London Day 1: Buckingham Palace, Westminister Cathedral, and Billy Elliot the Musical

Welcome to London! 

Our second destination on Eurotrip 2014 and my first ever visit to England! Hooray!

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Exhausted from our action-packed escapades around Ireland, we spent our first day in London sleeping in and doing some much needed laundry. It honestly felt amazing to have nowhere to be with nothing to do. AHHHH. But we figured we should probably do SOMETHING so we purchased some spur-of-the-moment tickets to Billy Elliot the Musical that evening and dragged ourselves out of our sweet flat in Shoreditch for some pre-show sightseeing.

Somehow we made it to Buckingham Palace which like…. BAM. You know. Buckingham Palace. So surreal. I finally had the realization that oh wow I am actually in London.

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The sun was out, the weather was fine and we were feeling GOOD, probably due to the fact that we had finally had enough sleep the night before. Sleep is good.

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We left Buckingham Palace and walked towards Victoria Theatre, running into Westminister Cathedral on the way. What a nice surprise! Although I am sure if we had actually studied a map we would have realized that the Cathedral is literally across the street from Victoria Palace. However our attitude towards this leg of our travels was to relax and and enjoy ourselves without planning too much in advance. Oh and to sleep. We needed sleep!

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The Cathedral was absolutely majestic and wonderful contrast to the busy street outside. I love visiting churches around the world, they are just so beautiful and calming.

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We were stoked to find the Chapel of St. Patrick and of the Saints of Ireland. I went in to say a little prayer to St. Patrick to thank him for keeping us safe and letting us see his beautiful country. I also said a prayers to my grandpas to say hello and thank them for watching over me on this life-changing journey.

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Soon it was time to head over to the theatre for Billy Elliot! I have actually seen the musical before so I knew we were in for a treat. After a quick dinner at Pret a Manger, we picked up our tickets and walked inside the grand Victoria Palace.

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Since we had purchased our tickets that same day, our seats were at the very top row of the theater. However, it didn’t really matter since the top section was relatively empty and we could move around to better seats. Our plush velvets chairs offered us a bird-eye-view down onto the stage which came to life with the charming and hilarious story of Billy Elliot.

We absolutely loved the show and found ourselves dancing, laughing and even crying at all the right moments. The little boy playing Billy was marvelous and all the dancing numbers were just wild! And of course the music was amazing and I loved all the big choral numbers. We had so much fun that by the end of the performance we were jumping out of our seats and clapping our hands for an encore.

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By the end of the show were so pumped that we ran out of the theater laughing our heads off like maniacs and accidentally ran in the wrong direction! Weirdos. We caught the tube back to Shoreditch with smiles on our faces and visions of Billy Elliot dancing in our heads.

What a great way to start our 5 day adventure in London! Stay tuned for more…

Ireland Day 7: Last Day in Dublin and London Calling

After a week in Ireland, it was time to take our Eurotrip 2014 adventure to London. But like I mentioned in my last post, we were ready to go out with a BANG.

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Once our bus pulled back into Dublin, we gathered all willing participants from our tour group (mostly the Australians) and made plans for meeting up later that evening. After a filling dinner of fish and chips, we hit the streets of Dublin for some pints and some craic. It was a long and epic night that consisted of swapping American/Australian accents, listening to live Irish music and rambunctiously dancing at a cool nightclub. It was sad to say goodbye to our friends after spending every moment together for the last 5 days but I wouldn’t trade our experience for anything.

The next morning was rough and we almost missed checkout time while sleeping away in our stuffy hostel room. Thankfully Carina was alive enough to drag us out of bed so we could pack our backpacks in the darkness while our bunkmates slept on. That was fun… especially when a new girl checked into our room and spent like an hour hogging the bathroom. Oy, hostels are definitely an experience!

We left our bags with the hostel while we headed outside for our final day in Dublin! Noooooooo….

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We enjoyed a full Irish breakfast in Temple Bar (to the lovely sounds of construction) before walking to Grafton Street. The shopping street was insanely crowded with tourists, unlike our first day in Dublin when the city was relatively quiet. I guess June 16th is peak tourist season.

