I think I found my new favorite city! I just had the best weekend in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Most of what made it soo great is the lack of tourism that was there. Since there has been so much violence and conflict surrounding the area so recently it hasn't really come up as a tourist hot-spot yet. I was amazed at what a difference not being amongst tourists can be on a trip. You can get pictures at what I imagine will be tourist spots in the future without any people in them. I felt like I could appreciate the sites we saw at a deeper level because there were not people flashing their cameras off around me or obstructing my view. I think it is how true exploring and traveling should be. It was almost like I wasn't so much a tourist in some ways too. There aren't many places to shop for souvenirs, so in some ways I couldn't even be touristy if I wanted to! I think it will be sad when Belfast becomes a larger tourist spot. They have all these plans and investments in the works to make it touristy there building up to London's 2012 Olympic games, and I feel like it will be hard for people to get the type of experience I had after this happens. The individual experience will be gone.
By far my favorite part was going on a black taxi tour of the political murals that line areas in Loyalist and Republican sections. Our tour driver lives in one of the areas so he was able to answer all the questions we had (which was helpful for me since this will be what my dissertation topic is on). We were literally in areas that are still completely segregated by Catholic/Protestant loyalist/nationalist divisions. I asked if public works were even segregated and to my surprise the tour guide said yes! Catholic postal workers, trash collectors, etc. work in Catholic areas and Protestants in Protestant. Some of the murals were painted as early as seven months ago, and many of them commemorate those that killed the most or raised the most terror for the nationalist or loyalist cause. I was shocked to hear that one mural depicted a "soldier" who amongst his shooting record had killed a girl less than ten years old. There were all these flowers at the bottom of the mural too, like he was mourned. It goes to show how hatred can continue when such people are idolized for fighting for a cause. The people in Northern Ireland are even now still building walls between the segregated areas to keep people from throwing things at each other, including pike bombs. We passed through a gate that is locked at nightfall because teenagers from opposite sides will stand there and jeer at one another, which often escalates to more violent actions. I could tell that some parts of the tour were rehearsed speech, but it's hard to think it was all lies or exaggerations. We saw people just going along and doing their grocery shopping and errands around these murals that show such drastic messages. I couldn't believe that people go about their daily lives around these things. There was even an international mural wall where people painted about international conflicts. There were two about the US and the Bush Administration, one depicted how the War in Iraq and Afghanistan were all about oil and the other was about how harsh US trade practices are on Cuba. Seeing peoples opinions of the US in art like that makes me realize how much actions made by leaders I didn't even vote for reflect upon me as an American in a foreign country. Perceptions breed hate in some ways I guess...
I saw Belfast as a city of contrast. There were the political murals telling stories of hate and violence and then there were things like the Titanic shipyards and Giant's Causeway (on the northern coast of Northern Ireland) that showed triumph and natural beauty. People in Belfast even joke that when the Titanic left their harbor there was nothing wrong with it then, and it was the English captain that drove it into the iceberg. But it is this area that makes me see Belfast as a city of contrast. It was able to create such amazing things as some of the first major steam ships, but at the same time is tarnished by a history of hate and violence. I can see the Titanic area as becoming this huge tourist trap. When we were there I was literally walking along shipyards and fences and mud. It was sooo much better that way!! I felt like I almost went back in time and got to experience where the ship was let go the way it was let go 80 some years ago. Now there are plans to build large modern buildings and museums in the area, and I just think that will take away from the truly unique experience I got when I saw the area. Then there is Giant's Causeway, which is known in some circles as the eighth wonder of the world. It is this large rock formation up on the northern coast of Northern Ireland that was formed by slow cooling lava. Most of the rocks are octagonal in shape and make quite an interesting display. The water runs up right to the edge and we were able to walk along the rocks then up the hill to see the views from above. I can't even describe this enough to do it justice. The sun set while we were there, which took an amazing view to an unforgettable one! It's good to think that it will be hard for tourism to spoil this area, because what makes it such a tourist attraction is the natural beauty in the area.
One of my most memorable experiences in Belfast was running around in a fountain. For the first time on this trip I felt like I was a kid again! I wasn't thinking about law school applications or my dissertation paper or where I was going to work when I get back to Boston; I was just running through a fountain! I forget how important it is to set aside stresses and just have fun. It's been hard with how intense this program is sometimes. I don't feel like free time comes easily.
Now that I'm back in reality though I have to get back to work... bah humbug!