My fellow friends and family looked at me in horror when I said my husband and I would travel to Provence and southern France in March 2022. When we bought the tickets to Paris in January 2022, the omicron virus was still raging in both the US and EU and the border situation was precarious. Regardless, we took a gamble on the tickets. It was our last chance to take a long vacation and go abroad (due to husband’s work duties), and we were itching to travel.
So why France, and Provence in particular? read more
Discovering My Irish Roots in County Galway, Ireland
Countless Americans make the journey across the Atlantic for one reason alone: discovering their Irish roots in the homeland of Ireland.
I’m no different. When my father first told me that I was Irish (around six years old), I went to the library and checked out every book on Ireland I could find. Each page was filled with green pastures that stretched out to the ocean, castles dotting the rolling green countryside, and cobblestone streets in cute seaside villages. As a young girl growing up in the deserts of coal-mining Utah, Ireland looked like the setting of a faraway fairy tale from a Disney movie.
My Irish Grandma
My Grandma Winnie left Ireland when she was in her early twenties. Her father was a strict, Irish farmer who fit the stereotype: when he wasn’t drinking at the pub, he was beating his kids. My grandmother loved to dance and sing so, despite my grandfather’s strict household rule, she would sneak out of the second floor window and run to the dance halls. Usually she was able to sneak in and out undetected, but one evening her father caught her climbing back in the window. She was beaten bloody.
“Winnie,” my great-grandmother told my grandma the next day. “Your brothers are going to inherit the farmland here and you’ll get nothing. If you stay here they’ll make you labor on the farm and work you to the bone for nothing. If you marry another Irishman around here it will just be the same. Take this ticket to America and find your own future.”
I loved my grandma Winnie and was proud of my Irish heritage. If I was going to Ireland, then I just had to go to her hometown in…
Carna in Connemara, County Galway (aka, the Irish boonies)
Connemara used to be its own county, but it was so small and unpopulated that it was eventually merged with neighboring County Galway for efficiency’s sake. Connemara is a vast swath of bog and plateaus that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Connemara is rugged, untouched by man, expansive and stunning in its purity.
When husband and I were driving to Carna, we were surprised to see… well, absolutely nothing. Much of Ireland is rural, but the area around Carna is so rural, you have to wonder if there are more sheep than men wandering around the hills.
The town was tiny–basically, there’s only one supermarket, one church, and two pubs. The ocean is so close you can hear the waves from the main road. The church is the central point of the town, and next to it is a pub (go figure). It was surreal to be in my grandmother’s hometown and think that she wandered these streets and went to this very same church. Since there are only two pubs in the town, we go to the one that’s open and walk in to get some lunch.
As soon as we walked in three elderly men at the bar craned their heads at the door. They gave us a long, hard stare until they went back to nursing their pint of beer. The peppy woman at the bar sat us at a table and took our order.
“Mary,” husband whispered to me. “I think I’m the first Asian person to ever be in this bar. Or even set foot in Carna.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I laughed.
Everyone in the bar spoke Irish gaelic. The waitress told us that everyone in Carna actually does speak Irish with English as a second language. In fact, Carna is known for being the last remaining town where Irish is spoken daily; thus, people in Ireland homestay in Carna for the sole purpose of attaining fluency in Irish. Hearing the Irish-Celtic going around the pub had me feeling like I stepped back in time to a pub from Ireland in the 1800s. I’m quite sure little had changed.
We didn’t spend long in Carna and, much to my disappointment, I didn’t learn more about my grandmother or any surviving relatives. Being there felt surreal to me and it was hard for me to approach the locals to ask about her family. Emotionally I didn’t have the strength, and I hope that someday I can go back to Carna better prepared to find some long lost relatives.
Although Carna is not a tourist destination, it really is stunning. It’s rare to find a patch of Earth that has changed so little over the centuries. The scenery around Carna is burned into my brain–it’s literally unlike anywhere on Earth (and is very different from other parts of Ireland). If you want to hear people speak Irish, eat the best damn meal of mussels you’ll ever have, and discover a patch of Ireland untouched by time–maybe Carna is worth a stop.
But for me, it was definitely worth it. To see where my grandma came from. To see where I came from.
And If You’re Going to Ireland, for God’s Sake go to Galway City: It’s a Must
When people ask me where they should go when planning a trip to Ireland, I immediately say:
“Skip Dublin and go straight to Galway. Trust me.”
I’m not just saying that because I’m from Galway–I’m saying it because Galway City is the shit. It’s like stepping into a modern, medieval city. It’s a stunning city on the seaside that has cobblestone streets, charming medieval homes, and pubs that feel like they came right out of a fantasy film. When you walk down the main street in Galway, you’ll find Irish performers dancing in the streets. Smell freshly baked bred or a pot of Irish stew brewing nearby. Hear the music of Irish guitars and tin whistles from the lively pubs flood onto the street.
