Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Paris: A city in turmoil and my trip there in June 2014

Paris: the city of love, home to the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, some of the most famous art work and churches in the world and until just before Christmas, my friend Rebecca. However in the last few days, Paris has been in the news due to the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and subsequent man hunt and hostage situations. A city that is showing solidarity, that is rallying around Charlie Hebdo to fund the most recent one million run and that will, no doubt bounce back.

After nearly 2 months back home in Galway, my feet were starting to get itchy. My friend Rebecca, an RPCV who I met in Malawi, was working as an au pair in Paris and I took the opportunity to visit a friend, and explore a city I had never been to before. 

Now Paris in June is a delightful place. The sun is shining, the city is not too crowded and I had a permanent smile on my face. Ever since I was a child I have had an obsession with Paris. I was a nerd, a child with an obsession with far away places and museums and learning about other countries. And Paris, a city full of history, museums, beautiful cathedrals and one of the most iconic landmarks in the world had always fascinated me. Why had I not visited before? I really do not know. Heck, I even bought my parents flights there for their anniversary one year. So now it was my turn to explore the Parisian streets and who better to show me than someone living there. 

And of course the city did not disappoint. From wandering the streets of Montmartre to picnicing by the banks of the Seine, and in view of the Eiffel Tower, and in view of Ile de la Cite (we did a LOT of picnicing), to jazz Chopin in Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris was everything I had hoped for and more. 

Rebecca lived in the 17eme arrondissement, within an easy stroll of Montmartre and only a few Metro stops from the Champs Elysees or Ile de la Cite. Our first day of exploring involved a jaunt around the Montmartre district capped with a trip into the beautiful Sacre Coeur Cathedral. I do not pretend to be very religious, despite being raised in Catholic Ireland but I find churches beautiful and peaceful (for the most part). The stained glass windows, the architecture and the solitude of just sitting in a church and admiring the building for what it is, are the perfect antidotes to the hecticness often associated with travel and sightseeing. Stepping outside of the cathedral, you are greeted with a beautiful panoramic view of Paris.


Now, I don't know about most people, but I can get overwhelmed in large cities after a while. The hustle and bustle, the toing and froing and the constant people can be tiring. So, every now and then I like to escape somewhere with a book to relax and unwind. That can be a coffee shop, a beach, or in the case of Paris, a park on a sunny day- Parc Monceau. I passed an hour reading, people watching and wandering around this vast park. A perfect way to recharge before continuing on to to the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees.







In true Parisian style we picniced a LOT. When in France it would be rude not to make the most of the delicious breads and cheeses on offer as well as the cheap wine! SO MUCH CHEESE. One of the highlights was picnicing in the Champ de Mars with a view of the Eiffel Tower while a band were rehearsing for a concert that night in front of the Ecole Militaire. Wine, cheese, baguette and big band tunes all under the afternoon sun.
Vin pamplemousse with a view of Notre Dame












Along with climbing the Eiffel Tower, strolling along the Champs Elysees, watching a memorial service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe we managed to catch the France-Switzerland match in a small French bar where, after each of the French goals (all 5) the bar man turned down the TV and blasted music from the speakers and danced around the bar. And just when we thought the night could not get any better, we stumbled on a neighbourhood party in a bar around the corner from Rebecca's apartment where there was a conga line, karaoke and the cutest little old lady who did not stop dancing for the hour we were there.







Course 1 of 3
Now, people who know me well, know my obsession with brunch. As far as I am concerned, it is the best meal. So as a thank you to Rebecca for hosting me (and feeding me with cocktails when I got a terrible email) we went to brunch one morning. An amazing 3 course lunch of breads and spreads (croissants pain au chocolate, baguette, honey, jams) served with fresh juice and bowls of coffee, followed by a choice of cooked breakfast (I went for Eggs Benedict and it was DELICIOUS) which were served with herbed fried potatoes and to finish yogurt and fresh fruit. We both considered asking them to pack up the final course as there was no way we could attempt to finish it all. All of the above served while we were sitting on Rue Legendare in the beautiful late morning sunshine. The place Les Puces des Batignolles.

