J.D.’s Big Irish Adventure

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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.

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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.

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“Who do you think benefits from the gorse?” the driver asks. He gives us a hint. “Not humans.”

Silence.

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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Capture the Sun

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Newgrange, Ireland – May 2012

Nowhere has the green of Ireland been so conspicuous as on this hill overlooking the River Boyne Valley. The white quartz wall encircling the passage tomb of Newgrange has been the object of much controversy. It is one archeologist’s interpretation of how things must have looked. Some consider it one of the world’s worst archeological reconstructions.

Under this bright sunlight, it’s true that Newgrange seems too orderly, too white-picket-fence, to have been a place of mysterious neolithic rituals. It is older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Some have suggested that it was a cult of the dead. However, evidence points to an astronomical religion. A yearly ritualistic capturing of the sun on the winter solstice. My eyes come to rest on the kerbstone in front of the entrance. I’ve seen similar petroglyphs on my travels in the Pacific islands, though on a much more modest scale. I recognize this whorl of infinity.

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A young man with a head of copper hair and a twinkle in his blue eyes steps out of the entrance. He divides the tour into two groups. “I must warn you. If you are claustrophobic, you should not enter.” He takes the first group inside. A few minutes later, they reemerge, and now it’s our turn. Once again he warns us about claustrophobia. We file inside, ducking our heads to compensate for the low roof. Once inside, the guide gives a short talk about the center chamber and roof box. In the tiny chamber, his voice has a muffled quality. The faces around me hold respect, and even reverence. I think I’ll only go on tours with science nerds from now on.

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The finale of the short tour is a simulation of the solstice. We are nearly at the exact opposite time of the year, but, as the light is switched off and we are thrown into darkness and silence, the imagination takes over. A dim, watery light creeps into the chamber, hesitates for a few seconds, and then ebbs away. The light is switched back on. The guide apologizes that he must shoo us out. We are not allowed to savor the spell. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside per day, so visits inside the chamber are strictly timed.

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The two young American girls who sat across from me on the bus are sitting on the grass outside of the monument. “Do you know when we’re supposed to head back to the bus?” I ask them.

They blink in unison and shake their heads.

Feeling a little stupid, I shrug. “Okay, I guess I’ll just follow everyone else.”

They blink again and stare off as I walk away.

I had arrived early for the tour and was the first on board the bus. I was speaking to Mary, the tour guide, about my traumatic arrival in Ireland. The girls were the next to arrive. The tall, gaunt blonde boarded the bus first. Her shrill, strangled voice pierced the air. “Hi, Mary! It’s so nice to meet you!” A steady stream of pleasantries tumbled, with robotic precision, from her mouth. Her enthusiasm seemed desperate, almost hysterical. I winced and stared at her and the silent little brunette who sat next to her. In both their eyes, I saw the telltale flat, glassy-eyed look that’s typical of heavy anti-depressant use.

I know, from my own brief experience with happiness-in-a-pill, that stifled emotions do not equal bliss. However, on the darkest of days, everyone needs assurance that the sun has not slipped under the horizon, escaping the grasp forever.

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Sometimes Things Go Wrong

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Dublin, Ireland – May 2012

It is Sunday and Grafton Street is swarming. I hurry down the street, pausing for a few seconds to watch a traditional music group. After the events of last night, I had to force myself out of my room. I have no desire to be around people. However, the next couple of days will be spent in the Irish countryside, so this is my only full day to wander around Dublin.

I spent the entire night awake, unable to shake the distress of what had transpired on my arrival in Dublin. What happened was this: the driver of the Aircoach unloaded all of the luggage for a large group of women. Including my small carry on suitcase. The women were bewildered. They asked the driver where their hotel was. He gave them directions. I had an uneasy feeling that one of their suitcases looked like mine, but it was dark out. And surely the driver would have asked them to verify that they had the right luggage. Because that is his job.

When we got to my stop, my fears were confirmed. I asked the driver what he was going to do about it. He shrugged and said with a smirk, “We’re not responsible for lost or stolen luggage.”

We knew the name of their hotel. He had a smart phone. He would not call. Only when I caused a huge scene, did he call the manager on duty. The manager refused to call the hotel. He said that I would have to “wait and see if they give it back.”

I looked around at the faces of those who had gathered to watch my dismay. I saw smugness, glee, and disgust. Not one face regarded me with empathy. I took off running towards my B&B, which was staying open late for my arrival. I had a very strong feeling that those women would not give it back, either out of dishonesty or just plain cluelessness. The more time that passed, the less chance I had of getting it back.

The intern at the B&B found the hotel for me online. The manager at the hotel said that he’d call the women and ask them to leave the suitcase with him. The intern called a taxi for me, and off I went.

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The further I get away from Grafton Street, the quieter the streets become. I find myself at Fleet Street. It’s much more welcoming in the daylight. This is where the taxi driver left me off last night, because he didn’t know where the corner of Dame and George Streets was. He didn’t tell me this, of course. He took my money, pointed to a building, and took off. It was midnight on Saturday. I had never been to Dublin and I had no map. The streets were full of drunken revelers. At that point I knew better than to ask anyone for help.

I finally found a taxi driver who knew where Dame and George Streets were. I burst in through the front door of the hotel. I asked the night watchman if the women had brought down a suitcase. He shook his head. “But maybe you mean this,” he said. “I found this abandoned out by the front door.” He pulled my suitcase from behind the front desk. He shook his head. “It’s a real miracle that you’ve got it back, dear.”

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I lift my head and find that I’m now walking alongside the River Liffey. I quicken my pace in hopes of burning off some of the tension. I sweep my eyes over the buildings and streets. Dublin has a lot of personality. It’s too bad that I’m viewing it through tarnished eyes.

Sometimes things go wrong. After working for much of my adult life in the realm of travel/tourism customer service, I know that. Mistakes are made and sometimes employees have bad days. However, it used to be that the person at fault apologized and made an effort to fix the problem. In this case it would have taken so little time to do the right thing. Five minutes for the Aircoach manager to look up the number and call the hotel. The women could have uttered two sentences to the hotel reception: “We’ve taken this bag by mistake. Could you please call Aircoach?” But no one could be bothered.

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I shut off the dialogue in my brain and walk. I make a lap around Christ Church Cathedral and then head back towards Trinity College. Maybe if I do nothing but walk all day, I’ll finally be able to sleep.

The tension begins to ebb away as I cut through the grounds of Trinity College and make my way towards Merrion Square. Dark clouds have gathered. The streets are deserted. I pause to admire the clean lines of the Georgian architecture. Sometimes conformity can be soothing.

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I turn now to peer into Merrion Square. The cool, but balmy breeze has picked up. The path before me is overgrown. The air glows with the eerie green phosphorescence of late spring. A pleasant drowsiness takes hold. I want to step inside, but I hesitate. I know, from experience, of the dangers that can lurk in such verdant corners. And now I know that if such a danger is encountered, no one will come to my aid.

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