Seeking Refuge in the Mountains

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A weekend of ski-touring adventures on the Tasman Glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

How insignificant I am standing here in front of a monstrous wall of ice. Yet out of the two of us, it is the hundreds of year old glacier that is now more mortal, more vulnerable than I. It is disappearing. The generations coming after me will never stand where I stand right now. They’ll never see what I see in front of me. They will never feel this sense of awe that ripples through my body as I stare.

They’ll never haul themselves up the side of a crevasse. They’ll never ski new lines of untouched powder, cruise down 20km of uninterrupted perfection. They’ll never wander amongst frozen tunnels, jagged pristine seracs and sparkling shards of ice.

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Here, away from civilization, perched on a glacier, we are happy, we are free. Here, we play with ropes, skins and ice-axes. Here, we drink whiskey from hip flasks and crack smiles that make our skin crinkle. Here, we don’t scrub or criticize our bodies and our flaws. Here, we eat what we can carry and earn every step.

Here, blisters, bruises and cuts wrap themselves around our bodies. Here, our muscles thrum with pleasurable aches. We curl up in sleeping bags and see our breath turn to steam. Here, there is nothing more gratifying than holding a steaming mug of coffee between your frozen hands. Here our phones have no signal so we talk to each other, we discuss real things and look directly into each other eyes.

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You hear the mountains moan and grumble and watch in incredulity as small avalanches release around you like thunder. You put your trust, your life in fact, in other people’s hands. People who you believe (and hope) know much more than you.

Here, you push yourself to do better, to be better. Here, you feel fear and weakness. You feel the tears and panic brimming up inside body but you force them back down. Here, reality is a distant memory, your to-do list at work no longer seems so urgent, the hard time you gave yourself for your bout of overindulgence seems ridiculous. All that stress and worry you carry around with you every day suddenly seems so trivial. When here, out in the elements, you hold your life in your hands. Here, in the backcountry is where freedom and happiness lies.

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But this haven, this refuge for us vagabonds and dirtbags is disappearing. Soon the world of ice will be gone and with it, so will we.

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Adventures with Da: Boston to Toronto by Bicycle

The bruises on my knees are yellow, a sure sign of the last stage of the heal. The skin on my bum has started to reform, the little bit of weight I lost, piled back on… I am back sprawled on the couch at home, a cup of tea in hand allowing nostalgia to seep in. That most complicated of emotion that has its wicked way with you, sucks you in every time, props a rose-tinted lens over your memory and keeps you coming back for more.

For twelve days, Dad and I took to the bikes to make the journey from Boston to Toronto. The two prominent cities were chosen merely because we had relations in both that we could crash with while we prepped and subsequently recovered. A relatively easy trip for us both, we had taken on much more badass adventures together and separate in the past. This was a holiday. Not even 1000km in total, roughly 80km a day, easy as. Ignore the fact that I hadn’t so much as seen a bike in the past six months owing to the fact that I was busy living life amongst the snow in the high Alps of France for the ski season. It proved to be a rookie mistake.

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I should have known. It’s always the trips that you underestimate and belittle that fight back and prove to be the biggest test. Alas, that is the terrible beauty of adventure. So off we went, leaving my waving mother behind in the pissing of rain in a Boston suburb, blissfully oblivious to what lay ahead.

An hour in, I hit a pothole disguised as a puddle and burst my knees open on the tarmac. And that was it, a baptism of fire and our introduction to cycling in America. From then on our days were filled with linking Greenways and bike tracks, scary highways, nods of hello, intermittent rain, blazing sun and the constant hunt for food that contained a bit of sustenance. A Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s on every corner, of course, but trying to find quaint coffee shops and grocery stores filled with fruit and veg proved futile.

The American hospitality prevailed everywhere we turned. Everyone wanted to talk; everyone wanted to help. We ran out of water along a highway so we pulled into a power electro store and I ran in to ask for help. I emerged twenty minutes later with ice-cold water, a print off of Google map directions and beaming from ear to ear. There were so many little meetings that played out like this… the lovely volunteers at the canal museum doling out pistachio cake and coffee; the casual banter of people walking past us every time we stopped for a second to consult the map or take a bite of a cereal bar. And that’s the beauty of these little trips scattered throughout the year, that despite all the issues you see on the road; the lack of recycling, their consumer society, the prejudices… it restores some hope in humanity within my bones that people are essentially good creatures.

 

On day three, things started to unravel for me. I bonked so hard that I wanted to quit. I hit a wall; shed some tears. It was a constant slog, hills after hills, climb after climb, all in the pissing rain. Eventually, we pulled over into a little creamery at the side of the road to collapse momentarily. And it was my kind of place, fresh fruit and veg, organic produce and vegetarian options (hallelujah!). We went in for a coffee and stayed for a quiche while the rain poured down outside. That hour or so out of the saddle rejuvenated me, providing a new lease of life for the second half of the day. Yet, I had never been so happy to see the end of the day. Tomorrow will be better, I told myself constantly.

It was not. It was a disaster in fact. A severe weather warning was issued. Thunder, rain and hurricanes were coming for us. I woke up floored, feeling like a fever was ready to engulf me, plus perfect timing, as usual, my periods came to further torture me. I was stuck in my own personal hell. The tears came and my old friend, self-loathing, kicked in.

But I was not yet ready to call it quits on this trip, not after all I’d given up to be here. So on the fifth day, we packed the panniers and started pedalling. Moving from Massachusetts into New York State, quickly noting the startling difference; moving from money to poverty, riches to rags, Obama to Trump. While I continued to simmer in my own personal pity party, smothered in a cold while on the hunt to find food in these one-horse towns.

