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2
The Giant's Causeway

The next morning we decided to stay an extra day in Portrush. We needed to recover from yesterday's adrenaline, and from having driven too far too fast.

As I already said, it was not a great distance in miles, but the roads are not like American highways. They are not always flat, not always well-paved, and not always well-marked. You can drive fast, but it is not really worth the agitation. And perhaps it's good that Irish roads are as they are, to force visitors to drive slowly. High-speed driving is an adrenaline thing; when you drive slowly you relax. Certainly you see more - the impressions have more time to penetrate.

We talked with our friends about the troubles in the north, and whether there was cause for fear or not. Apparently the border towns, especially in the country, are dangerous. Also, people who frequently cross the border are subject to difficulties.

But away from the border - for example, where we were - things have settled down, and there is no danger.

And it would have been a shame to miss seeing the northern coast.

Those who are unaware of the history of the problem in Northern Ireland may wonder just what the problem is, and who are the "bad guys" in the situation. Is it the IRA or the British army that one should be afraid of?

It is a story of dispossession, foreign settlers, and a fairly recent attempt to reclaim a lost patrimony. A familiar theme in our century, and one that has never found a solution: think, for example, of Israel and Palestine, or - in America itself, of the dispossessed American Indian and the kidnapped Afro-American.

By now the situation is too complex: the question of historical rights is too problematic. And above all, the atrocities committed by each party make it impossible to declare that either is completely in the right.

At Portrush, however, the ocean is at your feet, and an amusement pier is just down the block, and there are interesting little shops and pubs, and so on. The conflict seems very far away - at least for a visitor. It only comes to mind when you pass the police station and its fortifications of masonry and barbed wire.

We kept to the road that ran close by the ocean on our drive to the Giant's Causeway. At one point there is an enormous ruined, roofless castle at the very edge of a cliff high above the sea. Everywhere there are cliffs, ocean, and incredibly green turf. The plant life in Ireland assumes the fullest green that plants can attain.

The road passed a wall of rock. I recognized that it wasn't just rocks like you see anywhere, but some unusual type. There are people, I said to myself, who could look at that rock formation and immediately understand something fundamental about this part of the country. And in a flash I understood Goethe's fascination with geology: geology is one of the secret languages of the earth.

A geologist could immediately understand the structure of the Giant's Causeway, for example.

The causeway looks like the remnants of a bridge - or better, walkway - that once connected Ireland and Scotland. It is constructed of octagonal columns packed together. Each column is about a foot in diameter, and the columns are broken at various heights so that they form a natural staircase. Even old people can easily climb the causeway and walk its short projection into the sea.

The Giant's Causeway is not so much awe-inspiring as it is strange. It is difficult to believe that nature could produce such regular structures. In fact, people ask if it is a natural structure. You find yourself asking what the purpose could be of such a thing, and are surprised to find that there are similar structures in Scotland.

Although the causeway is what draws people to the area, the real attraction is a walk along the basalt cliffs. In one direction the path is halfway up the face of the cliff, and in the other it runs along the top. The entire way is decorated (by nature, of course) with pillared creations - one, high and far away, juts out of a break in the rock face, and resembles a huge set of organ pipes.

In the early, volcanic days of Ireland's formation, wave after wave of magma flowed through this area. The molten rock was of just the right variety to crack as it cooled, and to crack along geometrical lines. The explanation sounds simple enough, but remember that it took thousands of years to arrive at what you see today: one of the few examples of regularity and symmetry in nature.

The Rope Bridge

At Carrick-a-rede, a town near the Giant's Causeway, there is a good-sized island that stands about 100 feet out of the water. It's about as big as a football field, and there is a sheer drop to the water on every side. This island, which normally would be inaccessible to anyone but a rock-climber with a boat, is covered with thick grass that is as soft as a good mattress, and there is nothing on it but hills. You can only get to this island while the salmon are running, because at that time the local fishermen set up a rope bridge. The bridge, along with some other paraphernalia, helps them to set up their salmon nets.

The bridge is pretty shaky. Four big ropes run from terra firma to the island: two ropes serve as handrails and the other two hold up the thin sheets of plywood that you walk on. There are smaller ropes that keep the planks from flying off, and others that could catch your ankle if you decided to slip, so that you could conveniently hang upside-down until someone came to rescue you. And that is the whole arrangement.

As soon as the fishermen string up the bridge, tourists arrive and start trotting back and forth across it. The island is big enough that each one can find their own little spot. The wind blows hard - nearly hard enough to pull the hair off your head, but the effect is very romantic when you are staring out to sea.

