Cities / Towns Visited: 79
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 21,008
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,607,864
The ferry waits for no man, and thus, with a tight schedule meaning we had to catch one or miss our days adventure we were up and out the door once more. Bundling on to the boat, and nestling my head onto the shoulder of my partner in a vain attempt to stay my seasickness on the rather choppy journey, we eventually made it to our destination for the day; Inishmor, the largest of the Aran Islands, just off the west coast of mainland Ireland. Our day trip meant that we would need to be on the last ferry back or risk being stranded here overnight with no accommodation or any of our belongings. With that in mind, we scurried off to begin.
Now, what better way to explore this small blip of land, which has very few cars, than on bicycles. Stopping in at the bike rental shop we paid the reasonable hire fee, and picked a couple of mountain bikes from the countless rows; it was just us, and seemingly everyone else from the ferry. As we went over to the helmet bin to grab ourselves some cranial protection, we were rather disheartened to see almost no one else following suit; not even the parents with young children. Growing up in Australia, I understand we are rather unique in our mandatory helmet laws, and hefty fines for not abiding, but given their proven effectiveness, and the irrepairable nature of brain cells should your head unwantedly come in contact with the ground at speed, it seemed to me something of a travesty to see so many people choosing to forgo them, especially seeing as they were on offer for free. Regardless of how unfashionable we appeared, and how many weird looks we were given, we strapped them on and began on our way. I hadn’t ridden a bike in almost ten years at this point, and I’m telling you now, a lot of those cliche sayings are utter crap, but it really is ‘just like riding a bike’. Our long and short term memory might fail us at times, but muscle memory, that stuff is almost indelible; you know except for if you fall off your bike, hit your helmetless head, and damage that part of your brain.
With our small map in hand, we headed off to begin the circular route around the island, on which we would stop to admire the numerous sights along the way. About halfway up the first hill, I realised two things, firstly that my bike seemingly did not wish to be put into first gear, making the ascent somewhat challenging; and secondly, my legs and glutes were fervently reminding me once more, that we had not cycled in quite some time. Pushing through it, I enjoyed the sweet reward of coasting down the other side of the hill, in the kind of airy carelessness that only the wind rushing by you on your effortless descent can provide. Not more than a hundred metres or so down the road, and we were soon pulling the bikes over and leaning them on the nearby fence. Why were we stopping so soon, I hear you ask? Well, aside from the stunning ocean view, we had spotted a mare grazing in a roadside paddock, and her foal was standing within patting distance of the gate. I’m not known to be one for shying away from being able to get up close and personal with animals; and to be honest I rather prefer their non-judgemental demeanours to those of my human counterparts. Nearing the fence, the beautiful light brown youngster stepped forward eagerly, and thus a good ten minutes or so of patting commenced. The pay off was not only the memorable experience, but also this rather amusing photo I managed to snap of the cheerful little fella.
Begrudgingly moving on, we tackled the next hill, and found ourselves sandwiched between an old ruined stone building from centuries past, and the viewing spot which looks out over the rocky outcrop just off shore, which plays host to a small colony of seals at certain points in the year. Sitting on the chairs by the edge, and pulling our jackets closer to keep off the growing chill in the air, we took a moment to search the rocks for these elusive mammals. With a little help from the zoom on my camera, it wasn’t long before we spotted a couple chilling out side by side. I’m not sure how good their eyesight is, but either through its eagle eye or a stroke of good timing I managed to catch a candid photo of one looking rather like it was caught doing something it shouldn’t have been.
The next section of the ride want by without too much heaving, and before long we were rounding a small bay, and heading down a bumpy road to reach our first main stop; the Seven Churches. This collection of 5th century ruins are made up of churches and other buildings dedicated to the Irish Saint Brecan. Although they used to be a popular place of pilgrimage, they are now little more than the shells of their former glory, framed by a bramble of blackberry bush covered stone walls, and intertwined by a smattering of weathered tombstones. Regardless, there is something charming about the fragments of architecture left standing; glimpses through old windows, and the almost sentinel-like peaked walls. The haunting nature of the whistling wind, and the sharp sourness of the slightly under ripe blackberries we gathered from the walls seemed only to enhance the sombre atmosphere of this crumbling pocket of history.
