Sunday, April 26, 2015

Castle Life, Country Life

After our more ambitious outing the day before, we arose on Wednesday with the plan of staying closer to our base camp, and give the kids a bit of a break from all the driving around. It was also a suitable break for Sarah and I, since we were both sore from doing more bicycling than either of us had in, well, years.

First off, we piled into the Skoda with Jody and the kids, and she took as too a nearby woods that she and Sandeep ran and walking in from time to time. The woods themselves were amazing in their lushness, covered in deep emerald moss that made you realize why green was Ireland's national color. Before heading out, Jody also told Stella and Otto that in the olden days the Irish believed their forests to be filled with fairies and other magical creatures. Both of the kids loved the idea and spent the majority of our walk shouting out that they had just scene a fairy, or speculating about whether or not a particular hold in a trunk or root bundle might be a fairy home.

 Otherworldly beds of thick, green moss.
Fairy hunting.

We then emerged from the woods at the lough's edge, and (while it was obvious that local teens probably used this as a place to hang out), the view of the lough itself was stunning, and gave us a sense of the surrounding countryside.

An always-rare picture of the whole family. Even more rare because Otto decided to actually face the camera... even if his tongue is out.

After dropping Jody off back at her place, we were on to Cong. We had actually passed through Cong two days previous when our Garmin had lead us to Ashford Castle through the back door, and -since our ultimate plan for the day was to show the kids the castle- we figured it would be a good chance to check out the quaint village too.

Super-quaint Cong.

Cong itself is tiny. Really just one circle of streets, lined with pubs, shops and various plaques and shrines about the 1952 John Wayne movie, the Quiet Man. Neither Sarah nor I had ever heard of the movie before, but it had apparently been filmed in Cong; which is a fact that the village is still quite proud of to this day, commemorating it with not just a number of plaques, but a full sized bronze statue of John Wayne character a women who we can only presume is the female lead.

"A quiet place to rest and remember 'the Quiet Man.' Dedicated to all those who made this modern legend for the village of Cong."

After lunch in a pub, we set off to explore our way to the castle itself, which lay just outside Cong. First we wound through an abandoned church and grave yard, before crossing two bridges (and passing an old monk's fishing house) to the far side of the river. A short walk down a wooded trail, and then the path opened to a large, well-maintained grass field, with Ashford Castle on the far side of it.

 The monk's fishing house. Apparently, there used to be a bell, that the monk would ring when he caught a fish, so that the people working the kitchen would know to get ready to cook.
Crossing the bridges, from Cong to the woods around Ashford Castle.

Now, one would presume that presenting two young children with an actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness castle might impress them and capture their imagination. I mean, Ashford Castle is a huge, sprawling buildings with a bridge spanning a moat-like river, huge gates, crenelated parapets and pretty much everything you'd want out of a castle, short of a dragon in the dungeon. You would think that it would be something noteworthy to a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. You would also be wrong.

Frankly, they were more interested in the grass field and adjacent helicopter landing pad.

Giant, sprawling castle that looks like something out of a fantasy film? Meh. Big-ass grass field? Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, because Ashford Castle is still a functioning (and fancy) hotel, it's not just the type of place that a bunch of sweaty tourist can wander into with children in tow. So, instead we wandered the grounds a bit, until hunger drew us back toward Cong and it's cafes.

On the hike back, the kids were being annoying. Or, rather, I was being annoyed with the kids. They were both being sort of shout-y, and insisting on wrestling with each other. For my part, I was sort of barking at them, "Stella don't be so loud!" "Otto, don't roll through those bushes." "Quit fighting!"

Finally, Sarah -ever the beacon of reason in these situations- suggested: "You might want to try saying something to them that doesn't start with 'no' or 'don't." And, honestly, it was that little comment that allowed me to step back and look at them in a new light. Because, really, they were having fun, just not the type I had thought they should be having.

Wrestle-battle on the grass next to the road from Ashford Castle. Through the trees, you can still make out the once-in-lifetime castle viewing opportunity that they were completely disinterested in. But, at least they are enjoying themselves... I think.

After letting them play and wrestle a bit longer, it was back into Cong. There we were thwarted by having the two cafes already be closed, but were at least able to procure a scone for Otto to munch on, before driving back to Jody and Sandeep's house.

