Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Livolyn's UK Adventure Part 2

Ok, picking up where I left off in Part 1.

Day 7, Sept. 27:
We had started to hit a wall with London on our third day there. The city was overwhelming, and free wifi was almost impossible to find. But it was Friday, and we were looking forward to dinner with a friend from UNC, and hoping to meet up with one of my friends from frisbee in Cincinnati, who also happens to be a UNC student studying abroad in London. We caught the changing of the guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, but got tired of standing on our toes and peering over shoulders to glimpse of red uniforms behind palace gates, so we left early.

We met up with our friend Maria for dinner after a long day of walking. She had offered to cook dinner in her flat, so we picked up a bottle of wine to go with it. Once in her flat, we had access to wifi, and realized that my friend Bridget lived in the same building! What a coincidence. She came over, and we caught up.

We headed out in search of some nifty bars, a group of six of us. But oddly enough, there's no obvious student bars district next to the University College London campus, so it ended up being a long walk. Ten minutes in, someone had an inspiration.

"Hey, let's stop and get a roadie!" So we turned in at a small convenience store and bought a four pack of Stella, and Carolyn chose a pre-mixed Jack and Coke in a can, for the novelty's sake, excited to take advantage of lax open container laws. We finally ended up in Covent Garden, and stepped into a bar with people spilling out of multiple doors onto the tiny patio. We wedged ourselves into the bar and ordered some fine European beers, then huddled in a corner talking to ourselves like anti-social Americans. Ten minutes later I noticed Carolyn was in a rather heated conversation with a Brit about journalism and ethics. He'd introduced himself to Carolyn and another guy who was with us because he heard our 'foreign' accents and decided he would like to meet some travelers. When we were all in need of a second drink, he and I stood at the bar next to each other.

"What's your name again?" I asked.
He looked at me disapproving.
"Now what kind of a name could possibly sound like Clock?"
I panicked, trying to think of names that rhyme with clock.
"Claude?" I tried, hopelessly.
"What's Superman's name?" he asked, laughing.
"Oh, Clark!" It finally registered.

Clark was very friendly and bought a round of drinks for all the Americans. Since he was so interested in journalism and its influence over people's view of the world, he was intrigued by my experience as a professional reporter. Carolyn and I realized it was nearly midnight, and we knew if we wanted to ride the Tube back to our hostel we needed to make it to a station before midnight. So we dashed out and left our friends in Clark's hands. Turns out, we missed a wild night, but we had high hopes for Saturday night.

Day 8, Sept. 28:
I was on my way back for seconds at breakfast in the hostel the next morning when a British guy approached me and said hey, how are you. It took three seconds for me to recognize our friend Alex, who lives outside of London and had taken the train in to hang out with us on our last day in the city. Alex studied abroad at UNC for a year and was proudly sporting a game day T-shirt under his jacket.

He offered to give us the insider's tour of London, so we hopped on the Tube yet again. I soon parted ways with them to join Bridget for one more attempt at experiencing UK ultimate. This time I had communicated with the point of contact for a pick-up group on the south side of London, at the last stop in zone 2 on the Northern line. It started at 11, so in true ultimate fashion, we showed up at 11:30. The group was just finishing some warm-up throws and invited us to join them in a warm-up game. I wasn't really sure what this entailed, but I ran out to the line to join. Since Bridget and I were the only girls at that point, they asked one of us to put on a white shirt. I hadn't brought one. Bridget grimaced and pulled out the only white she'd brought, with the letters USA emblazoned across the front in bright red.

"Get it, Captain America!" I heckled.

To get their muscles warmed up, this group started with several 'walking points.' I'd never played a point where running was strictly forbidden, and found it completely counter-intuitive. My body wants to sprint!

"Are layouts allowed?" I asked.
"Only if you jump with one foot," someone responded. Wow, I didn't expect there to be an exact rule on that.

The walking point was followed by a skipping point, which was followed by a jogging point, and then a few full-speed points, which made me finally realize how much out of ultimate shape I'd already gotten in two weeks off. Then they took a break and led us through a full plyo warm-up, with almost all the same exercises and stretches we use here. It was fascinating how universal the terms and drills are in ultimate.

