Reading On the Road: Travel Companions Aren’t Always Flesh and Blood.

DAOIPAL

It began as an attempt at adventure. I met and instantly connected with another American on the second day of an independent trip around Ireland. She’d just landed what was a serious win in the broke-student-traveler-community: a job waiting tables in one of Ireland’s most scenic and secluded tourist destinations. The pay would be in cash and meals and housing were included. They needed more help and it took all of two hours for her to convince me to join her.

I had some firm commitments for the next few weeks, but after that there was a job secured and a bed waiting for me in a former youth hostel dedicated to housing crazy travelers like us who happily dropped everything for a chance at menial labor in a foreign country. Funny the glamor an exotic locale drapes over a situation I would never consider at home. I felt incredibly brave. I had just graduated from university and seemed like a giant step towards true independence. I was a free spirit. What adventures awaited a soon-to-be-waitress on a magical island? Yeah. That lasted.

  

I traveled and volunteered, all the time anticipating my daring plans, and became enthralled by my second-hand copy of “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell. His trials as an expat casual kitchen laborer and depictions of his home in various Parisian slums were fascinating, touching, and at times hysterical. I had served my time as a waitress in high school and college, and I nodded along with his descriptions of pretentious waiters and raving chefs. Life surely would not be like that for me on my upcoming adventure. The Irish were friendly and relaxed after all, so surely waiting tables would be a breeze of pleasantries. How could anything possibly go wrong in the quaint mountain village that would be my home throughout the tourist season? I envisioned myself taking long post-lunch service walks through the heather-covered hills, or having chatting late into the night with story-spinning locals while traditional music played in the background. Poor Orwell and his days working in appalling conditions and nights spent in rat-infested rooms filled with the sounds of consumptive coughs. Not for me, but thanks for sharing the stories.

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One week after my job began, my friend left suddenly due to events back home. I was sad to lose my kindred spirit, but traveling friendships are like that. Mysteriously, when she left, the job and its surroundings began to go pear-shaped. The formerly quiet hamlet of two-hundred odd locals turned from friendly and charming to surly and sinister. 

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The two brothers who owned the restaurant and hostel remained kind and friendly, but they doled out the pay, not my food and camaraderie  Almost overnight, my attempts to acquire the promised meals were met with expressions of shock and confusion along with a bill to be subtracted from my salary. The town’s only other buildings consisted of houses, a post office, and two other two pubs also frequented by my unfriendly neighbors and colleagues. The weather quickly became colder and wetter, and when I wasn’t working I turned to my bed and books for solace and comfort. 

I resorted to sneaking into the local shop and shamefully buying anything I could prepare surreptitiously in the hostel kitchen. I slurped Ramen noodles and toasted bread while reading about Orwell’s true hunger after days of food being a luxury he couldn’t afford. He became my partner in misery. His vivid descriptions of the eccentric characters he lived and worked with led me to view my own environment through the eyes of an unseen onlooker. Rather than focusing on my constant frustration and paranoia, I began to imagine those around me as Orwell might. How would he describe the Russian dishwasher with slow and limited English but swift and roaming hands? Surely he too would inwardly mock the shift-long tirades belted out by our chef, a burly blonde woman who could give Gordan Ramsey a run for his money in the drama department. How would my crew of revolving roommates compare with those he shared guesthouses, homeless shelters, and the later the streets with?

The roommates were a story in themselves. Originally, my friend and I were the only two occupants in a large room with empty beds reserved for future women who might join our team. An executive decision shifted my once safe and stable accommodation, and suddenly the formerly ladies-only beds were opened to anyone who needed them. Since I worked in a rural Irish restaurant/pub, weekends  brought some pretty interesting regulars. Orwell shared with destitute sock darners and thieves posing as Communists. My roommates included a girl who drank far beyond her fill in the pub below and preferred to wake me rather than her parents with seemingly endless moans and bouts of vomiting. Then there was the harmless, yet noisy gent in his late seventies who came like clockwork every weekend. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent listening to sports matches at high volume from his pink-sheeted bed. Nights were even louder, as his perpetual snores competed only with his flatulence for frequency, volume, and melodiousness.

