I have one eye nervously on the road from the front seat of our van. The driver is showing me a map of the best bike route between Prague and Vienna as we wind down a two-lane switchback between the airport and the city. "Four Hundred kilometers minimum by bicycle", he said. Thomas - our driver - is a cyclist. He has already shown me a photo of his bike, a 40-year old Czech-made hand-built white Festka, "A beauty," I croon. "A classic ride." As he shows me the tiny map on his phone, he looks concerned - and a little impressed. Like we jet-lagged middle-aged women sitting in his van with two boxed bikes propped awkwardly in the cargo may not really know what we are getting into. But, he has already plotted the best route and is determined to advise us before we leave the van. If we ladies of questionable-looking athletic ability are really going to ride, he is taking it on himself to make sure we take the best route. Bless him. Because actually he's right, we only nominally know what we are getting ourselves into. We have a flight into Prague, a hotel in Prague for four nights with time built in to figure out the details of how we will get to Vienna in time for our flight back on the 28th. We have found some incredible websites and resources on a Prague to Vienna bike Greenway trail system that looks terrific. Downloaded the Lonely Planet to help find hotels and with logistics. But that's it. And that is just the way we like it. So our time in Prague has been part tourist and part bike travel planning and part jet-lag recovery. Tonight we are meeting the Vice President of the Greenways organization at a local bike shop
"Ireland's Islands are very romantical, they are". This is from The King of Tory Island, who is showing us the art gallery and doing a wee bit of flirting in the process.The King of Tory IslandAnd yes, he is a real king. And with his captain's hat and gold hoop earring and penchant for telling stories and easy laugh, he is the perfect ambassador for this tiny Island that desperately wants more visitors to come across the rough channel.Tiny Tory Island, on the very northern tip of Ireland, within squinting view of the Scottish Isles on a clear day, has been electing a king for the past 1400 years. This was a tradition of many islands in Ireland ... Tory is the last. He is referred to by everyone on the island simply as "The King". He refers to the island as "my island".The cliffs are full of nesting birds, and the waters have hundreds of birds and dozens of species flying and fishing below.Besides having the last Irish King, Tory Island is also one of the few places where locals all still speak in the pure Irish Gaelic, and the culture and traditions remain truer here than most other places. This is because the Island has been so isolated from the mainland for so many years. And also because they have a healthy history of smuggling and contraband whisky making and other nefarious activities that encouraged keeping a healthy separation from modernity.The population of around 200 live in two tiny villages - clusters of white houses with red trimmed windows and doors circled against the winter wind and weather. Remains of a 1200 year old monastery and its tumbling bell tower still sit in the middle of the village. Boats are pulled up on shore ... there is very
It's Sunday afternoon and the pub is packed. A couple harmonize to the lilt of the pipe and guitar. The ceiling is covered in bright flags, copper pots dangle from hooks from the ceiling. The floor is pitted by a hundred years of feet. Everybody knows everybody. I'm drinking a Guinness and trying to write to the buzz of pub life. I have found that in order to write on this trip, I'm staying up late and writing after the pub when I'm tired and need sleep. But the concept of combining these two activities is clearly ridiculous. The pub is for socializing and, by golly, visitor or not, you will be social. So I've turned off the gadgets after being allowed a few paragraphs and am listening to the woman seated across from me. The conversation is conducted at moderate yell to be heard over the music and the social hum all around us. And ... hands down talking with her is the better choice, sleep be damned. I love talking to people at the pubs ... and meeting these people is absolutely the best part of traveling here. The woman I'm speaking with introduces me to her brother and husband. She tells me she is planning a trip to LA in a couple of weeks, but her husband can't join her. She says he was arrested during the troubles and imprisoned for 7 years, and is not allowed into the USA as a visitor. The Troubles have a long reach. She tells me her brother is back visiting because her sister-in-law has just been diagnosed with cancer. Her eyes well up as she confides this. I listen to her talk for a bit ... and then I tell her that I had cancer, intending just to let her know that I
