September. 2015. I had been in Ireland almost two months trying to find a place to live, a place to work, and a place in the hearts of the Irish people. It was going poorly.
There was a severe housing shortage in the city of Cork where I had chosen to stay and it was getting worse every day as students flooded back into the city for the start of the university year. As a result, I was still living in a hostel. But I was being a good sport about it and was learning to embrace the lifestyle. The secret is that you just have to get used to doing things in front of people that you normally do in private. It’s the same as summer camp (been there, done that), university residence (been there, done that), and prison (there’s still time). My standards of privacy and decency plummeted as required.
One night I couldn’t sleep. And it wasn’t because of all the snoring and farting of the slumbering internationals in my room. I realized I was just really hungry. Of course it’s very disruptive to get up in the middle of the night in a small room where five strangers are trying to sleep. But I remembered I had a chocolate bar in my purse. I quietly shimmied down to the foot of my bed where I kept my purse for reasons of security and convenience. I feasted as noiselessly as possible in the pitch darkness.
In the morning light, I was embarrassed when I noticed that my bunk looked like it belonged to a kid who was about to get kicked out of fat camp. A crumpled Snickers wrapper, chocolatey smudges on the sheets and a peanut that I’d missed. I vowed to use this small humiliation as inspiration to make a better life for myself here in Ireland, one where I had my own bedroom and could choose when to mix sleep and snacks.
I really was trying to find a job. But there were distractions. Sexy foreign distractions. I had been worried/excited about becoming weak-kneed at the sound of a musical Irish accent. And the Irish were indeed charmers. But as an unemployed foreigner, I hadn’t been having a lot of conversations with the locals. Most of my socializing was with other hostel dwellers from every other country but Ireland. It was at Sheila’s Hostel that I ended up falling for a fellow foreigner, with an accent every bit as loin-dampening as the Irish one.
As everyone knows, Ireland exists under a dewy veil of romance. Or maybe it’s more of a sexy mist? In either case, it’s hard to find an activity that doesn’t evoke amorous feelings. Riding the bus through the countryside? Charming. Viewing a conceptual art sculpture titled “Adam and Eve”? Erotic. Trying caramel macchiatos at Starbucks? Sweet. Walking in the summer rain? Steamy.
“Get it together Randall!” I yelled at myself, as my job interview clothes migrated toward the bottom of my suitcase, wrinkled and forgotten and my “date night” outfits scored spots on the few available hangers in my room at the hostel. I kept making plans with this man who was interesting and passionate, funny and kind, all the while trying to remember that every minute I spent doodling our names in a notebook while twirling my hair around my finger was a minute spent not focusing on becoming an Irish taxpayer. After two weeks he had to return home. Once he had left for his home country, I got back to focusing on less romantic things. Sort of. I mean, I tried. He would continue to distract and beguile me internationally for the next three and a half years.
On my own again and distraction-free, I turned my full attention to my job search. Finding paid work was proving difficult because I could only commit to an employer for a short time. But then I discovered a website called HelpX which matches backpackers who need a cheap place to stay with local families and businesses that need extra help. The hosts usually offer backpackers accommodation and food in exchange for several hours of work per day. It’s a great deal for everyone.
I made a profile on the site but several days went by without anyone contacting me. I considered my profile, specifically the picture of myself I’d chosen. I looked pretty good. I also looked like someone who had never done a day of work in their life. I checked to see what other pictures I had on my computer. I found a real gem that my mother had taken of me. In it, I’m wearing work gloves and piling fallen branches on a tractor. I did this activity for less than ten minutes. My mother took the picture as a joke because it was the first time she’d ever seen me do any manual labour. Decked out in baggy, unflattering clothes and with rosy cheeks and wild hair, I looked hearty and good-natured, maybe even jolly. I consider it one of the worst pictures of me ever taken. I uploaded it to the site, replacing the nice photo.
The next day I had a message from a hostel in Connemara that had room for a new boarder. The work they wanted done was light housekeeping and minding the front desk. It sounded great and it looked like the hostel was in a really beautiful area. The manager warned me that it was quite remote. I wrote back enthusiastically, “I’m up to the challenge!”
I was not up to the challenge, as it turned out.
I was never really able to explain to people why I never made it to the hostel in Connemara. I don’t really know myself. I made it as far as Galway, the closest city. Then it’s all kind of a blur.