Back at their house, Sarah was pulled away to take care of some work related problems, and I was left to play with the children outside. And first, half bored, we tossed a football of Otto's around a bit; until we saw the sheep coming.

Jody and Sandeep's neighbor and another man were leading a small flock of sheep down the narrow street toward us. The kids watched, fascinated while the two men struggled to keep the sheep from ducking into the Bed & Breakfast's car lot, or from bolting back up the road the way they had just come. Finally, the neighbor's friend approached us and asked us if we could stand and block the driveway into the Bed & Breakfast (though, honestly, it took a moment for me to decipher his request through his thick accent).

The kid's were super excited. They were getting to help herd sheep! While the three of us stood in a line, as sort of human wall, the two men finally go the flock back together and coaxed them by us. It was fun watching both the kids, both excited and a little nervous watch the sheep flood past.

Helping to "herd" the sheep.
Watching the sheep continue off down the road.
More play time in the grass. This time, behind Jody and Sandeep's house.

With the sheep gone, the kids and I played in the backyard, enjoying the grass and setting sun, until Sarah was able to wrap up her business and then it was Date Night! Jody and Sandeep had offered to watch the kids for us, while we went out for a nice meal. So, on Jody's recommendation, we decided to try out the restaurant in the dungeon of Ashford Castle.

My lovely date, crossing the bridge to our first dinner in a castle.

Just getting into the restaurant was interesting, because it involved going to the hotel lobby, and then being effectively escorted down into the basement. The walk through the hotel was amazing though, with a sort of lushness and almost opulence that you rarely see in real life. We passed by a giant, chandeliered dinning area filled with empty table, save one family, and passed through a high-windowed hall in which two men sat, half-asleep, while a pianist played.

The restaurant itself was great too, living somewhere between elegance and kitsch. The menu itself was a mix of old and new (literally, the menu was divided into two sections), so while I got corned beef (I mean, when do you get to have fancy corned beef?), Sarah had lamb shank prepared in a more modern style. We also, owing partially to some ordering confusion (again, the accent tripped me up), ended up ordering a whole bottle of wine to split. All in all, it was an excellent meal.

After dinner, we considered popping in to a pub but -considering both the split bottle of wine and the previously mentioned narrow roads of Ireland- we decided best to get home again.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Running an Aran.

On paper, everything about our plans for Tuesday looked like the makings of a fiasco: Get up early. Drive an hour to Ireland's western coast. Take a ferry to the remote Aran Island of Inishmore. Then bike around the island's dirt roads.

First up, so far, we hadn't been doing a good job waking up before 10am each morning. Second, the weather had been cold and touch and go since we arrived. Third, Sarah does own a bike, but it's been sitting in our garage with flat tires... since I met her. That should give you a good idea of how big of bikers we are.

As we struggled through the morning routine, I had my doubts. As we raced to catch a ferry we thought we were going to miss, I also had my doubts. And, as we rode the choppy waters across to Inishmore, Sarah struggling against her tendency toward sea sickness, I really had my doubts.

While Sarah struggled to not let the rolling waves get to her, the kids struggled to work through their sticker books.

But... as so as we had our bikes and were on our way, I realized this day was going to be amazing.

The Aran Islands are everything you'd expect from Irish costal islands: Remote and windswept, with the omnipresent threat of a storm blowing in at any moment. Almost without trees, the island seems to be a simple patchwork of cattle and sheep pastures, framed in with high, rough-hew rock walls. Simple farm houses are scattered sparsely around, and the few cars that would pass us were usually small tourist buses. In many ways, it reminded me of Isla Del Sol, on Lake Titicaca.

Some of the rock walls that line the islands. Impressive in their size and construction. 

Some of the rugged coastline of the Aran Islands.  

Distant farmhouses, across the stone strew plains. Real "edge-of-the-world" stuff.

To get around, we rented two bikes. My bike was a "tag along bike," which was basically a bike with a smaller half-bike attached that Stella could ride on. Meanwhile, Sarah's bike had a buggy attached to the back of it for Otto to ride in. I'd sort of expected that it would take us some time to get up to speed, but -surprisingly- we were up and on our way quickly, making our way down Aran Island's winding, windy, gravel roads almost immediately.
Stella and I on our bike. Since she still rides with training wheels, I was pretty convinced that it would be a struggle to ride with her on back, but she did amazing, and it ended up being a great chance to bond with her.

