Monday, August 22, 2005

Rain, Whiskey, Cars, Condoms

August 17 - Portrush, Northern Ireland
First let me take my drenched shoes off. Its still raining here in Portrush, Northern Ireland on the Emerald Isle’s north coast. I’m settled into a pleasant malaise and the weather suits my mood. If last week was marked by gaining no joy from things that should be pleasurable, then this week is about enjoying things that should cause bother.

The rain oscillated between mist and shower this afternoon. I was in Bushmills, where they give you a glass of whiskey after you’ve toured their distillery. It was something to take a look at after walking around the Giant’s Causeway just down the road. The whiskey glass emptied at 1:30pm and the next bus back down the road to Portrush would come by at 5:20pm. I decided I’d take a look at the rest of Bushmills, maybe stop into a café, send some e-mails from an internet shop, and look around the town. After 20 minutes it became clear there wasn’t much of a town, nevermind an internet shop. The bus was still more than three hours away.

It seemed like a good idea to hitchhike back to Portrush so I fired up my Ipod to the Whitechoclatespaceegg album and stood outside the Bushmills elementary school where A2 heads off to Portrush. The funny thing about hitchhiking in the rain is watching the cars go by. Most people look the other way, as if they don’t notice you’re there. This is probably what we all do when we see homeless people on the street. When someone acknowledges you, it is always from a full car. The father of the group gestures through the windshield that all the seats are taken, shrugging his shoulders guiltlessly. The poor souls with empty cars just have to look away. After a while this provides a perverse amusement because the folks behind the windshield wipers are clearly more uncomfortable about the whole thing then me under my trusty Patagonia rain jacket.

It’s always hard to know when to give up when you’re hitchhiking in the rain. I got some indication it might be a doomed effort by a trio of drivers who made a pointing gesture as they passed, seemingly indicating I should wait somewhere else but maybe using some Irish hitchhiking sign-language for “Sorry, you poor chump.”

After a half hour I decided I’d head into town as soon a certain song came on. I had already noticed how many compact cars here are red, I’d already smiled at the thought that the passing Porsche might stop for me, and decided that some of the girls who work in town must be driving home soon. I had decided the passing black Audi would be a nice choice for a chariot home.

Then the black Audi stopped and the steel fitter who drove it brought me five miles down the road to Portrush and wished me well.

In the evening I was hungry so I went to Marino’s which passes as a supermarket. Cooking for one mouth is a challenge, but Marino’s has a solution. In the sparse cooler are a few stacks of Microwave dinners. Chicken Madras for 2.89 pounds seemed like a fair choice. I paced around the store feeling somehow uncomfortable. Finally I grabbed the plastic tray of fake Indian food and headed for the check-out register. I felt like I should buy something else just cause. It was like buying condoms, you want to pad your basket with gum or contact solution or dental floss just so they know there’s more to you than that one thing. Because you know they can picture you using that one item in your basket. You know they can see you alone at the table, jabbing at your steaming soggy rice. You want to tell them you don’t do this often, just tonight and last night. Tomorrow you’ll be back in Belfast with people you know and it won’t be raining and you won’t be on the side of the road looking for someone to pick you up. But then you realize it’s okay, she’s probably more uncomfortable about the whole thing than you.

Mudwrestling for a Room

August 20 – boat from Belfast
Even if you know fate doesn’t exist, you can’t count all the things that went a certain way to end up where you are. Let’s not start with some HBO executive’s decision to send someone to the Philippines to do a story, or even my friend Eileen’s firm recommendation that a free week in Southeast Asia would best be spent in Thailand. For the sake of this story we’ll even skip past the Bangkok Airways ticket agent who sat me next to Ross who invited me to find a beach hut with him and his British mates.

Lets start on the night 17 months ago that I followed the British mates into a Lamai, Thailand bar and found a ring in the center that looked a lot like the boxing ring I’d travel all the way to Asia to video. This ring though was slicked with jelly. “We tried mud for a while but it just ruined everything,” the Texan owner explained. Let’s start when I decided I should mudwrestle.