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The misery continued like so, interspersed with moments of beauty and joy. Day six and I felt every bit of the 82km. The pain, the fever, the hurt rolled over me like a wave. I passed out the moment we reached the shitty motel. My head so congested that I was barely able to unload my bike. I showered and collapsed into bed to sweat the fever out. Meanwhile, Dad hovered in the background taking care of me. I questioned constantly if I could do this. My body yearned to stop but my brain kept resisting, repeating the mantra; ‘I’m not a quitter,’ over and over again. In every adventure I’ve ever done, the question always looms, especially when misery strikes…why? Why do we do this to ourselves? My reasoning is that hardship makes real life more tolerable; makes it seem easier. It teaches us how to endure and persevere when all we want to do is quit. Because the rewards at the end are just too huge to ignore.

I feel so weak and pathetic. My body is failing me. I am mired with disappointment. I am battling my demons and constantly feeling like I am losing. I know I should quit and call it a day but I really don’t want to. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’d never rid myself of the failure. It has become a case of mental endurance and stubbornness to get me to the end. I’ll crawl across that finish line if I have to. But the fear of pneumonia presses in. And the question is knowing when to call it quits; when to opt for your health over your stubbornness? We conclude that if I wake up the following day and it’s any worse, then it’s time to call it a day and get a bus to the border; the ultimate march of shame.

The alarm sounds. I wake warily, checking my body for any sign of recovery, any victory that I can cling to and use as a talisman to get me through another day. I didn’t feel better but I didn’t feel worse and that is all I needed. The relief of not having to throw in the towel is enough to lift my mood. I had the first good day on the bike that day and it was a great one; Constanta to Weedsport. Just when I thought I was a goner, I come back and the feeling of relief and joy is unparalleled. My body is coming back to me finally.

 

We celebrate the day against a backdrop of rolling hills, red barns, grain stores, long green grass and blue skies. We were in Amish country, witnessing first hand a bygone era, a community in frocks, trotting by in their horse-drawn carts. A young couple rode up to us to greet us, they were on their way to the lake for a picnic.

Deep down I knew that the momentum couldn’t last but all it had to do was get me through one more day… we had agreed to cut the journey short by one day and instead of Toronto been the final destination the border into Canada aka Niagara Falls would be our new finish line. A decision that I was happy not to rally against. The end is nigh, the finish line is looming.

Day 12 and with one last heroic effort, I pedal across the border into Canada. By god, we did it. Sweat, blood and tears, an iPod in my ears blasting Bon Iver for the latter half of the day in a dismal attempt to take me out of my own head, tears streaming down my face, chest infection strangling me and wet to the core from the lashings of rain. It was hard, so fucking hard. But crossing that border after 90km, handing over that $2 entrance fee and hearing the sound of that stamp hitting the passport page felt like we had reached nirvana. By god, we fucking did it.

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This trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially so because I naively thought it would be one of the easiest. But two things, just two, made it so worth doing.

The fact that I endured when I know so many would have stopped. For someone that constantly questions their self-worth, their abilities, this was huge for me. The fact that I didn’t quit when the odds seemed stacked against me. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself. It was not the trip I imagined but it tested me, it pushed me to my limits and I came out the other side, albeit sick, bruised, sunburnt and worn but still, out the other side at least.

Number two, Dad and I. I know a lot of shit Dad’s and mine, I am happy to report, is not one of them. I struck gold with mine. I don’t know many people who have that relationship with their fathers. We are just easy in one another’s company, sometimes we small talk, sometimes we discuss the bigger things in life, and sometimes we lapse into a comfortable silence for hours on end. When I came off the bike, his sheer panic and concern made me calm, made me stand up and walk it off. When I wanted to call it a day halfway through, he knew exactly how to make me stay. He said if I go then he goes too. And that, frustratingly as I longed to quit, I could not agree to ruin his trip as well as my own. So together, we knuckled down and pedalled on.

Day to day life can be great, idyllic at times but it can also be really fucking difficult and monotonous. Trips like this scattered throughout the year lift me out of that routine, shake my soul and break the stupor. It’s like coming up for air after holding your breath underwater for too long. And that right there is the appeal. Something about been out of doors all day long in rain, hail or shine, the aches and pains of pushing your body past what you normally ask it to do. It’s addictive. And why I know, despite the suffering, that this is far from the last adventure I will ever do.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

I told you I’d catch up. I told you I’d get there in the end. My parents always said that their three daughters were just taking the ‘scenic route’, ‘the long way around in life’.

But then I did it. I finally got what I’d been craving, what I’d been working towards and dreaming about for years. I got the dream job. And with the career, came security and a few quid in my back pocket. A normal life. Finally. Home at the weekend to see the folks and meet up with the home crowd to hash it out, vent about work, boys, life, etc. over drinks. Then back up to the big smoke on Sunday night for another week in the office.

I finally did it. Accomplished what I thought I wanted. I was officially settled. And I was comfortable…

For about ten minutes. That’s all it lasted. And then my mind began to whizz again.

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The question kept cropping up in my mind’s eye. Again and again it would float to the surface, that most deflating and demoralizing question… is this it? Is this it for the rest of my life?

I wasn’t unhappy. Aspects of this life, I loved.

But for the first time in my life I did not have an end point to aim for, to keep me motivated, to make me enjoy the inevitable lows and the hard times. This could technically continue indefinitely. This could be it. For the rest of my life.

And I wasn’t ready. I still wasn’t ready. Even though everyone around me seemed ready. I, to my utter dismay, was not.