"I started painting during the hunger strikes".Protestant Mural - many of these reference historical events and military victoriesWe are sitting at the bar at Kelley's Cellars, the oldest pub in Belfast. We have struck up a conversation with an older woman with pink hair that is curled into a big roll on top of her head, with false eyelashes and a pink paisley dress. The conversation has been a challenge - I can understand about every third word she says beyond the F bomb and "Jesus Christ" that is dropped liberally into every sentence. She's been sitting at the bar drinking for a while.But it's her husband who has us still sitting there and engaged. Turns out we have just met one of the famous mural painters of Belfast.Sinn Fein Mural of martyr and hunger striker Bobbie Sands. Many Republican murals are symbolic and meant to stir emotion Earlier in the day we rolled into town and immediately hired a cab to take us around to see the murals that dot the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. These murals are essentially enormous tags that cover the end of buildings in bright colors and political messages. They started to appear in the seventies, and both sides still commemorate their struggles and heroes and victims and political goals on the blank canvass of their neighborhoods.The Troubles, as they are known here, started in the 1920s when Britain freed all of Ireland except for six counties in Northern Ireland where there was a majority Protestant population, an affinity for the English, and (probably) most importantly, a thriving industrial base in Belfast that fed the British war economy.The Troubles - with attacks and bombings - built up in the decades after with peak violence in the 70s and 80s that finally subsided in a ceasefire negotiated
It's easy to see why so many people believe there just might be real magic here. Looking up at the ancient stone and earth mounds on these green hills dotted by standing stones, I can imagine the solstice sun lighting its mysterious path into the cairn. And entertain the legends of the fairy folk and druids that still have believers who flock here on the longest and shortest days of the year to celebrate ancient rites. The standing stones and prehistoric cairns and ring forts that cover these green hills of County Meath, north of Dublin, have inspired generations of stories and myths and magic. As we visit the stones and the funeral mounds of the ancients at Bru na Boinne, some of the best preserved stone age sites in the world, the mystery is explained away somewhat, though no-one really knows why these stone rings and tombs are here. They are 5000 years old, older than the pyramids, and you can still see the geometric carvings on the massive stones that were brought in to make the base stones of the walls and the standing stones outside. The neolithic people built these rings and monuments to track the sunlight on the shortest and longest day was a way to mark the seasons ... perhaps to try and control and predict the uncontrollable, the coming of spring and the end of winter. Perhaps because even today we dread winter darkness and crave the rejuvenation of spring, and the ancient people believed life-bringing spring needed the help of rituals and rites to make sure it arrived. But those ancient mysteries are woven into the tales of ancient history. This is the land where heroic tales of Brian Boru and Queen Maeve and Cuculain have been retold for centuries. The hill of Tara, now a green park
You are where? Boyne Valley, County Meath So. You might be asking ... What the heck is Leigh doing in Ireland? Less than two weeks ago I was finishing up a six week trip in Africa with my Mom. A bucket list trip, that meant a lot to both of us. And left me tired when I arrived home last Sunday, jetlagged and facing the inevitable slow transition back to normalcy. I had tracked down the mailman to learn where all my mail was that was supposed to be forwarded to a friend ... and wasn't. I had made an appointment with the dentist and for an eye exam. And had carefully checked the yard to see the damage to my new landscape plants after weeks away with plants newly in the ground. And made a big grocery store run and bought enough produce to make up for six weeks of a meat-heavy Africa diet. In short, I was settling back into Seattle. Adjusting to being back after a long time away traveling generally takes a while. It's not just the slightly musty house smell or the jet-lag or all the little chores to set up house again. There is an inevitable mental adjustment to returning to "real life". Every time I return from travel, I start over. New clients and projects and schedules and goals. I have learned to think of the time immediately back from a long trip as a window when I see things just a little bit differently, and this is often the best time make changes and decisions that send me in a different direction. These are the windows when I am most likely to see things a little more clearly, and make choices with a perspective that is inevitably lost once I've settled into the comfortable routines. So three days after returning,
Ants. Human Ants. In a line scrambling up a massive sand dune in the dark. This was not my idea of fun. But I joined the ant line and started trudging my way up that dune, heart pounding and breath rattling. Feet slipping back six inches for every foot gained. All in the quest of viewing one of the most photographed daybreakson the planet ... sunrise over the famed Namibian red dunes.We were up at 4:30 in the morning after getting a coveted camping spot inside the park at Sesrium at the entrance of the valley of the dunes. This was not a great campground, but it did allow us to get in the queue of cars so when the gate opens we could be among the first in a long line of cars rushing into the dunes. If you were late, you would miss the sunrise. Once inside the park, every vehicle made for the same parking lot, and then all the ants poured out and started climbing in a noisy, humming line of creeping humanity.While our guide drove sanely at the park speed limit, others careened past in the mad scramble to get their ants unloaded at the dune first. I thanked our guide for being safe. I was grateful nobody hit an oryx rushing into the park in the dark. I grumbled up the first part of the dune. But as I climbed and as the light filled the sky, my black mood lifted with the sun. The sky turned pink and then white and the dunes - a surreal terra cotta soft shimmering sand - glowed more beautifully with the light. Like someone turned on a magical light from within the earth. They looked different every few minutes as the light continued to change.This is truly one of the
