A couple of things happen when you start flying to foreign countries every month or so. First, if you’re me, you become obsessed with frequent flyer programs and will apply for every credit card and/or organ donation that gets you miles. This is a bit like a second job and is extremely byzantine but can also be preposterously rewarding. Most people react to my wallet full of co-branded airline cards with something like “That seems like an insane waste of time.” Then they find out that I’ve booked $14,000 worth of flights for free this year using miles, at which point they skip right over being impressed and say “Wait holy shit how have you taken $14,000 worth of flights in one year?” Short version: Flying to central Asia three times in one year is stupid expensive.
The second thing that happens is that you start wanting in on every possible program that reduces the amount of time you have to spend rubbing elbows with the pleebs, the unwashed traveling masses that were you until very recently but now are entirely intolerable. The highest level of this affliction is the realm of airline status and private lounges, which has claimed some of my better-traveled friends, while I’m currently wading through the mid-range mania of preferential airport security programs.
I’d signed up for CLEAR the night before I left, which is the new hotness for frequent flyers/homeless vagabonds who already have TSA PreCheck and Global Entry and need more memberships to spend money on so they don’t have to stand in line with people who try to go through airport security with $74 worth of change in their pockets or a CamelBak full of beer in their pants. I already had PreCheck, which gives you access to a special more-important-person line and lets you go through the baggage screening without taking out your liquids or firearms or taking off your shoes.
And I already had Global Entry, a higher security clearance that lets you skip customs on your way into the US and helps get your cocaine-packed duffel bags into the country fast! Global Entry approval is an involved process that requires a full background check and an in-person interview. I was warned extensively online that any youthful indiscretions that may have been categorically stricken from your record would DEFINITELY come up and torpedo your GE interview, so it was best to just confess everything and throw yourself upon the mercy of the TSA. THEY KNOW EVERYTHING. They know what you’re eating right now. They know that yogurt may be low fat but it has more sugar than just crushing up a roll of Jolly Ranchers and snorting them straight up your nose.
I was slightly intimidated by this because I have lived a life, but when I showed up (very, very late) for my interview I was quickly reminded that Minnesotans are pathologically nice and my invasive grilling was actually pretty painless. I think my secret weapon in all of this was that I have been to North Korea. Security personnel are WAY more interested in what the fuck you were doing in North Korea than they are in what you said to the cop when you were 18. I had all the right answers to the North Korea questions (“Selling nuclear secrets. Sleeping in a very damp bed.”) and before I knew it I had a terrible photo on a Global Entry card and customs was my personal wonderland.
Now it was time for CLEAR, a newish program that lets you skip that long line where they look at your ID and boarding pass and confirm that you are, in fact, some poor son of a bitch who is flying to Cedar Rapids. The acronym stands for Cheating in Lines and Earning Anonymous Rage. After you’ve signed up for CLEAR at an airport kiosk, a retinal scan is taken and you’re prompted to scan every possible combination of your fingerprints, including the “hang loose” gesture and the “rock out with your clock out” gesture you use to cool-check your watch to see if you’ve been at this lame party long enough and you can leave now.
Once you’ve submitted to all of this and have been implanted with the Illuminati tracking chip, you are now free to piss off literally everyone in the airport. You go to a third security line, this one even more special than the “PreCheck” and “Regular Asshole” lines, and a concierge greets you there and walks you past every single person in line and says “PARDON THEE, KNAVE” to the bozo at the front of the line as they cut you in front of absolutely everyone. You wave your phone boarding pass at the TSA gargoyle on the barstool and he looks at you like “Whatever, douche” and you’re in!
Getting through everything so quickly was disorienting, so much so that I walked right into the body scanner. BONK. After a brief pause, the scanner made an offended “BZZZZRT” sound, clearly computer for “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” No one said anything so I kept walking, only to be grabbed by the TSA bouncer.
“SIR IF YOU COULD PLEASE PASS THROUGH THE SCANNER AGAIN WITHOUT DORFING RIGHT INTO IT THAT WOULD BE GREAT THANK YOU SIR.”
Oh, that’s not how you do this? There should be a sign with a stick guy walking face-first right into the scanner with a line through it so people can understand that doesn’t help the TSA know what your junk looks like. Communication, people.
After some shenanigans and flight delays I was off to Boston and waiting to board my plane on to Dublin. Whenever I’m killing time in an airport I like to look at the people around me in the gate and try to guess who is going home vs who is leaving home. Allow me to just say this is not easy on a flight from Boston to Dublin.
The flight was uneventful, aside from the fact that we taxied for so long on the runway I had to start “Highway to the Danger Zone” over again a second time on my phone.
For my first day in Ireland I’d booked an appointment to visit Newgrange, a 5,000 year old Neolithic ceremonial site north of Dublin that’s older than just about anything you can think of, including that guy at the deli counter who seems to think that service button he’s frantically pressing is attached to anything.
I’d made my appointment for three hours after my flight was landing, plenty of time as long as your flight isn’t an hour late and it doesn’t take you two hours to pick up your rental car because it’s Ireland and time is a manmade construct.
After a brief debate with an immigration officer (“Where are you staying?” “Tralee.” “You’re staying in a trolley?” “TRALEE.” “What’s that?” “Dude, it’s a town in your country!” “If you say so.”) I was having my bank card rejected by ATMs, failing to find a local SIM card in the airport convenience store and striking out completely at sussing out where the rental cars were. I blundered out into the street.
Bewildering signs directed me toward where the Centaur was. What? Ireland has Centaurs now? This seemed very possible. Centaurs 5-19, this way. Wow, Ireland has a lot of Centaurs. Oh, wait, goddammit, that’s Gaelic. Ceantar means Zone. There are zones for some reason.
