Sunday Sunset: London Eye

Picture of sunset over Thames and London Eye

Thames and London Eye, c. 2006


Lion of Ireland

Ireland was the third foreign country I ever visited, beaten only by a two-way trip on the Al-Can highway and a three-month adventure in the UK. I won a tour of the island in a London pub giveaway in 2002, and I was excited to see Ireland despite not knowing much about it.

With red hair and a love for beer and potatoes, I have always felt an affinity for the Irish. Like the Irish, my hair coloring comes from those pesky Vikings who spread the gene far and wide. However, although I was told growing up that I had Irish roots, after researching my family tree later in life I have discovered that such lineage is mostly a fabrication–the tree goes back through various parts of Britain but not its western island neighbor.

I read a lot of Celtic fantasy novels as a teenager. One that particularly stuck with me was Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn. It tells the tale of Brian Boru, a 10th-century Irish king who united the island under his rule. The book is filled with fantastical elements, complex female characters, and, of course, a dashing hero. I loved it.

Perhaps because I’m American and our world history is deplorable, or perhaps because I have the intelligence roughly comparable to a lemur, I somehow never realized Brian Boru was a real person.

Picture of the Rock of Cashel in Ireland

The Rock of Cashel (apologies for quality of images)

One of the first stops on my Ireland tour is the Rock of Cashel, a medieval castle built on a rocky outcrop high above the surrounding green plains. It’s a dark, looming figure on the horizon. It is also from where, I learn to my utter shock, Brian Boru ruled for 25 years.

Picture of the Rock of Cashel in Ireland

Looking down at the town

Picture of Cashel in Ireland

The countryside

Picture of Cashel in Ireland

Around the town

I am in complete disbelief that Brian Boru actually existed. Not just a character in a book a read years prior, but an actual person who lived and died on the same ground my tour bus rattled across. The experience of it is world-shattering, witnessing a fictional character suddenly step into the real world. If you’ve read The Eyre Affair, you can imagine what it felt like. (As a side note, I cannot recommend The Eyre Affair highly enough, but if it also turns out to be based on real events I will have a nervous breakdown.)

Picture of The Rock of Cashel in Ireland

Looking up at the castle walls

There are so many beautiful, interesting things to see in Ireland. None, however, affected me on the same visceral level as the Rock of Cashel. We only had about thirty minutes on our stop, and I feel like I didn’t get to see anything. I would love to go back.

Have you had a similar, world-shattering experience? I’d love to hear about it.

Images of Ireland

Ireland looks like a water painting.

It helps that the pictures I took my first time there predate (affordable) digital cameras and thus have muddled colors and dull lines, but, nevertheless, there’s something wildly ethereal about the Emerald Isle. Here are a few of my favorite images, taken in 2002.

Picture of ireland landscape

Irish landscape

Picture of Kilkee beach, Ireland


Picture of Ireland

Sigh. I don’t remember. If someone knows which ruins these are, please enlighten me.

Picture of Blarney Castle in Ireland

View from atop Blarney Castle

Picture of Cliffs of Moher in Ireland

Cliffs of Moher

Tuesday Tip: British Museum

I’m a bit of the opinion that once you’ve seen one museum, you’ve seen them all. (I know, I’m a terrible person.) Having artifacts behind glass–while necessary–sterilizes the experience, and the rush to see everything means you never actually see anything.

That’s why the British Museum’s object handling sessions are so exciting. Perfect for those with waning eyesight or those who simply want a more-tactile experience, the object handling sessions allow visitors to pick up real artifacts and hold them in their hands. It is much more thrilling to feel the weight of a real ancient coin in your hand or to run your finger over the chisel marks on a small, Roman carving than to simply view the object behind plexiglass. Have a real connection with an item rather than simply check it off the list of things to see.

Like the British Museum itself, object handling sessions are free and happen daily.

A Tasteful Review of International Brews

One of my favorite memories from all my travels comes from an overnight visit to Cobh, Ireland. The small, seaport town is dominated by a huge church lording over the city from atop a hill, but beyond that I don’t know much about Cobh and am only there overnight.

