Vagabond Tales: The Rewarding Adventures Of ‘Genealogy Tourism’

The house pictured above is a very drab house. It’s cold. It’s empty. And no one has lived in it for over 120 years.

Sure, there is a fresh layer of green paint on the door, but that was put there by the neighbors. Why they did that I’m not sure, because this house was abandoned long ago.

This house isn’t anything famous, and it isn’t in a town you’ve ever heard of. This house is in Lecanvy, Ireland, a one-pub village at the base of Croagh Patrick Mountain, 3 1/2 hours from the festive streets of Dublin.

Nevertheless, this house is very important to me, because this was my great-great-grandmother’s house, a woman who’s family one day just decided to leave it all behind and up and leave for America.

Perhaps it’s the rise in popularity of websites such as ancestry.com, but for some reason “genealogy tourism” seems to be on the rise in the world’s most famous “nation of immigrants,” the United States of America. Despite the fact that millions of families took the plunge to move to a foreign land, their children many years down the road have not relinquished the curiosity to learn more about where it is they came from.

I hunted down this house because I happened to be in town, but for many travelers this form of “reverse immigration” seems to be a sector of the travel market that’s broadening in scope.During a recent business breakfast in Hawaii, the conversation – as it frequently does with travel writers – turned to the topic of international exploits. The associate with whom I was sharing eggs and potatoes then decided to regale me with a tale from her recent trip to Sicily.

“I went there,” she explained, “to search for my family. I knew the town they were from, I hoped that some remained, but I had no contacts and really was just hoping for the best.”

Quaffing deeply from a heavily-sugared coffee you could tell from her raised eyebrows that the best part of the story was yet to come.

“For four days I had no luck. Then, on the fifth day, walking through the downtown square I saw a woman who may as well have been my twin. She noticed it too, apparently, as we awkwardly stopped to simply stare at each other. Between her basic English and my poor Italian, we nevertheless determined that she was my second cousin. Word went out amongst her Italian family, and the next weekend we had a gathering of over 50 family members who came from all corners of the country to meet their new family member. It brought me to tears.”

While the Hollywood-script is pulled straight from a Lifetime movie, by virtue of her testimony I guess scenes like this really do happen. Or, on a more commonplace family hunt, what can also happen is you find yourself creeping through an abandoned driveway in the rural hamlets of western Ireland, shivering and wet and failing to encounter any family members at all because they all up and left over a century ago – not exactly as rewarding.

Still, to be able to travel to a foreign land and peer into the history of yourself is a feeling far more rewarding than sharing a famous sight with hundreds of other tourists. Having found this old house (with help from my genealogy-loving aunt), even experiencing this cold moment in the driveway was good enough for me.

That was, until, I knocked on the door of Mr. O’Malley.

Although the occupants of my family’s house – the McEntee’s – had obviously picked up and left some time ago, the manicured lawn of their neighbor, Mr. O’Malley, was evidence that some had opted to stay right here in Ireland.

Going for broke, I figured that if anyone would know anything about the details of my Irish family I figured it may as well be the neighbors. I opened the creaky gate, inhaled deeply, and eventually I rapped three times on the bright red door.

No answer.

Damn.

Just as I turned to leave it all behind, the bright red door creaked slowly open to the warmth of a cheery old man.

“Allo!” came the Irish brogue, “are ya lost?”

“Umm, no. Actually … this is really strange, but I think my family used to live right next door to you.”

With a pair of squinty eyes and sporting a classic brown cardigan, Mr. O’Malley was wracked with confusion. Who is this weirdly-accented stranger standing on my lawn?

“McEntee was their name” I offered. “Name was McEntee.”

With a delayed flip of the switch an air of recognition coasted across the wrinkles of his face.

“Ah yes,” he stammered. “McEntee.”

“So you know them?” chimed in my sister, a red-haired, fair-skinned, reverse immigrant herself who now lives in the suburbs of Dublin.

Boats near Westport Ireland“No,” he confided. “I don’t. But when I was a boy in this same house me grandfather told me of the McEntee family who up and left for America. Sailed from the old dock down by the Westport harbor they did. Come inside, let’s make some tea.”

And so it was. I never got to bump into a long lost family member, but I somehow found myself looking at old photographs in the living of room of Mr. O’Malley’s home, a cup of warm tea staving off the chill from the damp outdoors.

We later would stop near Westport harbor, imaging what it would have been like to leave your simple plot of land in Lecanvy behind, sailing westward into the setting sun towards a place you knew otherwise so little about.

Sometimes we travel to learn more about the world, and other times simply to learn more about ourselves. In this case it’s to learn about exactly where we come from, and to walk in the upper branches of the extended family tree.

Have you ever engaged in any genealogy tourism, and if so, were there any great tales of discovery to be told?

