Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
My neighbour Hutyee Boat
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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Panama ... first impressions

After two weeks at home, it was time to hit for the skies again and so I found myself in Shannon Airport on a Sunday morning, answering questions about why I was going to the dear old US of A, even though I was only going to be there for a total of two hours.
Jetlagged, exhausted after leaving two emotional parents behind, I found myself in Panama Airport about 16 hours later, waiting for my rucksack to be unleashed from the carousel and still quite anxious about what lay ahead.
My taxi-driver, arranged by the hostal, did not show but, after some gentle negotiations, I found msyelf sharing a ´collectivo´taxi into the city for the start of my new adventure.
I managed to chat for a while, in Spanish, with my two fellow passengers, who were from Venezuela, even if part of me just wanted to go home ... Silly me!
Central America is the final third of my gap year and over the next three and a half months I´m going to explore life in Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
My jitters weren´t helped when I found two Tourist Police at the reception of Hostal Marmallena, aparently one of my fellow guests had been relieved of her bag right outside the front door.
I was extremely tired, and slept quite well, and still felt quite anxious in the morning.
Then I got up, got out, and began to explore, and soon I was enraptured by the city and its people.
Yes, there are dodgy areas at night.
Yes, tourists stick out like sore thumbs.
But my room was extremely comfortable, so quiet that I slept for 12 hours on my second night, and day one of the last leg of my trip involved a seven hour walk all around town.
Casco Viejo was stunning ... old colonial houses, which reminded me of Havana, which were abandoned by the rich and the middle class decades ago. Now they are being restored with US dollars and there is a building frenzy in the area. Nobody told the Panamanians, it seems, about the ´crisis´ which has crippled Ireland and so many other countries.
So I walked for hours, checking out the action on Avenida Central, the city´s man hub and the wealth of colour of the indigenous people in the pedestrianised zone.
I found a Chinese restaurant, dark and seedy, which served up a huge scrumptious meal for about US4 and I gazed across at the huge boats readying themselves to enter the world´s most famous canal.
The city´s modern high-rise zone has been called the ´Miami of the South´and there are a host of things to do and see in this city.
After 48 hours, my anxiety has all but vanished. Central America is going to be an adventure, just as it is for virtually every tourist who takes on the challenge and goes out and explores.
The girl in the hostal did nothing wrong, she was just unlucky at 11 p.m. at night in one of the ´safest´ places in town.
Poverty is a fact of life in this region, but the vast majority of Latin Americans are friendly, hospitable souls, who are just trying to survive on poor wages. Already, after 48 hours, I feel that the place is far friendlier than Spain.
Suddenly, I´ve conquered some of my fears. And, as I´ve said in earlier posts, that´s what this gap year has been about for me.
We can go about distrusting strangers and feeling scared, or we can open our eyes to the goodness in the vast majority of people in the world.
I´m not anxious, I´m not scared, I´m looking forward to the next three months with genuine excitement, as I´ve again left the safe harbour that is Galway behind. Once again, it´s time to get out and explore ...!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The final third ...

"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure . . . Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." - Helen Keller.

I came across this wonderful quotation today in one of the local papers as I finalised preparations for the last third of my gap year.
The quotation was used in the context of entrepreneurs and their ability to pick up the pieces after failures, but it could equally apply to those of us who leave our 'safe' lives behind in order to travel and see the world for a while.
Many successful business people gave up 'safe' lives in order to take a risk and many of them had to fail before they managed to succeed. But they all had the spirit of adventure to go out and take risks.
I've been rested up in the safest harbour possible over the past two weeks, my parents' house where I haven't lived for 20 years, and it seems so far removed from what I am going to encounter in Central America over the next few months.
As an adult, I've rarely spent so much time with my parents as over the past two weeks, with the added bonus that my 96-year old granny, whose spirit is unbelievable, joined us for the last five days or so.
Part of me is really fearful of what lies ahead, traveling through Central America on my own, and that makes me wonder why so many of us doubt ourselves so much in this life.
My plan for the year was to become a Divemaster, living on a tropical island in Thailand for five months; to improve my Spanish by spending much of the summer in my favourite city in Spain, San Sebastian; and then to do voluntary work, and so far everything has gone to plan.
