A theology of travel: summary so far

So far in our theology of travel:

  • We’ve experienced the thrills and joys of travel being declared “good” by God
  • We’ve felt the fallen-ness of travel in the loneliness and fragility of it all
  • And we’ve now countered the claim that travel should help us restore our faith in the goodness of humanity
  • We’ve painted a picture that we’re made for more than just travel in this world and seen that the New Heavens and New earth that we’re made for is an even sweeter song to our ears than the current one
  • And we’ve just gone out and got some top practical tips for travel, as the Bible is not a travel handbook!  Photos can be found largely under the “Cork” category on the sidebar or by searching for “Ireland”.

But in every theology of travel, it should not only be guided by God’s revelation of Himself (primarily in the Scriptures), but it should be cross-shaped and cross-centred, for that is exactly what the Christian message revolves around.

I was sent Francis and Lisa Chan’s book on marriage by a friend recently (recommended for people even like me, who don’t have marriage on the horizon any time soon).  I came across this:

“’Christians’ have come up with clever ways to explain why the followers of a suffering servant should live like Kings.”

What does a travelling suffering servant look like?

Well, as we attempt to submit not only our answers/experiences to the scriptures, but also to let the scriptures shape our questions, over the coming months we may take a look at some of this:

All a grand auld plan, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m back on the road for most of my working term.  In the meantime, if you know of anything good to read on the topic, do get in touch.  And if you really don’t think it matters, check out this!

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Lichfield, England 04/01/17

The world is on your doorstep – will you let it in?

You don’t need to travel to be a global minded person.  Here’s a few ways Global Connections suggest we as Christians can be global-minded and share God’s heart for the nations:

  • read things written by Christians in other parts of the world, cultures (not just western ones), classes (not just middle class ones) and backgrounds
  • invite such speakers to speak at our conferences

For the original:

http://www.globalconnections.org.uk/churches/global-mission/learning-from-the-global-church

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The world is on our doorstep…will you let it in?

What you miss out on, Christian traveller: joy!

In a previous post I’d argued that the Christian who spends much time away from their home travelling, is one who doesn’t so much gain, as miss out on all God has for us, and the ways in which God chooses to work in the world.  But as well as this, I think the Christian traveller misses out on something else.

I wonder what you felt when you first came to faith and understood what you had in Jesus?  Oh how sweet moments like that were – when you grasped that you were no longer condemned.  When you grasped that sin had no hold on you.  When you grasped that you had everything in Christ Jesus and needed nothing more.  When you dreamed of what lay ahead in the heavenly realms with His people from all nations.  A joy was yours that would equip you, despite the suffering that lay ahead.

Next to it, I wonder whether you’ve had the joys of leading someone else to a genuine faith and seeing them grow over the years?  You get to re-live the great joys that you experienced all over again, as you see all these things dawn on them.  As you see them drink in the Word and respond to Jesus’ words as if hearing them for the first time.  Beautiful!

And even for those who came to faith like I did, at such a young age that there wasn’t “a moment” like this, I’m sure you can still relate to it, as I can.

The ecstasy of knowing people join the Heavenly family, and the party that follows (Luke 15, on a sidenote, started by God, not just his angels) is one worth going after, not just for God’s glory but at the same time for our enjoyment in that too.

And so if you spend most of your free holiday time travelling, not only do you miss out on Christian family, community and your own transformation through God’s chosen means for that, but you also miss out on those long-term relational links you have to non-Christian communities.

Sure, I’ve seen folk come to faith as I’ve been pleasure travelling. But it’s a rare thing rather than the norm, and it’s always been harder to see them plug into a church, given that the Christianity modelled to them is an itinerant, individualistic one.  More often than not, I’ve seen most students forsake the regular meeting up with people who are different to them at home, and make pleasure travelling the “bushel” that covers their “lamp” (Luke 11:33).

We think we’re getting the best the world has to offer and even put it in religious “seeing more of God’s creation” language.  Instead we’re walking away from Jesus’ purposes for us in the world and from His glory.  Perhaps this hymn might help us reflect if it may be true:

1 O for a closer walk with God,
a calm and heavenly frame,
a light to shine upon the road
that leads me to the Lamb!

2 Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I sought the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
of Jesus and his Word?