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Vagabond Tales: Averting Death In A French Field

You don’t need to have traveled to France to be familiar with the French concept of laissez-faire.

A phrase, which translates to “let it be” amongst economic scholars, references the way in which governments should, in theory, let an economy take care of itself. “Hands off,” essentially.

Despite being an academic term rooted in economics, many travelers to France might argue that this laissez-faire mentality has permeated everyday French culture in that sometimes it seems the French people simply can’t be bothered with petty concerns.

“Do what you want, I don’t care, it will take care of itself.” That sort of feeling.

Often times American travelers, in turn, wrongly label this as laziness. While the French versus American culture debate will have to wait for a different day, there simply are aspects of French culture that Americans will never understand.

Of course, there are also things that us Americans do that the French view as curious and weird. For example, many French people I know find it inconceivably odd how casually American’s drop the word “love” (as in “OMG I love U” to a casual acquaintance or saying how you “love” someone’s new shirt).

Regardless, I, for one, am a fan of the French laissez-faire. One place I often notice this “couldn’t care less” mentality is whenever I am wine tasting in France. Unlike California’s Napa Valley where wineries have the audacity to ask for $20/person for a tasting, many times at French vineyards there isn’t even a tasting fee at all.On at least four separate occasions I have called into a rural French vineyard where the tasting room attendant had to come in from the fields to offer us a sample of their recent vintages. Despite the obvious added effort of catering to us, the mentality surrounding the free tasting was always the same:

“If you like my wine, you buy it, if you don’t, then leave. I don’t care.”

While this is all well and good with relation to wine tasting, I didn’t realize that this same mentality also applied to wildfires, namely in that they, too, should just take care of themselves. Though I’m sure this is not the actual case with all French wildfires, it sure seemed to be the case one April outside the southern city of Nîmes.

Cruising the rural hinterlands in an aging, red, four-door sedan, the vineyards and fields streaked by against a hazy blue sky as my wife, her expat friend whose car we were driving, and I meandered our way across the southern French countryside.

Not having passed another vehicle for at least 15 minutes, the emptiness of the two-lane road was a welcome relief from the congested and narrow streets of nearby Nîmes. The sun was shining, two bottles of red had already been acquired for evening consumption, and what I can assume were French road trip tunes casually streamed from the stereo.

Life, it seemed, was pretty darn good.

That was, of course, until we happened upon what appeared to be a small wildfire. Burning off to the right of the road, brisk winds whipped the flames into a choking and thick gray smoke. Nevertheless, despite the visible flames on the roadside the smoke appeared to stretch only for 10 yards or so.

Not really sure what to make of the fire burning uncontrolled and unnoticed in the roadside ditch, the decision was made to simply keep driving and get past it before things got out of control.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

Having crawled at 10 mph through the beginnings of the smoke the visibility was suddenly reduced to zero. Without the ability to even see the hood of the car it was impossible to tell if we were driving into oncoming traffic, off the side of the road, or directly into some oncoming flames. A brisk crack to the right side of the road quickly answered the question for us: we had driven into the flames and they were about three feet from the car.

Quick decision. What do you do? Do you:

A: Keep driving
B: Reverse
C: Act like a fool and jump out of the car without your shoes and leave the car to burn, yourself choking violently from the heavy smoke inhalation.

After obviously choosing option C, (I was forced to jump out the back window due to the rear door not working any more), three road-trippers, who 30 seconds ago were on a casual drive, now found themselves standing in an empty French field having parked their car directly in the middle of a fire.

With feet aching from walking barefoot on the hard, plowed earth of the field, my thoughts drifted to whether or not the tires might be melting. I couldn’t tell, of course, because the car was completely consumed by the smoke.

In a moment of snap decision it was decided that I couldn’t just let my friend’s car burn. Grabbing the keys from her I decided I would run down through the field and approach the car from upwind so as to avoid the prolonged smoke inhalation. One hundred yards down the field, however, I encountered a huge irrigation ditch and was forced to turn around.

Just to complicate matters, with the car completely invisible behind the curtain of gray smoke, I turned back to see an enormous agriculture truck driving down the highway in the same lane our car was in – increasing in speed in an apparent effort to shoot through the smoke.

Knowing there was a two-ton metal obstacle in the middle of the smoke, which they couldn’t see, I again took off running across the plowed earth, this time waving my hands and screaming anything and everything that might possibly get the truck’s attention.

Luckily, they saw me and stopped just short of the increasing smoke screen. Amazingly, these words managed to come out of my mouth.

Il y a une voiture à l’intérieur de la fumée!

Whoa. I speak French. Thanks Rosetta Stone!