My confusion was magnified by the fact that I HAD BEEN HERE BEFORE. And yet, I didn’t recognize anything at all. Was I in the wrong country? Had I entered some kind of portal? When I was a little kid I was deeply disturbed by the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which mostly featured leprechauns fucking around but had one scene where a ghostly horse and carriage arrived to take some poor shmoe to the afterlife, to the haunting soundtrack of a wailing banshee.
God dammit. I’m in the Irish afterlife.
I followed a horde of the recently dead through covered walkways in the alarmingly bright sun. This led to an entirely separate terminal. Oh! This is where I flew in before. Okay. I followed the signs to Centaur 4 for the rental cars. It led to a bus. Oh, wait, I’m reading that sign wrong, it’s over here. No, it is not either. Wait wait wait, this isn’t even the front of the actual terminal, it’s just a weird building that’s in front of the terminal for no apparent reason. I walked through the interloper building that had been dropped into the parking lot from outer space. Inside were many stores selling authentic Boston donuts.
Beyond this, inside the terminal proper there were arrows reading RENTAL CARS. I followed these into a parking garage filled with, you guessed it, rental cars. Only this was where you picked up the cars, not where you rented them. I followed the green sidewalk through endless fleets of shiny rental cars, waiting to run into an actual rental office. After about 20 minutes of this the sidewalk just dead-ended into a brick wall. Hmmm. Now I had to turn around and walk 20 minutes back to the actual airport.
Eventually I found the rental counters inside and made my way to the Dan Dooley counter. Thankfully the line was quite short. As I got to the front I noticed a piece of paper on the counter that read “If you rented your car from dandooley.com, you need to check in at the Enterprise desk instead.” I turned and spied the Enterprise desk, which featured a humungous line of people stretching all the way back to Centaur 16. Blimey.
As I got in line I looked at my phone. Hmm, my appointment at Newgrange is in 30 minutes. Well, if this line goes fast and I drive fast maybe I can still make it. Half-way through the line I looked at my phone again. Oh, my appointment is right now. Don’t think I’m gonna make it.
Once I finally got to the counter, the girl asked me if I was sure I wanted to rent the smallest manual-transmission car they had, not a common request coming from an American. I nodded yes and said I’d driven in Ireland before. She smiled knowingly. “And don’t worry, we’ve got the baby seat you requested.” I requested no such thing. “That’s weird.” It was.
In the shuttle and off to where the cars were. “Gib heem da new won!” Wait, did you just say the new— a rental car lackey pulled up in a brand-new metallic blue car. It had never been driven before. Shit.
Normally, pulling a new car is a great stroke of luck when it comes to rentals. In Ireland, it’s a major kick in the balls. Driving in Ireland is a bit like driving an ambulance during WWII—shit is gonna go down. The older and more beat up your rental car, the harder of a time they’re going to have proving you were behind the wheel when it went down. Now I had a perfect, pristine Skoda Fabia, a blank slate. If a bird farted on this thing I was going to be paying the $2K deductible. Shit.
I peeled out nervously, sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road, straight into batshit Dublin traffic and drunks and labyrinthine traffic circles. Motored onto the freeway (“Why are you assholes driving so slow in the fast lane? ….oh, right, fast lane’s on the right here. My bad, assholes!”) and off to Newgrange.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes I do, but I apologize that I’m desperately late.”
“Oh, you’re okay, we just tell people to show up early so they don’t miss the bus. Let’s see…. Hmm, can’t find your reservation.”
They checked six different ways.
The seventh, which the girl tried with a “stranger things have happened” insouciance, was the ticket.
“Uhm, yeah. It’s July 14th. You booked a tour for June 14th.”
Of course I did.
The old guy sitting behind the desk looked at me like I was hopelessly defective. This is in a country where everyone is a little bit drunk most of the time. Okay, what now?
The girl seemed sweet on me, an impression that would last until she got within three feet of me and realized I’d been up all night on a plane and smelled like a Dorito that fell out of somebody’s armpit.
“We can put you on the tour to Knowth and then you can go to Newgrange in the afternoon. Make a day of it!”
I had absolutely no idea what a Knowth was but I nodded rather than opening my mouth and killing the poor girl with my breath.
Knowth turned out to be another Neolithic passage tomb in the area, a massive mound of earth with a stone-walled tunnel leading into its center. It had been a ceremonial site, then a tomb, and then a very small town was built on top of it. We headed into the tunnel.
Inside there was a bizarrely out of place modern museum-like room. We lined the walls while our tour guide talked about the artifacts they’d found inside. I began to feel very, very strange.
The longer I stood there, the energy of the site seeped into me and grew until it was completely overwhelming.
What in the world is this? I had just started to get used to the fact that as I travel, I seem to be receiving esoteric activations at various locations, encountering energies that open up new awareness and abilities. Which is generally awesome. But this was intense in a brand new way. Crikey. Was I being possessed?
The energy grew until I came to reconcile myself with the knowledge that I was definitely going to pass out, and started to think about what would happen while I was unconscious. Would they carry me out of the tomb? Would I wake up in here all alone? I leaned against the wall as the energy intensified.
Everyone else left while I stood there, gripping the wall. Eventually the energy subsided and I could stand on my own again. Huh.
I stooped through the exit tunnel and out into the sunlight. Did a loop around the mound, noting the artwork carved on the exterior stones. There was a staircase that led to the top of the mound, and I climbed up.
Once I got to the top, I began to feel the energy again. I took it slowly and felt the energy shift as I walked the path around the top of the mound, taking in the view in all directions. After completing the loop I sat down and meditated for a bit. What was going on?
I could feel the energy in my heart, which was no surprise as most of my meditations in recent months have focused there. Every time I ask for guidance I’m led back into the heart, deeper and deeper, an experience like descending stairs down into basements further and further down in the center of my chest, encountering hurt fragments of myself that have been locked away there and are coming up for healing. So sitting on top of Knowth it was a bit of an “Oh, you again” experience.
