7/17/09

The train rolls away from the platform and, pretty soon I'm seated. The girl next to me is listening to her iPod, the earbuds tucked away beneath longish black hair with bleached ends. After a while we strike up a conversation. She works at a store in Bath and commutes the forty-five minutes or so from Cardiff six days a week. She gets up at 5AM, goes to the gym, goes to work, and then goes home to sleep. She says that working at the gym enables her to eat junk food, but she's seen shows where they cut cross-sections of thin people's cadavours and there are layers of fat around the internal organs. Pulling out the jar she keeps her face in and a mirror, she speculates that she's fat too, inside and out. Later, she asks me if I get scared traveling whilst revealing that she has no motivation to do it herself. She mentions the law (pronounced "lo' ") degree she's studying for, but seems unenthused. She asks me if I always talk to the people I sit next to, "Of course!", I reply.

In Newport I have a train transfer and watch her walk away from the station, feeling that I've somehow failed. I twiddle my pennywhistle till the next magic carpet made of steel arrives. Spinning into the line, I flourish my umbrella to offer the door to the lady next to me. She declines - "You danced for it." We leave right on schedule and I'm sitting alone this time, my attempts to draw neighbors into conversation failing.

After rolling across miles of green countryside, small, slate towns, and a rain storm, I get off at Aberystwyth where I'm supposed to meet Ben from CouchSurfing. Being early, I take shelter from the cold night in a pub, coming out to search at the appropriate time. There's an odd man with a turned up collar stumbling around the street. He's the only one. Could this be Ben? I approach, trying to project the image of a lost person in need of a couch for the night. “Whhatsch aaaarrrrr yeeeww dewwweeng waath thaat?”, he says, pointing at my umbrella. Deciding, regardless of the reality, that this is not Ben, I head away as the man threatens to call the constables.

A few minutes later the real Ben turns up. He has short curly hair, and a small chunk of orange plastic somehow wedged through his left ear - a discreet punk? Although he's a foot or more shorter than me, he sets a good pace as we traverse the nocturnal streets of Aberystwyth. On the third floor of a little house I'm shown to a wonderful room, all my own (his six roommates being away). The formalities covered, we head to the living room - past a room chock-full of climbing equipment. Though one's initial impression is that he should be awkward, Ben turns out to be very easy to talk with, and we do so about everything, late into the night. He tries to explain the TV-regulations - you need to buy a license to be able to legally watch the channels that your receiver gets, but anyone can tune in. When I ask about the cladenstine trucks rumoured to search out channel-thieves, he doesn't seem to know if they're real or not either.

Ben hasn't really been out of Wales, which amazes me, but he's committed to getting out this year - hopefully to New Zealand and Mt. Doom - far from the political in-fighting of the radio station he manages.

After warning me that the bathroom toilet sounds like a "monster" when you flush it, we go to bed.

7/18/09

40 miles. The words fall like a heavy stone onto the floor and in a gesture which the Reader will recognise as metaphorical, I pick up that stone and put it in my pack contemplating how I got here…

Morning brings its light to my Spartan bedroom where I've had a fantastic rest. One amazing thing about showers over here is that every one seems to have a height-adjustable head, so I don't have to crunch myself to wash. Ben's is no exception! Breakfast is corn flakes and bread with local honey and jam. Ben explains that the local honey contains pollen which buffers the allergenic's body against hay-fever season and such - I never knew this before.
I'm interested in finding a pad, bag, and tarp - so I can camp out in the bush. But, after looking through a couple of hardware stores, I can tell my wallet's just not that into it. Ben leads me around town and, when I tell him it's rumoured that one can see the ocean from here, he says, "You can, and that's where we're going now."
Heading down a side-street, we're very suddenly walking parallel the sea, brightly coloured houses (the sort that seem to grow by seasides) following us.


The Sea

Ben's a geographer and tells me, in full detail, about the Aberystwyth area as we climb down the sea wall and poke about for life in the tidal zone. Strangely, all we find are little shrimpies. Walking along the beach, we cross over barriers optimistically set up to prevent long-shore drift, where the constant angle of the incoming waves and currents results in the beach slowly moving along and clumping up as a spit in some undesirable location. You can see that the barriers really are catching sand, but is it enough? Ben tells me that, in some places, the UK is losing a meter a year.


Aberystwyth's Hogwarts

Walking by the local Hogwarts, we pass some of the university's student housing, which reminds me, again, that I need to find a more beautiful locale when I continue my studies.


I want to live by the sea…

We crest a hill, fantasising en route about jumping on to the top of the hill trolley from a bridge. The trolley is a Victorian construction, still running more than a hundred years later; Ben refers to the Victorians as "funny people" and I can't help but agree. The top affords a good view of Aberystwyth before we descend to the market street.


