Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Cruising the Caribbean

Day 1, Port of Call: New Orleans

It's my favorite time of the year again--vacation time! (Seriously, I live for vacations...)

This time we took to the waters, specifically cruising the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Caribbean (as the cruise line euphemistically called it--the map actually calls it "Central America.") But first, we started in one of my all-time favorite ports--the city of New Orleans!

My parents, Mark and I were the first to arrive in the Crescent City. We left at 0 dark thirty, zipping through the dark, foggy morning to arrive at the airport. Our flight attendant was hilarious, joking and goofing around the entire time. At one point, she opened the overhead bin, where my mom's purse fell out. The straps caught around the flight attendant's head like a headband, with the purse resting on her head. The flight attendant did the only thing you can do when a whole plane is watching--she turned toward us, flung out her arms, and yelled, "Ta da!" It was hilarious!

We arrived in NOLA to a small Dixieland band playing live music at the baggage carousels. 

"This is why I love New Orleans," I whispered to my mom, and she nodded.

We dropped our bags off at the hotel, then wandered down the street for lunch. There was a saxophone player across the street, filling the air with sweet music, and a girl talking to someone on her cell phone next to me. She held her phone out for a moment, so that the person on the other end could hear the sax.

"That's just New Orleans," the girl said into her phone. "That's how it sounds on every corner!" And she wasn't wrong!

We had the most amazing lunch at a local pub--po'boy sandwiches, beef short ribs, and a crab BLT. We all shared, and we all gushed about the amazing flavors. (Mark also giggled about a t-shirt in the souvenir shop across the street--it was airbrushed as a woman's chest wearing only Mardi Gras beads. He giggled harder each time someone stopped to take a selfie with the shirt, and I reminded him the French Quarter is really for adults.)

After lunch, my Dad returned to the hotel to take a nap. We tried to grab a seat at the hotel's famous carousel bar, but no one was moving. Which was fine--I couldn't wait to show off New Orleans to my family, so Mark, my mom and I skipped out of there to see the city.

We walked up Royal street, stopping about every five seconds to listen to the street musicians. Each group was more talented than the one before, and they each played different styles of music. There was a group that looked like fancy old-time buskers--they wore vintage clothes and hats, had beards, and played instruments like a washboard and banjos. They also had great voices, and I would've watched them all day if my mom hadn't moved me along. 

A block later, we came across a juggler. We watched him juggle everything from clubs and pins to axes and swords. He was okay, but used a lot of profanities for a "family" show. ("Welcome to New Orleans," I told Mark.) He climbed on top of a platform, and then on top of a rolling tube on that, and juggled giant knives as he swayed back and forth. It was pretty cool.

There was a woman with a violin on the next block, then a guy who looked like a giant chicken. He wore some ceremonial suit made of yellow and orange feathers, and I think he was dancing some sort of Native American dance, but really, he just looked like a big chicken.

Eventually, we made our way up to Jackson Square, home of the famous cathedral and about a million artists and palm readers. There were more musicians, competing for real estate and audiences, playing loudly, and doing everything they could to earn a buck. 

The artists stood proudly in front of their work, mostly paintings adorning the fence around the park, trying to lure in patrons. The work was amazing--scenes of the city, some dark and dreary, some colorful and vibrant. There were messages of hope, and of hopelessness, and more than a few still featured the carnage that Hurricane Katrina brought ten years earlier. 

It was a visual assault, overstimulating my senses on every front--the music, the dancing musicians, the tourists crowding every space and taking a million selfies, the painters reaching for my attention, the horses whinnying in front of their carriages, and the cars honking as they barely moved through the intersection. I inhaled and breathed it all in--it was busy, but it's what I love about the city--its vibrancy, and that feeling of aliveness, and struggle, and simple joy being captured wherever and whenever it can be.

I pointed out the famous Cafe Du Monde across the street, and my mom clapped with excitement. Then I also pointed out the long line for beignets and her enthusiasm dampened a bit. 

"Don't worry," I reassured here. "We'll come back."

We ducked into a pralines store, where Mark promptly picked out a giant praline and a stick of alligator jerky. I bought him both, and then winced as he tore into the alligator. 

"Tastes great!" he declared, finishing the whole stick in about three bites.

We walked back toward the French Quarter, this time down to Bourbon Street. I reminded Mark this was really a place for grown-ups, and that people drink a whole lot here. He rubbed his hands with delight, which wasn't really the response I was looking for.

We walked along the sidewalk, dodging drunks, and stopping at each bar to peek in at the bands from the doorway. I was more than a little bummed that I was sick--my heart was ready to dance the night away to some kickin' Cajun music, but my head just wanted to take a nap.

Bourbon Street was super crowded, way more than Royal Street, and after about five minutes, my mom had enough. She doesn't always appreciate the crazy people watching like Mark and I do.

We took the first side street back to Royal Street, and strolled back toward the hotel. We passed a busy cafe with giant signs advertising beignets. My mom gasped, stopped, and looked at me imploringly. 

"It's not Cafe Du Monde," I warned her. "They won't be as good!"

But she didn't care. She was deterred by the long line at Cafe Du Monde, but mom still wanted beignets, even fake ones. And so we stopped.

I wandered into the courtyard after ordering the beignets, and was not at all surprised to see Mark petting a cat. The cat whisperer is always in action, even on vacation.

Our beignets arrived--big, dense pillows of fried dough covered in powdered sugar.

"Be careful," I warned Mark. "They're really hot. Blow on them first."

This was a trick I'd used on my friend Michelle, who listened to me, and ended up blowing powdered sugar EVERYWHERE. (Seriously, the room was tick with sugar dust when we left!)

But Mark doesn't listen to me like Michelle does. He thought about it, then said, "No way! I'll get sugar all over myself!" My mom glared at me, and I laughed so hard, I blew the powdered sugar all over MYSELF. Mark and my mom busted up, and my mom told me, "Dios castiga," (God got you). We were laughing so hard everyone was staring at us and giggling a little, too.