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I was exhausted so we hung out in a small park before walking back to the Temple Bar Area. We mailed Tana a postcard and walked past Cassidy’s, one of the bars we visited the night before. Cassidy’s was a pretty weird and alternative place with bizarre art on the walls and forgotten furniture on the sidewalk. Weird but cool.

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We then took a detour to Trinity College, which we had visited on our first day in the pouring rain. It was much more pleasant on this absolutely beautiful summer day. It was fun to sit next to the quad and act like students… those were the days!

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We finished our day back at Temple Bar and sat around enjoying the sunshine and colorful shops. Oh look there is Carina in front of the actual Temple Bar, which was on the same block as our hostel. The Temple Bar is very touristy but has absolutely phenomenal musicians playing live Irish music each night so it is worth checking out.

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Sadly it was time to catch the shuttle bus to the airport for a late flight into London. Once we landed in London we would take the train to Shoreditch and meet Carina’s friend Val, who had kindly offered to host us for the next 5 days. I was excited to finally visit London but really sad to leave Ireland.

We had such an incredible time touring Ireland with Shamrockers and I am now a huge fan of backpacker bus tours (hello Stray NZ!). Not only did we see the typical tourist sites like the Cliffs of Moher and Giant’s Causeway, but we also did some truly unique activities in places off-the-beaten path. We biked around the Aran Islands, danced to live traditional Irish music in Galway, learned about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and walked for miles through green fields to cross a remote rope bridge in Ballintoy. But more importantly, we had fun making unforgettable memories with new friends from around the world and of course with my bestie and travel partner in crime, Carina <3.

Now wait a second, do you hear that?

*RING RING RING*

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LONDON IS CALLING.

Ireland Day 6: The Dark Hedges and Belfast Black Cab Tour

After such a fun night at the hostel in Ballintoy, it was difficult to wake up the next morning. This was also the last day of our Shamrockers Giant’s Rocker Tour and we were sad that this 5 day adventure around Ireland would soon be over. But our spirits were lifted when we found out we would be stopping at yet another Game of Thrones location! Hooray!

Welcome to the Dark Hedges

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If you have seen Game of Thrones (you really should, like now), then you should recognize this stunning lane as the road out of King’s Landing. But this lane of enormous beech trees is also known to be haunted by the “Grey Lady”, which yes is pretty awesome. Lucky for us, we visited at the peak of the morning with the light filtering beautifully through the trees with no Grey Lady in sight. Darn.

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WOW. Just… WOW.

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Belfast Black Cab Tour

It was marvelous pit stop on our way to Belfast for the day. Upon arrival in this big and clean city, we hopped in Belfast Black Cabs for another sobering tour of the political troubles in Northern Ireland.

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First we were taken around the Protestant and Unionist neighborhood and shown the political murals in this working-class neighborhood. Our guide lives in this area and gave his own personal account of the Troubles. It was interesting to hear that his own children have never met Catholic children before and that the division of people is still real. However, he talked about integrated schools and other ways the people are trying to move forward. Like our guide in Derry, he said that everybody in Belfast just wants an end to the violence and to live peacefully.

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Next we left the Protestant area and headed to one of the Peace Walls that separate the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. First built in 1969, the Peace Walls have since increased in height and number and stretch over 21 miles in total. We learned that there is a plan to remove all Peace Lines by 2023 and that most residents of Belfast still strongly believe that they are necessary because of potential violence.

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To see these walls in person was absolutely shocking and I found myself tearing up at the messages of hope and support that visitors had left behind. People just peace and this physical barrier is a heartbreaking reminder that they still have a long way to go.

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We then hopped back into the cab and drove through the Peace Wall and into the Catholic and Nationalist side. There we met another guide from this neighborhood who talked about the Troubles from his point of view. It was so interesting to hear a different account of the violence and of events never mentioned on the other side.

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St. George’s Market

We ended the Black Cab Tour emotionally spent and very hungry. So we headed over to St. George’s Market to get some lunch and kill time before our bus departed back to Dublin. In the beautifully lit building, we munched on falafels and coffees while browsing through stalls selling everything from antiques to chocolate.

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And low and behold we ran into Carina’s art friend from college!!! He had been working in Belfast for a few months and this was his first time at the market! What a crazy coincidence seeing as our college is ridiculously small! Life is full of surprises right??

