Winter is a dangerous time for me; I do things like sign up for crazy races and buy plane tickets. Like the relatively cheap tickets I bought from Tri-Cities to Dublin on a whim at Slutbucks in January. So I went to Ireland April 26-May 9, 2016.
This was not my first time in Europe (actually it was my 4th–hard for even me to believe), nor my first time traveling abroad solo, but it was my most challenging trip. I learned a lot, not the least of which is that in some hotels, the electricity won’t work until you stick your room key in the slot on the wall (and you go bother the receptionist for the 4th time in 15 minutes).
No, I learned some pretty valuable stuff that you’ll never find in a guidebook.
Travel is not always fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.
I did not have fun in Ireland. Why? It certainly wasn’t Ireland or the Irish. It had a lot more, I think, to do with my physical and emotional state at the time. First of all, as you may or may not know, I am in the midst of trying to heal a disc herniation that has caused all sorts of debilitating nerve pain. Basically, I couldn’t walk more than 20 yards at a time for about a month, had severe muscle spasms, and it took about 3 weeks to figure out what was going on and that I wasn’t either crazy or had a demon in my butt. Needless to say, this injury has taken its toll (it still hurts to stand up and to walk…but at least its mostly tolerable).
I wasn’t even sure I would get to go to Ireland, until about a week before. My original plans to walk the Beara Way were shot; I had to scramble at the last minute to figure out what to do; I changed jobs (which is really a good thing, but still upheavallish) and a week before leaving I learned that I owed a crap-ton more in taxes than I had anticipated, meaning my budget was pretty much shot.
This is all relevant because it gives you a picture of the stressful month I had leading up to my departure. I was not looking forward to going once April 26 came. In fact, on the way to the airport, I came very very close to ditching the whole thing.
But I decided to go anyway, and I boarded the planelet at Tri-Cities Regional Airport. My trip was challenging, exhausting, and full of in-the-grand-scheme-of-things small snafus. The weather was cold and windy. I got lonely. But I also had wonderful views, time to myself, and some really delicious smoked fish. And I loved the country of Ireland.
Guidebooks are about 50% wrong; use them carefully.
I bough the Lonely Planet guidebook, which was updated and came out in March 2016, just one month before my trip. However, on multiple occasions, I found incorrectly quoted price ranges, hostels listed as year-round that were either closed for the season or just closed, period, and horribly off-scale maps. It was a good book for reference, but not as a textbook for a great trip.
Plus, this book, as well as numerous others (including “Living Abroad in Ireland”) portrayed the Irish as a talkative, passive-aggressive bunch that buys each other endless rounds of drinks because that’s what’s expected (I actually worried about meeting say 4 or 5 cool people and winding up having to buy 5 drinks and drink another 4 rounds–not good for a lightweight cheapskate). Lonely Planet even indicated that if you stop and ask for directions, expect to become entangled in a long conversation about whatever.
Puh-lease. The Irish are smart, kind and unassuming. I found the people I encountered to be very courteous but live-and-let-live. I came across a couple of grumpy and passive-aggressive people, sure. They were cashiers in supermarkets and old people. Now tell me, when have you last been to Food Lion and found the cashiers to be overly friendly? What old person in the south isn’t a wee bit passive aggressive? People are people. No matter where you go.
Travel guides are written by extroverts, for extroverts.
You know when you walk into a crowded pub in a foreign country and sit at the bar (instead of a table) and before you know it, you’re being chatted up by the local next to you and within 5 minutes he’s starring in 12 selfies? Of course you don’t. Neither do I.
Because. This. Does. Not. Happen.
F$@king Rick Steves. Yeah, he “says” he’s an introvert in real life, but gets in peoples “back doors” in Europe by “becoming a temporary extrovert.” What he really is is full of it. The dude has a camera crew with him. He sells their town. That’s why people talk to him. (Not incidentally, it’s his tip about sitting at the bar to be engaged in conversation. And for what it’s worth, I like his TV shows, and respect him as an authority on travel. You don’t have to like everything about someone to like them.).
Strangers are not going to talk to you in Ireland just because you sit at the bar instead of a table. Some people are going to look at you funny if you are by yourself in Europe just as they do in ‘Murca. You are going to feel awkward and worry about bothering other people. You will not suddenly feel okay staying in a dorm full of strangers who are 20 years younger than you (and you will pay extra to avoid this).
