Friday, May 25, 2012

Existential meanderings in the Burren

“A savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil to bury him.” (Edmund Ludlow, Oliver Cromwell’s Chief of Command in Ireland).

Sinewy rock, battle-scarred shrubs, a heavy sky and a groaning wind that buffets and mutes the cries of a single wheatear, the only other living creature on this solitary landscape. This is Mullaughmore Mountain in the Burren, County Clare, perhaps even the very location where Edmund Ludlow spoke his historic words.
         Before me is his “savage land,” a place of paradox and anachronism. It is hostile and yet welcoming and gentle. At my feet, where the grass looks as if it has had the soul sucked out of it, the frailest of exuberantly coloured flowers bloom. Sub alpine flora, orchids, are nestled into the limestone rock, where they flourish year upon year in defiance of the grey desertic wilderness that is their home. Orchids, blue gentian and early purple, smile sweetly in the face of each gust, Mountain aven extend their soft white petals regardless of the leaden sky. Nearby, an Irish orchid, a Mediterranean plant, cranes her purple head above the crevice that cradles her. 
         This is a land of slabs and crevices, clints and grikes, that host a microclimate which nurtures the highly unique fauna of the Burren. Protected from the relentless wind and warmed by the limestone rock which retains the heat of the sun, 24 species of orchid and around 600 species of plant flourish on a glacio-karst landscape. Grike, clint, karst – rock solid uncompromising words - and turloughs too, lakes that appear and then disappear into the subterranean caves and underground rivers that criss-cross this “savage land”. This is a place that refuses to conform, that mystifies. In the waters of the turlough at Mullaughmore my reflection is aquamarine; unsettled I glance up and see the greyness has thickened. No sun, no blue sky, no explanation.
The travel writer, Jan Morris, described The Burren as a “very peculiar place.” Its very peculiarity troubles me. The rock is scoured with lines and yet there is no trace of symmetry. The wrinkles of 350 million years are carved into its slopes. It’s a span of ages that my mind cannot grasp, that humbles me, reminding me of my utter insignificance. Even the ephemerality of the blue gentian I am gazing down at seems infinite in the context of my own life as a momentary journeyer on the rock of ages, not even a blink in the eye of history. 
At Black Head beach the line of erratics, wandering boulders, further unsettles me. They marched in here millions of years ago with massive glaciers and were abandoned when the ice retreated. Of a slightly darker hue than the surrounding limestone, the erratics look out of place, rounded and upright, sentries on slabs that have borne the weight of their vigilance for millennia. I contemplate the point of contact, wondering what hundreds of millions of years of touch feels like. I can’t comprehend it and surrender out of respect for the mystery of the geological forces that brought the erratics to this beach.
At Poulnabrone portal tomb in a field beside the Corofin to Ballyvaughn Road another mystery confronts me. The capstone is estimated to weigh at least 100 tonnes and rests on two vertical portal stones. Rationality has never satisfactorily explained how capstone was raised off the ground and then placed on the supporting stones lamost five thousand years ago. Educated guesses, supported by archaeological evidence, have been made about the spiritual significance of the tomb. At least sixteen adults and six children were buried here together with their tools, weapons and other artefacts. Was it believed they were on a journey to another world and Poulnabrone was the physical gateway crafted to allow them to pass through to that world? We can only surmise and marvel at the intimate relationship between our early ancestors and the natural and supernatural worlds.
Driving back to Ballyvaughan along the R480 I note that my mood has lightened. It is spring and this quiet road is laced with whitethorn in full bloom, red and white valerian, primroses and violets, and the aroma of freshly cut grass hangs in the air. The familiarity is comforting. I’ve exchanged millennia for seasons, for an expanse of time that does not lure me into existential meanderings. I take a deep breath and wonder whether others have responded similarly to the paradoxes of the Burren.
In the local tourist office literature on display invites visitors to “uncover the secrets of the Burren.” Maybe it would be fairer to invite them to contemplate its secrets, for that is all we can do. An acquaintance with the facts, if we are fortunate enough to have access to them, is akin to following signposts in the dark. The surest guide has to be the imagination and a willingness to embrace the mystery. Without imagination and without this willingness, we will never really get close to the secrets of the Burren.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba

This is an extract from a chapter taken from my recently-published book based on memories of the years (1999-2005) I spent living in Cuba. While I was there I was fortunate to work as a tour facilitator for the San Francisco-based company Global Exchange. Here is my account of a memorable afternoon on the "Following Che's Footsteps” itinerary.

