Cows. Their lower jaws rotate in a slow grind, crushing the sweet green grass. Their soft eyes remain unbothered as they observe the scene beyond their grazing field. They see it all day long, so often that the giant winged tubes that descend from the sky no longer hold their interest. Neither do the travel weary people seated in row upon row in the metal tubes that trundle one after another down the black asphalt. They know that none of the tubes, none of the people, are here for them. A tail flicks lazily at a fly. A velvety ear twitches. And with flat blunt teeth, a cow tears another swath of the dewy grass from the earth. The chilled air grows quiet, awaiting the descent of another winged tube from the sky. The cows graze.
Cows. The animals are barely more than brown and white and black blurs as the plane descends and bounces along the runway. I stare out the window, my sleep deprived brain trying to absorb the scene beyond the double layered plexiglass. But like the corners of my eyes, my mind feels overworked. My thoughts feel far away, trudging through a muddy slog of fatigue.
But still, the scene before me remains the same. No cars. No large billboards shouting their advertisements for things that I wouldn’t buy. Cows.
Cows grazing on bright green grass.
I feel slightly giddy, delighted at the surprise of the gentle beasts dining outside my window. The plane turns as it taxis to the gate, and the cows disappear.
Excitement and a wild, runaway terror wrestle in my stomach as I grab my bags and follow the line of people heading off the plane. I smile blearily at the flight attendant as she wishes me a good day and step into Dublin International Airport. I relish the cool, fresh air that awaits me beyond the plane. After eleven hours of travel, passenger-boarding-bridge air has never felt so good.
I’m twenty-five, and for the first time, travelling alone in a foreign country. I try to stay alert as I squint at the signs directing me to the baggage claim, and to the bus station. As I walk, I nervously touch the place where my passport is stowed, hidden. I fumble with my phone, and call my mom. She’d insisted before I left that I would call her as soon as I landed, even though it was some unforgivable hour back in Florida.
I’m incredibly tired. The plane ride had been a long one. I had done little more than doze before I remembered my fear of flying and woke up with a jolt. I had spent most of the overnight flight watching old, familiar, feel-good movies.
I slide my phone back into my pocket, after a short conversation with my mom, and reach the bus station. I’d gone over my route from the airport to the college meticulously back home. The bus, I’d decided, was the best way to get to the college.
I buy my ticket and ask the short wrinkled man behind the counter which stop I needed for Trinity College. The sound of the buses wash away his instructions as he points to a spot on the map under a cloudy plastic cover. I stare at the knot of colored lines beneath his finger, thank him, and decide I’ll ask the bus driver.
A bald man in his late thirties loads my suitcase in the storage compartment under the cabin. His thick neck muscles strain as he swings another suitcase next to mine. I ask him which stop I need to get to Trinity College. He responds in a gruff voice. The shape of his words are made unfamiliar by his accent. His instructions are barely audible over the hiss and rumble of the buses and make little sense to my travel-muddled brain.
Still, I don’t want to look stupid, so I thank him and climb into the bus. I sit directly behind him in the hope that I might be able to figure it out which stop I need. Maybe he would give me a helpful nod or a jerk of his thumb when it was my stop?
My knee starts to bounce, the way it does when I get nervous.
The driver boards the bus and eyes me, sitting directly behind his seat, my knee bouncing up and down.
Just before we depart, a woman in her fifties climbs onto the bus and takes the seat next to mine. She is a chaos of color: bright blond hair, vibrant blue eyeshadow, and crayon bright pink lipstick. Slightly overweight, and slightly out of breath, she gives me a friendly smile and greets me in a posh London accent. We chat as the bus pulls away from the airport. Like me, this is her first time in Dublin, she’s visiting her friend for the day and going to the theater. I tell her why I’m here: a two week study for my writing program. It turns out we are both going to Trinity College, and neither of us is certain how to get there.
We’ll get off together, she resolves.
I nod, and my knee stills. I feel the warmth of gratitude and camaraderie in this stranger. Travel allies. Even if we would only be so for a short time. We watch the city unfold through the windows. White stone buildings. Colonial architecture. Bronze statues. Populated sidewalks and pops of color in the brightly colored doors. Dublin.