If your personality is not the type who looks at planet Earth as a source of 7 billion creatures who all are dying to talk to you, it’s not going to be the experience that the guidebooks would have you believe.
Before you accuse me of being a Negative Nelly, hear me out.
A solo-traveling introvert can have a wonderful experience. It’s going to be a quiet one until you happen upon a set of people who share your vibe. Just like at home. For instance, as a married lady traveling solo, I found the best “pubs” to be the hostels. I’d get a can or two of beer and talk to the other travelers and hosts in the self-catering kitchen or lounge. I met people from Holland, Ireland, Switzerland, and Germany. We’re not besties, but we had nice conversations and I was able to (hopefully) represent a glimmer of hope that intelligent people do exist in the U.S. in the midst of the worldwide socio-economic-political shitstorm we kinda instigated.
Don’t feel like you’ve “failed” if you don’t see the entire country
This concept caused me much stress as I was planning and preparing for this trip, even though I knew very well that I wouldn’t be be whirl-winding it by any means. Yet, the guidebooks (Lonely Flipping Planet and F. Rick Steves) include so much that you’re all “but I want to go here, and I want to go there, and then over here!!!
No! No! No! That is frantic and really doesn’t let you settle into a routine in the country. Plus, it takes so much more planning. As Americans, we’re conditioned to try and “See it all” in one fell swoop.
This is not entirely our fault as individuals, and my European/Australian friends, don’t for a second think that we do this because we necessarily like it. We only get 1-2 weeks paid time off each year, and that’s if you even get paid time off–I had two weeks unpaid for this trip. We’re kind of forced to cram too much into our travel, because we don’t get a lot of it. Then there is our drive to “win” everything–I am guilty of this in much of what I do.
Instead, do this: pick one or two places you really want to go. Listen to your heart and your gut, not what the guidebook says is “can’t miss.” Especially if your idea of awesome is peace and quiet, natural beauty, and a nice, affordable place to stay.
I would have loved to see more of Ireland, but I settled for the southwest: mostly County Cork. I do not regret this one bit. This way, I was able to book places in chunks instead of either calling a billion hostels, lodges, etc. or just hoping I’d show up and there would be something less than €50 a night.
Ireland may be best experienced with a friend or S.O.
I say this based on my experience and interests. I like to do the following things: be outside, hike, run, bicycle, drink coffee, see animals, take pictures of cats, and drink beer. That’s about it. Well, I actually enjoyed going to SuperValu. Seeing groceries that are new to me is fun; plus it’s so much cheaper than eating out. These things are often enhanced with a partner.
In Scotland, when I was hiking a popular waymarked way and camping, it was easy to be on my own, as I had my lodging on my back and I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted. Plus, with so many other hikers (walkers), stopping at a pub alone was fun, because you’d probably seen the other patrons on the trail earlier that day.
In Ireland, the pubs were full of locals (at least where I was). F&@king Rick Steves would have you believe that is a perfect “back door” (sounds so dirty….) experience, but as a solo woman, it’s just boring and awkward. With Jesse (ball and chain) along, it would’ve been fun. I would’ve had someone to talk to and the two of us would be more approachable to others.
Plus, with a bike, I had to always find a place to lock it up whenever I stopped to pee, ask for directions, whatever. That got old really fast. Having a buddy who would also enjoy the scenery, lament over the slooooowwwwness of the hired bike, and watch the bikes when one of us went to the ATM would have been very nice. Plus plus, for non-tent lodging, doubles are a lot cheaper per person than singles.
I learned that there is too much I learned to fit in one post.
Geez. I learned a lot. I didn’t even get to the “how to bike tour as a newbie bike tourist,” and there is a handy list of “stuff I totally recommend bringing on an active solo trip to the Ireland and Scotland” (I went to Scotland last year, and learned a lot.) And I really want to share with ya’ll (you lot, y’uns, yooss guyss) some of the cool places I stayed, like the Hungry Hill Lodge & Camping, the Allihies Village Hostel, and the Driftwood Hostel in Skibbereen.
If you want to hear about these things, please leave a comment. It will motivate me to write more while these things are still fresh in my head.