While biking, there actually wasn't much in the way of distinct destinations, instead if was more a matter of biking along, appreciating the rough coastline, with it's clouds rolling overhead; and imagining what it must have been like for generations of people living out on this distant corner of the world.

At the far end of the loop at most bicyclists followed was a small string of craft shops, a small café and -down a short road- the entrance to Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is a pre-historic fort, consisting of a number of concentric stone walls perched atop of vertigo inducing cliffs. To reach the for itself you walk across a desolate stone plane and then pass through an entrance in the first wall.

The fort entrance (though looking out, from inside the fort).

The location itself is stunning and beautiful. But, if you have a rebellious 3-year-old who is stubborn enough to literally jump off a cliff to prove he should get his own way... well, it's also a little anxiety inducing. Still, we explored the grounds and appreciated the feeling of being on the very edge of the world.
Stella strikes a pose, near the cliffs edge. 

The cliff's that we hoped Otto wouldn't dive off of. 

Leaning into the wind. 

A rare family photo... though, as would become a reoccurring trend, Otto refused to look at the camera out of stubborn rebellion. (Thus our cliff-diving fears.)

Returning to our bikes, we headed back to the small town that surrounded the ferry landing. While waiting for our return trip, we bought a couple of wool sweaters (and stuffed animal friends) and had a surprisingly good plate of fish and chips.
Otto and his new stuff sheep, which he named... wait for it... Otto.

That evening, when we returned to Jody and Sandeep's house, we had dinner with them and their neighbor, Raychel, who was an easy going and entertaining lady (and who made a great nettle soup). But, Sarah and I both found ourselves fighting an uphill battle against the fatigue of biking all day and had to retire earlier than we would have liked.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Seaweed Baths and Garmin's Favorite Backroads

The next morning, it was time for something a little more unusual: Seaweed baths!
Seaweed baths!!

Our friend, Jody, is currently working on a cook book incorporating Irish food and traditions. As part of her research, she had discovered that recently Irish spas has begun to re-embrace the tradition of using seaweed for it's health and healing properties. Purportedly, the oils in the seaweed are both good for the skin and -when paired with the warm waters of a bath tub- are good at helping leech the toxins from your system. (Something that, frankly, I felt like I would be testing after drinking my share of the four bottles of wine we'd polished off the night before.)

Now, frankly, I had never thought I would be traveling to Ireland to soak in seaweed, but I'm always game for an unusual experience, and something that would -if nothing else- make an interesting anecdote so... it was off to Voya Seaweed Baths in beachside, surfer village of Strandhill, a little over an hour north.

The actual experience is pretty close to what you would imagine. We ended up renting the "Family Room," which was two steam/shower booths, and then two claw-foot tubs each filled with warm water and their fair share of seaweed. Since the water itself was fresh, the salt-water-ocean smell was fairly minimal, but -climbing into the tub- you quickly discovered that the seaweed made the water very oily (or, in less charitable terms "slimy"). With the kids there, I'm not sure I could call the experience relaxing, but it was definitely entertaining.

After rinsing the seaweed oils off ourselves, and grabbing a tasty lunch at Shells Bakery and Café; we decided to do a little beach combing. Not unlike Alki in Seattle, Strandhill is a tiny community with a surprisingly beachy feel. Beyond Voya and one or two restaurants, most of the businesses near the waterfront are actually surf shops and schools; which felt a little incongruous given the cold winds blowing in the day we arrived.

Still, for a couple of hours, we all enjoyed collecting rocks and exploring the high sand dunes that formed a sort of natural barrier from the ocean.

