Peace, Ballydavid (Ireland III)

Two friends sit on a wall, sipping their coffees in the silent, grey morning, watching the sea.

It’s early. Before the others stir, I’m walking the flower-draped hills of Ballydavid, or is it Feothanach, or maybe more precisely, it is the space in between these two named points, a place that remains unmarked.

Aside from the wild beauty of this place, it is the forgottenness of it I think I love the most.

I pass a tiny shell-strewn beach where gulls dance and shriek, then follow the road, not much more than a narrow track, as it climbs steeply up, past waterfalls hidden by exotic, garish blossoms — orange and purple — past farms, abandoned holiday homes, and the odd cluster of sheep. Songbirds sing and chirp from every bush.

I’m trying to find a path I’ve been assured will take me up to the peak, to a cliff-top that sweeps up to the sky only to drop off, plummeting to the sea hundreds of feet below.

I can imagine the view – nothing but waves stretching into forever; I remember everything from when I lived here one summer 19 years ago. The memories are crystal clear, but the path remains elusive.

Behind me, Mount Brandon is cloaked in heavy clouds, as always. I smile as I recall laughing with a friend all those years ago, betting each other we’d never get a picture of its crest. I still have the postcard she sent me later that year, triumphantly displaying a Brandon without cloud.

Stretching between the hill I’m climbing and Brandon are the emerald fields of a million songs and tourist brochures, rivers, more sheep, the distant dots of cottages and stone houses, the black winding road with its Irish language signposts. I keep turning to look – this is my heaven, my favourite place on earth. I still can’t believe I’m back here.

The landforms feel deeply familiar, soothing in a way that suggests a connection, a belonging I can’t quite explain by simply saying I lived here once, briefly. Ancestral perhaps, though my ancestors came from somewhere else.

Looking at the peaks of the Three Sisters further down the coast, the slumbering giant of the Blaskets, Sybil Head, Brandon, I feel finally calm, finally at home. As though in the intervening years since I was last here I was just stumbling from place to place, task to task, lost.

I stand for a while looking down the coast as it tumbles, rock-strewn and jagged, until it turns inward and jags out of sight. I smell the briny salt of the cold sea, the dampness of the low clouds, the earthiness and sweet grass of this land. I breathe it in, trying to hold on to it, knowing a time will come when this all feels like a dream.

I never do find the path, but I do find something I had lost, something I hope I can carry with me now forever. That missing piece of me.

I pass the two people on the wall again as I pick my way back toward breakfast. They are still sitting on there, looking out to sea, talking. I wonder what they are talking about, and I think of the friends I have here, in Ireland, friends I could sit on a wall with and talk to until our own coffees went cold. And I wonder, what if I’d never left? What would my life be like now if I’d stayed? Can I ever come back?

I will always live with this tension, the pull of this place, the pull of my other home.

Ireland.

Canada.

I’m not sure where I will end up, whether I will ever move back to Ireland, if it would be the right choice, or if I will stay put for the million reasons I can drum up in a pinch. I dream of living in so many places, and I fear never living in any of them.

But I think no matter where I am, I will always feel torn, I will always wonder about this place, the place of my dreams, this quiet, tucked away corner at the Western tip of Ireland.

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Ireland I.

It was momentous for me – going back. In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I had been so busy with work and life that I hadn’t really considered how it would feel to be there again. At some point, I had actually thought I didn’t want to go, though I suspect now that was some form of self-preservation. Steeling myself against the onslaught of emotion.

It wasn’t until we were on the plane that I allowed the excitement and anticipation and meaning of it all to cascade over me. I smiled, my heart tripped over itself, my eyes filled with tears.

And now, on the other side, it is all just a memory. Ephemeral. Wisps of not-quite-real.

*

We all have our personal myths, our stories that make up who we are, gathered and guarded, told and re-told to ourselves, to anyone who might listen.

Mine has always been Ireland.

First it was Ireland The Dream. That began when, at the age of 2, I had the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem as my imaginary friends. This dream followed me through school – my room a deep green and adorned with a map of Ireland – and an undergraduate degree in Celtic Studies, when I was also President of the university’s Celtic Society.

Next, I moved to Ireland and my myth grew and spread. I was the one who stayed. The one who moved there.

I never wanted to leave. It was a whim, really. I followed a boy back from Ireland to Canada. At first, I pined for my memories, my life there, my dream. My pining turned to bitterness when the relationship fell apart. I gave up all thoughts of going back.

Until this year. It was my mother’s 75th birthday and I suggested we do a trip to mark the 20th anniversary of the first time we had gone, bringing my son along on the adventure.