Of course, when kids cross the bridge, they cannot resist the temptation to jump and make the thing flap every which way. They did this as I both came and went, and I was so angry that I thought it might be a good idea to smack one of them in the head just so I could quit thinking about it. I wasn't afraid: I was irritated because while the bridge was bucking, all I could do was hang on. There was no way to look around, to take in the scene, or really have any sort of experience at all other than the physical sensation of hanging by a rope over a chasm.

The English Notion of Driving

As we drove up the hill from the Rope Bridge parking lot, I was still calming myself, trying to not be angry about the teenagers on the bridge. At the top of the road I could see a driver waiting to enter the parking lot. Here is another idiot, I told myself, and asked Mywatt, "What's wrong with that man? There's plenty of room; why is he waiting like that?"

"Wave him on," she replied, and I waved "come ahead" to the guy. He seemed surprised, and still confused, but he drove ahead. Brother, I thought, some people just don't know how to drive. We came out of the driveway onto a long, sloping road, and saw a big tour bus ahead. He was still a ways off, and I had just barely registered that something was wrong about the way he was approaching... Mywatt said, "Kevin! You're on the wrong side of the road!"

Of course I remembered the "idiot" in the parking lot, and had to admit that perhaps he was not as lost and helpless as he seemed.

Oddly enough, this was a rare instance. I expected to forget much more often. However, each of us only forgot twice which side to drive on. After a short adjustment period, you feel quite natural at it. Yes, you feel quite natural, although driving this way is unnatural - against the laws of God and man - but you get used to it.

There are three difficulties in driving on the left:

The first is remembering to use your left hand to change gears.

The second is remembering to get in the car on the proper side. A lot of the time it looks as if the steering wheel was stolen. All throughout the trip we had this scene:

"Do you want to drive?"

"No."

"Then you have to get in on this side."

or:

"You drive. I want to rest."

"If you want to rest go over to that side."

The third is remembering who's driving the other cars. When you look up ahead, you get the eerie sensation that some cars have no drivers, and that others are driven by minors, because you are used to looking on the other side.

All in all, it's no big deal. It's just like rearranging your furniture: you catch yourself looking for socks in the stereo, because the bureau used to be there. But you only make that mistake a couple of times.

Oh, no - I take it back. There is a bigger problem, and one that we never entirely resolved. It is getting used to the dimensions of the car.

In most nations, you drive on the right side of the road, and you sit on the left side of the car. You can look down the left side of the car without any problem, and see just how close you are to anything on that side. The rest of the car sticks out to your right. You cannot really see where the other side of the car is, or how much room you have on that side, but you get used to estimating. Basically, you place the car with reference to your left shoulder.

In the English system, on the other hand, you suddenly have perfect knowledge about the right side of the car. And you are so used to the perfect control of your left side, that you feel, now I am in complete and perfect control; I know exactly where the car is placed.

But if you have a passenger, they will tell you that you are under a delusion.

"Oh, my god! you're going off the road! Watch out! Do you see? There's an old lady waiting to cross the street."

"I see her."

"Oh! You're lucky you didn't knock her down!"

"Don't exaggerate."

"I'm not exaggerating! I can see exactly where we are on this side!"

It doesn't matter who is driving. The passenger bites their tongue, squirms, closes their eyes, wonders if its better with the eyes open or shut, tries to keep from crying out or waving their arms, and so on. The passenger looks far off at scenery on the horizon and tries to be calm, but then a tree brushes the window, and it is obvious that the left tires are off the road. The driver laughs and doesn't believe it. And so it goes.

All things considered, if you are a creative driver, you will have no problem. If you have ever driven on the sidewalk, or across highway dividers, or gone down a one-way street the wrong way on purpose, you will have no problem driving on the left. My first ticket in America was for driving on the left. This, and the fact that I don't know my right from my left helped quite a bit.

In any case, as a driver you have nothing to worry about.

As a pedestrian, on the other hand, you have to be extra careful. You may think that you look both ways before you cross a street, but you may be wrong. Mywatt and I both have a habit of stepping into the street while we're looking if it's safe to cross. Unfortunately, we found that we always look right as we begin to cross, and a couple of times a car "suddenly" appeared behind us. One time Mywatt was almost a goner. You can't realize how ingrained some habits are until you have to change them. But even after the shock of being nearly run over, we still found it hard to remember to look left first.


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