Yet suddenly I'm in fear. Even though I know I will spend two months working with a voluntary organisation in Nicaragua, where I am bound to hook up with like-minded souls from around the world and make some sort of difference to the lives of people who are less fortunate than us Irish.
And, truth be told, Galway has been a tad depressing over the past two weeks. I've met two people who lost their jobs this year, one or two whose businesses are in trouble, and everyone is talking about the crisis, the corrupt politicians, and the unbelievable bail-out of the fat cat bankers.
But nobody seems to be doing anything about it, apart from moaning.
In Nicaragua, I'm going to see children who don't have food to eat each day, poverty on a scale which will put Ireland's current woes to shame.
Maybe I will learn a thing or two about revolution from the Sandinistas, and bring my lessons home!
Or maybe I will see that Ireland's woes are not really as bad, in the context of poverty and just putting food on the table, as what I will encounter in Central America.
There are a host of scare stories on the internet about how tourists in the region are targets for robbers, and suddenly I'm in fear. And yet this is the guy who backpacked around Cambodia when it was definitely not safe and never experienced problems, even in Phnom Penh at 4 a.m.!
Perhaps I should have more faith in myself and, by extension, in the world as I prepare for the final third of my 2010 adventure.
Apart from a cancelled flight (due to the awful weather in January), a cancelled credit card, and a five week illness, nothing has really gone wrong so far in my travels through Thailand, Malaysia, Swizterland, France, and Spain.
And now I'm in fear . . . It just doesn't make sense!
Life has become an adventure after 18 years in the 'safe' job, a job I can go back to in January. It would have been far worse to take the 'safe' option and continue to sit in Market Street, Galway, for another year only to dream of such adventures and encounters.
I've made wonderful friends in Koh Lanta and San Sebastian, yet I'm haunted by the thoughts of all the criminals who are going to be following me around Costa Rica or Panama next month. It's just negative, pointless, fearful thinking, which we can all be guilty of from time to time, whether it's about our relationships, our jobs, whatever.
As my friend Cian said in Valencia, as we prepared to go out and see The Cult play in a huge park, "how lucky am I?" It was a beautiful summer's evening in a big park in a big Spanish city and I was getting to see one of my favourite bands 25 years after I became a fan.
The 'safe' version of me would have been back home watching some mediocre act going through the motions at the Galway Arts Festival.
It's up to each of us to overcome our fears, whether we are sitting in our home town or negotiating rough streets half-way across the world.
I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at Christmas, and I realise that I do have a wonderful family and friends in Galway, but I have a few more adventures to experience in the meantime. Yes, how lucky am I?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Showers of introspection in Salthill

It's cold, it's wet, it's grey in the month of August . . . Oh my God, I must be back home in Galway.
After five months in South East Asia and two fabulous months in Spain, it's been good to get home and see friends and family even if a couple of dark, dank days have reminded me of why I felt a need to get out of Ireland in 2010 in the first place.
I'm home to have a medical check-up, sort out vaccines for Central America, review my finances, and organise my pending return to work in January (sob, sob), but especially to catch up with the people who are so important in my life.
My faith in humanity and planet earth has been hugely enhanced by all the new friends I've made in Koh Lanta and San Sebastian this year, but there is nothing quite like hooking up with the people who I have shared joys and tears with for so many years.
This November is the 20th anniversary of the death of my good friend, Joe Seale, in an accident in India, less than a year after my sister Cliona had lost her life to cancer. A second sad waste in the space of 11 months, another tragedy which took me years to get over, and a terrible loss for his parents, siblings, and buddies.
But with age has come a great awareness of the richness of the friendships I've kept with the old buddies I've managed to stay friends with through thick and thin over the intervening two decades.
At the time, I could see only dark clouds. Life was unfair, and offered no sense of adventure. When I listened to bands like Killing Joke and The Sisters of Mercy in the early 1990s I really felt that this was a black, black planet, which took good young people away too young.
And I lost my sense of adventure, my desire to live on a tropical island or scuba dive with sharks and manta rays, for too long.
Now I see that my friend Joe at least lived to fulfil his dream (he lived in India for 12 months before he died) and not too many people can say that even if they live to be 90 in this crazy, messed up world.