We left early to meet back up with Alex and Carolyn to explore a giant NFL tailgate party happening on Regent Street, which we found awfully ironic. It was masses of people standing in lines for the chance to throw an NFL regulation-size football, or try a kick, or learn a simple play. The Steelers and Vikings were playing each other in London the next day as part of the NFL's attempt to gain some traction overseas, so the players of both teams made appearances on a stage in the middle of the street. But in order for it to have been a true American tailgate, there needed to be about 842 times as much beer and food, specifically fried chicken.

Our legs were starting to feel the toll of four days walking London up and down, but we pushed through to return to Camden Town for a look around, drawn in by the promise of Nitro Ice Cream, which we'd seen the day before when we'd first explored it. We ordered chocolate with hazelnuts, and watched in awe as they poured liquid nitrogen into a mixing bowl of cream and chocolate and whatever else you need to make ice cream, freezing it instantly and scooping it into a bowl to serve. While in line, Carolyn also decided to splurge on hot chocolate, which turned out to be one of the wisest decisions of the trip. It was mind-blowingly rich and thick.

We parted with Alex after checking one final London experience off our list -- fish and chips from a true English pub. We returned to our hostel, planning to take a rally nap before heading out for our last night on the town. But Carolyn decided to stay in, so I tried to meet up with Bridget and company. But we got a late start, and discovered to my extreme disappointment that all of the bars in London close at midnight, at which point you're expected to move to the clubs, which stay open most of the night. But not being quite ready for the club scene, we ended our night after a few Stellas and a fruitless misty walk in search of a late-night bar. I'd missed the last train back to my hostel, but Bridget managed to interpret the night bus schedule for me, and I left in search of the nearest bus station, armed with the numbers of three bus lines that would take me home scrawled on my hand. I had no map other than the mental one I'd developed in the previous four days, but I put my chin up and decided to own the experience. I hopped on a double-decker bus headed to my hostel's neighborhood, and listened intently as the stops were called out. I got off successfully, and found a map at the next street corner. A young man approached me claiming to be lost, but I couldn't help him find his way. He offered to try to help me.

"What street are you looking for? Maybe I know it," he said.
Alarms started going off in my head. It'd be super easy for him to jump me if he already knows where I'm going. 
"Actually I've got it, and I'm sorry I can't help you out," I said, and strode away purposefully in the right direction. I'd only gotten a glimpse at the map, but my navigation skills hadn't steered me wrong in London yet, so I followed my instincts through the dimly lit streets and intersections, always looking left, right, left-right-left-right-I-have-no-idea-which-direction-the-cars-might-be-coming-from-left-right-GO!

I got to my hostel 10 minutes later, feeling empowered for having handled several challenging situations in one night, including making it home for free without a map. But when all the doors to the hostel were locked, my confidence melted away. I tried all the doors desperately, until an older British lady walking past asked what I was looking for. I said I thought I was locked out of my hostel.

"Well why don't you try the bell?" she said patiently, pointing to a small white button to the side of the door that I'd completely overlooked. The hostel attendant opened the door immediately, and I let a wave of relief wash over me.

Day 9, Sept. 29:
Our next stop was Bristol via Megabus, where we stayed with my friend Will from a previous international exchange trip, and his girlfriend Jules. They were the loveliest hosts imaginable, picking us up directly from the bus stop, and giving us a tour of Bristol's highlights, including a stop for a traditional English Sunday roast, and a visit to a floating cider bar, where we had the most delicious, and strongest hard cider I've ever had.

Jules and Will live in Portishead, a small coastal town with a view across the Bristol Channel to Wales. In our two days staying with them we got to experience British life at a much slower, and more enjoyable pace than in London.

On our way out of Bristol, we stopped at the Isembard Kingdom Brunel bridge across an amazing gorge on the edge of town. Next to it was a natural slide worn into a steep rock face on a hill. Thousands of people's butts have worn the rock so slippery that it looks wet and is so shiny you can see your reflection. It drops you down the hill at a terrifying pace before vaulting you off into a rock at the bottom, so if you're ever there, slide at your own risk.