They sent me up to a changing room and gave me some shorts and then I got ready to battle two lithe Thai women. As the Texan began introducing “The Hoss, here all the way from New York City,” I nervously shivered in the entryway and glanced over at two guys sipping beer.

“Good luck,” one of them said.


It was the next day walking alone on the beach that I scurried up the hot sand and stopped into a beachside bar to get lunch. I choose that bar because four girls were playing guitar at one of the orange tables but when I went to order my curry I found the guys who had wished me luck the night before still recovering from the unmentionable end of their evening.

Bill and Paul commended me on my wrestling technique, and then I went up to the girls and asked to borrow their guitar. We all got to talking and then we went out every night that week. Bill and Paul were on an Around the World trip, which was a pretty amazing thought. They invited me on to Ko Phangan with them and we spent a few nights on Hat Rin beach, drinking Beer Chang and pulling German girls.

“Wait a minute,” I thought when the boat took me back towards New York and they got to stay for the next night’s full moon party, “I have to go back to work and you get to do this for another eight months?”

So that’s how I ended up here (wherever I am somewhere in the Irish Sea on my way from Belfast to Scotland) backpacking around the world for a year. But that wasn’t even my point. My point was that the main thing you do—or that I’m doing at this point—is chasing people more than places.

I’m traveling from Bill and Paul to Jennifer and then onto Idell before stopping into Annaelle. The trick you see, to save money, avert loneliness, and have the best time is to meet people in their hometown.

The mudwrestling didn’t just send me on this trip, it took me to a housewarming party last night in Bangor, a Belfast suburb. In the last year and a half (and mainly in the last month) I’ve developed a more streamlined means of arranging these kinds of arrangements.

Step 1) Go out with some people from your hostel.

Step 2) Locate a girl among the group who lives in a country you’ll be visiting in the future.

Step 3) You can probably figure out by yourself.

Step 4) Crash at her place when you pass through her town.

There are certainly variations on the theme. Jennifer, an erstwhile New Yorker who lives in St. Andrews, Scotland actually offered me a place before I bought her any beer. She has a friend who I met in Brisbane, Australia six months ago and turned her onto my blog. Jennifer read that I was in Ireland and invited me—sight unseen—to crash at her place and now I’m on the ferry over to Scotland to take her up on it.

Idell, my old roommate from West 73rd Street, lives in Montpellier, France these days and apparently has a spare couch or floor.

Annaelle lives in Toulouse, France and was kind enough to stick rather strictly to the above outlined Steps.

In the first week of September I’ll have been in Europe for three months and more nights than not I’ll have slept for free. I didn’t set out to spend time in Rotterdam, Bangor, St. Andrews and Toulouse. I can’t say I’d recommend them all. But after a while it turns out the point isn’t so much ‘where’ as ‘who.’

People are complaining I don’t write enough these days and I want to tell them to go ahead and write about their own weekend. I stopped traveling a few weeks ago and now I’m just living. The tourists can look at the Louvre, I’m going to go to the housewarming party. It’s better than a housewarming party at home because everyone here speaks with Irish accents. In the day you can walk around and look at stuff, and on the nights there aren’t any houses to warm you can go mudwrestling until you find someone with a spare bed in Spain.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

London Photos

A group of WNYU-FM chums met me in London for a few days.

Trafalgar Square is a nice place to snap a photo. When I first came to London two years ago, my friend Abtin and I were so constantly hung over that I don't think we even made it here.

In case we missed it, John points out Tower Bridge.

Well that's just art.

Okay, check it off the list.

While we were at Stonehenge, aliens abducted us and took us to this art exhibit.


July 31 - Rotterdam, Holland
“Go like you’re going to Ella’s house,” Amber whispered as the second floor floorboards creaked. “Then keep going straight.”

It was 5am and we had just gotten home and it was time for me to bicycle in the rain to Central Station where the 5:25am shuttle would take me to the airport.

I unlocked her bike and started peddling. I had my big 35-pound pack on back and my smaller 15-pound pack in front. The small bag kept falling onto my peddling legs so I stopped in the drizzle and tightened the straps. Then I peddled over the bridge and past the Roti restaurant, past Ella’s street and towards Central Station. The rain fell more heavily.

