The past 48 hours have been a blur of cold hands, breathtaking sights, and laughing until my stomach aches. It was a whirlwind trip of Belfast,  the Dark Hedges from Game of Thrones, Ballintoy Harbor, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Giant’s Causeway, and Dunluce Castle, but it was positively amazing.

On the Highway to Hell  Northern Ireland

Ireland is a small little island about the size of West Virginia. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere here, so even though our destination was only an hour and a half away, we still had to cross into a different country. The Republic of Ireland split from Northern Ireland in 1922, and ever since the island has been split into two countries. The Republic is self-governing while the North is part of the UK and governed by Britain. Luckily, there’s not much border control here anymore, not like there used to be during The Troubles when the Irish Republican Army was fighting the British Army and other loyalist groups. Northern Ireland used to be one of the most dangerous places in Europe, but not anymore. We even passed the most bombed hotel in Europe and it was quite intact.

My entire study abroad group (except two) went along on this trip, so we rented a very comfortable coach driven by Ciaran, a world champion bag pipe player. He did great imitations of the trackies, so he was a-okay in my book. Admittedly, I slept part of the way there because I was up by 6:30 am, and evidently I slept with my mouth open. There’s even photo evidence somewhere around here…

sleepy

Black Taxi Tour

When we got to Belfast, we were immediately shepherded (like sheep) into a waiting line of famous Black Taxis. Except, some of them – like the one I ended up in – were white. The interior smelled like someone had shaken up a Sprite and let it explode and seep into the carpet. Anytime we got out of the cab to look at political murals or the peace walls, our taxi driver would roll our windows down. When we got back in, we’d have to roll them back up again. Maybe he was trying to vent the Sprite smell? Maybe he wanted to mess with the American college students?

I’d gotten so much prep on what to expect in Northern Ireland that I didn’t end up learning anything new on the Black Taxi Tour, but I did get to put images to the story of war and continued tensions that remain between the Catholics and Protestants despite the peace treaties that have been in use since 1996. Throughout the city, there are giant 40 foot peace walls that still separate the segregated neighborhoods. If you’re Catholic, you don’t move into a Protestant neighborhood and vice versus. There’s been some crossover in recent years, though. Catholics and Protestants work together and such, but when they go home to their respective neighborhoods at night, the gates to the peace walls are shut and locked. It will take some time still before the walls are deemed unnecessary, but as it stands, the majority of people want the walls to remain.

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It was quite a strange tour because we never drove very far and got out several times, walking around residential neighborhoods and staring at 40 foot walls. I nearly lost my gloves three times getting in and out of the taxi at different stops. It also started raining, and then it freaking hailed on us. No hard feelings, though Belfast. I forgive you.

Victoria Square

JUST KIDDING. I don’t forgive you Belfast.

Some context: we stopped to eat lunch and walk around town a bit in a busy shopping area. The mall was strangely indoors and also outdoors, which makes little sense to me in a country that rains so much and gets cold in the winters. Anyhow, it wasn’t the constant rain or the water in my right boot that made me sour to the city. Standing in line at the ATM, I was three people from the front when I realized I didn’t have my wallet, which meant I couldn’t take out any pounds and had no money for my trip. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise later (because I simply wouldn’t have used it all) but at the time, I was very sad; I just wanted a nice tall steamed milk. But it was sitting down in Costa Coffee to warm up without a nice tall steamed milk and reaching in my pocket only to realize I only had one glove that really did it. I love my gloves. They’re the kind that allow you to still use the touch screen on your phone and are surprisingly warm. I was devastated.

At least this place was pretty.

At least this place was pretty.

So I went hunting, retracing our steps back out into the rain and to two little shops we’d stopped in. I found an excess of cow paintings and ridiculous Guinness and leprechaun key chains, but no glove. I walked back to the bus in defeat, hoping that whoever had found my glove needed it more than I did.