We were thrilled to sleep in a real bed, instead of the triple-decker bunk beds with three-inch foam mattresses our last luxury lodgings had provided. Our backs still bore an impression of the metal grate under the mattresses, and my left buttock had somehow developed a deep tissue soreness from contorting into the only comfortable position I could find.

Day 10, Sept. 30:

Our second day in Bristol was all about food. We went into Portishead for a traditional English breakfast in a pub that I fell in love with. In England it's the norm to seat yourself at any open table in a pub, then order food and drinks at the counter, leaving your table number with the staff. You pay immediately, and you're not expected to tip, so you can leave whenever you please without the hassle of closing a tab. It's much more relaxing than the American norm of flagging down a waiter for a check.

Once our stomachs had cleared out some room, we went to a fancy hotel for afternoon tea, something Carolyn couldn't bear to leave England without experiencing. It was delightful.

Then, back once more to downtown Bristol, after a drive through the British countryside that left me frazzled and confused from driving on the left side, and riding in the left-hand passenger side, we decided to blow the rest of our pounds on some fancy cocktails from a speakeasy-style club. Will led us to an imposing carved wooden door with no sign above it. He double checked the listing on Google, then rang the bell.

A butler opened the door. "Yes?"
"We're here for Milk Thistle," Will said.
"Right this way."
The attendant led us into a plush bar with low long booths and a gentleman's decor heavy on the taxidermy. The menu featured 15 to 20 cocktails, some traditional, and some unique to this bar. We tried four different ones and sampled each other's.

Day 11, Oct. 1:
We woke bright and early to catch our second and final Ryanair flight from Bristol back to Dublin, with a final destination of Galway, to stay with my friend Laura, whom I'd met on my last trip to Europe. In the Bristol airport, the Ryanair employee who checked us in chuckled as he handed us back our American passports.

"So what's going on with your parliament?" he asked.
We groaned. "Did they actually shut down the government?" we asked.
"Yes, just a few hours ago they missed the deadline," he said, clearly more updated on American politics than we were. #vacation
Carolyn and I weighed out the possibility that we might end up in a Tom Hanks-esque Terminal situation, and be unable to return home because our government had quit on us.

At the Dublin airport, Carolyn was finally reunited with her bag. She then set out on a campaign to promote the double backpack look, as she was now carrying enough luggage for two people.

"I'm going to wear two outfits a day, just because I can!" she declared.

Another friendly bus driver helped us figure out how to take an earlier bus than we had planned, and we arrived around 2 p.m. in Galway, just in time to catch Laura on her lunch break.

We were walking to meet her when we spotted each other, and once again it took me a moment to recognize her. It felt so bizarre meeting up with a friend in such a foreign environment.

"Shall we go for a cup of tea?" she asked in her musical Irish accent.

Laura drew us a map to get to her flat and gave us suggestions for exploring the small, seaside university town. We found it easily, and used her computer to plan out the remaining five days of our trip. Then we appeased our starving bellies by splitting a traditional Irish 5 euro footlong from Subway. We explored Galway's rocky coast and dipped our hands in the Atlantic, waving back to America.

"Actually I think that might be Greenland," I said.

We waved in all directions just to cover our bases.

We made it back to the pedestrian-only street lined with pubs and shops. We stopped in at one on a whim and ordered a sticky toffee pudding, an Irish coffee and a Guinness. With our first bite into the pudding, both our lives changed forever.

"What even is this?" we both asked, then googled the recipe. We savored it as long as we could, and then, slightly buzzed from our drinks, we began to dream about the ideal cafe/restaurant that we could open back in the U.S. that would represent the sum total of all our most amazing experiences in the U.K.

We wandered the streets of Galway some more and then ended the night back at Laura's, where we improvised beds with couch cushions and blankets on the floor.

Day 12, Oct. 2:
We caught our next bus out to a town called Doolin, that sits about eight kilometers of rugged wave-crashing coastline away from the famous Cliffs of Moher, a.k.a. the Cliffs of Insanity from the Princess Bride. It was a two-hour bus trip through the windiest, tiniest country lanes, with bumps and jolts that made the Greyhound bus feel more like a small airplane. The scenery gradually changed from flat Ohio-like farmland to rocky hillsides dotted with stone farmhouses and the odd castle here and there. For the first hour, an older lady sat behind the bus driver, catching him up on the latest gossip and her life in the past month. She must take this trip often. Hers was a real country Irish accent, which was a struggle for me to understand, but her rolled 'r's and rich tones almost lulled me to sleep. She got off several towns before us, but another older lady climbed on and took her place, picking up another conversation with the bus driver that seemed to have been left off just a few days before. Public transportation is an entirely different concept in rural Ireland than urban America.