My friend and I end up in a pub near our hostel. A piano man is there, his voice scratchy and indelicate, his fingers slamming down on the keys like an elephant. The room is completely packed. He rasps through Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and everyone gets a bit weepy.

He makes playful banter throughout his set. At one point, he holds up his glass to the crowd. “What have I here?”

“Guinness!” everyone drunkenly responds.

He nods and chugs what remains until just an inch or so remains in his glass. He fills it with water. “And what have I now?”

We all glance around, confused.

A mischievous grin creeps across his face. “Budweiser!”

I will never look at Budweiser the same way again.

Big Game Alaska

After moving to Alaska in 1993, one of the first places my parents took me was Big Game Alaska. It was a fairly new wildlife-rescue organization nearby Portage Glacier, and I was excited to see Alaskan animals up close for the first time. The grounds were sort of ratty, with few animals and only a handful of visitors. We were handed a bag of food pellets upon arrival and encouraged to feed the moose, caribou, and elk.

Picture of an elk at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

An elk

Big Game Alaska rescued animals–abandoned babies, injured adults–and rehabilitated them on site. The goal was to return animals to the wild, but if he or she couldn’t be released, the animal would have a permanent home on site. It was a strange place: situated at the end of the Turnagain Arm, there were endless acres on which animals could roam, thin fences separating the human side from the animals’, and no real supervision. We wandered around, doling out our bag of treats to animals who mostly ignored us. The only animals we were told not to get close to were the musk ox, which wasn’t a problem: they ignored us, too.

Picture of a musk ox at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A musk ox

A small gift center lay at the center of the premises. Inside they sold typical Alaskan jewelery and goods, as well as moose and caribou jerky. Even as a child, I found that odd, selling the meat of animals I had just petted.

The meager staff got to know my family well as we made frequent pilgrimages to the site. They encouraged us to bring bananas for the moose. Over the years the bags of food were phased out, but we were still allowed our bananas.

Picture of elk at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Me, feeding the elk

A friend and I happened to be there when two orphaned moose calves arrived. Nick, named after the Knik Arm in which he was found, was the sicker of the two, a scrawny little baby with a severe respiratory infection. He ended up dying a few days later. It broke my heart, but I’m glad he was safe and warm and loved at the end.

Picture of moose calves at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A worker feeding Nick (l) and Matty (r)

The other calf was Matty, named after the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley where she was found. Her mother had been illegally killed by hunters, and she was doomed to die herself if not for some other compassionate people who noticed her plight. As Matty was the healthier of the two, my friend and I were allowed to bottle feed her.

Picture of moose calf at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Feeding Matty

I regularly checked in with her over the next few weeks and months. She always remembered me, and even years later as a full-grown, one-thousand-pound adult, she would get up and run over to me when she heard my voice. Moose live about 15-20 years, so I don’t know if she’s still there, but I hope so. I think about her all the time, my first non-companion-animal love.

Picture of moose calves at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Petting Matty, Nick in foreground

Picture of moose at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Me, feeding Matty as she grew up

Big Game Alaska appears to have dramatically transformed since my time there. It is now The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, dedicated to conservation, rehabilitation, and education. You can no longer feed or pet the animals at all (probably a good thing in retrospect), and they have branched out to include bears and other species not on the roster during my years.

Picture of moose at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A moose with fresh, velvety antlers

Picture of Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

A herd in the distance

It was and looks to still be a wonderful alternative to the horribly depressing Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, with natural habitats catered to the animals rather than the people, animals in their real homes rather than in artificial enclosures. Plus, it’s a few dollars cheaper, too.

If you ever go, make sure to ask if Matty is still there. If she is, sneak her a banana for me.

Top 5 Places to Revisit

Where have you visited that you’re dying to see again? Answer the question, and you may win an iPhone 6. The rules are simple – write a blog post with pictures of the 5 places you most want to see again, link to Booked.netTop Destinations to Go There, and then challenge 5 other bloggers to the competition. I’ve been challenged by fellow blogger A Bit of Culture. My nominations are at the end of this post.