So I did something reckless once again. I decided to hand in my notice and do a ski season. The thing that most people commit to in their early twenties, on their gap year after university or just after, in that brief lapse of time before entering adulthood. At 27, had my moment passed?

But I have learned in recent times that if you care a little less about what people think of you then you are free to make up your own rules. So for the umpteenth time in my life, I threw caution to the wind and took a gamble. I applied to work as a chalet host in the French Alps. I informed work that I was running away and I packed my life into a 20kg duffel bag to join the hoards of youthful, party-mad seasonnaires boarding a plane to the mountains.

What ensued was weeks of highs and lows, day time siestas, way too many fresh baguettes and pastries devoured, a few extra layers of fat to line my stomach and thighs, drama, a lot of drama, sleeping on couches, chef’s with broken arms, passive-aggressive comments, belly-aching laughs, a new best friend, miles and miles of piste, howling at the moon, dancing under the stars, legs dangling off of chair lifts, pushing through fear, climbing mountains, countless perfect sunrises and sunsets, embracing the thrill of speed and the biggest surprise of them all; meeting a beard toting, van owning, free-thinking, adventure-loving vagabond to share my world with.

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The season now draws to a close. The prospect of returning to reality looms once more. Yet the ride continues. A new adventure presents itself daily. The highs are high and the lows are low. Every week a new challenge to bask in; the first black slope, the first visit to the ski park, the first off-piste run, the first time using ice axes, ski touring sessions, sunrise hikes to the summit…

All welcoming the return of fear back into my world. A feeling that at times I despise. It makes me feel weak and inferior. But a tiny part of my brain revels in, craves it and seeks it out. Fear is all consuming. You tune out everything around you. You become hyper-aware of your own body, your own mortality, your chest rising and falling as your lungs fills with oxygen. Your palms slightly sweaty, the feeling of your teeth as they brush against your lips. One more deep breath, one swallow, one last thought before you close your eyes for a beat, everything slows down and then over the edge you drop….

Into blissful oblivion.

Every week I up the stakes a little more. I push myself to find that thrill, that feeling once more.

At 27, you would think you would know yourself pretty well. Yet, I am still learning, still discovering who I am. I now know, categorically, that my happiness lies outside the confines of office walls. I have discovered the lure of the mountains and I may never return. It has taken me a long time to learn, that for me, lifestyle trumps job.

What is next… who knows! The only thing that I am certain of is that I’m not yet ready to return to so-called ‘real life’. It’s not the life for me. I am content, at peace, at long last. The feeling is no doubt finite, it is inevitable that it will come and go in waves throughout my life. But at this moment in time, I am right where I’m supposed to be.

I am happy.

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Why I Run…

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Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I feel the most awful pain in the pit of my stomach. It builds up my throat and thrums in my ears. My head fills with fog, my brow furrows and I find it hard to breathe.

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the anxiety in my body builds up to such a point that the centre no longer holds. It feels like I’m a vessel filled with liquid that has reached its capacity. And when I try to move, the liquid sloshes over the side. The tap won’t turn off and it flows and flows over the brim.

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, the tears tip over the ledges of my eyes and leak down my face. Sometimes it’s so unexpected I cannot even trace where it came from. I cannot fathom its cause.

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We criticize, we criticize, we criticize. We look in the mirror and we tear ourselves apart. We look at others and we tear them apart. We should be marvelling at ourselves and each other, celebrating. Yet, too often I look down at my body and pinpoint all of its flaws, one by one. My scars, the size of my thighs, my nose, my height … how often have I looked at myself and thought, ‘wow, I am incredible?’

The answer is never. Not once.

But look at what my body can do. It has taken me around the world, up mountains, into lakes. It never fails me. Every blemish is a battle wound that tells the story of who I am.

Yet sometimes, I forget it…

Sometimes, not often but sometimes worry drowns me. Fear consumes me. That I’ll make the wrong decision. That people won’t like me. That I won’t be good enough. That I’m too weak, too stupid, too ugly. That I won’t get another chance, another job, another love.

I fret the small stuff and I fret the big stuff; climate change, poverty, human rights, the direction this world is heading in… that I’m not doing enough to help. I’m never doing enough to help.

And sometimes, not often, but sometimes all of that accumulates and my mood spirals downwards.

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To cope, I run, or I bike, or I hike, or I throw myself off a cliff (recreationally!) into open water… so that for a few blissful moments, time stops and I can breathe again.

For a few blissful moments my head is not clouded with worry or anxiety.

I am free from the soul-destroying grip of my phone.

I am at peace.

Perhaps it’s the beauty of the sunset, the colours in the sky, a knowing smile from a fellow runner as I pass them by, the realisation of pure isolation, the laboured panting of my breath, the sweat dripping down my forehead or the frigid wild Atlantic swell hitting my skin… it’s always a moment like that, that makes it all go away.

That perfect feeling when you close your eyes briefly and you are totally free.

It only lasts a second.

But that is all it takes.

To remember.

To be reminded.

That this world really is a beautiful place.

And I’m lucky to be in it.

And perhaps that I should stay a little longer.

And just do my best.

Try my hardest.

And see what this world has in store for me.

An Ode to the Road

To feel lonely in your own country is a terrible thing.

To have to stand still, when you want to run.

To have to put yourself out there constantly, when you know you are going to get knocked back.

That’s why I miss the road.

I miss the not knowing.

I miss the freedom.