How could I talk about Paris and not talk about the heart of this city, the site where medieval Paris was founded, an island housing the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Wandering around Ile de la Cite, eating gelato in the sunshine and seeing Pont de L'Archeveche, one of the many bridges along the Seine covered in the love locks.

Notre Dame, was predictably beautiful but I found it more crowded and less peaceful than Sacre Coeur.There was a long queue that moved very quickly but once inside I didn't find the solitude and reverence that is often found in places of worship. Now this is not to say that I did not enjoy my visit to Notre Dame, it is a beautiful building and the treasury with artifacts from the Church's history is well worth a look.
























But, my fondest memory of Paris, and the one that will make me laugh out loud for years to come, is Rebecca complaining about a loud American lady at a Monet exhibit in L'Orangerie. We moved into the next room and this lady came in and sat beside in while loudly proclaiming to a teenage girl that "This one is my favourite". As we rolled our eyes, I stole a glance at this woman and said to Rebecca "She looks like that one from Million Dollar Baby." Rebecca replied "Hiliary Swank? No. Surely an actress would know how to whisper, and that woman's eyes are much closer together." So not only did we insult Ms Swank's ability to whisper but insulted how she looked also. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Being a tourist at home: Dublin the fair city take 1: Guinness Storehouse

All too often when you travel it can be a case of the grass is always greener. You look towards far flung places and think of them as exotic and exciting, you explore the little streets and cross off the must see sights in each new place. But how often do we take this time to explore our home like that? How often do you take time to explore and see your home through the eyes of a visitor? It was something I had thought about quite a bit and I have resolved to see as much of this side of Ireland I can.

Despite having lived in Dublin for 6 years previously I have never done most of the touristy stuff in the fair city. Having friends come to visit gave me the perfect opportunity to put on my tourist hat and explore this side of the city. I embraced it and remembered why I love travel and why I love exploring.

First up is the Guinness Storehouse. It's the top rated attraction in Dublin and for good reason. I've actually been there twice with two separate friends and have enjoyed it immensely.
 For those of you who don't know Guinness (do you live in a cave), it's a stout that was initially brewed by Arthur Guinness in James' Street in Dublin. His brewery was built on a site on which he signed a 9,000 year lease. It's brewed around the world but it's home will always be Dublin and the Storehouse is an homage to this famous brew and the brand that has been built around it.
The tour starts in the foyer where you can see the 9,000 year lease and view Arthur's signature that now adorns all Guinness cans and bottles. You can get free audio tours (which I didn't avail of) or just follow the arrows helpfully placed on the floor. The tour starts with descriptions of the different ingredients, barley, hops (which you can smell in the streets around St James Gate), yeast (of which a special strain in used in all Guinness and is kept under lock and key in the Master Brewer's safe at St James Gate) and water from the Wicklow Moutains. The second floor brings you through the brewing process from roasting the barley right to the coopers who used to make the casks for the storage and transportation of the black stuff. Did you know Guinness had it's own fleet of ships and commissioned it's own railway?

The next floor is possibly one of my favourite, it shows different advertisements from throughout the ages from around the world, both print and TV ads. One of my all time favourite ads is the Guinness Christmas ad. It reminds me of home and on the past few Christmases that I have spent away, it brings a lump to my throat when I watch it. The famous "Guinness is good for you" slogans are visible and you get a chance to star in your own Guinness ad.



But let's be honest what most people want is the sweet necter. And yes, included in your entrance is a free pint of the black stuff. You have the option of learning to pull the perfect pint in the Guinness Academy (a two part pour which, according to Guinness takes 119.5 seconds including the resting time after all "good things come to those who wait". You can then take your perfectly poured pint up to the Gravity Bar. If you decided not to face the queue to pour or simply decided to leave it to the experts, you can get a freshly poured pint while admiring the view of Dublin where on a clear day you can see out to Ireland's eye to the north and to the Wicklow mountains in the south,







Tips:

  • There is an early bird discount if you book online and enter before 11:30am 
  • Allow yourself a minimum of 2 hours and ideally 2 1/2 hours to not have to rush through it all. 
  • Buses that serve St James gate include the 40, 123, 13. You can also get the Luas to St James Hospital and walk approx 3 mins. All tourist buses stop here. 


Overall I loved the visits to the Guinness Storehouse. Yes, it's not cheap and yes, it is a tourist trap but it is worth the money and there is a reason many people visit every day. So visit and raise a glass to Arthur and his foresight, Guinness has been around for only 250 years of a 9,000 year lease. Here's to many more pints. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Slinks back with head held low and a bundle of contradictions on my back

Apologies, it has been way too long since I last wrote. Why, you might ask, or some of you probably don't care and are perfectly happy that I am no longer spamming your facebook feeds with my ramblings. Well, the answer is life. Life got in the way of me writing, that and the lack of a laptop. Over the last 4 months I have been working full time as an optometrist and reignited my love for having "the chats" with patients. I've talked about development and technology in Africa with an engineer from Vodafone, I've talked Barbra Kingsolver books with an 80 year old lady, I've discussed the merits of Mark and Spencers shoes for work with a woman in the banking industry and debated my career choice with a man in the Department of Education.

I am renewing my love for Dublin, a city I feel I never truly appreciated in the 6 years I lived here previously. I have amazing friends here who I can meet up with for a coffee or a drink, who, I know would be there at the end of the phone should I need them. Dublin offers live music, free events, cultural and fun events. I have wandered through the National Botanic Gardens, ran along the beach, drank wine with friends, went for brunch, attended friend's weddings and went to Dublin's Oktoberfest.

But most of all over the last few months, I have been looking after myself. I have started exercising again (yes, you did read that right, I went for a RUN and even more shockingly, have repeated this multiple times) and have renewed my love for cooking. I have decided that my health, both mental and physical needed some attention. As a result I am happy, healthy and have lost my Nsima weight. I am the fittest I have ever been in my life, I am comfortable with my friends and also with spending time alone. In short, I am in a much better place than I have been in months. I have gained perspective and am able to look back at things and smile.


However, now, my feet are getting itchy again. I am looking to far away lands, to sights I want to see, to cultures I want to experience and things I want to do. My wanderlust has not been sated just yet.

I am feeling uneasy with slipping back into the routine of my life here; wake up, exercise, work, cook, tv, bed. Repeat ad naseum. Now I know this is a broad generalisation and yes that is not EVERY day but for the most part that is what is happening and personally that is not something I want. I want to change this. My cousin is a personal trainer and often posts motivational videos or videos answering questions for people and this morning he popped up on my newsfeed on Facebook with a slightly ranty but very relevant video. It struck a cord with me. If I am not happy with how things are, I have to change that. I have to decide where I want to be and what I want to do.


However, I feel like at the moment, I am a bundle of contradictions, that I am two different people battling in the one life.
-I love my friends, love the familiarity, the closeness and the general amazingness of the people I am lucky to know and have in my life. At the same time, I enjoy meeting new people, forming new friendships, having new experiences. Some of those new friendships are ones I treasure now and cannot imagine being without. So who is to say that I will not meet more people who will shape my life for the better.
-Comfort and familiarity are things I have been enjoying lately. I enjoy cooking and being able to potter around the kitchen, I like having my clothes hung up and my friends in the same city. On the other hand, going out of my comfort zone, walking into a room where no one knows me, moving from place to place and exploring excites me.
- People who know me best could probably have never imagined me packing everything I need for a year into a backpack. I was (and am) someone who loves her 'things'. While the list of things I now treasure has changed, things that bring back memories of people and places now have priority over meaningless possessions. My photographs are probably one of my most precious possessions. Now I thrive on being able to carry my possessions on my back, to pack what is only necessary, to wear what is clean vs having too many options
- I have never denied it but I love getting dressed up. I like putting on a nice outfit, heels and make up and going out with friends. But at the same time, I am never happier than throwing on a pair of denim shorts, flip flops, pulling my hair back into a pony-tail and heading off to explore.
- I like routine. I like knowing how my day will pan out but at the same time, I love the unknown. I like waking up, not having a clue what I will do for the day and having a great day wandering or drifting.
- I have always been relatively independent, but I saw another side to me in Malawi. A side that loved being part of a couple, a side that enjoyed the companionship, the closeness with a boyfriend, enjoying another person's company and planning a future with them in it. This shocked me and although that is no longer there, I wonder what will make me truly happy again.

