Last Adventures of 2017

Somehow, it’s the end of December and this year has whizzed by and long story short I’m going to be 85 any day now and screaming at children to get off my lawn. As I make plans for upcoming travels next year (Scotland, here I come!), I started to think back on where I’ve been this year as well. At first, I was a little disappointed with myself. I ended 2016 and started 2017 strong, in terms of traveling. Going on two international trips back-to-back within six months of each other while on a nonprofit budget is no easy feat, but if I could explore a new place every month, I would.

And because of this, I took the rest of 2017 easy, and stayed stateside. Although I initially was a little bitter that I hadn’t managed to squeeze another international trip into my schedule in the last six months of this year, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the trips that are based just as much in friendship as they are in adventure are just as important.

I spent summer re-introducing myself to D.C. I hiked a lot, took on new responsibilities at my job, and spent a lot of time on those iconic D.C. rooftop bars with friends. But by the time August rolled around, I wasn’t just getting antsy from a lack of new location – I was drowning in heat. Washington, D.C., had one of its longest summers yet, and we were sweltering in humid temperatures well into October. As someone who un-ironically loves autumn (minus the Pumpkin Spiced Lattes), this was not fun for me. So although my fingers hovered over purchasing a quick flight to the wilderness of northern Canada, I instead planned two trips within the United States to visit friends, save money, and escape the humidity.

In late August, I visited my friend Kate Hay – the tiny, fiery woman in my life who I was lucky enough to meet when living in Bath, England, as my housemate. Kate has more spark and personality than the next ten people combined, so a spontaneous trip to her family’s home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was the perfect getaway from baking in the marble and concrete-lined streets of our capital city. She is my go-to adventure buddy – the only friend I can rely on to immediately say “Where are we going?” when I ask her to book a plane ticket with me.

Almost as important as her love of international travel is Kate’s understanding of the important things in life. A.K.A., tacos. Get yourself a friend who immediately takes you to tacos and margaritas upon arrival after a hellish 4 hour drive that involved an entire tree hitting the side of your car in the middle of a storm. This, coupled with a long couple weeks at work, made Kate and her brother Elliott (and the entire Hay family, to be honest) my heroes for taking me in. And for bringing me to tacos.

Even though I claim a pretty small, historic Virginia college town as home to my alma mater, I have to admit that I’ve always thought of Harrisonburg as kind of just a tiny little farming town with a strip of bars that catered to James Madison University students. Harrisonburg is still surrounded by farms and does indeed have plenty of bars for JMU students, but it was also charming and had so much more to do than I expected and have I mentioned tacos?

We ate tacos and drank margaritas on the roof of Magnolia’s Taco and Tequila Bar and talked about Kate and Elliott’s upcoming plans to hike coast-to-coast through England’s countryside with their parents. We talked about Elliott’s life in the Philippines, where he goes to school, and we talked about all the places we all still want to go. Having friends who understand the constant need to board planes is such an incredible, refreshing thing.

We went to an arcade bar before calling it a night, and got up bright and early for Harrisonburg’s farmer’s market, which was predictably adorable. Here, we ate waffles out of a food truck which I, predictably spilled all over myself. We then for some reason decided to walk three miles across town with the entire Hay family to go to a co-op restaurant, where I had all the southern trappings of biscuits and sausage. I was in heaven.

Afterwards, we explored Harrisonburg and drank fancy things like lavender lattes. We then drove one town over for food and my first Escape Room experience! Kate and her entire family have a…special obsession with escape rooms. They go to so many that you would think they’re preparing for the apocalypse. But if the apocalypse comes, I want to be locked in a room with Kate and her family. Alongside a few friends, we managed to get out of a military bunker-themed escape room with ten minutes to spare, and I was way too proud of the ONE clue I figured out (it was a team effort, okay?).

The next morning we drove out to do two of my favorite things: drink wine and play with puppies. We got flights of wine out in the sunshine at CrossKeys Vineyards before heading to Gap View Ranch. And lemme tell ya – there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a rough couple weeks than to arrive at ranch full of Golden Retriever puppies in the sunshine while slightly buzzed on wine.

Gap View Ranch is home to a highly esteemed Golden Retriever breeder. I know, I know. Adopt, don’t shop. I’m all about rescuing dogs and I have to constantly restrain myself from driving down to my local shelter and taking every animal home with me (except for cats – what kind of monster wants to own one of those unloving creatures?). However, my family has always had Golden Retrievers, and there’s a reason why they’re one of the most popular dogs on the planet. Our current dog, Breaker, is the light of my life and literally exists just to love and be loved.

So Gap View Ranch, a large farm with rolling hills and pastures with horses and turkeys, is a dream. They allow people to make reservations to come and socialize the puppies, so they’re ready to live and interact with humans when they finally go home with a nice family. This means that I dropped $5 into a tin and got unlimited hours to be covered in big balls of fluff/excitement/love. It is one of the happiest places on earth, and it’s where I want to go to die. Honestly. I want to leave this planet just smothered in puppies.