 Otto atop one of the sand dunes. He and I enjoyed clambering around on top of them, and then sliding down them.
A panorama of the beach: The ocean to the left and a giant sand dune center stage. You can see Standhill in the distance, beyond Sarah and Otto. Stella, for her part, was content combing the beach for the perfect rock.
Eventually, though, it was time to make our way back to the car, and on to our next destination. Before we'd left, Jody had also recommended a small wooded walk on one of the loughs not far from Strandhill. Unfortunately, while the drive was a quick one, it was just enough time for Otto to knock off, meaning we got to take turns caring him around the woods.
While my experience with them is limited, coming from the Pacific Northwest, I always find European woods sort of quaint. Charming even. Where the forest of my own home state are deep and sprawling beasts; most of the woods I've encountered in Europe feel like they are one step up from a park, with their defined edges, and networks of trails. They are beautiful and neat to walk through, but definitely different.
Stella strikes a pose in the woods, while the sun sinks in the background. (Also note Sarah carrying Otto.)
Looking at the ruins of a small church on the lake.
After exploring around for a bit, and taking in the views of the lake; it was time to head out. We had initially planned on going to a small lake side restaurant; but we were running behind schedule, so we headed straight back to Jody and Sandeep's place; the kid falling asleep as we went.
Each trip seems to have one day that is sort of a wash. A day where your well-intentioned plans are thwarted, and you do you best to turn the proverbial lemons in to the proverbial lemonade. That day was Monday.
Initially our plans were to head south for the day, to visit Ireland's famous cliff's of Mohor, and explore the surrounding area. Our Garmin had a different plan for us.
I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the 5th passenger on our various, daily road trips: The Garmin. Wisely, Jody and Sandeep had suggested we spring for one with our car rental, and -by-and-large- it proved to be a wise decision, given the fact that Ireland rarely builds a straight road, and often forgets to name them. That said, our electronic navigator was a wee bit overly fond of back roads. Rarely would she (the voice was female, so we are going with "she" here) direct us to a major thoroughfare when there were a readily available side road closer. The unofficial slogan of our Garmin was "Want to Get Off the Beaten Path? Try Garmin!"
A typical Garmin-chosen road. Beautiful... but questionable.
Now, don't get me wrong. Honestly, when driving, I prefer small, side-roads to highways. That said, I do like to be relatively certain that the road I am on is, in fact, a road, and not just a very long drive way. I also like to have some vague degree of confidence that the road I am on will actually let out somewhere useful. I also don't need to double the drive time for the sake of seeing sheep pasture.
All that said... This time out we got lost because of user error. Sarah, in typing in the first destination on our trip, selected one of three options available. The incorrect option, in this case. This fact only became apparent about an hour and fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a 45 minute drive. At that point, we realized we were hopelessly off course, and well into a windswept wilderness. The area was actually stunningly beautiful, in a rolling, barren sort of way; with sheep seemingly roaming wild, and hardly another soul to be seen.
Unfortunately, it was hard to appreciate the beauty through our general frustration. A frustration that was only multiplied by the fact that it was 1:30 and we hadn't eaten lunch (oh, and I had to pee super bad). So, instead of redirecting the Garmin and driving for another hour or more, we decided to cut our losses and head to Galway, which was considerable closer.
Galway. We actually didn't see that much of it. But did appreciate the pedestrian streets we spent some time on, if only because it limited the Otto's capacity to lunge in front of traffic.
After arriving in Galway, and managing to park our car with little difficulty, it was off to find food. Sarah had borrowed a guide book from Jody, and it had several suggestions. And, while the first one was closed, the second -a cozy and suitably authentic place called the Dail Bar- seemed a good fit. (Though this may be the first place that Stella asked: "Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?")
"Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?"
A short time later, with food in our bellies and our moods improving, it was time to check out the one thing nearly guaranteed to make Sarah happy: A cheese shop. Specifically: Sheridan's Cheesemongers. As Jody had explained to us a day or two before, Ireland's economic crisis had fostered a newfound sense of pride in food and goods made in Ireland. And, sure enough, in our visits to grocery stores and other shops, it was hard not to notice all the labels declaring "Made in Ireland," "All Irish Beef" or similar. It also makes sense that in a country known for it's sheep (and with it's fair share of cows too), there would be a tradition of well made cheeses... and the wares at Sheridan's did not disappoint.
Sarah in her territory: Sampling cheese.
After the cheesemongers, it was on to the bakery for some much anticipated sweets for the kids. After that, we explored the pedestrian streets around us briefly before realizing that we should be on the road again, in order to make it back to Jody and Sandeep's place, since we'd previously promised Jody we would do dinner with her.
On the way home, we had planned on stopping briefly at Ashford Castle, just to take a peak at it, and maybe let the kids run around a bit. In the end, the kids were both asleep, and the Garmin -forever in love with a good backroad- decided to lead us down a single lane road that ended up being a service road for the castle (rather than taking us to either of the large front entrances the castle actually had). This provided us a weird, covert thrill as we found ourselves in the parking lot reserved, presumably, for guests of the hotel... the Skoda sharing the parking lot with bright orange Lamborghinis and similar, unattainable vehicles.  
I don't think we were actually supposed to be in this lot, but made for a good, quick photo opp.
Back at the house, Jody took us to see the sheep. While Jody and Sandeep's cottage was part of a larger Bed & Breakfast, their other neighbor was an old fashioned sheep farmer. ("One of the lone men of Ireland," I believe Jody put it.) They were on good terms with him, and so Jody explained it was fine if we went out into his pastures to see his flock of sheep. Walking down the quiet, dirt road, and opening a metal gate, we made our way into the green pasture, surrounded by rustic rock walls. Being careful to avoid the mines left behind by the flock, we made our way up the hill toward where they all stood alternately grazing and eyeing us warily. Then, as we neared them, they made their break for it, bolting past us and charging down the hill, back the way we had come.
 Peering over one of the omnipresent rock walls of Ireland at some of the sheep.

