I'm a micro-tourist.
I think it's because you can't give me two roses, or I feel guilty. I can only pay total attention to one - absorbing the sight, the smell, the feel of the petals to the touch, the changes as the flower opens - and two make me feel that one of them died in vain. I know what that sounds like, thank you very much, but the psychiatric profession has given up on me1, so I've decided to relax and enjoy it.
What do I mean by micro-tourism? I mean passing on all the 'must-see' brochures and picking out a 'just-enough' place to visit - and then letting the place be itself, unfold like the rose, while I try not to be too much of a nuisance. 'Try' being the operative word.
What with one thing and another, the nice people with the B&B in Dublin had already declared me 'the eighth wonder of the world'. Was it because we ran all over Dublin trying to buy a compass to go out into the wild countryside with, and explaining what kind of compass we wanted to incredulous shop folk who offered us the kind you draw circles with? Was it the hair-raising trip into the countryside with an iffy American driver, just to hear a folk group? Was it my knowing all about Sean O'Casey and nothing at all about football? I think they were just being polite, a trait I noticed in the Irish, a reluctance to hurt your feelings.
When we got on the road to Farranfore, I understood why we didn't need a compass - there was only one road, and Molly the horse knew exactly where she was going, thank you, on the left side of it and stopping whenever the Kerrygold milk tanker went by; her twitching ears the only sign of what she thought of the noisy monsters. Those ears were probably censurable in horse language.
We'd paid 80 Irish pounds to secure Molly's company for the week and the use of a genuine tinker-style caravan, which now held all our worldly goods in two suitcases, since we were in the process of moving to Germany from the US. We'd paid the 80 pounds to the fella Mick the horse handler had called Man Fred. Not 'yer man Fred', which I would have understood after a week in Dublin, just Man Fred.
Man Fred had turned out to be an oleaginous German entrepreneur who would have rented a caravan to a space alien, no doubt why he dealt with me without blinking an eye. Mick was more careful of his horses – he had looked me over dubiously, but brightened when he met Elektra. He could spot horse sense a country mile away. (More about country miles later.) He'd showed Elektra what to do, explained that in a 700-year attempt to frustrate the English they had trained all horses to stop only at the command of 'whee!' and not 'whoa!', and we'd taken off at a rattlin' pace – about two miles an hour, or whatever Molly felt like doing – on the road from Tralee to Farranfore.
This was in 1978, when there was no airport near Tralee, and Farranfore, our first destination, was what my grandmother called 'a wide place in the road'. There was no GPS in those days, and no internet, no mobile phone system – just us and the horse and a lot of sheep. It started to mist rain – like being sprayed all over with an atomiser – so I brought out the umbrella hats I had provided for just such an occasion. This novelty had apparently not reached Kerry yet – locals ran for cameras as we passed, and took our pictures, rather than the other way around.
When the rain passed – if you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes – and a gigantic rainbow spread before us, complete, both ends to the ground, arching above purple mountains. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. We plodded down the road, me singing every song I knew, Elektra managing the reins as if she did this every day, until she stopped to do a good deed – untangling a sheep's curly horns from a bob-wire fence – when she handed them to me for a minute. I dismounted, thinking this was safer. I was wrong.
When Elektra returned from freeing the sheep, which had bleated gratefully before skipping off to join its friends in the next patch of clover, she found Molly standing on my foot and me protesting feebly that this might not be a good idea. She berated us both for idiots, got the unrepentant horse off my foot (undamaged, though my loafers were ruined), reclaimed the reins, and got us back on the road. We reached Farranfore before sunset, arriving to a double welcome from the pubkeeper's wife and a little black-and-white cat who obviously knew that if it was Monday, it was Molly Day.
The pub? No atmosphere at all – Formica and cheap panelling. All the atmosphere in the world – a man with an accordion and four lively children, a couple of jolly lorry drivers, a stranger to the village who burst into a sean nos performance of Kevin Barry before disappearing into the night...that was the part I remembered. It was after I had incautiously agreed to deliver my own version of sean nos – Irish a cappella singing – that things get a bit vague. It was all those whiskeys they hospitably bought me, to shut me up, no doubt...
The next morning I spent in a bunk bed in the caravan, with a soothing cat wrapped around my neck, while Elektra discovered that the people in Farranfore were amazingly kind, and fun – and that the only place to buy meat in the village was the Post Office. (They had the only commercial fridge.) Everyone was chatty, and glad to see her, and full of dire warnings about the nastiness of the people in the next, hostile village, about six hours down the road at our pace, about half an hour by car.
