Belfast. I find myself in Northern Ireland, a place I have heard many things about. The politics. The conflict. The IRA. But first I stop at the TI and ask how to take the bus to my hostel. Finding your hostel and ditching your stuff is an endless repeating cycle while you’re backpacking. Every new city brings a new hostel, a new place to leave your collection of way too much stuff stored in a falling apart suitcase covered in duct tape, a new neighbourhood, a place to call home and get to know. Always the same, always different.
Here it doesn’t go smoothly. I was told which bus to take and vague directions but I can’t find it. I wander downtown Belfast near city hall glancing at bus signs with 50+ pounds in tow. Eventually I get lucky. The right bus. I take it for a while until the street signs seem to be telling me that I’m in the right area. I pull the string and hop off. I don’t know if I’m going to lose at this game of hot or cold.
I pull out my trusty map and try to find a street sign. No such luck. I continue walking and there’s one on one street but not the other. I am somewhere along a street in the neighbourhood I want to be in. I start wandering around looking lost and annoyed. Somebody runs into me and points me in the right direction. I am a block from my hostel. Mission accomplished.
The surrounding area is home to Queen’s University Belfast and is full of bars and coffee shops. I wander the campus and notice that a couple of the students have stickers on their laptops — usually a fairly typically if shortsighted and potentially grey adhesive glob inducing thing that students do — but this sticker was different. I later learn that it was the red hand of Ulster — often used as a symbol by unionist paramilitary groups.
I stop by the Ulster Museum where I am visit an exhibit about the troubles. It does a good job of representing both sides of the conflict, talking about major incidents and the peace process. It was the only thing I wanted to see there — after a while all museums blur and only things that you find really interesting are worth the time — so I turn and leave going backwards through the hallways that are meant to funnel me deeper into this place of learning. I walk past dinosaurs and plastic replicas of plants native to Northern Ireland.
Before I leave I find myself in the gift shop. As a kid I thought gift shops were a magical place filled with many wonders, I have since come to know them for what they usually are: a place filled with overpriced generic junk that is not worth spending the money on to take home to family members. Here I find a rare gem, a series of sketches of Belfast done by a local artist. They are beautiful. Some are of landmarks like the Ulster museum and the dock where the Titanic was built — I don’t recognize the latter at the time and simply think it’s a beautiful piece of art — and others are not. I picture them on a wall in a home I will own at some point in the distant future. I stand and stare at them for ages before talking myself out of buying them.
I continue to explore the city and have grown accustomed to the serious lack of street signs. I have a good sense of direction and can make my way around the area I’m staying in with relative ease. I wander and notice that this area of Belfast is really quite beautiful, exactly the type of place that a university student or twenty-something would like to live in, this is the U.K. after all.
The owner of my hostel — a wonderful and helpful individual — insists that we need to go on a black taxi tour of the city. I am not entirely sure what this entails but me and the Aussies I have befriended are up for it. We are shown around the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods that were the epicentre of the troubles. This is where people lived and died through all of this.
The taxis were invented by the Catholics as a way of keeping safe. Our taxi driver is a friendly man and a good guide. He tells us about stuff along the way and lets us take it all in. First we stop at the republican murals, then the Sinn Fein headquarters with a mural of Bobby Sands irreverently painted on the side and ads for all natural Irish bottled water posted in the window.
Now we go over to the other side where villains become heroes and more union jacks are flying in a square kilometre than all the rest of the U.K. Here murals are painted on the sides of houses instead of on fences. It is weird to think that people live on the other side of walls where the faces of militants are painted.
After this we visit the peace wall. It was made to keep the sides apart and to save lives. It is covered in graffiti and signatures scrawled by people from all over the world. This is neither sides land but instead somewhere in the middle.
That night we head out to a bar for some beer, another thing Ireland is known for. We meet a couple of Irish girls. One is nice, one is a little bit crazy and wearing a top that is lacking in material in certain crucial areas. We chat. Eventually they invite a couple of Irish guys to sit with us.
Unbeknownst to us our new Irish friends instantly get a read on one another’s religious and geographic roots. The one girl tells us that the guys are obviously Catholic and from a good part of town and it turns out she is right. The guys also figure out the religion of the girls right away.
The two girls take us on a tour of after hours Belfast and begin to get the impression that they have a different idea of what a good night out is and long to return to the pub from whence we came. We walk up streets I recognize from bus trips into downtown and find ourselves at city hall — across from the TI that I visited on my first day in Belfast — where the girls tell us their take on the city landmark.
We continue walking until we are in a back alley a few blocks away and are told how much cover is. I sigh internally and hand over ten pounds. The club is for all intents and purposes a club. There is bad music, dancing, shots and Irish people.
I chat with one of the guys about his plans for the future. He is 21. He speaks fluent french and wants to move to Paris.
As I walk back to my hostel with the Aussies I think about this city and the people that inhabit it. I am in the West, in Europe, in the U.K. and people here live just like everywhere else in the West yet there is the lingering sense of an age old conflict. Perhaps that is the political science major in me and the lens I put on this city but I can feel it restive in the air.
Ultimately as tourists we see what we see and make certain choices that shape how we perceive a certain place. You don’t really get to know what a city is like simply by spending a few days wandering around and visiting it’s landmarks. People surprise you and shape the views you form.
While on our black taxi tour our taxi driver tells us that Belfast was recently named one of the safest places in the world for tourists to visit. “We don’t kill tourists, just each other,” he jokes.
Some people here don’t care. The Good Friday Agreement was 12 years ago. They have moved on, learned to agree to disagree and worry about more important things like drinking beer. Others fly Union Jacks like they were on sale at Costco and have the red hand of Ulster out for all to see.
Our driver tells us that the reason there are so few street signs is because the IRA used to take them down or paint them black so British soldiers wouldn’t be able to make use of their maps and would get hopelessly lost while on assignments. He tells us that the U2 song “Where the Streets Have no Names” is about this city. This explains my confusion and frustration when I first arrived. I think to myself it’s been 12 years, it’s time to put the street signs back up.
Photo: Mural of Bobby Sands on the wall of Sinn Fein headquarters.