3 What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
the world can never fill.

4 The dearest idol I have known,
whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne
and worship only thee.

5 So shall my walk be close with God,
calm and serene my frame;
so purer light shall mark the road
that leads me to the Lamb.

(William Cowper)

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Neither poverty, nor riches…

My last student summer ever before starting work at the end of August and I’d 6 weeks to fill.  A few of them were for volunteer teams, I’d to make a call with my family at some point for a bit, but the rest was free.  What to do?

As usual, browsing facebook would turn out to give the answer (!).  The Warden of Tyndale House (the evangelical theological faculty at Cambridge University) posted up on his status about needing someone to drive a few guests round England for a week.  Knowing the type of people who visit Tyndale, I thought this could well be someone very interesting in the Christian/theological world, so dropped him a line.  And that week was to change my thinking a lot.

It turned out that this was an older couple from the US, who were big names in the evangelical Christian scene, but who also lived next to an ex-president of America, and were used to living with such people in their every day lives.  They were old enough that they didn’t fancy driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and so had asked me to drive them round, join them on their holiday and look after a disabled relative that they’d with them.  Having not driven in 2 years since I passed my test (apart from a big white van that I managed to scrape the side of, and also nearly topple on the motorway), I probably should have informed them that driving the poshest car that I’d ever been in, was not the most sensible on this occasion.

But not only was it the poshest car I had ever driven, we stayed in the classiest 5* hotels that I’d ever been to.  Michelin star restaurants where meals were crafted to order, based on the customers desires.  Rooms with gardens and pools that you’d happily stay in all day.  Bathrooms with heated floors, LED twinkling lights in the ceiling, jacuzzi tubs and a drinks bar.  And concierges employed as much to just keep guests happy and chatting away.  One click of the finger, and anything was mine, at no cost to me.

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I’m quite glad that I actually have little desire for 5* hotels…the real things I chase after are scenes like this one in North Africa, where I was visiting friends the other week!

But I had a dilemma.

I’d just come off a year of volunteering with the Christian Union (university) movement in the UK, which was self-supported.  Frugality was a way of life, and I’d got into the mindset that it was Godliness.  This holiday however for me, was the most spiritually sapping thing I’d ever had.  Everything at my finger tips, and no need of anything or anyone else.  To me, this was anti-gospel (the gospel being the thing declaring we are very needy people, in need of God, and of others).  Yet here were some of the richest people in the world, claiming to be mature Christians and heralded by many, throwing cash at anything that moved.  I was baffled and struggled all week, while trying to enjoy this.

But the more I reflected on my trip, back on a summer volunteer team (sharing a shower between seven, basic meals and a budget of around 70 euros a week to cover accommodation, food, resources and freetime), the more I saw that yes, perhaps you could live a Godly life whilst being rich.  And maybe even further than that, we need Christians who are living out this existence, mingling with US Presidents and influential circles of every type.  Now don’t get me wrong, you could be doing all of these things from bad, ungodly motive, but I don’t think these folk were.

Their generosity to me and to Tyndale House was huge.  They’d shaped their holiday round visiting something that they’d support financially that would massively shape British Christianity.  They’d had me there to help their disabled relative, which was also a large part of why they’d had to travel 5*.  Apart from the misunderstood clash between American consumer culture and reserved British five star culture, their behaviour and lives were incredible examples of dependence on God and Godly character.  And just because I’d found it hard spiritually, didn’t mean they weren’t vibrantly living out a sacrificial life.

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Sunset over Paris, the other week (see pic below for explanation)

Here’s just a few reflections that travelling with them helped me to see:

  • Godliness need not have any correlation to wealth (Proverbs 4:23 – it’s what comes from the heart that matters, not necessarily the outward appearance).  I can rejoice in my Father’s goodness to other believers in giving them wealth, and weep with my fellow believer who is struggling to make ends meet.
  • That in Christ, is all richness found.  He is better than gold (Proverbs 8:18-19).
  • That in all God gives me, I should honour him with it (Proverbs 3:9).  Given I (and probably you reading this too) are in the top few percent of richest people in the world, given our ability to travel (even on a budget), we must not think ourselves as the poor.
  • It is very hard not to forsake being needy when you have everything, and very easy to get bitter when you have nothing.  Therefore, I will make Proverbs 30:8 my prayer: “give me neither poverty nor riches, but only give me my daily bread”

Before I book any travel, my prayer is that I stop for one evening to sleep on it, pray for guidance, and remember these things, amongst others.