I felt something shift around the area of accepting love. Hmm. I thought about how much I value freedom and independence, and how the flip side of that can be a fear of needing anything from anyone else.
I laughed at the synchronicity of ending up at Knowth, a place I’d never even heard of before, when clearly there was an energy I needed to receive there.
We left Knowth and after loitering at the visitor center for a while I was off to Newgrange.
Newgrange featured an impressive white quartz façade, and entering through the stone passageway we eventually ended up in the inner chamber, a ceremonial space with an impressively tall roof of corbelled stones that had managed to stay up there for 5,000 years. Our guide gave us a demonstration of how the sun would shine down the corridor and into this chamber only on the winter solstice.
Standing in front of Newgrange after the tour, our group huddled together and I felt my fingers brush up against someone’s soft hand. It was a startlingly sensual and personal moment. I jerked my hand back apologetically and looked at the kid standing next to me, who appeared to be in his middle teens. I thought of apologizing but it didn’t seem necessary.
Later I noticed that same kid standing too close to me. Hmm. Maybe just a weird kid.
We got on the bus. The kid lingered around until I picked a seat, then sat right next to me. Hmmm.
As the bus bumped up the road, he nonchalantly scooted over until he was sitting pressed up against me. Hmmmmm. It dawned on me that he was gay and was at that age of still figuring things out. I was uncomfortable with how close he was sitting but the last thing I wanted to do was make a big deal of it and leave him with some kind of complex about his sexuality at such an impressionable age. I wasn’t even sure if he spoke English. I figured it wasn’t the end of the world, I’ve been crammed in this close with people on the subway before, so I just let it be.
As the ride went on, he scooted even closer, then started bopping his leg up and down, which was rubbing against my knee. Hmmmm. I should probably say something. But what? Part of me wanted to warn him that if he tried to pull this shit with the wrong guy he was probably going to end up murdered.
He briefly touched my knee with the back of his hand. I decided if he put his hand on my leg that would have to be the line where I told him to knock it off. It was such a bizarre social dynamic of him testing the boundaries a little further and a little further, always with the plausible deniability and the ability to claim that I was misinterpreting things if I objected. I felt a lot of sympathy for what women must go through in much more serious variations of this scenario. “Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?” It’s not so simple, it’s a blurry line. What if I was misunderstanding? This must be something every girl has to go through growing up. And I could have snapped this kid in half, I wasn’t under physical threat at all. All I had to deal with was the social awkwardness.
Another brief, glancing touch with the back of his hand. Jesus Christ, where is the visitor center??
Finally, we were there. The kid was sitting on the aisle side of the seat, which meant I had to wait for him to get up first. He waited until the very last possible second. Finally we got off the bus and I made a bee line for my car. Sorry Timothee Chalamet, this isn’t that movie.
What was that all about? I couldn’t help connect it to the heart opening at Knowth and the intuition about accepting love. Was this some lesson for me about not rejecting love when it comes from unexpected sources? Or had my energy shifted in a more open direction and this kid was just the first person to pick up on it? I still don’t know. Weird City.
I hopped into my 4,000 degree rental car, baked by a sun the Irish hadn’t seen since 1976, and was off to the Hill of Tara. My Australian lady Apple Maps voice guided me through the claustrophobically snaking side roads and back alleys. Electing to drive at all in Ireland is a desperate cry for help, like cutting yourself or dating Stephen Baldwin. Every country road is a narrow death chute, five tiny feet between a stone wall and oncoming traffic of questionable sobriety.
You know how nice cars have that back-up radar that beeps faster and faster the closer you get to the car behind you? In Ireland you get a “tick! tick! tick!” sound to warn you that you’re getting close to the left edge of the road. This is the sound of tree branches and other assorted plants hitting the side of your car.
It being my second go at this particular rodeo, I’d opted for the smallest car Ireland had. This was incredibly wise. Having an extra foot or two of room to work with because you’re driving a go-cart takes the stress level from “OH MY GOD” down to “Oh hey, we might survive this. Cool.”
Still, this doesn’t change the fact that you’re driving in a glorified bike lane. I found myself envying passing motorcyclists for the first time in my life. Look at all the room they’ve got!
At one point I had slowed down to pass an oncoming car with an intimate closeness that had me considering folding in my side mirror. The car behind me was all over my ass for this sensible breach of Irish driving protocol, which can be summed up in one credo: “Don’t slow down.” As the oncoming car passed and I began to pick up speed, the driver behind me mimed his great displeasure with my gutless driving.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Skoda Fabia is a complete and total piece of shit. But it also weighs twelve pounds, so it has a lot of zip, especially when you bury the pedal into the floorboard going from second gear into third. So I proceeded to peel out and dramatically out-Irished the driver behind me, leaving him in a cloud of my new car smell.
He gave chase and we spent ten minutes racing through the nooks and crannies of Eastern Ireland’s tiny villages and farm fields. Eventually we came to a T in the road, where I was going left and he was going right. I glanced over as he caught up and pulled alongside me, and I shot him a “Later, dick!” look as I accidentally shifted into third instead of first and SPURT KLURK GRUMBLE PBBBT stalled out into the intersection. Awesome.
Anyway, the Hill of Tara was fine, offering a great view, cotton candy and a great many Irish people dragging their kids out somewhere for the weekend, which was a bit less spiritually awe-inspiring than what I had been shooting for.
From there it was a long, straight shot up to Belfast, with only a few slaps awake as I was approaching 40 hours of wakefulness at this point. If they ever invent a drug that allows tall people to sleep on planes I’m gonna Rush Limbaugh all over that shit.
There’s no border crossing from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. The road signs just suddenly go from kilometers to miles with no labels indicating that they’ve done so, other than your ability to reason out why the speed limit suddenly just got really, really slow.
