• Facebook
    • Google+
    • Instagram
    • Twitter
    • Get new posts sent to your inbox!
      Enter your email address below:

  • Saturday, August 30, 2014

    The Sistine Chapel vs. Handwritten Notes on a Birthday Card

    When you sleep in a cow pasture with no cows, your thoughts at dawn are often consumed by one thing: what if the cows come back. Even with a very slim chance of being trampled, the thought made it impossible to simply roll over and go back to sleep. Needless to say, I was on the road early.

    In the next town of Ardboe, which ironically means "height of the cows" in Irish, I walked into a small grocery store to get breakfast.

    “So, I see you didn’t make it much further yesterday,” said a man named Conner who I was surprised to see behind the counter. I had met him the afternoon before in another shop a few miles down the road. I didn’t think I was making bad time, but then again, it’s easy to forget that it takes me two or three days to walk the distance you can drive in an hour.

    Conner told me the cooks in the back would have the hot breakfast food out soon and he let me charge my phone while I waited.

    I checked for a cell signal again, but still nothing. I realized earlier, that I didn’t have the maps for my next section of trail and hadn't had cell service to download them for many miles. 

    “Do you know if any of the pubs or anywhere else around here has free WiFi?” I asked. He said Cookstown had free WiFi all over the city, even in the parks, but that wasn't on my planned route.

    Just then, a man named Phelim walked in to buy a newspaper.

    “Phelim, do you know if any of the pubs in Ballyronan or Magherafelt have free WiFi?” Conner asked, and then introduced me and explained why he was asking. 

    “You can use our WiFi,” Phelim said. He was visiting his mother in the house next door. “When you get your breakfast, bring it on over. Do you want tea or coffee?”

    Only in a country as friendly as Ireland can you go from walking down the road to sitting at a stranger’s kitchen table so quickly. I went back to where they were serving the hot food, asked for two of everything, then went next door.

    Phelim's wife, Ann, set a hot cup of coffee down in front of me, then a plate of toast. After eating, they let me take a shower upstairs and then I downloaded the maps. Before getting back on the road, Phelim gave me his contact information in case I ran into any trouble, including his land line number, cell number, work number, Ann’s cell number, and the address of their home.

    “Where are you going next?” he asked.

    “I think I’m going to camp near the harbor in Ballyronan,” I said, referring to a small harbor town just five miles away with an area on the lake where camping is allowed.

    Phelim recommended his cousin’s pub in Ballyronan, called The Cove Bar, and said his sister owns a grocery store next door where I could get anything else I needed. More on that in my next post, though, because I wouldn’t even make it the five miles to Ballyronan.

    I walked up the alley between the house and grocery store and saw Conner getting ready to leave for the day. We stood between the buildings and talked about travelling, hitchhiking, and staying in the homes of strangers who we meet along the way. 

    “A friend and I were travelling around Rome,” he said. “And we met an Italian man who told us we should skip all of the tours and just walk around the city. He said, don't even take a tourist map. Just walk around, explore the city, and see what you find without any expectations.”

    “If you don’t have expectations, you don’t have disappointment," I said.

    “Right, so we did," he said. "We just walked around the streets not sure where anything was or where we were going. We see this huge church and decide to have a look inside. There were all these people lying on their backs staring at the ceiling and crying. We looked up and were like, oh, this is the Sistine Chapel.” 

    It’s never been a big motivation of mine to go see The Sistine Chapel, but something about that story got me thinking. By walking, I get to have so many experiences that I would not have had if I simply hopped around on a bus like everyone else, but suddenly, I started thinking of all the things I would miss if I didn’t. 

    Regardless, I knew I still wanted to walk across Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, so I kept moving up the road. Only now I was thinking about coliseums in Rome, priceless works of art in Paris, canals in Venice, festivals in Spain, and all of the things that somehow only seemed like props in a fairy tale until imagining myself accidentally wandering into the Sistine Chapel.

    Leaving Ardboe by walking along the side of a shoulder-less road was slow-going for a while. It was the annual Lap the Lough cycling event, where two thousand cyclists ride around Lough Neagh, the big blue body of water you’ll quickly spot on any map of Northern Ireland, to raise money for charities. After dodging traffic and cyclists for a couple of miles, I stopped to let a car pull out of a driveway.

    “We’re just about to have dinner at our parent’s house,” the passenger said, who introduced himself as Shane. “You want to join us?”

    I wonder how many people would have said, “Sure,” as I did. I know I wouldn’t have even three years before this, but that was a lifetime ago.

    “You see that wall down there?” he asked and pointed to a concrete wall surrounding a house a half a block away. “That’s the house.”

    He offered to get out and let me ride over in the backseat, but I said I'd just walk the short distance. I followed them into the house and right to the food, which sat in pots and serving dishes on the stove. 

    “This is Ryan,” Shane said to his mother while scooping a little of everything onto a plate. “He was walking. We invited him over for dinner.”

    "Hi Ryan,” she said. “Get you a plate and help yourself.”

    After dinner, their dad told me I was welcome to stay at their house as long as I wanted.

