Guest post: Hitchhiking to Belfast – by Ilham Bint Sirin (youarealltourists)
In this week’s guest post… we have a fantastic and colourful story about a hitchhiking trip in Ireland. A gripping account of the journey, typical Irish landscapes, food worth-trying, the country’s history and interesting people you might meet if you ever decided to try hitchhiking to Belfast…
There were rainbows everywhere. Rainbows sagging in reverse like upside-down washing lines from fence to tree in the gardens. Rainbows climbing like ladders into the clouds from the fields. Rainbows like impalpable arches in the shifting mercury sky. Tiny rainbows caught up in the spiderwebs, droopy after the rain and dripping with glistening raindrops each containing a minuscule reflection of the world around them. Giant rainbows leaping over the mountains into the sea.
We had deviated from the Dublin-Belfast highway, and presently the road took us through hills of a vivid, saturated green. Actually, I was starting to get motion sickness from the ups and downs of the winding road. The area was so pretty though, that I managed to suppress the queasy feeling, and get mentally lost in looking out of the window instead. Here we saw a white horse nibbling on the leaves of a tree, there an idle shepherd dog lies blinking in the sun by the side of the road. Other than that most of the life we came across were herds of sheep, just as the preconceived cliché of a ride through the Irish countryside would have it. I remarked on the fact that many of the farmhouses along the way had been abandoned and were in various states of disrepair. “It is a shame, yes, but the young people do not want to take care of fields and livestock anymore, they just go to the cities”, our driver replied. Another one of the drivers who picked us up hitchhiking that day was to tell us he lived in one of those stately old houses. The walls, he said, were so thick, that if he and his wife did not heat inside in the winter the temperature was two degrees lower than outside. They had measured it once. Also, he worked in computer programming, so internet access was indispensable. But in order to receive wifi within the house, he had to install no less than four wifi receptors.
This was my first day in Ireland, and on our little trip from Dublin airport to Belfast, where my friend Anna lived, we got caught up in a whole series of >?cloud bursts alternating with dazzling sun. Typical Irish weather, as I came to understand.
When walking along the roads with our thumbs out it became imperative to keep mental note of the nearest possible place for shelter as we passed it. If it was still close enough when the next downpour came about, we could always make a run for it. It even hailed one time. A paroxysm of little pointy ice-balls painfully chipping away at our faces, which, when abating shortly after, gave way to the instant glare of the afternoon sun again. There was almost always a reason to keep one’s head down – either to avoid one’s face being whipped by the elements, or to protect one’s eyes from the sudden blaze of the sun.
“You should try some local food while you are here, an Irish stew, or what we call Breakfast Duck! In the area around here, the local dish is called ‘Coddles’. It is usually made out of potatoes, onion and pork sausage,” our driver chatted away, adding with a laugh “but my wife is Brazilian. She makes coddles with cassava and hot sauce in it!” I had heard earlier about the fact that Ireland has a relatively large Brazilian immigrant community.
The road signs along the way announced the city to which we are on our way as Béal Feirste, Belfast’s Irish name. It apparently translates as “mouth of the river Farset”. Ever the language aficionado I asked most of our drivers whether they spoke Irish. A typical answer was “well, a little. After six, seven years of study in school, you don’t remember much.” One man said, “of my 16 siblings, four speak it. The smart ones managed to learn it, but the rest of us, we tried but failed.” He snickered at something, then continued, “and well, those of my siblings who speak it, they are also the ones who are a bit hippy, the tree huggers of the family.” I was briefly shocked at the idea of a family with 17 children, less so than Norah, my travel partner who had been to Ireland before. She explanatorily commented, “especially during the past decade, this country has come a long way. Still thirty years ago things here were very different from what they were like in other European countries. Not only was poverty rampant, but Catholicism held sway, and contraception was not just frowned upon, it was beyond the thinkable for most people.”
As for learning Irish, one friend originally from a suburb of Dublin, a language lover who on top of his native English speaks Dutch, Spanish and Swedish, once said to me, “I would like to learn Irish, I do. But to do that properly would mean to spent a year living in some far-out backwater of Ireland with sexist, racist boors all around you, and I just can’t get myself to do that.”
As for the deprecating description of the Irish speaking parts of rural Ireland – let me just state that those are his words, not mine.
With Norah we had started in Dublin that day, at the airport, having arrived from Paris in the forenoon. We had made it North to the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland with around five cars in less than a couple of hours. Like elsewhere in the European Union, the border crossing is hardly perceptible any more. You hardly notice the sign, in this case an austere black-and-white one, wishing you welcome in the local language, in this case, “Céad míle fáilte”, or, literally, “A hundred thousand welcomes”. The driver who took us over the border told us this smooth passing of sides was not always the case: “In the nineties on the hills all around here, there used to be the British Army. There used to be big checkpoints, too. But today passport controls are rarely carried out. If they do come, police arrive in a few teams, parking their cars on the shoulder of the road and then start stopping drivers randomly. I remember when they made this motorway, too. Before there was just a winding country road. During a certain period, the South had already finished its piece of road, but the North hadn’t. So at the border you had to go back to the old road for a bit.”
Almost all of our drivers from the South had mixed feelings about our heading to Belfast, to almost comical extent. “I am not saying it is dangerous, but you should be on your wits! If you stay on the main roads and in the city centre, you should be fine. Just stay on the main roads and don’t get lost!”, one said. And another: “Better stick to areas with tricolors. If you see a tricolor, you will not have any problems. But when you see a Union Jack, beware!” A third one was more optimistic, “oh, tourists will be safe anywhere in Ireland! If anyone wonders what you are doing, just say you are there for the Titanic Wharf.” And a last one commented, “Oh, I used to live in Belfast for a year, they are all off their trolley up there, absolutely all of them” – “Why?”, I asked, hoping for more detail. But the only thing I got for an answer was a definite, dismissive “oh, they are just a nutty bunch, that’s it”.
Once we started getting drivers from the North themselves, these kind of opinions were not expressed any more. From then on people just praised Belfast’s pubs, and assured us it was a friendly city, the perfect place for a Saturday night.
Just as we entered Northern Ireland officially, our road took us through a small town called Newry, which was rather picturesque. There were lots of churches, stern stone constructions of a dark, sober charm. “Those which use writing in Irish are Catholic ones, the ones which use English are Protestant”, our driver informed us. “This”, he pointed to a building behind tall walls, “is the Court house. They blew it up a few years ago with a car bomb. Luckily they evacuated everyone on time, so no one got injured. It was one of the biggest attacks of the decade.”
This driver had told us he had hitchhiked and backpacked quite a bit himself, for example in New Zealand and Australia a few years ago. He proposed to take us along to the seaside town where he was headed. By his description it sounded like it would be a pretty ride. “So that’s the plan, youse are coming down the coast?”, he reassured himself before abducting us. We could not but nod happily, and off we went, taking us over that motion sickness-inducing road that I mentioned, into the hilly farmland.
written by: Ilham Bint Sirin
My first big trip took me to Black Africa when I was 20. On this trip I
crossed the Sahara desert by thumb and managed to get a lift on a cargo
boat from Guinea to Senegal and the Cap Verde islands. During the past few
years I have mostly travelled in the extended Middle East, which can
sometimes be quite tiring as a solo woman, but no obstacles put me off. I
have been to Iran three times, twice in Northern Irak, and spent several
months in Pakistan.
I write as Ilham Bint Sirin on my blogs kurdistandiary.blogspot.com and