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

The Univited

Pokhara, Nepal: So there we were in a bar, typical of those in any major tourist destination the world over. The atmosphere was promising for a quick drink or two—lakeside location, cheerful crowd, rock covers being played by a decent local band, extensive cocktail menu. My travel buddies and I were meeting our new Nepali friends/travel gurus to discuss what the area had to offer us over the next few days. Most tourists come to Pokhara in search of paragliding, adventure sports, or a base for extensive treks through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. The outdoor pursuits the three of us were interested in were hardly what one would call adventure sports, or even physically demanding. Thankfully, the guys were approaching the challenge with the wisdom and patience employed by most Nepalis in the tourism industry. The options they were presenting had us excited and looking forward to the mild-to-moderately active vacation ahead. The night was off to a great start.

I noticed the man about five minutes after we arrived, but didn’t give him more than a few seconds thought. He was well over six-feet tall, and sported the combo of loose-fitting hemp clothing, ponytail and extensive facial hair adopted by many long term travelers in South Asia.  His swashbuckling ensemble briefly reminded me of Inigo Montoya, one of my all-time favorite characters of story and film. 

The similarities were fleeting.  There was no trusty sword at the man’s side, and while Inigo had a large, but fairly standard mustache, what sprawled across the lower half of this man’s face was nothing short of a monstrosity.  His dark mustache was cut short above his lips, but the ends were long and spiraled across his cheeks like writhing caterpillars.  It was the disturbing facial hair that even made him a blip on my radar. It was like some sicko had used photo morphing technology to blend Jesus with one of those mustachioed villains on black and white silent films. You know the ones that laugh cruelly and tie flailing women to railroad tracks whilst frenzied piano music rises to a crescendo?   

The personalities of Inigo and this stranger would also prove to be very different.  Had this man’s passions involved sword figthing and avenging the wrongful death of his father, our evening may have been far more entertaining, but we were not so lucky.  After a brief shudder, I turned my attention back to the cocktail menu and discussion of whitewater rafting. Our guide was recommending a day-long excursion–just long enough to get my adrenaline flowing, but not so long as to keep me out of wifi range for an unbearable length of time.

 Then, it happened. The Mustache, whom we’ve referred to ever since as Don Quixote, left his companions and sauntered over to our table, uninvited and without warning. We knew there was no possible way this development could be positive. Mr. Quixote joined our table under the pretense of discussing trekking with our Nepali friends. However, it soon became alarmingly clear that his true interest lay not in the mountains, but in my traveling companions and I.  Even more troubling, after his flirtatious and cringe-worthy comparison of my companion’s ring with his own copious medallions and gemstones, we realized that his motivations went beyond finding female company. That could have quickly been thwarted, and Mr. Quixote was not so easily dismissed. He had far more to offer us than just his manly charms. Oh no. He had…..insight; insight he was compelled to share.  Like his literary namesake, Mr. Quixote was on a quest, and we had unwittingly stumbled into his path.

Mr. Quixote was in his late thirties, Turkish, and claimed to be a professor of philosophy. He was once a teacher of an unnamed subject and level, but had long left that life behind to find himself in Nepal.  Apparently, his search had been successful. We were all miserable, he explained in a loud and confident voice. He, on the other hand, had found true happiness. He continued to assert that he was the only truly happy person in the bar, city, country, and perhaps the world. In addition to being happy, he also seemed quite sober. This was unfortunate, because unwelcome sober people must usually be removed from a table by its occupants, rather than bouncers. None of us are fans of confrontation or awkward situations, so we were polite yet uninterested, and continued our attempts to make vacation plans rather than engage him further in conversation. However, our lack of interest in Mr. Quixote’s achievements did not deter him, but rather increased his determination to share. Like Don Quixote, he suffered from delusions.  He believed we wanted to learn more.

Thankfully, I was only subjected to bits and pieces. I couldn’t hear much over the band, and his appalling mustache combined with a high ratio of bs to logic made lip reading difficult. The already tiresome conversation deteriorated rapidly. Our answer to the inevitable, “what do you do?,” prompted a tirade on educational in general that not only lacked logic, but trapped us within the world we had gone on vacation to escape: teaching.  My friends and I, he accused, were corrupters of minds. We were part of a global conspiracy to brainwash children, and destroy their ability to think and reason.  His voice resouding of disgust and condescension, he demanded we stop our criminal and unethical behavior. “I used to earn a dirty paycheck like you do,” he informed us. “But now, my life has changed, and I teach philosophy to hundreds of people.” Well, lucky them. I hope the hundreds aren’t paying for it, and if they are, I hope it’s at least during the school term.

Mr. Quixote’s disdain for our profession, personal space, and attempts to converse with our original companions drained the remaining enthusiasm and joy from our evening with the power of a Dyson vacuum. The previously pleasant and upbeat bar suddenly felt irksome, and the covers the band played seemed cliché rather than charming. Perhaps the final straw was when he chastised my friend, who was being the most polite to him, for using her “small mind.” How had our relaxed evening spiraled into a night of annoyance and frustration? Who was this creep, and what right did he have to force his views on us? Even more importantly, why, oh why were we dealing with this on our vacation? Finally, after enduring several minutes of awkward silence while we avoided further responses to his monologue, he left, but it was too late to rescesitate what was left of our evening.

I chose not to share with Mr. Quixote that I, myself am a disenchanted teacher, and like many, I fight daily frustration with local and global trends in education. I too worry about the impact mainstream educational practices have on students, but I certainly don’t view myself as a corrupter or a brainwasher. Part of the art of teaching is stimulating the interests my students already have. If I can inspire a love of learning, the rest will happen naturally.  I have to hope that seeds will be planted rather than destroyed. 

Do I want to teach forever in a world where exams are often the ultimate tool to judge knowledge? Hell, no! However, I have to earn a living.  I don’t want to be a complete sell-out, but really Mr. Quixote, we can’t all run away to Nepal, invest in a hemp wardrobe, and spend months cultivating mustaches large enough to house the small children we used to teach.  Sometimes, we have to do the best we can, and that means seeking our own answers rather than imposing them on others, especially during their vacations.

Question: How do you get rid of uninvited guests in these kinds of situations?