I watched as a head disappeared into the crater beside the mound of earth. Out of the deep, another head bobbed slowly, struggling with a heavy lifeless load cloaked in a grass tarp. A rush of thoughts gripped me as the driver closed the door beside me. I squeezed my eyes shut while I tried to put the thought of what I’d just seen out of my mind.
The hull shuddered as the ferry pulled away from the old ports of Belfast. The waves were lapping against the windows below me on the foot passenger deck. The ship was clean, newly modern and rather spacious. I was able to claim a private set of chairs next to a window – luckily, I’ve never been one to succumb to sea sickness. It was a perfect setting to be alone and process the cluster of thoughts from the previous evening.
It’s early in the morning. My thoughts weigh heavy on my soul. Spooky and ominous feelings stalked me since my tour through Northern Ireland’s capital city.
My original plan was to arrive in the city twelve hours earlier to have a full day and night to explore; to see what Belfast had to offer for my travel-hungry appetite. I remembered the religious terrorist wars of the 90’s from my childhood, and was curious to see if traces still remained of those troubled times.
The morning was brilliantly vibrant – a beautiful shade of blue with a slight cloudy morning mist hovering in the distance just above the rolling hills of Scotland’s southern coast.Unfortunately, a productive night of drinking and live Celtic music with newfound friends (from Germany & Switzerland) stalled my arrival yesterday. I was staying at the Allie River hostel in the timid musical town of Doolin, Ireland.
With the sun starting to set, I realized I’d wasted an entire day and wouldn’t be able to experience Belfast at all. I felt a little depressed, honestly. During the three hour train ride from Dublin, I could only think about how I wouldn’t have time to see Bushmills, the Carrick-a-Rede and the Giants Causeway – well, in the middle of recovering from my pub night festivities.
My travels tend to focus on the more beautiful, scenic areas of the world – travel photography currently dominates my locales of choice. But I love experiencing a troubled past, still hemorrhaging from an eclectic mix of excitement and new life – moving forward past the strife-ridden cultures of decades ago.
Bounding off the train, I eagerly flagged down a taxi. It was about 19:00 and I knew daylight was escaping me. When the train was coming into the station, I settled on a game plan – waving madly at the first taxi I found. Luckily, I immediately found just the right guy for the job. I wanted to see war murals and hear the stories; I wanted to experience what few visitors have the cultural insight to add to their itinerary. I wanted to be a guest among the locals; to understand the origin and history. Anyone can take the typical war mural tours, but I wanted to see the real sorrows of Belfast.
I decided to pay the driver to show me around and to narrate the stories – I didn’t know if this guy would really be able to shed light on the areas I sought, but it was my only option at this point.
The driver was actually quite enthusiastic and knowledgeable – even though the subject matter was grim, it was an enjoyable journey. The cabbie was a true local who grew up in the city, lived alongside the mayhem of the past few decades. He talked at length about the Protestant and Catholic radical wars. He had grown up Catholic, but secretly had Protestant friends. He drove me through back alleys and small residential areas – where nearly every house was covered in the famous Belfast murals.
I had just come from backpacking around Ireland, the land of the nicest people on earth – a worthy reputation, by the way – and it was a strange change to be in a British colonial environment. It reeked of lingering terrorist conquest – with the intentions of moving forward, as it was their only option. Even the newly-regenerated areas of Belfast spoke of its eerie past (ranging mere decades beforehand).
He detailed the historical milestones as we walked along the peace lines. “The gates would be closed every evening. It wasn’t uncommon to see balls of fire flying over the separation walls. The radicals would load glass milk jugs with petrol and sugar.” A sticky bomb, he called it. “It would explode and shoot sticky, burning hell to all within range.”
A heavier jolt woke me from the thought coma I was enraptured with. The crowd assembled to the lower deck; it was that time. I began shuffling through the line and down to the concrete dock. Brisk air permeated with dewy sea water entranced me. A true feeling of freedom enriched the spring in my step. I’m on top of the world I thought, smiling to myself.
No railings or barriers separated me from simply diving into Loch Ryan – I’m seriously considering a swim, to embrace my newfound overwhelming feeling of freedom.
It would be ridiculously hard to get back out of the water, I told myself – and it’s a cold April day in Scotland. And I have cute, unknowingly innocent Scottish girls to impress. A cold wee lad won’t impress anyone, I snorted childishly to myself.
Walking into the Stena port building, my only exit, and searched for a taxi. My next destination is another train station, which will take me to Edinburgh. The station is over seven miles away – I’m always up for a good walk and trot, but not seven miles. I mean, really? I secretly take a bit of pride in my beer-grown belly – thankyouverymuch.
“Excuse me, what’s the best way to get to Stranraer?” I ask the sole employee in the port building. A thick, high pitched Scottish accent came from the man, who was dressed in suited perfection. He replied in a condescending sing-song voice, “You can take the bus, but an American like yourself will prefer less work, yes? Shall I call you a taxicab then, eh?”