Since January, I've become a Divemaster on my favourite tropical island and lived in my favourite city, in Spain. At 42, I finally found the light to follow some of my own dreams, thanks to an opportunity given to me due to Ireland's financial woes.
Joe's brother, Hugo, has been in touch. He's organising a 'tribute night' to mark Joe's 20th anniversary and he's put it off by three weeks so that I will be home from Central America.
What a lovely way that will be for me to mark the end of my own 12 month break from 'reality', meeting a host of good friends from the old days in a Galway bar a week before Christmas. And a fitting tribute to Joe, too.
It's strange to be home for two weeks and not to have a job to go to. Strange, but good too. It means I can spend three hours playing a manic and silly game with my little niece, Sofia, on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon . . . the kind of activity I'd never have time for if I was working full-time in Galway.
In the space of a week, I've met a couple of people who have lost their jobs this year, some in very unfair or unfortunate circumstances, a proud new dad or two, and people who've been coming to terms with long-term unemployment after being laid off a year or two ago. Life never stands still.
Yes, Ireland is in depression, or recession. Those who have jobs are counting their blessings and those who don't are worried about mortgages and where the future might take them. And there's silly old selfish me, complaining about the weather when I walk the prom!
Spain is in recession, too, with 20% unemployment compared to Ireland's 13%, but somehow I think it's easier to deal with when it's gloriously sunny every day at this time of year.
But, as I plan the last quarter of my year, I'm suddenly filled with appreciation for what I have.
Nobody close to me is dying of a terminal illness, nobody I know in Galway has to go without food every day, and few people anywhere have a chance to enjoy the rich variety of life I've experienced this year . . . with the 'safety net' of a job to go back to in Galway, for all its faults, at the end of the year.
In Nicaragua, I won't be surrounded by close friends and family. I will meet people every day who are struggling to eat, or to put clothes on their backs, and they won't be worrying about a few clouds in the sky or a bit of 'bitchiness' in their offices.
In Ireland, we had it very good for many years, and greed swept through the land like a virus, from the bankers, politicians, and property developers, to the ordinary people who suddenly felt that they needed two houses, holiday apartments, or brand new cars.
Perhaps, for our country right now, a bit of introspection is a good thing after so many years of blatant greed.
And, perhaps, for me too, this 12 month break from my career and my home town is offering me a great opportunity to reflect on all the good things in my life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Value of nothing!

It was the great Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, who claimed that a cynic was a person who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Well, it could be argued that during the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland became a nation of cynics and many of us felt like strangers in our own land.
The obsession with material things, new cars and houses, accumulation of wealth and property ultimately led to the collapse of the economy and a real blow to our nation's soul.
I've usually had real joy in meeting other Irish people on my travels, be it in Thailand or Australia or Egypt, but sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own land. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Coming home for a couple of weeks, after being away since the start of the year, I found myself sitting on a train to Galway next to four or five extremely attractive young women.
Until they began talking! My God, somehow they managed to talk about wedding dresses, engagement rings, and shopping for the whole journey from Dublin to the City of the Tribes. Home again ... !
Still, it's good to get back to meet up with friends and family, sort out a few things before what promises to be the most challenging (and hopefully rewarding) trip of my year.
Central America looms on the horizon, with all its poverty, crime, but also soul and the promise of using my Spanish. I'd be a liar if I said I was not scared about the prospect of spending four months there, but I'm also excited too by the chance to make a genuine contribution to people's lives during two months of voluntary work in Nicaragua.
In pure material terms, my gap year makes no sense. My five months in South East Asia and two in Spain cost me a lot more than I had expected, but I always knew that Spain would be the dearest part of the journey.
But, after 18 years in the same job, I've had a chance to get off the career ladder for a while, not to mention a break from the Irish climate which has driven me mental over the past five wet and windy summers.
The magic of 2010, for me, is that I've met really good people from all over the world, especially in Koh Lanta and San Sebastian. All of them shared a desire for change or to experience new cultures and lifestyles, and I guess you can't really put a price on that.
I might be living on beans and toast for the month of January to come, but by then I will have had the experience of living on a tropical island for five months, be a professional Divemaster, reasonably proficient in Spanish, had a full summer in mainland Spain, and helped poor Central American kids to learn English.