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Paris, the next destination for my US friends, who offered me the trip free of charge again – so tempting!  But I felt not appropriate this time.  Thankful to another friend who gave me a free hotel this year in Paris, with him.

10 top tips for souk bartering in North Africa

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So many people get exasperated by a day in the souks, haggling in a different culture, and trying to negotiate a shame/honour culture, whilst having no experience in it.  Here’s a few top tips I’ve gleaned from locals over the years:

  1. Relax.  You’re there for the cultural experience and the fun of a holiday in another culture.  Only take what money with you that you’d be happy spending, and then you’ll not be too disappointed at over-spending!
  2. It’s not a competition (well, for most of us).  I’m super-competitive about everything in life.  I like to think I never settle for second-best.  But if you do that here, you’ll always live in the past with regrets and mentally will never be free to enjoy the day.  Let go of the thought of trying to get the world’s best ever deal.  If you’ve got a price that you think is worth it, accept it and enjoy it.
  3. The more you look like a tourist, the more you’ll be charged tourist prices.  The more you sound like a tourist, the same.
  4. Try to avoid the main branches of the souk off the main square/walkway.  They see hundreds of tourists a day, know every trick in the book and often charge more than those who see fewer tourists on the back streets and winding alleyways.
  5. If you see something you like, try bartering for it at a few stalls (not within eyesight of each other) to see what the best price is you can get, and then start with that price to drive a hard bargain at a final stall.IMG_0171
  6. A shame/honour culture dictates how things play out in the souks.  If the seller can tell you a long sob story and persuade you of its reality, he maintains honour and gets a good price (even if the story is not true).  If he tells you that you can look and not buy, he will maintain his honour but of course will draw you in for the sale with treating you admirably while you are in the stall (honouring you).
  7. You most likely are from a guilt culture and are thinking whether the things the seller says are true or not.   His sob stories convict you of guilt (it would be cruel not to buy).  His chat, winsomeness and maybe even offer of mint tea mean that your heart is feeling guilty by walking out on him without a purchase.  You take every word at face value.
  8. Depending on how much you believe you can or should play along with the shame honour culture, have some of your own stories up your sleeve for why you aren’t able to pay such high prices!  If you want to stick to a stricter guilt model of ethics, think of ones that are entirely truthful and feel guilt-free!  (see example below)  If you haven’t got a good price to start with, you’re unlikely to be able to wrestle it back mid-interchange, but it can be fun to try!
  9. If you’re outside of a tourist area, you’re more likely to be offered very reasonable prices, and driving them as low as you can may even not be the most friendly thing to do – remember you’re the rich western person (probably in the world’s top 1% richest) on holiday in a place where many aren’t so fortunate.
  10. If you really get infuriated by not knowing prices, most tourist markets have many stalls with fixed prices – just look out for things with price labels…you normally can’t barter in these.

And here’s one example for you!

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Seller (S): “Hello my friend!”

(I ignore English in the souks to get better prices and more real exchanges)

(S) “Bonjour Monsieur!”

(I respond by looking uninterested but willing to browse.  All interactions are then in French or Arabic, but here written in English)

(S):  “Look, no buy for you today.  Just come here”

Me: “Oh but your things are so beautiful.  I must of course look.”

“Yes, they are very authentic products made here in [insert place] by my family for decades.  If you tell me what you want, I will get one’s which are better than the tourist ones I have for sale here”

“Ah wow, your family must feel honoured that you continue to sell these things.  They are beautiful.”

(I browse for a few minutes, finally spotting what I fancy)

“I love the pattern of this.  So intricate and it blends so well!”

“Yes, that is one of our best things.  If you would like it, I can offer you a special Ramadan price”

“You are very kind.  The last time I bought one of these I got it for a very good price too, so that would be wonderful.” (getting the upperhand by making him nervous I know the pricing structure, which, so often is true, because I’ve been round all the stalls)

“Well for a great American friend like you, I will only charge 300 Dirhams”

“Oh, I’m not a rich American.  In my country, we do not have as much money and it is not as important to us.”