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Soon it was time to get back to the bus, except we had no idea where we were. For the next hour we frantically ran around the city, asking random strangers for (misleading) directions while getting more lost and frustrated by the second. We were positive the bus would just leave, stranding us in Northern Ireland!! Thankfully, a kind bus driver gave us proper directions and we made it back just in time. YIKES.

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Drive back to Dublin

Although the Black Taxi Tour was interesting, Belfast just did not hold my interest. I think in general that I prefer visiting places off the beaten path instead of big cities. However, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland and learn about the political history of a place I knew so little about before. It was an emotionally exhausting experience but was worth it in the end.

On our long drive back to Dublin, we stopped at a convenience store and my spirits were immediately lifted when Carina found “Roomie” Coke bottles and One Direction chocolate bars. Yay!

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Yep I am not ashamed. I am a huge One Direction Fan. 1DAF FOR LIFE!! Let’s just say that although I was so sad that our amazing Shamrockers Bus Tour was coming to an end, I was pretty stoked to fly to London the next day and find some funny 1D souvenirs. You know… as a joke… hmmm. But Niall is from Ireland so of course my inner fangirl has already been partially appeased. Should I even be writing this? But I cannot NOT mention it. Sorry I’m not sorry.

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We then settled back on the bus for the final haul to Dublin, trying to memorize the gentle green slopes outside our window and the warmth of the sun on our skin. I didn’t want to leave Ireland the next day. Not when I had fallen in love with this incredible country.

Good thing our new friends on the bus were all ready to go out with a BANG. It was going to be a night to remember in Dublin, and perfect farewell to Ireland. *cries*

Ireland Day 5 Continued: The Iron Islands and Rope Bridges in Ballintoy

Once we left Giant’s Causeway, it was only a short ride to a teeny town called Ballintoy where we would be staying the night. But on the way we had to make a stop at the infamous Iron Islands.

Dunluce Castle aka House of Greyjoy on Game of Thrones 

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Walking through a field past the “Wee Cottage”, we gingerly stepped over cow paddies to stand at a fence overlooking Dunluce Castle. The dilapidated castle stood high up on a lonely rock, surrounded by steep drops on all sides. The weather was very misty and cold, adding to the mystical atmosphere. Thankfully Theon Greyjoy was not there, or else I would have had to cross the narrow bridge to fight him. Nobody likes Theon.  dunluce2 dunluce5 dunluce6 dunluce8

Village of Ballintoy 

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We then pulled up to the small village of Ballintoy which has only one restaurant, one bar and one hostel on a singular street. After dropping our things off at the hostel known as “Sheep Island View” for, you guessed it, it’s stunning view of sheep, our group set off on a walk towards the water. We followed Rachel down a winding and steep street down Knocksaughey hill to Ballintoy Harbour, also known as the town of Lordsport in the isle of Pyke in Game of Thrones! So much Games of Thrones, so little time.

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Although we fell behind the group taking selfies (whoops), we caught up on the path along the coast through fields of soft green grass. We trudged along for more than half and hour, dragging our exhausted bodies through the fields and sweating our faces off. It was quite the hike.

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The endless trek was worth it once we reached the island of Carrick-a-Rede and the terrifying rope bridge connecting it to the mainland. Carina stayed behind while I made my way across the treacherous wooden planks, probably not a good activity for somebody afraid of heights. But I did it!! My heart was beating out of my chest but I did it!!

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Having a heart attack.

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The view from the island was stunning and we had fun running around the dirt paths crisscrossing the small island. A few times I thought we were going to take a tumble off the edge but we kept it together.

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BOOM. Finally not sleepy! What a day!

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You can see Carina in the photo below. She is the tiny speck on the fence. Hello Carina and Rachel!! Watch me cross the bridge of doom and almost lose my mind one more time!

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We walked back to the hostel then headed back to town with the Australians for some dinner at the only pub in the village. Carina ordered a salad with the hope to consume some vegetables and was served a “salad” consisting of meat, cheese, and a single piece of lettuce. Hahaha. The Guiness pie was delicious thouugh.