Titanic Museum

Believe it or not, the Titanic was built in Belfast and as the locals say, “It was fine when it left.” The Titanic Museum was a massive four story building shaped oddly with four points to represent the different directions of the wind. You could spot the place from quite a distance away. The sheer amount of information in the museum was overwhelming. We started on the first floor, which was all about the city of Belfast during the time leading up to the building of the Titanic. We didn’t spend much time here because I had a feeling there would be a lot more to see and not enough time to see it.

titanic museum

And I was correct. We had to ride an elevator up to the fourth floor after finishing on the first so that we could work our way back down. It was a strange way to organize the museum but it worked. The museum itself was designed to be as tall as the deck that passengers would have been able to stand on and look out over the ocean. Standing on the fourth floor helped me see just how tall and massive the ship would have been for the deck – not even the tallest part of the ship – to be up so high off the water. The first thing we did up top though was go on the six minute ride they have. It wasn’t a roller coaster or anything thrilling, but the car we sat in did hang from the ceiling as we moved through the story of what it was like for the workers who built the Titanic. The work was long and the pay was little; it made me thankful to be heading on a different path that involves less manual labor.

titanic museum 3

As we moved down through the levels, we saw what the different rooms looked like for the first, second, and third class passengers (the disparity was alarming), took a virtual tour of the ship, watched the collision and subsequent sinking, saw the Titanic resting on the ocean through a glass floor and got to find some of the artifacts that survived the crash. The most touching part was reading about the stories of death and survival, though I’d expected more of these stories than there were. Reading the different SOS calls the Titanic made to other ships while it was sinking gave me chills. Reading about the missions to collect to the dead bodies made me consider what it would be like to be on a ship that was sinking in the middle of the freezing ocean water knowing that death was imminent. My heart swelled for the people who died on that journey, many of whom were just trying to get to a better life in America.

titanic museum 2

I also learned about the truth behind many of the myths created by Hollywood. I’m ashamed to admit that I had no idea James Cameron’s version of events were totally false. Though a man by Jack’s name did exist on the list (a coincidence) there was no such love story between him and Rose. That means that everything I ever thought I knew about the Titanic is likely just as fabricated. To clear some of the misconceptions up:

  1. The boat really did split into two pieces as it was sinking, and the two halves rest about a mile apart on the ocean floor today deep enough that there is no sunlight.
  2. The third class passengers were not kept from getting on the lifeboats as portrayed in the film. Fewer survived possibly because they were lower on the ship and it was difficult to get up to the deck, or because they simply didn’t know anything was wrong until after the others on the upper levels did.

    titanic museum 4

    A fake view of the ocean from the ship’s deck.

  3. There was no necklace that Rose threw into the water. Another James Cameron original.
  4. Part of the reason the iceberg wasn’t spotted until too late was because the man who had the key to the case holding the binoculars didn’t get on the ship, so the lookout was using their vision alone to look through the dark. The captain had also been warned that there was ice floating around and didn’t slow down, making the collision inevitable.
  5. The ship was never claimed to be unsinkable. It was designed to be strong and durable, but nothing is unsinkable and the builders were never using this line of thought.
The ship yard where the Titanic was built.

The ship yard where the Titanic was built.

I was actually one of the last people back onto the bus, not wanting to leave and rushing through the last exhibits. I could spend hours in there. Highly recommended.

The Dark Hedges

It was about an hour to our next little stop, The Dark Hedges. This eerie tree-lined road was made famous by Game of Thrones but I’d also seen photos of it in the past because they’re really cool. It was nearly dark and the rain had just started when we pulled up to the hedges, but they did not disappoint. Every bit of water that my right boot soaked up was worth the chance to see this little slice of Ireland.

dark hedges

Ballintoy

From The Dark Hedges, it was another 30 minutes to Ballintoy, a sleepy little Irish village right on the seaside. There’s no grocery store in town, only a small collection of houses and a few pubs. We spent the night in Sheep Island View Hostel, where there was a view of both the ocean and some sheep grazing on an idyllic hill. We couldn’t see much by the time we got there since the sun sets quite early, but I could feel the ocean air. The hostel itself was adorable and the rooms smelled just like a Disney World hotel (that smell is one I’ll never forget and I love being reminded of it). The showers had hot water and even though I had to use a hair towel to dry off and the room itself was very cold, it was doable. Next weekend I’ll be in Belgium sleeping in a hostel for two nights, so I used this trip as prep for what to expect next weekend. I found that hand sanitizer is a must as hand soap isn’t provided. The kitchen was well stocked and the bedding was sufficiently warm. There was a plug right next to my bed to charge my phone and my room for four was blessed with an en suite, which I will not have in the next hostel (Jess, Courtney, and I will be sleeping in a group room with multiple beds).