“Ah, so you must be English.  I will do a better price for you English because I like that.  People first, money after.  Perhaps 200 Dirhams for you then?”

“Oh 200 Dirhams is a lot for me, because I am not English.  I am a poor Irishman.  The English have oppressed us for 700 years and colonised us.  You must know what that feels like, no?”

(He smiles) “Ah, I see.  Good Irish price then.  What would it be for you?”

“Oh probably 60 Dirhams”

“60 Dirhams?!  I could not even do that for an Irishman, or else my family would not live”

“Well, how about 80 Dirhams then?”

“90 Dirhams and you will have had the best deal in all of [insert place name]”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if I buy two of these, I’ll pay you 160 Dirhams and we’ll both have a great deal!”

“You barter like a Berber, my friend!  But I cannot take lower than 90 each”

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Such bartering style even must be deployed in the simplest of exchanges on the beach or anywhere!

(I look sad and start to go towards the door and signal my apology)

“Then I must thank you but leave, because I only have 150 Dirhams left to buy anything today, apart from some bread for lunch.  Look, that is all I have”

“My friend, do not tell anyone, but I will take it.”

“Thank you.  You are a generous man, and you should be proud of your family heritage.  These are the best in [insert place name].

*buys product*

Marrakech, souks and disgruntled tourists

“I’m never going back there again”

“I wouldn’t go there for more than 2 days”

“They were so aggressive”

“I felt so overwhelmed all the time and unable to escape”

Comments you wouldn’t expect to find on a holiday brochure for Marrakech, Morocco, but nonetheless ones that were the expressed sentiment as soon as Easyjet had shut the aeroplane door to Manchester and the tourist may as well have been back on his home turf again.

And yet they weren’t angry comments.  More just baffled.  Because the next sentence would always be one that would reaffirm that they did really enjoy their trip.  But did they?  Was this sadistic enjoyment?

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Why don’t I set the scene?  It’s 45 degrees celsius and you’ve headed out for the day in Marrakech.  Dressed in as little as possible for a conservative country like Morocco, you have a phone in one pocket for photos and your wallet in the other.  Apart from a few sights, mostly the main “attraction” for most people is spending the day walking quaint souk (market) stalls in tiny alleyways.

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The maze of tiny stalls, each repeating very similar wares, yet every one unique and with its own quirky personality that probably reflects the owner as he stands there.  A true joy to browse.

 

 

 

 

 

“monsieur, Monsieur!  Vien-ici!”  “Look, no buy.”

At which you are greatly pleased.  Aha!  I can look at all these things and not be forced to buy.  Perfect.  And so you walk in.

A few minutes of polite chit chat with the stallholder later, you start to browse.  Taking interest in a couple of things in particular, you discuss something and take a photo.  And the stall owner moves for the kill, with you their unsuspecting prey.

“You like?”

“erm…yes, it’s beautiful” (not meaning to offend)

“Well, I give you good price”

“How much is it?”

“A good price.  What would be a good price for you?”

“oh well, I don’t know.”

“well, I’ll offer you a special Ramadan price of 120 dirhams.  Normally I would sell it for 340 dirhams, but my brother especially made this one, and so I am able to get it for you far cheaper for you alone today.”

Wow, you think.  Such a good offer just for me.  And his brother made it….so it’s really authentic.  But 11.50 euros…just for that?  Oh but it’s genuine, and when else could you buy something like this?  And so the internal debate ravages on.

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“Oh I think I’ll think about it and come back to you later”

Sensing his prey moving onwards, the stall owner puts himself between you and the door and tries again.

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“Oh my friend, this is a one time offer.  My brother only made one.   Look at how bad the quality of the normal “tourist” ones are!  This is a special one for you.  You are English.  Cheaper prices than Asda for you.”

At which you’d love to still walk out of the shop, but you start to wonder whether he is in fact, very correct.  It does indeed appear better than the others.  And it would be fun to have.