This lack of a border is a major thorn in Brexit’s ass, one I’ll be curious to see how they manage, since you can fly from anywhere in the EU to Dublin (EU), drive up to Belfast (UK), then fly to London, all without ever showing a passport. Maybe we’ll be helping out the UK with our wall-building expertise.
This being my first time in Northern Ireland, Belfast was much smaller and more laid-back than I was expecting. I was anticipating a northern version of Dublin, a city that is completely and utterly bonkers. But Belfast feels far sleepier, more of an old port town.
My AirBnB was in the projects, which is generally not something you’re thrilled to discover, but this means something entirely different in the UK than it does in the US. I’ve never been quite so aware of white Americans’ tendency to use racial diversity as a signifier of a dodgy neighborhood as I was while trying to figure this out in a country with no diversity. Other than the fact that there were orange cones all over the road for no apparent reason, and I had to park on the sidewalk, everything was fine.
In the morning I walked a mile across Belfast to where my bus was leaving. I stopped on the way to have my bank card rejected at an ATM and to buy a SIM card that didn’t work at all. As I walked over to a Tesco to try their ATM, a homeless guy reclining on the sidewalk shouted at me loudly. Hey dude. Inside, no ATM. As I walked outside, the older guy running the Tesco was in the homeless guy’s face, shouting at him and shoving him down the street. That’s so Ireland. Down the block, no ATM. Came back and asked again. Oh, hey walked right past it, here it is.
The homeless guy was lounging directly beneath the ATM and I had to lean over him to access the keypad. Let’s see, I need pounds for my time in England too, so I’ll take out 200, and-
The next thing I knew there were cops immediately to my left and right. They were yelling at the homeless guy. Do I want a receipt? Nah, I think I’m good without the receipt. Beep. The homeless guy was yelling up at the cops that he just wanted to buy some booze. They were yelling back that it was Sunday and he couldn’t buy any booze. What kind of transaction fee did I just pay? Whatever, it’s fine.
The cops rousted the homeless guy from around my feet right as I got the cash out and walked over to the bus. I’m definitely in Ireland.
I was one of the last people onto the bus, so the only seat left was in the very front right behind the driver. I scanned over the 50 faces on the bus. Wow, this Game of Thrones day tour bus has a lot of Chinese and Indian people on it. Like, almost all of them. I didn’t know Game of Thrones was big over there. Weird.
As we wheeled through Belfast, the tour guide pointed out various places where Game of Thrones had filmed this or that. His pronunciation of HBO was downright hilarious because H has three syllables when you say it with an Irish accent. I had no idea what he was saying the first six times he said it. “Hay-eeish-bee-ogh will fine ahs if we stap da bahs here but look trough da trees dere an you cahn see Cahstle Blackh!” Our bus slid slowly along the road as we caught a brief glimpse through the trees of the quarry where hayeeish bee ogh films the scenes at Castle Black and the wall. The quarry wall was painted white half way up, everything above that was CGI’s job.
Whenever our tour guide took a break from this GoT banter he’d turn off the mic and talk with the bus driver, a conversation which only I could hear. It was much saltier than the official banter. Most of it was about beer or which Caribbean island either of them was going to vacation to next. I’ve learned that when English and Irish people travel, weather is their first priority, and second, and third, and… These guys had been to literally every tropical island I had ever heard of.
Shockingly few English people have ever been to Ireland, for the same reason. When they get time off they’re sure as hell not going to spend it some place just as rainy and gray as where they’re from. Never mind that it’s just a $25 plane ticket across the Irish Sea. I know Brits who have been to every last hidden corner of the Earth, except for Ireland.
My favorite bit of conversation between the tour guide and driver went like this:
“I gotta admit Stevie, I don’t drink as much as I used ta. I’m getting older and I can’t take da hangovers,” the bus driver admitted sheepishly and with great shame.
“Oh, I hear yea, don’t worry a bit, I’m tha same way. Though I do still like to have a beer before I lead one of these tours. Helps me relax.”
“Oh, of course, of course, me too!” said the man driving 50 people along a road that was the exact same width as our gargantuan bus.
In a small town outside of Belfast we stopped to get a look at the steps Arya climbed up out of the water onto after being stabbed by The Waif in season 6. About five of us out of our group of 50 even walked over to the steps. Weird. I talked to the tour guide as two old Chinese ladies took copious photos of the steps. Okay, this is really strange.
I don’t consider myself to be a gigantic fan of the show, I enjoy it but mostly signed up for the tour as a convenient way to see a lot of Northern Ireland in one day. I figured I’d be one of the least knowledgeable fans on the bus, not one of about five people who even spoke English.
We stopped along the coast and went down into the cave where Melisandre gave birth to the shadow assassin in season 2. Our guide and driver had driven the actors when the show was filming, and they told a great story about the actor playing Davos being so inept at rowing a boat that the shot of him rowing to shore took 14 hours to film and ended with frogmen underneath the boat, guiding it to shore.
From there we carried on to the Giant’s Causeway, a peculiar area of Northern Ireland’s coastline that’s made up of 40,000 hexagonal pillars of basalt that all interlock like some outer space movie set. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Game of Thrones but it’s pretty much the #1 thing to see in Northern Ireland, so of course we were going to stop there.
After bopping around on the black columns with far too many other people, I spied some tiny figures way up on the cliffs, far above us. Oh wow, that’s the ticket. How’d they get up there? I followed forking paths up the cliff sides until I found my way to the top. The view was breathtaking.
From there you could hike along the cliff’s edge on down the coast, which is how I spent the next two hours.
The further I got from our meeting point at the bus, the more I thought about my tendency to find myself sprinting back to a bus full of waiting people on every one of my trips. Not this time! I’m a changed man. My instinct was to turn around back toward the bus 10 minutes before it was supposed to leave. I figured I’d play it super-safe and turn around 20 minutes before instead. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
A few minutes after I turned back for the bus, it dawned on me that 20 minutes is an insane person’s idea of enough time to backtrack 2 hours of hiking. Jesus. Run. Run!