It was a great way to end a quick, weekend trip. Unfortunately, I had to leave Kate and Elliott and their wonderful, gracious parents immediately afterwards because the entire family was leaving for Europe the very next morning.

 

Summer rolled into fall, but my God, D.C. was really owning up to our dear president’s claim of it being a “swamp.” The humidity and the heat were awful, and it was sometime on a very sweaty walk home in mid-September that I remembered I had a flight voucher that expired at the end of the month. So I, you know, got home and immediately bought a plane ticket to Colorado.

Four months is a long time to go without spending a full weekend with your best friend, so this free ticket to Denver was the perfect opportunity to reunite with my former travel buddy, Patrick, who had just moved to Denver this summer. We started my trip off in the most predictable way possible: we went to a bar that also had a dog park attached to it. Beers and dogs? Yes and yes.

Next up was Patrick’s local haunt, Fiction Beer Company. I was an English major in a literature-themed bar, with beers named after Winnie the Pooh and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was perfect and I loved it (even though we lost spectacularly at trivia).

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The next day we explored Patrick’s neighborhood, got some Popeye’s (of course), and later I met up with my oldest friend since birth, Jessica Weathers. Jessica was born just three weeks before me in the exact same hospital in Naples, Italy, and our families have been close ever since. She had quite literally just moved back to Denver that morning, but still made the time to meet up with me and share a few beers (because I was in Colorado – what else was I supposed to consume?). I hadn’t seen her in years, so this was such a nice surprise!

Afterwards, Patrick and I went to a Colorado Rockies game with his friends and roommates, and although the Nats’ field is still my favorite, that sunset view of the mountains from those high seats wasn’t too shabby either.

Essentially eating and drinking my way through Denver, we hit up an empanada restaurant and then bar-hopped. I was eerily aware of how many white people were everywhere. Yeah, okay, I know I’m white. But Denver looked as if an entire congregation of Episcopalians from the suburbs moved into one city district. It was weird. After living for two and a half years in one of the most diverse cities in the country, it was a bit of an adjustment to be surrounded by a bar of people who looked exactly like me, but with slightly better shoes.

The next morning we did one of my favorite things, and one of the most obnoxiously Colorado things you can do: we went hiking. Unfortunately due to the altitude and the possibility of me vomiting and passing out, we couldn’t do anything crazy cool or with high elevation, but it was still incredibly beautiful. Everyone on the trail looked like a Patagonia model and had a dog with a customized leash. I heard at least five people complaining that their horoscopes didn’t match up with their Tinder dates’. Welcome to Colorful Colorado.

We planned to camp that night but unfortunately all the spots that Patrick had picked out were uh…covered in sleet and snow. I knew it would be colder in Colorado than back in D.C., and I had brought layers, but I was definitely not prepared for snow. It’s also hard to fit all necessary camping gear into one carry-on bag. The conditions were looking pretty terrible, so sadly, we did not get to camp. We drove back to Denver, but with the promise that the next time I visited, we would definitely make sure to spend a night on a mountain.

Coming back to Denver wasn’t so bad though! We ended up having an incredible meal out and then somehow ended up in another arcade bar, which I loved. We killed it at skee ball and I played my first game of Pac-Man ever, which was stressful. I screamed a lot and spilled my beer. People stared. We went to an excellent gay bar and some very nice but very intimidatingly tall ladies tried to flirt with me and I had to very gently turn them down.

The next day we drove out to Boulder to hike some more but while on the trail some sketchy-looking storms started to roll in over the mountains. Once again, my dreams of becoming the next Emma Gatewood were thwarted by weather. We instead uh…went back to the start of the trailhead and illegally drank some beers that were intended for the top of the mountain. Really felt like the outdoorswoman I’ve always aspired to be.

In a move that was beginning to feel very similar to our pub-hopping adventure in Dublin earlier this year, Patrick and I promptly found Avery Brewing Co. and ordered more beer. We also very ambitiously ordered a $50 plate of meat, which included at least 3 different kinds of brisket. The waitress led us into this trap and told us that it was “probably enough to share between two people.” The leftovers lasted through Patrick’s lunches for the rest of the week.

It was another short trip, but an incredible one. In an age where most people get distracted by the next swipe on Tinder, it’s nice to know that relationships with people like Kate, Jessica, and Patrick can withstand distance and time. And after months of being apart, it was so nice to finally be back with my best friend, falling into old patterns of staying up until 4 a.m. talking and watching Trainspotting.

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Both trips were also a nice reminder that although I’ve traveled to twenty countries (and am planning many more for next year), there are so many places in the United States that I still haven’t explored. My bad knee is still a little shaky from that ACL reconstruction surgery those years ago, but seeing the Rocky Mountains made me even more determined to get stronger, to climb more mountains, to push myself harder. Since returning to the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah, I’ve spent the past few months hiking more and more by myself, and I can’t wait to go back to Colorado soon and – pending adjustment to the altitude – hike some more mountains and drink some more beers.