Sheep making a break for it! Since it was early Spring, every flock we saw had tons of lambs, which made them extra charming.
It wasn't just the kids that found the scene amusing.
After collecting Jody back at her place, we headed out to find a place to eat, only to discover that most of the pubs and eateries around Ballinrobe seemed to close on Monday's. Still, eventually, we found a pub that Jody and Sandeep had visited before. ("Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?") And, together, we enjoyed a hearty meal and a couple of pints of Guinness.
"Why do we have to keep eating at pubs?"

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Westward to Westport

We awoke bright and earlier at 11am the next morning, much rejuvenated from our long night sleep and reminded of how comparatively quiet the country is when compared to our house and it's constant overhead traffic. Over coffee, we decided that our first destination would be Westport, a little less than an hour north of us, and it's euphoniously named Westport House. Before departing we'd for Ireland we'd already decided that we'd alternate between more ambitious day trips, and more downtempo adventures closer to Jody and Sandeep's house. We figured that this would be the best way to keep from getting the kids too strung out and, and -after the previous days odyssey- we figured the kids could use a day "closer to home."

(As a side note: It was surprising how quickly the kids seemed to settle into our new location. Often, when we've traveled, over even visited a friend or family members home, they have a brief period where they'd "warm up" to their new location. With this trip the seemed to settle into our new location almost immediately. And, by day two, they were already saying things like "are we going back home?... and I don't mean our home-home, but our Ireland-home.")

Westport. And our first non-sleeping kid photo of the trip.

Anyhow, Westport proved to be a quaint Irish town, straddling the Carrowberg River, known for it's lively pub scene. We'd been directed to a pub called West by Jody, who had recommended the seafood chowder to Sarah. And, where I got to have my first Guinness of the trip.


Probably the most common question I've been asked, since I've been back is: "Is the Guinness really better in Ireland?" To be honest, it's hard to say because, while I do enjoy a dark beer from time to time, I tend to skew toward hoppier beers, like IPAs, which are more common in the Pacific Northwest. That said, I will say drinking Guinness in Ireland is oddly satisfying in a way that it isn't in the States. And, as the trip went on, I did notice that some pubs did seem to pour a better pint than others.

It is also worth mentioning that, while the Irish are understandably proud of their Guinness, it was interesting to find out that the pride partially stems from the fact that, until recently, Guinness held a near monopoly on beer production in Ireland and that it has only been in recent years that smaller microbreweries have begun to gain any sort of foot hold.

Food eaten and beer sipped, it was onto the Westport House. The Westport house had, at one point been the home of the aristocratic Browne family, and before them had -purportedly- been the castle headquarters of Pirate Queen, Grace O'Malley. Now it's grounds served double duty as a historical attraction and amusement park... that later leaning heavily on the "Pirate Queen" part of the house's history.

Sarah, Stella and Otto outside the Westport House. A rare instance on this trip of Otto willing looking at the camera.

First up, we did a walk through of the house itself, with it's elegant rooms proving too tempting for a certain 3-year-old boy who quickly decided to duck under the velvet ropes which designated the "off limits" area, setting off a loud klaxon bell that rang through estate house. Based on his facial expression, I'm fairly certain Otto learned a lesson that day. But, while Sarah and I could appreciate the peak into the lives of the family that used to reside there, the kids were less interested; and even the peaks at the Victorian era bathrooms barely held their attention. So, after a quick stroll down the river and across a bridge, it was on to the theme park.

