“Roll With the Punches” or “How I Sort of Made $1000 in Two Hours”

I flatter myself that I’m an expert traveller. I know the tricks. I also love free stuff and beating the system, so I always volunteer to get bumped from my flight if it’s overbooked. As you may know, airlines often oversell flights, counting on one or two passengers not showing up. In that case there’s no problem and everyone present gets a seat. In the case that there does end up being more passengers than seats, the gate agent will ask for volunteers who are willing to take a later flight (for free) in exchange for a credit to use on another trip of their choice. A pretty good deal if you’re not in a hurry. Traveling home from Boston a week ago, I heard the word “volunteer” and was up and at the desk before the agent could finish the sentence. As it turned out, the next Austin flight was the next morning, but Southwest was offering to put me up at a hotel AND give a $700 credit. No. Contest.

The gate agent made a reservation for me and gave me a voucher to show at the hotel. I hopped on the airport shuttle. But when I showed the voucher at the check-in counter, the concierge said, “Oh, this is actually for the downtown location.”

Okay… “How do I get to that location?” I wondered out loud.

“I’ll call you a cab.”

It sounded weird. Why wouldn’t the airline make me a reservation at the airport location? And I’m supposed to pay for a taxi? Twice?  But I went with it. I figured I was still going to come out of this 700 airplane dollars on top, so whatever. Right. Well, I arrived at the downtown hotel twenty taxi dollars later, and Catherine at the front desk frowned at my voucher: “This voucher is for the airport location,” (I KNOW RIGHT?) She called the other hotel and then the airline to investigate (more love to Southwest, whose rep promised that they’ll pay for the cabs if the hotel won’t). I decided that the Catherine and I are basically best friends when she pours me a glass of Prosecco while I wait.

Yep. Half an hour later, I’m in another cab. The driver, BTW, ALSO thought it was really weird that the first hotel sent me away. Basically everyone in Nashville was on Team Clare. Back at hotel #1, the manager apologized profusely and promptly got me $40 in cash to cover the cabs.

Confession: I get as excited as a kid in a ball pit to have a hotel room all to myself. SO MUCH JOY. It makes me feel like a fancy grown up grown-up. And having spent quite a few nights in dorm-style hostels this past year, the fact that there is no chance that a bunch of giggly teenagers are going to come into the room at three in the morning and turn all the lights on is very sweet. As it turns out, by the way, this was a $200 a night hotel. There was a fountain in the lobby, y’all.

One of the great ironies of travel is that pricey hotels always charge for internet access, and crappy motels rarely do. All right, it’s not very ironic. People whose budget is $30 a night aren’t going to spring fifteen to waste time Facebook. Imagine my unexpected delight, upon settling in, to find that I was in range of the free lobby wifi. It was 6pm by this time, and with an early bedtime in my future, I began to asses dinner options. It was going to be $2 at the vending machine or $20 at room service. Not relishing the thought of a 4:30 wakeup time with nothing but Gardettos and M&Ms in my stomach, I went for the roasted vegetable and mozzarella focaccia with sea salt French fries. Pricey, but delicious. (note: spellcheck wants to change “Gardettos” to “garroted.” That would make this story more exciting.)  You can imagine how tired I was after all this, and the bed was exactly as comfy as you’d expect for two hundred bucks a night, so I had no problem falling dead asleep by 9:30. I even managed to wake up six minutes before the alarm! Even better, my receipt for the hotel came by email the next morning, and I found that they had comped my dinner.

So, airline credit + fancy hotel stay + comped food/taxi/wine. If I make the logic work for me, which is a talent of mine, I made almost $1000 in two hours. More importantly, the universe is obviously trying to communicate that I was not meant to come home at all and should sell my furniture on Craigslist and travel for the rest of forever. Obviously.