Tim called while I was brushing myself off, and said he'd just arrived at the hotel. So off we went, to meet the rest of our travelling companions.

We greeted Tim, Kim, niece Hannah and nephew Nic in the lobby. They were so excited to be there, and ready to hit the town. They dropped off their bags, we picked up my dad, and we were off again.

By the time we got outside again, it was dark. And boy, could you tell it was a Saturday night in New Orleans! We passed a couple oyster bars that had lines wrapped around the block!! Didn't bother anyone though, they just stood in place, hurricanes or other drinks in hand. We ambled back toward Bourbon Street, which made my mom nervous. She didn't like it in the daytime, and now it was kicking up even more. She and my dad turned back, deciding to eat somewhere a little quieter. 

We forged ahead, stopping for hurricanes. We walked along, watching the street performers--little kids tap dancing with beer bottle caps on their feet, religious zealots trying to save souls, women in skimpy clothing trying to lure young men into establishments of questionable reputations. I even saw the giant chicken guy again. There weren't any street musicians here--this was bar band territory, and loud, raucous music spilled out of every venue we passed. It was, quite literally, music to my ears.

We passed a guy who shoved some giant signs into our hands, and encouraged us to take photos. I cracked up when I read the signs.

The kids were starving, so eventually, we found a place with open tables and ordered dinner. Hannah ate corn dog beignets, and Mark got the biggest chicken wings I've ever seen. (They might have been turkey wings!) Nic ordered a double cheeseburger with  grilled cheese sandwich stuffed IN BETWEEN! Gotta love that teenage boy metabolism, because he destroyed that burger/sandwich combo.

"Good job!" I told him at the end, but he just rubbed his belly and said sadly, "That burger defeated me, Auntie Heather." I pointed to his empty plate and assured him it had not--he'd definitely defeated that burger!

We headed back out onto Bourbon Street, stopping at Pat O'Brien's, so Tim could look around and get himself a hurricane. I waited on the street with the kids. Mark, buoyed by multiple root beers and an appreciative audience (his cousins, not me), engaged in his own street performance, pretending to repeatedly bang his head against a pole. One woman walked by and looked shocked, thinking he'd really smacked his head on the pole. She looked at me accusingly.

"He's a 15-year-old, just being dumb," I told her, and she walked on, not fully believing me.

Mark's next victim was a really drunk girl in her mid-20s. She saw him "banging" his head, grabbed his arm and stopped him.

"No!" she said. "Don't do that! You'll damage your brain and end up like..." She stopped, scanning the street to find a really drunk person to point out. There were none, so she turned back, trying to focus on him, not realizing SHE was an example of the really drunk person she was looking for. She slurred, "Trust me, it's bad for your brain," then raced off, leaving the kids and I in hysterical laughter.

"What happened?" Tim asked, walking out of Pat O'Brien's. We couldn't stop laughing long enough to tell him.

Kim spied a voodoo shop across the street and got excited. "Let's o buy some voodoo dolls!" she cried, and I immediately stopped laughing. 

"No way," I said. "You don't mess with the voodoo stuff here. They take it REALLY seriously in New Orleans--it's no joke!"

I'd wandered into a cemetery once on my first trip to NOLA, stumbling across the grave of Marie Laveau, the queen of voodoo. It was decorated all around with black candles, chicken bones and other weird stuff, and even though it was broad daylight, it gave me the shivers and creeped me the hell out. I don't mess with the voodoo stuff.

But my family wanted to see. They entered the shop, laughing and loud, as we usually are. But they stopped laughing the minute they entered, because there was a giant security guy with stripes tattooed across his massive arms, standing in the doorway (It looked like he was wearing a striped prison shirt.). The shop keeper glared at us from behind the cash register, and my family immediately recognized this was a real, working voodoo shop, and not a tacky souvenir store. This was where voodoo practitioners bought their supplies, and it was no joke. 

We made a quick round through the store. I followed Mark closely, slapping his hands down so he didn't knock over the skulls or burning black candles. He protested, insisting he wasn't touching anything, but I don't need any bad juju so I stayed on him until we were safely out of the store.

Our mood was not nearly so light when we spilled back onto the street. But Mark immediately lifted it by finding the nearest pole and pretending to walk into it. 

A lone guy was walking just ahead of us and saw the whole thing. As he passed us, he asked, "You okay, bro?" And the way he said it--like he was inquiring more about Mark's mental health than his physical health--we lost it again. That became our new motto, and we asked it anytime someone did something questionable or stupid. 

We kept on walking, ending up in Jackson Square again. Tim, Kim and the kids loved the cathedral, and I thought this shadow of Christ splayed on the church was pretty cool. (It was even cooler than the actual statue with the light pointing at it.) 

We crossed over to Cafe Du Monde, and when we saw there was no line, we cheered and ordered bags of beignets.

We stood outside the cafe on the sidewalk, chowing down on our hot beignets. I stood next to some buskers--one guy playing a sax, one playing an out-of-tune guitar, and a tiny young woman playing a giant stand-up bass. She was also singing, and had the most incredible voice. I couldn't believe it--I just stood there, mesmerized, listening to her voice bounce off the surrounding walls. She sang like an angel, stopping only to beat that bass. I closed my eyes and just listened--it was truly a magical moment. 

For about the 40th time that day, I reached into my pocket and fished out some dollar bills, dropping them into the bucket. The biggest souvenir I bought in New Orleans was live music, and I was grateful for it.

Finally, around 10 p.m., exhaustion finally caught us. We'd all been up since 4 am PST, and we needed to sleep. We had a boat to catch the next day, so we trudged back to the hotel with a bag of beignets for my mom, tired, full and extremely happy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mark's Telemarketer Prank Backfires

After all his years of punking stoic telemarketers, Mark finally got one with a sense of humor! 
He answered the phone all giddy, hitting the speakerphone button so I could hear, too.

Telemarketer: May I speak with Heather?