Thankfully, my only permanent roommate was a homesick young Kiwi who was also working “off the books” on the restaurant’s addition. He was as equally miserable and spent most of his evenings writing letters to his fiance and reading books. He wasn’t reading Orwell, but if I hadn’t been holding on to my book for dear life, I might have lent it to him. We remained unspoken outcasts from the noisy pub below, saving our pennies for flights back home since management had somehow managed to exclude us from the “free daily pint” enjoyed by others. We were better off with our books.

The fateful events that took place as I served lunch on September 11th, 2001 increased my loneliness and anxiety even more. The daily news talked of halted air traffic and fear of further attacks and created a mounting dread that I might somehow become trapped in the town I inwardly referred to as the “Peaks of Despair.” Fearful of months, or even years of bringing sea trout, lamb and pints of Guinness to busloads of tourists while the town around me tutted, gossiped and openly insulted me and my country’s vast evils, I retreated even more into Orwell’s words. By now he was homeless and living as a tramp. This was too much for me to bear, and I skipped back to his days in restaurants, being swindled and abused by seemingly everyone he came in contact with. At least I didn’t have it that bad.

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I left only a few weeks later, with a less stable but far friendlier job secured by a good friend in Dublin. As I watched the Peaks of Despair grow smaller through the bus window, I knew that one day, I would look back on my dark days there through an entirely different light. Years later, I even took a friend to see the beauty of the town, and was able to smugly ignore the few people I still recognized.

Orwell was not my guide on a journey down and out, as I was on a quest for experience rather than poverty. My hostel room and service job didn’t begin to compare with his slum accommodation and exploitative labor conditions. He was, however, a great companion. His vision of the world around him helped me emulate his method of interpreting people and situations.  

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Down and Out” showed Orwell’s willingness to publicly share deeply personal experiences of degradation and poverty. His detailed and often merciless depictions of those he encountered were matched with a profound analysis of himself and society as a whole. He taught me to view life as a series of tragi-comedic events, peppered with a cast of complex characters. I try to see the world through the eyes of a self-deprecating narrator, and thus I hope I have developed more empathy, patience, and perhaps most importantly during unpleasant times, humor.

What is your favorite On the Road reading moment? What book have you read during your travels that touched you or changed you? Why not share and enter the On the Road travel blogging competition by publishing company “The Works”?

I nominate these 3 travel blogs:

Leaving Cairo

Expatlogue

In Search of a Life Less Ordinary

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Aside

Waiting for Rain

It’s raining outside. Drops of water are falling from a sky thick with dark clouds, washing the dust from every surface and creating puddles on the ground as I type. Many of my friends’ Facebook statuses mention rain with varying levels of joy and disbelief. Surprised strangers in the shops around me comment to baristas, customers and friends. “Two days in a row! Actual rain! Who’d have thought?” What’s so special about today’s rain? I live in the desert.

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Rain in Dubai.

Gray skies are nothing new in Abu Dhabi. For much of the year, a mixture of fine desert sand, construction dust, and ocean haze blanket our sky in gray or white. Clear blue skies and white clouds are a treat reserved for autumn and winter and compliment the mild temperatures we enjoy for four to five months of the year. Actual rain, however, is a very rare thing. It rained twice my first year in Abu Dhabi. The first storm lasted hours and produced real drops that cascaded down the glassy sides of buildings, poured from spiky palm leaves, and flooded the streets and sidewalks. The second time was just a few minutes of misty droplets that barely wet the objects they touched. It was as if they clouds were empty bottles of cleaning spray sputtering out their last drops.