We put our stuff down in our hostel, caught a bus to the cliffs, then walked along the cliffs at the ocean's edge, skirting by herds of cattle and sheep, and climbing over stiles from one pasture to another. It was incredible and the weather was perfect until the last 30 minutes, when a blowing rain came up from our right and soaked us on one half, but left us almost dry on the left. We made it home to change shirts, get our rain jackets, and then walked out to the pier to take a boat tour of the cliffs. But we had just missed the boat, so we had to wait an hour for the next one. We took shelter inside the tourist information building, hanging out with an enthusiastic Polish ex-pat who worked for the cruises.

The rain and the sun kept fighting over the sky, and we were nervous our voyage might be more like a swim, but then the sun pierced through the clouds and illuminated the cliffs for us right up until our boat turned around and headed back to the pier. Two nice American tourists who had rented a car gave us a ride back to the hostel, and we ended the evening with seafood chowder and fresh mussels from one of the two pubs in town. We read in the hostel common room by the wood stove until we couldn't keep our eyes open another minute.

Day 13, Oct. 3:
We had another bus to catch early, so once again we went without any breakfast. This trip had a few changes, and on our first leg we snagged a prime seat in the back of the bus where you could prop your feet up on the emergency stair rail. A young Irish man slumped into the back row behind us and began chatting excitedly, but in hushed tones, on his cellphone. His accent was so thick it sounded like a foreign language, except for every 15th word. But he kept saying, "yeah, come to the back of the bus."

At the next stop, a friend joined him. A big lumbering dude with an impish grin plastered on his face. I was casually enjoying the free wifi and browsing my Facebook, when the friend sat down right behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder.

"Hey can I have your number?" he asked, laughing.
I said no, indignantly, without looking up.
"Oh, you could just add me on Facebook," he suggested.
I decided that comment didn't even deserve a response, but I was quite taken aback by his boldness.
I pulled out my pen and notebook to try to catch up on days' worth of journaling, but I dropped my pen.
The guy jumped out of his seat and grabbed it off the floor for me, handing it back with a flourish.
"See he's a gentleman," his friend said. I thanked him, completely confused about why these two seemed so interested in me.
I went back to journaling, and the two began a heated discussion. Through the accent I still made out the words "100 quid" and "best price anywhere" multiple times. I didn't dare turn my head to see what they were discussing, since I was already a little sketched out.
The boys went quiet for a second.
Then 100 euros worth of weed dropped onto my shoulder.
"Hey, whoa, I don't want that!" I said as the 'gentleman' grabbed the bag that I was flicking off my shoulder, apologizing for his friend, and going right back to haggling over the price.
Carolyn, who had been oblivious to my previous interactions with this pair, finally noticed something was up.
What is wrong with these guys?
We had ten minutes of peace. Then, "Will you marry me?" the 'gentleman' asked. But he could barely spit out the words without choking on his own inane laughter.
That brought out some strong words as I told him to leave me alone, and he finally did.

We checked into a hostel in Killarney, which sits nestled in the foothills of Killarney National Park and the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's tallest mountain range. We took a hike up to an excellent viewpoint of the park, and laid around in a meadow of wild flowers, taking Pinteresting photos. Later we walked into town via a bike path and a trail into the national park, which is teeming with elk. We went straight to the closest Tesco and eyed all the food greedily like kids in a candy shop. We settled on making a pasta dish, buying eggs for breakfast, and sandwiches for lunch the next day, when we planned to do an 11 km hike through the park.

Several experiences throughout the day reinforced a lesson the trip had been teaching me over and over: the value of asking for help. It earned us a free bus trip from town to the hostel, a second night in a 4-person dorm for the same price as the 10-person room we'd already booked, and a cup of milk to cook our pasta. Asking just provides an opportunity for someone to surprise and delight you.