The rest of the night was spent drinking beers and playing games with our entire tour group in the hostel common room. It was an epic and hilarious night which involved sharing embarrassing stories and corrupting poor little high school Irish kids. There was also cake. It was great.

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Wow I can feel these recaps getting sillier and sillier. Probably because this trip was SILLY and AWESOME and FUN and my brain is not allowing my fingers to type with any eloquence. Don’t mind the commentary. Just look at the pretty pictures ;-).

Only one more Ireland post to go! And there is still London and France and New Zealand… and omg SO MANY PHOTOS. I LOVE IT.

<3

Ireland Day 5: Walking Tour of Derry and Giant’s Causeway

For now let’s go back to Ireland, I don’t think I can handle New Zealand yet. SO MANY EMOTIONS. Last I left off, we had arrived in Northern Ireland in the town of Derry the night before after a long but not relaxing day on the bus- Ireland Day 4: Driving to Northern Ireland, Croagh Patrick, and Yeats Grave.

Walking Tour of Derry

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Early the next morning, we met our local guide for an emotional tour of Derry. We walked down the street where Bloody Sunday took place and saw the various memorials and murals in remembrance of this day and other conflicts at the time. Our tour guide was this wonderful older gentleman who shared his personal experiences with the conflict and had most of us crying in only 10 minutes. It was an emotional morning and one I will never forget.

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We walked up the hill to the old Roman wall and saw a “peace wall” dividing the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. It was shocking to actually see the wall and to witness the physical separation of people. It is both astonishing and sobering to understand the violence that must have taken place for this boundary to exist. The fear is still there.

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But the tour ended on a positive note. Our tour guide said that the people of Derry want to live in peace and leave the conflict behind. There is hope for a better future and I pray that they will find it.

Giant’s Causeway 

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After our morning in Derry, we drove to Giant’s Causeway, a place of myth and majesty. It was a foggy afternoon which was nice after being burnt to a crisp on the Aran Islands. However, I was still exhausted from the day before and was not so much in the mood to navigate the crowds of tourists. So after a lunch of delicious stew and bread, we descended down the winding road and into the mist, unsure of what we would find.

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Massive land formations loomed in the distance with people scrambling around like ants. At the end of the road, interlocking columns of basalt rock protruded from the ground, topped with rounded stones. It really was a sight to behold. The myth is that giants built this causeway of stepping stones as a bridge between Ireland and Scotland. In reality, these stones are a unique geological formation caused by an ancient volcanic eruption. It is a bizarre phenomenon and a fun place to explore leaping from stone to stone.

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Amazed but sleepy.

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We walked further along the path towards the large “boot” left behind by the giants. I was tempted to take a nap on the damp grass but soldiered on, pushed along by the weird narration of our audio tour headsets.

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Ok so the boot was pretty cool and worth the muddy boots. A boot for a boot. Haha.

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Soon it was time to walk back up the road and catch the bus to Balentoy, a small town where we would be staying for the night. By then the mist had started to clear, giving us a better view of our surroundings.

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Giant’s Causeway was a pleasant surprise and a really interesting place. However there were a shit ton of tourists which really put a damper on the whole experience. Also, it was difficult to enjoy everything when I was so exhausted.

But thankfully the best location of the day was still to come. Onward to Balentoy!

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Back from New Zealand with post-travel blues

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Welp. I just got back to Shanghai after two incredible weeks in New Zealand and am experiencing a severe case of post-travel blues. Leaving New Zealand has left me heartbroken and sad and I don’t know what to do with myself except mope around the apartment and wantonly edit my photos in a daze.

First of all, Linda was the best travel partner I could have ever asked for. She was a trooper who rolled with punches and made friends with ease. She is not only my mother-in-law-to-be but my friend and I was so grateful for her wonderful company. Our 8-day bus tour around the north island was incredibly challenging and out of our comfort zone but ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. We visited some of the most beautiful and breathtaking places I have ever seen and met some amazing people along the way. Ugh jetlag is making me sad and not very eloquent so here is a quick briefing:

We visited some beautiful places. Like really beautiful.

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We climbed mountains and accomplished incredible physical feats (like an 8 hour walk over an active volcano).