Mark, in his deepest voice: This is Heather.

Telemarketer pauses, momentarily confused, then continues, offering home energy upgrades: Are your window frames aluminium?

Mark: No, my windows are GOLD. Cuz that's how I roll. I'm a baller.

Telemarketer, laughing: Oooh, that's good, I haven't heard that one!

Mark: Solid gold.

It was a first--both Mark AND the telemarketer were laughing as they hang up. (And yes, I was cracking up, too!)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Day 12: What a Load of Blarney!

The Twelfth Day...I woke up sad this morning, knowing it was the last day of our group adventure. I'd grown so close to this group, and it was hurting my heart that we had to say goodbye.

But we still had a full day's adventure left. And it included two castles...

We packed up the Land Rover one last time, and took another group photo by the lake. Then it was off for a final drive across the gorgeous Irish countryside...I sat by the window, staring out at the tiny, winding roads, the occasional colorful houses, the stone fences. At the lakes, and the rain falling gently on the glass. At the hills, the green grass, the fields divided like different color quilt patchwork. I took it all in, etching it into my memory forever. I thought about the past week, reliving the laughter and amazing sights. And I could tell by the unusually quiet car ride that I wasn't the I only one feeling that way. 

Darren tried narrating again, but the microphone hadn't worked since Bébbin left, and we'd given up being polite about it. (We weren't rude, we just didn't pretend we could hear him anymore.) He finally gave up and just played music.

We made our first stop a couple hours later, at Blarney Castle, home of the word-famous Blarney Stone! I'd been debating the whole trip whether or not I'd kiss it--I'm a giant germaphobe, and kissing something a million other people have also kissed freaks me out. Also, I'm terrified of heights, and the Stone is four stories above the ground--you have to lay down on your back, lean over a three-foot gap, then tilt your head upside down to kiss it. Yes, there are a couple metal bars to keep you from falling, and a little old Irish man holding you, but neither of those things eased my mind.

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Darren dropped us off by the castle. Our group wandered in, mesmerized by the giant flower baskets all around. All that rain and long summer sunshine really makes the flowers grow huge!

We walked along the path, and crossed over a footbridge, and then we saw something that made us all scream with delight--trees! Wearing SWEATERS!!!

I'm not sure why--were they protecting the trees from the cold or merely decorative? But they were so cute, and the thought of some little old Irish women knitting tree sweaters filled us with delight.

Amber immediately ran off to hug a sweatered tree, which cracked me up.

And then there it was--Blarney Castle! I couldn't believe it. It's one of those things you've heard about your whole life--it was not quite as cool as standing in front of the Parthenon in Greece, or the Sydney Opera House, but it was close!

We wandered around the castle grounds, eventually ending up just below the Stone. My anxiety grew with each step closer. Looking up at how high the stone really was (and the big gap between the wall and stone!) didn't help.

"Be brave!" I told myself. "Do it! Who knows when you'll ever be back?" I wrestled with my nerves half the time, and mentally kicked myself for being such a baby the other half.

But kissing or no kissing, I was determined to at least see the famous Stone! We climbed a tiny, narrow spiral stone staircase up to the fourth floor. It didn't look so bad when we emerged into the fresh air.

We moved ever closer. And then suddenly, my hiking buddy Jan dropped to the floor, kissed the rock and bounced back up! 

"Go, Jan!" we yelled. "Woo hoo!"

Jan had the biggest smile on her face--and that sealed my decision.

"I'm gonna do it," I told Amber, handing her my bags. "I'm going in." 

I dropped to the ground too, though not as gracefully as Jan. The little Irish man grabbed me by the jacket and told me to move back and tilt my head. I inched closer, closer, closer, my breathing coming faster with each movement. 

"Do it!" I yelled in my head, and I took a final scoot toward the Stone. I tilted my head back, then upside down, and puckered up. I could do this! I AM GONNA KISS THAT DAMN STONE!

Until I couldn't. I got an eye full of the ground far, far below, and a vision of a bazillion other people kissing the same exact spot I was about to kiss. And I freaked out!

"I'm good!" I yelled, as the little man pushed me closer to the stone, totally confusing him. "I'm good, I'm done, I WANT UP NOW!"

He didn't even blink an eye, just tugged me back and yelled, "Next!" The next person in line headed toward me, but I was still freaking out and couldn't get up yet. I just rolled out of the way until I could pull myself together.

"I freaked out at the last second," I told Amber sadly, as I finally got up. (As if I needed to say anything!)

"Dammit, Dinsdale," she replied. "You were as close as you could possibly get without kissing it!"

Mother Mary, Ashley and Linda all chimed in with equally comforting statements, but I felt like a failure. (And I felt worse because I know how much Amber wanted to kiss it, but couldn't, because of her back.)

I got over it pretty quickly though, as soon as we saw the Shinners' lining up to kiss it. We saw Margie go in, and then King Brian dropped and popped back up with a giant grin. We cheered them all on, laughing at the funny scene.

We regrouped and clambered down the winding spiral staircase together. It was funny, at one point, we were all inside, then exited the staircase, spilling into the tiniest space possible. 

"Group shot!" someone yelled, and we moved in together--it was like we couldn't bare to spend even one of our last remaining moments apart.

We stopped again by the sweatered tree row for another group shot, this time mimicking poses we'd seen Mark doing in the camp photos.

The castle grounds were beautiful but vast--we could've spent all day looking around. But Amber and I realized we'd put off all our souvenir shopping--we hadn't wanted to drag things around from Dublin, and we'd spent most of our time hiking in the hills during the tour. Which we'd totally loved, but now we realized we had nothing to bring home to our families!

So we headed into the village for a frenzied shopping trip and lunch, slowing down to admire a lone violinist playing by the river. 


We grabbed up some souvenirs and a quick bite to eat in a busy cafe. The cafe was great, filled with warm lunches and beautiful desserts. We couldn't keep our eyes off these meringues--they were HUGE, almost as big as our heads!

