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Monday, January 18, 2016

Ireland 1994: Birth of a backpacker

This blog has been going for a few years now, but its focus hasn't always been travel. Somewhere along the line I went from being a (more or less) happy passenger in the backseat of my parents' car, to traveling independently. I didn't always post about my travels, but I always wrote about them. The useful things, the indiscretions, mostly moments I experienced that made that trip unique and different from anyone else's. Then one day, I decided they might be useful for readers too.

On what trip did I become what they call a backpacker? Was it Germany in 2008? Wales in 2002? Or even earlier, southern Ireland in December 1994?

"Backpacking" means two different things. It can mean hiking with all your gear to camp overnight; this requires the kind of a big frame backpack that can hold a tent, sleeping bag, etc. "Backpacking" in international travel means traveling light (and relatively cheaply), not carrying a suitcase. These are sometimes confused, including by travelers themselves, who buy, and can then be seen carrying, the type of backpack you'd need for trekking in a national park. The Discreet Traveler means a regular backpack, ideally the size that can fit as carry-on luggage on a plane.

That first time I went off traveling with nothing but a backpack, I was twenty-one. It's a nice stereotypical age for a backpacker. The Republic of Ireland seemed like a good place to start. There was no language barrier, at least not more than there is in England, where I'd been living for six months. It seemed almost wrong not to make the short hop across the Irish Sea. Because I wasn't prepared to drive myself around, I booked a week's tour of Dublin, Galway city, and Cork.

When I say "tour": I had hostel beds booked in the three cities and "coach" (bus) tickets in between. There was no guide or other impediment to independent travel. I exchanged currency--in those days, Ireland used the punt--packed the same backpack I'd been carrying around as a student, and flew to Dublin.

I know I was wearing a warm coat, because it was winter. Other than that, I couldn't have been carrying many clothes. I must have washed them out in the bathroom sink, as on subsequent trips. Funny how such a detail, which sounds like such a pain in advance, is totally inconsequential in the memory.

I remember walking down the high street in Dublin and seeing a chalkboard sign for a vegetarian restaurant that turned out to be cheap and delicious, as vegetarian food often is. I saw a flyer in the hostel for a Dublin literary pub crawl. It was to be the evening after I visited the Dublin Writers Museum, so I would actually have heard of Brendan Behan and the other writers they were talking about.

It was a great time. There were a number of us including a couple Australian girls and a Norwegian guy who was at the upper limit of the old 18-35 age range (hostels aren't "youth" anymore). It seemed wild then, that someone so much older was backpacking around the way we were. I'd assumed that, by 35, everyone would at least have a mortgage, if not kids.

(Cut to myself, turning 35 in a bud-ridden bedsit, newly single, no savings to speak of...but that's another backpacking trip.)

Two actors told us about the writers of Dublin, reciting from their work as we moved from pub to pub. I drank Guinness and Harp. By the time we got to our final stop, I was ready for a quiz question: Name a writer from Ireland who has won the Nobel Prize in literature. I'd just been to the museum so I named Samuel Beckett. Who wrote in French, but never mind; where you're born is the only thing that matters in these isles.

The prize was either a Jameson's duffel bag, or a bottle of their whiskey. I chose the whiskey.*

On the other side of the (admittedly small) country, whom did I run into on a street in Galway but those same Australian girls! I've learned since that this is not remarkable in travel; you tend to run into people down the road. It's nice if you've been friendly or helpful to them in the first place.

You might think I'm straining a metaphor for life, but I think all travel is that.

By Cork, I was over this trip. Only the local stout, Murphy's, stood out, as I preferred it to Guinness (and I'd had a generous amount of that free at the brewery back in Dublin). Cork airport was as small as my native Tri-Cities at the time. A driver (pre-booked) bumped over the gravelly road. I got lovely Irish butter with my bread on the plane. Yes, an hour's flight included food and drink. This was Europe!

The taste for packing light and taking off with only a small backpack has never left me. I haven't always traveled that way, but it's my favorite. There's nothing so freeing. I don't need cars or even to tell anyone, exactly, where I'm going. Because I may not know.

*I was to hold this souvenir of Ireland until I accomplished one of my life's great goals: to emigrate to Canada. It would be almost six years before I'd land in Toronto and finally open that bottle.

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