I’m home now, back at the beach with my family for the holidays. And I love being near the ocean. I have always grown up beside it, and I somehow become magically graceful in the water, so it’s a nice, familiar thing to come back to. But I’ve come to really like the accomplishment of reaching a mountain’s peak. And most importantly, I’m grateful to have friends who are still willing to adventure with me, no matter where we are in the country. As this year comes to a close, I’m looking forward to exploring even more in 2018. Kate – get ready for Scotland in a few months.

The Land of Fire and Ice: Part 2

We drove through the late afternoon and evening to the southern coast. So much of this trip was spent in the car, but it never got old. There was just so much to look at outside the window, and to talk about inside the car.

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Our hostel was situated right in front of another enormous waterfall named Skógafoss, but by the time we got there, it was pitch black out, and there wasn’t a lot of street lighting, so you couldn’t see the waterfall at all. In fact, you could barely see five feet in front of you; I had to pull out my iPhone flashlight to get from the car to the front door of the hostel. I could hear the roar of the waterfall in the distance, and it was odd that I couldn’t see it.

We ate our incredible dinner of instant ramen and salami in the kitchen of the hostel before returning to our rooms, which had been upgraded to an oh-so-fancy guesthouse. We had found a brand of Citterio’s Milano salami in the grocery stories of Iceland, and it was addictive. We started going through almost 10 packets of the stuff a day, sneakily eating our stash of salami in the backseat when the other wasn’t looking. My sodium levels had never been so high.

In the morning, we popped over to the massive Skógafoss waterfall which was, of course, just casually sitting in the backyard of this hostel and small restaurant – the only civilization for miles. Because where else do you build your affordable travel hotel? In front of a massive waterfall, which you can just…walk up to, of course. After a few Patrick glamor photoshoots, we set out along the coast towards Vík.

The expanse of land in Iceland is indescribable. I can sit here and write that the horizon stretched for miles and miles – never-ending views of dark rocks and green moss and roads – but I can’t do it justice. There’s no way to really describe how it feels to drive with the mountains and glaciers on your left, and the coast on your right, and how it all seemed both incredibly close and impossibly far, at the same time. 

You could actually see glaciers! From a distance! We would simply drive to them if we wanted, along the way (and we did). Iceland has a way of making you feel extremely small.

We stopped along the cliffs of Vík, and then to its black sand beaches and basalt columns, which we climbed like kids on a playground. I loved these beaches, but was sad that we had missed Puffin season, when the clumsy birds would topple down the hills and flop around in their bright orange and black feathers.

The water at the beach was the coldest water I’ve ever touched. We laid down on the black stones and spread our arms and legs far, making “sand angels.” We stared up at the cliffs above us, where seagulls careened overhead, and said nothing. As someone who’s incredibly uncomfortable whenever there’s any kind of lull in a conversation, I was okay with not talking in that moment.

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We stopped in the city of Vík, where Patrick had, quote: “One of the best pizzas of my life,” and insisted on returning. I had a lamb burger, because we were in the land of lamb (SHEEP EVERYWHERE). We obviously stopped by the local grocery store on our way out of town to stock up on candy and salami. The teenage cashier looked mighty judgy as I placed 10 packets of salami on the conveyer belt and tried to pay with cash (apparently, credit is king in Iceland) but UGH that salami – it was worth the disdain of local Icelanders.

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On the drive to Jökulsárlón, the famous lagoon of glacial ice, we stopped at Fjaðrárgljúfur – a stunning canyon that would have been a lot more impressive if not for the weird model photoshoot that was happening when we arrived, 30+ cameramen included. I didn’t recognize the model, but also, the world of fashion is a mystery to me, so who knows! Maybe I was chilling with someone famous on the side of a windy cliff in Iceland. All I know is that she blocked a lot of photos that I was trying to take and she was not dressed very practically, considering the chilly weather.

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Jökulsárlón? Jökulsárlón was a dream. I’m glad we arrived just after dusk. The black sand, the eerie, almost luminescent ice – it was like nothing I had ever seen. Huge chunks of glacial ice break off from the source, floating and crashing into one another in the lagoon until making their way out to sea. Massive bodies of ice slamming into each other is an incredible sound – both deafening, and hollow in the way it echoes out across the water. I was so stupidly in love with the idea of walking in between huge pieces of glacier that had washed ashore that I started hugging the mounds of ice and mumbling, “I love you,” in a way that most people don’t talk to frozen water.

The next morning, we got up and got to see Jökulsárlón in the daytime. The sunlight was blinding, reflected through the glaciers, and the wind could almost topple you over. As we took photos in front of the lagoon, a British tourist mooned the entire crowd, and did a little dance without his pants on. Unfortunately, I was too busy laughing to snag any pictures.