We scarfed down our food at first, not wanting to miss Darren's 1 pm meet up time. But then Amber smartly reminded me that no one else would return on time, and even if they did, so what? We'd never once been late to the bus. 

I smiled at my wise, rebellious friend, and slowly enjoyed the rest of my lunch. (And yes, the rest of the group WAS late!)

Our last tour stop was at the Rock of Cashel. We pulled off the highway (a genuine highway!) and into a town, and were disappointed to see the castle, most of which was covered in scaffolding. 

There was no scaffolding on the back, though.

A castle tour had just left, and the next wasn't scheduled until our meet up time, so we decided to wander around on our own. However, when we stepped outside, we were met with hurricane-force winds!

It was seriously windy! Like, hair-flapping, jacket-rattling, whistling through the fields tornado winds. We could barely stand still, or even hear each other over the winds, which made for some pretty funny photos.

Behind the main castle was a cathedral, and an old graveyard with beautiful old rusted Celtic crosses. (I loved the zigzag wall in the background, too.)

I love the Irish graveyards--they are so serene, and peaceful, filled with roses and those gorgeous crosses.

And the views were spectacular, too. Here's the local monastery off in the distance. 

More crosses. 


After viewing the castle, we walked down the road, taking in the little town. We stopped in a gift shop, where Amber made Ben and Nate try on silly hats while we all laughed. As we stepped into the street to look for Darren, it began to rain on us--again--as it had every day for the last two weeks, and that was it for me. 

"I am officially done with the rain," I told Amber. "I. AM. OVER. IT."

The rest of the group giggled, and asked what happened to the California Drought Girl who was so thrilled to see the rain on Day 1 (and even Days 2 and 3). 

"I'm used to droughts, not all this blasted rain!" I said. "Enough, already, where's the SUNSHINE??"

We cracked up. Turns out a little rain is fun, but that was the day I realized I probably could not live in rainy Ireland for very long.

Back in the car, Darren passed out maps he'd gotten from the Irish tourist board in Blarney. Amber and Ben decided to map out our tour route, which was AWESOME. They worked diligently to get it done before our short ride back to Dublin. And they did it, passing around the maps so we could all sign them. It's my favorite keepsake of the whole trip.

As Darren pulled back into Dublin, we all freaked out--this was really it, the end of our time together. The end of the Craic Pack, and our magical trip. It was too much to take!

"Let's meet for dinner!" someone suggested, and the group latched onto that.

"Where?" someone asked, and we all shrugged, because no one was from around here.

"How about the Brazen Head?" Margie suggested, and I loved that idea. It's the oldest pub in Ireland, and one of the few spots we'd missed when we were there. (And just then I was SERIOUSLY glad we'd done our souvenir shopping in Blarney, since Amber and I had planned to do it when we returned to Dublin.)

We decided not a moment too soon...because the next thing we knew, Darren had pulled over on a busy Temple Bar street, saying this was me and Amber's stop. We panicked, because this was it, because it was a busy street which meant a quick goodbye, and because we had no idea where our hotel was. (We'd walked by it before during our Dublin stay, but couldn't visualize its location now.)

"Your hotel's down there," Darren pointed out in one last, unhelpful vague motion. "Go down the street and turn right." 

And then he popped back into the Land Rover and drove off. This was our parting image--Linda waving out the window, calling to us, "Miss you already!!" It was the sweetest, saddest thing ever. 

We followed Darren's directions, and ended up here, which was clearly not our hotel. 

We walked down the street a bit further, but ended up on a busy street, the border of the Temple Bar district. I knew for certain our hotel was not past here, but I couldn't figure out exactly where it was.

"We need to ask a local," I told Amber, who agreed.

"But how do we know who's local?" she asked.

I looked around. Darren had mentioned some big sports match today--soccer? Irish football? I wasn't sure which, so I just looked for someone wearing a local jersey.

The man we stopped was gracious, and maybe had a beer or two already in him. He was feeling good, but more importantly, he was Irish, which meant he was the nicest guy ever, and would certainly help us. In typical Irish fashion, he didn't just point out the direction, he said, "Oh, I'm headed that way, I'll walk you there." And then, bless that man, he reached down to grab our bags and pull them for us!! 

Amber and I wouldn't let him carry our bags (we were appreciate of his chivalry, we just didn't want to take advantage of him), but we did let him walk us to the hotel. Along the way, he asked how our trip was, and what we'd seen. We professed our love for his beautiful country, and told him of our adventures. He was amazed by how much we'd seen in the past two weeks, saying it was more than he'd seen himself, and we laughed again, wondering why the Irish never left their home towns and villages.

Eventually, we arrived at our hotel. Our new best friend pointed to it, then pulled us each in close, kissed us on our cheeks, and wished us safe travels. Honestly. You can't get any more friendly than THAT! (And that is the story I will share forever more when people ask me why I think Irish people are the nicest people EVER.)

Amber and I checked in to our hotel, which was nearly as busy as the street outside. There were gobs more people than at our first hotel--Temple Bar was really jumping! As I waited in the lobby, I saw this sign, and smiled really big.

"Amber," I nudged. "Look!"

I knew she'd love that sign. We were both madly in love with Ireland, its beautiful sights, and its lovely people, and that's exactly how we felt--like we did, indeed, want to marry Ireland!

We had about an hour before meeting up with the group, so Amber and I decided to re-pack our suitcases. We had a morning flight, leaving for the airport at 7 am, which meant getting up around 6 am. Neither of us wanted to forget anything or leave the preparations till then.

However, we vastly underestimated the time it would take us to walk to the Brazen Head. We figured about 15 minutes, but it was more like half an hour, even in the amazing physical condition we were in now (all those hikes and walking 10-12 miles a day made my legs STRONG!). 


We walked in, looked around, and screamed excitedly like little girls when we saw the Shinners' (and screamed again that loudly when Mary, George and Ashley arrived later). You'd think we were long-lost friends who been separated for ages, not just for an hour. (It just felt weird, all of us checking in to different hotels.)

