Beer, Bravery, and Backpacking in Cardiff and Dublin

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My five hour train to Cardiff got me here just after noon. I’ve brought only the small backpack I used for my hike. I’m wearing jeans, a long sleeved burgundy shirt, and sneakers. I plan to wear the same thing every day. In my backpack I have only the essentials: chargers, toothbrush, and a few pairs of underwear. I rolled up a couple shirts to layer in case it gets cold in Ireland, which Mischi aggressively insisted it will. I feel like a true backpacker. This is the meaning of adventure!

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This tiny backpack was just enough for a week in Ireland!

Wandering along the streets of Wales’ capital city, I’m starting to think I should have been less blinded by the spirit of adventure and perhaps have come up with a plan before arriving. I feverishly booked seven nights in hostels, a few train journeys, two ferry crossings, and an excursion from Belfast. But I made zero plans for what I’d do once I actually got to my destinations. I was so focused on getting out and being free, I neglected logistics.

My gut feeling is that even if I had looked for things to do in Cardiff, I’d have come up empty handed. The last time I was here was nine years ago, and I guess I forgot what a boring place it is.

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Inside the mansion on the grounds of Cardiff Castle.

I pay a visit to Cardiff Castle and enjoy an informative tour of the Victorian style mansion on the castle grounds. The castle itself is not much to write home about, but perhaps I’m becoming a castle snob from spending too much time in Europe. Goodness knows the only good castle in Florida is inside the Magic Kingdom.

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Teeny Cardiff Castle.

After seeing the castle and strolling aimlessly through Bute Park, I realize that anything else I might want to do in Cardiff will cost money and I’m trying to be as frugal as possible. Also, I think I’ve already seen Cardiff’s most interesting attraction. I’m so exhausted from the traveling and walking, I just want to lie down in my hostel.

As if enacting its revenge for calling it boring, Cardiff makes it absolutely impossible to find the youth hostel. My phone does that really helpful thing where it tells me directions only up to a certain point, but refuses to take me all the way to the address I’ve entered. It’s like a sick game. I know it’s taking me to the wrong place and I still follow it. Technology will tell us all to walk off a cliff one day, and I swear we’ll do it.

I spend a good half hour crossing dangerous roundabouts and dodging cars. Seriously, do not try to walk anywhere on the outskirts of central Cardiff. This is not a pedestrian friendly place. You will die. Eventually, I call my mom and tell her I’m lost. As usual, she stays calm while I panic and I find the hostel at last, in a completely different building nearly a mile away from where my phone wanted me to believe it was.

***

Why did I come here? Maybe I’m trying to prove to myself that I can do one more solo trip before giving it all up. I can feel the summer coming to an end and by running away to Wales and Ireland with no plan, I guess I hoped to escape the inevitable.

Getting to sleep tonight won’t be easy. The other girls in my four-bed room won’t stop talking in their language. They’ve come in past midnight and started packing their suitcases loudly. I have to be up at four in the morning to make it to my next train. I’m starting to understand all the stories about murders in hostels. If these girls don’t shut up… They’re damn lucky I don’t want to go to jail and be stuck in Cardiff for the rest of my life.

***

“I don’t understand. There’s money in the account.” The Costa girl looks at me, clearly pitying me. This is the second time this morning my card has been declined. I’m changing trains in Chester on my way to Holyhead to catch my ferry to Ireland. I just want to buy a sandwich. Shaking with dread, I log onto my bank account.

I’m in the red. Zero. Insufficient funds. Completely and utterly fucked. I wrack my brain, trying to figure out how it got this bad. I’ve been staying in cheap hostels, eating cheap food, taking the cheapest trains. How did it come to this? I send my mom a frantic message, knowing it’s three in the morning back home. If she can’t transfer me emergency money, I will be out of luck. I don’t have enough cash to buy food for the rest of the week in Ireland, only enough to pay for my hostels. Will I have to do unspeakable things to be able to eat?

“Just made a transfer.” I read the message from my mom and I’m flooded with relief. I don’t know how I’ll repay her for this.

***

This must be what hell feels like. After riding on trains for the past five hours, I had been looking forward to a nice ferry ride across the Irish Sea. How horribly naïve I was. I remember making this journey when I was thirteen. Everyone was puking, but my mother and I were okay. I can’t recall if I felt sick. My brain probably blocked that part out.

Right now it feels like my stomach is quite literally rupturing. I tried standing up to go to the bathroom, and I nearly fell on my face. Everyone on the ferry looked at me, probably thinking, “What an amateur”. I’m in another dimension, one where the world threatens to go sideways at any moment, but it won’t matter because the tables are bolted to the floor.