Elizardo, the ICAP* represensentative takes the microphone from our driver and turns to face our tour participants, “Where we are going today is historic, for it was here, in the heart of the Sierra Maestra mountains, that President Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and their band of guerrilla fighters waged the battle that brought down the dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista and ushered in the Revolution. That was back in 1959. It took them three years to succeed and we are going to take this opportunity to retrace their steps. We’ll go into the mountains and see their headquarters for ourselves.“
Just then our driver, Juancito, calls Elizardo over to him. They confer for a minute or so. From the concerned looks on their faces it is apparent that something is wrong. They beckon to me and Diana. It turns out that our coach is an older model and Juancito is doubtful about its ability to climb the hills that lie between us and our hotel in the tiny mountain village of Santo Domingo. We stop at the base of the steepest hill I have ever seen. Someone a few seats behind me mutters that the gradient would be illegal in the United States.
“What we really need is a fifth gear for the ascent and hydraulic brakes for the descent. Our coach has neither,” whispers Juancito.
“So what do you recommend?”
He looks up at me apologetically.
We agree to let Juancito drive on at his own pace and for us to follow on foot. It will take a couple of hours longer but it’s safe. The students are elated at the prospect of getting out of their seats and eagerly rush toward the exit.
All twenty-five of us set off, walking on occasions at an angle of what must be about 65º to the perpendicular tilt of the road. The landscape is undoubtedly the most magnificent that I’ve seen so far in Cuba. Lush vegetation springs from sheer drops, and abrupt upward sweeps arrest the gaze and guide it skyward into the clouds. The sky is shrunk, framed by verdant peaks. I too am shrunk, made delightfully small, humbled by the power of these mountains. I remind myself that I am in the east of Cuba, somewhere between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by topography which has not changed in millennia. All of us are quiet now, content to pay homage to the moment, knowing that it will never come again. Around us there is birdsong, insistent calls produced by exotic creatures I cannot see and cannot name.
An ugly clattering, suggestive of metal colliding with concrete, intrudes on my reverie. It is getting louder, faster, and it’s coming toward us. From around the bend – at speed – comes a chivichana, a guider steered by an elderly campesino, his face frozen into a grimace. G-force, or perhaps the immensity of effort required to keep his vehicle under control at such speed? It’s not clear. Both hands are on the reins, pulling hard now, and his heels slam against the front wheels, jamming them to a halt a few metres away. Mules and home-made guiders are the most common forms of transport in the Sierra. The students are already gathering around enthusiastically. I stay back, content to watch and let the encounter develop under its own dynamics. A few words are exchanged in broken Spanish between the wizened, bright-eyed sprightly driver and his admirers.
Qué lindo. What a beautiful guider. Did you make it yourself? What speed do you go? Is it dangerous?”
And then, inevitably,
“Would you mind if we take a few photos?
Photos taken, the students give the old man the thumbs up and he manoeuvres his chivichana into position to continue its downward journey.
Just as he is about to lift his heels from the front wheels one of the group calls out to him,
Señor! Señor! Por favor.”We turn our heads to see Jeremy, one of the quieter boys, hoist a bottle of Havana Club rum on high,
Muchas gracias!
And then he tosses it with a long slow motion to the old man who catches the bottle in a single deft sweep of the hand. Only a talented baseball player would have been capable of such elegance, and the group applauds. Then he is gone in a flash, followed by a rapidly retreating commotion that can be heard echoing through the mountains for a minute or two after we have lost sight of him. We see more chivichanas over the next few days; sometimes they are little more than a blur as the locals power down these slopes at breakneck speed on this most unique form of transport.  

*(Cuban Institute for Friendship among Peoples)

"Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba" by Karen McCartney is available as an e book from Amazon.
If you don't have a Kindle, the book can be read on your PC if you download this free application from Amazon

Never Mind Nirvana - I just want to survive (this)