We enjoyed one last Irish fish fry dinner, which was fantastic. We laughed, reliving our trip, and enjoyed fresh Guinness'. It was a wonderful dinner.

Eventually, Nate had to go--he was meeting up with some college friends in town. We hugged him, and wished him well in his upcoming school year. We reminisced a little more, and then Margie and Ben stood to leave next. We hugged them, sad that our group was dwindling, and sadder still that the night was ending. Brian sent them home in a cab, saying he and Linda would stay for one more drink, and we knew we were down to our last few minutes together.

As Brian walked them out, a nearby guy asked if we were staying for the music. Amber and I looked at each other and figured why not? The nightly music in the pubs had been one of our favorite parts of the whole trip--it had been the whole group's favorite part. (Music lovers, one and all--no wonder we all got along so well!) 

The big surprise was that the band was Irish, but the music was not. "We're the best Zydeco and American blues band in Dublin!" the man bragged, which cemented the deal--this we had to hear!

And those guys were AWESOME! They really did rock the Zydeco music, and they had those blues down

Our beer was kicking in, and we were feeling good. Amber decided we needed another round, so she started for the bar, but halfway up, a guy grabbed her and started dancing. Amber immediately followed his lead, dancing and clapping, and completely forgot about the bar, our drinks, or anything else in that moment. I laughed, shook my head and told the group, "That's why I love Amber. You send her for drinks, and she gets distracted by dancing!" I'm pretty sure they all loved Amber for that, too.

Brian was sitting against the wall, and there were people on both sides next to him. He's a big guy, but he wasn't going to let us go thirsty. So he told George, on the other side of the table, to move back for a moment, and then he slid the table out onto the dance floor. He stood, walked onto the dance floor from behind the table, then slid the table back against the wall. We were cracking up at him! Brian knows how to take care of things, and waiting for 15 people to stand and move so he can get out is definitely not his style.

Brian headed for the bar and bought us a round. He delivered the first few drinks, but on the way back, Amber grabbed him and pulled her onto the dance floor. He joined willingly, and soon, all that was left at our table was the round of drinks! Mary, Ashley, Linda, George and I joined them on the dance floor, whooping it up and singing along with the band. 

One drink turned into two, and I could tell Brian and Linda were in no hurry to leave. (Neither were Mary, Ashley, or George, but their family wasn't expecting them back at the hotel.) The band's first set ended, and I figured that was it, but nope--the Craic Pack kept on dancing! 

The band returned for their second set, and we sang on. Some guy in the pub took over the microphone and explained that a well-known actress had died earlier in the day, and the pub patrons all seemed sad. The band played a song in tribute to her, Let It Be, and the guy grabbed us all and pulled us into a circle to commemorate her while he flashed her picture on his phone. We were excited to be part of the moment, but even more excited to sing about how in our hour of darkness, Mother Mary comes to me (we all grabbed Mary and screamed "Mother Mary!!!"). It was really fun.

So fun, in fact, that we stayed for the entire second set, too! The band thanked the pub, the pub cheered them on, and then the lights came on. It was 1:30 in the morning, and we were still going strong! We'd have stayed even longer except that the pub closed down, and it was out to the street for us.

And then this really was the last goodbye. We hugged each other again, and then again, and promised to write and visit each other. A cabbie waited to take us back to our hotel, and I told Amber to say goodbye quick and let's go, a prolonged goodbye would just make me sadder. But nobody rushes Amber, especially at goodbyes, and she wasn't ready to let go just yet.

So we hugged another ten, then 15 minutes. The cabbie was getting impatient, but we couldn't go until Amber was ready. And then, finally, sadly, she was. We said one last goodbye, laughed that Brian and Linda were in big trouble when they got back to the hotel so late.

Our crazy cab driver seemed determined to make up for the time he'd waited at the curb. He drove us through the streets at breakneck speed, cutting off more than one other driver. Luckily, we had a nice buzz, and just laughed at it.

We finally got back to our room around 2 am, and the place was still jumping! Apparently, Temple Bar parties all night. I don't think it ever got quiet in our room until about 4 am.

Six a.m. came far too early, and we felt a little bad when the alarm sounded. But we had a long flight home (two for me) to sleep, and I wouldn't have traded one minute of our last night together for more sleep.

And so that was it for us...it was a bank holiday morning, so the streets were quiet and empty. There were few cars out, and even fewer buses, so we cabbed it to the airport. I kinda felt like we were sneaking out after a great night, and it felt right. I was glad the city was still sleeping, because the vibrancy was what I loved, and would miss, and it would've been too hard to say goodbye if it was jumping like that.

So, goodbye, Ireland. Thanks for the hospitality, and the adventures. Thanks for the new friends and the good food. Thanks for the laughter and the memories, and don't worry, this isn't the last you'll see of us. 

Of that, ye can be sure!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Day 11: Glengarriff to Gougane Barra A Secluded (and Possibly Haunted) Hotel on the Lake

Day 11 started out out kind of slow. We were all tired and moved slowly, even as our new guide, Darren, gently tried to prod us along. 

We loaded up the Rover and left Glengariff behind. We couldn't hear Darren over the microphone, so we had no idea where we were headed, but we didn't really care. Everywhere we ended up was beautiful, so why sweat the details?

We drove through the green hills and along the coast. Down in the water we could see buoys, hundreds of them, which Darren explained was an oyster farm. I didn't even know you could farm oysters!

Eventually, we stopped in a quaint little village to buy picnic lunches. 

We scrambled out of the car, and Darren told us to be back in 20 minutes. I knew this group wouldn't return for at least 45 minutes--I'd describe them as fun and happy, but not necessarily punctual.

We poured into the tiny little grocery store, all loud Americans running in 10 different directions but still crashing into each other. We raced down the snug aisles, marvelling at all the Irish products. (The cheese aisle--oh man, I could've died happily snacking there!) Somehow, the whole group congregated in front of the deli counter, where Linda was pointing at some filled-bread item and asking the counter lady, "What is that? I don't want it, but what is it?" 