And so I am at this crossroads. I have work until the end of the year and I am happy to do that and lucky to have it. I enjoy this work for the most part and work with some lovely people. But I cannot help feeling that this is not where I am meant to be at this moment in time. But if I am not here, where will I be? What will I do? And more importantly what do I want to do? What do I want to be? A friend who was back in Dublin recently commented that even though I hadn't written a blog post recently I seemed conflicted, that I didn't know what I was going to do with my life and that is still the case. However, I am now wondering if that is SUCH a bad thing.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

How was it? Marking 2 years since I left for the Warm Heart of Africa.

My first African sunset
"Was it completely different?" "What was it like?" These are all questions that I have been asked repeatedly over the last 3 months since I moved home from Malawi. To be honest, I really have no idea how to answer them. Every answer I give seems hollow, like I am doing my time there a disservice. How can I sum up my experience in a few sentences? How can I give people a glimpse into my life there without boring them to tears with minute details? How can I do this wonderful country justice?


Some of my students


Even now sitting with my laptop I am wondering how to say the things I want without turning into one of those preachy 'My life changed' type person. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi changed me. It challenged me in ways I could not imagine and could not even to begin to describe and did truly change me in ways, I learnt loads about myself and my comforts and had a crash course in development, aid and public health. My attitude towards aid and charities changed seeing small NGOs with small budgets achieving so much at grassroots level, while the bigger NGOs have CEOs on huge salaries with huge shiny landrovers. Organisations such as Butterfly SpaceTemwaPhunzira and Determined to Develop are achieving so much with a fraction of the budget of bigger NGOs with an emphasis on sustainability in the areas they work in. I also saw the aspect of working for a big international organisation whose intentions were brilliant but often ended up spreading themselves thin trying to cover all aspects at once as opposed to perfecting one aspect.

First up a little background about the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawi is a small landlocked country in South Eastern Africa that has made the news most recently regarding their presidential election that was, most definitely, fixed. It often makes it's way into the 'poorest countries in the world' lists and last year made international headlines when a dispute with Tanzania over Lake Malawi and a potential oil find, could have led to war (if you were to believe the papers). Lake Malawi is the third largest and second deepest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world and is a huge reserve for the country. It draws tourists to it's shores to snorkel and dive among the, more than 1000, species of cichlids and it provides a life, and an income, to thousands of people who live on it's crystal clear shores. I moved to this beautiful country having accepted a job at the Malawi School of Optometry programme (see What I do for more information) and having to actually google the country to see where it was! I spent 18 months in this country and made memories, and friendships, that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Sunset over Lake Malawi
How could you not want to jump
into those waters?












How do I explain the little things in me that changed? That I could bathe myself using a bucket and a cup, heating the water on my stove if the mains water had been shut off. That I read by candle light on the frequent Sundays without power, that awaking on a Sunday morning involved me straining to hear my cistern or fridge, if I heard neither then there was no point in getting up, that forward thinking involved me making coffee on a Saturday night and having iced coffee on a Sunday morning when there was no power. How can explain my daily life that involved shopping in markets, kicking up the dusty red earth as I went, and jumping into a shared taxi that looks like it is held together with sticky tape and the prayers of it's owner to go home. The hopping into a 12 seater minibus with 25 people, a goat, some chickens and about 50 kilos of dried fish that became normal to me as did eating with my hands and eating parts of chicken I had never eaten before (neck, gizzards and feet anyone?) . It's the little day to day things that are hardest to verbalise.