Our homage paid, we cycled back to the crossroads, and made our way down the next track, toward the main attraction of the island; the cliffside stone fort of Dún Aonghasa. Parking our bikes in the racks provided, we made our way through the visitor centre, bought our tickets, read up on some of the history of the site, and stepped out the back to make our way to finally see it. This spectacular hill fort is perched precariously on the edge of a 100 metre tall cliff and there is believed to have been some form of fortification here since the 2nd century BC. It is thought to be named after the pre-Christian Irish God, Aonghas. The construction of this ancient defence is surprisingly ingenious as it is simply a semi-circular structure which has a sheer drop off the cliffs, instead of a back wall, making it impossible to surround in case of an attack. The flaw to this design is of course the danger of falling off the cliff; it doesn’t exactly give easy access to the sea.
As we began our ascent up the hill towards the site, it’s hard not to be in awe of it, and as you draw closer the insane tetris skills used to construct its mortar-less stone walls increase its impressive nature tenfold. These walls, although constantly battered by the strong coastal winds, and in full exposure to the elements, are standing strong centuries later. Clambering through the ancient gate we found ourselves in the heart of the fort. Now, don’t expect anything spectacular, as it nothing but spectacularly empty; think of it more like a fortified field than an ancient soldiers workplace. Regardless, the unencumbered view out to the horizon is stunning.
As we took a little time to sit on the raised rectangle of stone which sits in the centre of the exposed cliff edge, we indulged in a little people watching. It was amusing to watch the variation between people too scared to get anywhere within five metres of the edge, to people sitting with their legs over it. Intrigued, and with a heady mix of courage and common sense, I threw caution to the wind, edged closer to the drop, lay down on my belly, and wriggled forward until there was nothing between my face and the crashing waves a hundred metres below. There’s something both frightening and freeing about looking into a situation which could spell death and disaster. That’s not to say my decision was reckless, the wind was blowing inland, and my centre of balance was firmly planted on the rock beneath me. As my partner stood tentatively a few metres behind me, a went ahead and took, what is still my favourite photo of the trip so far. It is natures art, untouched.
With my curiosity satiated, we headed back to our bikes and pedalled our way back along the coast and to the bike shop. Our adventure was not to end just yet, my partner just wanted a bike with a seat that stayed up, and I simply wanted a replacement bike that could actually manage to go into first gear. With this wish fulfilled we continued on, despite a light mist of rain beginning to fall. Our next stop had us stopping on a small, dirt, blackberry lined road, leaving our bikes, and rambling through a bramble filled paddock and up a rather steep hill. Why were we putting ourselves through this hike, on top of the glute punishing ride? We were going to see Ireland’s smallest church, St. Benan’s. Now it looks small enough from the bottom of the hill, but with no trees, or anything other than barren shrubs, close by, it was hard to really imagine it to scale. As we reached it however, it’s minute size came to light. This ruined 7th century church, which acted as a landmark for fisherman at sea, is so small that it’s interior looks more like a lidless coffin than a house of God. What it lacks in size though, it more than makes up for in view, and, despite the biting wind on this exposed hilltop, we took a long moment to look out to sea, as worshippers here would have all those centuries ago.
With just enough time to spare before our return ferry, we decided to fit in just one more of the islands stunning sights; the Black Fort. Collecting our bikes we followed the signs, however, we eventually found ourselves on a rocky path and decided to ditch the bikes once more, and finish the journey on foot. As we made our way, the path eventually ran out and all of a sudden we were in the blind, figuring that as this was another cliffside fort, if we kept on towards the ocean we’d figure it out. Before long the thick blackberry shrubs gave way to rocky cliffside. As we hopped across the fissured rock, grouted by nature with small bursts of hardy flowers, blooming against all sense, we clambered over another well stacked stone wall and soon spotted the ancient barrier that is the fortification. The wind seemed stronger now, and given that the fort is much more secluded, and sits proudly on an isolated point, and considering we had a ferry to make, we ventured only as far at the adjacent cliff, which, funnily enough, probably gave a better view in the end.
