Dublin, Ireland – May 2012
I am alone at the bus stop and this makes me happy. It’s not yet high season, so maybe the bus won’t be full. I’ve only been on a tour bus once, more than a decade ago in Bavaria. It was nearly empty, but it was January. I pace back and forth as I wait. After a disastrous start to my Ireland trip, I’m looking forward to letting someone else navigate. A bus appears. As it looms closer, I notice that faces peer out of each window. It pulls up beside me. The door opens with a slight pneumatic whoosh. I take a deep breath and step inside.
“Hi, Beautiful!” the driver exclaims.
I flinch. “Hi?”
He asks where I’m from, says he’s thinking about having dental work in Budapest, and then he sends me to the only free pair of seats left. I make my way down the aisle, keeping my eyes averted from others. As the bus begins to move, the driver picks up his commentary where he left off. Trivia and history with a lot of banter thrown in. “Mina, Mina, Mina,” he sings to the middle-aged Indian woman sitting in the front seats with her husband. The quantity and velocity of the chatter is astounding. I peer over the seat. How is it possible for someone to talk that much? His mouth moves in the rear view mirror, enhancing the cartoonishness of his speech.
Then the familiar, dreaded tremor moves through me. Oh, no. This is NOT the time to have a panic attack. I put my fingers in my ears, take deep breaths, and beckon the thoughts that usually keep it at bay. It’s just a panic attack. Even if you have one, which you won’t, the worst thing that can happen is that you make him let you off by the side of the road. The others might remember you as that weird woman who freaked out. So what? You don’t know anyone. You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. After a few moments, I get a grip and tentatively remove my fingers from my ears. The verbal assault has not diminished. We make a photo stop at a pretty town on the sea, and then he drives us through an affluent neighborhood. This famous person lives here. That one there. Then we stop for coffee at a place that sells overpriced woolen goods.
I buy a chocolate muffin and an espresso. The driver invites me to sit with him, since I’m alone. He pulls a tiny pair of pink sunglasses out of his jacket. “My daughter’s,” he explains. He shows me her photo. He asks me if I’ve had a good time in Ireland. I tell him about what happened upon my arrival. He shakes his head in amazement. The Indian couple stops by to ask about the tour itinerary. “Those two are super rich,” the driver confides when they leave. “Rolling in it.”
“How do you know?” I frown. Nothing about their dress or demeanor implies ostentation.
He shrugs. “All those Indian people are nowadays. I suppose I shouldn’t be so flirty with his wife, but whatever.”
A middle-aged woman approaches the table. She stares at the driver as if waiting for instructions.
“You cold?” the driver asks her. “Here, take my fleece.”
She puts it on, zips it up, and buries her nose deep inside. Her flat brown gaze slithers over him. She stands there until her husband calls her into the shop.
“Horny French woman in her forties,” the driver says. “She could do some damage.” He rises with a haughty flick of his head and strides out the door.
Back on the road. We stop to pick up a couple of women at the Ritz Carlton. A soft-spoken, middle-aged gentleman from Australia is moved next to me. Then, finally, we head into bogland. This place was in some movie that every once else seems to know. A group of young girls from Belgium start giggling amongst themselves. The driver adopts an Inspector Clouseau voice, “Hehehe. Does your dog bite?” I put my head down and snicker. No one else seems to get the joke. The girls fall silent and look at him with blank expressions. The driver continues his relentless monologue. The subject turns to flora. Gorse. So much to know about gorse! The bus meanders the winding Wicklow Mountain roads. The scenery turns desolate.
“Who do you think benefits from the gorse?” the driver asks. He gives us a hint. “Not humans.”
His voice takes on the patronizing tone of a Kindergarten teacher. “This trip is what you make it.” He asks again and again. “Who benefits from the gorse?” His voice becomes goading. His mouth curls into a sneer in the rear view mirror.
Suddenly, a light flashes in my mind. I know the answer! I lean into the aisle and shout, “You are, because you can talk about it for twenty minutes!”
A couple of seconds of dead silence, and then the entire bus erupts into laughter. Vigorous laughter that persists. I peer over the seat. I can tell from the look on the driver’s face that this is not the correct answer.
He composes himself and spits out. “Deer. It’s the deer.” Then grudging admiration creeps into his voice. “Jules.”
At Lough Tay, we are allowed a few minutes to take photos. I wait until the others get off the bus and then I follow. I pause by the driver. “Uh, I didn’t mean–.”
He bares his teeth in a smile. “It’s okay, baby. Heckle me.”
I exchange a few words with others as I snap photos of Lough Tay. A few look at me and smile. All of them are traveling in couples, except for three of us. As we drive to the lunch place, another voice arises. When asked why he didn’t get off the bus, an elderly American gentleman rants about how he’s only here because his wife made him come. He’s got metal knees, a bad back, etc. We learn about his list of ailments in detail.
Lunch is a cafeteria style affair. I observe the others as we shuffle forward in line with bovine resignation. A middle-aged woman adorned in gold sweeps her eyes over me from head to toe and back. She wrinkles her nose. I catch her gaze and hold it. My response is a snort of laughter. She flinches and looks away, swaying a bit as she moves forward. After I have my lunch on a tray, I scan the restaurant for an empty seat. I suppose I could easily revert to high school insecurities of yore. But that would require that I give a rip. I ask a group if I could sit with them. They nod with enthusiasm. I plunk my tray down. They invite me into their conversation. The gentlemen are traveling together. One is a figure skating judge, the other teaches high school drama. The woman is in Dublin on business. All of them are Americans. I tell them about my traumatic arrival in Dublin. Their eyes widen when I tell them that I visited Serbia last month, and that I can’t remember when I last spoke to Americans. It is a comfortable conversation. We lose track of time and get scolded by the driver for being late to the bus.
The last stop of the day is at Glendalough. As the others gather round the driver, I step aside to take photos.
“Jules! You’ll have time to do that afterwards. Please listen!” I sigh, lower my camera, and adopt a fascinated expression. After traveling to so many places and hearing so many legends, I just don’t have room for it anymore. I’m here for the scenery. The story ends and the group breaks up. The whiny American man’s wife searches through the grass for a four-leafed clover. Her lonely enthusiasm saddens me.
Photos taken, I start up the path towards the lakes and the final meeting point. The Americans I sat with at lunch wait for me to catch up with them. The men gossip about the other passengers. The Ritz Carlton ladies look miserable. The driver is obnoxious and they’re happy I let him have it. There are harsh words about the old American stick in the mud.
“I kind of feel sorry for him,” I say. “It can’t be easy getting around when you’re ill. Not everyone has the ability to step outside the bubble. As least he made the effort to come here.”
The figure skating judge rolls his eyes. “Well, Ireland is a good starter trip.” He shoots me a conspiratorial look.
Years ago, I might have taken advantage of this opportunity to puff up my chest and proclaim with a pompous sniff, I’m a traveler, not a tourist. However, that youthful arrogance vanished somewhere along the way. We’re all both traveler and tourist. That old man has been pushed far out of his comfort zone, and, while it’s laughable to us, I now realize that so have I. Just as far as he has. I’ve made the best of it, that’s all. The rigid schedule. Plodding obediently behind a leader from one point to the next. Listening to well-worn anecdotes. Being social. No, this is not something I’d like to do again, but I’m glad I did it.
As we stroll along the path, the wind picks up and drizzle pelts us. We quicken our pace to the parking lot where the bus awaits.