Nearly the whole town of Ballintoy.

Nearly the whole town of Ballintoy.

I didn’t realize that the hostel was preparing dinner for me, so I made a massive batch of rice in the rice cooker that – yes – I carried with me in my backpack. I made too much rice, but I entertained the masses by carrying the whole cooker to dinner and eating straight out of it. One of my friends thought it was so hilarious that he was at a loss for words. I’m glad my rice makes people laugh. The owners of the hostel were incredibly sweet. When I walked up to the counter and announced, “I’m the turkey girl,” since they made turkey special for me, they laughed their heads off. They made me a lovely plate of turkey, potatoes, carrots, and green beans. One of the ladies touched my arm and asked me if it was hard having a strict diet like mine. Her face was so sad for me that it touched my heart. I was thankful to be well-fed, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard watching everyone else eat the scrumptious-looking dessert of warm chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, and fresh strawberries. I was surrounded by good friends, though, and that always makes it easier.

The view from our hostel.

The view from our hostel.

After dinner was where things got very interesting. So interesting that I feel obligated to spare you the details. Here’s all you need to know: a group of us got to talking about a book I bought a few weeks ago at a local bookstore. I thought it was a cultural study about perceptions of sex, but it turned out to be erotica, plain and simple. We happened to have the book with us. We moved to a local pub, sat in the corner, and slowly over the course of the night, our table grew in size as more people came over to see what all the talk was about. My friend Alex bought me a milk in a wine glass because he took way too much money out of the ATM and because we all thought it would be funny. It was. By the end of the night, one of our professors who went on the trip was at our table telling us that he’d had a lot of interesting conversations in this pub, but ours took the cake. When I left with my roomies, my stomach muscles ached from laughing so hard. Overnight, we’d made a little reputation for ourselves. Instead of the quiet and rather uncool introverts, we are officially mysterious and interesting. At least in our own minds :p (I also learned that another guy on the trip, Matt, shares a birthday with me. I only know of one other fellow born on June 7, so it was quite a bonding moment.)

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Ballintoy Harbor

The real magic happened the next morning.

To be fair, the day started out badly. I had a rice cooker half-full of rice that turned into rice-mush overnight and I had to figure out what to do with it so it didn’t go to waste. The only logical thing was to eat it. So I did, shoving as much in as a I could and barely chewing before swallowing. It was a grueling ten minutes of my life, but not too much rice went to waste. Lesson learned: STOP MAKING SO MUCH DAMN RICE.

But then the nice hostel owners made me my own special oatmeal and soft boiled eggs and I couldn’t be sad anymore. The same lady that asked me about my diet the night before asked me if it gets boring and she had the same sad face on. I answered with complete honesty: yes, it gets extremely boring. “But you get it through it,” I told her. “You haven’t a choice,” she said. Don’t I know it. The eggs didn’t want to peel very well, which was another small annoyance. But the sun was shining for our walk to Ballintoy Harbor, and after the rain yesterday, it was a Godsend. The air was chilly, especially with the wind whipping off the ocean, and as we were walking along the little farm road down to the water, we had no idea what we were in for. We saw sheep and an adorable dog who would bark anytime we stopped petting it. I found a small cemetery at the Ballintoy Church with tombstones bearing my last name. I rarely find any Wilkinson’s in any of the cemeteries I visit, and it made me feel like I belonged in this adorable and charming place.

