear poo-catcher pants to work). Note I’m still wearing a thin black scarf.

My crotch is exposed? What do you even mean?

The length of your shirt/top is also important. Feel free to wear t-shirts, shirts, blouses etc from home (even if they don’t look like a kameez) but ideally whatever you wear will cover your bum and crotch. Wearing anything that doesn’t come down past your hips will leave your crotch ‘exposed’… Yes, even if you’re wearing pants. The idea is to keep that region as baggy and invisible as possible.

Remember to also keep your shoulders covered: short sleeves are fine, but if you have a sleeveless top you can use your orna to wrap your shoulders up with a scarf.

Alternative styles that work well

While buying SKs here and wearing them all the time can seem like the simple and culturally friendly thing to do, chances are there will be days when you just want to wear western clothes and feel like yourself again. You won’t be able to wear anything too revealing in the street (unless you’re happy attracting a lot of attention), so I recommend bringing short shorts and dancing around the house in them, just to get it out of your system.

But there are other things you can wear in public. DIY three-pieces are a way of inserting your normal clothes into a Bangla-friendly outfit. You might wear a baggy, long top with local pants and scarf, or on a cooler day you might wear a kameez with jeans. If your top is loose you might want to ditch the scarf.

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You can also wear short (or calf-length) dresses with leggings – as long as you’re covering your bum, tight pants are A-OK.

maxi dress

The Maxi dress and shawl combo (complete with turtle tank in background)

Maxi dresses are also a great alternative to pants and tops, and provide a bit of variety. Just wrap your shoulders up with a wide shawl!

If you’re heading out on the town and want to wear something more revealing but don’t want to draw stares on your way there, you can even wear a short tight dress and take the leggings and orna off when you arrive. Kimonos are also known for coming in handy if you want a full-body cover-up.

Head coverings

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, and many women choose to cover their heads for religious reasons. Some women wear their orna as a ‘veil’, draped loosely; some use the end of their sharee in traditional style; some wear a more Arab-inspired hijab; and some choose to wear a full niqab, covering the lower part of their face, often with long dark-coloured cloak over their normal clothes.

However, head-covering isn’t essential and many local women choose not to cover. In Dhaka, it will generally be assumed that unless you are Muslim you won’t want to cover, and most people are comfortable with that. In more rural villages where expectations can be more traditional and conservative, you might want to cover as a sign of respect, but again, it’s not expected.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Dressing up for a formal dinner: me in a sharee, Ollie in punjabi/kurta.

You’ll see a lot of people wearing sharees around town – poorer and more traditional women often choose to wear them every day, tying them with a simple and comfortable drape.

While most wealthier women don’t wear them every day (although some do – especially older women), they are an essential part of any formal occasion. If you’re invited to a wedding, important party, meeting with dignitaries or even just a conference, sharees are standard formal attire. I wouldn’t want to wear one every day (they’re a bit restrictive), but they’re great fun and incredibly elegant – a room full of sharee-clad women is really quite a sight.

On the whole: Bangladeshi clothing is generally comfortable (I can’t stress this enough, I basically wear pajamas to work every day), easy to organise (three-pieces really take the decision-making out of your morning) and colourful (let loose your inner rainbow unicorn child!)

Packing: If you’re travelling through, bring cool and comfortable long pants, some longer, baggy shirts and a couple of scarves.

If you’re moving here, I recommend planning to buy quite a few three-piece SKs when you get here, as well as some kameezes to go with other pants. But don’t throw away your jeans and minis just yet – there’s a place for them here too. (For more packing advice, see my post on What to pack when you’re moving to the Desh).