Tuesday, October 21, 2008

HORSES are NOT a few of my favorite things...

Remember the last scene in “The Sound of Music?” You know, Georg, Maria, and the seven von Trapp children are climbing every mountain as the nuns sing about it? Well, extract that very mountain from the Swiss Alps, implant it in Wales, remove the climbing von Trapps, and replace them with me upon a horse, and you’ve got a pretty decent picture of where I horseback rode this weekend. But that’s nothing. Get ready for some (hopefully long-awaited!) tales from Wales!

Traveling the world has made me pretty fabulous at getting up at the crack of dawn. After a decent bus ride spent slumbering down the A-40 (that’s British for highway), I woke up in Wales. The Welsh are, by nature, friendlier than the English, which made for a nice change of pace. Our first stop was a village in South Wales that borders England. I took the most touristy picture ever and stood with one foot in each country. It was cute! The village is also home to an AWESOME castle, which Kathleen and I explored for an hour before leaving. We got some great pictures, and since it was such a beautiful day out, they look quite exceptional, I may add. The view of the Welsh countryside and rural neighborhoods was spectacular from the castle’s top tower, making this stop my definite favorite of the weekend. You’ll read why in a minute. My life was never in question while walking through the countryside.

Our next stop of the day was Tinturn, home to the famous Tinturn Abbey, which the poet William Wordsworth wrote some lines, which I painstakingly read last year in my Literature History class. He’s almost as dreadful as Chaucer. Almost. Unlike Westminster Abbey, Tinturn Abbey is completely run down and no longer in use, but its ancient, rustic charm remains, making it an interesting and authentic site indeed.

After Tinturn, we made way for our hostel. 16 girls. 8 bunk beds. Too much estrogen. Hostels are SOMETHING, and according to my bunkmates, this one was of the FANCY variety. I can’t complain, though. The beds were warm, the bathrooms were clean, and the Strongbow was a-flowing in the downstairs pub, where we dined with other people on the trip. They were all American, and either working, interning, or studying in London for an extended period. We all swapped travel stories, and I loved sharing with others my European experiences thus far. Their stories were great as well, but you know me… I prefer the talking aspect! =)

Dinner was decent, and served as a great preparation for the night that followed. Bachelor parties, or “Stag Parties” as the Brits say, were in full swing at the hostel, which, by the way, is actually a castle-esque building that also serves as a hotel (I think we were the lucky ones, staying in a room of 16… Just kidding!). The bachelors dressed in full “fancy dress,” which is Brit talk for costume. Before I knew it, I was standing in a life-size portrayal of the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album. “Peace and Love, man,” said the pink-clad faux-Beatle every five minutes. What a night! But that’s just the beginning!

As I have mentioned before, clubbing is all the rage on this fair isle. Next to the ho[s]tel was a nightclub, which our tour guide recommend we definitely check out, as the people watching was supposed to be insane. With no proper dressier clothing to change into, I trekked in my Ralph Lauren oxford shirt, J. Crew blazer, jeans, and Ugg boots to the club, and what a site it was! It was for “clubbers in training,” meaning it was filled with tons of 18-year-old boys fist pumping their nights away. I pretended to know the moves to “Thriller.” It was great. People almost followed my crazy moves. Gotta love those 80s! I lasted about an hour dancing like a machine before taking a well needed shower and hitting the top bunk for some sleep before what turned out to be a fateful day of horseback riding. All of this was done in pitch black, by the way. The other 14 residents were sleepy, I guess. Too bad for them. They could have busted moves to Billie Jean with me! (MJ was in full swing that night!)

After a slack of sleep (the other girls also decided that waking up two hours earlier than necessary was also a good idea), the fateful day arrived. I ate my “last” meal and made way for the stables. Riding helmets are not very becoming, but I fastened that strap right up and listened intently as the instructor taught us the ways of tacking up a horse, or whatever it’s called. I was assigned to Paddy, a beautiful brown horse, and I thought we made a nice match, as we’re both Irish. However, I couldn’t mount him. It’s a shame my attempts aren’t on YouTube, or America’s Funniest Home Videos, rather. The mounting block came in handy, and before I knew it, I was trotting away to the mountain of doom. Holding onto the reigns for dear life, we walked through some flat paths, and though my tush was in agony, the scenery of sheep, cows, hills, and trees made up for the pain… but only for about fifteen minutes.