Amber and I ran up each aisle like we were on a game show. (It was pure excitement--not like the tour was gonna leave without us!) After perusing every shelf, we finally filled our little basket with salami, jam, chips, water, fruit and cookies. We were almost done, until we saw the racks of fresh bread and pastries. Big round loaves, long skinny baguettes, fat little sandwich rolls. Amber and I squealed over all of it, and in our excitement, I accidentally knocked a roll onto the floor.

I picked it up, but there was nowhere to put it. 

"I'll bring it to the cashier," I told Amber. Surely she'd know what to do with it.

We met up with the group at the check out line. Everyone had huge baskets of good stuff, but Linda--not so much. She dumped her items onto the belt, and Amber scoffed.

"Linda!" she chided. "Are you seriously just buying candy and soda??"

"Margie bought the sandwich stuff," Linda said, pointing at her sister-in-law. Amber and I just looked at each other, and made a mental note to feed Linda something sugar-free. 

I handed over my fallen roll, explaining to the cashier that I didn't know what to do with it. I thought she'd throw it away, but later, at lunch, I realized she'd rung it up and put it in the bag with the other rolls. Amber and I just shrugged and took our chances--hopefully, we chose rolls that hadn't hit the floor.

Once everyone returned, we headed for our next stop, Dunboey Castle. We turned off the main road, and 4-wheeled it through a forest, down a bumpy dirt road. There was a giant fancy castle on our right, but apparently, that wasn't the one we were looking for. Instead, we drove past it, stopping only when the road ran out in front of the forest.

We climbed out and admired the view. There was a lake directly below us, which was gorgeous. And we were even more thrilled that for the first time in Ireland, we got out to hike and it did NOT rain on us! 

Darren led us over a rocky path toward a crumbling building, explaining that this was the actual castle. I was somewhat confused, but whatever--castle ruins are more fun than a real castle anyway. We immediately clambered up the hills, over the rocks, and explored the area.  

Darren gave us a brief history of the castle, and I felt a little sorry for him. He was like a college history professor trying to educate a bunch of squirrelly kindergartners who were climbing on the castle and pretending to shoot arrows like Katniss Everdeen.

He finally gave up and pointed us toward a hiking path. He said we should start and he'd meet up with us in a bit.

That caught our attention! We were used to Bébhinn taking charge--she always led us. (Or maybe, she didn't trust us not to get lost or fall off a cliff--whatever, we still felt better being with a fearless leader who actually knew the land.)

But we followed Darren's directions, and set out on the "coastal walk" around the castle grounds. 

It was beautiful--soon enough, we were smack in the middle of the forest. 

We hiked out of the trees, and along the path toward the bay. I love this photo, because it's what I'll always think of when I recall my favorites memories of Ireland--hiking some beautiful trail with all my wonderful new friends. Friendship and beauty, that's what this picture says to me, and it's the best thing I brought home from Ireland.

The forest opened up to the bay, where it was obviously low-tide. I just loved all the greenery--so very different from the dry, golden landscapes back home.

We hiked through more trees. The forest was quiet, except for the gravel crunching beneath our shoes, and beautiful. It really was a magical place.

And then, at the end of the hike, another surprise--a shipwreck! I'm not even sure how that boat got in there, but it must've been a higher tide than this.

After our hike through the forest, we climbed back in to the Vagatron and continued on along the Beara Peninsula, still unsure of where, exactly, we were going, but certainly enjoying the ride. 

We drove through little towns, which gave way to the occasional house, and then, after a while, nothing but rolling green hills and super twisty little roads. The roads--heck, the whole peninsula!--seemed completely empty. Every once in a while, a little car would come whipping around the corner, but our car was much bigger, so they always gave way. The roads were too small for tour buses, so it was really cool to be out in the middle of nowhere with no one else around. 

While coming out of one little valley, we saw a group of brightly-colored homes off in the distance. We scrambled to take terrible photos (the car was bumping along and the houses were far away), not realizing we were heading directly to the village.

The town was just adorable--we passed a real-life cobbler's house to get to it! (Seriously, a COBBLER!) The colors were even brighter up close, and we were all panting to get out and look around. But Darren drove on, and we all sat back down in our seats.

About five minutes later, Darren suddenly stopped the car in the middle of the road, and motioned for us to get out. We were totally confused, but we got out, and brought our lunches with us. Darren pointed to a small gate, and said he'd meet us on the hike after he parked the car.

No one was really sure where to go, but we passed through the gate, and along the path. Once again, Brian and Margie held out their hands and helped us all cross over a small creek, reminding me why I loved them. They are just such good, kind people! 

We followed the path, past colorful flowering bushes, up and over boulders, and eventually into this beautiful clearing. It was just so spectacular that we all stopped, gasped at the beauty and declared this our picnic spot. It was the most beautiful lunch location of our whole trip!

Darren caught up to us, a bit surprised we'd stopped where we did.

"There are some pretty sea arches just up a bit," he said, but we'd already unpacked and started in on the lunches. We were totally happy where we were.

After lunch, we did go exploring, though. Ashley, Mary, and George headed up the hill to see the arches, while Brian and Ben went down toward the water, finding a cave below. We knew they found a cave because we could no longer hear them scrambling about and laughing, which made us a little nervous. Then, suddenly, we heard a giant "WOOOOOOOO!" echoing through the rocks, and they yelled, "We found a caaaaaaaaave!" 
They howled again, and the next thing I knew, here comes Ashley, running down the hill at breakneck speed. 

"Where are they?" she asked, excitedly. "I wanna go, I wanna go!" And then she ran down the hill to find them.

I was cracking up--she heard them calling, and came running. Ashley didn't want to be left out of anything, let alone something as exciting as a cave!

Amber and I walked up to the hill in search of the arches. We weren't sure what to expect, really, so when we saw it, it took our breath away. 