For the first bit of the journey, I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with a man named Nick who’d asked to share my table by the window. After a while, I talked less and less and finally had to tell him I needed to stop talking and stay still or I was going to be sick. He recommended I keep my eyes open, fix my gaze out the window at the spot where the sky meets the sea. So here I am, staring at that line, willing the sea to stop churning, the boat to stop rocking.

The nausea is so strong I want to make myself vomit. But I don’t dare stand up again. Is everyone else superhuman? How can they stand this extended torture? Two hours of this will surely kill me. My organs are sliding around, bumping into each other. I almost wish the boat would capsize and drown me so I can’t feel this oppressive sickness anymore.

I try to focus on the words of a podcast. I keep my eyes fixed for as long as I can, until my eyelids start to sag and I fall into a light and merciful sleep, escaping the waves at last.

***

The concept of hostels is relatively simple. You should be able to sleep in them, and you should be able to find your fucking room. Clearly, whoever designed Abbey Court in Dublin did not think people would actually desire to use the room they’re paying for, and therefore made it impossible to locate said room.

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This mural did not help me find my room.

This place must exist in a wormhole which defies the laws of space. Every time I think I’ve found the right staircase, another pops up in its place and takes me to a floor I’ve never seen. I swear sometimes I go up the stairs and end up downstairs again. There are giant murals of Disney characters and other creatures on the walls in every stairwell, as if this is meant to help you find your room. Head up one flight when you see the Cheshire Cat, take a left at Captain Hook and if you reach Tinkerbell you’ve gone too far and you might as well jump out the nearest window and start over, because you’re way too lost now to reverse the damage you’ve done.

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Is that a lightning scar? Is this Harry Lennon or John Potter?

When I finally find my room, I feel like I should have earned a lavish reward for defeating the maze. Instead, I’m greeted by twenty-four beds in a massive bunk room, and of course I’m assigned to a top bunk. I forgot to bring my suitcase lock to use on the hostel lockers, so I stuff my backpack into the metal bin beneath my bed and just hope no one steals it. I’m completely exhausted but I have to force myself to get outside or I won’t see any of Dublin.

My first impression of the city is that there are a hell of a lot of Americans here. So many tourists stuff the streets that I can hardly move. I have to shuffle along with the crowd and hope I end up near my destination: Trinity College. As it turns out, that’s where most of the Americans are. Once inside the college grounds, I push through the heaving crowd and ask a guard what on earth is going on.

“It’s a pep rally,” he says. “A couple of American colleges are here for a football game.” American colleges playing American football at a famous Irish college. I’m so lost. Apparently this sort of thing does a great deal for Dublin’s tourism industry. Everywhere I look, Americans are dropping wads of cash on cheesy souvenirs.

The pep rally looks like a good time, but I’m here for one reason: to see the Book of Kells. When I see the line, I worry that I won’t make it to the front before the library closes. But it moves steadily and when I’m about to go in, an employee stops me and asks, “Is it just you?” I nod. “Free entry,” he says, handing me a ticket. I had been lamenting over the twelve euro entry price. I’m speechless. Perhaps it’s my lucky day. Or maybe this guy is in contact with the hostel and this is my reward for finding my room.

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The Book of Kells is the world’s most famous medieval manuscript. Created in the 9th century, it’s a copy of the four gospels of the life of Christ. I don’t care for religion, but I’m a sucker for fancy books, and I get a serious thrill from seeing in person an artifact which I studied in Art History years ago.

The book sits in a dimly lit room, protected beneath glass. You can’t take pictures and I think if you tried any funny business you’d be swiftly killed by the guards milling around the room. It’s really quite amazing to imagine how much work went into making these gorgeous pages of vellum. It is a surreal thing to find yourself looking down at Ireland’s national treasure, a book which has been preserved for centuries. I wonder in 1,200 years what people will be craning their necks to get a glimpse of. Will it still be the Book of Kells and the Rosetta Stone? Or will it be an ancient iPhone 4?

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When I leave the library, I’m not sure what to do. I look at the map from the hostel and it’s marked with some points of interest, but when I’m back out on the street it’s physically impossible to move any faster than a snail, so I return to Abbey Court frustrated. I poll my Facebook friends for suggestions for a night in Dublin. Someone recommends the literary pub crawl. I’m in.

I can’t buy a ticket online, so I head back out and find the The Duke Pub, where the crawl is meant to start. As per usual when walking into a crowded place, everyone stares at me. I probably look like a lost and possibly homeless sixteen-year-old. A waiter sees the forlorn look in my eyes and asks if I need help.

“I wanted to see if I could buy a ticket for the literary pub crawl,” I say.

The waiter looks around and leans in like we’re conspiring to steal the Book of Kells. “You’ll want to find Colm,” he says. “Come back at half past six and go up these stairs here. If he has any tickets left, he’ll sell you one.”