With the truck drivers now aware that there was a car in the middle of the smoke, they acted in a much more rational manner than we originally did. They rolled up their windows, drove slowly through the smoke (managing to not hit our car, which may or may not have melted tires), and safely emerged on the other side.

Following their lead I raced barefoot and shirtless over the hot asphalt, my T-shirt covering my nose and mouth in the hope I wouldn’t inhale multiple plumes of smoke. I opened the driver’s side door, found that the engine still started, and slowly rolled the car forward on tires, which thankfully had not yet melted.

The entire ordeal took no more than five minutes, but for some reason I felt like we had cheated death at least three times.

With the girls having managed to navigate a way around the irrigation ditch on the far side of the field, we piled everyone back in the sedan, snapped a quick photo to document the moment, and continued on to the nearest village a bit shaken but happy to be on the road again.

Pulling into the first winery that we saw, I alerted the tasting room girl that about three kilometers down the road there was a fire burning in a field with nobody there to put it out.

“Hmm,” she shrugged with a slight glance to the horizon.

“Would you like to try some of the white? I am sure someone will take care of it soon.”

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Vagabond Tales: The strange food of Vietnam

Apparently, there are no sharks left in Vietnam.

This is not a scientific fact. It’s based solely upon the opinion of my dive instructor in Nha Trang, a trendy resort town in southern Vietnam. While you may initially think this is a good thing, the sad reality is that sharks are one of the most threatened animals in the undersea environment and the vast majority pose no threat to humans whatsoever.

The instructor claimed he hadn’t seen a shark underwater in over 8 years, a fact which led me to speculate as to why. Was the water warmer? Had their food moved further offshore? Had he just not been looking?

The answer, it would turn out, wasn’t as much of a mystery as I was making it out to be.
“Because we eat them all” he nonchalantly mused. “Vietnam, Korea, China, eat all the shark. No more shark.”

While I knew that shark fin soup was a much sought after dish in the Far East, I didn’t think it had reached such dire levels where a trained professional who goes into the water actually looking for them hadn’t encountered one in nearly a decade.His answer did nothing to surprise me, however, as the Vietnamese are renowned for eating absolutely anything; sharks, dogs, birds, snakes, cats, starfish-it’s all just food. Of the Vietnamese, a Cambodian friend of mine once quipped that “the only thing with two legs they don’t eat is a human, and the only thing with four legs they don’t eat is a table.”

I ruminated over this as I examined an oversized glass vase in the dive shop which had been stuffed with dead snakes and black ravens. A curious sight to be sure, the dead animals were soaking in a brackish looking liquid I was informed was rice wine, the final product of which was meant to be an aphrodisiac so potent it aroused women to uncontrollable levels and kept men “strong” all throughout the night. Much of this information was gleaned from an elderly Vietnamese woman communicating solely in hand gestures, a somewhat awkward state of affairs concerning the subject matter.

Regardless, later in the day as I flopped backwards overboard at the outset of my dive, I soon would realize that the Vietnamese don’t just eat anything, but they also will eat anywhere.
As I mentioned in my Vagabond Tales column on roasting marshmallows over Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya, one of my favorite aspects of global travel is the refreshing lack of liability found in many parts of the globe. This is why it came as no surprise when 15 minutes into the dive we found ourselves inside of a cave 60 feet below the surface, a place where most US based operators would never take beginner divers (though I am a PADI Divemaster, my two mates from New Zealand were only on their second dive ever).

For those of you who have read my blogger profile here on Gadling, you have an idea of what happens next. Navigating his way through the cave with four hesitant divers in tow, a large shellfish suddenly caught the eye of the instructor. Seeing as this is Vietnam and you eat whatever you can find, it obviously meant this was feeding time.

Giving us the signal for “stop and wait”, our instructor hastily grabbed a medium-sized stone from the sand bottom and crushed the mollusk in a Neanderthal-esque display of force. Then, like an orangutan sharing its meal at the zoo, he divvied up the flimsy white meat and offered us all to have a taste, which is how we found ourselves eating raw shellfish, underwater, in a cave, in southern Vietnam.

To answer the question of anyone paying attention, yes, eating underwater is hard, but it’s not impossible. You take a deep breath in, remove your regulator (which is never done outside of the skills test when you first get certified), place the food into your mouth, reinsert the regulator, and attempt to breathe and chew at the same time.

So yes, there are no more sharks in Vietnam, some Vietnamese eat dogs, and if they find a shellfish underwater, there’s a good chance they’ll eat that too.

**Disclaimer: The author does not condone multiple elements of this story, including, but not limited to, tampering with sea life while diving, attempting to eat underwater, removing your regulator under any circumstances, fermenting dead ravens to make sex juice, embarking on a $15 scuba dive in the first place, or discussing politics with a Vietnamese man who’s been drinking, which although it’s not included in this tale, simply serves as a general warning**

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