I miss living out of a backpack, sleeping in airports and train stations, over night buses, the chaos of being lost in a country where the language is not your own, the sand on your feet, the itch of a mosquito bite, wearing shorts day in, day out, sunburn peel, sleeping in a different bed/bus/sofa/floor/tent every night…

I miss labouring in the outback, pulling pints in Perth, kayaking in Sydney, sleeping in a hammock in Cambodia, getting caught in the rain in Bali, riding motorbikes in Vietnam, eating with your hands in India, drinking iced coffee in Canada, swimming in turquoise waters in the Philippines, snowboarding in France, camping in Scotland, walking in Portugal…

But most of all, I miss the people…

oh how I miss the people.

A year back in Ireland and I’ve made four new friends tops, a day on the road and I’d make 15. I have no one to make plans with for the weekend, traipse around the mountains with, no one to surf with, or to fawn over maps with. I have had so many of these people in my life over the years … I needed to know that they were still there, somewhere.

So I decided to touch base with a few. All on one day and see where their lives had taken them, see if some would even respond, just to feel connected once more. I asked them to send me a picture of where they were and what they were doing right now…

And man, the photos flooded in. I was transported around the world, breaking the ice with people I haven’t spoken to in a long time. It wasn’t like on Instagram, the perfectly manicured images, it was real.

I was catching up, seeing the world again, laughing, talking politics, discussing their dreams and adventures, talking about their pain and difficulties. Some were brief conversations, some stayed and we talked for hours.

A constant stream of photos and conversations, people getting up, while I was going to bed, me getting up, while they were going to sleep. People chasing their dreams, travelling, struggling, stuck in an office, working their ass off to get the career. I celebrated with people, tried to help some figure out a problem or make a decision.

I wasn’t jealous when the really good ones came, the ones where people were travelling or doing something really worthwhile. I heard stories of people studying climate change, inspiring a generation of surfers, climbing mountains in South America, working their asses off in offices, preserving history in Virginia, drinking in Melbourne, watching a sunrise in Vancouver…

And I was happy for them, so happy for them all. These people that I get to call my friends, people who too, are just trying to make their way in this fucked up world… and in that moment, I wasn’t lonely anymore.

Take a look at what I got back: 

 

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Travels through India

Travel changes everything. The harder the journey the more you learn and by God, India was no picnic… dust, dirt, and chaos. The swarms of people, the pungent air, the constant stares, the rats, the slums, the litter, sitting cross legged on the floor, eating curry with dirty fingers, horned cows and stray dogs roaming every street, the aromas of spices and incense wafting through the air, yoga lessons on the grass, crazy driving, incredible views and food and then there’s me and Tom (my best pal from uni)… a Scottish boy and an Irish girl lost somewhere amongst the madness of southern India.

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Day one and a kind local invites us to his home to eat, but we realise too late he’s trouble and we are way too naive, that the world is not all rainbows and butterflies and not everyone is a misunderstood soul, when the “kind local” turns his back on you for the whole night and will only speak to your male friend, when he silences you with the infuriating words ‘ok sweetie’ and puts his hands up to quieten you, his exact and poignant use of pronouns when he refers to you as “she” and “her” are like punches in the gut and his use of flyaway phrases like “even she can teach us something” and all you can do is bite your tongue when you feel like screaming, “I’m right here you sexist twat.” He drives us back on scooters at 1.30am, insisting I ride with him, I can smell the whiskey off his breath as he says it. He drives too fast, a stray cow on the street turns his head and almost annihilates us. He topples his head back in laughter as I ask him meekly to slow down…

In Goa, we rent motorbikes and head off on a day trip to a secret beach with the ultra cool hippies from our hostel; one Indian, two Nepalese, one Mexican, one Portuguese, and one Guatemalan… all men, but this time they are the good kind. We scour the Indian countryside, stopping for a banana shake while they sip ‘holy water’, go skinny dipping (them not me) and we lie back in the white sands sipping beers on the deserted shores. Later, we take a quick ferry across to an island, the most northern point of Goa in the torrential rain for chai, returning at night to a restaurant delightfully known as the Happy Corner to bask in the sound of a cacophony of horns ringing from a Hindu Temple – Indian style live music.

Back on the bikes we hop, weaving down the twisted streets to Arambol to the candle lit beach bars for more beers. It’s all so magical. I am perched on the back of Julio’s bike and we talk and talk and talk as the wind sweeps through our hair and darkness closes in around us. He is a wise man who shares his story with me, with words of wisdom like ‘Never entertain jealousy and boredom is a great thing, because it allows creativity to come to life.” He has been bankrupt three times in his life. He is married but in an open relationship. His wife is working for the Red Cross in Myanmar, while he is setting up a hostel in India. This is why I travel, why conform when you could live like this, without rules or societal pressure, meeting people who live whatever way they feel like. This is freedom, this is life!

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Only in India, have I experienced such highs and lows, an incredible day like that is followed by a brutal one… the rules of gender here are so misplaced, the men stare at me but ignore me when I ask a question, and address only Tom, ‘the man’, naturally it drives me insane. There are two prices for everything, one for foreigners, one for locals. Hassle and haggle all day long, a man putting a phone in my face to video me, they are like paparazzi and I am a caged animal in a zoo. Everyone is trying to rip you off, not many are kind just to be kind, everyone has an agenda. I know now how lucky I am to be born a white female from the western world. I have always considered myself working class, with two nurses for parents who have worked their whole lives to provide for me and my sisters. How blind I was, we live like kings and queens compared to the Indian version of working class.