After surviving many strange looks (“Where ya goin’, Tom Cruise?”) on my sprint back, I arrived at the bus, drenched in sweat, but exactly on time. Baby steps.
No one cared that I was sweating like a Koch brother in church because the British couple sitting across from me had got engaged at the Causeway. They were in a blur of calling their friends and family with the news. Awww, you guys are 23. I hope it all works out.
Later, when we stopped at the spot where Brienne fights Loras for the right to be in Renly’s kingsguard, most of the bus milled around and I finally broke down and asked our tour guide WTF was going on. He laughed and explained that every other tour of Northern Ireland is brewery, distillery, brewery, distillery. Many people from Asia don’t drink, so they have no interest in any of that, and they end up on the Game of Thrones tour in spite of never having heard of the show. Ahhh, okay. So I’m on the designated driver tour of Northern Ireland.
The four other people on the bus who’d heard of the show dicked around with getting their photos taken wearing cloaks and holding plastic swords while I climbed up the cliffs to take in the view. When I came down, everyone was gone. Uh-oh.
I knew our next stop was to visit the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a perilous little bridge that sways a hundred feet over the rocks and splashing waves below on its way out to a small fishing island off the coast. I’d signed up for a ticket to cross the bridge, so I made my way to the ticket office.
Hmm, my group’s not here. They must have collected the tickets and headed to the bridge. I made my way along the 15 minute walk up the coast to join them, encountering a long line waiting at a little ticket-check booth to cross the bridge. My group’s not here either. They must have already crossed. When I got to the booth I asked the girl working there if my group had left a ticket for me. She had no idea what I was talking about. Hmmm. So I guess I just wait here? I chatted with her a bit.
Eventually we determined that she knew my guide Stevie and she let me cross sans ticket. I made my way across the teetering bridge and couldn’t resist looking down, down, down at the ocean and rocks below.
At the island on the other side I climbed up the stone steps and turned the corner. Nope, my group’s not on the island either. Weird. I hung out for a while and watched the seagulls swooping over the ocean below as the waves crashed on the jagged rocks.
After getting my fill I headed back across the bridge, filming a nauseating video, and then ran into my group in the line waiting to cross the bridge. They’d met back at the bus to hand out the tickets, and I’d beaten them all there by an hour.
“How’d you get across? I still have your ticket!”
“I talked my way onto the island. The girl knew you.”
“What girl? Don’t tell my wife!”
Our last stop on the tour was The Dark Hedges, a long avenue of beech trees that arch up over the road, forming a tunnel. Better known as The Kingsroad leading north out of King’s Landing on the show. The four other GoT fans and I strolled up the road, which is closed to auto traffic.
“What season is this in?” the just-engaged girl asked.
“All of them,” I answered. Jesus. How am I the Game of Thrones nerd on this tour?
On the drive back to Belfast we answered GoT trivia questions on the bus for prizes. It was a total shitshow. I was sitting in the front of the bus with the engaged couple, and the two other people who had ever heard of the show were in the last row at the very back of the bus, which was less than ideal for communication. We had to pick a show character name to answer to in the game, and I wanted to go with something less obvious than “Jon Snow!” so I picked Bran the Builder.
“Ah!” the tour guide perked up. “Sir Bran of the Blackwater!”
“No, that’s Bronn, oh Jesus how am I the nerd on this bus?”
“Ohhh, you mean the little boy!”
“No, he built the wall, you know what fuck it yeah I’m the little boy.”
My favorite question came when our tour guide asked us where the biggest slavery was in the Game of Thrones world. We were all confused. Mereen? Eventually we figured out that “slavery” is how you pronounce “library” with a thick Irish accent.
I ended up winning a free day tour of Belfast, which I had no use for at all since I was leaving Northern Ireland the second our bus got back into Belfast. I ended up giving it to a French couple on the bus who were far more concerned with France having just won the World Cup.
After the bus dropped us off I realized I was completely out of data on my phone, and had to backtrack my way across Belfast by memory to where I’d left my car at the AirBnB. By some miracle this worked, and I felt like goddamned Magellan. I also desperately had to pee. I was already checked out of the AirBnB, late to pick up my brother Aster at the Dublin airport, and nowhere near a bathroom. I decided to just go in an empty water bottle in the car, which I’d never actually done before, but had always considered a baller emergency move I could break out one day when the time was right. Because that’s how I travel: 100% class. Only the car was so ridiculously small and the water bottle so ridiculously big, the physics didn’t work and this was logistically impossible. Also, at least seven small children were walking by my car every two minutes, which I’m pretty sure is how you end up in jail in Ireland.
I decided I could hold it.
I raced back down to the Dublin airport to pick up my brother, who was thoughtful enough to be ready with copious vegan treats and an offer to drive. As we bombed through the night across the entire width of the country, I laughed and recounted my quixotic efforts to find us a place to stay that night. Our intractable problem: We needed to be on the southwest coast to catch a boat early the next morning, but there are no places in Ireland that let you check in after 9pm. None.
Ireland is not a country of big hotel chains and 24 hour go-go-go lifestyles. Ireland is a country of you’re staying in grandma’s room and we cooked you a meat pie. I spent literally eight hours online one Sunday trying to book us a room anywhere west of Dublin that could possibly work. We wouldn’t be to the west coast until 1am at the earliest, and the only other option was to figure out how far west we could get by 9pm and book a room wherever that was, then turn around and leave at 3 in the morning to drive the rest of the way.
Finally, I found Tralee (“You’re staying in a trolley?”). Tralee is a small town 90 minutes up the coast from our intended destination in Portmagee, and it happened to have one bed & breakfast that boasted a 24 hour front desk. We were going to put this claim to the test.