And so as you pull out your wallet, you hesitantly try another ten dirhams off the price.  At which you feel stupid, as this poor man quickly says he couldn’t afford to sell them for that price, and reverts back to the original.  And the deal is done.  The robbery has happened.

And the only consolation….you probably could afford to be robbed for the joy of such an exchange.  A sadistic joy.  Paying perhaps more to experience culture than for the item you now walk out to try and squeeze into your hand luggage, that will soon sit in some cupboard, not in use back home.

And unless you understand the culture, this repetition all day will break you.

Anger.

Frustration.

How could they?!

As you walk into another stall determined for the same thing not to happen again.

“Bonjour monsieur!  Look, no buy!”

“NO!  JUST TELL ME HOW MUCH IT IS!”

“What would be good price for you Monsieur?”

The man looks so honest.  And somehow I spurt out a figure.  And in a split second of madness I wonder whether I’m dealing with a reincarnated man from the last stall.

And my Dirhams which once were a good exchange rate against the Euro, have just somehow vanished in Euro-like quantities.

Sacrifice vs enjoying the world

It’s the tension soo many Christians feel when coming to think about travel.  We want to travel and enjoy the world but we feel guilty that there are more selfless things to spend our time and resources on.  Lindsay Brown (IFES Europe) quoted someone (but many have said it) this last week saying:

“How to get round the tension between sacrifice and enjoying God’s good gifts?

Hold them in the palm of an open hand”

Enjoying all the good gifts that have come to us from our Heavenly Father should be done without clenching at them as if they are ours, but with open hands, ready to enjoy and use them for Him.

The image made an impression on me, given it’s a question in every seminar I’ve led!

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A prayer for the traveller

Fountain of all goodness,

As we gaze at our Instagram feeds, we come and marvel at your Fatherly provision,

As we wake to another day of exploration, we delight in the sustaining hand of your Son,

As we consider your creation, we revel even more in the overflowing being of your Spirit within us.

We forsake any feeling that our travels are ours by right, because of any of our goodness, common-sense, self-discipline or ability.

And we pray that all our travels today would be done in the light of being united to your Son, by His sacrificial life, death, resurrection and ascension.

May our thoughts rise to you, our words point towards you and our actions be shaped by you, as we journey towards our goal in Christ Jesus together as your travelling people from all nations, en route to our true home in an infinite new heavens and new earth.

In His Name,

Amen

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Barmouth, Wales (copyright mine)

The History of Leisure Tourism

To think it was a Christian pastor who formed one of the world’s largest tour companies should give comfort to the fact that the Christian worldview provides great motivation to explore and enjoy the world.

But in all honesty, having read a bit more about Mr Thomas Cook, I’m not sure it was that reasoning, any more than conservative politics and a self-help message.  But I’m in early days of looking at it all!  Any leads welcome…

For those who’ve never read his story, their own website give a succinct account:

https://www.thomascook.com/thomas-cook-history/

The difference between a northern (Irish) mountain and a southern one.

I moved back to the Emerald Isle because Nottingham had me too far from the mountains and sea.  Or at least that’s part of the reason, and I’ll not go into the other 99 parts right now.  And so when I take a week’s annual leave, you’ll find me at the coast or up a mountain.  I mean, I use the term “annual leave” loosely, because we don’t really have a concrete understandings of time off.  Our annual leave forms get signed with sporadic dates put in them, and my boss understands that if he calls and I don’t answer, I’m either in the pub, sleeping, or on “annual leave”.  If I do answer, I might still be in the pub.

And this last week was no different.  My sister arrived in from Africa and an old university friend from England.  We worked a few hours, and seamlessly transferred into being up mountains in Kerry and in Down.  And it’s there that with an Irish lass (who betrays us all by calling herself Scottish) and an Englishman, that I once again noticed our stark difference in culture, not by those I travelled with, but by the very mountains we traversed.

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Carrauntoohil

Arriving into Killarney town always tears me in two.  The very authenticity the Gaeltacht and beauty of the landscape marauded over by a gazillion tour buses of a particular culture of people, noisily unpacking the “trunk” and proceeding to tell me loudly:

“you’re country is so green and peaceful!  Are there still terrorists here?”