P.S. I must share this bit of snark from the perky BNA > AUS flight attendant before we took off: “Ladies and Gentlemen, if we could pretend to have your attention for a moment…If you are traveling with a small child, someone who might need assistance, or perhaps someone who isn’t paying attention right now, be sure to put your own mask on first…In the unlikely event that Southwest Airlines turns into Southwest  Cruiselines, your life jacket is located under your seat. Blah, blah, blah, blah…” LOL

Aside

Clare Visits the Metaphorical Cliffs of Insanity, Makes Plans To Visit The Actual Cliffs of Insanity

Since I spent most of my last post talking about things I’m bad at, this time I will write about something at which I excel: OVERTHINKING (The almighty spell check doesn’t think “overthinking” is a word. I say it is.) I spent twenty minutes last night agonizing over whether I should take the bus or train from Drogheda to Galway (spell check also doesn’t think “Galway” is a word, which I think proves my superior knowledge). Once I get started on something like that like that, it’s not long before I’m nearing The Cliffs of Insanity: “The train is way more comfortable than the bus. But I can’t afford 65 freaking euro when the bus is 25…But it is so much easier to get on the wrong bus than then  wrong train, and I’d have to transfer to a different bus in Dublin and that freaks me out because what if I accidentally buy a ticket that is only good on one of the buses I need?” I finally reeled myself back in when I got to, “What if the driver gives me one of those looks (you know, the look that public transportation employees, from New York to Belfast, save for unusually stupid passengers)?”  Of course, when I sourced my stress to the possibility of feeling like a stupid tourist, I realized that I wasn’t actually facing a real problem. I am an intelligent, grown human being with thumbs: I can figure it out. Also, I am a tourist.

I figured it out. Took the bus, easy as pie. Cheap, free wifi, onboard WC, and the driver did not seem inclined to hate me. Plus, a nice one hour layover at Dublin Airport for coffee and an a pain au chocolat, which is my travelling abroad breakfast treat. I love airports. Despite the fact that thousands of people must do it every day I felt quite cosmopolitan eating a French pastry in an Irish airport watching the news about Russia (I’m not the only one who suspects Vladimir Putin leapt, fully formed, out of an Ian Fleming novel, right? I’m picturing a volcano, somewhere in Siberia, that opens to reveal a lair with shark tanks in the walls and a fluffy white cat on a throne…”I killed you too quickly last time, Mr. Bond.” In all seriousness though, there’s scary stuff going down in Ukraine, keep the people in your thoughts and prayers.) I made the Airport to Galway reservation on my smartphone over the free airport wifi. It is possible that I am not being at all careful enough with using my credit card over whatever random open wifi signal I can find in various foriegn countries, but there you are. I needed a bus ticket. 

The drive was lovely once we left the environs of the airport. There are parts of the Dublin/Belfast route that resemble parts of America’s heartland; then you come over the crest of a hill and understand why people love this country. Even in the most fertile regions of the U.S. I’m not sure we have that shade of green…when the sun comes out after a wee bit of rain, the land, sprinkled with sheep and ruined stone towers, looks absolutely luscious. 

There’s a small part of me that felt like it was some kind of betrayal to my Scotch-Irish ancestors to take touristy bus tours while I’m in Ireland (as opposed to, I don’t know, walking from Cork to Belfast in my bare feet or picking up work on a sheep farm?) but then I did a tour to The Giant’s Causeway from Belfast, and it’s the best thing I’ve done in Ireland so far. Naturally, we had a charming ginger guide named Patrick. I was the last person to board the bus, so he offered me the jump seat next to the door. This placed me right under the windshield so I was almost surrounded by glass–definitely the best view on the bus. We stopped first at Carrickfergus Castle, and as we pulled in Pat the Guide told us what time we’d be leaving again and then showed the group a small paper clock, which he adjusted to 10:25 and placed near the steering wheel, “for anyone who’s not too sure of my accent.” He did a nice job with combining facts (Carrickfergus was a garrison during WWI and an air-raid shelter durng WWII), and legends (“They say that fairies live under the hawthorne bushes. Now, the farmers here are hefty guys, strong as oxes. You ask if they believe in fairies and they’ll say no, but they won’t disturb a hawthorne bush!”) and comedy ( “We should fit through this tunnel okay, as long as they haven’t changed it since yesterday…”) I was taking notes the whole way so I could write about it later. On the way back to Belfast in the evening, Patrick played a soothing mix of Nora Jones, Eva Cassidy, and Bread over the intercom, which made me laugh for some reason. It was enormously fun, so I’ve already made two day-tour reservations for my stay in Galway: the Cliffs of Moher (the ACTUAL Cliffs of Insanity!) and Connemara. I almost didn’t make the second reservation, because I hate to miss time in Galway City, but Ennis, my next stop, is only an hour away. This is the great part about traveling alone: if I feel like it, I can come back to Galway for a few hours. I can do whatever sort of crazy thing I want. Have you ever had the sensation, “No one in the whole world knows where I am right now?” It’s a beautiful thing.