The problem, I think, is that the mystery and magic for which Ireland is famous doesn’t just apply to their wonderful people and their incredible songs, stories and art. It applies to their transportation system as well.
Upon arriving in Galway, I looked for the bus to Connemara, but couldn’t find any sign of it. I was tired anyway so I decided to spend the night in Galway and figure out the next leg of my trip in the morning.
The next morning, my only real concern was that one of my hostel roommates from the previous night, an American woman, had a bad cold and I had spent the night sleeping six inches from her dripping face in a tiny unventilated room. Now I would probably have to show up at my new job in Connemara with a cold brewing.
I gathered all my stuff and made my way to the bus station. And that’s where it all went wrong for some reason. Information about Connemara seemed so scarce that I began to question if it was a real place. Nobody I asked had enough information to even point me in the right direction. One person said the bus only went to Connemara every second day. Another person was sure that service to Connemara had been discontinued altogether.
I began to feel faint, probably already feeling the effects of whatever I had caught from America McSniffles. I wondered if I should try to find somewhere with wi-fi, but I knew from previous searches that information online about getting to the Connemara Hostel was as sparse and cryptic as it was in real life. And because this was Ireland, even if I managed to find a bus going somewhere near the Connemara district, I would probably also need to successfully answer three riddles, throw a lock of my great grandmother’s hair into a loch and recite a prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things.
I finally decided that the bus to Connemara must be like the train to Hogwarts and I simply didn’t possess the wizardry to find it. There was probably a whole community of people here in Galway who were on their way to Connemara but couldn’t figure out how to get there so now they just live in Galway. That’s probably what I should have done.
Instead, I decided to travel back to Cork where I felt things made a little more sense. By then, I felt too tired and sick to figure out new things and my mood improved once I had decided to return somewhere familiar. I hopped on a bus to Cork, which was mercifully easy to find. I let my travel-fatigued brain rest a little. That was a mistake.
I slept on the bus. A slight tingle in my sinuses let me know that I’d probably have a proper cold by the next day. When the bus stopped in Limerick, those of us going to Cork transferred buses. I hauled my giant suitcase from the undercarriage of one bus and stowed it in the Cork-bound bus. That would be the last time I’d ever see my suitcase which held almost everything I had brought with me for my year-long stay in Ireland. All my favourite outfits and best-fitting underwear. My pricey European hair straightener and all my shoes. All the things I thought I’d need to get started comfortably here in Ireland.
I really thought I would have time to nip in to the washroom at the Limerick bus station despite having no idea when the bus was scheduled to depart. I’m used to travelling in places where that type of information is posted or announced. In Ireland, there are things that you just seem to have to know and I was never “in the know”.
When I emerged from the Limerick bus station, it took me awhile to figure out that the bus had left without me. Even when I did figure it out, I wasn’t terribly concerned. There was another bus to Cork in an hour. I would only be one hour behind my suitcase. I would pick it up in Cork wherever they dump all the stuff people leave behind.
It could have happened to anyone. But here’s the difference between me and someone who successfully navigates the challenges of travelling abroad. A seasoned traveler would have recognized that they might have a problem and would have started an investigation into how to retrieve their missing belongings. Now let’s compare what I did.
I went into the station, bought a muffin and took out my notebook. It has long been a tradition in my family to write a short poem about mildly interesting things that happen. Previous events that have spawned poetry include the time the Christmas tree fell over and the time we did archery in the hayfield at Thanksgiving. My favourite poetic form has always been the limerick. How apt that something limerick-worthy had actually happened to me in Limerick. I composed the following poem.
There once was a bus bound for Cork
Aboard was a weak-bladdered dork
She got off to pee
And came back to see
THE BUS WAS FUCKING GONE!!!
At the time, I was happy to overlook the rhyming inconsistencies.
After channeling any anxiety I had about the situation into my art, I spent the rest of my time feeding pieces of my muffin to a pigeon. At no time did I inform the authorities about my missing bag. When the next bus to Cork arrived, I hopped aboard, blissfully ignorant that I had just caused myself a world of inconvenience.