If I was not benefitting from their generous dollar bills, I might correct them gently inserting a past tense into the first clause, and telling them that yes there are terrorists very close.  Given that I am very close to hitting them, bundling them into my car, and claiming a leprechaun did it, at which I would assume they’d probably give me more of their funny dollar stuff to see a live leprechaun.

But instead of this type of tomfoolery, I instead will just sadistically enjoy their “authentic Irish experience” from afar.  I’ve always enjoyed the throngs of tourists visiting the tarmaced paths around Muckross Lake and marvelling at the fact they’re in “Killarney National Park”.  And that no one really questions what the wild mountains ranges beyond the signposted areas are, but instead they flock to a signposted trickle of water down the hill that conveniently is at the end of the “National Park Tarmaced Path”.  I mean, the fact that my granny could walk around the “national park” doesn’t in fact take away from the fact that it is, yes, still stunningly beautiful, and that I admit.

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Some of the real National Park

In fact, this re-direction of tourists is a divine plan of the Irish Tourist Board (much like the one where they tell tourists that the Cliffs of Moher are the tall Irish cliffs that need visiting, when actually, Europe’s tallest cliffs lie up the coast a little, but wouldn’t be as easy to market), keeping the less mentally aware away from the real areas of natural beauty, that mean I can enjoy my ridges and hikes without any gasps of “Ireland is soo green”, which, although true, does not need repeated as many times a day as is declared that the ridge we walk along “really screams out for a Starbucks coffee shop right now”.

So by the time I get to Cronin’s Yard, and what I consider the “real Killarney”, I’m pleasantly amused and yet highly frustrated.  This combination is going to be a constant one, as I realise my present company.

In the carpark (there are only two buses a day….don’t try it!) around me are Irish people and those of the New Irish who are unemployed or those who have contextualised well enough to realise that you don’t check the weather forecast before booking your holiday.  You wake up, look upwards, and see the sun, and set off to the mountains.  I think we also had a few German families in hire cars who arrived shamefaced (a week later than anticipated) for their holiday, only to find the weather being unexpectedly brilliant.  I’m not sure they could show any joy at this Irish summer weather though, as they were still apologising for their tardiness on not being here the week they intended.

And so we set out.  A few moments later, and in a instant that showed just how much she’d betrayed herself to them’uns o’er the sea, my sister sent me back for our map from the car.  It was the only piece of equipment or hiking clothing we had accidentally left behind.  In my honest opinion, we could see the mountain we wanted to climb, and we’d be grand.  What more did we want?

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The cliff face we’d stupidly climbed down

Admittedly such silly requests were off the back of hilariously (but not at the time) dropping down a descent of Mangerton mountain the day before that only could be described as a sheer cliff face.  Reading a map and directions printed off Munsterhillwalks.com, we soon realised that someone though it hilarious to see how far those tourists would follow directions like lemmings off a cliff.  And we did.  And to be fair, looking back, it was quite hilarious.  We probably should have sniffed out this, when the route started backwards, and we never saw a path returning anywhere along our route.  But these are things you don’t think of when you come from cultures that swear by formal maps.

 

We were taught our lesson when we reached the top of Carrauntoohil to be greeted with grins from 4 “New Irish” counterparts standing there in their Vans shoes, and jeans.  And they continued to stop every so often 50 metres ahead of us to cuddle and selfie til we got fed up of the embarrassment of such a posse and overtook them in our mountain gear, boots and maps, that probably more held us back than achieved anything for us on the day.

Summiting Carrauntoohil (for those who want to know) is not hugely difficult, but is not to be laughed at.  The route meanders along some stones that look like they were scattered in a rough arrangement by an Irishman after a few pints (they probably were) and through enough bogland that regardless of time of year, you’ll step in something muddy enough to remind you it’s a bog, at some point.

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Then, as if the route were designed by a children’s drawing competition in the local school, it just decides to take you straight up the side of the basin all at once.  And after that you follow zig-zags up scree to the top, with a glum, bored look on your face as if you were heading up Croagh Patrick for penance.

Sadly half way up we’re gleefully told that the pub at the bottom will soon be closing and that we may as well turn round if we want to have any fun at all.  We didn’t.