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The views were stunning. Pictures don’t do the place justice, not by a long shot. The morning light was soft and the waves were crashing against the basalt rocks. The air smelled like salt water and the only sound was that of the ocean, big and strong, flexing its muscles between the spaces in the rocks. We climbed up to the top of some of the rock formations and could see for what felt like miles in all directions: out to the ocean, back up at Ballintoy sitting idyllically on the hill. My breath was gone and I felt like a girl standing before the Grand Canyon, or seeing the ocean for the first time, or standing beneath the first waterfall I’d ever seen. I kept flashing back to memories of me playing in my childhood home’s front yard under a perfectly blue sky, laying on the grass looking up, watching the clouds move by. That memory is my happy place, and any place that can evoke it is somewhere truly magical. I could close my eyes and pretend I was that same child again, watching a sky of possibility float carelessly by.

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After trying to get perfectly timed pictures of the waves smacking the rocks, exploring a small cave, and climbing to the top of a small fortress, we climbed slowly back up the hill to our hostel, where we boarded the bus and drove the few minutes to our next stop.

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Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

We took a nice walk along the cliff-side overlooking the gorgeous ocean, the sun making the water appear varying shades of blue and teal and green all at once. It reminded me of spending summers on the lake, and I only wished it were seventy degrees rather than thirty. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have left. Nothing anyone said could have convinced me that there was anywhere else in the world more worthwhile to be.

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After about fifteen minutes, we came to the rope bridge that spans between two rock islands out over the ocean. It’s about ninety feet off the water, which was crashing over rocks below. The bridge isn’t rickety at all, but reinforced with steel ropes and pretty solid. I love heights, so it was a thrill for me to be out on the bridge, and I walked as slowly as possible so I could be out there longer. On the other side, my group gathered. We took photos and looked out over the bay until it was time to cross back over and head back for the bus. The walk back over was not as exciting. The attendant angrily took my water bottle from my hand and shoved it in my pocket so I could use both hands to hold the ropes. From there we had to climb a million stairs, but we got the same amazing views all the way back plus the exertion made us warmer in the cold wind. All I could think as I looked out over the water was how I must bring my mother here, because she would simply adore it.

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Smuggler’s Inn

smuggler's inn ireland

Look at that milk. So fancy.

Next we drove the short way to Smuggler’s Inn, which was our lunch stop right near Giant’s Causeway. From the road we could see three countries at once: Scotland, Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. The restaurant was really fancy with nice wood floors and red napkins placed decoratively in our water glasses. I sat a table in the corner with Jess and Abbie. My friends at the Sheep Island View hostel made me food for lunch because the restaurant had already said they couldn’t. So there I sat with my tupperware full of turkey, potatoes, carrots, and green beans. Turns out I didn’t need it. The restaurant had a ginormous turkey breast for me with carrots and potatoes that were skinless but strangely hard on the outside and soft on the inside. I was a happy girl. Plus I had a warm milk in a very fancy mug (late, since the waiter forgot to get our drinks until after we’d finished eating). Abbie and I had a bonding moment in the bathroom as we shared the single hair dryer. I would put my hands near the heat first and then switch with her, and we just kept switching until our hands were dry. Never a dull moment with apartment 29.

Giant’s Causeway

I’ve seen the pictures and heard the legends, but I didn’t really know what to expect with the Giant’s Causeway. There were tour buses everywhere, and I’m always skeptical (even though I’m currently a tourist) of places with lots of tour buses. We opted to walk the kilometer to the Causeway rather than taking the bus so we could enjoy the “pre-game” sites along the way. Each bend we came around brought us closer to the Causeway and provided a more impressive ocean and cliff view. The walk was all downhill so it hardly took long at all, giving us a little over an hour to explore the Causeway itself.

giants causeway

The “pre-game” as the kids might call it. (The kids would never call it that.)

At first, I was disappointed. The rocks were crawling with tourists and it looked much different from the ground than the aerial views I was used to. But as we started walking out on the rocks, which were like naturally formed octagonal steps, it slowly broke over me just how amazing it was. The waves slapped and rushed over the rocks, the wet ones forming a darker gray color than the dry rocks, which were more brown/tan. We climbed up to the top of the first little mountain and stood out near the ocean looking out. It was like I was the only person in the world for a moment. Can you imagine what it would have felt like to stumble upon this undiscovered wonder thousands of years ago?