My arrival back in Cork coincided with some kind of bus crisis. When I went to inquire about my missing luggage, all the staff at the bus station were preoccupied with an unexpected influx of passengers who wanted to go to the northern town of Sligo. There was so much demand they were calling in the B Team of bus drivers. Because no one had time for me, I was offered a seat in the control room until things calmed down. There was much discussion about which drivers could potentially be called in and what state they’d be in when they arrived.
“Get Barry in here! I need to look in his eyes,” said an Englishman who seemed to be in charge. Then to himself he said, “This is why I’m a legend in my field.”
When Barry arrived, I looked in his eyes too and I wouldn’t declare him fit to operate the vending machine, let alone a forty foot bus full of passengers. But The Legend decided it was well within his capabilities.
I got to know the staff at the Cork bus station pretty well because I ended up going there every day for the next three days to see if there was any word on my missing suitcase. On Day 2, we watched security footage of the bus arriving in Cork. We checked closely to see if anyone had taken my suitcase. It was big and heavy and purple and easy to spot. It never left the bus.
On Day 3, we tracked the bus’s GPS. When he was finally able to locate that specific bus, The Legend yelled out, “It’s here! SP115 is here!” The actual bus I’d put my suitcase on two days ago could have been anywhere in Ireland, but it was right outside in the loading bay.
“Go!” The Legend yelled at me, gesturing wildly. “Go with Geraldine!” I was a little confused because I hadn’t yet been properly introduced to Geraldine, but I got the idea she was the startled woman The Legend was flailing toward. Geraldine and I raced through the back rooms of the bus station and outside to the loading bays. The bus that was pulling out was SP115.
“Ah well, there’s it gone,” she said pointing to the bus which was now in the street.
Are we going to chase it? Geraldine? I wanted to chase it, but I had to take my cues from Geraldine. She clearly had no mind to chase the bus. But she didn’t have as much invested in my suitcase as I did. She probably had plenty of clean underwear at home.
Back at my hostel, I was now the annoying sick person in the room, coughing and sniffling. Plus, I was naked. Obviously, I didn’t want to sleep uncomfortably in my one remaining outfit, jeans and a sweater. So I was sleeping in the nude, hoping my lone pair of hand-washed underwear would dry before morning. Of course they never dried completely because, as everyone knows, Ireland exists under an oppressive veil of dampness or what I previously referred to as a “sexy mist”. I splurged and bought some socks, but money was very tight and I didn’t want to spend it on things that I’d have back once I found my suitcase.
For all his confidence, The Legend ultimately proved unsuccessful at locating my suitcase. He sure tried though. Everyone at the Cork bus station tried and I was thankful for all their help.
The other women in my hostel room at the time were incredibly kind, loaning me toothpaste and shampoo, and listening to my tale of how badly I’d handled everything so far. A Québécoise girl translated for the French girl and an older German woman who had traveled to almost every country in the world really helped me put my travel woes into perspective.
“With no language barriers, you’ll have the ability to make new friends easily with both locals and ex-pats and the opportunity for career advancement.” That’s what was written on the working holiday brochure that lured me to Ireland. Career advancement especially seemed pretty unlikely at this point. I decided I’d had enough adventure.
So I returned home from Ireland 45 pounds lighter. My suitcase had weighed 50 pounds but I, personally, had gained about five due to the combination of constant rejection by employers and my discovery of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream on sale at the convenience store next to my hostel.
My working holiday in Ireland ended up being just a holiday in Ireland. A very non-traditional holiday. I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend this type of holiday. One where, instead of going to the Cliffs of Moher, you go to a job interview where the assistant manager at TK Maxx tells you you’re not TK Maxx material. And instead of staying in a cozy bed-and-breakfast by the sea, you share a small 6-bed hostel dorm room with, among others, an old Indian man who thrashes around in his sleep and has toenails that could slit a throat. No, you’re probably better off just taking a traditional holiday.
When people feel bad that things didn’t work out for me in Ireland, I realize I must be telling the story wrong. I had an amazing time in Ireland and wouldn’t trade the experience. All the things I lost were easy to replace. I know I’m very fortunate that I got to go to Ireland, and even more fortunate that I got to come back to a safe country and a lovely home.
My Ireland working holiday was sandwiched between more successful attempts to the UK in 2004 and New Zealand in 2016.
Pictures from my two years in New Zealand, a beautiful country in which I could definitely see myself living: