I’ve caught the first of 4 flights that I’ll be taking during this tour, and landed in Ireland 5 days ago now. While re-assembling my bike at the airport after a sleepless red-eye I came across a mechanical issue, forcing me to transport my back tire-less vehicle and all my luggage on a cart to the taxi loading zone, where a wonderful Irishwoman went from asking my where I was coming from and going to, to paying for me and all of my gear to go to a bike shop, and finally buying me lunch! Just the night before I’d had my host through Couchsurfing cancel because of some totally reasonable family issue, so I sat outside the luckily wi-fi connected bike shop and frantically sent out appeals for places to stay that evening and the next. A young physicist named Dan came through in the end, so I met him and his friends in the city and was treated to both my first and second pints of Guinness in Ireland.
I’ve said it before – hospitality is my home.
I’m writing now from a corner off Main St. in Larne, Northern Ireland. I’ll be catching a boat to Scotland in about 3 hours, and tonight I’ll ride as far to Edinburgh as I can before it gets dark. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep, and I feel completely unconcerned about this. It’s a traveling adaptation – a calmness borne of lifestyle and preparation. Hospitality is my home, but no less so than my body, bike and confidence.
Having been in Ireland and now the U.K. has been a little strange. I know I’m far from home, but the differences seem nominal at best. The money, the accent, the electrical outlets, and the side of the road I cycle on (I’ve messed this up a few times, and it was terrifying) each allude to the ocean I’ve crossed, but all in all this place feels pretty well like Canada. And as a matter of fact, home is not the only place Ireland (at least) reminds me of.
West Papua’s 50 year old conflict, which has been referred to as a slow-motion genocide, is written within the heart of a struggle for independence and freedom, a struggle which Ireland is no stranger to.
At this point, I have to confess to something.
When I made the first draft of the campaign poster, which has now been sent and printed and posted worldwide to promote Pedalling for Papua events, I topped it off with the phrase, ‘6 countries. 12000 kilometres. etc…’. Although this draft passed through many educated eyes, it wasn’t until my good friend Kat asked, “Aren’t you going through 7 countries?” that I realized my mistake: I’d lumped Ireland into the U.K. I’d like to chalk this up to geographical ignorance, but that might be too forgiving. When the aforementioned Irishwoman who paid for the taxi into town took me for lunch, I mentioned this story to her. She smiled, nodded, and politely said, “Best not to tell that story again. Just in case”.
Nationalism runs deep in Ireland, and here in Northern Ireland as well. Last night while walking home from a pub in Belfast, my host pointed out a paramilitary flag flying on top of a light post on the main street, flapping amongst regional, national and athletic banners that had been similarly hung (and, as he pointed out, not by the city). I’ve been asking as many people as I feel comfortable to about this, partially because I’m interested anyways, but mostly because of the important parallels I can see between independence and nationalism in Ireland, and merdeka and Papuan unity in West Papua. It’s a narrative thread that unifies within as much as it divides without, although certainly Ireland and West Papua are at remarkably different stages within this shared struggle. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, “The issue is settled”, but that bringing it up over pints in the pub could still get you kicked out and kicked in…the chest and face. Simply put, the politics are burning low but for some the personal grievances still run hot, manifested in football matches and citizen flag-raising’s over major city streets.
West Papua is at a very different, and I would argue earlier, stage within it’s peoples struggle for independence. The integration of the personal and the political within everyday people’s faith in and demand for independence is impossible not to see, if you look for it; impossible not to hear if you ask about it; impossible not to feel if you reach for it. I was only in West Papua for 5 weeks in 2011, but I had countless pointed conversations during that time, and whenever we arrived at the word ‘merdeka’, whether through them or me, it was seized on in no uncertain terms as the rallying cry of their people; the national anthem writ small; the first song they learned. Wielded skillfully by Papuan leaders like Arnold Ap and Theys Eluay, this word and all it carries has made a cultural nationhood and identity of two geopolitical provinces, or rather, many hundreds of diverse tribes and peoples.
I’ve kept it as no secret that I often struggle with finding my own deep connection to West Papua. Although I’ve made a story of it’s people my mission to tell, my mind wanders too often away from it. There are many reasons for this, I think, but at least one is cultural – I crave my own culture, and have always had a hard time integrating comfortably into others. Being in Ireland, however, with its negligible differences to my home and stark similarities to West Papua, is helpful in this way. When we can see ourselves in stories, they mean more to us. Maybe this is a human failing. Maybe this is my failing. But I consider it a truth nonetheless, and will hold onto it’s value, which to me is as another rung on the ladder towards honest, globalized empathy. For myself, at least.
I don’t think I need to argue the virtue of this pursuit, but a reminder of it’s implications as universal goal might be prudent.
Arnold Ap and Theys Eluay, mentioned above, share both iconic status in West Papua as well having been taken as political prisoners (although Theys’ imprisonment was, from certain point of view, very short). Recently, the Pedalling for Papua campaign made an important change. Since leaving Victoria, the campaign had been fundraising for Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, Canada’s only charity dedicated to working with groups on the ground in West Papua. Having now left North America, all funds donated to to the campaign will go to Papuans Behind Bars (PBB). PBB is a collective project initiated by Papuan civil society groups working together as the Civil Society Coalition to Uphold Law and Human Rights in Papua. It is a grassroots initiative and represents a broad collaboration between lawyers, human rights groups, activists, journalists and individuals in West Papua as well as Jakarta-based NGO’s and international solidarity groups. All funds donated to their work will be used to support the families of political prisoners, fund legal aid for the prisoners, and support the operational costs of Papuans Behind Bars. You can get more information and make a donation here.
So now it’s 2 hours until my ferry leaves, and I suppose I should go and get myself a ticket. I’ll be having my first overseas event tomorrow night in Edinburgh and I’ve got to find a comfortable patch of grass to rest on after getting off the boat. Still feel calm about that, although there’s an aura of excitement to it as well, as there is with everything these days. The story I’m privileged to tell, and the way in which I’ve so blessed to tell it, has made every day I’ve spent within these 3 countries an adventure, and I’ve got 4 more to go, each with it’s own story to add to this one.
And my own.