Fate, magic, and Skellig Michael

The last few vacations I’ve taken have taught me a little something about travel experiences: They aren’t all created equal. I’m grateful for every single moment of every single trip I’ve ever taken, of course, and I’ve done some pretty swoon-worthy things over the years: a helicopter ride in Hawaii, tea at Kensington Palace, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

But the secret is this: There’s an upper echelon of travel experiences that goes beyond “I did a really cool thing in a really cool place once.” These are the travel experiences that I would never casually toss into a list like the one above. These are the travel experiences that are so exclusive, so unreal, so moving that they deserve the story treatment.

I can count on one hand the life-altering travel experiences that I’ve had so far: The first was exploring haunted Dresden on my own and getting a big hug from a German woman at the end. The second was camping in the Serengeti in Tanzania and almost sharing a tent with a Cape buffalo (another story for another time). The third was visiting Skellig Michael in Ireland.

skellig_full

Skellig Michael is a tiny island seven miles off the coast of the Ring of Kerry. About 1,500 years ago, monks built an enclave at the top of the island—and a precarious set of stairs leading up to it—and they lived there for hundreds of years. Today, the island’s only inhabitants are a rotating team of researchers (three are on the island at one time) and an enormous colony of seabirds. It’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site—so much so that only 180 people are allowed to visit each day in order to limit human impact.

To say Skellig is rugged would be an understatement. There’s no certainly no gift shop, and no bathroom either, not even a guardrail on the homemade stairs. You keep to the left on your way up and you go slowly, or you risk plummeting into the angry white waves of the North Atlantic.

Sean and I made a reservation to visit three months before our trip to Ireland. (And even then it was tough to find a boat with space available, since only 13 are licensed to go.) But that didn’t mean our visit was guaranteed—the one “dock” on the island is a small set of stone steps that the sea can easily swallow up, so conditions have to be just right for boats to go out. What’s more, because the island isn’t designed for visitors, too much wind or too much rain means you’re staying on the mainland where it’s safe. What I’m saying is, visiting Skellig was the thing we were most looking forward to, and also the thing we were quite sure would not happen.

When we arrived at our B&B the Wednesday before our scheduled visit, the owner told us that the boats hadn’t been able to go out the past two days. When we called our captain to confirm our trip, he didn’t say one way or the other if we’d get to go—he just insisted that we be on his boat by 9:00 the next morning, and not a minute later.

We woke up on Thursday to pouring rain and a sinking feeling about our chances. But as soon as we stepped aboard, the captain thrust life jackets and water resistant gear into our arms, warned the 12 of us onboard that a few people had died on the island “recently,” and then headed out to sea before anyone (or Mother Nature) could change their minds.

boats to skellig michael from portmagee

The ride out was a nightmarish roller coaster: For two hours, waves pitched us, rocked us, and crashed all over us. And if that weren’t torture enough, the sky would occasionally open up for good, soaking measure. We spent the majority of the journey convinced we’d made a huge mistake.

Finally, we docked (by which I mean we each took turns standing on the side of the boat, waiting for it to heave up so we could be yanked and shoved onto dry land). And then—after a lengthy briefing about how dangerous the climb would be if we didn’t concentrate and take our time—we began our silent ascent.

skellig michael stairs

Even though the rain had stopped, the stairs were still wet and slick, and the promise of my imminent demise echoed with every footfall. But soon, the echos were drowned out by eerie serenity of crashing waves and the clownish honks of the Atlantic puffins that gawked at us as we tiptoed past.

skellig michael puffins

As we climbed, I was nervous to take my eyes off the road (so to speak), but it was impossible to focus on my footwork when I was surrounded by what seemed like an entirely other world.

skellig michael christs saddle star wars

Eventually, the treacherous stairs opened up to Christ’s Saddle—a wide and welcoming green space (where a certain Jedi may have been hiding). And just beyond that, up one more flight of stairs, was the monastery and a cramped collection of beehive huts that the monks once shared.

skellig_huts

While it’s a tiny area (tucked into a corner of the summit that’s more or less protected from the vicious wind and rain that Skellig Michael is prone to), the monks’ enclave made an enormous impact. I’d never felt more isolated or more vulnerable than I did on that island—and the thought of living there, without access to a motorboat for a quick getaway, made me panic.

skellig isolation

But I’d also never seen anyplace so unspoiled. The stairs that I’d come up on, the sheer cliff faces that had awed and terrified me on my hike, the huts that I was standing inside—everything on the island was more or less in its original state. Nothing had been cordoned off by modern metal railings or marred by tourists’ ugly graffiti. It was raw and it was pure and it was perfect.

little skellig from skellig michael

Before we left, one of the researchers mentioned that he was supposed to be going back to the mainland the next day (a Friday), but that sea conditions would likely be too rough. He was eager to leave, and hopeful that a boat would finally be able to pick him up on Sunday. That means that in a five-day window, the only one suitable for visiting Skellig Michael was the one Sean and I happened to book.

In total, the excursion took around five hours (more than half of which were spent on the boat), but it colored the rest of our trip. From then on, whenever anyone would mention Skellig, I’d proudly boast that we’d been there (to the surprise of many of our Irish hosts). And when we were on the coast, I’d strain my eyes for a glimpse of the island. I behaved like someone newly in love—because I was.

