Friday, December 15, 2017

My Skellig Michael Experience

When it was decided that our next family trip would be to the Emerald Isle, I knew we could not go without also taking an excursion to a galaxy far far away...

Skellig Island. A literal rock of an island towering above the wild pacific, also quite literally in the middle of nowhere off of Ireland. People (including tourists) have fallen to their death in their attempts to climb to the top of this beautiful island. Oh, and it’s at least an hour away from shore in a fisherman’s boat with rough seas and NO BATHROOMS FOR FOUR HOURS. 
There’s also a 50/50 chance that YOU WON'T be able to actually go on the island when the day comes (too rough seas), (too much rain), (currents are bad). 
BUT.... if the Irish rain holds up just enough, the tides are just right, and the current is on your side, you’ll have a chance. 
A chance to explore and climb one of the wildest pieces of land on this earth. And to me, that was a chance I had to take. 

The Plan

After a full five minutes of me explaining the importance of visiting this island, (Star Wars history, and actual history), my mom picked a date, searched for boatmen online that take passengers to the island, and made a reservation. Two months in advance. With some random Irish boatman who didn’t even have a full website. After a back and forth of missing calls from Ireland, trying to call Ireland from the U.S., my mom got the man on the phone. 
And it was all settled. 
We were going to Skellig. 
(Depending on all those weather factors on the actual day of course)

I tried not to pump myself up too much because there were SOOO many factors against us actually being able to go on the island. Let me put it this way: it’s rarer that you’ll have a chance of getting on the island then not. But I was in absolute bliss just thinking about that part of our trip. I already knew it would be the highlight. I mean, let’s be real, I’m climbing ancient stone steps that Rey climbed to find Luke Skywalker and return his lightsaber?! AND there are adorable puffins too?!!! It all seemed like an impossible dream. 

As the time got closer for us to go on our trip, I checked the weather for Portmagee, the little fishing village we would take our boat out of to Skellig Island. I checked it multiple times. And it looked.... not promising. Clouds. Not bad, it is Ireland after all,  but not the best scenario either. Clouds in Ireland- meant rain as well. Still, I hoped for the best. 

To Ireland We Go

The day for us to leave for Ireland finally came. We spent the best couple of days exploring every inch of this green land that we could, and it was breathtakingly beautiful. (I’ll have a full Ireland post coming soon).  And then, two days before we were going to Skellig, I checked the weather. Rain. Lots of it. I was crushed. I was here, so close to it, and we might not even get the chance. I tried to reckon that the weather app on my iPhone was actually inaccurate, and as soon as I looked up from my phone (which called for rain any minute), it started raining on the estate grounds we were touring in Killarny National Park. I literally cried from the newfound accuracy of my iPhone's weather app. A once in a lifetime opportunity- probably gone. The day before we were supposed to go to Skellig, we stayed in another fishing village 15 minutes away from Portmagee. Our Airbnb host in the village asked “so are you guys going to Skellig?!” My mom answered “we have our reservation set, just hoping the weathers on our side.” And then the Airbnb host said “yes the weather today wasn’t good, but I actually have a friend who takes tourists out to Skellig, I can give him a call and ask if they went out today and if they are expecting to go out tomorrow.” 
Thank you Airbnb host, thank you so very much. You gave me hope when I had none.

He came back and told us that despite the bad weather today, the boats went out, and his friend is expecting to do the same tomorrow. I almost cried from happiness. Actually, i'm pretty sure I did. 
And then my mom called our fisherman to make sure everything was set for tomorrow
If you’ve ever heard an angry old Irishmen on the phone, well, let’s just say it’s an interesting experience. My mom told us after hanging up:
“Okayyy so he’s really upset they took tourists to the island today. He apparently didn’t want to, but the boatmen take a vote, and he was outnumbered and had to take people out. He said if the weathers anything like today, he isn’t taking people out because it’s too dangerous and we could die.” 
I looked at my brother. 
Slight relief on his face since he’s not a height person.
 I looked at my dad, no comment.
And then, everyone looked at me.
 “So let’s hope for the best, remember what the other guy said to our host.”  
I giddily kept up the hope. 

That night, we had dinner at the village's pub, and this elderly couple (who were locals), gave up their table for us to enjoy our dinner. They were so sweet and insistent on our eating there, that we started a conversation with them about their beautiful country of Ireland. Low and behold, Skellig Island came up. The old man asked us if were going, and told us he goes every year, with Dan, (who also JUST HAPPENED to be the boatman we were going with). As him and his wife left, he wished us well on our journey, and hoped we would be able to go and the "Irish weather" would hold up for us. 