Aberystwyth

On this street the unimaginable awaits in the form of parts-of-wild-boar. Despite the market's supply of local honey, we don't stick around too long.
Arriving back at the house, we find an abandoned baby seagull (jumped before it was ready to fly) pacing the pavement forlornly; one wall over, the scattered feathers of another blow in the wind. Ben explains that there's really not much you can do.
Whilst making me a cheese sandwich and giving me an orange for lunch, Ben calls some friends and it's collectively deciding that hitchhiking out of Aberystwyth would be difficult. Therefore, when Ben heads to work, I head for the bus, which I've just missed, probably because of the sandwich. But it's a good sandwich, so that's okay - it gives me time to collect some free train posters at the station!

The bus comes and I climb aboard asking the driver, "What's the most mountainous town on your route?" “Bangor!”, he replies, with gusto, so that's where I buy my ticket to: 5GBP to go nearly a hundred miles.

An older mother and her young daughter climb on later and, since there are no double seats left, they sit in different places. I tell the girl I can move if they'd like to sit together and she says, in the sweetest little voice, "No, that's alright.", settling herself next to a black pants, black jacket, black hair, black stocking cap, punk dude.

The bus stops, as these little buses will, for lunch in the town of Dolgellau, which is good because I'm starving!

(One of the odd hormonal changes effected by my recent milieu-transfer has been occasional experiences with hunger - it's very exciting.) I find myself an egg custard and Cornish pie in a wee shop just off main street. Finding my way to the bathroom, I follow a dark hallway through a chain curtain and out into the alley; I'm just beginning to wonder when I spot a separate building across the way.

I wander down the street and around the corner and that's pretty much all there is to the town, at least superficially.

My desire to explore to greater depth is stymied by the thought of the bus driving off, with my stuff, which I've uncharacteristically left onboard. I find another little foodery (T.H. Roberts), all filled with long tables covered with a myriad of games and the walls plastered with pictures of its former life has a hardware store. Here they sell "Homemade Scones, Jam and Cream".

As the lady bustles by with a can in her hand, I realise they meant "{Homemade Scones, Jam} and Cream", not "{Homeade Scones, Jam and Cream}". Nonetheless, the conglommerate is delicious, the more so as I make it back to the bus in time. Just in time.

As we wend North past lakes, streams, rolling hills, and the occasional ambitious mountain-hill, I begin to consult the plethora of map-like materia I've been accumulating and decide that Bangor is too far North (as though such a thing is really possible). The lady behind me sees me fussing with it all and leans over to offer advice. I'll get off at Caernarfon, we decide; she consults a bus schedule and tells me the times before simply giving it to me.

I'm helpfully beckoned out of my seat a few miles later and deposited on the rainy streets of Caernarfon. Now, where to spend the night? How to get to where I'll spend the night? This is one of those times when having a computer makes things both easier and harder. If I can find the internet, I can find a couch (maybe) or a hostel (maybe) or true reason to dispair (probably).

Paradoxically, searching for the internet leads me on a goose chase covering most of the town, more than I might otherwise have seen. I stride through the back-alleys of the old, wall-enclosed city, find my way past the castle (closed for the night and well-guarded).
The City Wall
After passing many interesting pubs which have been "reassuringly open daily since" sometime in the medieval ages, I finally wind up, to my disgust, at a McDonald's, the only place in Caenarfon, I'm pleased to report, that has Wifi.

Even this proves educational, though. The McDonald's menus here are not bright and flashy as in the states. They show simple (if apparently tasty) cross-sections of the burgers on a plain white background; I rather like this idea.

I soon discover there are no couches; all the hostels I can get ahold of are full up. Keshea, the McDonald's girl with the flowing black hair keeps me supplied with a steady-flowing stream of water to fuel my search, at least in part because she feels bad for having initially brought out soda water.

Finally, I narrow it down to one last hostel which simply won't answer its phone; I decide to go there despite my ignorance. The McDonald's staff takes turns drawing a map for me, arguing with each other in heated Welsh about what the best way is - they're lovin' it. The map, when complete, is hardly a masterpiece, but has the names of the towns on it and a (very) rough sketch of how to get out of Caernarfon. It's only 40 miles say the McDonald's people. And it's only eight at night, thinks I, making hitchhiking increasingly improbable.

But I'm committed; I will make it! I scarf a salad, step outside, and am immediately lost.

A thickly-accented male voice tells me to go up the hill, so I do. A few more voices point along the road, so I head that way. The whole way, I'm wondering to myself how I'm possibly going to manage to hitchhike these wee back roads for forty miles at this time of night. It's not like a city, where everything's confused, it's like a giant residential neighbourhood, where no one's going far enough.