“Keys Are Hard” or “Irish Adventuretime: Bus and Train Edition.”

I am apparently really bad at (at least) two things: keys and European showers. The keys thing I’ve always known. I worry every time I am put in charge of a door because I will inevitably have a really hard time using the key. I’ll start by trying to put it in upside-down, and then it will turn out to be one of those keys that doesn’t want to be pushed in all the way, just half way, so I will spend five minutes pushing and jiggling and twisting before it works. Then there’s the weird relationship between locks and door handles. Do the key and the handle need to be turned simultaneously, or will the door open if I just turn the key and push? And, WAIT. THERE ARE TWO LOCKS HERE. Does my key go in the top or the bottom lock?? Obviously this is a simple process of elimination thing, but if my key doesn’t work in the top lock, is that because it’s not supposed to or because I’m bad at keys? This is all assuming I haven’t already lost the damn thing. Imagine my relief when I arrived in Drogheda, Ireland, yesterday to find that no keys would be required at all at the hostel. I’ll get back to you about how well I do with not losing the three keypad codes.

And then the shower thing. I once stayed in a really nice hostel in Cardiff, Wales with really clean showers that seemed to have no temperature below a thousand degrees, no matter how I turned the dial. I even tried at least one other stall, because I’m a fan of the scientific method, but I never did find a comfortable temp. In Ayr, Scotland, I was almost late for breakfast because I spent so long trying to figure out how to turn the shower on at the B&B. What was the secret? The switch outside the bathroom door, obviously. WHO DOES THAT? In Belfast, I looked for the switch outside the door, but there wasn’t one. And I couldn’t get the water to come out. I’m still telling mysef that that one was out of order so I feel better about sneaking down to the showers on the next floor. I have figured out the shower in Drogheda, but it’s weird. It’s got a push handle like the sinks in public restrooms, so it only runs for about 10 seconds before you have to push the handle again. This completely negates the warming power of a hot shower.

Today I bought a bus ticket from Drogheda (where I’m staying) to Carlingford (a reportedly adorable medieval town with stuning mountain hikes) with one bus changeover in Dundalk. Easy enough. So I get off the bus after the “Next stop Dunalk Bus Station” announcement, right? I thought so, but when I got off the bus I was not at the bus station, I was at something called Dundalk Institute of Technology. So, I started walking, stopping for a pack of gum and directions at a convenience store. The clerk asked me which way I was going. I thought, Um. I’m going in which ever direction you tell me the bus station is, but I pointed towards the town. I never did get an answer I understood, probably because one or both of us had an accent. So I kept on in the direction I’d been going. (Side note: I now know that “Black Mint” flavored gum tastes like black jelly beans.) Not too much later I started seeing signs for Dundalk City Centre. In a small town like this, the bus or train station must be close to downtown, right? Stay tuned. Dundalk is a cute little town and the sun was out so I started taking pictures, feeling a little nervous about having no idea where I was. But Dundalk was a bit familiar, like all small towns are, with a funny combination of fast food chains and local cafes; a shiny glass and steel rec center next to old brownstones, some of them looking as if they’d been empty for years. Of course, the “old” buildings in America’s small towns are shopfronts built a century ago, whereas in Ireland, they’re medieval castle ruins. Eventually I asked an old man to point me towards the train station, which he did, but reluctantly: “The railway? Oh. At a guess, I’d say you’re two, two and a half miles away. Aren’t you better off taking a taxi?” I told him I didn’t mind the walk, but he insisted on sending my to the nearest intersection where there would be taxis to catch. It was kind of adorable. He was right, it was about exactly two miles from where I’d ended up, but it was a bright, sunny day and I took a lot of pictures. Thanks to the free wifi at a McDonald’s, I made to to the station and back to Drogheda. I’m feeling a little put out that I didn’t get to hike in Carlingford after all, and spending the day being lost is exhausting, even if you do take a lot of pictures, but I’m not going to call the day lost. I am in Ireland, after all. And being here, in the land of my ancestors, some of whom got on that boat for the new world more than two hundred years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith, and courage, and the possibility that the pictures turn out better when you get lost.

