Take-off is something I always look forward to when traveling. I love when the plane finishes taxiing, does an about-face on the runway, and suddenly starts to gain momentum. I am riding rolling thunder and my obligations are officially behind me the moment those tires leave the earth! This is freedom!
Liberating myself from the ties that bind me to – what is essentially my own culture – allows me to fully immerse myself in a different one. I commit to exploring new things and try to experience life like a local as best I can. The simple act of taking those first few steps in a new place makes me feel independent and alive! Whether those steps are tentative or confident, I am taking my life into my own hands.
Without a doubt, a place that heightens my sense of independence is Northern Ireland. The Ulster landscape is full rolling hills that seem to ramble on forever – just inviting you to roam the lush green carpet they lay out for you. If you stay the course and venture beyond these hills, the low stone walls, and verdant pastures, you are rewarded with dramatic seaside cliffs punctuated by waterfalls and the awe-inspiring natural splendor of The Giant’s Causeway. Rising up from the mystic, this is a land born of legend and bred in magic.
Yet, in contrast to this heavenly splendor, there remain earthy indications of a troubled and not-too-distant past. There was a time when this beautiful country was greatly restricted by widespread violence and strife. Large political murals, dual signage with both nationalist and unionist terms, and a lack of flags on public buildings serve as poignant reminders of The Troubles, which lasted from 1968-1998. Personally, not being Irish, I feel I am ill-equipped to comment on the state of their national psyche or lingering sentiments. I can only speak for myself when I say that paying tribute to these struggles certainly heightens my own sense of personal independence. To travel around this area and witness the healing of these fresh wounds is something that has enriched me, and I have a deep appreciation for this experience.
Forged by fire, the strength of the Irish people is matched by their overwhelming kindness – which made me feel like more of a friend than a guest. Curiosity on either my part or theirs served as a natural jumping-off point for interesting conversations that led to a better understanding of the culture and mentality. To my great delight, people were quick to share a story and a laugh while in restaurants, in hotels, on the bus, the train, or bicycles! (My favorite example of this was when a rattling arose from under our bus and the driver pulled over and said “I fear fer me God and I fear fer me dog!” Luckily for us, his God, and his dog, it was just a tree branch! The whole bus was suddenly full of relieved Irish laughter.) This warm hospitality only put me further at ease while traversing the region. As a woman traveling alone, I felt inspired as I walked along the walls of Londonderry/Derry. I felt safe in Belfast as I explored the Titanic Museum and navigated my way to the birthplace of the Belfast Cowboy himself, Van Morrison. I felt uninhibited as I stood in the wildflowers, looking out into the Irish Sea from the loamy cliffs of Portstewart. I fell more in love with this place with every wave that crashed onto the shore far below.
This terrain is a natural fit for the independent traveler. Practically speaking, it is accessible and easy to maneuver around in. I found some delicious food and can understand the language…usually. However, the will of the independent traveler is something beyond practicality. There is a wildness of spirit and openness of heart that is innately mimicked by Northern Ireland itself – and that is what satiates my wanderlust.
I get back on the plane to return home and find myself a changed woman. I am of the belief that, when done correctly, travel should always change you. How can it not when you now carry the stories of others mixed in with your own? You’ve seen and done new things, and perhaps stretched your comfort level a little further than it has ever gone before. (Oh! There was that one hostel…!)
When the engines roar to life and the tires leave terra firma, I look at County Antrim falling away from me. An updated version of myself, fresh off a new adventure and full of lively experiences, I return home to those obligations I eagerly left behind. However, this time, “freedom” means something more. I will forever carry with me the beauty and power of this place, and of these people.
About the Author: Megan Varano was born in the Coal Region of Pennsylvania and came of age in Boulder, Colorado. After a few years of working as a baker, wandering around the United States and Europe, she has returned to the Rocky Mountains she loves and works in the aerospace industry while plotting her next much-anticipated adventure.