Tonight we board an eleven hour sleeper bus overnight from Goa to Hampi. Packed like sardines on bunk beds. The conductor kindly lets us swap from two single beds to one double so as we are together, but then for his kindness insists we pay him a bribe of 100 rupees… everything has a price and though many preach about karma few seem to practice it. Curtains pulled, windows open on this non-AC sleeper bus, the wind cooling the sweat sticking us to the mat. Shoved and pushed, rolling around freely as the bus chugs on, we know this never would be allowed in the western world. It is like The Knight bus in Harry Potter. We giggle and chat, and try in vain to get some shuteye in this mad world as we are tossed around with every pothole and bump as we hurtle south.

We arrive in Hampi as the sun is setting, the local businessmen swarm us as we try and get off the bus, trying to push us into a rickshaw but we have our wits about us despite our tired eyes and we know it is only a two minute walk to the town. The monuments and temples loom splendidly on the hillside, long tail monkeys run across the electrical wires, while the weary people make their morning pilgrimage to the temple. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, the equivalent of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. We find a place to rest our aching bodies with a toilet that doesn’t flush and a mosquito net pockmarked with giant holes patched up dismally with plasters, we finally fall asleep to the distant wails of chants happening outside as the rest of the world begins to wake.

We make new friends with people who are staying at the same guest house. Candi a strong, beautiful Argentinian woman who takes no shit from anyone, she is travelling with her best friend the delightful Mati. They have been hitchhiking and couchsurfing their way through India. Then there’s John from London, whose kindness has no limits, all the beggars we meet, he buys them food instead of giving them money. I know instantly the three will be our friends for life.

The food is incredible. It feels amazing to eat pure vegetarian, handfuls of floury parotta and chapatti swabbing up the spicy curry; the Veg Thali, Channa Masala, Masala Dosa, Aloo Gobi, Dal Fry, all slapped onto a plate or banana leaf. Using only our hands, it’s a spectacularly messy and uncivilized way to eat but brilliant in the freedom of it. I love it, I gorge and revel in the joy of food once more. Although, be warned I nearly always found a hair in my dish!

A local bus to Hospet in torrential rain through ‘roads’ that can’t even call themselves roads. We sit on the floor of the train station for four hours. The station reeks of manure, I swallow down the vomit that threatens to come up my throat. The rain makes it worse. Out on the street you see the caste system at work, one massive fancy ass hotel and all around it pure slums. We sit wallowing in the stench, drowned in the rain and the electricity goes. Typical. Everyone is in barefoot walking through the muck and puddles. There is a young girl in a green sari with wide brown eyes huddled in a corner swaddled in blankets staring at me. The lights blink in and out when a group of young boys taunt us and get right up in our faces, I thank my lucky stars that Tom is here with me. I don’t know if I could have done it alone and that thought angers me, why shouldn’t I be able to do this alone? Because this world is so fucked up, that’s why. It breaks my heart.

But alas, we survive the sleeper train, three beds stacked on top of each other. For twelve hours we lay in our caves to arrive in Mysore, where out on the streets we see cultures clash as the Muslim women stroll in their black burkas contrasting brilliantly against the colorful saris of the Hindus. After sleep, we are reunited with the Argentinians and John, we get a tuk tuk to Chimean Hill, five of us squished in the back of one, I on Thomas’ lap, hanging halfway out the tuk tuk, with Bob Marley blaring No Worries on the radio. We climb 1032 steps to a temple. The hike is a pilgrimage, the colours dabbed on each step in a benediction, a silent prayer. We trudge on, chatting, lapsing into silence as we pull ourselves up the steep incline and concentrate on our breathing. It is a stand out moment, one that I will remember forever.

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An overnight bus to Kochi, a man sits next to us asks us for our name and our caste? He asks what religion we are, we say none, he says how come? We say you don’t want to know… The European vibes of Kochi are a welcome break. The boys are playing football, when I bump into Carly an old friend from university in the most surreal moment ever, the world is too small! We go for secret beers and catch up on her life, her adventures in Madagascar and Reunion Island and I just think to myself wow I know some cool people.

Its mad how progress seems to have just stopped in the country, like the 21st century just barreled through and they just cant keep up… or perhaps don’t want to? The electricity consistently goes, the utter lack of sanitation, the people in the shops/markets getting pissed off with you when you refuse to cave to their inflated price and push for negotiation, the rickshaw drivers constantly hassling you. A local woman thrusts her few month old baby at me so as the family can take pictures of the white girl holding a baby. Over the course of the three weeks I’ll have been in over fifteen strangers photos. If you can learn to embrace/handle India, nothing will ever faze you again.

Another bus, this time to the Tea Plantations of Munnar and they are incredible, even in the misty rain. We scale the cliff edges in a jeep to see them, passing waterfalls and miles of greenery; it is nature at its best. Then in typical Indian fashion, the country goes on strike and fails to tell the tourists. All restaurants, shops, buses, tuk tuks, national parks – everything shuts down, we have no food and water for the day.

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Our days are numbered, on our second last night we sit on a pier back in Kochi, feet dangling, reflecting on life, when a rat runs across my bare feet. There is a frog in the corner, an Indian man pisses on the side of the street facing us… this is India. Back to the hostel to lie on our backs and stare up at the spinning fan, life is a strange and wonderful thing.