To take inspiration from Oscar Wilde, the value of those experiences should be far greater than the cost . . . even viewed from the nation of cynics where I have covered one club GAA game too many in Pearse Stadium or Athenry.
It's great to be home this month, to meet my family and close friends for two weeks, and, yes, I am experiencing fear about what lies ahead. But life should never be all about comfort zones, or ruts, or over-familiarity, because life is constantly changing, even if you spend all of it in your home town.
And life should definitely NOT be about cynicism. Not when you meet a lady who has battled breast cancer to become a scuba diving instructor in Thailand, a famliy who have sold their house to spend a year touring the world, or a London lady who has given it all up to become an English teacher in Spain.
When I was at my lowest point of the year, sick with an ear infection and from very strong antibiotics, I took huge inspiration from a little Malaysian man who had given up a good job in Kuala Lumper in order to become a guide in the beautiful Cameron Highlands.
For seven hours, he guided me through a trek in the rainforest, sharing his wonderful enthusiasm for one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to. Suddenly, instead of questioning why I was doing what I'm doing this year, I could see the sense in giving up a conventional life in order to follow your dreams.
I might not know the cost of a new house, car, or whatever in Ireland right now, but I sure know the value of meeting new people and trying out new experiences.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Facing my fears ...!

Part of the reason for this whole trip, I guess, has been to face up to my fears and to reclaim a sense of adventure which I felt I had lost somewhere along the way of my life so far.
It's too easy to stay in your home town forever, in a comfortable job, but like may Irish people I've always had a wanderlust ... only I never got to spend a substantial amount of time anywhere outside of Ireland, except London, before. A month in Australia doesn't count.
It's not all easy and it has not been a case of highs, highs, highs, all the way. When I got to A Coruna, for example, I found myself in a tiny room in hostal which I had booked for six nights and suddenly felt self-conscious about travelling on my own.
I didn't feel like partying, after all the socialising in Valencia, so I found myself taking long walks by the promenade, checking out the world's oldest lighthouse, and the free concerts on the Riazor Beach. But, for some unknown reason, I felt quite alone and sad.
Then I began checking out information about Central America, where I intend to spend the last quarter of my gap year. The travel forums were full of tales of robberies and crime and, suddenly, the man who has been to Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt, Jordan, and God knows how many other countries, found himself in a state of fear.
Fear of change, fear of the unknown ... these are the things I want to grapple with this year, and it doesn't necessarily have to be about travel. It could be the fear of asking out the woman I fancied for ages or the fear of standing up to unacceptable behaviour by a boss at work, or even the fear of going into a bar on my own.
So, despite a series of good gigs, healthy walks, a decent game of soccer between Deportivo and Newcastle United, and a lovely day trip to Santiago de Compostella, I didn't really enjoy my time in A Coruna, and it was time to move on.
And then ... magic, as seems to be so often the case this year. Just when I least expect it, I come across a gem, just as the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia lifted my spirits after my ear infection put me into a downer in Penang back in May.
It seems that when I go back to 'just travelling' I can feel most alone, whereas Ive mostly been happiest this year when I'm busy. I loved my four months training to be a DM on Koh Lanta and meeting loads of sound people (apart from my house-mate!) during my month at the Spanish school in San Sebastian. Then I take off with the rucksack on my back and I can sometimes feel a bit down.
So, thank you Vigo!
Vigo is Europe's biggest fishing port, on the Atlantic Coast, and it's two and a half hours from A Coruna by train. The weather was ten degrees hotter, it was sunny every day during my stay, and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon to find they had invented a fiesta just for me!
On my first night, Public Enemy played a fabulous live gig for two hours in a big park an hour outside the centre. I struck up a mighty conversation (en espanol) with a couple of local loons. It was a fantastic night.
I awoke on the Friday to discover that the warren of streets which define the old town had been taken over by pirates, in zany costumes and playing medieval music, for the weekend. It was great fun.
There was a folk festival in Plaza de Campostella and a massive festival down by the port, O Marisco, featuring local and international bands, skateboarders, breakdancers, motocross, graffiti artists, and mountain bikers. It's considered to be Europe's biggest 'urban' festival.