Skellig Day

THE DAY CAME. AND BOY WAS IT CLOUDY. But that’s the great thing, it was CLOUDY. NO RAIN. At least not yet.
I whipped out of bed and hurried down the stairs of our Airbnb to grab some dark Irish tea and watch the weather outside.
I quickly changed into my “Skellig gear” for the day. 
Athletic shirt. Check.
Sweat and waterproof pants. Check.
Sweater. Check.
Windproof jacket. Check.
Waterproof hiking shoes. Check.
Light nap sack. Check.
Braided hair. Check. (Star Wars nod).
My mom called the boatman to confirm. “Yes, today's alright to go.”
And soon, (a little later then expected), (due to last minute stomach nerves from my Dad and Brother), my family and I were headed out the door for Portmagee. 
I wasn’t nervous, but I had to force myself to eat a granola bar because the excitement was eating me alive. 
And I had to eat the granola bar because I had to take motion sickness medicine. I was not taking any chances. 
After a short ride, we were in Portmagee. As we parked, we saw a few other Skellig Island hopefuls, same nervous faces, same gear, same little kid excitement. 
We all knew this was going to be something special. 
We met the boatman on the docks. He greeted us with his thick Irish accent, “there’s our boat right over there, is this your family?”
“Well lads you won’t be having a toilet for a couple of hours, you should go over now then. Come back in a couple minutes, we’ll get you lads set up with life vests and go over some things on the boat, sound good yea?”
I don’t know what my face looked like in that moment, but I know that I couldn’t feel it because my smile was practically breaking it. 
Yea it sounded good, Irish guy. It sounded real good. 
This was happening. We were going on, setting off. 

The Ride

We got back to the boats and as the old Irish guy was starting the boat (he also happened to be quintessential with the fisherman hat, and Irish sweater), his son explained exactly what we were getting ourselves into. He told us where to sit on the boat, based on balance. (There were only seven of us tourists on the boat), it was a less crowded boat since it was not the main company that brings tourists out. By the way, the main tourist company only had one boatman braving the rough seas with a bunch of passengers. I was so thankful we went with a less popular boat to bring us out, It honestly felt safer.  Still, all of the landing boats to Skellig leave from the same dock, and as we pulled out of the dock, so did five other little boats. 

The son who was serving as the first mate also explained safety procedure, and took out waterproof pant gear to put over our pants while on the boat to protect ourselves from getting wet. We all looked at each other as the clouds darkened. We were in for an adventure today. I tightened my life vest.

As the boat started to leave the bay and cross into the Atlantic, the rain started. And the boat started too. It started swaying, lifting and crashing against the swells. “I’m in a tsunami” I thought. I think the only thing that prevented me from getting seasick at that moment was the amount of fear that overtook me. I have never felt so close to maybe not making it out alive of a situation. But I looked at the fisherman, the old man steering the wheel steadily and dramatically against the waves, the son looking starkly into the distance, and lifting the sides of the boat to reveal little flaps to protect us against the crash of waves. They were masters over these seas. My mom continually looked at me to ask where the other boats were, if they were ahead of us, if I could see them behind the swells of waves. I looked up as the ocean sprayed my face. "There's one ahead of us, and it's not turned over. So we're good", I responded. Later, we would find out from other tourists on a different boat that their boat captain explained to them what to do if they got thrown overboard. Basically, form a chain. 

 I looked at my family, and smiled. 
Who needs a millennium falcon. We were getting there the hard way.

If you’ve ever seen deadliest catch, then imagine deadliest catch, only with a small fishing dingy. That was us. 
There were two Irish girls sitting across from me who said “maybe we should introduce ourselves, I WAS from county cork.” We smiled nervously. A solo traveler from Spain, an older man, gripped his seat and turned green. Looking frantically around the boat and asking if there was a bathroom. Poor guy. 

And then it hit me. This wave of nausea as the only sight  around the boat were swells of gray and blue. My dad was already on the side of the boat, and I rushed to an end, completely seasick and on the verge of passing out because of the feeling. My brother, bent over. My mom, strangely normal with not one sign of discomfort. “How are you not sick” I exclaimed as the boat rocked through. 
The son came over to make sure I was alright. “Only twenty more minutes now, we’ll be getting out of the worst of it, you can see the island there in the distance, and the birds flocked around it.” 

The rain hit my jacket and the waves pounded hard against the sides of the boat. The worst swells spilled into the back of the boat, and I gripped my seat and hunched over with pain. The smell of salt, and fresh air calming my nerves. 
The rains started clearing, and the waves eased up as we caught our first glimpse of Skellig Island. “Keep your eyes on the horizon line, see the rock, stare at it, your equilibrium has to get back to normal.” The old Irish boatmen were coaching me against my last feelings of seasickness. The son looked out at the waves and told me, "the Atlantic has a mind of it's own". No kidding. 

