Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Gears Were Stripped When We Got It -- Adventures in Left-Side Driving

At the Dublin Airport, we picked up a VW Golf for our drive around the island. It was stick shift, which meant Steve would have to drive a left-handed stick shift from the right-hand side of the car, as we drove on the left side of the road. He was game for the challenge.

As we sped groggily out of Dublin on the M1 after our overnight flight, we realized we were missing some of the basics, like what these signs with numbers meant along the side of the highway. We also hadn't thought to bring maps for each city/town we intended to visit, although they would likely have been easily available online. So when we saw a small round sign that said "30," we weren't sure if it meant the speed limit was 30 miles per hour or 30 kilometers per hour, both of which seemed way too slow for a highway. Plus, at that point, we were going about 90 kph without too much trouble, so Steve mused, "maybe it's a minimum speed." No sooner had he said this than we found ourselves careening through a serpentine road in a construction zone. Steve handled it by the grace of God. Moments after we shot out the other size of the serpentine, white knuckles and all, Steve observed that the sign probably had meant 30 kph.

After spending our first night in Belfast, we made our way along the northern coast. We stopped in Ballycastle, where I dipped my feet into the very cold North Channel. (See photo below. The cliff in the distance is called Fair Head, so named for the woman who is said to have thrown herself from it.)
The car trouble started when we tried to back out of our parking space in Ballycastle, and we couldn't tell the difference between R, 1, and 3. I mean, there was a general area for each, but they seemed to overlap, and to slip into each other. Our little rental, a VW Golf covered in scratches, had 71,000+ km on it already, no doubt much of those km driven by jetlagged Americans. Over the months of abuse, it seems, the gears had become rather arbitrary, more of a suggestion or innuendo than a physical reality.

After a harrowing minute or two stalling repeatedly while backing out of the parking space into oncoming traffic, we proceeded to Giant's Causeway without incident. Legend says that giant Finn McCool built the causeway to walk to Scotland and fight a rival. I was feeling a bit better by now (see The Alien in My Intestines) and agreed to walk, carefully, the 2km down a steep path from the parking lot to the water. On the way down, we met some very friendly elderly Newfoundlaners who offered to take our picture, and we offered to take theirs. Then we had to ditch them, because they were way too chatty, and I didn't have the energy for that.

We climbed on the hexagonal rocks and picked our way out toward the ocean. I climbed carefully, lest I reawaken the angry alien in my gastric system. I took the photo below of Steve on the dry rocks, but you may notice the black rocks in the distance. After taking this photo, I walked out to the wet, black rocks.

When we climbed down from the rocks, we then noticed a sign indicating safety procedures. Basically it said: Whatever you do, don't go on the black rocks, because they are black due to the fact that huge waves wash over them, and the coast guard has to rescue X number of families each year that get washed out to sea into dangerous currents.

Whoops. At left, me sitting on the black rocks.

We made our way back up the hill and headed to the dramatic ruined Dunluce Castle (below right), which ended up being one of our favorite attractions.

We were starving by this time, and we stopped at the "Wee Cottage," a tiny house by Dunluce Castle where a mother and teenage daughter make hot and cold sandwiches for tourists. We sat by a toasty peat fire, enjoying our sandwiches and the ambiance while a cold rain fell outside. That is, we enjoyed the ambiance until the daughter tossed a plastic cola bottle on the fire. Steve's and my eyes nearly popped out, and we tried not to inhale as the plastic bottle was consumed by fire and disintegrated, sending bright chemical flames shooting up into the chimney. Time to go.

After touring the stunning castle ruins, we drove on to Derry/Londonderry. I had an idea that I wanted to see the old walled city, built in the 1600s. We had no map, but I knew the city wasn't that populous, and how hard could it be to find a walled city? In hindsight, this was extremely faulty reasoning.

We careened through the city, shooting blindly around traffic circles as rush hour approached. We saw no signs to the walled city. We did see a sign for the tourist information centre, but it required paid garage parking, and we had just about run out of pounds so we couldn't park there (we were en route to Donegal, which is in the Republic and uses euros). We started bickering. Traffic was worsening by the second, and every time we'd speed uncertainly around a circle, we'd have near misses as other cars tried to enter in front of us, mistaking our uncertain driving as an intention to exit the circle. The stick shift was a major problem in traffic, as it slipped from gear to gear and continually threatened to stall. I started accusing Steve of not knowing how to drive stick shift. He started yelling at me that the gears were completely screwed up. Suddenly, he pulled up his hand and the entire stick shift came with it. (Below, a reenactment.)

We were still speeding forward, but now shifting gears would be far more difficult. We both started swearing and giggling nervously. After a few seconds of alarm, we breathed twin signs of relief when traffic came to a complete stop. We took that time to reinstall the shift knob and cover, and we decided to skip the walled city. It was on to Donegal, with no love lost for Londonderry.

By the next day, Steve and the VW had clearly reached some sort of truce. All further troubles were due not to the gears but to the sad shape of rural roads in the Republic. On the one-lane road out to the Cliffs of Moher, we encountered numerous tourist buses coming in the opposite direction. They did not slow down, and we found ourselves running off the road to avoid them, as brambles on the roadside gouged deep scratches down the entire left side of the VW. One bus incident in particular reminded me of the scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy and Steve Martin drive between two 18-wheelers. I believe that, that time, Steve and I both screamed a little bit. I know I did, at least.

Even with all the road troubles, when we turned the car in at the Dublin Airport, I felt a little sad.

We had been through a lot with that car. I took a picture so we would always remember it.

And happily, we were not charged for the new scratches along the left side of the car. They blended right in with the old ones.


Susan Katz Keating said...

I spent many childhood summers in Ireland, and lived there for a year during high school. I still have not decoded the driving regs, and once (fairly recently) nearly killed myself and others when I found myself in front of an ambulance, and instinctively pulled over on the right hand side of the road. I can still see the ambulance drivers' disgusted faces as they maneuvered around me....

Londo said...

Nice pics! That car looked like a lot of fun. In fact you could probably set up an amusement park ride here in the States that is based on this experience. Kinda like bumper cars but a lot harder to drive.

LSUlady said...

Found your blog via link after link after link (you know how it goes), and was reminded of my trip to Ireland with my mother. It was one of those deals from Aer Lingus where if you go for no less than 2 and no more than 4 days during a time of year when no one in their right mind would want to go to Ireland, airfare is super cheap. It was a long weekend in February 2004. I was under 25 and we were too cheap to pay the extra 15 euros a day for the insurance for me to drive, so my mother drove the whole time. The money would have been well spent.

Canary said...

Well, regarding the story about Dunluce and the coke bottle in the fire - I would have to verify that but I KNOW the woman who runs Wee Cottage, I visit her once a year and she does not have a daughter! So get stuff straight before you go posting things that could harm somebody. :)

nutmeg96 said...

So, it looked like her daughter, but perhaps it was just a worker she was especially kind to, in spite of the girl's tendency to throw plastic on the fire. ;) The girl clearly worked there, and she was putting all the garbage into the fire -- you really couldn't miss it.