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After climbing around and snapping photo after photo, Jess, Abbie, and I sat down on some rocks out near where the water broke over the rocks, making a huge splash. We made it our mission to capture it on camera, but we had to be patient and wait for the perfect wave. It was lulling, watching and listening to the ocean pull and push, the tide slowing moving in as the sun set behind us. The sky was a mix of foreboding clouds with perfectly clear sunshine that hit the mountain sides and the little pools of water sitting in the rocks, which danced with the wind.

giants causeway

Part of me wanted to stay for hours and hours. Another part of me wanted to be safe and warm back in our apartment three hours south. This opposing force of feelings has been happening to me while traveling and I think it’s both my desire for adventure butting up against my need for safety and control. When I’m out sitting where the ocean can reach me with one good wave, pulling me out to sea, I’m not as safe as I would be sitting in my bed. I’ve always been someone who can’t help but think about what comes next, and anytime I’m seeing a sight like this one, I always think about how it will end. And since I hate goodbyes, part of me wants to skip ahead to when it’s over and the goodbyes already said, so I don’t have to endure them. Strange, I know. Nevertheless, I loved the Causeway. I loved climbing to the very tallest part of the rock and surveying the land before we caught the bus back up to the top. Ireland is a real place – or so it would seem – and I still am having trouble believing that. It’s just so stunningly beautiful, my little human brain can’t comprehend it.

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Dunluce Castle

The castle was just a short drive away from the Causeway, which was nice, but by then (around 4 pm) we’d been sight-seeing since 9 am and I was ready for a nice long bus ride to get warm and rest my feet. Alas, that was not to be, but Dunluce was certainly worth it. An old castle from the 15th and 16th centuries, Dunluce is still in marvelous shape considering its age and how much clan warfare took place all around it over the years. It was hard for me to envision as a castle since the roof fell apart long ago, but a lot of walls remain, including two towers. It took quite awhile to see all the parts of the castle, and I stayed with the tour group for a the first bit, but ended up wandering off on my own because there was so much to take in. I loved looking through the old stone windows at the ocean and cliffs spread all around. The castle was built right on the cliff. I mean right on the side of the cliff. So close to the edge in fact that a couple hundred years ago (though the exact time is disputed), while the family of the castle was hosting a dinner party, the kitchen fell off into the sea, taking a few maids along with it. There’s also a nice sea cave under the castle, but we didn’t have enough time to climb down the bajillion stairs to get to it.

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When we piled back into the bus, we saw that we were right next to a field of grazing sheep. When they started walking, we noticed that one of them was limping. It was  the most precious thing, watching that little sheep hobble after his friends. And just as we were pulling away…the clouds opened up and the rain began to fall. That, my friends, is the very definition of perfect timing. We had nowhere else to be for a few hours until our stop for dinner at a rest stop. I slept with my mouth unashamedly opened, got a nice steamed milk at the rest stop, and realized a band named Pizza Corpse with some of my friends. I also saw the exact same little ice cream truck ride at the rest stop that used to be in the Shoe Carnival my step dad worked at. Seeing it was like a jolt to the past: I haven’t thought of that ride in years, and maybe never would have again if I hadn’t seen it there 3,300 miles away in Ireland.

The Pizza Corpse album cover.

The Pizza Corpse album cover.

And it wouldn’t be a complete trip by apartment 29 standards without a trackie run-in. This one came at as we were getting off the bus at our apartment. To be fair, my roommates and I were already inside the building when they struck (literally). It was another incident of egg throwing, but this time a few unlucky people actually got hit. Ciaran the bus driver was still there as was Ciaran the man in charge of making our experience in Dublin pleasant. Truly never a dull moment in Dublin. Like how it hails a disproportionate amount here compared to anywhere else I’ve lived. It hailed today so hard it looked like snow and collected on the ground, covering everything for a brief five minutes and then it was just gone.

(Insert a nice conclusion here.)

Also, happy birthday Abbie! Galentine’s Day has never looked more like a birthday and less like a Hallmark holiday in my entire life. Thank you for existing and buying matching cat socks with me.