There is only one last destination left before home, Mumbai. The city is huge and bustling, here there is the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. As I look out the dirty window of the local bus, we pass the shanty towns,there is just people everywhere. Twenty five million people in Mumbai alone. Coming from a country of less than 5 million I just cant comprehend this scale. Then onto an overpacked train, full of men, pressed against them, everyone of them unashamedly staring at me. I cannot wait to be anonymous once more, to blend in with the crowd. The train doesn’t stop, just slows down and people make a run and jump and hope for the best…

Our last night in India, we invite the 19 year old Egyptian kid from our hostel to the bar with us, he drinks a double tequila when he’s never drank before. He is drunk almost instantly, slapping his head, talking to himself, we have to bring him home and put him to bed. I whisper a goodbye to Thomas in the middle of the night, the end is nigh, he is off to Cambodia for a year while I will return home to university for one last stab at that dream career.

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The time has come to go home. It’s been a whirlwind, a love affair, highs and lows, both easy and terribly hard… worth it though, so, so worth it. Already my glasses are starting to tint with rose. We only have one life, and you must try really hard to live it. I am back behind the bar pulling pints and dreaming of the dusty roads, the host of colours, the spice, the smell of India and the next adventure.

“I urge you to travel. As far and as much as possible. Work ridiculous shifts to save your money, go without the latest Iphone. Throw yourself out of your comfort zone. Find out how other people live and realize that the world is a much bigger place than the town you live in. And when you come home, home may still be the same and yes you may go back to the same old job but something in your mind will have shifted. And trust me that changes everything.”

 

Featured

Breathless

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We take our bodies so for granted. At full health, what it is capable of doing is astounding; it can climb mountains, swim amongst the tides, sprint through fields of long grass… but what about those who never possessed a body at full health, those people who never had the option? When menial everyday tasks are more difficult, every outing is preplanned and climbing a stairs is an arduous task. How would you live your life if your lungs were your enemy? And your days were made up of physio, medication and hospital visits. When you had to consume 12 to 22 tablets a day just to keep you ticking over. How would you live if you were born with an illness that as of yet has no cure? Would you allow it to define you or would you rally against it in defiance?

Chris stops and sits on an outcropped rock to catch his breath on our 2km walk up to the hut were we will camp tonight. I hear his laboured breath, the painful drag in and out. Around us are dirt tracks and a brutally deforested area of Coillte. It is a muggy evening with a heavy grey sky that hints at an oncoming downpour. Chris pulls his backpack up and we walk on, heading into the trees. After about half an hour we reach our destination, a little green hut perched on a small cliff face overlooking rolling green hills. It is truly an idyllic setting to set up camp for a night’s microadventure, anything to liven up the week. We quickly unburden ourselves from our backpacks and lay down our mats and bags to gather sticks for a fire.

When I was in fifth year of secondary school my friend died from Cystic Fibrosis, he was sick his whole life, obviously sick, wheelchair and oxygen tank kind of sick. He died and we were heartbroken. We his friends continued to maintain contact with his family; his father James, mother Fiona and little brother Chris. We struck up a routine of sorts, dinners, drinks and a chat about the good times. The years passed by and one by one the friends slipped away, caught up with their own lives, their own worries and hardships but somehow I remained. I found his family liberating, strong and inspiring. They taught me so much about life and as I grew up they became my friends too. This family is different than any I’ve ever known. They are a joy to be around because they don’t suffer fools. They let you away with nothing; there is no such thing as I can’t and over the years we have lived a life less ordinary. We have kayaked the Slaney together, made it into the Guinness Book of Records for participating in the world’s longest swim, gone clay pigeon shooting, done countless Rubberman challenges and a few weeks ago we went camping for a night in the Wicklow mountains while Chris who also has Cystic Fibrosis was on IVs.

James throws some jacket potatoes into the ash to cook and we set about boiling water over the open flames. He plucks a bbq rack from those DIY bbq kits and perches it precariously between the rocks and logs to cook the sausages and pork chops on while the beans boil away contently in their tin. It’s a feast by my usual camping standards! Meanwhile Chris sits on a picnic table and lays out his syringes; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… all glittering in the sunset on the pristine silver tray. He begins the slow process, filling them up from the glass vials one by one, lifting his t-shirt to expose the various contraptions attached to his body. He doesn’t skip a beat as he slowly injects the meds into his body, continuing the conversation as if this was totally the norm.

The risks are very real for a person with CF to camp while on IV’s; the lack of a sterile environment, the risk of hemoptysis with no easy escape route and a night spent lying on the cold hard ground is not the most comfortable. Three days ago Chris’s lungs were at 46%, the equivalent of me walking with one lung, yet he doesn’t complain. At 19 almost 20 years old, Chris is a breath of fresh air with his no bullshit attitude. CF does not define him or stop him experiencing all the simple pleasures that others his age have. Yes there are risks, but you have to live your life; “A lot of people with CF get caught up with all the treatments. It’s ok to once in a while to skip it. It’s not going to catapult you back,” he says, adding defiantly “Don’t let your treatments dictate your life. There is some leeway. A massive amount is mindset. If your health takes a small hit for a better life, its worth it.”

The sun lowers gradually but the moon is particularly bright tonight. We stare into the orange flames licking the firewood, prodding the embers occasionally. We sip tumblers of vodka and coke and red wine and we just sit and talk. A cold night ensues on hard ground, wrapped tightly in our sleeping bags to stave off the cold. Bedding down, Chris warns us of his coughing; he needn’t have, after a while he falls into a quiet slumber, unlike his father who will scare any potential predators away with his snores.

It is not an easy night and none of us sleep well, we wake the moment light returns, weary, sore and totally spent but exhilarated all the same. We get up groggily and stretch out our aching bodies. The air is crisp and damp and the birds greet us with their dawn chorus. We stuff everything into our backpacks, pull them on and walk briskly out of the woods. Time to go back to reality. A time out every so often is necessary to make you appreciate your cozy bed, the roof over your head, your life and to put those worries that seem so big into perspective. A little midweek adventure to wake us up, shake us up, anything to feel alive to feel normal. If Chris can do it, surely you have no excuse?