At the top, the Kerry Mountain Rescue Service politely put a small sign to warn you of the plummet to the ground on the north-east side.  Realistically they know this will tempt more Dutch and Swiss (I would say Germans, but I’ve given them enough stick already, and any more may be considered racism) to stand as close to the 800m drop as possible.  But I suppose insurance has even come back to bite even the Irish, from our visiting tourist friends, and we’ve had to bough to the dire measures of erecting small signs.

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The sharp 800m drop off the side

Of course, also at the top of Carrauntoohil is our well renowned giant cross.  I say well renowned because for two weeks, the whole country thought it a worthwhile conversation topic while sitting in the pub.  DSC_0096The fact that the average Irishman has never ventured anywhere near Carrauntoohil does not stop him passionately having an opinion about the cross on the top of the mountain.

Because we are Catholic after all, and Catholics do like a good cross (let’s not tell anyone it dangerously resembles a dirty British, Proddy cross if it doesn’t have a good bit of Jesus on it).  I mean, when I say we’re Catholic, I really mean that we’ve come as near to confession one time as we did to Carrauntoohil, before either being put off by some foreign accented person nearby (sometimes even the Priest these days) or by feeling guilty and returning to the pub.  Ah yes, Carrauntoohil/confession – that’s the place I ought to have gone once and I’ll feel guilty I haven’t but really I’m quite happy with a pint in my hand looking at it from afar.

But anyway, back to the cross.  To be honest it was only after some angry atheist took a chainsaw up a mountain and sawed the old cross in two that anyone realised there was a cross on the mountain at all (much like the “fleg” on the city hall in Belfast, for that matter).  And as good Catholics, we all thought this was a bit far, and struggled to understand what on earth would have made someone to have been angry enough to have left the craic in the pub to start with.  And so an even bigger cross was put back in its place, so that we could claim once more that we were truly Catholic.

At the top we briefly stop to exchange photos, asking our photo-taker whether they’ve been up before.  “Just a few times” comes the reply.  By which the old man could well have meant “every day since I was born”, it was so understated.

But enough of Carrauntoohil.  This was meant to be a tale of two mountains…

Slieve Donard

Supposedly named such after Saint Donard, who nestled into residence there briefly, it’s the closest that a northern mountain will get to being religious.  Because let’s face it.  If it was too openly called after a saint, there’d be a bunch of loyalist protesters at the bottom with flegs and signs saying “ge’d’off ar maentins” and claiming that King Billy had once sat, not only on the wall, but on the hill back in 1690.

Thankfully on the day we climbed it, there were no protesters at the bottom at all.  In fact, there were very few at the bottom who weren’t safely stowed away in coffee shops on the prom.  There were two reasons for this.  Partly because the summit looked a little like the picture below, and partly because much like Americans are to Killarney, so are coffee shop daytrippers to Newcastle.  All local folks mind.  Not a tourist in sight.

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But one must understand that there are only two places a Belfast city person may go on a day off (and that is well over half the population).  Either drive to Portrush (and “the north coast”, by which they may also mean Portstewart, but normally still revert to “the Port”) or to Newcastle.  Even on a small island like ours, you would have hoped there may have been more day trip destinations, but sadly the “one hour drive and sit in an ice-cream shop” only works in two directions.  I’ve heard no-one out wesht has ice-cream yet.  So whether it’s Morelli’s or Mauds, the northern breed will be equally happy at this, quite social event, where doubtless they’ll meet a few they claim to have some relation with.

Now you might be quite surprised that the meeting point for this fine breed is not a pub.  But in the north it is quite a different game, and the day-tripping breed tend towards careful inspection of others to make sure they are not spending too much on drink, and are instead spending it on nice cars to drive in, and on cafe delicacies to indulge the waistline.

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And so why, given these two things, did we dander up the hill?  Well, precisely (or not precisely at all, as the case was) because we’re Irish.  And we looked at the hill, and all the locals cowering away in their posh cafe experiences and thought:

“That would be crazy to go up in these conditions without any gear, in tweed jacket, jeans, and Vans”

And so we did.  Because still crazier would have been to conform to the comfort of expectations and organised plans and weather forecasts.