Aside

“How Not To Get Trapped In A Horror Movie” or “Roommates Who Speak English Can Be Okay.”

Fact: there is something a little shady about hostel-shopping, a feeling that, for me, sprang from the very idea of sleeping in a dorm with complete strangers, which seemed to be entwined with an unlimited potential for horror-movie-esque situations. I wasn’t sure at first what my standards should be. The second time I planned a budget trip to the UK I knew what my priorities were and had learned to trust the reviews on the hostel booking websites. Like choosing a regular hotel, it’s just about knowing how to read the descriptions and what words to look for (even if you have to actually translate it them into English). One decision that must be made, for better or for worse, is whether a high security rating is important than a high cleanliness rating. If so, go ahead and decide exactly how low a cleanliness rating you are willing to deal with….For my part, I can stand less than pristine showers if I have a locker for my stuff and more than one door between the bedroom and the street. That said, I never risk a less than 75% guest approval rating, however cheap it is. Again with the potential for scary. 

Be prepared to be entertained when reading hostel reviews. These will range from the poetic: “Could do with better, less gloomy lighting. Especially now that rainy Autumn approaches” to the enigmatic: “Disliked: No hoter from chicken tap and mold dishes were everywhere in cabord” (Whatever. There were enough English words there to convince me not to try that place)…from the self-assured: “Disliked: had to fully dress if we wanted to go to the kitchen” to the gruesome:  “Rooms are filthy. BLOOD on the window sill in the bathroom very doubtful that the beds had been changed, mold growing on the curtains.” (WHAT)

Do read plenty of reviews to get a good idea about a place, though, because sometimes reviewers disagree: 1. “Disliked: The rooms smell like dog. The dog was nice though.” 2. “Disliked: The killer dog.” Another didn’t like that “The internet connection was crap and a Chinese girl used our shower.” One person left a 91% approval rating for a Glasgow hostel but complained, “There was no electric shock in my room.” (Like I said: priorities.) Then there are the hostel reviews that sound like witness statements on Law & Order: Abroad: “…The room smelled really bad due to some weird man who stayed in the room, and the light bulbs were stolen…There was commotion when the drunk Frenchmen staying in the same room returned from the bars which was slightly annoying.” LOLOLOL (hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com)

Yes, your standards have to be a little…different when staying in hostels but it is absolutely possible to find blood, mold, and killer-dog free hostels that are perfectly safe. On occasion, you might even get a comfortable bed and a reasonably temped shower, even a complementary bowl of cereal for breakfast. You will certainly meet some interesting people, like my Edinburgh roommate Rita, who was born in a small village in central Germany and is now is a law student in Berlin. We bonded over being klutzy and forgetful and, case in point, having recent burns to deal with while we traveled. We laughed about what the staffer who cleaned our room when we left would think about all the bandages and burn cream in the garbage. We found a lot to talk about: the joy of being mistaken for a local when visiting a foreign country, how embarrassing it is when you can’t understand someone’s accent, and the need to get away from home for a while. And who knew that it would ever be useful to me to know about the various scandals and paramours of the recent presidents of France? And then I found myself being asked and able to summarize the current Ukrainian rebellion for a European, which made me feel all kinds of smart.

I knew that Rita and I could be friends when she told me that every time she visits a foreign House of Parliament or government center she likes to buy a pen or pencil as a souvenir. That sounds completely like the kind of random, sentimental thing I would do. When I said I was from the US, the first thing she said was that she wanted to go there, especially, she paused to confirm the word, the “Fingerlakes Region?” She recommended both Berlin and Munich as places to visit if I ever go to Germany, but not during Oktoberfest, when there are just too many drunk guys to grab at you. She was fascinated and amused to hear that in one of the parts of America that I am from, Wisconsin, there is a proud German history and that they also celebrate Oktoberfest with gusto.

It doesn’t surprise me anymore but I’m always interested at how closely the rest of the world follows our American politics. It was a surreal moment when Rita from Germany, a great fan of Barack Obama, and I laughed about having seen the same “Mitt Romney, Gangham Style” video on YouTube in 2012. It made me remember a conversation I in Stratford-Upon-Avon with a couple of Australians, who had been glued to their televisions as much as I had in November 2012,  praying that the Democrats would prevail. Rita asked what it was like living in a place as conservative as Texas, and “Isn’t it really hot there?” I had fun explaining about Austin being different and, “Yes, it gets very, very hot there.”