We kept driving. It was just endless, straight roads, through hours of moss-covered lava fields. The road would stretch out until you couldn’t see where it ended. Patrick, to his credit, did all the driving and I got to cruise shotgun in the passenger seat throughout the entire trip, which meant I got to do a lot of sight-seeing. We alternated each other’s iPods when we got sick of each other’s music. We traded stories from high school, from both of us living abroad. The mountains and lava fields and sheep after sheep continues to roll by, as I got to know this friend I had never traveled with on a never-ending international road trip.

Somehow, miraculously, we didn’t kill each other. My apprehension of traveling with someone I had never been anywhere with before, was gone. Maybe I annoyed Patrick, and I’m sure he’ll be quick to tell you I did, but never once did I tire of traveling with him. I tried to learn to squash any feelings of awkwardness and instinctively babble to fill the silence, as I usually do when first becoming friends with someone or…in any conversation in general. 

We hiked out to a random waterfall because Patrick saw a dirt road leading off the highway that “might” lead to it, taking special care not to step on the moss-covered rocks (the moss takes almost 100 years to completely regrow, and is extremely fragile). We saw a glacier where multiple European tourists had disappeared (and, you know, uh…died). We made sure not to die, as that’s something that’s very easy to do in Iceland.

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We stopped along the side of the road to pet wild horses and eventually made our way to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where we stood under the roaring waters and got drenched. I almost slipped off the side of the path but luckily the only people who noticed was the large Spanish family that was right behind me. Through it all, I kept a careful eye on the volcano Katla, whenever she appeared on the road beside us. We had planned our trip exactly when Katla was set to erupt at any point over the course of the next two weeks, and we had to be ready to make a run for it if she did.


We were now on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. In the morning, we drove through lava fields to a location that Patrick knew only through GPS coordinates, which he had gotten from a local. The coordinates led us onto a rough F-road, through fields of lava and past an abandoned, collapsed barn, where a tiny hot pot was nestled between jagged rocks. The hot pot was only big enough for two people, with water over 100℉.

It was surreal. We were in the middle of a field of scraggly grass and lava rocks that had formed from a volcanic eruption, in our bathing suits. Outside of the water, it was around 40-45℉, with a sprinkling of rain and sun peeking out behind grey clouds, but the water was insanely warm. At some point in the two or three hours I spent there, I realized it was Monday. Somewhere, back across the Atlantic, my coworkers were starting their day at the office, while I was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, with rainbows arching above my head. This was, hands down, infinitely better than the Blue Lagoon. I liked this Iceland – the rugged, dirt-strewn, middle-of-nowhere-Iceland – so much more than my first impression of it at the Blue Lagoon.

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We had to make a brief pit-stop and pull over on the side of the road, because according to Iceland’s weather website that I had loaded on my phone, the winds that we were driving through were strong enough to flip a car over. If we were going to drive, we had to go at about 25 miles per hour, to reduce the risk of flipping on our side. Risking your life is just another great way to add a little zest to your next vacation!

I’m a masochist, so I insisted that we visit the Bjarnarhöfn Museum, which shows you exactly how the Icelandic delicacy called Kæstur hákarl is made. I’m using the term “delicacy” loosely. What’s hákarl, you ask? Oh, you know. Just fermented shark meat.

I don’t eat fish – it’s a big flaw of mine, which I’m working on. I recently had fish and chips and liked it, which I considered to be a huge accomplishment – I texted my parents and announced it like I had just gotten accepted into college. So please understand how difficult it was for me to actually eat the rotten flesh of a Greenland Shark.

Greenland Shark, when first caught, is brimming with ammonia, making it deadly to eat raw or cooked. The only way to safely consume it, according to some viking who figured this out thousands of years ago, is to slice up the shark (FYI: Greenland Sharks can grow up to 21 feet, weigh as much as 2,200 pounds, and live for over 150 years), and bury it underground. Rocks and sand are placed on top of the shark meat, to press all those yummy fluids out, for about 6-12 weeks as the meat ferments. Then, the shark meat is dug up and hung to dry for several months. After that, it’s chopped up into tiny cubes and offered to unsuspecting tourists with a piece of bread or shot of brennivín to wash it down.

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Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. I…would have to agree. Our guide, a delightful man named Christian, gave us a great tour, explaining just how the hákarl was made, before offering us our own sample (“It’s gluten-free!” he proclaimed a little too proudly). I managed to chew and swallow half of it, before gagging at the texture of a line of grizzly cartilage, and spat out the rest. Patrick, true to form, ate two pieces just to show me up. It’s like eating an incredibly foul and chewy cheese, and although it’s no longer fatal, the ammonia levels in the meat are still high enough to make the average person gag.

The museum also had a large collection of things (a.k.a., animal and human parts) that had been found in the stomachs of the Greenland sharks that had been caught. Outside, you could stand in the shack of drying shark meat and revel in the stench. You could also pet some of the most beautiful wild horses against the most ridiculously idyllic backdrop. Iceland is unreal.