What a contrast with the tame affairs we have in Galway. Here, the teenagers are encouraged to take part in events ... I was amazed by the skills of the breakdancers, a fad which lasted about six months down at the Westside Shopping Centre in Galway in the 1980s .... if memory serves me right!
All of these events took place for free.
I know I was lucky. The weather was superb, between 28 and 32 degrees, but I loved Vigo.
It's a rough, working class town with high unemployment, but that's what makes the people so warm and special. In my one star hotel, they treated me like a friend. And all the doubts and self-conscious thoughts which took over in A Coruna seemed to disappear.
It was magic just to follow the pirates around the old town during the day, or to check out a live Cuban gig one of the nights in the gorgeous Plaza De La Constitution, right in the heart of the city. A free gig at 11 p.m. at night, you'd never see the likes back home!
It was probably down to me, rather than the city, but I seemed to have no problem striking up conversations with people and, on my last night, Grandmaster Flash played a glorious gig to 10,000 devoted fans down at the marina. Two of the legends of hip-hop over four nights, I was blessed!
Twelve months away from work and 'normal' life can seem like a long time, but my four magical days in Vigo reminded me of just why I've undertaken this adventure. Thanks, Vigo, for reminding me about the importance of 'the craic' and not taking life too seriously.
Even though the locals are Celts, and very like the Irish, it's a place that does not get enough tourists from our part of the world. I was overjoyed to sample so many fun activities, Vigo reminded me that life can be just fun.
For four days, I was living in the here and now, and didn't want to be anywhere else, surrounded by skateboarding teenagers and veteran hip-hop fans of my own age. And, when life just is fun, what's the point in worrying about anything else?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A country divided

This summer has been a real eye-opener and I have to confess I haven't a clue what is Spain or what it means to be Spanish.
In the Basque Country, virtually nobody wanted the national team to do well in the World Cup, and presumably it was the same in Catalonia.
I've spent the whole summer in the country of the world champions, but what a divided place it is.
In the Basque Country, people wore the orange shirts of Holland on the night of the final. The balconies of San Sebastian were adorned with hundreds of banners of Real Sociedad, who won promotion to La Liga in June, and there was not a single red and yellow flag to be seen.
In Catalonia, a small village voted for independence, only to be ruled out of order by the Central Government in Madrid. Weeks later, Catalonia voted to ban bullfighting, which was seen as 'two fingers' to the rest of Spain.
Bullfighting might be a part of Spanish culture, but then again drink-driving was part of the Irish culture until about 15 years ago. I attended a bullfight in Valencia, but while I was impressed by the skills of the matadors, I couldn't help feel that the 'sport' was unbelievably cruel on the bulls.
So should it be banned? All I know is that they could retain the entertainment value and the skills without having to spear the helpless animals time after time until they fall to their death.
But that vote in Catalonia wasn't really about bullfighting at all. It was a form of defiance from a people who want to break away from Spain.
The fans of Real Sociedad and Barca might love their big games against the over-hyped giants of Real Madrid, but to take some of their wishes to their logical conclusion their teams would play instead in Basque or Catalan leagues.
In the Basque Country, the language of the people was banned for decades under Franco. Now a teacher cannot work in the Basque Country unless he or she speaks Basque, which rules out anyone from outside the region or those over a certain age who were educatd during the Franco years.
The national media seems to hype the threat of ETA to the maximum, even though thankfully there hasn't been an atrocity for a year now. Less popular than the IRA, the Basque terrorists still clearly have plenty of support in the region if you judge by some of the bars in San Sebastian's Old Town.
In Valencia, I was startled by the number of Spanish flags around the place two weeks after the World Cup final. What a contrast with the embittered North, it felt like a different country ... which the Basques argue it is.
In Galicia, where the local language is going through a massive revival, I've seen quite a lot of grafitti in favour of independence. Galician is quite similar to Irish (or Gaelic) and the people don't consider themselves Spanish, either.
Both Spain and Ireland are going through an economic crisis, as the newspapers in both countries remind us every day.
But Spain is also going through a crisis of identity, as huge chunks of the country don't feel they belong to Spain.
I love its climate at this time of year, the food, the warmth of the people, the beaches and the diving. But, despite the high of the Mundial, there is hardly a country in Europe which is more divided right now. It's been an eye-opener!