I'm on the corner, asking for further directions - watching cars that I can't ask for rides zip around on the city streets. Suddenly, a little red car pulls up next to me. Need a lift?

I jump in! It's a middle-aged, fleshed-out man with his baby son. I tell him where I'm going and he says he can take me as far as the bitter-edge of town (where things narrow). We drive along with the windows down, trying to flush the smell of baby-poop out of the vehicle, as he tells me that he heard me asking for directions in the McDonald's and then saw me walking.

I'm dropped off at a little restaurant where they tell me it's only six miles to Beddgelert (they're also wrong, as I find out later). Convinced no one has any idea how far away it is, I resolve to keep going tell I fall asleep in a ditch. Starting down the road, I immediately pass a man with a big, bushy white beard. He shakes his head woefully, he's going the other way saying, "A pity; I should have been welcome.".

Walking along, my thumbing isn't working out so well. At first, I'm worried about this. How will I make it? What will I do? But then I realise that worry is needless and wasteful in times like these: the road is exquisitely beautiful as night comes and I'm almost sad that I feel compelled to hitch at all. I could, I reflect, just walk the whole way. 40 miles? Pah!

I pass a church, along the way. If beautiful space for the living is becoming scarce, how much more so beautiful space for those passed? Our cemetaries link us to our past, but they spoke of our future long before we had ears to hear them.
More walking as the ridges grow and, at last, a sign that I'm getting somewhere.
At that moment, a car stops directly in front of me and a younger woman steps out, barely in time to avoid being bowled over by a large chocolate-coloured dog. She convinces the dog - and it takes some convincing - to climb in, and then me (though I take less convincing). I climb in the back, she closes the door and we're off. The young couple greets me, as Lacy the dog rests her paws on my leg. She's happy to see me and keeps creeping forward till, at last, the whole front half of her body is resting on my lap.

The couple tells me about their plans to climb Snowdon and go white-water rafting. It comes out that she's been rafting before and he didn't know, so they must have a lot of learning left to do, but he does know enough to guess where she did it - they both laugh. I stroke Lacy, who would be purring loudly were she a cat, and the miles fly by.

All at once the Snowdon Ranger Hostel appears beside the road and our seatbelts clutch us as the car brakes. In the hostel, we have to call the Brecon Beacons to verify that I have a YHA membership (worth $3 off), but eventually I'm given a key to a second-story room.

Downstairs, I join a girl and her mother in making hot cocoa. And head into the Lounge to drink it whilst writing postcards, but the room I walk into is anything but conducive to this.

In one corner, nine rowdy guys are imbibing beer and playing at Janga. The one they call "the Surgeon" leans over the stack, his eyes twitching, searching… and then, with a precise flick of his finger, he sends a stick shooting out with hardly a wobble. The next person tries and CRASH!. More beer, more Janga, and so it goes.

In the far corner of the room, a girl, her parents, and her boyfriend discuss tomorrow's adventures providing some sonic padding…

The third corner is a group of five guys and a girl with a wine bottle. Wine is a drink of sophistication, a beverage for the elite, and this is evident here. All six are quietly clustered around the table staring at something. Another girl enters the room and the guys try to flag her over to play Ring of Justice, perhaps to even up the gender ratio. When she declines, they all six begin to sing, “Spppiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnn the Riing of Justice!!!!”, clapping their hands and pounding the table, the wine-illusion lost.

She beats a hurried retreat leaving them to spin their bling, seeing which will spin the longest and occasionally blowing and egging them on when they make close approaches.

But it's bed time now and I go upstairs to find an older man lying on the bunk beneath mine staring into space, with the lights on. We exchange a few words, I turn the lights out, and fall asleep listening to the wind and rain run past the window.




Check if this is a private message just for Richard:


Jen - Friday, July 31, 2009 at 15:56:39 (PDT)
I'm a fan of of english Showers... and the ability to heat water as needed... but I also a fan of american water pressure. Some english showers have this too but not enough of them.

Mom - Friday, July 31, 2009 at 17:42:27 (PDT)
Too bad the castle was closed. Do you really want to live by the sea? Wouldn't a large lake do?

Richard - Sunday, August 02, 2009 at 16:27:49 (PDT)
I've noticed the pressure problem, Jenn. If only we could take the best of both worlds...

Yes, a large lake could probably do, Mom.

BW - Tuesday, August 04, 2009 at 18:03:34 (PDT)
Thanks for those wild boar pictures. I was taking a swig of pop at the time, and almost lost it.