It’s a nerdy reference, but I kept telling my husband that walking around Galway City felt like I was in a fantasy village in a video game. The music would change depending on which pub or restaurant we happened to walk by, the medieval buildings and music felt like it was straight out of a renaissance fair, and approaching a random local to ask about the city was not only easy, but encouraged.
Proof I’m a Galway Girl
My Irish last name is not very common. I’m not an O’Malley or an O’Hara. In fact, husband teased me throughout the entire trip saying: “your clan must have died out, because I don’t see your Irish name anywhere.”
When we visited the National Irish Museum in Galway and we looked through the local history, I not only saw my last name right smack in the main exhibition–I saw that my clansmen were the original settlers and leaders of Galway. I took a photo and beamed with pride.
Maybe my clan is dying out. Maybe after the British ran the original Celt settlers out of Galway and killed many of them, a good chunk of my ancestors died too.
But I’m very proud of my last name and my heritage–it’s one reason I didn’t, and won’t, change my last name (even after marriage). Luckily, I got a good husband who not only lets me, but encourages me to keep my last name.
I’m proud to be Irish. I’m proud to be from Galway.
There’s a scene in the movie Wild that stuck with me.
The protagonist is on the road. She’s exhausted. She has only taken the first few footsteps into her journey, but already she feels the weight of the road. Can I do this? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Have I gone crazy?
And then she stoops down, pulls some sagebrush from the road, rubs it in her fingers, closes her eyes and deeply inhales the scent.
The scent of the Earth. The scent of the journey. The scent of the world itself.
Then, she presses on.
This is Why I Travel
Everyone gets a rush from something.
Some feel it when they’re in the driver’s seat of a race car, going forward at full speed and bracing for the unknown. Others feel it when they’re running in a marathon, every limb of their body pulsating as they start to creep up to the finish line. Some get the rush in a meeting room, on the verge of a new company , idea or venture. There are even those that feel the pulse of life and meaning in the simple, everyday tasks such as gardening, cooking or even the first rays of sunshine in spring.
When I land in a new country and I’m walking from the boarding gate to the luggage carousel, I can feel my heart beating fast. No matter how many times I travel, no matter how tired I am upon arrival, I can always feel it in my bones.
The sensation of being somewhere new and launching myself into the unknown.
It’s better than any drug, than any substance:
It’s the adrenaline of adventure.
When I’m on the train, or in the cab, or riding the bus into the city or village of my long-planned itinerary, my mind is completely liberated of all worries. Of course the small details remain, such as how will I find my hotel, where will I pick up dinner and more importantly–what’s going to happen next?
Yet the worry starts to blend into excitement–the anticipation of discovery tugs at me. I long to taste, see and feel a new world. I want to grab it, rub it in my hands and inhale every moment of it.
In Travel, I see the Human Spirit
The more of the world I see, the more I realize: We all have a story, and every story is just as vital as the last.
The Buddhist priest in Japan that was forced to fight in World War II in Thailand, where he was taken prisoner and survived to tell the tale.
My Japanese host mother, who told me the story of her young love with a German man she’ll never forget.
The newlywed Vietnamese man on his honeymoon with his wife, looking to a new future as we sailed through the karsts of Halong Bay.
The Chinese photographer that wants to change China’s art world with his camera.
When you travel, every corner has a new encounter. Every encounter has a new story–and every new story adds to the wonderful journey that is life.
Not Everyone Can Live This Life
Taking everything you’ve built up in your life and smashing it to the ground:
That’s what becoming a traveler is.
It’s destroying your life to become a ghost between worlds.
It goes against human instinct; it’s a life of instability and danger, of risk and what some may see as little reward.
Yet for some, walking through the history of countries past and present is worth the sacrifice and loneliness. The overwhelming beauty of a landscape that can’t be captured with a camera or the smell of freshly boiled noodles or the scent of freshly baked bread wafting through the streets all make it worthwhile.
Most importantly, the unknown people that will meet you, greet you, and share their life with you will ultimately change yours.
“Mary, I was hoping that you would be a normal girl that settled down and had a family at a young age,” my father told me once.
“But you’re like me,” he smiled. “You want to see the world, and nothing will stop you. You are a wanderer.”
It’s been eight months since I returned to the United States, and the longer I stay here the harder I imagine myself to have the regular 9-5 job routine. Something will always be tugging at me, a voice will always be calling me, an unknown force will always be pulling me away to the open road.
And that’s why I travel: It’s my rush. It’s my adrenaline. It’s my high.
To inhale the world and breathe it into my body.
This is to many more years of travel. To being lost again in a new country. To finding a new place to call home, and going there together with my boyfriend, Fei.