My bedroom
Bucket Bath






My lovely house



First night in Mzuzu, ending in the hotel
Mmmmm Double Punch
And then there are the people I met. I am not exaggerating when I say the people in Malawi are special. Both natives and expats. The friends I met in this country will hopefully be with me for years. The people I danced to P-Square with, the friends who crowded into my house to watch Sister Act 2 on a tiny laptop, the friends who greeted me with a hug and a cold green when I arrived in their bar, the friends I shared Gold Label and boozy coffees with on Chikale Beach and the friends who were always at the end of the phone for a quick drink and chat or numerous mugs of tea,  the people I played slapshots with. I'm not sure what I expected when I moved to Mzuzu but I sure didn't expect to meet the range of kind hearted, amazing people I was fortunate to spend time with. The people who are making their lives in Malawi, the people who are there working to help Malawi in various ways, the people I am proud to call friends. From my first night in Malawi I was welcomed into this amazing group of people, where, like many Friday nights to follow, we drank greens at the Zoo, celebrated the arrival of Hassan with numerous whisky shots and danced until the wee hours in the Hotel, to my last few weeks in Mzuzu that involved lots of dinners, numerous afternoon beers and many tears, and like many before me, I bade Mzuzu a fond farewell. (See here for some amazing people who left before me). I of course cannot forget the amazing friends on the lake, my 2 other Desperate Housewives of Nkhata Bay (TM), my Izo Izo dancing buddies and my swimming friends at Butterfly who welcomed me into their families and their lives with open arms.

I mean look at these cuties
The first 12 pubs of Mzuzu


















I did truly fall in love with the country, with the people I met and indeed with one special person, a person who, in his own special way, changed me and the way I look at life and for that I will forever be grateful. A person, I could have happily spent the rest of my life with, someone who I talked about this with and someone I was willing to go back to Malawi to be with. However that person also taught me what it was like to experience true betrayal and intense heartbreak, things I was not prepared for and that knocked me for six. Picking up the pieces of my life and moving on was one of the toughest things I have done. Another lesson learnt, another chapter in the story of life.



People have asked me a lot would I go back. And the answer, "In a heartbeat". Even though things have fallen apart with my relationship and my work, Malawi is a very special place that has wormed it's way into my heart. I took me into it's grasp and continues to draw me to it. I am proud of the little things I achieved in Malawi; I saw the first ever optometrists graduate, I taught students who will provide a much needed service to Malawi, we did vision screenings that involved thousands of people who might never have had their eyes tested, I made friendships that I value, I saw animals and places I never imagined, I camped all over Sub Saharan Africa, I had experiences I had previously only imagined. And while I have regrets about how things ended, I am glad I got to give a little back to this fantastic country that gave, and continues to give me so much.
A baby monkey visited me in my house!
             
                    Hundreds of school children waiting to have
              their eyes tested




Quote for the Day: "I went to sleep dreaming of Malawi, and all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart" - William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Robben Island: A pilgrimage for Nelson Mandela

When you think of South Africa, you think of Nelson Mandela, the country's first black president, someone who fought against apartheid and was jailed for his belief that blacks and whites should be equal in his country. And then you think of Cape Town and you think of Robben Island, the island where Mandela and so many other political prisoners were held. Having just finished reading 'Long Walk to Freedom' on my 18 hour bus journey from Windhoek, I was eager to visit this place that Mandela started his autobiography and the place where he spent most of his adult life.