Three hours before, when I said goodbye to Ella, we were still a group of four and it was okay to see her walk up the stairs, look back and wave, and disappear.

On our way to late night snacks I peddled next to Hilde, who told me how her mother would hold her by the back as she rode her bike. This was an excuse for Hilde to hold me by the back, which she was doing as I rode into a new, dark blue car, crashed to the ground and laughed.

We had some 4am Dutch treats and rode towards home. Then Hilde stopped. Home for me was left, home for her was right. It was okay to say goodbye and pretend we knew we’d see each other in New York in a year.

Amber and I headed towards home and the rain came hard. We got back to her place and I swapped out my smoky, soaked sweater for my polo. We kissed on the cheek and pretended we’d see each other soon. I walked briskly down the stairs and got the feeling in my stomach and my shoulders that you get, always, in that instant you become totally alone again.

It was probably a duller feeling than when Sabrina or Christian or Elise left, but it was recognizably similar. The feeling in your gut when you’ve left your best friend and will never see them again and don’t know any other soul in sight: that’s the feeling you can’t describe even to yourself except when you’re feeling it.

Fast Friends - Part I

August 5 - London, England
When I get back to New York and we talk about my trip, you can ask me about Jens or Jason or the Dutch Girls and I’ll smile with memory and tell you something about them. But if you ask about Scott, Brian, or Monica I think I’ll just ask who you’re talking about.

Scott, Brian, and Monica (the boys are from Seattle, Monica is from Melbourne, Australia) are who I spent yesterday with. We were sharing a 12-bed room across from Hyde Park in London and we said hi and exchanged names and took the tube to Westminster because Brian had never seen Big Ben—the boys had one night in London, the result of a long layover between flights.

We sat on the wall at the edge of the Thames, next to the bridge that leads to Parliament and Scott explained what I already knew. “The people I meet when I’m traveling, we don’t keep in touch and stay close friends. These aren’t people I’m going to invite to my wedding. But for a day or a couple days it’s really nice to have someone to spend time with. You both kind of need it, so you go get dinner together or get some beers,” he said. “You’re five-hour friends.”

The five-hour friend has been a staple of my European travel experience. Much more than Asia, and even more than Australia, I’ve been meeting people almost every day who I spend a single evening with and never see again. They wake up early to catch a train or I wake up early to catch a bus and that’s that. For a while you can remember what they looked like and what country they were from, but soon you forget which one was Scott and which one was Brian. In a couple weeks you aren’t sure if you met in Sweden or Denmark, but then you remember which hostel porch it was where you first said hello and then you know it was Copenhagen where you saw the cover band with the male singer who did the fantastic cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

It’s a strange thing to get so good at goodbye. In the beginning, the phenomenon was how quickly you became close to people, what fast friends we all were. But maybe we were wrong; maybe what happened fast was we acted like friends. Your voice falls into a comfortable tone, you laugh easily and break bread and buy rounds of beer. These are the things you do with friends, not people you met 90-minutes ago. But maybe the truth is we don’t have any friends. And since none of us have anyone, we’re all willing to fill the void for each other. At least for a few hours.

When the Bus Stops in Dublin

August 6 - Dublin, Ireland
You don’t get to say ‘I told you so.’ You have to decide now if I was dumb and doomed from the beginning or just taking a risk that could turn out either way.

Here’s the evidence you have to go on: I was in London and looking for the cheapest way to get somewhere else. The best I found was a $35US bus ticket to Dublin leaving three days later. The bus would take 11 hours and get in at 9pm so I figured it might be wise to book a bed before arrival. Yesterday, when I tried to do that on-line, I found every hostel in Dublin either full or unavailable for on-line booking. Still, I had a non-refundable bus ticket taking me out of town so I got on the bus and hoped for the best.

This is when you have to decide if that was dumb or not.

On a break from the full-day bus trip I managed a pay-phone call to a hotel clearinghouse in Ireland. Do you have any hostel beds available? I asked. “We don’t handle hostels and our cheapest room for tonight is $370.”

So I’m cruising along on the bus watching the day get darker and wondering if there are some good parks in Dublin to sleep in. It’s a Friday night and Dublin is a drinking city so my best (or at least boldest) plan is to lock up my bags at the bus station, head to a pub, and try to find someone willing to share their bed. Do you have any better ideas?

Perhaps the growing apprehension was visible on my face because when our bus pulled off the ferry and into Ireland, the immigration guy called me into his office. The Turkish guy with the Australian passport had been cleared, as had the Croatians who Mr. Immigration suspected were really Russian. He took me into his office and asked how much money I had on me.

“I don’t know, a couple hundred pounds.”

“A couple hundred pounds, how long are you staying here?”

“About ten days.”

“Let me see it, how much money do you have in your wallet.”

I don’t even have a wallet but I pulled cash out of my pocket and counted 160 pounds.

“I have a banking card with all my money on it. There’s over 10,000US on it.”

“10,000US? Do you have a statement saying that? How much could you get out right now?”

“I don’t know, 1000US. I have more money in my bag on the bus.”

“How much do you have in the bus?

“About 200US and 70 euros.”

“And where are you staying?”

“I don’t know, that’s what I have to go figure out.”

“You don’t have a place? You’re going to go find one now?”

That was the plan. As another immigration guy walked me back down to the bus I asked him why there was all the fuss over the money.

“We get a lot of people who show up with rucksacks, no place to stay and no money and then they end up back here.”

Hmm, why would anyone do that?

The bus pulled into the Dublin bus station and I found a pay phone. It took euros and I had pounds and everything was closed. I dug around my bag and amid the kroner coins, Stonehenge ticket stubs, and Belgian coasters I found some euro coins. I called Dublin’s biggest hostel.

“Hi, do you have any beds for tonight?”

“No, we’re fully booked tonight.”

“I’m having a lot of trouble finding a place to stay, do you know anywhere in town that has any beds?”

“No. All the places we talk to and send people to are full too.”

“Is there a tourist office or some clearinghouse that would have a list?”

“I think they’re closed now.”

“Okay. Do you have any ideas?”

“Well, you could try Kinlay House, they might have some beds available that they don’t book on-line.”

As I hung up the phone I started looking around the station for a locker to store my bag in. It was too cold to sleep outside without a sleeping bag so the kamikaze pub plan was sounding better. I dropped my last 50-cent coin into the phone.

“Kinlay House, hello.”

“Hi, do you have any beds open for tonight?”

“We have one bed in a four-bed room. It’s 21 euros. Do you want it?”

Fast Friends - Part II

August 8 - Dublin, Ireland
A couple days later I was alone in Dublin. The night before I met Noah in the TV room and went to Temple Bar and emptied some Guinnesses with him and the Irish girls we met who sadly still live with their parents. When I woke up he’d already gotten on his rented bike and started peddling west. That evening I went back to the Temple Bar area to shoot some video of Irish drinkers (or at least tourists drinking in Ireland).

“Do you have a minute,” a couple young Irish guys asked. They wanted to know if they should visit Las Vegas or New York when they go to the States. A minute later a couple girls walked by and the Irish guys roped them in. They were from Brooklyn and had just got in for a week’s vacation. We all had a Guinness and then I followed Colleen and Christy to meet their Irish friend who just got back from a round-the-world trip.

I interviewed Robert on the cobblestone street outside the row of bars. He’d done 10.5 months and knew how it felt to be in month eight. Month eight—for most of us it seems—is when it all gets a little tiresome.

“Constantly packing and unpacking your bag, riding on buses, finding hostels, saying goodbye to people, it just stops being fun.”

That’s how I’ve felt the last week or so as the cycle of the five-hour friend has become a bit old. It’s not that it’s an unpleasant thing that you can only tolerate for so long, it is in fact a very pleasant thing that can lose its charm after a while. You get numb to the things you’re seeing and tired of making a new friend every damn day. It’s not loneliness because someone always turns up, but it’s tiredness with having to do it over and over again.

Colleen somehow bought all this as some great burden. “Traveling around the world must be so hard,” she consoled. “It’s probably been forever since you were able to just curl up next to someone in a comfortable bed.”