    “Once we told an Australian man he could stay here as long as he wanted,” he said. “And he didn’t leave for four and a half weeks.”

    (Photo: Shane in Duffs Bar)
    I loved how abnormal all of this wasn’t.

    After dinner, they took me to their other brother’s bar down the street called Duffs. There couldn't have been more than a dozen people in the bar, but it was packed. This was the place in town to get away from everything, particularly because nobody's cell phones would work inside Duffs. When you go in, you are off the grid. There is something very appealing in that. Not everyone seemed to agree, though, as I notice several cell phones propped up against windows reaching for a weak signal.

    “Hey, it’s Bruce Banner!” someone yelled to me. “We saw you walking down the street earlier.”

    I instantly loved the bar, the people, and even liked the nickname.

    Shane bought me my first pint of Guinness for the night and I took a seat with a view of the game on TV.

    “Have you ever watched Gaelic Football?” someone asked. I hadn’t, but even though I’m not into sports, my eyes rarely left the screen after the Mayo-Kerry match began. 

    To my fellow Americans, I’ll try to describe Gaelic-rules Football as simply as I can. It's like soccer, football, and basketball had a crazy threesome and soccer got pregnant, but they don't want to know who the real father was because they all love each other equally and knowing would tear their weird polyamorous relationship apart, but football and basketball both secretly think the game looks an awful lot like them. Also, it's played on a rectangular grass pitch between two teams of fifteen. For these reasons, Gaelic football has become the most popular sport in Ireland.

    Even though I haven't really liked watching sports for years, and even though the game ended in a tie, an unfortunate trait that Gaelic football no doubt got from its soccer side of the family, I thoroughly loved watching this face-paced game. Perhaps it was largely due to the joyfully drinking and shouting Irish sitting all around me, who I could scarcely understand, but who clearly loved the game.

    Afterwards, Shane and I hopped into a taxi that was about to take two other people to the Battery Bar a couple of miles up the road. They were having an event called Rockstock, where I'd watch a Thin Lizzy tribute band and meet an amazing group of people. I had such a great time, not only because they treated me like a celebrity who wandered into their town, but because they made it so easy for me to relax and be myself among so many strangers. This is not normal for me. 

    “Hey, you're the guy in the store today who couldn’t decide what he wanted for breakfast,” said the girl who served me in the small grocery store that morning. In my defense, Conner said they’d be putting out more food later, so when I asked her if that was all they had, it was just me waiting to see all my options before choosing, not me putting down the limited choices. I tried to explain this to her.

    “I just thought you were another asshole customer,” she said. “Until I heard your American accent then I didn't mind.” This night was the first time I'd realize they like my accent in Ireland, I'm not looking forward to going back to America where this will vanish completely. I need to work on a convincing Irish accent while I am here, so I can continue being automatically interesting in the states without having to do anything special.

    My only regret for the night was drinking too much. So many people bought me a drink, that I'll probably never get any closer to knowing what it's like to be the hot girl in a bar. All of that alcohol triggered a debilitating migraine, though. I don’t understand why. I only had seven pints. That isn’t even a gallon!

    After the migraine reached its peak, I couldn't even talk to anyone anymore. People were singing and laughing, but instead of joining them, like I badly wanted to, I had to go outside in the chilly, cold, dark night to be alone. My pain on the inside turned me back into the usual introvert on the outside, sort of the opposite effect that alcohol has on most people.

    I was ready to go home, but I wasn’t absolutely sure where home was. I stayed at the bar waiting for Shane or his brothers to be ready to leave, but they were the source of much of the laughing and singing. In fact, they were the center of the only spot left in the bar where people were wide awake and enjoying life. They were like a campfire of joy and life that people wanted to crowd around. While I, on the other hand, was a cold lifeless void trying desperately to avoid vomiting on the floor.

    At 2:30 in the morning, when the bar began kicking people out, we squeezed into a taxi with me being the extra occupant that the vehicle was not designed for.

    It was still such an incredible night, regardless of the migraine, and I have the welcoming and friendly people living near the small town of Ardboe to thank for that. At the house, a note was sitting on the kitchen counter from their father, written inside of someone’s birthday card:
    “Only a man like me would use your birthday card for a letter welcoming Ryan into this house. It’s what a home should be and I expect every person to treat it as such. I know you will. My boys know who is a friend and will get rid of an asshole quick. As I will be sleeping, and don’t want any hassle, if Ryan wants to stay for a few days there is not a problem. Get his mobile number because I have family in America and the world can be a small place.”
    I know there are the Sistine Chapels of the world to see, but I don't want to see them at the expense of witnessing the hospitality of such amazing people. It's not tourist attractions, but these people who are making this trip what it is. And it's the most random small towns where I am finding the best of them. Places I would never know to visit if not for walking.

    Is there a way to have both, see the site and meet the people in such a way? I popped a few migraine pills and got into bed. While the pain in my head slowly faded, the answer to this question seemed so obvious. Hitchhiking. Once I finish my walk across Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, rather than continue the walk across France, maybe I need to put out a thumb. I still don't know if that's what I'll do, but I still have a lot of time to think about it.