Our visit was at an end, and despite our thighs and glutes protesting loudly, we managed the last ride back to the shop, dropping back our steeds for the day, collecting our deposit, and tucking ourselves under shelter from the wind while we waited for the last ferry. The voyage was smooth enough, and before long we were back on the mainland, back in our car, and back home having dinner. As I reviewed our rather chock full day, it will not surprise you to learn that my mind kept returning to the view straight down from the cliff edge. As a kid I was scared of heights. I mean, to be honest, we all are to some extent, it’s just a survival technique more than anything. However, as I pondered why this was, I realised that perhaps I wasn’t actually so much scared of them, as scared of the situations in which I was forced to be around them. Every time I was required to face heights as a child, it was during a high ropes course at school camp with the entire group watching. Some extroverted genius obviously came up with the idea of making youngsters build their team work skills by putting them into fear inducing spectator sports, with blind disregard for any child who is remotely introverted.
I vividly remember during a school camp, when I was around 11, where I had managed to convince my mother to write me a note for the teachers, stating that I did not have to participate in the high ropes course, an activity which involved climbing up a ladder to a height of 10 metres, and having to walk across a log between two trees whilst harnessed to a safety line. Once our group had finished, the lady running the course made me stay back. She told me I had to do it, despite the note, and literally lifted my legs, much to my protest, and put the harness on me. She said that I at least had to climb to the top of the ladder. I begrudgingly did, if only to make this confrontation end, despite my heart pounding out of my chest, mainly out of rage for this ridiculous situation I was forced into. As I reached the top of the ladder she smiled her ludicrously extroverted smile at me and said ‘Did you want to keep going?’. I most certainly did not, and I swiftly stormed back down the ladder, took off the harness and went back to the camp dormitories to rejoin my group. Walking to the bus to leave the next day, she stood there, much too smugly, next to the PE teacher (who, fun fact, had called me insolent at one point in my school life because I openly disliked PE as a class, mainly due to the competitiveness and general bullying by the popular kids and the jocks towards anyone not athletically gifted). As I passed her, she asked confidently, ‘Are you glad you did it now?’, to which I quelled my need to blurt out something sarcastic or profane, meekly shook my head and climbed onto the bus.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the heights themselves, but rather the heightened attention on me that stoked the fire of fear in my heart. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my experience was not only a huge violation of my consent as a human being, but made me wrongly believe that it was the physical situation of being at height, rather than the emotional state of having my introversion and shyness mistaken for insolence, being the root cause of my fear. I was inadvertently, and wrongly, taught that confidence can only be achieved by means of extroversion; that success can only be reached by being comfortable in front of an audience. As I grew up I began to learn, no thanks to those so entrusted with my education, that my introversion can, in fact, be the very foundation of my successes. I am confident in my field despite my reserved personality; my quietness makes me a better listener, a more attentive chef, and less distracted by the idle chatter of others; while my peers gossip, I fill my time attuning my eye for detail.
That’s not to say I haven’t stepped out of my introverted comfort zone, but as an adult I was able to do it on my own terms, and only in that situation can it ever be constructive. I’ve stood in front of a hundred of my peers, VIP’s and potential sponsors of my TAFE’s scholarship, which I was honoured to have won, including being sat for the dinner on a table with the school’s CEO, the representatives of the school’s largest sponsors, and Australia’s deputy education minister, and gave a speech about why the scholarship and the opportunity it afforded me was so important. Was I scared, of course, but I chose to stand up there; no one forced a harness on me; no one disregarded my feelings or my fears.
If you are an extrovert I beseech you to heed my words. Introverts can be the bravest, and most loyal and empathetic people you will ever meet, but do not force them into embarrassing situations, or any position where all eyes are on them. Understand that just because you get an adrenaline rush being the centre of attention, they instead are filled with a deep sense of fear and anxiety. Shyness and weakness are not synonyms; reserved does not automatically mean lacking in confidence; introverted is not the lesser of two personality types. When you force an introvert out of their comfort zone, regardless of your intentions, you damage them; but when you encourage them to step out on their own, then, and only then, will you see them truly shine. Einstein stated that ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’, and by the same token, if you judge an introvert on their ability to perform at the centre of attention, they will spend their whole life believing they are lacking.