Oh yes, month eight can be torturous, so it’s good to find someone you can see in the morning—at least for five minutes—before you get on your bus and she gets on hers.

Wine in the Bumper Cars

August 11 - Dingle, Ireland
Dingle is a small fishing town down on Ireland’s southwest coast. I find myself at the Ballingtaggart Hostel, just east of town. It’s 20 minutes away by foot, five on a bike, or two in a shuttle that you think is one euro but tries to charge you six, which you refuse.

Dingle is a pretty place to jog, especially if you find a well-worn path along the cliffs with breaks in the fences wide enough for you to fit through but not the livestock. It’s even nice if you find a poorly tended path with thorns and pot holes, though you spend so much time watching out for your ankles that you barely see the green hills and the brown cliffs and the grey-blue water.

The prettiest sunsets I recall from my first seven months are March 24 in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand; April 19 in Agra, India; and this past Tuesday here in Dingle. I remember pink surrounding the Thai palms, orange outlining the Indian riverbank, and a wave of orange and blue above the Irish-green hills and silhouetted trees. It’s only the dates I needed my notes to recall.

Yesterday it was sunny and I was inside the hostel working on the documentary all day. In the afternoon I walked by reception and saw Hugh, who had left on his bike from Dublin the morning after we went out in Temple Bar together. He’d rode 100 miles that first day and then decided biking around Ireland was more work than he was up for. If you aren’t on a bike, Ireland is a small place and you’re bound to run into people on different stops along the way.

If water naturally finds a level, then the backpacker naturally finds the best girl in his hostel. Anita is Swiss and she spends her nights coughing a loud bronchial cough in the bed next to mine.

There’s a good trick you can use if you want to get people together without asking them if they want to go out with you.

“Hey Anita, me and this Australian guy are going to go into town later if you’re interested.”

“Hey Hugh, me and this Swiss girl are heading down to the pub later if you’re interested.”

Then you have a group of three and when you stick out your thumb a middle-aged couple will pick you up and take you into town. For reasons I can’t exactly figure out I really liked Antia a lot. She was pretty but not especially so, and she didn’t speak all that much English. I think I was just due to like someone.

We stopped into the Dingle Pub and paid $5 for our pints. Yesterday I spent 25 euros on alcohol and 17 on everything else. Drinking is a pricy habit when you’re on a budget, but one way to help the situation is to skip dinner, which eliminates the cost of food and gets you drunk much cheaper. This was my approach last night and after a couple pubs I was feeling pretty Irish.

Around midnight we shared a pitcher of Sangria and picked where we’d wake up in the morning if we could wake up anywhere we’d been. We guessed eacthother’s siblings. We picked where we’d wake up in the morning if we could wake up anywhere we hadn’t been. Anita’s English had gotten better after her second beer.

The bar was closing so we bought a bottle of wine for the road. Hugh promised to bring the glasses back in the morning even though he knew we were leaving on a 7am bus. We walked along the pier and over to the small, darkened amusement park in the middle of town. There wasn’t a gate so we went in and walked over to the bumper cars and each sat in our own car. We were almost drunk enough to try and power up the generator but not quite. Hugh had pocketed some candles at the bar and Anita lit them and put one on the hood of each of our cars.

Anita wouldn’t sing so I said I would instead. “Something by U2,” Hugh suggested.

“Yeah, we’re in Ireland, it should be something by U2,” I agreed.

I stared out at the boats in the distance and sang all the words I could remember to “One.” Hugh was genuinely impressed, which was sweet.

Then Hugh and Anita decided the bumper car track could be a dance floor and as I attempted “Rock Around the Clock,” they swung around haphazardly.

Half the wine was gone. “Excuse me, the park is closed,” a middle-aged Irishman called over.

“Okay,” we said, and walked out with our wine. Anita thought we should walk home along the water instead of by the road. The scenic route takes three times as long even in the daylight but we trudged through the long, wet grass, trying to stay on the path. I wanted to get home and walked faster than the others. Finally I turned around and saw Hugh and Anita standing still 200 feet behind me. The lights of the town twinkled between their silhouettes. And then their heads moved closer together until all the lights between their faces were eclipsed and I walked home along the road and slept through my alarm.