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We met amazing and unique people who became our close friends in a short amount of time. I will miss these friendships most of all :-(.

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Most importantly, we had fun! We took in the beauty around us and opened ourselves up to new experiences. It was hard at times but so rewarding. This is why I love to travel and this is why it is so hard to come home again.

Now the problem is I have so many pictures to share and not enough time so write such detailed accounts. Plus I still have wonderful photos from Ireland, London, and France that are still on the back burner. I am drowning in photos and want to get them all out there but it will take time. So who knows how the heck I will post these photos but so help me I will do it!!! They are too amazing to keep hidden in the recesses of my files.

Just need to shed a few tears first…

Ireland Day 4: Driving to Northern Ireland, Croagh Patrick, and Yeats Grave

If you missed the day before…. Ireland Day 3: Biking the Aran Islands and Having the Craic in Galway

After our time in Dublin and Galway, it was time to head north to Northern Ireland with the other tour group. I knew close to nothing about this country and was both interested and nervous to visit. Mostly I was looking forward to spending an entire day on the bus, catching up on sleep after such a late night out. The sky was overcast as we pulled out of Galway as if Ireland had finally decided to demonstrate its true climate after burning us to a crisp on Inis Mor.

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Our first stop of the day was a picturesque cafe nestled in a stunning fjord for the best Irish coffees in all of Ireland, or so we were told. In the early morning, the fjord was shrouded in mist like straight out of a Viking myth. Carina and I ordered regular coffees in the dark wooden pub, not quite ready for whiskey before 10am. Bleh.

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Warmed by the hot coffee, we boarded the bus and settled in with our headphones for the long haul to our next stop. I closed my eyes, grateful to finally sleep, when the bus started bouncing around on the uneven road. “Well this sucks” I thought, assuming the road would smooth out eventually. It did not. We bounced around violently for a couple of hours with my seatbelt on to stop from tumbling out of my seat. Let’s just say there wasn’t much sleeping going on.

As soon as we arrived in County Mayo, I was grateful to get off the bus and back on solid ground. We were at the National Famine Memorial which marks the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. A haunting sculpture of a coffin ship rigged with human skeletons stands in memory of the people who perished at sea while fleeing the Irish Famine.

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We observed this stark memorial in silence before crossing the street for a short hike up Croagh Patrick, the holiest mountain in Ireland. We hiked a short distance to the statue of Saint Patrick before turning around to admire the view of Clew Bay. Millions of people have climbed this mountain which has been an important site of both pagan and Christian pilgrimage.  It was at the summit of this mountain that Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days in the fifth century AD.

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Every year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage up this mountain, sometimes even in bare feet! Can you imagine walking up these boulders without shoes?? Ouch…

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I barely made it up the hill… with shoes on too.

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Sunburnt but happy! We slathered more sunscreen on our poor burnt faces just in case.

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We hiked back down the mountain and drove to the town of Westport for some lunch. Most of our group went to a small cafe where we ate something green for the first time in a week. Although it took forever to get our meals, it felt so good to eat vegetables. Before leaving, we also exchanged our Euros into British pounds for the few days in Northern Ireland.

Properly monetized, we boarded the bus with just one more stop before arriving in Derry, our destination for the night. As we drove further north, the morning mist burned off to reveal the magnificent Benbulben mountain in the distance.

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At the base of this mountain is Drumcliffe Graveyard, where W.B. Yeats is buried. We had unknowingly arrived on Yeats’ 149th birthday and stumbled upon a small celebration in honor of one of Ireland’s most famous poets. Carina and I even ran into a reincarnation of Yeats in a small and charming young actor dressed in period clothing who recited a poem for us in the most dramatic fashion. It was absurd and endearing at the same time. The Irish sure do take their poets seriously.

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By early evening we unceremoniously drove across the Ireland/Northern Ireland border and into the town of Derry. After dropping off our bags at the Travelodge (so many doors…), we headed outside into the dreary streets for some dinner. We ate quietly at a local Japanese restaurant before meeting our group at the club below the hotel. Still exhausted from the bus ride, we called it an early night and passed out in our wonderfully spacious private room.

It was going to be a long and emotional couple of days in Northern Ireland. Hopefully we would make it.