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Afterwards, we drove back along the coast, passing a few thousand more sheep, and finally made it back to Reykjavík. We treated ourselves to our third non-ramen + salami meal of the trip (and a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine) before coming back to Kex Hostel for our last night. There, we made friends with a crowd of Brits, Aussies, and obnoxious Canadians (yes, CANADIANS, not Americans, being obnoxious), and played our own version of the British television show, “Countdown,” with the magnetic letters on the wall in Kex’s common area. We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, yelling, “Can I have a vowel, please, Carol?” in British accents, and at least one of the Australians is now my friend on Facebook and has wished me a happy birthday from thousands of miles away.

The next morning, we roamed around Reykjavík in our final hours, eating our last hot dogs and ice creams in the freezing rain. We purchased postcards for friends back home and I invested in an overpriced Icelandic wool sweater with my leftover cash (I had calculated the exchange rate math incorrectly and had accidentally taken out the equivalent of $450 from an ATM). The sweater came with its own comb, to brush down the scratchy wool, and it is now one of my favorite sweaters.

We’d eventually drive the car back towards Keflavík airport, where reality would sink in when I finally made my dreaded first peek at my work email account. When we got home later that day, the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., would feel smothering. In the days that followed, I’d try to explain the trip to my coworkers, to my friends, to my family, but it was nearly impossible. The loneliness of it, the quiet of it, the endless hours of talking – it just seemed too big to really explain over coffee in the break room. How do you summarize all of that into just one conversation? How do you squeeze it into one blog post, even? It’s been a year now, and the details are slipping away. I wrote this like a quick itinerary summary, in a hurried race against time before I forgot too many things.

It’s impossible to tell you all of it, to remember all of it. Only my mom really listened to every single detail; my friends, my coworkers, my other family members – they all lost patience after one or two long-winded stories that just didn’t do the entire trip justice. So instead, to give them a real feel for Iceland, I’d tell them this:

 

Two nights before we returned home, we were in a hostel on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Because of the high amount of sulfuric activity in the area, the water that came out of the faucets smelled like rotten eggs. On the entire drive there, I had been wrongfully blaming the smell of the air coming from outside on Patrick’s farting. We had finally gotten to a point in the drive where teasing each other about farting was a normal, routine conversation. Little did I know, the smell would cling to my clothes and my washed hair after showering at the hostel.

I often think of this night as the last night in Iceland, even though I can clearly remember that we had another two days there afterwards. But when trying to explain what Iceland and what traveling with Patrick was like, it always comes down to this. We went to sleep in a dingy hostel that smelled like farts and rotten eggs after another meal of ramen and salami, cooked in an ever-quiet hostel. The walls of the hostel were covered in maps, and the other guests all pattered around in their socks. Before going to bed, Patrick checked the aurora forecast and the weather doppler on my phone, and set an alarm. We fell asleep to the quiet mumblings of the rooms on either side of us.

At 2 a.m., the alarm went off. We groggily pulled on our hiking boots, our many layers of fleeces and sweaters and coats. It was unbearably cold, and my eyes were burning from exhaustion. I trusted Patrick blindly, allowing him to drive us away from the silent little town we were staying in, down a highway where the streetlights disappeared. We pulled off on the side of the road, surrounded by darkness, and got out of the car. We looked up – and there they were. The Northern Lights.

I didn’t try to take any pictures, or Snapchat us shivering out in the cold. I took a lot of photos in Iceland, but it was in Iceland that I learned not to care as much about them. What was important was this, right here. Parked along the side of the highway, beside miles of darkness of Icelandic wilderness, shivering at two in the morning and craning our necks upwards. Watching that ethereal, green glow streak across the sky against a backdrop of some of the brightest stars I had ever seen. My fingers went numb and I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Watching the lights shimmer was surreal. We leaned against the side of the car and just looked up for hours, not saying anything. Not needing to say anything. I was finally okay with sitting in the silence.

Eventually, the aurora borealis faded, and we drove back to our hostel. We crawled into our beds, bundling under the blankets, but when I closed my eyes, I could still see that green streak across the sky, now imprinted on my eyelids.

That night will always stand out to me as “the last night in Iceland,” and as the best example of what that trip was. It’s hard to put it into words – the impulsiveness of driving out to the middle of nowhere with someone who would eventually become one of my best friends, just to look up at the night sky. The bubbling excitement of realizing you’ve finally found someone you can truly adventure with. The thrill of buying tickets to a foreign country on a whim one evening in July, and having no idea how it’d turn out. My first trip abroad in three years, after feeling trapped at home, trapped at work. Wearing no makeup for days, living in hiking boots, eating salami in the car while screaming along to middle school jams. Petting wild horses on the side of the road. Looking up at an almost unnatural light dancing across the sky, and the world feeling so big and so small at the same time.

It’s been hard to put all of it into words, and these blog posts didn’t do it justice. But when I’m trying to explain it, that night is the story I tell them. This was Iceland, I say.