Damaraland landscapeRed sand. Endless flat white salt pans. Moonscape mountains of red sandstone rocks randomly emerge from a soft silvery-green plain dotted with the occasional tree. Rivers teeming with wildlife and birds. A few miles later, arid dusty sand-coated trees where the leaves have withered and browned. The desert here ends right at the pounding Atlantic Ocean, giving Namibia a seemingly endless beach stretching inland for miles.The scenery and landscape must be some of the most beautiful on earth - certainly some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my travels. Etosha Salt pansNamibia is extreme. Extremely beautiful. Extremely harsh. This is an amazing place to visit. But I suspect it's incredibly difficult to live here.The temperatures in the desert fluctuate 50 degrees in a few short hours ... and most of this country is desert. The sun is hot. Mind-bendingly, hide under your scarf to get out of the sun hot. The nights have us sleeping in fleece hats and multiple layers and bag liners for warmth.The population here is small, and most people live in small villages and earn their living subsistence farming - somehow scraping a living farming this dry, sandy ground or by herding goats and cattle. One of many shipwrecks off the Skeleton coast, named by early mariners because the treacherous Antarctic current wrecked countless ships, and survivors of the wreck had no chance of surviving the desert and lack of food and water. And now there is a drought in the north of the country, and the crops have failed. Which means food shortages for many people, when they already live on very little. UNICEF is gearing up for substantial food assistance to help people survive till the next crop comes.There is high unemployment and few jobs ... most jobs are in the mines.
Sometimes the wildlife can get really close. The animals here in Etosha have seen so many people in vehicles, they are not afraid as long as you stay in the vehicle. Get out of the vehicle, though, and they can run or panic and become dangerous. We had some elephants come very close in Etosha. Their behavior was very different than in the Okavonga when we came upon an elephant and it reacted as a wild animal that knows humans in boats are a real threat - he through up his head and trumpeted and warned us back. And certainly different than India when one of our bike ride companions was trampled by an angry female with a baby. While the parks protect wild game in many ways, they also become conditioned to humans and more susceptable to poachers. and there is poaching in Etosha - primarily of rhinos. The Etosha area elephants have smaller tusks, making them less of a worthwhle target for poachers looking for ivory. Here is the photo series:Two male elephants having a nice late-afternoon drink at the waterholeMom taking a video of them drinking from our truckThe elephant comes closer to have a look and a sniff. We get nervous. These are some of the biggest elephants in Africa. This guy is huge.Eventually the elephant decides we aren't interesting and walks around in front of the car to find a tree to eat. He munches on the tree until we have to leave to get out of the park gate before sundown.
Reflection of Rhino Mom and calf, and giraffe mother and baby in the waterhole after sunsetThe campgrounds and lodges at Etosha National park have viewing areas of waterholes, and they even light them for a couple of hours at night. Mom and I watched an incredible interaction unfold one night with the endangered black rhinos, and even though we were freezing we sat there and shivered for two hours because we did not want to miss anything.The Rhino Party started with a large single male black rhino sharing the waterhole with three giraffe. Soon, a mother rhino and her calf wandered down to drink. Eventually eight rhino, including two mothers and calves were at the waterhole at the same time. They apparently have a standing appointment between 8 and 10 pm every night. They live alone, and wander in alone and solitary. But they are social animals, and they gather at the waterhole and interact together - coming together in groups with heads together snorting and huffing and touching horns. This inevitably leads to one of them getting offended, where they will throw their heads up and stomp backwards, snorting in clouds of dusts. They will face off and snort and stare each other down for a few minutes. Then one will charge the other - the mothers are particularly defensive of their young and keep themselves between the male rhinos and the babies. The calves stick right at Mom's side and mimic every move, except for the charging, when they linger safely behind. Two mothers separately backed of this huge male, and at one point ganged up on him to send him back to the outer edges and safely away.One of the rhino calves looked older and we believe was the equivalent of a teenage boy - he was