The Pirate Adventure Park was apparently usually quite popular with visitors, but given the shoulder season and the chilly weather of the day, it was nearly a ghost town. And, while the miniature train ride along the river, with it's statue of snakes (in Ireland?) and busty pirate princesses, and it's overly enthusiastic conductor, was charming the big win for the day -as far the kids were concerned- was the giant potato sack slide.

...Ok, so maybe the parents enjoyed the slide too.

At one point, after about 30 minutes of sliding, I commented to Sarah: "So, we've travelled halfway around the world to spend the day on a potato sack slide." To which she replied, "Yes, but we have the slide to ourselves." Touché.

After several hours taking advantage of nearly abandoned amusements, the kids started to hit the wall, so it was back home for dinner with Jody and Sandeep. An evening that quickly turned into a cozy blur of red wine and amazing, home-cooked Indian food. Then off to sleep again.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Gauntlet

They say that the worst travel days make the best travel stories. If that is true, this should make a pretty good entry. Maybe a B. Or even a B+, possibly. The lack of personal injury or bathroom mishap probably keeps it from falling into the A range. Anyhow, here goes... On paper, our travel plans seemed ambitious, but not unreasonable: Eight and a half hour flight to Heathrow, a couple of hours layover, a quickly jump to Dublin, then a 3ish hour drive to our friends' house just a little North of Galway. Kids in tow, or course. But, still doable, right?

To start, things went smoothly. The kids actually did pretty amazing on the first flight. No major meltdowns, but it proved to be pretty easy to get them through the flight by sticking flashing screens in front of their faces. Problematically, neither would fall to sleep during the overnight portion, but it's OK if they are a little tired, since the long haul portion was done, right?

Then we hit Heathrow security. Honestly, I'd always presumed that the United States was the forerunner when it came to esoteric, disorganized, airport security paranoia. Nope. It's the UK. To make matters worse, a helpful British Airlines attendant had informed me that we didn't need to fill out an arrival form until we had arrived in Dublin. This, we discovered as being channeled into the first of a half dozen cattle lines, was incorrect, and -in fact- we needed to fill out a form for each family member. So, soon I found myself battling with an elderly Indian woman over who got to use the one pen chained to a nearby desk, so that I could fill out the four necessary forms, while -back in line- Otto decided to pass out on Sarah's shoulder.

Line two, station two. Apparently the UK does "biometric images" now, where they take a photo of your face and then compare it to later photos to make sure you don't, um, shape-change. Or something. For most people this involves standing in the specified space, and smiling at the specified camera. Slightly more difficult if you are a 3-year-old crashed out on your mother's shoulder. Still, no problem, the woman working the station had a little handheld camera. The image was a little blown out... but still... onward!

More stations! More scans! But, eventually we made our way through all the security. Exhausted and with Otto still slumbering, but in one piece, we slumped into a row of chairs while we waited for them to announce our gate...which of course ended up being on the far side of the terminal.

Waiting to find out which gate we depart from.

Then it was time to board the plane. And, thanks to the small children with us, we got to board early! But, wait! ...what's this? Otto's biometric picture didn't come through? Could we kindly sit over there while they straighten it out? Sure. Sitting is fine. So, we took a seat, while the rest of the flight's passengers strolled by. Apparently, without Otto's biometric image, they couldn't let us leave. But, don't worry... Security is on their way to straighten things out.

Except they weren't.

"So, we are sorry but, the plane has to leave. We're putting you on a later flight."

This is the point in the trip where half the family starts to cry, while one quarter throws a temper tantrum and the final member continued to slumber. I'll let you sort out the who's who.

In the end, the solution was to take Otto back to the start of the security chain to scan him in... so that we could scan him out. Turn the light switch on, so that it can be turned off again. Here's the hoop, jump through it. But, we already did. Sorry, wrong hoop. So, while Sarah and Stella waited with our luggage, one of British Airlines attendants took Otto and I out to a small side entrance, so that the security person could take Otto's picture again. Otto, being three and tired decided to fight this; and I got the singular joy of watching asinine airport bureaucracy collide directly with exhausted, pre-school stubbornness. Win! But, eventually the airport got a clear picture of a screaming and crying child, so we were free to be on our way.

To BA's credit, they hooked us up with their lounge where we were then able to ride out our three or four bonus hours in Heathrow eating croissants and trying to decide which British tabloid to read; all of which went a long way to improving our sour moods.

