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Ireland (Part 4), Roundabouts and People

October 16, 2012

The friend with whom I traveled announced that she would drive; she had been in Ireland before and knew the road. Upon arrival, however, she told me that I was in charge of navigating. That was a shock. I disliked navigating. I was terrible at it, made worse by my not-so-keen interest in reading maps. It was my mistake to have expected that she was a driver with excellent command of direction and familiarity with the Irish roads and that I would be free to enjoy whatever came into my view in a land where I was traveling for the first time.

Shannon Airport

Not long after we took off for the Dingle Peninsula from Shannon airport, we came to what looked like a circle–but not exactly. “That’s roundabout. They will be everywhere we drive!” said my friend. Sure enough, we came to many a roundabout, which threw me off. It would have been challenging enough for me to deal with signal-controlled junctions.  But the roundabouts? The very unfamiliarity threatened me. (The closest thing I’d encountered was Dupont Circle, near our last residence in D.C.).

Sure, I learned soon enough that a roundabout, a type of circular intersection, is designed to slow down traffic and help it to flow almost continuously in one direction around a central island, to several exits. In a nutshell, roundabouts are supposed to be safer and more efficient, with added features such as allowing U-turns within the normal flow of traffic, and generally reducing congestion and delays, as cars are not expected to make complete stops. But coping with maps and the heavy and unwelcome task of navigating, I could not even tell clearly what is right, left and straight at the roundabouts!

I was fearful that the roundabouts and navigating would spoil my long-awaited trip to Ireland, and that I would come back with negative feelings about the land from which Don’s ancestors migrated to the United States. I know it’s stupid, but I literally felt that roundabouts sent strangers to go round and round, and they were directly responsible for my getting lost. But the obstacles helped me to know Irish people better. Getting lost, I had to get out of the car everywhere and ask everybody directions.

No matter what time and where I grabbed a person or persons to ask for directions, none was annoyed.  Everyone’s eyes lit up, bright and clear, eager to steer a stranger in the right direction. At an abandoned parking place, I grabbed a young man for directions. After a few attempts to explain, he offered to ride the with us to put our car back on the track. Watching the young man walk back in the direction from which we came, I felt home at a foreign land.

Once on what the Irish call a “motorway,” I had my friend stop our car behind a “garda” car. Out to the patrol car, standing in the rain, I knocked at the car window. A female garda and male garda, who looked like sister and brother, rolled down their window and turned their heads to me with warm smiles. They led us to a spot where we could not possibly get lost.

Granted, there were times when it might have been better if they simply said, “I don’t know,” but none did. In their eagerness to help, wrong directions were given, but I will take their kindness anytime over “correct” directions. I knew that Ireland is a land of poets, priests, seers and writers, but those on the streets, motorways and in parking lots touched my heart, if not with artistic inspiration, then with human spirit, alive and well.

So I came back from Ireland with the feeling that it is the land of people who are kind and generous. Through famine and bounty, history of defeats and triumphs, blood and tears mixed through oppression and struggle, there is still laughter and kindness to warm the heart of a stranger. Right now, even the roundabouts do not feel bad. Actually, I can see their merits over the traffic junctions with stop signs and lights.

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