Aster somehow drove us through a wormhole while I gratefully chowed down on hours-old takeout in the passenger seat and we rolled into Tralee just after midnight. The charming little town was asleep, except for the drunk people marching up and down the street, yelling.
Ireland doesn’t go in for any of your uptight bullshit about numbering buildings in order or putting all the odd or even numbers on the same side of the street, so we spent several minutes dragging my roller bag up and down the sidewalk, trying to find the B&B. 17, 24, 192, 6. Yeah we just have to look at every building until we find it. We eventually found a restaurant with the same name as the B&B we were looking for, and the door was slightly ajar. We took this as an invitation and wandered in.
Down a dimly lit hallway, a guy was sitting in a chair. At this point I wasn’t sure if we’d just wandered into his house, but he was mellow about it either way. He also didn’t seem to speak any English, but he wandered off and came back with an old lady who confirmed that this was, indeed, the B&B.
I was so confused trying to figure out if this guy just sat there all night in a chair in the hallway in case anybody showed up that I handed the lady pounds instead of Euros as payment for our room. In my defense I had spent the entire day in Northern Ireland, hadn’t left Belfast until 7pm and now was somehow on the extreme other corner of Ireland in a daze. She looked at the money.
“Oh neat! Is this American money? I’ve never seen American money before!”
Uhm, lady, that’s the money from Northern Ireland. You know, the other country on your very small island. How could you possibly never have— And in that moment I realized that I’d been too distracted by how many English people have never been to Ireland to realize that most Irish people haven’t been to Ireland either.
The chair-sitting guy showed us to our room, which was charming and had a huge picture of Jesus on the wall. This is how Ireland rolls. Last time our AirBnB had a picture of Jesus that lit up at night.
I hung my wet shoes in the open, screenless window and hoped seagulls wouldn’t steal them during the night.
As I laid in bed I felt my consciousness sink into my body, where it swirled around amongst an entire universe of sights and sounds I’d never been aware of before. Wow. This could take a lifetime to explore. I began to hear snippets of conversation. Am I tuning into other people in the building? They didn’t sound drunk enough. Huh. Entire detailed conversations played out inside the vast space inside me. All right Knowth, what have you done to me?
In the morning we rolled up to Portmagee and onto our boat out to Skellig Michael, a small island off the southwest coast of Ireland that’s now famous for being Luke’s home in the most recent Star Wars movies. I was interested in the island for its religious history and the monastery founded there by St Fionan in the 6th century, which makes it really inconvenient that it’s a major Star Wars fan tourist site now. Every regular boat landing on the island was booked up a year in advance due to this, and we only got seats on this one because it was super-expensive.
One of my past life memories that I’ve been the most intrigued by involves being a monk on a small island in the Atlantic. Some kind of invading empire had rounded up all of the monks, and we were unceremoniously led down into a dungeon and executed. The impression I took from the memory was that we had knowledge that was a threat to the powers that be, and had to go. Just based on history I’ve assumed these were the Romans and I was somewhere off the coast of England, Scotland or Ireland.
When I was in Scotland in 2016 we visited the islands of Skye, Lewis and Harris and Orkney, all of which were wonderful but none were the island I remembered. In the time since then I’ve gradually learned that I died in similar scenarios in many past lives, and had shut down my awareness and abilities in recent lifetimes to avoid a similar fate. Wanting to heal those wounds and come into my full being again in this life, I was eager to get to Skellig Michael and see if it was the place I remembered.
Any dreams of doing this were shut down in 2016 when a dense sea of fog made even seeing the islands from Portmagee impossible. But now we were at the port on a beautiful sunny day. It was going to happen!
The tour operator bluntly informed us it was definitely not going to happen. The seas were too rough to land on the island today. Did we want to take the boat out on a loop around the island instead? Huh. Sure, I guess.
Sliding out across the bay, it was hard not to feel like the tour operator was being a giant wimp. The ocean looks fine, we could definitely land in this! Maybe we can get close and then swim the rest of the way?
A few minutes later we hit the open ocean and I learned why they build ports in bays. The ocean was rough as shit. The boat bobbed, lurched and rolled diagonally. The three girls sitting back toward the motor began to barf profusely. I was sitting by the barf bag dispenser and was kept very busy handing bags to people who needed them in a huge hurry.
Meanwhile, puffins swooped over the ocean with surprising grace, snaring fish from the sea. Huge swells pitched the boat up and down, over and over. Our captain, a probably very sweet man who was also the human embodiment of alcoholism, reassured us in his impenetrable slurred mumble. I never understood a single word that he said, but he had apparently been doing this for years without dying and I was sitting the closest to him, so it seemed okay.
After a very long, barfy ride, during which I think everyone but my brother and I tossed their corned beef at least twice, we came up upon Little Skellig. This is Skellig Michael’s little brother, and equally dramatic flare of rock jumping up out of the sea. Little Skellig was blanketed in a preposterous number of gannets, 60,000 by official count, and this was a sight to behold. There were so many birds on the island they looked like snow.
After doing a loop around Little Skellig, we carried on to Skellig Michael. Just seeing the island up close gave me chills. It reminded me of visiting Shiprock in New Mexico last December, the epic feeling of awe that swept over me. The same way I’d seen Shiprock take the form of an eagle leaping out of the Earth, Skellig Michael appeared as a flame roaring out of the sea.
Strangely, it felt as welcoming as it did awe inspiring. I didn’t think most people would feel that way, seeing this forsaken rock cut off from the rest of the world. Was this a sign I had been there before? It didn’t take much to imagine rowing back here from the mainland, and for a moment I felt the sensation of returning home.
We looped around the island, taking in the perilous stone steps up the preposterously steep slopes. The jagged peaks rose up 700 feet from the sea. Near the top were the stone beehive huts the monks lived in. The sea throbbed against the tiny stone dock where we would have been landing. So close and yet so far.