I love travelling alone and I can be truly happy with my earbuds in all day. But I am so glad I stepped out of my introvert zone to get to know my roommate in Edinburgh! We traded email addresses in case we ever visit each other’s countries. Maybe someday we’ll have coffee in Berlin and catch up. Maybe not, but, either way, I feel lucky to get to add that three day friendship to my list of experiences.

“A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.” Charles Baudelaire

The Sweetest and Most Interesting Experience of My Life

You guys. YOU GUYS. I just had the sweetest, most interesting experience of my life. You can add hitchhiking to my list. There are a few stories, now and then, which are too long for a Facebook status. When I got off the ferry in Belfast, a cabdriver asked if I needed a ride but I decided to save the 10 pounds and try and find a bus to the city centre instead. The buses did not pick up where I thought, and after an hour or so the passenger terminal was shutting down, I was told I’d missed the last bus for three hours, and there were clearly no more taxis coming. I was basically the only person there now…thankfully, my GPS was working on my phone, so I could see where I was and where the hostel was, I figured the only thing was to start walking and maybe catch a bus on the way there (at a time in my life I would have been completely freaked out at this point, but I was, if a little weirded out, having fun. And I saw my third rainbow this week, which seemed like a good sign) So I started walking, GPS going. I was walking past a shopping center when an old man walking his dog stopped me and asked if I was walking to Belfast. I said yes, and he sort of sighed and started to describe which way to go, saying stuff like, “Be very careful, it’s a busy street!” But after a minute he shook his head and said, “Come on, I’ll give you a ride. It is way too far to walk.” I don’t make it a habit of getting in cars with strangers, but he already reminded me of my grandfather a little bit, so he, and Max the dog, and I got into the car, Max clearly a little perturbed to have his walk interrupted. I gave the old man the address of the hostel, and he knew right away where it was. What an interesting person! I wrote down all I could remember of our conversation as soon as I could. We talked as we drove: he was from India originally but had lived in Ireland for a long time (“They tell me, ‘you don’t sound like us!'”). He was a sailor for forty years and had been all over the world, travelling for eight months at a time, including to Texas. He said something about Belfast having an interesting history and I, thinking about the violent Troubles of a couple decades ago, said, “A lot of conflict?” He sort of rolled his eyes and shook his head: “No, no. They like to say here, ‘We were at war.’ But they don’t know what *war* looks like. They had hospitals, schools. War is what is happening in Syria right now, 100,000 dead, or in Iraq, 8,000 dead since the Americans left.” He went on to talk about history being history: “The British used to rule Ireland, you know. Just like they ruled America, hundreds of years ago, but you don’t have to hate the British; that was before you were born, before your parents even were born. My son in law is German. Can I call him a “Nazi bastard?” No, because he is only 40 years old and the second world war ended 75 years ago. He is a very nice man, he is married to my daughter. Well, they are not married, but they have lived together for God knows how long. They have a daughter whose birthday is in six days time!” Then we started talking about how amazing it is that people like Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton can hold the positions they do when, not too long ago, it seemed crazy that women could ever have that much power. I asked what I should do and see in Belfast while I’m here and he said, without hesitation, that I should see The Ulster Museum and the local art house cinema. That last one was especially important to him that I do: “You can see a movie there as late as 9pm, you must go.” When we were nearing my destination he pointed out the street I wanted and then said, “I’m going to drive you one more block so you can see where the theater is.” Then were at the hostel. I thanked him for about the thousandth time, and he said he didn’t think people did nice things for strangers enough anymore:

“It’s a little detour for me, but it doesn’t hurt my life!”

“And it makes all the difference to me!” I said.

“Exactly. You won’t be so tired.”

He was right, it would have been a long walk. Doable, at about four miles, but I easily could have gotten lost, GPS notwithstanding, and it would have been hard on my back, carrying my pack. We shook hands and I introduced myself before I got out of the car but he didn’t reciprocate, so I guess he’ll always just be the elderly Indian/Irish dog walker who gave me a ride my first day in Ireland. (I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren about this. Right after I tell them to never, ever get in a car with a stranger…) Then I thanked Max, of course, who had given up his walk to help me out. Hello, Belfast!

“A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.” Charles Baudelaire