Having read a lot about visiting Robben Island, not all good, I was not expecting much. Having read about being rushed around the island and not having time to explore, I still wanted to visit this place shrouded in so much history. I had visited the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at enquired about availability. The horror stories about week long waits for tickets were false and I was there during the summer in February and could have left that afternoon if I wanted. Granted, if you were a larger group then you may have to wait a day or 2 (and in Cape Town, that is no hard thing, read about it here) but as I was looking for 2 tickets, it was very straightforward. I paid R500 for the 2 tickets (approx USD50) for an 11am sailing. Ferries run at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm daily and it's recommended you are at the Gateway 30mins prior to departure. Realistically there are 2 boats that go across at the time and you could be on either. TIP: Try to get there earlier and get the first boat as then you can look around a bit before going to the prison for your tour.

As a result of  going through some fog en route. 
Robben Island is about 9km off the coast of Cape Town and was used as a metal health asylum and as a leper colony in previous times. It is most well known for having been the site of internment of South Africa's political prisoners during the apartheid regime and served as a maximum security prison until 1991. The boat trip over was all part of the experience. Seeing the seals that gave Robben Island it's name swimming next to the boat and the island being shrouded in a low lying fog giving an eerie, and damp, trip into the harbour.
Our guide giving the ANC salute

The tours are run by former inmates and the inmate running our tour was arrested as part of the Soweto uprising and was housed in the D block. He talked of his experience in the prison and of the strong solidarity among the political prisoners, something that Mandela touches on in "The Long Walk to Freedom". Touring the prison grounds, seeing censored letters and the famous garden where the first draft of Mandela's autobiography was hidden and getting a chance to peek into that famous cell, adorned with a wreath and a memorial candle, all added to the poignancy of the day. Yes, you are herded around in a big group, yes there is not much time to explore on your own and yes, it can be irritating if you are used to slow exploring but these reasons are not enough to warrant you passing up this opportunity. Having read the book, and seen the mild undercurrent of racism that still exists in South Africa, and indeed all across the globe, it gives you a strong feeling of what these people were fighting for. They were fighting to be considered as equals, to be given the basic human rights that the white people were given. Simple things like interracial relationships were illegal under apartheid, black people were only allowed live in certain areas and in the case of District Six, were force ably removed if the area was reallocated to a different racial group. Education, welfare, even park benches were segregated. Mandela talks about how this segregation even continued within the prison walls with differing uniforms and food for White, Blacks and Coloureds.
Mandela's cell

The garden where the first draft of
'Long Walk to Freedom' was hidden.
Cell block D


















Following the tour of the prison we boarded buses to travel around the small island seeing the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow inmates conducted their physical labour and held meetings and taught fellow inmates, stopping off to admire Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain towering over the city. A sight that was so near but yet so far for the inmates. A view that tempted more than one inmate to attempt to swim to the mainland. Once again the guide on our bus was fantastic giving insights and facts about apartheid, even going so far as to explain to the whole bus that if Puncque and I had been together during apartheid, we would have been breaking the law!
Under apartheid laws this would have been illegal

















Rows of letters between the
 Irish government
and the Irish Anti Apartheid movement
Coming back to the mainland we took some time to walk around the museum at the Gateway. For me, there was a huge surge of pride as we wandered around an exhibition on the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement. To feel that my little country on the edge of Europe had a role to play in the anti apartheid movement. From the brave 10 women and one man who picketed Dunnes Stores for nearly 3 years when they refused to handle South African goods, to Nelson Mandela being given the freedom of Dublin city and him choosing Ireland as his first European country to visit after his release.




Mandela receiving the freedom of Dublin in 1990
At the end of the day, when you attend a major tourist attraction be it Robben Island, Ankor Wat, the Louvre or Maccu Picchu you will battle with crowds, you will have the things you are allowed to do dictated by the people who run that attraction. Is this a reason not to visit it? Not at all. If you miss out on these places you will be missing out on a piece of history, an amazing sight or an experience of a life time.


NOTE: Today I went to the world premiere of Blood Fruit, a documentary about the Dunnes Stores strikers and their role in the Irish anti apartheid movement. It was an amazing story that finished with a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu congratulating all involved in the making of the documentary.

QUOTE FOR THE DAY: "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." Miriam Beard