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FINDING MY FEET

After all that, I am home. Sprawled on the couch in front of the fire with the TV crackling away in the background and Mam and Dad pottering around the house, living their lives.

It’s strange but when I look back on my time in Australia, it is not the touristy things that stand out. In fact it’s the opposite, I found that I was happiest when I was doing normal things, reuniting with old friends… lying in bed sculling tumblers of red wine before a night out with Lori, then watching Netflix hung over the next morning with cups of coffee with a hint of caramel replacing the wine. A meat feast with Josh by the Yarra River followed by a drunken stroll through the botanic gardens, breakfast at Laneway with Pepi, road tripping the Great Ocean Road with him and Cas, sleeping in the back of the car at night, watching the women rip at Bells Beach Rip Curl Pro surf competition, climbing rocks, listening to the Serial podcast as we drive, debating music and politics, discovering the lilting tones of Meg Mac. Pounding the pavements on a run with Lauren, kayaking on the harbour in Sydney with Orla, reminiscing with the other Lauren while sipping sangria and listening to gentle jazz on Darling Harbor…

Nowadays, I tire quickly when living out of a backpack. I become desensitised to the beauty around me, I take it all for granted. Yet I continue to do it because I know I will never regret travelling. It has shaped who I am today. Travel changes how you see people, how you see the world. An innate curiosity is born from it, you question everything, especially what is right and what is wrong. You learn to be kinder, you learn to not care when others mock you for been different, you learn not to be afraid or be ashamed. You learn to look at the bigger picture, to worry about global warming, conservation, politics, rather than the petty things unfolding inside your own little bubble. You learn how to talk to everyone and anyone, how to behave in all kinds of situations, how to feel comfortable in your own skin. You toughen up, get a thicker skin and learn to let go of all that worry and stress you’ve been storing up inside. It flicks a switch in your brain and suddenly you can rub your eyes and see everything as it really is and you can finally see the worlds and your own potential.

I am far from done travelling but for now, in this moment, I am content to be at home for a little while. Nowadays, happiness for me is a hot shower on a cold day, that initial burst when the scalding water turns cold against my frigid skin and eventually seeps in. Hungrily ingesting a great book while sprawled on the carpeted floor in my pyjamas in front of the fire. Those breaths I take after finishing a gruelling run, hands on my knees, dragging air into my lungs, ears pounding. Lying on the couch with my head on my Mammy’s lap, her fingers gently combing through my hair. Driving with the window down and the stereo blasting, and me and my friends screaming out the tunes…

Now I know myself rather well and with a return to routine means  I must be on my guard. I must try; really try every day to live. I cannot allow the days and weeks to pass me by without doing anything. I must try to absorb it all, put the phone down, look up, take it in and appreciate those little moments. I must try to get up earlier, camp every few weekends, to learn to cook, to attend talks and lectures about things that matter, to watch more documentaries, to learn something new, to get out on the bike, to live a little more spontaneously. And most importantly, I must not envy others lives but be inspired by them, to allow them to motivate me to do the same. I must try, really try, to just be happy…

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Notes, from a solo traveller in Bali

Flashbacks of Vietnam flicker behind my eyes with every step I take; litter toppling over the sidewalks, chaotic drivers blasting their scooter horns, the taxi from the airport smashing his car mirror off a parked car and cursing in Indonesian but driving on. The cold showers, the toilets you cant put paper down, the mosquito bites, the monsoon rain as it tumults down…

I find myself once again, alone in a hostel, hauling myself up a ladder to my bunk, tired and agitated with my head pressed against the hard mattress in an attempt to drown out the onslaught of beats pulsing through the wall from the common room next door. I vow to escape Kuta the moment the sun rises, to an island that is more my scene Gili Trawangan.

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I am whipped away on a boat to the remote haven, but I feel no thrill as we skate across the sea. I have become a weary traveller with empty pockets and a heavy heart, staying in absolute dumps. This time the dorm room has one single and one double bed. The young locals in charge try to convince two complete strangers to share the same bed, devoid of the knowledge of how our western society works. As I am the only girl I am permitted the single bed, how honoured I am. How do I get myself into these situations I wonder time and time again…

The rain pisses down and the electricity goes. I sit in the darkness, sipping coffee listening to a local strum the ukulele and sing softly. Eventually the generator kicks in like a strimmers cutting hedges beside my head. What you learn about yourself in these situations says it all, to try not to fall into a pit of despair is the key but to embrace the madness that ensues around you. Thunder and lightning clap down around me. The loudspeakers lining the streets call the locals to prayer as I sit in the room with only the bed bugs for company and I sigh. This is hard, how much easier would my life be if I were satisfied to just stay at home. I eventually succumb to sleep against a backdrop of thunder and lightning and Middle Eastern sounding music seeping through the pane less windows.

I venture out for food alone, sitting on a plastic bench in silence chewing slowly, sipping my coffee, and counting the ants crawling around in the sugar jar. There are twelve. I offer to take a picture of a group of adult Indonesians on their holiday. They cannot thank me enough and insist I get in a photo with them for I am and I quote “like a model to them because I am so white…”I laugh and agree in defeat knowing full well I couldn’t look less like a model, greasy hair, smelling of BO, no make up and drenched but I am indeed rather white… I guess I’ll be tucked away in some random photo album forever more.