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A Weekend in Dublin: Not a Drinking Trip

I have a crippling fear of being bored. Thanks to my dad’s work, I moved around a lot as a kid, and I was lucky enough to travel through most of Europe. It was a whirlwind, never-in-one-place kind of childhood and, coupled with a love of books taking place in far-off kingdoms, it’s probably the reason why I get antsy if I haven’t boarded a plane in a couple of months. I can’t think of anything worse than living a life of perpetual boredom, which is why I cram my days full of trying new restaurants, hiking, sharing beers with friends, reading, and – of course – traveling.

I like to travel and I like to do it often. It’s a big, big, world out there and I probably only have another six decades (seven, if I’m lucky) to see all of it, so I’ve developed a habit of impulsively buying plane tickets. Of course, it’s important to remember that travel isn’t always an easy decision for everyone – money, personal obligations, and health restrictions can all limit those #wanderlust dreams. I myself am funding this travel obsession of mine on a nonprofit employee salary, so budget airlines, a steady diet of .89 cent ramen cups, and a wardrobe that hasn’t been updated in two years is quite literally the only way I manage to go anywhere. I am also lucky enough to have a family that knows I prefer travel money to wrapped birthday presents (thanks mom and dad!), but even with their generosity, I take spending money on travel pretty seriously.

So as my big 25th birthday rolled around in February, I started to get the itch – that one that comes after a few months stuck in the same city and seeing the same faces every day on my walk to work. I was about to turn a quarter of a century and as I tried to think of something I’d really like to do for my birthday – maybe dinner out, drinks, a trip to a Smithsonian museum I had already seen 10 times? – I realized the only thing I actually wanted to do was just go somewhere.

Pro tip: if you like to spend your life savings on travel, make friends who manage their finances the same way. After an exchange of a grand total of 5 text messages in mid-January, my pal Patrick agreed to buy a cheap round-trip flight to Dublin with me on the weekend before my birthday just a month later, in mid-February. Thanks Wow Airlines! (Not a paid promotion – I’m just a sucker for Icelandic budget airlines).

One overnight flight later, we left balmy, sunny D.C., cruising over patchwork fields of green, and landed in rainy, chilly Dublin. Opting for an Airbnb rather than a hostel for pretty much the same price (or, as Patrick called it, our boutique), we quickly checked in with our hosts, who were a pleasant, soft-spoken Irish couple with what sounded like riotous toddlers playing in the back room. Although the idea of wasting time napping and not immediately jumping out the front door was a difficult one to roll with, so too was the idea of having to explore my first day in Dublin on less than 4 hours of sleep. I had conveniently developed a hacking cough just one day before leaving on the trip, so I hadn’t slept much on the flight, much to my dismay (and the dismay of the French girl sitting one row ahead of me, who kept up a steady glare in my direction every time I so much as cleared my throat).

We power-napped and then power-walked right to our first pub: The Stag’s Head Pub. Built in 1770 and still looking pretty much the same since it was remodeled in 1895, it was covered in dark wood paneling and full of absurdly short stools encircling low tables, as DSC_0023well as grizzly old men reading the newspaper at the bar. An enormous stag’s head (aptly named) loomed over the large collection of whiskey, but we opted for local lagers and some food instead. Pretty soon, the quiet of the Stag’s Head got to be too much for our jet-lagged exhaustion – we zipped up our raincoats and stepped out into the torrential drizzle.

Dublin is different from the other capitals of Europe. Of course, it has its winding alleyways, scenic canals, gardens, and brightly-painted doors. But many of the streets are gritty, grey, and puddle-strewn. Walk through the touristy, historic center and you’ll be waylaid by crowds of American college students rushing to snag their picture in front of Temple Bar, or a Snapchat with the large man dressed up as a leprechaun. It’s an odd combination of locals, who push through the crowds with the kind of mild disdain and patience that only a European can master, and foreigners on a desperate search for that perfect Irish experience. But you won’t find a charming Irish village or the rolling green hills of the Éire in Dublin. We emerged from the stillness of the Stag’s Head into a slew of traffic, crowds of sorority girls lining up outside of a crowded bar (it was about 1 p.m. in the afternoon), and that ever-present, perplexing rain.

I wish I could tell you that after stepping out into that bright grey sky, we spent all afternoon touring a museum, visiting an old Victorian palace, or sifting through the pews of an ancient Cathedral. But to be perfectly honest, I was tired. Patrick, it seems, is always tired. After about thirty of minutes of walking around the city in the rain and pretending to enjoy it, we did the obvious: we found another pub.

Just to clarify: this was not a drinking trip. I’ve never traveled abroad with the sole intention of getting wasted and hitting up as many clubs as I can until 6 a.m. My favorite parts of traveling usually include exploring some scraggly old castles and trying the most authentic food I can find. But pubs are such an intrinsic part of Irish culture – its very own institution – that it felt wrong not to hit up a few. Although not quite the village meeting place they once were “back in the day,” pubs are still the centerpiece of Irish social life. Case in point: in just 44 square miles of Dublin’s city limits, there are 751 pubs. That’s a lot of beer…and also a lot of options when trying to narrow down which pubs to visit in just a 72-hour trip. We settled on what has now easily become one of my favorite drinking establishments in the world: The Long Hall Pub.