*

And so there I was. On the plane. The full significance of it all just dawning.

A book in the sand

Minutes, hours, years
contract and expand around Time –
elastic –
binding book to hand;
pages flutter in red desert stillness
sand grains whip and slip,
burrow deep,
bonding hidden spaces
between the letters
Je suis – I am…
He speaks his phrases
into the sun-baked silence
the words whipped away
on the scorched wind
words no one hears
but him

In the desert, with a dictionary 

 

Gemsbok and Tree, Namibia, Copyright Silverleaf 2016

 

The land around Sossusvlei in Namibia is expansive, open, arid. It is a golden and fire-orange, sand-filled vision; the quintessential desert image. The odd gemsbok or springbok stand silent and still, under a tree if there is one, their distinctive stance and horns shadowed in sharp relief against the vibrant sand. A few houses dot the landscape, most small and square and hunched against the grit of the wind. The animals and houses seem to be part of the wild surroundings,unlike the walled tourist lodges that have sprung up along the main road to cash in on the attraction of the nearby dunes (the largest in the world).

Most people fly into Windhoek, drive down to Sossusvlei, take a trek out to the dunes and the dry salt pans, rest a few days in their lodge, then back to Windhoek and away again, next stop on the trip, next pin in their map. We, on the other hand, have driven here, miles and miles through deserts and towns, watching the land grow and shrink, approach and recede, shapeshifting around us.

Other than the tiny town of Sesriem, which provides essentials and fuel to those passing through, and the Sossusvlei National Park offices, which house a shop and bar, there isn’t much else out here. Just miles and miles of space. Miles and miles of sand. Openness. And, further away, jagged picture-perfect mountains shimmering above it all, their feet immersed in mirages.

This ancient nature, this stunning beauty, allows the rest of the world to fade away. It can be isolating, but it also focuses perspective and perception down to the immediate, the moment, until nothing else exists but what lies before you.

* * *

The parking area at the drop off point for the Sossusvlei dunes is simple and pristine, so perfectly in keeping with its surroundings that the vista almost swallows it completely. A few logs raised about a foot off the ground mark the outer reaches of the parking area, which is a roughly round area in the sand, full of tire tracks and shadowed by several large trees, their roots reaching through the soft ground. There is also a portable nearby with flushing toilets, something which comes as a surprise. It is clean and well-stocked, though there are no sinks for hand washing.

Thankful to have found toilets at all, and considering dirty hands to be a small sacrifice, I didn’t really think twice about the issue of washing. As I stepped back out into the sun, I looked over at the man standing against a wooden frame attached to the toilet portable. Assuming he was in charge of keeping the washrooms clean, I headed over to leave him a tip. As I reached him, he noded his head towards a 5 litre water bottle suspended upside-down from the wooden frame, hanging at eye level.

“Would you like to wash your hands?” He asked. So that was the purpose of the water bottle contraption, a simple but smart pulley system. I smiled and thanked him.

“Pleasure.”

I noticed the compact hardcover book in his hand and tilted my head to read the title: English-French, Anglais-Francais.

“Is that a French-English dictionary?”

“Yes, I’m trying to teach myself French.”

I asked if he was from the area and he told me he was from the north end of Namibia, up by the Angolan border, but that he’d been living near Sossusvlei for 5 years.

“Do many people speak French here?”

“No. But some of the tourists do. I’d like to be able to speak to them. And I thought it would be good to do something to keep myself busy, so I decided to teach myself French.”

We chatted a while longer before it was time to go. “Au revoir,” I said, “Bonne chance avec le français!” And then my family and I headed off, following the thousands of other footprints up and over the rolling waves of sand.

* * *

A month later, I’m still thinking about the man with the dictionary, out there in the sand. His days must be fairly mundane, hot, lonely. And yet, he has chosen to make the most of them, to fight the boredom, to learn.

I wonder how many tourists have stopped to talk to him, to find out about his background, his interests. I wonder how many of them speak French. I wish him well, and I hope he has a chance to practice what he’s been learning.

* * *

Namibia has eight recognized languages in addition to English, which is the official language. French isn’t one of them.

Travel that Road

The road lets slip its secrets
in whispers
lends its solitude
to ours
wraps us in knots
invisible.

Alone together, we live this
experience,
build and crumble bridges,
argue, laugh –
things only we can understand –
and come away
no matter how fraught
closer, changed;
this road,
impossible to forget.

 

The title comes from a Walt Whitman line, “Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you.” How true.