The sea arch! We were standing on the very edge of it (see where those flowers end? Sharp drop below into the ocean!), which was scary and exhilarating all at once. It was gorgeous! And BIG, much bigger than this photo gives it credit. Here's the view from that arch to the first arch we were standing on...look how little Margie and Mary are!

It was a rush to peek over those arches, into the choppy sea below. It reminded me again how protective everything is in the U.S.--you'd never be able to climb to those arches without fences, rangers and warning signs everywhere. It felt good to--literally--live life on the edge, even if it was for just one afternoon. (And thank God it wasn't muddy, because I am super klutzy!)

We spent a lot of time up there. We realized this is probably where Darren intended us to have lunch, if our group hadn't stubbornly staked their claim below. But we were here now, and we reveled in feeling like we were on top of the world. We could see the Skellig Islands far out in the ocean, and the various group members scattered all over. I don't know what it was about that day--the gorgeous hikes, the beautiful views, the comradery of being cooped up together in a Land Rover for a week, but it all came together that day, and I just felt good. Like everything was as it should be--I was here with my new family, in a place that far exceeded my hopeful expectations, and I was just happy. Everything was right in the world, and my heart was bursting. It was an amazing feeling.

Eventually, we had to move on. Darren pulled the Land Rover into the middle of the road again, we hopped in and off we went.

We were thrilled when Darren pulled back into the colorful little town of Alihies again. This time, he stopped and let us out--ostensibly, to use the bathrooms, but hey, the Craic Pack doesn't pass up a chance to scout around.

There were public restrooms, but they were tiny, and our group was not.

"I saw a pub over there," Linda whispered to me. "Let's go there."

I nodded, and we ran off. I could hear part of the group calling out to us to return, but I said, "Don't look back" to Linda and we ran off to the bright blue pub.

Upon exiting the pub, Linda asked me the name of the town. I had no idea, but she remembered seeing a sign on our way into town.

"Yeah, but that was kinda far away," I said. 

"I'm going for it," she said, looking around. I could see Darren peering over the Land Rover, looking for us, so I told Linda, "Be quick. And don't make eye contact with anyone!" She took off running, camera in hand.

A few minutes later, I accidentally caught Darren's eye, and he waved me over. I looked nervously to the left, but couldn't see Linda returning yet. So I nodded, pretended to tie my shoe, then slooooooowly wandered toward the car. I was hoping the group was not waiting on just me, but when I looked over toward the village basketball court, I saw Brian and Ben shooting hoops. That slowed my step considerably--it'd take more effort to get them off the court than it would take Linda to get back.

The funniest part was that as I waited for Linda, I looked around--and saw this on the public restroom wall!

It was a map with the name of the town--the very thing Linda ran off to find! 

Suddenly, Linda came running up to me, waving her camera triumphantly. 

"I got it!" she said. "The name of the town is--"

"Allihies?" I finished. She looked at me, I pointed to the sign on the wall, and we both collapsed into laughter. 

Poor Darren finally rounded us all up again. "I have a surprise for you," he said, turning the Land Rover onto a narrow dirt road.

"Off roading!" we all screamed in delight. "We're going off roading!" 

And indeed we were. Darren explained that these hills were old copper mines, now defunct. But the road was still there, so we took it, bumping over rocks and clinging to steep cliffs. For one scary minute, it seemed we might not make it up the mountain--the Land Rover whined helplessly and rolled back a bit. But Darren gunned it, the engine kicked in and we made it through the narrow pass.

This was our reward for making it over the pass--a sweeping view of the peninsula! 

We also passed lots of sheep in the hills--some so close, you could reach out and grab them. (A suggestion I repeatedly made to Amber, sitting in the window seat, who only gave it a half-hearted effort.)

Eventually, we ran out of unpaved path, and Darren headed back to the winding main road. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had a couple more stops.

The first stop was the Uragh stone circle. Built thousands of years ago, the circle was ceremonial, sacred, a place for people to worship and leave offerings or prayers. 

The stone circle was far off the road, on private farm land, which was gorgeous. We parked by a lake, and crossed over a little bridge. We walked up a hill, and then, from the top, we spotted the circle, with another lake and a series of waterfalls behind it.

We learned about the circle, admired the view and waterfalls, and then, of course, it started to rain on us, so we hiked back to the car. The view, overlooking a lake, was just as spectacular heading back.

We'd seen a lot, but now it was time to head to our final destination for the day--the lovely lakefront hotel in Gougane Barra. I'd been looking forward to visiting here, and it certainly didn't disappoint. 

Due to our late arrival at the hotel, we only had 30 minutes to wander around before dinner. Amber and I were exhausted, and not thrilled to see the steep flight of stairs we had to carry our heavy suitcases up. But before we'd walked five steps, the proprietor, Neil, stepped up, grabbed our bags, and ran upstairs with them.

"What room?" he asked, and we told him 12. He was off in a flash!

We followed the hallway maze, turning left, then right. We walked down a long hallway, through a doorway, and then, to our surprise, saw our bags in front of our room--no Neil in sight! 

We were literally two minutes behind him, but somehow, in those two minutes, Neil managed to dump our bags and completely disappear. Amber and I exchanged a look of amazement, surprise, and a little bit of fear. (Seriously...where'd he go???)

Before we could even unload our bags, Ashley was in our doorway, and she was not happy.

"My bed overlooks a GRAVEYARD!" she said. "I am NOT sleeping there tonight!" 

We piled into her room, across the hallway from ours. She was right, there was a tiny graveyard with creepy tilted old headstones jutting out of the ground. It was your textbook haunted graveyard, and I was suddenly very grateful for our view of the lake.

I'm telling you, I am not a superstitious person (OK, yes, I totally am!), but that hotel, cute as it was, gave me the shivers. I'm convinced it is haunted, and it kinda freaked me out.