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Founded 10 years before the U.S. of A. had even declared its independence, the Long Hall Pub is looking pretty good for its age. It’s a classic, Victorian pub, with lush, red carpets, low-hanging chandeliers, and ridiculously short tables and stools that were definitely made for hobbit-sized humans. They only served beer and whiskey, and it was perfect.

Patrick and I stumbled in soaking wet from the rain and perched ourselves on some stools in a corner. We spent the next couple of hours chatting and occasionally falling into a comfortable silence, watching locals and poorly-dressed tourists bump into one another under dark wooden arches, decorated with golden filigree. I usually feel an antsy sort of need to constantly move when traveling. Sitting still can sometimes feel like I’m missing out on something. But in that dark, warm pub, and the lilt of Irish accents rising and falling around us, I felt absolutely no desire to leave.

After a while, we bundled up and headed back into the rain, settling on some mediocre Italian food for dinner (because what else would you eat in Ireland, I guess?) and then tracked down a punk-themed pub that Patrick had been determined to visit. Its ceilings were low, the bathrooms vaguely terrifying, and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. We watched three extremely intoxicated locals try to have a very serious discussion at the bar (involving a lot of hand gestures) before slipping out onto the quiet streets and back to our Airbnb.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to go…drink more beer. Actually, we went to the Guinness Storehouse factory, which was the one really touristy thing I had insisted on doing.

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The factory was surprisingly large, and we got to learn how Guinness was made, the history of the drink (and its surrounding cult of Guinness-lovers), and even did a taste-DSC_0045test. The taste-test portion was easily my favorite – they had separate rooms set up with varying levels of light to either dull or shock your senses while trying the Guinness, which was trippy (especially when still jet-lagged). This was the freshest Guinness, they reminded us, that you’ll ever have, as it was being poured right there, from the factory. I’ll say that I tasted a difference, but honestly, any freshly-poured Guinness at 11 a.m. would have tasted good to me at that point. We also received official training on how to do a true Guinness pour, which was way more intricate than I’ve ever seen a bartender pour for me here in the U.S. I am officially a certified Guinness pourer though, with a printed certificate, so you could say I had a true academic experience while abroad.

 

The final stage of the tour ended at the top of the Guinness Storehouse in the Gravity Bar, which offers a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin with ceiling-to-floor windows. You could see all the way to the mountains while sipping your freshly-poured brew and it was beautiful, but also, as always, grey and raining.

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After a morning of drinking beer (this was not a drinking trip, this was not a drinking
trip, this was not a drinking trip), we went to fulfill Patrick’s one true dream of the weekend: a real chippy. Having lived in England as a kid, and having spent most summers in Scotland thanks to being half-Scottish, Patrick’s love of fish & chips is on par with my obsession with real mozzarella.

We got our little cardboard boxes filled with greasy, battered fish and thick-cut potatoes, all coated in a dusting of salt, and camped out on the lawn of Dublin Castle. Patrick inhaled his food in about five minutes, but I struggled through mine. As a self-proclaimed lover of food, I have one, major flaw: I don’t like fish. I’m trying to learn to like it. Apparently, as a toddler, I used to suck down clams faster than any adults at the table, but I’m convinced that watching The Little Mermaid so often as a child traumatized me, and now the idea of fish still makes me a little queasy. I’m game to try anything though (I ate fermented shark meat in Iceland, so nothing can really phase me) and so I picked my way through about half of the fish before handing it over to Patrick and filling up on chips. It started to rain, as it usually does in Ireland, so we headed to Kilmainham Gaol, an infamous Dublin prison and one of the most important monuments of Irish independence, as it held a majority of the leaders of Irish rebellions dating back to 1798…all the way up to the famous Easter Uprising of 1916. The museum was great, and the jail itself appropriately ominous. There’s a constant undercurrent of rebellion in Irish culture, which I love, and it was very apparent in that jail.

From there we went to uh…another pub. But this one, at least, had cultural context. I had done quite a bit of research on trad sessions (traditional Irish music played in a pub) and had settled on Devitt’s Pub as one of the best places to hear some old-school jigs. I was embarrassingly excited when we arrived almost an hour early. I had also only eaten half of a fried fish and some chips all day, and the pub’s kitchen was closed, so in a desperate attempt to quell the hunger, I started drinking ciders with great gusto. This may or may not have had an effect on how charming I thought the pub was.

But in all honesty, Devitt’s was incredibly charming. It was basic: wood walls, floors, chairs, and tables; but the lights were dim, it was warm, and the people were friendly. We camped out at the bar, where the bartender Tom quickly found out we were American and began calling us “Trump’s bitches.” This was my first experience being an American abroad after the 2016 election! How exciting! I assured Tom that I hadn’t voted for the “orange fella” but he continued to call us “Trump’s bitches” until some Canadians rolled up and revealed that – in an odd twist of fate – they were actually big fans of Trump. It was a strange, parallel universe. Tom proceeded to make fun of the Canadians instead, who were – for some reason – planting trees in England for a living, employed by a random company I had never heard of. As the musicians began to set up for the trad session, Tom told us stories about working in pubs, the meaning of all of his tattoos (none of them particularly good), and where we should have gone for the best fish & chips in Dublin county.

