Trip Log: Northern Ireland
I’ve stalled on posting this for weeks now, simply because I haven’t quite felt like I had fitting words. But on April 15, I was lucky enough to board a plane to Dublin, Ireland, to meet my friend Nikki McCombe for a 10-day adventure.
The idea started when I visited Nikki in Ontario last year — we hadn’t been on a trip since Vancouver and Tofino nearly a year before that, and both of us wanted to go somewhere again. We batted around a few ideas, and Nikki’s dad, a traveler himself, readily joined in the brainstorm. He threw out a number of ideas, but Ireland came up somewhere along the way — and the fact that most of the McCombe’s extended family lived there. I half-jokingly asked, “How would they feel about two girls crashing on their couch for a while?” But the idea seemed more fun than, well, real.
At some point, though, the joke took the shape of a more realistic wonder. Sometime around Christmas, we realized that Nikki’s family was serious — they really wouldn’t mind us crashing. It didn’t take much debating between the two of us after that. We spent a few months socking away ticket money, settled on late spring dates, and decided to go for it.
When I tumbled off the plane into rainy Dublin, Nikki had already been there for a few hours and was waiting with Robert and Wendy, our gracious hosts. They hugged me big, warned me to let them know if I couldn’t understand their accents, and shuttled us two hours from Dublin to their home near Belfast, Northern Ireland. I spent the drive fighting (and failing) to keep my eyes open while deep green hills flew by.
I could spend hours trying to describe the trip, but nothing would completely do it justice. Robert and Wendy didn’t just let us stay at their house — they welcomed us fully into the family. Nikki, of course, actually is family, and some of the sweetest moments of our time there were simply watching her reconnect with cousins she hadn’t seen since they were teenagers and listening to them swap funny, old family stories.
By the end of the trip, I felt a part of the reunion myself. It wasn’t uncommon to have a dozen or more people packed into the kitchen at the end of the day, doling out bowls of Irish stew, arguing about what show to put on TV, and bantering in thick, happy accents I never grew tired of. It was the sort of warmth I feel at large family gatherings back home, but 5,000 miles away. There are so many differences in people of different cultures and places, but I think I’m always more amazed by how much is the same.
Nikki and I had decided on 10 days so we would have wiggle room in our schedules — neither of us are ones to tie ourselves to detailed plans, preferring general ideas and flexibility. We thought we might end up hopping around to different places, but as it turns out, there’s almost nothing better than sticking in a place with people who really know it. The McCombes knew all the major sights we needed to see, as well as hidden local gems.
We spent most days simply getting up, getting in the car, and being in total awe of wherever they took us, from the North Coast to Strangford Lough and everywhere in between. Much like our experience in British Columbia a couple of years before, we lucked out majorly with weather; and most days, the deep greens and blues sparkled under sunlight. My jaw was perpetually dropped, and audible gasps were the soundtrack as we sped along tiny highways on the “wrong side” of the road — every bend, it seemed, bringing a bookish fishing town or emerald cliffside dotted with sheep into view. Also, there are castles everywhere? Yeah.
There were ornate government buildings, old stone churches, the most amazing museums, and a lot of shops. We wandered through them all, pausing for lots of photos, and getting extra details and history from Robert along the way. I ate my weight in bread and chocolate. I felt like every hour on the hour I was handed a fresh cup of tea. (Not ten minutes after we arrived at Robert and Wendy’s house, Robert appeared with a mug and a plate and asked me, “Do you need some tea and a wee ham sandwich?” And I thought, this is the greatest place I have ever been in my life.)
We ended up spending extra space in our schedules just resting — hanging out at home, running the trail system across from the McCombe’s neighborhood, reading, and generally recovering from the overstimulation of so much color and texture, I thought my little photographer heart would explode sometimes.
These pockets of downtime were also, in some ways, where I felt I learned the most about the culture of Northern Ireland itself — from running errands with Wendy or her daughter, Vicky, to walks in the local park. We woke up one morning to the sound of an Irish marching band parading down a nearby side street, and found a new favorite music group performing live in a downtown Belfast square later that day while out shopping. There was so much we got to soak in and explore by not experiencing the city on a more typical tourism level. I loved it.
And of course, I loved simply getting time with Nikki. There’s nothing like a friend you don’t have to be “on” for at all — someone you can completely relax, be yourself, and be honest with. Nikki makes me want to be both more like Jesus and more like myself. She radiates kindness and joy, always offers wisdom, and never fails to make me belly laugh. Why Ontario has to be so far from Texas is beyond me, but it makes our trips together that much more special.
If you ever have the chance to go experience Northern Ireland for yourself, jump at it. I left a little piece of my heart behind, but considering how much soda bread I stuffed in my suitcase and brought home, it feels like a pretty fair trade to me.