Two or three episodes of rain a year seem to be the average here. Locals and expats take for granted that the weather will be sunny. There is no need to keep an umbrella or rain jacket in your car or knapsack. Outdoor events are planned based on temperature, not precipitation. Each morning after naming the day of the week, I go through the motions of discussing the weather with my pre-kindergarten students. “Is it rainy today?” I ask, holding a laminated cloud with falling blue raindrops. “Noooooooo” they answer in unison with looks of disdain and giggles. Silly teacher. Not even the four-year-olds are under any illusion the answer will ever be yes.

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The Abu Dhabi coastline seen during a dust storm.

I’ve never been a huge fan of rain. Before moving to the UAE, I associated it with discomfort and dark times. Years spent enduring Ireland’s daily mists, showers, and downpours have made me immune to many of rain’s charms. My heart thrills in the certainty of dry clothing, shoes and hair that accompany life in a desert climate. However, living here has led me to appreciate rain’s necessity. Firstly, it is a great cleanser. When the dust in the air is so thick it clogs my eyes and throat, I wish for rain to freshen the air and bring the scent of damp earth and leaves. On a more sentimental level, I miss the pleasure of snuggling under the covers while raindrops pound against the windows and thunder crashes outside.    

One day my school had a special surprise. In the middle of the children’s Arabic session, it started to rain. They ran to the windows with the same enthusiasm one might expect from the appearance Spiderman, a dinosaur, or other childhood fantasy. I couldn’t help running with them, and quickly opened the windows to hear the sound of the raindrops hitting the ground and the wind rushing through the date palms. My Emirati co-teacher rushed us outside to the covered patio and led the children to pray in unison, thanking Allah for the rain. I found myself joining in. The feeling of magic in the air was unmistakable  It was raining in the desert! This was truly an extraordinary time when anything was possible.

Time to dust off the ol' umbrella.

Time to dust off the ol’ umbrella.

Yesterday it rained again, and this time the children were already outside. The water was wetting the party dresses and kandooras they had worn for our school’s National Day celebrations, yet this unexpected event demanded we remain outdoors. Rain was to be experienced and celebrated. It was a novel and welcomed addition to their playtime, not a reason to end it. Their astonishment was a pleasure to witness. “Matar, matar,” they shouted. Others ran to us with beaming smiles, proud to use their English words, “water” or “rain.” One little girl was so unaccustomed to water falling from the sky that she ran to her Arabic teacher, demanding that she stop another student whom she was sure was spitting in her hair. Her shock and then delight when she realized it was rain had us all laughing.

Nature’s ability to adapt to the most extreme environments will never cease to impress me. Every living thing needs water to thrive, to grow, even to exist. In a place where rain falls only a few times a year and in such small amounts, how does life remain? But it does, and has for thousands of years. Even in the sea of dunes beyond the UAE’s cities and suburbs, life abounds. Lizards, insects, and small plants hide amidst the sand, and let’s not forget the Bedouin tribes who have survived the desert extremes for centuries. Humans are created to adapt to the most unforgiving of circumstances.

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Life in the desert is full of extremes. The heat blisters, chaps and burns. The sand cakes, clogs and chokes. In summer, every living thing seeks shelter from the scorching sun. My mind boggles at how life carries on under such conditions, but it does.

We all experience trials and times of difficulty in our lives, some more than others. We never know when our health, professional lives, and personal lives will be struck by obstacles that seem insurmountable. This world is full of violence, hatred, and suffering, yet so many who have endured the unthinkable exist as living proof that incredible strength lies inside us if we know where to search. I am still learning to stop focusing on my hardships and instead to count my blessings.

Palestinian refugee children show the resilience that lies within us all.

Palestinian refugee children show the resilience that lies within us all.

When life seems impossibly harsh, we must persevere and wait for the rain. Rain not only cleans, it also gives withering plants a second chance and is the catalyst for new life. No matter what creator, (or lack thereof) you believe in, nature demonstrates so beautifully that the universe provides. Sometimes all we need is a good cleansing rain to refresh us and remind us that life goes on. It may just take a little waiting.

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What gets you through times of loneliness, frustration, suffering? Expats, are there any new coping strategies you have found in your travels?