Day 14, Oct. 4:
On our second day in Killarney, we met the most inspiring and fascinating fellow travelers. We booked an organized tour of the Gap of Dunloe, which provided a ride on a vintage bus to the beginning of the gap, then you walked 11 km through the mountain pass to a lake, then took a boat ride through the lakes to a small castle, and then rode in the bus back to town. There were only seven of us in the bus, and Carolyn and I bolted out first, cameras at the ready. We dodged several aggressive gentlemen trying to convince us to take a pony ride or an open carriage ride through the gap. But at this point in our trip we were no strangers to walking. We were about to settle into a nice, brisk pace, when a voice behind us stopped us.

"Girls! Girls, wait!" We turned.
An older, but extremely fit woman, who had ridden the same bus, was running after us. Catching up, she asked if we could walk together -- Carolyn, me, her and her husband. Carolyn and I looked at each other doubtfully, sharing unspoken objections in our eyes.
"...unless you walk really fast," she trailed off, unknowing she'd just touched on Carolyn's and my main point of contention throughout the trip.
We both laughed.
"She does!" Carolyn said, with a friendly glare. "But we don't need to, since we have three hours until we have to be at the boat."
So we shrugged and let them join us. Dinaz waved over her husband Hosi and they introduced themselves. It took two minutes to realize we'd just made the best decision of the trip. Dinaz didn't volunteer information about herself, but if you asked about her life and travels, she had a wealth of stories to offer. They had traveled all over -- Europe, Australia, parts of the U.S. and New Zealand. The trip with the Kiwis was our favorite to hear about. Dinaz, who I'm starting to think may be a closet adrenaline junkie, got her fill of thrills on that trip, trying paragliding, skydiving and white water rafting. For the rafting trip, she'd had to tag along with a group of English school boys because it was the tail end of the season.
"No one expected to see me, a 60-year-old Indian woman in with these proper English boys sitting straight backed, and I'm the one joking and trying to push them off the boat!" she laughed, remembering it.

We swapped adventure stories as we continued the walk through towering, rugged peaks dotted with bright green moss clinging to cliff faces. Visibility wasn't great, but it still gave us a glimpse of the majesty around us, until it started raining. Hosi and Dinaz, who revealed she needs a hip replacement, but since it doesn't hold her back her too much she's reluctant to bother it, flagged down a car traveling through the pass and got a lift, but Carolyn and I trudged onward. We crossed over the highest point of the trail, and below us and ahead of us the sun had burst through, leaving the rain behind us. One dogged pony cart driver caught up with us and tried to coax us into his cart, warning us we still had another three miles to walk. We shrugged him off and kept walking, but he was determined, so he trailed us for a good fifteen minutes until he finally clucked to his pony and sped on.

We finished the walk and reunited with Dinaz and Hosi, along with a German girl named Lisa, who had beaten us to the cafe at the end of the trail. We piled into the open air oversized powered canoe and pushed off from shore, our tour guide beginning to describe the small lake we were traveling through. But then his cell phone rang, and he looked around, then turned the boat around. Back at the dock, he stood up with an embarrassed laugh and said, "I forgot my dog." He whistled for Brax, who came bounding down and hopped in, making instant friends with Carolyn and me because of our sandwiches. Once again we pushed off from the shore and made it out ten minutes, when the phone rang again. He'd forgotten his jacket, but he decided he could do without it.
"And I thought I was forgetful," Dinaz said over her shoulder, with a laugh.

The tour ended at a small castle, and we stayed that evening in town to enjoy one last Sticky Toffee Pudding at a restaurant Dinaz recommended. We hopped around a few bars before meeting up with Lisa and others from her hostel and found a bar serving an exotic foreign craft beer, aka Blue Moon. But we all ended the night early since we were all exhausted travelers tuckered out from weeks on the road.

Day 15, Oct. 5:

We took the bus to Cork the next day and tried to tour around the city in a daze. But we found that unless something involved eating or sleeping, we weren't too interested in it. So we retired to our hostel with a frozen pizza and a bottle of wine, and spent the night packing and celebrating our impending return to the U.S.

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