So I leave the pub, wander aimlessly, and return at the correct time. Upstairs, I find Colm and he puts me on a waiting list. Says there aren’t any tickets left but there might be cancellations. I have nothing else to do tonight. If they don’t let me into the pub crawl, I’ll be pretty bereft. Another couple and I stand around nervously, like we’re waiting to see if we won the lottery.

Colm comes back with good news and lets all three of us buy tickets. I’m so relieved, I want to hug him. I couldn’t face another night of walking around alone. Something about the fact that I’ve crossed a sea and I’m far away from anyone familiar is leading me into an unwelcome and frightening pit of loneliness.

I’m not alone for long. I sit down to watch the two actors who lead the pub crawl do their opening bit. I’m joined by a large group of friends, all but one of whom look Indian. They introduce themselves to me and I politely forget each of their names immediately. They’re from Georgia, here to watch their school play in the big football game.

I kind of tail the Georgians as we head to the next pub. Now that they’ve spoken to me, they’re not going to be able to shake me. I’ve claimed them as my friends for the night.

Between pubs, the actors perform bits of plays by Irish writers and tell us about the literary scene in Dublin, citing stories about James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. This is my kind of pub crawl.

At the second pub, I realize I’m starving. But with twenty minutes at each stop, there’s no time for food. I sit down with the Georgians at a recently vacated table. The previous occupants’ plates are still here, still covered in scraps of food. One of my new friends suggests we eat the leftover fries. I don’t know who was eating this food. I don’t know what kind of diseases or dirty fingers they might have had. I don’t know if they licked each fry before leaving. But I’m so hungry, I don’t care. I scarf down a piece of bread and whatever bits of food look untouched. I figure if I’m going to do something gross and desperate, I might as well do it with other people so I don’t look crazy.

While I’m talking to one of the two Georgian girls (I actually manage to keep her name, Saila, in my head), the guys bring armfuls of beer to our table. As I’ve said, I’m not a drinker. But when no one can figure out who the last Guinness belongs to, Saila hands it to me. I take a few polite sips. Meanwhile, the guys chug their full pints in under a minute so we can leave the pub on time. I think I’d die if I tried that.

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A beer? Me? I couldn’t possibly!

At the next pub, one of the Georgian guys who’s been friendly to me all night hands me a Guinness out of nowhere.

I take it, the white foam spilling over the sides of the glass. I look helplessly at Saila, who’s laughing. “There’s no way I can finish this!” I yelp. I drink as much as I can before moving on. I feel rather guilty that someone paid for this drink and I can’t even guzzle down a third of it.

By the final pub, I’m feeling lightheaded and lighthearted. The actors are either getting funnier, or I’ve had more alcohol than my body is used to. Either way, it’s been a jolly good time and I’m proud of myself for doing this instead of moping around in my hostel. After we’ve returned to The Duke and applauded our hilarious guides, the Georgians and I decide the night isn’t over. We’re all starving, but because of my financial situation, I convince them to have a late night dinner with me at McDonald’s. I’m not ashamed about this being my first meal in Ireland. I’ll have some proper Irish food when I get to Galway tomorrow.

After downing a cheeseburger and saying a reluctant goodbye to my new friends, I walk back to Abbey Court and, as expected, can’t find my fucking room.

***

In the morning, I head out into the pouring rain to do a free walking tour of the city before catching the bus to Galway. I’m surprised by how many people stick it out through the tour despite being soaked and freezing. But I suppose this is the real Irish experience. For some reason, I remembered Ireland as a green land of sunshine and warmth. That’s far from reality.

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The young man leading the tour has us start by shouting obscenities. This is to make sure we can handle his excessive profanity, which he explains is just how Irish people speak. There are worse ways to start a day than by shouting, “Fuck!” with a group of strangers. It puts me in the spirit right away.

We’re treated to many entertaining stories and facts throughout the tour. At Christchurch Cathedral, the man says, “People used to be buried in the walls of this church. But when the methane gas from their bodies built up the walls exploded. Imagine being a bored kid at church and a skeleton comes bursting out of the wall at you.” Sounds a lot better than a sermon.

He also tells us a lovely tale of two brothers who put a plaque on one of Dublin’s bridges, commemorating a priest who had driven his carriage off the bridge. Twenty years passed before the city realized it wasn’t an official plaque and the story was completely made up. It turned out the boys’ father had told them the story and they placed the plaque in his memory after he died. The city allowed it to remain on the bridge. That’s what I call heartwarming.

Before I know it, the tour is over and I’m catching a bus to Galway, hoping the nagging loneliness will disappear and I can simply enjoy my independence and appreciate the bravery of what I’m doing.

To be continued in my next post about Galway, Doolin, and Belfast.

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The great thing about solo travel is taking awkward selfies rather than facing your fear of asking strangers to help take photos of you.

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