The “good part” starts here. Brace yourselves.

One thing we learned was to not let the horses eat. Horses love to break from the Indian-style line and graze on leaves and grass, but as their rider and boss, our job is to yank those reigns, kick their torsos with our legs, and pull them away from the green goodness and direct them back to the path. Paddy, or Devil as I like to call him, was NOT cooperative. Every ten seconds, he would wander off the side of the path to munch, munch, munch. You obviously know I’m not a physically strong girl, so no matter how hard I pulled, kicked, and yelled at him (being an older sister gave me good practice for that third one!), the stubborn Devil would not comply. This caused me to fall far back in line, which resulted in Paddy cantering to catch up with the rest of the line. As an untrained rider, I had no clue how to move properly. I think you’re supposed to stand up and down in the stirrups or something. I held onto the saddle for dear life and said Hail Marys as my heartbeat approached attack levels. By now, I was literally crying. My too-big helmet kept covering my eyes, and I literally felt like I’d never be able to ride the New York subway again. (Oh the horror!) THEN, Devil started grazing right next to a tree branch. I had no time to lean forward, as instructed, so to avoid getting clotheslined and falling off, I laid down in the saddle so my helmet was uncomfortably close to Devil’s tail -- and you know what else it right near the tail! It’s unspeakable. I watched my life flash before my eyes and silently thanked Dad for making me go to church every Sunday when I realized I neither fell on my head nor got trampled by the line of horses behind me. Despite that, I still felt like death, and wanted nothing more than to run back to the stables, find a river, get to the Atlantic, and breast stroke my way back to NYC. No such luck. The trail guide tied Devil to her horse and we made way onto our next trail, which was the aforementioned Sound of Music-esque mountain. I’d much rather climb every mountain by foot. Apparently, the mountain was freezing, but I was too hyped to realize. I just planted my shaking hands on the saddle and tried to enjoy the scenery, which, I must say was spectacular.

After our time on the mountain, we took a quick break to let the horses eat. They decided it was a good idea to switch me from Paddy to Warrior. They said Paddy really should have been given to an experienced rider, since he’s the oldest in the barn, and knows every trick in the book. “Well, THANKS for that,” was all I could think as I miraculously mounted Warrior, who proved to me much less devilish than Paddy.

I could not have been happier when we reached the stables after three whole hours of sitting on horseback. It’s Tuesday now, and I am still in agony from bending back in a way humans are not supposed to. Oh well. Wasn’t that a great story?! Mad props if you made it this far.

This week was certainly one of daring experiences. I forgot to mention that on the Friday before heading to Wales, I day tripped into London to check out the Burberry outlet. I did not know that the neighborhood, Hackney, is known as the roughest part of London. I’ve never clenched my purse tighter in my life. You should have seen my face when the cab driver said that Hackney is “Packed to the brim with crack and guns when it gets dark out.” And after all of that, I made no purchases. Paying in pounds was a bit too rich for my blood, though the jackets, raincoats, and umbrellas certainly were nice.

Friday morning marks the beginning of my first trip into continental Europe. I never thought The Netherlands would be my first stop, but since it’s Kathleen’s 21st birthday, we decided a crazy city such as Amsterdam would be “the” place to celebrate her American legality. After riding Paddy the Devil, I’m sure I can take on the Red Light district… just not from behind a window, obviously!

I send a special thanks to Mom and Aunt Kathy for the 57 “Where are you?” instant messages I came home to Sunday night. I told you I would be okay! =) Love and cheers to all. Also, I send a special shout-out to Stonehill! Miss you all! <3

(PS, Please excuse the photos of me with Devil and Warrior. I had on about 15 layers, and the camera already adds 15 pounds!)