 Now I was worried.
The daunting task of climbing 670 ancient stone steps, with no railing, and with steep drops every which way, hit me. 
I was seasick. And now i have to climb this.

Landing On Skellig

Landing on Skellig is the dangerous part. The boats don’t just pull up to the island and let you off on a ramp. The boats take turns, and let passengers off on the side of this rock incline. You basically jump onto this rock edge, from a moving boat, and allow these old seamen to help you not fall to your death. 

And then, you’re on!

Immediately, I laid on the ground of Skellig Island. My seasickness still very much an issue, and my heart just grateful and happy I was on this wonderful rock. This random boatman came over and dragged me back up. “This is the worst thing to do, you have to stare at the cliff rocks. Don’t look at the sea, look at something steady and in a couple of minutes you’ll be ready to climb.” Shout out to all of these nice Irishmen who taught me all these tips on how to recover from seasickness when my face was yellow and green. 

The fellow passenger from Spain, who was seasick and asking for a bathroom on the boat, appeared from behind this random rock looking greatly relieved (I wonder why). 

With all members of my family recovering from the boat ride, other than my superwoman mom, we waited a bit before starting our ascent. This guide was at the bottom, at the beginning of the ancient steps. He gave us some brief history, some major warnings, and some general tips on how to go up and down the rock with ease and without dying. And believe it or not, even after THAT LONG HOUR AND A HALF JOURNEY THROUGH THE ATLANTIC, some people looked up at the climb and chose to stay at the bottom. 
But after the guide's talk, we were ready.
We started the climb. My seasickness easing up with each step. 


Following Rey's Steps

Everything looked exactly like how it did in the Force Awakens. And looking out into the Atlantic during the climb, it was easy to feel like I was in another world, another galaxy. It was unreal. I stopped multiple times on the edges of the steps that were built in 600 AD. I imagined these monks, rowing on wooden boats through the insane waves to settle here. And I took it all in as best as I could. The smell of the green moss, the wild Atlantic ocean breeze, the mystery of the tombstones at the top. The sight of Puffins in every cliff corner. 

After the scary, amazing, magnificent climb,  (which my family and I prepared for through day hikes back at home), we were at the top.
Our breaths taken, our shoes worn out, our hair as wild as the steps we were climbing. 
Bee-hived shaped huts greeted us, along with an ancient cemetery and a view that will be engraved in my mind forever. It felt like we were on the edge of the world. Gazing out on the bluest sea and the inhabitable "Little Skellig" in the distance, amidst sharp rock edges and a towering height.

After an hour at the top, we knew our descent had to begin. After taking the necessary Star Wars shot and exploring every inch at the top, it started RAINING. And we still had to CLIMB DOWN. 

The Climb Down

The ancient rock steps are hard enough to climb without rain. With rain, they get slippery. REALLY SLIPPERY. As we started the climb down, the wind picking up, and the rain falling on our faces, I kept thinking about my waterproof hiking shoes. And how wonderful they were to keep me from slipping off each rock edge we passed. 

As we embarked down, a young woman in front of me had her hat whip off her head from the wind. She stopped. Looked at her hat land on the mossy cliff edge, which would require her to leave the steps and hang off the cliff to grab. Which also basically required her to die. She was looking at her hat, thinking about getting it, until I told her: "You can go get that, but none of us are going to get you when you get stuck." More tourists behind me told her "DON'T DO IT". She looked at me. Looked at her hat. And kept moving. Yes, actual true story. PSA: If you go to Skellig Island, please don't think about risking your life for a hat. 

After a half hour, we were down. A great sigh of relief exited from everyone's mouth. Some almost tripped, or had to crawl, but we all made it. It was a joyous victory. 
At the bottom, we waited for the boats to take turns picking up each group of passengers. Only a certain amount of people are allowed on the island on each day, and at the bottom, one tourist whipped out his lightsaber and we all waited to take pictures with it on the Island. The happiness we all experienced can be likened to the same sort of joy that the ewoks had with Leia, Han, Luke, and the rest of the rebels after their victory over the empire on Endor at the end of episode six. For the less Star Wars knowledgeable: WE WERE HAPPY. AND REALLY RELIEVED. 

The Return to Shore

Of course, we had the boat ride back to Portmagee. After another LONG boat ride, that was much less horrible than the ride there, we were back on shore on Portmagee looking like a couple of rain soaked, dizzied backpackers that haven't had a shower in months. 

After thanking our boatmen for not letting us die and maneuvering through the crazy ocean storm successfully, we stopped at a little, cute, and colorful pub called "The Moorings". There were plenty of pictures in the pub of the Star Wars stars who also happened to frequent the pub during filming. 

With the help of fish and chips, potatoes, and soup, we came back to earth.
 Smiling from ear to ear, of course. 
All as a result of a little trip to a galaxy far, far away. 

Until the next post,

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