“The bus is perfectly fine,” I scowled.
“Hmm yes, there’s supposed to be a bus stop over the hill there,” he pointed behind himself. “Follow the road just over the hill I believe.”
A little taken aback by the octave and tone, I set off to look for the likely-mythical bus station over the hill. It was such a nice day, I seriously couldn’t complain. The further away from the station I ventured, I began to notice that I’m actually in a very remote part of Scotland. I’m surrounding by hilly farms on one side and wonderful, petite beach cottages on the other.
It’s impossible to visit Ireland and not come across loads of sheep. Many will just hang out in the middle of the road as if they have a death wish. The sheep here are much more brutal and tough-natured. I have no idea what kind of heinous breed these sheep are, but they are glaring at me with such ferocity – I’ll be honest, I’m a little wigged out. They have large swooping horns and are as dirty and matted as could be. Seriously, these f#&%ing things look like some sort of crazed beasts from animal horror movies.
In my head I’m always planning the next trip I wish to take and it’s hard to imagine how I’ll pay for all of them – my latest bright idea would of course be successful, right? I figured, anywhere I go, I’d be able to just simply hitchhike to save money. You see it all the time in the movies, so why not me?
Well, there’s no bus stop, of course – I guess I’ll give it a go. Throwing my fist in the air, I poke out my thumb while mustering up the most pathetically sad face I possible can. Before my flight over the pond, I finally gave into the hipster hype and read ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac. Word on the street is, he traveled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, solely by hitchhiking. Granted he did this in the late 1940’s, but I still believe it’s possible to travel this way. Unfortunately for me at this point, this is starting to become a worthless endeavor. My best result is a guy giving me an enthusiastic thumbs up wave type-of-thing.
I journey on, walking for the better part of an hour along the hilly coastal road. In the distance a small weathered beach cottage draws my eye from over the hill in front of me. Next to the cottage is an antiqued, well-manicured cemetery. A white, rusty pickup truck is parked on the road, half way on the overgrown berm. Approaching the truck, I wave and smile to show that I’m not serial killer – but if they only knew the sort of journalist monster I really am. First impressions from afar told me they were just simple folk – two gardeners, I assumed.
A man with a toothless grin (I’m talking a serious toothless grin – he maybe had a total of five teeth strewn randomly throughout his jaw line) spoke first as he opened the passenger side of the truck, “Who ya be lad?” Questioned the larger plump, unkempt man around the age of 45 by mere appearance. His cheeks were patched with red splotches and his head is bald and beading with sweat. I think years of being lax with care has aged the poor man, and if I had to make an accurate guess, I’d have said he’s probably mid-thirties actually.
“I’m Brandon,” I told him. “I’m backpacking, just off the ferry over there,” and I point behind me. “I’m trying to find my way to Stranraer for the train.”
He nodded vigorously and with a heavy Scottish accent, he explained that I had another hour’s walk ahead of me. I weighed my options and decided to have them call for a taxi.
We chitchatted as we waited. We discussed the States, and they asked where I was from and where I was heading. Just like majority of the normal folk that I meet throughout my travels, they – of course – have heard of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. I tested them about Ohio and they’ve heard of Cleveland, which fondly enough is only a couple hours from my hometown.
Enjoyable to talk with and all, I thought – but there’s something off about these two. Focusing their gaze behind me – over my shoulder – over and over. Locking eyes, nervously from time to time.
“Are you groundskeepers of the cottage and cemetery?” I ask, thinking this is the logical answer – with a truck bed full of tools, shovels and gardening instruments. From what I could see, they had a few tarps and some sod lying in the bed as well.
Strangely, the situation became tense. They glanced at each other and the man-of-few-words through our conversation thus far, shrugged me off and slowly said, “Eh, not exactly mate”. He ended the statement with a snare that broke into a quiet, malevolent snicker.
Taken aback, I smile and nod appropriately, as if it was nothing. I felt my first twinge of uneasiness since traveling abroad this time around – I mean, I’m in a strange European country over 3,600 miles from home; a remote area with no one around.
I decide to pretend all is well and I start to play with my phone and act like I’m looking through my itinerary or something of the sorts. Instead, I’m actually entering in all the details from this encounter, just in case something happened to me. If my phone and I were separated, there was at least a trace of information as to my whereabouts.
The two men got out of the truck cab and started rummaging through the contents of the bed, pulling a few shovels, hoes and the green grass-like tarp. They were about 50 yards from me when they began to dig at a place only two feet from a headstone in the far end of the cemetery.
Fifteen minutes went by, and I began to think there will never be a taxi cab to steal me away from these men. I glance away towards the shoreline, and catch a glimpse of evil from the corner of my eye. It’s one of those moments where goosebumps permeate your body and you’re terrified to catch a glimpse of what your conscious has already sensed. As I stood there, my gaze transfixed on the beauty of the waters, I forced myself to peer into the shadows that had crept from my sightline and into my heart. I shuddered at what I saw. And I shut my eyes, forcing out the horror that had become my reality.