But then the music started and oh boy, I was in love. The group set up just a few feet away, all circled around a long table. In between songs, they all chatted among themselves, taking swigs of their beers and waving hello to friends they recognized in the crowd. Pretty soon, the bar was packed and we couldn’t even move off our barstools. The music was jaunty and fun and alive, but there were the slow songs too – the haunting ones about the boys who never came home from war, and love long gone. I could have stayed there forever.

And stayed there forever we did! Or, at the very least, until the band packed up and the bar shut down at 2 a.m. At this point I was absolutely starving and maybe a wee bit drunk, so I began demanding if Tom knew of any good late-night food spots. The guitarist of the trad session group overheard and took pity on me, promising that he could lead us to “hands down, the best chicken wings in the world.” When in Ireland…

So we followed this unnamed guitarist down a few dark, shady alleyways and then out onto a wide street packed with boisterous crowds of drunk university students. He led us to a kebab shop but emphasized again: get the chicken wings. We ordered one set of wings and some chips. And lemme tell ya, he was right: these were, by far, the absolute best chicken wings in the entire world. There is no photo or video evidence of these wings. We ate the first round so quickly that there wasn’t time to document it. Grease from the fryer ran down our hands and faces in the most attractive way. We immediately put in two more orders of wings, and ate those in record time while talking to an American study abroad student who had had far too many whiskeys. We convinced him that we were Canadian and that he was absolutely mistaken, we were not one of his countrymen, before heading out the door, back to our Airbnb once again. The only bad part of Airbnbs is this: coming home after a night at the pub and having to take special care not to wake up Esther, Ed, and their adorable little toddlers. Luckily, we got in nice and quietly.

The next day was our last day in Dublin so, of course, it was the only day that it really rained. Poured, actually. We trekked across the city in our squelching shoes to see Trinity College, the Book of Kells, and – of course – the Trinity College Library, which was absolutely stunning. Gimme a library, especially an old, dusty library, and I’m a happy English major.

We explored both sides of the River Liffey, trudging through the rain to see a statue of my least favorite author, James Joyce, as well as the many twisting, cobblestoned alleys of Dublin. For some reason, we decided to have Chinese food for lunch, and actually stumbled upon some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. The place was called M&L Chinese Restaurant, and it’s known for serving up incredibly authentic Cantonese-style cuisine. The inside was basic: sparse, white walls, faded blue tablecloths, and fluorescent lighting. It was nearly empty when we first walked in, and accompanied by an eerie sort of silence. The “Are we going to get food poisoning from this place?” kind of silence. But by the time we left, the place was packed and the food was amazing. All I can say is: get the dumplings.

We spent the rest of the day watching the Ireland vs. Italy rugby match and then returned to my now favorite bar, the Long Hall Pub, for a few more hours of ciders and people-watching. Later, we tried to squeeze into O’Donoghue’s Pub for their trad music session but ultimately failed – there was barely room to breathe in there, let alone see the musicians playing. I was a little disappointed about that one, since O’Donoghue’s is especially known for its traditional music and is where The Dubliners got their start in the 1960’s.

Since this was technically my “birthday trip,” we splurged on yet another Italian dinner – this one pretty fancy – at a restaurant called The Unicorn, which was incredible (real mozzarella di bufala!). We were also easily the youngest and most underdressed people there, but we held our own, and I got to practice IMG_0624my Italian with the waiters. We ended the night in the outside courtyard of O’Donoghue’s Pub, sharing our last pints of Guinness before an early 5 a.m. wakeup call to the airport the next morning (the airplane ride would include getting more hot dogs at the Iceland airport, and accidentally spending a whole $10 on a cup of ramen and a Pepsi thanks to WowAir’s severely over-priced food menu).

The entire weekend was a less aggressive traveling style than I was used to. My friends and family back home made fun of me, asking if all I had done was drink my way through Dublin, like every other study abroad student I saw doing on the streets outside of Temple Bar. And despite my protests that we saw and did other things (which we did), I have to admit that my favorite part of this random, whirlwind, 25th birthday weekend to Dublin were undoubtedly those hours spent in bustling, cozy pubs. I didn’t mind, for once, that I got to simply experience a city, rather than filling my trip with a jam-packed to-do list of every tourist location on the map.

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Maybe sometimes travel is just this: long hours huddled on rickety bar stools, a beer now warm for being held too long, and an elderly man crooning generations-old war songs in the corner. Just you and a friend in a dimly-lit room in a completely different part of the world, talking late into the night about family, irrational fears, your first crush and your current one, the state of the union, your favorite ice cream flavors, and everything and nothing, all at once. Sometimes it’s those conversations – not the big, national monuments – that are, in fact, everything and nothing. But mostly, everything.

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