The bus stops in the middle of a bridge crossing over the River Liffey. The bus driver eyes us, and my companion and I decide this is his way of telling us we’ve reached our stop.
Our suitcases wait for us on the sidewalk. Hers: a reddish purple, mine: silver and black, the only spots of color being the bright yellow address tag and the green ribbon I’d tied into a bow around the handle. I check my belongings and again touch the spot that holds my passport.
My travel companion pulls from her coat pocket a creased tourist brochure with a rudimentary map of the city on the back.
So if we’re here, she points to a spot on the map that shows the river, then the college is somewhere here. She points to another spot. She looks up from the map, looks to her right, and to her left as if to orient herself. So the college is that way, I think? She points to the busier side of the city.
I’m meeting my friend over here, she says, and points in another direction. Good luck.
I thank her. I start walking, towing my bag behind me. I push away the nervous thoughts that worry the corners of my mind. The ones that tell me that I’ll be lost. That I won’t get there. That this was a mistake. That I can’t do this.
I have no choice but to keep walking.
I would recognize the college, right? There would be signs or something, wouldn’t there? I feel completely unprepared, even though I had studied the bus route maps and maps of the city. Still, I know that my destination wasn’t where I was, and it might be in the direction that I was going, so I keep walking. I’m an adventurer, I tell myself. An explorer. An international traveler.
I pass a souvenir shop, and stop. I think for a moment, and then spin around and enter the shop.
I’m engulfed in bright colors and cheery pop music. The song is something familiar, but I can’t seem to focus on it. It’s something they play on the top 40 stations back home.
Hi, excuse me, I say, smiling at a small group of the shop employees who stand talking behind the counter. One of the employees turns to me. He’s a young man, around my age, with brown hair. Can you help me get to Trinity College?
The young man removes himself from the group and grabs a map. He walks me to the door and gives me the instructions. I just need to follow the road around the curve and I’d see the college across from a bank. He points on the map, and unlike the last few people who tried to help me, the map makes sense.
Keep it, he says, gesturing to the map.
I thank him and follow his instructions.
Travel is a transformative experience. It allows you to leave behind your daily self. The You that gets up and goes to work and does the dishes and goes to bed by 10. It is a literal and figurative removal of yourself from the mundane, the ordinary tasks that through daily practice, we come to mistake for our identity.
The daily Me would never let myself venture into a foreign city without maps and backup maps, a GPS and detailed step by step instructions. But travel whispers: trust yourself, rely on yourself, believe in yourself.
Daily Me sometimes gives into the quiet, rotting belief that I can’t. I can’t rely on myself. I can’t trust myself. Not completely. Not without a GPS. Not without the crutches that I’ve convinced myself I need.
Travel removes the crutches, and I found that I could stand on my own. Travel burns away the rot of I can’t. You can't. It cauterizes the poisonous thoughts and replaces it with the belief that I can. You can.
Travel teaches you that people are nice. Most people, anyway. Most people will help if you stop and ask nicely. And I have learned this to be true in other countries: in Spain, in Austria, in Slovakia. People can easily bond over a shared predicament, over a bus ride and an uncertain path.
I will never again see the woman in the blue eyeshadow and pink lipstick. I don’t remember her name. I don’t even remember if she told me her name. But I remember her, and I remember the feeling of comfort I felt in knowing that I wasn’t alone. Even if it was only for a 30 minute bus ride.
The directions that the young man from the souvenir shop gave me were easy to follow, and I was soon at my destination. From there, I met amazing friends, and talented writers. We went on our adventures and studied hard, and tried to be good to each other while we were there, bound together by experiences that are unique to that time, and that place, and that will never happen again.
The street that I wandered before seeking help in a souvenir shop turned out to be the famous Grafton Street. Just days later, I set out into the city alone to explore. By the end of my two weeks, I knew my way around Dublin. I could even help other travel weary tourists find their way.
So, travel. Leave the GPS and whatever other crutch you use behind. Set aside the mundane tasks, they will still be there for you when you get home. Talk to people, maybe you’ll meet your own travel buddy, with or without blue eyeshadow. And look everywhere for the happy surprises, the cows where you are expecting billboards. You’ll find them. I promise.