1. Munich
I was all ready to start this off with Bruges, Belgium, as it’s probably the destination to which I most want to return. But, through a comedy of errors, neither I nor my three travel companions have any pictures of the place. And so I’ve altered my plans to instead include Munich, the main attraction on the trip that also saw me spend two wonderful hours in Bruges.

Munich is incredibly picturesque, with medieval city gates, Bavarian beer gardens, and a towering cathedral overlooking the town. Supposedly you’re supposed to be able to see the Alps in the distance, but, after braving the winding staircase, I am only rewarded with this view:

Picture of view from Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany

View from Frauenkirche

I went to Munich for Oktoberfest and nothing more. It is only retrospect that I’m kicking myself for not seeing more of the city and surrounding region, and so I’d love to return at a time when I’ll be less distracted by the siren song of one-liter steins of local brew.

2. Shanghai
I’m without a doubt an Anglophile, so what drew me most to Shanghai was its Continental feel oddly contrasting with elements that were uniquely Chinese. The French Concession has long boulevards populated with majestic, leafy trees and China-meets-Europe residential housing, while the Bund embankment is lined with historic, Victorian-style buildings. There are plazas surrounded by lively cafes, trendy art districts only accessible through an unmarked opening in a wall, and definitively Asian architecture lighting up the night sky. It’s cosmopolitan and historic, trendy and traditional, all at once.

Picture of Shanghai at night as seen from the Bund

Shanghai at night, as seen from the Bund

Of all the cities I saw in China, Shanghai is my favorite. I’d love to get back there again.

3. Alaska
I spent my formative years in Anchorage, so this is a bit of a cheat, but I haven’t been back in more than a decade. I miss seeing mountains out my window (it took me years to stop mistaking low clouds on the horizon for a distant mountain chain) and moose munching in my front yard. I miss skiing at Alyeska, visiting abandoned mines in Prince William Sound, and hearing the crack of calving glaciers in the distance. I miss the midnight summer sun and even the disturbing vibrations of oncoming earthquakes (something else it took me years to overcome, mistaking the rattle of every passing truck for a tremor). The Facebook feeds of friends still there fill me with intense envy, the experiences they have, the growth of places like Anchorage and Fairbanks that they get to witness.

Picture of mountains in Alaska

An old view of Alaska

I don’t know if I’d even recognize it anymore, but I hope I get to see my home again one day.

4. Kennebunkport, Maine
I haven’t spent much time in New England, which is ridiculous considering I’ve lived on the East Coast for the past seven years. I had the opportunity to go to Maine for a wedding and was simply blown away by the adorableness of Kennebunkport, a tiny fishing town. When I arrived at about 9PM, all the restaurants were already closed (in the end, that didn’t matter much as the fare was mostly inedible-to-me seafood). It was humid and chilly, the air smelling of saltwater and already-burning fireplaces. The streets were dark and unpopulated. It was both beautiful and creepy at once.

Picture of house on coast in Kennebunkport, Maine

House in Kennebunkport

Weirdly, this is where George H. W. Bush has a summer home. “Summer home.” It’s actually a giant compound spilling over a rocky outcrop into the Atlantic Ocean, giant metal gates at its entrance, Secret Service lurking on the grounds. I guess the town itself is fairly conservative, too, but I mostly just enjoyed it for its classic New England architecture and hints of Stephen King.

Also, lots of local beer.

5. Japan (anywhere)
I had an overnight layover at Narita International Airport on my way home from China. Mostly this just consisted of me taking a shuttle to the Holiday Inn Tobu, sitting in the bar with several other lonely tourists as we watched one of the last matches of the 2010 World Cup, and trying to figure out what 700 Yen meant. But this sign at the airport is more than enough to make me want to go back to Japan ASAP:

Picture of sign in Tokyo airport


So those are the 5 places I’d most like to revisit! I nominate the following travel blogs to come up with their own list:

Joy Loves Travel
Wise Monkeys Abroad
Thoughts from the Road
Travel Tales of Life
The Long Way Home

Edited to add: apparently pictures DO exist of Bruges! A love-letter to the city will be coming at you in the next few days.