Around the back side we saw the more modern development of a small lighthouse and an extremely questionable-looking helicopter landing pad.
As we arced around the island I got a sudden flash, an image of myself praying in the dark. Was I in one of those huts? I saw and immediately understood that in those moments of intense prayer I had reached the same places I get to in my meditations now. This was moving to realize, as I’ve always had a somewhat negative association with Christianity in this life, and now I was seeing it as just another pathway to the same place I was heading now.
Out across the water I saw the vague shape of a cross. Okay, I get it.
Then I felt a sharp stab in my chest, right into my heart. I felt in my body, and saw in my mind’s eye, an axe sticking out of my chest. Well shit, this isn’t good. I saw that this is how I had died in one of those monk past lives. This was fascinating because over the past several months that I’d been working on my heart, I always felt that there was some wound there I couldn’t seem to heal, and I didn’t understand what it was from.
I visualized pulling the axe out, and the wound stitching together and sealing up. The boat chugged on.
On the way back to the port we began to hit even choppier seas and profuse sea spray. The captain garbled at us incoherently as he handed out long rain slickers, which we draped over each other in a makeshift quilt as we huddled together. I wondered if my position closest to the cabin was putting me more in the line of the spray, until I turned and realized that I looked like the queen having a cup of tea compared to the drowned rats that made up the rest of our company. The barfy girls were now drenched and not having a great time at all.
As we got back into the port I reflected on how much I’d wanted to set foot on Skellig Michael, which would now have to wait for my next trip to Ireland. But this felt completely right to me. I thought of my experience at Shiprock, where I’d seen the rock from a distance on my first visit and had felt somewhat frightened by the intense energy there. I only got to touch it on my second visit, after a year of intense spiritual growth, and that was reflected in the powerful experience I ended up having there. It was like the first time was just a taste of the energy, to start getting ready. This felt like something similar. Whenever the day comes that I do get to stand on the island, I will surely be a different person by then.
From Portmagee, Aster and I bombed down to the village of Ardgroom to see an obscure stone circle there. This involved taking our spotless and easily scratched rental car up some ridiculous tractor ruts that passed for roads, as we got further and further off the grid and disappeared into the vegetation. Eventually we found the turn-off for the stone circle and parked.
A ladder straddled the farmer’s barbed wire fence and we climbed up one side and down the other. We ducked through an adorable little gate and crossed a field toward the stones.
An overwhelming silence enveloped us. I’m not sure if there’s any way to adequately explain how still and quiet this place was, I’d never experienced anything like it. The very air seemed to be at peace.
Cows were mixed in amongst the stones, standing out in utter stillness (udder stillness? Ouch!). One cow had just given birth to a calf, which was standing wobbly beside her. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to take another step forward, so complete was the stillness.
I was almost upon the stones when I realized there were people already in the circle. This would normally be a disappointment but they seemed to get it, they were completely silent and still themselves. Time got wonky as everything just seemed to stop.
I put my hands on one of the stones and tuned into my guide. What am I supposed to do here? He gestured wrapping his arms around the stone and I embraced the same posture. A feeling of being held enveloped me.
I slowly worked my way around the circle, touching each stone, as the people who had been there before us drifted off. I touched one tall and upright stone.
“Stand tall when you’re standing.”
Huh, okay. I don’t really do that.
I touched one stone that had fallen over on the ground.
“Rest when you’re resting.”
Hmmm. Yeah not sure I do that either.
I touched another stone and felt a stabbing pain in my chest, off to the left side. I felt and saw a crescent-shaped wound from a spear stabbing into my chest. Another monk lifetime. Dammit you guys, you monks need to learn kung fu or something. I visualized pulling the spear out and the wound healing over. A sword stabbed into my midsection. Remove and heal.
I turned and looked at the cows on top of the small hill next to the circle. Damn, I’ve never seen cows like this. They really seem to get it somehow. They’re definitely tuned into the energy here.
Aster and I sat down on the hill, finding a spot between all the poop for an impromptu picnic.
The view was stunning as we were above a long valley that stretched off into the distance below us. Holy cow. What a place.
Some indeterminate amount of time passed as we sat in silence. Eventually an older British couple approached the circle. I felt like I could see right through them.
“Hello there!” the old man said. I laughed out loud as I realized I was eating a carob nugget that looked just like the cow poop resting on the grass all around us. This might be a surreal experience for him.
“One, two, three, four, five…” he counted, inanely. I saw very clearly in that moment that what we strive for in enlightenment is actually our natural state, something we can return to naturally and without effort, only we’re making every effort not to go there, all day every day. We’re clinging by our fingernails to any distraction we can find. The old man was doing his best not to fall into the profound peace we were experiencing.
“The last stone ring we visited had six!” He was clinging to classifying and categorizing things, keeping this a safely mental exercise.
I turned and looked at his wife. She didn’t speak, but I could see she was completely wrapped up in the energy of their relationship and how he had dragged her to another one of these goddamned things. In a minute she was gone back to their car.
The old man chatted with us a bit and then was gone. The silence returned.
Walking away from the stones, we paused. On our way in, the cow who had just given birth had a long stream of everything else that comes with the calf streaming out in a train of surreal Cronenbergian gore. Now, as we passed the same cow again, she was eating it all. We stood mesmerized as the cow slurped up the placenta like Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti. I assume this is to re-absorb all the minerals that went into producing it, but this is none this less a very surreal scene. Cows are not an animal you often associate with eating flesh. Also this looked like a major pain in the ass for an animal with no hands.
Sometime later we made our way back to the car and re-entered the 21st century.
As we pulled away, our car made a throaty rumbling sound like a tractor from the 1800s.
“Wow, I thought this car was brand-new. What did you do to it?”
“I think it was that guy I raced the other day. I think I broke the car.”
The car burbled and farted in response. Good God. This thing was seriously jacked up.