A white hot pain is corkscrewing my hips. My joints alternate between screeching fire at me and whimpering piteously. Severe sleep deprivation makes me hallucinate about pouring iced coffee into my eyes and inserting frozen Ibuprofen pills into my knees. This is Day 1 of my quest for a Whole New Way of Being.
I’m sitting cross-legged with thirty-nine others in the meditation hall at Benburb Priory in County Tyrone, on a Zen Buddhist retreat, on sesshin. Up ahead of me are marathon meditation sessions of around eight hours daily, mercifully with breaks in between. This retreat lasts five days, a sort of taster, it could be said, for the mega sesshins of up to three months.
All I have to do is focus on the breath and keep bringing my attention back to it every time the mind wanders. Try it for two minutes and you’ll see how formidable a task that is. After tens of thousands of attempts to do just this, an image, a vividly coloured image forms in response to my exasperation. I see a butterfly flitting nonchalantly from flower to flower, from thought to thought, and only seldom and only momentarily does it land on the breath, my connection to the Here and Now. I plead and coax but it flits on oblivious. How long can this go on for? Furious, I reach for a fly swat and kill it. I’m alone now with the flowers/thoughts and still no closer to the Here and Now.
In the afternoon I join my co-retreatants in a spot of voluntary work in the garden. My job is to weed the rocks around the pool at a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. We work in silence. I get distracted watching tadpoles in the murky waters while I’m uprooting weeds and slip. Wet jeans and boots give me a welcome excuse to withdraw to my room to change and, it must be said, to lie on the bed. There’s still another four hours of meditation to go and I’m utterly exhausted. At 4.00 I’m back in the meditation hall, the zendo, and in despair. I don’t have the stamina it takes to see this to through. The final session of the day finishes at 9.20 and that seems so far away that it might as well be the 25th century. After tea I return to my room and when the others are filing back into the zendo at 7.30 I’m already in a deep sleep.
Day 2 and exasperation gives way to a weary resignation. That butterfly is never going to remain on the breath no matter how much I wheedle. So I turn to face the first of my demons: anger. I rage against regimes that impose solitary confinement as punishment on prisoners. This is inhumane, barbaric. From the darkest recesses a voice scoffs, “But you volunteered for this, my dear.” Furious, I spin around; I see nothing but barren scrubland. Movement catches my attention and there, cowering behind tumbleweed is a target for my fury: the handyman who messed up the wallpapering job I paid him for and scarpered. Out comes the machine gun. Next is the vet who gave my cat Thelma a less than dignified death. A malevolent grin settles on my features and out comes the machete. On the distant horizon I see those-who-shall-not-be-named and advance toward them loading my RPG. And then the butterfly lands on the breath.
Is this the insight I was hoping for? Am I a psychopath? More demons leer at me, ones whose nature I prefer not to disclose. This is hell. Never mind Nirvana, I just want to survive, to get through this sesshin. I promise myself that if this continues for one more day, I’ll pack up and wheel my suitcase down to the bus stop.
Day 3 ushers in the unexpected: energy and enthusiasm. Yes, I can do this, I tell myself as I set out with my co retreatants on our morning stroll. All forty of us black-clad figures file out in silence toward the wooded slopes of the nearby forest. A small child stares, eyes as large as two moons and mouth a perfectly formed O. “They’re weird,” she says to her mother and I’m inclined wonder whether she’s right.
Today is different. Mentally I’m bouncing down the rocky path and gambolling through the glades. Could THIS be it? Am I really out of that dark place and in the light, maybe just a few steps away from enlightenment?  Joy arises spontaneously; I love my companions on this journey; I love the whole world. Returning to the zendo, I’m hopeful that the butterfly will settle on the breath. But no, it’s as evasive as ever. The difference is that now I’m neither exasperated nor resigned. I just notice. Without the histrionics, the scenario is flat but at least it doesn’t leave me questioning my sanity. I collapse into bed wondering – and fearing – what the following day will bring.
Day 4 and I wake feeling ragged and sore. This roller coaster of emotions is gruelling. My hips are sending out warning signals so I take two Ibuprofen as a precaution, but there’s nothing I can do for the mental fatigue. I troop back to my mat in the zendo defeated even before the day starts, in my efforts to gain focus.  Over the course of the next eight hours I go off on a few more trips but the plot is nowhere near as disturbing as Day 2. Impatience and acute boredom gnaw at my determination to remain on the meditation mat. How many times can that butterfly land on the same flowers? How many times can I think the same thoughts?
Day 5, the last in this sesshin. I’m astonished to notice sadness that it’s coming to an end. Without realising it, I was developing a cosy familiarity with my own mind, or was it my spirit, because in Japanese sesshin may be understood as an opportunity to “touch the spirit.” Here in Benburb I’d been offered a refuge, a safe place among caring people in which to do just this. Finally, on this, the last day, the butterfly responds to my entreaties and alights on the breath long enough to fill me with a deep tranquillity and vitality, unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Those demons are far away now but they will come again. The difference is that now I’m grateful in the knowledge that I faced them down day after day and survived. That thought gives me courage. And for this, this courage, I would do certainly it all again and hopefully will.