The everyday life of the locals is beautiful in its rawness and simplicity. The little sacrifice to the Hindu gods of flowers and incense folded in a leaf box left outside their doorstep noon and night. Bicycles and pony drawn carts rattle down the mucky streets, swerving around the puddles or pummeling straight through them. Kids play on their hand built rafts, mischievously tipping it over in the clear turquoise waters of the Pacific and howling with laughter as they melt into its shallow waters. Outside my door boys gather around a guitar strumming youth. Kids cry, mothers bark orders, roosters crow. The sad thing is I know I would love this place normally, it is exactly my cup of tea, the simple life, hard work, engaging your whole body in a task, the wildness, the roughness, the kindness… but I am an outsider and have lost my spark. I am not one of them, a local nor do I fit in amongst the party going tourists blazing a trail of destruction through this solemn piece of paradise. I have succumbed to loneliness, hating the thought of eating another dinner alone. But what are my choices go it alone or don’t go at all?

I long to belong to a community once more. Travelling solo is exhausting. You can’t even go to the toilet without bringing all your bags with you, just in case someone steals them. But you learn so much about yourself as there is no one else to lean on. Everyone should try it at least once in his or her lifetime. But when all you do is travel alone the novelty wears off. I now dread the inevitable times I will spend waiting around for boats, buses, trains, planes with no one to talk to. When you’ve finished your book, taken your pictures, refreshed your newsfeed for the fiftieth time, had a coffee, had a think. It just gets boring. I find myself people watching, envious of others camaraderie, young love or pals having a rant… meanwhile I haven’t spoken to a single human the whole day except for the waiter to order some food. It’s hard, its really fucking hard, no one tells you this in the mountains of inspirational posts online. I know I am lucky, I know I am surrounded by beauty, and wondrous things but sometimes I just wish I had someone to share it with. Plus I burnt my back on the boat back to Bali… just one of the disadvantages of solo travelling, you cant reach your own back to lather some suncream on.

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I have come here with a purpose though to tick an item off my bucket list, to do my PADI open water scuba diving course. The amount of bloody theory to wade through before they let us free is not a good omen. I get to the pool part finally but I do not feel entirely comfortable with the goggles on not been able to breath through my nose. But I persist…. And then finally something clicks and we fall off a boat into the open ocean and my mind erupts in awe. The vastness of its crystal waters, the coral reef, all these creatures you’ve seen a million times on TV just chilling before your very eyes. We float through a shipwreck covered in coral, moray eels and puffer fish glide around us. I am weightless; I am wrapped in my own little bubble and this time it’s a good bubble. It really is just you and your thoughts while around you majestic turtles, reef sharks, eagle rays and every fish you’ve seen in Finding Nemo just go on about their daily lives. It is incredible. We must conserve this. We must do something! I emerge elated and finally things begin to take a turn for the better.

From Gili T, I make my way to Ubud and I instantly fall in love. The houses are treehouses built on stilts and nestled amongst the treetops of a jungle, winding streets curve up and down, inclining and declining steeply. I get lost in the graffiti, the painted murals on the walls, the vegetation intertwining with the art, nature and humans colliding… coexisting. Too soon I must leave the place I should have came from day one, and back I go to Denpasar, for a night to catch an early flight.

I convince a fat taxi man to drive me there and quickly discover that he is a beautiful being of a driver. We talk politics, Indonesia’s democratic government, how the people have so little but are so happy with what they have. He tells me about Hinduism, about the upcoming festival of evil spirits which is followed by a day of peace where no one works and everyone stays inside and rests. I can’t help but compare it to our festivals, the partying of our western world. He lectures me like he is my Dad about the dangers of traveling alone as a girl but then slips in that he thinks I’m very brave to ease the rebuff. I asked him has he ever eaten in the restaurant he sits outside of all day everyday waiting for customers. He laughs in my face, “ahaha no, no Indonesians cannot afford to eat in there.” He works three jobs, he runs a Credit Union from seven am to eleven, then is a taxi driver from eleven onwards and in his free time he helps his brother farm the paddy fields. After an hour we arrive in the city it is late and darkness has fallen. The satnav tells him we are here, but I look up and only see a dodgy alleyway, oh god don’t leave me here I beg. “Don’t worry Orla if you don’t like the look of it I wont leave you here, we’ll find you somewhere else…” We continue to search and eventually we find the place, he walks me to the door and asks are you ok here… I smile in gratitude.

As I walk in to the plush hotel (my treat for the night) and the kind taxi man drives away, a young boy holding a balloon approaches me and gestures his hand to his mouth signaling for food. His mother carries a little girl dressed in rags half starved on her hip behind him. I have no cash on me, I have no food. I am momentarily stunned. Who is this poor family? What is there story? How have things gotten so bad that they are reduced to this? I have nothing to offer, I can only apologize and walk away with my head sagging in anger and sadness, while he stares after me hating me, judging me as I hang my head and walk into a place of luxury that he in his lifetime will never experience.

The image haunts my mind that night. I vow to never forget it, to do something, to appreciate my world, what I have but as I step foot back in Australia the next day, back to a world of comfort, back to my reality… the memories start to fade and my worries snap back to the trivial things; back to appearance, back to money, back to gossip and every time my memory is jogged I groan in defeat. I berate myself that I once again was weak and succumbed to a lifetime spent worrying about things that in the grand scheme of things do not matter. I am alive, I am healthy, I can do anything. But already knowing that this is a vicious circle that I have experienced hundreds of times, by this afternoon as the sun sets I will be lying on a couch with a bag of crisps perched on my stomach, watching Made In Chelsea or some other shite and wishing I could be like the people on the screen in front of me…