Don’t buy former rental cars.
From there we launched out across the Wild Atlantic Way, a mind-blowing road around the coast of all the little fingers of land that jut out from southwestern Ireland into the Atlantic Ocean. If you ever get a chance to drive this road, I’d highly recommend it.
We passed through several hilarious construction zones that were wonderfully Irish. You know those situations where a road is down to one lane and they have guys with stop/go signs letting the cars through one side at a time in groups? Imagine if the guys didn’t have walkie talkies or any way to communicate with each other and just sent flocks of cars through at random. At one of them, the guy with the sign was just taking a nap on the side of the road. It was fun.
This was all a detour to get us to the Drombeg stone circle, which turned into a real “journey, not the destination” type situation. The stone circle couldn’t hold a candle to Ardgroom, it was far too heavily trafficked (Aster and I both agreed it felt like the stones were asleep after all the indiscriminate energy going into there), but the drive there was unexpectedly epic and wonderful.
Our car, farty and wrecked as it was, agreed.
We spent the night in Cork, at a weird estate in the woods with a family that appeared to be living off the wealth of some long-gone relative that had dwindled to the point that they were now taking in AirBnB boarders. Our bathroom featured what was ostensibly the first shower, installed by an inventive Henry Ford when he owned the house. The family’s dog decided I was a good guy and found her way into our room at every opportunity. Outside, chickens pecked on the lawn. Irish charm was in full effect.
In the morning we scored some of Ireland’s awesome avocado ice cream at the co-op (we ate an entire pint in the car and in retrospect we should have bought two) on our way to Kildare to visit the round tower at St Brigid’s Cathedral.
My last time in Ireland we’d visited several round towers, esoterically thought to be constructed to collect celestial and Earth energies for spiritual purposes. What I hadn’t known then was that there are a couple of round towers you can actually go up inside, and the Kildare tower is one of them.
The guy collecting admission to the tower was off taking a leak or something so we let ourselves in. And all of a sudden I was climbing up perilous steep ladders inside a thousand year old tower. My legs got shaky and Aster asked if I was okay. I was, I just hadn’t mentally prepared for risking my life this early in the morning. Each vertiginous ladder went up one level, where you’d twist around the wooden platform to the next ladder leading up through a cut in the floor.
A half-dozen floors led to the top, where a metal cage over the top was all that kept you from flying like a bird out over Kildare.
After checking out the view of the surrounding landscape from the top, we resolved to meditate at each level on the way down.
On the top level I tuned in and saw an image of the cosmos streaming down into the tower and down into the top of my head like a funnel, ending in a point within my heart. Hmmm.
The next level down I felt a strong sensation of all the knowledge and wisdom acquired in my past lives streaming back to me. Huh. This is almost like moving down through the chakras of the body. A sharp pain shot through my foot. Ow! I saw the sword stabbing into my foot in a past life. Remove and heal.
On the next level I felt emotions from my past lives connecting in. There was an intense sweetness to this feeling, which I sat and savored, my back pressed against the cool stone of the tower.
The next level I felt a shift in my sense of home, to where home was wherever my feet were. Seems appropriate.
At the next-to-bottom level, Aster and I chanted an OM together that reverberated through the entire tower in an extremely cool way. We sat for a long while until we heard someone enter the tower below us and start to come up the ladder.
I thought it might be cool to have him come up the ladder and see us meditating there, setting a good example of what this tower could be used for. Then I realized he might freak out and fall down the ladder, so we should probably stand up.
Once outside we had a long, charming conversation with the tower keeper. He was a big fan of the role Bill Clinton played in the negotiations during The Troubles. All the Irish people I met seemed to be proud of the fact that most US presidents have been of Irish descent, and especially proud that Trump wasn’t one of them.
Aster and I bombed back down to Dublin, and he ran to get us lunch while I checked out St Patrick’s Cathedral, which I’d been denied entry to on my last visit. As one of the must-see sights in Dublin, the church was a bit anticlimactic, more of a tourist trap than a place to feel any profound connection. I was, however, impressed by the memorial to Jonathan Swift engraved over the spot where his body was buried in the church. It read something like: “Here lies Jonathan Swift, who kicked all available ass. Try to match his accomplishments, if you dare.” Swift had written this eulogy himself, which I found hilarious.
I was overjoyed that they didn’t try to start the rental car when we returned it. Much like a Hollywood child star, the car was spotless on the outside, but inside it was hopelessly messed up. The engine idled like a rhinoceros chugging pudding and it accelerated like a sack full of angry bees thrown at a witch. I hoped whoever got the car next wouldn’t be blamed for any of this.
We rode the shuttle to the airport with an older Irish couple who were proud to announce that they had been to America. The Irish tend to talk of America the way Minnesotans talk about California: the promised land they hope to end up in one day. Where in American did you guys go? “Nebraska!” Jeeeeeeeesus. What did you think of it? “Everybody kept asking us why we came to Nebraska.”
As I boarded the plane for London, I tipped my cap to Ireland, with its warm, charming people, its scenic vistas and its charmingly dysfunctional everything. With so many new places to explore, I don’t often return to countries a second time. But each trip to Ireland seems to uncover more nooks and crannies I want to come back to explore. After my first visit I felt like I could move there. My feelings were more complex at the end of my second trip.
I understand now why Ireland is one of very few countries with fewer people now than it had the 1800s. Most of Ireland is still in the 1800s. Charming and scenic and jobs generally don’t go together. And though I was still in love with the people, a few more days of not understanding what the hell anyone was saying had begun to challenge my fondness for the Irish accent. I told my brother about a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman I had seen in Belfast and how it broke my heart to realize that any potential relationship with an Irish woman would eventually end with me saying “Look, you’re gorgeous but you need to stop talking like that right now.”
Alas, they can’t all be Australian Siri. See you in London!