So, shortly after noon, we were finally able to board a flight to Dublin. On our new flight, we were split up, with Sarah and Stella toward the front, and Otto and I near the planes rear. Otto and I also found ourselves surrounded by a dozen or so women on their way to Dublin to celebrate one of their numbers Bachelorette, Hen Party. As they all ordered their first beers and cocktails, I secretly envied them, but figured I probably shouldn't knock back a drink myself figuring I'd now been up for close to 20-hours straight and still had both Dublin security and Irish highways to navigate.

Stella on her flight to Dublin.

Soon enough we had touched down and made our way through the airport to he Avis car rental. While I debated the particulars of Irish car insurance with the employee there, the kids they... well, let's just check in on them now...

They're... uh... holding in there.

With our Skoda Octavia secured and two passed out children in their car seats, we finally hit the road on our 3-hour road trip to our friends' house just outside of Ballinrobe. A quick audit of the situation here: 3-hour car trip. Driving on the left side of the road for the first time in about 7 years in an unfamiliar rental car. 20+ hours with no sleep. Sounds safe, right?

The kids: Ready to hit the road!

I think it's important to take a second to talk about Irish roads at this point. While the highways around Dublin were fairly safe and sane (despite watching another car clip a truck and have it's front bumper explode across the roadway in front of us within the first 30 minutes of driving); once you reach the country roads, it's a different matter completely:

First off, in the States, speed limit signs are a good starting point. They represent the speed at which a typical person can navigate a typical road and feel safe doing so. Most people feel fairly confident exceeding the speed limit by a good 5 or 10 miles per hour without feeling like they are taking any particular risks.

In Ireland, the speed limit signs read like dares.

"Let's see, this road is effectively one and a half lanes wide, with no shoulders, a blind curve, rock walls on both sides and an oncoming tractor. I dare you to take it at 100 kph! We'll just see how this plays out."

And, on the Irish country roads, the road is always barely two lanes wide. And there is never a shoulder. And always a blind curve. And always a rock wall or two. And always a tractor. Or an oncoming car. Or an oversized truck. Or double decker bus. Or, maybe, just a sheep that has escaped and is roaming free. In the coming days one ongoing joke would hinge on the phrase "what's a narrow road without an oncoming car!"

Rock walls? Check. No shoulder? Check. Barely two lanes wide? Check. 100kph speed limit? Check. I can almost guarantee there is a large truck just around the corner up there.

The dirt road to our friends' house. Apparently, safe to drive at 50mph.

In the days that followed, I would learn to love driving on these narrow country roads. I even once mumbled under my breath "I'm pretending I'm James Bond" while nimbly cutting corners on a snaking bit of asphalt river, curving across a barren, treeless range of hills. But, again, this time I was sleep deprived and eager to reach a destination. Any destination. And, I held my breath again and again, threading the needle between ancient rock walls and oncoming motorists.

But, fortunately, eventually the destination was reached. Sleepy kids and exhausted parents all in one piece. Well... except for our luggage. I forgot to mention our checked luggage was still in Heathrow. But, Y'know, details. The attendant at the Dublin baggage claim had made the dubious assertion that they would get our luggage to us by the end of day tomorrow; and we -sapped of our will to be combative with anonymous airline employees- had just decided to except him at his word. (In the end, the attendant would prove our skepticism unwarranted, and a fairly surly truck driver would deliver our packs unceremoniously in time for dinner the following night.)

But, to revisit the first sentence of the last paragraph: The destination was reached! And what a fine destination it was! Our friends, Jody and Sandeep, are currently renting a guest house at a Bed and Breakfast on a small road outside of Ballinrobe, surrounded by sheep pastures which seemed to merge seamlessly with the shores of Lough Mask across the street. As they greeted us warmly, we were admitted into their home, which between sleep deprivation, an array of well-placed candles and the glasses of wine they handed us, seemed to take on an almost surreal, homey quality. Jody, who has played a reoccurring role in the blog (last seen here), claimed that the pasta dish she whipped up was something simple "for the kids" but after hours of airport and airplane cuisine is seemed downright amazing.

The Skoda and I in front of Jody and Sandeep's house. This photo is from a couple of days later, but figured it fit here.

So, wine and pasta in our bellies, our headed finally hit the pillows of our new home for the week, and all of us crashed into a deep slumber. We had navigated the gauntlet and finally arrived in Ireland.