We 'wasted' a day in Farranfore, and found out about the restorative powers of whiskey punch and the oddness of most American tourists – older, richer folk who arrived at the pub outraged that the tour bus had no 'bathroom', and looking for a loo. The pubkeeper's wife, an ironic sort, pointed them out the back door, and, noticing their looks of dismay (the separately-housed facility had perfectly good plumbing), told them to keep on going for about half a mile. We hated to leave, but we had a circle to make and decided to skip Castlemaine.
Good thing that we did – the only thing we found in this larger place was an extremely snooty vet who apparently didn't talk to temporary tinkers. We insisted, and he sold us some salve for a sore we were sure the horse shouldn't have on her shoulder. Then we pressed on to Inch, the closest we would come to the Dingle.
It seemed we would never reach Inch – miles and miles of gorgeous, though empty, countryside, and I was beginning to regret not having a map or compass – and the few people we met were not helping. Upon being asked 'how far?' one pedestrian stopped and stroked his chin. 'About two miles,' he replied. About three miles later, another farmer said it was a half mile, and a couple of miles after that, some wide-eyed children asserted that it was 'turrible far'.
This led us to conclusions about a) the length of an Irish mile, and b) where I got my 'turrible' sense of direction from. Apparently I come by it honestly. Fortunately we reached Inch, and another pub, before dark.
Inch was an isolating experience for two reasons: everyone in the pub spoke Irish except us, and the pasture we were parked in was haunted – not surprisingly, as it was next to a graveyard. Whatever it was that woke me up in the middle of the night even scared the cat I was sharing the bunk with. We got a couple of interesting stories from an English-speaker in the village, mostly about rebel activity back in the day, cooked ourselves a decent breakfast of Farranfore Post Office ham and eggs, and headed over the mountains to Camp. We'd been warned about Camp – apparently the people there were greedy.
What we hadn't been warned about was the mountains. And storms, although we knew it was September and hurricane season, which was why we were not in Connemara (they object to tourists falling off hillsides, at least with caravans in tow). Or exactly how fast a determined horse could move if she smelled rain and knew there was shelter ahead of her. We spent a lot of time shouting 'Whee!' to none effect that I could perceive, and trying not to fall off. We pulled into the space behind the pub just ahead of a lashing thunderstorm.
Camp was everything we'd been warned about. Due to the rain, they housed us behind the pub with two other caravans, and didn't even take the horses to the pasture, in spite of being paid a pound to do just this. Molly, outraged, escaped the makeshift enclosure made of beer barrels, and we had to go and bring her back. She looked smug and made us wait while she ate her fill of roadside vegetable matter.
The pub was unfriendly and overpriced, but worse was yet to come in the form of German college students, unsociable, upset that anyone else was sharing 'their' holiday, lacking the common sense not to try to feed oats to one horse while two others were in the same area. The resultant chase was mildly amusing, but we were glad to get out early the next morning, held up only by the landlady running after us to make sure she had been paid (she had). We hastened on to our next destination, Annagh Farm, the antithesis of the place we'd just left. Our hostess ran out to meet us, bearing chat, advice, fresh milk and eggs, and an invitation to a ceilidh, which we gladly accepted.
We'd saved a day, and were able to fully enjoy the hospitality and beautiful vista of the farm – also the welcome gossip that one of the female Germans had adventurously turned her caravan into a boreen, become lodged in a lich-gate, and had to be towed back to Tralee in disgrace. We indulged in Schadenfreude, I do admit. The farmer's wife endeared herself to me by remarking, when I emerged from the caravan at 9 am, that I was 'up early'. My kind of people.
The ceilidh was delightful - simple refreshments, a dance band that shouldn't give up its day job but kept a good beat, and lessons in local steps from a shy, short redhead who was dying to dance with tall Elektra. When he found out we were travelling by horse caravan, he thought that dull, but opined that we were 'used to it, being from America and all'. From this we concluded that the Western was alive and well on RTE, and being taken for documentary footage.
This conclusion was confirmed the next day by the elderly lady in the shop who reminisced with us about her youth 'in service' in Boston. She'd returned home at her parents' insistence when the family she worked for moved to Pittsburgh. Her folks had feared losing their daughter to Indian attack. As near as we could figure, this happened about 1918.
All good things come to an end, and even though we welcomed the showers that Mick wisely provided back at the stable (civilisation would be grateful, too, no doubt), we bade a sad farewell both to the heartbreakingly beautiful purple mountains and to the insouciant Molly, whom nothing – storm, sores, lack of good fodder, incompetent would-be tinkers – ever seemed to faze. I am sure that her progeny still travel the back roads of Kerry, and I hope the Celtic Tiger is good to them all. Her memory deserves it.
On the train back to Dublin, we counted our cash: we'd spent about 110 (Irish) pounds for the week, including cab fare and caravan rental. A lot for us then, but a pittance compared to the bargain we'd got – a single, perfect rose.
And need I add, with all the cliché-making a boring travel writer is capable of, a rose of Tralee?