The fact that we also only had a few hours til sunset didn’t seem to buoy our mood, and in fact drove us on all the more, as we found that the average person on google seemed to take 5.5 hours to climb Donard.  We had 5 hours till sunset.  And so we fancied our chances, bought a bottle of water each, found some Tesco value chocolate lying in my boot, and set off up the steps from the car park.

Ten minutes later and I distinctly remember looking at my friend in slight puzzlement that we were still climbing these very steps.  Until I realised about 90 minutes into the walk, that this is what the whole path was going to be.  You see some northerner had clearly got worried that we might find the whole mountain thing a little bit tricky, and, in infinite wisdom, had provided us with steps all the way.  Perhaps a dream for some unused to traversing the great slopes, but for us, quite frankly boring.

But these were not just any steps.  These were stones carved into the ground at quite some level.  Barely did I meet a loose one, and occasionally did one ever reach over a comfy height to lift my leg.  On such moments, it rather felt like a sign might have been nice to say “sorry we caused you to move a bit further than normal leg-reach, we’ll repair this soon”.

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Despite this help, we were still slightly concerned at the darkening weather, the setting sun and several other slight issues (the Tweed jacket no longer being one of these, as we’d sadly decided to abandon it in the car).  Asking those coming off the mountain for some advice on distance remaining, our time was further eaten when we realised that such questions were taken quite literally, and a minute by minute summary of the route was regurgitated from a route-map carried in plentiful supply by well-clad mountaineers.

Half way through this description, most of us (apart from my English friend) stopped caring about much that was coming out of the mouth of our nimble mountain goat-friends beside us, and instead we decided that we didn’t know why we’d asked really at all, as we were going to continue regardless.

And so up the steps we continued to go, until we hit the next quite remarkable “quality” of a northern mountain (should you want to call it that).20170423_174838

The wall.

And I better be careful with all this mention of flegs and walls, lest we get all political again.  But I’d take a fair bet that Mr Trump would only dream of a team of wall builders like built this Mourne Wall.  All 22 miles of it in all its glory.  Summiting 15 peaks in total.  Yet every time I’m stepping up in the Mournes, someone asks me

“why did they build this wall?”

And every time, I can’t help but forget why on earth someone would build a 2m high wall of dry boulders for 22 miles up and down some of the tallest peaks in the country.  Scenes of the World’s Strongest Man boulder lifting competition come to mind.  I mean, unlike our Carrauntoohil path, if an Irishman on pints tried to lift even one of these stones, he’d be doomed to roll down the hill with it.  Nevertheless in Belfast tours both sides probably say it was the oppression of the “other side” that made them have to do such a feat.

In reality google always reminds me that the real reasons for miles of walls was to keep some sheep out of certain bits.  Y’know, those sheep who like to summit mountains in their spare time?  Well, ok, ok, yes you’re right that there are many mountain sheep in incredible places that make you think “how on earth did that sheep get there?”.

But I would have thought that if a measly sign keeps thousands of mountain climbers and tourists from their deaths in the south, that something slightly easier to build would keep a few sheep from straying over certain lines in the north.  And that even if it was the answer, that someone would have thought that the sheep who love to bag munros (summit mountains to you and I), would probably learn how to summit styles over the walls or find broken-down-bits before too long.

But sure, if they were havin’ the craic, who am I to stop them?  Though I would have thought that when it came to the top of the mountain, that they’d think of something more to celebrate the summit than a wall, much like had been beside us all the way up.

Stopping there for a brief rest, we swapped photos with one other group also summiting daftly late in the day.  They assured us the reason they were “late” was because they’d been drinking wine til 05.30 the previous morning and had got lost on the way up.  I didn’t ask what side of the tarmac motorway steps they got lost on, on their way here.  Rather, I was pleased that some others were enjoying an adventure.

I’m not sure the sentiment was shared as we crashed back down into Newcastle, three hours after we’d started, and into one of those aforementioned coffee shops.  Looks of bafflement from pristine teenage couples out for a date, were followed by those of disgust from older relations, alarmed at how rugged people like us could ever come in to the cafe like this.

But so our tale of two mountains finishes.  And we hope you appreciate that not only was this a tale of two mountains but a tale of two cultures too.  One in which we went round and round until we summited.  The other, where we went straight up some stairs.  Perhaps there’s a lesson in that too…