Amber and I ditched the unpacking in favor of exploring the grounds. We walked by the lake, stopping to ooh and ahh over the sweet little chapel on the lake:

We wandered past a small sports field occupied by a dad, his son, and a couple sheep. We hurried past the creepy graveyard, and ended up over by the chapel. We looked at the old crosses, and finally ended up along the river, where we tried to take a selfie.

Ashley was across the yard from us, and when she saw us in selfie-mode, she sighed loudly. Poor girl watched us try to master the selfie and fail miserable all week. (I'm sorry, this is just not a skill anyone over 30 years old has.) Silently, Ashley walked over to us, and put out her hand, motioning for my smartphone. I handed it over, she aimed it at us, and took this picture. 

Then, after giggling at herself, she actually took our photo, too. (But I like Ashley's mischievous prank picture better!)

Amber and took a few more photos, including the inside and outside of the chapel, and a lake monster before heading back to dinner.

The hotel was booked solid, and had only one restaurant, which is why we had to make it to dinner on time. The restaurant was nice, fancier than most of the places we'd eaten (save for the castle), but the menu looked amazing, if a bit complicated.

Neil returned, and tried to explain the menu to us. It was a complicated series of if > then>price combinations--if you order an entree, then the price is this much. If you order an entree but no appetizer and an entree and wine, it's this much. If you don't want an appetizer, but you do want wine and an entree with dessert, it's this much. I finally gave up and just told Neil what I wanted--I really didn't care how much it cost! 

The dinner, however, was FABULOUS. Turns out Neil's wife is a well-known and very talented chef, and the food really showed that. The desserts were equally beautiful, although Ashley opted to eat the solid chunks of crystallized brown sugar directly from the sugar bowl. (Amber and I tried them too--they tasted like rock candy.)

Someone commented on how dark it was outside, and George joked that we should start a rumor about a ghost woman who appeared lakeside every evening. He was joking around, but Neil gave him a very serious look, then quickly moved away. It freaked us all out, because in our version, the ghost was purely fictional. We were really looking for Neil to laugh and tell us how outrageous that was, but his silence told us something far scarier! 

Everybody was a little melancholy after dinner. It was our last night on tour together, and the whole group was really sad about it. We hated to say goodbye, to each other and to Ireland.

So we didn't, just yet. Instead, we convened in the lounge just outside the tiny pub. Amber and I ordered a round of beer from an adorable but seriously young barkeep. (I may or may not have questioned whether he was old enough to serve alcohol.) He filled our Guinness glasses, let them rest, then topped them off and set them on the bar. 

My glass immediately slid away! I am not even joking, he set it down, and it moved a good foot away from me.

"Did you see that?" I said to Amber, who simply nodded, equally shocked.

I moved the beer back, and it slid away again! And then for a third time! 

"I'm telling you, this place is HAUNTED!" I told Amber, and she said, "I know!" 

We moved the chairs into a circle in the lounge, and went around the group, re-living our favorite memories from the trip. Ashley took some panoramic pictures, trying to get the whole circle in, when Brian declared that he wanted to be in the photo twice--once at the beginning and once at the end.

And so he was. He sat with me on the left side, then ran behind Ashley as she panned to the right. She got to Nate, the last person on the right, and suddenly, there was Brian again. We were cracking up and encouraging Brian, so he decided he wanted to be in the photo THREE times.

He started with me again, ran behind chairs to the middle of the photo, and then froze, realizing there were no chairs to hide behind as he raced to the last place. So instead, he dropped to the floor, crawled across the carpet like a giant toddler, and then bounced up into the chair just as Ashley finished panning. I thought we were all gonna bust a gut, we were laughing so hard and so loudly.

But he did it--here is King Brian defying the laws of time, space, and photography.

However, turns out not everyone appreciates our group as much as we do. The young woman who'd checked us into the hotel entered the lounge and very quietly closed one of the pub doors on us. 

We immediately stopped laughing, glanced around at each other, and then burst into hushed, uncontrollable giggles. We felt like school kids getting busted by the teacher.

A few minutes later, we realized why they shut it. We heard voices, angelic voices, rising up from behind the door, and it silenced us immediately. We looked at each other, puzzled, and then crept over to the door to see the angels singing.

We were surprised to see the singers--the front desk clerk, our dinner waitress, and the young bartender! Two held instruments, a guitar and a ukulele, which they strummed. 

They were fantastic, and we were mesmerized. They finished their song, and we applauded them, then stood in the doorway for the next 15 minutes as they continued their hootenanny.

"Have you played together for very long?" we asked from the doorway, and they smiled.

"We're siblings," one girl told us. "This is my brother and sister."

"Ooooooh!" we said, and suddenly it all made sense, how Neil proudly kept telling us this was a family-run business. 

They played a few more ballads--sad Irish tunes, of course, and then the more upbeat "Riptide" by Vance Joy on ukulele. We clapped after every song, and gushed about how wonderful they were. Purely by accident, we'd stumbled onto another Irish gem of a music session.

"Can we open the door now?" we asked after a while. "We promise we'll behave." They nodded shyly--we'd convinced them we weren't always raucous tourists.

We stayed another half hour or so, but then I scooted off to our room. Mark had returned home from summer camp that day, and I was eager to call him. I really missed that crazy kid.

However, the haunted hotel had other plans. My phone was dying, and I didn't want to disturb Amber, so I brought the phone and charger into to the library just outside our room. I tried to call a couple times with no luck, before realizing the hotel was really out in the middle of nowhere, and there was no chance I was gonna get a signal. I was about to try one last time, when I noticed a book right next to the phone charger--it was titled "Seances."

And that did it for me! I wasn't about to be caught alone in an empty library at midnight, haunted by ghosts I was convinced lived there. I grabbed up my phone and charger, and booked it back to the safety of my room. I've never been so glad to see Amber in my life!!! 

Luckily, Amber was still awake and happy to recap our glorious day. By the time we finished re-telling it, I was no longer scared. We both drifted off to sleep on an Irish high (best vacation EVER!) and a simultaneous low (goodbye, Craic Pack!), but we slept soundly, and happily.