The girl who traveled solo

**I wrote this blog post right after I got back from my river cruise almost a year(!) ago, but (surprising no one) I never got around to posting it. Now that Sean’s off on his own “solo” adventure (sort of…with his MBA group) I’ve been thinking a lot about that trip. In a year full of rewarding experiences, my solo vacation was very near the top of the list. I’ve always been keen to share it, so now seems like as good an opportunity as ever.**  

On the morning of April 13, 2015, I was a girl who’d never been to a movie alone, who’d taken herself out to eat exactly twice, and—if we’re being honest—who always preferred to have a date on her errands, too. But on the afternoon of April 13, I boarded a flight bound for Prague and became a girl who travels solo.

It’s not something I ever thought I would enjoy in a million years, but it turned out to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life, and something I would LOVE to do again.

To be clear: I’ve always really liked traveling with Sean. He and I have very similar travel styles and interests, so we mesh very well on our vacations. And I wasn’t technically wandering around Prague and Germany “by myself”—I had a whole boat full of fellow travelers and crew to hang out with and various guides to show me around the towns we stopped in. (Not to mention my adopted family that saved me from having to navigate the minefield of “is this seat taken?” during cocktail hours and dinners.)

But when we were turned loose at various ports, I was free to do and explore ANYTHING I wanted. I set my own pace in museums, I popped into interesting (girly) shops on a whim, I wandered around town with no agenda and no emotions to navigate other than my own, and it was a revelation. Not to mention: Being by myself forced me to interact with some really interesting people and make great connections onboard that I would’ve missed out on otherwise. (This little introvert typically prefers the company of the travel companion she knows well, k thx.)

Traveling alone wasn’t without its challenges: Taking selfies with foodstuff in the middle of busy city squares isn’t exactly comfortable.

food_selfiesBut eventually you learn to mime photo requests and you get over your fear of using your selfie stick and you make friends and you get photos like these:

meissen_basteiI’m not sure I’m brave enough (yet) to strike out completely on my own (meaning without a ship or small group as backup) to someplace where I might encounter a language barrier. But the UK? Spain? The US? I’m 150% ready to go.

The incredible sadness of coming home

On our last night in Tanzania, our Trip Leader asked everyone in my travel group to share their favorite memory from our African adventure. I had a very eloquent speech in mind—about Tanzania’s unexpected beauty, the locals’ inspiring spirit, and my deep appreciation for our tremendous guides—but I couldn’t even get the first sentence out before I lost it.

I’ve been sad at the end of vacations before: I got choked up on my last day in London (glorious London!) and was distraught to leave my fellow travelers and favorite crew members after my river cruise. But Tanzania was different. Tanzania was the first time I actually broke down: full on quivering voice, wiping away mascara, “pull it together, Sarah, you’re embarrassing me” crying.

IMG_3439

In some ways, my tears were tears of mourning: We spent 10 days traversing the country with three fun-loving and brilliant Tanzanian guides. I joked with them on our game drives, I learned about their lifestyles and their families each night at dinner, I connected with them over our shared interests and skills—and then I realized that I’d probably never see them again. (If you like meeting cool people from around the world, don’t go on a guided tour. It’ll smash your heart to pieces when you have to say goodbye forever.)

079
But I was also crying for the paradox of everyday Tanzanians. So many of them are poor beyond reason—poorer than anyone in the United States will ever be. We’re talking no electricity, children-coated-in-dirt poor. But these people—people who live in mud huts and walk three miles to school and carry buckets of drinking water home on their bikes—they laugh and dance and hug and welcome others openly. They don’t need the newest iPhones and the biggest cars and closets full of clothes. They have so much less than we do, yet they seem just as content—if not more so.

IMG_3437
And then, of course, there’s the heartbreaking injustice of Tanzania. Many of the locals work so much harder than I do. They make mud bricks in the hot sun for 10 hours each day and they earn one dollar for their efforts. Afterward they walk back to their two-room shanties and go to bed with the sun. I, on the other hand, take the air-conditioned subway to my air-conditioned office, where I sit in a chair for eight hours. Afterward I go for a run in a perfectly manicured city park and then eat dinner in front of my flat screen T.V. Why do I get the better deal? Because I was born in a country with highly developed infrastructure and social support systems, limited institutional corruption, and more educational and economic opportunities. In other words, I got lucky.

IMG_3434
It’s been about a week since I returned to my comfortable American life, but my head is still very much in Africa. No place has ever moved me so profoundly or taught me so much about the world I live in. When I try to get back to business as usual, I’m reminded of just how unusual my business is, in the global scheme of things. Because in spite of all the ugly political maneuvering and simmering racial tensions and abhorrent gun violence, we’ve really got it pretty good in the U.S.

Now every time I brush my teeth with unlimited, drinkable tap water or queue up endless entertainment options on Netflix or order entirely too much food at a restaurant, I give a little nod of gratitude for all that I have, and I send warm thoughts to the people of Tanzania, who are probably giving nods of gratitude for all that they have, too.

IMG_3436