In search of some Sunday morning craic*

“Would you give that door a wee slam again, luv?”
So says the driver of the black taxi* I’ve just hailed. With the door satisfactorily slammed and the clutch rather unsatisfactorily engaged, we head off along the Fall’s Road toward Belfast city centre. The only other passenger is a pale and spotty youth plugged into his iPlayer. He glances over at me briefly and then withdraws into whatever world is beckoning him.
It’s Sunday morning and the streets are deserted except for a few pug-faced dog walkers, looking weary in the mercury light. A scattering of mass-goers emerges from the doorway of St. Paul’s on Cavendish Street and begins fumbling for their mobile phones. In the distance a heavy sky blends into the leaden slopes of the Black Mountain.
          I hear my own footfall as I walk past Fun Time Over 18s only gambling house in Castle Street. The blood red paint on its façade is shiny smooth where the winos of the past few decades have propped themselves up. A crisp bag tumbles by and seagulls squabble over the discarded remains of last night’s takeaways. “Morning Sweetheart!” I turn to catch the smile of a solitary jogger cruising by. Minutes later, raucous laughter rings out from a trio of hop-on-hop-off tour guides in Castle Place. Two of them are doubled up and the third reiterates the point, “I swear to God, that’s what yer man was wearing.”
         In the grounds of Belfast City Hall, a dog lifts its leg against the base of a mega-size television screen. Its owner is nowhere to be seen. With no non-canine audience, runners in the London marathon plod past, larger-than-real-life, unseen and unheard. The commentary fades when I turn left into May Street and walk eastward in the direction of St. George’s Market, the reason I got up early this morning and why I’m here now.
         On Sunday mornings the market is the only option open to shoppers in Belfast. In a concession to the churches, trading in Northern Ireland cannot commence until the last religious service has ended. However, while shops remain closed until 1.00 on “The Lord’s Day”, the market is allowed to open for business at 10.00, but only as a recent concession to tourists who complained there was nothing to do in Belfast on Sunday mornings. The initiative has been hugely successful. According to one report[1], up to three thousand people pass through its doors before they shut at 3.00.
         As I approach the market, the atmosphere becomes crisper. People overtake me, moving with purpose. Others come toward me, pulling shopping trolleys and heaving bags, presumably in the direction of their cars. There’s a buzz around the red brick building which has housed the market since Victorian times. Clusters of smokers stand about chatting; I cut past them and file in to the market behind a family of French tourists. Once over the threshold my senses refocus in response to the sudden change. A multi-dimensional collage of colour, smells and sounds embraces me. Stalls selling fresh fish, a variety of fruit and vegetables, homemade cakes, and Lebanese cuisine are just a few steps away. Beyond them is the first of the handicraft stalls, selling an array of angel-candles in pastel colours. Moving past it I see that there is also a small selection of books explaining the powers of Gabriel, Raphael and others. Angel Fever is big business in Belfast.
         I’m here because I’ve been told that on Sunday there are stalls specialising in arts and crafts, Meandering through them I see handmade organic soap, antique furniture, ornate (expensive) tapestries from the east, Nepalese shawls, Irish embroidered linen, handmade jewellery, second-hand books and displays of food from Spain, Italy, India and of course Ireland. Our national speciality is calories: hamburgers and sweets, and there are plenty of them.
Samples of fudge and chocolate are on offer at almost every turn. Reaching for piece of Turkish Delight I hear the strains of, “I want you so bad” and smile. Can it really be a coincidence that the musicians have chosen to play Dylan’s tune just as I’m seduced yet again? The music is live and the choice uplifting. Victor from Chile plays the charango with passion and skill. Dozens of shoppers have gathered and applaud at the end of each rendition. The atmosphere is vibrant and authentic. No mega size television screen here and no dog to piss on it.
         My notebook makes me new friends, “What are you writing? I used to write too. Just little thoughts about my life, about my troubles. But my wife threw all the notepads out with my scribblings in them, all of them.” The elderly man sighs and tells me he would have liked to have been a writer but now he sells second-hand books. At another book stall I hear a discussion about the attacks on Bombay Street at the start of “the troubles” in Belfast. Both men were youthful eye witnesses to history in 1969.
         A Chinese man smiles and tells me he carries a notepad too for his job. He’s an interpreter and sometimes works for the courts. In a sturdy Belfast accent that gives no hint of his origins, he tells me, “We get Chinese criminals lettin’ on they can’t speak English. Once I getta hold o’ them, they talk alright.”
Time passes quickly and by midday I suspect that St. George’s Market is probably the busiest and liveliest place in Belfast at this moment. Most of the excited chatter is coming from locals but there are also a lot of immigrants and a few tourists too. A posse of black-clad Italians removes their sunglasses for long enough to take a snapshot and then strolls on to the next photo opportunity, an Irish knitwear stall.
Not everything in the market pleases me. Possibly the largest display this morning is also, for me, the least attractive. A stall selling cheap looking, mass-produced handbags sits uneasily with the surrounding arts and crafts, striking a discordant note that has nothing to do with Victor and his charango. It’s out of character and I’m not sure why it’s there.
I leave behind the “craic” in St. George’s and notice that the lacklustre air outside in Belfast city centre is sharpening as shoppers begin to fill the streets. It’s almost 1.00 and now that the churches have had their say, it’s time for that other god, Consumerism to step up to the throne and await the offerings, and I suspect that there will be plenty of them.

* craic- the fun